Jesus and Archaeology

By Magness, Jodi | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 2007 | Go to article overview

Jesus and Archaeology


Magness, Jodi, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Jesus and Archaeology. Edited by JAMES H. CHARLESWORTH. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. EERDMANS PUBLISHING Co., 2006. Pp. xxv + 740, illus. $50 (paper).

This volume contains thirty papers presented at a millennium conference in Jerusalem that was organized by Charlesworth (who contributes one paper, a preface, and a conclusion). The title high-lights Charlesworth's interest in demonstrating how "archaeological discoveries can help us reconstruct and understand the life and teachings of Jesus" (p. xxiv). Among these discoveries, Charlesworth lists ancient synagogue buildings dating to the first century C.E., remains in the area of Jerusalem's Temple Mount, and the sites of Nazareth, Cana, Bethsaida, Capernaum, and Sepphoris.

In an introductory essay on "What is Biblical Archaeology?" Avraham Biran states that: "Biblical archaeology may then be defined as archaeology of Bible lands in general and the Holy Land in particular" (p. 2). However, geography alone does not define Biblical archaeology, since this field excludes pre- and post-biblical period remains (such as those from the prehistoric and Islamic periods). Furthermore, Biblical archaeology in Palestine focuses not on the Bible in the Christian sense of the word (which includes the New Testament), but on periods associated with the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (that is, the Bronze and Iron Ages). In fact, although Biran pays lip service to New Testament period remains, all of the examples he uses to illustrate the intersection of Bible and archaeology come from his own excavation at Tel Dan. Biran provides a good introduction to traditional Biblical archaeology, but it has little to do with the papers in the rest of this volume.

Since it is impossible to do justice to all of the contributions in this volume in a brief review, I highlight a selection of papers. In "Archaeology and the Historical Jesus," Sean Freyne provides a useful review of the history of the field. He notes that the rise of interest in the historical Jesus in the second half of the twentieth century and the establishment of the Jesus Seminar in the early 1980s did not lead to a corresponding awareness of archaeology among historians of Jesus. Instead, interest in archaeology has been limited to a relatively small number of scholars, including John Dominic Crossan and Richard Horsley, whose views Freyne contrasts and evaluates. Freyne believes that archaeology is important for understanding the historical Jesus, but cautions that "[a]t best it [archaeology] can only provide indirect evidence of the way things were with the Galileans whom Jesus encountered, thus adding one more hermeneutical step to be taken by students of the historical Jesus" (pp. 74-75).

In "Recovering Jesus' Mamzerut," Bruce Chilton draws on the Gospels, the Hebrew Bible, and rabbinic literature to suggest that some people accused Jesus of being born of fornication (porneia; John 8:41) because Mary had become pregnant without clearly (or openly) having lived with Joseph. Chilton also cautions that the Gospels cannot be read "stratigraphically" like an archaeological tell, and reminds us that there is no "primitive," "historical," or "authentic" text about Jesus.

Henry Rietz contributes "Reflections on Jesus' Eschatology in Light of Qumran." He notes that the terms "eschatological" and "apocalyptic" are often used in an imprecise manner to describe the Qumran community and the historical Jesus (and his movement). Instead, Rietz proposes using the concept of time to understand the outlook of these groups. He concludes that although Jesus seems to display a cosmic dualism similar to that at Qumran, the cosmology of these two groups did not promote an otherworldly escapism but provided the context in which human actions and events came under divine scrutiny.

John Kloppenborg considers "The Theodotos Synagogue Inscription and the Problem of First Century C. …

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