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
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. 
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
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
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
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 :
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
 Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, Trinity
 Excavating Jesus, SPCK