“How Many?” is a popular feature in each issue of BAR. In effect, this article is an extended example of a “How Many?” How many people in the Hebrew Bible have been confirmed archaeologically?
The startling answer is at least 50!
Let’s start with the Hebrew kings. According to the Bible, David ruled in the tenth century B.C.E., using the traditional chronology. Until 1993, however, the personal name David had never appeared in the archaeological record, let alone a reference to King David. That led some scholars to doubt his very existence. According to this speculation David was either a shadowy, perhaps mythical, ancestor or a literary creation of later Biblical authors and editors. In 1993, however, the now-famous Tel Dan inscription was found in an excavation led by Avraham Biran. Actually, it was the team’s surveyor, Gila Cook, who noticed the inscription on a basalt stone in secondary use in the lower part of a wall. Written in ninth-century B.C.E. Aramaic, it was part of a victory stele commissioned by a non-Israelite king mentioning his victory over “the king of Israel” and the “House of David.”a Whether or not the foreign king’s claim to victory was true, it is clear that a century after he had died, David was still remembered as the founder of a dynasty.
Hezekiah is another Judahite king who is well-known to BAR readers. According to the Bible, this eighth-century B.C.E. king of Judah “did what was right in the sight of the Lord just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Kings 18:3; 2 Chronicles 29:2). Among other things, he is credited today with building the tunnel still called Hezekiah’s Tunnel to supply water to Jerusalem, enabling the city to withstand the siege of the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib.b Jerusalem did not fall, but Judah thereafter became a vassal of the Assyrian king.
Like David, Hezekiah is mentioned not in a royal inscription of his own, but in one written by an enemy. Hezekiah is recorded in a cuneiform inscription known as Sennacherib’s prism. Sennacherib there claims to have shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem “like a bird in a cage,” but he does not claim to have conquered Jerusalem.
While we’re at it, we should note that Sennacherib is mentioned both in the Bible and in a number of cuneiform inscriptions. Indeed, we even have a carved picture of Sennacherib from his capture of Lachish on his way to besieging Jerusalem.
In addition to David and Hezekiah, four other kings of Judah (Uzziah, Ahaz, Manasseh and Jehoiachin) have been confirmed archaeologically.
This is likewise true of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. Eight of them are mentioned in inscriptions. They include Ahab, who angrily called the prophet Elijah “Thou troubler of Israel” (1 Kings 18:17).
Other kings of Israel who have been confirmed archaeologically are Omri, Jehu, Joash (short for Jehoash), Jeroboam II, Menahem, Pekah and Hoshea.
As kings of Israel and Judah have been confirmed archaeologically, so have foreign monarchs. I have already mentioned the Assyrian monarch Sennacherib. He is not the only Assyrian king so confirmed. In addition, we have inscriptions referring to Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V, Sargon II and Esarhaddon, all of whom are mentioned in the Bible.
Both the Bible and archaeology record Babylonian monarchs from a time after the Babylonian ckingdom eclipsed the Assyrians (and even before). Best known is Nebuchadnezzar (actually Nebuchadnezzar II, more accurately spelled Nebuchadrezzar). It was he who destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 586 B.C.E. and exiled the Jews to Babylonia. Other Babylonian monarchs are Merodach-baladan II, Evil-merodach and Belshazzar. Belshazzar is featured in the Book of Daniel. It was Belshazzar who challenged his wise men to read the mysterious writing on the wall. When they could not, the king called upon Daniel, one of the exiles from Judah. He predicted the king’s demise. The king died that very night, according to Daniel 5.
The Babylonian empire gave way in the sixth century B.C.E. to that of the Persians. They were not exactly nice guys, but Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) did issue his famous decree allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem from their exile. (Many Jews preferred to stay in Babylonia, however.) As I write, the Cyrus Cylinder that granted the Jews royal permission is touring the United States, courtesy of the British Museum.d We are told of Cyrus’s proclamation at the very end of the Hebrew Bible (2 Chronicles 36:22–23).
Besides Cyrus the Great, four other well-known Persian monarchs mentioned in the Bible have been confirmed archaeologically: Darius I, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I and Darius II. Xerxes plays an especially prominent role in the Book of Esther where he is called Ahasuerus. (These two versions of the name, the first in Greek and the second in Hebrew, stem from the same original Persian name. Some of the newer English translations actually use Xerxes instead of Ahasuerus.) In the Book of Esther, Xerxes’s Jewish queen, Esther, confronts the king unbidden in order to save her people from the evil Haman. “If I perish, I perish,” she famously says (Esther 4:16). She is successful; the Jews are saved, and Haman is hanged on the gallows he constructed for Mordecai, Esther’s uncle.
