“Believers revere Him as the Son of God. Skeptics dismiss Him as a legend. Artists cast Him in images that reflect their own time and place. Today, archaeologists digging in the Holy Land are helping to sift fact from fiction”. That’s the introduction to an article in National Geographic magazine (December 2017) by Kristin Romey on what archaeology reveals about the life of Jesus. Romey hoped to discover how Christians texts and traditions compare to the discoveries of archaeologists.
Could Jesus have never existed?
Is it possible that the story of Jesus is pure invention and He never really existed? Although this is the view of some outspoken skeptics, it’s not that of scholars such as archaeologists. Professor Eric Meyers of Duke University says, “I don’t know any mainstream scholar who doubts the historicity of Jesus. The details have been debated for centuries, but no one who is serious doubts that he’s a historical figure”. And professor Bryon McCane of Atlantic University says, “I can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist”. Even scholars who disbelieve Christ’s miraculous deeds believe that Jesus did certain things in Galilee and he did certain things in Jerusalem that resulted in his execution.
The evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Ancient Roman and Jewish extra-biblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. These independent extra-biblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible.
Historians and archaeologists agree that Jesus existed, but not all of them believe Jesus was the Son of God who died and rose from the dead. New Testament historians talk about the quest or search for the historical Jesus, which seeks to answer the question, how much of the New Testament portrait of Jesus is historically accurate and how much (if any) did the early church make up?
Jesus in Bethlehem
Excavations at Bethlehem have so far turned up no artefacts dating to the time of Christ, nor any signs that early Christians considered the site sacred. Archaeology cannot prove or disprove that two people visited Bethlehem and gave birth to a child. But absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. It’s rare to have any archaeological proof of a person who lived about 2,000 years ago.
Romey claims that Matthew and Luke provide diverging accounts of Christ’ birth with the manger and shepherds in Luke and the wise men, the massacre of children and flight to Egypt in Matthew. But this is very poor exegesis. Luke describes the birth, while Matthew describes how the birth came about (Mt. 1:18-25), the visit of the wise men (2:1-12), the escape to Egypt (2:13-18), and the return to Nazareth (2:19-23). The wise men didn’t visit Jesus on the night He was born, but some 1-2 years later when Jesus was a child in His house, and not a baby in a manger (2:11). And Herod ordered for the boys in Jerusalem who were “two years old and under” to be killed, not babies (2:16). This suggests that more than a year elapsed from Jesus’ birth to the wise men’s visit. Since Herod the Great died in 4BC, Jesus may have been born 6-5BC. Herod’s slaughter of babies is consistent with his executing his wife Mariamne I and three of his sons for perceived threats to his kingdom. So those like Romey who claim that Matthew and Luke are divergent accounts of Christ’s birth haven’t read the text very carefully.
Jesus in Galilee
In the first century AD Palestine was ruled by the Roman Empire. Jesus’ boyhood home, Nazareth,was just 5 km (3 miles) from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. When archaeologists explored the ruins of the residential quarter of Sepphoris they found at least 30 mikvahs (Jewish ritual baths). This is the largest domestic concentration ever found by archaeologists. “Along with ceremonial stone vessels and a striking absence of pig bones (pork being shunned by kosher-keeping Jews), they offer clear evidence that even this imperial Roman city remained a very Jewish place during Jesus’ formative years”. This is consistent with the Bible which shows Jesus to be a practicing Jew.
Jesus began His ministry at Capernaum, a fishing town on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee (a freshwater lake). Here archaeologists have found the remains of a first-century house that was rapidly transformed into a public meeting place. It looks like a gathering place of the early church, which was later expanded into a larger house of worship.
In 1986 the remains of a wooden boat (the Jesus boat) that dates from the first century were found in the Sea of Galilee. Measuring 2.3 m (7.5 ft) wide and 8 m (27 ft) long, it could have accommodated 13 men. This is consistent with the Biblical accounts of the disciples fishing from a boat and sailing across the Sea of Galilee.
At the site of ancient Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists have excavated the ruins of a synagogue from the times of Jesus. This is consistent with the Bible which shows Jesus to be a practicing Jew. “The find was especially significant because it put to rest an argument made by skeptics that no synagogues existed in Galilee until decades after Jesus’ death”. “At the center of the room there was a stone (the Magdala stone) about the size of a footlocker that showed the most sacred elements of the temple in Jerusalem carved in relief. This discovery struck a death blow to the once fashionable notion that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel’s religious center”.
