In 1938, Dr. Henry Walton Jones Jr., an archaeology professor at Barnette College, made a miraculous discovery. After traversing parts of Europe where he was hounded by Nazis, seduced by a femme fatale, and marked for death, he came to an ancient sandstone temple in the remote corners of the Middle East. Inside, he escaped treacherous pitfalls until he found a small room with the priceless artifact he sought: the cup that Jesus had used at the Last Supper, the “Holy Grail.”
Although entirely fictional, George Lucas’s Indiana Jones movie franchise says a lot about how people imagine the archaeology of early Christianity. Far from swashbuckling treasure-hunting, however, archaeology today focuses on the little things: pottery shards, coins, fragmentary texts. These seemingly insignificant finds are used primarily to piece together the world in which Jesus and other New Testament figures lived. By documenting physical evidence, both big and small, scholars can balance both the history and theology of the New Testament.
What do archaeologists do?
Archaeology, literally the “study of ancient things,” is a scientific discipline that revolves around excavation. “Dirt archaeologists” work on their hands and knees wielding trowels, brushes, dust pans, and clip boards. They find all kinds of things: human and animal bones, fresco pieces, coins, lamps, nails, combs, mirrors, mosaics, marble fragments, and shards of pottery—lots of it. Other archaeologists spend more time in laboratories where they might conduct complex analysis with chemicals or microscopes to determine the who, what, where, when, and how of an object. Some specialists, called numismatists, study the information on excavated coins. Others focus on epigraphy; they interpret inscriptions carved into stones. Bioarchaeology is a new frontier. Researchers extract DNA from ancient skeletons, then analyze it to give us a sense of regional diets, travel patterns, and how healthy ancient people were.
What can archaeology tell us about the New Testament?
Even when ancient ruins just look like a heap of rocks, archaeologists can see the unseen. With technical machinery such as ground-penetrating radar, archaeologists are able to map out what’s underground. Fortunately, many places mentioned in the New Testament have been at least partially excavated. In Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee, archaeologists have excavated buildings, houses, and streets, including a first-century CE home that some believe may have been—or would resemble—the house of Jesus’s disciple Peter (Matt 8:14–16). In turn, these excavations can help interpreters think more vividly about some of the gospel stories, such as the story of Jesus healing a paralytic in Capernaum (Matt 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–16). We can reimagine what the gospel authors envisioned: what such a house might have looked like, how many people one of these houses could hold, how high the roof was, or how crowded it might have been.
Specific objects excavated can be especially useful to reconstruct ancient history. For example, a dilapidated first-century CE fishing boat, painstakingly excavated in Galilee, offers a wealth of details that bring to life the many stories about Jesus and his disciples on the Sea of Galilee. Among other things, we can discern the day-to-day upkeep of a fishing vessel like some of the disciples may have used (Mark 1:19), the capacity of their nets (Luke 5: 4–7), the speed of the boats Jesus travelled in (Matt 9:1; Mark 5:21), the effect of rough seas on these vessels (Matt 14:24), and how easily it would have been for one of them to capsize (Mark 4:35–38). Since the wood planks of the excavated boat were sealed with bitumen pitch, we might even get a sense of what a boat like the one Jesus used may have smelled like! We can make a similar set of observations from coins discovered in excavated portions of the Second Temple in Jerusalem—coins that would have been circulating at the time of Jesus (Matt 22:15–22; Luke 15:8–10; John 2:14–16).
Outside of Palestine, everything from temples to toilets has been excavated in cities like Caesarea Maritima, Antioch, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth, and Rome. As a result, we can better grasp how the apostle Paul or other early Christians would have lived, worked, and played in these specific cities. Then we can read stories about, say, the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (Acts 19: 27) or meat markets in Corinth (1 Cor 10:25) with fresh eyes.
But not everything that is excavated was actually there at the time of the New Testament. The ancient synagogue that stands today at Capernaum might seem like the setting for Jesus’s teaching in Mark 1:21–28, but in fact it was built hundreds of years after the time of Jesus. At Corinth, an excavated inscription mentioning a person named “Erastus” would seem to be the same person that Paul mentions (Rom 16:23; also Acts 19:22; 2 Tim 4:20), but in reality, the inscription is from the mid-second century pavement and would not be the same Erastus from the New Testament. So, much of what archaeology does is to supply a chronology—or range of dates—for a site, which can include its buildings or related artifacts. Often, dating a site comes from stratigraphy, distinguishing the relative phases of layers in the soil. By accurately dating a site, archaeologists can reconstruct what it would have looked like around the time of the New Testament. Determining what was not there around that time can be as helpful as determining what was.
Occasionally, archaeologists will stumble upon a find that clarifies a host of issues related to the New Testament (for example, an edict from Emperor Claudius known as the Gallio inscription helps set the chronology of Paul’s letters). Usually, however, archaeological finds that see the light of day are pretty ordinary—and that’s okay. The point is not to match an archaeological find with a specific event or person but to provide a context for ancient life more broadly, which at times confirms, and at others challenges, aspects of the New Testament. No matter what is unearthed, though, using archaeology raises new questions for interpreting texts. Digging in the dirt can make a huge difference.
Image Credit: Ancient Philippi, Author’s photo. Archaeological work in ancient Philippi (modern Filippoi) continues in various degrees and intermittently. Although the city has roots in early Christianity (Phil 1:1; Acts 16:12), most of what can be seen today dates from the second century or later, much of it from the Byzantine period.