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

John is known as the spiritual Gospel because, among other reasons, it has extended metaphorical discourses, such as the bread of heaven (6:25-59), and a long, one-on-one dialogue with the religious leader Nicodemus about deep truths (3:1-15).

Until recently, much of scholarship did not take seriously the topographical or historical details in John’s Gospel. Scholars ignored them or preferred to see them as symbolic because surely John was not concerned with mundane matters. The more skeptical said that it was wrong in many cases.

So it may come as a surprise to readers that many archaeological discoveries match up with the historical assumptions in this spiritual Gospel. Many scholars now take John’s topography and other down-to-earth matters seriously. Archaeology seems to have turned the tide.

This is Part Three 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 these 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. This article also has many links to websites, for further study. 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 in the time of Jesus. If the links in this article go dead, please type in a keyword in a search engine.

1. How does archaeology relate to this Gospel?

These findings represent others. The most important entry is the last one in this list.

(1) Bethsaida

John 1:44 says that Philip, Peter, and Andrew were from this city that functioned as a capital north of the Sea or Lake of Galilee. (Apparently, Peter and Andrew later moved to Capernaum). Peter and Andrew were fishermen. Archaeologists discovered a “plethora of fishing implements” in a house in Bethsaida, so they call it “the Fisherman’s House.” Data suggest that there may have been a small industry of making fishing gear, since the archaeologists found a fishhook that was not yet bent (Rami Arav, “Bethsaida,” pp. 160-61).

Bible Places has good photos in an article. The University of Omaha has a superb webpage on the excavations.

(2) Cana

Where did Jesus perform the miracle of turning water into wine, not wine into water (John 2:1-11; cf. 4:46; 1:43-45 with 21:2)? There is a tourist shop at Kefr Qana (or Cana or Kenna), northeast of Nazareth. However, since 1998 excavations in another Cana lead archaeologists now to believe that Kherbit Cana, on a hill a hundred meters high, eight kilometers across from the capital Sepphoris, south-southwest, is the town of Jesus’ miracle. (But Kefr Cana still fits the requirements of John’s Gospel). In Kherbit Cana “in the lower village, halfway down the hill, a cave complex with two in situ stone water pots (and room for four more) was venerated in the Byzantine period” (Richardson, p. 139). He does not say in his article how many gallons the pots could hold (John 2:6 says twenty to thirty gallons or 75-115 liters), but the bigger point is that Cana had storage facilities for water pots.

Incidentally, Josephus (c. AD 37 to post-100), a Jewish historian, mentions Cana (Life 86). Richardson writes: “The Cana of Josephus is no doubt the same site as New Testament Cana” (p. 120).

Richardson, pp. 120-44. New International Archaeological Study Bible, p. 1723; von Wahlde, pp. 538-42. Bible Walks has a brief article and photos.

(3) Mt. Gerizim

Only John mentions “this mountain” ( 4:19). Its identity is clear. Mt. Gerizim was considered sacred to the Samaritans, and it has a stormy history. For example, when Greece dominated the region, they renamed the temple of the Samaritans as the temple of Zeus, Friend of Strangers. John Hyrcanus, a Hasmonean priest-king, destroyed the Samaritan temple in 128 BC. In the fourth century AD, the Samaritans produced a document called the Memar Marqah, which reflects earlier traditions, possibly to the first century. Passages express their Messianic hope, like this one: “Let the Restorer come safely and sacrifice a true offering. The Restorer will come in peace and reveal the truth and will purify the world” . . . . The Samaritan woman at the well asked Jesus about the Messiah, and he replied, “I who speak to you am he” (4:25-26).

New International Archaeological Study Bible, p. 1727; see also Zangenberg, pp. 421-26, for the religious history of the site. Von Wahlde, pp. 556-59, has a short write up on Gerizim and the next two entries in this present article. Bible Places introduces us to the territory.

(4) Sychar

John 4:4-6 says that Jesus came to a town called Sychar, in Samaria. Most scholars identify this town with al-Aschar (or al-Askar or Sakir), which ancient texts attest (von Wahlde, pp. 557-58; cf. Zangenberg, pp. 416-18).

Walking in Their Sandals has a profile of the town. Christian Answers has a few lines about it.

