ARCHAEOLOGICAL AND PHYSICAL HISTORICAL EVIDENCE RELATED TO JESUS

HISTORICAL EVIDENCE FROM THE TIME OF JESUS IN GALILEE


Magdala Stone

Daniel Estrin of Associated Press wrote: “Israel is one of the most excavated places on the planet. Some 300 digs take place each year, including about 50 foreign expeditions from as far away as the United States and Japan, the Antiquities Authority said. About 40,000 artifacts are dug up in Israel each year. A third of all the antiquities found attest to the ancient Christian presence in the Holy Land, Gideon Avni, head of the archaeological division of the Israel Antiquities Authority, said. Historians now know how long it took to travel between cities and villages where Jesus preached, and what those places looked like at the time. Avni said knowledge of the period has advanced over the past 20 years. "We can reconstruct precisely how the country looked," he said. [Source: Daniel Estrin, Associated Press, March 19, 2017]

Archaeologists began seriously for clues to Jesus and his time period in the Holy Land about 150 years ago. A synagogue dating to the time of Jesus and thought to be modeled after the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem was recently unearthed in Magdala, the hometown of Mary Magdalene located on the Sea of Galilee. The Magdala Stone, which might have served as a ceremonial Torah stand found at the site is now kept in Israel’s national treasures storerooms. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

In the 1970s, Franciscan archaeologists began excavating part of Magdala around a closed-down lakeside resort called Hawaii Beach. Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: ““Enter Father Juan Solana, a papal appointee charged with overseeing a pilgrimage guesthouse in Jerusalem. In 2004 Solana “felt the leading of Christ” to build a pilgrims’ retreat in Galilee, so he set about raising millions of dollars and buying up parcels of waterfront land, including the failed resort. As construction was about to begin in 2009, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority showed up to survey the site, as required by law. After a few weeks of probing the rocky soil, they were startled to discover the buried ruins of a synagogue from the time of Jesus—the first such structure unearthed in Galilee. ^|^

“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. If those skeptics were right, their claim would shred the Gospels’ portrait of Jesus as a faithful synagogue-goer who often proclaimed his message and performed miracles in these Jewish meeting places. ^|^

“As archaeologists excavated the ruins, they uncovered walls lined with benches—indicating that this was a synagogue—and a mosaic floor. At the centre of the room they were astounded to find a stone about the size of a footlocker that showed the most sacred elements of the Temple in Jerusalem carved in relief. The discovery of the Magdala Stone, as the artefact has come to be called, struck a death blow to the once fashionable notion that Galileans were impious hillbillies detached from Israel’s religious centre. ^|^


“As archaeologists continued to dig, they discovered an entire town buried less than a foot below the surface. The ruins were so well preserved that some began calling Magdala the “Israeli Pompeii.” Archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni walks me through the site, pointing out the remains of storerooms, ritual baths, and an industrial area where fish may have been processed and sold. “I can just imagine women buying fish in the market right there,” she says, nodding toward the foundations of stone stalls. And who knows? Maybe those women included the town’s famous native daughter, Mary of Magdala. ^|^

Father Solana told National Geographic: “We see the number of times that the Gospels mention Jesus in a Galilee synagogue.” Considering the fact that the synagogue was active during his ministry and just a brief sail from Capernaum, Solana concludes, “we have no reason to deny or doubt that Jesus was here.” ^|^

Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Early Christian Writing earlychristianwritings.com ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Early Christian Art oneonta.edu/farberas/arth/arth212/Early_Christian_art ; Early Christian Images jesuswalk.com/christian-symbols ; Early Christian and Byzantine Images belmont.edu/honors/byzart2001/byzindex ; Jesus and the Historical Jesus ; Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; Wikipedia article on Historical Jesus Wikipedia ; Jesus Seminar Forum virtualreligion.net ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ; Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org

