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Ancient history confirms biblical characters

herod-the-great-coin 400pxDid you know that ancient history has confirmed the existence of many people mentioned in the Bible? In articles in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Purdue University scholar Lawrence Mykytiuk lists 23 people from the New Testament who have been confirmed historically. These include Roman Emperors, members of the Herodian family, and Roman governors. These political figures are mentioned in extra-biblical writings and some of their names appear in inscriptions (normally on hard objects, such as potsherds) and on coins.

Evidence of New Testament Political Figures

Name Who was he or she? When did they rule? Where in the New Testament? Evidence in historical writings Evidence in inscriptions
Roman Emperors
1 Augustus Roman Emperor 31B.C.E.–
14 C.E.
Luke 2:1 Numerous Numerous
2 Tiberius Roman Emperor 14–37 C.E. Luke 3:1 Numerous Numerous
3 Claudius Roman Emperor 41–54 C.E. Acts 11:28; 18:2 Numerous Numerous
4 Nero Roman Emperor 54–68 C.E. Acts 25–26; 28:19 Numerous Numerous
Herodian Family
5 Herod I,
the Great
Rome’s King of the Jews over all of Palestine. 37–4 B.C.E. Matthew 2:1; Luke 1:5 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Coins
6 Herod Archelaus Oldest son of Herod the Great. Ethnarch of Judea, Samaria and Idumea. 4 B.C.E.–
6 C.E.
Matthew 2:22 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Coins
7 Herod Antipas Son of Herod the Great; second husband of Herodias. Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (Transjordan). He ordered the execution of John the Baptist. 4 B.C.E.–
39 C.E.
Luke 3:1; 13:31–32; 23:7–12; Mark 6:14; 6:16–28; 8:15 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Coins
8 Herod Philip Son of Herod the Great but not a ruler; Herodias’s uncle and first husband; father of their daughter Salome. Matthew 14:3–4; Mark 6:17–18; Luke 3:19 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars (No coins because he was not a ruler)
9 Herodias Granddaughter of Herod the Great; niece and wife of Herod Philip, mother of his daughter Salome; then Herod Antipas’s wife. She brought about the order to execute John the Baptist. Mathew 14:2–11; Mark 6:17–28; Luke 3:19–20 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars (No coins because she was not a ruler)
10 Salome Herodias’s daughter. Her dance led to the execution of John the Baptist. Grandniece and later wife of Philip the Tetrarch. Matthew 14:3–12; Mark 6:17–29 Josephus, Antiquities Coins of her second husband, Aristobulus, king of Chalcis
11 Philip the Tetrarch Son of Herod the Great. Tetrarch of Trachonitis, Iturea and other northern portions of Palestine. Eventually husband of his grandniece Salome. 4 B.C.E.–
34 C.E.
Luke 3:1 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Coins
12 Herod Agrippa I Grandson of Herod the Great; brother of Herodias. King of Trachonitis, Batanea, gradually all of Palestine. Executed James the son of Zebedee and imprisoned Peter. 37–44 C.E. Acts 12:1–6, 18–23 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Coins
13 Herod Agrippa II Son of Herod Agrippa I. Initially Tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, then also over parts of Galilee and Perea, Chalcis and northern territories. Festus appointed him to hear Paul’s defense. 50–
c. 93 C.E.
Acts 25:13–26:32 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Coins
14 Berenice/Bernice Sister and companion of Herod Agrippa II, rumored lovers. Attended Paul’s trial before Festus. Acts 25:13, 23; 26:30 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Inscription of King Herod Agrippa II in Beirut
15 Drusilla Sister of Herodias and Herod Agrippa I; Jewish wife of Roman governor Felix. Acts 24:24 Josephus, Antiquities (No coins; not
a ruler)
Roman Legate and Governors
16 Publius Sulpicius Quirinius
( = Cyrenius)
Roman imperial legate brought in to govern Syria-Cilicia after Herod Archelaus’s rule led to rebellion. 6–9 C.E. and possibly earlier Luke 2:2 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars The Lapis Venetus inscription discovered in Beirut
17 Pontius Pilate Roman prefect of Judea who conducted Jesus’ trial and ordered his crucifixion. 26–36 C.E. Matthew 27:11–26; Mark 15:1–15; Luke 3:1; 23:1–24; John 18:28–19:22 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars; Tacitus, Annals; Philo, De Legatione ad Gaium Pilate Stone discovered at Caesarea Maritima; coins
18 Lucius Junius Gallio Roman proconsul of Achaia who convened and dismissed the trial of Paul in Corinth. c. 51–55 C.E. Acts 18:12–17 Seneca, Letters; Tacitus, Annals Stone inscription discovered in Delphi, Greece
19 Marcus Antonius Felix Roman procurator of Judea who held initial hearings in the trial of the apostle Paul. 52–
c. 59 C.E.
Acts 23; 24 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Coins
20 Porcius Festus Roman procurator of Judea who conducted a hearing in the trial of Paul, during which Paul appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome. 59–62 C.E. Acts 24:27–25:27; 26:24–32 Josephus, Antiquities Coins
Independent Political Figures
21 Aretas IV Arabian king of Nabatea. Father of Herod Antipas’s first wife, before Herodias. 9 B.C.E.–
40 C.E.
2 Corinthians 11:32 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars Inscriptions at Petra, etc.; coins
22 The unnamed Egyptian leader His Jerusalem-area insurrection was suppressed by Roman procurator Felix. Acts 21:38 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars (No coins because he was not a ruler)
23 Judas of Galilee Led a rebellion against the census of Roman imperial legate Quirinius. Acts 5:37 Josephus, Antiquities and Wars (No coins because he was not a ruler)

