Top Ten New Testament Archaeological Finds of the Past 150 Years
Mention archaeology to most people and they think of dramatic finds of artifacts that confirm or confute some cherished belief about antiquity or ancient history.
The truth about archaeological explorations, however, is somewhat less dramatic and much more mundane most of the time. Rarely does one find something that relates to a specific person or a specific event. Most of the time one must be content with helping fill out the picture of the social world or context of some part of the ancient world—evidence of how people lived, what burial customs they followed, what sort of houses they built, what sort of artisanship they showed. This is why some have said that archaeology is the study of durable rubbish.
But occasionally something comes to light that is certainly more significant than rubbish, and even relates directly to a figure in the Bible. Such an event occurred recently when the James ossuary came to light. To appreciate the significance and rarity of that find, it will be useful to first review the top finds of the last 150 years insofar as they have relevance to the study of the New Testament, and more particularly of Jesus and his context.
Digging into New Testament archaeology
Archaeology is in fact both an art and a science, and as applied to the study of the New Testament it is a recent phenomenon. Furthermore, the truth is that New Testament archaeology has significantly lagged behind Ancient Near East and Old Testament archaeology, not least because those early Christians left few remains or artifacts behind. They were not kings or emperors or pharaohs, and most of them did not live in mansions or villas for the well-to-do. They have left us some texts, but with rare exception there is little else by way of a direct trace of the first-century figures spoken of in the New Testament.
Most scholars would say that the age of modern archaeology does not go back beyond sometime in the latter portion of the 19th century, and only really accelerated into prominence as a discipline in the 20th century.
It is also an ever changing science in the wake of the ever increasing technological breakthroughs and advances in modern scientific methods of scrutinizing and testing ancient items. And I would say that a certain scientific breakthrough forms a good starting point for discussing New Testament archaeology.
The breakthrough I have in mind is the invention of photography. In the 19th century, and not long after the popularization of flash photography, a man named Segundo Pia was given the privilege of taking pictures of the Shroud of Turin, alleged to be the burial shroud of Jesus.
He could not have anticipated what he would find when he went into his darkroom. When he took his photographic negatives in for processing, and before he printed up the positive images of the Shroud, he examined the negatives in the dim light of the darkroom. What he saw astounded him. It was the positive image of a badly beaten or crucified man. But the positive image was found on the negative! This caused something of a sensation at the time and led to over a century of study and examination (at various points) of the Shroud. Could it really be the image of Jesus? Do we finally have a clue what he looked like? This possibility seemed to have been ruled out when the Shroud was allowed to be carbon dated in the late '80s, and the date that came to light from the testing was from the early Middle Ages. But wait. We know the Shroud was scorched in a fire in the early Middle Ages, and it appears that the carbon 14 testing may have been skewed because a scorched part of the cloth was tested, and also because the microbiotic coating on the Shroud was not cleaned off before testing. Even careful scientific testing does not always produce indisputable results. Naturally, finding an image of Jesus would be the biggest find of any sort relating to the New Testament. But the jury is still out on the Shroud.