Does archaeology support the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke)? Part I

Excerpted from James M. Arlandson

Inerrantist Wayne Grudem writes:

… Our understanding of Scripture is never perfect, and this means that there may be cases where we will be unable to find a solution to a difficult passage at the present time. This may be because the linguistic, historical, or contextual evidence we need to understand the passage correctly is presently unknown to us.” (Systematic Theology, Zondervan, 1994, p. 99)

He wrote those words in the context of supposed contradictions in the Bible. But they can apply to archaeology and history and the Bible. His humility about our imperfect understanding of Scripture is refreshing.

The Synoptics and Scripture as a whole have often been shown to be right in matters of history. In fact, that’s what’s so remarkable about Scripture. Its authorship spans about 1,500 years. They lived in different regions and cultures and flowing, changing history, so the chances of their being wrong are high. However, there are so many things Scripture gets right includeing even simple things like where Jerusalem is located or the village of Capernaum being located on the Sea of Galilee, or the name of the god Baal or of a ruler like Pontius Pilate or Nebuchadnezzar.

The historical facts and data outside of the Gospels go a long way to support their historical reliability, and here is an excerpt of a massive body of work done by James M. Arlandson (it is also featured at :

Archaeology and the Bible have an uneasy relationship. Many textual scholars have little use for archaeology. Discoveries happen often, so the data change, whereas the written text is stable, by comparison. Plus, the stones, so to speak, are sometimes difficult to interpret in relation to the text.

Nonetheless, let’s bring onto the web what archaeologists are saying in their books.  Though I’m far from being an archaeologist, I decided to include some findings that are more or less stable (but see some of the examples, below). For me, the Biblical text and its historical reliability have been demonstrated again and again, so I don’t put myself on an emotional rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows, depending on this or that discovery.

(Here the author suggests to open up two separate windows; one with this link of map of Israel and the second with map of Jerusalem).

1. So  how  does  archaeology  relate  to  the  Synoptic  Gospels?

Let’s begin with a sad example – sad, but true. Jesus grieved over his prediction (Matt. 23:37, Luke 13:34) destruction of Jerusalem

Luke 21:20 says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near” (see Luke 19:42;Matt.24:15-20; Mark 13:14-19). Rome destroyed the temple and Jerusalem in AD 70. The suppression was led by Roman general Titus, son of the Emperor Vespasian (ruled 69-79), and Titus later ruled 79-81.

Closeup image from Arch of Titus- Menorrah and Temple goods being plundered.

The Arch of Titus stands at the highest point on the Via Sacra in Rome. The procession carved in marble shows the Roman General Titus returning victorious, having crushed the Jewish state, carrying the spoils of war stolen from the very Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

This wall relief on the Arch of Titus reveals one of the most troubling scenes in all history, Roman soldiers carrying spoils from the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Temple Menorah* and the Table** of the Shewbread shown at an angle, both of solid gold, and the silver trumpets which called the Jews to the festivals. The Romans are in triumphal procession wearing laurel crowns and the ones carrying the Menorah have pillows on their shoulders. The soldiers carry signs commemorating the victories which Titus had won. This group of soldiers is just a few of the hundreds in the actual triumphal procession down Rome’s Sacred Way. The whole procession is about to enter the carved arch on the right which reveals the quadriga at the top, Titus on his 4-horsed chariot with soldiers. The Arch of Titus with its Menorah Relief are high on the list of importance in the study of Biblical Archaeology because it stands today as a testimony that the words of Jesus miraculously came true.

Jesus Weeps over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41-44)

41And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying,  42 „Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side 44 and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”

(2) Inscription about Pontius Pilate

He is mentioned in all four Gospels, particularly at the trial of Jesus, but the inscription is dealt with here because the synoptic Gospels mention him. He authorized Jesus’ execution. In the inscription at Caesarea Maritima, on the Mediterranean coast, he is referred to as the prefect of Judea, which is the southern region that encompassed Jerusalem.

Click picture to read about this inscription.

