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 ...1