The entrance to the Mary of Nazareth International Center in central Nazareth doesn’t look like much. It’s just a simple doorway off narrow Casa Nova Street, a few hundred yards from the Basilica of the Annunciation.
Yet inside this recently built Catholic evangelism center lies an amazing discovery that has sent shockwaves through the world of Biblical archaeology: the remains of a first-century stone house reliably dated to the early Roman period in Palestine.
The Nazareth excavations are the first concrete archaeological proof that Nazareth was settled in the time of Jesus – and, judging from the limestone cups found at the site, almost certainly by observant Jews.
This shoots down one of the central arguments used by those who claim that Jesus never existed and that the Gospels are entirely fiction: that we know Jesus of Nazareth never existed because there never was a village called Nazareth.
Incredibly, the archaeological excavations at Nazareth are merely one among dozens of startling recent discoveries that are forcing many secular, Jewish and agnostic scholars, at top universities all over the world, to re-think old skeptical ideas about who Jesus was and what he was trying to achieve.
Many people in the pews, however, haven’t heard about these amazing, very recent discoveries.
Experts in the media are still repeating the same century-old, increasingly discredited theories that date to the late 19th and early 20th century – for example, that Jesus was an “apocalyptic prophet” who believed the world was coming to an end in his lifetime or that he was a revolutionary “zealot” who plotted a violent overthrow of Roman forces.
Nevertheless, recent dramatic archaeological discoveries and developments in New Testament studies are challenging these older, now obsolete theories:
Discovery No. 1: The people and places mentioned in the Gospels really existed.
Like most figures of ancient history, there is little archaeological evidence for many New Testament figures, including Jesus. However, in just the past few years archaeologists have uncovered some astonishing finds – including the burial box (ossuary) of the high priest Caiaphas and, perhaps, that of James the Just, the brother, step-brother or close relative of Jesus.
Experts widely believe the Caiaphas ossuary is genuine. While there is fierce debate about the James ossuary, it’s possible that it too is authentic. Dated to the first century, it has inscribed on its side the words in Aramaic, Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui diYeshua (James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus).
Some archaeologists believe that the ossuary and the words “James, Son of Joseph” inscribed on it are authentic, dating back to the first century, but that the words “brother of Jesus” were added later by a master forger.
If all of it is genuine, however, as some evangelical scholars such as Ben Witherington III argue, then it represents the first ever archaeological confirmation of Jesus.
Along with these finds are numerous recent archaeological discoveries of places mentioned in the Gospels – such as the dramatic 2009 discovery of a large and remarkably ornate first-century synagogue at Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus almost certainly preached.
Discovery No. 2: Jesus’ followers didn’t make up the idea of a messiah who would suffer and die.
For more than a century, many academic Bible scholars have claimed that the Jews in Jesus’ time had no concept whatsoever of a suffering messiah, let alone a messiah who would actually die.
Therefore, they suspected the whole idea was invented by the early Christian community and put into the mouth of Jesus decades later, by the evangelists. The Jews in Jesus’ day expected the messiah to be a military leader and king, the argument goes, so obviously a suffering messiah is just a Christian apologetic device created after the fact to explain away the scandal of the cross.
But in 2008, Israeli archaeologists announced the discovery of a first-century stone tablet, written in ancient Hebrew, that mentioned the angel Gabriel and a messianic figure who would suffer, die and perhaps rise again in three days.
Known as the Gabriel Revelation, this was dramatic confirmation of other textual discoveries that suggested many Jews in the first century were expecting a suffering and dying messiah.
This is important because it shows that this theme – that of a suffering messiah – wasn’t just “made up” by the early Christian community as a way to explain the scandal of the cross, as literally generations of scholars have claimed for over a hundred years.
Discovery No. 3: Jesus’ earliest followers – Jewish followers – came to see him as in some way divine very early, perhaps within a year or two of the crucifixion.
Through a variety of methods, including identifying Aramaic phrases embedded in the Greek texts of the New Testament, scholars have identified the very earliest parts of the New Testament writings.
Much to their shock, however, it looks as though it was the Jewish followers of Jesus who proclaimed him “son of God” and “standing at the right hand of God,” not the pagan Gentile followers who joined the movement in the decades after the crucifixion.
This flies in the face of a century of scholarship that believed the opposite, that claims to divinity only arose as the Jesus movement fanned out into the pagan Greek. Even skeptics such as New Testament scholar and bestselling author Bart Ehrman now concede that belief in Jesus’s divinity arose very, very early.
In addition, some Jewish scholars now argue that the idea of a divine-human savior was a thoroughly Jewish concept… rooted in the Biblical prophets. These scholars point to the biblical book of Daniel, as well as intertestamental Jewish writings known as apocalypses, as evidence that some Jews in Jesus’ day could expect “one like a Son of Man,” as Dan. 7:13–14 puts it, coming on the clouds of heaven.
It was only later, as Judaism reacted to the rise of Christianity, that such ideas became forbidden among Jews.
Discovery No. 4: The Gospels are almost certainly based on eyewitness testimony – and, at least partially, written sources.
The whole idea of a “creative” and exclusively oral transmission of traditions about Jesus – as opposed to written sources based on eyewitness accounts – is now questioned by many top secular scholars.
