Archaeological and Historic Evidence for Jesus Christ
Table of Contents
Overview – History of Jesus
The historic accounts for Jesus and the archaeological evidence all match exactly what the Bible teaches us. The gospel tells four different accounts of the same events in Jesus life and ministry, told by four different people who experienced it in different ways. Beyond the four accounts written about in the gospel, there are countless other records by disciples of Jesus, eye witnesses of Jesus, believers in Jesus and non – believers.
Almost every town, location and landmark mentioned in the Bible that Jesus ministered to is historically accounted for in today’s world. Most of the locations of each town that Jesus visited are known today, or some portion of them remain from their ancient past. The people mentioned in the gospels are known to have existed in the same time frames presented in the historic records. The prominent men, such as the governors, priests and rulers of each location mentioned in the gospels are people that we know existed just as the Bible recorded.
The Gospels – Jesus Biography
The synoptic gospels or the canonical gospels are the four books found in the beginning of the New Testament. They account for four different eye witness testimonies of men that became Jesus Disciples, or account for the records of other eye witnesses of everything from the beginning of Jesus Ministry to His death, and resurrection.
It is important to emphasis they are four different accounts that each add validity to the historic importance of Jesus, each one is a biography of the life of Jesus, written at different times only a few decades or less after Jesus ministry.
- The Gospel of Matthew – Written 60-70 a.d. – Matthew was a Jewish tax collector that began to follow Jesus early in His ministry.
- The Gospel of Mark – Believed to be the first gospel, the book is estimated to have been written in 60 a.d. It is believed to have been written by John (also called John Mark) by most scholars, he is first mentioned in Acts 12.12. He was a traveling companion of Paul and Barnabas during the early church years. His book is written from Mark recording the many eye witness accounts of Jesus ministry.
- The Gospel of Luke – A Gentile (non-Jewish) Historian and Physician. He became a believer and disciple of Christ after the Church began, after Jesus returned to Heaven. He collected multiple testimonies and eye witness accounts of Jesus ministry to compile his book of Luke, which became one of the gospels.
- The Gospel of John – John was the brother of James, they where the sons of Zebedee and disciples of Jesus from the beginning of His ministry. John was a fisherman by trade.
Ossuary of James Brother of Jesus
Oded Golan an antiquities collector purchased this ossuary in the mid 1970’s from an Arab laborer who found it in a cave near Silwan just outside of Jerusalem. It did not come from an official and scientifically controlled excavation but that does not exclude its importance or relevance. The ossuary contains an inscription
“James the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus”
The inscription and ossuary was deemed authentic, and the inscription after much scrutiny was authenticated to be from the first century a.d. by the Biblical Archaeological Society in 2008. After a stone ossuary lies in a cave for hundreds of years it develops a patina or thin film of chemicals. After the patina layer was examined, it was given a narrow date of 50-70 a.d. the same time as the apostle James death.
We know from the Bible that the apostle James was the half brother of Jesus and their fathers name was Joseph. Usually a name of significance is placed on a person’s ossuary to signify their importance and most ossuaries are placed without inscriptions. James was always known as ‘James the brother of Jesus.’
What are the odds this was a different James that had a brother named Jesus and a father named Joseph? Mathematicians have created an equations based on the archaeological finds from this era. James is found in 2% of inscriptions, Joseph in 14% and Jesus in 9%. 0.02 x 0.14 x 0.09 = .000252 or 0.02% of the population would meet those requirements. It has been estimated that the population of Jerusalem in the first century was roughly 600k (source – est. by Roman Historian Tacitus), that would put the number of people that meet that requirement at about 120 people.
Bones of John the Baptist
In 2010 a Bulgarian archeologist claimed to have found the remains of John the Baptist while excavating a 5th century monastery in the island of Sveti Ivan (Saint John in English) in the black sea. A reliquary, made of hard volcanic ash, with bone contained within, was found in the monasteries basement.
It contained fragments of a skull, a hand and a tooth. An inscription on the side of the reliquary stated “John the Baptist,” in Greek, and the date of June 24th which was the Christian celebration of Saint John’s birthday. The text also read ‘God help your servant Thomas.’ Radiocarbon dating of the bones confirms the man was alive in the first century a.d. and the genetics are consistent with the remains of the people of the ancient near east. Bulgarian researchers believe the bones probably came to Bulgaria from Antioch. We know from scripture that the body of John was retrieved by his disciples after he was beheaded.
Priest Caiaphas & Family Tombs
In November of 1990, a chamber tomb was discovered near peace forest south of Jerusalem by a construction team that was bulldozing the location. A number of ossuaries where found in the burial chamber, one was a highly decorated ossuary inscribed twice with the name:
“Joseph, the son of Caiaphas”
The ossuary held the bones of a 60 year old man from the first century a.d. Though disputed it is suggested these are the remains of Caiaphas the high priest, one of the main antagonists of Jesus.
Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all!– John 11.49
In 2011, archaeologists Bar-Iian announced the recovery of a stolen Ossuary from the tomb in the Valley of Elah. Israeli Antiquities Authority declared it authentic; it bore the inscription:
‘Miriam, the daughter of Caiapahas, Prient of Maz’aziah from Beth Imri.’
These discoveries continue to account for the biblical record of Caiaphas the priest during Jesus time, but also assigns him to the Ma’aziah priest division.
Pontius Pilate Inscription
Critics of the Bible used to believe the figures mentioned in the Bible where fictional. The longer the field of archaeology thrives, the more we find all of the historic figures existed as described in New Testament.
The Pontius Pilate inscription was discovered in 1961 on the westerns steps of the Roman theater at Caesarea. This discovery authenticates the historic account of the New Testament figure Pontius Pilate and his office in the Roman government. Pontius Pilate was the Roman official that condemned Jesus to death by crucifixion to appease the Jewish leaders that turned him in.
Do you refuse to speak to me?” Pilate said. “Don’t you realize I have power either to free you or to crucify you?”– John 19.10
The dimensions of the limestone tablet is 80cm H x 68cm L x 20cm W. The Latin inscription reads (reconstructed letters are in brackets):
- [DIS AUGUSTI]S TIBERIÉUM
- […PO]NTIUS PILATUS
- […PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E
- […FECIT D]E[DICAVIT]
- The translation:
- To the Divine Augusti [this] Tiberieum
- …Pontius Pilate
- …prefect of Judea
- …has dedicated [this]
Legendary artifacts are just that, legendary items with extraordinary claims; each of which should not be substantiated without extraordinary evidence. What is interesting to note, as far as their implications with real historic meaning, is that the legends surrounding these artifacts go back to just centuries after Christ, and how the genesis of their stories take place in a well established consensus in those locations. This pointing to the fact that the history of Christianity had already been very well known, established and accepted by the people of the world at that time.
Piece of the true Cross
In 324 A.D Constantine, the Emperor of Rome sent his wife Saint Helena on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in search of the Holy Sepulcher and the True Cross (the cross Jesus died on). With the help of one of her servants, Judas Cyriancus, they found the location that Jesus was crucified at Jerusalem and where the crosses where discarded after crucifixion.
Legend says they supposedly found three crosses, one of which they believed to belong to Jesus and when they had a leprous man touch the cross he was healed of his leprosy. After it was determined that this was the true cross of Jesus Christ, it was brought back and over time it has been splintered and split throughout various churches over the ages.
It has been estimated, if you added up all the pieces together from all the churches that claim to have a piece, it would be enough wood to build a ship. Some of the pieces have been radio tested and have various date ranges; the earliest known is from the 11th century. However it is interesting to note the history of the search dates to the 3rd century a.d.
The Holy Lance or Spear of Destiny
The Spear of Destiny is another legendary artifact that is believed to be the remains of the spear that pierced Jesus side (John 19.34). Legend says that the artifact changes the destiny of the wielder, to rule the world. In the gospel of Nicodemus and acts of Pontius Pilate (written 300 – 375 a.d), the centurion that pierced Jesus is names Longinus who had terrible eyesight but was healed when some of Jesus blood splashed on his face.
He later became a martyr and died for his faith. The spear was retrieved and belonged to Constantine for a time, then Alaric the Goth took it during his sack of Rome. It theoretically was passed to world leaders such as Attila the Hun, then the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in Constantinople. After many other exchanges including the pope in the 5th century, it supposedly made it way to Vienna in 1796. Hitler obtained it but after losing the Second World War, and today there is an artifact in the Vienna museum with this title – the Spear of Destiny.
There are numerous accounts of Jesus life and ministry from both Christian and non Christian sources. Various Jewish and Roman officials, reports and historians of the first century a.d. have given us a very detailed account of both Jesus works and the results of His ministries.
Josephus (33 – 100 A.D) was a Jewish historian and is known as one of the primary sources for understanding the second Temple of Judaism in 1st century A.D. By the end of the first century A.D he had written ‘the Jewish Wars,’ ‘the Antiquities of the Jews,’ ‘Against Apion,’ and ‘The Life of Flavius Josephus.’ His writings where records of the world in the first century and an eyewitness testimony that remain important to the historic context of early Christianity.
Pliny the Younger
Pliny the Younger (61 A.D – 112 A.D.) was the nephew of Pliny the Elder (23 – 79 A.D.) the author of the 37 volumes ‘Natural History.’ Pliny the Younger had an incredible political career; he was a renowned lawyer or orator, and historic writer.
