Thanks to a researcher’s unique system, 53 individuals in the Hebrew Bible have been proven as genuine historical characters through material evidence of their existence. The system’s creator, Lawrence Mykytiuk, an associate professor of library science at Purdue University, calls it “a way to develop historicity.”
It sounds like an unlikely project: a professor in the Midwest verifying ancient names from the Mideast. Yet Mykytiuk’s training as a librarian and interest in the Bible help him do what he says on-the-scene archaeologists are too busy to — pore through journals and books, scrutinize inscriptions discovered on digs and attempt to match names in the historical record with names in the Bible.
Mykytiuk’s system relies on three criteria: A biblical name must match the name on an authentic inscription, with no possibility of a forgery (thus ruling out items from the antiquities market, he said). The names — in the Bible and on the inscription — must match in terms of setting and time period. And, in perhaps the most exacting category, Mykytiuk looks for matches of at least three specific details identifying an individual, such as name, father’s name and title.
“If it matches the same three mentions in Scripture, it’s a virtual certainty,” Mykytiuk said. “There might be a few people with the same name, father’s name,” he added, “but same title? That’s stretching it. I consider it a virtual certainty, either a dead ringer or virtual certainty.”
He does note in a PowerPoint presentation, however, that verifications of biblical names do not guarantee verifications of biblical events involving these individuals.
Developed over 25 years, Mykytiuk’s system is arguably successful. Studying 94 inscriptions, he has verified kings, pharaohs, high priests and scribes, among others.
All of the names are male, although he said he is “hoping to identify a woman from an inscription. Not yet.”
Verified characters include eight kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and six from the Southern Kingdom of Judah. One is King Ahab of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, who fought in the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BCE — an event that eagle-eyed Mykytiuk noted in both the Book of Kings and on an image of the Kurkh Monolith.
“There was only one Israelite king at a time who could have fought [in the battle],” Mykytiuk said. “Bingo. There was a match between the inscription and the Bible.”
Mykytiuk’s oldest verification is another sovereign — King David himself, from 1000 BCE. He found a match between the protagonist of Samuel I and the “House of David” wall inscription at the Tel Dan excavations in northern Israel.
“‘King of Israel’ was in one line,” Mykytiuk said. “The next line read ‘Melech Beit David.’ It was in Aramaic, by the enemies, the Arameans, who conquered Tel Dan and indicated a victory monument, a stele, a big sign in stone. The Israelites reconquered it, and smashed [the stele] to pieces that they used to make a wall.”
‘David is so important in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament… If you want to verify anybody, he’s the guy’
“David is so important in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament… If you want to verify anybody, he’s the guy,” he added.
Persians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Moabites, Arameans and Damascenes also show up on Mykytiuk’s list — a fraction of the almost 3,000 people in the Hebrew Bible.
“For most, all we get is a name,” Mykytiuk said. “Perhaps not more than a couple hundred have enough identifying facts in the Bible to actually identify [them] in some other written source.”
But the identifications keep coming. His latest, published in the May/June issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, are Tattenai, a Persian administrator under Darius the Great; and Nebuzaradan and Nergal-sharezer, two Babylonian warriors who fought for King Nebuchadnezzar II, destroyer of the First Temple.
Tattenai is mentioned in biblical sources such as Ezra 5:3 — and in a tablet from Darius dating to 502 BCE.
Nebuzaradan and Nergal-sharezer appear in Kings and Jeremiah, respectively. Their names are inscribed in cuneiform on Nebuchadnezzar II’s Prism, reproduced in James B. Pritchard’s book “Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament.”
Mykytiuk said that his criteria “apply across the board.” And indeed, he is expanding his focus to the New Testament as well.
One ring to rule them all
Mykytiuk’s interest in verifications began in 1992, while he was in graduate school in Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He saw an image of a clay impression from a signet ring belonging to a servant of King Hezekiah, who ruled the Southern Kingdom of Judah and is mentioned in the Book of Kings. He recalled seeing what looked to be the king’s name.
“Hezekiah ruled around 700 BCE,” he said. “I couldn’t shake my interest.”
He said he also found it noteworthy at a time when some scholars who were “European mainly, were saying the Hebrew Bible was a work of fiction with a few historical references thrown in. I said, ‘Wait a minute. I just saw a seal impression of a servant of Hezekiah.’”
