The Bible, The British Museum And British Library


One of the highlights, when I studied at the British Bible School, was when our director of studies, Patrick Boyns took us on an annual visit to the British Museum and the British Library in London. I had never been there before and as you can imagine it was exciting, especially when he gave us a guided tour and described exactly what it was, we were looking at, whether it be old manuscripts or ancient objects.

I must admit when we had finished, my faith in the Scriptures as being God’s inspired Word was really encouraged, as I saw with my own eyes, objects and letters which reinforced that the Bible is accurate and the people we read about within it were real people. It’s not that I didn’t believe they were real in the first place, but the characters we read about really came to life.

This isn’t a Bible study as such, but it’s written as an encouragement, written to help us all have faith in the accuracy of the Scriptures, its history and ultimately our God. If you’ve never visited the British Library or the British Museum, then please know, that it’s certainly worth a day out.

To go on a virtual tour of the British Museum with Patrick Boyns, click here

The British Museum

During the eighteenth century, knowledge of the world of the Bible depended entirely on the Bible itself and other written sources, such as the Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus. When students of the Bible read the description in Jeremiah 18:1-12 of the potter at work, they had no idea what the pot would have looked like.

The Biblical subjects so frequently undertaken by painters depicted men and women in clothing and with buildings and objects of everyday life which were those known to the artist in his time. This explains why such famous paintings as The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci show Christ and His disciples at a table that would have been entirely unknown in the New Testament age.

This was the state of knowledge when the British Museum in London, England was first opened to the public in 1759. The British Museum was established in 1753 to take charge of the library and collections of Sir Hans Sloane 1660-1753.

There was a veritable revolution in knowledge of the Biblical World during the nineteenth century. The period between the two World Wars saw a healthy increase in the number of excavations in Palestine, and this trend has been greatly expanded over the past forty years. There is now a wealth of material for the reconstruction of the culture of ancient Palestine and the surrounding area.

The Bible, from Genesis 11 onward, contains a history of the Hebrew people from about 2000 B.C. to the first century A.D. The Bible begins with a brief glimpse of the preceding history of mankind, notably the Creation, the Flood, and the Tower of Babel. With Genesis 11:27-28 we enter the world of the Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph.

Abraham sets out from Ur in Babylonia and travels to Syria-Palestine. There his successors and the tribe founded by him remain until Isaac’s old age when, following Joseph, 75 people travel to Egypt, Acts 7:14. In the process of time, over two million of the descendants of Abraham leave Egypt and travelled to the promised land. Israelite history thereafter largely was confined to Palestine. In spite of Divine warnings, the Jews picked up many of the elements of local culture and religion that were already established in the area.

The period of the Divided Kingdom is richly illuminated by many inscriptions, and other antiquities from Assyria, Babylonia, and other areas outside Israel and Judah, as well as from Palestine itself.

The inter-Testamental Period falls within the Hellenistic period, a time when Seleucid and Ptolemaic rulers were rivals in the area, and which saw the beginnings of Roman control. The events of the New Testament took place against a background of Roman rule, and the spread of Christianity by men such as Paul in Asia Minor, Greece and Rome all took place within the Roman Empire. Greek was used throughout the eastern areas of the Empire and continued as the official language of the Byzantine Empire, so it is not surprising that the New Testament documents have been handed down to us in Creek.

In this study, we want to examine some of the artefacts from the British Museum and see how they relate to our understanding of the Bible. There are six and a half million objects in the museum’s collection. Even if you just confined yourself to those objects dealing with the lands of the Bible you could easily spend days there and not see everything.

‘Royal Cemetery’ at Ur

The city of Abraham, from which many exhibits have been preserved. See the ‘ram in a thicket,’ the ‘Standard of Ur,’ the Royal Game, jewellery and other items dating from 2500 B.C., before the time of Abraham.

Creation Epic

Copied in the 7th century B.C. on seven clay tablets in Mesopotamia, they present many similarities with the Genesis account.

Gilgamesh Epic

Or ‘Flood Tablet’ from the 7th century B.C. in the cuneiform script for Ashurbanipal of Assyria. There are striking resemblances to details of the Biblical account. From the library at Nineveh.

