What does the contemporary archaeological evidence tell us about the accuracy and reliability of the New Testament?
“On the whole … archaeological work has unquestionably strengthened confidence in the reliability of the Scriptural record. More than one archaeologist has found his respect for the Bible increased by the experience of excavation in Palestine. Archaeology has in many cases refuted the views of modern critics.”
– Millar Burrows, Professor of Archaeology, Yale University
Charlotte Allen observes that “Archaeology, which was then a young science, was by and large ignored by the academic biblical scholars of the [nineteenth] century. For the great German exegetes of the era … a voyage to Palestine was beside the point, as the life of the historical Jesus was for them solely a matter of interpreting texts.” Today, scholars know that archaeological data can be a valuable aid to interpreting texts, as well as providing independent adjudication of a text’s historical veracity. Allen affirms that archaeological excavations in the Holy Land have “tended to support the historical value of the Gospels, at least as sources of information about the conditions of their times.” As Nelson Glueck states, on the one hand “It may be stated categorically that no archaeological discovery has ever contraverted a biblical reference”, whereas on the other “Scores of archaeological findings have been made which confirm in clear outline or exact detail historical statements in the Bible.” Archaeologist William F. Albright observes:
The excessive scepticism shown toward the Bible by important historical schools of the eighteenth-and-nineteenth centuries, certain phases of which still appear periodically, has been progressively discredited. Discovery after discovery has established the accuracy of innumerable details, and has brought increased recognition to the value of the Bible as a source of history.
Likewise, Joseph Free confirms: “Archaeology has confirmed countless passages which had been rejected by critics as unhistorical or contrary to known facts.” Theologian Craig L. Blomberg notes how:
archaeology can demonstrate that the places mentioned in the Gospels really existed and that customs, living conditions, topography, household and workplace furniture and tools, roads, coins, buildings and numerous other ‘stage props’ correspond to how the Gospels describe them. It can show that the names of certain characters in the Gospels are accurate, when we find inscriptional references to them elsewhere. Events and teachings ascribed to Jesus become intelligible and therefore plausible when read against everything we know about life in Palestine in the first third of the first century.
Archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed observes that “The many archaeological discoveries relating to people, places, or titles mentioned in Acts do lend credence to its historicity at one level; many of the specific details in Acts are factual.” And as Lee Strobel observes:
In trying to determine if a witness is being truthful, journalists and lawyers will test all the elements of his or her testimony that can be tested. If this investigation reveals that the person was wrong in those details, this casts considerable doubt on the veracity of his or her entire story. However, if the minutiae check out, this is some indication – not conclusive proof but some evidence – that maybe the witness is being reliable in his or her overall account.
We will review archaeological evidence under the following three categories:
Here is a selection of finds relating to cultural practices mentioned in the New Testament.
In 1968 an ancient burial site was uncovered containing about 35 bodies. One named Yohanan Ben Ha’galgol had a 7 inch nail driven through both feet. Yohanan’s legs were crushed by a blow consistent with the common use of Roman ‘crucifragium’ (John 19:31-32). This find proves that a victim of crucifixion (like Jesus) could receive a proper Jewish burial.
The ‘Nazareth decree’ is a marble slab found in Nazareth in 1878 and inscribed with a decree issued c. AD 41 by Emperor Claudius (AD 41-54) to the effect that no graves should be disturbed or bodies extracted, with offenders sentenced to death. A plausible explanation of both the decree and its location is that Claudius heard of Jesus’ empty tomb whilst investigating the Roman riots of AD 49 and decided not to let such reports surface again. This makes sense in light of the Jewish argument that Jesus’ body had been stolen (Matthew 28:11-15). But “even if there is no conscious connection with Jesus of Nazareth, this decree still reveals that the imperial authorities in this period saw grave robbery as an extremely serious crime – indeed as a capital offence. This only makes it yet more unlikely that the (already fearful) disciples would have risked such an act.”
Some have suggested that there was no ‘leprosy’ (i.e. Mycobacterium Leprae or Hansen’s Disease) in the Middle East in Jesus day:
However, thanks to archaeology there is now dramatic evidence of its existence in the early first century. Scientific testing of the burial shroud in the so-called ‘Shroud Tomb’ has confirmed the presence of leprosy… Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) radio carbon dating confirmed the first-century date of both shroud and skeletal remains. DNA testing confirmed that the man wrapped in the shroud was related to other members whose skeletal remains were recovered in the tomb. This DNA testing also revealed that the man has suffered from leprosy....
