Places in the Gospels and Archaeology

Max Baker-Hytch and I have recently been working on some research on the reliability of the New Testament and I thought I’d share a little preview before we release a bit more (hopefully) soon. This sneak peek is about places in the gospels and how archaeology has helped to confirm what the authors of the gospels (in this case especially John) say about these places, in turn confirming their reliability. The places in this article are just a sample, but they are all places that are open to tourists, so all photos were taken by me on trips to Israel.

Introduction

In this article we will look primarily at the Gospel of John. John is an interesting case because, historically, scholars have been far more sceptical of the historical reliability of John than they have of the synoptic gospels. Even now, there is a preference for the synoptics over John when reconstructing Jesus’ life. This is partly because John is widely held to have been written last, and partly because John is so different from the other gospels, in particular having a very high view of Jesus that is expressed in grandiose spiritual terms. The assumption here is that such a view of Jesus and such a ‘developed’ theology must result from an author writing at a late stage and with little regard for history. It was also thought, in the past, that the themes John describes show that John is heavily influenced by Graeco-Roman themes. But in fact, this view of John has been overturned in the last few decades, for 2 main reasons. Firstly, the Dead Sea Scrolls, a set of Jewish documents from the first couple of centuries BC and AD, have shown striking similarities with John’s themes and terminology at many points, showing scholars that John’s background fits perfectly well with Jewish thought of the time, and not Hellenistic thought. Secondly, archaeology has served to show that many places and ideas in John which were previously thought to be symbolic are firmly rooted in reality. Nevertheless, most scholars remain more sceptical of John than the synoptics. But then if the places in John are depicted accurately, how much more so in the other gospels? In this article we look at places mentioned in John and examine how they correspond with reality. We are indebted primarily to two main sources (with contributions from others) here: the chapters of James Charlesworth and Urban von Wahlde from Charlesworth’s edited volume, ‘Jesus and Archaeology’. The volume is well worth reading, but especially these two chapters.

Bethesda

bethesda

Part of the Southern half of the Pool of Bethesda. On the right is the ‘fifth wall’, explaining the five porticoes in John

John 5:2 “Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed.”

In 1903, before archaeology showed otherwise, scholar Alfred Loisy claimed that “The pool was a symbol of Judaism, and the five porticoes an allusion to the five books of the law.” The name Bethesda, meaning ‘House of Mercy’, was taken to be symbolic too.

Fortunately, archaeology has shown this to be simply false, or at least that it was a real place, just as John described it. In 1956 archaeologists found the pool of Bethesda where 1st century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus described it, just north of the Temple Mount and near the Sheep Gate. And although most similar pools at the time would have had 4 porticoes (one for each wall), this pool actually turned out to be two pools with a dividing wall in the middle – and hence would include a fifth portico – just as John says! And the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown that the pool was more fully known as ‘Bet ‘Eshdatayin’, meaning ‘place of twin outpourings’, in reference to the pool having two basins. Archaeologists have suggested that water was only let into the southern pool at certain times, explaining the intermittent churning mentioned in John.  And even more interestingly, pools dating to the next few centuries just next to the Pool of Bethesda appear to have been dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine – which would fit Bethesda being known as a pool specifically for healing. So what archaeology shows matches up exactly with what John says, even on unusual details that he never could have guessed by chance.

Capernaum

All the gospel authors claim that Jesus did various things in Capernaum: healing a centurion’s servant, debating with tax-collectors, preaching in the synagogue, and so on.

capernaum synagogue

The 4th century Byzantine synagogue at Capernaum

This matches surprisingly well with what we have found in Capernaum. We have strong evidence of a Roman presence in Capernaum (which was not the norm for smaller towns in Galilee) in the form of 1st century Roman coins and a Roman bathhouse from the 2nd or 3rd century, underneath which is probably a 1st century Roman bathhouse. Visible today are the remains of a 4th century synagogue, but again, archaeologists excavating a small section carefully have found what is very likely to be a 1st century synagogue underneath – despite scholars in the past denying that such things existed in Galilee (we have found other pre-70 synagogues in Galilee now, too)! We also have the remains of a large harbour to which Jesus would have sailed when crossing the Sea of Galilee.

