The study of the historic Jesus has been an endeavor for theologians and historians for centuries. The researchers use all kinds of various techniques to dig through the mounds of texts, manuscripts and historical references in order to seek out what they can label as true facts about this person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
These types of studies have been accomplished by both believers and non-believers alike. Obviously, each group has a different agenda for their study, with one seeking proof for the historical Jesus of the Bible, and one seeking to prove the Bible as false in its historicity.
It is probably of little surprise to most of you to know that a greater amount of work in this area has taken place in the past few hundred years, during and since the so-called “age of enlightenment.”
As a reminder, the age of enlightenment is that time in Europe during the 18th century, when there was a strong movement towards intellectual and philosophical studies centered on reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Actually, it is traced back a little earlier to the 17th century, with the development of modern science by those like Galileo.
Science became a primary tool for these purposes, and of course this put the movement at odds with the more faith based communities. On through the 18th and 19th centuries philosophers pondered the biblical texts, and with the rise of a scientific mind-set came a challenge to the idea of miracles.
Eventually these philosophers came to the conclusion that much of what the Bible taught of Jesus was fraudulent. It was considered either highly exaggerated accounts of events, or purely mythological and outright deceptive writings by his followers, if this man Jesus ever even really existed.
It was during this time when much was studied and many decisions were made in relation to the Bible and the extent of its historical truths. Using the tools at their disposal at the time, scholars studied and came to many of the ideas about the Scripture and history that are still influencing modern studies to this day.
While these studies have continued over the centuries, and while many of the thoughts on the subject have changed gradually in the scholarly world, sadly some of the findings from the earlier years are still finding influence in the circles of both Christians and the teachings of the skeptics.
Fortunately with the continued advancements in the field of archeology, the past hundred years have yielded many results relating to the realm of biblical studies. Unfortunately, there are many average people and novice skeptics who have discontinued their studies and are not up on the latest findings, and therefore continue spewing forth many views based on outdated material.
Today we’re going to be looking at some of the material and new findings along these lines of studies, and how scholars have, or should, alter their views based on some of these findings. But first, a little history of the quest for Jesus.
About a hundred and fifty years ago, what is now referred to as the “first quest” to find the real Jesus took place. While this first quest came out of what is now considered a largely discredited and obsolete rationalism, its assumptions and methods are still widely seen and used today. The initial basic assumptions from this time period are these:
- Miracles cannot and do not happen.
- The Jesus of history is dramatically different from the Christ of the Gospels.
- The message of Jesus was dramatically different from the message of the early church.
- The Gospels cannot be trusted as historical sources and, in fact, may be considered falsifications of what really happened.
Some of these assumptions are still the operating principals in scholarship today, but back in the time they were established, they were the spring board that launched hundreds of books by scholars attempting to reimagine the story of Jesus and tell it within a more scientific and naturalistic bent.
The books of this time caused a sort of crisis of faith that gradually emerged into a kind of rationalistic Christianity that we now refer to as Liberal Protestantism. While many people came to embrace this new rationalistic view of Jesus, some did stop to actually use their brains and think about it, doubting the accuracy of the interpretation.
It led Anglican bishop William Temple to ask the logical question:
Why anyone should have troubled to crucify the Christ of Liberal Protestantism has always been a mystery.
By the early 1900’s, this brand of liberal Christianity appeared to be bankrupt, and this “scientific” portrait of Jesus from the first quest began being viewed as a dead end. While hanging to the “no miracles” idea of the first quest, optimism declined, and ultimately led to a second quest in the 1950’s and then a third quest in the 1970’s which has continued into the present time.
When you dig into this field of study by the scholars, it can quickly become a complex journey through long, often tortuous historical arguments. They often master the minutia of history and often get led down paths that end up contradicting what the gospel records tell us.
In an often ever changing world of discoveries, what was a historical fact yesterday can become an inaccurate view today. Sadly, pieces of erroneous teachings can easily continue to be taught as fact by teachers who are not up on the latest discovery in the field, and they continue to propagate false views, spreading them to those even less informed.
Today I'd like to just quickly look at some of the areas of information where more recent discoveries have changed previously held views on topics relating to the Bible and Jesus.
