Excavating Jesus: An Interview with Jonathan L. Reed

By Spalding, John | The Christian Century, July 29, 2008 | Go to article overview

Excavating Jesus: An Interview with Jonathan L. Reed


Spalding, John, The Christian Century


UNLESS WE UNDERSTAND something of life in the first century, says archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed, we have "no chance of understanding Jesus or Paul, Peter or Mary." Archaeological finds provide "an intimate glimpse into the past," he writes, and they help us "imagine the lives of people who were once real, not just names in a book."

A professor of New Testament at the University of La Verne in California, Reed started excavating at sites in Galilee more than 20 years ago. He is a member of the research council at Claremont Graduate University's Institute for Antiquity and Christianity and is the author of Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus. He has coauthored two books with John Dominic Crossan--Excavating Jesus and In Search of Paul. His latest book is The HarperCollins Visual Guide to the New Testament.

What can archaeology tell us about the New Testament and Jesus, and what can't it tell us?

Archaeology doesn't confirm or deny any of the Bible's spiritual, moral or religious claims. It's not an arbiter of faith. It puts the events and stories of the New Testament into a much richer and deeper context. It cuts through 2,000 years of history and thousands of miles of geography and helps us to understand the words and deeds of Jesus more as his contemporaries would have--which is often quite different from what we take them to mean in 21st-century America.

No archaeological evidence of Jesus' first-century followers has ever been found. What does that tell us?

Most of Jesus' early followers were lower-class people who were considered unimportant by the political and literary elite. Christians flew under the radar, staying under the surface until the end of the second century, when they emerged as people with a visual and a literary culture.

It also suggests that most of Jesus' earliest followers were Jewish and didn't use images. So even if they believed in Jesus as the Messiah, they wouldn't represent that belief in a pictorial way recognizable to us. When we examine a first-century synagogue today, we can't tell if it's a place that Jesus' followers would have attended or not.

You note that according to the archaeological record, the cross didn't appear as a Christian symbol until the fifth century.

The earliest representation of a cross is actually from the second century. It was created by a pagan making fun of Christians! We're pretty sure that over the first few centuries of the Christian era the cross conveyed a sense of shame. For instance, Paul talks about it as a stumbling block for Jews and as foolishness to Greeks. It was a long time before Christians started wearing it around their necks.

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Was the cross a source of shame simply because it was a reminder that the Messiah had died?

Not just that he died, but that he represented subversion and insurrection against Roman power. Even if you bought into the message, and thought of yourself as being subversive of the Roman Empire--as most Christians believed they were--that's not something you advertised. Why invite further persecution?

Some of the most significant archaeological discoveries related to the New Testament have been made within the past 30 or 40 years. How much of that is due to Middle Eastern politics?

The number one reason for these discoveries is the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. And the 1967 war made archaeology possible in parts of Jerusalem where it wasn't possible before. A generation of Jews who are curious about their heritage are excavating sites relevant to the history of Judaism. People interested in Jesus and his earliest Jewish followers are piggybacking on their work.

How would you describe current investigations against the broader history of archaeology in the Holy Land?

In the past, biblical archaeologists, if I may use that term, were trained mostly in the Bible and biblical languages, and they went to the Holy Land to try to find sites and artifacts that would prove scripture to be accurate. …

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