Archaeology Supports the Book of Nehemiah

The Bible accurately intersects with history, as proven by archaeology and historiography

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Rebuilding Jerusalem,” 1847
Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, “Rebuilding Jerusalem,” 1847 (photo: Public Domain)

Nehemiah was the “cupbearer” (Nehemiah 1:1, 11) to the Persian king Artaxerxes I (r. 465-425 B.C.) 

  • Nehemiah 2:1 (RSV) In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. …
  • Nehemiah 5:14 Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes the king, twelve years, neither I nor my brethren ate the food allowance of the governor.

The date, therefore, of the first meeting of Nehemiah with King Artaxerxes was 445 B.C., and his service as governor of Judah extended down to 433 B.C. The Bible intersects with history, as proven by archaeology and historiography. And it is completely accurate when it does so.

As another example, Sanballat (the Horonite), an adversary of Nehemiah, is mentioned 10 times in the book of Nehemiah (2:10, 19; 4:1, 7; 6:1-2, 5, 12, 14; 13:28). An Elephantine papyrus, discovered near Jericho in 1962 and dated to 407, mentions the sons [Delaiah and Shelemiah] of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria.

Nehemiah states that he was the “cupbearer to the king” (Nehemiah 1:11). Classical sources (e.g., Xenophon) give detailed descriptions of cupbearers at the Persian court. Nehemiah refers to the “former governors who were before me” (5:14-15; cf. 12:26).

Some thought that Judah didn’t have governors, but that this referred to governors of Samaria. But in 1974, some 70 bullae (clay seal impressions) emerged, one of which bore the inscription “YHD,” referring to the province of Judah in Persian. Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad (1905-1992) dated them to the sixth and early fifth century B.C. and proposed a list of eight governors of Judah, including Nehemiah (445-432 B.C.).

Geshem (“the Arab”), another enemy of Nehemiah, is cited at 2:19 and 6:1-2, 6. A Lihyanite inscription found in northwest Arabia reads, “Jasm son of Sahr and Abd, governor of Dedan.” This person has been identified by scholars as the biblical Geshem. Likewise, in 1947 silver vessels containing Aramaic inscriptions dating to the late fifth century B.C., were discovered near the Suez Canal. One contained the words, “Qaynu the son of Gashmu, the king of Qedar,” which is also arguably the biblical Geshem.

Tobiah “the servant, the Ammonite” (2:19) — another enemy — is mentioned 15 times in the book. Benjamin Mazar (1906-1995), an eminent Israeli historian and archaeologist, constructed a genealogical table of the Tobiad family, from various evidences. It includes “Tobiah, Ammonite official,” who flourished around 440 B.C. Ammon was in current-day Jordan, near the present capital of Amman. 

  • Nehemiah 3:8 They restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall.

In 1970 Israeli archaeologist Nahman Avigad discovered to the west of the Temple area a 7-meter-thick wall, which he identified as “the broad wall” from Nehemiah 3:8. The structure was dated to the early seventh century and was likely built by King Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 32:5). 

  • Nehemiah 3:26-27 And the temple servants living on Ophel repaired to a point opposite the Water Gate on the east and the projecting tower. After him the Teko’ites repaired another section opposite the great projecting tower as far as the wall of Ophel.

Irish archaeologist R. A. Stewart Macalister (1870-1950) discovered in excavations in 1923-1925 on the crest of the Ophel Hill, near the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, an ancient wall, ramp and great tower. He mistakenly dated it to the time of David and Solomon. Fifty years later, Benjamin Mazar thought that the tower “may possibly be identified with the ‘great projecting tower’ described by Nehemiah (3:26-27).” Just three years later, in 1978, excavations at the base of this tower revealed a Persian-period ceramic layer: evidence for the resettlement of the Babylonian exiles in Jerusalem.

  • Nehemiah 2:17 Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem …
  • Nehemiah 6:15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days.

Further strong evidence has come to light regarding the walls of Jerusalem that were built (not merely repaired) by Nehemiah in the fifth century — the phrase “the wall” appears 27 times in the book — some 130 or more years after the city was destroyed by the Babylonians. Christopher Eames writes:

Situated in the City of David ... the Northern Tower was a poorly constructed fortified structure. ... Until 2007, archaeologists, including Dr. [Eilat] Mazar, generally assumed the tower dated to the Hasmonean period (second century B.C.). …
Using pottery typology and the dog burials, Dr. Mazar concluded that the Northern Tower and wall were constructed around 450 B.C. …
The tower and wall were not masterpieces of engineering. Their construction quality showed that they had been built hastily — just as Nehemiah recorded. Nehemiah 3 describes the wall’s construction in detail. 
Others have criticized Dr. Mazar for using the Bible. These critics say Mazar cannot be trusted because she has a Bible bias. The fact is, prior to this excavation, Mazar — like many others — believed the Northern Tower was Hasmonean. She was not looking for this discovery, nor searching for evidence proving the Bible true. …
Dr. Mazar did not rush to conclude she had discovered Nehemiah’s wall. Rather, she diligently and responsibly followed the science, and objectively compared it to the biblical record.

Lastly, a manuscript of Nehemiah among the Dead Sea Scrolls was found in 2012 at Qumran Cave 4, Bar-Kokhba caves and Wadi ed-Daliyeh. Up until recently, only the books of Nehemiah and Esther, of all the books of the Hebrew Bible, were missing from the scrolls. Now only Esther remains undiscovered.

Note: I draw from many scholarly materials in this summary article. See the fuller article on my blog for the documentation of my sources.

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