In the 1980s, drought exposed a well-preserved first-century fishing boat (measuring 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 4.5 feet high) in the mud of the Sea of Galilee:
Under the direction of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, archaeologists began a race against time to carefully extract the boat from the mud before the waters returned… Eventually it was placed in a climate-controlled environment to protect it from aging… Pots and lamps found inside the boat dated it to the first century. Carbon-14 testing further confirmed the dating. The design of the boat was typical of fishing boats used during that period on the Sea of Galilee. In the back of the boat was a raised section like the one where Jesus could have been sleeping, as indicated in the Gospel accounts. The boat could accommodate 15 people including crew. This archaeological discovery confirms the description given in the Bible.
When Paul and his companions had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica… Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Messiah had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Messiah,’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. But other Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason’s house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other believers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. (Acts 17:1-10)
The Greek term translated here as ‘city officials’ is politarchs. Since the term doesn’t appear in classical literature, “Critics of the New Testament asserted for many years that Luke was mistaken in his use of the term ‘politarchs’ … for the officials of Thessalonica…” However, an inscription using this term was found on a first-century AD arch torn down in 1867. As T.C. Mitchell describes it:
The inscription lists the officials of the town in the second century AD, beginning with six Politarchs and naming the city Treasurer and the Gymnasiarch (Director of Higher Education). The inscription begins politarchounton, ‘While [the following] were acting as Politarchs’… It is worth noting that two of the names that appear in this inscription, Sosipatros … and Lucius … were borne by two men at Beroea whom Paul describes as … ‘kinsmen’, but in this context perhaps Jewish Christians (Romans 16:21). Equally, the names Secundus … and Gaius … were borne by a man from Thessalonica (Acts 20:4), and a Macedonian (Acts 19:29), who were travelling companions of Paul. These were not, of course, the same men, but simply demonstrate the currency of the personal names in the area in the century following the time of Paul.
Excavated at Pompeii, the Roman city engulfed in liquid mud when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, were two palindromic inscriptions of:
the famous SATOR or ROTAS square, one scratched on the wall of a private house, the other on a pillar in a public exercise yard. This palindrome appears at sites across the Roman Empire in later centuries… All sorts of ingenious explanations have been offered for this remarkable square. On the principle that the simplest explanation is the best, unravelling it as a Christian text gains first place. With the N at the centre, the other letters can be re-arranged in a cross shape to read PATERNOSTER [‘Our Father’] horizontally and vertically, with A [alpha] and O (omega) at each end. If this is correct, there were people in Pompeii who knew at least the first words of the Lord’s prayer in Latin before 79.
This piece of graffiti, from near the Palatine Hill in Rome and rather roughly dated to late in the second-century AD, was apparently drawn by one Roman soldier to mock the faith of a fellow soldier who was a Christian. It shows a man standing by a crucifixion victim with the head of a donkey. The Greek caption reads: “Alexamenos worships [his] God”.
John Dickson reports that: “Megiddo is the site of the earliest church building yet found. This strategic trade city contains the remains of a Christian prayer hall dating to the third century. It contains three mosaic inscriptions pointing to its Christian use.” One Greek inscription, which refers to the table in the centre of the hall that was probably used for communion, states: “The God-loving Akeptous has offered the table to the God Jesus Christ”. The fish that adorn the centre of one of four mosaics in the hall are a Christian symbol – the word ichthys (Greek for fish): “is an anagram of the words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour” (for video of this find cf. http://youtu.be/a2lcDvAMzQ8).
Here is a selection of finds relating to places mentioned in the New Testament.
In May 2012 the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a bulla (a small clay seal) that mentions Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus (cf. links to a photo and video of the bulla):
The first ancient artifact constituting tangible evidence of the existence of the city of Bethlehem, which is mentioned in the Bible, was recently discovered in Jerusalem. A bulla measuring c. 1.5 cm was found during the sifting of soil removed from archaeological excavations the Israel Antiquities Authority is carrying out in the City of David… A bulla is a piece of clay that was used for sealing a document or object. The bulla was impressed with the seal of the person who sent the document or object, and its integrity was evidence the document or object was not opened by anyone unauthorized to do so. Three lines of ancient Hebrew script appear on the bulla:
According to Eli Shukron, director of the excavation on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, ‘it seems that in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to here is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem. The bulla we found belongs to the group of 'fiscal' bullae – administrative bullae used to seal tax shipments remitted to the taxation system of the Kingdom of Judah in the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE. The tax could have been paid in the form of silver or agricultural produce such as wine or wheat.’ Shukron emphasizes, ‘this is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible, in an inscription from the First Temple period, which proves that Bethlehem was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods.’
Shukron told Ecumenical News International: "Here we can read [the word Bethlehem] in a clear Hebrew inscription from the First Temple period on a bulla found in Israel that arrived from Bethlehem to Jerusalem maybe to pay some tax. This is the Bethlehem next to Jerusalem referred to in the Bible."
