Biblical archaeology: Searching for the historical Jesus

Easter is an annual rite of spring, and so it seems are new claims and books and television programs about the Jesus of history. In recent years, a number of developments related to the Bible and archaeology have coincided with the Christian remembrance of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week observances that culminate with the celebration of Easter on the following Sunday.

The Jewish celebration of Passover – the feast of the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt –  often coincides with Easter, and stories about the historicity of the Exodus story are often featured during this season.

This edition of ReligionLink provides background and resources on biblical archaeology to help journalists report on the latest claims and to assess discoveries that are bound to emerge in the future.


Discoveries and publications related to the historical Jesus and the New Testament are common. Among recent developments:

  • “Possible Earliest Evidence of Christianity Resurrected from Ancient Tomb”

    Read a Feb. 28, 2012, article from Live Science about filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and biblical archaeologist James D. Tabor, professor and chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Jacobovici and Tabor claim to have discovered the earliest evidence of Christian belief in the Resurrection in a first-century tomb in Jerusalem. They also claim that the tomb, promoted in a television show and a bookThe Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity (February 2012), bolster their 2007 claim to have found the tomb of Jesus’ family.

  • “Scholars Aim to Bust Archaeological Fantasies”

    Read an April 4, 2012, story at Christianity Today about a blog set up on the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) website to provide a platform for scholars to react to the discovery of a tomb with potential early evidence of Christianity.

  • “Antiquities collector acquitted of forgery charges in ‘James ossuary’ case”

    Read a March 14, 2012, article from The Globe and Mail. After a nearly decade-long trial, Israeli antiquities collector Oded Golan was acquitted of charges that he forged the inscription on a first-century ossuary that some claim held the bones of Jesus’ brother James, and was the earliest archaeological evidence for the existence of Jesus of Nazareth.

  • “Trial on Antiquities Fraud Ends, But Not the Controversy”

    Read a March 14, 2012, article from Christianity Today about the scholarly reaction to Oded Golan’s acquittal in his forgery trial. Scholars and experts who have long doubted the authenticity and interpretation of the bone box are quick to say that Golan’s acquittal does not validate the historicity of the ossuary.

  • “1st-century N.T. fragment: more details emerge”

    Daniel B. Wallace, a New Testament professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, in February revealed that he has found a first-century fragment of the Gospel of Mark, which would be the earliest-known fragment of the New Testament. Wallace also said he had authenticated an early sermon on Hebrews and the earliest-known manuscripts of Paul’s letters. Wallace has revealed few details about the finds and says he will say more in a book on the discoveries to be published in 2013. But the prospect of such finds has set the biblical archaeology world abuzz and prompted intense debates about what it all could mean. Read a Feb. 28, 2012, article about it from the Baptist Press.

  • “Jesus may have been a hermaphrodite, claims academic”

    A feminist theologian in England raised eyebrows, to say the least, when she claimed that Jesus may have been a hermaphrodite. In a paper titled “Intersex & Ontology, A Response to The Church, Women Bishops and Provision,” Susannah Cornwall argues that it is not possible to know “with any certainty” that Jesus did not suffer from an intersex condition, with both male and female organs. The theory has few backers but is indicative of the kind of fascination – and speculation – that the historical Jesus engenders. Read about it in a March 2, 2012, article from The Daily Telegraph.

  • “Did Jesus Exist?”

    Bart D. Ehrman, a leading New Testament scholar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a best-selling author on books about the historical Jesus, in March released a new book, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. While Ehrman is himself an agnostic whose writings have ruffled the sensibilities of believers, he writes that a growing number of “atheists, humanists and conspiracy theorists” are arguing that Jesus never in fact existed – an idea he aims to debunk. Read a March 20, 2012, column from Ehrman at The Huffington Post.

  • “What Revelation Reveals”

    Elaine Pagels, the Princeton biblical scholar whose books on the Gnostic gospels in the 1970s and 1980s were a huge success, has published a new book on the final and perhaps most controversial book in the New Testament. Her book is titled Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of RevelationRead a March 2, 2012, column by Pagels publised in The Wall Street Journal.

  • “The Big Reveal”

    Read a March 5, 2012, review from The New Yorker of Elaine Pagel’s book Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, & Politics in the Book of Revelation.