Appendix: Sample evidences from ancient writings and archaeology

1–4. Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius and Nero.
The four Roman emperors mentioned in the New Testament are all abundantly verified in the writings of Roman historians, such as Tacitus’s Annals, which mentions all four, as well as in Josephus’s writings and in many inscriptions. For these, no further verification is needed. (Gaius, nicknamed “Caligula,” the Roman emperor after Tiberius, goes unmentioned in the New Testament.)

5. Herod I, the Great, Rome’s King of the Jews.
Josephus, Antiquities 14.14.4, 15.6.7
Josephus, Wars 1.33.8‒9

At Masada, 393 coins of Herod the Great were discovered, according to Coins of Masada, p. 71, pp. 87–91 no. 110–502, Plate 62 no. 115–461. These coins from Masada have the inscription, “Of King Herod,” in Greek, sometimes abbreviated to only a few letters.
At Meiron, 6 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins of Ancient Meiron, pp. 21–22 no. 200–205, p. 127 (photographic plate) no. 200, 202, 203.
At Herodium, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Coins Herodium, p. 75 no. 2.
At Tel Anafa, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Coins 1968–1986 Tel Anafa, p. 253 no. 249; also in Ancient Jewish Coinage 2, p. 237, type 17.
At Caesarea Maritima, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Coins Caesarea Maritima, p. 138.

6. Herod Archelaus, Ethnarch of Judaea, Samaria and Idumea.
Josephus, Antiquities 17.8.2‒4, 17.13.1‒3, 18.2.1
Josephus, Wars 1.33.9, 2.6.1‒3, 2.7.3

In the inscriptions in Greek on all his coins, he calls himself only “Herod” or “Herod the Ethnarch” (sometimes abbreviated), never using his name Archelaus.
At Masada, 176 coins of Herod Archelaus were discovered, according to Coins of Masada, pp. 72, 91‒93, and Plate 63 no. 503–677 (with gaps among numbered photographs).
In various parts of Palestine, including Galilee and Transjordan, other coins of Archelaus have been discovered, according to Treasury of Jewish Coins, p. 85.

7. Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.2.1, 18.2.3, 18.4.5, 18.5.1, 18.5.2, 18.7.1
Josephus, Wars 2.9.1, 2.9.6

Archaeology confirms his rule and title of Tetrarch (of Galilee and Perea) on several coins with the inscription “Of Herod the Tetrarch” in Greek, without giving his name Antipas. Also inscribed on some of his coins is the name of a city, “Tiberias,” which Antipas founded in Galilee and where he built a mint that produced these coins. Josephus’s writings and modern analysis of Jewish coins reveal that the only tetrarch named Herod who ever ruled Galilee was Herod Antipas. Herod Antipas apparently produced fewer coins than his father and brothers did, and according to the dates inscribed on his coins compared with theirs, he minted them less often. As a result, fewer have been recovered in excavations.
Near Tiberias, where they were minted, is the area that has yielded most of Antipas’s coins that have a known place of discovery.
At Meiron, 3 coins of Herod Antipas were discovered, according to Coins of Ancient Meiron, p. 22 no. 206–208, p. 127 (photographic plate) no. 208 only (from year 37 of the Emperor Tiberius (33 C.E.). Meiron was north of the city of Dan in Galilee, which Antipas ruled. Coins no. 206 and 207, from the Emperor’s 34th year (29/30 C.E.), are recognizably his by their decorations and visible Greek letters.
At Jerusalem, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Treasury of Jewish Coins, p. 85.

