Archaeological Evidence for the Life of Jesus
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
In the first two parts of this series, we looked at historical documentation for the life of Jesus (CLICK HERE to read part 1 and CLICK HERE to read part 2).
In this article, we will examine the archaeological evidence that relates to the life of Jesus. Archaeological evidence includes concrete findings from the time Jesus lived including pottery, coins, or other physical findings. Our focus will be on four main subjects: Pontius Pilate, Crucifixion, Nazareth, and the James Ossuary.
The Pilate Stone
In June 1961, an inscription was discovered on an expedition at Caesarea Maritima. This was the administrative capital of Judea during the early first century AD. While excavating a theater, an inscription was found on one of the steps. The inscription was written in Latin on a block that is 82 cm high, 68 cm wide, and 20 cm in thickness.
Some of the letters are missing, but a rough transcription is listed below (letters in brackets are either most likely or certainly part of the inscription).
The confirmed translation of the text is “Tiberius, Pontius Pilatus, Praefectus of Judea” (there was no J in Latin). The letter E is the only letter legible on the last line. Some historians and archeologists think it is proper that the word DEDICAVIT, meaning dedicated, would have been included in the original inscription. This word implies that Pilate dedicated the building to Tiberius.
The finding confirms the official title of Pontius Pilate as Prefect. This means that he was mainly a military magistrate. In our first article on the historical evidence for Jesus, we examined Tacitus’ account of Pilate where he used the term “proconsul.” This term was an anachronism on Tacitus’ part; it was not used until the reign of Claudius (about 44 AD). Tacitus simply used the term that was common in his day rather than the older term Prefect. A picture of the Pilate Stone is found below:
Other findings confirm Pontius Pilate’s name, including coins made during this time and the famous ‘Pilato Ring’. To read more about these findings, download our free booklet: “How Do We Know Jesus Lived?”
In the historical accounts discussed in the last two articles, we learned that Jesus was put to death through a form of execution called crucifixion. This cruel punishment existed for approximately 1,000 years before the time of Christ, so it was already in use by the first century. It was practiced by the Persians and even the Greeks. The Romans utilized it as well. Ancient literature provides many examples of how this method of punishment was carried out. This includes such as they fact that they mostly took place outside of a city.
Until modern times, no archaeological evidence had been found providing specific concrete examples of this execution method. This cannot be surprising since most people who were crucified were criminals or enemies of the state. This means they were buried in the graves of the infamous or poor, which were often in the ground.
In fact, to call for someone to be crucified may have been a common form of cursing. An inscription from the time of Pompeii reads: “May you be nailed to the cross!” Other ancient writings attest to this usage.
In 1968, Vassilios Tzaferis was exploring burial chambers not far from Jerusalem. In the burial chamber were ossuaries (a small box containing the bones of a deceased person). This was a practice typically used by prominent people due to its cost. In Jerusalem they found the remains of a man whose heel had a 4.5 inch iron nail driven through it. A small piece of wood was still attached to the nail. In the 1980s, Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles resumed examination of this finding and provided clarification to it.
The site dates to the first century before the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD). This means the man was crucified at a time remarkably close to Jesus’ time. Further analysis brought forth a fuller picture of how he was crucified. The arms of this particular man were tied to the cross rather than nailed to them. The right heel was nailed to the right side of the cross and the left heel nailed to the left side.
The name of the man was also inscribed on the ossuary: “Yehohanan, the son of Hagakol.” Most people who were crucified would not have been wealthy enough to afford an ossuary. On another ossuary in the same chamber, we learn that one of his family members worked on Herod’s Temple. This family may have been well known in their time.
This revolutionary finding is evidence to help us understand more about the practice of crucifixion among the Romans in the first century AD. Another source of information on this punishment is found among graffiti depicting someone being crucified. We have two examples from this time.
One is called the Alexamenos graffito. It was found on a wall in Rome. It depicts the backside of a crucified person with the head of a donkey. The cross was a capital T shape. The inscription on it reads “Alexamenos worships god.” Of course, the inscription was intended to mock Alexamenos. The dating ranges from between the late first century and mid-third century. The Romans typically thought of the Jewish people and some early Christians as worshipping the head of a donkey (see Josephus, Against Appion, 2.7-8; Tacitus, The Histories, 5.4-5; Tertullian, Apology, 16 and Against the Nations, 1.11, 1.14). This archaeological finding connects historical accounts of the death of Jesus and common Roman thought about Jews and Christians.