“Accounts of large crowds coming to Jesus for healing are consistent with what archaeology reveals about first-century Palestine, where diseases such as leprosy and tuberculous were rife”. For example, it was found that about 70% of graves in Roman Palestine held the remains of children and adolescents. So there was a high rate of infant and child mortality at this time.
Jesus in Jerusalem
Many archaeological discoveries have been made at Jerusalem that support the Biblical account of the life of Jesus. These include:
– The site of the Pool of Bethesda and the Pool of Siloam.
– An ornate burial ossuary (bone box) that may contain the bones of Caiaphas the Jewish high priest.
– A heel bone driven through with an iron crucifixion nail found in the burial of a Jewish man named Yehohanan.
Also, an inscription was found in Caesarea attesting to the rule of Pontius Pilate (the Pilate stone).
What did Jesus look like?
Jesus was a Palestinian Jew. Since Roman-era frescos, artists have drawn and painted images of Jesus which tend to reflect the era when they were created. When Jesus was arrested in the garden of Gethsemane before the crucifixion, Judas Iscariot had to show the soldiers who Jesus was because they could not tell him apart from his disciples (Mt. 26:48-49; Mk. 14:44-45). Richard Neave, a medical artist retired from The University of Manchester in England, specializes in recreating images of historical figures. In 2015 he used three skulls from the time of Jesus to create an image of a typical adult man who lived in the same place and at the same time as Jesus. This image had dark olive skin, short curly hair, a prominent nose, dark eyes, a beard and was about 1.55 m (5ft 1in) tall and weighed about 50 kg (110 pounds). Neave’s image is probably a lot closer to the truth than the portrayal of Jesus by the artists.
Lessons for us
The National Geographic article confirms that archaeological discoveries in Palestine are consistent with the New Testament and do not contradict it.
But the best place to search for the real Jesus is in the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Acts give the best historical accounts and selective biographies of the life of Jesus Christ. As these were written within a few decades of the events they recount, they are more accurate than opinions formed by commentators about 2,000 years later.
So, read the New Testament to find out what Jesus did and taught and how His ministry impacted people across the Roman Empire in the first century. Since then, His ministry has impacted people across the world.
Romey K (2017) “The search for the real Jesus”, National Geographic, 323, 6 (Dec 2017), 30-69
Written, February 2019
Also see: Extra-biblical evidence of Jesus
“One Strange Rock” is a National Geographic television documentary series. It tells the story of how life survives and thrives on planet Earth, as told by eight astronauts from their unique perspective of being away from Earth. It lists 12 things that make life possible on Earth.
- Our planet recycles life-friendly carbon over time
Carbon dioxide is one of many greenhouse gases that trap heat and keep the Earth’s surface warm enough to support life. The static surfaces of Venus and Mars (our nearest planets) keep carbon locked in the air and rocks. But Earth dynamically cycles this vital element through its air, land, and sea due to the constant action of plate tectonics.
- We have an ozone layer to block harmful rays
The stratospheric (high-altitude) layer of ozone shields life from lethal radiation. It acts as a filter for the shorter wavelength and highly hazardous ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
- We have a big moon to stabilize our axial wobble
Earth is titled with respect to the sun, and teeters as it spins. This tiny wobble can shift the climate from hot to icy – and might vary more without the moon’s stabilizing pull. The wobble with the moon is 2 degrees, but without the moon it would be 20 degrees.
- Earth’s varied surfaces support many life-forms
The dramatic effects of plate tectonics formed different surface habitats and terrains.
In my opinion the global flood in Noah’s time and the associated tectonic movements and erosion had a major influence on the Earth’s landforms. Most of the world’s mountain ranges are composed of sedimentary rock full of marine fossils laid down by the flood. After the flood, sheet flow eroded large plateaus (like the Blue Mountains in New South Wales) and channel flow cut large gorges (like the Grose valley in the Blue Mountains) that now have underfit rivers.
- Our magnetic field deflects solar tempests
Sparked by charged particles from the sun, mesmerizing auroras are a visual reminder of our magnetic field, which deflects the bulk of our sun’s damaging radiation and solar flares.
- We’re just the right distance from the sun
Its neither too hot nor too cold so that water can be liquid on its surface. Its too hot on Venus and too cold on Mars (our nearest planets).
