Category Archives: Archaeology

Can the Pool of Bethesda Be Used to Prove the Gospel of John Is Historically Reliable?

One of the ways we can investigate whether an ancient document is historically reliable is to find corroboration of its claims in archaeological findings. Because the Gospel of John was written in the first century AD, we can look to findings dated in that time period to corroborate details recorded in the Gospel. How does the Gospel of John fare?

According to Andreas Kostenberger, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), there are fourteen major archaeological findings that corroborate the Gospel of John. These include: 1) an inscription barring Gentiles from the temple, 2) Herod’s temple, 3) Jacob’s well, 4) Pool of Bethesda, 5) ancient fishing boat, 6) early synagogue, 7) Pool of Siloam, 8) Siloam inscription, 9) tomb of Lazarus, 10) Caiaphas tomb/inscription, 11) Pilate inscription, 12) stone pavement, 13) skeletal remains of crucified man, and 14) and garden tomb.

Let’s look specifically at the Pool of Bethesda. Walter Kaiser and Duane Garrett, in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible, describe what archaeologists have discovered.

The pool at Bethesda was a familiar locale among the Jews of Jerusalem. It was mentioned, for example, in Qumran’s Copper Scroll as the ‘place of poured out water.’ It was located near what are now the ruins of the basilica of Saint Anne to the north of the temple mount. The ‘pool’ was actually two pools surrounded by four porticoes, with a fifth portico situated between them. Coupled with the elegant porticoes, the pools must have been an impressive sight. While the lavish complex of John’s day likely dated to the reign of Herod the Great, the pools were probably in use before that and may have been the site of an intermittent spring.

The Biblical Archaeology Staff provide additional details in their article entitled “The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles.”

When Jesus heals the paralytic in the Gospel of John, the Bethesda Pool is described as having five porticoes—a puzzling feature suggesting an unusual five-sided pool, which most scholars dismissed as an unhistorical literary creation. Yet when this site was excavated, it revealed a rectangular pool with two basins separated by a wall—thus a five-sided pool—and each side had a portico.

The Jesus miracle story also tells how many people sought the Bethesda Pool’s healing powers. The first person to enter the pool when the waters were stirred up would supposedly be cured of his or her ailment. But, the paralytic tells Jesus, he can never get into the water quickly enough. So Jesus immediately cures him, and he is able to get up and walk.

This story about Jesus’ miracle suggests a long history of healing at the site. Roman medicinal baths constructed at the Bethesda Pool only a century or two later reflect this continued tradition. When Christians controlled Jerusalem in the Byzantine and Crusader periods, they liked to mark the sites of Jesus’ miracles and other important events in his life, so they added a chapel and churches that now cover the Bethesda Pool complex.

So why a pool with two basins? The archaeological evidence shows that the southern basin had broad steps with landings, indicating that it was indeed a mikveh. The northern basin provided a reservoir, or otzer, to continually replenish and repurify the mikveh with fresh water flowing south through the dam between them. Jerusalem’s pilgrims would flock to the Bethesda Pool and Siloam Pool to purify themselves in these public mikva’ot and, at times, to seek healing.

Archaeological findings, like the Pool of Bethesda, give us confidence that the author of the Gospel of John was an eyewitness of the events he was reporting, and, therefore, in a good position to report what actually occurred.

#7 Post of 2015 – Why Isn’t There More Archaeological Evidence of the Kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon? Part 1

While there seems to be plenty of archaeological evidence of the existence of Israel’s and Judah’s kings after about 850 BC, there is little direct evidence of the existence of Saul, David, and Solomon’s kingdoms. Why is this?

Kenneth A. Kitchen, in his On the Reliability of the Old Testament, dedicates an entire chapter to this topic. At the end of the chapter, he writes a summary which I quote at length below.

The information from external [nonbiblical] sources in terms of explicit mentions of biblical characters such as Saul, David, or Solomon is almost zero, until Shalmaneser III had hostile contact with Ahab of Israel in 853. The reasons for this are stunningly simple and conclusive. From Mesopotamia, no Assyrian rulers had had direct contact with Palestine before 853 — and so do not mention any local kings there. This is not the fault of the kings in Canaan, whether Israelite, Canaanite, or Philistine, and does not prove their nonexistence.

