For Christians, Easter represents the climactic event in all of human history – the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. Critics contend that it is a mythical story, based more on fiction than fact. Some even go so far as to accuse Christianity of stealing the “death-and-resurrection-of-a-god” motif from other religions (although scholars have rightly pointed out that stories of the death and resurrection of other gods, such as Dionysus and Adonis, post-date Christianity, so if anyone did the stealing, it was the pagan religions who “borrowed” the motif from Christianity1).
Archaeology is one field of study that must be considered in determining whether the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the gospel accounts in the Bible, are actual historical events. Over past 150 years, archaeological excavations in Israel have yielded much evidence for the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth. Excavations have confirmed many elements of the Christmas story, his ministry in Galilee and Judea, particularly in the Jewish synagogues, and the fact that the world in which Jesus lived has been so accurately described in the gospels.2 However, nowhere is the evidence so overwhelming as it is when one studies the details of the historical accounts of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Here is a brief summary of the archaeological evidence for Easter.
Many Christians travel to Israel during the Easter period to seek out the actual places that Jesus walked. Unfortunately, some of the sites shown to the faithful masses by well-meaning tour-guides are of dubious authenticity. The Garden Tomb is a serene place to contemplate the resurrection of Jesus, but most archaeologists agree that it is an Iron Age tomb which was already 500 years old by the first century AD, and not the “new tomb” (Mt 27:60) in which “no one had yet been laid” (Lk 23:53) described in the Bible. Given the doubt surrounding some Easter-related sites, it would be easy to jump to the conclusion that archaeology simply doesn’t support the biblical accounts. This would be a mistake, as archaeological findings have confirmed many details of the Easter story.
It may be surprising to learn that the Bible never refers to the “Garden of Gethsemane,” by that name; it simply says Jesus and his disciples went to “a place called Gethsemane” (Mt 26:36; Mk 14:32) on the Mount of Olives (Lk 22:39) where there was an “olive grove” (Jn 18:1). Gethsemane itself means “olive press” or “press of oils.” Today tourists enjoy the serenity of the Garden of Gethsemane. Likely none of the trees in the garden were alive when Jesus prayed there, as Josephus records that the Romans cut down all of the olive trees around Jerusalem to use in their siege of the city in 70 AD. Some of the trees standing in the garden today may be the descendants of trees that Jesus walked among. Nearby is an ancient site called the Cave of Gethsemane (or the Grotto of Betrayal), which may in fact be the actual site of the betrayal of Jesus, or at least the spot where the disciples slumbered. Given that it was a cold night (Jn 18:18) it makes sense that they would have sought shelter in the cave. Archaeological
excavations have revealed that the cave was used for pressing olives in ancient times.3 So there is good evidence that the site now known as the Garden of Gethsemane and, more specifically, the Cave of Gethsemane, were in the vicinity of one of the most famous betrayals of all time.
HOUSE OF ANNAS
After he was arrested in the garden, Jesus was brought “first to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year” (Jn 18:13). It was here where Jesus was questioned about his teaching and where Peter denied his master three times.
In the 1970s, renowned archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer was part of a team that excavated a large palace near Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known as the “Palatial Mansion.” He has identified it as the palace of Annas, who ruled as high priest from 6-15 A.D.4 After he was deposed, Annas continued to wield incredible power in Jersualem behind the scenes while his sons and son-in-law, Caiaphas, served High Priests, so it is not surprising that Jesus was taken first to him (Annas is even named a “co-high priest” in Luke 3:2). Ritmeyer has pointed out that the remains of the Palatial Mansion clearly housed priests, having four mikva’ot (ritual baths), the most found in any ancient dwelling in Jerusalem (or Israel). It is also near the Burnt House, which has been shown
to belong to the priestly family of Katros, and is in the area Josephus records that the palace of Annas was. The remains of this palace display the wealth that Annas was known to have had, with mosaic floors and fresco-adorned walls. The mansion itself was arranged around a large, paved courtyard, with a reception hall just to the west of the courtyard. It is possible that Jesus was interrogated by Annas in the reception hall while Peter warmed himself by the fire in the courtyard. Josephus records that the Palace of Annas was burnt in 70 A.D. (War 2.426); when the Palatial Mansion was excavated, there was evidence that the building had indeed been destroyed by fire.5 This may be the place where Jesus was first interrogated before his sham trial with the Jewish leaders.
