The story of Jesus has been read by people of all ages.
It is especially enjoyed by young people. Jesus is one of their kind. He is a person with goals and ideas. He is out to change the world, and when he speaks, things happen.
But what if the story of Jesus is really just an ancient myth? What if he really is just a first century fictional hero? In the 19th century there were some who actually believed that Jesus never even existed!
But the archaeological facts from Palestine support a different conclusion. The stories we read in the Bible are fact, not fiction. This is supported by real events, real places and real people. It is also supported by the community of His followers, which grew by leaps and bounds after Jesus' death--and resurrection.
The tiny land of Palestine, about twice the size of Negros Island, was the setting for the events which influenced the course of history more than any other event.
It is now two thousand years later, but the basic features of the land have changed very little. The river Jordan still flows,...
...the hills Jesus crossed still keep silent watch on the shores of the Sea of Galilee,...
...and the Judean desert still lies bleak and lifeless.
The river, the hills, the desert all remain much the same as they did when they were still fresh with the footprints of Jesus. The land serving as the backdrop for the story of Jesus was a real land, with real homes and cities and people.
Jesus' life began here in Bethlehem. Today Bethlehem is a suburb of the sprawling modern city of Jerusalem.
The exact location of the stable where Jesus was born is not known; however, some think it is under this church building. In the 4th century, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine ordered a church built on the spot, and a church has been there ever since. The present structure which dates back to the Middle Ages, is called the Church of the Nativity.
There were two Roman emperors who reigned while Jesus was alive. Tiberius began his reign when Jesus was about 14 years old. He died in 37 A.D., shortly after Jesus was crucified.
The other more well known of these is Emperor Caesar Augustus, ruler at the same time Jesus was born. The Bible says,
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled... and all went to be enrolled, every man to his own city". Luke 2:1-3At the beginning of the 20th century some critics of the Bible questioned Luke's accuracy. They said there was no evidence that the Roman Empire required a regular census of its citizens. But in 1911 Sir William Ramsey, a noted British archaeologist, discovered an Egyptian edict by Gaius Vibius Maximus, a Roman governor in Egypt. Issued in 104 A.D., the edict stated:
Since the enrollment by households is approaching, it is necessary to command all who for any reason are out of their own district to return to their own home, so that they may complete the enrollment.
This shows that in some parts of the Roman Empire there was a regular census and the people had to return to the place of their birth to be enrolled. So there is no reason to question Luke's record that Joseph and Mary were required to travel to Bethlehem of Judah where Jesus was born.
Here at the Sea of Galilee is where Jesus began his teaching when he was about 30 years old. Lush, green hills in the spring and fall surround the beautiful blue waters. Quiet fishing villages dot the shores. This is where Jesus stilled the storm and walked across the lake on the water.
This is where Peter and several others left their fishing boats to follow Jesus and became fishers of men.
On the northern shore of Galilee stand the remains of this synagogue. It was discovered in 1866 at Capernaum, the town where Jesus lived during most of his public ministry.
Capernaum was also the hometown of the apostles Peter and Andrew.
This particular synagogue was built in the second century after Jesus lived in Capernaum, but it probably stands in the same spot where an earlier synagogue stood--the one where Jesus often preached and where he healed the man with the withered hand.
Sit for a minute on the stone benches of that synagogue with those people in Mark 1:27 and be astonished with them at Jesus' preaching...
"What is this? A new teaching with authority? He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him!" Mark 1:27
If you had been a rabbi in the synagogue, you might have sat here--the seat of honor called "Moses' seat". This one was discovered in the ruins of the synagogue at Chorazine. In Matthew 23, Jesus said,
"The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; so practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach, but do not practice... They do all their deeds to be seen of men..." Matthew 23:1-3, 5
This is Cana as it looks today. Cana is the village where Jesus performed his first sign, or as we would call it "miracle", according to John in his Gospel. It happened, as you recall, at a wedding feast. Cana is just a few miles east of Jesus' hometown, Nazareth.
