NOTE: Here is the video version of this blog, from Episode 140 of the TV show, Digging for Truth, by the Associates for Biblical Research.
The historicity of Jesus of Nazareth is well-attested; in addition to the reliable gospel accounts in Scripture, numerous secular authors within 150 years of his life mention him. For example, Thallus, Mara Bar-Serapion, Phlegon, Suetonius, Lucian of Samosata, and Celsus all reference Jesus.1 In addition Josephus affirms that Jesus was called the Christ and that his brother was James2, Pliny the Younger notes that Christians worshipped Jesus “as a god,”3 and Tacitus wrote that Christ, “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus.”4 In short, no serious historian – Christian or atheist – questions the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. In addition to these direct references, there are numerous archaeological discoveries which affirm and illuminate details about Jesus’ life as recorded in the gospels. Here are the top ten discoveries related to Jesus.
10. The Galilee Boat
In 1986, a severe drought in Israel resulted in the water level of the Sea of Galilee dropping several meters. Two brothers went searching along the northwest shoreline for archaeological objects and discovered the outline of an ancient boat in the mud. The fragile wood, exposed for the first time 2000-years, required immediate attention to remove it safely. It was submerged in a chemical preservative for 11 years before it was put on display in a local museum.
The Galilee Boat, or the “Jesus Boat” as it is popularly called, is approximately 27 ft long, 7.5 ft wide and 4 ft. deep, and would have accommodated a crew of up to 15 men.5 Carbon-14 testing dated it to 40 BC, plus or minus 80 years (120 BC to AD 40).6 In short, the boat may have been in use during the time of Jesus, and was certainly typical of the style of vessel that fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James and John would have used (Mk 1:16-20). In the New Testament, we read of Jesus crossing the Sea of Galilee such boats (Lk 8:22), and even teaching from a boat when the shore became too crowded with listeners (Mt 13:2-3). The Galilee boat is the only ancient boat ever discovered at the Sea of Galilee and helps us understand the types of boats Jesus and his disciples traveled in.
Matthew records that Jesus “went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt 4:23) and Luke states that Jesus’s custom was to go to the synagogues on the Sabbath (Lk 4:16). While some scholars have suggested the synagogue did not arise until after the destruction of the temple in AD 70, and that the references to synagogues in the gospels are anachronistic, archaeology has proven otherwise. To date the remains of ten synagogues dating to before AD 70 have been unearthed in Israel, including at Capernaum, Gamla, The Herodium, Jericho, Magdala, Masada, Modi’in, Qiryat Sefer7, Beth Shemesh, and H. et-Tuwani.8 In addition to the remains of actual synagogue structures, there is the famous Theodotus Inscription, which states that Theodotus built a synagogue in Jerusalem for the “reading of the Torah and teaching of the commandments.”9 Dr. Scott Stripling summarizes, “In biblical times, synagogue structures were public buildings used by Jews for civic and religious gatherings. The religious gatherings focused on the study of the Hebrew Bible and prayer.”10 The archaeological record both affirms the historical descriptions of the synagogues in the gospels and helps us understand Jesus’ role as a teacher within first-century Judaism.
8. Pool of Siloam
In John 9 Jesus healed a blind man by putting mud on his eyes and having him go wash in the Pool of Siloam. Many tourists have seen the famous Byzantine “Pool of Siloam” in Jerusalem, the one which the Empress Eudocia built in the 5th century to commemorate the miracle. It is located at the end of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the aqueduct that brings water from the Gihon Spring into the city.
In 2004, the Pool of Siloam from the first-century was accidentally discovered during repairs a drainage system. Archaeologists Eli Shukron and Ronny Reich were called in to excavate and unearthed a large pool that had at least 20 steps leading down from the street level into the pool. Pottery from one end of the pool was used to date it to the First-Century AD11. Given that it was in the exact location that scholars had long believed the actual Pool of Siloam to be – only 70 meters from the Byzantine pool – and that it dated to the time of Jesus, it was identified as the actual Pool of Siloam where the blind man had washed to receive healing.