First, let's take an ever so brief look at the world of textual criticism. By that I mean the study of the Bible manuscripts and translations of them. In this day and age when there seem to be an unending amount of available translations of the Bible to choose from, how many people stop to think why that is the case?
Is there like a master copy of the Bible text in Hebrew and Greek in a room somewhere, and people of different levels of learning take it and use it to produce their different translations from? Some may think this to be the case, when in fact there is not. There are thousands of individual manuscripts from different times periods.
What Bible do translators translate from after all? Without spending much time here, let us do a real brief overview of the history of the Bible. We know that by the time of Jesus, the accepted set of Hebrew Scriptures were pretty much a complete set of approved writings.
Their establishment of which writings were included had been decided upon and approved by the leaders for some time, though even then, there were many writings still in circulation that, while not considered part of the authorized set, were still very much used and taught as helpful and useful doctrinally.
Eventually, Hebrew writings were translated into Greek, and that is what we refer to as the Septuagint. Within the Septuagint translation, there are many differences in wording when compared against the Hebrew original. By changes I mean where the understandings of the translators may have been placed within the translated text.
It may not be a literal rendering of the Hebrew word into Greek, but instead is the interpreters understanding of the meaning behind the Hebrew translated into the Greek. This is usually done based on a theological leaning or bias of the one translating, and is common among translations.
This is helpful to a degree, for it tells us that at the time of the translation, the verse in question was understood to be referring to a topic not as clearly evident in the original Hebrew.
Since one language does not always directly coincide with the words or thoughts in another language, the translator must make a choice as to how the passage might best be interpreted, and they translate accordingly. That is why it is usually best practice to go back to the original and understand what was there before any translational bias may have entered the picture.
Another factor is the timing of the original being used. In many cases, there may be a copy of a biblical book that is dated to have been written five hundred years earlier than another copy. When compared, there are variances in the text of each.
Most might be quick to think the older is more accurate and that the latter version must have been changed by translational errors and bias over the years. But what if an earlier dated edition had been intentionally changed or corrupted, and it is found to be at odds with like ten other copies from a much later date that come from multiple different geographical areas?
That may be evidence that the ten copies, while they may be newer copies, they obviously stem from a different originating copy that may be more accurate and much older than the older copy with the changes.
As you can imagine, this field of manuscript studies gets complicated quickly, as they go back and forth seeking to determine what text may have been added or changed intentionally, or what may stem from simple scribal copying errors compounded over much time.
So in the time following Jesus, many different groups and individuals wrote about what they had seen and heard. And since there was no copy machines, those eye-witness writings had to be hand copied as they were passed round the various groups and churches of that first century. Of course, not all writings were by followers of Jesus, there were some odd ones circulated too.
As years go by, collections of these writings were understood to be important and to be preserved, and so decisions had to be made as to which of the writings were authentic, and which were not.
On top of having a multitude of various titles to choose from, there would also have been multiple copies to choose from even at that time, so decisions of which copies are most accurate has always a consideration.
So within the first few hundred years of church history, leaders and councils had come together to ponder upon which works were considered divinely inspired and which were not, and that is where the body of work we now know as the New Testament was decided upon.
However, even after that, these agreed upon texts were again copied by hand, and translations into many other languages were also accomplished. Then in the early part of the fifth century, Jerome gathered some of the copies and translated the entire New Testament into Latin. It was his Latin edition that was the key translation for the next thousand years of church history.
After that thousand years or so, in the years preceding the Reformation, Greek manuscripts started resurfacing. The church at the time began comparing those Greek manuscripts with the Latin to see if Jerome had accurately translated, and the practice of textual criticism started again.
Then in 1516, Catholic priest Erasmus of Rotterdam began acquiring as many Greek manuscripts as he could, in order to produce a Greek New Testament. Sadly, he did not have the same resources that we now possess today, and so there were many places where he had no original Greek to translate from at all.
In those cases, he translated the Latin manuscripts back into Greek to fill in the holes when necessary. Of course doing this ends up producing pieces of text that do not exist in any other Greek manuscript. Also, the Greek manuscripts he did use have were dated from a very late twelfth century time period, so they were fairly recent in comparison to those in possession today.