Hittite Relief of Teshub

Known in Canaan as ‘Baal’, this god is mentioned often in Old Testament.

The Land Of Egypt

Mud brick with chopped straw. Mud bricks were used for the walls and storerooms surrounding Egyptian temples, some bricks were stamped with the name of the king responsible for the construction. This brick is stamped with the name of Ramesses II, 1279-1213 B.C., and was taken from a building in Thebes, near the valley of the Kings.

The Egyptian god Horus has ivory eyes. Horus was the falcon god ‘lord of the sky’ and the symbol of divine kingship, he appears in hieroglyphics as early as 3000 B.C. In Egyptian mythology, Horus was the god of light who personified the life-giving power of the Sun. He was usually represented as a falcon-headed man wearing a sun disk as a crown. Reigning kings in Egypt were believed to be incarnations of Horus.

The Rosetta Stone

This inscribed stone was taken from Rosetta, Egypt in 1799 by an officer in the French army, and it came to the British Museum in 1802. The stone contains a decree which was written in 196 B.C. The stone was a major key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The stela is inscribed in three scripts:
1. Koine Greek was the language of government.
2. Demotic Egyptian was the everyday script of literate Egyptians.
3. Hieroglyphics was the 3000-year-old traditional script of Egyptian monuments.

The hieroglyphic script would have been familiar to Hebrews in Egypt.

Did Moses, ‘instructed in all the wisdom of the Egyptians’, Acts 7:22 learn to read and write it?

Israel And Her Neighbours
The Jericho Tomb

Between 1952-1958 Kathleen Kenyon excavated Jericho on behalf of the British School of Archaeology. She uncovered many ancient tombs. Due to environmental conditions, the organic material was well-preserved, inducing leather, wood, basketworks, and skin.

Ancient Lamps

The first terracotta lamp pictured was made around 450-600 A.D. Next is a wheel-made terracotta lamp made in Jerusalem, 50-100 A.D. The third lamp was taken from Jerusalem, 25 B.C.-50 A.D.

Assyrian Slingers

Next to archers, slingers were the most effective long-range warriors of the ancient world. The sling and stone are often mentioned in the Bible. Judges 20:15-16. The account of David and Goliath. 1 Samuel 17:32-40 / 1 Samuel 17:48-49.

Clay Model of Sheep’s Liver

Possibly used to train in the art of divination. Ezekiel 21:21.

Babylonian Chronicle

Part of a series of tablets summarising the main events of each year. This tablet covers 605 to 595 B.C., from the battle of Carchemish to the capture of Jerusalem. 7th year, 598-597 B.C.

‘In the 7th year, the month of Kislimu (Nov/Dec), the king of Akkad (Nebuchadnezzar) mastered his troops, marched to the Hatti-land (Syria/Palestine) and encamped against the city of Judah and on the second day of the month of Addaru, he seized the city and captured the king (Jehoiachin). He appointed there a king (Zedekiah) of his heart, received its heavy tribute and sent it to Babylon.” (Fall = 16th March 597 BC).

Darius Seal

Of Darius I in Persian, Elamite and Babylonian cuneiform, ‘The Great King.’ Under his rule, Cyrus’ policies were executed.

Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

First Assyrian king to come in direct contact with Israel, 858-824 B.C. This obelisk was erected in the centre of Nimrud shortly before Shalmaneser’s death. It records his military campaigns, showing the tribute he received from all directions. The obelisk shows Jehu, king of Israel, paying tribute, and his servants presenting bars of precious metals, an event not mentioned in the Bible. This makes Jehu the only Israelite king whose ‘picture’ is available.

The text reads, Jehu, son of Omri … silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden vase, golden tumblers, golden buckets, tin, a staff for the hand of a king and hunting spears I received.’

Shalmaneser is pictured beneath the winged symbol of Assyrianthe god Assur, supported by two retainers.

Stela of Shalmaneser III

This round-topped stela was found at Kurth on the Tigris River in south-eastern Turkey in 1861. It bears a relief carving of Shalmaneser III, 859-824 B.C., king of Assyria, facing the symbols of four gods, Assur, Ishtar, Anu, and Sin. Across the front and back of the stela are inscribed 102 lines of cuneiform recording, the events of his first six military campaigns up to 853 B.C. In his sixth year, he describes his campaign to the west where he encountered a coalition of states, including Israel.

