In the past I've read about skeptics thinking that certain figures that the Bible lists as having historically existed didn't actually exist, but then later archaeology confirmed that they did. Does anyone know some good examples of these?
Bible critics questioned the existence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who handed Jesus over to be impaled. (Matthew 27:1-26) Evidence that Pilate was once ruler of Judea is etched on a stone discovered at the Mediterranean seaport city of Caesarea in 1961.
Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea, has dedicated to the people of Caesarea a temple in honor of Tiberius.”
Not a person, but an entire people: Critics believed for a long time that the Hittites, spoken of in the Old Testament, never actually existed, due to a complete lack of evidence of a civilization that the OT hints was a great power for its day.
All that changed in the 19th century when a series of archaeological investigations began uncovering ruins of the Hittite civilization, who they eventually found had been a major regional power, comparable even to Egypt.
A very striking example is Belshazzar, the king spoken of in the book of Daniel. It was he who commanded that the gold and silver vessels which had been taken back to Babylon from the Temple in Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar be removed from storage so that he, "his princes, his wives, and his concubines" could drink from them. So
they drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of bronze, of iron, of wood, and of stone. In that same hour came forth the fingers of a man's hand, and wrote opposite the lamp stand upon the plaster of the wall of the king's palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. Then the king's countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his hips were loosed, and his knees knocked against each other.
On the wall was written "MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN". Belshazzar offered the third highest position in his kingdom to anyone who could interpret what had been written. Daniel gave the interpretation, Belshazzar made him third highest in the land, and in the early hours of the morning Belshazzar was slain by the Medes and the Persians.
Except, of course,.... it didn't happen. At least, not according to Ferdinand Hitzig who at the time was Professor of Theology at the University of Zurich. He confidently declared it was all a fiction. Wikipedia still says it is all a fiction, because Wikipedia always bases its articles on the majority view of the scholars.
Professor Hitzig's Commentary on the Book of Daniel was published in 1850. He confidently asserted that Belshazzar was a fictitious character and the whole story of the feast on the night of 12th October 539 BC, when Babylon was captured by the Medes and the Persians, was also fictitious. In 1850 the only reference to Belshazzar was in the book of Daniel, no one else had ever heard of him.
Even Herodotus, "the Father of History", writing about 450 BCE,
who wrote so much about the Babylonian Empire, knew nothing about Belshazzar. And the last King of Babylon before it was conquered by the Medo-Persian Empire was known to be Nabonidus.
As so many scholars before him and after him, Ferdinand Hitzig believed the book of Daniel was a work of fiction written about 165 BC, nearly 400 years after the time of the life of Daniel. This was and still is believed because if it had been written in about 535 BC, which is the appearance it gives, then it prophecies a staggering amount of events between 535 BC and 165 BC, and scholars are not prepared to believe that these are true predictions. For them the Book of Daniel can only possibly be a "pious fraud".
To give a brief, and not exhaustive, overview of some of the prophecies of the Book of Daniel:
The Medo-Persian Empire is mentioned, eg Dan 8:3,4,20. Then the Greek Empire of Alexander the Great is referred to several times throughout eg Dan 8:5-7,21. Alexander's early death at the height of his power Dan 8:8 and the splitting of his united Empire into four empires (8:22) the Seleucid, Ptolemite Egypt, Macedonia, and Greece; and the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes out of the Seleucid Empire, are stated Dan 8:9.
And in Daniel 11 there is again the prophecy of three more Persian kings to come (who would be Cambyses II, Gaumata (aka Smerdis), and Darius Hystaspes) Dan 11:2. Following this is one far richer (Xerxes, the Bible calls Ahasuerus, who chose Esther) 11v2. 11:2 can either be translated "by his strength through his riches he shall stir up all against the realm of Greece" or "by his strength through his riches he shall stir up all the realm of Greece against (him)": either is possible and both are true - Xerxes unwittingly helped the Greeks discover how powerful they were when they were united, a lesson they remembered for the future.
Then Alexander the Great is mentioned again along with his untimely death and the dividing of his empire amongst his followers 11:3-4.
Ptolemy I and Seleucid I are then introduced 11:5: and the attempted union of the Seleucid and Ptolemic Egypt Empires by marriage with the marriage of Ptolemy II's daughter Berenice with Antiochus II, 11:6.
Antiochus II divorced his first wife, Laodice, in order to marry Berenice; but Berenice's father, Ptolemy II, dies soon after the marriage, and Antiochus II wants to go back to his first wife so he divorces Berenice and re-marries his first wife, who promptly has him killed by poisoning. Berenice is also murdered along with the infant son of Antiochus and Berenice. Laodice then ensures her own son becomes king, Seleucus II Callinicus.