8. Herod Philip (not a ruler; compare Philip the Tetrarch, below).
Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.1 and 4
Josephus, Wars 1.28.4, 1.29.2, 1.30.7

9. Herodias, wife of Herod Philip, mother of Salome; then Herod Antipas’s wife.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.1 and 4
Josephus, War 2.9.6

10. Salome, Herodias’s daughter.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.4
Coins of her second husband, Aristobulus, king of Chalcis, display her image (Hendin, Guide, pp. 276‒277, no. 1255).

11. Philip, Tetrarch of Trachonitis, Iturea and other northern portions of Palestine, sometimes called Herod Philip II, to distinguish him from his half-brother, Herod Philip, who was not a ruler (see above).
Josephus, Antiquities 17.1.3, 18.2.1
Josephus, Wars 1.28.4

Philip did not have to avoid portraits on his coins because his subjects were generally not Jewish and had no religious prohibition against graven images. One of his coins from Tel Anafa features the head of Caesar Augustus on one side and the head of Philip on the other—literally a two-headed coin (Coins 1968–1986 Tel Anafa, p. 253 no. 250, p. 260 = coins plate 3, no. 250).

Most of his coins were discovered in his own tetrarchy in Palestine’s northern territories.
At Meiron, 2 coins of Philip the Tetrarch were discovered, according to Coins of Ancient Meiron, p. 23 no. 209 & 210, p. 127 (photographic plate) no. 209 and 210.
At Tel Anafa, 7 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins 1968–1986 Tel Anafa, pp. 253–254 no. 250–256, p. 260 = coins plate 3, no. 250, 251, 252, 254.
On Cyprus, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Treasury of Jewish Coins, p. 90.

12. Herod Agrippa I, King of Trachonitis, Batanea, gradually all of Palestine.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.4, 18.7.2, 19.5.1
Josephus, Wars 2.9.5‒6

At Masada, 114 of Herod Agrippa I’s coins were excavated, according to Coins of Masada, pp. 72, 79, 100 no. 1195–1198, Plate 66 no. 1195–1198.
At Meiron, 5 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins of Ancient Meiron, pp. 23–24 no. 211–214, p. 127 (photographic plate) no. 211 and 214.
At Herodium, 5 identical coins of his were discovered, according to Herodium Coins, p. 75 no. 4.
In and near Jerusalem, as well as in all parts of Palestine, on Cyprus, at Dura-Europos in Syria, and even on the acropolis at Athens, his prutah coins (Jewish coins of low value, made of copper; see Hendin, Guide, p. 270, no. 1244) have been discovered. They are distinctive in their decorations and the spelling of his name.

13. Herod Agrippa II, Tetrarch of Iturea and Trachonitis, then also over parts of Galilee and Perea, Chalcis and northern territories.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.4, 20.7.3
Josephus, Wars 2.11.6

Quite a few series of Agrippa II’s coins are identified as his because they have the name Agrippa, sometimes abbreviated, and can be dated to his reign, rather than his father’s (King Herod Agrippa I).
At Masada, 2 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins of Masada, pp. 72, 79, 100 no. 1308–1309, Plate 66 no. 1309.
At Meiron, 6 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins of Ancient Meiron, pp. 24–25 no. 215–220, p. 128 (photographic plate) no. 216–220.

14. Berenice/Bernice, Sister and companion of Herod Agrippa II, distinguished by her fuller name Julia (in Latin, Iulia) Berenice from several other noted women of ancient times named Berenice.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.4, 19.5.1, 20.7.3
Josephus, Wars 2.15.1
In the National Museum of Beirut is a partly broken, Roman-era dedicatory inscription in Latin that mentions “Queen Berenice.” The inscription states that she, and someone who is implied to be her fellow offspring, restored a building which “King Herod their ancestor” had made. Note the plural: “their ancestor.”

By using facts of the historical background, it is possible to identify both her and her relatives as the ones to whom the inscription refers, because of its location and because the names of her family members seem uniquely suited to fit this inscription. Berenice is said to be “of the great king A—” (name broken off), and the prominent family ties in the inscription suggest a daughter or descendant. The “great king A—” is very likely her father, King Herod Agrippa I, who was a descendant of King Herod the Great. The other offspring, her contemporary, is very likely her brother, King Herod Agrippa II.

A scholarly book in Italian describes this inscription: Laura Boffo, Iscrizioni Greche e Latine per lo Studio della Bibbia (Brescia, Italy: Paideia Editrice, 1994), pp. 338‒342, no. 41.

