A tour of the British Museum shows that there’s more to the Bible than people may think.
The Bible: Fact Or Fiction?
King Sargon is mentioned in only 1 verse in the Bible Thought to be a made up character, until this frieze was found – Sargon is on the left Photo: Tim Bader, CC-BY 3.0, via British Museum
Ask a Bible scholar, a Christian, or a Jew, “is the Bible true?”, then they are likely to say, “of course, it’s about real people, living in real places”.
Ask an atheist the same question, then they may say that it’s either made up, or that the true events have been “dressed up”, to make them seem more than they are.
Ask anyone else, and they’ll probably say something in the middle.
For many years, there was plenty of evidence from ancient manuscripts to show that people like Moses, King David and Jesus, lived in the places and times that the Bible said they did.
While there were some discrepancies between sources and many topics were hotly debated, the overall weight of evidence pointed to the veracity of the biblical text.
However, the field of archaeology was strangely silent on the matter.
Early pioneers in the 19th century went out to Egypt and other countries in the Middle East, hoping to prove conclusively that the Bible was true, but they were disappointed.
They brought back (some would say, stole) many wonderful, beautiful and interesting remains, of long dead civilisations, many of which can be seen at the British Museum.
The problem was, that only a few of these items seemed to match up to the Bible tales.
That is, until relatively recently.
As a small group of us found out, when we went on a special tour of the museum, that picture has changed radically.
Studies of artefacts that were sitting under our very noses, have brought to light some very interesting facts…
Read on to find out more.
British Museum Tour Guide
Our tour guide was a volunteer from a group called DayOne, who specialise in this type of thing.
I was looking forward to it, but wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
It sounded like a long day: there would be a 2 hour session in the morning, then a break for lunch, followed by another 2 hours.
How would we and the kids cope?
I needn’t have worried though.
By the end of the day, my head was spinning (in a very good way) from what I can only describe as “historical awesomeness”.
The kids loved it too.
The guide was great at involving them, building a story around each item we looked at and asking them questions.
I wouldn’t recommend it for younger children, but my two (10 and 13 at the time) talked about it for days afterwards.
In fact, we all did.
Gathering Evidence For The Bible
Persian Drinking Bowl, circa 460 BC Photo: Tim Bader, CC-BY 3.0, via British Museum
I have been to the British Museum on a number of occasions over the past few years, so was familiar with some of the galleries that we walked through.
The great thing about this particular tour, was that it took us to objects I thought I knew, but then breathed new life into them.
One of the best moments was on seeing a silver drinking bowl (see photo, right).
It looks fairly innocuous, but have a closer look and you’ll see some writing around the side of it.
The writing says that it belongs to the cupbearer to the king.
The king in this case was the Persian, Artaxerxes, who ruled this ancient superpower around 460 BC.
Now, you may not have heard of him, unless you know your Bible.
He is important in Jewish history, because he carried out his predecessor’s command to let the Hebrew people go back to Jerusalem to re-build it, after a long exile in Babylon. (Oh, and Artaxerxes’ predecessor was King Cyrus. See below, for a photo of his decree and an interesting prophecy…)
The Bible tells us that Artaxerxes’ cupbearer was a man called Nehemiah.
In fact, Nehemiah gets a whole book to himself, which records how the king agreed for him to return to Jerusalem and re-build its walls.
So, here we were, talking about Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the king, and we’re looking right at a bowl that belonged to him.
Of course, it could have been left in the bottom of a cupboard and he may never have held it at all – but he would still have been near it.
He could have held it many times, tasting the contents to check they were good, before handing it over to his lord.
This is the sort of thing that makes history tangible and sends goose bumps up your spine.
You may not get excited about that sort of thing, but I sure do.
A little bit of writing, goes a long way!
King Cyrus’ decree to allow the return to Jerusalem The Bible prophet Isaiah named Cyrus and said he would do this… …over 200 years before Cyrus was born. Photo: Tim Bader, CC-BY 3.0, via British Museum
Writing Is The Key To Unlocking The Biblical Past
And it was writing, that was the key to most of the tour.
Our guide explained that a lot of the “missing” Bible history, resulted because the early archaeologists went out to Egypt with their own assumptions.
They wanted Rameses the Great (Rameses II) to be the Pharaoh who oppressed the Israelites (descendants of Israel, originally known as Jacob) and who sent them on their way, after the plagues of Exodus.
After all, Rameses thought a lot of himself and had monuments to his name built all over Egypt.
The vision of Hebrew slaves, building the pyramids under his direction, was compelling.
The trouble with this view, is that it doesn’t add up.
The Bible doesn’t actually mention the pyramids, only that the Hebrews had to make bricks.
Recent evidence points to ordinary citizens, not slaves, building them. In fact, the pyramids would have been built a long time before the Hebrews turned up.
It turns out that a date of 1446 BC makes a lot of sense for the Hebrews presence and matches up with a different Pharaoh, Thutmose III.
Thutmose III was both a great warrior and a builder.
His firstborn son died before he did, and many of his later military campaigns were into Canaan.
– Which would fit with the Bible account from the time of Moses, as told in Exodus.
Bible Kings, Controversy, And The Name Game
Thutmose would therefore seem a good match with the biblical stories, but there is still controversy around it all. We don’t have enough information to prove it beyond doubt, partly because the Pharaohs (and other ancient kings) never wrote down their failures, only their successes!
I don’t have the space to go into the details here, so I will leave it to the experts to debate the pros and cons.
However, another area where the Bible has been proved correct, has been in the identification of some other kings.
For example, the book of Daniel says that Belshazzar was the last king of Babylon.
Yet for many years, scholarly opinion stated that this title was held by Nabonidus, and no one knew of the existence of Belshazzar.
“The Bible must be wrong”, they said.
Cuneiform cylinder, one of four discovered at Ur Photo: Tim Bader, CC-BY 3.0, via British Museum
Then a cylinder (see photo, above) was discovered and yes, more writing unlocked the mystery.
It turns out that Nabonidus was a bit of a religious man and had a temple dedicated to the Babylonian moon god, at a place called Ur.
He liked to “hang out” there and that was where these cylinders were found: one in each corner of the temple.
Thing is, the temple was some distance from the capital, so he had to leave someone else in charge.
The cylinders therefore ask the moon god to bless and give wisdom to his son …a man named Belshazzar.
The British Museum: Living, Breathing History
We encountered many moments like these, throughout the tour.
It turned something that could have been somewhat dry and academic, into a living, breathing history.
Things that had once been a complete mystery, were being brought into the light.
More importantly, we were shown conclusive evidence – from archaeology – that the Bible is about real people, who lived in real places.
And the kids are still talking about it.
DayOne Tours: highly recommended. If you are interested in a tour with DayOne, then have a look at their website. My question for you today, is this: The evidence from archeology is increasingly demonstrating, that the Bible is about real people, who lived in real places. What do you think about that and does it matter?