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Hard evidence from the ancient world dramatically
supports the New Testament record on Jesus.
by Paul L. Maier
Mythical personalities are not involved in authentic episodes from
the past. Nor do they leave hard evidence behind. In the life and
ministry of Jesus of Nazareth, however, there are many points of
contact between His record in the Gospels and the surrounding
history of His times. Just as the New Testament is studded with
authentic geographical locations, it is also full of genuine
personalities who are well known from secular sources outside of
the Bible record, including some that are even hostile to
All of the following are Bible characters about whom we know as
much, or more, from secular ancient historical records than from
the New Testament.
• Roman emperors: Caesar Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius.
• Roman governors: Pontius Pilate, Serguis Paulus, Gallio,
• Local rulers: Herod the Great, Archelaus, Herod Antipas,
Philip, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Lysanias, Aretas IV.
• High priests: Annas, Joseph Caiaphas, Ananias.
• Prominent women: Herodias, Salome, Bernice, Drusilla.
• Prominent men: John the Baptist, James the Just.
In some cases, the additional, non-Biblical information on these
personalities is immense. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus
(A.D. 37-100), for example, supplies about a thousand times as
much data on Herod the Great as does Matthew's Gospel.
In other cases, the secular facts are crucial. The New Testament
does not tell us what became of Jesus' half-brother, James the
Just of Jerusalem, the first bishop of the Christian church
(Acts 15). Josephus, however, gives us the details of his being
stoned to death by the Sanhedrin in A.D. 62.
Josephus on Jesus
Twice Josephus refers to Jesus. His second reference concerns
the episode involving James, whom he defines as "the brother
of Jesus who was called the Christ." Earlier, in the middle
of his reports on Pontius Pilate's administration, Josephus has a
longer passage on Jesus. For centuries this had been dismissed as
a Christian interpolation. But it is doubtless the original
wording has now been restored. In view of its importance, the
entire passage is presented here:
"At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his
conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people
among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate
condemned him to be crucified, and to die. But those who had
become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They
reported that he had appeared to them three days after his
crucifixion, and that he was alive.
Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the
prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians,
so named after him, has not disappeared to this day"
Other non-Biblical, non-Christian ancient references to Jesus
occur in the pagan Roman authors Cornelius Tacitus, Gaius
Suetonius, and Pliny the Younger, as well as in the Jewish
rabbinical traditions. One especially important notice in the
last, the arrest notice for Jesus, will be dealt with in the
next article. Bottom line: In view of the many points of tangency
between the Biblical and non-Biblical documentary evidence and
the full correlation of these two, history also supports the
complete historicity of Jesus of Nazareth.
A comparatively young discipline only about 125 years old,
scientific archaeology has delivered a spectacular amount of
"hard evidence" from the ancient world that correlates
admirably with information inside the Old and New Testaments.
A whole series of articles would be possible on this theme
alone. However, a brief listing must suffice, which is limited
to discoveries relating directly to the life of Jesus.
The existence of Nazareth in Jesus' day had been doubted by
critics - until its name showed up in a first-century synagogue
inscription at Caesarea. Augustus' census edicts (in connection
with the Nativity) are borne out by an inscription at Ankara,
Turkey, his famous Res Gestae ("Things Accomplished"),
in which the Roman emperor proudly claims to have taken a
census three times. That husbands had to register their
families for the Roman census was mandated in census papyri
discovered in Egypt.
That Herod the Great ruled at the time Jesus was born is
demonstrated by the numerous excavations of his massive public
works in the Holy Land, including the great Temple in
Jerusalem. That his son Herod Antipas ruled Galilee is shown in
similar digs at Sepphoris and Tiberias. Coins from these and
the other Herodian rulers are commonplace in coin collections.
As for Jesus' public ministry, the remains of the foundation of
the synagogue at Capernaum where He taught still exist below the
present ruins of the fourth-century synagogue there. The remains
of Peter's house at Capernaum, later converted into an octagonal
Christian sanctuary, have been uncovered. The hull of a first-
century boat that plied the waters of the Sea of Galilee in
Jesus' time was discovered in 1986, giving us new information on
how Jesus could sleep through a storm during the famous episode
of the Stilling of the Tempest (Mark 4:35ff.). Relating to Jesus'
final week in Jerusalem, an ancient flight of stairs down to the
Brook Kidron has been excavated, doubtless used by Jesus and His
disciples on the way to Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of
Olives, where ancient olive trees still thrive. An inscription
naming His judge on Good Friday, Pontius Pilate, was discovered
at Caesarea in 1961. The very bones of the chief prosecutor at
that trial, the high priest Joseph Caiaphas, came to light
inside an ossuary (a stone chest used to store bones from burial
sites) uncovered in 1990, the first bones of a Biblical
personality ever discovered.
That they nailed victims to crosses, as in Jesus' case, was proven
when another ossuary was open north of Jerusalem in 1968, and a
victim's heel bones appeared, transfixed with a seven-inch iron
spike. Burial in tombs closed up with rolling stone disks is more
than apparent today in many such sepulchers in Judea and even
In addition, many of the sites in Jesus' ministry, such as
Bethsaida, Chorazin, Capernaum, Caesarea Philippi, Shechem,
Bethany and, of course, Jerusalem are in process of excavation,
promising even more archaeological discoveries relating to the
life of Jesus. If the past is any precedent, almost all of
these will confirm the New Testament accounts.
The archaeological supports in the case of Jesus' greatest
follower, Paul of Tarsus, are especially impressive. Ruins in
Cyprus, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens,
Corinth, Ephesus, Rome and elsewhere all bear out the many
references about Paul in the New Testament.
As hard evidence from the past, "the very stones cry out"
the reliability of the Biblical record. It is amusing to note
that many of the last century's most trenchant critics of Jesus
and the New Testament refused at first even to consider the
result of archaeology, so counter to their opinions was its
evidence! Today, I can't imagine anyone, friend or foe of the
faith, would be stupid enough to hold so foolish an attitude. At
the 2, 000th anniversary of Christianity, then, we should be
ready to tell everyone that the sum total of the literary,
historical and archaeological evidence from the ancient world
dramatically supports the New Testament record on Jesus. Those
who claim it does not are sadly misinformed, tragically closed-
minded, or dishonest.
Dr. Paul L. Maier is professor of Ancient History and chaplain at Western
Michigan University-Kalamazoo, MI.
Reprinted with permission from Dr. Maier
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