Archaeology and the historical truth of the Gospels

“Archaeology,” says Michael Hesemann, author of Jesus of Nazareth: Archaeologists Retracing the Footsteps of Christ, “brings the time and world of Christ back to life, helps us to understand this period, and shows us how realistic the gospels really are.”

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee (Image: LMorland/Wikipedia)

“The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). Having heard it so many times, it may escape our notice that this is one of the most remarkable claims ever made. God became man; the Creator walked among his creation.

But is this, as so many skeptics says, just pious, wishful nonsense? Do such miraculous claims have any real basis in history? Can they be verified by physical, archaeological?

Michael Hesemann, a German author of more than forty books, aims to demonstrate the ways in which archaeological evidence supports the narratives and claims of the New Testament. Ignatius Press recently published a new edition of Hesemann’s book Jesus of Nazareth: Archaeologists Retracing the Footsteps of Christ.

Originally published in German in 2009, the book takes readers to the Holy Land, examining the archaeological evidence for the historicity of the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life. More than simply confirming what we read in the text of the gospels, Hesemann’s work chronicles the great number of additional details archaeologists have learned about the life of Christ and the world in which He walked.

Hesemann recently spoke with Catholic World Report regarding Jesus of Nazareth, and the ways in which archaeology can emphasize and reinforce the historical accuracy and reliability of the gospels.

Catholic World Report: How did the book come about? It was originally written and published in German over a decade ago, right?

Michael Hesemann: Yes, it was published side by side with Pope Benedict’s groundbreaking masterpiece with the same title, Jesus of Nazareth, to round it up by additionally presenting the archaeological aspect. Benedict’s book was an answer to the “historical-critical exegesis” of the German protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who denied all supernatural events described in the gospels and claimed they were semi-mythological works written at least half a century after the life of “the historical Jesus” by editorial teams in Antioch, Ephesus, Alexandria and Rome, far away by distance and time from the time and place where they play.

Bultmann and his disciples turned the Son of God into an eschatological preacher of a distant part of the Graeco-Roman world, whose original intention was to wake up the Jews but who was reinterpreted in the language and images of the pagan Greek mythology. Bultmann got very popular in his time, the 1930s and 1940s, because his Jesus was more Hellenized and less Jewish, which pleased the anti-Semitic Nazi-Zeitgeist in Germany. His ideas also dominated German post-war theology, so that it was a breakthrough when nobody less than the Pope went “back to the roots” and presented us a realistic idea of the true Jesus of Nazareth as both the Son of God and a Jew of his age, giving new credibility to the gospels. Of course he was heavily attacked, but my book proves that he is right, by a completely different approach, the insight of archaeology.

Archaeology brings the time and world of Christ back to life, helps us to understand this period, and shows us how realistic the gospels really are. They literally breathe the spirit and local color of this special period, which dramatically ended with the Jewish revolution of 66-70 AD and leaves no doubt that they were indeed either written by eyewitnesses or at least completely based on eyewitness reports, which gives them the highest degree of credibility. My intention is to inform the reader about the state-of-the-art of New Testament archaeology. And this is what the book offers to the American reader, too, since it was updated for the US edition and presents the state of research of 2021, not 2009.

CWR: The “Jesus Seminar” and so many others look for the “Jesus of history” as opposed to the “Christ of faith”. How can archaeology help demonstrate that the Jesus of history is the Christ of faith?

Hesemann: The “Jesus Seminar” is nothing but the American version of the Bultmann school. What they do is purely hypothetical. Scholars of the 20th or 21st century guess which of the words of Christ as quoted in the gospels were really his and how many quotes were later inventions by the alleged teams who wrote the gospels. All miracles are excluded beforehand anyway. But indeed their method reveals to us all about their beliefs and hardly anything new about Jesus. They only accept as His authentic words what corresponds to their preconceived notions. So they create a Christ according to their own image, their own theology. He says what they like to hear and is censored and silenced when he gets controversial or inconvenient. this has nothing to do with theology but is pure ideology. Man censors revelation!

