The Wartburg Project

May 16th, 2018

44. How are the locations of biblical sites identified?

The footnotes of the EHV sometimes discuss the location of biblical places. How do geographers identify the locations of ancient cities so they can place them on a map?

There are about 475 places named in the Bible, and the locations of about 270 are well identified.

The simplest and surest identification is for those cities that have been continuously occupied since biblical times under the same name that they had in ancient times. This includes such major places as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Athens, Rome, etc.

When the ancient identification of a site has not been preserved until modern times, there are a number of methods that are used to rediscover the ancient locations by investigating the ancient ruins that remain visible in the land. This science or art is called toponomy (a fancy word that means place names). The general location of the place is generally clear from the biblical account. The identification can then be pinpointed by evidence discovery during a study of the ruins in that area.

In very rare cases, the name might be found on the site in inscriptions, letters, boundary stones, potters marks, or other written records. For example, jar handles inscribed with the name of the site Gibeon were found during the excavation of the site.  Boundary stones with the name of the site were found at Gezer.

There are written records of ancient travelogues and ancient itinerary lists from military campaigns, commercial journeys, and pilgrimages. If we do not know the location of place x, but an ancient itinerary lists places w x y and z as successive stops on a trip, and we know the locations of w y and z, we can look for the ruins of x between places w and y.

The most important method, however, is studying the Arabic place names attached to the ruins or to nearby geographic features. Extensive mapping of these place names was done by American and British explorers during the 19th century. Arabic and Hebrew are similar languages, and the Arabic names often preserve echoes of the ancient name of the place.  Examples of such echoes are Ain Shems—Beth Shemesh, Beit Lahm—Bethlehem, Taffuh—Tappuach, Wadi Yabis—Jabesh, El Gib—Gibeon,  El Kadi—Dan, [1] Seilun—Shiloh,  Beitin—Bethel. These transformations follow fairly predictable rules. These similarities are not fool-proof because sites may have moved.

In spite of this evidence, the locations of some important biblical places remain unknown or disputed. Among them are Gadara/Gerasa/Gergasa/Kersi, Emmaus, Cana, Dalmanutha, Bethsaida, and Bethel and Ai. We will discuss these debates at appropriate points of the study Bible.

Appendix: Meaning of Some Hebrew Place Names

Many Biblical place names have a meaning in Hebrew. In some cases, the meaning may provide a hint at the identification of a site, but for the most part they are too generic to be very useful. Sites are named after:


[1] Kadi means judge in Arabic, Dan means judge in Hebrew.