Until recently, there was no contemporary evidence outside the Bible for Pilate’s existence (although Tacitus, Josephus, and Philo all wrote about him). Then in 1961, Italian archaeologists excavating the theatre at Caesarea found this stone inscription of Pontius Pilate. Coins have also been found dating from Pilate’s rule as governor.

You can click for more on Pontius Pilate and if you click on the picture on the right you can read more on the inscription that was excavated.

(3) The boy Jesus in the temple

In Luke 2:41-50, he is in the temple dialoging with the rabbis. He impressed them with his wisdom. Where did this dialogue take place?

The discovery of a stairway south of the southern wall of the Temple Mount makes it clear that it was here that the young Jesus amazed the rabbis by his knowledge. A fragment of an inscription found on the stairway, along with another fragment … mentions the elders (zeqenim). Probably a place was allotted to them. The Talmud refers to three tribunals in Jerusalem. One of these „used to sit at the gate of the Temple Mount … engaged in deliberations and expounding” … . (Barhat, p. 307)

But the most interesting evidence says in the Talmud (t.Sanhedrin 2.6) that Rabban Gamaliel (probable teacher of Paul) and the elders were sitting on the stairway, along with a scribe. Then the tractate goes on to reference the people of upper Galilee and lower Galilee (Dan Barhat, p. 307).

(Here is a link to pictures of the simulated reconstruction of the temple, these pictures are very useful in shedding a light on the Gospel events that took place there, especially notice how big the Temple structure was. For more/bigger pictures on the Temple Mount you can visit the UCLA site and the Jerusalem Archaeological Park which has interactive maps and material on persons and events; this site is worth book marking and studying Biblical history at leisure)

(4) A winepress, stone-walled terraces, and three towers

In all four Gospels, Jesus is called “Jesus of Nazareth.” In the Parable of the

Tenants, he says that “a man planted a vineyard. He put a wall around it, dug a pit for the winepress and built a watchtower” (Mark 12:1, Matt.21:33) but  Luke 20:9 omits most of the elements). Since the 1990s these textual data have been confirmed by archaeology “less than half a mile from the center of first-century Nazareth” to the west … . “A winepress has been exposed, and beautifully constructed stone-walled terraces are now visible. Most importantly, three circular stone towers only about fifty feet [about 16m] apart now rise majestically above the rocky terrain” (Charlesworth, “Jesus Research,” p. 38).

(5) The farmers in the Parable of the Tenants

In this parable (Matt. 21:33-46, Mark 12:1-12, Luke 20:9-19), the landlord rents out his land to farmers. When he sends his servants to collect some of the produce or profits, the farmers beat them and eventually killed the landowner’s son.

So were the farmers peasants? From the larger contexts of rabbinic traditions, Greek papyri, a true-life story from Cicero himself (106-43 BC), and the Old Testament, it is clear that they were not necessarily poor peasants who were oppressed, so that they were in some sense justified in taking the land. Some of the evidence in the papyri parallels Jesus’ parable remarkably closely. A landowner leases his land to a farmer (the same Greek word both in the New Testament and the papyri). The landowner sends servants to collect the profits. The farmer assaults them and runs them out of the village (Evans, pp. 245-47). So instead of being dispossessed peasants, the farmers in the parable could be the powerful who were greedy for profit and the acquisition of more land. Thus, the farmers and their actions are consistent with the ruling priests in Jerusalem, according to Jesus’ assessment of them, as the end of the parable indicates.

Craig A. Evans, “Are the Wicked Tenant Farmers ‘Peasants’?” pp. 231-50.

read the rest of this article here .

Does archaeology support the Synoptic Gospels? Part II

You can read Part I of this post here.

(6) Peter’s house in Capernaum?

Aerial view of Capernaum

This fishing village  on the North shore of Galilee populated with about 1,000 to 1,700 people was Jesus’ “own town” (Matt. 9:1). He taught in the synagogue and set a man free of a demon after he interrupted Jesus’ sermon. Then Jesus went immediately afterwards to Peter’s house and healed Peter’s mother-in-law, who was sick with a fever. She got up and cooked them dinner. Finally, “the whole town gathered at the door, and Jesus healed many who had various diseases. He also drove out many demons” … (Mark 1:21-34).