Theologian R.T. France describes Nazareth as:
so insignificant that its name occurs nowhere in Jewish literature until long after the time of Jesus. It was a small village, largely devoted to agriculture, bypassed by the main roads which ran to the near-by Hellenistic city of Sepphoris, the capital of Galilee… Its population has been estimated at between 500 and 2,000, and the remains of its buildings show no sign of wealth in the relevant period.
Lee Strobel notes that “Skeptics have been asserting for a long time that Nazareth never existed during the time when the New Testament says Jesus spent his childhood there.” For example, “atheist Frank Zindler noted that Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, by the apostle Paul, by the Talmud (although sixty-three other Galilean towns are cited), or by Josephus (who listed forty-five other villages and cities of Galilee, including Japha, which was located just over a mile from present-day Nazareth. No ancient historians or geographers mention Nazareth before the beginning of the fourth century.” However, Paul Barnett reports that “in 1961 a mosaic dated from the third century in which Nazareth appears was unearthed in Caesarea Maritima. Nazareth … is not mentioned in the Old Testament, nor in Josephus’s work. Questions as to its genuineness were resolved by this discovery.” Dr James Strange notes that “when Jerusalem fell in AD 70, priests were no longer needed in the temple because it had been destroyed, so they were sent to various other locations, even up into Galilee. Archaeologists have found a list in Aramaic describing the twenty-four ‘courses’, or families, of priests who were relocated, and one of them was registered as having been moved to Nazareth.”
Moreover: “archaeological digs … have uncovered first-century tombs in the vicinity of Nazareth, which would establish the village’s limits because by Jewish law burials had to take place outside the town proper. Two tombs contained objects such as pottery lamps, glass vessels, and vases from the first, third, or fourth centuries.” Archaeologist Jack Finegan states that “From the tombs … it can be concluded that Nazareth was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period.” As John McRay reports:
Archaeological excavations in Nazareth … by Bellarmino Bagatti in 1955 … revealed that Nazareth of Jesus’ day was an agricultural settlement with numerous winepresses, olive presses, caves for storing grain, and cisterns for water and wine. Situated below the Annunciation Church and the Church of Saint Joseph to the north, some of these structures are connected by ancient tradition with the habitations of Joseph and Mary. Pottery found in the village dates from Iron Age II (900-600 BC) to the Byzantine period (AD 330-640), including Roman pieces from the time of Christ.
In December 2009 archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, excavating in the grounds of a former convent, unearthed a house from first century Nazareth. (cf. www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34511072/ns/technology_and_science-science/#34523421). According to excavation director Yardenna Alexandre:
The discovery is of the utmost importance since it reveals for the very first time a house from the Jewish village of Nazareth and thereby sheds light on the way of life at the time of Jesus. The building that we found is small and modest and it is most likely typical of the dwellings in Nazareth in that period.
There are sixteen references to Capernaum (Caper = ‘village’ of Nahum), by the Sea of Galilee, in the gospels: “From the period of the New Testament there has been uncovered the evidence of the fishing industry (anchors, fishhooks), which employed [the] disciples, as well as a street and houses certainly used by them on occasion.” R.T. France notes that:
The houses excavated at Capernaum were one-story buildings, with an outside staircase giving access to the flat roof. The roof was not of stone, but of wooden beams or branches thatched with rush and daubed with mud. This explains Mark’s description of how four men carried a potential patient onto the roof and, literally, ‘uncovered the roof and dug it out’ so as to let the man down in front of Jesus (Mark 2:1-4), and the size of the rooms in such houses (never more than five meters across, and often much smaller) shows how quite a modest crowd could make this the only means of access.
Jesus taught in the synagogue in Capernaum according to Mark 1:21-22 and Luke 4:31-36. Luke 7:1-10 records how Jesus healed the slave of a Roman centurion posted locally. The people encouraged Jesus to heal the slave because the Roman officer had built their synagogue. The black basalt foundations of this 1st century synagogue (a dating confirmed by pottery finds beneath the floor) can be seen today under the remains of the 4th century lime-stone synagogue in Capernaum.
Randall Price notes that “Recently the Roman presence was confirmed through the excavation at Capernaum of a number of Roman-style buildings, including a Roman bathhouse.” As Ian Wilson reports: “In this regard, archaeologists have found evidence of Roman military presence in Capernaum in the form of a long bathhouse, of positively non-Jewish design, that almost certainly belonged to the garrison commanded by Jesus’s centurion.”
