Tuesday, April 19

Does Archaeology Support the New Testament?

Archaeology is important, it helps us determine how events played out, provides evidence for accounts once considered myth or legend, it gives credence to ancient documents, it helps us learn more about an ancient culture, how the society functioned, how the economy worked, the like. When examining the New Testament, while it is sometimes claimed that there is no evidence for events which are mentioned nor the people mentioned within, once Archaeology is utilized, it gives credence to the events or people found within. (Photo credit: Wikimedia, IMJ, Ellen G. White)

Understand that this is a brief overview of biblical archaeology, there are many discoveries which confirm the existence of places, people, or events mentioned in the Bible, volumes of books have been written on the subject, we will merely examine some of these discoveries and their significance. For centuries, there have been those who formulate the accusation that most of the events, places, and people found in the New Testament did not exist. Yet even in the last hundred years, we have discovered much evidence which supports the New Testament.

In a recent entry, we examined the historical evidence for Jesus Christ, and illustrated that the life of Jesus found within the Gospels is the only one which fits all of the evidence. (See entry: "Did Jesus Really Exist? Is There Any Historical Evidence?") The existence of Pontius Pilate was, for a long time, called into question by secular historians and archaeologists alike. However, Pilate was mentioned in several first century documents written by the likes of Cornelius Tacitus, Flavius Josephus, as well as others. But in 1961, a discovery snuffed out any doubt.

Pilate Inscription
"The Pilate Stone was discovered in 1961 at the site of Caesarea Maritima, the seat of the Roman prefect of Judea, and is the only known ancient inscription bearing the name of the Roman prefect who condemned Jesus... it records the dedication of a 'Tiberium' (a building in honor of the emperor Tiberius) by... [translated] 'Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.'"[1] This discovery was significant and that it provided evidence for the existence of Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea under Emperor Tiberius. In the Gospels, Jesus was sent to Pilate (twice), and after fearing an uprising, handed Jesus over to be crucified under Roman law. 

The John Rylands papyrus (125 AD) records part of the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, fragments of which is found in John 18:31-33, 37-38, further establishing the veracity of the circumstances surrounding the death of Jesus. This mention of Pilate is another useful archaeological discovery which supports the accounts found within the New Testament.[2]

As for Tiberius, we have several documents that confirm his historicity. Emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD), reigned during the adulthood and crucifixion of Jesus. (Matthew 22:17, 21; Mark 12:14-17; Luke 3:1, 20:22-25, 23:2; John 19:12, 15).The likeness of Tiberius has been discovered on objects. The likeness of Roman Emperor Claudius (41-54 AD) who ordered the Jews to leave Rome has also been discovered (Acts 11:28, 17:7, 18:2) Herod Agrippa I, ruler of Judea (37-44), who persecuted the early Christians (Acts 12:1-23, 23:35) has also been given credence, as there have been found objects containing his likeness.[3]

Aretas IV, (9 BC-40 AD), king of the Nabateans, also has been given support via objects with his likeness. His governor in Damascus tried to arrest Paul (2nd Corinthians 11:32). The infamous Nero (Caesar in the New Testament), who reigned from 54-68 AD, also has objects with his likeness on them. Paul appealed to him, and Nero had blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome, although it was actually Nero (Acts 25:11, 12, 21; 26:32; 28:19; Philippians 4:22).[4]

Archaeologists have also discovered the burial sites of important New Testament figures. Take Caesar Augustus, for example. Augustus ruled the Roman empire from 27 BC-14 AD. Augustus is the one who issued the census which brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, where  Jesus Christ was born when they were there (Luke 2:1-7). "Augustus erected for himself a grand mausoleum in Rome, on the east bank of the Tiber River, one quarter mile northwest of the Roman Forum. The remains exist today in the middle of the Piazza Augusto Imperatore. It was 285 feet in diameter and 143 feet high, surmounted by a statue of the emperor. His ashes were placed in an urn in the center, while those of other members of the dynasty were place in urns in a corridor around a central cylinder. Although some of the urns were found in place by excavators, the ashes had long since disappeared."[5]

Sir William Ramsay, considered one of the greatest archaeologists to have ever lived, was trained in a German historical school in the mid-nineteenth century. He had been taught that Acts was written in the mid-second century AD, and as a result, set out to prove such. His conclusions were a complete reversal, admitting that he had found overwhelming evidence in his research which confirmed the reliability and veracity of the New Testament, specifically the works of Dr. Luke. As put by Ramsay, "I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without prejudice in favour of the conclusion which I shall now seek to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavorable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tubingen theory had at one time quite convinced me. It did not then lie in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. In fact, beginning with a fixed idea that the work was essentially a second century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations."[6]

Ramsay also said, "Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense; he fixes his mind on the idea and plan that rules in the evolution of history, and proportions the scale of his treatment to the importance of each incident. He seizes the important and critical events and shows their nature at greater length, while he touches lightly or omits entirely much that was valueless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."[7]

As for other burial sites of New Testament figures, the ossuary (burial box) of Caiaphas is an important discovery. Caiaphas was the high priest for eighteen years, from 18-36 AD. He is remembered as the one who lead the conspiracy to put Jesus to death. In John 11:50 he is recorded as saying, "You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish." Here, Caiaphas was referencing the possible intervention of Roman authorities. His words are significant - and prophetic in nature - Jesus did die for the people, indeed, for all of humanity.