Jesus-Era Perfume Vials found in Mary Magdalene’s Home Town

In 2008. Franciscan archeologists working in Israel announced that they had found found vials of perfume that that may have been similar to that used by Mary Magdalene to wash Jesus' feet Reuters reported: “A team of Franciscan archaeologists digging in the biblical town of Magdala in what is now Israel say they have unearthed vials of perfume similar to those that may have been used by the woman said to have washed Jesus' feet. [Source: Reuters, November 12, 2008 /:\]


synagogue in Magdala, hometown of Mary Magdalene

“The perfumed ointments were found intact at the bottom of a mud-filled swimming pool, alongside hair and make-up objects, the director of the dig conducted by the group Studium Biblicum Franciscanum told the Terrasanta.net religious website. "If chemical analyses confirm it, these could be perfumes and creams similar to those that Mary Magdalene or the sinner cited in the Gospel used to anoint Christ's feet," Father Stefano de Luca, the lead archaeologist, told the website. /:\

“Mary Magdalene is cited in the New Testament as a steadfast disciple of Christ from whom seven demons were cast out. She is often considered the sinner who anointed Jesus' feet. "The discovery of the ointments in Magdala at any rate is of great importance. Even if Mary Magdalene was not the woman who washed Christ's feet, we have in our hands 'cosmetic products' from Christ's time," De Luca said. /:\

“Magdala was the name of an ancient town near the shores of the Sea of Galilee in what is now northern Israel. A Palestinian Arab village stood near the site until the war at Israel's establishment in 1948, and an Israeli town called Migdal now occupies the area. "It's very likely that the woman who anointed Christ's feet used these ointments, or products that were similar in composition and quality," De Luca said. Studium Biblicum Franciscanum supports research in biblical studies but focuses on archaeological excavation of sites linked to the New Testament and early Christianity in the Middle East.” /:\

Jesus Boat

The Kibbutz Nof Ginnisar Museum in Kibbutz Ginossar (10 minutes from Tiberas on the Sea of Galilee) is the home for a 24-foot, 2000-year-old fishing boat found well preserved in the Sea of Galilee mud in 1986. It has been dubbed the “Jesus boat” because many scholars are convinced that the boat dates back to the time of Jesus.

The “Jesus boat” was discovered in 1986 by two amateur archaeologists, exploring the Sea of Galilee coast at a time when the water level was low and found the remains of the wooden boat buried in sediment. Professional archaeologists excavated it and found it dates to around 2,000 years ago. There is no evidence that Jesus or his apostles used this specific vessel. Recently archaeologists discovered a town dating back more than 2,000 years that was located on the shoreline where the boat was found. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]


Jesus Boat

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “A severe drought had drastically lowered the lake’s water level, and as two brothers from the community hunted for ancient coins in the mud of the exposed lake bed, they spotted the faint outline of a boat. Archaeologists who examined the vessel found artefacts dating to the Roman era inside and next to the hull. Carbon 14 testing later confirmed the boat’s age: It was from roughly the lifetime of Jesus. Efforts to keep the discovery under wraps soon failed, and news of the “Jesus boat” sent a stampede of relic hunters scouring the lakeshore, threatening the fragile artefact. Just then the rains returned, and the lake level began to rise. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“The round-the-clock “rescue excavation” that ensued was an archaeological feat for the record books. A project that normally would take months to plan and execute was completed, start to finish, in just 11 days. Once exposed to air, the boat’s waterlogged timbers would quickly disintegrate. So archaeologists supported the remains with a fiberglass frame and polyurethane foam and floated it to safety. ^|^

“Today the treasured boat has pride of place in a museum on the kibbutz, near the spot where it was discovered. Measuring two metres wide and 8 metres long, it could have accommodated 13 men... To be candid, it’s not much to look at: a skeleton of planks repeatedly patched and repaired until it was finally stripped and scuttled. They had to nurse this boat along until they couldn’t nurse it any longer,” says Crossan, who likens the vessel to “some of those cars you see in Havana.” But its value to historians is incalculable, he says. Seeing “how hard they had to work to keep that boat afloat tells me a lot about the economics of the Sea of Galilee and the fishing at the time of Jesus.” ^|^

Historical Evidence Related to Jesus in Sepphoris


ritual bath in Sepphoris, five kilometers from Jesus’ boyhood home

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “Jesus’ boyhood home was just five kilometres from Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital. Although the city isn’t mentioned in the Gospels, an ambitious building campaign fuelled by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, would have attracted skilled workers from all the surrounding villages. Many scholars think it’s reasonable to imagine Jesus, a young craftsman living nearby, working at Sepphoris—and, like a college freshman, testing the boundaries of his religious upbringing.” [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

