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The Bible and Archaeology: Jesus Christ's Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion

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The Bible and Archaeology

Jesus Christ's Arrest, Trial and Crucifixion

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In recent issues of The Good News we have examined archaeological findings that shed light on the period of Jesus Christ's ministry in Judea in the early first century.

Evidence of Caiaphas's tomb

Events rushed to a crescendo as Jesus and His disciples came to Jerusalem for that final Passover feast. The chief priests began to panic after hearing that in nearby Bethany Jesus had resurrected His friend Lazarus from the dead (John 11).

How did they react to news of this miracle? "Then the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered together a council and said, 'What shall we do? For this Man works many signs. If we let Him alone like this, everyone will believe in Him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and nation.' And one of them, Caiaphas, being high priest that year, said to them, 'You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.' Now this he did not say on his own authority; but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation ... Then, from that day on, they plotted to put Him to death" (verses 47-53).

Amazingly, the tomb of this priest was discovered in 1990. Israeli archaeologist Zvi Greenhut, who confirmed the finding, describes the event:

"It was a cold day at the end of November when I received word at the Antiquities Authority that an old cave had been discovered ... When I arrived I observed that the roof of the cave had collapsed. But even while standing outside, I could see four ossuaries, or bone boxes, in the central chamber of the cave. To an archaeologist, this was a clear indication that this was a Jewish burial cave ... So it was that we discovered the final resting place of the Caiaphas family, one of whose priestly members presided at the trial of Jesus" ("Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family," Biblical Archaeological Review, September-October 1992, pp. 29-30).

Two of the 12 stone boxes found had the name Caiaphas written on the side, and one contained the entire name, "Joseph, son of Caiaphas." Inside this box were the remains of a 60-year-old man, along with the bones of a woman and four younger people, probably those of his own family.

Archaeologist Ronny Reich provides further details of the find: "The most elaborately decorated ossuary found in this cave contains two inscriptions relating to Caiaphas ... The elderly man buried in the highly decorated ossuary was apparently Joseph. It was probably a forefather who had acquired this nickname [Caiaphas was apparently a nickname that meant "basket," probably from "basketmaker."]

"A person named Joseph with the nickname Caiaphas was the high priest in Jerusalem between 18 and 36 A.D. The New Testament provides only his nickname in the Greek form: Caiaphas (see Matthew 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2; John 11:49, 18:13-14, 24, 28; Acts 4:6). Josephus [the first-century Jewish historian] gives his proper name as well: Joseph Caiaphas, or elsewhere, 'Joseph who was called Caiaphas of the high priesthood.' In short, we are explicitly told by Josephus that Caiaphas was indeed a nickname" ("Caiaphas Name Inscribed on Bone Boxes," Biblical Archaeological Review, September-October 1992, p. 41).

Archaeologists have thus confirmed the existence of this important New Testament figure. They have also proven the existence of another leading character instrumental in the events surrounding Jesus' arrest, trial and execution.

The Pilate inscription

Once Jesus was arrested, on Caiaphas's orders, He was tried before Caiaphas and later sent to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The New Testament portrayal of Pilate agrees with other historical accounts. "Philo and Josephus unite in attributing dire and evil practices to Pilate, so that a dark character is ascribed to him" (The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, 1989, Vol. 3, p. 813).

Philo, the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher (20 B.C.-A.D. 50), described Pilate as "a man of a very inflexible disposition, and very merciless as well as very obstinate." He says Pilate's rule was characterized by "corruption, ... insolence, ... cruelty, ... continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity" (The Works of Philo, translated by C.D. Yonge, "On the Embassy to Gaius," pp. 301-302).

Years after Christ's crucifixion Pilate was sent to Rome to undergo a humiliating trial after ordering the massacre of some Samaritan pilgrims. Eusebius, the fourth-century historian, notes that Pilate was found guilty and exiled. In his shame he later committed suicide. Such was the end of this proud and corrupt governor.

For centuries Pilate was known only from scant historical records and the Gospels. No direct physical evidence had been found. Then, in 1961, a stone plaque engraved with Pilate's name and title was discovered in Caesarea, the Roman port and capital of Judea in Christ's day. "The two-foot by three-foot slab, now known as the Pilate Inscription, was ... apparently written to commemorate Pilate's erection and dedication of a Tiberium, a temple for the worship of Tiberias Caesar, the Roman emperor during Pilate's term over Judea.

"The Latin inscription of four lines gives his title as 'Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea,' a title very similar to that used of him in the Gospels (see Luke 3:1). This was the first archaeological find to mention Pilate, and again testified to the accuracy of the Gospel writers. Their understanding of such official terms indicates they lived during the time of their use and not a century or two thereafter, when such terms would have been forgotten" (Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out, 1997, pp. 307-308).

Gruesome evidence of crucifixion

Until recently some scholars considered the description of Christ's crucifixion to be false. They thought it was impossible for a human body to be held up by nails driven into the hands and feet since the flesh would eventually tear away. Instead they thought the victims must have been bound by ropes.