A house has been excavated there, and it is possible that it may have been Peter’s. James Charlesworth reviews six parts of the puzzle that fit together and indicate that the house was Peter’s (pp. 49-50). Jerome Murphy-O’Connor says that no evidence contradicts the identification of the house with Peter (p. 220). Von Wahlde writes: “Almost all scholars now espouse this view” that the house belonged to the apostle (p. 546).

(7) First-century synagogue in Capernaum?

All four Gospels mention a synagogue at Capernaum. Impressive remains of a fourth-century synagogue stand near the shoreline of the Lake of Galilee. Excavations around it have revealed an earlier layer underneath the fourth-century synagogue. “Given the custom of building one synagogue immediately upon the site of the previous ones, the earlier building is almost certainly the synagogue in which … Jesus taught on the day of the multiplication of loaves” (John 6:59) (von Wahlde, p. 546). As we saw in the sixth example, Jesus ministered there on other occasions.

(8) The Galilean boat

Misleadingly called the “Jesus boat,” it has no clear connection to Jesus or his disciples. It was found in the mud on the northwestern shore of the Lake of Galilee. “It is poorly crafted and represents the possession of ordinary people. Perhaps about thirteen men could be crowded into it.” It has a shallow draft and sat low to the water, so fishermen could easily pull up a net with fish trapped in it. The boat’s low profile means that it would fill up with water quickly in a storm (Charlesworth, pp. 41-42). Recall that James and John, sons of Zebedee, and Peter were partners (Luke 5:6, 10). They owned at least two boats. Though the Galilean boat has no firm connection to the disciples, it at least sheds some light on what life was like for fishermen.

(9) Herod Antipas: a reed shaken by the wind?

Matt. 11:7-9 and Luke 7:24-26 discuss John the Baptist’s prophethood, after he was in prison. Jesus asks the people whether John was a “reed shaken in the wind.” The answer is no; he was a prophet. But why would Jesus choose that image? A possible explanation appears on local coins.

Herod Antipas minted coins with reeds on them because reeds symbolized cities on a river or lake, specifically the city of Tiberias. A “‘shaken reed’ could have become a name for the king who swayed with and survived many a political wind, who wavered between wives, and even between Sepphoris and Tiberias as his place of residence … The vivid phrase goes back to Jesus himself and reflects local color of the day, as he contrasts the uncompromising prophet with the ‘shaking reed’ of a kinglet from the Hellenistic Roman power elite” (Reumann, p. 672).

The connection between the passages in Matthew and Luke and the coins is not absolutely fixed. But it receives support from the textual context. Jesus also asks whether John was “a man dressed in fine clothes?” “No,” Jesus replies, answering his own question, because “those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces” (Matt. 11:8 // Luke 7:25).

(10) Qumran writings and table fellowship

The Essenes, probable writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, were extra-scrupulous about whom they invited to table fellowship and the assembly or the community of the last days. James D. G. Dunn quotes several passages from these texts. They show the kinds of persons who were excluded: the unclean, the paralyzed in their feet or hands, or the lame or the blind or deaf and mute or the blemished. In contrast, in Luke 14:12-13 and 21, Jesus says these people are acceptable for his table fellowship:

12 Then Jesus said to his host, „When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind … 21 „The servant came back and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and ordered his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ (Luke 14:12-13, 21)

The wording of the excluded persons is similar to the Qumran texts: lame, blind, and crippled. This last word is a different Greek and Hebrew word from the Greek and Hebrew of “lame.” “Crippled” should be translated more generally, maybe as “seriously disabled” or possibly “blemished” or a range of physical disabilities. Now what about the poor? In the Synoptics, they receive ministry from Jesus, but in the Dead Sea scrolls that Dunn cites the term applies to the Essenes themselves, even though many may not have been poor.

Dunn draws the obvious conclusion: “In the Palestinian Jesus movement the table of God was open to all the poor, and not least to the disabled, the lame, and the blind – those specifically excluded by the self-styled ‘poor’ of Qumran” (p. 267).

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