7. Jacob’s Well
Jesus met a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well near Sychar, and revealed to her that he was the Messiah (Jn 4:25-26). Today, an ancient well located at the foot of Mt. Gerizim (Jn 4:20) just south of the village of Askar (ancient Sychar) is unanimously identified as Jacob’s Well by all traditions – Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Muslim.12 A pilgrim account from AD 330 also identifies it as the well that Jesus visited.13 French archaeologist Andre Parot once described the water from the well as “cool and pleasant-tasting…drawn from a depth of 128 feet.”14 Today a Greek Orthodox church stands over the well. While many modern tourist sites in Israel are of dubious authenticity, nearly all scholars agree is the actual location of Jacob’s Well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman and offered her “living water” (Jn 4:10).
6. The Temple in Jerusalem – Steps, Signs and Stones
The gospels record that Jesus and his disciples spent considerable time at the Temple in Jerusalem. Several archaeological discoveries relate to the Jewish Temple from the first century. A 61-meter wide flight of stairs led to the main entrances to the Temple complex; the easternmost portion of this staircase has been unearthed with alternating short and long steps.15 Jesus likely used these southern steps many times.
Within the temple complex was located the court of the Gentiles – a courtyard that was the closest area that gentiles and ritually impure people could get to the Temple itself. Josephus records that between this court and the inner courts of the temple precinct was a wall on which were warning signs in both Greek and Latin that forbade foreigners from going beyond that point on pain of death.16 In 1871, a limestone slab with a seven-line warning inscription was discovered – the very one described by Josephus. Jesus and his disciples would have walked past these warning inscriptions many times.
Finally, a Herodian street with shops along the side of it has been unearthed along the southern end of the Western Wall. The street itself is buckled from the huge stones, which still lie were they fell when the Roman soldiers threw them down from the Temple Mount in AD 70.17 The debris is a vivid reminder of Jesus’s prophecy that the beautiful stones of the temple buildings would be thrown down (Mt 24:2).
5. The Caiaphas Ossuary
Caiaphas was the high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus according to the gospels (Mt 26:3, 57; Lk 3:2; Jn 11:49). The ancient historian, Josephus, records that Caiaphas’s full name was Joseph Caiaphas.18 It appears that he was known primarily by his family name, Caiaphas, in the same way that many of the sons of Herod were simply known as Herod (ie. Herod Antipas, Herod Archelaus, etc).
In 1990, a construction team was building a water park near Jerusalem when their bulldozer plowed through the roof of a first-century tomb. Archaeologists were called in and discovered a variety of ossuaries (bone boxes used in the first-century), including an ornate one that was inscribed with the name “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Inside were the bones six people, including those of a 60-year-old man which scholars believe are the remains of Caiaphas himself.19
4. The Pilate Stone
All four gospels declare that the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, sentenced Jesus to death by crucifixion. While his historicity has never really been in doubt – he’s mentioned by ancient writers, such as Josephus, Tacitus and Philo, in addition to the gospel accounts – archaeological evidence for his existence was unearthed at Caesarea Maritima in 1961. Excavations near the amphitheater revealed a limestone block inscribed with a dedication to Tiberius Caesar from “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.”20 The Pilate stone confirms that Pilate was the Prefect of Judea, governing as the gospel writers described. Furtermore, in 2018, a copper ring that had been unearthed during the 1968-69 excavations at the Herodium was cleaned, photographed and analyzed revealing the Greek inscription, “of Pilatus.” Rings like this were common among Roman soldiers, and since the name Pilate is uncommon, many believe the ring was once the property of Pontius Pilate or one of his servants. The Pilate Stone and the Pilate Ring provide archaeological evidence for the Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate, who handed Jesus over to be crucified.
