Has archaeology confirmed the existence of any of the people mentioned in the Bible? In his article “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible” in the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (BAR), Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk identifies 50 figures from the Old Testament that he says have been confirmed archaeologically. An accompanying chart lists Israelite kings, Mesopotamian monarchs, and lesser-known figures who are both mentioned in the Bible and present in the archaeological data.
Bible Gateway interviewed Dr. Mykytiuk about his findings:
Bible Gateway: What is your experience in biblical archaeology?
Dr. Mykytiuk: I enjoy learning about it, but I am not an archaeologist. I am a scorekeeper. I analyze inscriptions to see if they refer to biblical persons and “keep score” when strong identifications can be made and when there are uncertain but reasonable “candidates.”
Bible Gateway: Why did you set out to associate biblical people with secular history?
Dr. Mykytiuk: At first I was simply fascinated—charmed—by one Hebrew bulla (a lump of clay normally used to seal official documents). The inscription across the face of the bulla, impressed by a stone seal or signet ring, named a real king who seemed to be the same real person as one named in the Bible. As I ran across similar inscriptions, it became fun to try to figure out whether the person in the inscription was the one in the Bible.
I had that experience in 1992, when a few scholars began to attract attention by rejecting the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as a source of historical facts, except in very few instances. I felt that they were rejecting perfectly good historical data in ancient writings just because those scrolls happened to be gathered, later on, by other people, into the collection known as the Hebrew Bible. I countered that strongly prejudiced approach by using a constructive approach to see if strong identifications of biblical people—not eagerly made, flimsy or speculative matches—could be made in inscriptions of their era.
Bible Gateway: How did you go about your investigation?
Dr. Mykytiuk: First I needed to figure out what things made for a strong identification of a biblical person in an inscription from Bible times. By learning from my own mistakes and those of others, I gradually arrived at a set of criteria that could be met only by a strong identification. Then I used anthologies of inscriptions published from 1828 onward to see whether I could find anyone from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) mentioned in them. When I found a candidate, I “ran the available data through the criteria.”
Bible Gateway: What evidence did you gather to determine your conclusions?
Dr. Mykytiuk: At first I treated inscriptions from 1200 to 539 BC only in Hebrew, Aramaic, Moabite, etc., but not in Egyptian and not in Assyrian or Babylonian Akkadian. I gleaned 94 inscriptions that named 84 persons who seemed potentially to be named in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. (Some persons were mentioned in more than one inscription.) Of these 84 persons, 16 had strong identifications. I withheld judgment on another 4 until this month’s article in BAR, which lists them as strong identifications. Other researchers identified biblical persons in Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian inscriptions down to about 400 BC. If these met the criteria, I included them.
Bible Gateway: Summarize the essence of your findings.
Dr. Mykytiuk: Between King David (ca. 1000 BCE) and Darius II of Persia (ca. 400 BCE), I found 50 strong identifications of people mentioned in the Bible in inscriptions of their times. (Actually, at least 52 persons are eventually to be included.) Another 7 are not certain but quite reasonable.
Bible Gateway: What was the most startling finding in your investigation?
Dr. Mykytiuk: To my knowledge, no one in biblical or classical studies ever formulated standard procedures or widely applicable criteria for establishing potential identifications of ancient figures in ancient inscriptions, until a 1987 essay in modern Hebrew by Nahman Avigad (Eretz-Israel 19 (1987): 235–237).
Bible Gateway: Why is confirming the reality of these biblical figures important?
Dr. Mykytiuk: Because we need to love truth. Simple respect for honest history, fairly presented—as opposed to propaganda, lies, rumors, prejudiced portrayals, and lazily accepted impressions that go unchallenged—is a strong motivation to marshal the evidence for real persons of the past.
Also, many Jews, Christians, and Muslims consider the historical reality of biblical figures an important or even essential aspect of their faith. In view of this subjective wish for persons in the Bible to be historical, if any investigation is to be scholarly, it is crucial to formulate and use objective standards of historicity. I have tried to do that.
Bio: Lawrence Mykytiuk is associate professor of library science and history librarian at Purdue University. He holds a PhD in Hebrew and Semitic Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Most of his published dissertation, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200–539 BCE (Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), is available via Google Books. A later article, Corrections and Updates to his book, is free online (start at p. 126). This book and article establish the basis for identifying people mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) in inscriptions of their times. Lawrence enjoys hiking, music, Web surfing, and sitting quietly at home with his wife and their cats. His students report that they enjoy his humor.