Top 10 Archaeological Discoveries Related to Jesus

Milton Moreland

Milton Moreland

What are the top 10 archaeological discoveries related to Jesus? Westar Fellow Milton Moreland, who has served as a Senior Field Supervisor at the archaeological excavation in Sepphoris, Israel, since 1993, set out to debunk some common myths about archaeology and Jesus at the Spring 2014 national meeting.

Moreland, author of Between Text and Artifact: Integrating Archaeology in Biblical Studies Teaching, emphasized the importance of understanding Syria as a region. “To know more about Syria is to know more about Christian origins and the earliest Jesus movements,” he explained. Syria was a hotbed of activity, and was hardly the pastoral idyll so often depicted romantically in stories of Christian origins, in spite of the fact that rural-urban relationships played an important role for Jesus followers. With that in mind, here are the top 10 discoveries in the Syrian region of significance for understanding the historical Jesus.

10. Sebaste (Samaria)
Located in Samaria, this was Herod’s colonial city with Roman temples to Augustus. Herod the Great brought Judea into the Roman world. He was a “client king” and a fantastic Roman administrator, by which we mean he built cities. Because that’s what Roman administrators did: they built cities! Why was this important? Romans had perfected the Greek art of building cities as a way to spread culture, as other discoveries discussed below will highlight further.

Herod built three temples, one of which was right in the center of Sebaste, placing the Roman imperial cult front and center for visitors there. Sometimes we hear people minimizing the importance of the imperial cult. In fact, Jesus was surrounded by it. The very rocks imported to build the cities provided a physical representation of the empire. These magnificent cities even looked like Rome.

9. Caesarea Philippi 
This is mentioned in the Bible, where Jesus had a picnic with his crew. What’s so interesting about this site is its celebration of the god Pan with massive building projects. An important theme here is the evidence such sites provide of the Roman Empire’s active efforts to build monuments to gods other than Yahweh.

8. Capernaum
Capernaum presents a strong contrast between the cities described above and the villages typical to individuals like Jesus. The life of the village continues amid the building projects of the empire. We can ask ourselves, what’s it like to live in a village like Capernaum while Herod is building massive Tiberius not too far away? Just look at the construction of the buildings as revealed by excavations. Capernaum houses were built of unhewn basalt rock, to which residents might have added limestone plaster. So on the one hand we have imported rock recreating Rome, and on the other we have houses of unhewn basalt. Quite a contrast.

7. Early Roman Jerusalem
This was a city under construction even up until the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Herod expanded the Temple Mount three times over during his rule—a hint, incidentally, that he was playing up relations with both the Romans and the local Jewish communities. Nevertheless, Jerusalem is a Roman city. It hosted the Olympic Games. It had colonnaded streets. It was Roman, but with a Jewish temple. What’s more, the Roman military was stationed in Jerusalem and guarded the Temple, which also happened to be the bank.

After its destruction in 70 CE, Jerusalem was essentially abandoned from 70 to 115 CE, at which point it was renamed. This was experienced by early Jesus followers: the obliteration of Jerusalem and eventual conversion of it into a Roman colony.

6. Dead Sea Scrolls
This is where Westar’s work has proven to be very important, in that it has focused on putting the Jesus movement into the broader context evidenced by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Through this discovery we have learned that groups contemporary with the Jesus movement, but who may not have had contact with one another, nevertheless shared certain features in their responses to the pressures of the time. The Dead Sea Scrolls give us the earliest texts we have, dating from the first century BCE onward. Importantly, the Dead Sea Scrolls give us a microcosm of one small community, enabling us to glimpse a story of who they were. Qumran, where the scrolls were discovered, laid undisturbed for 1900 years. It’s hard to quantify how valuable that is in archaeological terms.

5. Caesarea Maritime
Herod built a breakwater and this massive, monumental city on the coast. Underwater archaeology at Caesarea has been one of the most interesting archaeological methods of exploration in the past 20 years. We’ve learned that this was the busiest port on this region of the Mediterranean. This provokes us to ask: why urbanize the region by building cities like this? Caesarea Maritime, like many other newly constructed cities, had no natural access to fresh water, requiring engineers to design aqueducts to carry in fresh water long distances, yet Herod still demanded that it be done.