- We’re situated safely away from gas giants
If the orbits of the solar system’s biggest planets were much closer, tugs from their powerful gravity could cause disastrous fluctuations in Earth’s distance from the sun.
- The sun is a stable long-lasting star
Stars more massive than the sun burn hotter and usually are not long-lasting. Less massive, younger stars are often unstable and prone to blasting their planets with bursts of radiation.
- We have giant planets that protect us from afar
Jupiter thins out the asteroid belt, protecting Earth from overly frequent collisions.
- The sun offers protection from galactic debris
The sun engulfs its planets in a bubble of charged particles that repel dangerous radiation and harmful materials coming from interstellar space.
- Our galactic path steers us clear of hazards
The solar system is comfortably nestled in a safe harbor between major spiral arms, and its nearly circular orbit helps it avoid the galaxy’s perilous inner regions.
- Our location is far from stellar crowds
There are relatively few stars near the sun, reducing risks to Earth from gravitational tugs, gamma-ray bursts, or collapsing stars called supernovae.
So Earth is an ideal place to live.
An ideal place
National Geographic summarizes, “Earth is well-equipped as a planet and ideally placed in our solar system and galaxy to support life. Our planet is flush with life thanks to a fortuitous set of conditions, from the optimal chemical makeup of our planetary core to our safe distance from the hidden black hole at the heart of our galaxy”.
National Geographic says that Earth is in an ideal place in the universe for its inhabitants to thrive. It’s the most incredible place in the universe because it’s so perfectly calibrated for its inhabitants. It’s the only haven for life in the whole universe.
National Geographic call this “a fortuitous set of conditions”, but it looks like the perfect design of an intelligent Creator to me. According to our knowledge, these set of conditions don’t occur accidentally or naturally. They use the evolutionary creation myth to explain it, “Earth began as a single grain of dust. It grew into a living breathing world. Sustained by a web of interconnected systems”. This is pure imagination and speculation. They think this miracle is more believable by assuming that it’s the result of a process over billions of years of supposed history. They say, “Somehow our planet cooked up stardust and made life”! They have a lot of faith, because this goes against all the experience of observational science that life only comes from life, it never comes from non-living material alone.
That’s the explanation given by those with the worldview of naturalism, which assumes that God doesn’t exist. Instead they assume that matter exists eternally and is all there is. Nature is all there is. So, it’s called naturalism.
A word from the Creator
But what does God think of our Earth? The prophet Isaiah wrote, For this is what the Lord says— He who created the heavens (stars), He is God; He who fashioned and made the Earth, He founded it; He did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited— He says: “I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isa. 45:18NIV). Here is an explanation of the “fortuitous set of conditions” that make life possible on Earth. They were created, fashioned, made, and formed by God. Earlier in this book Isaiah taught that God made the Earth and the stars (Isa. 40:21-26). It was made for people and the animals. They were present from the beginning, not billions of years after the beginning (Gen. 1:1 – 2:2). Whereas naturalism says that the Earth was mostly empty and humanity only appeared billions of years later.
The Hebrew word translated “inhabited” in this verse, yashab (Strongs #3427), occurs 62 times in the book of Isaiah. He uses it to describe such things as:
– the people living in Jerusalem (5:3; 8:14; 12:6; 22:21; 44:26).
– the people on Earth, (18:3; 26:9, 18, 21; 38:11; 40:22).
– and people living in other locations.
This verse is in a passage that says that the Creator God is the only true God who is superior to idols (44:6-45:25). The immediate context is saying that God is unique. For example, “there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me” (45:21).
I have not quoted any of the dates used by National Geographic as these are speculative and not calibrated against any historical records. Instead they are derived from their naturalistic worldview.
Lessons for us
National Geographic lists 12 things that make life possible on Earth. And these are all essential for life. However, its evolutionary creation story is weak because it assumes naturalism.
But the Bible tells the true story of how life survives and thrives on planet Earth, as told from the unique perspective of the God who created it and sustains it. He provides some of the facts that are missing in the National Geographic’s worldview. That’s one of the reasons why I think Christian theism is a better worldview than naturalism.
Reference: “One strange rock”, National Geographic (March 2018) 33, 3, 78-87.
