What’s Archaeology Got To Do With It?

Science shouldn’t be viewed as an enemy of Christianity. It’s certainly gone a long way in benefitting mankind. Take the field of forensics, for example. Today guilt or innocence can be positively established using DNA analysis from the most microscopic of blood samples. That’s just one of the many advances that have helped the judicial system become fairer, more unbiased and dependable. Likewise the science of archaeology, in unearthing and bringing to light indisputable historical evidence, has made important contributions to answering questions about the New Testament accounts of Jesus being accurate. While some scoff at archaeology, labeling it the study of “durable rubbish,” it has offered significant, independent corroboration by verifying that what the Bible has to say about the life and times of Christ is solid truth. Finds of ancient artifacts, architecture, art, coins, monuments, documents and other remains in Middle Eastern lands have helped to increase our knowledge of how things were when Jesus trod terra firma 2,000 years ago. And when debating a mule-headed non-believer about our Savior we sometimes must bring to the battle all the logical ammunition we can to fortify our case, including what archaeology has revealed. However, archaeology doesn’t guarantee a slam dunk. Just establishing the fact there’s a Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey doesn’t prove Noah’s Ark came to rest there after the worldwide flood. At some point faith has to take precedence. We know from reading the Scriptures that faith is a gift from God and that even the most persuasive believer can’t do what only the Holy Spirit is capable of doing. Keep in mind that we’re to sow seeds and let Him do the farming. In other words, you can lead a lost soul to the well brimming over with living water but you can’t make them drink.

 

Yet that fact doesn’t negate the usefulness of highlighting how important archaeological finds are for Christianity. What I’m saying is that, since certain sites have been excavated and archaeologists have discovered particular things/places were exactly where the Bible claimed they’d be, that field of science adds crucial credence to the overall reliability of God’s Holy Word. For perspective, a researcher named Heinrich Schliemann devoted almost his entire lifetime looking for the city of Troy. He finally succeeded in locating it and, while it didn’t render the Iliad as being a true story, it did verify that Homer’s geographical references were accurate. “So what?” a skeptic might say to you. A response using an analogy akin to this might help: An acquaintance has told you about a road trip they made from L.A. to Austin. They mentioned they stopped in Phoenix where they took in the new Star Wars flick in a newly-built theater on a Wednesday afternoon at a specific time. A private eye could check their story out and determine whether or not the movie house exists and if they were showing that feature film on that Wednesday at that time. Any discrepancies the investigator ran into would cause you to mistrust what your friend was telling you about their entire journey. But if it all pans out it would enhance the person’s reputation for being honest. In a way, that’s what archaeology does for the Gospels. If the Book of Matthew’s incidental details turn out to be spot on time after time we can be more confident the author is telling the truth about who Jesus was, what He taught and what He did.

 

I’ve mentioned in previous essays the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus and referenced him as being a respected, non-Christian source of data whose documentation often jives with the information we glean from the Gospels. For the longest time scholars didn’t fully trust Josephus because he claimed the harbor of Herod the Great was as large as the one at Piraeus, a port city near Athens. The foundational stones that stick out of the water to this day don’t give the impression Herod’s harbor was nearly that massive. Yet when archaeologists started exploring the sea floor they realized the harbor’s piers that had collapsed along the way extended a lot farther out than they previously thought. It turned out to be every bit as big as the one at Piraeus. That meant Josephus wasn’t exaggerating but was faithfully reporting the facts. So the big question here is this: Does archaeology affirm or undermine the New Testament record? The answer is decidedly the former.

 

Its affirmation especially reinforces the trustworthiness of Luke. Luke was the physician and historian who wrote both the Gospel bearing his name and the complete book of Acts. Together they make up about a quarter of the whole New Testament so a lot is riding on how accurate he was. I’m glad to report that the majority of scholars opine he consistently told the truth and nothing but. Dr. John McRay said of Luke, “He’s erudite, he’s eloquent, his Greek approaches classical quality, he writes as an educated man, and archaeological discoveries are showing over and over again that Luke is accurate in what he has to say.” Like Josephus, many of the things scholars once deemed dubious regarding some of Luke’s particular references later turned out to be right on target after all. In Luke 3:1 the author mentions a guy named Lysanias and states he was the tetrarch of Abilene circa 27 A.D. Since history buffs were sure Lysanias wasn’t a tetrarch at all but rather the ruler of Chalcis over 50 years prior they claimed Luke was sorely mistaken and implied his statement made him a liar who couldn’t be trusted. Archaeology proved otherwise. An inscription was found that dated to the time of Tiberius (14 to 37 A.D.) that identified Lysanias as being the tetrarch in Abila (near Damascus) plain as day. As it would happen, there were two government officials named Lysanias. Same thing occurred with Quirinus. Luke said he ruled Syria during the reign of Herod the Great. The dates involved made it seem impossible until they discovered there was another, separate Roman governor with the same name who was the proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after Herod kicked the bucket. There ya go.