15. Drusilla, Sister of Herodias and Herod Agrippa I; wife of Roman governor Felix.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.5.4

16. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (= Cyrenius), Roman Imperial legate to Syria-Cilicia.
Josephus, Antiquities 17.13.5, 18.1.1, 18.2.1
Josephus, Wars 7.8.1

The Lapis Venetus inscription discovered in Beirut is a stone inscription in Latin that mentions a census that this Quirinius ordered in a Syrian city. It is included in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum vol. III, no. 6687. See Craig L. Blomberg, “Quirinius,” in ISBE, vol. 4, pp. 12–13.

17. Pontius Pilate, Roman prefect of Judea.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.3.1‒2, 18.4.1‒2
Josephus, Wars 2.9.2‒4

Tacitus, Annals 15:44, in The Annals: The Reigns of Tiberius, Claudius, and Nero (trans. J. C. Yardley; introduction and notes Anthony A. Barrett; Oxford World’s Classics; New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008), p. 438. Cornelius Tacitus (c. 55‒c. 118 C.E.) was a historian, a Roman senator and a member of the priestly organization that supervised foreign religions in Rome; therefore he had exceptional access to information known by his colleagues and to archives accessible to the elite.

Philo, De Legatione ad Gaium 38, in The Works of Philo, Complete and Unabridged (trans. C. D. Yonge; new updated ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1993), p. 784. Philo Judaeus of Alexandria (c. 20 B.C.E.‒c. 50 C.E.) was Pilate’s learned contemporary.

The “Pilate Stone” was discovered at Caesarea Maritima in 1961 in the theater or arena of the ancient city of Caesarea Maritima, on Israel’s northern seacoast. This limestone block—2.7 feet high, 2 feet wide and 0.6 feet thick—was lying face down and had been used as a step. It had been trimmed down to be reused twice. Two of its four lines read, in English translation with square brackets marking missing portions that have been supplied by scholars: “[Po]ntius Pilate … [Pref]ect of Juda[ea],” as shown in Inscriptions Caesarea Maritima, pp. 67–70, no. 43, Plate XXXVI. The inscription could potentially be dated to any time in Pilate’s career, but a date between 31 and 36 C.E. seems most likely (Inscriptions Caesarea Maritima, p. 70.). The word for the building dedicated to the emperor Tiberius, “Tiberieum,” is in the first line of writing (on the line above it is only a mark resembling an apostrophe). On the second line of writing are the last four letters of the family name Pontius, which was common in central and northern Italy during that era. Still visible, clearly engraved in the stone, is the complete name Pilatus, which is translated into English as “Pilate.” Pilatus was “extremely rare” (A. N. Sherwin-White, “Pilate, Pontius,” in ISBE, vol. 3, p. 867). Because of the rarity of the name Pilatus, and because only one Pontius Pilatus was ever the Roman governor of Judea, this identification should be regarded as completely certain and redundantly assured.

As with other Roman governors, the coins Pilate issued do not have his name on them, but rather display only the name of the Roman emperor, in this case Tiberius. Pilate’s coins also display his distinctive decorations.
At Masada, 123 of Pontius Pilate’s coins were discovered, according to Coins of Masada, pp. 72, 79, pp. 96–97 no. 851–973a, Plate 64 no. 851–912, Plate 65 no. 913–930.
At Caesarea Maritima, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Coins Caesarea Maritima, p. 139 no. 6, p. 146.
At Herodium, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Coins Herodium, p. 75 no. 3.

18. Lucius Junius Gallio, Roman proconsul of Achaia.
Seneca, Letters 104
Tacitus, Annals xv.73
Dio Cassius lx.35
Pliny the Elder Naturalis Historia xxxi.33

Near the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, Greece, a stone inscription in a now-fragmented stone block discovered in the late 19th century refers to this particular Gallio. Carved into a stone now broken into fragments, with some words missing, it takes the form of a letter from the Roman emperor Claudius and includes a date. See C. K. Barrett, ed., The New Testament Background (rev. ed.; San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), pp. 51‒52, no. 49.

19. Marcus Antonius Felix, Roman procurator of Judea.
Josephus, Antiquities 14.11.7, 20.7.1‒2, 20.8.5
Josephus, Wars 1.12.1, 2.12.8, 2.13.7

Felix followed the custom of Roman governors, issuing coins that do not display his name. But they are identifiable as his, because they display the name and regnal year of the emperor. Several also have the name of the empress, Julia Agrippina.
At Masada, 39 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins of Masada, pp. 72, 79, 97‒98 no. 974‒1012, Plate 65 no. 974‒1012 with gaps in the numbered photographs.
At Meiron, 4 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins of Ancient Meiron, pp. 25–26 no. 221–224, p. 128 (photographic plate) no. 221 and 223.
At Caesarea Maritima, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Coins Caesarea Maritima, p. 139 no. 7.
At Herodium, 1 of his coins was discovered, according to Coins Herodium, p. 75 no. 5.