Going back to an earlier period, scholars who doubt the historicity of the Exodus often point to the fact that the pharaoh of the Exodus is not identified. This is true. But a pharaoh during Solomon’s reign is identified. He is Sheshonq I, called Shishak in the e He cut a swath through Judah, ultimately attacking Jerusalem, according the Bible. Accounts of his campaign also survive in hieroglyphics.Bible.
Other pharaohs mentioned in the Bible and in hieroglyphic inscriptions are Osorkon IV, whose name was abbreviated as So, Necho II and Hophra, whose name is also rendered as Apries. One of the Cushite/Nubian rulers of Egypt and Cush was Taharqa, called Tirhakah in the Bible.
A king of Moab has become famous not so much because he is mentioned by name in the Bible (only once), but primarily because the episode recounted from the Israelite point of view in the Bible is recorded as the Moabites saw it in the famous Mesha Stele. The Bible records how Israel’s king Omri conquered Moab, while the Mesha Stele, a 3-foot-high black basalt stone that displays about 34 lines of writing, recounts how the Moabite king Mesha liberated Moab from the Israelites.f The Mesha Stele is now a featured display in the Louvre.
Sometimes we have the name of a king’s son who never became king. Adrammelech, son of Sennacherib, slew his father (2 Kings 19:37; Isaiah 37:38), then fled.1 His brother Esarhaddon became king. We also know Adrammelech from a cuneiform inscription.
Going down the Judahite governmental ladder, we have a seal impression listing two men who were almost certainly named in the Bible. It’s on a lump of clay, called a bulla, that was used to sealofficial documents. Their names appear in the bulla of Gemariah, the son of Shaphan. This father and son show up in Jeremiah 36:10, 11, and the father is almost certainly the scribe in 2 Kings 22:3, etc. This bulla was discovered in excavations in the oldest part of Jerusalem, the City of David, just a short distance from where the Bible depicts them at work. Other officials (Hilkiah, Azariah, Jehucal and Gedaliah ben Pashur) are also named both in the Bible and in the City of David bullae discovered as recently as 1982, 2005 and 2008.
In sum, at least 50 people mentioned in the Bible have been identified in the archaeological record. Their names appear in inscriptions written during the period described by the Bible and in most instances during or quite close to the lifetime of the person identified.
For firm identifications, I have conservatively included only instances in which there is a strong case. On the basis of scholars’ comments, in most instances I find a substantial amount of scholarly agreement. (Complete agreement among scholars on many questions is not exactly a common occurrence.) In the table (sidebar: “Bible People Confirmed”), the names of firmly identified persons are listed by kingdom. Where there is not quite enough information for a firm identification, I list them in the sidebar “Almost Real.” These are what I consider potential identifications that are not certain or even almost certain, but are possible and quite reasonable. And of course I have not included any instances from inscriptions that are not authentic; that is, forgeries and potential forgeries are excluded. As my publications leading up to this article show,2 I have also tried to avoid circular reasoning—that is, using Biblical data to interpret an inscription and then using the inscription to claim that the inscription provides archaeological confirmation of the Bible.
Other considerations ensure that the identification is accurate: As a rule, I have listed as firmidentifications only those instances where the Bible places the person and the inscription places the person within about 50 years of each other. In addition, the society or political entity must match. For example, both must be attributable to, say, late seventh-century B.C.E. Judah. In some cases, the identification is unmistakable, as when both the Bible and an inscription specify the king of a certain realm who ruled at a particular time or who fought in a particular battle.
Still, sometimes one needs to be wary of confusing two different people who had the same name or similar names. Where that possibility exists, I have set up ways to avoid getting them mixed up. If there are three or more—but no less than three—identifying marks of the individual in the inscription that match the same three or more marks in the Bible, I consider that identification as good as certain. If there are only two identifying marks, however, I consider this a “fence sitter” and include it in the box above. I have not included cases in which there is only one mark in common, such as the given name. Individuals with the same name as someone else appear many, many times in ancient inscriptions from Hebrew and neighboring cultures.
In short, the list in this article is a conservative count whose firm identifications can be trusted. A long list of untrustworthy results can be initially exciting but can very easily turn out to be mostly worthless. Technical details regarding these identifications may be found in sources cited in the table’s endnotes, which are available online at www.biblicalarchaeology.org/50.