ARCHAEOLOGY SUPPORTS
THE NEW TESTAMENT

Anonymous

(Investigator 25, 1992 July)
 
 

INTRODUCTION

About 50 non-Jewish kings and rulers mentioned in the Bible have during the past century had their existence independently confirmed from inscriptions, tombs, monuments, etc. Hundreds of geographical locations referred to in Scripture have also been identified. Hundreds of historical events narrated by the Bible writers have been verified. In the present discussion, however, I'll focus on findings relevant to the New Testament.
 

MINISTRY OF JESUS

The Gospel of Luke says that Jesus was born during a census by Quirinius, governor of Syria. (2:2) However, the only Quirinius known to historians until recently conducted a census in 6 AD. This was nine years after the death of Herod the Great in 4 BC.  

[Since writing this article Anon has argued for Jan/Feb 1 BC as the date of Herod's death and 2 BC for Jesus' birth – See Investigator No. 81. Ed.]

Jesus, however, was born when Herod was still alive. Some defenders of the Bible tried to solve the problem by assuming that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice. The correct answer now seems to be that there were two prominent men named Quirinius. An ancient coin has been discovered with the name of a Quirinius who was proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until Herod died. (McRay 1991)

What about the census itself which forced Joseph and Mary to go to Bethlehem?

Luke wrote:  "a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled."

Ancient papyrus census forms have been discovered confirming that a census was scheduled every 14 ears. A census form in the British Museum has been dated to 104 AD. There is nothing yet from 90 AD or 76 AD but forms have been discovered dated at 62, 48, 34 and possibly also 20 AD. The census which affected the birth of Jesus should therefore have started about 10 BC although it may possibly have taken several years to reach and involve Palestine. The 10 BC date was two years after the appearance of Halley's comet and so we might speculate that the comet was the "star of Bethlehem" but that is another story.

Luke wrote: "And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city." (2:3)

That such was the procedure in a Roman census is firmed by British Museum papyrus 904 from 104 AD:

"Gaius Vivius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments."

Jesus, according to Luke, grew up in Nazareth. Skeptics have argued that there was no Narareth in the 1st century. Neither Josephus nor the Talmud nor the Old Testament nor the New Testament after the book of Acts mention Nazareth. One argument was: "The mistake of inventing a town named Nazareth was an attempt to make sense of the word Nazarene by a non-Jewish writer." (Investigator 1992 January p. 32)

Excavations by Belarmino Bagatti in 1955 below the Annunciation Church and the Church of Saint Joseph in Nazareth revealed pottery dating from the Iron Age (900-600 BC) to about 500 AD including 1st century Roman pottery. Twenty-three ancient tombs 180 metres north, west and south of the Annunciation Church indicate the limits of ancient Nazareth. The Nazareth of Jesus' time was an agricultural village with many wine and olive presses, cisterns for storing wine and water, and caves for storing grain.

Jesus, according to Luke 3:1-2, began his public ministry: "In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judea…and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene in the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…"

Tiberius became joint emperor with Augustus in 12 AD and sole emperor in 14 AD. The "fifteenth year" was therefore either 26/27 AD or 28/29 AD. In 1961 an Italian expedition discovered a stone at Caesarea with the words "Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea."  The only "Lysanias" known for centuries was a local ruler from 40-36 BC – a generation before Jesus lived. An inscription, however, has now been discovered from the reign of Tiberius which refers to Lysanias as tetrarch of Abila (near Damascus Syria). The existence of Annas and his son-in-law Caiaphas is not in dispute – the latter having been high priest from18-36 AD.

At the start of his ministry Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist at "Bethany beyond the Jordan". (John 1:28) There is still dispute concerning the exact site of this Bethany. As regards John the Baptist he has long been considered a member of the Essene sect of the Qumran community. This is the community from which the Dead Sea Scrolls originated. Much of this, however, is again uncertain since Qumran now appears to have been a fortress and not a religious community. John's diet of "locusts and wild honey" was not unique since the Cairo Damascus Document mentions locusts as food.

