Jesus and Archaeology

REVIEWS - Book Reviews

"Jesus and Archaeology", edited by James H. Charlesworth

Reviewed by Tracy Satterlee

For those of us who sometimes have *no idea what they’re arguing about* in the various fields of Biblical archaeology, this is an excellent sourcebook, even though my own view is that all too frequently they’re arguing all too much about all too little.

At the outset of this collection of the latest work from the various archeological sites in Galilee and Jerusalem, with a smattering of Samaria, the editor complains that New Testament scholars are commonly expected to know Greek and Hebrew, not to mention Coptic, Syriac and Aramaic, but that very few divinity schools wold require them to also understand neutron activation analysis, thermoluminescence dating, AMS C-14 analysis, computer-enhanced image resolution, or the distinguishing of faience from glass.

True enough. The world seems just about evenly divided between those scholars who think “the historical Jesus” is crucial, and those (like Rudolf Bultmann and Karl Barth) who believe it’s mostly beside the point. Obviously this book is intended to make the case for the archeological side of the argument, as it presents lectures at a millennium conference in Jerusalem where many of the researchers came directly from their dig sites in Bethsaida, Capernaum and Nazareth in order to participate.

Charlesworth, who directs the Dead Sea Scrolls Project at Princeton Theological Seminary and has authored over sixty books in his field of New Testament Language and Literature, outlines what he considers the seven “primary” discoveries in recent Jesus research. First among them is the almost certain proof that Jesus was indeed crucified on the white rock located inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and therefore that the church is built on top of Golgotha.

Other important findings of recent years include:

  • The discovery of the remains of a crucified man named Jehohanan, indicating that the crucifixion procedure was indeed as brutal as we think it was.
  • The locating of the Praetorium, the official residence of Pontius Pilate, in the Upper City.
  • The discovery of the location of the Pool of Bethesda, from John 5:2-9, as well as artifacts indicating it was a place of healing.
  • Discoveries showing the extent of the Temple Mount.
  • Discoveries showing where the various walls and gates of Jerusalem were.
  • The first identifications of synagogue buildings that date prior to 70 AD.

But this list shows, I think, what the problem is. There’s nothing here that would change any fundamental understanding of how Jesus was understood, how Christianity developed, or anything else that could be used by the believer–or the unbeliever, for that matter. Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Perhaps all of Biblical archeology is in an infancy stage, and these findings set the stage for more later. But if you’re looking for epiphanies, everything goes downhill from there. Excavations in Nazareth unearth a winepress and a vineyard from Jesus’ time–I’m not clear on the relevance, although many writers make reference to his vineyard parables. I don’t think there was any doubt that vineyards existed, and if he laid eyes on this particular one, what difference would it make?

The archeologists have likewise been active in Cana, or the place they think is Cana. They’ve been trying to locate disciples’ houses in Bethsaida. They’ve been especially intrigued by the Galilean boat found by two brothers near Kibbutz Ginosar. Even though it’s hawked to tourists as “the Jesus Boat,” it has no connection to Jesus or the disciples. It simply dates from Jesus’ time. And the list goes on. Many of the papers in this book are centered on Sepphoris. Sepphoris was extensively excavated in the 1990's, and for obvious reasons–it was a big Roman city with lots of well constructed buildings, unlike most of the rest of Galilee. The only connection to Jesus I’ve seen is speculation about whether Jesus and his father were “builders,” not just carpenters, and so perhaps they worked on the huge construction projects carried out there during his lifetime.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a fascinating book. I’m just trying to figure out where it all fits in. If someone finds, without an iota of doubt, the precise place where Jesus was transfigured–and they’re looking for it, believe me–what will we have gained? If someone locates the Upper Room, what would we have discovered about Jesus, the world, ourselves, or Christianity? About the only thing that might be worth discovering is the remains of Christ, so that the body could be subjected to DNA testing, but even by suggesting that, I’ve committed a heresy, and rightly so, because it’s impossible.

But I’m overstating the case. Here’s one place where I think the archeologists may have contributed to our understanding: In December 2004 the remains of the Siloam Pool were discovered. This is the place where, according to John, Jesus healed a man who had been blind from birth. Jesus spat on the ground, made clay from the dirt, anointed the man’s eyes with it, then told him to go wash himself in the pool of Siloam. Now that they’ve found the pool (in the Jerusalem suburb of Silwan), they know from its configuration–50 yards long, with a water channel from a spring, an esplanade and a paved street leading up to the Temple–that this was a place of ritual purification. Since the blind were not allowed to enter the Temple, Jesus was performing this miracle so that the man could worship in the Temple for the first time in his life. Now *that* brings a whole new dimension to the story. Maybe I should go take a course in thermoluminescence dating after all.

2 1/2 stars

Eerdmans, 2006