Many Christians were upset when Israeli antiquities experts recently declared a first-century inscription bearing Jesus‘ name a fake, seemingly depriving them of the earliest archaeological proof of Jesus’ existence.
Those who take such a view misunderstand the point of biblical archaeology, said Craig Evans, professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia and an expert on ossuaries, the small burial boxes like the one discovered last fall on which was carved in Aramaic: ”James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
”Archaeology isn’t so much about proving the Bible,” said Evans, an evangelical Christian who said he thinks the James inscription ultimately could be proved authentic. The importance of archaeology is that it ”clarifies and contextualizes the story of the Bible.”
What many people don’t realize, Evans and other scholars said, is that archaeologists in recent years have been searching for — and finding — contextual clues to the world inhabited by Jesus and his followers.
”We don’t even have much direct archaeological evidence that [Jesus] walked this earth,” says Hershel Shanks, editor of Washington-based Biblical Archaeological Review and host of ”An Archaeological Search for Jesus,” a new five-part video/DVD series featuring more than 20 leading archaeologists and biblical scholars. ”What we have is lots and lots of evidence about the world he lived in.”
Some of the most notable discoveries have been in the northern part of Israel known as the Galilee, an agriculturally rich area where Jesus grew up and spent most of his three-year ministry.
That evidence shows, among other things, that Jesus was born, lived and died a Jew — a perspective at odds with beliefs that Jesus rejected Judaism to form a new religion or taught a pagan-influenced humanist philosophy, Shanks and other scholars said. It also indicates that Jesus was a cultured sophisticate, not a peasant naif, as he is often portrayed.
Foremost have been excavations at Sepphoris, a magnificent first-century city four miles from Nazareth; at Capernaum, a fishing village on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus’ ministry was based; and at what may have been Bethsaida, home of three apostles and the third most-mentioned town in the Gospels.
Part of the excitement at Sepphoris has come from the ruins of a Greco-Roman amphitheater that Sepphoris archaeologist James Strange believes existed in Jesus’ time. Textual scholars have wondered where Jesus picked up the word ”hypocrite,” a Greek word that means ”actor” and that Jesus uses 24 times in the Gospels to refer to someone’s insincere religiosity, Strange says in the documentary.
The presence of the theater in a metropolis within view of Nazareth, possibly the source of the ”city on the hill that can’t be hidden” metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount, suggests that Jesus might have learned ”hypocrite” from seeing Greek-language performances there.
”Life isn’t like in the tiny village of Nazareth, with its fruit and nut trees,” Strange said in an interview. In Sepphoris, ”Jesus would have gotten a glimpse of Roman culture.”
Jonathan Reed, a religion professor at the University of La Verne in California and director of more than a dozen student digs at Sepphoris, is unconvinced that Jesus commuted to Sepphoris to work. But he has no doubt Jesus would have visited on holidays and market days, ”nudging elbow to elbow” with thousands of shoppers on jampacked streets paved in Roman style.
Jesus, whose primary language was Aramaic, would have improved on his Greek or been exposed to exotic clothing, ceramics, jewelry and food and heard new ideas expounded on street corners, Reed said in an interview.
Mostly, Jesus would have noted the contrast between the affluent, power-driven life of Sepphoris and the simpler values of the residents of such smaller towns as Nazareth and Capernaum, said Reed, co-author with John Dominic Crossan of the 2001 book ”Excavating Jesus.”
Those observations would have been the seed of Jesus’ ministry to people of the ”lower socioeconomic rung,” Reed said.
And what a contrast Capernaum was — a fishing village of about 1,000 with houses made of mud, thatch and unhewn fieldstone. In the documentary, Strange and Shanks visit the town, which is about 22 miles from Nazareth, and the octagonal church built over the foundation of Peter’s house.
A more elusive biblical site has been Bethsaida, the seaside town that was home to at least three apostles, Peter, Andrew and Philip. It also was the setting for several miracles, including the healing of a blind man, the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ walking on water.
The location of Bethsaida remained a mystery for nearly 2,000 years because a series of earthquakes early in the first millennium changed the topography, causing the water to recede and leaving the town about two miles from the Sea of Galilee, Richard Freund, co-director of the Bethsaida Excavations, explains in ”An Archaeological Search for Jesus.”
Some scholars argue that the mound known as et-Tel cannot be Bethsaida because of its distance from shore. But 50 trenches dug from the mound to the shoreline in 1987 proved that the water once came to the base of the hill, and digs on the 22-acre site uncovered lead weights and other fishing gear along with first-century coins and pottery.
A further argument that the mound is Bethsaida is based on the Gospel texts, especially the story of Jesus walking from shore to his disciples’ boat, Freund said. In Jesus’ time, the area below the mound had not filled in and was a marshy area with water at varying depths — perhaps 2 feet in some places. It would have been possible for a person to walk in the water but appear to be walking on the water, he said.
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