The Gospels and Archaeology

By James M. Rochford

If we expect a historical document to be reliable, we would want it to be able to accurately capture the details of the surrounding culture—such as details regarding people, places, and public practices. When we read the gospels, this is precisely what we find.

Religious practices

After the Romans destroyed the Temple, the Jewish religious parties (e.g. the Sadducees and Pharisees) became virtually extinct. And yet, the Gospels capture the religious practices of Judaism before AD 70.

General Jewish religious practices. John described ritual purification (Jn. 2:6), cultural relations (Jn. 4:9), the view of the Law (Jn. 7:49), Sabbath regulations (Jn. 5:1-19; 9:1ff), and burial procedures (Jn. 19:40). His descriptions all comport with what we know of first century Jewish practice.

Ritual water jars (Mk. 7:3-4; Jn. 2:1-11). We have discovered many stone vessels “carved out of the local soft limestone and often expertly crafted,” which were important for “ritual purification for followers of Judaism.”[1]

Synagogue at Capernaum (Mk. 1:21). Roberts writes, “The ruins of an ancient synagogue have been found in Capernaum… Yet beneath this synagogue archeologists uncovered the remains of a still earlier synagogue, one that can be dated to the first century. This earlier building is the place where Jesus taught on several occasions.”[2]


The Sea of Galilee. Matthew, Mark, and John consistently refer to the Sea of Galilee as “the sea.”[3] Luke, however, consistently refers to the Sea of Galilee as “the lake (Lk. 5:1, 2; 8:22, 23, 33), even though he uses the term “sea” in a general sense (Lk. 17:2, 6; 21:25). Why the difference?

To Jewish men like Matthew, Mark, and John, the Sea of Galilee seemed enormous—even though it is only 13 miles in length. But to Luke, a good Hellenistic Gentile who lived by the Mediterranean Sea, the little Sea of Galilee wouldn’t be considered a “sea.” It’s as if Luke was using the old line from Crocodile Dundee, where we might hear him saying, “That’s not a sea… This is a sea!”

John accurately identifies geographical locations. John correctly named the Kidron Valley (Jn. 18:1), and he appropriately distinguished Cana in Galilee from Cana in Sidon (Jn. 2:1; 4:46). He knew that Ephraim was “a town… near the wilderness” (Jn. 11:54). He was familiar with the Hebrew names for the places in Palestine: the place called “The Pavement” had the Hebrew name “Gabbatha” (Jn. 19:13). He knew that it was a one day trip from Cana to Capernaum (Jn. 4:52), and a two day journey from Bethany beyond the Jordan to Bethany near Jerusalem (Jn. 10:40; 11:18).

Remember, this was written in a time before Google Earth, Wikipedia, or even extensive mapping of the ancient world! Time and again, John recorded details that would be unique to an eyewitness before the destruction of Israel in AD 70. This doesn’t require that he wrote his Gospel before AD 70, but merely that he lived during that time.


Going up to Jerusalem and down from Jerusalem. All four gospels describe going to Jerusalem as “going up” (Mt. 20:17, 18; Mk. 10:32, 33; Lk. 2:4, 42; 18:31; 19:28; Jn. 2:13; 5:1; 7:8, 10, 14; 11:55; 12:20). Likewise, when someone was leaving, they refer to this as “going down” (Mark 3:22; Luke 2:51; 18:14). Because Jerusalem is 2,450 above sea level, this shows that they understood the topography of this territory.

Going down from Cana to Capernaum. John describes Jesus going “down” from Cana to Capernaum (Jn. 2:12). Likewise, the royal official implored Jesus to come “down” from Cana to Capernaum (Jn. 4:47). Of course, we know that there is a drop in elevation of at least 1,400 feet, when one travels between these two cities.


Chorazin was a small town that was north of Capernaum that was on the way to Bethsaida. Luke and Matthew record this town (Lk. 10:13-15; Mt. 11:21-23), yet it doesn’t exist in any extrabiblical literature. However, archaeologists have shown that Chorazin had “substantial communities comparable in size and importance to Capernaum.”[4]

Researchers found a bulla (a small clay seal) that is 1.5 cm that referenced the small town of Bethlehem in May 2012.

The small town of Nazareth was considered to be fictitious, because it was never mentioned in extra-biblical sources. Josephus even mentioned 45 cities in Galilee, but not Nazareth! However, in 1961, a mosaic inscription was found in Caesarea Maritima. Furthermore, in December 2009, archaeologists discovered a first-century house in Nazareth.

Water sources

The “deep” well near Mt. Gerizim (Jn. 4:4, 11, 19-20). Historian Edwin Yamauchi writes, “Halfway between Galilee and Judea in Samaria is one site which all authorities believe to be authentic. This is Jacob’s Well where Jesus spoke with the woman of Samaria (John 4). Above it loom the twin mountains of Ebal and of Gerizim. It was the latter which the woman pointed out as the sacred place of worship for the Samaritans.”[5]

Water in Aenon. He knew that there was “much water” in “Aenon near Salim” (Jn. 3:23).