Archaeology helps us in two ways. First of all, it reveals what Fr. Bargil Pixner, the great Benedictine New testament archaeologist, called “the fifth gospel”: The stage which was prepared for the coming of Christ, the world in which He incarnated, the mindset of the audience he spoke to and the places where it all happened. It gives us a deeper understanding of his parables, of the people’s reaction, of the events and the personalities mentioned in the gospels. And second, it helps to verify the gospels. When an author obviously knows what he is talking about, when he describes topography, culture, traditions and people just as they were, you can trust him. If he makes mistakes, if the world he describes never existed, he writes a novel or mythology. In the case of the gospels, archaeology has shown that it just fits, that the four evangelists describe the Judea of the early 1st century AD in a very convincing, realistic way. So they were either eyewitnesses or had excellent sources. For sure they did not write many decades later and imagined how it might have been from faraway places.

CWR: What are some of the archaeological digs and discoveries that you’ve personally been a part of?

Hesemann: Yes, I worked two seasons as a volunteer in Migdal, the biblical Magdala, under the archaeologist Dr. Marcela Zapata of the Anauac-University of Mexico and I did several archaeological projects in Nazareth. So I can claim that I know what I write about, just like the four evangelists!

CWR: Has the archaeological evidence for Jesus and the historicity of Sacred Scripture had an effect on your own faith?

Hesemann: Absolutely. It taught me to trust in the gospels. And the gospels are the fundament of our faith, they contain the word of God. If we can’t trust in them, in what can we trust?

Often enough, with the Bible in hand, I came to an excavation site, looked at the archaeological findings and had a “Eureka!” experience: So that’s what the evangelist meant! Yes, then his description makes sense! One prejudice has to be cleared up: “The little world of Jesus”, this kitschy idyll from the Nazarene painting of the 19th century, was just not the holy land of Jesus’ time. The palaces of Herod surpassed most of the Roman imperial residences, the temple in Jerusalem was the most grandiose building of its time and the Diaspora Jews all over the world, from Rome to Babylon and from Nubia to Pontus in the Crimea, provided excellent global networks.

Jesus grew up in a village, but Nazareth was only six kilometers from the residence of Herod Antipas, Sepphoris. It was expanded in the years after the birth of Christ to a Hellenistic “polis” and it even had a theater in which the works of the great ancient playwrights were performed. It is unthinkable that the craftsman Joseph (in the original Greek text of the Gospels he is referred to as tekton and not as a village carpenter) should not take the opportunity to find work here. Perhaps Jesus even spent his apprenticeship years here, because in Judaism every boy, even if he felt a religious call, had to learn a trade first. This means that he came in contact with the Hellenistic world, with the Graeco-Roman culture of his time and was more a global citizen than a village boy.

CWR: On the flip side of that, has the archaeology challenged your faith, made you question what you thought you knew?

Hesemann: It never challenged my faith. But it taught me to understand the gospels more profoundly, to go beneath the surface. I’ll give you an example: We all know the story of the wedding of Cana, as reported in the gospel according to St. John. When you read it superficially, you wonder why the first miracle of the Son of God was done to save a party. I mean, c’mon, everybody already had enough wine, and then Christ just delivered 120-160 gallons more, so for sure everyone got drunk and had a hangover next morning! Is this what it is all about? No wonder Bultmann believed it to be mythology, a remake of a miracle of Dionysos, the Greek God of wine and the drunkards! But this only demonstrates that we forgot its real meaning, we ignore what it is all about. We even ignore that St. John included several hints in his narrative. For example, he tells us that the wedding was on the 3rd day. Of course it could have been on a Tuesday, but the third day is always also a reference to Easter.

The gospels always have two levels, one concrete, real-life level and their symbolic, metaphorical meaning. Second, when Our Lady tells Jesus that they have no wine anymore, he answers, so it seems rather rude. “Woman, why do you involve me?” Could he not say, at least, “mother”? And then it comes: “My hour has not yet come!” What is his hour? The hour of Golgotha, the hour of our salvation! This sentence puts it into the right context, tells us what it is all about and why St. John calls it a “sign”, not a “miracle”. He continues: “Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing.” Exactly at this point, archaeology enters. We archaeologists know this kind of stone vessel. We find them everywhere in Jewish Second Temple Period settlements. Indeed, they became a kind of “guide fossil” for Jewish settlements of that period, the time of Christ. Why? Jewish tradition says that the Messiah will appear when the third temple is built. Jews still believe that, which is why they call Herod’s temple the “second temple”, which is wrong.

