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2. Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels: Which way do the rocks roll?

Archaeology and the Bible have an uneasy relationship. Many textual scholars have little use for archaeology. Discoveries happen often, so the data change, whereas the written text is stable, by comparison. Plus, the stones, so to speak, are sometimes difficult to interpret in relation to the text.

Nonetheless, let’s bring onto the web what archaeologists are saying in their books. That is one of the main goals of the series, after all. Though I’m far from being an archaeologist, I decided to include some findings that are more or less stable (but see some of the examples, below). For me, the Biblical text and its historical reliability have been demonstrated again and again, so I don't put myself on an emotional rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows, depending on this or that discovery.

Still, though, the coherence and correspondence between the text and “the rocks” are encouraging for serious students of the Bible. This is Part Two on the historical reliability of the Gospels. The series has nothing to do with the inerrancy or inspiration of the Gospels, because if we cannot establish their historical reliability, then how can we move on to discuss their inerrancy or infallibility, as those two doctrines have been traditionally understood? But nothing in this article contradicts those doctrines.

The goal of the series, including this article, is to bring onto the web what scholars say in their books, specifically, scholarship that upholds a traditional view of Scripture. The series is intended for the laity, so I use the Q & A format, for clarity.

Before we begin, recall that Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a lot of passages in common, so they are called the synoptic Gospels (synoptic means viewed together). The authors are sometimes called synoptists. Slashes // mean parallel passages among them. The writers of the four Gospels are also called evangelists.

Hovering over the references below will bring up the NET Bible version on each of these. You may create two more windows with a map of Israel and a map of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. If the links in this article go dead, please type in a keyword in a search engine.

1. So how does archaeology relate to the Synoptics?

Let’s begin with a sad example – sad, but true. Jesus grieved over his prediction (cf. Matt. 23:37 // Luke 13:34).

(1) Destruction of Jerusalem

Luke 21:20 says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (see Luke 19:42-44; cf. Matt. 24:15-20; Mark 13:14-19). Rome destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70. The suppression was led by Roman general Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian ( ruled 69-79), and Titus later ruled 79-81.

This article on the Arch of Titus has several images. Look for a replica of the Menorah (and more) sculpted on it, taken as booty from Jerusalem. has a good image and a quick write up.

(2) Inscription about Pontius Pilate

He is mentioned in all four Gospels, particularly at the trial of Jesus, but the inscription is dealt with here because the synoptic Gospels mention him. He authorized Jesus’ execution. In the inscription at Caesarea Maritima, on the Mediterranean coast, he is referred to as the prefect of Judea, which is the southern region that encompassed Jerusalem.

Craig Evans cites an archaeologist’s suggestion (“Excavating,” p. 336):

[NAUTI]STIBERIEUM [Seaman’]s Tiberieum

[PON]TIUSPILATUS [Pon]tius Pilate,

[PRAEF]ECTUSIUDA[AE]E [Pref]ect of Jude[a]

[ REF]E[CIT ] [ restor]e[s …

Facing the Challenge has a good image and write up.

(3) The boy Jesus in the temple

In Luke 2:41-50, he is in the temple dialoguing with the rabbis. He impressed them with his wisdom. Where did this dialogue take place?

The discovery of a stairway south of the southern wall of the Temple Mount makes it clear that it was here that the young Jesus amazed the rabbis by his knowledge. A fragment of an inscription found on the stairway, along with another fragment … mentions the elders (zeqenim). Probably a place was allotted to them. The Talmud refers to three tribunals in Jerusalem. One of these "used to sit at the gate of the Temple Mount … engaged in deliberations and expounding" … . (Barhat, p. 307)

But the most interesting evidence says in the Talmud (t.Sanhedrin 2.6) that Rabban Gamaliel (probable teacher of Paul) and the elders were sitting on the stairway, along with a scribe. Then the tractate goes on to reference the people of upper Galilee and lower Galilee (Dan Barhat, p. 307).

