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25. New Testament Archaeology--Palestine And Syria

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Archaeology has not made so great a contribution to New Testament studies as it has to the Old Testament. Part of the reason for this is that Greek and Roman history are so well attested that New Testament finds do not stand out as sharply in contrast. In addition, the period under discussion is too brief to leave much in the way of archaeological evidence.

Bethlehem may be mentioned in Amarna letters.1 It has a 2500ʹ elevation. Three and one half miles south is the Herodium, a stronghold of Herod the Great (he is thought to have been buried there, though his body has never been found).2 Southeast on the west side of the Dead Sea is Masada (stronghold, 1 Sam. 23). It was fortified anew by Herod and burned by the Romans in A.D.

Jerusalem. Since the Israeli occupation of Jerusalem in 1967, the Jewish quarter and the south temple area have been excavated. See for example N. Avigad’s discussion in Discovering Jerusalem. Much of the city, of course, cannot be excavated because of continuous habitation. The description of the fortification of the walls including the various towers and the beautiful temple all constructed by Herod are amply described in Josephus.3

Early Evidence for Christianity.4

Ossuaries (bone boxes) were discovered at Talpioth (1945) a suburb of Jerusalem. There was found a coin of Agrippa I and pottery of late Hellenistic and early Roman style from about the middle of the first century A.D. before A.D. 70. Three have Hebrew inscriptions: Simeon Barsaba, Miriam daughter of Simeon and Mattathias. Two have Greek inscriptions: Ιησου ιου Ιησου Αλωθ, on the last is a cross. Αλωθ may mean “to wail,” or עלות ‘aloth (“taken up [to Jesus]”?), or a proper name. The James ossuary (“James the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”) has provoked intensive and ongoing controversy as to its legitimacy in the last decade.

Tombs on the Mount of Olives from the first century A.D. contained 36 ossuaries. The names Jairus, Martha, Mary, Salome, Simon bar Jonah were inscribed. On one is a “Judah proselyte of Tyre” (With a Constantine monograph standing for “Jesus Christ, King). Another has the same monograph and a plus sign which probably refers to the cross.

Excavations at Capernaum produced an octagonal Byzantine church. The theory is that it covered a “sacred” site and therefore the house beneath it may have been Peter’s house.5

The fate of Jewish Christianity was sealed with the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.6 Stephen was stoned, James (Zebedee) was beheaded (Acts 12:2), James (the brother of the Lord) was thrown from the temple and stoned (Eusebius). Eusebius also says that at the time of the Jewish war there was a revelation to leave the city and go to Pella on the east side of the Jordan. Christian bishops of Pella are mentioned as late as the fifth and sixth centuries A.D.

The Decapolis

This was a kind of confederacy of ten Hellenistic towns. These towns were set free from Jewish control by Pompey. Gerasa (modern Jerash) has been excavated and was one of the most brilliant cities of the Trans-Jordan.


The ancient city of Samaria was a Hellenistic rather than a Samaritan city in the time of Christ. Alexander the Great had planted colonists there. Herod rebuilt the city, changed its name to Sebaste (Augustus), and dedicated the temple to him.


Aretas IV (2 Cor. 11:32) was a Nabatean King.


Underwater excavation has shown the accuracy of Josephus’ description of this harbor city build by Herod the Great.7

Antioch on the Orontes

There were several Antiochs. The one (mentioned in Acts 13) was located on the Orontes River 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea. The Romans made it a free city and the capital of Syria. There were good relations between the Jews and Gentiles. Josephus called it the third city in the empire.8 It was very cosmopolitan (see the list of names in Acts 13:1), and was therefore open to the new ideas of Paul about the universality of the church.

1ANET, p. 489, N. 21.

2See H. Shanks, “Was Herod’s Tomb Really Found?” BAR 40:3 (2014), pp. 41-48.

3Wars V, Antiquities XV, XI.

4See Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past.

5“Issue 200: Ten Top Discoveries,” BAR 35:4/5 (2009) pp. 74-96

6See B. Pixner, “Church of the Apostles Found on Mt. Zion,” BAR 16:03 (1990) for a discussion of a Jewish Christian synagogue in Jerusalem.

7See R. Hohlfelder, “Caesarea Beneath the Sea,” BAR 8:3 (1982) and Josephus, Wars I, 408ff.

8Wars, III, (4) 29ff.

Related Topics: Archaeology, History

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