From Egypt we have virtually no historical inscriptions whatsoever mentioning Palestinian powers or entities between Ramesses III (ca. 1184-1153) and Shoshenq I (ca. 945-924). We have just two literary works, Wenamun, referring only to coastal ports (Dor to Byblos), and the Moscow Literary Letter that knows of Seir. Plus the fragmentary triumphal scene of Siamun (ca. 979/978-960/959), overlapping with the early years of Solomon (970-960), when a pharaoh smote Gezer and ceded it to him (1 Kings 9:16). The vast mass of Egyptian records in the Delta and Memphis is long since lost for nearly all periods, including the tenth century. At Thebes, almost all records are local, private, and on funerary religion, not foreign wars.

From the Levant, original texts are so far lost/undiscovered before the ninth century, except at Byblos, whose kings celebrate only themselves. We have nothing from Tyre, Sidon, Damascus, etc., until much later. So, again, there is no mention of the Hebrew tenth-century monarchs — and, again, it is not their fault, and certainly not proof of nonexistence.

In Israel itself, the deplorable state of pre-Herodian remains in oldest Jerusalem (Ophel and the eastern ridge), inaccessibility of much of its terrain, and the fact that it is 95 percent undug/undiggable (100 percent on the Temple Mount, where royal stelae might have been erected) — all these factors almost entirely exclude any hope of retrieving significant inscriptions from Jerusalem at any period before Herodian times. (The Siloam tunnel text [ca. 700] survived precisely because it was in a safely buried location.) So, again, we cannot blame a David or a Solomon for all that happened to Jerusalem after their time. (emphasis in original)

In a nutshell, most of the archaeological records we have from the early first millennium BC originate from the two superpowers of the region, Assyria and Egypt. The Assyrians did not have contact with Israel until 850 BC and there is a 200-year gap in the Egyptian records which overlaps the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon. Excavation in Jerusalem is difficult because of the location of the Temple Mount.

As an aside, archaeologist Eilat Mazar has more recently claimed to have found walls built by Solomon and sections of David’s palace in Jerusalem, but those findings are hotly contested, so we can’t draw any conclusions yet.

More from Kitchen in part 2 . . .

Why Isn’t There More Archaeological Evidence of the Kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon? Part 2

As we continue from part 1, Kitchen claims there are traces of direct evidence for David’s dynasty.

[T]he Tell Dan inscription and with virtual certainty the Moabite Stone each mention ‘the House of David,’ implying his former role as a personal dynastic founder, about 150 years after his death. Then, within barely 50 years of his death (ca. 970), we have what is in all likelihood “the heights of David” in the list of Shoshenq I (ca. 925), with a final t for final d exactly as in Ethiopia. (Alas, no clearly better and indisputable alternative can be offered, it seems!) The political situation of Hadadezer king of Aram-Zobah in circa 990 (reaching across the Euphrates) is extremely likely to find a reflex in the situation there in the time of Assur-rabi II of Assyria, as later reported by Shalmaneser III. So, explicit traces are beginning to emerge, even for the limited possibilities of the tenth century.

Kitchen then reminds his readers that explicit evidence is not the only kind of evidence.

It is equally important to measure off a document or account against what we know independently about the topics it includes. In this light much can be said: a little on Saul’s time, more on David’s, and much more on Solomon’s epoch.

Thus Saul’s regime was profitably compared with the ethos and practices of Levantine kingship. David’s ‘empire’ (inherited by Solomon) belongs to a particular type of ‘mini-empire,’ of a scope and nature only present and feasible within the interval between about 1180 and 870 and at no other time in the first millennium, being known also from Neo-Hittite and Aramean analogues.

Under Solomon, foreign relations do fit the context of his day; his temple and palace complex (and their furnishings) find ample and immediate cultural analogues, in both scale and nature. This is also true of the scale of his revenues; in fact, his 20 tons of gold in a year is poverty compared with the spending of over 380 tons of precious metal by Osorkon I soon afterward, and the 7,000 tons of gold that Alexander the Great lifted from the vanquished Persian Empire later on. Poetry (David) and instructional wisdom (Solomon) belong well in the tenth century, with earlier roots, and ample successors. . . .