It is basically from this Greek produced text that the 1611 KJV was later produced, which is why at times the English differs so greatly from more modern translations based on older and additional Greek manuscript copies.
Of course, since the time of Erasmus, scholars have found thousands of ancient Greek manuscripts of the New testament, some dating back as far as the second century. This gives a much wider depth of text to compare and formulate decision on textual accuracy.
So at present, there exists approximately 5,800 manuscripts of the New Testament dating back through the first thousand years of church history, with a recent discovery, while still being processed, the early evidence leans towards it being a manuscript dating back to the first century, a mere few decades from the documented events.
As more and more discoveries are made, views change as would be expected. And while scholars for the longest time believed that the New Testament writings did not even begin to be written down until decades after the fact, in the 50’s and 60’s, newer evidence is leading many to think that the book of Mark, for instance, was likely written in the late 30’s, a mere few years after the crucifixion of Jesus.
All of this to say that as centuries have past, more and more material has been discovered, giving a much larger pool of information to study and determine the facts from. That is often why there have been so many new translations in recent decades.
Not only are there more manuscripts to compare and get better text from, but the historic and cultural resources also discovered have given scholars a much better look into the world and beliefs of the ancients who produced these stories, giving us a clearer understanding of their meaning.
So, as manuscript studies continue, more and more opinions on the historicity of the scriptures are formed, and over the centuries the sceptics have held varying positions, many of which have since been overthrown by new findings. Lets look at some changes of opinions in recent times.
For many years the biblical story was attacked by skeptics as they denied the historical existence of Jesus because there was no evidence for a town called Nazareth as even being in existence at the time of Jesus. There is no mention of it in any Jewish or Roman sources outside of the Bible, until the fourth century, not a single one.
It is never mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, nor in the Mishnah, which is the Jewish commentaries including traditions dating back to the first century. Nor does Josephus ever mention it in his massive amount of historical works from the first century, even though he does mention many small towns of the time.
It isn’t until the third century that we ever find a historical mention of a town called Nazara, which may be the town of Nazareth. Even in the extensive journals of Bordeaux, who visited the area of Palestine in 333-334, there is never a mention of the town in all of the places he visited and documented.
In 1962, a discovery was found in an ancient synagogue on Israel’s coast. There they found a grey marble fragment listing various towns and villages in Galilee, and Nazareth is included, but even this was dated to be from around AD 300. So, all evidence seemed to show the town to have come into existence closer to the fourth century, but not to have existed at the time the biblical account claims it was.
Back in the late 1950’s, early 60’s, workers tore down an 18th century church in the area, to make place for the building of what would become the Basilica of the Annunciation, which was completed in 1969. During the work, the teams found iron age and Roman-era artifacts, as well as depressions in the underlying rock that gave evidence of the possibility of stone houses existing there in the Roman era.
Excavations in 1990 of what is known as Mary’s Well in the surrounding area, uncovered a handful of ancient coins, including ten from the Maccabean era (165-66 BC), two from the time of Herod the Great (37 BC - 4 AD), and one from the time of Archelaus (4 BC to 6 AD).
Then in 2008, a mythicist writer named Rene Salm published a book entitled The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus. However, within one year after that book, Israeli archeologists made a major announcement that they had discovered the remains of a stone house in Nazareth, just steps from the Basilica of the Annunciation, and that it dates back to the time of Jesus.
They had found remains of supporting walls, what appeared to be a hideout or saferoom, a courtyard and an elaborate series of cisterns that seemed designed to collect water from the roof of the dwelling, as well as a group of grain silos buried deep in the ground.
According to preliminary reports at the time, the ruins are of a domestic house with a few rooms and open courtyard dating to the late Hellenistic to early Roman era, which would be first century BC through second century AD.
Plus, pottery shards found on the floor of the house were common local Galilean pottery dating to the early Roman period of the first century, as well as soft limestone cups and bowls common for Jewish purity rites of the era.
In the end, archeologists have determined that the cluster of ecclesiastical buildings there had been built directly over what would have been the town of Nazareth at the time of Jesus. They concluded that indeed the town was there during his time, and would have been located in an isolated basin in the hills, far from any main road.
That is why it was most likely not noted or noticed by Josephus and others at the time. This also would have helped to spare it from the ravages of the Jewish war of AD 65-70. As it turns out, this was not the only such first century house to have been found in the area.
