Beth Shean in the Bible and Archaeology

The story of the death of King Saul as told by archaeology and the Bible


The imposing tell of Beth Shean. In the Bible, the city plays an important role following the death of King Saul and as a major Israelite administrative center. Excavations over the past century have revealed what archaeology (and the Bible) can—and can’t—tell us about the site’s history. Photo: Gaby Laron, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The most famous episode featuring Beth Shean in the Bible follows the death of King Saul on Mt. Gilboa:

The Philistines came to strip the slain, and they found Saul and his three sons lying on Mt. Gilboa. They cut off his head and stripped him of his armor … They placed his armor in the temple of Ashtaroth, and they impaled his body on the wall of Beth Shean. When the men of Jabesh-Gilead heard about it—what the Philistines had done to Saul—all their stalwart men set out and marched all night. They removed the bodies of Saul and his sons from the wall of Beth Shean and came to Jabesh and burned them there. Then they took the bones and buried them under the tamarisk tree in Jabesh, and they fasted for seven days (1 Samuel 31:8–13; cf. 1 Chronicles 10:8–12).

Archaeology seeks to uncover an even broader picture of a site’s past. In the Bible, Beth Shean is a major administrative center in Solomon’s kingdom, but excavations show that the site was an important one long before (and after) the kings of Israel reigned over it. Even so, can archaeology and the Bible corroborate the same historical event?

Herod’s desert fortress on the mountaintop of Masada was made famous as the site of the last stand between the besieged Jewish rebels and the relentlessly advancing Romans at the conclusion of the First Jewish Revolt. In the free ebook Masada: The Dead Sea’s Desert Fortress, discover what archaeology reveals about the Jewish defenders’ identity, fortifications and arms before their ultimate sacrifice.

beth-shean-mapMultiple excavations at Beth Shean in the past century have revealed a 6,000-year history of settlement at the site. Located near the intersection of two well-traveled ancient routes, Beth Shean proved to have important strategic value as early as the fifth millennium B.C.E., when it was first settled. Civilizations rose and fell at the site throughout the Chalcolithic period and Bronze Age. Some of the most impressive finds at Beth Shean came from the Late Bronze Age, when Egyptian pharaohs ruled over much of Canaan and used Beth Shean as a crucial administrative center to rule over its vassal kingdoms.

Unfortunately, due in part to later Roman and Byzantine construction at the base of the mound, excavators have not yet revealed any portion of the Beth Shean city wall from the 11th century B.C.E., when the Biblical story about King Saul’s death most likely occurred. And although the city was certainly occupied at this time, there is no evidence of a Philistine presence at the site then. So archaeology has not confirmed the Bible’s stories, but it has shed light on an even richer past at Beth Shean.

For more about the death of King Saul and the aftermath at Beth Shean in the Bible, as well as the extent to which archaeology and the Bible agree about Beth Shean’s past, read “Was King Saul Impaled on the Wall of Beth Shean?” by Amihai Mazar in Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2012.

BAS Library Members: Read “Was King Saul Impaled on the Wall of Beth Shean?” by Amihai Mazar as it appeared in the March/April 2012 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on February 23, 2012.


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  • Robert says

    No contest, it is so that the city area was inhabited going back many millennium BCE, yet it had it’s walls built and strengthened around the Egyptian outpost and trade center under Thutmose III. The narrative of Saul is true as we do see that the pharaohs of his time did indeed hang enemies on the outside walls of cities to deter those that thought of rebellion or other ideas against the Egypt and its outposts. The archaeological evidence can not be found as the record shows the body was not buried at the wall of the city. So what evidence are you looking for? the records of the time do correspond to the Bible narrative, even though the record we have was written many hundreds of years later in the form we have it from the original records of the time. To bad that Alexander Polyhistor’s books are no around today to help explain that the Jews had kept records for many centuries from the time they stepped foot back into Canaan after the Exodus. Good thing there has always been historians around.

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