20. Porcius Festus, Roman procurator of Judea.
Josephus, Antiquities 20.8.9, 20.9.1

During the reign of the emperor Nero, Festus minted coins in the custom of Roman governors, which do not show his own name. Still, as with Felix, we can identify them as his by using the name and regnal year of the emperor.
At Masada, 184 of Festus’s coins were discovered, according to Coins of Masada, pp. 72, 79, pp. 98–99 no. 1013–1194, Plate 65 no. 1013–1194 with gaps among the numbered photographs.

21. Aretas IV, king of the Arabian kingdom of Nabatea.
Josephus, Antiquities 13.13.3, 14.1.4
Josephus, Wars 1.6.2, 1.29.3

During Aretas IV’s reign, the Arabian kingdom of Nabatea reached the height of its power, wealth through trade, and political influence.

Stationary inscriptions that name King Aretas IV and members of his immediate family have been discovered south of the Dead Sea at Petra, at Avdat (Obodat) in southern Israel and even at Puteoli, Italy (Coins Nabataea, pp. 48, 61).

The fact that the coins Aretas minted have been discovered in “enormous quantity … testifies primarily to a flourishing economy,” as observed in Coins Nabataea, p. 41. Aretas IV’s coins are treated on pp. 41–63, with photos on Plates 4–7 no. 46–122. These coins typically refer to him as “Aretas, king of the Nabataeans, who loves [lit., the lover of] his people” (Coins Nabataea, pp. 46–47, table: “Dated Coins and Inscriptions of Aretas IV.”
At Masada, 22 of Aretas IV’s coins were discovered, according to Coins of Masada, pp. 76, 79, Plate 73 no. 3603–3623.
At Meiron, 2 of his coins were discovered, according to Coins of Ancient Meiron, p. 26 no. 225 and 226, p. 128 (photographic plate) no. 226.
At Curium on Cyprus, at Dura-Europas in what is now eastern Syria, and at Susa in Persia (present-day Iran), his coins have been discovered far and wide, according to Coins Nabataea, p. 41 note 2.

22. The unnamed Egyptian leader who escaped after his violent uprising was suppressed by the Roman governor Felix.
Josephus, Antiquities 20.8.6
Josephus, Wars 2.13.5

23. Judas of Galilee, the leader of the rebellion against Cyrenius (also spelled Quirinius, identified above) because of Cyrenius’s census and taxation, which scholars usually date to 6 C.E.
Josephus, Antiquities 18.1.6, 20.5.2
Josephus, Wars 2.8.1

Abbreviations and references

Ancient Jewish Coinage 2 = Ya’akov Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage, vol. 2: Herod the Great through Bar Cochba (Dix Hills, NY: Amphora Books, 1982).

Coins 1968–1986 Tel Anafa = Y. Meshorer, “Chapter 4: Coins 1968–1986,” in Sharon C. Herbert, Tel Anafa I, i: Final Report on Ten Years of Excavation at a Hellenistic and Roman Settlement in Northern Israel (Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplement Series 10, Part I, i and Kelsey Museum Fieldwork Series; Ann Arbor, MI: Kelsey Museum of the University of Michigan and Museum of Art and Archaeology of the University of Missouri—Columbia, 1994).

Coins of Ancient Meiron = Joyce Raynor and Yaakov Meshorer, The Coins of Ancient Meiron (Winona Lake, IN: ASOR/Eisenbrauns, 1988).

Coins Caesarea Maritima = D. T. Ariel, “The Coins,” in Lee I. Levine and Ehud Netzer, Excavations at Caesarea Maritima, 1975, 1976, 1979—Final Report (Qedem 21; Jerusalem: The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem).

Coins Herodium = Ya’akov Meshorer, “The Coins,” in Ehud Netzer, Greater Herodium (Qedem 13; Jerusalem: The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1981).

Coins Nabataea = Ya’akov Meshorer, Nabataean Coins (Qedem 3; Jerusalem: The Institute of Archaeology, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1975).

Coins of Masada = Yaacov Meshorer, “The Coins of Masada,” in Masada I: The Yigael Yadin Excavations 1963‒1965: Final Reports. (ed. Joseph Aviram, Gideon Foerster, and Ehud Netzer; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1989).