Balawat Gates of Shalmaneser III

Not far from Nimrud, the site of Balawat was excavated in 1878. Three sets of gates were discovered, two of which are now in the museum. The gates were decorated with bands of embossed bronze dating from the reigns of Ashurnasirpal II and his son, Shalmaneser III. The illustrations are similar to the wall panels.

Relief or Tiglath-Pileser III

This is a carved relief showing Tiglath-Pileser III, king of Assyria, 744-727 B.C., in his chariot before the fortified city of Astartu, in modern Jordan, with Assyrian soldiers driving out prisoners and herds. The Bible mentions Tiglath-Pileser III several times. 1 Chronicles 5:4-6 / 1 Chronicles 5:26. Ahaz, king of Judah, appealed to him for help. 2 Chronicles 28:20-21.

There is a relief from a wall in the Central Palace at Nimrud which shows Tiglath-Pileser III standing over an enemy, making his enemy his footstool, Acts 2:34-35 / Hebrews 10:12-13.

Annals of Sennacherib (the Taylor Prism)

Sennacherib, 705-681 B.C., was an Assyrian king noted for his campaigns against Judah. The prism was found at Nineveh in 1830. The best-known passage on this prism describes that because Hezekiah had not submitted to the Assyrian ‘yoke,’ Sennacherib laid siege to forty-six fortified Judean cities, deported 200,150 people, and shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem ‘like a caged bird.’

It reads, ‘As to Hezekiah, the Jew, he did not submit to my yoke, I lay siege to 46 of his strong cities, walled forts and the countless small villages in their vicinity, and conquered them by means of well-stamped earth-ramps, and battering rams brought thus near to the walls combined with the attack by foot soldiers, using mines, breeches as well as sapper work. I drove out of them 200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them booty. Himself I made a prisoner in Jerusalem, his royal residence, like a bird in a cage.’

The prism tacitly agrees with the Biblical version by making no claim that Jerusalem was taken, Isaiah 36-37 / 2 Kings 18-19 / 2 King 19:35-36.

The Greek historian Herodotus tells of ‘field mice’ eating ‘leather handles, quivers and bowstrings of the Assyrian army.

Ashurbanipal’s Royal Lion Hunt

The palace of Ashurbanipal, Sennacherib’s grandson, 668-627 B.C., was discovered in 1853. Built in c645 B.C., it contained some of the finest sculptured panels found, including the Royal Lion Hunt. Note the suffering of lions, the heroism of Ashurbanipal, etc.

Objects from Lachish

Note the iron arrowheads and sling stones from Lachish from the time of the siege. Compare these with the wall panels.

The Capture of Lachish

Series of panels from Sennacherib’s palace showing the fall of the city. Some 20 years following the fall of Israel, 722 B.C. Sennacherib invaded Judah. The death of Sargon II had prompted Judah to rebel and seek an alliance with Egypt. Sennacherib destroyed many of Judah’s fortified cities including Lachish. At the conclusion of this campaign 185,000 died outside Jerusalem.

The Panels

Panels 5-6, beginning of attack, note defending Jews and water pourers.
Panel 7, assault on Lachish, note Jews ready for exile, baby carried and Jews on spikes.
Panels 8-9, plunder from Lachish, note Jews into exile.
Panels 9-10, prisoners, note 2 officials being flayed alive.
Panels 11 and 13, Sennacherib watches the capture. Line 1 reads, ‘Sennacherib, king of the world, king of the land of
Assyria.’ The end of line 3 reads, ‘Lachish.’
Panels 14 and 16, the Assyrian camp.

‘Later, when Sennacherib king of Assyria and all his forces were laying siege to Lachish, he sent his officers to Jerusalem with this message for Hezekiah king of Judah and for all the people of Judah who were there.’ 2 Chronicles 32:9

Winged Bulls of Sargon II

There are many sculptures from the city and palace of the Assyrian king Sargon II at Khorsabad, 721-705 B.C. These human-headed winged bulls stood at the gates of the citadel, as magic guardians against misfortune. Sargon is only mentioned once in the Bible. Isaiah 20:1.