Yet, in 1968, the body of a crucified man dating to the first century was found in Jerusalem. Here the true method of crucifixion was discovered: His ankles, not his feet, had been nailed and could easily support his weight.

Archaeologist Randall Price explains: "This rare find has proved to be one of the most important archaeological witnesses to Jesus' crucifixion as recorded in the Gospels. First, it reveals afresh the horrors of the Roman punishment ... This method of execution forced the weight of the body to be placed on the nails, causing terribly painful muscle spasms and eventually death by the excruciating process of asphyxiation ... Second, it was once claimed that the Gospel's description of the method of crucifixion was historically inaccurate ... The discovery of the nail-pierced ankle bone refutes those who say nails could not have been used" (Price, pp. 309-310).

The Roman law of the time prescribed crucifixion as punishment for the most serious offenses, such as rebellion, treason and robbery. A famous example of mass crucifixions took place in 71 B.C. when Spartacus led a slave rebellion against Rome. He ultimately failed, and the 6,000 captured slaves were crucified.

The Jews knew of crucifixions even before Roman rule, for around 87 B.C. the Jewish king Alexander Janneus had 800 rebellious Pharisees crucified. Josephus, who witnessed the crucifixion of his fellow Jews during the siege of Jerusalem (A.D. 66-70), called it "the most wretched of deaths." It continued to be the punishment for high crimes until the time of Emperor Constantine, when it was finally abolished.

Was Jesus crucified on a cross?

The exact shape of the stake or cross used to crucify Jesus is not known, since the Romans used several styles.

The Greek word translated "cross" is stauros. Vine's Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words gives background information on the word. "Stauros ... denotes, primarily, 'an upright pale or stake.' On such malefactors were nailed for execution. Both the noun and the verb staroo, 'to fasten to a stake or pale,' are originally to be distinguished from the ecclesiastical form of a two beamed 'cross.' The shape of the latter had its origin in ancient Chaldea [Babylonia], and was used as the symbol of the god Tammuz (being in the shape of the mystic Tau, the initial of his name) in that country and in adjacent lands, including Egypt.

"By the middle of the 3rd cent. A.D. the churches had either departed from, or had travestied, certain doctrines of the Christian faith. In order to increase the prestige of the apostate ecclesiastical system pagans were received into the churches apart from regeneration by faith, and were permitted largely to retain their pagan signs and symbols.

Hence the Tau or T, in its most frequent form, with the cross-piece lowered, was adopted to stand for the 'cross' of Christ.

"As for the Chi, or X, which Constantine declared he had seen in a vision leading him to champion the Christian faith, that letter was the initial of the word 'Christ' and had nothing to do with 'the Cross' (for xulon, 'a timber beam, a tree' ...)." (1985, "Cross, Crucify").

The empty tomb

The Gospel writers give many details of Jesus' burial and tomb. "Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus. This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.

Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him. When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed ...

"On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate, saying, 'Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, "After three days I will rise." Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day' ... So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard" (Matthew 27:57-66).

How do the Gospel accounts match up with archaeologists' discoveries about first-century burial practices? Several tombs have been found around Jerusalem that perfectly fit the description given by the Gospel writers. "In Roman times the entrance was often closed with a large circular stone, set up on edge and rolled in its groove to the mouth of the tomb so as to close it securely. This stone could then be further secured by a strap, or by sealing. Pilate thus directed that the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, in which the body of Jesus was laid, should be carefully sealed and made as inviolable as possible (Mt. 27:66)" (The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1979, Vol. 1, p. 559, "Burial").

When the Romans wanted to secure a tomb, they attached a cord across the circular stone. They secured this strap with wax and stamped it with the seal of imperial Rome. To tamper with the seal was to defy Roman authority and risk the death penalty. Guards were then placed around the tomb with orders to defend it at all costs; if any fell asleep they would pay with their lives. With all these safeguards in place, a tomb was considered to be completely secured and untouchable.

Yet, when Jesus was resurrected and an angel opened the tomb, the Bible records that the guards "shook for fear of [the angel] and became like dead men" (Matthew 28:4). When the guards revived and saw the empty tomb, they immediately sought help from the chief priests, for they knew they faced the death penalty.

"Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, 'Tell them [the Roman authorities], "His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept." And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will appease him and make you secure.' So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day" (verses 11-15).

True to the historical description of Pilate, we see that even the chief priests understood that the Roman governor was corrupt and subject to being bribed.

Conclusion on the Gospels

Through archaeology many details of the descriptions of Jesus' trial, crucifixion and burial have been confirmed. Archaeologist Price considers the all-important implications: "... Archaeology has shown us that the facts that support faith [in the resurrection of Jesus] are accurate—an identifiable tomb attesting to literal events-faith in the Christ of history does depend upon a historically empty tomb for its reality. While archaeology can only reveal the tomb, the persons and events attending to its historic purpose (Herod, Pilate, Caiaphas, crucifixion, and so on), the resurrection is interwoven with these facts so as to command the same consideration" (Price, pp. 315, 318).

We can summarize the purpose of this series on the Gospels with an appropriate quote: "Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and one you will find in the Land they call holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you" (Bargil Pixner, With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel, 1992, back cover). GN

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