This is the second in a two-part blog series inspired by an interview with archaeologist, Dr. Craig Evans. The first article was general in nature, focusing on people in the biblical record who are confirmed by archaeological finds, and noting that modern archaeology continues to affirm the historical reliability of the Bible. In this piece, we focus on the New Testament, which is Dr. Evans’s specialty.
Significantly, when asked whether he is aware of any archaeological finds that contradict the Gospels, Dr. Evans responded, “Where it relates to the Gospels – the Gospels talk certain people, certain places and certain events – and everywhere archaeology has any relevance that touches on it in any way, the archaeology supports what the Gospels say.” Thus, the theme continues: that modern archaeology, far from casting a shadow of doubt on the bible, shines light on it, illuminating the biblical accounts with archaeological discoveries.
Dr. Evans chronicles a dozen archaeological finds in his book, Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture, related to ossuaries in the 1st Century. First Century Palestinian Jews practiced bone collecting. According to their custom, the bones of relatives were collected and preserved in boxes called ossuaries.
People were typically buried in the 1st Century the day they died or the next morning. The bodies were washed, perfumed and wrapped. Before anything else was done with the body, there was a loud “lamentation” (a funeral, people wept, music was played). Then the body was taken out of the village to the burial location and placed in a cave or cut out tomb, which was often a family burial place. For seven (7) days people wept and mourned at the location of the burial.
One year later, people returned to the burial site, gathered up the bones and placed them in a niche inside the tomb or in a box (ossuary). The name (or names) of the buried were often written on the ossuary. Much of the information archaeologists are able to collect from the ossuaries includes what is written on them. There are names, references to vocations, nicknames, etc. Inside the ossuaries are the skeletons of one of more people (as many as 5-6).
One interesting side note is that archaeologists have learned much about the longevity of people from the ossuaries that have been found, about 3000 in total. Tombs or burial locations have had up to 60-70 skeletons of family members in them, including many children. In some examples, the skeletons reveal that no more than a third (1/3) of people buried there reached adulthood.
These ossuaries have shined light on the grim reality of life, health and longevity in the 1st Century. From the ossuaries that have been found, we can estimate that about fifty (50%) of the people in the 1st Century died before reaching age 30. If a person reached age 5, they had a “good shot” at reaching age 40, but very few people lived into their 50’s or beyond.
One ossuary of particular note, is the Caiaphas Ossuary, discovered about 1990. It is one of the more beautiful ossuaries, looking like a treasure chest. It has two inscriptions reading, Joseph bar Caiapha. This means “Joseph, son of, or house of, Caiapha”. Caiapha seems to have been a nickname for this family. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the 1st Century, refers a high priest as “Joseph, called Caiaphas”.
Evens believes the bones in the Caiaphas Ossuary are the skeleton of the same person high priest referenced in the Gospels when Jesus was crucified. Many years later (about 2013) an ossuary was found of a woman (Mariam) whose father was named Yeshua, and his father was identified as “Caiaphas: priest”. This seems to confirm that this is the same Caiaphas who sentenced Jesus to die.
Another interesting ossuary found in 2002 is that of James, believed to be the step-brother of Jesus. James was martyred in Jerusalem in 62 AD (according to Josephus). The ossuary inscription reads, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. Some maintained that “brother of Jesus” was added later, and this contention was the basis for fraud charges brought against the owner of the relic. The high profile case against the owner ended in acquittal, however, when the prosecution failed to prove that the inscription, “brother of Jesus”, was an addition. (See Oded Golan is not guilty of forgery. So is the ‘James ossuary’ for real? by Matt Friedman, The Times of Israel, March 14, 2002)
Evans adds that the only question, now, is whether, in fact, this is the same James mentioned in the Gospels and by Josephus as the brother of Jesus Christ, who became the leader of the church in Jerusalem and was martyred. Unfortunately, the James ossuary is of uncertain origin because it was purchased by its owner from Palestinian Arabs trafficking in archaeological artifacts without known provenance.