  • “My Top 5 Books on Archaeology”

    Craig A. Evans, author of “Jesus and His World,” lists his “Top Five” books on biblical archaeology in a March 27, 2012, post at Christianity Today‘s website.

  • “Was Jesus Married? Ancient Papyrus Mentions His ‘Wife'”

    Read a Sept. 18, 2012, article from ABC News about an archaeological discovery providing evidence that Jesus was married.

  • “An Interview with the Discoverer of ‘Jesus’ Wife””

    Read a Sept. 25, 2012, interview from Time with Karen King, the Harvard professor who discovered potential evidence that Jesus was married.

  • “The Bible Refers to Jesus’ Wife, Too”

    Read a Sept. 18, 2012, article from The Atlantic about the controversy surrounding the discovery of potential evidence that Jesus was married.

Why it matters

Biblical archaeology’s shift from the ivory tower to the mass media has both fed and fueled an enormous public interest in the Bible and Jewish and Christian history. That interest has been welcomed by many religious leaders and scholars as an opportunity to educate a public that has a great stake in faith but often little knowledge of the history of religion. But this shift has also introduced elements of public relations and big money that require extra vigilance on the part of journalists who cover these stories. Moreover, the public’s fascination with religion, combined with its impact on so many areas of society, from culture to politics, is so great that various groups eager to push one agenda or another can try to exploit the latest discoveries to advance their particular viewpoint.


Biblical archaeology came to prominence in the 19th century because of a combination of factors, among them: a colonial Western, especially European, presence in the Middle East; a Western curiosity in “exotic” cultures and their histories; and a fascination with exploring the actual history of the Holy Land that mirrored a rise in biblical criticism in academia. See a Wikipedia entry on the history of the discipline. The outlines of the article are solid but as with any open-source Web page, details should be confirmed.

In 1945, the accidental discovery in Egypt of a cache of early Christian texts that were part of a school of belief known as Gnosticism — later rejected as heresy by the church and thought lost to history — generated interest in Christian origins. The gradual translation and interpretation of the Nag Hammadi texts (named after the village where they were found) maintained that interest. When The Gnostic Gospels by biblical scholar Elaine Pagels became a best-seller, the topic entered popular culture.

Similarly, the discovery of a hidden library of ancient Jewish texts, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, at Qumran also fueled popular interest. The formation of the State of Israel the next year, in 1948, and subsequent easy access by archaeologists to biblical sites led to more discoveries.

Along with landmark revelations, there have also been a number of archaeological finds through the years that turned out to be hoaxes and frauds. Moreover, experts say that the field is especially volatile given the monetary value of the market in biblical antiquities as well as their potential use — or abuse — in claims and counterclaims by Jews, Christians and Muslims about the Holy Land.

The breadth of this “Indiana Jones” appeal is such that it seems that no major Christian or Jewish holiday can pass without a new theory or piece of evidence emerging that purports to confirm the accounts of the Bible or upend biblical tradition.

Debates over the authenticity and proper context of these and other discoveries regularly produce media sensations but also pose challenges to reporters and editors who are called on to write about these newsworthy announcements. These stories require historical perspective and a knowledge of the best scholarship in order to provide the necessary balance to what are often astounding claims. They also demand an ability to distinguish the elements of fact and faith that are often bound up in controversial arguments.

National sources

  • Darrell L. Bock

    Darrell L. Bock is a well known author of over 30 books exploring biblical topics and earned international recognition as a Humboldt Scholar (Tübingen University in Germany), for his work in Luke-Acts, historical Jesus study, biblical theology, as well as with messianic Jewish ministries.

  • James H. Charlesworth

    James H. Charlesworth is a professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has written extensively about early Christian texts. Charlesworth is also the editor of an important volume of essays by a range of biblical scholars called Jesus and Archaeology.

  • Bruce Chilton

    The Rev. Bruce Chilton is an Episcopal priest and executive director of the Institute of Advanced Theology at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. Chilton is the author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography and other books aimed at popularizing the latest historical research on the Bible. Chilton is also rector of the Episcopal Church of St. John the Evangelist in Barrytown, N.Y. He is an expert on altruism and Christianity.

  • Elizabeth A. Clark

    Elizabeth A. Clark is a professor of Christian history at the religion department at Duke University in Durham, N.C. She is an expert on ancient Christianity and is past president of the American Academy of Religion and the American Society of Church History.