Capernaum contains the remains of an octagonal 5th century church. In 1968, archaeologists discovered the remains of an earlier church underneath it. This had been built around what was originally a private house, which was apparently used by Christians as a meeting-place during the second half of the first century. The walls had been plastered, and bore scratched writing interpreted by some scholars as prayers in ancient Aramaic (as well as Syriac and Hebrew) saying such things as “Lord Jesus Christ help” and “Christ have mercy”. As often seems to be the case with ancient scratched markings, these readings are disputed. Some scholars think they “are better read as Greek than as Aramaic … and do not necessarily have religious significance.” In the fourth century this ‘house church’ was enlarged and enclosed within the walls of its own compound. It was pointed out to early pilgrims such as Egeria, the mother of emperor Constantine, who recorded c. AD 380 that: “In Capernaum the house of the prince of the apostles has been made into a church with its original walls still standing. It is where the Lord cured the paralytic.” Peter Walker affirms: “graffiti that referred to Jesus as Lord and Messiah … provides strong evidence that the room was used as a place of Christian worship – almost certainly because it was believed to be the room used by Jesus, perhaps the home of Simon Peter (Luke 4:38)… Given that the early tradition goes back to the first century, this is almost certainly the very place where Jesus stayed – the home of his chief apostle, Peter.”
John 5:1-15 describes a pool in Jerusalem, near the Sheep Gate, called Bethesda, surrounded by five covered colonnades. Until the 19th century, there was no evidence outside of John for the existence of this pool and John’s unusual description “caused bible scholars to doubt the reliability of John’s account, but the pool was duly uncovered in the 1930s – with four colonnades around its edges and one across its middle.” Ian Wilson reports: “Exhaustive excavations by Israeli archaeologist Professor Joachim Jeremias have brought to light precisely such a building, still including two huge, deep-cut cisterns, in the environs of Jerusalem’s Crusader Church of St Anne.”
In the 400s AD, a church was built above a pool attached to Hezekiah’s water tunnel to commemorate the healing of a blind man reported in John 9:1-7. Until recently, this was considered to be the Pool of Siloam from the time of Christ. However, during sewerage works in June 2004 engineers stumbled upon a 1st century ritual pool when they uncovered some ancient steps during pipe maintenance near the mouth of Hezekiah’s tunnel. By the summer of 2005, archaeologists had revealed what was “without doubt the missing pool of Siloam.” Mark D. Roberts reports that: “In the plaster of this pool were found coins that establish the date of the pool to the years before and after Jesus. There is little question that this is in fact the pool of Siloam, to which Jesus sent the blind man in John 9.”
Angela Tilby reports that: “Umm Keiss contains the remains of the ancient town of Gadera … noted for its hot, natural pools that were thought to have healing qualities. The town is on the south side of the Sea of Galilee in an area known as the Decapolis. This is the region to the south and east of the Jordan in which there were ten independent cities founded originally by Alexander the Great. At the time of Jesus these remained cosmopolitan communities where temples and synagogues would be found alongside each other. Jew and pagan would trade and mix … under the wider cultural umbrella of whatever colonial power was in the ascendancy. Recent excavations have uncovered the remains of a fourth-century church, which is so large that it must have been connected to a site of major importance. The church has no less than five aisles, which suggests that it was visited by large numbers of pilgrims. Digging down beneath the foundations, archaeologists have discovered a Roman tomb that has been dated to the year AD 25… The strange thing is that the church has a hole in the floor that looks right down on to the tomb. The tomb itself is in an easily identified spot; it is just under an archway that marks the western city boundary. The Christians who built the church have done nothing to ‘christianize’ the tomb. They have neither destroyed it, replaced it, nor attempted to mark it with crosses or symbols of resurrection. For some reason, they wanted to preserve it as it was. It is a serious possibility that this was one of the tombs that provided a home for the Gadarene demoniac. It has been preserved under the church to mark the place of his exorcism.”
Peter Walker writes: “There is no doubting the general location of Bethany. The Arabic village of El-Azarieh preserves in its name the way the Byzantines referred to it – as the ‘Lazarium’, that is, ‘the place of Lazarus’. Until recently this was a tiny village… There is a strong likelihood that Lazarus’ tomb has been correctly identified and preserved. Certainly the traditional tomb that is now known as his tomb was in a cemetery in the first century (other first-century tombs have been found just to the north). And there are references to the tomb going back to the third century AD (in Eusebius’ Onomastikon).”
Here is a selection of finds relating to people mentioned in the New Testament.
We have a bronze coin minted by Herod the Great. On the obverse side (i.e. the bottom) is a tripod and ceremonial bowl with the inscription ‘Herod king’ and the year the coin was struck, ‘year 3’ (of Herod’s reign), or 37 BC.
