National Geographic’s December 2017 issue contains an article “The Search for the Real Jesus” by Kristen Romey which discusses the archaeological evidence for Jesus of Nazareth. It can be read online here. It was more positive than I was expecting in a secular magazine. It showed that the archaeological evidence tends to support, and does not contradict, the New Testament’s account of Jesus.
Some skeptics claim that Jesus never existed. I discussed this in New Atheists and the existence of Jesus. Romey describes it as “an explosive question that lurks in the shadows of historical Jesus studies: Might it be possible that Jesus never even existed, that the whole stained glass story is pure invention?” (p 42-43)
It is not really an “explosive question” because there is no debate among historians about the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Romey agrees the suggestion is groundless and is not supported by scholars. She quotes Eric Meyers of Duke University,
“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.” (p 42)
Romey writes, “Even John Dominic Crossan , a former priest and co-chair of the Jesus Seminar, a controversial scholarly forum, believes the radical skeptics go too far. Granted, stories of Christ’s miraculous deeds healing the sick with a few words, feeding a multitude with a few morsels of bread and fish, even restoring life to a corpse four days dead – are hard for modern minds to embrace. But that’s no reason to conclude that Jesus of Nazareth was a religious fable.” (p 42)
It is not completely accurate to say that modern minds find it hard to embrace accounts of the miraculous and supernatural. The majority of people in the modern or postmodern world still believe in God, gods or the supernatural in some form. Those who reject the supernatural are in the minority.
It is hard for some scholars to accept the supernatural details in the life of Jesus not because science has somehow disproved the supernatural and modern people no longer believe in the supernatural. They reject the supernatural details because of their preconceptions, their naturalistic, anti-supernatural worldview.
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 basically 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? I have discussed this in The Historical Jesus. Romey describes this division,
“Scholars who study Jesus divide into two opposing camps separated by a very bright line: those who believe the wonder-working Jesus of the Gospels is the real Jesus and those who think the real Jesus – the man who inspired the myth – hides below the surface of the Gospels and must be revealed by historical research and literary analysis. Both camps claim archaeology as their ally, leading to some fractious debates and strange bedfellows.” (p 43)
This is not really accurate. Bart Ehrman states that”most scholars in both the United States and Europe over the past century have been convinced that Jesus is best understood as a Jewish apocalyptic preacher who anticipated that God was soon to intervene in history to overthrow the powers of evil, now controlling the world in order to bring in a new order, a new kingdom here on earth, the kingdom of God.” (Bart Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist?, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 270)
There is some truth to this, but not in the way that Ehrman is suggesting. God did intervene in history, evil was defeated and the old world did end in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God was established in the Church, in the lives of Christians where Jesus is king.
Likewise, there are also some skeptical scholars who still accept that Jesus performed miracles or appeared to perform miracles (Mark Strauss, Four Portraits, One Jesus, Zondervan, Michigan, 2006, p 363-365, 368)
Romey discusses the archaeological evidence for the events of Jesus’ life. She says that some scholars doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The accounts of his birth in Matthew and Luke differ (p 46). New Testament scholars talk about the criterion of multiple attestation to determine the authenticity of events in the Gospels. If an event is recorded in more than one source, it is more likely to be authentic. The fact that the two accounts of Jesus’ birth are not identical suggests that there are two independent sources for Jesus’ virgin birth at Bethlehem.
Romey writes, “Some suspect that the Gospel writers located Jesus’ Nativity in Bethlehem to tie the Galilean peasant to the Judean city prophesied in the Old Testament as the birthplace of the Messiah.” (p 46)
However, if Jesus had not been born in Bethlehem, his followers would have believed he was the Messiah.
Romey writes that archaeology cannot prove or disprove that two people visited Bethlehem and gave birth to a child;
“Many of the scholars I spoke to are neutral on the question of Christ’s birthplace, the physical evidence being too elusive to make a call.” (p 46)
Romey then turns to Nazareth. She does not mention it but some skeptics used to claim that Nazareth did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime. Their claims have been disproved by archaeological discoveries showing that Nazareth was there before Jesus was born (Robert Hutchinson, Searching for Jesus, Nelson Books, Tennessee, 2015, p 98-100).