Roman aqueduct in Caesarea Maritima (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Roman aqueduct in Caesarea Maritima

Reinforcing what we see in other cities in this era and region, Caesarea Maritime looked exactly like any other Roman port city, with a temple to Augustus, and yet here it stood just 30 miles from Galilee. It’s as though the Syrians were crying out, “Look, we’re Roman! We’re just as (or even more) Roman as the Romans!” Roads, aqueducts, temple and palace: these were signs of Rome that dominated the landscape. Why build colonnaded roads, after all? A basic road would have been serviceable, but the grand columns provide a wow factor. Why built aqueducts along beautiful beaches? To assert Roman control over nature. This new port city also came to control trade in the region with tariffs as high as 25 percent: imperial presence coupled with control of trade.

4. Sepphoris
Sepphoris is now a national park dedicated to archaeological excavation. It’s a major city just three miles from Nazareth, and is located on a natural hill overlooking the region. It dominated the landscape until its destruction in an earthquake. We now know fifteen to twenty thousand people lived there in the time of Jesus, making it not much smaller than Jerusalem and a strong presence in the Galilee. While there weren’t massive Roman temples in this part of Galilee, Sepphoris still represented a Roman city with the usual colonnaded roads, aqueducts, walls, and theater.

One discovery of note in Sepphoris is a wealthy Jewish home that shows Roman influence through features like a mosaic of a drinking contest between Hercules and Dionysus. It also features the so-called “Mona Lisa of the Galilee.” This suggests another helpful lesson on this era: To be Roman was to keep your indigenous, local traditions while still incorporating the Roman, urban atmosphere of the times.

3. The Galilee Boat
The Galilee Boat, which was found between Capernaum and Tiberias, is made of many different kinds of wood, suggesting it was kept over multiple generations and patched with whatever wood was available to the people who used it. It was nicknamed the “Jesus boat” because it could hold about 13 people. At the same time the fishermen who used this boat were patching it to make it last, brand new Tiberias was being constructed with imported stone. As with Capernaum, this discovery emphasizes the incredible contrast between peasant life and the monumental efforts of the Empire going on in plain view all around the villages.

2. Jewish Ritual Purity
This topic has come into its own in just the past couple decades. This discovery centers on everyday objects: pitchers and cups that basically promised ritual purity when used (yet were made of chalk, hardly a pleasant item from which to drink your water!). Alongside these everyday items we also find ritual baths everywhere. These did not aid much in terms of cleanliness: there were no drains. Rather, such relics open up a picture for us of an increasing interest in a particular local, indigenous belief system of ritual purity alongside Romanization on a massive scale. We can just imagine members of the local communities asking plaintively, “How do I stay pure?”

1. Caiaphas Ossuary and Crucified Man
These are small yet phenomenal finds, not because they prove anything but because they open a window on a particular past era of interest to us. What the Caiaphas ossuary highlights is a change in burial practices. Previously, people buried their dead in undifferentiated tombs, but gradually we begin to see people carrying out a “second burial” of the dead by returning after a year to corpses to gather up bones into ossuaries, which were small burial boxes. Why were people all of a sudden saving bones?

This is a good example of text and archaeology coming together to tell a more complete story. Changes in material culture often show changes in belief. At the same time individual burial became commonplace, people were writing about heaven and final judgment. These developing theological writings help explain the change in otherwise longstanding burial practices.* Likewise, while we can’t use the discovery of a nail hammered sideways into the anklebone of a man who was evidently crucified to prove that Jesus himself was crucified (contrary to some popular claims), this kind of discovery can help us understand how Romans carried out crucifixions.

*Update 3/21/2014: Jodi Magness gave a presentation on ossuaries on Friday night of the national meeting that challenges the view described above, which has been a well-established view on burial customs. Jodi pointed out that the problem of looking at resurrection beliefs as tied to ossuaries is that ossuaries didn’t contain the full skeletons of the deceased, so they didn’t really solve the problem of keeping individual bodies intact for resurrections. Also, ossuaries were in common use among Romans, who cremated their dead. Even though Jewish people did not cremate their dead, Jodi recommended viewing the practice of using ossuaries as basically a fashion trend; the Jewish elite, who were the ones most likely to use ossuaries, were emulating Herod, who in turn was emulating Augustus. Jodi’s main point in this regard was that we need to be careful not to isolate Jewish culture from surrounding culture. We have plenty of evidence that Jews willingly adopted Roman customs, art, and architecture, including some aspects of burial practices. So, whichever explanation you find most convincing, there are important lessons to be had here about the role archaeology can play in this debate.

