The Top Ten Archeological Discoveries for Excavating Jesus

By John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed

The top ten archaeological discoveries involve both specific objects and general places. The first five items listed are specific objects--with direct links to gospel texts--that also encapsulate major aspects of their contemporary worlds. The next five are pairs. In each case the tandems point to a specific phenomenon more visible in the pairing than in either one alone: the Roman-Herodian kingdom atop the Jewish homeland, the urbanization of Galilee, Jewish resistance to Rome, Jewish village life, and especially Jewish religion as indicated by purity observances. The last item is a set whose importance is internally and externally cumulative. The set’s significance arises not from any single example or even from any single category alone, but from the number of cases in each category and from those categories combined.

1. The ossuary of the high priest Joseph Caiaphas. In November 1990, construction workers building near a water park in the Peace Forest, south of Jerusalem’s Old City between the Haas Tayelet and Abu Tor, broke through a burial cave sealed since the Roman war in 70 C.E. On an otherwise ornately decorated ossuary, a box hewn of soft limestone in which bones of the deceased were reburied after the flesh decomposed, the name Caiaphas was crudely scratched in Aramaic. His name, and the names of family interred with him, make it clear that the small shaft tomb was the family resting place for the high priest Caiaphas, mentioned by name in Mathew 26 and John 18 for his role in the crucifixion. This is a direct link to the gospel stories of Jesus’ execution.

2. The inscription of the prefect Pontius Pilate. In 1962 Italian archaeologists, clearing sand and overgrowth from the ruined theater at Caesarea Maritima, longtime seat of Roman power on the eastern Mediterranean shore, uncovered an inscription bearing the name of Pontious Pilate. Turned upside down and reused in the theater’s renovation in the fourth century C.E., it was hidden and preserved up to the present. The Latin inscription boasts that Pilate had dedicated a Tiberium, a public structure built in honor of the Roman emperor Tiberius, just as the city itself had been built to honor his predecessor, Caesar Augustus. The inscription settled scholarly quibbles over Pilate’s exact title and ruling authority by naming him a perfect rather than an inferior procurator, but was more celebrated as the first physical witness to such a prominent New Testament figure.

3. The house of the Apostle Peter at Capernaum. Octagonal ruins on land in Franciscan custody at Capernaum were first discovered in 1906. It was the Byzantine church converted from “the house of the chief of the apostles” written about by ancient pilgrims. From 1968 to 1985 the Franciscan archaeologists Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda worked in and around that octagonal structure and excavated its complex layers. An octagonal church was built in the fifth century C.E. atop a house church dating to the fourth century, which lay atop a simple courtyard house initially constructed in the first century B.C.E. Striking examples of Christian invocations in Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, and Syriac had been scratched into the plaster of one room as early as the second century C.E. Because it lacked any domestic artifacts and had been replastered several times, the first generations of Christians must have deemed the room of some significance. The excavator’s conclusion: It was the house of the apostle Peter.

4. The fishing boat from the Sea of Galilee. Severe droughts n the mid-1980s caused a dramatic drop in the Sea of Galilee’s water level. When it was at its lowest level in January 1986, two members of Kibbutz Ginnosar noticed the outlines of boats buried in the mid of the newly uncovered shore. The water and mud preserved the boat for the Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists, but once it was exposed, conservators raced against time and the rising waters to save it. An improvised dike and water pumps held off the rising tide, and a plaster casing then floated the boat ashore. Today the 8-by-26-foot boat lies in a climate-controlled facility at the kibbutz. Pots and lamps within the boat dated it to the first century C.E., and the carbon-14 dating on the wooden planks confirmed that date. It was a boat from the time of Jesus, the type commonly used for fishing or crossing the lake. It could certainly hold thirteen people. It is now usually called the “Jesus Boat”.

5. The skeleton of the crucified Yehochanan. In June 1968 Vassilios Tzaferis of the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated some burial caves northeast of Jerusalem, at a place called Givat Hamivtar. Within the necropolis, a first-century C.E. rock-hewn family tomb with five ossuaries was discovered, one of which contained the bones of two men and a young child. The right heel bone of one of the men, 5 feet, 5 inches tall and in his mid-twenties, had been pierced by a 4 ˝-ich nail. A small wooden board had been nailed to the outside of his heel to prevent him from tearing his leg off the nail’s small head. But the nail had bent as it was hammered into the hard olive-wood upright of the cross and could not be easily removed after his death, so it and wooden board were still attached to his body when taken off the cross. His arms had been tied, not nailed, to the crossbar and his legs were not broken. Contrary to common practice, his body was allowed off the cross for proper family burial. The ossuary contained the name of the deceased, Yehochanan (Hebrew and Aramaic for John), the Crucified Man.

