The Bible, as you may well know, ranks as the highest-selling book in history and the bedrock of the Christian faith. It’s based on the words of Jesus of Nazareth, better known to many as Jesus Christ. According to the New Testament, the man himself lived some 2,000 years ago – which is something many scholars are intent on proving. And, it seems, archaeology is playing a major part in proving the truth behind the Gospels.
The Bible describes many chapters in the life of Jesus Christ. Born in Bethlehem, the future preacher was raised in Galilee but also spent time all over what is now the Middle East, including the ancient town of Jerusalem. The New Testament also describes his journey from preacher to martyr.
Along the way, Jesus heals the sick, feeds the starving, walks on water and averts a storm. The 1st-century preacher also brought together a group of devout followers, including the Apostles and Mary Magdalene. At one point, he’s even said to raise the dead. But, according to the New Testament, these miracles caught the attention of the authorities.
At the time, Jerusalem and the surrounding regions were ruled by the Romans. And while the occupying power was generally tolerant of the citizens’ Jewish faith, that doesn’t mean it didn’t intervene in temple business on occasion. And where Jesus was concerned, the authorities’ actions turned out to be deadly.
After Jesus was accused of treason and blasphemy by Pontius Pilate, the local Roman chief, the preacher was sentenced to death by crucifixion. After which, the first-century preacher was buried in a rock-hewn tomb, before ascending to Heaven from the top of Mount Olive three days later. And while it might be hard to prove these well-known stories true, that hasn’t stopped many an archaeologist from trying.
However, as Father Alliata, a Biblical archaeologist working in the region, told National Geographic in 2017, “It will be something rare, strange, to have archaeological proof for [a specific person] 2,000 years ago.” Nonetheless, it appears that this hasn’t deterred researchers, including Alliata himself, from looking for proof that Jesus existed.
These days though, rather than looking for proof of Jesus’ existence, researchers search more for evidence that the descriptions in the Bible correlate to real people and places that existed 2,000 years ago. This work also helps fill in details about what life was like for those in the Middle East during the 1st century. And the research has been incredibly successful.
Take, for example, the aforementioned governor, Pontius Pilate. Over the years, archaeologists have found evidence to prove that he not only existed, but was also in the region around the time of Jesus. Among the artifacts proving his existence are coins bearing his name and an engraving in modern-day Israel.
That inscription, which unfortunately is incomplete, includes the Roman’s name and describes him as the region’s ruler. It’s a position that Pilate held for around a decade, and his rule was also recorded by 1st-century historians Philo of Alexandria and Josephus. Both authors indicate that his treatment of the regions Jewish citizens was less than helpful. And all of this indicates that the man responsible for the death of Jesus in The Bible was actually real.
Josephus, a Jewish historian and military leader in Galilee, had other connections to the life of Jesus as well. For example, he published his first book just a few decades after the preacher’s death. His works detail the history of his people and contain descriptions of the towns and cities in the region. As such, they provide crucial context for the period in which Jesus lived. And the author’s links to the founder of Christianity don’t end there.
For some researchers, Josephus’ place in history means, at the very least, that he encountered people with first-hand knowledge of Jesus. And given that the two men lived and travelled in the same locales, it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that their paths crossed at some point.
But, of course, so far, that’s mainly conjecture. What of more concrete findings, such as those proving the existence of towns and buildings mentioned in the New Testament? With finding evidence of the historical Jesus so difficult, demonstrating the reality of such locations would go a long way to underscoring the real-world setting of The Bible. Well, that’s exactly what some researchers are doing.
And this contextual research has led to some incredible discoveries that certainly seem to match descriptions in The Bible. Some, such as the vessel said to hold the bones of Jesus’ brother, have been open to skepticism. Others, though, have an undeniable similarity to the passages of the New Testament.
Take, for instance, the Pool of Bethesda, a dual-use ritual bath and water source. This is the scene of one of Jesus’ many miracles. In this instance, he healed a crippled man who then walked to the nearby waters. During the 1980s archaeologists finally unearthed the water feature, once believed fictional, in Jerusalem’s Old Quarter.