The physical archaeology of tenth-century Canaan is consistent with the former existence of a unified state on its terrain then (with some monumental architecture). Jerusalem cannot deliver much on this; but on normal datings, Hazor, Gezer, and Megiddo (largely) can. And the occupation of the rest of the area is also consistent with this; it was not a land of ghosts. . . .

In short, the testing of the biblical text against external data (texts and artifactual contexts) shows precious little fantasy and much realistic agreement in practical and cultural aspects. Much more might be examined, but the subjects reviewed here give some idea of the real situation.

Is There Extrabiblical Evidence for the Existence of David?

Skeptical scholars have long argued that David’s existence is doubtful because there was no archaeological evidence of his rule or his alleged dynasty. From roughly 850 BC onward, there have been many discoveries confirming the kings of Israel and Judah listed in the Bible, but pre-850 BC evidence has been almost nonexistent.

However, in 1993 and 1994, fragments of an Aramaic monument were discovered in Tel Dan, Israel that changed everything. Walt Kaiser and Duane Garrett provide details of this finding in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible: An Illustrated Walk Through Biblical History and Culture:

Although only a fraction of the original inscription was recovered, the preserved portion alludes to eight Biblical kings. Based on the names recorded in the document, it can be dated to around 841 B.C. Even though his name is missing, it appears that Hazael, king of Aram from approximately 842– 800 B.C., commissioned the stela (or stele) to commemorate his defeat of Joram and Ahaziah at Ramoth Gilead (2Ki 8: 28– 29). . . . Hazael is mentioned in the records of Shalmaneser III, king of Assyria from approximately 858– 824 B.C., and his name is inscribed on objects taken as booty by the Assyrians.

The initial lines of the inscription mention ‘my father,’ possibly a reference to Ben-Hadad II, Hazael’s predecessor. The names of Joram and Ahab can be restored in the phrase ‘[I killed Jo] ram son of [Ahab] king of Israel,’ where the brackets indicate [gaps] in the original text. Joram was king of Israel from approximately 852 to 841 B.C., while Ahab ruled from approximately 874 to 853 B.C. This is followed by the statement ‘and [I] killed [Ahaz]iahu son of [Jehoram kin]g of the House of David.’

Why is this so important? Kaiser and Garrett continue:

The most remarkable aspect of the Tel Dan Stele is the phrase ‘House of David,’ providing extrabiblical evidence for the existence of David. This is important because some recent scholars have denied the existence of the united kingdom under David and Solomon, treating David as a character more of legend than of reality. This inscription demonstrates that ancient kings recognized the Davidic dynasty over Jerusalem and by implication validates the historicity of David himself. Some scholars have tried to avoid this implication by arguing for an alternative translation for ‘House of David,’ claiming that the words refer to some place or to a god rather than to King David. Few are persuaded by these protests, and the inscription is widely recognized to be an extrabiblical witness to the dynasty of David.

K. A. Kitchen, in his book On the Reliability of the Old Testament, mentions two other pieces of evidence. Once the Tel Dan stela was discovered,

As often happens, one discovery can lead to others. Equally convincingly, Lemaire was subsequently able to show that bt-[d]wd is to be read in line 31 of the famous stela of Mesha king of Moab, dating to about the same period. This links the “House of David” (= Judah) with an occupation of part of southern Moab (around Horonen), corresponding to Israel’s penetration in the north under Omri and his dynasty. So we have David mentioned twice in retrospect, some six generations after his death.

Kitchen writes,

Nor is this all, it seems. After his victory over Rehoboam and Jeroboam in 926/925, Shoshenq I of Egypt had engraved at Karnak a long list of Palestinian place-names. Some of these are now destroyed, and thus lost to us; many can be readily identified with known places in Israel, Judah, the Negev, and a few in western Transjordan. But quite a few have remained obscure. Among these, in a group of names clearly located by association in the Negev/south Judah area, is ‘the heights of Dwt.

Kitchen argues that Dwt should be translated as “David,” which means that “this would give us a place-name that commemorated David in the Negev barely fifty years after his death, within living memory of the man.”

