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The Cooley Center Articles - Jesus and Archaeology

The Cooley Center Articles - Jesus and Archaeology

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Dr. Craig Evans discusses a number of recent archaeological discoveries that illuminate the surrounding culture of Jesus' time and refute a several skeptical readings of the New Testament.

This article is one of a series of articles published by The Cooley Center dealing with research around Early Christianity, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the relationships therein.



The Cooley Center seeks to uncover the historical foundations of the Christian faith by collecting research tools as assets for researchers, sponsoring lecture series on the topics of the Old Testament, New Testament and the Patristics, promoting research projects, disseminating research for a larger audience, and finally, sponsoring trips to the Holy Land.
Dr. Craig Evans discusses a number of recent archaeological discoveries that illuminate the surrounding culture of Jesus' time and refute a several skeptical readings of the New Testament.

This article is one of a series of articles published by The Cooley Center dealing with research around Early Christianity, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the relationships therein.



The Cooley Center seeks to uncover the historical foundations of the Christian faith by collecting research tools as assets for researchers, sponsoring lecture series on the topics of the Old Testament, New Testament and the Patristics, promoting research projects, disseminating research for a larger audience, and finally, sponsoring trips to the Holy Land.

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Categories:Types, Research, History
Published by: Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary on May 17, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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Jesus and Archaeology
Dr. Craig A. Evans At all levels—popular and scholarly—the Jesus of history remains a hot topic. Not a year goes by without the publication of learned, academic books and popular books, or the airing of documentaries or movies that in one way or another probe the life and teaching of the most compelling person that ever lived. In recent years there has been a great deal of interest in what light archaeology sheds on the life of Jesus and the early history of the movement that he founded. In 2009 Shimon Gibson, an Israeli archaeologist, published The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence and in 2006 the massive Jesus and Archaeology appeared, edited by James Charlesworth, a well known professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary. What is interesting is that several of the contributors are Jewish, as well as Christian. Jesus’ activities, his mission, his teaching, and the events of Passion Week are of great interest to historians and archaeologists of all backgrounds. The last century or so has witnessed many important archaeological digs and some pretty amazing discoveries, not least the Dead Sea Scrolls. I am sometimes asked about these discoveries and what they tell us about Jesus. They tell us a lot. Broadly speaking, archaeological and manuscript discoveries provide us with two kinds of information. They provide us with important background and contextual information. That is, they tell us about the world in which Jesus and his followers lived. Archaeology reveals the location of synagogues, villages, and roads, tells us things about commerce and local economies, and tells us much about housing and what we usually call ―material culture.‖ We find coins, pottery, glass, iron and wooden tools, sandals, cloth, and even a fishing boat! And, of course, we find scrolls and other materials (such as ostraca and metal foils on which is found writing). Finds such as these help us visualize what life was like when Jesus traveled from village to village, reclined at table and socialized, and taught in synagogues and out in the open countryside. Archaeological discoveries sometimes provide information that directly relates to a particular teaching of Jesus. The discovery may answer a question, clear up some confusion, or refute an assertion that the New Testament Gospels are inaccurate or have misrepresented something. Let me provide a few examples that I believe are among the most important. Because of its close proximity to Nazareth, the archaeological excavations of the city Sepphoris have been followed with much interest. When in the 1970s and 1980s paved, colonnaded streets and Greco-Roman style buildings were unearthed, some scholars jumped to the conclusion that Sepphoris was a thoroughly Gentile city, perhaps with only a marginal Jewish population. And if the city was mostly Greek, then perhaps various Greek schools of philosophy were present in Sepphoris. Among these schools of thought could have been Cynics. These people, called Cynics (from the Greek word kynikos, which means ―dog-like‖) because they did not bother with personal grooming, but wore ragged cloaks and begged for food, railed against vanity and materialism. Because some Cynic sayings are similar to Jesus’ teaching, a few scholars have

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argued that Jesus himself may have been a Cynic, influenced and instructed by Cynics in Sepphoris, a city Jesus likely visited from time to time. Interesting theory, but not too likely. Ongoing archaeological work at Sepphoris has shown that the Sepphoris of Jesus’ day was thoroughly Jewish. In the city dump (something archaeologists always hope to find!) no pig bones have been found that date before the year AD 70. After the year 70 about one third of the animal bones are pig. From this it is inferred that prior to 70 the population of Sepphoris observed Jewish food laws. After 70 much of the population did not. Also, prior to AD 70 no pagan material culture is in evidence; only after 70. Evidence such as this argues strongly against the theory that Greeks lived in Sepphoris. And if no Greeks lived in Sepphoris in the time of Jesus, then there were not any Cynics either. The Dead Sea Scrolls have also shed important light on Jesus and his world. Following the resurrection early Christians announced to all who would listen that Jesus was the Messiah, Son of God. Some skeptical scholars suggested that the idea that the Messiah was the ―Son of God‖ was the result of Greco-Roman influence, where the Greek kings and Roman emperors were hailed as sons of God. Christians allegedly called Jesus ―Son of God‖ in order to compete. These skeptical scholars do not think it would have occurred to Christians to describe Jesus in divine terms had it not been for this Greco-Roman influence. Once again, we have another dubious theory. When the last of the scroll fragments from Qumran’s Cave 4 were published there was a remarkable discovery. An Aramaic scroll (4Q246) foretells the coming of one who is ―great,‖ who will be called ―Son of God‖ and ―Son of the Most High,‖ and who will reign forever. These four remarkable attributes immediately bring to mind the angel’s announcement in Luke 1:32– 35. This Aramaic scroll dates to the middle of the first century BC. It shows that some Jews did indeed anticipate the coming of a redeemer, who was described in very exalted language, the very language that in time would be used of Jesus. Proclaiming Jesus the Messiah as the ―Son of God‖ was not the result of post-resurrection pagan influence, but was completely in step with Palestinian, Jewish expectations, expectations, I might add, that reflect Scripture (cf. Ps 2:2, 7; 2 Sam 7:14). Another fragmentary scroll from Cave 4 speaks directly to the question of how Jesus understood himself. At one time it was fashionable in some scholarly circles to assert that Jesus did not understand himself as Israel’s Messiah, that this idea only arose later. It was pointed out that when asked by John the Baptist if he was the ―Coming One‖ Jesus said nothing about being the Messiah. He only alluded to his ministry of miracles and preaching: ―Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them‖ (Matt 11:4–5). The evangelist Matthew, of course, understood Jesus’ reply as messianic, as we can see in the way he introduces the story: ―Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Messiah‖ (Matt 11:2). It turns out that the evangelist Matthew knew what he was talking about and the skeptical scholars did not. The scroll called 4Q521 declares that ―heaven and earth will obey His Messiah‖ and that when this figure appears he will ―open the eyes of the blind . . . heal the wounded, make alive the dead, and proclaim good news to the poor.‖ This remarkable parallel

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shows that Jesus’ reply to the imprisoned and discouraged John was indeed a messianic affirmation. These are just a few of the examples of how archaeology and ancient manuscripts shed light on the world of Jesus and his earliest followers. Archaeology cannot answer all of our questions, but once in awhile it answers a big one.

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