Concluding Reflections
Archaeology does not prove anything and everything about the New Testament or about Jesus per se. What archaeology does do is give us a clearer picture of the Roman world. Through archaeological work we have come to realize that Christianity thrived in major cities, not in small villages in rural areas. Villages like Nazareth don’t show signs of Christianization until the 4th century; in other words, they were thoroughly Jewish villages up until Constantine declared Christianity the religion of the empire. Thus, what we can learn from villages is the likely experiences of Jesus and his immediate followers, but for Christian origins we need to turn to the cities.

During his talk Milton Moreland recommended a couple books about the history of this region (warning: they are dense): The Middle East under Rome by Maurice Satre and Roman Syria and the Near East by Kevin Butcher. Many thanks again to Milton Moreland for this introduction to archaeology of significance for the historical Jesus and Christian origins!

When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century.

Scholars Study Book of Acts as Second-Century Myth of Christian Origins

Press Release November 1, 2013

Polebridge Press recently released the final report of a decade-long study on the biblical book of Acts carried out by the Acts Seminar, a collaborative research effort led by scholars affiliated with the Westar Institute. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report was launched at Westar Institute’s “Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?” Conference in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, October 25th. Members of the Acts Seminar were present to comment on the report. The Acts Seminar scholars set out to answer the questions, “When was Acts written? What historically can Acts tell us about Christian origins?”

Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report

Available from Polebridge Press

The dominant view in Acts scholarship places Acts around 85 CE, not because of any special event linking the book of Acts to that date but as a compromise between scholars who believe it was written by an eye-witness to the early Jesus movement and those who don’t. Acts and Christian Beginnings argues for a more rigorous approach to the evidence. The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts was written around 115 CE and used literary models like Homer for inspiration, even exact words and phrases from popular stories. “Among the top ten accomplishments of the Acts Seminar was the formation of a new methodology for Acts,” editors Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson explained. “The author of Acts is in complete control of his material. He felt no obligation to stick to the sources. He makes them say what he wants them to say.”

The Acts Seminar demonstrated that the author of Acts used a collection of Paul’s letters to create a believable itinerary for Paul’s journeys throughout the Mediterranean. Previously, scholars saw the correspondence between Paul’s letters and Acts as proof that they were written in the same era. In fact, the reverse is true. Acts used Paul’s letters as a source while shying away from Pauline theology, which lost popularity in the second century.

“It’s tempting to ask, why bother reading a book we can demonstrate is not historically what it claims to be?” Tyson said. Yet Acts remains important as a window into the world of early second-century Christianity. Acts succeeded in creating a “charter myth,” a narrative constitution for the young Jesus movement. “Acts offered a major reinterpretation of Paul so powerful it hasn’t been undone until this century,” Tyson explained. “Narrative is so powerful, so effective,” Smith added. “Luke benefits from following this model. It’s good storytelling.”

Dennis Smith

Editor Dennis Smith Discusses the New Acts Seminar Report

Marcion: Forgotten “Father” and Inventor of the New Testament

Christianity owes a major debt to a man with no direct connection to Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus – a man labeled a heretic by the forerunners of orthodox Christianity. Marcion (c. 95-165 CE) was a shipbuilder, possibly ship owner, from Pontus, a small region in what is now northern Turkey. We know little else about him, except that at some point in his career he joined the Christian community in Rome only to find himself embroiled in debate with the leadership there. Ultimately they were unable to resolve their differences, and the Marcionite community broke from other Jesus followers of that era. It is unknown how separate the communities were in practice, but in some parts of the ancient world Marcionites were called “Christians” while groups with closer ties to Judaism were called “Nazoreans.”

Jason BeDuhn gives a lecture on Marcion

Jason BeDuhn

Marcion holds a lasting legacy for Christians as the inventor of the New Testament. Jason BeDuhn, author of The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, argues that Marcion not only put together the very first Christian canon of scriptures, he gave Christianity very idea of doing so. At the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference in Santa Rosa, California, BeDuhn spoke about the important role Marcion played in shaping Christian identity. This begins with the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the Roman Empire. “A good contemporary analogy is the interest some modern White Americans have in Native American religion and culture,” he said, “A similar thing was going on with Gentile fans of Judaism in the ancient world. They wanted to take on foreign spirituality and practices.” However, Jews rebelled multiple times against the Roman Empire in the second century, and Gentile Christian groups fled association with them, taking on new forms in the process.