In 1996 Israeli Professor of Archaeology Ehud Netzer discovered in Masada a piece of broken pottery with an inscription, called an ostracon. This piece had Herod’s name on it and was part of an amphora used for transportation (probably wine), dated to c. 19 BC. The inscription is in Latin and reads, “Herod the Great King of the Jews (or Judea)”, the first such that mentions the full title of King Herod.
Herodium is a man-made mountain in the Judean wilderness rising over 2,475 feet above sea level. In 23 BC Herod the Great built a palace fortress here on top of a natural hill. Seven stories of living rooms, storage areas, cisterns, a bathhouse, and a courtyard filled with bushes and flowering plants were constructed. The whole complex was surrounded and partly buried by a sloping fill of earth and gravel. Herod’s tomb and sarcophagus were discovered at the base of Herodium by archaeologist Ehud Netzer in 2007.
John McRay reports that:
Before AD 50, an area 62 feet square was paved with stone at the northeast corner of the theatre in Corinth, Greece. Excavations there revealed part of a Latin inscription carved into the pavement which reads, ‘Erastus in return for his aedilship laid [the pavement] at his own expense.’ The Erastus of this inscription is identified in the excavation publication as the Erastus mentioned by Paul in Romans, a letter written from Corinth, in which Erastus is referred to as ‘the city treasurer’ [Romans 16:23]… the particular Greek word used by Paul for ‘treasurer’ (oikonomos) is an appropriate term to describe the work of a Corinthian aedile or magistrate supervising public works.
Ian Wilson comments that “there is a general recognition that this may well have been an earlier stage in Erastus the treasurer’s career in local government. At the very least, there is a reasonable case for Paul’s Erastus and the Erastus of the Corinth inscription being one and the same.”
“This designation in Acts 18:12-17 was thought to be impossible. But an inscription at Delphi notes this exact title for the man, and it dates him to the time Paul was in Corinth (AD 51).” In the inscription the emperor Claudius refers to “Gallio, my friend and Proconsul”.
In Luke 3:1-2 we see references to eight historical figures:
In the fifteenth year of the reign of  Tiberius Caesar – when  Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea,  Herod tetrarch [a governor of a quarter of a province] of Galilee, his brother  Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis [cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.106-108], and  Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene – during the high priesthood of  Annas and  Caiaphas, the word of God came to  John son of Zechariah in the desert. (Luke 3:1-2) [cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18:5.2]
The historicity of all eight figures is assured, and archaeological evidence plays its role here, as the following examples demonstrate:
 Tiberius Caesar
The Denarius coin, 14-37 AD, is commonly referred to as the ‘Tribute Penny’ from the Bible. The coin shows a portrait of Tiberius Caesar. Craig L. Blomberg comments: “Jesus’ famous saying about giving to Caesar what was his and to God what his (Mark 12:17 and parallels) makes even more sense when one discovers that most of the Roman coins in use at the time had images of Caesar on them.”
 Pontius Pilate
“In 1961, in Caesarea Maritima, where Pontius Pilate lived, an inscription was found which, among other things, confirms not only the rule of Pilate in Judea but also his preference for the title ‘Prefect’. The inscription isn’t complete anymore, but there’s little question about what it once said.” In Latin the inscription reads:
The original wording was thus:
Translated, this reads: “To Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”
 Herod Antipas, Tetrach of Galilee
According to a report in the Haaretz Daily Newspaper (8th April 2005):
A marble floor dating from the first century CE was unearthed during this season's excavations of ancient Tiberias. According to archaeologist Professor Yizhar Hirschfeld, director of the three-week dig that ended yesterday, the floor is apparently a remnant of a pavement in the palace of Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great, who ruled the Galilee from 4 BCE to 38 CE. ‘Marble from the first century CE was very rare in this area and is found only in royal palaces. Who knows, perhaps Salome danced for the king on this very floor,’ Hirschfeld said, referring to the New Testament story of the daughter of Herodias, Antipas’ wife, who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a platter in exchange for the dance. The dig was cosponsored by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Antiquities Authority, and was funded by the Tiberias municipality and Brown University, Rhode Island. It revealed that in the fourth century a basilica was constructed on top of the palace.
 Lysanias, Tetrach of Abilene
Scholars used to say that Luke didn't know what he was talking about, because everybody knew that Lysanias was the ruler of Chalcis, who was killed in 36 BC. But then an inscription was found at Albia near Damascus from the time of Tiberius (AD 14-37) which names Lysanias as Tetrarch – just as Luke had written. It turned out there had been two government officials named Lysanias!