The skeptical New Testament scholars of the early 20th century based their much of their theory of oral transmission on German folk tales that evolve over centuries, such as the Brothers Grimm. The idea was that the “tale grew in the telling,” like the “telephone game.”
“The stories were being told by word of mouth, year after year, decade after decade, among lots of people in different parts of the world, in different languages, and there was no way to control what one person said to the next about Jesus’ words and deeds,” explains skeptic Bart Ehrman in his 2014 book, “How Jesus Became God.”
The implication is often that the gospels are more myth than history, and certainly not reliable records of what actually occurred.
But increasingly, leading New Testament scholars reject this unproven theory altogether. Some argue that the Gospels, including the Gospel of John, show numerous signs of first-hand observations and written sources — and that those sources could well have been written while Jesus was living and preaching in Galilee.
The British New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham, author of the 2006 book “Jesus and the Eyewitnesses,” has forced a new debate on the existence of eyewitness testimony in the Gospels.
In addition, many Jewish scholars now believe the Gospels preserve accurate traditions about Jesus from people who saw and heard Jesus first-hand.
As the Israeli scholar David Flusser put it, who believes the Gospels were based on written sources, the synoptic gospels “preserve a picture of Jesus that is more reliable than is generally acknowledged.”
Discovery No. 5: The Gospel of Mark, widely considered to be the first gospel written, may have been penned only five or 10 years after the crucifixion, not 40 years later as scholars have thought for over a century.
Many (but not all) modern scholars believe that the gospel of Mark was likely written first, probably in Rome in the late 60s or early 70s AD, followed by Luke in the mid-80s, Matthew in the 80s, and then by John sometime after AD 90.
The reason is due to passages in the gospels where Jesus seems to be predicting the fall of Jerusalem (such as Mark 13:2, where Jesus refers to the temple and says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another”).
The idea is that the writers of the gospels, living after the Jewish War began in AD 66, simply put words in Jesus’ mouth predicting the coming catastrophe—words that he didn’t actually say. Scholars call this “prophecy after the fact.”
But recently James Crossley, a secular British New Testament scholar at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, has challenged this idea.
In a fascinating 2004 book, “The Date of Mark’s Gospel,” Crossley defies more than a century of New Testament scholarship to argue that the gospel of Mark, far from being written in the late AD 60s or even early 70s as older scholars have long believed, could well have been written as early as the mid 30s—perhaps just five to ten years after Jesus was crucified.
He insists that the “desolating sacrilege” mentioned in Mark 13 that would be “set up” could very likely refer to the statue of the Emperor Caligula that the mad emperor attempted to have erected in the Jerusalem temple in AD 39-40.
If he’s right, and Mark was written in the late AD 30s, that means that some of the earliest source material for the gospels was put to paper within five to ten years after Jesus’ crucifixion—and not thirty, forty, or sixty years, as previous scholars believed.
This strengthens the argument, therefore, that the gospels are likely based on eyewitness testimony, even if that testimony was often rearranged according to the editorial decisions of the different evangelists.
Discovery No. 6: Jesus was not an “illiterate peasant” but likely well trained in Jewish law and scripture.
In the past few decades, Jewish scholars have taken a closer look at the debates in the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees.
For much of the 20th century, skeptical New Testament scholars claimed that these debates were not historical – that the reflected the conflicts the early church was having with Jewish authorities in the 80s and 90s and not what Jesus said and did in the 20s.
But many Jewish experts now deny this. In addition, some Jewish scholars argue that the Gospels prove that Jesus had a thorough command of Jewish legal reasoning.
According to Orthodox Rabbi Schmuley Boteach, when Jesus is criticized for healing a crippled man on the Sabbath (John 5:1-47), Jesus quotes a legal precedent preserved in the Talmud to prove that his action is justified.
Boteach explains that the Torah commands that a male child be circumcised on the eighth day after birth, but if that day happens to fall on the Sabbath, the circumcision is still allowed even though it is “drawing blood.”
The Talmud draws from this exception the notion that medical procedures can and must be done on the Sabbath. According to Tractate Yoma, “if circumcision, which concerns one of the 248 members of the body, overrides the Sabbath, shall not a man’s whole body override the Sabbath?”
Boteach then points to the nearly identical reasoning used by Jesus for his justification of healing a crippled man on the Sabbath, recorded by John: “Now if a boy can be circumcised on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses may not be broken,” Jesus says, “why are you angry with me for healing a man’s whole body on the Sabbath? (7:23 NIV).
This suggests that Jesus was not an “illiterate peasant”—as many contemporary authors claim—but a highly trained rabbi fully conversant with the complex legal and religious debates in his day.
In the end, there has been a veritable revolution in New Testament scholarship over the last 10 or 20 years yet few experts in the media seem to know about it.
The foundational assumptions that guided a century’s worth of skepticism towards the New Testament have been under relentless assault – and often by secular, Jewish and agnostic scholars at top universities around the world.
The new discoveries discussed above are causing some experts to wonder if the basic portrait of Jesus in the gospels is far more plausible than the elaborate reconstructions created by academic skeptics over the past 150 years.
In other words, the New Testament may be truer than scholars once thought… and Jesus of Nazareth, rather than being smaller than the gospels portray him, may actually be much bigger… and far more interesting.
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