The Bible and Archaeology: Jesus Christ—The Early Years

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The Bible and Archaeology

Jesus Christ—The Early Years

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The Good News has traced some of the many historical and archaeological findings that confirm and clarify the biblical record of the Old Testament, a record that spans some 4,000 years. We continue that survey into the New Testament era.

How much has archaeology confirmed about the New Testament period? Are the many names mentioned in the New Testament real people? Can their existence be verified by credible historical evidence other than the Bible?

Although the time in question is much briefer—less than a century—archaeology has much to tell us about the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth and His apostles. As we examine this period, the physical evidence supporting the biblical record multiplies. Let’s begin this fascinating archaeological journey into the New Testament world.

Appropriately, the Old Testament ends with God’s promise to send a messenger to prepare the way for the Messiah. In Malachi, apparently the last prophetic book of the Old Testament to be written, the final two chapters record a dramatic prophecy: “ ’Behold, I send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the Messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. Behold, He is coming,’ says the Lord of Hosts” (Malachi 3:1 Malachi 3:1Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the LORD, whom you seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom you delight in: behold, he shall come, said the LORD of hosts.
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).

It should come as no surprise that the story flow of the New Testament begins where the last of the Old Testament prophets leaves off—with the arrival of the messenger foretold by Malachi. This shows a continuation from the Old to the New Testament, bearing in mind that a few hundred years had passed in the interim.

At the beginning of Luke’s gospel, an angel tells Zacharias the priest about the fulfillment of the prophecy in Malachi. The messenger prophesied by God in the Old Testament would be his son John (the Baptist), who would prepare the way for the Christ. The angel told him: “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John …. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:13 Luke 1:13But the angel said to him, Fear not, Zacharias: for your prayer is heard; and your wife Elisabeth shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.
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, 17).

Thus, at the start of Luke’s gospel, the stage is set for the first coming of the Messiah.

Herod the Mighty King

One of the first people to appear in the New Testament account is King Herod. Matthew takes us to the court of Herod the Great: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him. When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him ….

“Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also” (Matthew 2:1-3 Matthew 2:1-3 1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
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, 7-8).

Was Herod a real figure, and was he the king at this time? Yes. Secular history and archaeology have confirmed his existence and reign beyond a doubt. He is known in history as Herod the Great. Under the Romans this non-Israelite king had ruled the province of Judea (most of the area of the former kingdoms of Israel and Judah) for almost 40 years when Jesus Christ appeared on the scene. Herod was a great builder and left his name on many monuments. He was a famous figure in Jewish and Roman history.

John McRay, archaeologist and Wheaton College professor of New Testament, summarizes Herod’s reign: “Archaeological excavations have uncovered a surprisingly large amount of evidence pertaining to Herod the Great …. Herod the Great was an Idumean who, in 41 B.C., was granted provisional rule of Galilee by Mark Antony [the friend of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra´s last lover] …. In 30 B.C. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) affirmed Herod’s rule over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee …. Herod remained in power until his death in 4 B.C.; thus Christ was born in Bethlehem prior to that date” ( Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 91).

One of the main reasons Herod is referred to as Herod the Great has to do with his extensive and exquisite building projects. F.F. Bruce, former professor of biblical criticism and exegesis at the University of Manchester in England, says, “Had Herod done nothing else, he would have made a secure niche in history for himself as a great builder” ( New Testament History, 1972, p. 20).

He is known to have initiated construction projects in at least 20 cities or towns in Israel and more than 10 in foreign cities. Two inscriptions pertaining to Herod have been found in Athens. One reads: “The people [erect this monument to] King Herod, lover of the Romans, because of his beneficence and good will [shown] by him.” The other said: “The people [erect this monument to] King Herod, devout and lover of Caesar, because of his virtue and beneficence” (ibid, p. 92).

Josephus, a first-century Jewish historian, confirms Herod’s great construction projects outside Israel: “And when he had built so much, he shewed the greatness of his soul to no small number of foreign cities …. And are not the Athenians …. full of donations that Herod presented them withal!” ( Wars of the Jews, Book I, Chapter XXI, Section 11).

Of his notable building achievements inside Israel, six are generally acclaimed as the most notable: (1) his renovation of the temple and expansion of the temple platform in Jerusalem; (2) Herodium, his palace-fortress near Bethlehem, encased in a manmade mountain; (3) his magnificent palace at Jericho, equipped with a swimming pool more than 100 feet long; (4) Masada, a mountain fortress where he built two palaces (the site was later immortalized as the last holdout of the Jews in defense of their country against the Romans); (5) Caesarea, a manmade port city built under his supervision that became the official headquarters of the Romans; and (6) Samaria, the capital of the former kingdom of Israel, which he rebuilt and renamed Sebaste.

Of the six, all except Herodium and Masada are mentioned in Scripture.

From studying the remains of Herod’s vast building programs, archaeologists and architects have nothing but praise for the beauty, massiveness, ingenuity and practicality of his projects. For instance, at the base of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem archaeologists discovered, among other massive foundation stones, one block that weighed 415 tons. In comparison, the largest blocks in the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt weigh only 15 tons, and the megaliths in Stonehenge, England, weigh only up to 40 tons.