3. Heel Bone of the Crucified Man
There is ample literary evidence for Roman crucifixions (ie. Josephus, Plautus, Senneca). Archaeological evidence for Roman crucifixion was unearthed in 1968. That year, a construction crew accidentally dug up several tombs in northeast Jerusalem. Inside the tombs were several ossuaries, including one inscribed with the name Jehohanan (Yehohanan), which contained skeletal remains of an adult male, including his heel bone with a nail still embedded in it. The anthropologist who examined the remains determined that Jehohanan had been in his twenties when he was crucified in the first century (ca. AD 7-66).21 Further study has revealed that Jehohanan had likely been crucified with a leg on either side of the cross and the nail driven in sideways through his heel.22
The heel bone of the crucified man affirms the description of Jesus’ crucifixion in Scripture. Furthermore, it counters the objections of critics who have argued that Jesus would have been thrown into a mass grave for criminals rather than have been dignified with a proper burial. We now see that the loved ones of a crucified victim could retrieve the body and prepare it for burial it in a family tomb.
2. Tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
There are three tombs in Jerusalem purported to be the final resting place of Jesus. The site with the oldest attestation to being the tomb of Christ lies within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Archaeological research has demonstrated that this site was a Jewish cemetery in an ancient limestone quarry outside the walls of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’s death.23 This aligns with the biblical description of the tomb in which Jesus was laid being outside the city walls (Mt 27:39, Heb 13:12).
Eusebius wrote that the emperor Hadrian (2nd century) built a huge platform over the quarry and constructed a temple to Venus/Aphrodite over the tomb of Christ.24 Jerome affirmed this and said that the temple stood there until the time of Constantine.25 Eusebius also wrote that, during his lifetime (4th century) the emperor Constantine destroyed the Roman temple and excavated through the fill of Hadrian’s platform until he found the tomb of Christ. He then had a new structure (the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) built around the tomb.26 The Church of the Holy Sepulchre has been restored and rebuilt several times since its construction.
During recent restorations to the edicule (the shrine that surrounds the remains of the ancient tomb), experts removed the limestone slab that covered the burial bed of the tomb for the first time in almost 500 years. Mortar samples from the structure surrounding the tomb were tested, confirming it was built in the mid-4th century and then rebuilt crusader chapel in the middle ages, affirming the ancient written history of the site. Archaeologist John McRay summarized: “Although absolute proof of the location of Jesus’ tomb remains beyond our reach, the archaeological and early literary evidence argues strongly for those who associate it with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.”27
1. Nazareth Inscription
The Nazareth Inscription is an edict from Caesar inscribed on a marble slab which imposes a death penalty in Israel for anyone caught moving bodies from family tombs, and specifically “sepulcher-sealing tombs,” such as the one Jesus was buried in. It was acquired by Wilhelm Froeher in 1878 who recorded that it came from Nazareth and eventually translated and published by French scholar M. Franz Cumont in 1930. The Greek inscription likely dates to the reign of Claudius (41-54 AD), and appears to be directed at a Jewish audience. It’s quite extraordinary that Caesar would feel the need to make such a pronouncement; while it was common in antiquity for grave robbers to plunder tombs to steal the valuables, they never the bodies. Of course, Scripture records that the Jewish leaders deliberately spread the lie that Jesus’ disciples had stolen the body (Mt 28:13-15) to explain the fact that the gave was empty after Jesus rose from the dead. This report likely reached the Roman emperor, who would have seen the new Christian sect as a dangerous, anti-Roman movement.