(5) Jacob’s well

The patriarch Jacob gave a field to his son Joseph as his portion (shechem) (Genesis 33:18-20). Joseph is buried there (Joshua 24:32). The well is located about 250 feet from the ruins of the town of Shechem, along a north-south road. John 4:6 uses the Greek word for “running spring,” but vv. 11 and 12 use the word for “dug out well.” “The well near Shechem is just such a combination of dug-out well and running spring” (von Wahlde, p. 557).

Edward Fudge Ministries introduces us to the topic via Sychar (I don’t know him, but the one article looks good). This article introduces us to the well via Shechem.

(6) Pool of Bethesda

John 5:2 describes a pool called "Bethesda" in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate. The pool had five colonnades. After a lengthy discussion, von Wahlde writes:

The discovery of the pools proves beyond a doubt that the description of this pool was not the creation of the Evangelist but reflected accurate and detailed knowledge of Jerusalem, knowledge that is sufficiently detailed to now be an aid to archaeologists in understanding the site. The Johannine [adjective of John] account speaks of (1) its location near the Sheep Gate; (2) the name of the pool as Bethesda; (3) the fact that it has five porticos; (4) the fact of intermittent turbulence in the water. All of these details are corroborated through literary and archaeological evidence of the site. (p. 566)

Bible-History has a computer image and a brief write up.

(7) Tiberias

John is the only one to identify the Sea of Galilee as also the Sea of Tiberias (6:1; 21:1), and he alludes to a boat landing (6:1). In addition to the lake, a city near its shore was named after the Roman Emperor Tiberius (ruled AD 14-37). Its population is estimated to have been 24,000, a sizeable city indeed for the region. Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee and Perea (r. 4 BC-AD 39), moved the capital from Sepphoris to Tiberias in about AD 24 (von Wahlde, pp. 566-68).

Jewish Virtual Library offers an overview. See a short article on the Sea of Galilee or Lake Tiberias. This page has a map of first-century ports on the Lake, with a brief article.

(8) Praetorium

John 18:28, 33; 19:9 mention this place. It had been thought that the prefect, at that time Pontius Pilate, lived in the Antonia Fortress. However, this fortress, nearer the temple, was the lodging place of the troops. At this location, they could monitor the temple. But the Praetorium is found in the Herodian palace. It was situated against the western wall, in the northwest corner of the city. Then the palace extended southward (von Wahlde, pp. 572-75).

Bible-History has a short write up on the Antonia Fortress, stating that perhaps the trial of Jesus took place at the Herodian palace, instead. The page also links to Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Another article at Bible-History has a brief write up of Herod’s Palace, with a computer image.

(9) Pilate’s judgment seat

In John 19:13, Pontius Pilate brought Jesus to the judge’s seat “at a place known as the Stone Pavement (which in Aramaic is Gabbatha).” The Aramaic word means “ridge” or “height” or “raised” place. It was adjacent to Herod’s Jerusalem palace. The entrance is paved with stone. “It is clear that the section of the city that housed the Herodian palace was indeed not only the highest place in the city but was founded on bedrock rather than on fill” (von Wahlde, p. 572-75). This fits the description of the Stone Pavement and the Gabbatha.

Jewishmag.com offers an article on the discovery of Herod’s palace. This older edition of a Jewish Encyclopedia still has good information on “Gabbatha.” This short entry by New Advent discusses the optional locations of the Gabbatha, but the article does not seem to be up to date with scholarship.

(10) The tomb of Jesus?

All four Gospels, of course, include in their story about Jesus the empty tomb. But John has a few more and fuller details that the Synoptics do not (e.g. the tomb’s location outside the city walls). So the empty tomb is discussed in this article, rather than the article on archaeology and the Synoptics.

Also, this section has nothing to do with the popular claims that some have found the ossuary (bone box) of Jesus. Rather, this Q & A comes from sound archaeology, not sensationalist archaeology that bypasses many specialists, who deny the claims about Jesus’ alleged bone box.