Pliny the Younger was born into wealthy Roman family from the town of Cornum in Italy. He served on staff of a Syrian legion, serving Emperor Domitian, Nerva and Trajan from 81 A.D to 98 A.D. Under Trajan he became Governor of Bithynia-Pontus, a Roman province on the Black Sea off the coast of modern-day Turkey.
Tacitus was a Roman historian and politician that lived roughly 56 a.d. – 120 a.d. He is regarded as one of the greatest Roman historians by many scholars. He wrote two major historic pieces; the Annals and the Histories. These works spanned the history of the Roman Empire and the death of Augustus Caesar. A few main points about Jesus and Christians can be made from his writings:
- Christians where names after the founder, Christus.
- Christus died the death penalty during Emperor Tiberius reign (a.d 14 – 37a.d)
- Christ was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate (a.d. 26 – 36)
- His death ended the pernicious superstition for a short time. The superstition broke out one again in Judea. He called the belief in Christ a disease.
- The so called ‘disease’ spread all the way to Rome and caused a great fire.
Other Historic Writers
Various other historic writings about Jesus were recorded as follows:
Julius Africanus – quoted the historian Thallus in discussing the darkness following Jesus death
Lucian of Samosata – a second century Greek who admits that Jesus was worshipped by Christians, introduced a new teaching and died for his beliefs. He recorded Jesus’ teachings included brotherhood of believers, importance of conversion and denying other gods.
Mara-Bar-Serapion – Confirmed that Jesus was a wise and virtuous man and was considered by many to be the king of Israel. That he died by crucifixion and lived on in the teachings of his followers.
Independent Verification and Circumstantial Evidence
When talking about the events of historic accuracy, the only thing we can do as humans is trust the information passed on through history and do our best to match it with other accounts that relate to the subject. There are various methods we can use to determine if this information is true or false.
One method of verification is confirmation through independent verification. Jesus had so many eye witnesses of every type of background and social status, his presence in the ancient world cannot be disputed. There are so many independent witness testimonies that had no influence on one another, or from people who didn’t know each other, from so many different perspectives, we have all the evidence we need to point to all the accounts in the Bible about Jesus as historic fact.
Jesus Miracles, Ministries, and Prophecies
Jesus proclaimed He was God come in the flesh (John 1). He proclaimed that He was the messiah, the anointed one who was to come and take away the sins of the world. Jesus performed many miracles throughout the lands of ancient Israel.
Every gospel has multiple supernatural accounts, too numerous to mention here. We will look at a few non Christian examples that account for Jesus miraculous works below:
Josephus Flavius –Josephus writings show Jesus drew many people after him both Jews and Gentiles. Jesus worked startling deeds, attributed to those similar to the prophet Elijah. Josephus also accounted for His resurrection.
Jewish Leaders Account to Pontius Pilate – The Jewish leaders requested soldier to guard Jesus tomb as they believed that Jesus disciples would steal His body. However they abandoned their posts because they saw something miraculous.
Satirist Lucian (125-180 a.d.) was a pagan author of Samosata that ridiculed Christianity, spoke about Jesus and his crucifixion. He talked about Christians worshiping the crucified sage taking on faith and despised all worldly goods.
The Philosopher Celsus from the 2nd century a.d. argued against Christianity. In his research he attested to and wrote about Jesus performing miracles through, what he compared to sorcery.
Jewish Rabbis – Multiple Jewish Writings from the First century a.d. attribute Jesus works to those of sorcery. One for instance is from the Rabbis in the Babylonia Sanhedrin written between 95 – 110 a.d. states:
“During the time of Passover they executed Yeshu (of Nazareth). An announcement was made for forty days before this saying (Yeshu of Nazareth) will be stoned in that he has practiced sorcery and deceived and led Israel astray. Let everyone who knows contrary, come and plead for his defense. But they found nothing in his defense and they crucified him.” – Rabbinic Writings from the Babylonia Sanhedrin
On the subject of miracles, you have to take in account all the prophecies that are proven to be written hundreds of years before Christ was born by the Old Testament writers, all fulfilled by Jesus. Historically we can authenticate that He fulfilled over 350 prophecies from the Old Testament. The most prominent being about his death at the hand of the Jewish leaders on a cross. Psalms 22 details the death on a cross centuries before the crucifixion was invented! Daniel chapter 9 details the exact year Jesus would ride into Jerusalem and be killed by His people. Isaiah 53 reveals that Jesus was God whom His own people had pierced! Pierced? Yes with nails and a spear.
These are only a taste of the total number of prophecies that the messiah fulfilled. How could a poor peasant man fulfill prophecies with complete accuracy, that where written hundreds of years before their birth. As the numbers of prophecies fulfilled are multiplied, they are another example of a supernatural miracle(s).
Jesus Death on the Cross
Jesus Death was a Historic fact. Already mentioned above, there are a multitude of accounts from both Jewish and non Jewish sources with mixed statements that all relate to Jesus ministry, works and death on the cross and condemnation through crucifixion.