Hemer, Acts = Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (ed. Conrad H. Gempf; Tübingen, Germany: J.C.B. Mohr, 1989; reprinted Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2001, 2016).

Hendin, Guide = David Hendin and Herbert Kreindler, Guide to Biblical Coins (5th ed.; New York: Amphora Books, 2010).

Inscriptions Caesarea Maritima = Clayton Miles Lehmann and Kenneth G. Holum, The Greek and Latin Inscriptions of Caesarea Maritima (The Joint Expedition to Caesarea Maritima, Excavation Reports 5; Boston, MA: The American Schools of Oriental Research, 2000).

ISBE = International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (ed. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 4 vols., fully rev. ed.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979–1988).

Josephus, Antiquities = Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, in The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged (trans. William Whiston; new updated ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), pp. 27‒542. An alternative translation of the title is: Jewish Antiquities.

Josephus, Wars = Flavius Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, in The Works of Josephus, Complete and Unabridged (trans. William Whiston; new updated ed.; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987), pp. 543‒772. An alternative translation of the title is: The Jewish War.

Treasury of Jewish Coins = Ya’akov Meshorer, A Treasury of Jewish Coins: From the Persian Period to Bar Kokhba (Nyack, NY: Amphora, 2001).


This post has been sourced from the Biblical Archaeology Society

Written, January 2019

Also see: Archaeology confirms biblical characters

It ain’t necessarily so

Pompeii 5 400pxUncertainty in the dating of past events

The volcanic eruption that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii probably took place two months later than previously thought, Italian officials say. Historians have traditionally dated the disaster to 24 August 79 AD, but excavations in southern Italy have unearthed a charcoal inscription written on a wall that includes a date which corresponds to 17 October. The writing came from an area in a house that was apparently being renovated just before the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying Pompeii under a thick blanket of ash and rock.

Other evidence that supports autumn rather than summer for the eruption includes:
– The south-easterly debris pattern is consistent with the prevailing winds in autumn, but not those in August.
– The remains of victims of the eruption in heavy clothing.
– Braziers have also been found in the ruins, suggesting a date closer to winter.
– A calcified branch bearing berries that normally only come out in the Italian autumn.
– Remnants of autumnal fruits (such as the pomegranate),
– Large earthenware storage vessels which were laden with wine at the time of their burial by Vesuvius. This could indicate that the inundation occurred after the year’s grape harvest and winemaking.

If such an error (or uncertainty) is possible in recorded history, what about ancient history?

Recorded history

Wikipedia says that recorded history starts at about 3000BC, but the oldest specific date they quote is 1046BC when the Zhou force (led by King Wu of Zhou) overthrew the last king of the Shang Dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty was established in China. 776BC is the legendary start of the ancient Olympics and 753BC the legendary founding of Rome. The dates of events before Greece and Rome are only approximate or traditional and those in the early years of Greece and Rome are in doubt.

The Bible is an amazing record of ancient history. In 1440-1480BC Moses compiled and documented a history of the world up to the time of his death. This included Adam and Eve at about 4000BC, the global flood at about 2400BC, and Abraham at about 2000BC. And in about 1000BC the Hebrew king David captured Jerusalem.

So recorded history is quite short, being a few thousand years.

Dating ancient events

Ancient events have been dated by methods such as recorded history, archaeology, geology, dendrochronology (tree rings), radiometric dating, and luminescence. Most of these methods assume the principle of uniformity.

According to the American Museum of Natural History, “The uniformitarian principle means that the processes occurring today have operated throughout most of the Earth’s history. For example, an ancient sandstone formed exactly as a beach forms today – by the gradual build-up, over many years, of water-transported sands. The principle is one of the guiding rules for understanding rocks and landforms, reconstructing their histories, and estimating the time it took for them to form.”

Uniformitarianism assumes we can look at the present to see what has happened in the past. It is the geological theory that states that changes in the earth’s crust throughout history have resulted from the action of uniform, continuous processes. It can be summarized as “the present is the key to the past” and was pioneered by Hutton (1785) and Lyell (1830).

The geological column was formulated using fossils to correlate between rock layers in geographically distinct areas. The fossils were assumed to occur in an evolutionary order, from early simple organisms to more complex ones later in time. It was assumed that the rock layers were a chronologic sequence laid down gradually at the same rate as they are today, not catastrophically. And the rock strata were dated using radiometric methods. Between the mid 18th century and the mid 20th century the estimated age of the earth increased from 75 thousand years to 4.55 billion years.

Today, earth’s history is considered to have been a slow, gradual process (uniformity), punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events. So there is some allowance for catastrophic events, but uniformity is still the dominant assumption.