In an article published in the March 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeological Review, Ken Dark reports of a first century house partly made of mortar and stone walls cut into a rocky hillside that could very well be the childhood home of Jesus.
The site itself was uncovered in 1880 by nuns at the Sister of Nazareth convent, and the stone and wood structures were cataloged and recorded in 1936 by a Jesuit priest. However, none of these reports or research were ever publicly published, and therefore remained unknown except for the occasional pilgrims to the area. It was not until 2006 that the site was excavated.
Research shows that the house was revered as the childhood home of Jesus during the Byzantine period, which started in AD 300 and continued on into the 15th century. The house is believed to have been abandoned in the first century and then used as a burial ground.
Two empty tombs have been found next to the house, and since they are the rock cut style with a rolling stone for a door, it suggests that they were used during the first century when such tombs were common. Centuries later, Byzantine Christians erected a church over the site to protect it, and then in the 12th century the crusaders built a new church at the same location.
Other evidence presented in the article was a reference to a 7th century travelogue written by the abbot of the Scottish island monastery at Iona. Listed in the travel to Nazareth, it notes the existence of a church "where once there was a house in which the Lord was nourished in his infancy."
So the church was built upon the spot of this house sometime between the 300s and prior to this travelogue written in the 600s, meaning that historically this place was revered as the house of Jesus. Whether it truly was or not will probably never be truly known, but it provides yet further proof of a first century existence of Nazareth, silencing the skeptics claim to the contrary.
Now let us look at a few people and places from biblical times that archeological finds have revealed debunkers of Christianity to be in error on. For instance the long-time claim that no evidence for a King David is found in ancient history. That being the case, it is another myth of the Bible. Then in 1993, archeologists working in Northern Israel uncovered a rock monument, that mentions the house of David by name, dispelling the myth of the sceptics.
Recently, the Biblical Archeological Review published a list of more than fifty people mentioned in the Hebrew Bible that have been proven historically to have existed, some of which were considered fictional characters by older scholars and critics. Now, the same thing is happening more and more with the New Testament scriptures as things are discovered.
For at least two centuries now, archaeologists have been digging up the Holy Land and have found hundreds of discoveries that continue to confirm the historical accuracy of the people, events, customs and places mentioned in the Bible.
Such as the 2009 discovery of the ruins of a first-century synagogue in Magdala, on the Sea of Galilee. Determined to have likely been in use between 50 BC and AD 67 when it was destroyed in the first Jewish War, it is believed that with almost definite certainty that it was a place Jesus visited and preached at as mentioned in Mark 1:39:
And he went throughout all Galilee, preaching in their synagogues and casting out demons. (Mark 1:39 ESV)
Measuring 1300 square feet, the synagogue seems to contain two large room, a vestibule and a reading room, and another smaller room. There was a mosaic on the floor, and colorful frescos covering the walls. In the main room, there was a large square stone which contains a relief of the seven branch Jewish menorah.
With this place being located just six miles south of Capernaum, Jesus' base of operations during his ministry, it is one of the very few places where scholars can confidently say that Jesus almost certainly stood.
Another strike at the gospels as being nothing more than fiction, is the mention of the leader Pontius Pilate, who Bible sceptics were quick to point out the lack of historic evidence for his existence. That view was shattered in 1962 when archeologists uncovered an inscription in Caesarea Maritima, the center for the Roman administration during the time of Jesus.
This “Pilate Stone” as it is now called, bears the inscription mentioning Tiberius, the Roman emperor at the time, and Pontius Pilate, the Prefect of Judea.
Archeologists have also found an inscription bearing the names of Sergius Paulus, the Roman proconsul who is mentioned in Acts 13:6-12 as having a run in with a Jewish false prophet magician, as well as Gallio, the proconsul of Archaia mentioned in Acts 18:12-17.
And then there is also the inscription found regarding Erastus, who is mentioned in Acts 19:22, 2 Timothy 4:20, and Romans 16:23, where Paul says:
Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you. (Rom 16:23 ESV)
Erastus is noted as being the city treasurer, which ties in with the wording of the inscription found about him in Corinth. There they discovered a marble dedication slab embedded near a long pavement that states “Erastus in return for his aedileship (his government office) laid [the pavement] with his own money.”