The Jerusalem Archaeological Park is well worth exploring. This is a good article at the website, on the monumental staircase. The site also has a cyber-image of the staircase. Urban Simulation Team has a first-rate section on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

(4) A winepress, stone-walled terraces, and three towers

In all four Gospels, Jesus is called “Jesus of Nazareth.” In the Parable of the Tenants, he says that “a man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower” (Mark 12:1 // Matt. 21:33 // but Luke 20:9 omit most of the elements). Since the 1990s these textual data have been confirmed by archaeology “less than half a mile from the center of first-century Nazareth” to the west … . “A winepress has been exposed, and beautifully constructed stone-walled terraces are now visible. Most importantly, three circular stone towers only about fifty feet [about 16m] apart now rise majestically above the rocky terrain” (Charlesworth, “Jesus Research,” p. 38).

This webpage about Nazareth is maintained by the Franciscans. The Jewish Virtual Library has a good, quick write up.

(5) The farmers in the Parable of the Tenants

In this parable (Matt. 21:33-46 // Mark 12:1-12 // Luke 20:9-19), the landlord rents out his land to farmers. When he sends his servants to collect some of the produce or profits, the farmers beat them and eventually killed the landowner’s son.

So were the farmers peasants? From the larger contexts of rabbinic traditions, Greek papyri, a true-life story from Cicerohimself (106-43 BC), and the Old Testament, it is clear that they were not necessarily poor peasants who were oppressed, so that they were in some sense justified in taking the land. Some of the evidence in the papyri parallels Jesus’ parable remarkably closely. A landowner leases his land to a farmer (the same Greek word both in the New Testament and the papyri). The landowner sends servants to collect the profits. The farmer assaults them and runs them out of the village (Evans, pp. 245-47). So instead of being dispossessed peasants, the farmers in the parable could be the powerful who were greedy for profit and the acquisition of more land. Thus, the farmers and their actions are consistent with the ruling priests in Jerusalem, according to Jesus’ assessment of them, as the end of the parable indicates.

Craig A. Evans, “Are the Wicked Tenant Farmers ‘Peasants’?” pp. 231-50.

(6) Peter’s house in Capernaum?

This fishing village on the north shore of the Lake of Galilee, populated with about 1,000 to 1,700 people, was Jesus’ “own town” (Matt. 9:1). He taught in the synagogue and set a man free of a demon after he interrupted Jesus’ sermon. Then Jesus went immediately afterwards to Peter’s house and healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick with a fever. She got up and cooked them dinner. Finally, “the whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons” … (Mark 1:21-34).

A house has been excavated there, and it is possible that it may have been Peter’s. James Charlesworth reviews six parts of the puzzle that fit together and indicate that the house was Peter’s (pp. 49-50). Jerome Murphy-O’Connor says that no evidence contradicts the identification of the house with Peter (p. 220). Von Wahlde writes: “Almost all scholars now espouse this view” that the house belonged to the apostle (p. 546).

See Bible Places for a good photo of the dig. The Franciscans have an excellent webpage about the town and an article about Peter’s house.

(7) First-century synagogue in Capernaum?

All four Gospels mention a synagogue at Capernaum. Impressive remains of a fourth-century synagogue stand near the shoreline of the Lake of Galilee. Excavations around it have revealed an earlier layer underneath the fourth-century synagogue. “Given the custom of building one synagogue immediately upon the site of the previous ones, the earlier building is almost certainly the synagogue in which … Jesus taught on the day of the multiplication of loaves” (John 6:59) (von Wahlde, p. 546). As we saw in the sixth example, Jesus ministered there on other occasions.

See the Franciscan website and its article on the synagogue.

(8) The Galilean boat

Misleadingly called the “Jesus boat,” it has no clear connection to Jesus or his disciples. It was found in the mud on the northwestern shore of the Lake of Galilee. “It is poorly crafted and represents the possession of ordinary people. Perhaps about thirteen men could be crowded into it.” It has a shallow draft and sat low to the water, so fishermen could easily pull up a net with fish trapped in it. The boat’s low profile means that it would fill up with water quickly in a storm (Charlesworth, pp. 41-42). Recall that James and John, sons of Zebedee, and Peter were partners (Luke 5:6, 10). They owned at least two boats. Though the Galilean boat has no firm connection to the disciples, it at least sheds some light on what life was like for fishermen.