No Man Could Have Survived
The main point of this historic fact is to look objectively at Jesus death on the cross. When he was being tried, he was being tried by the Jewish leaders because of His claims to being God, and for leading his great multiple of followers away with His claims. If Jesus was not God, all he had to do was confess He was lying, promised to stop His deception and He could have walked away. His ministry was devoted to doing good, helping people as He was known as a great healer, and never committed any crimes. Why would a person do all this, for no gain and lose their life in the process?
The process of crucifixion for Jesus was far more severe than other criminals had to endure. Besides the ridicule, mockery and humiliation, he was beat with the Roman ‘Cat o’ 9 tails’ whip. A whip that would have been prepared with pieces of barbs embedded in it, historian’s state that Jesus back would have looked like raw hamburger meat after the whipping, the blood loose would have been immense.
Then his hands and feet are pierced through the arteries with the nails to the cross. Jesus had suffered so much torture, that when it came time to break the legs of the prisoners, he was already dead. So the soldier, to ensure his death, pierced his side and out flowed blood and water. This happens inside a human body post mortem, as the body begins to decay water and blood leak into the tissues and swell the abdomen. Jesus died.
Jesus resurrection was historic. Just as we have a multitude of historic accounts of Jesus death on the cross, we have multitudes of historic accounts of Jesus resurrection.
Ignatius (35 a.d. – 117 a.d.) was the bishop of Antioch, and his friend Polycarp (69 a.d. – 155 a.d.) both wrote about John’s recollections of Jesus resurrection with a physical body.
Saint Irenaeus wrote about speaking with the apostle John and how re recollected of Jesus resurrection.
Josephus Flavius – … had condemned him (Jesus) to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things about him, and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.” – Antiquities 18:63-64
Eye Witnesses in the Church
Eye Witness accounts of Jesus resurrection and ascension into heaven are written about throughout the letters of the apostles and believers. In 1Corin 15.3-8 we read the apostle Paul’s letter to the Corinthians of about the 500 people that witnessed Jesus resurrection and ascension into heaven. Now there is a problem about talking to people about their eye-witness account. If you’re lying, they will call you out on it. However if your telling the truth, those who saw miraculous things will not cease talking about them, confirming the records among the people.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures; 4. that he was buried; that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures; 5. that he appeared to Cephas, then to the Twelve. 6. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at once, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7. After that he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8. Last of all, as to one born abnormally, he appeared to me.– 1 Corinthians 15. 3 – 8
Persecution of Believers and Growth of the Church
In the foxes book of martyr we have a very small sample of the thousands of people who where eye witnesses of Jesus death, burial and resurrection and their knowledge of the events leading them to a faith that they died for. The believers of the first church and the eye witnesses of all these events died not only willingly but gladly because they knew what they had seem to be the truth. They not only believed it, they experienced it personally.
Criticism of Jesus Existence or Who Jesus Was
First of all, you have to objectively look at how historic facts work in comparison to other fields of study like science, which is a different field of observation and repeatable experimentation. Ask yourself the question, can you personally find evidence that points to the fact that anyone in history existed at all? Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln?
The only way you can truly know someone existed in history is because you believe the historic accounts of that person, written down by other people. This is the reason why history differs from other academic studies. The only way to understand history is to build it form inference, independent verification and testimonies you can gather from records or artifacts that are left behind from the past.
Critics of Jesus historic presence, after being faced with the overwhelming amount of recorded accounts, testimonies and data, always concede to the fact that Jesus did indeed exist and that the historic accounts are accurately described in the Bible.
What critics look for beyond this is the evidence that He was God. We know how the limitations of our understanding of how the universe works, this side of eternity, and that God tells us that He delights in working through His creation. Knowing about Jesus historically is only supposed to be the beginning of your journey of faith.
The fact is that miracles that occur in the universe cannot be scientifically measure since they exist external to any experimentally measurable device we can construct. The very nature of a miracle is something that exists ‘super’ naturally or external to the limitations of our world. The point is this, that this is something that has to be experienced spiritually.
Does that mean you blindfold yourself and walk off a cliff? No, you are to walk by faith in what God has revealed the evidence of things unseen. i.e. you know it feels good to give to others, and love other people, even when they don’t deserve it right? Instead of getting revenge against someone, you know how good it feels to show kindness to others and mercy and to practice self control against things your conscience tells you is wrong. These are spiritual fruits.
God wants to have a relationship with you, and wants you to come to Him, to humble yourself before Him and He will lift you up. When you seek His face, and repent of your sins and believe in Him, He will spiritually revive you. You are right to struggle with the logical part of the spiritual walk if that’s all you currently have, because it is not a logic walk, it is a spiritual one. You have to make a willful choice to believe in Him and come to God by faith.