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Jesus And His World: The Archaeological Evidence


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Craig Evans, the author of Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence examines the archaeological record of first-century Palestine to see how this correlates with the Gospels and Acts. Since there is a lack of specific archaeological evidence of Jesus, Evans looks at archaeological evidence from the perspective of "verisimilitudes," the plausibility of reported NT events in light of what the archaeological record shows.

 

He examines the evidence that Jesus studied at synagogues in the Galilee and concludes that it is possible. He considers whether Jesus was literate and concludes that it is likely, but not in professional manner like a scribe. He asks the question about what Jesus looked like and concludes that pictures in Egypt from the period are the best general guess. Since his physical appearance is never commented on the Gospels, he concludes that he was probably a very ordinary-looking Jewish man.

 

One of the more interesting sections is a long chapter about Jewish burial practices in 1st-century Palestine and how the biblical narrative might fit with what is known. Generally, the evidence (except the resurrection which cannot be scientifically tested) is consistent with the biblical stories. The author suggests the likelihood that (1) Jesus was buried in tombs designated for executed criminals; (2) these were under the control of the Sanhedrin; (3) the guard was an official guard over the criminal tombs; and (4) the body had been moved from the original place to another by the authorities (maybe as a routine administrative move). So, when the family members came back to the original place to anoint him (a common Jewish practice), the tomb was empty. (From there, it is a matter of faith.)

 

I think anyone interested in the historical person would find this book a worthwhile read. Evans presents lots of archaeological material from the period and relates it to the person described in the Gospels. If nothing else, it gives a good context for that time and place.

 

George

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Is there an overlap with Bart Ehrman's book on the historical Jesus?

 

Not really. First, they each approach the problem from a different perspective. Second, Ehrman was establishing the existence of the historical person where Evans was looking at what archaeology might tell us about him and his world. Ehrman was interested in the person and his theology (an apocalyptic preacher). Evans didn't address this aspect. Evans looked at him more as a first-century Palestinian Jew.

 

However, they are complementary in that they both help fill in the picture.

 

George

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In his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan argued that it's highly unlikely that the Romans would have easily given back the dead body of an executed criminal back to his family and followers just because some random rich Jewish guy paid them off. Crossan argued that the empty tomb story was a myth from later Christian tradition and most likely the Romans threw Jesus' body in Gehenna with the rest of the criminals where his body was eaten by wild dogs. Does Evans address this argument in his book?

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In his book Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, John Dominic Crossan argued that it's highly unlikely that the Romans would have easily given back the dead body of an executed criminal back to his family and followers just because some random rich Jewish guy paid them off. Crossan argued that the empty tomb story was a myth from later Christian tradition and most likely the Romans threw Jesus' body in Gehenna with the rest of the criminals where his body was eaten by wild dogs. Does Evans address this argument in his book?

 

He does and argues that it would be almost certain that the body would be given back to the Jews for burial (in a criminal tomb). He says that this was in peacetime and the Romans respected Jewish law and tradition in order to maintain the peace. In fact, the bones of an executed man from this era has been found, in a tomb, with the spike stuck in the foot bone. Another burial tomb has been found with a decapitated woman who had been executed. Others have been found which may have been executed.

 

So, the archaeological evidence clearly suggests that (in peacetime - not during the uprising when many were crucified and left unburied) that the Romans gave the bodies of executed criminals back to the Jews for burial.

 

George

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So if this was peacetime where the Romans would be extra nice to the Jews, why would the Romans have executed a Jew in the first place?

 

Sorry, I don't have a handy list of capital crimes under Roman law.

 

George

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I do question how objective Craig Evans is being and how much he's misusing far fetched archeological claims to justify his fundamentalist Christian worldview and I've never understood this whole "the empty tomb is evidence that it's all true" line of reasoning apologists love to use. Here's a debate between Ehrman and Evans on the historical accuracy of the gospel accounts you may be interested in:

Edited by Neon Genesis
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Neon,

 

How do you know his claims are "far fetched" and his evidence "misused." Please state the specific claims that are "far fetched" and your authoritative source for this.

 

The reason I got the book was a favorable review in "The Biblical Archaeology Review." In reading the book, I got absolutely no sense of "apologetics." If I had, I would have put it down immediately as I am quite suspicious of such material. However, I don't dismiss everything out of hand because it is written by a person identified as a Christian. In the book, he makes no claims of inerrancy. He makes no claims of supernatural events. And, his sources are numerous and cited.

 

BTW, I saw nothing in this short clip that would lead me to believe he is a "fundamentalist."

 

George

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In part 2 of the debate, Dr. Evans claims that all the resurrection accounts of the early Christians in the NT completely cohere with the accounts of the gospels and that the gospels accounts were written early enough to be considered historically reliable. If he really believes that the resurrection accounts are coherent and that the gospels are historically reliable, I would find his claims to be rather dubious. I'm also curious how he reconciles his portrayal of the Roman empire as being kind and respectful to the Jews with the negative portrayal of Pontius Pilate that Josephus describes in his historical accounts.

