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The Bible and Archaeology: Jesus Christ's Later Ministry

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The Bible and Archaeology

Jesus Christ's Later Ministry

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In the September-October and November-December 1999 issues of The Good News, we considered some of the many archaeological findings that shed light on Judea in the early first century, when Jesus Christ grew to manhood and began His ministry.

While Christ's early ministry took place primarily in Galilee, His later ministry centered on Jerusalem. In Galilee, in spite of His many miracles and inspired preaching, He was eventually rejected by most of the townspeople.

"Then He began to rebuke the cities in which most of His mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: 'Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to Hades; for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day'" (Matthew 11:20-23).

An unusual pool

The Gospels often note that Jesus and His disciples traveled to Jerusalem for the biblical festivals God commanded in Leviticus 23 (Luke 2:41-42; 22:7-20; John 2:13, 23; 7:1-2, 8, 10, 14, 37-38). John 5 records an event that took place during one of these feasts, although it doesn't specify which (to learn more about these biblical feasts, be sure to request your free copy of the booklet God's Holy Day Plan: The Promise of Hope for All Mankind).

"After this there was a feast of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew, Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water ...

"Now a certain man was there who had an infirmity thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he already had been in that condition a long time, He said to him, 'Do you want to be made well?' The sick man answered Him, 'Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me.' Jesus said to him, 'Rise, take up your bed and walk.' And immediately the man was made well, took up his bed, and walked ..." (John 5:1-9).

For years critics questioned John's description of a pool "having five porches," because such an architectural design would be highly unusual. But that changed when excavators began digging in the area about a century ago.

"... When Bethesda was cleared of the rubble of centuries and brought once more to the light of day, [archaeologists discovered] a vast double pool covering 5,000 square yards to the north of the Temple area. It in fact had five colonnades. Four of these surrounded the whole place, but the fifth porch, in which the sick folk lay waiting to be healed, stood on a ridge of rock which divided the two pools" (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, 1982, p. 423).

The fifth "porch," which had led some to question or even dismiss John's account, was this columned walkway separating the two pools. John's description was proven accurate.

John McRay, archaeologist and professor of New Testament at Wheaton College Graduate School in Illinois, adds that in the excavations "many fragments of column bases, capitals and drums [column sections] were found, which probably belonged to the five porches (i.e., porticoes or colonnaded walkways) of the pool John mentions" (Archaeology & the New Testament, 1991, p. 187).

The Pool of Siloam

The apostle John mentioned another pool in connection with another of Jesus Christ's miracles of healing. "Now as Jesus passed by, He saw a man who was blind from birth ... He spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva; and He anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay. And He said to him, 'Go, wash in the pool of Siloam' (which is translated, Sent). So he went and washed, and came back seeing" (John 9:1, 6-7).

This pool, too, has been discovered, and thousands of visitors to Jerusalem visit it each year. Professor McRay explains: "[The pool] was built by King Hezekiah in the eighth century B.C. at the southern end of a long tunnel he cut through solid rock to bring water from Gihon Spring to the pool inside the city walls (2 Kings 20:20) ...

"The appearance of the pool has changed through the centuries; it has become considerably smaller (50 feet long by 15 feet wide) than originally. In 1897 F.J. Bliss and A.C. Dickie uncovered a court about 75 feet square, in the center of which was the pool. It was probably surrounded by a colonnaded portico ... After the 1897 excavations, the people of the village of Silwan (an Arabic rendering of Siloam) built a mosque with a minaret over the northwest corner of the pool, and it still stands above the pool" (ibid., p. 188).

Professor McRay notes that "discoveries of the Well of Jacob (John 4:12), the Pool of Bethesda (5:2) [and] the Pool of Siloam (9:7) ... have lent historical credibility to the text of John ... These are but a few of the examples that could be produced which put New Testament contexts squarely in the stream of history and geography" (pp. 18-19).

Conflicts with Pharisaic practices

Of all the human adversaries during His ministry, the Pharisees caused Jesus the most trouble. They had imposed tedious religious regulations on the practicing Jewish population. Jesus described their effect: "For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. But all their works they do to be seen by men" (Matthew 23:4-5).

Christ denounced the Pharisees' hypocrisy of enacting many religious laws that obscured or even contradicted the intent of the laws God had revealed to Israel. He compared them to "whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (verses 27-28).

