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Top 10 Discoveries About Jesus' World

Scholars Crossan and Reed's List Includes Both Sites and Artifacts


The quest for the historical Jesus has consumed scholars since the dawn of the scientific age. In 2001, two world-renowned authorities, biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan and archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed wrote a book Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (San Francisco, Harper One, 2002) based on their own "top 10" list of biblical history sites and artifacts that in their expert opinions give the most insight into Jesus' world.

1. The ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus

The top discovery on Crossan's and Reed's list, the James Ossuary, has been controversial since it was first exhibited in Toronto in 2002. The ossuary, or bone box, bears an inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." It subsequently was declared a forgery by the Israel Antiquities Authority and was seized from its owner, Oded Golan of Tel Aviv, who was charged with forgery along with antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch. The two men have been on trial for five years in Israel. A verdict is still pending as of April 2011.

Kalman, Matthew, ""Judge Mulls Verdict in Jesus Forgery Trial," AOL News, http://www.aolnews.com/2010/10/05/judge-considers-verdict-in-5-year-long-jesus-forgery-trial/

2. The ossuary of the high priest, Joseph Caiaphas

In 1990, a construction crew building a park south of Jerusalem's Old City made a startling discovery: a cave with radiating tunnels holding 12 ancint ossuaries, or "bone boxes" typical of Jewish burial practices in A.D. first century, along with two Roman nails. In one of the tunnels, they found an ornately carved box on which was crudely lettered the words "Yehosef bar Qafa," or "Joseph, son of Caiaphas," the name of the Jewish high priest mentioned in biblical accounts of Jesus' crucifixion. The site found in 1990 has come to be known as the Caiaphas Tomb, according to archaeologist Jonathan L. Reed, author of The Harper Collins Visual Guide to the New Testament (New York, Harper Collins, 2007).

3. The inscription of the prefect Pontius Pilate

Pilate Inscription

In 1962 a stone now known as the Pilate Inscription was located amid the ruins of Herod the Great's capital, Caesarea Maritima. The inscription proclaimed that Pontius Pilate, prefect of the Roman province of Judea, had dedicated a public edifice known as a Tiberium in honor of the emperor Tiberius. The stone apparently had been rescued from an earlier construction, for it was found in a layer of the dig dated to A.D. 4th century, a time when the original theater was renovated, according to the Italian archaeologists. The inscription itself had been preserved because the stone had been turned over when used in the theater's renewal, thus protecting the carving from erosion.

4. The skeleton of the crucified Yehochanan

In an ossuary marked with the name Yehochanan, archaeologists discovered a man's heel bone with a Roman nail hammered through it. This skeleton confirmed the use of crucifixion as a form of Roman capital punishment.

5. The Lake of Tiberius: Peter's House and the Galilee Boat

Galilee Boat
Public Domain Photo

Two discoveries at the Lake of Tiberius, also known as the Sea of Galilee, have confirmed some of the ways that people lived in Jesus' world. The site held to be Peter's House in Kfar Nahum (Capernaum) can't be confimed as that of the disciple. However, the ruins were clearly venerated by early Christians, based on graffiti on the walls, and its construction is typical of Jesus' era. The Galilee Boat, sometimes called the Jesus Boat, shows the kind of vessels used by fishermen of Jesus' time.

6. Caesarea and Jerusalem: Cities of Herod the Great

Herod the Great came to power in Judea with the backing of Caesar Augustus. He created a stunning capital city on the Mediterranean coast and named it Caesarea Maritima after his patron. Caesarea was Herod's homage to Rome, while Jerusalem was his appeasement to his Jewish subjects. Herod's massive public works project to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem lasted decades, providing a boost to the economic and giving Jews a source of national and religious pride.

7. Sepphoris and Tiberius: Cities of Herod Antipas

Public Domain Photo

Following his father Herod the Great's example, Herod Antipas used public works projects as a way to enhance his reputation and the economy. Antipas rule over Galilee in Jesus' time, and built Tiberius as a resort town on the Sea of Galilee to honor his Roman patron, the emperor Tiberius. However, the city of Sepphoris in the Galilean highlands became the jewel of the region with outstanding architecture and urban renewal. Antipas' two cities transformed the economy and culture of Galilee in Jesus' world.

8. Masada and Qumran: Monuments of Jewish resistance

Isaiah Scroll
Public Domain Photo

Masada and Qumran have become linked to Jesus' world because they demonstrate the ways in which first century Jews attempted to resist the domination of Rome. Masada was the last holdout of the Jewish War in A.D. 66-74, where Josephus alleges that more than 900 zealots committed suicide rather than be enslaved by the Romans. Qumran is the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found between 1947 and 1956, shedding light on ancient Jewish texts preserved since the Hellenistic period. Archaeologists contend that a community of ascetics known as Essenes lived at Qumran and may have had contact with Jesus.

9. Gamla and Jodefat: First-century Jewish villages in Galilee

These two villages, although not mentioned in the New Testament, were destroyed by Roman legions in A.D. 67 during the Jewish War. The historian Josephus described their conquest. The two sites, one in Lower Galilee and the other on the Golan Heights, were buried until the past century. Now they serve as archaeological evidence of life in Jesus' world.

10. Stone vessels and stepped pools: Jewish religion

Jews of Jesus' world were "obsessed with purification" as a religious observance, as Jonathan Reed has written. This was evidenced by the large stone jars of water that the New Testament says Jesus turned into wine during a wedding in Cana, and by stepped pools cut into bedrock and plastered found wherever Jews lived in both Galilee and Jerusalem of Jesus' time. 

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