During the early days of his ministry Jesus lived in Capernaum (Mathew 4:13; Luke 4:31) – perhaps in the house of Simon Peter. (Matthew 14-16; Mark 2:1)  Jesus, according to the Bible, taught and healed in the Capernaum synagogue. (Mark 1:21; 3:1-5; John 6: 59)

The remains of a limestone synagogue in Capernaum date back to the 4th century. However, under the four corners are the 1.2 metre thick, black, basalt walls of a much older synagogue. In 1981 a basalt cobblestone floor was found and under this some 1st century pottery. Clearly, the basalt walls could be the remains of the synagogue where Jesus preached and healed!

Even more startling is the possibility that the house of Simon Peter where Jesus lived has been found as well!  Twenty-six metres south of the synagogue are the remains of an eight-sided 5th century building with a mosaic floor. In 1968 excavators discovered multiple levels of occupation underneath. The findings included the remains of a 1st century house of basalt – same material as the synagogue – of thin walls which could have supported a roof of branches but not a masonry roof nor a second story. (Mark 2:4)  In the mid 1st century the central room (6.1 x 6.4 metres) was plastered over at which stage also the pottery changed from domestic variety to storage jars and oil lamps. Over 150 inscriptions were scratched on the walls including – according to some publications – the name "Peter".

Jesus performed his first alleged miracle at Cana of Galilee. (John 2:1-11)  Josephus, the 1st century historian, wrote that he made Cana his headquarters just before the Jewish/Roman war. There has been much debate regarding where Cana was situated. It's now fairly certain that ancient Cana is Khirbet Kana 14 km north of Nazareth. The site hasn't been archaeologically excavated but pieces of Roman earthenware typical of the time of Christ have been found there.

During his Sermon on the Mount Jesus said:  "…if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?"

Can salt become non salty? Albert Barnes, a Bible commentator, explained: "In eastern countries, however the salt used was impure, mingled with vegetable and earthy substances; so that it might lose the whole of its saltness, and a considerable quantity of earthy matter remain. This was good for nothing, except that it was used, as it is said, to place in paths, or walks as we use gravel."

At Gergesa (=Gerasa? =Gadara?) on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee Jesus is said to have transferred the demons from two demoniacs into a herd of swine which then rushed off a cliff into the Sea. (Matthew 8:28-34; Luke 8:26-39)  Again, some critics concluded that Gergesa did not exist.

There is only one spot on the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee where a cliff rises above the sea. The place is called El Koursi. The excavation of a church built about 585 AD was started here in 1971.

About 270 metres away is an unexcavated mound covering an ancient village now called Tell el-Kursi. Nearby also are tombs. (Luke 8:27) The three different names for the location of the event present a problem. Gerasa, now equated with Jerash in Jordan 59 km southeast of the sea, and Gadara, at modern Umm Qeis in Jordan 8 km southeast of the sea, are both too far away for the herd of swine to have "rushed" into the sea. A possible answer is that the area controlled by Gerasa and Gadara extended to the Sea of Galilee at Gergesa.

The existence of the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed a cripple has been questioned. It's now known that there were two pools starting 90 metres north of northern wall of the Temple Mount. Their sizes were 65 x 58 metres and 53 x 50 x 40 metres. The Copper Scroll from Qumran (written c. 50 AD) has a list of places in Jerusalem and includes "Beth Eshdathayin" which may mean "House of the Twin Pools".

Skeptics often point to an apparent contradiction in the reports of the healing of a blind man at Jericho. Luke (chapter 18) says it occurred when Jesus was approaching (or entering) Jericho whereas Mark (chapter 10) says Jesus was leaving Jericho. Excavations have shown that the centre of Jericho varied by several kilometers in its history. It's probable that Jesus was leaving one part of Jericho and entering another.

How was Jesus heard when addressing large crowds?  He probably chose open areas with natural sound amplifying properties. In one instance Jesus spoke from a boat to crowds on a beach. (Matthew l3; Mark 4)  R J Bull and B C Crissler explained:

"Among several coves near Capernaum, there is one that has recently been found to have just such sound characteristics of a natural amphitheater. Acoustical tests have been carried out on this site to show that a great multitude of some five thousand to seven thousand people, assembling there, could indeed have both seen and clearly heard a person speaking from a boat located at a spot near the cove's center."

Tests were done near Capernaum by puncturing balloons out on a rock in the sea and on the shore and measuring the decibels electronically at various distances inland. At about 50 to 100 metres inland balloons punctured at sea were louder than balloons punctured on the shore! It was estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 people could have clearly watched and heard Jesus speaking offshore.

