Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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The Historical Jesus

The Christian belief that the Bible is the inspired Word of God has had many consequences for the Church - both good and bad.

On the plus side of the equation, it has preserved the texts of the gospels, Paul's letters and other material when they might otherwise  have been lost or badly degraded. The conviction that God's truth lies in the text - some easily accessible, some to a greater or lesser degree buried, but nonetheless there - has caused that text to be analysed more deeply than any other in history.

On the minus side, however, the Bible as revelation has led to a myopia about certain aspects of Jesus. There has been such an extreme focus on words that contributions from other disciplines have often been downplayed or ignored.

One such discipline is archaeology.

It might be thought that things found by archaeologists are facta bruta - hard facts which can't easily be contested, if at all. The truth is that even tangible artifacts have to be interpreted as part of the broader cultural picture into which they fit. That is, the meaning of a physical artifact is part of an overall pattern. It cannot stand alone, nor does it mean much merely in relation to disembodied texts - the target of most 19th century excavations and other quests.

Excavations over the past forty years have produced a picture of the culture in which Jesus lived which can no longer easily be ignored by theologians. Many shy away from the implications of new discoveries, for to be properly used they require a difficult mind-shift away from the Bible purely as revelation to a rational assessment of Jesus as a man of his time.

Perhaps coincidentally, a resurgence of interest in the Jesus of history since the late 1950s has been matched by new excavations and surveys in Galilee which gathered pace from the early 1960s onwards. The new exploration has had two aspects. On one hand there have been those interested in finding out more about the culture and land in which Jesus lived and moved. On the other hand, Israeli scholars have been exploring the setting for early Judaism. The two aspects have dovetailed nicely.

All this has provided considerable new energy to the so-called Third Quest for the historical Jesus. 

The overall impression had been gained by the end of the 20th century that more than 200 years of intensive dissection of biblical texts was coming to an end. A broad conclusion was that the gap between the man  Jesus and the teachings of the early Church could not be bridged. Many had concluded that the gospels and the material they contain could provide only a skeletal picture of Jesus. 

The effect of this, writes Jonathan Reed, is analogous to

... particle physics, in which the various effects of an event are apparent, so that something about the cause, itself invisible, can nevertheless be said. [1]

In other words, we can get back only to a point well after Jesus died if we rely only on the texts. This means that we can only infer from those texts what the Jesus of history was like. 

But if we know something about the socio-economic background of the area, it becomes possible to infer certain things about Jesus which can't be got from the New Testament. And, incidentally, it allows the correction of some misguided conclusions reached by a text-only analysis.

Reed sums it up:

Historical Jesus research today must be bifocal. This includes both a critical and informed reading of the early Christian texts and their reading within a plausible reconstruction of their background ... historical Jesus research must focus on an interpretation of Jesus within his environment ...

What characterises the important conclusions we can derive about this background - and therefore about Jesus - from the archaeological evidence?

  • Galilee, where Jesus conducted most of his ministry, was a distinct region with its own material culture which contrasted to a significant degree with the cultures surrounding it. We know this culture in increasing detail as excavations go on.

  • The region was not isolated from the rest of Palestine, but neither was its economy well integrated with its neighbours. Galilee was an unimportant backwater in relation to the Roman Empire. This backs up what the gospels and other contemporary literature convey.

  • Jesus' base in Galilee was probably Capernaum. This was one of an arc of Jewish settlements stretching from Upper to Lower Galilee and on into the Golan, in turn surrounded by gentile settlements and cities. So when Jesus is portrayed as leaving Galilee he would have been crossing over into a somewhat different culture.

  • Having said this, Galilee was part of the overall Jewish culture which included Judea to the south. In this respect, Jesus shared the definite Jewishness of that culture. Being either Galilean or Judean was thus only to be a particular type of Hebrew.

  • The archaeological evidence tells us that Nazareth was a small village of no more than about 300-400 souls. It was within no more than two hours walk of Sepphoris, a substantial town of between 2 000 and 4 000 inhabitants. It was also within easy reach of Tiberias, the provincial capital of Galilee and which had a population of about 8 000 people.

  • It is possible to conclude that Jesus would therefore have been exposed substantially to Greek culture. But the facta bruta derived from archeology are clear that both Sepphoris and Tiberias were much more Jewish than they were either Greek or Roman. The cultural influence of the latter was confined largely to public buildings, ceremonies and laws. Greek was the lingua franca of the area, used by Romans and Jews alike.

  • Compared with the rest of Palestine, there is little evidence for substantial trade and travel with regions outside Galilee. It is more likely therefore that Jesus should be described as "provincial" rather than as "peasant" as some would have it.