The modern “search for the historical Jesus” tends to focus more on Jesus’ Jewish background. Romey writes,
“Jesus was raised in Nazareth, a small agricultural village in southern Galilee. Scholars who understand him in strictly human terms – as a religious reformer, or a social revolutionary, or an apocalyptic prophet, or even a Jewish jihadist – plumb the political, economic, and social currents of first-century Galilee to discover the forces that gave rise to the man and his mission….. Others imagine the onslaught of Greco-Roman culture molding Jesus into a less Jewish, more cosmopolitan champion of social justice. In 1991 John Dominic Crossan published a bombshell of a book, The Historical Jesus, in which he put forward the theory that the real Jesus was a wandering sage whose countercultural lifestyle and subversive sayings bore striking parallels to the cynics.” (p 46)
The Cynics were basically ancient Greek hippies. Romey continues,
“Crossan’s unorthodox thesis was inspired by archaeological discoveries showing that Galilee – long thought to have been a rural backwater and an isolated Jewish enclave – was in fact more urbanized and romanized than scholars once imagined, and partly by the fact that Jesus’ boyhood home was just three miles from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital.” (p 47)
According to Crossan, Sepphoris was a Gentile city where the young Jesus was exposed to the ideas of Greek Cynic philosophers and he became a Jewish Cynic.
There are problems with Crossan’s theory. There is no evidence there ever were any Cynics in first century Galilee. Moreover, the archaeological evidence shows that Sepphoris was Jewish. Romey writes,
“At least 30 mitzvahs, or jewish ritual baths, dot the residential quarter of Sepphoris – 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.”(p 60)
As Craig Evans, Professor at Acadia Divinity college, put it,
“All this evidence leads to the firm conclusion that Sepphoris in Jesus’ day was a thoroughly Jewish city. There is absolutely no reason whatsoever to think there may have been Cynics loitering in the streets of Sepphoris on the lookout for Jewish youths from nearby Nazareth.” (Craig Evans, Jesus and His World, The Archaeological Evidence, Westminster John Knox Press, Kentucky, 2013, p 26-27)
All these attempts to reinvent Jesus do not make sense in that they do not explain why Jesus was crucified. The Romans did not crucify people for being Cynic philosophers, religious reformers or apocalyptic prophets saying the world was going to end. They would have crucified Jesus for being a revolutionary or “Jewish jihadist” and trying to overthrow Roman rule. However, if that had been the case, the Romans would have crucified his followers who would have also been revolutionaries. Instead, they left them alone and they went on to found the church.
The fact that the Romans crucified Jesus while leaving his followers alone, suggests that they were not a political threat and Jesus had not taught or encourage them to overthrow Roman rule. The New Testament account, that Pilate did not believe Jesus was a threat, but the Jewish authorities, who were offended by his teachings and claims, pressured him into crucifying Jesus sounds more credible.
Moreover, there were times when Jesus condemned violence (Matthew 5:39, 26:52). He did not sound like a political revolutionary.
The theory, that Jesus was a revolutionary, and all the other theories about who the supposed historical Jesus really was, basically have to ignore or explain away all the passages where Jesus said and did things which contradict their theories. They come up with different and contradictory ideas about who Jesus “really” was because they do not want to belive what the actual historical documents, the New Testament, say Jesus was, the sinless, miracle-working Son of God. The so-called search for the historical Jesus often rejects the historical evidence.
Getting back to Romey’s article, she also discusses the 1968 discovery of a first century house in Capernaum, Galilee, which was used as a meeting place and later converted into a Christian church. It cannot be proved but some scholars believe this was Peter’s house described in Matthew 8:14 (p 60-61).
She also mentions the discovery of the “Jesus boat” at the Sea of Galilee which dates to the first century AD, although we cannot know if it was one of the boats Jesus used in the Gospels (p 64).
Some skeptics claimed that there were no synagogues in Galilee during Jesus’ lifetime, so the Gospel accounts of Jesus visiting synagogues must be wrong. However, Romey reports that in 2009 archaeologists discovered a first century synagogue in Magdala, Galilee, Mary Magdalene’s hometown (p 64-65).
I have written about synagogues from this period here.
Romey writes about archaeology and the death of Jesus,
“I marvel at the many archaeological discoveries made in Jerusalem and elsewhere over the years that lend credibility to the Scriptures and traditions surrounding the death of Jesus, including an ornate ossuary that may contain the bones of Caiaphas, an inscription attesting to the rule of Pontius Pilate and a heel bone driven through with an iron nail, found in the Jerusalem burial of a Jewish man named Yehohanan.” (p 68)
Some skeptics claimed that the victims of crucifixion were not buried, so the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ burial are wrong, Again, the archaeological evidence has disproved the claims of the skeptics (p 65).
The article also contains a good fold-out chart showing how the site of Jesus’ tomb was transformed into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over the centuries.
Archaeology cannot prove that everything in the New Testament happened or that Jesus was the Son of God. Nevertheless, the archaeological evidence tends to support the New Testament accounts and does not contradict it.