Comparing with recorded history

In a previous blogpost I have shown that, “As a reliable eyewitness is superior to forensic science in the investigation of crime, so reliable history is better than ancient forensic science (the use of science to investigate ancient times) in investigating ancient times. So, history trumps science when dealing with the past”.

So, if a small error is possible in dating events like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius using recorded history, then larger errors are possible and probable in dating events using ancient forensic science.


The presuppositions used when dating ancient events usually involve the uniformity of some parameters over extended periods of time. There is no way to verify these assumptions because they relate to conditions that occurred in the ancient past, prior to recorded history. All these dating methods rely on unprovable assumptions. One of the main assumptions is that geological layers represent the gradual deposition of sediments (uniformitarianism). But archaeologists and geologists were not there to observe how the sediments were built up over time. So they don’t really know how long it took. And they don’t consider factors such as the Biblical flood and the ice age.

Although these dating methods appear to be objective and scientific, they are subjective. They are largely driven by the prevailing “long-age worldview”. However, the ‘age’ is calculated using assumptions about the past that cannot be proven.

The dating methods involve enormous extrapolation from what has been observed during recorded history, which cause a huge uncertainty in the predicted dates (Appendix A). In normal (operational) science such extrapolations would be viewed as being speculative guesses.

Those involved with unrecorded history gather information in the present and construct stories about the past. They use radiometric dating that relies on assumptions that are unknowable like the initial conditions, the radioactive decay rate over time, and that the fossil or rock are a closed system which doesn’t exchange chemicals with its environment. This makes the calculated dates unreliable and untrustworthy.

Luggage scale 2 400pxUncalibrated

When I flew to Tasmania last month, the limit for checked in luggage was 20kg. I have a hand-held electronic scale to measure the weight of my luggage. At the airport I check that my scale gives a similar weight to that measured by the airline. This is how I check the calibration of my scales. If the readings are significantly different, I need to purchase a new scale.

The problem with ancient forensic science and the evolutionary/geological time scale is that they have never been calibrated against actual time. It’s impossible to calibrate them against real time because there are no records older than recorded history. Outside the range of recorded history, it’s impossible to calibrate dating methods independently. In fact, the use of all dating methods outside the range of recorded history rely on unprovable assumptions.

Have the methods of ancient forensic science been tested against samples of known age? The only instance that I can find gives examples where radiometric dates are much older than actual dates, where different radiometric methods gave different dates, where known recent lava flows are dated at millions of years, where DNA and soft tissue is found in fossils that are alleged to be millions of years old, and where 14C is found in coal and fossils that are supposedly millions of years old (Catchpoole et al, 2006, Mason 2014). This casts doubt on the reliability of all radioactive dating methods.

The past is the key to the present

We all know that time moves forwards, not backwards; and that causes precede effects. So it’s more accurate to say that “the past is the key to the present”. And “the present is the key to the future”.

This is a fundamental flaw of the principle of uniformity when it’s used to date ancient times using ancient forensic science. It’s a simple and obvious problem. The present isn’t the key to the past.

Fatal failure

In the scientific method, a hypothesis is suggested and then tested by experimentation and observation. To be scientific the hypothesis must make predictions that are testable and falsifiable. The results of a test may either support or contradict the hypothesis. If they contradict the hypothesis, then the hypothesis has been found to be false. It’s easier to disprove a hypothesis because observations and experiments may disprove a scientific hypothesis, but can never entirely prove one. You can’t prove something is true. But you can disprove it.

According to the evolutionary/geologic timescale, the dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period about 66 million years ago. So a possible hypothesis that is based on the evolutionary/geological timescale is that dinosaur bones are at least 66 million years old. A testable prediction from this hypothesis is, “If dinosaur bones are at least 65 million years old, then they will contain no proteins (unstable molecules) or soft tissue (because this will have decomposed over such a long time period)”. But paleontologist Mary Schweitzer found proteins, blood vessels and soft tissue in dinosaur fossils. So the hypothesis is false. This means that the evolutionary/geologic timescale has been proven scientifically to be false. Dinosaur bones are not millions of years old. And the evolutionary/geologic timescale is nothing like real time.

This conclusion has been reached using the measured rates of protein degradation. But those who advocate the evolutionary/geologic timescale have faith that this anomaly can be explained by claiming that the rate of protein degradation can vary widely and a reason for this longevity will be discovered. But they won’t recognize that radioactive decay rates could also vary over time! Instead they claim that, “many independent observations indicate that nuclear decay rates have been constant for millions of years”. I wonder how they measure millions of years without assuming millions of years? No one was there to measure the time period.