After his trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus was taken before Pontius Pilate, at the “palace of the Roman governor” (Jn 18:28), which one and the same as the Praetorium (Mk 15:16). A tradition stretching back to the medieval era has the Praetorium in the Antonia Fortress. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson has measured the base of the Antionia Fortress and argues that it is too small to have functioned as anything more than a Roman outpost and observation tower. It certainly wasn’t big enough to house the palace and administrative center of the Roman governor.6 Today many believe that Pontius Pilate resided in Herod’s old palace complex when he was in Jerusalem. Gibson states:
“Today, a consensus of opinion exists among scholars that Herod’s Palace on the west side of the city was the same as the Praetorium and that in its immediate vicinity Jesus was tried and condemned to death.”7
Further evidence that Pilate used Herod’s old palace as his residence is found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria. Indeed, it’s not surprising that the ruling Roman empire would take over part of the Jewish king’s complex for it’s own purposes. In fact, the palace itself was divided into two wings, known as the Caesareum and the Aggrippium. In his book, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, Gibson proposes that the discovery of city gateway with an inner courtyard near Herod’s palace was the Gate of the Essenes, and that it was here that Jesus was publicly tried and from here the people cried out for him to be crucified.
Further archaeological evidence has confirmed the key people who interrogated and prosecuted Jesus in the Passion Week narrative of the gospels. Leaving aside the plentiful historical evidence for Jesus of Nazareth outside of the Bible8, not only are Annas, Ciaphas, and Pilate known from other ancient writings, there is actual archaeological evidence for each as well.
Annas – In addition to the Palatial Mansion that has been identified as the residence of Annas (mentioned above), the tomb of Annas the High Priest has been discovered and is further testimony to his wealth as it is one of the most richly decorated tombs of the Second Temple Period.9
Caiaphas – In 1990, a construction team that was building a water park in the Peace Forest near Jerusalem, stumbled upon a first-century cave when their bulldozer plowed through the tomb’s roof. Archaeologists discovered a variety
of ossuaries (bone boxes used in the first-century), including an ornate one that inscribed with the name “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” The ancient historian, Josephus, records that Caiaphas’s full name was Joseph Caiaphas. Inside were the bones of a 60-year old man. Scholars are convinced that this is the ossuary of the high priest who played a prominent role in the trial of Jesus.10
Pontius Pilate – In 1961, Italian archaeologists discovered a stone inscription while excavating an amphitheatre near Ceasarea Maratima. The limestone block was part of a dedication to Tiberius Caesar from “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” Though Pilate is named in numerous literary sources outside of the Bible (ie. Josephus, Philo, and Tacitus) the “Pilate Stone” is the only known ancient archaeological evidence of Pontius Pilate.11
All four biographies of Jesus in the Bible record that Jesus was crucified at a place called Golgotha, which means “The Place of the Skull” (Mk 15:22; 27:33; Lk 23:33; Jn 19:17–18). John’s gospel records that “At the place where Jesus was crucified (ie. Golgotha), there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid” (19:41). This means that Golgotha was a large area that contained both the execution site, the tomb, and a garden. Scripture describes the place of crucifixion as being near the city where many read the charge that he was “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” (John 19:19,20) and that it was “outside the city gate” (Heb. 13:12). This makes sense historically, as Roman executions were intended to be a public exhibition to deter others. Thus, the place of execution was near a road, outside the city wall, near a gate, and in an area that included tombs and a garden.
Archaeologists generally agree that the real site of Golgotha is in the vicinity of the “Rock of Calvary” in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (though probably not right on that spot, it being too small). Excavations in the area surrounding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre have revealed that it was an Iron Age quarry that had been carved out of the sloping hill (its jagged rock formations possibly resembling the shape of a skull to those in the first-century). Furthermore, the area was outside of the ancient (first) city wall of Jerusalem nearby a road that lead westward towards Emmaus. Remains of a city gate, likely the “Gennath” (Gardens) Gate referred to by Josephus, were also discovered nearby.12
THE CRUCIFIED MAN
In 1968, a construction crew with the Israel Ministry of Housing was working at an area in northeast Jerusalem when they accidentally dug up several tombs. Archaeologists who were called discovered numerous ossuaries, including one that contained the bones of an adult male who had been crucified. His name, Jehohanan (Yehohanan), was inscribed on the outside of the bone box, and his right heel bone still contained the rusted spike from his crucifixion. It seems the nail must have hit a knot in the wood of the cross and bent. It probably couldn’t be removed from the victim by his family without doing considerable damage to his foot, and so it was left in place. An analysis of the heel bone and nail reveal that Jehohanan had been crucified with a leg on either side of the cross and the nail driven in sideways through his heel.13 The skeleton of “the crucified man” is the only archaeological evidence of crucifixion. It reveals both similarities and differences to the crucifixion of Jesus in the New Testament, although this is not surprising as ancient literary sources describe a variety of ways people were crucified by the Romans.