Thus began a quest for Mykytiuk — who is Christian — to verify names in the Old Testament by studying inscriptions. He made this the topic of his dissertation, completed in 1998 and published in 2004 as a book, “Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 BCE.”
He found inspiration in Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad, who died in 1992 and who had set a precedent for biblical verifications. Mykytiuk dedicated his dissertation to Avigad.
“He laid down some criteria that I used and built on,” Mykytiuk said. “Nobody had criteria except Avigad. I could build on his beginning.”
Two other scholars have adopted Mykytiuk’s system, he said — Kenneth Kitchen, a professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, and Bob Becking, Emeritus Faculty Professor for Bible, Religion and Identity at Universiteit Utrecht.
“When Larry’s book appeared, I immediately bought and read it,” Becking wrote in an email, adding that in his view, a multidimensional approach such as Mykytiuk’s “helps to give a more firm ground for biblical studies.”
‘I said, wait a minute. I just saw a seal impression of a servant of Hezekiah’
Others have noticed as well, including Biblical Archaeology Review editor Hershel Shanks, who read Mykytiuk’s 2012 book chapter in which he published his best results.
“[Shanks] saw an article in it for Biblical Archaeology Review,” Mykytiuk recalled. And, he added, Shanks “wanted me [to do] the Old Testament, New Testament, everybody. It was too much.”
He did publish verifications of 50 people in the Hebrew Bible in 2014, updating them with his most recent findings this year. He has also written about the historical existence of Jesus — a person he calls “forever controversial” — and is returning to the New Testament for his next two articles.
Some scholars are cautioning that biblical verification has limits — including Marc Zvi Brettler, a professor of Judaic studies at Duke University.
In an email, Brettler wrote, “It is not surprising that certain figures who lived in [the] biblical period — though not at its beginning or middle — are also attested in non-biblical texts. But all this archeological evidence does is show that they existed. It does not prove that what the Bible says about them is true, nor does the verification of certain individuals in Kings II, for example, prove that Genesis or Judges is historically accurate.”
As an example, Brettler discussed Tel Dan, including its House of David inscription that Mykytiuk used to verify King David.
Brettler noted that “even though David’s name is likely verified by the Tel Dan Inscription, that inscription is at least a century after David would have lived according to the biblical chronology, so all it proves is that a century or more after David might have lived, some people thought he lived, and traced a dynasty to his name. It does not prove the existence of David as a historical figure, and certainly does not verify anything said about David in any biblical book.”
And, he noted, “we must also discuss cases where outside information shows that the Bible is wrong.”
‘We must also discuss cases where outside information shows that the Bible is wrong’
He cited Kings II 19:36-37 and its discussion of a siege of Jerusalem: “So King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and retreated, and stayed in Nineveh. While he was worshiping in the temple of his god Nisroch, his sons Adrammelech and Sarezer struck him down with the sword. They fled to the land of Ararat, and his son Esarhaddon succeeded him as king.”
“This verse is correct that Sennacherib was assassinated by his children, and was succeeded by Esarhaddon, but incorrectly suggests that this happened immediately after he returned home from besieging Jerusalem in 701 BCE, and it gets wrong the name of his children and the name of the Assyrian god,” Brettler explained. “This is a good case, illustrating how external sources show that sometimes the Bible gets part of what happened right, and part wrong.”
Mykytiuk is continuing with his verifications — this time, involving the New Testament.
He said that after his first 50 Old Testament verifications, Shanks told him, “We can finish the New Testament, too.” (Shanks declined to comment for this story.)
Mykytiuk described this as “a challenge. I’m a Hebrew Bible guy. I would go on a New Testament study. It’s a very different ballgame, with Greek and Latin inscriptions and coins that you don’t deal with in Old Testament, Hebrew Bible studies.”
His next article will include verifications of 23 New Testament political figures. He expects to publish it in the September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Unlike his Old Testament verifications, the New Testament ones will include both men and women.
“A lot are mentioned on coins — rulers and women who were their wives [or] sisters and were politically influential,” Mykytiuk said.
Mykytiuk is also working on another article which he hopes to finish in 2017 about New Testament religious figures such as John the Baptist, Gamaliel and high priests.
In the meantime, he can be satisfied that he has another application for his modern system of verifying millennia-old texts.