 Caiaphas the High Priest
In a tomb located to the south of Jerusalem were discovered several ossuaries, one of which contains what many scholars believe to be the bones of the former high priest Caiaphas and his family. On the side and back of the ossuary is the inscription: “Yosef bar [son of] Caifa”. Other scholars dispute the interpretation of this find. Be that as it may, Caiaphas’s brother-in-law Theophilus son of Annas (or Ananus) is mentioned on the ossuary of Yehohanah, granddaughter of the high priest. Moreover, in June 2011 the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the recovery of a looted ossuary bearing the inscription “Miriam, daughter of Yeshua, son of Qayapha, priest of Ma’aziah, from Beth ‘Imri.” As Craig A. Evans observes, if the name of this priest is vocalized “Qayapha (instead of Qopha or Qupha), then we could have a match with Caiaphas. Indeed, we may have the ossuary of the granddaughter of the high priest who condemned Jesus.”.
Ossuaries are particularly fascinating examples of archaeological evidence because they are witness not only to a cultural practice, but they can document the existence of named individuals, their familial relationships and even their religious beliefs.
 John the Baptist
On July 28th 2010 a team of Bulgarian archaeologists excavated a small alabaster box containing several pieces of bone from under the altar of the fourth century AD St. Ivan the Forerunner Church on Sveti Ivan, a Black Sea island off Sozopol on the Bulgarian coast: “We knew we would find a reliquary there and our expectations came true”, lead archaeologist Professor Kazimir Popkonstantinov wrote in an e-mail to CNN: ”It seems rather logical to suggest the founders of the monastery did their best to bring relics of its patron saint.” That saint was John the Baptist, after whom the Island of Svetti Ivan (St. John) and St. Ivan (John) the Forerunner Church were named. Another piece of evidence supporting the hypothesis that the relics belonged to John the Baptist was found 1.2 meters from the reliquary, a small tuff box (made of hardened volcanic ash) bearing inscriptions in ancient Greek: “The inscription makes it clear that a man named Thomas, ‘God’s servant brought a particle of St. John here on the 24th.’ Even though some of the end letters are missing, the inscription in Greek makes it clear that the date refers to the [traditional] birthday of St. John the Baptist, June 24.” As an Oxford University Press release explained:
The tuff box bears inscriptions in ancient Greek that directly mention John the Baptist and his feast day, and text asking God to ‘help your servant Thomas’. One theory is that the person referred to as Thomas had been given the task of bringing the relics to the island. An analysis of the box has shown that the tuff box has a high waterproof quality and is likely to have originated from Cappadocia, a region of modern-day Turkey. The Bulgarian researchers believe that the bones probably came to Bulgaria via Antioch, an ancient Turkish city, where the right hand of St John was kept until the tenth century. In a separate study, another Oxford researcher Dr Georges Kazan [of the Oxford Institute of Archaeology] has used historical documents to show that in the latter part of the fourth century [c. 370 AD], monks had taken relics of John the Baptist out of Jerusalem and these included portions of skull. These relics were soon summoned to Constantinople by the Roman Emperor who built a church to house them there. Further research by Dr Kazan suggests that the reliquary used to contain them may have resembled the sarcophagus-shaped casket discovered at Sveti Ivan. Archaeological and written records suggest that these reliquaries were first developed and used at Constantinople by the city's ruling elite at around the time that the relics of John the Baptist are said to have arrived there. Dr Kazan said “My research suggests that during the fifth or early sixth century, the monastery of Sveti Ivan may well have received a significant portion of St John the Baptist's relics, as well as a prestige reliquary in the shape of a sarcophagus, from a member of Constantinople's elite. This gift could have been to dedicate or rededicate the church and the monastery to St John, which the patron or patrons may have supported financially.”
According to the Telegraph, Oxford researcher Christopher Ramsey likewise argues “using historical documents … that the monastery of Sveti Ivan may have received a portion of John the Baptist’s relics in the fifth or early sixth centuries.” As Professor Popkonstantinov says: “it is important to understand one thing – this is the first time ever in the world [of] archaeological practice that relics of St. John are found together with an inscription which just literally nails the conclusion and leaves no doubts. There are no speculations here”
The reliquary contained three animal bones (from a sheep, a cow and a horse) along with a human tooth, the right hand edge of an upper jaw (which chimes with Dr Kazan’s research), a right collarbone, a rib, an ulna (an arm bone) and a knucklebone. The results of three different scientific tests conducted on the human bones were consistent with the identification of the reliquary as being that of the historical John the Baptist. First, Oxford scientists were able to carbon date the knucklebone:
Oxford professors Thomas Higham and Christopher Ramsey attempted to radiocarbon date four human bones, but only one of them contained a sufficient amount of collagen to be dated successfully. Professor Higham said: “We were surprised when the radiocarbon dating produced this very early age. We had suspected that the bones may have been more recent than this, perhaps from the third or fourth centuries. However, the result from the metacarpal hand bone is clearly consistent with someone who lived in the early first century AD.”