The Pool of Bethesda (Jn. 5:2). For years, critics held that the Pool of Bethesda was purely legendary. Yet, in the late 19th century, archaeologists discovered this pool, and it had exactly five colonnades—just as John recorded. Blomberg writes, “Reconstruction showed how two juxtaposed rectangular enclosures would have created five porticoes.”[6]

The Pool of Siloam (Jn. 9:7). Archaeologist James Hoffmeier writes, “During the summer of 2004… thanks to the use of a metal detector, four coins were found embedded in the plaster… [The] coins and pottery associated with it suggest that it flourished right up to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70. Because it stands at the bottom end of the valley, it would quickly have silted over and its location been forgotten. The stone-lined pool was in all probability the Pool of Siloam of Jesus’ day.[7]


The frequency of names is consistent with the use at the time. Onomastics is the study of names, and the names recorded in the Gospels matches with the percentage of those used in first-century Israel. Israeli scholar Tal Ilan published a lexicon of all recorded names from 330 BC to AD 200,[8] though the majority of data come from sources between 50 BC and AD 135. She collected the names from the NT, Josephus, ossuaries (i.e. bone-boxes), and the texts from the Judean desert. This led to a total of 2,953 uses of names—447 male names and 74 female names—which is a fairly large sample size. Indeed, Tal Ilan states that her work “bears the character of a modern telephone book.”[9] Utilizing her work, Richard Bauckham found that the percentages were consistent with the Gospels and Acts.

This is not a lucky coincidence. Jewish people named their children depending on their residence in the expansive Roman Empire. Specifically, there was a night and day difference in names for those Jews inside of Israel, and those outside of Israel. When Bauckham compared the names with those in the Diaspora, the percentages were far different. He writes, “The names of Palestinian Jews in the Gospels and Acts coincide very closely with the names of the general population of Jewish Palestine in this period, but not to the names of Jews in the Diaspora.”[10]

Famous people

Herod the Great. We have first-century coins of Herod the Great, and in 2007, Ehud Netzer discovered Herod’s tomb.

Archelaus. We have first-century coins of Archaelaus.

Herod Antipas (4 BC-AD 39). We have first-century coins of Herod Antipas.

Pontius Pilate (governor from AD 26-36). In 1961, archaeologist a team led by Antonio Frova discovered the so-called “Pilate Stone.” In Latin, the stone reads:




Translated, this states:




In addition, an excavation found a “copper-alloy Roman-type ring bearing the name ‘Pilato’ (Pilatus)… at the palace fortress site of Herodium near Bethlehem.”[11] Since the ring lay in a room with other pre-AD 70 artifacts, archaeologists believe this to be a discovery that dates to the time of Pontius Pilate.

The high priest Caiaphas (Jn. 11:49, 51; 18:13). He was the high priest from AD 18-36. In 1990, investigators discovered an ossuary or a “bone box” that they believe belonged to the high priest, and indeed contains his skeletal remains. First, the ossuary has the title Yehosef bar Qayafa (“Joseph, son of Caiaphas”).[12] Second, it dates between AD 43[13] and AD 70, which would fit with the time period of Caiaphas’ death. Third, it is an expensive box which most likely belonged to a “wealthy and prominent Jerusalem citizen.”[14] Fourth, the ossuary holds the skeletons of six different individuals—one of whom was roughly 60 years old at death. All of these data fit with the historical Caiaphas. Thus Hoffmeier notes, “There is widespread agreement that this ossuary belonged to the high priest.”[15]

James—the half-brother of Jesus. The “James Ossuary” had been in the custody of a dealer of antiquities until 2002. The Aramaic inscription on the ossuary states, “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.”

Wasn’t this a forgery? The Israeli government confiscated this artifact when it was on display in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, because they claimed it was a fake. This led to an eight year trial. However, these charges were dropped and the ossuary was returned. There are several reasons for thinking it is authentic.

The legal case was extensive—yet it resulted in dropped charges. Holden and Geisler write, “[The case] concluded in March 2010 after 116 hearings involving 138 witnesses, 52 expert witnesses, over 400 exhibits, and more than 12,000 pages of court transcripts!”[16]

It contains ancient biological residue (called patina). Patina is a film on the surface of metals or stones, and it is produced by oxidation over a long period of time. Professor Wolfgang E. Krumbein of Oldenberg University (the world’s leading expert of stone patina) has written 15 books and 400 scientific articles. He is also a visiting professor at Harvard University. In his official report, he found with “certainty” that the patina was at least 50-100 years old—though he thought it was millennia old. Moreover, the patina on the outside was “identical” with the microscopic traces inside the inscription. Furthermore, the patina on the outside “is no less authentic than the patina covering the other parts of the ossuary.” In his official report, he wrote, “The conclusions noted in the [earlier] reports… originate from a series of errors, biases, mistaken premises, use of inappropriate methodology, mistaken geochemistry, defective error control, reliance on unconfirmed data, [and] disregard of information.”[17]

The craftsmanship and writing is consistent with other ancient ossuaries. The writing style (called epigraphy) fits with the first century (before AD 70). Paleographer Andre Lemaire found it to be authentic, as did Dr. Ada Yardeni.