Herod the Cruel King

Herod was known not just for his great building, political and military skills but for his great cruelty. The Bible gives us an indication of his utter disregard for human life in its record of his reaction to hearing of the birth of Jesus.

Having heard that a “King of the Jews” had been born, Herod was greatly disturbed by this potential threat to his power and throne (Matthew 2:1-3 Matthew 2:1-3 1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, 2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. 3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
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). When his scheme to identify the newborn Messiah failed (verses 7-8, 12), Herod lashed out violently.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under [the approximate age of Jesus], according to the time which he had determined from the wise men” (verse 16).

The massacre in Bethlehem was not out of character for Herod. A.T. Robertson, chairman of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, shows us Herod’s savagery. Dr. Robertson describes Herod’s cruelty even toward those in his own family:

“Those familiar with the story of Herod the Great in Josephus can well understand the meaning of these words. Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne [his wife] (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus. He had made will after will and was now in a fatal illness and fury over the question of the Magi. He showed his excitement and the whole city was upset because the people knew only too well what he could do when in a rage over the disturbance of his plans” ( Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer Software, 1997).

The New Testament description of Herod the Great is thus confirmed by what historians and archaeologists have found concerning his rulership, building projects, political strength and uncontrollable wrath toward anyone threatening his kingship.

Caesar Augustus’s Census

Luke, the meticulous historian, introduces other famous personages in his account of the birth of Christ. “And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city” (Luke 2:1-3 Luke 2:1-3 1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. 2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.
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).

Caesar Augustus, or Octavian, was Julius Caesar’s adopted son. He ruled the Roman Empire for 57 years (43 B.C. to A.D. 14) and established an era of peace and stability that would facilitate the growth of Christianity.

Archaeologists have made great progress in discovering how and when a Roman census was taken. Ancient papyrus census decrees have been found for the years 20, 34, 48, 62 and 104. These show they normally took place every 14 years, although local counts at times were taken more frequently.

A papyrus in the British Museum describes a census similar to Luke’s account, taken in 104, in which people were ordered to return to their birthplaces. It reads: “Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments” (Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30).

For many years some scholars had doubted the Bible’s accuracy since they thought Luke had erroneously referred to another Quirinius who ruled a decade after Christ’s birth. But now the biblical account has been confirmed by further evidence.

Researcher Randall Price writes: “Some recent archaeological evidence has provided new insights into the time and place of the birth of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke gives the time of birth with a specific reference to a census decreed by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2 Luke 2:2(And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
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). While inscriptional evidence reveals that there was more than one ruler with this name, a Quirinius within the time frame of Jesus’ birth has been found on a coin placing him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after 4 B.C.” ( The Stones Cry Out, 1997, p. 299).

Joseph’s Occupation in Nazareth

Once Herod died, Joseph and Mary brought Jesus back to Israel and returned to their home in Nazareth. Joseph was a skilled craftsman who worked not only with wood but with stone masonry. The usual term translated as “carpenter” in the Bible is misleading. The Greek term is tekton, which has a broader meaning.

“The Greek word tekton, translated ‘carpenter’ in Mark 6:3 Mark 6:3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary, the brother of James, and Joses, and of Juda, and Simon? and are not his sisters here with us? And they were offended at him.
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, has the root meaning of ‘artisan,’ that is, a skilled worker who works on some hard material such as wood or stone or even horn or ivory …. In Jesus’ day construction workers were not as highly specialized as in today’s work force. For example, the tasks performed by carpenters and masons could easily overlap” (Richard A. Batey, Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, p. 76).

Jesus learned the trade from Joseph and lived in the area of Nazareth most of His life. Although Nazareth was a small Galilean village of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, Joseph and Jesus likely found steady work in the city of Sepphoris four miles away.

About the time of Jesus’ birth, Herod Antipas—son of Herod the Great and ruler over Galilee who would later order the execution of John the Baptist—chose Sepphoris as his capital.

“For more than three decades while Jesus grows up in Nearby Nazareth a huge construction project continues, as Sepphoris rapidly becomes the largest and most influential city in the region ….

“Joseph and Jesus knew of the construction of the new capital and would have been acquainted with artisans and other workers employed on the site. Shirley Jackson Case, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, [wrote:] ‘…. It requires no very daring flight of the imagination to picture the youthful Jesus seeking and finding employment in the neighboring city of Sepphoris. But whether or not he actually labored there, his presence in the city on various occasions can scarcely be doubted; and the fact of such contacts during the formative years of his young manhood may account for attitudes and opinions that show themselves conspicuously during his public ministry’ ” (Batey, pp. 70-71).

Recent archaeological excavations in Sepphoris show it to have been a bustling, prosperous city during the years Jesus grew up in nearby Nazareth. This historical record helps us better understand the background of Christ’s teachings, which included illustrations drawn not just from farming and animal husbandry, but also construction, rulers and nobility, the theater, government, finance and other aspects of city life.

In the next article in this series we will continue with important background information that helps us better understand the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. GN

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