Written, April 2018
The National Geographic Channel is screening a documentary series “The story of God with Morgan Freeman”. It asks big cosmological questions like; How did we get here? What happens when we die? Why does evil exist? What is the apocalypse? And, the power of miracles. The series blends science, history, anthropology and personal experience on a journey to understand humanity’s religious devotion. It tells the story of religion and spirituality, across disciplines and faiths.
Freeman played God in the movie “Bruce Almighty”. When asked about his picture of God, Freeman said, “I don’t think there is an image of God. I like the idea of rays coming down from clouds. I like the idea of seeing the Milky Way on a clear and starry night or under a full moon. That is the essence of existence. You’re there totally with the great unknown. That’s God”. Also, “The highest power is the human mind. That’s where God came from, and my belief in God is my belief in myself”.
Many people are aware of a spiritual dimension to life. They may sense a divine higher being that provides meaning and purpose and moral guidance. Or they may realize that their capacity for thinking, willing and feeling is beyond the physical realm. The fact that we need to find meaning and purpose in our lives means that we are spiritual beings.
A Google search on “spiritual answers” gives a range of responses including those based on, meditation, yoga, Christianity, Hinduism, Mormonism, psychics, mysticism, and higher consciousness. Some say that all religions lead to God and heaven. But, according to the Bible that’s not true.
True and false
When Jesus was in Sychar, He asked a Samaritan woman for water to drink from the well. In their conversation Jesus mentioned her previous five husbands. She responded by calling him a prophet and discussing places of worship. Then Jesus said, “a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews” (Jn. 4:21-22NIV). The Samaritan Bible contained only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible). Samaritans worshipped the true God, but their failure to accept much of His revelation meant that they knew little about Him. They mixed the law of Moses with idolatry and built a temple on Mount Gerizim. Consequently, Jesus condemned their ways of worship and spiritual practices, which must have been inconsistent with the Old Testament (the Bible at that time). He corrected her by saying that God’s revelation in Scripture came through the Jews (their Scripture taught that a Messiah was coming into the world) and the Messiah (who was talking to her) was Jewish.
Jesus is saying that God can now be worshipped in any place. In the Old Testament the Israelites were to worship God at the tabernacle (as it moved from Sinai to Canaan) or at the temple (in Jerusalem). But after Jesus came, there’s no one special place to worship God. Instead, our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Cor. 6:16). We can worship God anywhere. And corporate worship is possible wherever Christians gather together. Also, Jesus said that He was metaphorically the new temple, the new meeting place with God – “Destroy this temple (His body), and I will raise it again in three days” (Jn. 2:19).
Then Jesus said that because God is spirit, people must worship God “in the Spirit and in truth” – “a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (Jn. 4:23-24).
Because truth is associated with Jesus Christ, true worship must include Jesus (Jn. 1:14; 14:6). Jesus is “full of grace and truth”. And He’s “the way and the truth and the life”. So there is true worship and false worship. There is true religion and false religion. There is true spirituality and false spirituality. This is how to test spiritual answers. Because the Samaritan worship didn’t include Jesus (as Messiah), it was a false worship. A false religion. Jesus said, “Whoever rejects me rejects Him who sent me (Lk. 10:16). If you reject Jesus, you reject the true God. This means that Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, and any other religion or philosophy that does not accept Jesus as the divine Savior of the world who came to die for sinners and rise again and become the Mediator between God and humanity is false. The Bible says that only one religion leads to God and heaven – true Christianity. Despite our pluralistic, multicultural, relativistic and all-tolerant world, all other religions are false.
What about Morgan Freeman’s search around the world for spiritual answers? He said that “the great unknown” is God. Is this true or false? It’s false because God has revealed much more about Himself in the Bible. His search doesn’t include Jesus at all. And God is much more that our mind or our self-belief. What about all the religions and philosophies? All except Christianity as described in the Bible are false. They don’t include Jesus. Or if they do include Jesus, it’s not the Jesus described in the Bible.
Lessons for us
Don’t be like Morgan Freeman and look for spiritual answers in the wrong places. And the results of a Google search that don’t include Jesus as described in the Bible are wrong places.
It’s easy to be influenced by others. For example, the Israelites were influenced to worship the gods of other nations. Likewise, today we can be influenced by the news media, social media, academics, politicians, and movies. In fact, we can be influenced by anyone.
Let’s look in the Bible for our spiritual answers and not be swayed by the other false religions and philosophies.
Written, May 2016