 

In Acts 17:6 Luke refers to “politarchs” (commonly translated as “city officials”) in the town of Thessalonica. Folks thought Luke was way off base because the term “politarchs” didn’t appear in any of the ancient Roman documents. Then an inscribed 1st century arch was dug up that begins with the words, “In the time of the politarchs…” It now sits in the British Museum for all to see. Since then archaeologists have discovered more than 35 additional relics containing inscriptions that mention “politarchs” and many of them were found in Thessalonica from the same time period Luke was writing about. Then there’s the supposed contradiction concerning Jericho that critics jumped on like hyperactive kids on a trampoline. Luke says Jesus was walking into that city when he healed the blind beggar Bartimaeus, whereas Mark says the Lord was on His way out of Jericho. Now, if we think only in contemporary terms wherein towns stay put it’s definitely a conundrum but things were different back then. It’s been determined that during ancient times Jericho was situated in at least four different locations as much as a quarter mile apart. It got destroyed repeatedly and upon being rebuilt it was usually moved closer to a more convenient water source or to a better road. That means a person could be leaving one site where Jericho stood and entering another one at the same time. Kinda like going from one Dallas suburb to a different one. It’s all considered part of what’s known as Dallas. Thus Luke and Mark were both technically right. The gist is that if Luke was so painstakingly exact in his historical reporting of geographical details then his reporting of what mattered most to him, the life and teachings of Jesus, is all the more reliable.

 

Luke’s not the only one whose documentation fostered doubts among critics of the New Testament. John got placed under the microscope, too. Many thought John fabricated the story of Jesus healing a crippled man by the Pool of Bethesda (a pool he said had 5 porticoes) because no trace of its existence had ever been found. But then it was discovered buried 40 feet below ground and, yes, it had 5 porticoes. Other things John described have been authenticated, as well. There’s the Pool of Siloam (John 9:7), Jacob’s Well (John 4:12), and the Stone Pavement near the Jaffa Gate where Jesus stood before Pilate (John 19:13) to list but a few. As hinted earlier, suspicions were also cast upon Mark. He wrote, Then Jesus went out again from the region of Tyre and came through Sidon to the Sea of Galilee in the region of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31). Some experts cried foul, saying that, given those directions, Jesus would’ve been moving away from the Sea of Galilee and, therefore, Mark didn’t know diddly about the layout of Palestine. Alas, it’s the “experts” who don’t know diddly about the word “Decapolis.” In the original Greek it simply meant a confederation of ten cities – any ten cities. Taking that into consideration a route can be easily traced on a map that matches up precisely with Mark’s description. The bottom line is that archaeologists have yet to produce a single unequivocal contradiction to anything in the Bible.

 

Things once deemed unexplainable have eventually been satisfactorily explained. Take the census that forced Mary and Joseph to make the arduous trek to his hometown Bethlehem. For centuries unbelievers argued that not only was it absurd to imagine any government could possibly demand all its citizens return to their place of birth in order to register but that there was no evidence to support it ever happening at all. They were dead wrong. An official Roman order from 104 A.D. was found that reads, “Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend to the cultivation of their allotments.” So, hard to fathom or not, that was how censuses were conducted in those days. Then questions about Nazareth’s very existence arose because not only is it not in the Old Testament but no ancient historians/geographers even mentioned it before the fourth century A.D. However, scholars like Dr. James Strange surmise that Nazareth was so tiny it didn’t even warrant a traffic light. He notes that when Jerusalem was sacked in 70 A.D. the Jewish priests fled into the countryside. Archaeologists have located a list in Aramaic of where they relocated to and it seems one priest moved to a small town called Nazareth. In addition, digs conducted in that vicinity have uncovered 1st century tombs that are quite significant. Renowned archaeologist Jack Finegan opined, “From the tombs… it can be concluded that Nazareth was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period.” Since it would seem Jesus’ home turf probably sported a sparse population of 500 folks at most Nathaniel’s sarcastic reaction recorded in John 1:46 of Can anything good come out of Nazareth? is understandably appropriate.

