Archaeology has become a powerful tool for defending the New Testament. It was written during the 1st century AD and mentions many people, cities and events by name. Archaeologists have located many ancient findings of those people, cities and events, thus giving historical evidence to the accuracy of the ancient writings of the New Testament.
A major difference between Old Testament archaeology and New Testament archaeology is the time span and coverage area involved. The Old Testament was written over a period of about 1,000 years from most of the Middle East. The New Testament was written over a period of about 50 years from near the Mediterranean area. However, even though the time span and coverage area of the New Testament is relatively small, archaeologists have made many discoveries that support the historical information in those writings.
Before we look at individual archaeologists and their findings, let’s look at the development of archaeology to see if it’s a science we can trust. Atheists and agnostics sometimes raise the question of accuracy when it comes to archaeological discoveries concerning the Bible.
Archaeological findings prior to the 19th century AD were often treasure hunts. Explorers and amateur archaeologists visited ancient lands looking for spectacular items they could use for personal collections, to sell to wealthy collectors, or display for pay. Little thought was given to developing a systematic method for their searches, so they dug up large portions of ancient cities with no consideration to what they be might be destroying in the process.
Napoleon Bonaparte of France is credited with opening the door to modern archaeology in the Middle East. As he was fighting to expand his empire at the end of the 18th century, the young Bonaparte led his army into Egypt. He also brought more than 150 scientists and scholars with him to uncover the mysteries of Egypt. They were able to take some of what they found with them when they left Egypt in 1801. Their discoveries were released in a multi-volume set called Description de l’Égypte, ou Recueil des observations et des recherches qui ont été faites en Égypte pendant l’expédition de l’armée française (Description of Egypt, or the collection of observations and research which was made in Egypt during the expedition of the French Army). The work opened the door to future studies of Egypt (Egyptology).
Another important discovery by Napoleon’s army was the Rosetta Stone in 1799. It was the first ancient bilingual text discovered in modern times. The stone contained writing in Demotic Script, Greek, and Egyptian Hieroglyphs about a priestly decree concerning a young Egyptian pharaoh. The French began the process of deciphering the Rosetta stone, but the British army was able to get the stone from the French and took it to England where it remains to this day in the British Museum. Knowledge of ancient Greek and the Demotic text opened the way for scholars to study ancient Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
The combination of all those discoveries was the beginning of modern archaeology. More findings in Egypt and other areas of the Middle East opened the door to many ancient civilizations which had a history with Israel – a history detailed in the Bible. Some of the ancient areas studied by 19th century AD archaeologists (in addition to Egypt) included Nineveh, Babylon, Ur, and Jerusalem. Students of the Bible were able to compare historical facts listed in the Old Testament with the archaeological findings.
The science of archaeology developed further with the work of Sir Flinders Petrie. Petrie developed many scientific advances in archaeology during his years investigating prehistoric monuments in his homeland to the pyramids of Egypt. He understood the importance of careful surveying and digging and preserving artifacts. One of those artifacts, known as the Merneptah Stele, contains an inscription from Pharaoh Merneptah (reigned during the latter part of the 13th century BC) mentioning the people of Israel. The hieroglyphs about Israel use a sign for foreign people rather than a city-state. That fits with the history of Israel at that time according to the Bible. Israel did not have a king or capital until more than a hundred years after the inscriptions on the Merneptah Stele, so Egyptians would have seen them as nomadic tribes at that time (during the time of the Judges).
Petrie turned the focus of his work to Palestine in the 1920s and became a permanent resident of Jerusalem after retiring from his professorship. His work inspired a new generation of archaeologists and led to many more innovations in the science of archaeology.
Sir William Ramsay was a contemporary of Petrie and became the leading authority on the history of Asia Minor and the New Testament during his lifetime. Ramsay was a professor at Oxford and Aberdeen and highly acclaimed for his contributions to archaeology and historical research. Sir Ramsay did much of his research in Greece and Turkey, which led him to archaeological findings that supported both the Book of Acts and the Pauline Epistles in the New Testament. Little was known about many of the cities mentioned by Luke and Paul, so Sir Ramsay believed his research would prove their writings as being inaccurate since Acts and the Pauline Epistles had been written centuries earlier.
In his book titled The Bearing of Recent Discovery, Ramsay wrote this about the Book of Acts – “I set out to look for truth on the borderland where Greece and Asia meet, and found it there. You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment.” Sir Ramsay also gave his support to the truthfulness of facts found in Paul’s Letters and concluding that Paul was the author. He also came to believe that Luke, Acts and Paul’s Letters were written during the 1st century AD instead of the mid-2nd century AD that was the prevalent belief of Ramsay’s time.
Some of Ramsay’s archaeological findings support the following claims of the New Testament:
- Roman censuses were held every 14 years beginning with Caesar Augustus in either 23-22 BC or 9-6 BC.
- Quirinius was governor of Syria about 7 BC and again in 6 AD.
- Iconium was a city of Phyrgia.
- Lysanias was Tetrarch of Abilene between 14 and 29 AD.
- Erastus was the treasurer of Corinth during the 1st century AD.
- Civic assemblies in Ephesus did take place in a theater.
- Gallio was the Proconsul of Achaia.
- Publius was the chief man in Malta.
- Civil authorities were known as politarchs in Thessalonica.
Other archaeologists have also made discoveries that support the New Testament records, including:
- The Pavement (Gabbatha) where Pilate tried Jesus was found buried beneath a part of Jerusalem rebuilt by Emperor Hadrian.
- The Pool of Bethesda was located in the northeast quarter of old Jerusalem.
- Ossuary of Caiaphas
- House of David inscription
- Pontius Pilate inscription
- Ekron inscription
- Mt. Ebal altar
In the next part of our study I’ll share an archaeological article I first published on the Internet in 1995. It contains many of the discoveries that serve as evidence for the trustworthiness of the Bible.
In Christ’s Love and Grace,
Building Confidence Through Evidence
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”