The Jewish Virtual Library has a short article and titles the boat accurately. It is housed in the Yigal Allon Center, which has a photo and short article. Bible Walks has photos in an article with references to the Gospels.

(9) Herod Antipas: a reed shaken by the wind?

Matt. 11:7-9 and Luke 7:24-26 discuss John the Baptist’s prophethood, after he was in prison. Jesus asks the people whether John was a “reed shaken in the wind.” The answer is no; he was a prophet. But why would Jesus choose that image? A possible explanation appears on local coins.

Herod Antipas minted coins with reeds on them because reeds symbolized cities on a river or lake, specifically the city of Tiberias. A “‘shaken reed’ could have become a name for the king who swayed with and survived many a political wind, who wavered between wives, and even between Sepphoris and Tiberias as his place of residence … The vivid phrase goes back to Jesus himself and reflects local color of the day, as he contrasts the uncompromising prophet with the ‘shaking reed’ of a kinglet from the Hellenistic Roman power elite” (Reumann, p. 672).

The connection between the passages in Matthew and Luke and the coins is not absolutely fixed. But it receives support from the textual context. Jesus also asks whether John was “a man dressed in fine clothes?” “No,” Jesus replies, answering his own question, because “those who wear fine clothes are in kings' palaces” (Matt. 11:8 // Luke 7:25).

(10) Qumran writings and table fellowship

The Essenes, probable writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, were extra-scrupulous about whom they invited to table fellowship and the assembly or the community of the last days. James D. G. Dunn quotes several passages from these texts. They show the kinds of persons who were excluded: the unclean, the paralyzed in their feet or hands, or the lame or the blind or deaf and mute or the blemished. In contrast, in Luke 14:12-13 and 21, Jesus says these people are acceptable for his table fellowship:

12 Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind … 21 "The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, 'Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.' (Luke 14:12-13, 21)

The wording of the excluded persons is similar to the Qumran texts: lame, blind, and crippled. This last word is a different Greek and Hebrew word from the Greek and Hebrew of “lame.” “Crippled” should be translated more generally, maybe as “seriously disabled” or possibly “blemished” or a range of physical disabilities. Now what about the poor? In the Synoptics, they receive ministry from Jesus, but in the Dead Sea scrolls that Dunn cites the term applies to the Essenes themselves, even though many may not have been poor.

Dunn draws the obvious conclusion: “In the Palestinian Jesus movement the table of God was open to all the poor, and not least to the disabled, the lame, and the blind – those specifically excluded by the self-styled ‘poor’ of Qumran” (p. 267).

2. What does all of this mean in comparison to the Gnostic “gospels”?

That question will be discussed in the next article on archaeology and the Gospel of John. But suffice it to say now that the Gnostic writings cannot stand even in the same league with the four Gospels. The Gnostics seemed not to have cared one bit about rooting their religious truth claims in first-century Israel, four decades before the destruction of the temple in AD 70. No one can be sure – to say the least – that Jesus really said and did what the Gnostics claim about him.

3. What does all of this mean for the historical reliability of the Synoptics?

The Synoptics and Scripture as a whole have often been shown to be right in matters of history. In fact, that’s what’s so remarkable about Scripture. Its authorship spans about 1,500 years. They lived in different regions and cultures and flowing, changing history, so the chances of their being wrong are high. However, list in Column A on a sheet of paper the number of things Scripture gets right. Include even simple things like where Jerusalem is located or the village of Capernaum being located on the Sea of Galilee, or the name of the god Baal or of a ruler like Pontius Pilate or Nebuchadnezzar. Then list in Column B on your sheet of paper the puzzles or unanswered questions. Column A would far outnumber Column B – by a long way.

