Mazar, Eilat, “The Wall that Nehemiah Built.” Biblical Archaeology Review, Mar/Apr 2009


Eilat Mazar, who is the author of this article, is an Israeli archaeologist, specializing in Jerusalem and Phoenician archeology. She has worked on the Temple Mount excavations, as well as excavations at Achzib. She wrote an article titled “Excavate King David’s Palace!” in which she claims that she identified the precise spot in the City of the David in Bible Archaeology Review Jan/Feb 1997. Further excavation started in 2005, under the supports from Shalem Center Jerusalem and the Ir David Foundation.

In this article, Dr. Mazar presented her findings, by explaining how she found the wall and identified the wall as part of work by Nehemiah, the famous biblical figure. The excavation started from Large Stone Structure, which Dr. Mazar believes as wall of David’s palace and sits on the highest point of the City of David. Besides the Large Stone Structure, there is Stepped Stone Structure, which they believe is used to support the palace. An ancient tower was found at the south of where two structures connected. After dismantling the northern tower, they found two dog burials beneath it and potsherds under the dog burials. Thus they identified that the tower and the walls that extend from it both north and south as part of Nehemiah’s rebuilding of ancient Jerusalem’s city wall. Professor Edwin Yamauchi, president of the Near East Archaeological Society, said that some archaeologists feel Mazar has strong evidence to support her discoveries. "It remains to be seen whether Eilat Mazar’s claims will be upheld," he said, "but it is, I think, a very positive development."[1]

Why Dr. Mazar thinks the dog burials, the potsherds and the tower as proofs for Nehemiah’s wall. She explained it in the article. First of all, she thinks dog burials in Israel are characteristic of the Persian period, based on the largest dog cemetery discovered at Ashkelon and excavator Lawrence Stager’s dating of these burials to the first half of the fifth century B.C.E. which is the early part of the Persian Period.[2] Secondly, the stratum in which the potsherds were found is typical of the period from the late sixth century to the early fifth century B.C. Moreover, when they dig much deeper, they found a stratum three or four Hebrew letters. They interpreted the letters as “Shelomit ( תמלש )”, which could be the name of the daughter of Zerubbabel based on 1 Chronicles 3:19. Finally, the quality of the wall is not good at all, and the Bible also said Nehemiah rushed to complete the project in 52 days because of the threats from neighbors (Nehemiah 6:15).

The excavation and the finding definitely have significance meaning to Biblical Archaeology and the authority of the Bible. It can help scholars to better understand the history of Israel from Exile to return under Persian’s reign. However, there are also many assumptions behind her conclusion. The first assumption is that Nehemiah is a historical figure from the Bible. There’s no direct evidence to prove that the wall is built by Nehemiah, except for the timing matching of excavation finding and book of Nehemiah in the Bible. It is hard for scholars who are not bible-believing Christians to accept this assumption. Mazar’s conclusion will be pointless leaving the biblical foundation.

Another challenge to the deduction is regarding the Hebrew letters found. Mazar first think the letters are“Temah” because “sons of Temah” were Temple servants named in Ezra 2:53. Soon other scholars suggested that they can be read in mirror image and instead read “Shelomit”. Mazar now agrees that it is the preferable reading. Scholars criticized that Mazar is eager and rushing into Biblical conclusions, while “Temah” can better match the biblical family name Temec in the book of Nehemiah.

Chris Heard, Associate Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University, said on this blog that there are also some scholars criticized Mazar for rushing to the newspapers and BAR instead of first issuing more sober, controlled excavation reports[3]. Last year a group of Hong Kong Christians also claimed that they had found Noah’s ark in Turkey via various mass media[4]. This announcement was widely criticized among the scholars. I think we need to be careful with biblical archaeology findings, verify it in peer reviews, lest it become a joke.

[1] Gordon Govier, “Wall Eyed”, Christianity Today, February 2008

[2] Lawrence Stager, “Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon?” , BAR, May/Jun 1991

[3] Chris Heard, Eric Cline vs. Eilat Mazar: It’s all in Shanks’s mind,

[4] ISHAAN THAROOR, “Has Noah’s Ark Been Discovered in Turkey?”, Time, Apr. 29, 2010