Second, Dr Hannes Schroeder and Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen:
reconstructed the complete mitochondrial DNA genome sequence from three of the human bones to establish that the bones were all from the same individual. Significantly, they identified a family group of genes (mtDNA haplotype) as being a group most commonly found in the Near East, which is better known as the Middle East today – the region where John the Baptist would have originated from. They also established that the bones were probably of a male individual after an analysis of the nuclear DNA from samples. Dr Schroeder said: “Our worry was that the remains might have been contaminated with modern DNA. However, the DNA we found in the samples showed damage patterns that are characteristic of ancient DNA, which gave us confidence in the results. Further, it seems somewhat unlikely that all three samples would yield the same sequence considering that they had probably been handled by different people. Both of these facts suggest that the DNA we sequenced was actually authentic. Of course, this does not prove that these were the remains of John the Baptist but nor does it refute that theory as the sequences we got fit with a Near Eastern origin.”
Third, Dr Lachezar Savov used modern medical scanners to make 3D images of the relics. This “confirmed conclusions made earlier by other methods – that the bones belong to a man of Mediterranean type, between 30 and 40 years of age, who used vegetarian food [cf. Mark 1:6 & Matthew 3:4].” Whether the biblical references to John eating ‘locusts’ is interpreted literally or as the ‘locust’ carob tree pod, it’s plausible to think that John’s diet was predominantly vegetarian. According to Tsonya Drazheva, director of the Burgas History Museum and Deputy Head of the excavations on St. Ivan island, one could see at first glance that the bones don’t have good density, which suggests that the person in question led a difficult life [cf. Mark 1:4-6 & 6:17-28]. That the human remains in the Sveti Ivan reliquary are those of John the Baptist is not beyond reasonable doubt. Nevertheless, the accumulation of circumstantial evidence does appear to render the hypothesis plausible.
When Jesus was on the way to be crucified, the Roman soldiers forced a man called Simon from Cyrene to carry his cross-beam (cf. Matthew 27:32; Luke 23:26). Simon had sons called Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21; Romans 16:13). In 1941, Israeli archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik discovered a tomb in the Kidron valley in eastern Jerusalem. Pottery dated it to the 1st century AD. The tomb contained eleven ossuaries bearing twelve names in fifteen inscriptions. Some were particularly common in Cyrenaica. The inscriptions on one of these ossuaries says: “Alexandros (son of) Simon”. On the lid of the ossuary, there’s an inscription bearing the name Alexandros in Greek, and then the Hebrew QRNYT. The meaning of this isn’t clear, but one possibility is that the person making the inscription meant to write QRNYH – the Hebrew for ‘Cyrenian’. Tom Powers comments:
When we consider how uncommon the name Alexander was, and note that the ossuary inscription lists him in the same relationship to Simon as the New Testament does and recall that the burial cave contains the remains of people from Cyrenaica, the chance that the Simon on the ossuary refers to the Simon of Cyrene mentioned in the Gospels seems very likely.
Early in the book of Acts, Luke describes how Jesus’ eleven remaining disciples went about replacing Judas after his suicide: “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” (Acts 1:21-22) Two men were proposed for the position – Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. The disciples prayed: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” (Acts 1:24-25) Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias. On a later occasion: “the apostles and elders, with the whole church, decided to choose some of their own men and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They chose Judas (called Barsabbas) and Silas, two men who were leaders among the brothers.’” (Acts 15:22) Modern archaeological findings cast light upon these references to Joseph and Judas Barsabbas. As reported by Jerusalem Christian Review (December 2000 online edition), Israeli archaeologists have uncovered a 1st century tomb in the mountainside off the Kidron Valley, containing ossuaries bearing signs of the cross. The inscriptions identify the cave as the tomb of the Barsabbas family. Historian Ory N. Mazar states that “at least some members of this family were among the very first disciples of Christ.” The ossuaries included:
• Simon Bar-Saba, the Hebrew version of ‘Simon Barsabbas’
• Mary, daughter of Simon maybe one of the several Marys in the NT (eg. Matthew 28:1)
• Joseph Barsabbas
• The other candidate from Acts, Matthias, may have belonged to the same family, as one of the other coffins in the same cave carries the name M'T'I', Hebrew for ‘Matthias’
• Another Son of Saba was Judah (the Hebrew form of the Greek Judas) Barsabbas
Professor Mazar comments:
the impact of these fascinating discoveries is multiplied when we consider the additional evidence found in the tomb such as coins and artifacts, that clearly show the tomb was hermetically sealed less than a decade after the crucifixion of Christ. This is years before any part of the New Testament was written, proving that the Scriptures are consistent with the archaeological evidence.
