Ancient Potsherds Confirm the Biblical Record

THE Bible is the inspired Word of God. (2 Timothy 3:16) What it says about people, places, and religious and political situations of ancient times is accurate. The authenticity of the Scriptures by no means depends upon archaeological discoveries, although such findings do confirm or illuminate our understanding of the Biblical record.

The most numerous items found by archaeologists during excavations of ancient sites are potsherds, or broken pieces of pottery. These fragments of earthenware are also referred to as ostraca, from the Greek word for “shell, sherd.” Pottery fragments served as inexpensive writing materials in many places in the ancient Middle East, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ostraca were used for recording contracts, accounts, sales, and so forth, just as memo pads and sheets of paper are used today. Generally written with ink, the texts on ostraca varied from just one word to several dozen lines or columns.

Archaeological excavations in Israel have uncovered numerous ostraca from Biblical times. Three collections dating back to the seventh and eighth centuries B.C.E. are of special interest because they confirm various details of historical information found in the Bible. They are the Samaria ostraca, the Arad ostraca, and the Lachish ostraca. Let us take a closer look at each of these collections.

The Samaria Ostraca

Samaria was the capital of the ten-tribe northern kingdom of Israel until the city was overthrown by the Assyrians in 740 B.C.E. Concerning Samaria’s origin, 1 Kings 16:23, 24 states: “In the thirty-first year of Asa the king of Judah [947 B.C.E.], Omri became king over Israel . . . And he proceeded to buy the mountain of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver, and began to build on the mountain and call the name of the city that he built . . . Samaria.” The city was in existence through Roman times, when its name was changed to Sebaste. It finally disappeared as a city in the sixth century C.E.

During an excavation of ancient Samaria in 1910, a team of archaeologists found a collection of ostraca, which they dated to the eighth century B.C.E. The text recorded shipments of oil and wine received in Samaria from various locations in its vicinity. Commenting on this discovery, the book Ancient Inscriptions​—Voices From the Biblical World says: “The 63 ostraca found in 1910 . . . [are] justly regarded as one of the most important bodies of epigraphic [written] material to survive from ancient Israel. This importance does not derive from the content of the Samaria ostraca . . . but rather from their extensive inventory of Israelite personal names, clan names and geographic designations.” How do these names confirm details in the Biblical record?

When the Israelites conquered the Promised Land and divided it among the tribes, the site of Samaria was located in the tribal territory of Manasseh. According to Joshua 17:1-6, ten clans of Manasseh, through his grandson Gilead, were allotted tracts of land in this area. They were Abiezer, Helek, Asriel,  Shechem, and Shemida. The sixth male, Hepher, had no grandsons but had five granddaughters​—Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah—​and each of them received a tract of land.​—Numbers 27:1-7.

The Samaria ostraca preserve seven of these clan names​—all five names of Gilead’s sons and two of Hepher’s granddaughters, Hoglah and Noah. “The clan names preserved on the Samaria Ostraca provide an extrabiblical link between the clans of Manasseh and the territory in which the Bible claims they settled,” notes the NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Thus, this aspect of Israel’s early tribal history as described in the Bible is confirmed by these ostraca.

The Samaria ostraca also appear to confirm the religious situation of the Israelites as it is described in the Bible. At the time when the Samaria ostraca were written, the Israelites associated the worship of Jehovah with that of the Canaanite god Baal. Hosea’s prophecy, also written during the eighth century B.C.E., foretold a time when Israel would repentantly call Jehovah “My husband” and no longer “My baal,” or “My owner.” (Hosea 2:16, 17; footnote) Some personal names found on the Samaria ostraca meant “Baal is my father,” “Baal sings,” “Baal is strong,” “Baal remembers,” and the like. For every 11 personal names containing some form of the name Jehovah, there are 7 with the component “Baal.”

