Historical archaeology is the study of material remains of past civilizations, cultures and societies, based on some form of tangible evidence. Historical archaeologists work on a broad range of sites preserved on land and underwater. By examining the physical and documentary record of these sites, archaeologists try to discover evidence for documented historic events.
Supported by archaeological evidence, historians write with authority about the rise and fall of empires, about ancient civilizations and about the practices of kings and emperors. Can archaeology also prove that events described in the Bible really happened? Evidence suggests that this is indeed the case. Here are some examples.
Geographical references are significant in terms of supporting Old Testament accounts.
Judah and Israel during the period of the Kings
In addition to Jerusalem, Jericho and Babylon, places such as Haran, Hazor, Dan, Megiddo, Shechem, Samaria, Shiloh, Gezer, Gibeah, Beth Shemesh, Beth Shean, Beersheba, Lachish, and many other biblical sites have been excavated.
Map: Bible History Online
Gaza, for example, is mentioned in the Hebrew Bible as the place where Samson was imprisoned and died. The prophets Amos and Zephaniah are believed to have prophesied that Gaza would be deserted. According to biblical accounts, Gaza fell to Israelite rule, from the reign of King David in the early 11th century BC.
Among the most dangerous of Israel’s enemies were the Philistines, the people after whom Palestine itself would be named. The Pentapolis (five cities) they established, namely Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza, Gath, and Ekron, have all been excavated and some remain cities to this day.
The Rulers of Palestine
In New Testament times, Palestine was divided into ten regions forming the Roman province of Syria. Palestine became a ‘puppet’ kingdom allied to Rome after being conquered by Pompey in 63 BC.
Map: The Bible Journey
In 27 BC, the Roman emperor Octavian Caesar (who was given the title Augustus, meaning ‘more than human’) ordered a census to be taken in Judea. This census was organised by Quirinius, the Roman governor of the province of Syria (see Luke 2:1-2).
Mark 15:16-20 (NIV): “The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.”
They took Jesus to a place called Golgotha, which means the place of the skull. All four gospels testify that it was the place of Jesus’ crucifixion. The place is easily identifiable today. From the Via Dolorosa in the Old City, via the Damascus Gate, it is just a 10 minute walk to the Garden Tomb, where His body was placed.
Place of the Skull
Just to the north of the temple mountain in the fortress of St Antonio. Just outside the city gates, along a main road. The Romans always crucified along a main road, for maximum effect. When you look up at the rock, it looks distinctly like a human skull.
Photo: Bible Places
The Garden Tomb
This picture is what many believe is the very tomb where the body of Jesus was put after His crucifixion. The tomb is easily identifiable. Most archaeologists agree that Golgotha was the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
Photo: Creative Commons
Mark 16:1-8 (NIV): When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body… they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?” But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away… Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb…
The crucifixion is a historic event. It is the most well attested and documented event in all of ancient history. It happened and it split time in half. We now speak of Before Christ (BC) and Anno Domini (AD), the year of our Lord. There were eye witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. The apostle Paul gives us a long list of people who were still alive when the account of Jesus’ death and resurrection was written (1 Corinthians, Chapter 15).
There is more physical evidence that remains, such as the place where Jesus was despised and tormented before His crucifixion. In 35 BC, King Herod rebuilt a fortress to protect the Temple Mount. It was located in a corner of the Temple Mount and called the Fortress of Antonia, named after Herod’s friend Marc Antony. The Antonia Fortress functioned as headquarters for the Roman soldiers. This was also the place where the soldiers took the victims of their torture, prior to taking them outside the gates for crucifixion. There are still carvings on the ground from a game that was played by Roman soldiers, like a board game that we would have. You roll the dice to decide who gets what. You roll like this and the man is whipped. You roll like that and the man is beaten.
The abundant historical references leave little doubt that Jesus lived and died. The more interesting question, which goes beyond archaeology and historical facts, is whether Jesus died and lived.
The New Testament was written after the death of Jesus Christ. Archaeologists have found many manuscripts. Some of these manuscripts are dated less than 100 years after the original letters were written. As a result of historical research we can say with a high degree of certainty that key events in both the Old and New Testament really took place. Critics often argue that there is no concrete evidence for Gospel narrative. But archaeology tells us otherwise. In terms of historical reliability, the Bible is superior to any other ancient writings. Archaeological independent evidence confirms the historical character and reliability of biblical texts, including the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.