A 95-foot-long limestone tablet with Luwian hieroglyphs tells the story of the Sea People’s conquests. (Photo Credit: the Luwian Studies Foundation)

Woe to you inhabitants of the seacoast, you nation of Cherethites! The word of the LORD is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines; and I will destroy you until no inhabitant is left. – Zephaniah 2:5 (ESV)

“Archeologists believe they have found the key to unlocking a mystery millennia in the making, uncovering how advanced civilizations in the lands of the Bible were invaded by so-called ‘sea-people’ in 1190 B.C. . .” according to Newsweek.com. The “Sea Peoples” have long been suspected of playing a key role in ending the prosperous Bronze Age in the eastern Mediterranean, and plunging many societies into prolonged dark periods. They also are involved in one of the chief objections to the idea of shifting Egypt’s timeline, allowing a link between archaeological evidence and the Bible’s Exodus account.

Newsweek tells how researchers recently translated the Luwian hieroglyphics on a 95-foot-long limestone tablet found in 1878. These hieroglyphics were the official recorded language of an ancient civilization in southwestern Turkey. The origin of the tablet appears to have been King Kupanta-Kurunta, a ruler in western Asia Minor who (the tablet says) sent his armies by land against the Hittite Empire to the east, and then, via a fleet of ships, down along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

According to Newsweek, the tablet claims that Kupanta-Kurunta’s armies “invaded a number of ancient coastal centers in modern-day Syria and Israel, building a fortress in Ashkelon and eventually advancing as far as ancient Egypt.”

A relief on the north wall of the tomb of Ramesses III depicts the Egyptians fighting against an army arriving by sea. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Rulers are, of course, given to bragging. It may be that Kupanta-Kurunta’s armies were simply part of a confederation of maritime peoples (perhaps from around the Aegean Sea) that plundered the coasts and civilizations of the early 12th Century BC.

The Philistines are thought to be one of these “Sea Peoples” who ended up occupying the coastal cities of Canaan and became Israel’s arch enemies during the period when Israel was governed by a series of judges. They continued to battle Israel’s first kings: Saul and David.

Samson, who judged Israel for 20 years and put to death many Philistines, was chained between two columns during a Philistine celebration. In a final act of supernatural strength, he brought the house down on his Philistine captors.

And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life. – Judges 16:30 (ESV)

Saul, who was Israel’s first king, battled the Philistines throughout his reign and eventually succumbed (along with his sons) to the coastal-based enemy.

And the Philistines overtook Saul and his sons, and the Philistines struck down Jonathan and Abinadab and Malchi-shua, the sons of Saul. . . Thus Saul died, and his three sons, and his armor-bearer, and all his men, on the same day together. – 1 Samuel 31:2, 6 (ESV)

Perhaps the most famous story in the Bible, illustrating the conflict between Israel and the Philistines, is the battle between David (who would later become king of Israel) and a giant Philistine named Goliath, described in 1 Samuel 17.

And David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground. – 1 Samuel 17:49 (ESV)

Questions of Authenticity

While the 3,200-year-old tablet appears to give credence to a military campaign that may have birthed the Philistines of the Bible, this line of thinking is still in question.

The Luwian Studies Foundation, which is preparing to publish its findings on the stone, admits there is an “unfinished argument” over whether the inscription is authentic. Dr. Eerhard Zangger, president of the foundation, told the Times of Israel recently, “We think it’s too long and complicated grammatically to have been forged by anybody.”

Another question mark for scholars is the absence of surviving writings of the Philistines themselves. Mention of the Philistines does, however, appear in the writings of peoples who opposed them, like the Egyptians, the Assyrians, and the Hebrew Scriptures where they are mentioned often, from Genesis to Zephaniah.

Excavation of Philistine remains in a 10th or 9th Century B.C. cemetery at Tel Ashkelon. (Photo Courtesy: Tsafrir Abayov/Leon Levy Expedition)

There have been some archeological expeditions—one of them at Ashkelon—at what the researchers considered Philistine cemeteries. The Ashkelon dig found bodies interred in a similar manner to bodies around the Aegean Sea, leading to speculation that the Philistines may have indeed been related to the “Sea Peoples.” These findings have also been challenged.

So, while the translation of the Luwian hieroglyphs lends some credence to the Bible, with its description of “Sea Peoples” conquering the coastal regions of the Promised Land, there is still much work to do. Scholars will need to determine exactly who the Philistines were and whether or not this 3,200-year-old stone document is, in fact, genuine.

Are the Philistines a Problem for the Time-Shift Option?

If authenticated, the stone tablet sheds light on the issue of Philistines in Canaan, which in turn relates to one of the primary challenges brought against the ideas seen in the film: Patterns of Evidence: The Exodus.

The close association of the Sea Peoples with the Philistines in the standard view means that the Philistines first came into Canaan after 1200 BC. Therefore, the objection of the standard view is that if you shift the timeline of the ancient world by something like 2-300 years, then this would push the Sea Peoples and the Philistines past the time of Samuel, Saul and David who were mainly 11th century BC figures (remember, the Bible timeline is from a separate independent source from the timeline for the ancient world constructed by scholars – the debate is about how they relate to each other). In David Rohl’s construction, the Sea Peoples’ incursions would have happened after the reign of Solomon. Therefore, this objection concludes that the time-shift idea can’t work.

But in reality, the Philistines are mentioned in the Bible as being in Canaan at the time of Abraham and Isaac. Moses mentions them being in the land before the Conquest, and the early judges (after the Conquest) bump into them as well. So in the Bible’s view, the Philistines do not first come in at the time of the Sea Peoples; they had been there many centuries prior. The Sea Peoples may have brought in a second influx of Philistine-related people into the area, but they were not the first. Therefore, the “Philistine” objection against the time-shift proposal does not really hold water, and is itself contrary to what is reported in the Bible.

Extended “dark periods” existed in many areas around the eastern Mediterranean world after the end of the Bronze Age (the gaps in the gold bars and the the third dark zone of the Egyptian timeline on the bottom level of the wall). Reducing the length of these dark periods by pulling the timelines forward would link archaeology matching the Bible with the biblical dates. If the Philistines existed in Canaan back through the Middle Kingdom Period, they would not prove to be an obstacle to the idea of shifting Egypt’s timeline. (Copyright 2014 Patterns of Evidence)

It is also true that nearly all mainstream scholars doubt the Bible’s report of Solomon, because the evidence we see in Canaan at the expected time (Iron Age 900s BC) does not match the wealth, stability and international trade of the Solomon story as recorded in the Bible. However, the big picture of the archaeological evidence from 2-3 centuries earlier (in the Bronze Age) does fit Solomon’s glorious and cosmopolitan empire. This continuation of the pattern of evidence into the time of the kings of Israel is something we hope to investigate in future installments of Patterns of Evidence.

Interestingly, an article in Live Science explains how the inscription tells of a Trojan prince named Muksus who led the naval expedition that conquered Ashkelon. Back in 2007, Egyptologist David Rohl in his book Lords of Avaris proposed that the Sea Peoples were led by a Trojan hero named Muksus/Mopsus who eventually died at Ashkelon. Is this inscription confirmation of his proposal?

Keep Thinking!