  • Bart D. Ehrman

    Bart D. Ehrman wrote Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code : A Historian Reveals What We Really Know about Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Constantine and teaches religious studies at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ehrman can place Mary of Nazareth in her historical and modern-day context.

  • Paula Fredriksen

    Paula Fredriksen is William Goodwin Aurelio Chair Emerita of the Appreciation of Scripture at Boston University. She specializes in the social and intellectual history of ancient Christianity, from the Late Second Temple period to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. She has written and commented widely on modern biblical controversies.

  • Richard A. Freund

    Richard A. Freund is a professor of history and director of the Maurice Greenberg Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Hartford. He is a field archaeologist and has written extensively on biblical archaeology, from the Exodus story to the origins of Christianity.

  • Daniel Harrington

    The Rev. Daniel Harrington is a Jesuit priest and a prominent biblical scholar at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

  • Julie Galambush

    Julie Galambush is an associate professor of religious studies at The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Galambush was an ordained American Baptist minister who converted to Judaism and is a member of Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church, Va. She is the author of The Reluctant Parting: How the New Testament’s Jewish Writers Created a Christian Book (HarperSanFrancisco, 2005) and can comment on the relationship between evangelicals and Jews.

  • Robin Griffith-Jones

    Robin Griffith-Jones is the author of The Da Vinci Code and the Secrets of the Temple (Canterbury Press, 2006), a New Testament scholar and Master of the Temple Church, the medieval headquarters of the Knights of the Templar. He gives Da Vinci Code-based tours of the church.

  • Karen L. King

    Karen L. King is the author of The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, 2003). A scholar of gnosticism, the body of nonorthodox early Christian teachings, and a professor of ecclesiastical history, she appeared on a Nov. 3, 2003, ABC television special exploring the claims of the novel about Jesus and Mary Magdalene. In 2012, King discovered a fragment of papyrus that is said to provide evidence that Jesus referred to having a wife. She denied that the fragment provided direct evidence that Jesus was married. She writes and comments widely on the women of the New Testament and how they are viewed today.

  • Amy-Jill Levine

    Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School is a professor of New Testament studies and of Jewish studies and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality. She can comment on Christian-Jewish dynamics and representations of Jews by Christians throughout the centuries. She was co-editor of A Feminist Companion to Mariology. She is an expert on sexuality and the bible, religion and gender, Jewish-Christian relations and the historical Jesus.

  • Jodi Magness

    Jodi Magness is a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and an expert in the archaeology of early Judaism, especially the excavations at Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  • Scot McKnight

    Scot McKnight is Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, Ill. He specializes in films about Jesus and the Orthodox faith. He wrote The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others (Paraclete Press, 2004) and is Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies at North Park University in Chicago. He is co-editor, along with James D.G. Dunn, emeritus professor of biblical studies at Durham University in England, of The Historical Jesus in Recent Research, a collection of essays by leading Bible scholars.

  • Eric M. Meyers

    Eric M. Meyers is the Bernice and Morton Lerner Professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and a widely published author on biblical archaeology.

  • Elaine Pagels

    Elaine Pagels is the author of the best-selling Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003) and a professor of religion at Princeton University. She has written a number of well-received books on gnosticism, an early Christian movement considered heretical, and early Christianity. Additionally, she is the author of  The Origin of Satan (1996).

  • Rodney Stark

    Rodney Stark is the author of The Rise of Mormonism, a collection of essays. He is Distinguished Professor of the Social Sciences at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Stark has frequently delved into the historical aspects of Christian origins, in books such as The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History and Cities of God: The Real Story of How Christianity Became an Urban Movement and Conquered Rome.

  • L. Michael White

    L. Michael White is a professor in classics and religious studies at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins. He is an expert on house churches in the first century.  He is also a frequent media commentator on biblical archaeology and appeared in the PBS series From Jesus to Christ.


  • Biblical Archaeology Society

    Hershel Shanks is the founder of the Biblical Archaeology Society, based in Washington, D.C., and editor of the society’s publication, the Biblical Archaeology ReviewShanks and the BAR are alternately praised and pilloried for efforts to “popularize” biblical archaeology. They were a driving force behind efforts to promote the so-called James ossuary in 2003.

