Archeology has helped scholars to reconstruct the story of the Bible from its utopist genesis to epic battles and struggles of the patriarchs of Israel. Archeologists have found evidence of the kingdoms, kings, temples and the people of Biblical times. Archeological excavations have corroborated some biblical events, contradicted others while entirely dismissing the occurrence of others because of the absence of archeological evidence and logical proof (Finkelstein & Silberman 15). This paper will examine the existing archeological evidence in relation to the biblical accounts of the Exodus and the life of Jesus in Early Rome. The paper will analyze two documentaries; The Exodus Decoded and James, Brother of Jesus: Holy Relic or Hoax? We will address the importance of using archeological evidence pragmatically and within context. This paper theorizes that archeology is the product of human activity. It is therefore impossible to use archeological artifacts to prove an event that never occurred.
Initially, archeology seemed to refute the radical critics’ position that the Bible was merely a late composition and therefore historically unreliable. However, a series of spectacular discoveries from decades of archeological excavations, which began from the end of the 19th century, suggest that, in the very least, the Bible can be used as a trustworthy outline of the history of the Israelites (Finkelstein &Silberman 29). This means that even if the Bible was written long after the events it describes, its contents are based on accurately preserved memories, which can be corroborated by archeological evidence. Some of these evidences include geographical identification of Biblical sites, monuments, and archives from Egypt and Mesopotamia and excavation of Biblical sites in Jordan, Israel and surrounding regions (Finkelstein & Silberman 35).
The two documentaries should view archeological evidence through the theoretical approaches that emerged in the 1970s. During this time, archeologists stopped relying on Biblical narratives to interpret findings. Instead, they examined the artifacts for the human realities that lay behind biblical texts (Finkelstein & Silberman 40). The resultant archeological conclusions were based on the social, economic, political, and religious meanings of findings as opposed to their biblical associations. This theoretical perspective can be incorporated in the documentary to present a more accurate association of archeology and Biblical history because it creates broader associations between archeology and the Bible.
The primary goal of the two documentaries should be to present the facts on the Exodus and Christian origins as far as archeology is concerned. From the onset, the writers of the documentary should acknowledge the limitation in both archeological and Biblical resources. Archeology is limited to existing discoveries, scientific dating, and anthropological interpretation of artifacts. On the other hand, the Bible has been found to contain detailed account of true historical events and others never occurred. To avoid the pitfalls in both sources of information, it would be imperative for the documentary to maintain an objective tone. All information should be presented as academically admissible only as far as the available evidence can corroborate. The two documentaries should create room for academic debate and the appetite for further research as opposed to trying to close the argument on the two subjects by taking a position.
Archeological evidence from the Late Bronze Age and the Iron I Period were critical in the unraveling of the events of the Exodus. First, archeological evidence seems to contradict the account of the Exodus at least as far as the Biblical account goes. Excavations of the areas in which the children of Israel are said to have camped during their exodus have yielded no evidence of their presence. Archeologists conducted repeat excavation in Ein el-Qudeirat, an oasis in eastern Sinai, and a smaller spring called Ein Qadis (Finkelstein & Silberman 85). They did not find even the slightest evidence of a settlement or camp from the late Bronze, which is the archeological period of the Exodus. However, most of the mentioned sights had evidence of Late Iron Age occupation. A mould found between Eilat and Aqaba between 1938 -1940 had impressive Late Iron Age finds. The site was identified as the port town of the Gulf of Aqaba, which is mentioned in the Bible.
The Israelites are conspicuously missing from the official records of thirteenth century Egypt. Despite the detailed record keeping of the Egyptians on papyrus, there is no mention of the Israelites neither as friend, fore nor an enslaved nation (Finkelstein & Silberman 81). Genesis 47:27, speaks of the children of Israel living communally in a land known as Goshen .There are no archeological finds to suggest that a distinct foreign ethnic group, apart from the diverse immigrant population, lived in Egypt at any time.