Moving on from people, another key area of attack by the sceptics is regarding the biblical account on crucifixion. Sceptics again claimed the scriptures to be fiction, because they discuss a form of crucifixion that is not, according to them, historically accurate. John 20:25 speaks of Thomas’ response as the other Apostles state they have seen Jesus, and he says:
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (Joh 20:25 ESV)
In response to this, many critical scholars scoff, stating that crucifixion was accomplished by tying the victim with ropes, and not with nails, sop the biblical account is fictional.
On top of that, they claim that crucified bodies were not removed from the cross and buried at all as the scriptures say. Instead, they were usually left on the cross to decay for many days, to be eaten by scavengers, and then later throw into a shallow, anonymous grave.
Therefore, many scholars hold that Jesus was not taken down from the cross at all. They claim the Romans did not allow the burial of crucified criminals, and that the whole point of crucifixion was to be a visible deterrent against future crimes, giving a long term horrible scene to keep the people in line.
They come to this conclusion based on some ancient writings describing the use of crucifixion at the time. Of course, this view had to change some when, in 1968 Israeli archeologists excavated a burial cave northeast of Jerusalem which contained a first century tomb with an ossuary — a bone box — containing the bones of a crucified man.
For those not aware, a brief explanation of these bone boxes. Back in the day, the burial process was a two-part process. After death, the body was laid on a slab or shelf in a rock-hewn tomb, with the entrance sealed with a stone slab. They left the body to decay in the dry heat of Palestine for one year, at which time the family would return, open the tomb, and place the remains in one of these small ossuaries.
This was done in order to provide a more permanent burial which would save space, since tombs were expensive. The bone boxes were limestone and the length of them was made to fit the longest bone in the body, the femur, at about twenty inches. This practice was in place in Israel between 20 BC and AD 70, and to date, over two thousand bone boxes have been discovered.
Inside this particular ossuary of the crucified man, they found that on the top of this man’s right heel bone there was a board, and through the board and the heel was a 4.5 inch spike, giving proof that nails were involved in crucifixions. They also found that the man’s legs were broken, as is also mentioned in the gospel account of crucifixion.
Sceptics are quick to point out that this one piece of evidence is the only piece of evidence of this nature. That in all of the numerous examples or remains found, this is the only example that can be produced of a crucified man being buried.
They say the Roman could almost be said to have run an execution factory, crucifying hundreds to thousands of people at a time during revolts and other times of turmoil, making burial near impossible.
But contrary to the view, many other scholars, not all of which are Christian, disagree with that assessment, and state that it was certainly common practice at the time to remove the bodies and bury them, especially in regards to the Jewish dead.
That due to the Jewish views on ritual impurity, they did not leave dead bodies exposed, as is noted by historians like Josephus and others of the time. Josephus stated:
The Jews are so careful about funeral rites that even those who are crucified because they are found guilty are taken down and buried before sunset.” (Josephus, Jewish War 4.5)
Some historians claim that essentially it was part of the law to remove the bodies, pointing to the Roman legal code called the Pandectae, which states:
The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives…At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted: and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason…The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial.
Other modern scholars debunked the views of the sceptics by pointing out that the idea of not allowing for burial tends to be based on examples considered during the siege of Jerusalem in AD 68-70. And during that brutal war against the Jews, things were different, and you cannot use the special situation of those times as evidence against the way things worked during the earlier times of Jesus.
Another discovery in 1990 relates to Caiaphas the high priest who was in charge when Jesus was arrested. While not necessarily a character disputed by sceptics, it is a biblical character find nonetheless.
Historically he had only been known from written records, but that changed in 1990, when a dump truck driving in the hills outside of Jerusalem accidentally smashed through a buried roof of an ancient tomb dating back to the first century.
Inside this tomb were bone boxes like the one found of the crucified man we just mentioned. One of them was decorated more ornately than others, and on it was written — in Hebrew mind you — you know, that dead language that supposedly no one spoke any longer at that time — were the words “Joseph son of Caiaphas.”
