Robert R. Cargill (@xkv8r), assistant professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa, is an archaeologist, Bible scholar, and host of numerous television documentaries, such as the History Channel series Bible Secrets Revealed. In his book, The Cities That Built the Bible (HarperOne, 2016) (book website), he takes readers behind-the-scenes of the Bible, blending archaeology, biblical history, and personal journey as he explores 14 cities and their role in the creation of the Bible.
The following article is adapted from The Cities That Built the Bible (HarperOne, 2016) by Robert R. Cargill.
The Cities That Built the Bible
Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos (modern-day Lebanon, Syria, northern Israel/Palestine)
The Phoenician cities Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon literally provided the materials for three of the most essential items for the building of the Bible: the alphabet, paper, and the Jerusalem Temple itself.
Phoenicia, the birthplace of Western writing, gave us the alphabet that allowed written documents like the Bible to be written down. The early capital of Phoenicia holds claim to being the first city responsible for building the “Bible,” since it is where the Bible derives its name: Byblos.
UGARIT (modern-day Syria)
The city reached its heyday between 1800 and 1200 BCE, when it ruled a trade-based coastal kingdom, trading with Egypt, Cyprus, the Aegean, Syria, the Hittites, and much of the eastern Mediterranean.
Ancient texts discovered at Ugarit revealed a pantheon’s worth of names of deities that are later found in the Bible like Ba‘al and ’El and ’Asherah. Likewise, some of the texts discovered at Ugarit have similar plotlines and characters as stories later found in the Bible
NINEVAH (modern-day Iraq)
Most people know of Nineveh in relation to the story of Jonah, who was swallowed by the fish and later despised God because He refused to destroy Ninevah as Jonah wanted. Unfortunately, Nineveh itself is currently being destroyed. People are now familiar with Nineveh because of its present-day occupiers, ISIS, Islamic militants who are in the process of physically destroying the irreplaceable architectural and cultural remnants of one of the greatest civilizations of its time: ancient Assyria.
This Assyrian empire dominated the northern kingdom of Israel before conquering its capital, Samaria, in 722 BCE. It was this conquest that not only changed the history of Israel, but which gave the southern kingdom of Judah the theological justification it needed to claim that God ultimately favored them over Israel.
BABYLON (modern-day Iraq)
The Babylonian conquest and destruction of Jerusalem followed by the exile to Babylon provided the basis for numerous prophetic books like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah as well as the book of Lamentations. Babylon is the city where what Jews today call the Hebrew Bible and what Christians call the Old Testament began to take its written shape.
The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II was the Assyrian-born king of the Neo-Babylonian Empire from 604 to 561 BCE and is considered one of the greatest kings of ancient Babylon. Saddam Hussein saw himself as the reembodiment of Nebuchadnezzar II and rebuilt, expanded, and took up residence in the palaces of Nebuchadnezzar II. He even went so far as to depict himself in the same poses used in the earlier king’s iconography in order to project his propagandist portrayal as the greatest ruler in Babylon since Nebuchadnezzar II.
Archaelogical evidence confirms the presence of Judahite exiles in Babylon. From 1899 to 1917, German archaeologist Robert Koldewey excavated 290 clay cuneiform tablets dated 595–570 BCE from barrel vaults beneath a public building near the Ishtar Gate. These tablets have records written on them, which appear to corroborate the text of 2 Kings, particularly that King Jehoiachin of Judah gave himself up, was treated well in Babylon, and was ultimately released.
MEGIDDO (modern-day Israel)
Megiddo was identified as the location of the end of the world because it had been the epicenter of multiple armed conflicts throughout Israel’s history.
The reference in Revelation that God would ultimately be victorious over death is the overarching theme in the New Testament, and Megiddo is the symbol of that great victory that inspired early Christians to write down the traditions of their faith and inspires all Christians since then to keep the faith until God returns.
Greek culture influenced the Bible because of one man: Alexander the Great. He spread Greek thought and literature to the greater Near East, bringing Greek culture to cities that were still shaping the Bible.
Jews attempted to make the Jewish faith as palatable to Romans as possible by recasting Jewish religion and literature as Hellenistic philosophy. The apostle Paul, who claims to have disliked philosophy, actually appears to have alluded to Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle on at least a few occasions in the Bible.
The center of the Egyptian world in the first millennium was a Mediterranean coastal city not referenced in the Hebrew Bible and only referenced in passing in the New Testament: Alexandria. This city, where the Hebrew Bible was translated from Hebrew (and Aramaic) into Greek, made it possible for the Hebrew Bible to live beyond Persian-period Judaism.
Alexandria also witnessed the production of a number of Jewish books that ultimately did not make it into the Hebrew Bible, but that were preserved in the Greek Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). These collective books, known today as the Apocrypha, are part of the Catholic Bible, but are not considered holy by Protestants.
Jerusalem was the ideological, political, and theological center of the world for both Judaism and Christianity. David was king there, as was Solomon. Hezekiah rebelled against Assyria from Jerusalem. Josiah reformed and found the Book of the Law there. It’s the place of Herod the Great, and the place of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It was the launching point for Christianity. Jerusalem is the city that literally built the Bible.
QUMRAN (modern-day Israel)
Qumran has become a key city in the development of the modern Bible we know today, as many versions of the Bible published since the 1950s have taken into account what we’ve learned from the scrolls. Newer versions of the Bible often side with the text of the Dead Sea Scrolls when traditional versions of biblical books preserve variant textual traditions.
The height of Goliath—the giant in the David and Goliath story—was disputed within different biblical traditions until the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Based on the Hebrew Bible’s version of the story in 1 Samuel 17:4, Goliath was six cubits and a span (9’9). But according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, Goliath seems much less impressive. He’s four cubits and a span (6’9)—the size of many NBA players.
BETHLEHEM AND NAZARETH
Two of the Gospels (Mark and John) never associate Jesus with Bethlehem, and the apostle Paul makes no mention of Bethlehem (or Nazareth) in any of his writings. Jesus’s relationship to Bethlehem in the New Testament is limited to the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, but each have different perspectives on Jesus’ birth and are speaking to different audiences. Luke’s depiction of lowly shepherds visiting Jesus as a child resonated with the poor and marginalized, while Matthew’s account of wise men from afar coming to pay tribute to the new king of the Jews resonated with those steeped in Jewish tradition. This is how a small Judean agricultural city with no archaeological evidence to support any claim to Jesus’s birth came to play such an important role in building the Bible.
Paul’s letter to the Romans holds the distinction of being the earliest Christian writings known to us today. Paul doesn’t write Romans simply to inform the readers about Jesus; he writes for the purpose of converting them to the faith and compelling them to do the things Jesus instructed his disciples to do. Paul wants the Romans to recognize Jesus as the savior of the world and become His disciples—a desire that would be fulfilled three centuries later.
Rome also played an important role in deciding which books would ultimately be included in the canon of the Bible, and which would not.
Bio: Dr. Robert Cargill is an archaeologist, Bible scholar, and assistant professor of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Iowa. He has appeared in more than a dozen television documentaries, including CNN’s Finding Jesus and The History Channel’s Bible Secrets Revealed, and was the host of National Geographic’s Writing the Dead Sea Scrolls. He was the consulting scholar on Bill O’Reilly’s NatGeo movie Killing Jesus. Dr. Cargill earned his Associates degree from Fresno City College, Bachelors of Science in human physiology from Fresno State, Master of Science and Master of Divinity from Pepperdine University, and Master of Arts and his PhD in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures from UCLA. Each summer he leads Iowa students on an archaeological excavation at Tel Azekah, Israel. He presently resides in Iowa City, Iowa with his wife and five children.