August 3, 2021

From the Time of Christ and Paul

Benefits from old artifacts for New Testament study

Randall W. Younker

It is traditional when talking about biblical archaeology to focus on wonderful discoveries that enlighten us about the Old Testament—as most of the essays in this issue highlight. However, there are numerous exciting discoveries that illuminate and even confirm details about the New Testament.

Light on Christ’s Story

A major artifact illuminating Christ’s story is the so-called Jesus boat found in the mud near the western shore of the Sea of Galilee. While not really a boat that Jesus sailed in, coin and ceramic evidence indicate that this kind of boat was in use during the time of Christ and is typical of those used by His disciples. This wooden boat, 7.5 by 27 feet, was in use from about 50 B.C. to A.D. 50. Pottery and nails (along with carbon dating) secure the date of the boat to the time of Christ. This boat gives a good sense of what sailing on the Galilee was like in the days of Jesus and His disciples.1 Another recent discovery is that of the Siloam Pool in Jerusalem, where Jesus healed the blind man (John 9:1-12). For years tour guides showed visitors to Jerusalem a Byzantine pool (at the south end of Hezekiah’s tunnel) as the pool where Jesus performed His miracle. But recent excavation has discovered the actual pool that was visited by Jesus during the Roman period. The pool was a large, elaborate affair—225 feet wide, with steps leading down into it from three sides.2

Finds relating to people directly involved with the crucifixion of Christ have also been found. Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea who washed his hands of any responsibility for the death of Christ, minted distinctive coins while he was governor,3 and his name appears on a dedication stone found at Caesarea Maritima as honoring the Roman emperor Tiberius by constructing a temple in his name.4

The ossuary (bone burial box) of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who presided over the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus, has been found in Jerusalem—his name is etched on the outside of the box.5

Dramatic evidence for an actual Roman crucifixion of a Jewish victim has also been found archaeologically. A nail through the heel bone was found in an ossuary containing the bones of Jehohanan, the son of Hagakol, a Jewish man crucified by the Romans. A piece of olive wood still attached to the nail shows Jehohanan was nailed to a cross of olive wood.6

Among the collapsed stones of the temple mound in Jerusalem was found an inscription in Hebrew stating that the stone marked the “place of the trumpeting” (probably located at the corner of the roof of the Sanhedrin building on the south end of the temple mound—the balustrade), where a priest would blow a trumpet to announce the beginning and the closing of the Sabbath, reminding us of how important it was for observant Jews to keep the Sabbath faithfully. The stone was knocked from its place when the temple was destroyed in A.D. 70.7

Another dramatic Greek inscription (actually two of them) was found on a stone in Jerusalem that was part of the dividing wall that marked the point beyond which Gentiles could not enter the temple without fear of death. Indeed, this is precisely what the stone says: “No foreigner is allowed within the balustrade [soreg] surrounding the sanctuary and the enclosed court. Whoever enters will be personally responsible for his subsequent death.”8 This is precisely the wall Paul states that Jesus has broken down: “For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us” (Eph. 2:14, KJV).

From the Life of Paul

Among the interesting finds that can be directly related to Paul’s mission to the Gentiles is an inscription found in Rome that records the name of Proconsul Sergius Paulus, who served for a time on the island of Cyprus. This official is also mentioned in Acts13:6-12 as a convert of Paul’s in Cyprus.9 Thanks to Paul’s success with this Roman official, many doors were opened in southern Asia Minor (Turkey) that allowed Paul to expand his work.

Another individual who is associated with Paul and is likely attested archaeologically is Erastus of Corinth, mentioned in Romans 16:23 (also Acts 19:22; 2 Tim. 4:20) as an official holding the office of treasurer. An inscription mentioning an Erastus was found near a paved area northeast of the theater of Corinth. It has been dated to the mid-first century and reads “Erastus in return for his aedileship paved it at his own expense.”10 The name, office, place, and time are a good fit with the account of this individual in Romans, according to many scholars.

Beyond archaeology’s traditional finds, we cannot ignore the role the discipline has played in the text of the New Testament, a subject deserving more attention. Worth mentioning even in this brief overview would be the discovery of Greek Papyrus P52, a papyrus fragment that contains the text of John 18:31-33. Dated to c. A.D. 125, it is considered the oldest surviving manuscript of the New Testament.11 When we reflect on the fact that this text was circulating just a few years after the New Testament canon closed with John the revelator, we realize we are not far in date from the time of the original autographs, the manuscripts written by John and Paul themselves!

Conclusion

We have scarcely scratched the surface of material on archaeology’s exciting discoveries that illuminate and even confirm details of the New Testament. But one discovery that has not been made is equally exciting. While there are a couple major claims as to where Jesus was buried—the Garden Tomb area, north of the Old City of Jerusalem, and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem—and while space does not allow a discussion as to which of these tombs is the more likely one, the good news is that these tombs are both empty!12 No body of Christ has been found or will ever be. That is because we worship a risen Savior.


  1. See Shelley Wachamann et al., An Ancient Boat Discovered in the Sea of Galilee (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1988).
  2. “Ten Top Discoveries,” Biblical Archaeology Review 35, no. 4 (July/August September/October 2009.): 4.
  3.  Helen K. Bond, Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation (Cambridge University Press, 1998).
  4. Jerry Vardaman,“A New Inscription Which Mentions Pilate as ‘Prefect,’ ” Journal of Biblical Literature 81, no. 1 (1962): 70, 71.
  5. Zvi Greenhut, “Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family,” Biblical Archaeology Review 18, no. 5 (September/October 1992).
  6. V. Tzaferis, “Jewish Tombs at and near Giv’at ha-Mivtar,” Israel Exploration Journal 20 (1970): 18-32.
  7. Benjamin Mazar, “Herodian Jerusalem in the Light of the Excavations South and South-West of the Temple Mount,”Israel Exploration Journal 28, no. 4 (1978): 234.
  8. Jodi Magness, The Archaeology of the Holy Land: From the Destruction of Solomon’s Temple to the Muslim Conquest (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 155.
  9. Jack P. Lewis, Historical Backgrounds of Bible History (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1971), p. 153.
  10. David W. J. Gill,“Erastus The Aedile,” Tyndale Bulletin40 (1989): 298.
  11. Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament: an Introduction to the Critical Editions and to the Theory and Practice of Modern Textual Criticism, trans. Erroll F. Rhodes (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), p. 99.
  12. Martin Biddle, Jon Seligman, Winter Tamar, and Gideon Avni, The Church of the Holy Sepulchre(New York: Rizzoli in cooperation with Israel Antiquities Authority, distributed by St. Martin’s Press, 2000).

Randall W. Younker, a professor of archaeology and history of antiquity at Andrews University, directs the university’s Institute of Archaeology.

Randall W. Younker
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