Pastor, Take Courage in the Historical Jesus!

by Todd Chipman February 12, 2018

Merry Christmas from Archaeology and National Geographic

This year a major media publication has given a Christmas gift to those who recognize the historical veracity of New Testament Gospels. And this is a twist. At a time of year when those who accept the ancient message of Jesus’ birth must routinely brace for attacks on their faith, in its December 2017 issue National Geographic has provided a reasonable analysis of Jesus’ life in light of recent archaeological discoveries.

Introducing the December 2017 issue, National Geographic Editor in Chief Susan Goldberg writes that “This month’s cover story, ‘The Search for the Real Jesus,’ does what people have been doing for nearly 2,000 years: It seeks new truths about the epochal figure known as Jesus of Nazareth” (1). Goldberg notes that in this season of goodwill it is appropriate for National Geographic to offer an account of recent archeological finds dating roughly to the time and place in which many believe Jesus lived. Goldberg states that National Geographic paleontology and archaeology staff writer Kristen Romey was chosen to write the piece as she has made twenty trips to the Middle East. Romey offers that her goal is “to discover how Christian texts and traditions stack up against the discoveries of archaeologists who began sifting the sands of the Holy Land in earnest some 150 years ago” (41).

Romey’s quest is not void of doctrinal implications. She notes that scholars studying Jesus and the traditions traced to him divide into two camps: those who believe the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ miracle-working powers and those who believe that if the Jesus of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did exist, modern historical research should receive pride of place in revealing him. So why do a story on archaeological finds that relate to Jesus’ traditions? “Both camps claim archaeology as their ally” (43).

Archaeology and the Life of the Real Jesus

Romey investigates four archaeological regions corresponding to the life of Jesus as recorded in the NT Gospels: Bethlehem, Nazareth, the broader region of Galilee and Jerusalem.

  1. Bethlehem and the Region of Jesus’ Birth. Romey notes that only two of the four New Testament Gospels record Jesus’ birth. She writes that the Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide “diverging accounts” (46). Since archaeologists, in Romey’s survey, have yet to find any materials or extra-Biblical texts definitively corroborating or contrasting Matthew’s account of Herod’s plot against infant boys in Bethlehem (Matt 2) or Luke’s description of shepherds visiting the traditional site now marked by the Church of the Nativity (Luke 2:8-21), archaeology has little to offer modern scholarship in these regards (46). Concluding the Bethlehem phase of her quest for the real Jesus, Romey makes a statement that reveals her archaeological paradigm. Though the trail for the real Jesus seems to have gone cold in Bethlehem, “Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence” (46). For Romey, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have enough veracity as texts that they do not require modern archaeological confirmation at every point in order to be considered reliable historical sources in and of themselves.
  2. Nazareth and the Environs of Jesus’ Early Years. Romey states that historical Jesus scholars have more political, social and economic archaeological findings from first century Nazareth than Bethlehem. These data paint a portrait consistent with the general descriptions of Nazareth and surrounding Galilee recorded in the four Gospels: Jews of the region were oppressed by Roman customs and taxation. Romey notes that some scholars critical of the four Gospels have suggested that Jews of Galilee, including Jesus, were accommodating of Roman customs. Romey here cites John Dominic Crossan’s view that Jesus the skilled tradesman sought employment within the guilds of Herod Antipas as they constructed the ancient pagan city of Sepphoris not far from Nazareth (47). Until recent archaeological finds, Sepphoris was not considered a friendly cite for Jews hoping to maintain the ethnic boundaries of their faith. But over the last several decades teams of archaeologists led by scholars such as Eric and Carol Meyers of Duke University have worked around the ancient site of Sepphoris. Their discoveries include artifacts consistent with Jewish religious practices Jesus often countered in the Gospels—including thirty ritual bath structures associated with ritual cleansings (60).
  3. The Region of Galilee and Jesus’ Early Ministry. Romey notes that when Jesus was baptized at the age of about thirty, he underwent a “life-changing experience” (60) and began teaching throughout the region of Galilee. According to the four Gospels, the town of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee was known for its fishing industry and the hometown of the apostle Peter. While archaeology cannot verify that Jesus cured Peter’s mother-in-law in Capernaum or the region’s crowds who came to him for healing, graves unearthed in the region suggest that diseases like leprosy and tuberculosis were common, often the cause of death in children (61). The Gospels report that Jesus’ ministry in Galilee was characterized by other types of healing as well, exorcising demons. Luke 8:2-3 records that a woman named Mary, from the town of Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, was one of those who followed Jesus and supported him after he healed her of demonic influence. In 2009 archaeologists unearthed a structure in Magdala consistent with the style of Jewish synagogues dating to the first century. This discovery counters the skeptics’ claim that there is no archaeological evidence of synagogue activity in Galilee during the time of Jesus (64). Romey writes “At each stop on my journey through Galilee, Jesus’ faint footprints seemed to grow a bit more distinct, a shade more discernible” (68).
  4. Jerusalem and Jesus’ Death and Burial. Romey suggests that recent discoveries like the pools of Bethesda and Siloam (John 5:2; 9:7) are consistent with what the four Gospels report about Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. Romey concludes her survey of Jerusalem at the rock-cut tomb believed to be the place where Jesus was laid, now the location of the famous Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Though the church there is ornate in its own right, having replaced splendid monuments and cathedrals covering that same rock-cut tomb for two millennia, it is the style of that tomb that concerns archaeologists today. This rock-hewn structure near a Jewish burial ground just outside of Jerusalem in no way contradicts the accounts of the burial site of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Studying the Real, Historical Jesus of the Faithful

Those hoping Romey’s article will finally show that modern archaeology proves Jesus’ miraculous abilities and resurrection will be disappointed—perhaps just as much as those wishing Romey had treated the four Gospels with a higher degree of skepticism. Romey’s article presents archaeology as the final validator of no one. Archaeology does not, has not and will never prove Christianity as a system of faith—nor can it disprove the textual evidence of the New Testament. Archaeology is a science that provides a geographic account of history, offering material and textual matter that must be compared with other material and textual matter consistent with that region and time period to understand contemporary life and customs therein. Romey works from the premise that the four Gospels date to the later-half of the first century (41), at the outset allowing them the same historical veracity of the materials archaeologists would present her along her journey. National Geographic has thus given those not skeptical of the New Testament Gospels a welcome Christmas gift: an analysis of these sacred texts that treats them with the same optimism that it provides archaeological findings. Toward this end Romey quotes Byron McCane, archaeologist and history professor at Florida Atlantic University, who states concerning Jesus, “I can think of no other example who fits into their time and place so well but people say doesn’t exist” (42).

Romey’s article may prompt readers to engage Historical Jesus scholarship—investigating the Jesus of the New Testament Gospels in light of not only archaeological findings but also literary texts describing the religious and socio-political world of Jesus’ day. Though the following do not present a uniform picture of Jesus in his world and are not be endorsed en toto, I suggest:

Jesus and the Logic of History by Paul W. Barnett

The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel by Craig L. Blomberg 

Studying the Historical Jesus by Darrell L. Bock and Jesus in Context ed. by Darrell L. Bock and Gregory J. Herrick 

The Story of Jesus in History and Faith by Lee Martin McDonald

Jesus and the Victory of God by N. T. Wright