How archaeology sheds light on the life of Jesus

Photo of the cover of the book Digging for EvidenceImagine the excitement of brushing away the soil from some ancient stone or pottery shard and finding an inscription mentioning someone previously known only from ancient documents. Imagine what it would be like to unearth a building mentioned in the Gospels that Jesus and the disciples actually visited. Can you imagine discovering something which has been hidden for 2,000 years?

These things really happen. The evidence of archaeology can help us interpret certain biblical texts, as well as providing an independent way to check the Bible’s historical reliability. While the critics of the Christian faith continue to argue against the trustworthiness of the New Testament record, many new archaeological finds have been on the side of scripture, rather than the sceptics.

To illustrate the contribution archaeology makes to our confidence in the Bible, Peter S Williams has written a short book, Digging for Evidence, which is published by this website (and can be downloaded for free). Here are three finds detailed in the book which relate to the life and death of Jesus.

Photo of the heel bone discovered in Jerusalem in 1968

Crucifixion victim – In recent times, some authors have speculated that the crucified corpse of Jesus would have been eaten by dogs, either as it hung on the cross or after it was buried in a shallow grave for executed criminals. But a discovery in north-east Jerusalem proves that a victim of crucifixion could receive a proper, honourable Jewish burial.

In 1968, building contractors unexpectedly uncovered an ancient burial site containing about 35 bodies. One tomb contained the bones of a family who lived in the century before Jesus. One member of that family was Yehohanan, a young man who had been crucified. His bones were discovered in a limestone ossuary (or bone-box), and a seven-inch nail had been driven through the heel bone of his left foot. Fragments of olive wood were found at the point of the nail, revealing the wood of the cross on which he died. To date, this is the only archaeological discovery from Roman times of a crucifixion victim. And it demonstrates that crucifixion victims were buried, just as the Gospel accounts suggest.

Photo of Galilee fishing boat discovered in 1986

The Jesus boat – In 1986, Israel suffered a drought, which caused the waters of the Sea of Galilee to recede, exposing large areas of the shallow seabed. Two local fishermen, who were also amateur archaeologists, discovered a boat buried in the mud, which turned out to be a well-preserved fishing boat from the time of Jesus. The design of the vessel – which measured over 27 feet in length – was typical of fishing boats used during the time of Jesus.

Professor Shelley Wachsmann and other archaeologists raced against time to recover the boat from the mud before the waters returned. It was placed in a climate-controlled environment to protect it. Pots and lamps found beside the boat helped to date it to the first century, which was confirmed by radiocarbon dating of the wooden planks. In the back of the boat is a raised section, like that where Jesus was sleeping in the story of calming the storm. The boat could accommodate 15 people, so there would certainly have been room for Jesus and his twelve disciples in such a boat.

Photo of the inscription bearing the name Pontius Pilate discovered in 1961

The Pilate stone – In 1961, an inscription was found which confirms not only the rule of Pontius Pilate in Judea but also his preference for the title ‘Prefect’. Until 1961, there had been no archaeological evidence for the existence of Pilate. In Latin, the inscription (dated to c AD 26-37) reads:


Archaeologists say the complete wording was:


Translated, this reads: ‘To Tiberius – Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.’

To read about six more archaeological finds which shed light on the New Testament, read the full article, 9 archaeology finds that confirm the New Testament, in Premier Christianity magazine.

Download your copy of Digging for Evidence, which looks at many archaeological finds and how they shed life on the people, places and culture of the life of Jesus and the New Testament.

Main photo: StateofIsrael
Photo of Jesus boat: Berthold Werner
Photo of Pilate stone: BRBurton