The Bible (which has the best record of ancient history) says that most of the world was destroyed by a global flood in about 2,400BC. And this was probably the precursor of the ice age (Job 38:29-30). The impact of this flood is evident across the world as widespread thick layers of sedimentary rock, some containing fossil graveyards. As such a catastrophic event would invalidate the assumptions of all ancient forensic science, dates reported to be older than 2,400BC do not represent true calendar dates (see Appendix B). They are purely hypothetical dates that may convey some information about relative dating, but not about absolute dating.

What about cave paintings that have been dated about 40,000BP? Whatever assumptions were made to determine these dates, they are obviously not calendar dates. This confirms that the uncertainty associated with dating events using ancient forensic science can be huge. These uncertainties are caused by the assumptions that are made when calculating the dates.

The hypothetical geological column is based on a fragmentary sedimentary record. And there are far fewer sedimentary rocks on earth than should have been deposited if its age is about 4.5 billion years. This means that either the earth is not that old as is generally believed or that most of the strata are missing because of erosion.

The lack of erosion surfaces between strata, the presence of poly-strata fossils, and the presence of any fossils show that sedimentary rock strata were deposited rapidly, not gradually. Note that when animals die today, they aren’t fossilized.

Cataclysmic events such as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 have indicated that large amounts of sedimentation and erosion can be associated with cataclysmic vulcanism and floods.

Radiometric methods use isotope concentrations which can be measured very accurately. But isotope concentrations or ratios are not dates. To calculate ages from such measurements unprovable assumptions have to be made. The radiometric method is unreliable because of the unknowable assumptions that must be made about the history of the sample being dated. In practice, dates that do not fit the evolutionary/geologic time-scale are discarded. Only dates that fit this paradigm are reported. Because what a person thinks about the age of the earth depends on their worldview, the findings in most publications that use ancient forensic science depend on the author’s worldview.


Radiometric dating doesn’t directly measure the ages of fossils and rocks. It measures the concentrations of isotopes and then many unprovable assumptions are used to determine the probable age.

Let’s be sceptical of ages for events that are claimed to be older than recorded history. These hypothetical dates have huge uncertainties, which are never mentioned by scientists. When the real uncertainties are taken in account, the dates are shown to be speculative guesses.

Appendix A: Enormous extrapolation

Scientists use mathematical methods to make predictions. These mathematical methods (which are called “models”) are developed from measurements (observations) that have been made over a certain period of time and under a certain range of conditions. The predictions are most accurate for circumstances that lie within those under which the model was developed. Predictions made outside these circumstances are less reliable as they are extrapolations outside the realm that was measured and observed.

The ancient forensic scientific explanation of ancient history uses theories and observations made in the past few hundred years to make statements about what happened millions and billions of years ago. In science it is well known that the accuracy of a prediction decreases as it extends outside the region of measurement and observation.

Orders of magnitude are used to compare very large differences between numbers. It this case the difference is expressed as the power of 10. For example, 1,000 is one order of magnitude greater than 100, two orders of magnitude greater than 10, and three orders of magnitude greater than 1.

We will now estimate the degree of extrapolation that is made by ancient forensic science. In order to be conservative, we will assume that the scientific theories and observations have been developed from measurements and observations made in the past 1,000 years. So any prediction that applies greater than 1,000 years ago is an extrapolation outside the range of measurement and observation. Therefore, a prediction of an event 10,000 years ago represents an extrapolation of one order of magnitude. Using the dates taught in the Big History Project, we see that the extrapolations are at least 2 to 7 orders of magnitude. As the degree of uncertainty usually increases with the size of the extrapolation, these enormous extrapolations indicate a huge uncertainty in these predictions. In normal science such extrapolations would be viewed as being speculative guesses.

Proposed Event Extrapolation – Orders of magnitude
Big bang 7 (a factor of 107 )
Earth and solar system formed 6 (a factor of 106)
First life on earth 6 (a factor of 106)
First humans 2 (a factor of 102)

Appendix B: The flood and radiometric dating

The Genesis flood would have greatly upset the carbon balance of the earth. The 14C/12C ratio in plants, animals and the atmosphere before the flood would have been lower than after the flood. And volcanism, which occurred during the flood, would have also reduced the 14C/12C ratio at that time.


Catchpoole D, Sarfiti J, Weiland C, Batten D (2006), “The creation answers book”, Creation Book Publishers.
Mason J (2014) “Radiometric dating”, Chapter 6 of “Evolution’s Achilles heels”, Creation Book Publishers.

Written, November 2018