Why Don’t We Know the Exact Route of the Exodus?

The Bible describes the place-names and geography of the route that Israel took from Egypt to the plains of Moab, across from the city of Jericho, during the 40 years in the wilderness. So why is it that archaeologists and biblical scholars cannot agree on the exact route that was taken?

Gordon Wenham, in his commentary Numbers, summarizes the problems that scholars face. Even though we have plenty of place-names in the Bible,

place-names survive only if there is a continuity of settlement at the places concerned. Even then there may be changes of name for social, political or religious reasons (e.g. 32:38; Gen. 28:19; Judg. 18:29). And if a name has survived from biblical times to the present, it can often have become attached to a different place.

Old Testament Jericho is now called Tell es-Sultan: the name Jericho survives in the Arab town (er-Riḥa), not far from the ancient mound. But in the case of Arad and Heshbon (Num. 21:1, 26) there are no remains of the conquest period at the modern sites bearing these names, and it looks as though the biblical sites must have been elsewhere.

In the wilderness the problems are compounded. The inhabitants have been fewer and more mobile and there is very little assurance of the biblical names having been preserved at all, let alone always attached to the correct site. And there is always the suspicion that when a biblical-sounding name is found, it may not rest on ancient tradition but have been coined by a local trying to help a pilgrim searching for the holy sites.

The fact that we have these problems does not stop scholars from looking for new archaeological evidence and from proposing new theories about the exodus route. But, in the end we must concede that we may never know where the “Israelites crossed the Red Sea, received the law, or ate the manna.”

Wenham puts this in perspective for us when he explains that

from a theological point of view, this uncertainty is of no greater moment than that surrounding the site of Calvary or the ascension. That these things happened is vital: to know where they occurred may provide food for thought, but is not of the essence of our faith.

How Do Palestinian Names Lend Credence to the Gospels?

Are the Gospel accounts of Jesus’s life rooted in first century Palestine or are they legendary accounts written more than a hundred years later? What of the so-called apocryphal gospels (e.g., Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Judas) that also claim to be true accounts of Jesus’s life? A few biblical scholars claim that the apocryphal gospels deserve as much attention as the four canonical gospels.

Biblical scholar Craig Hazen, in a blog post, brings to our attention new archaeological evidence that bolsters the authenticity of the canonical gospels and undermines the authenticity of the apocryphal gospels. What is this new evidence that roots the canonical gospels firmly in the first century?

Over the last decade, a new area of research has confirmed that the writers of the Gospels did indeed have the kind of intimate and detailed knowledge of life in that time and place. And this new research comes from an in-depth study of personal names.

In 2002 an Israeli scholar by the name of Tal Ilan did some seemingly boring work that has yielded some important dividends for New Testament authentication. She sorted through documents, engravings, scraps of papyrus, ossuaries and the like from the time period surrounding Jesus and the apostles in order to make a list of over 3,000 personal names — along with whatever bits of information she could find about those names. It was as if she were compiling a phone book from ancient trash heaps.

So what? How could this list of ancient names have anything to do with the historical authenticity of the Gospel accounts?

Because of her work, it became possible for the first time to find out what personal names were the most popular during the time of Jesus and how those names were used. Why is this important? Well, if the Gospel writers really had no solid contact with the characters in the stories, if they were writing decades later and had never visited the lands about which they were writing, getting the names right would be unlikely to the point of impossible.

Hazen offers this example to drive the point home:

It would be as if a person who had never set foot out of California were attempting to write a story about people living in Portugal 60 years ago and the writer perfectly captured all the details of the personal names of the day without traveling, without the Internet, without encyclopedias or libraries. Clearly, guesses and intuitions about Portuguese names from over a half-century earlier are exceedingly unlikely to match the real situation on the ground.

So how does Ilan’s list match the names used in the four New Testament Gospels?