How did the researchers come to the conclusion that they’d found the Pool of Bethesda, though? Well, it seems that when the water feature was originally found in the late 19th century, it wasn’t completely unearthed. That incomplete excavation led many to continue to believe that the famous pool was simply a work of fiction. But then, a century after its first appearance, archaeologists uncovered something interesting.
In the 1980s the team working in Jerusalem discovered the other sections of the pool. And alongside them were the five porticoes that originally surround the water feature. These were described in John’s Gospel and appear to have been key to the site’s identification as the Pool of Bethesda. After lying undiscovered for nearly 2,000 years, for some this is the location of an actual miracle.
Moreover, Bethesda isn’t the only town mentioned in The Bible to have been unearthed over the decades. Capernaum, a town on the shores of a lake known as the Sea of Galilee, was first excavated in the late 19th century. And since then, some incredible discoveries have been made beneath the sand.
One of these discoveries, which is now a visitor attraction, has a direct connection not just to Jesus but also an Apostle. In one Bible story, the mother of Peter’s wife becomes seriously unwell and Jesus heals the woman in Capernaum in her own house. And at the site that archaeologists now believe to be that very town, a place where the preacher is said to have performed several miracles, they discovered something very interesting.
Digging down through the sand, researchers uncovered the remnants of a 1st-century house. In addition, the ruins contained evidence that the building had become a small church in just a few years. These finds were significant for a number of reasons. Firstly, the time in which the original home was built matched that of the lives of Jesus and Peter. And the connections don’t end there.
The building’s remains also contained graffiti making reference to Jesus, which confirmed its connection to early Christianity. In addition, other sources contain references about a very special place of worship in the area during the 4th century. And one of the early pilgrims to mention this church was an extremely important woman.
Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire during the 4th century. As such, it appears some Roman dignitaries went on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and one of them wrote about their visit. Emperor Constantine’s mom, Egeria, recalled her first-hand experience of the site. “In Capernaum the house of the prince of the apostles has been made into a church with its original walls still standing,” she wrote. “It is where the Lord cured the paralytic.” Today, this building is called simply Peter’s House, as some experts believe he may once have live there.
Staying on the Sea of Galilee, further contextual evidence for certain Biblical events has been found buried in the lake’s mud. The region experienced a drought during the 1980s, which led to its waters drying up. This, in turn, exposed its banks. And there, undisturbed for centuries, lay the remains of a Roman-era ship.
The wreck contained artifacts from the era of the Roman Empire’s rule in the region. Carbon-dating of the wood revealed that it had been constructed during the 1st century, around the same time as Jesus had lived. In addition, it was large enough to hold 13 people. But for many, the “Jesus boat” as it came to be known, was significant for another reason.
The wreck’s location and age put many in mind of the miracles Jesus reportedly performed on the Sea of Galilee. Having sent his Apostles to the other side of the lake by ship, the preacher had then walked on water. In addition, he also quieted a raging storm. The vessel used by his followers was likely very similar to the “Jesus boat.” And there’s nothing to say it wasn’t the very ferry they used.
Further south along the shores of the Sea of Galilee lies one of archaeology’s most intriguing Jesus-related finds. Prior to the erection of a guest-house in Israel, a state-mandated excavation in 2009 led to the discovery of an almost complete Biblical-era town. The team uncovered the location of Magdala, home to Mary Magdalene, one of the preacher’s most staunch supporters.
The initial discovery on the site was of the remains of a 1st-century synagogue. Given that, at the time, many of the residents of Magda were Jewish, perhaps that’s par for the course. However, it’s the oldest – and one of the only – temples ever discovered in Galilee. This lack of religious buildings had led scholars to conclude that the region simply didn’t have any, making the New Testament’s descriptions fiction. This find, though, turned that thinking on its head.