The first temple was built by Solomon in the 10th century BC; it was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC. When the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile, they built the second temple. So Herod’s temple was the third. He built it because he wanted to tell the Jews that he was the Messiah. They knew he was just a cruel tyrant, but they believed the Messiah would come soon. So they prepared and their way of preparation was ritual purity. Everything had to be clean, had to be kosher. Water for ritual cleansing was kept in stone vessels, because stone was considered clean. So what happened in Cana is that Jesus turned water used for ritual cleaning into wine. Why? Because it was no longer needed, the Messiah had come! And because he did not believe in ritual purity, he believed in the purity of the heart. It is not the water in the stone vessels that cleanses us from our guilt, but His blood alone. And right in “his hour”, he turned wine into His precious blood which washes away our guilt and established the sacrament of the Eucharist. St. Jerome still understood this sign. Once he was asked what happened to this 120-180 gallons of wine Jesus produced in Cana, and he replied in a beautiful, subtle way: “We still drink from it!” Yes, we do. On every altar of the world!

CWR: Over the years, between your archaeological expeditions and your many books, what has surprised you the most?

Hesemann: Often enough, these are small details that were only revealed during my research. Of course everyone knows the “Jesus boat”, the fishing boat from Lake Gennesaret, which was discovered in 1986 in the mud on the banks. But the really exciting thing is the accompanying circumstances. Before that, there was a drought all over Israel. When it was found, the rain suddenly set in and a huge rainbow lay over the lake. That sounds like a kitschy staged film, but serious, sober archaeologists assured me that it really was and showed me their photos as proof.

Or take Herod’s tomb, which an archaeologist finally discovered only three years ago, after decades of searching. Herod was buried with a view of Bethlehem! He was so unpopular with the people that after a few years his grave was completely devastated and his sarcophagus smashed into a thousand pieces.

CWR: What do you hope readers will get out of this book?

Hesemann: Trust in the gospels! At the moment it is rather difficult, due to the Corona-crisis, but soon we will all be able to travel into the Holy Land again and, with the help of my book, everyone can check it out by themselves: Just take the Gospel according to St. Mark, for example, and visit the site of Capernaum, which is every well excavated. You will indeed find everything just the way it was described. In Tabgha, a few miles to the west, you will find a cave, the “Eremos” or “solitary place where he prayed”: Just enter it, sit there and pray. From there you have the most impressive view on the Lake of Genesareth, you have Magdala just in front of you. When you come to Magdala, which we excavated, you find not only the new Pilgrim Center and Hotel, but also the remains of the oldest Synagogue in Galilee. It is from the 1st century BC, so we can be sure Jesus has preached and healed there. You can see and touch the very stones on which he stood.

In Nazareth, under the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, you find the ruins of the house which St. Joseph built for the Holy Family after they returned from Egypt. So you can really walk in the footsteps of the Lord. You can’t get closer to him physically in this world, besides in Eucharistic adoration. You will indeed get a better, deeper understanding of the gospels when you experience the “fifth gospel”, the Holy Land and its topography and archaeology.


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About Paul Senz 77 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

2 Comments

  1. A wonderful demonstration that archaeology deepens knowledge of the written word of God. “Water in stone vessels doesn’t cleanse us from guilt. His blood alone” (Hesemann). That saving work is uniquely Christ’s. Paradoxically, it’s what we’re called to. Aquinas’ conference 6 super Credo in Deum begins, “Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? As remedy for sin. Secondly as an example of how to act”. We readily understand Christ’s blood cleanses us from sin. Imitation of what took place on Calvary not quite. If hesitant, Aquinas inspires us. “If you seek the example of love: Such a man was Christ on the Cross. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue”. Self interests, satisfaction exchanged for patience, humility, obedience. Saints Francis of Assisi John of the Cross understood this well. Christ was a contradiction in the setting that was ancient Israel. More so in today’s world. What can redirect this rapid moral digression? A hardened intellect requires a sentient fissure to initiate assent. What gives a man delight, the marriage bed was for Christ the Cross on which love for us was consummated.

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