Whitewashed tombs were a common sight in Israel. The practice of whitewashing grave sites was based on a ritual established by the Pharisees.

Archaeologists have uncovered many ancient tombs and other burial places in Israel. They range from a simple hole in the ground with a stone covering to elaborate burial chambers for the rich. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia says: "For groups without a settled abode, interment must have taken the form of roadside burials ... Under Greco-Roman influence, Palestine tombs took on the exterior forms and ornamentation of classic architecture ... Exposed areas were whitewashed to obviate uncleanness through accidental contact at night (Matthew 23:27)" (1979, Vol. 1, pp. 557, 559, "Burial").

William Barclay gives further information that helps us understand burial practices of the time: "Here again is a picture which any Jew would understand. One of the commonest places for tombs was by the wayside. We have already seen that anyone who touched a dead body became unclean (Numbers 19:16). Therefore, anyone who came into contact with a tomb automatically became unclean. At one time in particular the roads of Palestine were crowded with pilgrims—at the time of the Passover Feast. For a man to become unclean on his way to the Passover Feast would be a disaster, for that meant he would be debarred from sharing in it. It was then Jewish practice in the month of Adar to whitewash all wayside tombs, so that no pilgrims might accidentally come into contact with one of them and be rendered unclean.

"So, as a man journeyed the roads of Palestine on a spring day, these tombs would glint white, and almost lovely, in the sunshine; but within they were full of bones and bodies whose touch would defile. That, said Jesus, was a precise picture of what the Pharisees were. Their outward actions were the actions of intensely religious men; their inward hearts were foul and putrid with sin" (Daily Bible Study Commentary, Bible Explorer Software).

Christ used this commonly seen feature of the Israelite countryside to drive home a spiritual point.

The Corban vow

Another conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees was over their laws and regulations that at times directly negated the Ten Commandments. One such example was the Corban vow.

In a stinging rebuke, Jesus told the Pharisees: "'All too well you reject the commandment of God, that you may keep your tradition. For Moses said, "Honor your father and your mother"; and, "He who curses father or mother, let him be put to death." But you say, "If a man says to his father or mother, 'Whatever profit you might have received from me is Corban'— (that is, a gift to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or his mother, making the word of God of no effect through your tradition which you have handed down. And many such things you do'" (Mark 7:9-13).

In the 20th century archaeologists have found dramatic confirmation of this kind of vow. In the 1950s they discovered a stone coffin inside a Jewish tomb in the Kidron Valley southeast of Jerusalem. The lid bore an inscription stating the contents were "corban." The inscription reads, "All that a man may find to his profit in this ossuary [is] an offering (corban) to God from him who is within it" (McRay, p. 194).

The vow was inscribed in the hope that it would dissuade any potential thief from taking any valuable contents, such as jewelry, by declaring all had been consecrated to God and that the robber would be committing sacrilege to take it and use it for any other purpose.

But why would Jesus condemn this kind of vow? The passage in Mark points out the kinds of problems that arose. Jesus was condemning a man-made vow that could break God's commandments. In the example He used, some, He said, were declaring part or all of their possessions "corban," or dedicated to God. In such circumstances a needy father or mother could not inherit a deceased son's goods because they had been declared "corban" and thus were consecrated to God.

This vow was based on a nonbiblical belief that a person would receive extra favor from God for such a vow. As time went along, this kind of vow was also used as an excuse to avoid helping a parent in need. As Jesus pointed out, such practices broke the Fifth Commandment, which tells us to honor our parents.

The Bible Knowledge Commentary explains: "Jesus showed how these religious leaders had in effect nullified this commandment. They could simply affirm that a particular item had been a gift devoted to God. Then the item could not be used by an individual but was kept separate. This was simply a clever way of keeping things from passing to one's parents. The person would of course continue to keep those things in his own home where they had been supposedly set aside for God.

"Such action was condemned by Jesus as being hypocritical, for while it appeared to be spiritual, it actually was done to keep one's possessions for himself. Thus this failure to help one's parents deliberately violated the fifth commandment ... Such action had been described by Isaiah centuries before (Isaiah 29:13). Their [the Pharisees'] religion had become a matter of action and man-made rules. Their hearts were far from God and consequently their worship was in vain" (Logos Software).

We will continue this series with the climactic events surrounding Jesus Christ's arrest, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. GN