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I'm also curious how he reconciles his portrayal of the Roman empire as being kind and respectful to the Jews with the negative portrayal of Pontius Pilate that Josephus describes in his historical accounts.

 

No one, neither Evans nor myself, has said that the Romans were "kind and respectful to the Jews." According to Evans, during peace time, they respected Jewish burial law (and there is extensive archaeological evidence of this). They were not being kind, but pragmatic. It makes perfect sense that the occupiers would avoid unnecessarily antagonizing their subjects? During the uprising, they would have different motives.

 

George

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Pontius PIlate's predecessor's may have been respectful to Jewish customs but we know explicitly from Josephus' writings that Pilate, the man in charge of executing Jesus, was very disrespectful to Jewish customs and that it would have been uncharacteristic of him to just give back Jesus' body to his followers. So I ask again, how does he reconcile his argument with what the historical record tells us about Pilate?

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Neon,

 

Where do you propose that all those pre-70CE ossuaries around Jerusalem came from if Jews were not allowed to bury their dead according to custom? What about the ones with executed bodies in them? What about the one with the spike stuck in the foot (dated to the time of Pilate)? What are your sources?

 

FWIW, Josephus confirmed that the Romans do "not leave a corpse unburied, show consideration even to declared enemies." He also said, "The Romans do not require their subjects to violate their national laws."

 

George

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http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jeff_lowder/empty.html#7

In defense of the nonburial hypothesis, proponents note that the Romans typically denied burial to victims of crucifixion,[6] a punishment normally reserved for "slaves or those who threatened the existing social order."[7] As John Dominic Crossan writes, "It was actually nonburial that made being crucified alive one of the three supreme penalties of Roman punishment."[8] Of course, such a practice was not absolute; independently of Jesus' burial and the New Testament, there are documented exceptions to this practice.[9] And if the Romans were willing to allow an exception in Jesus' case, then it is likely that Jesus would have been buried, since the Jews would have been motivated to prevent the land from being defiled.[10] Thus, there is historical precedent both for the Romans to allow a crucifixion victim to be buried and for the Jews to bury the corpses of their enemies, though it must be emphasized that burial was the exception rather than the rule for Roman crucifixion victims.

However, there are some important differences between the above scenario and what we know generally about Roman and Jewish burial customs for executed criminals. Although there are documented exceptions to Roman practice, it's not clear that those exceptions are even relevant to Jesus. The sources from antiquity that document instances of Roman crucifixion victims being buried suggest two scenarios in which a victim of crucifixion might be allowed burial: the approach of a Roman holiday, and a request from a friend of the Roman governor. While it is certainly conceivable that the Romans may have also made an exception for a Jewish festival, there is no evidence (independent of the NT accounts of Jesus' burial) that they did. Thus, the prior probability that Jesus was given a burial of any sort is low.

 

Furthermore, Rabbinic law specifies that criminals may not be buried in tombs; rather, it instructs Jews to bury criminals in a common grave.[11] But would the Jews have considered Jesus a criminal? Jesus was, after all, executed by the Romans for the political crime of being the King of the Jews, not for the theological charge of blasphemy. On this basis, David Daube has suggested that the Jews may not have considered Jesus a criminal.[12] And if the Jews believed that Jesus had been crucified for an act that did not violate divine law, then there is historical precedent for believing they would have given Jesus an honorable burial.[13] However, this is all moot given that the Sanhedrin found Jesus guilty of blasphemy.[14] Under Jewish law, such a crime was punishable by death by stoning (Num. 24:16). Daube also proposes that one of the references to the Rabbinic law in question is an "anti-Christian hyperbole" invented "to show that Jesus could not have escaped being buried in a public grave."[15] But even if Daube were right about this, this would only explain away the reference to the Rabbinic law in the later Tosefta (circa CE 300). This would not negate the independent confirmation of the Rabbinic law in the earlier Mishnah (circa CE 200). But it is far from obvious that Christianity is even the context of the passage in the Tosefta. And therefore Daube has not shown that the reference to the Rabbinic law in the Tosefta is an anti-Christian hyperbole. So the prior probability that Jesus was permanently buried alone in a new tomb is even lower still.

 

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Neon,

 

You seem to be determined to discredit the evidence that Jesus was plausibly buried by whatever you can find. First, you try to discredit Evans with a debate with Bart Ehrman. Then, you use sources whom Ehrman discredits, like Doherty, Carrier and Price. Ehrman, by the way, describes one of Craig's earlier books as "among the most important and interesting studies of the past thirty or forty years . . ."

 

If one doesn't think that the historical Jesus existed, one would not accept that he was buried. I happen to think he did exist (as does Ehrman, Spong, the fellows of the Jesus Seminar and others). I also think that Craig makes a good case (with solid archaeological evidence) that he was plausibly buried.

 

You do not seem prepared to accept the historical Jesus. That is fine, I have no objection. But, at this point, I think this discussion is going nowhere productive and would best that left at agreeing to disagree.