Marcionites were pesco-vegetarians who embraced pacifism. Women held high leadership roles, at least prominently enough that critics of Marcionites complained about the role women were playing in the movement. They did not believe the god of Jesus was the god of the Jews. They believed the god of the Jews was a creator god that ruled based on judgment and violence, which Marcion argued by appealing to violent texts in the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion saw the god of Jesus as an entirely new being, a higher god who provided escape from the judgment of this world. Most importantly, Marcionites had something no other Christians had: a canon of their own scriptures.

Challenging Traditional Views of Marcion

Critics of Marcion like Tertullian and Epiphanius complained that Marcion cut and edited scripture to fit his beliefs. Biblical scholar Adolf von Harnack accepted this claim in his definitive text on Marcion, Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God (1920). However, Tertullian and Epiphanius lived several generations after Marcion, and they assumed the New Testament they read already existed in Marcion’s era. It didn’t. Marcion’s critics were reading history backward instead of forward: there was no New Testament yet.

We tend to assume the version of Christianity we see today as inevitable, but actually there were many possible ways for Christianity to develop. Christianity may never have become a religion with a set of scriptures at all. Christians may have continued to interpret and reinterpret Hebrew scriptures, rely on oral storytelling, consider themselves Jewish, and so on. The very attitude of Marcionites setting themselves apart from Jews led them to declare a “new” testament, and that has made all the difference.

Marcion’s New Testament

What did Marcion’s version of the New Testament look like? It had two parts: the Evangelion, which was a gospel related to the Gospel of Luke, and the Apostolikon, a collection of Paul’s letters. Marcion is our first witness to six of the ten letters now considered to be authentic by modern biblical scholars. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that only some letters attributed to Paul are authentic (most exclude 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example). The evidence from Marcion supports this finding. The inclusion of Paul’s letters in the New Testament was by no means certain. Rather, Marcion’s choice to include the letters succeeded in pushing other communities to do the same thing when they came up with competing canons of scripture, although it took his competitors two hundred years to establish the canon now found in Bibles today.

This is a very different way of looking at the Marcionite New Testament, and scholars will need to compare the edition reconstructed by Jason BeDuhn to determine how this changes our view of how early Christianity developed. For example, the Evangelion is much shorter than the Gospel of Luke, and it is not clear whether they were both written by the same person for different communities, or if a later editor added new material to the Gospel of Luke. Also, BeDuhn found that the Marcionite version of Romans 9-11 is completely different, yet this text has been used by some scholars as a key to Pauline theology. Regardless of how these findings eventually play out in scholarly discussion and debates, BeDuhn identifies four significant contributions of Marcion to Christian history:

The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Canon

Available from Polebridge Press

  1. Christians owe the idea of a “new” testament to Marcion.
  2. Christians owe to Marcion the particular form of the New Testament.
  3. Christians owe to Marcion the prominence of the voice of Paul in the New Testament.
  4. Finally, Christians owe to Marcion a Christian identity built on a special scripture all their own.

Taming Tongues of Fire in the Book of Acts

When we read the book of Acts, we encounter a distinct movement away from the egalitarian vision of Jesus and even Paul, down the path toward Constantine and the religion of an empire. This shift comes into focus when we compare Acts to the pagan Felix Minutious, who criticized Christianity in the third century on a number of counts. In a presentation today at the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? conference by the Westar Institute, Shelly Matthews, author of Acts of the Apostles: Taming Tongues of Fire (Sheffield, forthcoming), used Felix as a key to explore the social criticisms to which the author of Acts responded.

Pagan Criticism of Christians

Felix, though writing around a century later than Acts, captures well the sentiments of Greco-Roman civil society toward Christians. Among other things, Felix describes Christians as the “dregs of society,” made up of gullible women and riff-raff whispering in corners. He found it shocking that they worshiped a criminal, which was what crucifixion represented. He described them as worse even than the Jews – who were themselves viewed as rebellious rabble rousers – because at least the Jews worshiped in public places and respectable temples.

Luke is often portrayed as friendly to women, but Luke’s treatment of women is a good test case in demonstrating how he responds to criticism like that of Felix. Luke generally places intelligent women in his narrative, and even quotes Hebrew scriptures that suggest women are important to the Jesus-following movement. However, they rarely speak and are often relegated off stage. Luke does just enough to show that the women in the Jesus movement are not “gullible” but are in fact respectable women. He stops short of showing them in positions of actual power in the movement.