But this new research shows that the Gospel writers were “spot on” in regard to the popularity, frequency, proportion and usage of personal names in the text of Scripture, indicating very deep familiarity with life in the exact area and timeframe of Jesus and his earliest followers. British New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham did some exhaustive work correlating New Testament names . . .  with the list of 3,000 names compiled by Ilan and concluded the following:

  • The Gospels were nearly perfect in how they captured the frequency of names among Palestinian Jews of the time. For instance, Ilan’s list of the 10 most popular names matched rank for rank the list of the most frequent names in the Gospels and Acts. This is an extraordinary confirmatory correlation.
  • By contrast, if you examine the most popular Jewish names in a different region (such as Egypt) at the time, the list is dramatically different. The pattern of names does not match what we know the pattern to be in Palestine.
  • Also by contrast, if you examine the names that appear in the Apocryphal Gospels (such as the Gospels of Thomas, Mary, Judas), you discover that the frequency and proportion of names in these writings do not match what we know to be true of names from the land and time of Jesus. Hence the Apocryphal Gospels do not have the ring of authenticity with regard to personal names and are rightly called into question.

Fascinating results! If you want to learn more about these names, I would recommend reading Richard Bauckham’s book, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, where he provides a lot more detail.

What Did Ancient Israel’s Neighbors Think about the Origins of the World?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

Ancient Israel was immersed in two dominant cultures, that of the Egyptians and that of the Mesopotamians. The Hebrew accounts of the origins of the universe stand in contrast to these ancient cultures, so it would be interesting to see a summary of what these other cultures believed.

Jim Adams provides a helpful summary of their views on the cosmogony (origins of universe) and theogony (origins of gods) in the New Mormon Challenge

First, the people of both Egypt and Mesopotamia were polytheistic (accepted many gods). Although at times each religion acknowledged a superior or high god such as Marduk or Amun-Rê, that did not constitute the dismissal of other gods from their respective pantheons.

Second, each cosmogony contains a theogony that presents the origin and genealogy of the gods with the primary purpose of specifying the hierarchical role of each god in their respective pantheon. In fact, any god in the pantheon could be proclaimed supreme over the others when that god was addressed or called upon for help.

Third, the gods are constituent with the matter of the universe, and in fact the gods are typically depicted as a personification of a particular natural phenomenon (e.g., sun, sky, water). Hence, the gods do not transcend the material world and are limited to the power of the phenomena they personify.

Fourth, the gods are engendered beings and are often depicted as creating other gods by begetting them.

Fifth, fundamental to each of the cosmogonies is a preexisting primordial realm represented by the primeval waters of chaos wherefrom the gods, humanity, and nature find their ultimate origin.

Sixth, this primordial realm transcends the gods. It limits their power, and its fundamental laws of operation are laws to which the gods are subject.

Adams cites the Jewish biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann who believes that the fifth and sixth features above are the fundamental marks of ancient paganism. Kaufmann describes it as

the idea that there exists a realm of being prior to the gods and above them, upon which the gods depend, and whose decrees they must obey. Deity belongs to, and is derived from, a primordial realm. This realm is conceived of variously—as darkness, water, spirit, earth, sky, and so forth—but always as the womb in which the seeds of all being are contained.

Alternatively, this idea appears as a belief in a primordial realm beside the gods, as independent and primary as the gods themselves. Not being subject to the gods, it necessarily limits them. The first conception, however, is the fundamental one. This is to say that in the pagan view, the gods are not the source of all that is, nor do they transcend the universe. They are, rather, part of a realm precedent to and independent of them. They are rooted in this realm, are bound by its nature, are subservient to its laws.

To be sure, paganism has personal gods who create and govern the world of men. But a divine will, sovereign and absolute, which governs all and is the cause of all being—such a conception is unknown. There are heads of pantheons, there are creators and maintainers of the cosmos; but transcending them is the primordial realm, with its pre-existent, autonomous forces.

It is against this pagan background that the Hebrews presented quite a different version of cosmogony and theogony. The Hebrew God had always existed, and was responsible for creating everything that exists in the universe. Therefore, the Hebrew God was not in any way limited by a pre-existing realm.

Can Historians Use Anonymous Sources?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

A common complaint about the reliability of the letters and books contained in the New Testament is that we don’t know, for sure, who wrote all of these documents.  In particular, the four Gospels are singled out as being anonymous since there is nothing in the text of the four Gospels that says, “So-and-so wrote this Gospel.”

