“They took therefore the body of Jesus, and bound it in linen cloths, with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:40)
In Part 2 of our examination of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth, we looked at documentary evidence outside of the New Testament that made reference to Him. We turn now to see whether archaeology has been able to offer any confirmation of Jesus’ existence. In turning our attention here, though, we admittedly must recognise the limitations of this field for our purposes, especially in light of the fact that, historically, the man Jesus Christ was not a great ruler or famous teacher during his lifetime. While His impact has since shaped the world, in His day, He had a relatively small influence, sociologically-speaking. There were no coins minted with His image or name engraved on them, or great monuments or epitaphs to Him during His lifetime—well, other than that famous placard placed on His Cross: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”—but we’ll get to that later. And of course, we don’t even have a body! Since Jesus rose again from the dead, there are no remains to examine (which of course can alternately be used by the sceptics to “prove” He never existed).
So if archaeological discoveries can’t offer much in the way of unassailable proof for Jesus, what can it offer? The main thing it does is overturn modern sceptical theories of the 19th and 20th centuries. During the rise and heyday of modern liberal biblical studies, aspersions were cast on the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life. Many claims were made that, in the absence of concrete archaeological evidence to the contrary, were assumed to be accurate, which gave rise to the mythicist position discussed in Part 1 of this series. However, significant finds from last century, and continuing up until very recently, have literally reshaped the landscape of our understanding of Jesus’ era. I intend to highlight certain significant discoveries which, while not concretely demonstrating the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth, do refute these assumptions and claims.
1. Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity-jig!
When Jesus lamented the unbelief of His fellow Nazarenes, saying, “A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country, and in his own house” (Matthew 13:57), the mythicist was wont to retort, “Of course not! There were no Nazarenes in Jesus’ day! The town of Nazareth was not settled until decades after Jesus’ Crucifixion! In fact, as recently as 2008, a book was written which claimed that Nazareth didn’t exist in Jesus’ time, and therefore Jesus didn’t exist, either. The author writes, “[W]e know that the Wizard of Oz didn’t exist because there never was the Land of Oz, so too we know that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist because there never was a Nazareth.”[i] Unfortunately for the critics, a year later, when the Israeli government excavated the future site of the Mary of Nazareth International Centre, a stone house was unearthed dating to the time of Christ, showing that Nazareth did indeed exist! (See this article—esp. p. 2.)
2. Pool Party!
Also around that time, discoveries were made in Magdala (where Mary Magdalene was from), Bethsaida (St. Peter’s hometown), and other Galilean locations, including a first-century fishing boat submerged in the Sea of Galilee that just happened to have seats for 12 plus the pilot! Of particular note was the discovery in Bethsaida of the pool with five porticoes described in John 5, when Jesus heals the paralytic. Sceptics had long discounted the Gospel of John as a source of reliable historical information, and his mention of the pool in chapter 5 was a particular sticking point, since its description of a “5-sided pool” seemed unlikely—until they dug it up in the late 19th century! John also mentions another pool in chapter 9, when Jesus puts mud in a blind man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. That pool was unearthed in 2005!
3. Pilate Light
It seems that Jesus wasn’t the only one who wasn’t supposed to be real, according to the mythicists. Other key figures in the Gospels were also thought to be fictitious—in particular, Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas the high priest. Of course, fictional Jesus couldn’t have been crucified without these two accusing Him and passing sentence upon Him. Apparently Tacitus and Josephus didn’t count as credible sources on their lives any more than they did for Jesus. But then, in 1961, a limestone block was discovered with an inscription clearly identifying Pontius Pilate as the Prefect of Judea! It was Caiaphas’ turn in 1990, when his ossuary was discovered. Unlike the 2002 discovery of the ossuary of “James, the brother of Jesus”, the provenance of which is still uncertain, archaeologists and scholars are unanimous in their affirmation that this really is the grave of the Caiaphas!
4. That’s a Wrap!
When it comes to direct archaeological evidence for Jesus, despite what was said in the introduction, there are a couple of items that would be clear-cut and undeniable proofs, except that their authenticity is considered dubious (to put it mildly). The first is known as the Titulus Crucis—the sign that was hung on the Cross by Pilate which read “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. There is a clear trail of documentary evidence of people having seen, touched, or possessed it, since St. Helena (Emperor Constantine’s mother) discovered it in the 4th century. It was split into three pieces—one being kept in Constantinople until it was sold to King Louis IX of France, which centuries later went missing during the French Revolution. The second piece was kept in Jerusalem, and a monk there named Anthony recorded having held it with his own hands in the 14th century, but seems to have been lost since. The third portion was kept in Rome at the Church of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. During the barbarian invasions of Rome in the 5th century, it was hidden in the walls of the church until being discovered again in 1144, but buried again in the walls until, in 1492, the Titulus was found and venerated in the basilica. Modern linguistic and paleographic studies have shown the composition to be that in use in the 1st century. However, the carbon dating of the Titulus dates it to c. 1100, the time, approximately, that the Titulus had been rediscovered. Sceptics like to declare victory, calling it nothing more than a mediaeval forgery. However, that doesn’t take into account the accuracy of the script to that of the 1st Century, or a clear documentary history from well before 1100. It seems, then, that if the Titulus isn’t the original, it is an exquisitely reproduced replica of the original. This article provides a compelling theory about the origins of the replica. Regardless, the fact is that this replica does indeed point back to actual direct evidence for the existence of Jesus.
Carbon dating has also seemed to throw a monkey wrench into another direct archaeological link to Jesus, in the famous Shroud of Turin, thought to be the cloth in which Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus wrapped the body of Jesus for burial. In a talk available through Lighthouse Catholic Media, Fr. Francis Peffley discusses the scientific discoveries made about the shroud, and tackles head-on reasons why the late date given by carbon dating might not, in this case, be the final nail in the shroud’s…uh…coffin. Moreover, Peffley gives several reasons to believe in the shroud’s authenticity, such as remnants of plants and pollen that grew in Palestine in Jesus’ day (and bloomed near Passover) but were extinct by the middle ages, as well as traces of blood serum (a clear liquid) and anatomically accurate patterns of blood-pooling that go beyond medical knowledge of the Middle Ages, had this been a mediaeval forgery.
All that, and the inexplicable image on the shroud, that scientists have determined was not painted on, nor was it produced by any pigment. In fact, most recent studies indicate that it was burned onto the image somehow by some split second burst of energy of some sort. All of these things have led many to conclude that it is, after all, the very burial cloth of Jesus Himself. In fact, in the past 30 years, of the over 2000 different scientists who have studied the shroud, some 95% ended up converting to Christianity! That’s an odd way to react to a mediaeval forgery, wouldn’t you say?
Even if we discount things like the Titulus Crucis or the Shroud of Turin, biblical archaeology has done a tremendous deal to overthrow mythicist claims by showing that key elements of the Palestine of Jesus’ day were exactly as the Gospels describe them. Since many of the mythicist arguments hinge on these things either not existing, or not being how the Gospels describe them, the discoveries succeed in, at the very least, making the mythicist claims look rather uninformed. When we take the additional data that can be gleaned from things like the Shroud or the Titulus, despite remaining questions of provenance, it becomes very unreasonable to continue to claim that there is no evidence that Jesus ever existed.
Ultimately, the evidence being unearthed every day in the Holy Land brings ever-growing credibility to the New Testament writings as reliable evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth—and that will be the topic of Part 4 of our series. See you in two weeks!
Read the other posts of the series Was Jesus Real:
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[i] The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus by Ren Salm