The story of Jesus is told with careful attention to geographical detail. So much so that we can still follow him as he traveled through the hills of Galilee--to Cana, to Nain where he raised the widow's son from the dead, and to Capernaum. The gospels would not give such careful attention to geographical detail if the story of Jesus were fictional.
These are coins from Jesus' day! Five thousand of them were found buried in a field near Mount Carmel. It was common then for men to hide their wealth in the ground. Remember the great statement of Jesus, “the kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field” (Matthew 13:44)?
Jesus also walked in the shadow of two mountains in Samaria, Mount Ebal and this one called Mount Gerizim. Before Moses died, he told the people that after they crossed the Jordan they should meet in the valley between these mountains and read the blessings and curses in the Law again to the people of Israel. Mount Gerizim stood as a reminder of God's blessing on those who kept his word,...
while Mount Ebal, just across the small valley from Mount Gerizim, warned them of God's curses on the unfaithful. Jesus passed through this valley on one occasion when he was on the way from Jerusalem to Galilee with his disciples.
Jacob's well is located in Samaria between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. It was there that Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman about water. But they also talked about the place to worship God, whether at Mount Gerizim or in Jerusalem. The woman, like her ancestors, believed Gerizim was the place acceptable to God. Jacob's well was dug many centuries before Jesus stopped there almost two thousand years ago. You can visit this well and know that you are standing at least within inches of where Jesus stood.
Today, a church building has been built over the well called the Church of the Samaritan Woman. While the surroundings have changed considerably, the well opening probably looks about the same now as it did to Jesus. You can almost hear his words as recorded in the Gospel of John:
"Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to everlasting life." John 4:13-14
These Samaritan men live, as did the woman at the well, at the foot of Mount Gerizim.
Samaria, as you may remember, was destroyed in 721 B.C. Some Samaritans were carried away, but some remained. The Assyrians sent in other settlers and soon the peoples had intermingled. The Jews and the Samaritans argued over religion and generally hated each other.
The Samaritans considered only the Pentateuch the Scriptures. Their Pentateuch differed some from the Hebrew Bible of the Jews. Today, there are only a few hundred Samaritan people.
Jesus spent most of his life in Galilee, but his work in the flesh ended in the ancient city of Jerusalem. This is an architect's drawing of Herod's magnificent temple where Jesus' final confrontation with the Jewish officials occurred. Herod's was the third temple. Herod commenced his temple in 19. B.C.; about fifty years before the death of Christ. Of course, the real temple is now gone.
Before Jesus died he predicted that not one stone would be left standing, and sure enough, when the Romans attacked Jerusalem just 37 years later (about 70 A.D.), this beautiful building was destroyed.
This wall was one of the few parts of the temple area that survived. It was a wall built by Herod the Great that surrounded the temple.
For centuries this has been the place for Jews to lament their fallen city and so it has received the name “The Wailing Wall”. Because it is the only part of the temple area left, it is especially sacred to the Jews, who, for centuries, have left come here to pray and lament the fate of the Jewish nation.
The Wailing Wall is always crowded with worshipers. It attracts so many visitors that the Israeli government has torn down buildings so as to provide a large open area in front of it.
Here a devout Jew offers prayers at the Wailing Wall.
It was 1500 miles from Jesus’ homeland to the Roman forum, but the armies that were sent out from here ruled the world. At the far end of the forum is the Arch of Titus.
This arch, completed in the year 81 A.D., is a monument to the Roman commander Titus who led the armies that destroyed Jerusalem and the temple a few years after Jesus was crucified. There is an interesting sculpture on the underside of the arch.
It shows the victorious Roman soldiers carrying the golden candlestick out of the temple in Jerusalem. The beautiful candlestick was probably taken to Rome and is now lost.