There are many historical scholars who do believe that we can identify the authors of the Gospels and most of the other letters in the New Testament, but what if we could not?  What if the authors of these documents were unknown?  Would we have to throw out the contents?  Are they worthless, in that case, for historical investigation?

Historical scholar Mike Licona, in his book The Resurrection of Jesus, says “no.”  Licona first answers the charge that the Gospels were not written by eyewitnesses:

Bracketing the fact that a number of scholars have taken a contrary position, this challenge is not unique to the New Testament literature.  No surviving account of the life of Alexander the Great was written by an eyewitness.  Tacitus and Suetonius were not eyewitnesses to the majority of the events they reported.  Nevertheless, historians remain confident that they are able to recover the past to varying degrees without ever knowing who their sources were.

Historian C. Fasolt argues that Paul’s letter to the Roman church is helpful as a historical source “only on the assumption that it was written by Saint Paul.”  Is Fasolt right?  Licona notes historian M. S. Cladis’s response to Fasolt:

This is going to be news to countless social historians of the religions of the ancient Mediterranean basin who investigate archaeological and textual work without always knowing the specifics of the exact agents involved.  Indeed, these historians are investigating the society that shaped the agents, even if they do not know most of the agents’ names (and all that this means).

They collect, analyze, and interpret evidence from a variety of sources—monuments and tombs, literary texts and shopping lists—in order to learn something important about the socio-historical circumstances in which people, like Paul, lived, moved, and had their being.  The historian of antiquity, then, can learn much about the past from the ‘Letter to the Romans’ whether or not that text was actually written by Paul.

Here is the takeaway point: even if we grant that the books and letters of the New Testament are anonymous, we can still gather important historical information from those texts.  Anonymity of the sources is not a death knell for historical New Testament studies, and should not be used as some kind of sweeping indictment of the texts.  We can know what happened to Jesus and his disciples two thousand years ago, using the New Testament documents as our sources.

Apostle Philip’s Tomb Found

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The Bible History Daily website announced in July 2011 that archaeologists had discovered the Apostle Philip’s tomb.  Here is an excerpt from the article:

Italian archaeologists working at the site of Hierapolis in southwestern Turkey believe they have discovered the tomb of St. Philip, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles. According to excavator Francesco D’Andria, Philip’s tomb has traditionally been associated with the martyrium church built at the site,* though no evidence of the ancient burial was ever found. Last month, however, D’Andria and his team located a smaller church less than 150 feet away from the martyrium that appears to contain the grave of the apostle.

Please go the Bible History Daily for the complete article.

Who Is Portrayed in the Earliest Existing Biblical Painting?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

The earliest existing painting portraying a biblical scene was found in a building called the House of the Physician in the ruins of the city of Pompeii, a city destroyed in AD 79 by Mount Vesuvius.  The painting is a striking rendition of the scene from 1 Kings 3 where two women lay claim to the same child and Solomon wisely determines who is the real mother of the child.

According to art expert Theodore Feder, this painting was likely commissioned by a non-Jew living in Pompeii in the time period just before the city was destroyed.  What makes this painting even more fascinating is that Feder thinks he has discovered the identities of two individuals who are in the bottom left of the painting and who are portrayed admiring the wisdom of Solomon.

In a recent article published in the Biblical Archaeology Review, Feder argues that the two individuals shown admiring Solomon are none other than Socrates and Aristotle, two of the most famous Greek philosophers of antiquity.

I believe these two figures are stand-ins for Socrates and Aristotle, introduced as a way of associating the wisdom of Solomon with that of the Greek philosophers. Put another way, their presence in the composition attests to the respect Greek philosophy could accord to Hebrew wisdom. Such a juxtaposition in art of wise men from the two civilizations was unprecedented, has rarely been done since, and is of great cultural and historical significance.

That Solomon was painted along with Socrates and Aristotle was a testament to the great respect that the Hebrew Bible was afforded as a book of wisdom in the 1st century Roman empire.  Feder concludes his article with this statement:

In selecting an episode from the Hebrew Bible, the patron departed from the canon of classical religious subject matter and elevated one from the Scriptures of a people whose influence at the time was spreading throughout the empire and would one day, in its Christian formulation, pervade it.