A July 29th 2011 Biblical Archaeological Society Press Release announced that: “During the course of excavating a Byzantine-era church in the ancient Greek city of Hierapolis (in modern southwest Turkey), Professor Francesco D’Andria and his archaeological team have discovered the tomb of St. Philip, one of the twelve apostles.” “We have been looking for Saint Philip's tomb for years”, d'Andria told Fox News, “We finally found it in the ruins of a church which we excavated a month ago.” An examiner.com article explained that:
Excavations at Hierapolis revealed a Martyrium believed to belong to Saint Philip. It was believed when the Martyrium was fully excavated the archaeologist would find the tomb of Philip. Unfortunately, there was no tomb. Francesco D'Andria, director of the excavations, was surprised and disappointed, but continued the work in surrounding areas. Approximately 40 yards from the Martyrium, D'Andria discovered a small church. Inside the church they found a first century Roman tomb. Evidence indicates the tomb was built in the first century and the church was built around the tomb sometime around the beginning of the fifth century. D'Andria believes the evidence indicates Saint Philip's remains were originally placed in this tomb in the first century and remained there for over 400 years before being moved to Constantinople.
James, the brother of Jesus, was martyred in AD 62. A mid-1st century AD chalk ossuary discovered in 2002 bears the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ( ‘Ya’akov bar Yosef akhui di Yeshua’). Historian Paul L. Maier states that “there is strong (though not absolutely conclusive) evidence that, yes, the ossuary and its inscription are not only authentic, but that the inscribed names are the New Testament personalities.“ New Testament scholar Ben Witherington states that: “If, as seems probable, the ossuary found in the vicinity of Jerusalem and dated to about AD 63 is indeed the burial box of James, the brother of Jesus, this inscription is the most important extra-biblical evidence of its kind.” According to Hershel Shanks, editor in chief of the Biblical Archaeological Review: “this box is [more] likely the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth, than not. In my opinion … it is likely that this inscription does mention the James and Joseph and Jesus of the New Testament.”
According to John McRay: “Although absolute proof of the location of Jesus’ tomb remains beyond our reach, the archaeological and early literary evidence argues strongly for those who associate it with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.” Dan Bahat, former City Archaeologist of Jerusalem, likewise states that: “We may not be absolutely certain that the site of the Holy Sepulchre Church is the site of Jesus’ burial, but we certainly have no other site that can lay a claim nearly as weighty, and we really have no reason to reject the authenticity of the site.” Martin Biddle adds that: “What is clear is that the kind of tomb suggested by the Gospel accounts is consistent with what is now known of contemporary practice in the Jerusalem area: i.e. a rock-cut tomb, a low entrance closed by a moveable stone, and a raised burial couch within.”
The intensively studied ‘Shroud of Turin’ – which bears a superficial, photographically negative image of a flogged and crucified man (an image that also contains three dimensional information) – was formerly dismissed by many on the basis of 1988 carbon dating tests giving the Shroud a medieval date. However, recent peer-reviewed scientific findings show that this carbon dating is unreliable because the dated samples were taken from a medieval patch. On the other hand, a mass of historical and forensic evidence points towards an earlier and even first-century date for the Shroud. For example, forensic evidence ties the Shroud to a bloody headcloth known as the ‘Sudarium of Oviedo’, an artifact with a provenance that can be traced back as far as the seventh century. Moreover, the evidence is against the hypothesis that the image on the Shroud is an artistic fake.
A statistical comparison between data from the Shroud and the New Testament’s description of various irregular details of Jesus’ punishment establishes that if the Shroud is a genuine 1st century artifact then it probably was Jesus’ actual burial cloth. Hence the Shroud provides archaeological evidence for the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ flogging and crucifixion and for the claim that after Jesus died as a result of his crucifixion he was given an honorable burial. The Shroud thus provides evidence against the once popular ‘swoon’ theory (according to which Jesus didn’t really die on the cross). Moreover, that the Shroud a) no longer contains a body and b) bears undisturbed blood clots, constitutes additional evidence in the cumulative case for the reality of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.
Archaeology adds to the cumulative case for the historical reliability of the New Testament by empirically verifying references to specific cultural practices, beliefs, places and people. As Paul Barnett concludes:
archaeology neither proves nor disproves the New Testament. It does, however, endorse the narratives at many points, especially in the case of inscriptions, which by their nature are specific. Here we meet characters secondary to the main story – the Herods, the high priest and several Roman governors. Moreover, through archaeology we are able to fill in background details that enhance the narratives in both the Gospels and in the book of Acts. Archaeological findings have confirmed that the texts of the New Testament are from first to last historical and geographical in character.
© 2010 Peter S. Williams. Revised version July 2012. This resource is reproduced by the kind permission of Peter S. Williams.