Furthermore, an escape during the reign of Ramesses II (Genesis 1-11) could not have occurred in the fifteenth century BCE since the first Ramesses came into power more than one century later in 1320 BCE (Finkelstein & Silberman 81). More importantly, Egypt was at the peak of its authority in the thirteenth century. Egypt was the dominant power in the world; it had a firm grip on Canaan and other regions as far as Euphrates and Syria (Finkelstein & Silberman 81). It is highly unlikely that any group of people, leave alone a group of over 600,000 men, could have made a successful escape out of Egypt into Canaan since the entire region was still under Egyptian control. There are archeological finds of the forts, granaries, water reservoirs, and military architecture dating back to this period. These strategic installations were found an equal distance apart, along the route that stretched from eastern delta to the southwestern border of Canaan.
Second, archeological evidence confirms the existence of the sites mentioned in Exodus but not the events that occurred at the sites (Finkelstein & Silberman 86). The biblical account of the Exodus could have been written during the Kingdom of Judah. Some of the names used in the story of Joseph (Genesis 39) such as Asenath, Potiphar, and Potiphera achieved their greatest popularity during the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. Similarly, Joseph’s heightened fear that his brothers could have been spies (Genesis 42) would only have made sense in the 7th century since Egypt had no fear of enemy attacks before that period (Finkelstein & Silberman 90). Archeological evidence supports this theory. Most of the geographical sites mentioned in the Exodus story have been dated to the Kingdom of Judah. These sites existed during the peak of the kingdom, which occurred six centuries after the purported Exodus (Finkelstein & Silberman 88).
The Exodus story contains contemporary components of the period between the late 7th century BCE and the early 6th Century BCE. At the same time, it contains references to ancient traditions of the patriarchs. Therefore, it is impossible to dismiss the story as a biblical narrative full of imaginative prose and devoid of any historical significance. A better explanation would be that the story of the Exodus was woven in the 7th century BCE as a call to national revival in Judah. The story was designed to remind the Israelites, who were under siege from the powerful Egypt, to remember God’s faithfulness to the patriarchs and His ability to rescue His people (Finkelstein & Silberman 93). The story’s immediate purpose would have been to create political and military awareness in the face of Egyptian invasion of the small kingdom of Judah. Later on, the purpose shifted to giving the people hope in times of difficulty.
Archeology contributed to the understanding of Jesus and the Early Roman period in two major ways. The first contribution was archeological evidence of the unique culture of Jesus and the early Christians. The architectural finds are important in understanding the way of life of the people who lived in Israel during this time including Jesus. The most impressive findings from this period were constructed or restored by King Herod the Great and his successors, his sons Herod Antipas and Philip. Herod and his sons were the Jewish but aspired to be the greatest imitators of Rome and Roman culture (Crossan & Reed 98). The kingdoms constructed by Herod and his son Antipas were large, impressive and emulative or Roman architectural designs. Herod built the port city of Caesarea while his son built the city of Tiberius and reconstructed Sepphoris. Both kings maintained Romanic standards in their cities by imposing order, reinforcing hierarchy using social classes and creating a façade of Roman affluence Crossan & Reed 101- 104; 106 – 110). Since the region was under Roman control, the main cities were commercial and administrative hubs. Archeological evidence reveals ancient coins, market places, harbors, and established trade routes (Crossan & Reed 110)
As the urban centers like Sepphoris and Tiberius grew, rural towns like Galilee collapsed from the taxation burden and the demand for agricultural produce (Crossan & Reed 110). Peasant families were then forced to relinquish their land ownership to wealthy landowners in order to pay their debts. It is this unfairness and poverty that John the Baptist and Jesus sought to fight against. The presence of symbols of Roman pagan worship in Tiberius and Sepphoris together with the exploitation could be the reason why both cities are not mentioned in the New Testament. This dislike seems to have been mutual because John the Baptist was beheaded on the request of Herodias the wife of Antipas (Mark 6:12-29). It is therefore easy to understand why Jesus is lived in Capernaum and other small cities like Galilee and Nazareth. These towns paled in comparison to Capernaum, Sepphoris, and Tiberius (Crossan & Reed 119).
