The Historical Jesus in Context

By Amy-Jill Levine; Dale Allison Jr. et al. | Go to book overview

1
Archaeological Contributions to the Study
of Jesus and the Gospels

Jonathan L. Reed

Archaeology's contributions to the study of the Gospels and the historical Jesus cannot be overestimated. At the same time, it is difficult to overcome the caricature of biblical archaeologists seeking relics or sinking their spades in the ground to find sites listed in the Bible or artifacts mentioned in the New Testament. They have been caricatured at worst as Indiana Jones–like relic hunters chasing down objects like the Holy Grail or scanning the (illegal and immoral) antiquities markets and turning up forgeries like the bone box inscribed with “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Or, at best, they are seen as having a myopic preoccupation with finds like Saint Peter's House, the Jesus Boat, the Pilate Inscription, or the Caiaphas Ossuary.

Even though these latter discoveries are of importance for studying Jesus and the Gospels, modern-day archaeologists do not go into the field to locate where Jesus walked or find what he might have touched; instead, they conduct scientifically rigorous excavations and analyze patterns among sites and artifacts that can be used to reconstruct the world in which Jesus and the Gospels existed. Hence archaeology makes its contribution by helping assess where Jesus walked and why the Gospels depict him as they did, as it sketches their world from the available archaeological evidence. This body of evidence is ever-growing as excavations continue, and as we will see, it includes sites and artifacts never mentioned in the New Testament but which are nevertheless important for understanding their world.

Archaeological evidence is particularly valuable for two reasons. First, it is independent from the literary texts typically used to reconstruct the historical Jesus or the world of the Gospels. Those texts often have a deeply religious bias, are mostly written much later than the events they describe, and are usually written by upper-class males. In contrast, archaeology is in a sense more democratic: it uncovers the stuff of everyday life from all classes and groups. Archaeologists deal with quotidian paraphernalia, with items that have been unintentionally pre

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