Upon his arrest, Jesus was taken to the house of Caiaphas, was detained overnight, and was mocked and beat. Caiaphas asked Jesus, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One? "I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." (Mark 14:61-62) Caiaphas then proceeded to hand Jesus over to Pilate, and after a back-and-forth between Pilate and Herod, Pilate had Jesus crucified.  Jesus replied, "

After the crucifixion, Caiaphas continued to persecute Christians. In Acts 5:28-29, having brought the apostles before the religious leaders, he says to them, "'We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name,' he said. 'Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's blood.' Peter and the other apostles replied: 'We must obey God rather than human beings!'" It was significant, then, when the family tomb of Caiaphas was found in 1990.

Ossuary of Caiaphas
"The Caiaphas family tomb was accidentally discovered by workers constructing a road in a park just south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Archaeologists were hastily called to the scene. When they examined the tomb they found 12 ossuaries (limestone bone boxes) containing the remains of 63 individuals. The most beautifully decorated of the ossuaries was inscribed with the name "Joseph son of (or, of the family of) Caiaphas." That was the full name of the high priest who arrested Jesus, as documented by Josephus (Antiquities 18: 2, 2; 4, 3). Inside were the remains of a 60-year-old male, almost certainly those of the Caiaphas of the New Testament."[8]

It has also been claimed that the tomb of Jesus, the ossuary of James brother of Jesus, and the burial site of Simon Peter (at St. Peter's Basilica) has be found, and while there is evidence, what we do know is controversial and not conclusive, though interesting. There have also been some important places discovered by archaeologists. Take "The Pavement," (also called Gabbatha), the place where Jesus was tried by Pilate. (John 19:13) For many, it was a myth, thus the Bible was called unreliable. 

However, William F. Albright, in The Archaeology of Palestine, showed that this court was the court of the Tower of Antonia, the Roman military headquarters of Rome, in Jerusalem. This court was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem, which spanned 66-70 AD. It had been left buried when Jerusalem was rebuilt in the time of Emperor Hadrian and was not discovered until a few decades ago.[9]

The Pool of Bethesda was another important discovery. It was a site with no record aside from the New Testament, but has been discovered "in the northeast quarter of the old city (the area called Bezetha, or 'New Lawn') in the first century A.D., where traces of it were discovered in the course of excavations near the Church of St. Anne in 1888."[9] Jesus healed a crippled man here (John 5:1-14). 

Other important discoveries include "the foundation of the synagogue at Capernaum where Jesus cured a man with an unclean spirit (Mark 1:21-28) and delivered the sermon on the bread of life (John 6:25-59), the house of Peter at Capernaum where Jesus healed Peter's mother-in-law and others (Matthew 8:14-16), Jacob's well where Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman (John 4) ...the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where Jesus healed a blind man (John 9:1-4), the tribunal at Corinth where Paul was tried (Acts 18:12-17), the theater at Ephesus where the riot of silversmiths occurred (Acts 19:29), [and] Herod's palace at Caesarea where Paul was kept under guard (Acts 23:33-35)."[10]

Many have raised an issue regarding the census that took place at the time of Jesus' birth. As put by Clifford Wilson, "Problems about the census at the time of our Lord's birth have been resolved by the findings of important papyrus documents. These documents were found in Egypt inside sacred, embalmed crocodiles. The documents were the Jewish priestly writings that were written immediately before, during, and just after New Testament times. The excavators Granfell and Hunt reported that their evidence showed that this was the first census (poll tax - enrollment) that took place in the time of Quirinius. (Another inscription has shown that Qurinius was in Syria twice - first as a military leader at the time of civil unrest, and later as Governor of Syria.) The census was probably delayed in Palestine because of that civil unrest."[11]

Pool of Bethesda
Wilson continues, "The papyri from those Egyptian 'talking crocodiles' have demonstrated that the New Testament documents are remarkable records of the times claimed for them in the language of 'everyday' people. Those everyday expressions from Paul's time have also thrown much light on Paul's writings themselves."[12] While archaeology is useful for confirmation of God's Word, it does not necessarily prove the Bible, however, it does lend credence to the New Testament. There is also much evidence for people, places and events mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, covered in another entry, also shed much light on the 1st Century, during the period the New Testament was written, and lends credence to the texts. Archaeology is an important tool in illustrating the veracity of the Biblical Record, and as Paul succinctly puts it in 2nd Timothy 3:16-17, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that all God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." 

Troy Hillman

[1] Hillerbrand, Hans J. Christianity: The Illustrated History. 1st ed. London: Sterling Publishing Co, Inc., 2008. 13. Print.
[2] Ham, Ken, and Clifford Wilson. The New Answers Book 1. 12th ed. 1. Green Forest, AR: Master Books, 2009. 318-319. Print.
[3] Wood, Bryant G. "Have any likenesses been found of persons named in the Bible?." Christian Answers Network. Christian Answers Network, 1995. Web. Mar 2011. .
[4] Ibid.
[5] Lanser, Rick. "Have the burial sites of any people in the Bible been found?." Christian Answers Network. Christian Answers Network, 2002. Web. Mar 2011. .
[6] Ramsay, W.M. St Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen. Grand Rpaids: Baker Book House, 1962. Print.
[7] Ramsay, Sir W.M. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915. Print.
[8] Ibid, [5]
[9] Bruce, F.F. "Archaeological Confirmation of the New Testament." Revelation and the Bible.
Edited by Carl Henry. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1969. Print.
[10] Wood, Bryant G. "Have any man-made structures mentioned in the Bible been unearthed by archaeologists?." Christian Answers Network. Christian Answers Network, 1995. Web. Mar 2011. .
[11] Ibid, [2]
[12] Ibid, [2]

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