Inside this ossuary were the bones of six people — two toddlers, a teen boy, and adult female, and a man about sixty years old. Most believe the ossuary to be authentic, and Israeli archeologists believe it to be the actual family tomb of the high priest Caiaphas.
And continuing to speak of bone boxes, some of you may have heard the uprising and publicity behind the documentary released in 2007, co-produced by famous movie maker James Cameron. It was centered on the 1980 and 1981 discoveries of two intact first-century tombs containing numerous bone boxes, some of which contained human remains.
Among them, they found one with the shocking inscription of — Yeshu’a bar Yehosef — or — Jesus, son of Joseph. Their movie, entitled “The Tomb of Jesus” as well as later a book centered on this topic called The Jesus Discovery, sought to make the claim that this box contains the bones of Jesus.
This was claimed in an attempt to provide proof that he died in typical Hebrew fashion, was placed in a tomb, possibly moved on the third day, but at some point, was later removed from his secret burial place, and stored with his family as would be expected.
In the book version, co-authored by New Testament scholar James Tabor, it claims that the box almost certainly held the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, but he finds this not in any way contradictory to the Christian faith of message.
According to Tabor, the belief of the original followers of Jesus believed that He would have been raised in a “spiritual body” after his death, and not a physical body, therefore having these bones left behind is not a problem. I can only assume that Tabor’s comment is based on an assumption that the apostle’s held to the Gnostic belief in the evil of material vs. that of spiritual, which is not the case.
Also related, but found years later and in a different location, is the ossuary found bearing the inscription — James, son of Joseph, The Brother of Jesus. Scholars still debate on whether the inscription in part or in whole are authentic, but many claim it to be legitimate and accurate in whole.
This box was not found within the same tomb as the Yeshua box, while other boxes were. Within the Yeshua tomb other boxes were found that some claim to be the family members of Jesus still. There is one marked Maria, which is said to be the Latin form of the Hebrew name Miriam, along with one labeled as Yosa — or Jose.
Another labeled Mariamene Mara is supposed to be a form of Mary Magdalene, and the last is labeled Yehuda bar Yeshua — of Judah, son of Jesus. The sensationalism of the movies and book is obvious, and the scholarly and archaeological world does not come to the same conclusions as those promoting this Jesus tomb view.
In 2013, one of the Israeli archaeologists who actually discovered the two first-century tombs, as well as another professor involved, publicly dismissed the claims and theories of the book and movie, calling them “sensationalistic” and “lacking any factual or scientific foundation.”
They went on to state that the movie is not serious, and that they are not discovering anything, they haven’t found anything, and that there is no basis at all on which to make a story out of this in an attempt to identify this as the family of Jesus.
They stated that the names found on the ossuaries are extremely common for that day and age, and that there is nothing here to link this to the family of Jesus of Nazareth.
On a side note, I’d like to spotlight one point possible interest in this whole story, the fact that the inscription written on the supposed Jesus box is the word Yeshua and not some Greek version of Jesus as many would wish.
I only mention this because of the extreme number of attacks and comments we get on our site by people who speak out against Dave’s use of Yeshua rather than Jesus, and claim that his name was never that Hebrew term.
Some hold to the view that Hebrew as a language was dead and not in use at that time anymore at all. Of course, those who do take this view are seriously behind on things, because more and more evidence has been produced in decades past of a living-breathing Hebrew culture and language in the first century, and this type first-century of bone box writing just adds to that proof.
There are others who have even went so far as to hold to the belief that Yahweh intentionally changed everything from Hebrew to Greek, which is why the Hebrew Scriptures were converted to Greek, and the new Scriptures written in Greek, and thus Jesus name would have been Greek and never Hebrew.
We even got a letter recently claiming that Jesus’ family and even brothers had Hebrew names, but that Jesus was given a Greek name intentionally by Yahweh through the angel in order that he would stand out in his culture.
Anyway, the archeological evidence continues to surface showing that those in Jesus’ day not only was there Aramaic and Greek, but they still used Hebrew, as well as the case for the Hebrew name Yeshua.
Now, back to the bone boxes they discovered that supposed held Jesus’ family. Due to the Jewish religious authorities in Israel being protective over human remains found in the Holy Land, all of the bones found in the mentioned ossuaries were removed under mysterious circumstances sometime in the 1980s and 1990s and presumably reburied, though no one seems to know what happened to them.