peters house at capernaum

St Peter’s house at Capernaum

What is most remarkable, however, is that we have found what is likely to be the house of Simon Peter at which Jesus stayed when he was in Capernaum, and where he healed Simon Peter’s mother in law. Archaeologists say that the house was initially built in the 1st century BC and had nothing unusual about it to separate it from the other houses. But yet after the 1st century AD it has a remarkably complex history of construction, being converted into a house church in the first few centuries and then, in the mid 5th century, being replaced entirely (though preserved underneath) by an octagonal church or basilica, which were used in the late Roman and early Byzantine period to commemorate important Christian places based on events in the life of Jesus. This basilica is mentioned in various pilgrim accounts and it is likely that the basilica now uncovered is the same basilica mentioned. But it is referred to specifically as commemorating Simon Peter’s house, and excavations have confirmed this impression. For an earlier pilgrim account in the 4th century, due to Egeria, says that Simon Peter’s house was a house church, and excavating beneath the octagonal basilica does indeed show a house that had been renovated several times so as to allow communal gatherings. Graffiti from the Roman period shows that it was specifically a church, since there were graffiti in many languages calling Jesus ‘Lord’ and ‘Christ’, with Christian symbols like crosses and boats. Some archaeologists have even suggested that we have early graffiti mentioning Peter and his connection with Rome, though these are heavily disputed and the inscriptions are barely legible.

What is most interesting is the early date at which a house church can be established. Surprisingly, there is evidence, certainly from the 1st century AD but plausibly from the mid 1st century specifically, that it was converted into a house church even by this stage. At this time, the walls, floors and ceiling were plastered, which is extremely unusual – unique, in fact – for houses in 1st century Capernaum. Typically in this period, relatively modest houses were only plastered if they were particularly important and to be used for regular larger gatherings. And yet the large room in this house was plastered very early on, in the 1st century, and then several times afterwards. Even more curiously, at around the same time, the wares found in the house changed from a wide variety of domestic and culinary items to exclusively storage jars and oil lamps, suggesting that it been converted from a normal domestic dwelling to, probably, a room with religious significance. All in all, the evidence is significant and extraordinarily early, and suggests that this is indeed Peter’s house. That this is so is no rogue conservative view: top John scholar Urban von Wahlde says that ‘almost all scholars now espouse this view’.

Two further details fit neatly with the Biblical data: the excavators reported that the walls were sufficiently thin and fragile that they couldn’t support any roof other than a simple thatched roof of tree leaves, earth, straw, and so on. But this makes clear how the four men were able to lower their paralysed friend through the roof of the house in Mark 2. And, finally, when uncovering the various layers of the floor in the house, excavators found a number of fishing hooks. While this doesn’t prove that the owners of the house were fishermen, it certainly fits nicely with the gospel authors claiming that Peter had a fishing business.

Nazareth

nazareth tomb

A first century tomb in Nazareth, with ‘kokhim’ (one visible at the back) and a rolling stone

It is common in some circles (though hard to find scholars agreeing) to hear that Nazareth didn’t exist at the time of Jesus. But again, archaeology has shown this to be simply false. What is interesting is that the excavations at Nazareth have only begun properly in the last 15 years – which explains why the evidence was slender until now! But since then, archaeologists have been clear: we have houses from the 1st century in Nazareth. What’s more, although nearby towns had significant Roman influence, Nazareth appears to have been thoroughly Jewish at the time. This much is not in doubt.

What has also been found near the first century site are winepresses, and a vineyard with walls and towers. This gives insight into Jesus’ parable of the vineyard and the tenants, where a wall and tower is mentioned in connection with the vineyard, despite this previously seeming unusual.

