From  the  book  by  the  same  name

Digs That Made a Difference

Writings from the Past

Eveiy area on the face of the earth, be it seemingly ever so waste and empty, has a story behind it which the inquisitive sooner or later will attempt to obtain.l

—Nelson Glueck

Museums today have thousands of amazing archaeological artifacts from the ancient Near East. These fabulous finds have significantly contributed to our understanding of the biblical world. Yet, it was not always so. In the eighteenth century, English author Samuel Johnson once stated with a note of finality that "all that is really known of the ancient state of Britain is contained in a few pages, and we can know no more than the old writers have told us."2 Johnson could scarcely have imagined that as he talked in the George Inn of Fleet Street that the vast remains of Roman London lay just beneath his feet, or that part of its surviving wall was within a five-minute walk of his own house! At the same time in the land of Egypt, people in the city of Luxor fought for the "good ground" in the midst of the desert on which to build their mud-brick huts. This "good ground" was what they considered bedrock protruding from the sands. They never knew that these fine flat areas on which they had securely built were in fact the tops of massive pillars that formed the Great Hall of Columns at Karnak, a structure described by the Greek historian Herodotus in 450 B.C. when he walked at the bases of the columns some 100 feet below!

Up to the eighteenth century, then, people had not yet learned how to read the record of the rock. Their knowledge was shut up to the stories of the past. This was about to change. As the eighteenth century came to a close, men began to dig, and those digs made a difference. Some of the discoveries finally taught people how to read the past-—-and even how to read present works in a new light.

Digs That Taught Us How to Read

The early explorers of the biblical world were amazed when they saw for the first time the monumental ruins of Egypt and Mesopotamia. Recording these sites in order to excite an eager audience at home, they returned with sketches of these rock wonders. All who viewed these pictures of another world were curious about the mysterious characters covering these majestic structures. Although researchers knew that these peculiar symbols represented the history of lost civilizations, they concluded for the most part that the clues for their decipherment were generally thought to be lost as well. Here were the cryptic languages of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the two great world powers of the past. How historians longed to unlock their secrets! But no one possessed the keys. Ironically, as archaeological discoveries continued to be made, the keys turned up on the stones themselves. Two of these discoveries literally taught us how to read these long lost languages, and as a result, opened up new wonders for the world. These were the Rosetta Stone and the Rock of Behistun, which were among the first great discoveries in archaeological history.

The Rosetta Stone—Key to Egyptian Hieroglyphics

The ancient Egyptian writing called hieroglyphics (derived from two Greek words: hieros = "sacred" and glypho = "engrave")3 was given a special aura of mystery by the European artists who romanticized the ruins of Giza and Thebes. For Europeans, who took fancy with them, they were regarded as either decorative motifs or as having some secret meaning known only to the pharaohs. Most scholars of that time agreed that the symbols held a mystical meaning for the Egyptians, but also realized that if they could be deciphered, then much of that lost culture could be recovered. However, the meaning of the hieroglyphs continued to be as elusive as a rain cloud in that desolate land.

Then in 1798, soldiers under the command of General Napoleon Bonaparte, who along with a corps of French scientists had invaded Egypt the year before, began amassing large numbers of freshly discovered Egyptian artifacts. As it would turn out, they were destined to be collectors only and not keepers. A year later, the treasures fell into the hands of the British, who routed the French fleet and drove Bonaparte's army from Egypt. Among this newly won collection of antiquities which the British sent back to their national museum in London was a large slab of black basalt stone inscribed from top to bottom with ancient writing. It had been found by the French army officer Lieutenant P.F.X. Bouchard while reconnoitering near the village of Rosetta on the left bank of the Nile River. Almost four feet high, two feet wide, and one foot thick, the stone weighed 1,676 pounds! Aptly named the Rosetta Stone, it soon drew particular interest when it was observed that the writing on it was in different scripts. Further study revealed that the scripts were parallel texts, each recording the same account. The text at the top of the stone was written in hieroglyphs, the middle text in what appeared to be a cursive form of hieroglyphic (now called demotic), and the bottom text was in Koine Greek.

Because this Greek (the same as the Greek used to write the New Testament) was easily read by scholars, it was hoped that someone could work from the known to the unknown. By first comparing the easily understood Greek words with the demotic text (which was thought to be readable), perhaps some light could be shed on the cryptic hieroglyphs (which were thought to be only symbolic). As the Greek text of the Rosetta Stone was translated, it was learned that the stone was a commemorative stela that had once stood in an Egyptian temple. It recorded a decree issued from Memphis (the ancient Egyptian capital) in 196 B.C. extolling the triumphs of King Ptolemy V Epiphanes. The inclusion of this name (the only royal name preserved in the hieroglyphic section of the stone) was to prove essential to finally cracking the code of the hieroglyphs.

The first successful attempt to read the Egyptian text was made by Thomas Young (better known as the author of the wave theory of light). He correctly identified a recurring group of hieroglyphic signs written with an oval (called a cartouche) with the name of King Ptolemy. Now that it was known that foreign names were written with these unique hieroglyphs, the meaning of the signs themselves had to be understood by scholars. Ironically, a young Frenchman by the name of Jean-Francois Champollion entered this drama of decipherment. A gifted linguist, Champollion energetically applied himself to the task at hand. He compared Young's hieroglyph for "Ptolemy" on the Rosetta Stone with a newly discovered (1819) obelisk from an Egyptian temple near Aswan, which contained the names of Ptolemy and Cleopatra in Greek. He was able to isolate the cartouche for Cleopatra and, working from this, to decipher other royal names. Finally, in 1822, at the age of 32, he announced triumphantly that he had solved the riddle of the hieroglyphs. To the surprise of many scholars, he demonstrated that hieroglyphics were not merely symbols, but signs with phonetic value-—-they formed a readable language! Therefore, because of the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, the hidden secrets of Egyptian language and through it, ancient Egypt's history, religion, and culture, was opened to the world.4

The Behistun Inscription—Key to Akkadian Cuneiform

What the Rosetta Stone did for Egyptian hieroglyphics a monumental inscription in Iran (ancient Persia) did for Akkadian cuneiform. Akkadian was the Semitic language of Mesopotamia, and its two principal dialects (Assyrian and Babylonian) were used to record the military triumphs and religious tales of the great world empires of Assyria and Babylon. Both of these empires figure prominently in the Bible as nations used by God to punish the Israelites for their unfaithfulness to the Mosaic Covenant.

For centuries, those passing along the old caravan trail at the foot of the 4,000-foot Iranian mountain known as the Rock of Behistun wondered in awe and curiosity at the strange figures carved into the side of the cliff some 300 feet above their heads. These ancient travellers considered this gigantic relief to be the work of God. Ancient records from around 500 B.C. reveal that the rock was called Baga-stana ("the Place of God"), hence the modern name of the site, Behistun (also Bisitun). On this massive relief (see next page) is a man with upraised hand. Ten men face the man and two more men stand behind him. Above their heads is suspended a bird-like image. Who were these strange men and what was the object hovering over their heads? Prior to modern times, the tour guide's answer was, "Christ, His disciples, and the Holy Spirit" (as a dove)!

Like a great wall rising behind the sculpted figures, the surface of the stone had been chiseled flat and appeared polished smooth. That is, until those who boldly scaled the face of the cliff reported that these "smooth" walls were actually engraved with thousands of tiny arrowheads! Were these some sort of ancient decoration? The scholars who studied them decided not. Rather, they were taken to be a form of ancient writing which, because of its shape, was given the name cuneiform (from the Latin, meaning "wedge-shaped").

Based on the discovery of similar writing at the ancient Persian capital of Persepolis, other scholars suggested that the figures were not from the New Testament but the Old, and that they might include one of the Persian kings. This conjecture proved to be correct, for when the cuneiform characters were finally deciphered, one phrase boldly proclaimed, "I am Darius, Great King, King of Kings, the King of Persia." Once this had been read, it was clear that the central figure was none other than Darius the Great, who ruled the Persian empire from 522 B.C. to 486 B.C. Further decipherment also found the name of his sons, Xerxes, who succeeded Darius on the Persian throne. Here then, for the first time, was primary evidence for the monarch Darius I Hystaspes, who served as God's instrument for returning the Jews to Judah and helping them to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. Here, too, was testimony in stone to Xerxes (Ahasuerus), who had married the Jewess Esther, and has ever since been enshrined in the traditional Jewish festival of Purim. Not only had they left their kingly "calling cards" at Behistun, but also their "photographic IDs" for all to see! The secrets of the mysterious mountain were revealed at last.

The man who succeeded in reading the cuneiform writing and solving these "secrets in stone" was the British Major Sir Henry Rawlinson. At great physical risk, Rawlinson repeatedly scaled the sheer cliff of Behistun to copy the inscriptions. His normal precarious posture while copying the cuneiform text was to poise himself on the top rung of a ladder with no support other than one arm on the rock face! On one occasion the rope ladder he was using broke and left him hanging from a narrow ledge until he was rescued.

Thanks to the painstaking work of Rawlinson and other scholars, we've learned that the Behistun inscriptions preserved not one cuneiform language, but three—-Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite. With the help of their work on the Rock of Behistun, the riddle of cuneiform scripts has been solved. This key in turn opened up to the world the abundant annals of ancient Assyria and Babylonia, throwing new light not only on their histories but also on the historicity of the Bible.5

Digs That Retold Ancient Tales

Have you ever wondered why the Bible should have all the good stories? If the great stories of the Creation and the Flood were real history, as the Bible portrays them, shouldn't other ancient cultures have known and told these stories as well? This assumption was confirmed when a number of ancient cuneiform texts were discovered that contained Mesopotamian parallels to these biblical accounts.

Technically speaking, these texts were not discovered by archaeologists in the field, but by scholars in the study. Although British archaeology in Mesopotamia was not the exact science it is today, it did unearth hundreds of tons of monumental sculptures and thousands upon thousands of cuneiform tablets. Most of these came through the efforts of Sir Austen Henry Layard, who dug in the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the 1850s. At the palace of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal, he found thousands of clay tablets that had once been part of the royal archives. These had apparently been waiting for Layard since they had been abandoned to the elements when the palace was destroyed in 612 B.C.

He shipped these treasures back to the British Museum, and there they were dutifully stored away in the recesses of the museum's basement. In time scholars began to identify, catalog, and decipher many of these tablets. These scholars may have never dug in a foreign land, yet the writings they dug out of a basement in their own land proved to be some of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all! Three of the most ancient texts, the Atrahasis Epic, Enuma Elish, and the Gilgamesh Epic, are especially significant when compared to the Bible.

The Atrahasis Epic—The Babylonian Genesis

The discovery of the earliest Mesopotamian text with parallels to Genesis was made in the last century and named the Atrahasis Epic (Atrahasis is the principal character in the narrative). Although first published in 1876 by George Smith of

the British Museum, it was found in 1956 that he had incorrectly ordered the damaged fragments of the text, and in 1965 that he had only one-fifth of the text itself! It was then that British scholar Alan Millard, for a time the Assistant Keeper of the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, was able to restore another three-fifths of the text from fragments in storage in the museum's basement. As he analyzed a text that had been unearthed more than a century earlier, he noticed that the wording sounded strangely like the book of Genesis. This epic story was preserved on a tablet of some 1,200 lines. The tablet itself probably dated to the seventeenth century B.C., but the story it retold went back centuries to the earliest Babylonian period. The story, although presented from the theological perspective of the Babylonians, contains many details that are similar to the biblical accounts of the Creation and the Flood. In the Babylonian tale, the gods rule the heavens and earth (cf. Genesis 1:1). They make man from the clay of the earth mixed with blood (cf. Genesis 2:7; 3:19; Leviticus 17:11) to take over the lesser gods' chores of tending the land (cf. Genesis 2:15). When men multiply on the earth and become too noisy, a flood is sent (after a series of plagues) to destroy mankind (cf. Genesis 6:13). One man, Atrahasis, is given advance warning of the flood and told to build a boat (cf. Genesis 6:14). He builds a boat and loads it with food and animals and birds. Through this means he is saved while the rest of the world perishes (cf. Genesis 6:17-22). Much of the text is destroyed at this point so there is no record of the boat's landing. Nevertheless, as in the conclusion of the biblical account, the story ends with Atrahasis offering a sacrifice to the gods and the chief god accepting mankind's continued existence (cf. Genesis 8:20-22).6

Enuma Elish—The Mesopotamian Creation

George Smith, who had first translated the Mesopotamian story of the Flood, was also the first man to reveal to the world the existence of a Mesopotamian creation account known as the Enuma Elish. Like the Atrahasis Epic, fragments of this text had also come from Ashurbanipal's library at Nineveh, but other fragments were later found at Ashur (the old capital of Assyria) and Uruk. In the mid-1920s two almost complete tablets were also found at Kish. All told, seven tablets together comprise this epic tale. The most interesting section of this tale (for Bible students) is a retelling of the Creation from the Babylonian and Assyrian perspective. The text's strange name comes from the Assyrian words which introduce the text: enuma elish, which means "when above."7 In the small portion of the text that mentions the Creation, we are told that the universe, in its component parts, began with the principal gods (who represent the forces of nature), and was completed by Marduk, who became the head of the Babylonian pantheon (assembly of gods). It is Marduk, not the Creation, who stands as the dominant theme in the epic.

When we look for parallels with the Genesis account we find few: the watery chaos is separated into heaven and earth (cf. Genesis 1:1-2,6-10), light pre-exists the creation of sun, moon, and stars (cf. Genesis 1:3-5,14-18), and the number seven figures prominently (cf. Genesis 2:2-3). Beyond this, however, the mythological context controls the content. The gods procreate other gods whom they in turn seek to destroy because of their loud parties. The mother of these gods, Tiamat, creates monsters to eat them up, but the strongest of them-—-Marduk-— cuts her in half. It is from her two halves that the heavens and earth are formed. Mankind is created from the blood of the captured leader of the rebel gods (a sort of devil among the gods) in order to work as slaves for the lazy lower gods and feed the Babylonian pantheon. This mythological account has little in common with the early chapters of Genesis, which tells us God created man in His own image, gave him the world to enjoy, and cared for him and sought fellowship with him. Yet the discovery of the Enuma Elish provided our first knowledge that other Near Eastern cultures shared some aspects of the biblical cosmogony (account of Creation).

11. Tablet 11 of The Gilgamesh Epic, which features an old Babylonian account of the Flood.

The Gilgamesh Epic—The Mesopotamian Flood

Another of the important finds that came from Henry Layard's excavation was an old Babylonian account of the Flood called the Gilgamesh Epic. It was named after the principal character, King Gilgamesh, who is supposed to have ruled the Mesopotamian city of Uruk around 2600 B.C., and who in this epic story is searching for immortality. Because no copy of the entire text was discovered, scholars had to make a composite text based on fragments from periods separated by over 1,000 years (1750-612 b.c.)! While a date to the eighteenth century B.C. is conjectured for the original composition, if Gilgamesh material is confirmed in the Ebla tablets, the date could go back much earlier. The epic as we have it today is recorded on 12 tablets. The Flood story, which appears in tablet 11, seems to have been borrowed directly from the Atrahasis Epic (which is incomplete).

When the Gilgamesh Epic was first published in Europe in 1872, it caused a sensation rivaling Darwin's theories. Some people claimed it as historical proof of the Genesis Flood, while others said it diminished the Bible's claim to uniqueness and authenticity. In all the Mesopotamian literature, the account of the Hood in tablet 11 represents the foremost correlation with the biblical text. In the story recounted here, Gilgamesh is told about the Flood by Utnapishtim, a man who had gained immortality, and like the biblical Noah, had also passed safely through the waters of the Flood. In his account of the Flood, he says the creator god Ea favored him by warning him of the Flood and commanding him to build a boat (cf. Genesis 6:2,13-17). On this boat he brought his family, his treasures, and all living creatures (cf. Genesis 6:18-22;7:1-16), thereby escaping the heaven sent storm that destroyed the rest of mankind (cf. Genesis 7:17-23). By his reckoning, the storm ended on the seventh day, and the dry land emerged on the twelfth day (cf. Genesis 7:24). When the boat came to rest on Mount Nisir in Kurdistan (rather than biblical Mount Ararat in Turkey), Utnapishtim sent out a dove, a swallow, and finally a raven (cf. Genesis 8:3-11). When the raven did not return he left the boat and offered a sacrifice to the gods (cf. Genesis 8:12-22). Although these selective elements of the Mesopotamian story appear strikingly parallel to the biblical story, a person who reads the entire translation of the story will find it extremely legendary in character; its tone differs dramatically from the Genesis account.

Where Did These Stories Come From?

Since the discovery of the Mesopotamian texts, questions have been raised about the origin of these stories that are similar to those found in the Bible. Three possible answers have been offered by scholars: 1) They were originally Israelite accounts that were borrowed and adapted for the Mesopotamian religion and culture; 2) they were originally Mesopotamian tales, which were borrowed and adapted by the Israelites to fit their religious purposes; 3) both the Mesopotamian and Israelite (biblical) accounts came from a common ancient source.

Concerning the first option, as far as we know, the biblical accounts were not written down until the time of Moses in the fifteenth century B.C. It seems unlikely, then, that the "older" (seventeenth-nineteenth century B.C.) Mesopotamian stories were derived from the Israelite account. As for the second option, it is possible that Moses used sources in compiling his accounts in Genesis (see Genesis 14). Moreover, it is possible that the biblical writers had access to the Gilgamesh Epic, as a fragment of the epic turned up in the 1956 excavations at Megiddo in Israel.8 Does this mean there was a literary dependence on the Mesopotamian texts in compiling the biblical accounts? The use of extrabiblical sources does not conflict with the doctrine of biblical inspiration as there are numerous instances in which non-canonical works are cited in both the Old and New Testaments (see Joshua 10:13; 1 Samuel 24:13; 2 Samuel 1:18; Luke 4:23; Acts 17:28; Titus 1:12; Jude 14). However, neither the possession of nor occasional use of extra-biblical texts by the biblical writers demand that there was a literary dependence upon them. The biblical writers continually stress that their primary source was divine revelation. Secondary sources may have been used at times, but it does not appear that they were used in reference to Creation and the Flood.9 The many significant differences and omissions between the accounts make it unlikely that either the Mesopotamian or biblical authors borrowed from each other.

But could there have been a "tradition dependence"? That is, could the biblical accounts simply be variations of Mesopotamian myths? Again, this is unlikely. One reason is that the biblical orientation is monotheistic (one God) and its characters are ethically moral. By contrast, the Mesopotamian orientation is polytheistic (many gods) and its characters are ethically capricious. This contrast is evident, for example, in the way the two texts treat the account of the post-Flood world. In the biblical text, God accepts Noah's sacrifice and promises to never again destroy the earth by a flood (Genesis 8:20-22). In the Atrahasis Epic, the gods discover to their chagrin that they have wiped out their only source for food (men's sacrifices). Because they are hungry, they decide to put up with mankind (who can feed them). 

Another reason is that important details in the accounts differ (such as the sizes of the boat, the duration of the Flood, the sending out of the birds, and so on). A.R. Millard, who co-authored a book on the Atrahasis Epic, summarizes the question of alleged borrowing when he says:

All who suspect or suggest borrowing by the Hebrews are compelled to admit large-scale revision, alteration, and reinterpretation in a fashion that cannot be substantiated for any other composition from the ancient Near East or in any other Hebrew writing. Granted that the Flood took place, knowledge of it must, have survived to form the available accounts; while the Babylonians could only conceive of the event in their own polytheistic language, the Hebrews, or their ancestors, understood the action of God in it. Who can say it was not so?10

In fact, literary clues in these Mesopotamian compositions imply the antiquity of the Genesis account. Scholars have long recognized that Genesis 2:1-4 is a colophon or appendix to the first narrative of Creation in Genesis 1. ''The ancient tablets that contain an account of Creation likewise have a colophon. A comparison of the two reveals that the arrangement of the material in the Genesis colophon accords with the information given in the ancient colophons: 1) title ("the heaveans and the earth," Genesis 2:1a, 4a); 2) date ("in the day the Lord made earth and heaven," Genesis 2:46); 3) serial number ("six days" = series of six tablets); 4) whether or not completed in series ("seventh day [= after sixth tablet]... completed," Genesis 2:lb-2); 5) name of scribe or owner ("the Lord God," Genesis 2:4b).

Therefore, it seems more likely that both the Mesopotamian and Israelite accounts reflect a universally preserved knowledge of events that occurred during earth's pre-Flood history. The variations in these stories were passed down by the different Semitic cultures that developed after the division of the nations in the post-Flood ancient Near East (see Genesis 10-11).

Legacies Left from Antiquity

It is archaeological relics like the Rosetta Stone and the Rock of Behistun that have taught us how to read the past and to regard the Bible with a greater sense of history and uniqueness. Yet these are only part of the great legacy left to us from antiquity. In the next chapter we will continue our tour through the museum of time to see more of the discoveries from digs that made a difference.