Some of the details about the real tomb: Jesus was placed in a new tomb cut out of rock (Matt. 27:60; Mark 15:46; Luke 23:53), which was in a garden near the crucifixion site (John 19:20). The entrance was low and sealed with a stone (Matt. 27:60; Mark 15:46; John 20:11). One could sit where the body had been placed (Mark 16:5; John 20:12). “Based upon the Biblical description and upon other known first-century tombs, the tomb of Jesus can be reconstructed as having had a small forecourt, a low entry passage and a burial chamber with benches or ‘couches’ on the three sides for the placement of the deceased” (New International Archaeological Study Bible, p. 1615).

Josephus references tombs for important people nearby (Jewish Wars 5.6.2.229 and 5.6.3.330). Tombs datable to the first century had been cut into a rock quarry that was once outside of Jerusalem. Next, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in 330 AD, retains the Christian tradition of Jesus’ burial from the very beginning. Hadrian (ruled 117-138 AD) constructed a temple to Jupiter and Venus on the site in AD 130 / 131. In AD 325 Constantine (r. 324-337 AD) ordered its demolition and found a tomb beneath it, remarkably. The site was an old quarry, part of which was a garden (John 19:41). A quarry had to be outside of the city walls, though the Old City encompasses it today. At least four tombs cut into the rocks have been located, and one of them matches the description of the type in which Jesus was buried. . . . “The evidence points to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as being the actual site of Jesus’ tomb” (New International Archaeological Study Bible, p. 1615).

Von Wahlde concludes: “The significance of this for our appreciation of the historical accuracy of John’s reports is considerable . . . the Johannine [adjective of John] account contains remarkably accurate knowledge that the Gospel is in fact able to serve as a source of unique knowledge about the crucifixion and burial of Jesus” (p. 582).

New International Archaeological Study Bible, p. 1615; von Wahlde, pp. 581-82.

As for the alleged family tomb of Jesus, this scholar refutes the popular claims that the ossuary (bone box) of Jesus was found. Her article is not written from a conservative Christian point of view or a Christian viewpoint at all. Ben Witherington, a front-ranking New Testament scholar, has a blog on the topic, saying the “evidence” for a family tomb of Jesus is wrong. For what it's worth, I have written an article on the topic.

2. What does all of this mean for the historical reliability of John’s Gospel?

Two bloggers believe that the Gospels are theological books, not history books. So why waste our time with the "nonsense" about archaeology and history, as if to prove the Bible? In response, do we need to have such a sharp dichotomy between the history and theology? Cannot both be valid enterprises at the same time? Plus, my goal, contrary to what they imply, is not to prove the Bible (whatever that word means). But my goal is to counter the "nonsense" about the Gospels being infamously unreliable on an historical level. If the bloggers wish to see texts that have little or nothing to do with history, they should read the next Q & A.

It is true that John's Gospel is very theological. However, “the survey reveals no credible evidence to suggest that any of the twenty sites [examined in his article] is simply fictitious or symbolic. While some secondary meaning is possible in some instances, the intrinsic historicity and accuracy of the references should be beyond doubt” (von Wahlde, p. 583).

Von Wahlde goes on to say that sixteen of the twenty sites examined in his article are certain. Then, “of the remaining four, two can be narrowed to within a relatively restricted locale: the place in the Temple precincts for the keeping of animals and the Lithostrotos” (ibid). The last two sites are still being debated: Aenon near Salim and Bethany beyond the Jordan.

The more details an author mentions about a location, the greater the chance of his being proved wrong, especially in texts from the ancient world. However, von Wahlde counters: “Yet in fact [John’s Gospel] has done just the reverse and demonstrates the full extent of the accuracy and the detail of the Evangelist’s knowledge. It is precisely those places described in the greatest detail that can be identified with the greatest certitude” (p. 584).

John is a spiritual Gospel that has its own stated theological agenda (John 20:31). But the Gospel is also rooted in history because the life of Christ was located in time and place, in Israel about four decades before the destruction of the temple in AD 70 by the Roman General Titus (in that link see an image on the Arch of Titus of the Menorah, and more, triumphantly being carried through Rome).

3. How do these discoveries relate to Gnostic “gospels”?

We can compare the discoveries with all the Gnostic texts, not just the so-called gospels, in the latest edition of the Nag Hammadi collection. We can also include the synoptic Gospels in our discussion, in addition to John’s Gospel.

