Inside the British Museum

This treasure of archaeological finds proves the biblical record.
Taylor Prism

Last year, I took a trip to visit the British Museum in London, England. As I walked the beautiful galleries of Britain’s most popular tourist attraction, I discovered a rich supply of material that illuminated the Holy Bible. The British Museum houses a vast collection of ancient artifacts that confirm the biblical record many times over.

I want to tell you about a few of the most significant artifacts on display. Then we’ll examine a message carved on one of those monuments and see how it perfectly complements what is in your Bible.

The British Museum first opened its doors to the public in 1759. The timing for the grand opening is interesting when you consider what was happening in the world at that time. In the 1700s, Britain was undergoing a tremendous transformation. It massively expanded into North America, even though it lost the 13 colonies. In the 1800s, Britain defeated Napoleon and began to expand its colonial presence around the world. All of this coincided with the establishment of that great British Museum.

The expanding power and reach of the British Empire helped it acquire many of the artifacts that now rest in the British Museum. If it hadn’t expanded when it did, a lot of the artifacts would probably still be in the ground. In Empires of Imagination, Holger Hoock wrote, “[T]he acquisition of the British Museum’s main collections of antiquities, their quality, and their sheer scale can only be explained with reference to the power and reach of the British military and imperial state and its considerable investment of material and human resources in archaeological enterprise.”

Archaeology was, and still is, a relatively new development. Lesson 15 of the Herbert W. Armstrong College Bible Correspondence Course says: “The relatively new science of archaeology—the digging up and study of the material remains of man’s past—has confirmed without question the historical accuracy of the Bible. Solid, documented evidence apart from the Bible confirms events and persons that at one time were known to us only from Scripture.”

So we have the emergence of the British Empire, the establishment of the British Museum, and this new science: archaeology. Before this time, the archaeologists—if you want to call them that—were really just grave robbers who would go in and plunder these ancient sites. But that started to change in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, when archaeologists finally went around the world with the intent of preserving these ruins. In the case of the British, many of these finds were brought back to London and given a permanent dwelling place right there in the British Museum. Here we examine a few of them.

The Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III

This is one of the more impressive artifacts in the British Museum today. It was discovered in 1846, in what is today modern Iraq. It is made of black limestone and stands about 2 meters (6 ½ feet) tall. The obelisk has four sides, and each side has five panels. Each panel shows a scene, and each scene has to do with King Shalmaneser of Assyria’s great military victories.

One scene in particular ties in with Old Testament history. This inscription says, “I receive tribute from Jahu, son of Omri: silver, gold, a golden bowl ….” An image of Jehu kneeling and paying tribute before Shalmaneser is etched into the obelisk along with this inscription. Jehu, ancient king of God’s chosen nation Israel, is mentioned in 2 Kings 9-10. This is an example of a secular and historical source confirming that a king mentioned in the Bible existed. What a confirmation of the biblical record!

The Lachish Reliefs

One of the more impressive galleries in the British Museum is the rooms where the reliefs of Lachish are located. These massive stone walls, recovered from Nineveh and brought back to London, stretch on for two or three rooms.

The reliefs depict the scene described in 2 Chronicles 32:9, where King Sennacherib of Assyria attacked the town of Lachish in Judah for its failure to pay tribute. Sennacherib had his victory carved into these massive stone walls and placed them in his palace in Nineveh. They filled a room in his palace after his conquest of many of those cities in Judah.

As you walk through this gallery—what a magnificent gallery it is—you see so much detail in all of these inscriptions, including the Assyrians engaging in battle and the Jews paying tribute. One inscription in particular says: “Sennacherib, king of the world, king of Assyria, on a seat he sat and the booty of Lachish before him it passed.” Here again, we see proof of Judah paying tribute to this great Assyrian king.

The Babylonian Chronicle

This is a little artifact, but there is writing on it that talks about Nebuchadnezzar’s second siege of Jerusalem in 597 b.c.e. That was when Nebuchadnezzar took Jehoiachin prisoner and installed Zedekiah as king in his place. All of that is discussed in 2 Kings 24.

This artifact, along with others found in the halls of the British Museum, serves to illuminate the truth of the Bible.

The Cylinder of Nabonidus

This cylinder talks about how Nabonidus, king of the Babylonian Empire, spent several of the years of his reign in northwest Arabia, leaving his son, Belshazzar, to rule in his place. Belshazzar is discussed in Daniel 5.

For many years leading up to the discovery of this cylinder, a lot of scholars didn’t believe that Belshazzar existed. He wasn’t listed in any of the annals of Assyrian kings, so scholars believed that Daniel made him up.

Then came this cylinder, which mentions Belshazzar as being the son of this great king Nabonidus, whom the scholars did know a lot about. The cylinder explains that while Nabonidus was off on his expeditions, his son was back home in Babylon, ruling in his stead.

That is why Daniel 5:29 says that Daniel was made the third ruler in the kingdom of Babylon. If Nabonidus had been the only ruler, Daniel would have been made the second ruler. Since he was made the third ruler, it proves that the biblical account of Belshazzar ruling in Nabonidus’s stead is true history!

The Cyrus Cylinder

One of the most impressive displays in the British Museum has to be the Cyrus Cylinder. It’s lit up beautifully right in the middle of a gallery. This cylinder discusses King Cyrus of Persia’s conquest of Babylon in 539 b.c.e. It explains how Cyrus allowed and organized for the captive peoples from Babylon to return to their homelands and restore their own religious practices. Ezra 1-6 and 2 Chronicles 36:22-23 talk about the decree that Cyrus made for the Jews. He commanded that the temple of God be rebuilt, and he allowed the Jews that had previously been captives to go back to Jerusalem to rebuild it.