In 2001 Crossan and Reed identified a top ten of archeological discoveries then relevant to Jesus and his ministry [2]:

  1. The Caiaphas Ossuary: A burial cave near Jerusalem, which had been sealed since the Roman destruction of the city in 70CE, revealed a stone box. It contained the bones of Caiaphas, mentioned by name in Matthew 26 and John 18. This is a direct link to the gospel stories of the execution of Jesus.
  2. The Pilate Inscription: Caesarea Maritima was a major port used by Herod the Great for his imports and exports. A stone used to renovate the town's theatre three centuries after Jesus revealed that Pontius Pilate was a Roman Prefect, and not a lesser Procurator. This is important in assessing what powers he had in the Palestine of his time.
  3. The Apostle Peter's House: A number of churches had been built over the ruins of a simple courtyard house at Capernaum. The weight of evidence, including very early invocations in Aramaic, Greek and other languages, have led many archeologists to believe that the house was that of Peter.
  4. The Galilee Boat: A boat discovered on the shore of Lake Galilee in the mid-1980s proved to be from the time of Jesus. It measured 2.4m x 7.9m and would have been used for fishing or crossing the lake. It would have carried about a dozen people.
  5. The Crucified Man: Burial caves north-east of Jerusalem contained the bones of a man about 1.65m tall and in his mid-twenties. His right heel had been pierced by a nail. A small wooden board had been nailed to the outside of his heel to stop him tearing his foot off the small head of the nail. His arms had been tied (not nailed) to the crossbar of the crucifix. His name was given as Yehochanan, Hebrew for John. This evidence is important, if only because hard data about the methods of crucifixion has proved hard to come by.
  6. Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem: Excavations over many years have produced a vast store of artifacts and other hard evidence about these two cities, probably the most important in Palestine at the time of Jesus. They prove that Herod the Great succeeded in developing Palestine - albeit using the harshest of methods - in ways written sources don't clearly reveal. It also demonstrates the delicate balance he was able to preserve between necessary loyalty to Rome; the promotion of his name (and therefore of the region's interests) abroad; and the advancement of his own power.
  7. Sepphoris and Tiberias: Herod Antipas (one of Herod the Great's sons) ruled Galilee and Perea in the time of Jesus as a minor Tetrarch. He built Sepphoris, which was a significant town only four miles from Nazareth. Amongst other things it contained a Roman-style theatre, a large underground aqueduct, and elaborate mosaics. The larger town of Tiberias was specifically built as the capital of Galilee. In the light of this evidence, it seems wrong to think of Jesus merely as a illiterate peasant. Sophisticated Graeco-Roman culture would have been, in terms of travel in his time, only a stone's throw away.
  8. Masada and Qumran: Excavation of these two sites demonstrate how the Jewish people reacted with both violence and with peaceful withdrawal to the Roman occupiers of the time of Jesus. The mountain fortress of Masada is famous as the site of resistance in 74CE by Jewish Sicarii to the Roman legions which were putting down the rebellion which began in 66CE. Withdrawal, study, and ritual purity were the marks of the Jewish monastic community at Khirbet Qumran.
  9. Jodefat and Gamla: These two villages in lower Galilee are not mentioned in the gospels. Ironically, this means that they were never built on by later Christians seeking to celebrate some aspect of the life of Jesus. They have provided a most important snapshot of daily Jewish life in the time of Jesus.
  10. Stone Vessels and Ritual Pools: The gospels indicate that ritual purity was important to the the Jews of the time of Jesus. But perhaps because they were written by non-Jews, they don't fully convey the degree of importance which archeology reveals. The prevalence of stone vessels and stepped, plastered pools throughout Palestine tells us that what was largely taken for granted in the gospels loomed far larger in the mind of the ordinary person than had been concluded from the written sources.

Archeological discoveries have proceeded apace since 2001, somewhat hampered by unrest in Palestine. Nevertheless, these are the kind of pictures that can be drawn from hard archeological evidence. The main point is, however, to observe that archaeology as it moves ahead is gradually providing us with a more and more detailed social landscape in which to envision the figure of Jesus. The clearer the landscape, the clearer the person.

There is, however, a paradigm change involved in the switch of perspective which archaeology invites. Its discoveries are not merely useful add-ons to the texts of the Bible. They involve a radical new way of envisioning Jesus.

It is that to understand Jesus we must regard him as fully subject to the same social forces and varieties of circumstance which influence and often dictate the courses of all human lives. For if we don't think about him in these terms, the insights offered by archaeology and related disciplines are ultimately of only passing interest to people of faith as they read the New Testament.
[1] Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, Trinity Press, 2002
[2] Excavating Jesus, SPCK

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