The finds didn’t end there, either. Researchers eventually unearthed a whole town. Untouched for millennia after its destruction by the Romans in 66 A.D., the site was soon dubbed the Israeli Pompeii. It includes baths, storage buildings and food processing areas, creating a picture of a bustling fishing town with a temple on the outskirts. And in the synagogue, something even more incredible was found.
At the heart of the synagogue, archaeologists discovered something never seen before. Since named the Magdala Stone, this carved chunk of rock depicts the rooms of the Temple of Jerusalem, Judaism’s most sacred site before its destruction around 70 A.D. Moreover, before its discovery, no symbols of the Jewish faith had been found in similar buildings of the period.
While the stone’s discovery is amazing in and of itself, its existence is significant for a number of reasons. Used as a rest for Torah scrolls, perhaps, it shows the beginning of a shift in religious practices. Whereas previously God could only be found in places of worship, the discovery proves that contemporary worshipers were embracing a new idea: that God could be found everywhere. And this is a tenet of the New Testament.
More than that, though, the Magda Stone can be seen as a physical, moveable representation of this newly forming belief. And that idea could also explain why and how houses became places of worship. Indeed, with no need for a temple, praying can happen anywhere – even in your living room. And these discoveries led to speculation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene first met in her local synagogue.
In fact, some experts have speculated that Mary Magdalene’s local temple may well be the one that contained the Magdala Stone. For example, the lead archaeologist on the site, Father Solana, believes that to be the case. “We see the number of times that the Gospels mention Jesus in a Galilee synagogue,” he told National Geographic in 2017. “We have no reason to deny or doubt that Jesus was here.”
If, however, ruined buildings seem hard to relate to, how about an olive grove? Located at the base of the aptly named Mount Olive is the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus is said to have said prayers the evening before his execution. Still there today, legend has it that some of the trees are thousands of years old and so may have been there that fateful night.
Moreover, it appears that the man who, according to the New Testament, recommended Jesus’ execution – the high-priest Caiaphas – also existed. An ancient ossuary, which is a vessel for interring bones, was found in a Jerusalem suburb in 1990. It reportedly contained the remains of Caiaphas’ son. The inscription on it read: “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” This find also adds more historical context to tales of the preacher’s trial.
Following that trial, Jesus was crucified before his resurrection and ascendance to Heaven. His subsequent burial place, a rock-hewn crypt was, for some, at odds with his convict status. The mode of death the preacher suffered reportedly was reserved for the worst elements of society. As a result, it’s unlikely victims would be afforded the luxury of a burial of any kind. But an archaeological find in 1968 changed that thinking.
Once again, the discovery of an ossuary added further context to Biblical passages. The vessel contained the bones of Jewish man who’d been crucified prior to his death, as evidenced by the nail still in his ankle. The remains belonged to a man named Jehohanan and dated from the 1st century, which of course coincides with the historical life of Jesus.
And Yehohanan had received a proper burial following his crucifixion. This discovery proves that victims of a state-ordered death sentence were sometimes allowed a faith-based funeral. Add in the date of the interment and the man’s religion, and it’s altogether possible that Jesus also received the same rites after his death.
While all the contextual and circumstantial evidence can be compelling, so far very little relating to the man himself exists. Even at sites such as Magdala, so rich in 1st-century culture, nothing at all has surfaced. As Father Solana told Smithsonian magazine in 2017, “We didn’t find any evidence yet that says for sure Jesus was here.”
For some scholars, though, that lack of evidence is hardly surprising. Southern Baptist University’s Mark Chancey is a professor of religious studies and an expert on Biblical Galilee. He told Smithsonian magazine, “[Jesus] wasn’t a political leader, so we don’t have coins, for example, that have his bust or name.”
“[Jesus] wasn’t a sufficiently high-profile social leader to leave behind inscriptions,” Chancey added. “In his own lifetime, he was a marginal figure and he was active in marginalized circles.” So perhaps historical context is the closest we’ll get to knowing whether or not he existed. That, however, hasn’t dampened archaeologists’ enthusiasm.
For many, Jesus the man was very real. As Eric Meyers, Judaic Studies professor at Duke University, told National Geographic, “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.”