6. Caesarea Maritima and Jerusalem: cities of Herod the Great. Over twenty years of excavations at Caesarea Maritima and more than that around the Temple in Jerusalem have unearthed enough artifacts to fill museums and tax the storage capacities of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The most striking finds, however, are the enormous monumental structures built by Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.E.), the architectural legacy of his kingdom building. Caesarea Maritima, on the one hand, was transformed from a tranquil beach without a natural harbor or fresh-water source into the eastern Mediterranean’s busiest and most modern port. Adorned with a magnificent temple housing statues of the emperor Augustus and the goddess Roma, the city itself was named in honor of Caesar. At Jerusalem, on the other had, Herod beautified and expanded the Jewish Temple. He made the Temple Mount the largest monumental platform in the Roman Empire; and with massive finely cut and carefully squared stones, striking porticoes, and decorated columns, he made what ancient eyewitnesses describe as the most beautiful structure ever seen. These joint projects show both his loyalty to Rome and his dedication to the Jewish God, but above all else they were a tribute to himself and his kingdom.

7. Sepphoris and Tiberias: cities of Herod Antipas. Like his father, Herod Antipas rules as a client of Rome (4 B.C.E. – 39 C.E.), not as a king, but as an inferior tetrarch, and not over all the Jewish homeland, but only over Galilee and Perea. Like his father, he built cities, but neither on the scale nor with the grandeur of his father. Herod Antipas was neither as rich nor as powerful as Herod the Great. But he urbanized Galilee with the building of Sepphoris and Tiberias, the latter named in honor of the Roman emperor. Although Tiberias today is a sprawling seaside resort that permits only limited excavation, the ancient ruins of Sepphoris lie uninhabited and have been excavated by as many as four teams over the past decades. Spectacular discoveries such as a Roman-style theater, a massive underground aqueduct, and the Dionysiac mosaic, discoveries from throughout the Roman period, raise the question of the extent to which Antipas had earlier imposed a Greco-Roman architectural veneer onto the life of the Jewish population, and the impact of his kingdom building in Galilee. Sepphoris was, after all, only 4 miles from Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth.

8. Masada and Qumran: monuments of Jewish resistancea. Two sites off the remote and desolate western shore of the Dead Sea excavated in the 1950s and 1960s, respectively, bear witness to Jewish resistance against Rome in the first century C.E Masada, a clifftop fortress-palace built by Herod the Great, was taken over by the Jewish Sicarii at the beginning of the revolt in 66 C.E and fell to the Roman legions some four years after the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E Archaeology’s discovery of Roman siege works and the Jewish historian Josephus’s story of the Sicarii’s suicide vividly illustrate their violent resistance to Roman domination. A monastery complex built by a Jewish sect atop a marl terrace, Khirbet Qumran preserves the ruins of a different kind of resistance, communal and nonviolent, where withdrawal, study, and purity were weapons against foreign influences and moral decay. Both sites are monuments of Jewish resistance.

9. Gamla and Jodefat: first-century Jewish villages in the north. Two villages, one atop a knoll in Lower Galilee, and the other atop a ridge in the Golan Heights to the east, were destroyed by Roman legions in 67 C.E and lay buried and undisturbed until Israeli archaeologists excavated them this past century. Aside from confirming their catastrophic ends as recorded by Josephus, Moti Aviam at Jodefat and Shmarya Gutmann at Gamla exposed frail defenses and unearthed daily life in these two Jewish sites. Neither sites are mentioned in the gospels, so no commemorative church, monastery, or shrine was ever built on top of either of them. This ironically, preserved until now an archaeological snapshot of Jewish life.

10. Stone vessels and stepped, plastered pools: Jewish religion. Stone vessels of varying shapes and sizes, carved or lathe-turned from soft white chalk stone, along with stepped and plastered pools chiseled into bedrock, called miqwaoth (singular, miqweh) and referred to in this book as ritual baths, are both found wherever Jews lived in Galilee as well as around Jerusalem in Judea. These particular items signaled Jewishness to their contemporaries and identified them as a distinct people. Both stone vessels and ritual baths are connected to Jewish purity concerns. Neither of these artifacts is prominent in the gospels, although stone vessels are mentioned anecdotally in the story of the wedding in Cana (John 2:6). But their prevalence in the archaeological layers of that era tells us much about what was taken for granted in the gospels concerning Jewish religion and Jewish distinctiveness at the time of Jesus.

Those ten discoveries, and all others yet to come, must be placed in their total archaeological environment. Remember, sometimes a find becomes a great discovery through the items found nearby, a tiny bronze coin beside it, or several sherds of broken pottery beneath it. Such apparently valueless items, within their full comparative charting alongside all other ancient coins and ceramics, date the item in question and put in a context that makes it not just one more discovery, but one of the top ten for the moment. See also:
Divers find ruins of mythical city off India
Lion Man Oldest Statue
Earliest writing found
NASA Images Discover Ancient Bridge Between India & Lanka
Underwater remains of Krishna´s city Dvaraka discovered
Discoveries in the Ancient Temple City of Ayodhya
Archaeologists Begin Hunt for Rama´s Temple
Ancient Egyptian Flight Technology

In Czech:
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Tajemné pyramidy pod vodou I
Tajemné pyramidy pod vodou II


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