 

Another event that came under fire was the slaughter of all the baby boys in Bethlehem as ordered by Herod the Great. Again, there’s no outside corroboration that this massacre took place but that doesn’t mean it didn’t. Here’s where logic instead of archaeology prevails. Fact: Bethlehem was no bigger than Nazareth so the number of boys there under the age of 2 wouldn’t have been remarkable. Fact: Herod was notoriously bloodthirsty and ruthless (the creep had members of his own family murdered) so his being behind this horrible act wouldn’t have shocked anybody. Fact: There was no media in existence to broadcast this repulsive tragedy across the land so it caused no more than a ripple of more ugly news beyond the immediate area surrounding Bethlehem. It would’ve only gained infamy later as Christianity spread throughout the world.

 

But archaeology is still a vital science for deciphering the past. Consider the immense and enduring splash it made in 1947 when the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in some caves 20 miles east of Jerusalem. They consisted of hundreds of manuscripts dating from 250 B.C. to 68 A.D. that had been hidden from the Romans by a strict sect of Jews called the Essenes. However, for the most part, the scrolls primarily offer insights to Jewish life and customs of that era and have little to say about Jesus. The exception is a manuscript called 4Q521 that might give clues about who Jesus was claiming to be. For context one must look at what some critics deem to be Jesus’ somewhat vague response to John the Baptist’s query in Matthew 11 when the latter asked if He was the long-awaited Messiah. Jesus alluded to Isaiah 35 with, Go tell John what you hear and see. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news proclaimed to them. (Matthew 11:4-5). The problem is the phrase He added (supposedly out of thin air), “the dead are raised.” It’s not in any of the Old Testament texts of that chapter in Isaiah. But 4Q521 solves the dilemma. It’s written in Hebrew and dates back to 30 years before the birth of Christ. It also contains a version of Isaiah 61 that includes the line, “the dead are raised.” Scholars agree it’s embedded in that chapter’s messianic context, referring to the miracles the Messiah will perform when He comes. The Lord knew His cousin John would “get it” – that the imprisoned Baptist would instantly recognize his words as a distinct claim that He, Jesus, was the promised Messiah. Scroll scholar Craig Evans was quoted as saying, “4Q521 makes it clear that [Jesus’] appeal to Isaiah 35 is indeed messianic. In essence, Jesus is telling John through his messengers that messianic things are happening. So that answers [John’s] question: Yes, he is the one who is to come.” This dramatic discovery shows Jesus boldly asserted that He was indeed the anointed one of God sent to redeem mankind.

 

So archaeology has, over time, greatly augmented and bolstered the veracity of the Bible and the Gospels in particular. It hasn’t been as kind to other religions, though. Take Mormonism, for example. Joseph Smith, its founder, claimed his Book of Mormon to be “the most correct of any book upon the earth.” However, archaeology has yet to locate a shred of corroborating evidence to substantiate any of the events the book says occurred right here in North America. Even the respected Smithsonian Institute reports their researchers have found “no direct connection between the archaeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book.” That means not one of its mysterious cities, not one of its mentioned artifacts, and not one of its original scriptures or supernaturally-inscribed tablets have ever been identified. On the other end of the spectrum the archaeological data that backs up the New Testament is impressive, to say the least. The prominent Australian archaeologist Clifford Wilson wrote in his tome Rocks, Relics and Biblical Reliability, “Those who know the facts now recognize that the New Testament must be accepted as a remarkably accurate source book.”

 

Anyone who callously dismisses the “Good News” of the Gospels and epistles with an apathetic wave of the hand is intentionally choosing to ignore the mountains of evidence that show far beyond even a reasonable doubt that they’ve been proven trustworthy, that they continue to stand up to intense scrutiny, that the soul-saving message they bear has been preserved over the centuries, that non-Christian historians have unintentionally managed to corroborate their claims and that the science of archaeology still has yet to put the slightest dent in their uncompromised accuracy. These are things believers should know by heart or, as in my case (due to faulty, aging memory-designated brain cells) at least have quick access to, in order to defend our faith and our trust in God’s Holy Word that clearly announces the crowning of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, as Lord of all creation. Secular society will swallow whole any lie or misinformed theory they hear about the Bible as long as it fits comfortably into their predetermined assessments of what they want to believe about it. It’s our job to not only sow seeds but be able to set them straight with fact-based truths.

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