The Biblical Gospels anchor their truths in time and place, in the life of Jesus, who lived in Israel, about four decades before the fall of Jerusalem. It is true that sometimes the Biblical Gospels follow a thematic strategy and sometimes deliberately diverge from or omit the data that are necessary to work out a detailed chronology of the life of Christ. However, we are not talking about mythical Middle-earth in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The discoveries listed in this present article and in Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels and the historical assumptions in the four Gospels correspond to each other and cohere together. And that’s good news for the historical reliability of Scripture.

On the other hand, the disembodied truth-claims in the Gnostic texts seem deliberately to distance themselves from the true, real-life story of Jesus, who lived down here on earth in a Jewish context. According to the Index of Proper Names and a count of names that (should) appear throughout the collection, Pontius Pilate, who ordered Christ’s execution, is not mentioned at all. Galilee appears only once, the Gnostic text Wisdom of Jesus Christ saying that the Mount of Olives is in Galilee in the north. But the Mount is actually quite visible quite near Jerusalem in Judea, in the south. By contrast, in the much shorter four Biblical Gospels, Pilate appears a little under sixty times in the last few chapters of each Gospel (many in parallel passages). Galilee is mentioned about sixty times (many in parallel passages). All four Gospels clearly say that the Mount of Olives is near Jerusalem.

Further, in all the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts, Jerusalem is found only sixteen times, and one text says that demons helped David and Solomon to build it (see Testimony of Truth 69-70, 24-70; pp. 626-27). “Gnostic Jerusalem” seems to float, as it were, in the background of a Medieval painting done by an artist who had never seen the Holy City. So his depiction of it is otherworldly or just plain outlandish. But in the four Gospel narratives, Jerusalem is listed nearly seventy times (many in parallel passages). As we shall see in future articles, the Gospels were written by or based on eyewitnesses, so the Holy City is down-to-earth and real in their accounts (cf. Matt. 21:12-16 // 11:15-18; Luke 19:45-47; and John 2:12-16; Matt. 24:1-2 // Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-6; Luke 21:1-4; John 2:20; Luke 21:20). The Gospels never say or imply that demons helped to build it.

The point of listing these names and places is to show that the pseudonymous authors of the Nag Hammadi texts seem to delight in omitting time and place, except for a few ethereal locations and persons, whereas the Biblical authors thought the life of Jesus in history was important. The pseudonymous authors and the final collector(s) of the Nag Hammadi gospels had a tin ear for storytelling, particularly stories rooted in history. Because of the absence in the Gnostic gospels of a basic, down-to-earth correspondence between the texts and history and for many other reasons, we should not at all be confident that Jesus and his followers actually taught and did what is in the Gnostic gospels, though they contain some sayings and traditions that are derivative off of the Biblical Gospels.

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

I have already discussed our reaction to the possibility that the historical assumptions in the four Gospels may not correspond precisely to the historical data outside of the Gospels: Archaeology and the Synoptic Gospels (in that link scroll down to Q & A Four). However, the match up between the historical data inside and outside the Gospels happens so often that no one should abandon Scripture if uncertainties remain. Unreasonable critics and fearful believers would be . . . well . . . needlessly unreasonable and fearful, if they did.

I like what Mark D. Roberts says about all four Gospels: they are “Truthful History Motivated by Theology” (Can We Trust the Gospels? Crossway, 2007, p. 121).

Again, the goal of the series is not to establish the Gospels’ inerrancy or inspiration, though the facts examined in this article certainly do not disconfirm those doctrines. But I’ll leave the doctrines to the theologians.

Here, however, in numerous cases there is a close coherence between the facts inside and outside the Gospel of John and the Synoptics, so their historical reliability is affirmed, quite easily, too.

This article has two companion pieces:

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

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.

James M. Arlandson. “Jesus Called It ‘Israel.’American Thinker. July 2007.

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 near-absolute perfection and complete inerrancy in a match up between history inside and outside the Bible, then this website goes a long way to get there. But the proprietors seem to acknowledge that uncertainties remain.

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 it at the link. Many of the articles are cited in this present article.

Digthebible has excellent links.

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

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. 4 th 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.

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.

Juergen Zangenberg. “Between Jerusalem and Galilee: Samaria in the Time of Jesus.” In Charlesworth, Jesus and Archaeology, pp. 393-432.


Related Topics: Gospels