A second graffito finding was discovered in Puteoli (Pozzuli), Italy and likely dates to the second century. It shows the backside of a person being crucified. The back of the person has marks on it, which signify the flogging that he took before being put on the cross. Both heels are nailed into the cross in a similar manner to Yehohanan (discussed above). The cross is also a capital T shape.
These examples provide us with more details involved with Jesus’ crucifixion and corroborates with the New Testament account that he was flogged first (Matthew 27:26, Mark 15:15, Luke 23:22, John 19:1).
In the New Testament, Nazareth is mentioned about 29 times. It is described where Jesus was brought up (Luke 4:16). It must have been a humble little town because some people questioned whether anyone like Jesus could come from such a place (John 1:45-46). Major archaeological breakthroughs have occurred in this small town within the last fifteen years.
In 2009, a first-century courtyard house was discovered by archaeologist Yardenna Alexandre. The initial digs included water sources and burial sites. At that time, archaeologists estimated that about fifty houses or so were in this small village in the first century.
Ken Dark, who has worked the site since 2006, found another first century AD courtyard house near Yardenna’s discovery. In 2020, he released a book with his findings entitled The Sisters of Nazareth-Convent: A Roman-period, Byzantine, and Crusader Site in central Nazareth.
Today, the Sisters of Nazareth Convent is situated in central Nazareth. It was built on top of a Byzantine-era church that dates to about the fifth century AD. A separate cave church was discovered under that church, which dates to the prior century. Near this cave church was found a courtyard house of the first century which was very similar to the one Yardenna found.
The Byzantines were known for building churches near important religious sites. What is fascinating and particularly different about this situation is that the Byzantines only built churches over two houses. This house in Nazareth is one and the other house is believed to have belonged to the Apostle Peter.
This courtyard house was carved out of rock and the work had to be done by someone who was skilled at stone working. Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father, is described as a carpenter. However, the Greek word is tekton (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). In ancient times, it referred to a person skilled in several areas including stone working. A Jewish burial site was found nearby, but it was separated from the house by some quarrying. This means that the house was abandoned or in disuse by the time the burial site was utilized. Jewish people do not inhabit areas this close to burial sites.
Limestone vessels were used, which indicate that it was once inhabited by Jewish people. Other indications, such as cooking pottery, also reflect its former occupation. No pottery from before the early Roman period or after it was found. This indicates that it was not occupied after this time and it was well preserved by those who built on top of the site. Some of the original flooring has survived as well.
The pottery and other findings do not reflect Roman cultural influence in Nazareth. The city of Sepphoris, which is about five miles away, was an administrative center in the Roman period. Communities nearer to Sepphoris embraced Roman culture, which is evident from the findings there.
According to Dark, this particular courtyard house was inhabited starting in the late BC or early first century AD time period. This is consistent with the New Testament accounts of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus dwelling in Nazareth after a time of living in Egypt (Matthew 2:19-23). The findings of Nazareth reflect the simple Jewish life that we would expect from the background of Jesus.
Dark’s findings confirm the occupation of the city by Jewish inhabitants during the time of Jesus. Specifically, the house he found was either the early home of Jesus or a home Jesus would have been familiar with during life.
The James Ossuary
The last archaeological finding we will examine in this article is the James Ossuary. In 2002, an ossuary was released to the public with the Aramaic inscription “Ya‘aqob son of Yosef brother of Yeshua” or “James, Son of Joseph, Brother of Jesus.” It was acclaimed at the time as one of the most important archaeological discoveries in history. It was not without controversy.
Not long after the discovery was displayed to the public, the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, was accused of forging at least some of this inscription. After a trial of seven years, which involved over 100 witnesses and 12,000 pages of testimony, Oded was found not guilty of forgery.