Statisticians have found that this is most likely the grave of James, the brother of Jesus. Holden and Geisler write, “Professor Camil Fuchs, head of the statistics department at Tel Aviv University, researched deceased males in Jerusalem in the first century AD. He concluded (based on conservative estimates of a growing Jerusalem population between AD 6 and 70, minus all women, minus children who would not have reached manhood by the time of James’s death, minus non-Jews, and considering the fame of Jesus as a brother to warrant the inscription, time of death, and literacy) that with 95 percent assurance there existed at the time in Jerusalem 1.71 people named James who had a father named Joseph and brother named Jesus.”[18]

James’ mention of Jesus implies that he believed in the resurrection. Ben Witherington writes, “James lived in an honor and shame culture, and crucifixion was the most shameful way to die in that culture. If crucifixion had been the final event in Jesus’ earthly life, then it is hard to believe that thirty years later someone would be bragging on an ossuary about being related to him. The last part of the inscription reads, almost emphatically, ‘His brother [is] Jesus!’ or ‘He’s the brother of Jesus!’ What had happened that redeemed the honor of the crucified Jesus? It was his resurrection. So, I like to say, James is in the box, and Jesus is on the box, because of the resurrection.”[19]

Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection

Crucifixion (Yehohanan ben Hagkol). In 1968, researchers discovered an ossuary of a crucifixion victim named “Yehohanan the son of Hagkol), who died in the first-century AD. Specialists discovered the five-inch Roman nails in the heel and wrist of the corpse, as well as “remnants of wood” from the cross.[20]

Reaction to a Crucified Messiah. The “Alexamenos Graffito” dates somewhere between AD 90 and 200,[21] and it was discovered in Rome. It is a rough drawing sketched into the plaster wall of the Paedagogium on the Palatine Hill. The crude drawing shows a human-like figure on the cross with the head of a donkey. Beneath the drawing, we read, “Alexamenos worships god.”

The Tomb of Jesus. Very recently, it was confirmed that the tomb under the Church of the Holy Sepulchre indeed held the buried body of Jesus. First, this tomb dates to the first-century.

The Resurrection. In 1878, scholars discovered the “Nazareth Inscription.” This is an “Edict of Caesar” that dates to AD 41-54. In the 22-line inscription, Emperor Claudius issues capital punishment for anyone who would tamper with a tomb, specifically robbing the body from the tomb. Specifically, it states that if anyone has “extracted those who have been buried, or has moved with wicked intent those who have been buried to other places… or has moved sepulcher-sealing stones… You are absolutely not to allow anyone to move those who have been entombed.”[22]

Further reading

Joseph Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest Publishers, 2013).

Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020).

Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002).

James Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion, 2008).

Ted Wright, Epic Archaeology

[1] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), p.184.

[2] Mark D. Roberts, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007), p.152.

[3] Matthew uses the term “sea” 12x to refer to the Sea of Galilee; Mark uses the term “sea” 17x to refer to the Sea of Galilee; and John uses the term “sea” 9x to refer the Sea of Galilee.

[4] R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), p.438.

[5] Edwin Yamauchi, The Stones and the Scriptures (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972), pp.102-103.

[6] Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of John’s Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2002), p.109.

[7] James Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion, 2008), p.148.

[8] Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE (Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 2002).

[9] Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE (Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 2002), p.1.

[10] Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2nd edition, Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 2017), pp.74-75.

[11] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), p.191.

[12] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), p.189.

[13] One of the skulls contains a coin of Herod Antipas I that dates to AD 43.

[14] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), p.189.

[15] James Hoffmeier, The Archaeology of the Bible (Oxford: Lion, 2008), p.154.

[16] Joseph Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest Publishers, 2013), p.311.

[17] Wolfgang E. Krumbein, “Preliminary Report: External Expert Opinion on three Stone Items,” Bible Archaeology Society, 2005.

[18] Joseph Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest Publishers, 2013), p.313.

[19] Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2003), pp.278-279.

[20] Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), p.194.

[21] The building was erected in AD 90, and it was remodeled in AD 200. So, the graffito must date sometime between then. See Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), p.196.

[22] Cited in Titus Kennedy, Unearthing the Bible (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2020), p.201.