In 1968 in a 1st century tomb near Mt Scopus (Jerusalem) were found the bones of a crucified man. Two nails (compare John 20:25) were used for the hands - one nail driven into each wrist - and a single nail was used for the two heel bones which were positioned so that the left heel overlapped the right heel. [The picture is here deleted]  Also two Dead Sea texts have been published which use the phraseology of Acts 5:30: "hanging on a tree."

The tomb of Jesus was probably on the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre became located. Tombs at that time were two-chambered with the 2nd room the burial chamber behind the first. A rolling stone sealed the entrance of the first room. The fact of two-chambered tombs may explain some of the alleged contradictions in the four resurrection reports of the tour Gospels.

The Shroud of Turin (in which the dead Jesus was allegedly wrapped) is now known to be of 14th century origin. (Investigator No. 3)  The Bible says nothing about any 5 metre long shroud but does mention "linen cloths" (plural) in John chapter 20.

What about the "many bodies of the saints" which were raised and "went into the holy city" at the time of Jesus' death? (Matthew 27:51-54) This passage was difficult to translate and a wrong impression has been given in many Bible versions. What apparently occurred is that an earthquake threw dead bodies out of their graves and it was observers of this event who "went into the holy city" and reported it. Similarly an earthquake at Popayan (Columbia) during Easter Thursday, 1983, led to "corpses bursting from their tombs". Also in 1976 an earthquake in Guatamala uncovered a number of coffins!

Earlier this century an inscription found in Nazareth was published containing a decree probably from Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) that graves should remain intact and anyone violating a burial place be executed. Some scholars believe that this decree was made because of the rumours that the body of Jesus was stolen. However, the only evidence to date that Claudius knew about Christianity comes from 2nd century Roman historian Suetonius who mentioned that Claudius expelled Jews from Rome because of riots over a certain "Chrestus". "Chrestus" may have meant Christ and the expulsion (about 50 AD) is referred to in Acts 18:1-2.

In 1970 John Allegro (1923-1988) brought out a book The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross. In it he argued that Jesus never existed in real life but was dreamed up by people under psylocybin – the hallucinatory ingredient of certain mushrooms. Allegro worked on the Dead Sea Scrolls 1953-1970. Already in 1956 he had tried to connect Jesus with the Essene sect who, 100 years before Jesus, had a leader they called "son of God". (Baigent & Leigh 1991) Virtually everyone has now rejected Allegro's: "trac(ing) the source of Christianity to an edible fungus."  Basically the New Testament supplies too many links with established history for the story of Jesus to be entirely myth. And as the decades pass and archaeology progresses the links are increasing in number!
 

MINISTRY OF PAUL

Let's move now from the ministry of Jesus to the ministry of Paul. Acts 18 says: "Gallio was proconsul of Achaia." For a long time there was no evidence of any "Gallio". However, a stone from a wall of the Temple of Apollo (in Greece) has been discovered with a copy of a letter from Emperor Claudius which read in part:  "Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus,…Lucius Junius Gallio, my friend, and the proconsul of Achaia…"

The inscription has been dated to 52 AD.

Acts 19:24 mentions "Demetrius the silversmith". Inscriptions in Ephesus to silversmiths have been discovered and even the name "Demetrius" but not yet the Demetrius of the book of Acts.

Iconium (modern Konia) is 240 km south of Ankara in Turkey. A careful reading of Acts 14:1-11 reveals that Luke implied that Iconium lay outside of Lycaonia (a region of the province of Galatia). The Wycliffe BibleCommentary has these comments:

"Other writers of about Luke's time placed Iconium in the district of Lycaonia. Many scholars assumed at this point that Luke was inaccurate. Ramsey tells how this reference caught his attention and how careful examination vindicated Luke's statement. This was the beginning of Ramsey's change in attitude towards Acts, and he became one of the most vigorous and learned proponents of the accuracy of the book."

In his ministry Paul bypassed Amphipolis and Apollonia (Acts 17:1) although they were significant cities. In Acts it's repeatedly suggested that Paul sought out places with a Jewish population and synagogue. The implication, then, is that these two cities didn't have a synagogue. The implication to date seems confirmed since both have undergone extensive archaeological work without remains of synagogues being found.