Pool of Siloam

byzantine pool of siloam

The later, Byzantine Pool of Siloam, at the end of Hezekiah’s Tunnel

“Go, wash in the pool of Siloam (which means Sent)” John 9:7

Again, without the help of archaeology, it would be easy to suggest that this pool was symbolic. After all, it’s name (‘Sent’) is exactly what Jesus did to the blind man! It is a bit trickier in this case, however, as the pool is also mentioned in the Old Testament (with slightly different names: the Pool of Shiloah, the Lower Pool, the King’s Pool…), although it was later rebuilt (perhaps in a slightly different place) by Jesus’ time. And just in 2004, the Pool was found, 70 yards south of the end of Hezekiah’s tunnel. Excavation and restoration is ongoing.[1]

Golgotha

Perhaps most remarkably of all, there is a good chance we have preserved the places of Jesus’ death and burial themselves. What is the evidence for this? Recall what John says:

“So they took Jesus; and carrying the cross by himself, he went out to what is called The Place of the Skull, which in Hebrew is called Golgotha. There they crucified him… the place where Jesus was crucified was near the city… Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” John 19:17-18, 20, 41-42

That the Christians would remember these sites is intrinsically likely to begin with: they were the central sites in Christianity and all the evidence suggests that it was especially likely they would, and did, remember the site of Jesus’ burial in order to perform secondary burial (reburying the bones later). But there is also strong evidence that this is, in fact, the place that Jesus died and, especially, was buried.

church of holy sepulchre

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre

We start with recent developments. Both possible sites are now located within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. They were apparently identified in the reign of Constantine, but given Jerusalem’s turbulent history, some scholars doubted that the current church is the same place identified and enshrined by the Romans in 326 AD. But, just in 2017, evidence turned up showing exactly that. The tomb was opened for the first time in centuries, and archaeologists found a marble slab on top with a cross inscribed on it. Samples taken from the slab dated to the mid 4th century itself. Around this time, the Romans were told that the tomb lay under a temple built by Hadrian in the early 2nd century – an easy marker taking the date back to within a generation of eyewitnesses of Jesus’ life. And the story is plausible itself – by then, we know that Christianity was a major problem for the Roman Empire (see other chapter), and that Hadrian, having finally crushed the Jewish revolt and banished Jews from Jerusalem, built pagan temples over important religious sites: hence the temple he also built in place of the Jewish Temple. Indeed, we have found evidence of Hadrian’s temple at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, showing that his architecture here mimicked Herod’s Temple architecture, further testifying to the important religious nature of the site.[2] And given that Christians were present in Jerusalem the whole time, there is no reason why they wouldn’t have kept a clear track of where Jesus was crucified and buried (and the small time gap between older eyewitnesses of Jesus at the end of the first century to the time of Hadrian makes this particularly plausible).

But there is more evidence. In the 19th century many Protestants doubted the authenticity of the traditional site because it was inside the city walls, yet there are independent sources in the gospels claiming that Jesus was crucified outside the city walls. So that tradition seems solid. And the Church is known to have been inside the city walls since at least the early 40s AD, when Agrippa I built a wall, remains of which have now been found to the west of the Church. So if there wasn’t a strong and certain tradition that the crucifixion and burial really were where the Church now lies, this is an extremely unlikely and odd choice. But what we know from Josephus is that the walls at the time were different, so that the Church now lies just outside where the walls would have been, and near the ‘Garden Gate’ mentioned by Josephus – the perfect place for a Roman crucifixion, outside the gates of a city.

Jerusalem has a long history of naming gates in its walls after things outside the city – a tradition seen still today with the Jaffa and Damascus Gates. And so Josephus’ placement of the Garden Gate (which may also have been found) near this site provides good evidence that there was a garden in the vicinity, just as John describes. But there is actually archaeological evidence for this on top: archaeologists working at the site have found evidence of a plowed garden or fields with arable soil, dating again to the first century AD.

Going deeper still, it is widely accepted that underneath the garden and for a considerable distance nearby, there was a quarry, with evidence of carving from them. This would fit the custom of constructing tombs in areas that had previously been quarried, until the first century BC.