This inscription stone from the temple was found in 1870. Here’s what it says:
Let no one of the Gentiles enter inside the barrier around the sanctuary and the porch; and if he transgresses, he shall himself bear the blame for his ensuing death.This helps understand why in Acts 21:15-36 the Jews got so upset when the apostle Paul was accused of bringing a Gentile into the temple.
This is the courtyard area of the temple much like the one from which Jesus drove the money changers. The early church would meet in areas much like this one.
Today this beautiful gold-domed Muslim shrine stands where the temple stood in Jesus’ time.
The Muslims believe this is where the prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven. It is for the Muslims, like the Jews, one of the most sacred spots on earth.
The Muslims call it “The Dome of the Rock”. It is 1300 years old and is perfectly preserved. Mohammed, founder of the Muslim faith, was born in 570 A.D., and within 70 years, the Holy land was completely under Muslim control.
Inside, the dome covers a large stone. Many believe this is the place where Abraham built an altar to offer his son Isaac, as a sacrifice. It is the rock of Mount Moriah. Later, this area became a grain-threshing floor.
Still later David bought the site for a temple and his son, Solomon, eventually built the breath-taking temple here. Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s temple in 587 B.C.
The temple was rebuilt by Ezra. Then Herod the Great built the third temple, the most beautiful of all, about 30 years before Jesus was born.
And now, a Muslim shrine covers the rock. Yes, this rock has seen a lot of history—including the fact that Jesus walked in this area many times.
The garden of Gethsemane is located within a mile of the temple, Jesus spent his last night.
This old gnarled olive tree is located in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Imagine Jesus’ anguish here as he faced death on a cross.
This is believed to be the spot called "Gabbatha" or "the pavement" that John mentions in his gospel. Jesus was taken to this spot after his arrest at Gethsemane. (John 19:13)
And this place is believed by some to be Golgotha, where Jesus was crucified. The exact location of Calvary and Jesus’ tomb are a matter of controversy.
But to some, especially a British general named Charles Gordon, this outcropping of rock fits the Biblical description of the “Place of the Skull”.
Nearby, Gordon found a tomb which dates back to the first century and looks very much like the tomb of Jesus, as described in the Bible.
A large circular stone, about 6 feet in diameter, was rolled along this trough to seal the tomb.
But the gospels do not end with Jesus’ death. They end with the great joy of the women and other disciples who saw Jesus alive! This marble monument was found at Nazareth--Jesus’ hometown--in 1878. It is a decree of the Emperor Claudius and dates from about 50 A.D. The emperor said:
It is my pleasure that graves and tombs remain undisturbed. If any man extract the buried, or move them, or displace the sealing or other stones, I order that the offender be sentenced to capital punishment.We can only wonder if the reason for such an proclamation isn’t in some was connected with the stir over the empty tomb of Jesus.
The footsteps of the Nazarene were heard 2,000 years ago in the Near East. But the echoes have not ceased. They have resounded through the centuries. They still come through loud and clear, even today!
Those who first lived with Jesus tell us he was no ordinary man. After being around him for a long time, listening to his words and seeing what he did, they confessed he was the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Peter told those who came together in Jerusalem on the Pentecost feast day, that Jesus was not dead, but alive--God raised him.
Archaeologists have not proved that Jesus arose or that he was the son of God. Archaeologists can only probe the earth, not the realm of faith. But archaeologists have established that the facts told about Jesus’ life have reference to real places, real people, real rulers, and real events. And when we know that the gospel writers are trustworthy in recording ordinary history, then we have greater reason to believe their testimony, as when John wrote:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing, you may have life in his name.” John 20:30-31
Jesus really lived. He worked as a carpenter.
He sailed on the Sea of Galilee in a boat. He attended a wedding feast in a real city, Cana of Galilee.
He walked this land to tell us about a better life. He traveled the road before us.
And he beckons us to follow in his steps.
Original text and slides from "Proof from the Past: How Archaeology Confirms the Bible", ©1979 Religious Services Company, Inc. Used by permission. Various edits and new audio recordings by the Bible Study Center 2006-2014.
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