From Ashurnasirpal II’s throne room. Nimrud was Assyria’s capital for some 150 years. Ashurnasirpal II, 883-859 B.C. was the founder of the empire proper and had a palace in Nimrud. The palace of Sargon II, built c710 B.C., was discovered in 1842 after advice from a passing farmer. Sargon was the only king to have a palace at Khorsabad. These bulls each weigh c16 tons.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Bricks

Commemorating the rebuilding of two temples in Babylon.

Glazed Brick Panel

A beautiful panel from the palace at Susa of Darius I, father of Xerxes, Ahasuerus.

‘When Esther was taken to King Ahasuerus in his royal palace’ might she have seen this guard on duty? Esther 2:16-23 / Nehemiah 1:1.

Samaria Ivories

Carved in the Phoenician style, and found in the royal palace at Samaria, these ivories seem mostly to have been used in furniture. Though probably dating from the 8th century B.C. they well illustrate Ahab’s ‘ivory house.’ 1 Kings 22:39 / Amos 3:15 / Amos 6:4.

Royal Steward Inscription

Dates from the 7th century B.C. Written in standard Hebrew, it was located as the lintel to a rock-cut tomb and refers to the burial. Discovered in 1870 near Jerusalem, it is very likely that of Shebna, the Royal Steward of Hezekiah, accused of ‘carving a habitation for yourself in the rock’, Isaiah 22:15ff / 2 Kings 18:18.

The Cyrus Cylinder

This day cylinder is inscribed in Babylonian cuneiform with an account by Cyrus, king of Persia, 549-530 B.C., of his conquest of Babylon in 539. He describes the measures of relief he brought to the city and tells how he restored several god-images to their proper temples throughout Babylonia, Assyria and western Iran. He also arranged for the restoration of numerous temples and allowed captives to return to their homelands. This is consistent with what
we read in Ezra 6:3-5, where Cyrus authorised the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem, and the return of the Jews to Palestine, Ezra 2 / Ezra 6:3-5.

Phoenician Warship Relief

From the late 7th century B.C. depicts a ship built for Sennacherib. These reliefs are all from the palace at Nineveh.

Phoenician Ivories

Found in Sargon’s palace in Nimrud, to which they had been taken as booty from the west.

Lachish Letters

Written on potsherds and in black ink, these were sent from outposts of Lachish to the city commander leading up to the city’s destruction in 586 B.C.

Figurines from Lachish

Often of Astarte, these items illustrate how many Judeans continued to honour Canaanite gods after they inhabited the land.

Bethlehem Tomb Artefacts

These vessels were discovered in 1865 ‘on the way to Bethlehem’ and date from the 7th century B.C.

The Roman Empire

Augustus Caesar ruled from 29 B.C.-14 A.D. He was the first Roman Emperor and the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. His birth name was Gaius Octavius, he died at the age of 76 in A.D. 14. He became supreme ruler in 29 B.C. and received the name Augustus from the Roman Senate in 27 B.C. The word Augustus is a title meaning ‘worthy of honour’ or ‘consecrated.’ He is mentioned in Luke 2:1 as being the Emperor during the time of the birth of Christ. Luke 2:1.

The name Augustus was later taken by most of the following Emperors.

Tiberius Claudius Caesar

Generally known as Claudius. He was the Emperor when the early church was growing and is mentioned in the book of Acts as the ruler in whose time a famine took place. Acts 11:28.

When the Jews at Thessalonica accused Paul and Silas of violating Caesar’s decrees by proclaiming that Jesus is the king, he was the Emperor in question. Acts 17:7.

He is mentioned by name as having expelled the Jews from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla being among them. Acts 18:1-2.

Politarch Inscription

This is a Greek inscription from a Roman gateway in Thessalonica. It lists officials of the town in 2nd century A.D. beginning with six Politarchs. Acts record Paul and Silas in Thessalonica being brought before the politarchs, ‘rulers of the city’ accused of being troublemakers. Acts 17:6-8.

The Emperor Vespasian

This head is from an over-life-size statue of the Vespasian, A.D. 69-79. The head is from Carthage, in North Africa. Emperor Titus ruled A.D. 79-81. The Roman General in charge when Jerusalem was destroyed, 70 A.D. This statue is from Utica, near Carthage in North Africa. His conquest of Jerusalem made it possible to build the Coliseum in Rome, Nero didn’t kill Christians there.