The geographical residence of Jesus are in Capernaum was not by default. The town was located at the periphery of the kingdom of Antipas but closer to the kingdom of the fairer and milder brother Philip (Crossan & Reed 120). The buildings excavated from the city are devoid of any Greco-Roman architectural influences. The streets did not reveal any organized planning. Capernaum was the perfect location for Jesus’ because of its humility, which is in tandem with His message. Jesus taught on equality and the disregard of material wealth in favor of heavenly treasures (Mathew 6:19-21). Similarly, Galilee, another major biblical town lacked any prominence because of its location away from major trade routes. Just like Capernaum, it was at the fringe of the Roman Empire (Reed, CH 4:1)
The second importance of archeology in understanding early Christianity is in the religio-political significance of the existence of Jesus at the specific time in history. Jesus’ choice of Capernaum and other simple peripheral towns could have been as a direct political statement against the extravagant and socially segregated lives the city dwellers. “The Kingdom of God” found its home in first century Capernaum (Crossan & Reed132). Ironically, later during the Roman Imperial control, the areas where Jesus lived, such as the house of Peter, were turned into public pilgrimage sites with the patronage of Christian pilgrims. The pilgrims brought along fine exotic wares, from as far as Africa and Cyprus, as offerings. In the end, the covenantal Kingdom of God based in Capernaum looked more like the Herodian commercial Kingdom of Rome (Crossan & Reed133)
In the two films, The Exodus Decoded and James, Brother of Jesus: Holy Relic or Hoax? existing archeological artifacts have been used to corroborate sensational propositions. The films use a combination of impressive research, excellent videography, and deliberate narration to guide the uninformed viewer to a predetermined conclusion. Although the documentaries were created for television where sensationalism is expected, the writers should have protected the academic integrity of the materials. Scholars and television critics alike have castigated the two films as being dubious or lacking majority scholarly support.
In the second film, the producers claim that the James Ossuary is the missing link in the story of Jesus’ family. This is because one ossuary had been missing from the archeological discovery at Talpiot Tomb. The film’s claims were supported by a lab analysis of the patina on the James Ossuary. The results showed that the patina was close enough to the patinas of the other 9 ossuaries to conclude that they were in the Talpiot tomb for the same length of time. Just like in the Exodus, decoded Jacobovici exaggerates the significance of the tests to support the theory that the James Ossuary is indeed the “missing link.” Furthermore, he claims that forensic archeologists concluded two ossuaries, for Jesus and the one containing the remains believed to belong to Mary Magdalene were that of a husband and wife since their DNAs as would be if they were related. Professor Amos Kloner who supervised the actual excavation in 1980 denied this claim. The biggest scholastic debate on the Ossuary is the authenticity of the engravings and therefore its recognition as the Ossuary of James. Photos of the Ossuary take in 1976 do not have the engravings yet an inspection of the engravings reveals no difference in patinas, the presence of which would have confirmed a forgery.
In conclusion, archeology like any other scientific field is subject to numerous scrutinies by scholars. Archeological finds are valued because of their pivotal role in corroborating historical events. In science, monumental Biblical stories such as The Exodus and the life of Jesus are admissible only as far as archeological evidence can confirm. Archeology has confirmed some of these events and dismissed the occurrence of others. Archeology maintains its scholastic integrity through evidence based assertions, which are open to critique and peer review. The writers of the documentary should strive to maintain this integrity. The writers can achieve this by avoiding sensational claims and by making conclusions based on authenticated evidence accurate historical account of events.
Crossan, John, and Jonathan Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Asher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed Archaeology's New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origins of Its Sacred Texts. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002. Reed, Jonathan. The Harper Collins Visual Guide to the New Testament: What Archaeology Reveals about the first Christians. New York: Harper One, 2007
The Holy Bible, Genesis Chapter 39; 42
The Holy Bible, Exodus Chapter 1-11
The Holy Bible, The Gospel of Mathew Chapter 6: 19-21
The Holy Bible, The Gospel of Mark Chapter 6:12-29
The Exodus Decoded, a documentary directed Simcha Jacobovici. The History Channel, 2006.James, Brother of Jesus: Holy Relic or Hoax?, a documentary directed Simcha Jacobovici and Will Ehbrecht. The Discovery Channel, 2003.