Biblical archaeology and faith

April 25th, 2018

Digging in

The most important biblical archaeological find of 2017, according to Christianity Today, was the unearthing of a small Roman theater next to the Western Wall on the Temple Mount. This Roman theater is the first of its kind to be found within Jerusalem proper. Its proximity to the Western Wall, the only standing remains of the second temple where ancient Jews worshipped, suggests the great extent to which Roman cultural influence and authority dominated the ancient city.

The theater, found 26 feet below the current level of the Western Wall, was well preserved. Its location meant that it was shielded from the elements and therefore remains in surprisingly good condition. “What’s very exciting about this amazing structure is that we totally didn’t expect to find it here,” archaeologist Joe Uziel of the Israel Antiquities Authority told CNN in an October 16, 2017, article titled “Ancient Roman Theater Unearthed Next to Jerusalem’s Western Wall.” The theater had seating for about 200, but was likely never used. The Israel Antiquities Authority believes that its construction was halted before it was finished and put into use, possibly because of civil unrest related to the Bar Kochba rebellion, which began in A.D. 132.

In 2016, Christianity Today named the unsealing of the traditional tomb of Christ as the most important archaeological discovery that year. This event heightened the debate about the location of Jesus’ likely tomb with one possible location inside Jerusalem and one outside. Since the fourth century, when Constantine converted a Roman temple that had been built on the site into a church, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has symbolically marked where Jesus was buried. In 2016, the church, which lies within Jerusalem’s modern walls, underwent major renovations. Fredrik Hiebert, National Geographic’s archaeologist-in-residence, told Christianity Today, “It appears to be visible proof that the location of the tomb has not shifted through time — something that scientists and historians have wondered for decades.”

However, a second tomb, known as the Garden Tomb, maintains a strong following, particularly among Protestants. The Garden Tomb lies outside Jerusalem, which falls in line with the letter to the Hebrews: “And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy with his own blood” (13:12). Craig Evans, a professor of Christian Origins at Houston Baptist University, told Christianity Today in a November 30, 2016 article that although the Garden Tomb is too old to be the tomb of Jesus, it does help pilgrims get an idea of what a tomb from that period would look like. As archaeologists scrambled to unseal and repair the ancient tomb at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, scholars looked on with excitement. “The work of renovation should help archaeologists and historians gain a better sense of the tomb,” Evans said. “This is a significant opportunity for scholars to examine portions of the tomb that have been hidden for half a millennium or longer.” The renovation team revealed the limestone burial bed, believed to be where Jesus was laid after his death. Once repaired, the bed was refitted with a protective marble covering. 

Two sides, one drachma

Biblical archaeology attracts many of the brightest scholars in the world, yet it’s not a monolithic community. Some archaeologists are skeptics, looking for the historical Jesus behind a veneer of devotion and faith. Others, like Eugenio Alliata, a Franciscan priest and the director of the museum at the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, believe that archaeological scholarship and faith go hand in hand. “Tradition gives more life to archaeology, and archaeology gives more life to tradition,” Alliata told National Geographic in an article titled “What Archaeology Is Telling Us About the Real Jesus.” “Sometimes they go together well, sometimes not, which is more interesting.”

Archaeology as a field brings together the faithful and the skeptical — each camp using the same techniques and studies yet motivated by different ends. For example, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem marks the site where many believe Jesus was born. Yet the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke share two different stories. Luke tells the story of shepherds, angels and a stable (Luke 2:6-20), while Matthew tells the story of wise men and the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2). Archaeological excavations around the Church of the Nativity have turned up no significant findings about whether or not the infant Christ was born or spent time in that area of Bethlehem.

For scholars in search of the historical Jesus, Nazareth is the next best place to dig, National Geographic explains. Once considered a rural, isolated village, archaeology is changing how scholars view Nazareth. Sepphoris, the Roman provincial capital, lies just three miles from Nazareth. Recent archaeological evidence suggests that Sepphoris was growing into a large, Roman-influenced city — one where the son of a carpenter just might have found work before beginning a career in ministry.

While skeptics point to this as evidence of where Jesus may have been exposed to other systems of belief, like that of the Greek Cynics, the archaeological evidence shows that although Sepphoris was cosmopolitan, it was also thoroughly Jewish.

Eric and Carol Meyers, a husband-and-wife team from Duke University, found over 30 mikvahs, or Jewish ritual baths, across Sepphoris. The researchers also found a distinct lack of pork bones—a clue that indicates the community kept kosher dietary laws.

“Thanks to archaeology, there’s been a big change in thinking — from Jesus the cosmopolitan Hellenist to Jesus the observant Jew,” said professor Craig Evans in National Geographic.

But what does this mean to skeptics? It suggests that Jesus was likely exposed to cosmopolitan ideas — Greek and Roman philosophy for a start — but ultimately that there’s no conclusive evidence that Jesus did work in Sepphoris.

What does it say to the faithful? That Jesus likely spent his “lost years” working in a heavily Jewish area — an area that cared deeply for the purity laws of the Torah.

Truth or . . . truth?

Archaeological evidence, then, is inconclusive. It’s unlikely to definitively prove or disprove whether Jesus lived or how he died — to say nothing of the Resurrection. Searching for archaeological evidence of one person, even a person as important as Jesus, is a challenging task at best. “It will be something rare, strange, to have archaeological proof for [a specific person] 2,000 years ago,” said Eugenio Alliata in the National Geographic piece.

Despite this limitation, archaeology can shed light on other aspects of the biblical story. In 2017, a decade of archaeological work came to an end at Tel Gezer. One of the major finds from the project was a “clear sequence of occupations and destructions” dating from the time of King Merneptah in the thirteenth century B.C. to the time of the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C., the Christianity Today discoveries article says. One of the destruction levels corresponds to the biblical account of a king who captured the city and gave it as a dowry for his daughter, who then became one of King Solomon’s wives (1 Kings 9:16). It also provides outside evidence to support the inscription on the Merneptah Stele: “Gezer has been captured; Yano’am is made non-existent. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” The stele is one of the only ancient extra-biblical artifacts explicitly naming the Israelite people.

In 2016, an ancient piece of papyrus was found that mentioned the city of Jerusalem. This papyrus, dated from the seventh century B.C., is now the oldest nonbiblical Hebrew-language reference to Jerusalem. The inscription reads, “From the king’s maidservant, from Na’arat, jars of wine, to Jerusalem.”

What happens if the archaeological evidence does not support the biblical narrative? Currently, a debate rages among scholars about the Exodus from Egypt. While there’s evidence of living quarters showing that workers built homes, there’s no sound evidence that these were Hebrew workers or that they had a flight across the desert, according to a March 28, 2018 article from the Biblical Archaeology Society. While most scholars shy away from saying decidedly that the Exodus didn’t happen, many indicate that it likely didn’t happen as the text suggests. Other hotly contested pieces of the biblical narrative are the conquest of Canaan, the fall of Jericho, and Noah’s flood.

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