Before this cylinder was discovered, scholars thought that the history recorded in Ezra and 2 Chronicles was far-fetched. They thought this history was made up—just like they believed Belshazzar to be a character created by Daniel. The discovery of the Cyrus Cylinder proved that the biblical record of Cyrus’s decree is accurate—just as the Cylinder of Nabonidus proved that Belshazzar really was a ruler.

Sennacherib’s Prism

The artifact from the British Museum that I will spend the most time on is Sennacherib’s Prism. This prism has so much on it about the Assyrian conquest of Judah during the days of King Hezekiah, and all of this information aligns perfectly with what is recorded in the Bible. It’s not very tall—just 38 centimeters (15 inches) or so—but it has six sides, and there are about 500 lines of writing on each side. The most important parts of the prism are about Sennacherib’s history with Hezekiah. Let’s go through that history, comparing the secular record from Sennacherib’s Prism with the biblical record.

Sennacherib came on the scene when Assyria was at the peak of its power. He inherited the might of Shalmaneser, who had already taken the northern 10 tribes into captivity (2 Kings 18:9-10). The only kingdom Sennacherib had left to conquer in that region was King Hezekiah’s Judah.

In verse 5, it says that “[Hezekiah] trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel; so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor among them that were before him.” Hezekiah was a righteous ruler. Verse 7 says, “And the Lord was with him: whithersoever he went forth he prospered; and he rebelled against the king of Assyria, and served him not.” Hezekiah trusted in God, and he did not submit to Sennacherib. This made the powerful king of Assyria angry, and he decided to do something about it.

“Now in the fourteenth year of king Hezekiah did Sennacherib king of Assyria come up against all the fortified cities of Judah, and took them” (verse 13). Sennacherib attacked many of the cities in Judah, and he was successful in taking many of them. Yet, the kingdom of Judah didn’t fall; the Jews didn’t go into captivity then.

The amazing thing is that Sennacherib’s Prism records many of the details that perfectly complement the biblical record: “As for Hezekiah, the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke, 46 of his strong, walled cities, as well as the small towns in their area, which were without number, by leveling with battering rams and by bringing up siege-engines, and by attacking and storming on foot, by mines, tunnels and breaches, I besieged and took them … [Hezekiah] himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city.”

Sennacherib makes himself sound quite successful in his conquests of Judah, but the important point to recognize is that he could not conquer Jerusalem. We’ve already discussed Sennacherib’s successful conquest of Lachish, and there are huge reliefs in the halls of the British Museum that prove that beyond a doubt. But there are no reliefs of Sennacherib conquering Jerusalem. Why? Because he couldn’t! The best he could do was to shut Hezekiah up inside that city “like a caged bird.” Sennacherib may have conquered 46 other cities in Judah, but God wouldn’t let him conquer Jerusalem!

Sennacherib wasn’t about to leave, however. His goal was still to conquer all of Judah, and he intended to stay until he did so. In verse 29, it says, “Let not Hezekiah deceive you: for he shall not be able to deliver you out of his hand.” Here, the Assyrian general Rabshakeh is taunting the people inside Jerusalem—telling them that Hezekiah would be useless to protect them against the might of Sennacherib. Sennacherib was trying to instill fear in the hearts of the Jews—fear of this incredible Assyrian war machine.

But God simply wouldn’t allow Sennacherib to take Jerusalem. “And Isaiah said unto them, Thus shall ye say to your master, Thus saith the Lord, Be not afraid of the words which thou hast heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Behold, I will send a blast upon him, and he shall hear a rumour, and shall return to his own land; and I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (2 Kings 19:6-7).

Hezekiah had sought counsel from God and God’s prophet Isaiah. Hezekiah had taken the entire problem before God, and God was telling him that He would protect Jerusalem. Still, Hezekiah didn’t leave it all up to God—he had his men dig a 530-meter tunnel through solid bedrock to allow for water to flow underground into Jerusalem in the case of a siege. He did everything in his power to prepare to stand up to the Assyrians, but ultimately, he put his trust in God.

And what happened? Verse 35: “And it came to pass that night, that the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred fourscore and five thousand; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.” That night, God smote the Assyrian army—185,000 soldiers. This is why there is no room in the British Museum called “The Jerusalem Room.” There’s “The Lachish Room,” and Sennacherib was proud of that conquest. But there was no room in his palace that showed all of these Jews from Jerusalem paying homage to him and kneeling before him—and this is why. His massive, powerful army had been defeated before it could even attack.

“So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed, and went and returned, and dwelt in Nineveh. And it came to pass, as he was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sharezer his sons smote him with the sword …” (verses 36-37). Isaiah’s prophecy from verse 7 was fulfilled: Sennacherib was killed by the sword in his own land—but not before he recorded the events of his conquest of Judah on that prism!

Now, of course, there are some details left off of that prism. For instance, Sennacherib didn’t say one thing about his army being smitten by God. That’s where the Bible gives us the rest of the details. What a tie-in to history the Bible provides us with. The Bible and the prism give us different details, but those details fit together perfectly. Sennacherib’s Prism helps us prove the veracity of the Bible.

The Bible lives. The Bible is God’s inspired Word. The artifacts that rest in the British Museum prove it. Sennacherib’s Prism proves it! Look into these artifacts for yourself, and study the biblical accounts they tie in with. It will help you prove the accuracy of the Bible!