Is This Guy for Real?
Sargon. Belshazzar. Pontius Pilate. What do they all have in common? All of them are foreign rulers mentioned in the Bible. And all of them have been accused of never having existed.
Isaiah 20:1 dates one of the prophet’s oracles to the year the Assyrian king Sargon captured the city of Ashdod. Though this is the only passage that mentions Sargon, it’s significant because it points to a specific occurrence during his reign and uses it as a date marker.
By the early 1800s many archaeologists and scholars had become convinced that no such Assyrian king as Sargon ever existed. There simply was no evidence of him apart from that one mention in the Bible. Some suggested that Isaiah 20 mistakenly used the name to refer to another Assyrian ruler, perhaps Shalmaneser V (cf. 2 Kings 17:3; 18:9) or Sennacherib (cf. 2 Chronicles 32). Naturally, skeptics charged that Isaiah was in error.
Then in 1843 a French archaeologist discovered the remains of a magnificent palace near the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Lining the palace walls were bricks bearing the name of the king: Sargon. Also found were records covering more than a decade of Sargon’s reign, including details of his military expeditions against Damascus, Samaria, and even the city of Ashdod.
We now know that Sargon ruled Assyria from 722-705 BC, apparently after seizing power from his brother, Shalmaneser V. Sargon became king about the same time the kingdom of Israel was carried into captivity by Assyria; he was almost certainly the one responsible for repopulating the land with foreign captives (2 Kings 17:24f).
Daniel 5 says that Belshazzar was ruling Babylon when it fell to the Medes and Persians. But for years, critics objected that there was no evidence (outside the Bible) of any Babylonian king by that name. According to ancient historical records, the last ruler of Babylon was Nabonidus. Some critics denied that Belshazzar ever existed.
The answer to the riddle was unearthed in Nabonidus’ own records, discovered in the late 1800s. They reveal that, early in his reign, Nabonidus gave up most of the affairs of government and left Babylon to pursue his religious interests. He was absent for over a decade, during which his son ruled in his place. The son’s name: Belshazzar.
This, by the way, explains a curious detail in the text of Daniel. When Belshazzar saw the mysterious inscription on the wall, he promised Daniel that if he could interpret it, he would be made “the third ruler in the kingdom” (Daniel 5:16). Why third? Because Nabonidus was the titular king (first), and Belshazzar was the acting king (second).
The gospels name Pontius Pilate as the Roman governor of Judea who authorized Jesus’ crucifixion. Pilate is also mentioned in historical sources outside the gospels, including the Jewish authors Josephus and Philo and the Roman historian Tacitus. These are all considered reliable ancient sources.
But for some Bible critics in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, that wasn’t enough. They questioned whether Pilate ever lived, pointing to the fact that there was no archaeological evidence of his administration—no inscriptions with his name, no monuments, nothing at all.
Then in 1961, excavations at Caesarea uncovered a stone whose Latin inscription revealed that it was originally part of a plaque dedicating a temple to the emperor Tiberius. Part of the inscription reads, “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” To date, it is the only inscription ever found bearing Pilate’s name. But it proves that Pilate was governor of Judea during the reign of Tiberius—the time of Jesus.
These are just a few of many alleged errors in the Biblical record that have been cleared up by newly discovered archaeological/historical evidence. Time after time, people, places, and events from Scripture that skeptics once dismissed as fictional have been shown to be real.
In fact, I can’t help noticing that when critics claim that history or archaeology contradicts some detail of Scripture, what they usually point to is not the presence of any evidence that specifically contradicts the Bible record, but only the absence of evidence that specifically confirms it. They are trying to prove a negative with nothing. And as we’ve seen, often that confirming evidence is there, just waiting to be found. Who knows what we’ll discover tomorrow?