“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