The Arad Ostraca

Arad was an ancient city located in the semiarid area called the Negeb, considerably south of Jerusalem. Excavations at Arad revealed six successive Israelite fortresses, from the time of Solomon’s kingship (1037-998 B.C.E.) down to the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 607 B.C.E. The excavators recovered from Arad the largest collection of ostraca from Biblical times. It includes more than 200 inscribed objects in Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages.

Some of the Arad ostraca confirm the Biblical information about priestly families. For example, one potsherd mentions “the sons of Korah,” referred to at Exodus 6:24 and Numbers 26:11. The superscriptions to Psalms 42, 44-49, 84, 85, 87, and Ps 88 specifically attribute these psalms to “the sons of Korah.” Other priestly families mentioned on the Arad ostraca are those of Pashhur and Meremoth.​—1 Chronicles 9:12; Ezra 8:33.

Consider another example. In the ruins of a fortress dated to the period just before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem, excavators found a potsherd addressed to the commander of the fort. According to the publication The Context of Scripture, it says in part: “To my lord Elyashib. May Yahweh [Jehovah] concern himself with your well-being. . . . As regards the matter concerning which you gave me orders: everything is fine now: he is staying in the temple of Yahweh.” Many scholars believe that the temple referred to is the temple in Jerusalem, originally built in the time of Solomon.

The Lachish Ostraca

The ancient fortress city of Lachish was located 27 miles [43 km] southwest of  Jerusalem. During excavations in 1930, a batch of ostraca was found, and at least 12 pieces are letters described as “extremely important . . . for their illumination of the political situation and general turmoil as Judah prepared for the inevitable attack by [Babylonian King] Nebuchadnezzar.”

The most important letters are correspondence between a subordinate officer and Yaosh, probably the military commander at Lachish. The language of the letters resembles that used in the writings of the contemporary prophet Jeremiah. Consider how two of these letters support the Biblical description of that crucial time period.

At Jeremiah 34:7, the prophet describes the time “when the military forces of the king of Babylon were fighting against Jerusalem and against all the cities of Judah that were left remaining, against Lachish and against Azekah; for they, the fortified cities, were the ones that remained over among the cities of Judah.” The author of one of the Lachish Letters seems to describe the same events. He writes: “We are watching for the [fire] signals of Lachish . . . , for we cannot see Azeqah.” Many scholars believe that this indicates that Azeqah, or Azekah, had fallen to the Babylonians and that Lachish was next to fall. An interesting detail in this text is the reference to “fire signals.” Jeremiah 6:1 also mentions the use of such means of communication.

Another Lachish Letter is believed to support what the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel say about efforts by the king of Judah to get support from Egypt in the revolt against Babylon. (Jeremiah 37:5-8; 46:25, 26; Ezekiel 17:15-17) The Lachish Letter says: “Now your servant has received the following information: General Konyahu son of Elnatan has moved south in order to enter Egypt.” Scholars generally interpret this action as an effort to obtain military assistance from Egypt.

The Lachish ostraca also mention a number of names found in the book of Jeremiah. They are Neriah, Jaazaniah, Gemariah, Elnathan, and Hoshaiah. (Jeremiah 32:12; 35:3; 36:10, 12; 42:1) Whether these names represent the same individuals cannot be known for certain. Inasmuch as Jeremiah lived during that period, however, the similarity is notable.

A Common Feature

The Samaria, Arad, and Lachish ostraca collections confirm a number of details recorded in the Bible. These include family names, geographic designations, and points regarding the religious and political climate of the times. There is an important feature, though, that is common to all three collections.

The letters found in the Arad and Lachish collections contain such phrases as “May Jehovah ask for your peace.” In seven of the Lachish messages, God’s name is mentioned a total of 11 times. Moreover, many Hebrew personal names found in all three collections contain the abbreviated form of the name Jehovah. These ostraca thus confirm that the divine name enjoyed everyday usage among the Israelites of that time.

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A potsherd from the ruins of Arad addressed to a man named Elyashib

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Photograph © Israel Museum, Jerusalem; courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

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A Lachish Letter showing God’s name

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Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum