Once in a generation archeologists unearth something that is truly a game changer. Recently found material turn much of OT critical scholarship on its head. Join Scott as he discusses this finding with archeologist Scott Stripling—spoiler alert—it’s a very exciting find!!
Scott Stripling, provost and director of the Archaeology Institute at The Bible Seminary, is the director of excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research at ancient Shiloh (2017 to present). He previously directed the excavations at Khirbet el-Maqatir (2014–2016). He serves as president of the Near East Archaeological Society.
Scott Rae: Every once in a while we get a game-changing archeological find that changes the way we think about the scriptures and about the reliability of all the New Testament narrative accounts. They only occur once in a generation, but when they do, they're usually very, very significant. And one of those has just recently been published, discovered back initially in 2019. Additional work was done on it in 2021. And one of the leading archeologists on this project, Scott Stripling, is with us. He was one of the key people on the team who excavated this site and then did a lot of the follow-up work on it. Scott is provost and director of the Archaeological Institute at the Bible Seminary in Katy, Texas, and is director of Excavations for the Associates for Biblical Research. He has directed excavations in other places in the Middle East, and is currently president of the Near East Archaeological Society. So when our listeners hear about archeology, let me make sure that they don't tune us out right away. We're not going to get into the weeds in this. We're going to stick to the big picture. But Scott, really, welcome. Thanks so much for being with us. And let's take basic questions first, or the who, what, where, when and why questions. So what was found that is such a game-changing find, first of all?
Scott Stripling: Hey, Scott, thanks for having me on the podcast today. We found a small lead folded tablet, which was two by two centimeters. If it were unfolded, it would be about four by two centimeters. This is the size and the style of what we normally refer to as a defixio or a curse tablet. What made this one unique and sort of shocking was that it came from an altar on Mount Ebal, and Joshua 8:30 says that Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal. And this tablet came from that altar, which was, according to the biblical text, the mountain of the curse. And we have what's called a curse tablet with an inscription on it.
Scott Rae: Okay, so I mean, clarify for our listeners the context both in Deuteronomy and in Joshua, the significance of Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, where the Mosaic covenant was renewed.
Scott Stripling: Well, right, it's actually probably the Abrahamic covenant that they're renewing because it's right there at Shechem. The next hill over is [inaudible 00:02:35], and this is where the Abrahamic covenant is cut. So it's my view that when Moses in Deuteronomy 11 and in Deuteronomy 27 instructs the Israelites, "Once you have gained a foothold in the land, go to Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal," which is ancient Shechem, "and renew covenant there." And he tells them exactly how to do it. "Put six of the tribes on Mount Gerizim to pronounce blessings and six on Mount Ebal to pronounce curses." And then notably Joshua 8:30 says that, "Joshua built an altar on Mount Ebal unto the Lord."
Scott Rae: Okay. And parts of that altar was also found on Mount Ebal, correct?
Scott Stripling: Well, that's it. Adam Zertal, in his survey of the Manassa hill country in 1980, discovered this large structure that had been intentionally covered, did not know what it was. Once they removed the mantle of stones, Zertal, who was not a believer, he was agnostic, had not even read the Joshua account. When somebody showed it to him, he was in utter shock. And he, from that day on, became a believer in the historicity of the text.
Scott Rae: Okay. So this was originally discovered, the altar was originally discovered a couple decades ago. The finding that you're talking about, the tablet, who found that? Which team found that? And when was that found?
Scott Stripling: Yeah, so just to clarify, the time when Zertal found it in 1980, excavated it from '82 to '89. Unfortunately he died seven years ago, without doing a final publication. I led a team in December of 2019 for an expedition back to Mount Ebal. And what we did is we took his dump pile, his discarded remains from the excavation, and using a new technology that we have perfected, known as wet sifting, we relocated about 30% of that dump pile and we wet sifted it. And it was in that wet sifting process, among many things that we found the most important, was this defixio.
Scott Rae: So this was material that was probably going to be thrown out?
Scott Stripling: It had already been thrown out back in the 1980s. All archeological sites have dump piles, what's left behind by the archeologist. The problem is that when we archeologists dry sift the material, most of the small finds cannot be seen with the naked eye. A scarab that is covered in dirt looks like a rock. And we knew this from tests that we had done that we had been throwing away about 75% of the evidence in the past.
Scott Rae: Wow.
Scott Stripling: And it was for that reason that I was very interested in examining Zertal's dump pile, hoping we would get something that would give us more insight, since he had never done a final publication, insight into that important structure.
Scott Rae: Okay. So tell us a little bit more, why does this finding matter so much?
Scott Stripling: Well, it matters on a lot of different levels. I mean, number one, the dating of the Exodus and the conquest. We have two different camps basically within evangelicalism, a 15th century or around 1,400 BC early date camp, and then a 13th century camp. I'm an advocate of the early date. I wrote, for Zondervan last year, a chapter in their new book on five views on the Exodus, stating all the reasons why. This weighs in on that, because this text dates to the late bronze two period, or that LB1B, LB2A horizon, which is around 1,400 BC. It's what I call a proto-alphabetic script, when Egyptian hieroglyphs are just morphing into phonetic symbols. And so that's occurring at the time that the Bible places Joshua on Mount Ebal. We have a text that our epigraphers, our paleographers, have also dated to that time. So theologically, historically, archeologically and then theologically, there are huge ramifications that we could talk about.
Scott Rae: Okay, let's do that here. I mean, this essentially reinforces the biblical date of the conquest of the promised land.
Scott Stripling: That's right.
Scott Rae: It also reinforces what I think is the biblically consistent date of the Exodus, a few years before that. And so what does this do to a good bit of critical scholarship in the Old Testament that dated the Exodus and the conquest much, much later?
Scott Stripling: Yeah, it's very problematic for that viewpoint. Here, we have an altar that from the pottery and now from this inscription, we can date to that early date. So that is very consistent with what we would expect from an early date or a biblical date view. So for those who were arguing ... And really, they started doing this 90 years ago or whatever, during the time of Albright, because they did not think they were finding archeological evidence from the 15th century that supported the biblical date. So I guess they thought they would help God and come up with some fancy ... what they called [foreign language 00:07:52] and some fancy German math equation to say that 480 years did not mean 480 years, and whatever. Well, it turns out there was only 1% of the land of the Bible had been excavated at that time. And that was not necessary. God did not need help. And as we have continued to excavate, we've now unearthed tremendous evidence that supports the early date. This reinforces that.
Scott Rae: Now, a big part of the finding was the inscription with the name of God in it.
Scott Stripling: Yes.
Scott Rae: And the date of that inscription was roughly 1,400 BC-
Scott Stripling: That's right.
Scott Rae: ... right around the time of the conquest. What's the significance of finding the Hebrew name of God in that particular inscription?
Scott Stripling: Well, it's huge. Your students at Biola are fortunate. You believe in the Bible, and you're treating it as a reliable historical document. Students at many seminaries and universities are not that fortunate. And I know because I speak at these universities, and this is exactly what I encountered. They've been fed the documentary hypothesis, Wellhausen's theory, and its various versions and variations.
Scott Rae: Don't worry, listeners, we'll talk about that in just a second. Go ahead.
Scott Stripling: Well, the bottom line is they would argue that the biblical text was not redacted, to use their term, until 1,000 years or so later. So how could it be reliable? We have no eyewitnesses. And they would say that there was no alphabet with which Moses and Joshua could have written. We now have proof of literacy at that time and of an alphabetic script, what we would call a proto-alphabetic script that predates paleo Hebrew.
Scott Rae: So maybe Moses was a lot more literate than critical scholars give him credit for?
Scott Stripling: Well, that's right. I mean, as a Christian, and for your listeners who are Christians, they might want to just start with what Jesus himself said, that Moses wrote the Pentateuch. That's a good place to start. But for critical scholars, they need more than that. And for those who are persuadable, I think we've given them more.
Scott Rae: Yeah. Now for our listeners, there's a whole school of critical scholarship that has arisen in the last 100-plus years that has, I'd say, pretty consistently worked to undermine traditional views of the reliability of the Old Testament narrative. You said 90 years ago only a very small percentage of the land of Israel had been excavated. What's the trend been as more and more of the land has been excavated and more of these finds have been discovered?
Scott Stripling: Well, it's the best of times and the worst of times. I mean, we have fewer archeologists who believe in a historical text, unfortunately. But the reason for this is because of the emergence of the Israeli scholars themselves. I mean, they were trained by Albright and Jeren and some of the early pioneers. And they are of course tremendous archeologists in their own right today, but they presuppositionally do not take the Bible as a reliable historical source on the same level that they would take the Amarna letters from Egypt or the Ugaritic literature. And we study those other things too, Scott, because sometimes they're very, very helpful. But we don't consider the Bible guilty until proven innocent. So I would say we do have a significant number, an emerging number of archeologists who do believe you have a revival historical text in the Bible, but an overwhelming majority do not hold that view. So we are engaged in an arena of ideas. And I think our ideas are good ideas, and they happen to synchronize with the Bible.
Scott Rae: Now, you mentioned a minute ago what's called the documentary hypothesis that has, I think, long been assumed to be the authoritative account of how the first five books of the Bible came to be authored, not by Moses, but through variety of sources and editors that sort of worked their editing together into a bare bones set of historical facts that 1,000 years later gave us the final draft of the first five books of the Old Testament. Is that a fair representation of that?
Scott Stripling: Yeah, very fair. And in a nutshell, we talk about, or they talk about, a JEDP kind of an idea where you have different sources, a Jehovah source, and Elohim source, and so forth. They would say that those sources were hundreds of years apart. The problem now for them is that in this inscription we have El right next to Yahweh, right next to it, juxtaposed. So the two did exist at the same time. They are not hundreds of years apart, as Wellhausen theorized.
Scott Rae: And yeah, so make sure our listeners get the point here, one document or one source for the Pentateuch is presumed to predominantly use the name El or Elohim for God, and the other one, the Yahwist source, is presumed to use the name Yahweh. And those two sources are separated by hundreds of years. But this inscription has both those names of God, which are supposed to be separated by hundreds of years, in the same sentence, in the same inscription.
Scott Stripling: There you go.
Scott Rae: Did I get that right?
Scott Stripling: You nailed it, brother. And so now you can see ... because theologically, we have a liberal and conservative divide, just like in everything else. And you can see now why this is a problem for those who were taking a more liberal, less literal approach to the Bible. You have evidence now that suggests that it is historically reliable and that there were eyewitnesses.
Scott Rae: So what do you think will be the impact on the world of critical scholarship, the world of skeptical archeologists, when this finding is fully published and the results are widely disseminated?
Scott Stripling: I'll try to give it to you in a nutshell. I see the world this way. We have about one-third of either scholars or laymen, just interested public, that is predisposed toward belief, and about one-third that has a proclivity towards skepticism or unbelief, and about one-third in the middle that are persuadable, sort of fair-minded, like Adam Zertal, for example. He was an agnostic. He did not even read the Bible, didn't believe the Bible, but evidence persuaded him to move to the right. So I think we have a significant number of people who will be impacted by evidence like this. I'm not expecting these people in the third on the left that they're going to jump ship and come aboard, although they'd certainly be welcome to. I think for generations this is going to reverberate. Just like the documentary hypothesis did, I think this will continue to reverberate.
Scott Rae: So would it be accurate to say that a finding like this essentially dismantles that documentary hypothesis for how the first five books of Moses were written?
Scott Stripling: In my view, it does. And there are other problems with that theory, but my view is yes, it does.
Scott Rae: So among those in that persuadable middle, what do you anticipate seeing with this group as a result? And our listeners should know these findings have not been published for all that long. So from my understanding, they were published within the last 12 months.
Scott Stripling: Well, we released this about six months ago. The peer-reviewed academic publication is in peer review right now.
Scott Rae: I see.
Scott Stripling: 11 weeks ago, on August the 26th, is when it entered into peer review. So we are still waiting for the academic publication to come out.
Scott Rae: I see. Okay, well maybe I'll-
Scott Stripling: And then other scholars, in fairness to them, they will have the data, the scans, and they could begin to then make assessments.
Scott Rae: Well, maybe I'll change my question then, based on that. What do you anticipate will be the reaction of those who are sort of hardened, atheist, agnostics, and committed skeptics to biblical reliability?
Scott Stripling: Well, when Adam Zertal announced that he had found an altar on Mount Ebal, look at what the reaction was at that point. Larry Stager from Harvard famously said, "If Zertal has found an altar on Mount Ebal, we archeologists and scholars all need to go back to kindergarten."
Scott Rae: Really?
Scott Stripling: Guess what? I mean, the pendulum has swung, and mainstream archeology today accepts that as an altar. So that initial reaction had to work its way through until it's kind of in the main thing. Same thing with the James Ossuary. There's this huge skepticism and reaction against, but now the majority of scholars accept that as an authentic inscription. So you're going to get a variety of reaction. I mean, some are going to say, "Hallelujah, this is great. We know we've been getting beat up with this JEDB stuff and we knew it wasn't right, and now we've got some proof." And then you're going to have some in the middle that are going to be cautious. And then you'll have some on the left that are going to stake out a skeptical turf, I'm sure.
Scott Rae: So I suspect some will not be willing to give up the worldview that's defined their life's work-
Scott Stripling: Yes [inaudible 00:17:40]-
Scott Rae: ... at least not without a fight.
Scott Stripling: That's right.
Scott Rae: But those in the persuadable middle, it sounds like this is pretty compelling evidence that some widespread skeptical views of historical reliability of Old Testament narrative needs to be changed.
Scott Stripling: Yes, sir. And then it sort of bleeds over into theology as well. If we do have a reliable biblical text, then what are the ramifications of that? Does that mean if the Bible is a reliable historical document, then there is a God of the Bible and that that God holds a moral claim on my life? So these are big ramifications.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I think some archeologists would probably say, "Well, now you're meddling in my life, and"-
Scott Stripling: I'm a believer and clearly I'm an evangelical Christian. I've never tried to hide that. And I see no need to bifurcate my faith any more than they would see a need to bifurcate their agnosticism from their scientific archeology. I'm very comfortable dialoguing about that, so bring it on.
Scott Rae: So yeah, let me go back a little bit to the teams that excavated the site, what you described, some pretty significant challenges that they faced, because where exactly is Mount Ebal in relationship to present day Israel?
Scott Stripling: In 1993, the Oslo Accords carved up the so-called West Bank, which is ancient Judaism area, into areas A, B, and C. A went under complete Palestinian control. That's sites like Jericho, for example. C went under complete Israeli control. And B went under a blended jurisdiction with Israeli military control but Palestinian civil control. Mount Ebal lies within B, so it is the disputed territory within the disputed territory.
Scott Rae: And was there a struggle to get in and out of that site? Were there difficulties with the authorities in excavating that?
Scott Stripling: Yeah, it's very complicated. We live in the West in a pretty black and white world, but the Middle East is not that way. And it's not even clear who's in charge in area B. And so you can get permission from one side that may not make the other side happy. And then since it's pre-1993, is it grandfathered in? Do the Oslo Accords not apply? So you've got multiple levels of gray with which you're dealing. We did obtain military permission and permission of the local council to remove the dump piles that we removed. We did not excavate, but we did examine the pre-1993 material in the dumps.
Scott Rae: I hope our listeners appreciate how serendipitous this is, a finding of this significance that dismantles a good bit of critical scholarship about the authorship and dating of the Pentateuch, that really helps, I think, cement an early date for the Exodus and the conquest, was found in basically a trash pile.
Scott Stripling: That's right.
Scott Rae: And there's just something providentially serendipitous about this that I hope is not lost on our listeners how significant that is. I don't think this was anything but highly providential that you all came across this stuff.
Scott Stripling: Well, hey, I had the same sense, Scott. When I was there on Mount Ebal and the altar, there's a small round altar underneath a larger rectangular altar. It's the small altar and the bottom that is actually Joshua's altar. The larger altar was later built in the period of the judges. But not to digress, but I did have a sense of providence when I was there. And I'm not sure how this works with people's theology, but I did sense that God was saying to me that, "There is something very significant that's going to come out of this and that you're going to have an opportunity to let the world know about it."
Scott Rae: I think that's quite consistent with my view of the Holy Spirit. So one other question for you. What would you say are some of the other once-in-a-generation archeological finds that have reinforced the reliability of Old Testament history?
Scott Stripling: Okay, well, I'll give you three real quickly. In 1993, we got the house of David inscription. And that was important because skepticists, minimalists had beaten us over the head with the fact that David didn't exist because we don't have references to David outside the Bible. And so once we got references to David outside that first one from Tel Dan, and then we have several others since then as well, nobody ever apologizes, you understand. They just move on to the next one. But that was pretty big. The Pontius Pilot inscription in 1961 was pretty big because, again, secularists were arguing that the title prefect given in the New Testament was an anachronism, because Tacitus in the second century had used the title procurator for pilot. And so the New Testament writers got it wrong. Well, with the inscription from Caesarea, there it has his name and his title as prefect. So those things come along and they're guideposts. But the really, really big one prior to this, I would say, was the Dead Sea Scrolls in '47 and '48.
Scott Rae: And just remind our listeners, and again, who aren't familiar with that, what's the significance of that?
Scott Stripling: Well, you got biblical texts dating as early as the third century BC. When we were dealing with manuscripts, our oldest manuscripts in 1947 are primarily 1,000 years old. And so you are going back more than 1,000 years and recovering all the multiple copies of manuscripts. And to see that you have a consistent, stable, biblical text that has been transmitted to us in a stable manner was phenomenal.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I'd encourage our listeners to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Qumran Cave finds. And I think the way they speak to how clearly and how reliably the text was copied over that 1,000-year period, that is remarkable. And I think it reinforces that the biblical text that we have today is basically the same as the one that was original, although we don't treat it the same as the original, which we don't have any of those any longer. But the differences, the deviations have almost all been found to be very minor, and don't affect any particular doctrine or teaching that we would base our lives on. So Scott, this has been so helpful. I so appreciate you putting the cookies on the lower shelf for us non-archeologists down here. This has so been so enlightening, and-
Scott Stripling: Hey, I like that metaphor. I'm going to borrow that, "Put the cookies on the lower shelf." I love it.
Scott Rae: And thank you for all your good work as an archeologist and all the good work that's been done just, I think, to reassure the believing community that maybe the Old Testament narrative was pretty accurate after all. Maybe they got a lot of things right.
Scott Stripling: Awesome. Yeah, I think that's right. I appreciate the opportunity to share with you and your audience. And for folks who are interested in our dig, they can go to digshiloh.org to get more details.
Scott Rae: Very good. Scott, thank you so much. This has been rich, a rich conversation.
Scott Stripling: Thanks, brother. Blessings.
Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture". The "Think Biblically" podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our master's in Christian Apologetics, now offered fully online. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you've enjoyed today's conversation with Scott Stripling, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.