Home > Archaeology, Christianity, Christology, Study of the New Testament > The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence

The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence

  • Author: Shimon Gibson
  • Publisher: H~C~ (2009)
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 276
  • ISBN-10: 0061775312
  • ISBN-13: 9780061775314
  • Format: PDF

Ever since the gospels were written there have been questions about the momentous events that occurred during the final days of Jesus. Renowned archaeologist Shimon Gibson breaks new ground examining the critical last days of the life of Jesus using his extraordinary access to firsthand archaeological findings as principal evidence. Gibson explains: “The purpose of this book is to unravel once and for all the mystery surrounding the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem: why he went there; how he came to be arrested, tried, and crucified; and where his place of burial was located. There is no doubt that some of my conclusions regarding Jesus and Jerusalem may be controversial.”

Describing the events of the final days of Jesus chronologically, beginning with his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey and ending with his burial in a tomb after having been crucified, Gibson unveils a vivid picture of first-century Jerusalem; its monuments, streets, and houses; and, of course, the Jewish Temple that was the jewel in the crown of the city. The Jesus that emerges in these pages is a teacher and healer who captures the fascination of the crowds. As a man from an accomplished and well-off rural background, trained in matters of ritual purification by John the Baptist, and as a believer in alternative healing methods, Jesus’s speeches and teachings—made in the tinder-box atmosphere of Passover festivities in Jerusalem—scared the Jewish and Roman authorities to such a degree that they decided to have him put to death. Gibson reveals how archaeology has a major role to play not only in how the gospels should be read and understood, but also in understanding Jesus in his world.

Who was Jesus, and what can archaeology tell us about him? I am sure many people want to know this. The theologians and historians have had their go—many thousands of books attest to this—but what can archaeology contribute in the quest to find out more about the historical Jesus? Does archaeology just provide illustrative material for the context/background of the Gospel accounts, a kind of “garnish” for the focused historical perspective? Or can it provide us with unique, valuable information that can change substantially the way we perceive Jesus and his final days in Jerusalem as set forth in the Gospel accounts?

I believe archaeology is an undervalued and untapped source of rich data on the historical Jesus, and I hope to show this in the pages of  this book. Archaeology should be allowed its own voice alongside the information and ideas that emerge from the historical exegesis of the Gospels. They both have their problems: Archaeological remains may be too fragmentary or interpreted incorrectly; textual sources may be too garbled from transmission or replete with errors by copyists.

Archaeology, therefore, should be used appropriately—neither to support and prop up the account of Jesus in Jerusalem nor to deny and tear down the historicity of that account. It should be an independent means of “testing” the validity of the Gospel accounts, to compare and contrast them with historical studies. Archaeology can provide structured explanations and interpretations of specific events, such as the trial of Jesus, and these subsequently need to be tested and woven into the historical perspective.

Archaeological sites are multi-layered, as are the textual accounts—both require dissection and critical examination to elucidate the many “truths” of the past. This is admittedly a difficult and complex task. Understanding the topography of Jerusalem and the layout of the city is essential. Also, having a good grasp of Jewish material remains of the first century is vital. Artifacts with inscriptions can be very helpful: A fragment of a block of stone from Caesarea bearing the name and exact title of Pontius Pilate is a major find and a boon for scholarship. A tomb with the name of Caiaphas on one of its ossuaries is yet another major archaeological discovery highlighting the Gospel story. Other inscriptions, such as the “James” ossuary, are of dubious value because they come from the collections of antiquities dealers and not directly from scientific excavations, but this should not dampen the usefulness of archaeology in elucidating the Gospel narrative.

The need to know more about the places in which Jesus spent his last critical days began a long time ago. This is clearly reflected in the constant flow of Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land and particularly to Jerusalem, which began in the fourth century and continues to the present day. Most worshippers desire to see with their own eyes the main sites associated with the Gospel stories: the traditional site of the room of the Last Supper on Mount Zion; the gnarled olive trees of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives; the pavement of Gabbatha at the place where Jesus was tried by Pontius Pilate; the Via Dolorosa along which Jesus carried his cross; the Rock of Calvary where Jesus was brought for crucifixion; and the Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre covering the vestiges of the Tomb of Jesus.

Inevitably, the same questions are asked by visiting pilgrims and travelers: How reliable are these traditional spots? How certain can we be that the authentic tomb of Jesus is indeed located at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? In the nineteenth century, alternative locations for some of the secondary holy sites in Jerusalem were given by local guides and by resident clergy, resulting in a lot of confusion and some suspicion amongst those visiting the city. The discomfort pilgrims and travelers felt in having to make educated guesses are apparent in some of their travel accounts.

In the early twentieth century, travelers were confronted with an alternative tomb of Jesus at the “Garden Tomb” on the north side of the city, which caused further confusion. Today, Christian pilgrims are much more demanding and discerning and require “scientific” verification for explanations given by tourist guides in respect to the “traditional” Gospel sites. However, this does not mean they always get what they want.

From where have people derived information about the final days of Jesus? Visual reconstructions occasionally appear on the stage and the big screen. I am thinking particularly of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s excellent musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.” For cinematic renderings, there is the wonderful black-and-white movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini and the other newer movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which managed to create quite a furor when it was released. More recently, I came out of Mel Gibson’s movie about Jesus’ final days, “The Passion of Christ,” feeling like I’d been drenched in gratuitous Hollywood blood. The movie was not being shown in Jerusalem because local distributors deemed the subject “uninteresting” for the general Israeli public; instead I watched a bootleg version, subtitled both in Arabic and English, in the rather quaint sitting room of the British School of Archaeology in East Jerusalem.

Thousands of scholarly studies have been written about Jesus the prophet and healer; his early mission around the Sea of Galilee; his ideas, sayings, and eschatological messages; and his experiences with John the Baptist at the Jordan River. Scholars agree that none of the Gospels is an eyewitness account of the events it describes, since each was written almost forty to sixty years after the death of Jesus. And so, at best, the Synoptic Gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) may be regarded as conveying oral tradition that was to some extent embroidered and embellished as part of the literary process. The Fourth Gospel ( John) undoubtedly made use of a lot of historical data that were not available to the other three Gospel writers. The best way to get to some degree of truth about what actually happened, it has been argued, is through the careful historical and literary analysis of the Gospels and their possible sources. However, archaeology has quite a lot to offer, more so than has previously been realized.

In this book the author concentrate on Jesus’ final days during the Passover week in Jerusalem in 30 c.e. Beginning with the road Jesus took to Jerusalem and his sojourn in Bethany, Gibson examine Jesus’ activities within the city, particularly at the Jewish Temple and in the adjacent Pools of Bethesda and Siloam. The scene of the trial is investigated and fresh archaeological discoveries are revealed for the first time. Knowing what the place of the trial looked like allows one to visualize the proceedings in a way not previously possible. Questions relating to the exact place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial are also dealt with and new archaeological discoveries are presented. A burial shroud from the first century, uncovered in Jerusalem, is compared to the famous Turin Shroud. Many new ideas and explanations have resulted from my personal quest to follow in the footsteps of the historical Jesus in Jerusalem. The reader may be astonished by some of these results.

In my mind, Jerusalem is one of the most exciting archaeological sites in the world, with an amazing array of ancient remains underground. Some have already been uncovered; some await discovery. It is one of the most excavated places in Israel, even though large portions of the ancient city, hidden under modern houses and buildings, are inaccessible for digging purposes.

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