The "Areopagus" (Acts 17:19) referred to the governing body of the city of Athens. The word also means "Mars Hill" which is probably the location where juries heard trials during the time of Paul. One man who believed Paul's message was a member of the Areopagus named Dionysius. According to Eusebius (264-340 AD) Dionysius became the first Bishop of Athens and was martyred during the persecution by Emperor Domitian about 40 years later. Further confirmation of Dionysius is, however, not yet available.

Romans 16:23 mentions "Erastus, the city treasurer". The man's name was found on a limestone paving slab dug up in three pieces in 1928, 1929 and 1947 in Corinth. The slab when translated from the Latin read: "Erastus in return for his aedileship laid (the pavement) at his own expense."


An "aedile" was an official elected in a Roman colony who managed the upkeep of, and revenue from, buildings and other property. They also served as judge especially in financial and commercial litigation. We can conclude that the Erastus named on the slab is the same as the Bible one because:

    1. The pavement was laid at the right time, about 50 AD;
    2. "Erastus" was an uncommon name and hasn't been found elsewhere in Corinthian excavations;
    3. The position of "aedile" was uncommon.
For decades many critics of the New Testament claimed Luke was wrong in referring to officials in Thessalonica as "politarchs". (Acts 17:6) An inscription on a stone (now in the British Museum) from the Vadar Arch starts off: "In the time of the Politarchs…"

At least 32 inscriptions using the term are now known. Scholarly debate has shifted from whether Politarchs ever existed to when the office began!

Philippi being apparently called "the leading city of the district of Macedonia" (Acts 16:12) has raised questions since it certainly wasn't the "leading city". In 168 BC Macedonia was divided into four districts. Philippi was in the "first" district but it was not the capital there. Yet similar phrasing as in the Bible has been found on ancient coins. The answer seems to be that the Greek text was difficult to translate but could be translated:   "a city of (the) first district of Macedonia."

   

IMPLICATIONS

McRay (1991) concludes:

"…the results of archaeological excavations help to restrain the imaginations of scholars who would mythologize the New Testament...
The mythological presuppositions of Rudolf Bultmann regarding the Gospel of John are no longer so compelling." (p. 18)
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How does this effect the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible? According to Koch (1980):  "The term inerrant means that God's Word speaks the truth in all its parts without contradiction or error." (p. 14)

If perhaps 100 persons out of about 3,000 mentioned in the Bible have been proven to have existed can we predict that the Bible is correct with the other 2,900? What about geographical locations? Luke in the book of Acts mentioned over 100 and apparently might be 100% right. But there are sti1l hundreds of places mentioned in other parts of the of the Bible which haven't been found. Furthermore, being correct in geography and biography would not assure accuracy in other categories such psychology, astronomy, biology, futurology, etc. We would have to examine Bible statements in a range of subjects – especially statements where the Bible is in conflict with other opinion – and find out which side is right. If after all this research we find that the Bible never seems to lose then the theory of Inerrancy may need to be taken seriously!

As regards archaeology we've barely scratched the surface. Mounds covering ancient deserted towns are called "Tells". Such mounds number about 10,000 in the Levant and Mesopotamia and thousands more in Turkey and Greece.

<>According to MoRay: "only about two hundred of the approximately five thousand sites in the Holy Land have been excavated. As of 1985 about ten thousand sites in Mesopotamia were officially listed as possibilities for excavation." (p.22)

Obviously many opportunities for confirming or refuting (!) statements in the Bible lie ahead.
 

REFERENCES

Baigent, M and Leigh, R 1991 The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception, Jonathon Cape, Britain, pp. 45-56

Barnes, A 1962 Barnes' Notes on the New Testament Complete in One Volume, Kregel

Brown, R E 1983 Recent Discoveries and the Biblical World, Glazier, USA

Bull, R J and Crisler B C 1978 Come See the Place: The Holy Land Jesus Knew, Prentice-Hall,  USA

Bull, R J and Crisler B C The Acoustics and Crowd Capacity of Natural Theaters in Palestine, Biblical Archaeologist, December 1976

Koch, Rev. C I 1980 Let The Word Speak, Lutheran Publishing, South Australia

McRay J 1991 Archaeology & The New Testament, Baker Book House, USA


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