A recent analysis of the marble tablet the Nazareth inscription is made of determined it likely came from the Greek Island of Kos (Cos). The authors of the study have suggested a different historical context, although, as historian, Dr. Clyde Billington, pointed out in a recent interview, there are serious problems with their hypothesis. After studying the Nazareth Inscription in-depth, he 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.”28
Each of these discoveries is related to Jesus in some way, either representing a place he visited or people he interacted with or an event central to his life. Together they indicate that the writers of the biblical gospels accurately recorded events in the life of Christ. If we can trust the historical details they described, I believe we can trust their record of Jesus’s teaching. He once declared, “”I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). He also told his disciples that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached in his name to all nations (Lk 24:47). This is the Good News that his followers have been proclaiming for almost 2000 years.
Note: The last three discoveries on this list are all important, although they are in a different order in my blog, the Top Ten Discoveries in Biblical Archaeology related to the New Testament. I have listed them here in chronological order to follow the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus proclaimed in the gospels.
Cover Photo: This is one of the earliest depictions of Jesus; it comes from the catacomb of Commodilla in Rome and dates to the 4th century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
1 J. Warner Wallace, “Is Is There Any Evidence For Jesus Outside The Bible?” ColdCaseChristianity.com. Oct. 30, 2017. https://coldcasechristianity.com/writings/is-there-any-evidence-for-jesus-outside-the-bible/ (Accessed March 22, 2021).
2 Josephus, Antiquities, 20.9.1.
3 Pliny, Letters, 10.96-97
4 Tacitus, Annals, 15.44.
5 Randall Price and H. Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 263.
6 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 308.
7 Craig Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), 38-58.
8 Scott Stripling, “The Rise of the Synagogue in Biblical Times.” Bible and Spade. Vol. 33. No. 3 (Summer 2020), 14.
9 CIJ no. 1404.
10 Scott Stripling, “The Rise of the Synagogue in Biblical Times.” Bible and Spade. Vol. 33. No. 3 (Summer 2020), 7.
11 Todd Bolen, “The Pool of Siloam.” BiblePlaces.com. https://www.bibleplaces.com/poolofsiloam/ (Accessed March 25, 2021).
12 Zdravko Stefanovic, “Jacob’s Well.” The Anchor Bible Dictionary 3. (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 609.
13 Randall Price and H. Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 285.
14 Andre Parot, as quoted by Ferrell Jenkins, “”Jacob’s Well – from Jacob to Jesus.” Sept. 9, 2012. https://ferrelljenkins.blog/2012/09/09/jacobs-well-from-jacob-to-jesus-2/ (Accessed March 26, 2021).
15 Todd Bolen, “Southern Temple Mount.” BiblePlaces.com. http://www.bibleplaces.com/southerntm/ (Accessed March 25, 2021).
16 Josephus, Antiquities, 15.5.1.
17 Randall Price and H. Wayne House, Zondervan Handbook of Biblical Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017), 211.
18 Josephus, Antiquities, 18.2.2.
19 Clyde E. Fant and Mitchell G. Reddish, Lost Treasures of the Bible. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), 316.
20 Ibid, 312.
21 Nico Haas, “Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar,” Israel Exploration Journal 20, no. 1 (1970), 38–59.
22 John J. Davis, “Rethinking The Crucified Man From Giv’at Ha-Mivtar.” Bible and Spade. Vol. 15. No. 4 (Fall 2002). Online: https://biblearchaeology.org/new-testament-era-list/4185-rethinking-the-crucified-man-from-givat-hamivtar (Accessed March 26, 2021).
23 Kristen Romey, “Unsealing of Christ’s Reputed Tomb Turns Up New Revelations” National Geographic. October 31, 2016. https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/10/jesus-christ-tomb-burial-church-holy-sepulchre/ (Accessed March 26, 2021).
24 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.26.
25 Jerome, Letter 58, 6.120.
26 Eusebius, Life of Constantine, 3.27-33.
27 John McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1991), 216.
28 Clyde Billington, “The Nazareth Inscription: Proof of the Resurrection of Christ?” Associates for Biblical Research. https://biblearchaeology.org/research/new-testament-era/4658-the-nazareth-inscription-proof-of-the-resurrection-of-christ (Accessed March 26, 2021).