Column-drum from Ephesus

From the temple of Artemis, Diana, this sculptured drum formed the base of one of 127 columns of this wonder of the world. Dating from 340 B.C., it stood until destroyed in A.D. 262.

The British Library

The items of most interest to us will be found in the John Ritblat Gallery, past the Bookshop to the left of the Main Entrance and up the stairs by the lift.

Hebrew Bible
British Museum Codex (Oriental Hebrew Bible)

This contains most of the Pentateuch in Hebrew and dates from about A.D. 950. Note the greater and lesser Masorah. It’s a most valuable witness to the Masoretic Text.

Greek Bibles
Codex Sinaiticus א

This was discovered in 1859 by Dr Constantine von Tischendorf at St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai, it contains most of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament in Greek, the only uncial manuscript known to do so, plus the Letter of Barnabas and most of Hermas. It dates from cA.D. 340 and bears a mostly Alexandrian text. It’s a most important witness to the text of the New Testament.

Codex Alexandrinus (A)

Presented to Charles I in 1627 by Cyril Lucar, Patriarch of Constantinople, this handsome codex dates from the mid 5th century and once contained the entire Old and New Testaments. Much of Matthew and 2 Corinthians are missing, along with part of John.

Papyrus Fragment of John (p5)

Written in the 3rd century and discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, this papyrus fragment is one of the oldest known witnesses to John’s Gospel. The text displayed is from John 1:33-40 / John 20:11-17 / John 16:11-17.

Papyrus Fragment of Revelation (p18)

Written in the 3rd /4th century and discovered in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, this fragment is from one of only four New Testament Greek papyri to have been written on a scroll, the reverse of one containing the Greek text of Exodus. The fragment contains the text of 1:4-7 and along with a and A preserves the reading ‘freed’ in verse 5.

Latin Bibles
Old Latin Genesis

Papyrus fragment containing Genesis 5:29-6:2 from Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, dating from 5th century A.D.

Moutier Grandval Bible

Containing the revised Vulgate text according to Alcuin of York produced between cA.D. 834-843. Note the detailed illustration of creation and the fall.

Ceolfrid’s Bible

Similar to Codex Amiatinus with which it was copied in cA.D. 700 at Jarrow or Wearmouth. It exhibits an excellent Vulgate text.

Lindisfarne Gospels

One of the best examples of Old English illumination in existence. This is a Latin copy of the Gospels made around 700 by Bishop Eadfrith at Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England. In the middle of the 10th century a priest, Aldred wrote a literal English rendering between the lines. Be sure to see the Turning the Pages™ exhibition.

Gutenberg’s Bible

The Bible was the first large scale printed book produced on Johannes Gutenberg’s movable type press. The British Library has two copies printed between 1454-1455, one on paper, the other on vellum. The illumination is by hand.

Syriac Bibles
Curetonian Syriac (Syrc)

From a parchment codex procured by the British Museum in 1842 from a monastery in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt, William Cureton discovered more than eighty leaves to contain a 5th-century copy of the four gospels in the Old Syriac text. It is fragmentary and contains the books in the order: Matthew, Mark, John and Luke.

Syro Hexaplar Exodus

Written in Syriac by a scribe called Lazarus in A.D. 697, it preserves Origen’s ‘fifth column’ with variant readings of Aquila, Theodotian and Symmachus.

English Bible
1526 Worms New Testament

After fleeing from Cologne, William Tyndale continued his work in Worms. The first printed New Testament in English appeared in February 1526, arriving in England about one month later. He had based his translation on the 3rd edition of Erasmus’ Greek text, with reference to the Vulgate and to Luther. This is one of only two copies of the first edition printed in Worms known to exist.


We’ve barely scratched the surface of the British Museum and the British Library, the museum once housed the oldest complete manuscript of the New Testament, Codex Sinaiticus, but all of the old Bibles and manuscripts have been moved to the British Library.

Let me encourage you to go and visit these places, and seek out all those things I’ve highlighted in this encouragement kind of study, they will certainly enrich your faith in God and His Word.