The last point we’ll look at today that is dispute among the scholars in years past, is the view of the New Testament’s idea of Jesus being a suffering Messiah. For the longest time, it was held that the Jews never had any thought of a suffering Messiah.
It has been the long-held view that the Jews interpreted and applied the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 as a metaphor of the nation of Israel — to them as a people — and not to the expected Messiah. Therefore, any idea of a suffering or dying Messiah was farthest from their mind and therefore obviously contrived outside of the Jewish people.
Because of that understanding, sceptics tend to hold that the idea of a suffering or dying Messiah was invented and imported into the text by Jesus followers, years later after his mission failed.
Since the Jews expected a military leader and king, they say, the suffering Messiah is just the way later Christian apologists got around the scandal of the cross. This was the view made popular in the writings of the nineteenth century higher critics, and later refined in the early twentieth century.
For the longest time, it was the standard unquestioned dogma for those engaged in New Testament studies, and is still held by many today. Some of the power behind this view has been weakened after the 1947 discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the further study of second Temple period literature, though many sceptics still hold on to the view.
In his 2014 book entitles How Jesus Became God, Bart Ehrman states:
Whatever specific idea any Jew had about the messiah (as cosmic judge, mighty priest, powerful warrior), what they all thought was that he would be a figure of grandeur and power who would be a mighty ruler of Israel. (Bart Erhman, How Jesus Became God, Pg. 115)
Another recent author, Reza Aslan, states the same belief in the book Zealot:
The Jews of Jesus’ time had no conception whatsoever of a messiah who suffers and dies. They were awaiting a messiah who triumphs and lives. (Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Pg. 166)
Yet while this has been the century old assumption, experts in Second Temple Judaism such as Princeton’s Peter Schafer, Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Israel Knohl, and Berkeley professor Daniel Boyarin now argue that the view is demonstrably false. They say evidence shows that there were indeed some in the time of Jesus who very much expected a suffering messiah, perhaps even one who would die.
Part of the reason for such a belief, is due to the recent discovery of what is being called the Gabriel Revelation. It is a first century Hebrew language text that makes mention of the angel Gabriel — you know, the same one that appeared to Mary telling her she was going to have Jesus? Within the text, there is discussion of a suffering messiah figure that predates Jesus.
Israel Knohl is the scholar who translated the Hebrew tablet containing this text, and while he is an orthodox Jew who doesn’t believe Jesus is or was the messiah, he doesn’t believe that Christians should let modern critical scholars pass off such falsehoods about the idea of a suffering messiah being made up and applied to Jesus by Christians years later.
He feels there is ample evidence to show that there were in fact some groups in Jesus’ day that expected a suffering, even possibly dying messiah, and that it is possible that Jesus himself probably believed he was living out this exact destiny. Knohl says:
The main tendency in New Testament scholarship for over a hundred years has been to attempt to resolve these difficulties by denying the historical reality of Jesus’ claim to messiahship. Scholars of this viewpoint maintain that Jesus did not regard himself as a Messiah at all and that he was proclaimed Messiah by the disciples only after his death. Jesus, they claim, could not have foreseen his rejection, death, and resurrection, as “the idea of a suffering, dying and rising messiah was unknown in Judaism.” (Israel Knohl, The Messiah Before Jesus: The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Pg. 2)
Knohl believe now that not only did Jesus think of himself as the Messiah, but that he also expected to be rejected, killed and resurrected after three days, and that these elements were not a later creation imposed back onto the story at all. The reason he believe so is:
That is precisely what was believed to have happened to a messianic leader who had lived one generation before Jesus.
Because of this prior belief, the idea was already out there in public view about a suffering messiah and of a resurrection years prior to the time Jesus came on the scene. It was not invented later, but in fact is found in the Yahud community at Qumran. The hymns found there refer to an earlier messiah, a leader of the community at Qumran who described himself as sitting on a heavenly throne.
Who has been despised like me, and who has been rejected of men like me? And who compares to me in enduring evil. Who is like me among the angels? I am the beloved of the king, a companion of the holy ones.
Scholars who study the Dead Sea literature state that this hymn, referred to as the Self-Glorification Hymn, is a clear echoing of the Isaiah suffering servant idea, and was written by someone who felt that through their sufferings they would atone for the sins of the community.