Eric and Carol Meyers, Duke University archaeologists and a husband-and-wife team, “have spent 33 years excavating the sprawling site, which became the nexus of a heated academic debate about the Jewishness of Galilee and, by extension, of Jesus himself. Eric Meyers told National Geographic: “It was pretty acrimonious,”, recalling the decades-long dispute over the influence of a hellenising city on a young Jewish peasant. We had to dig through a bivouac from the 1948 war, including a live Syrian shell, to get to these houses. And underneath we found the mikvaot!” ^|^

“At least 30 mikvahs, 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. ^|^

“This and other insights gleaned from excavations across Galilee have led to a significant shift in scholarly opinion, says Craig Evans, professor of Christian origins in the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. “Thanks to archaeology, there’s been a big change in thinking—from Jesus the cosmopolitan Hellenist to Jesus the observant Jew.” ^|^

Historical Evidence Related to Jesus in Capernaum


Capernaum

The largest ancient structure in Capernaum is a partially-restored, columned synagogue built in the A.D. 4th century, built upon the foundations of a 1st century synagogue where Christ may have taught. Reliefs inside depict figs, pomegranates and shellfish, and the entrance is guarded by crouching lions, which appear to be in violation of the Jewish proscription against graven images. Nearby, archaeologists discovered a dwelling that was venerated by early Christians. Some scholars believe it is the home of the Apostle Peter.

Aside from various references to Capernaum in the Gospels, the earliest literary attestation of Capernaum is from Josephus, who refers to the village in connection with a fertile spring. The Jewish historian reports he spent a night there with a fever during the second year of the Jewish War. For centuries, Capernaum has traditionally been identified as a site located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Galilee, about three miles west of the upper Jordan River. In 1838, Edward Robinson correctly identified there the remains of a synagogue that was partly excavated by Charles Wilson between 1865 and 1866. More extensive excavations took place in the early twentieth century, first by Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger (1905) and then by Wendelin von Menden (1906–1915).

Most recent excavations have revealed two synagogues, a white limestone synagogue dating from the A.D. 4th and 5th centuries, and a black basalt synagogue dating from the first half of the A.D. 1st century. Only foundation walls, gray marble column fragments and a cobblestone floor remain from the earlier structure, which measured 24.5 by 18.7 meters on the exterior and possessed walls over a meter thick. The 4th-5th century limestone synagogue was built on top of the 1st century synagogue. Only the foundation walls and cobblestone floor remain from this earlier building (Column drums made out of gray marble have also been discovered in a lower stratum of fill material.). It is thus the basalt synagogue which is referred to in the four Gospels.


Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: “Commonly referred to on the Christian tour route as the “town of Jesus,” the pilgrimage site of Capernaum today is owned by the Franciscans and surrounded by a high metal fence. A sign at the gate makes clear what’s not allowed inside: dogs, guns, cigarettes, and short skirts. Directly beyond the gate is an incongruously modern church mounted on eight pillars that resembles a spaceship hovering above a pile of ruins. This is St. Peter’s Memorial, consecrated in 1990 over one of the biggest discoveries made during the 20th century by archaeologists investigating the historical Jesus. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]

“From its odd perch the church offers a stunning view of the lake, but all eyes are drawn to the centre of the building, where visitors peer over a railing and through a glass floor into the ruins of an octagonal church built some 1,500 years ago. When Franciscan archaeologists excavated beneath the structure in 1968, they discovered that it had been built on the remains of a first-century house. There was evidence that this private home had been transformed into a public meeting place in a short span of time. ^|^

“By the second half of the first century—just a few decades after the Crucifixion of Jesus—the home’s rough stone walls had been plastered over and household kitchen items replaced with oil lamps, characteristic of a community gathering place. Over the following centuries, entreaties to Christ were etched into the walls, and by the time Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century, the dwelling had been expanded into an elaborately decorated house of worship. Since then the structure has commonly been known as Peter’s House, and while it’s impossible to determine whether the disciple actually inhabited the home, many scholars say it’s possible.” ^|^