  • American Schools of Oriental Research

    ASOR, or the American Schools of Oriental Research, is an association founded in 1900 and dedicated to promoting archaeology in the Near East and a better public understanding of the field. ASOR is overseen by some of the top archaeologists in the field.

  • Society of Biblical Literature

    The Society of Biblical Literature was founded in 1880 and is the pre-eminent academic organization for promoting biblical scholarship. The society has an annual meeting (usually in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion), and its website offers a range of valuable resources.

  • Catholic Biblical Association

    The Catholic Biblical Association is a leading organization of biblical scholars, numbering more than 1,200 around the world. The Rev. Joseph Jensen is executive secretary of the CBA, which was founded in 1936 and is based at Catholic University of America.

  • The Bible and Interpretation

    The Bible and Interpretation is a scholar-based and moderated website that provides a roundup of articles, commentary and other resources on the latest issues in biblical archaeology. The site is maintained by Mark Elliott of Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo., with the sponsorship of a number of other institutions.

  • Bible League

    Bible League is an organization designed to train and equip faith leaders and ministries with the tools and resources they need to provide communities with a religious education and understanding of the Christian faith.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • James H. Charlesworth

    James H. Charlesworth is a professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. He has written extensively about early Christian texts. Charlesworth is also the editor of an important volume of essays by a range of biblical scholars called Jesus and Archaeology.

  • Shaye J.D. Cohen

    Shaye J.D. Cohen is the Littauer Professor of Hebrew Literature and Philosophy in the department of Near Eastern languages and civilizations of Harvard University. Cohen is a leading authority on ancient Judaism and early Christianity.

  • Jennifer Wright Knust

    Jennifer Wright Knust is an associate professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the school of theology at Boston University. She is the author of Abandoned to Lust: Sexual Slander and Ancient Christianity.

  • Dale Martin

    Dale Martin is the Woolsey Professor of Religious Studies and specializes in New Testament and Christian origins at the department of religious studies at Yale University. He specializes in the social and cultural history of the Greco-Roman world.

  • Lawrence H. Schiffman

    Lawrence H. Schiffman is vice provost for undergraduate education at Yeshiva University in New York City. He is an expert on late Jewish antiquity and early Christianity.

In the South

  • Roy Heller

    Roy Heller is a professor of Old Testament at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and focuses on the use of the Bible in ethics and theology.

  • Laura Hobgood-Oster

    Laura Hobgood-Oster is a professor of religion at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. Her areas of expertise include animals in the history of the Christian tradition and contemporary religious-ethical issues related to other-than-human animals. She is the author of Holy Dogs and Asses: Animals in the Christian Tradition (2008).

    She has written about Mary Magdalene and Gnosticism and esoteric Christianity.

  • Stuart A. Irvine

    Stuart A. Irvine is an associate professor of Old Testament and Israelite religion at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge.

  • Luke Timothy Johnson

    Luke Timothy Johnson is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. He is a prominent writer and commentator on ancient biblical discoveries.

  • Dennis E. Smith

    Dennis E. Smith teaches New Testament at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Okla., and is a fellow of the Westar Institute, which studies Jesus and early Christianity. He can speak about the role of Mary in the New Testament from a Protestant perspective.

  • James F. Strange

    James F. Strange is a professor of religious studies and a biblical archaeologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa.

  • Ben Witherington III

    Ben Witherington III is a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. A prolific author and an ordained minister, Witherington can talk about the historical tensions between Christians and Jews and current cultural manifestations of those tensions. He is the author of Jesus and Money: A Guide for Times of Financial Crisis, an examination of “what Jesus has to say (and doesn’t say) concerning wealth and poverty, money and spending, debt and sacrificial giving.”

In the Midwest

  • Mary Rose D’Angelo

    Mary Rose D’Angelo teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. She has written extensively about early Christianity and women in Scripture and specifically about Mary Magdalene’s identity.

  • Charles W. Hedrick

    Charles W. Hedrick is an emeritus professor of religious studies at Missouri State University and has written extensively on early Christianity and ancient texts. His books include When History and Faith Collide: Studying Jesus (Hendrickson Publishers, 1999).

  • Donald Senior

    The Rev. Donald Senior is a Passionist priest and president of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. He is a well-known New Testament scholar and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Biblical Commission.

In the West

Related source guides