Evens notes that there is only other ossuary (of the thousands that have been collected) in which a person is described as the “brother of” someone else. The rarity of such a reference relates to the cultural values by which most people were known in reference to fathers, not other relationships. This suggests that these two people were better known as the “brother of” rather than the “son of” someone. Because of the patriarchal culture in which heritage and standing was passed down through the patriarchal line, the reference to “brother of” is a significance deviation.
(Interestingly, there is some DNA in the bone chips that might allow a DNA test.)
Some other information related to James includes that fact that he took over the church in Jerusalem when Peter left the area to get away from Herod the Great’s grandson, Agrippa I, who was killing people. James led the church in Jerusalem for about 20 years, until the governor of Judea died in 62 AD. For a brief period of time, the brother-in-law of Caiaphas, Annas Jr, became the high priest. He arrested James and others, accused them of being lawbreakers, and had them executed. When the new governor arrived from Rome, Annas Jr. was removed from office. We know these things, not from the New Testament, but from Josephus and other 1st Century historians.
The war with Rome which started in 66 AD, a few years after James died, interfered with bone collecting because the Roman army besieged Jerusalem. Since the burial places were outside the walls of Jerusalem, the besieged Jews could not bury the bodies as they were accustomed to doing. But James would have died before that, and it is likely, therefore, that those are the actual bones of James, brother of Jesus. (Ossuaries were no longer used at all after 70 AD when the Romans destroyed the Temple and drove the Jews out of Jerusalem.)
Another significant find Dr. Evans discussed is a victim of crucifixion that was discovered in the late 1960’s. His name was the equivalent of John. His shin bones had been broken, and in his right heel was a rusty spike 11.5 centimeters long. Coins and other datable items found in the tomb suggest he was crucified in the late 20’s AD. The significance of this find is the indication that even people who were crucified were properly buried, and the family members were allowed to gather up the bones a year later, as was the custom, and put them in an ossuary in the family tomb.
Dr. Evans also discussed the “house of Peter” in Capernaum. Most archaeologists who have explored the house believe it really was the house of Peter, the disciple of Jesus. Evidence includes the fact that the house was ordinary, but it ceased to be used as a home by mid-century. The oven was removed. The inside walls were plastered white. There are many lamp niches inserted in the walls. These things suggest that the house was no longer used as a private home where in people lived and became a public meeting place.
Reasons include the fact that plastering the inside walls is expensive. This was done to make the inside better lit. White plaster walls with many lamps creates a room in which people can see better. An oven is not needed in a public meeting house. Graffiti suggests that Christians met there. It may have been a church. It may have even been the headquarters of the Jesus movement in its early years.
Just a short distance away is a synagogue dating to the 4th Century AD. Underneath it is a black, basalt foundation of a much older synagogue. The Jewish custom was to build new synagogues on old synagogue foundations. The old foundation is very likely the foundation of the synagogue of the time of Jesus.
Dr. Evans mentioned other finds as well. He concluded the interview by crediting archaeology for demonstrating that “what we believe is not myth…. Christian faith is not a blind faith. It’s not a leap in the dark.” The archaeological finds, at least, support various people, places and events that are mentioned in the biblical record.
Dr. Evans also reports a trend among scholars, even skeptical scholars, who are moving away from the naturalistic explanations of the resurrection. “A lot of the anti-supernatural bias that was common in modernism has dissipated.” On the other hand, the trend is toward post-modernism “that tends to be irrational and highly subjective”. Still, he finds that moderns around the world, including in the west, are not as closed minded to the supernatural. “The rationalist explanations, conspiracy theories… have run the gamut; they’ve exhausted themselves…. To explain away the resurrection you have to assert some of the most absurd things; you have to ignore the evidence. We have original, firsthand testimony to the resurrection…. It’s not second, third, fourth hand. It’s not some legend that developed a generation or two later…. It’s what started the Christian movement. If the whole thing was a big lie or something that started later, archaeology wouldn’t support any of it, but it does.”