We live in a day when many voices vie for the privilege of telling us about the world of Jesus and the New Testamentthe more sensational, the better. From The Da Vinci Code to television docudramas asserting so-called expert opinion on technical biblical subjects, the field is open to anyone peddling a theory. A recent, egregious example was James Cameron's Discovery Channel program telling us that the tomb and burial box of Jesus had been found in Jerusalem. The conclusion of this slick production was that Jesus did not rise from the dead. But what the program lacked was the sort of careful, scholarly work found in James Charlesworth's splendidly edited 740-page volume, Jesus and Archaeology.
At the turn of the millennium, a Jerusalem conference hosted an international gathering of scholars who summarized the achievements in New Testament archaeology over the last few decades. This volume contains 30 papers from the conference, skillfully edited for publication.
In the last 50 years, enormous strides have been made in our understanding of Jesus' world. The essay by James Dunn examines evidence for the Jewish character of Galilee and explains what we know about first-century synagogues. For instance, most scholars once thought that Galilee was entirely Gentile (leading to the ominous claim by some in the 1940s that Jesus was not Jewish). But now we know otherwise, as sites such as Sepphoris have given up their secrets. Jewish ritual baths and burial sites, stoneware, and the absence of pig bones all point to a deeply rooted Jewish culture in the region.
Some of the essays in Jesus and Archaeology explain what we know about material culture from the discovery of Cana and Bethsaida to the theater in Jerusalem. Paul Anderson uses archaeology to undergird the historicity of the Gospel of John. Those fascinated with the Temple Mount will find Israeli experts who reconstruct its first-century buildings and integrate that knowledge with Jesus and the Gospels.
Other viewpoints are considerably more controversial, such as Bruce Chilton's claim that Jesus was a mamzer (or rejected "mixling") in Jewish law. Throughout the book, renowned scholars tackle themes such as poverty, baptism, and cemeteries, with a willingness to apply their discoveries to the world of Jesus. Such knowledge deepens our understanding of the Christian faith, which is very much grounded in first-century Palestine.
Charlesworth does not address the Cameron film, but he does show us what applied New Testament archaeology really looks like and how it can be of genuine use to interpreters of the Bible. No, this is not a book for beginners. However, those with some background will find it a gold mine of cultural information that will mentor them in reading the Gospels contextually.
Gary M. Burge, professor of New Testament, Wheaton College.
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Previous articles on archaeology and history include:
Tyrant's Tomb Unearthed | Herod the Great's final resting place said to be found. (June 28, 2007)
Remains of the Day | Scholars dismiss filmmakers' assertions that Jesus and his family were buried in Jerusalem. (February 28, 2007)
Three Big Digs | Discoveries bolster understanding of early church, biblical account of David's kingdom. (January 1, 2006)
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