Things I’m Asked: Is there archaeological evidence for Jesus?

When the militant atheist, Christopher Hitchens, was alive, he made the audacious claim that the authenticity of the gospels has been shown to be “in tatters for some time, and the rents and tears only become more obvious with better research”. [i] In reality, this comment is so manifestly outrageous as to beggar belief. Here’s why:

Galilee synagogues

For many years, contemporary scholars were troubled by a lack of synagogues. Prior to 2008, no archaeological evidence for any synagogue existing in Jesus’ time could be found in the region of Galilee. As the gospels mention that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues” (Mt 4:23), this was a bit of an embarrassment.

Some scholars concluded that the claim that Jesus preached in the synagogues of Galilee was an invention of the gospel writers. But then, in 2009, archaeologists discovered the remains of a pre-AD 70 synagogue in the Galilean town of Magdala (the town where Mary Magdalene came from). Later that year, they found another at Khirbet Wadi Hamam… and in 2016, yet another at Tel Rekhesh, near Mount Tabor.

These archaeological findings suggest that the gospel writers knew a great deal more than our modern scholars!

Jehohanan

Some historians attack the historical likelihood of Jesus’ being buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. They said that no person defiled by crucifixion would ever be put into a family tomb.

Then, in 1968, building contractors working in northeast Jerusalem uncovered a family grave. It contained an ossuary box, (a stone box containing the bones of someone who had died). The ossuary box had a Hebrew inscription on it saying that the bones were those of Jehohanan the son of Hagkol. Jehohanan had been crucified some time in the first century and his lower leg fractured – just like those of the two rebels who were crucified either side of Jesus. The end of the nail that had pierced Jehohanan’s heel was bent, making it extremely difficult to withdraw, so it had remained imbedded in the bone.

So it seems that a crucified person could be buried in a family grave after all.

The pool of Bethesda

Liberal theologians (who cast doubt on a lot of biblical historicity) have claimed that the gospel of John contains fictitious accounts written to embellish the Jesus story. They used to cite the account of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda as one such example (John 5:1-9), as there was no archaeological evidence of such a pool existing.

And then…yes, you’ve guessed it…archaeologists working in the grounds of St. Anne’s church, just north of the temple mount, confirmed the existence of an extensive pool complex that comprised the pools of Bethesda. Archaeologists had been working in the area for many decades, but it was only in 1964 that their excavations confirmed their existence.

John’s gospel describes the pool in some detail. He speaks of the existence of five covered colonnades. These have all been found. One of the reasons excavations took so long to discover them was that so many buildings had been built over the top of the pools during the ages, including a pagan temple and a large Byzantine church.

Alexander, son of Simon

I’ve reserved the next archaeological find for last, as I find it particularly exciting. In 1941, the Hebrew University professor, Eleazer Sukenick, and his assistant Nahman Avigad, were excavating the tombs of the Kidron Valley that runs along the eastern edge of the temple mount. They discovered a tomb that had been blocked by a large closing stone. When they entered the tomb, they found eleven ossuary boxes containing bones. The professor documented his findings, and the artefacts were stored away.

For some reason, the findings of the professor were not made public until 1962. When they were, it caused a sensation. On the side of one ossuary box facing the wall was inscribed “Alexander, (son) of Simon,”…and below it, in smaller letters, “Alexander QRNYT.” The most probable meaning of QRNYT is that it is a misspelling of qrnyh – Hebrew for “Cyrenian.

Archaeologists conclude that it is highly probable that these bones were those of the son of the man forced to carry the crossbeam of Jesus’ cross. Mark writes: “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross” (Mark 15:21).

The fact that Mark gives details of both sons, suggests that their names were relevant to his readers. In other words, his readers would probably know of them because both men had become Christians. (It is possible that Alexander’s brother, Rufus, is the Rufus mentioned by Paul in Romans 16:13.)

Let me say: these are outstanding archaeological findings. And the consistent feature of these discoveries is that they back up the gospel accounts of Jesus.

Hooray!

[i]      Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, (New York: Allen & Unwin), 122.

Dr Nick Hawkes is a scientist, pastor, apologist, writer and broadcaster. He also describes himself as an absent-minded, slightly obsessive man who is pathetically weak due to cancer and chemo, who has experienced, and needs to experience, the grace of God each day.

Nick has written a book Soar above the Storm in which he draws on his experience of cancer to encourage anyone walking through a storm in life to find rest and hope in God. It offers a 40-day retreat to be refreshed and strengthened and find deep peace in God. Order it at Koorong.

He blogs and records podcasts at nickhawkes.net

Nick told his life story to Eternity https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/deadly-storms-heroin-addicts-cancer-and-my-faith/