4. What does all of this mean to the Church of all denominations?

In the Introduction to this article I said we should not put ourselves on an emotional roller coaster of extreme highs and lows, depending on this or that discovery. What would happen to your faith if a few historical assumptions inside the Gospels were not to match up precisely with history outside the Gospels? (See Mark D. Roberts’ discussion of El Kursi [scroll down a little]; see also this discussion on it at another website.) If this imprecision were to exist, not even then should we give up on Scripture. The correspondence and coherence of history and archaeology and the written Gospels are very frequent. We must not believe in the “all-or-nothing” or “black-or-white” fallacy. “If there is even one problem text, then the whole Bible collapses!” say the unreasonable critic and the fearful believer. But that’s too stringent and narrow.

Inerrantist Wayne Grudem writes:

… Our understanding of Scripture is never perfect, and this means that there may be cases where we will be unable to find a solution to a difficult passage at the present time. This may be because the linguistic, historical, or contextual evidence we need to understand the passage correctly is presently unknown to us.” (Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, p. 99)

He wrote those words in the context of supposed contradictions in the Bible. But they can apply to archaeology and history and the Bible. His humility about our imperfect understanding of Scripture is refreshing.

However, the historical facts and data outside of the Gospels go a long way to support their historical reliability, and establishing this is the main goal of the series. The New International Archaeological Study Bible confirms this about the Gospels (and the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament). Critics of Scripture must work their way through this resource that was put together by a team of scholars. Believers should buy it too.

It is not the goal of the series to prove the inerrancy or inspiration of Scripture, though nothing in this article disconfirms those doctrines. Rather, the goal is to provide historical data that support the historical reliability and credibility of the Gospels. In numerous cases there is a good match up between the facts inside and outside of the Gospels, so their historical reliability is affirmed, quite easily too.

This article has two companion pieces:

Archaeology and John's Gospel: Is skepticism chic passé?

Did Jesus Even Exist? Can you have an effect without a cause?

References and Further Reading

Rami Arav. “ Bethsaida.” In Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 145-66.

Archaeology and the Bible. An apologetics website presents an overview of the data. (“Apologetics” means the “study or science of defending a faith or religion.”) If a believer must have an absolutely perfect connection between archaeology and the Bible, then this site works hard at reaching that goal, though the proprietors seem to concede that there are uncertainties.

Dan Barhat. “Jesus and the Herodian Temple Mount.” In Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 300-08.

David Couchman. “Real People, Real Places: Evidence from Archaeology for the Reliability of the Bible.” An overview article from an apologetics website

James H. Charlesworth. Jesus and Archaeology. Eerdman’s, 2006. Excellent book. You may look inside at the link. Many of its articles are cited in this present online article. But the book is written without regard to a conservative, apologetics perspective.

---. “Jesus Research and Archaeology: A New Perspective.” In idem, Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 11-63.

Digthebible has excellent links.

James D. G. Dunn. “Jesus, Table-Fellowship, and Qumran.” Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Ed. James H. Charlesworth. Doubleday, 1992. Pp. 254-72.

Archaeology and Geography as Related to the Gospel of John.” Catholic resources on the Gospel of John

Craig A. Evans. “Are the Wicked Tenant Farmers ‘Peasants’?” Jesus in Context: Temple, Purity, and Restoration. Brill, 1997. Eds. Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans, pp. 231-50.

---. “Excavating Caiaphas, Pilate, and Simon of Cyrene.” In Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 323-40.

Jerusalem Archaeological Park. Well worth exploring.

John McRay. “Archaeology and the Bible: How archaeological findings have enhanced the credibility of the Bible.” Article at a Southern Baptist website

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. Oxford Archaeological Guides: The Holy Land. 4th ed. Oxford, 1998.

New International Archaeological Study Bible. Zondervan, 2005. Excellent. Critics of Scripture on the basis of archaeology and geography must work their way through this resource.

John Reumann. “Archaeology and Early Christology.” In Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 660-82.

Mark D. Roberts. “Does Archaeology Support the Reliability of the Gospels?” He has a photo of the bones of the “crucified man.” He also has other articles in the series (go first to this last link).

Urban C. von Wahlde. “Archaeology and John’s Gospel.” In Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 523-86. Excellent overview of archaeology and John’s Gospel

Urban Simulation Team has a first-rate section on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount.

Related Topics: Gospels

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