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In the last month, archaeologists in the Middle East have unearthed a trio of biblical-times finds that offer important glimpses into both ancient Holy Land culture and the early Christian church.

Earlier this month, an Israeli archaeologist digging amid ruins of an ancient town outside Jerusalem discovered a pottery shard containing the oldest Hebrew inscription ever found. Penned almost 3,000 years ago, the five lines of text on the ceramic piece use proto-Canaanite characters, a precursor of the Hebrew alphabet. Artifacts found around the shard were carbon-dated to between 1,000 and 975 B.C., which corresponds with the time King David ruled in Jerusalem. Although the writing has not been completely translated, Yossi Garfinkel, the Hebrew University archaeologist in charge of the dig, believes it already indicates that a powerful Israeli kingdom existed at the time of King David.

Last week another Israeli archaeologist digging outside Jerusalem found what he believes are the 2,000-year-old remains of two tombs that once held a wife and daughter-in-law of King Herod—the same Herod that the Gospel of Matthew says conducted a mass slaughter of male infants around the time of Jesus’ birth. Along with the tomb artifacts, additional relics found by Ehud Netzer, who is a Herodian excavation expert from Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, seem to further his case for discovering Herod’s tomb last year. “I would eat my hat if it were someone else’s tomb,” Netzer said.

Almost 300 miles down the road in Syria, a Syrian-Polish archaeological team unearthed the remains of an eighth-century church. Although the church is the fourth found in the ancient city of Palmyra, which is almost 150 miles northeast of Damascus, it is the largest such discovery to date. Walid al-Assaad, head of the Palmyra Antiquities and Museums Department, said that besides an amphitheater used for gatherings and services, the church contains at least “two rooms that are believed to have been used for baptisms, religious ceremonies, prayers and other rituals.” [AP, 10/31/08; AP, 11/17/08; Reuters, 11/19/08]

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