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History, Archaeology and Jesus

Hard evidence from the ancient world dramatically supports the New Testament record on Jesus.
by Paul L. Maier

Mythical personalities are not involved in authentic episodes from the past. Nor do they leave hard evidence behind. In the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, however, there are many points of contact between His record in the Gospels and the surrounding history of His times. Just as the New Testament is studded with authentic geographical locations, it is also full of genuine personalities who are well known from secular sources outside of the Bible record, including some that are even hostile to Christianity.

In some cases, the additional, non-Biblical information on these personalities is immense. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (A.D. 37—100), for example, supplies about a thousand times as much data on Herod the Great as does Matthew’s Gospel.

In other cases, the secular facts are crucial. The New Testament does not tell us what became of Jesus’ half-brother, James the Just of Jerusalem, the first bishop of the Christian church (Acts 15). Josephus, however, gives us the details of his being stoned to death by the Sanhedrin in A.D. 62.

Josephus on Jesus

Twice Josephus refers to Jesus. His second reference concerns the episode involving James, whom he defines as "the brother of Jesus who was called the Christ." Earlier, in the middle of his reports on Pontius Pilate’s administration, Josephus has a longer passage on Jesus. For centuries this had been dismissed as a Christian interpolation. But what is doubtless the original wording has now been restored. In view of its importance, the entire passage is presented here:

"At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified, and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion, and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day" (Antiquities 20:200).

Other non-Biblical, non-Christian ancient references to Jesus occur in the pagan Roman authors Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger, as well as in the Jewish rabbinical traditions. One especially important notice in the last, the arrest notice for Jesus, will be dealt with in the next article.

Bottom line: In view of the many points of tangency between the Biblical and non-Biblical documentary evidence and the full correlation of these two, history also supports the complete historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.


A comparatively young discipline only about 125 years old, scientific archaeology has delivered a spectacular amount of "hard evidence" from the ancient world that correlates admirably with information inside the Old and New Testaments. A whole series of articles would be possible on this theme alone. However, a brief listing must suffice, which is limited to discoveries relating directly to the life of Jesus.

The existence of Nazareth in Jesus’ day had been doubted by critics—until its name showed up in a first-century synagogue inscription at Caesarea. Augustus’ census edicts (in connection with the Nativity) are borne out by an inscription at Ankara, Turkey, his famous Res Gestae ("Things Accomplished"), in which the Roman emperor proudly claims to have taken a census three times. That husbands had to register their families for the Roman census was mandated in census papyri discovered in Egypt.

That Herod the Great ruled at the time Jesus was born is demonstrated by the numerous excavations of his massive public works in the Holy Lane, including the great Temple in Jerusalem. That his son Herod Antipas ruled Galilee is shown in similar digs at Sepphoris and Tiberias. Coins from these and the other Herodian rulers are a commonplace in coin collections.

As for Jesus’ public ministry, the remains of the foundation of the synagogue at Capernaum where He taught still exist below the present ruins of the fourth-century synagogue there. The remains of Peter’s house at Capernaum, later converted into an octagonal Christian sanctuary, have been uncovered. The hull of a first-century boat that plied the waters of the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time was discovered in 1986, giving us new information on how Jesus could sleep through a storm during the famous episode of the Stilling of the Tempest (Mark 4:35ff.).

Relating to Jesus’ final week in Jerusalem, an ancient flight of stairs down to the Brook Kidron has been excavated, doubtless used by Jesus and His disciples on the way to Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of Olives, where ancient olive trees still thrive. An inscription naming His judge on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate, was discovered at Caesarea in 1961. The very bones of the chief prosecutor at that trial, the high priest Joseph Caiaphas, came to light inside an ossuary (a stone chest used to store bones from burial sites) uncovered in 1990, the first bones of a Biblical personality ever discovered.

That they nailed victims to crosses, as in Jesus’ case, was proven when another ossuary was open north of Jerusalem in 1968, and a victim’s heel bones appeared, transfixed with a seven-inch iron spike. Burial in tombs closed up with rolling stone disks is more than apparent today in many such sepulchers in Judea and even Galilee.

In addition, many of the sites in Jesus’ ministry, such as Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum, Caesarea Philippi, Shechem, Bethany and, of course, Jerusalem are in process of excavation, promising even more archaeological discoveries relating to the life of Jesus. If the past is any precedent, almost all of these will confirm the New Testament accounts.

The archaeological supports in the case of Jesus’ greatest follower, Paul of Tarsus, are especially impressive. Ruins in Cyprus, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Rome and elsewhere all bear out the many references about Paul in the New Testament.

As hard evidence from the past, "the very stones cry out" the reliability of the Biblical record. It is amusing to note that many of the last century’s most trenchant critics of Jesus and the New Testament refused at first even to consider the result of archaeology, so counter to their opinions was its evidence! Today, I can’t imagine anyone, friend or foe of the faith, would be stupid enough to hold so foolish an attitude.

At the 2, 000th anniversary of Christianity, then, we should be ready to tell everyone that the sum total of the literary, historical and archaeological evidence from the ancient world dramatically supports the New Testament record on Jesus. Those who claim it does not are sadly misinformed, tragically closed-minded, or dishonest.

Dr. Paul L. Maier is professor of Ancient History and chaplain at Western Michigan University-Kalamazoo, MI.

Reprinted with permission from The Lutheran Witness magazine (October, 1999).

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