THE TOMB OF JESUS
Unlike the Garden Tomb, which has no ancient testimony to it’s authenticity and was only proposed in the 19th century, the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, has an abundance of evidence that leads many to believe that it is the actual location of the empty tomb. Both Jerome (395 A.D.)14 and Eusebius (337-340 A.D.)15 record that the Roman emperor Hadrian built a large platform over the tomb of Jesus and then placed a statue of Jupiter over the spot. When Constantine and his mother, Helena, dismantled the pagan shrine, a tomb was indeed found beneath it. They then built the original church on the
site in 330 A.D. Other first-century tombs are found within the church, confirming that the area was an ancient cemetery.16 The tomb of Jesus and the burial bed is surrounded by a shrine, known as the edicule. It was recently uncovered for the first time in almost 500 years for restoration and cleaning. The renovations to the edicule included the installation of a window that allows visitors to see the original stone walls of the tomb. In Dec. 2017, results from tests done on mortar samples taken during the renovations were announced. They confirm the history of the site, with the mortar taken from between the limestone burial bed and the marble slab dating to the time of Constantine’s construction of the original shrine at the tomb.17 The evidence clearly points to this being the actual location of the tomb of Jesus.
THE NAZARETH INSCRIPTION
The Nazareth Inscription is a Greek inscription on a marble tablet measuring 24 inches (61 cm) by 15 inches (38 cm), which was first published in 1930. It is a decree of Caesar (known as an imperial rescript), dating to the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.), shortly after the death and resurrection of Jesus. In it a death penalty is imposed in Israel for anyone caught robbing bodies from tombs, and specifically “sepulcher sealing tombs,” such as the one Jesus was buried in. It is interesting that Caesar would feel the need to make such a pronouncement since it was normal practice in antiquity for grave robbers to plunder tombs to steal the valuables, but rarely, if ever, the bodies. However, the Bible records that the Jewish leaders concocted and then deliberately spread the lie that Jesus’ disciples stole the body (Mt 28:13-15). This report no doubt reached the ears of the Roman emperor, who likely would have seen the new Christian sect as dangerous, anti-Roman movement. Dr. Clyde Billington, associate professor of ancient history at Northwestern College has studied the inscription and concludes: “The context of the Nazareth Inscription clearly proves that it was written for Jews and not gentiles, and that it was almost certainly issued by Claudius in response to the story of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.”18
Of course, none of this proves that the tomb was empty (though I believe it was) or that Jesus of Nazareth actually rose from the dead (though I believe He did) or that the Bible is true (though I believe it is). Ultimately, those are matters of faith. My purpose has been to demonstrate that many details of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ described in Scripture have been confirmed by archaeology. This leads me to conclude that the Bible is historically accurate when it describes the events of what Christians call Passion Week. The early disciples, many of whom witnessed the death of Jesus of Nazareth first hand, claimed to have seen him alive after his burial, and then, in many cases, paid for this belief with their life. Yet they could not be swayed from their belief that Jesus had risen from the dead. They went throughout the world preaching the good news that forgiveness of sins was available in Jesus’ name (Acts 13:38), and that anyone who confessed Jesus as Lord and believed in his heart that God had raised Jesus from the dead would be saved (Romans 10:9). I believe the tomb is empty and that Jesus is alive…that is good news indeed!
1 This point is successfully argued by Dr. Gary Habermas in a debate here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCsPpRp63Nc
2 For more information on how accurate the gospels are in describing the Jewish world of the first-century, I recommend Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence, by Craig A. Evans
7 Gibson, Shimon, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, HarperOne, San Francisco, 2009, p. 91.
8 A good summary of the extra-biblical evidence for Jesus in other writings can be found at the end of this article: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2014/04/20/The-Historicity-of-the-Resurrection-of-Jesus-Christ-Part-2.aspx
10 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures Of The Bible, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2008, p. 316.
11 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures Of The Bible, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2008, p. 312.
12 For a good summary of evidence pointing to the exact location of Golgotha, I recommend Joan Taylor’s article, “Golgotha: A Reconsideration of the Evidence for the Sites of Jesus’ Crucifixion and Burial,” which was first published in the Spring 2002 issue of Bible and Spade magazine. It can be accessed here: http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/11/Golgotha-A-Reconsideration-of-the-Evidence-for-the-Sites-of-Jesuse28099-Crucifixion-and-Burial.aspx
13 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures Of The Bible, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2008, p. 322.