1st c tomb at golgotha

The 1st century ‘kokhim’ tombs in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, metres away from Jesus’ supposed tomb

But the most impressive evidence is that we have multiple lines of evidence proving beyond reasonable doubt that this was a first century Jewish cemetery. In the first place, Josephus himself says that there were tombs nearby. But, more impressively still, we have found a number of these tombs in the vicinity, all dating to the first century AD. Some of these can even be visited within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At one tomb, there was found a groove for the kind of rolling stone that the gospels describe, observed in situ elsewhere. But most tombs in the vicinity were ‘kokhim’, which were narrow shafts on the ground which a coffin or ossuary could be put in. Only one was an ‘arcosolium’, which was a raised bench with an arch over it. But since the gospels give a number of hints that Jesus was buried in an arcosolium, the fact that the one arcosolium found in the vicinity is the one revered as Jesus’ tomb is striking confirmation.

The site of the crucifixion is not so easy to determine, but it is again plausible that the site in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is indeed where Jesus was crucified. Again, it is an area now within the city but not at the time, and surveys of the area suggest that the rock still there today was significantly higher than the surrounding area, perhaps with a smooth surface, clearly explaining a) its choice by the Romans, and b) how people could view it from a distance, as the gospels describe. The gospels likewise say that the tomb was near Golgotha. In reality the sites in the Church are close together, but sufficiently far that there was at least some journey from the crucifixion to the tomb. Hence Charlesworth’s verdict that there is a ‘consensus among archaeologists that Jesus was possibly, and perhaps probably, crucified on this white stone’.

Finally, some speculative (though by no means unreasonable) evidence. Archaeologists working in the church have uncovered some graffiti from the 2nd century, consisting of a boat with a Latin inscription reading, ‘DOMINE IVIMUS’: ‘Lord, we have gone’. There is considerable scholarly debate about whether this is a pagan or Christian pilgrim inscription, but the evidence for the latter is not easy to dismiss. It might well allude to Psalm 122, well known as the Psalm of pilgrimage, which in Latin reads ‘DOMINE IBIMUS’: Lord, we will go. Writing ‘Lord, we have gone’ at the most venerated site in Christianity would make perfect sense, and the boat was a well-known Christian symbol at the time. If this interpretation is correct (though this is by no means certain), we have even earlier evidence, dating to the Hadrianic temple itself, that the site was remembered as the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.

What is important to bear in mind is just how unlikely this site would be chosen by chance. The site would have been guessed by Christians in the time of Constantine, two and a half centuries after Jerusalem was completely destroyed by the Romans, and two centuries after Hadrian levelled the area completely (again) and built his temple. There was no way of guessing that the site happened to be a 1st century Jewish cemetery from rock-hewn tombs, with a garden, that was outside the city walls near the Praetorium at the time. If they were guessing, they would have guessed somewhere outside of Jerusalem as they knew it. But that is exactly what they didn’t do. Why? Because they had a strong and certain tradition that Jesus was crucified and buried where Hadrian’s temple lay. And archaeology confirms that tradition as well as it possibly could. That this site was preserved and remembered so impressively should lend further support to the conservatism of the Christian tradition.

Summary

These are just a few of the sites in the gospels which have been found through archaeological research, and there is far more that could be said about all the others. Most of the places mentioned in John – widely thought to be the least reliable gospel – have been shown to fit very neatly with what John says about them, often in ways that he only could have known about if he was an eyewitness or had a reliable tradition. But if he was an eyewitness or had a reliable tradition, we can have more confidence that he reported Jesus’ words and actions accurately – and even more so confidence in the other gospels! What some of the histories of these sites also show is the remarkable conservatism of the Christian tradition – managing to record and preserve the same places from the very beginning of the Christian tradition for many, many centuries. So even though this is just a very brief picture of some of the places, and much more could be said about the places in the gospels as well as many other features confirming their reliability, hopefully this brief article will do a small bit to show just how historically reliable the gospels are.

Footnotes

[1] Visitors to Jerusalem may be confused, since the Pool of Siloam at the end of Hezekiah’s tunnel has been a tourist attraction for many years. But that pool is from the Byzantine period and, although it is no doubted related to and based on the Pool of Siloam, the remains of the earlier structure are only visible 70 yards further south.

[2] Interestingly, the circular nature of the Rotunda in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre may be further evidence of the Hadrianic structure, since Roman temples were frequently circular. For an obvious example, consider the Pantheon in Rome, finished under Hadrian himself.

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