Not only was he found not guilty, but the trial resulted in experts verifying the authenticity of the object! This included the inscription, which was verified by world-renowned paleographers André Lemaire and Ada Yardeni. A paleographer is someone who examines inscriptions for their authenticity. To date, no paleographer has presented evidence against its’ authenticity. A picture of the ossuary is located below:
Subsequent studies, such as that by Rosenfeld, Feldman, Krumbein found that the mineral content of the ossuary (including the inscription) are authentic (see Bibliography for full reference on this study). The ossuary dates to the first century AD before the destruction of the Temple (which occurred in 70 AD).
Is it the Ossuary for the brother of Jesus?
What are the chances that an inscription which reads “Jacob, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” could belong to more than one person? First of all, we must understand that ossuaries typically did not list any other family members other than the father of the deceased. So, the finding is extremely rare. To date, only one other ossuary has been found which mentioned another family member. This indicates the brother of James was an important person. Was it Jesus?
In 2005, Camil Fuchs released a study which analyzed the statistical chances of how many people in first century (pre-70 AD) Jerusalem could have been named Jacob with a father named Joseph and brother named Jesus. He found to a 95% statistical probability that there were 1.71 males that fit such a description in first century Jerusalem. Josephus mentioned James, that Jesus was his brother, and that he was put to death by the Jewish authorities in about 62 AD. We have an excerpt below:
“…as Festus was not dead, and Albinus was still on the road, so he assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others, and having accused them as breakers of the law, he delivered them over to be stoned” (Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9).
Once we compare the location of the ossuary, its age, the rarity of mentioning the brother of the deceased, and the statistical chances of how many people named Jacob had a father named Joseph and brother named Jesus, it appears most likely to belong to the Biblical James.
As we consider the archaeological and historical evidence for the life of Jesus, it becomes very clear that He is indeed an authentic person. The evidence we have reviewed in the last few weeks confirms much of the New Testament record.
Next week, we will look at whether or not we can trust the New Testament record.
To read more about this subject, download our free booklet: “How Do We Know Jesus Really Lived?”
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Blondy, Brian. “Archeologists uncover house in Nazareth dating to time of Jesus.” Jerusalem Post, 22 December 2009, https://www.jpost.com/israel/archeologists-uncover-house-in-nazareth-dating-to-time-of-jesus. Accessed. 24 March 2021.
Chadwick, Jonathan. “Is this the childhood home of Jesus Christ? British archaeologist excavates domestic dwelling under ruins of the Sisters of Nazareth Convent.” UK Daily Mail, 23 November 2020. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-8977437/British-researcher-details-childhood-home-Jesus-Christ.html. Accessed March 23, 2021.
Dark, Ken. “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41.2 (2015): 54–63.
Josephus. Antiquities of the Jews, 20.9. Whiston’s Translation revised by Rev. A.R. Shilleto, Vol. 3, London: George Bell and Sons, York Street, 1889. p 405.
Shanks, Hershel. “Scholars’ Corner: New Analysis of the Crucified Man,” Biblical Archaeology Review 11.6 (1985): 20–21.
Shanks, Hershel. “‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription Is Authentic!” Biblical Archaeology Review 38.4 (2012): 26–33, 62–64.
Shanks, Hershel. “Predilections—Is the ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription a Forgery?” Biblical Archaeology Review 41.5 (2015): 54–58.
Rosenfeld, Amnon, Howard R. Feldma and Wolfgang E. Krumbein. “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary.” Open Journal of Geology, 2014, 4, 69-78. http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojg; http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojg.2014.43007. Last Accessed on 29 March, 2021. (CLICK HERE to view the document)
Shisley, Steven. “Jesus and the Cross.” Biblical Archaeology Review. 17 January 2021. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/crucifixion/jesus-and-the-cross/. Accessed 24 March 2021.
Tzaferis, Vassilios. “Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review 11.1 (1985): 44–53.
Vardaman, Jerry. “A New Inscription Which Mentions Pilate as ‘Prefect.’” Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. 81, No. 1 (Mar., 1962), pp. 70-71.
Witherington, Ben. “Biblical Views: Images of Crucifixion: Fresh Evidence,” Biblical Archaeology Review 39.2 (2013): 28, 66–67.
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