 

George

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I'm curious about the fact that neither of you has mentioned Herschel Shank's hot-off-the-press report about the James Ossuary that's just been posted online at the Biblical Archaeology Review site.

 

The James Ossuary and the ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb constitute some of the strongest archaeological evidence we have for the existence of the historical Jesus.

 

The fact that filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici sensationalized the findings from the Talpiot Tomb does not mean the original archaeological rescue operation (carried out by the predecessors of the IAA) was flawed or suspicious in nature. Simcha, along with paleobiologist Charles Pellegrino, first made the claim that the James Ossuary is the tenth ossuary that went missing from the Talpiot Tomb escavation site.

 

I read the original paper that was used in part to foster the belief that the inscription (or part of the inscription) on the James Ossuary was a forgery. (Ayalon, Avner and Miryam Bar-Matthews and Yuval Goren. “Authenticity Examination of the Inscription on the Ossuary Attributed to James, Brother of Jesus.” Journal of Archaeological Science 31 (2004): 1185-1189.) This was poorly executed paper and I'm not sure why it was accepted in a peer-reviewed journal when the authors suggested the calcium carbonate patina was faked by dissolving marine carbonate sediments in warm or hot water and depositing the solution in the inscription. Calcium carbonate has such poor solubility in water that it's hard to imagine how such a faked patina could be successfully accomplished. Have you ever tried to dissolve a bunch of Tums tablets in a glass of hot water? Can you imagine what this would look like if you painted it on an ancient stone bone box?

 

A much more thorough analysis and report of the James Ossuary inscription was carried out in 2005 by Wolfgang Krumbein for the defendants in the forgery trial. It was posted on-line a few years ago on the BAR site. (Krumbein, Wolfgang E. “External Expert Opinion on Three Stone Items.” Biblical Archaeology Society. Sept. 2005. 04 Dec. 2007 <http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/bswbOOossuary_Krumbeinreport.pdf>.) The scientific findings in this report are sound and should be respected. (What's my qualification to say so? I have a graduate degree in Artifact Art Conservation -- the history and chemical analysis and museum conservation of important archeological and historical artifacts. I'm also pretty good at repairing broken kitchen dishes.)

 

Neon, the textual evidence for the history of Jesus and the history of Pontius Pilate are roughly equivalent (New Testament verses plus reports in Josephus). The archeological evidence for the history of Jesus and the history of Pontius Pilate are also roughly equivalent (a very small number of stone inscriptions held in the collection of the Israel Antiquities Authority). Why do you insist we must listen to the slim evidence we have about Pontius Pilate but not the slim evidence we have for the historical Jesus? Why is the body of Pilate evidence "valid" in your opinion but not the body of "Jesus" evidence?

 

Perhaps it's just convenient?

Edited by canajan, eh?
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I'm curious about the fact that neither of you has mentioned Herschel Shank's hot-off-the-press report about the James Ossuary that's just been posted online at the Biblical Archaeology Review site.

 

The James Ossuary and the ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb constitute some of the strongest archaeological evidence we have for the existence of the historical Jesus.

 

Yeah, good point. I read Shank's BAR article recently in the magazine. I thought the statistics for the name coincidence were particularly interesting. Although all the names were very common Jewish names at the time, the possibility of another man named Jesus (yeshu'a) with a father named Joseph (Yosef) and a brother name James (Yaqub) is not very likely.

 

Also, I failed to mention that Bart Ehrman also thinks that Jesus was buried. He says, "Jesus was not only crucified, he was buried. In other words, he died a human death, by execution, at the hands of the Romans, and really was dead, as evidenced by his burial."

 

If in fact, his bones were placed in an ossuary, this would be strong evidence against a bodily resurrection. Bones were not put into ossuaries until a year or so after death.

 

George

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Neon,

 

You seem to be determined to discredit the evidence that Jesus was plausibly buried by whatever you can find. First, you try to discredit Evans with a debate with Bart Ehrman. Then, you use sources whom Ehrman discredits, like Doherty, Carrier and Price. Ehrman, by the way, describes one of Craig's earlier books as "among the most important and interesting studies of the past thirty or forty years . . ."

 

And you're misrepresenting my views and using an ad hominem attack. I do accept the existence of a historical Jesus but I don't believe Jesus was ever buried in a tombr. If there was an empty tomb, where is it? Why didn't the early Christians leave behind some sort of marker indicating where such important proof to the early Christians would be located at? Why doesn't Paul mention anything about the empty tomb or the women at the tomb or anything in the gospel narratives' accounts of the empty tomb at all? Edited by Neon Genesis
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And you're misrepresenting my views and using an ad hominem attack. I do accept the existence of a historical Jesus but I don't believe Jesus was ever buried in a tombr.

 

I am sorry if I misunderstood your view. However, I don't feel like it was an ad hominem attack as I explicitly said, and believe, there would nothing wrong with it if you do.

 

George

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