So the idea that using Isaiah 53 is referring to a suffering messiah was in fact not a creation of the Christian community, but was already a part of the teachings of esoteric Judaism.
A second reference that adds further weight to the idea, is found in the pseudepigraphal book referred to as the Oracle of Hystaspes, providing further proof that some Jews at the time of Jesus expected a suffering and dying messiah.
The Oracle predicts the coming of two kings, one who is false and will call himself God and seek to be worshipped as the son of God. The other will be a great prophet “to turn men to the knowledge of God” and who will “receive the power of doing wonderful things.” The evil king will wage war against the prophet of God:
He shall fight against the prophet of God and shall overcome and slay him, and shall suffer him to life unburied; but after the third day he shall come to life again; and while all look on and wonder, he shall be caught up to heaven.
These Jewish texts were written a generation before Jesus, and again provide evidence that the idea of a suffering, dying messiah was already in existence, and that Jesus was therefore a journey towards a known suffering and death.
Therefore these types of discoveries prove that no, the Christian community did not invent this idea of a suffering and dying Messiah years later as has been proposed by the critics.
Daniel Boyarin, the professor from Berkeley argues that many of these mistakes are made by New Testament scholars in the twentieth century mainly because of two issues — both related to not knowing what time it is essentially.
First, he believes they have a faulty understanding of Second Temple Judaism and the issues of the culture of Jesus’ time. Secondly, they instead take ideas and the belief of teachings in the Talmud, written centuries after Jesus’ time, and project them backwards into the culture and practices of Jesus’ life.
And while this idea of Jesus’ followers creating the suffering servant teachings years later as an apologetic for Jesus death is still taught in universities and seminaries to this day, Boyarin says it is completely false, and has been covered and documented as false by modern messianic Jews.
While many hold to the idea that the Jews have always viewed Isaiah 53 as a metaphor for the people of Israel and not the Messiah, Boyarin points out that on the contrary, such a view is a very recent creation in fact, and it has to be completely rejected.
He goes on to say that the notion of the humiliated and suffering Messiah was not at all alien within both Judaism before and during Jesus’ time, and actually well into the future from there, into the modern period.
He even points to the Talmud for more evidence, where it uses Isaiah 53 to anchor the idea of a suffering, tortured Messiah that bore the disease and suffered the pains for the people.
The other doctrine Boyarin challenges the modern scholars with, is the idea of the Jewish view of a dual godhead, and the idea of the redeemer being both God and man. Many say the Jews were strictly monotheistic and so the idea of a multi-person godhead is a Christian creation and totally foreign to Judaism, but Boyarin likewise believe they are off the mark.
He points to the intertestamental Jewish texts to show how there was clearly a movement within Judaism both prior and during the time of Jesus, of the notion of two divine figures of equal substance and power, such as an older and younger God, a Father and Son situation.
Hints of it begin to appear in Daniel 7 with the story of the son of man ascending up unto the ancient of days and receiving a kingdom, but it gets more fleshed out in other intertestamental writings. So, Boyarin concludes that many of the ideas that modern scholars think are most characteristically Christian creations, are really Jewish through and through. He states:
The notion of a dual godhead with the Father and a Son, the notion of a Redeemer who himself is both God and man, and the notion that this Redeemer would suffer and die as part of the salvation process -all have- deep roots in the Hebrew Bible -and- may be among some of the most ancient ideas about God and the world that the Israeli people ever held. (Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels, Pg. 158)
Of course, this view causes quite a stir and ignites debates within the modern New Testament scholar world, but change usually does. As more and more is discovered, and as new light gets cast upon the ancient past of biblical times, we can only hope the truth will grow and prevail over prior false assumptions.
That what was once commonly held views within scholarship will change with the additional information, and a new clarity regarding the scriptures will grow as we continue the uncovering and understanding of ancient writings, places, and knowledge as it relates to the Bible in general.
Though my absolute greatest hope is that the mainstream church of Yahweh wake up, not stay complacent, and will study to show themselves approved — studying these new discoveries and conforming their views of Scripture to the new knowledge discovered, and not simply stick with traditions long since proven erroneous.