The Letter and the Scroll

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  • Format: Hardcover
  • Copyright: 2009-11-17
  • Publisher: National Geographic
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Meticulous, scholarly, yet always accessible, this work examines the discoveries and transformations that have effected biblical interpretations over the centuries and places them into their cultural timeline.

Author Biography

Stephen Hyslop is an author and editor who has written several books on American and world history including Eyewitness to the Civil War and National Geographic Almanac of World History.

Robin Currie has written for a wide range of publications and publishers, mostly on historical topics.



“The flood continued forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bore up the ark, and it rose high above the earth.” Genesis 7:18

As Sir Leonard Woolley and his team were excavating at Ur, they came upon a stratum very different from the rest–a uniform layer of clay that had clearly been deposited by water. This clay layer, wrote Woolley, “continued without challenge” through a depth of eight feet, when it ended as suddenly as it had appeared. The archaeologist could find only one possible explanation: It was, he concluded, unmistakable evidence of a great flood–and one “not less than 25 feet deep.” news of the discovery generated a buzz of excitement. Finally, it was claimed, here was evidence of the great Flood described in Genesis.

After continued excavations across Mesopotamia, other signs of greater and lesser flooding emerged. Soon it became clear that the ancient “land between the two rivers” was frequently submerged under the waters of the two rivers. The region was one that had repeatedly suffered mild to severe flooding. Literary evidence seems to point to one devastating deluge that may have taken place around 3000-2900 B.C.E., its impact so great that it was enshrined in a number of Mesopotamian myths and tales that have many similarities with the biblical account of the Flood. The most famous of these tales–the world’s first great work of literature–is the epic of Gilgamesh.

Our knowledge of the epic comes from inscribed clay tablets found in the library of Assyria’s king Ashurbanipal (ruled 669-627 B.C.E.) at Nineveh and at various other sites in Mesopotamia. Some 3,500 lines long, it recounts the adventures of Gilgamesh, the mighty warrior-king of Uruk. The epic also recalls an original state of innocence for humankind, a temptation, and a fall. And it tells how at one point, because humans made so much noise, the sleep-deprived gods determined to wipe them out in a great deluge that would cover the earth. However, the god Ea instructs a good man named Utnapishtim to save himself and his family by building a great ark. In language similar to God’s instructions to Noah in Genesis, chapter 6, Ea tells Utnapishtim: “Let her beam equal her length, let her deck be roofed like the vault that covers the abyss; then take up in the boat the seed of all living creatures.” Utnapishtim obeys. As the floodwaters begin to subside, he releases a dove, a swallow, and then a raven to test whether the earth had become habitable.


“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.” Luke 2:1-3

In hisAntiquities of the Jews,Flavius Josephus recounts how, after the dismissal of Herod Archelaus, Emperor Augustus appointed new officials to carry out a census of Syria and Judea:

Now Cyrenius, a Roman senator . . . came at this time into Syria, with a few others, being sent by Caesar to be a judge of that nation, and to take an account of their substance. Coponius also, a man of the equestrian order, was sent together with him, to have the supreme power over the Jews. Moreover, Cyrenius came himself into Judea, which was now added to the province of Syria, to take an account of their substance, and to dispose of Archelaus’s money.

Coponius was the first prefect of Judea, who served under the authority of Cyrenius, Roman governor of Syria. The purpose of their census was taxation. The Jews resented the imposition of Roman taxes. And according to Josephus, “they took the report of a taxation heinously.” Indeed, one of their number, a certain Judas of Galilee, “became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert t

Excerpted from The Letter and the Scroll: What Archaeology Tells Us about the Bible by Robin Currie, Stephen Hyslop
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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