People of faith have always been interested in the search and alleged discovery of “holy” relics dating back to Bible times. This fascination dates back nearly two thousand years to the reign of the Roman Emperor Constantine. During his reign his mother, Helena, made a pilgrimage to the holy land and, among other things, claimed to have recovered wood from Christ”s cross. Not to be out done, other Christians joined in through the centuries claiming even greater discoveries: The Holy Grail, Noah”s Ark, and the Ark of the Covenant. Even Adolf Hitler, the megalomaniac Führer of Germany, joined the fray, claiming to have in his possession the spear that pierced Jesus” side. In contrast to such extravagant-and highly dubious-claims, modern day archaeology has become an official field of scientific study that has discovered many fascinating remains that provide a fuller understanding of ancient history than is possible from the few written sources available to us.
But before we talk about some of the most important archaeological discoveries related to the Bible, it is important to note what archaeology can and cannot do. The greatest value of archaeology is its ability to illuminate the cultural and historical setting of people, places, and things from the Bible. Archaeology is unsurpassed in its ability to help us understand what it was like to live in the past. There is, however, a tendency to often overstate the value of archaeology. While archaeological discoveries can prove that Solomon was a powerful king, or that there was a census around the time of Jesus” birth, it cannot prove that God gave Solomon wisdom, or that Jesus was divine. Archaeology can strengthen the historical dimension of the Biblical world, but it cannot prove the theological claims of Scripture. The latter is, and always has been, a matter of faith. Since this week”s lesson focuses on archaeological discoveries related to the Old Testament, let”s look at some of top archaeological discoveries connected to the New Testament.
Top Archaeological Discoveries Related to the New Testament
- The Dead Sea Scrolls: Discovered by sheer serendipity between 1947 and 1956, the DSS are clearly the most important archaeological discovery of the 20th century. The scrolls include portions of every book from the Old Testament, with the exception of the book of Esther, that are 1000 years earlier than previous copies of the Hebrew Bible; religious documents outlining the beliefs of a religious sect of Judaism known as the Essenses; biblical commentaries; and even late Jewish apocryphal and pseudepigraphical writings. Though there are no New Testament writings in the DSS, it is significant to the New Testament because it highlights aspects of the Jewish world in which Jesus and the earliest disciples lived.
- Ossuary of Caiaphas. While excavating for a water park in 1992, workers stumbled upon an ancient tomb in Jerusalem. When archaeologists examined the site, they discovered it housed a number of Jewish ossuaries, ancient stone bone boxes where the bones of the deceased were placed after decomposition. One box of particular beauty had the name Joseph son of Caiaphas written on it. The ossuary contained the remains of six people: two infants, a child aged two to five, a boy aged 13 to 18, an adult female and a man about 60 years old. The latter are believed to be the bones of Caiaphas, before whom Jesus was brought for questioning (Mat 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2; John 11:49, 18:13, 14, 24, 28; Acts 4:6)
- Galilee Boat. In the midst of an unusually severe drought in 1986, the receding Sea of Galilee exposed the remains of a 2,000-year-old boat buried in the mud. Israeli archaeologists were ecstatic. This was the first boat ever discovered in the Sea of Galilee. Its unique construction, remains of pottery still on board, and even carbon 14 dating suggested the boat was in use during Jesus” time. The boat appears to have originally accommodated up to fifteen people, similar to the description of the boats Jesus and his disciples used in the gospels (See Mat 8:18, 23-27, 9:1, 14:13-14, 22-32, 15:39, 16:5; Mark 4:35-41, 5:18, 21, 6:32-34, 45-51, 8:9-10, 13-14; Luke 6:1, 8:22-25, 37, 40; John 6:16-21).
- Pontius Pilate Inscription. Each of the Gospels tell of Jesus being brought before Pontius Pilate (Mat 27:2; Mark 15:1-15; Luke 23:1-5; John 18:28-19:16). While Pilate was known from other extrabiblical sources, their was no archaeological support of his governorship. That all changed in 1961 when a group of archaeologists discovered a stone bearing his name in the Roman theater in Caesarea Maritima. Though the stone is in poor condition and not complete, it clearly records Pilate”s name and position: “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”
- The Crucified Man from Givïat Ha-Mivtar. Though the Romans crucified tens of thousands of people, it was not until 1968 that archaeologists discovered the skeletal remains of a victim of crucifixion. Interestingly, the man was Jewish, and his name was John. He was probably in his mid twenties when he was crucified around the middle of the first century-not too distant from the time of Jesus” crucifixion. When his ankle was nailed to the cross, the nail hit a knot in the wood and bent, making it nearly impossible for the soldiers to remove. The soldiers merely hacked his foot off, leaving a piece of the wood and nail still attached to his anklebone.
Questions for Discussion:
- Of the archaeological discoveries mention in the lesson and above, which one do you find most interesting and why?
- In light of the archaeological discoveries outlined in the lesson and above, does archaeologically, in your opinion, make it easier for us to believe in Scriptures than it was before such discoveries were made?
- Read Jesus” parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. What connection might this parable have with our discussion of archaeology? In considering this question, pay particular attention to Jesus” statement in Luke 16:31. “If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded though one rise from the dead.”