Shelly Matthews

Shelly Matthews

What about the claim that Christians comes from the “dregs” of society? Luke answers this critique by highlighting how many “friends in high places” Christians possess, especially key Christian leaders like Peter and Paul. In Acts 13 he even goes so far as to say the proconsul, a man who occupied an incredibly high position in Roman civil society, was a friend of Christians! This would have been difficult, if not impossible.

Then there’s the claim of secretiveness. This theme emerges repeatedly in pagan discourse about Christians. Worship in Roman society, properly carried out, was public and took place in temples. Outsiders wondered what Christians were up to, and heard rumors that whatever it was, was improper. By way of response, Luke places Peter and Paul in public spaces (mostly synagogues) where in fact they attempt to speak and are often silenced by people who are concerned for their safety. This portrayal of Paul in particular is contradictory to Paul’s own voice in his letters, where he admits to being a poor orator who struggled to debate with competing missionaries. In Acts, Paul demonstrates great prowess in oration. He is articulate and convincing. Where Paul privileges foolishness as the power of God, Acts is suspiciously drawn to portray Christians as powerful and impressive – ideal Roman citizens who could handle debate in the public square.

Ironically, Paul and Felix Minucious are two sides of the same coin. Their descriptions of Christians are virtually the same, but from positive and negative perspectives respectively. Acts is the departure from these complementary views.

“Christians Aren’t Like Jews”
Luke’s Attempt at Christian Public Relations

Another important task faced by Luke was to distance Jesus followers from Jews, who in the second century were embroiled in rebellion against the Roman Empire. It was neither safe nor prudent to be identified with Jews, yet Jesus followers could not deny a connection with Judaism. Luke solves this problem by distinguishing Jesus followers from “non-believing” Jews, that is, Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. However, this was a complicated matter because Greco-Roman culture did not simply dismiss Jews or Judaism outright. On the one hand, the Jews were rebels, but on the other, the antiquity of their religion was a source of great cultural capital. Luke seizes on both aspects in an ingenious way, a way that would have long-term consequences for Jewish-Christian relations.

Luke describes non-believing Jews as essentially functioning by mob rule, prone to violence, and rebellious. By contrast, Jesus followers embody the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures. They are the hope and wish of the scriptures. Non-believing Jews bear the weight of negative stereotypes, while Jesus followers appropriate positive stereotypes. In ancient rhetoric, repetition indicated the importance of a point; Luke provides ample repetition of these themes throughout the book of Acts.

Was there any truth to Luke’s claims that Jews acted violently toward Jesus-followers? Perhaps there was violence, and Shelly does not deny that possibility. The troubling point in Luke’s narrative is not so much that the claims of violence are inaccurate; rather, this is the only violence that appears in the book. We know Jesus was killed as a criminal by the ruling Roman government. We know the empire engaged in terribly violent action against Jews and Christians alike. Roman violence is virtually non-existent in the book of Acts, however, leaving the Jews as the primary violent force, surely not an accurate picture of the realities of the times. For Luke, the concept of divine provenance was no longer in play; God would not redeem the Jews unless they repented. Repentance in Judaism meant a return to the Law, but to Luke, it meant conversion.

The Revealing Story of Pentecost

One of the greatest challenges faced by Luke is the claim that Christians possessed the divine spirit. Spirit churches are not orderly. Think of the modern Pentecostal church – one is “slain by the spirit.” This threatens the orderly account Luke sought to provide his patron. Yet Luke did not seem to be able to just ignore this teaching, so what he does instead is try to contain it.

When we look at the Pentecost story, we see that the speech of the Spirit is not gibberish, not glossolalia in the modern sense of a unique language. Rather, when people possessed of the Spirit speak, they can be understood widely. This is the language of reason and debate, and thus respectable in the public sphere – something good Roman citizens would do. Luke also “genders the space” by privileging male voices: Peter and 11 apostles stand together and interpret the event for passersby, after having been forewarned by the risen Christ to expect the coming of the Spirit.

It is interesting that Luke claims everyone receives the Spirit, yet we don’t ever hear them speak. Luke promises an egalitarian vision in Acts 2:17b-18, where he quotes Joel saying the spirit will be poured out on everyone, but he does not fulfill it. For that, we must turn instead to Paul, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”