Berenice's brother 11:7 Ptolemy III seeks revenge and in his first year he attacks the Seleucid territory. Ptolemy III and Seleucid II begin their reigns in the same year; but Seleucid II dies in 225 BC before Ptolemy III, 221 BC, and thus the king of the south "continues more years than the king of the north" 11:8.
Verse 9 is not well translated in the King James Version, which should read "and he [i.e. the king of the north] shall come into the kingdom of the king of the south and shall return to his land". But "his sons" (Seleucus III Ceraunus and Antiochus III) "shall be stirred up" but actually only one of them did anything much because Ceraunus died, 223 BC, before he could act.
So Antiochus III comes to fight Ptolemy IV and engage in a huge battle, the Battle of Raphia 217 BC, and Ptolemy IV wins the battle 11:11. After winning the Battle "his heart is lifted up" he goes personally into the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem 11:12. "He shall overthrow tens of thousands" - Ptolemy IV persecuted the Jewish people.
"But he shall not be strengthened by it" 11:12 - the means by which he managed to defeat the large army of Antiochus III was also the means of his undoing which needs some explanation - up to this time all the wars and fighting had not been between Egyptians and Syrians but between Greeks and Greeks - Egypt was ruled by Greeks and Seleucia was ruled by Greeks - but Ptolemy IV knew he could not defeat this large army of Antiochus III coming against Egypt unless he rapidly recruited many thousands; so for the first time he recruited native Egyptians to help fight in the battle of Raphia.
This was a success for the battle of Raphia but proved to be his undoing because the next time Antiochus III came to attack 11:13, Egyptians were emboldened to rise up against Ptolemy IV and their Greek masters in rebellion. As it says "in those times there shall many stand up against the king of the south" 11:14, i.e. the native Egyptians themselves rose up against him;
"also robbers of thy people shall exalt themselves to establish the vision, but they shall fail" - Ptolemy IV dealt with unsuccessful Jewish rebellions.
Verse 16 - Antiochus III shall control Judah and was generally welcomed as a saviour.
Verse 17 - A peace treaty based on the marriage of Antiochus III the Great's daughter Cleopatra to Ptolemy V in 197 BC.
"but she shall not stand on his side (i.e. her father's side) neither be for him (i.e. be for Antiochus III). Cleopatra persuaded her new husband Ptolemy V to ally with Rome rather than with her father.
Verse 18 "After this shall he (Antiochus III) turn his face unto the coastlands and shall take many" - 197 bc - Antiochus III reasserted his control over Asia Minor, 196-192 BC he tried to push the Romans out of Greece. In 188 BC he was finally defeated and humiliated by Rome with the Peace of Apameia enforcing onerous terms of peace on Antiochus III.
"a prince" - Lucius Scipio Asiatichus;
verse 19 - But he shall stumble and fall and not be found - 187 BC Antiochus murdered trying to rob a temple in Susa to pay reparations to Rome.
verse 20 "a raiser of taxes" - Heliodorus; verse 21 in his estate shall stand up a vile person" - Antiochus Ephphanes.
Moving down to verse 30 "the ships of Chittim shall come against him" - the ships of the Romans (a reference to a prophecy of the prophet Balaam (Numbers 24:24) about what would happen in the last days) - in other words the "last days" are fast approaching, and by "last days" is meant the Gospel Age (cf Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2, 2 Tim 3:1).
With so much predicted no wonder that doubters would think all these things are written after the events they pretend to predict. And no wonder that Professor Ferdinand Hitzig thought that the feast of Belshazzar was a work of fiction, and that Belshazzar was a fictitious character, especially when no one outside the book of Daniel had ever heard of him, not even Herodotus. So that is what the Professor wrote in his Commentary on the Book of Daniel in 1850.
In 1854, just four years later, the first evidence for Belshazzar appeared.
The Nabonidus Cylinder on display in the British Museum, London
Four identical cylinders, only about 10 cm long, with Babylonian writing were found in a great tower at Ur in southern Iraq. John Taylor, the British consul who found them, took them to his senior colleague, who happened to be Sir Henry Rawlinson, one of those who had deciphered the Babylonian cuneiform script. King Nabonidus had repaired the temple tower and the clay cylinders commemorated the fact. The words were a prayer for the long life of Nabonidus and for his eldest son. At one point the Nabonidus Cylinder reads "As for Belshazzar, my eldest son, instil reverence for your great godhead in his heart".
Also, in 1879 the British Museum acquired the "Nabonidus Chronicle" which for several years repeats the same refrain "The king was in the city of Tema; the prince, his officers and his army were in Akkad. Bel (the idol) did not come out. The Akitu Festival did not take place." - For many years Belshazzar was left in charge while his father was away in Tema.
See the following article for more information: ABC 7 (Nabonidus Chronicle).
We now know why Belshazzar could only offer Daniel the "third highest" position in the land - Belshazzar himself was the second highest, so the highest he could offer Daniel was third.