Historical Evidence Related to Jesus in Jerusalem

Kristin Romey wrote in National Geographic: In the New Testament, Jerusalem “is the setting for many of his miracles and most dramatic moments: his triumphal entry, his cleansing of the Temple, his healing miracles at the Pools of Bethesda and Siloam—both of which have been uncovered by archaeologists—his clashes with the religious authorities, his last Passover meal, his agonised prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, his trial and execution, his burial and Resurrection. [Source: Kristin Romey, National Geographic, November 28, 2017 ^|^]


stairs where it said Jesus walked in Jerusalem

“In Jerusalem, Jesus healed a paralyzed man at a ritual pool surrounded by five colonnades called the Pool of Bethesda, reports the Gospel of John. Many scholars doubted that the place existed until archaeologists discovered clear traces of it beneath the ruins of these centuries-old churches. ^|^

“Unlike the disparate stories of Jesus’ birth, the four Gospels reach much closer agreement in their account of his death. Following his arrival in Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus is brought before the high priest Caiaphas and charged with blasphemy and threats against the Temple. Condemned to death by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, he’s crucified on a hill outside the city walls and buried in a rock-cut tomb nearby. ^|^

“An ornate ossuary, or bone box, discovered in a Jerusalem tomb is inscribed with the name Caiaphas, an infamous figure in the Gospels’ accounts of Jesus’ trial and execution. “If it is Caiaphas, the discovery would confirm that the people who play a role in the stories of the New Testament were real and not fictitious,” notes archaeologist Eric Cline.” ^|^

Pilate Inscription

The Pilate Inscription is an inscription found in Caesarea which first proved the existence of Pilate. The inscription is written in Latin on a slab of limestone 82 centimeters high and 65 centimeters wide. The four lines of writing are a Building Dedication withPontius Pilate as the Dedicator (praefect of Judea). It has been dated to approximately A.D. 26–37 and was discovered in Caesarea, Israel in 1961 by Antonio Frova and now is in the Israel Museum [Source: translation by K. C. Hanson & Douglas E. Oakman]


Pilate inscription

The inscription reads: [DIS AUGUSTI]S TIBERIEUM [. . . . PO]NTIUS PILATUS [. . .PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E [. .FECIT D]E[DICAVIT] To the honorable gods (this) Tiberium Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea, had dedicated

According to PBS: This inscription found at “Caesarea Maritima, which refers to Pontius Pilate, is one of the most important discoveries made in the archeological work of the last two decades. Precisely because it's the first piece of hard evidence of the existence of Pontius Pilate. Now, for Pilate, of course, we have a number of literary references, both in the Jewish historian, Josephus,and also among the Christian gospels. But this is the first piece of direct evidence from an archaeological source which actually gives us his name and tells us he was there as Governor. The city of Caesarea Maratima was actually the Governor's residence. This was the capitol city, from the perspective of the Roman political administration. So, it would have been where Pontius Pilate would have lived, where he would have had his court. [Source: Frontline, PBS, April 1998 \=/]

Paula Fredriksen of Boston University told PBS: “Pontius Pilate, is one of these first round of governors posted to the province of Judea, once it was given over to Roman military governorship. And the stone that we now have from Caesarea ... is very important. It gives us three pieces of information. First, it tells us that Pontius Pilate was the Governor. Secondly, it calls him a Prefect. That's what we see in line three of the text. Thirdly, and in some ways most interestingly, the first line tells us that Pilate had built a Tibereum. What that means is, a temple for the Emperor Tiberius, as part of the Imperial Cult. Thus, here we have, at Caesarea Maritima, a Roman Governor building a temple in honor of the Roman Emperor. [Source: “Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 \=/]

Warehouse in Israel Full of Stuff From Jesus' Time

Reporting from Beit Shemesh, Israel, Daniel Estrin of Associated Press wrote In a cavernous warehouse where Israel stores its archaeological treasures, an ancient burial box is inscribed with the name of Jesus. Not THAT Jesus. Archaeologists in Israel say Jesus was a common name in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago, and that they have found about 30 ancient burial boxes inscribed with it. [Source: Daniel Estrin, Associated Press, March 19, 2017 <*>]


wall painting from Herodium in the Israel Museum dated to the time of Jesus

“Ahead of Easter, Israel's antiquities authority opened up its vast storeroom to reporters for a peek at unearthed artifacts from the time of Jesus. Experts say they have yet to find direct archaeological evidence of Jesus Christ, but in recent years have found a wealth of material that helps fill out historians' understanding of how Jesus may have lived and died. "There's good news," said Gideon Avni, head of the archaeological division of the Israel Antiquities Authority. "Today we can reconstruct very accurately many, many aspects of the daily life of the time of Christ." <*>

“Israel is one of the most excavated places on the planet. Some 300 digs take place each year, including about 50 foreign expeditions from as far away as the United States and Japan, the Antiquities Authority said. About 40,000 artifacts are dug up in Israel each year. A third of all the antiquities found attest to the ancient Christian presence in the Holy Land, Avni said. Historians now know how long it took to travel between cities and villages where Jesus preached, and what those places looked like at the time. In a brightly-lit, 5,000-square meter (54,000-sq. feet) warehouse crammed with stacks of ancient jugs and pottery sherds — what the Antiquities Authority calls its "Ali Baba cave" of ancient treasures — officials set up a simple white table with finds from the time of Jesus.

It has helped archaeologists reconstruct how the man was crucified — with his feet nailed to the sides of the cross. Avni said Jesus may have been crucified in the same manner, unlike the way the crucifixion is depicted in traditional Christian art.

Avni said there is no reason to believe Jesus did not exist just because archaeologists haven't found physical evidence of him. "You have to remember that Christ was one among more than a million people living during this time in the Holy Land," he said.

Yisca Harani, an Israeli scholar of Christianity, said the lack of physical evidence of Jesus is a "trivial mystery." "Why do we expect in antiquity that there would be some evidence of his existence?" Harani said. "It's the reality of human life. It's either rulers or military men who had their memory inscribed in stone and artifacts." She said what remained of Jesus "are his words."

Artifacts from Age of Jesus

Inside the Israel Museum warehouse, Daniel Estrin of Associated Press reported: “There were well-preserved limestone drinking cups and dishes, widely used by Jews in the Holy Land at the time as part of their strict practice to ensure the ritual purity of their food. There was an intricately decorated limestone burial box belonging to a scion of the high priest Caiaphas, known in the New Testament for his involvement in delivering Jesus to the Roman authorities who crucified him. In ancient times, families would gather the bones of the deceased and place them into boxes known as ossuaries. [Source: Daniel Estrin, Associated Press, March 19, 2017 <*>]

“They also showed off a replica of a major artifact located in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem — a heel bone pierced by an iron nail with wood fragments on each end, discovered in a Jewish burial box in northern Jerusalem dating to the 1st century AD. To date, it's the only evidence found of a victim of Roman crucifixion buried according to Jewish custom.<*>


Madaba map

“Across from cardboard boxes marked "bones" from Bethsaida of the New Testament, a massive stone block sat on a wooden crate on the warehouse floor. The stone bears an apparent carved depiction of the Second Jewish Temple, and was discovered in 2009 at the site of an ancient synagogue on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Archaeologists have suggested Jesus may have preached in the synagogue.” <*>

Madaba Map

Discovered in a church in Madaba, Jordan, in 1884, the Madaba Map is the oldest surviving cartographic depiction of the Holy Land. Created in the form of a mosaic it dates to somewhere between A.D. 560-565 and originally showed an area that stretched from southern Syria to central Egypt. By the time it was discovered much of the map was already gone, however its remains include a detailed depiction of Jerusalem. "The bird's-eye view shows an oval-shaped walled city in the very center of the map with six gates and twenty-one towers, the colonnaded main thoroughfare … and thirty-six other identifiable public buildings, churches and monasteries," writes Jerome Mandel in an article published in the book "Trade, Travel and Exploration in the Middle Ages: An Encyclopedia" (Routledge, 2000). At the time it was created the Byzantine Empire ruled the Holy Land. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, September 30, 2013]

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; “Egeria's Description of the Liturgical Year in Jerusalem” users.ox.ac.uk ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, ccel.org , Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org, Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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