How Do we Know the Gospels are Historical?

It is easy to exchange convinced assertions: “The gospels are 100% God’s holy Word and every bit is historically accurate!” or “The gospels are fairy tales!” However there is a discipline called “Biblical scholarship” in which scholars do some very interesting work determining just which parts of the gospels they think are reliable and which they think are not. Their conclusions are, of course, debated. That’s what scholars do. Their work is fascinating, and continuing the discussion here of the historicity of the gospels it is worth taking some time to look at just a smidgen of their work and their methodology.

Bible scholars are most interested in trying to determine whether the original gospels record eyewitness accounts, and whether those original versions have been transmitted accurately. To do this scholars consider several factors. 1) authorship and date of composition, 2) intention and genre, 3) gospel sources and oral tradition, 4) textual criticism, 5) historical authenticity of specific sayings and narrative events.

One of the difficult aspects for modern people to understand is just what kind of document the gospels are. Everyone can admit that they are not written as purely historical documents, but neither are they simply fabulous fables, myths or fairy tales. In continuity with the Old Testament and consistent with their Jewish origins we have documents which are presented as history and have plenty of historically verifiable details, but which also have supernatural and otherworldly elements to them. Thus:

The genre of the gospels is essential in understanding the intentions of the authors regarding the historical value of the texts. New Testament scholar Graham Stanton states that “the gospels are now widely considered to be a sub-set of the broad ancient literary genre of biographies.” Charles H. Talbert agrees that the gospels should be grouped with the Graeco-Roman biographies, but adds that such biographies included an element of mythology, and that the synoptic gospels also included elements of mythology. E.P. Sanders states that “these Gospels were written with the intention of glorifying Jesus and are not strictly biographical in nature.” Ingrid Maisch and Anton Vögtle writing for Karl Rahner in his encylopedia of theological terms indicate that that the gospels were written primarily as theological, not historical items. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis notes that “we must conclude, then, that the genre of the Gospel is not that of pure ‘history’; but neither is it that of myth, fairy tale, or legend. In fact, ‘gospel’ constitutes a genre all its own, a surprising novelty in the literature of the ancient world.”

Historians therefore allow for the fact that these are essentially historical documents with what they call “mythological” elements woven into them. Whether the miracles or “the mythological elements” happened as the gospels report is open to debate. Believers accept the possibility of the miraculous. Non-believers do not. In each case the bias will affect the conclusion, however it must be said that one who believes miracles are possible is immediately more open minded than one who rules that they are impossible. The believer is open therefore to more possibilities than the non-believer who rules miracles out entirely.

What many people miss, because of a secular or a scientific bias (or both), is that this sort of story is common to humanity everywhere. The supernatural or “mythological” is woven into the lives and stories of many individuals, families and cultures. Whether it is a near death experience or a paranormal experience of some kind or a more ordinary faith experience, people re-tell the remarkable things which have happened to them in ordinary life. Aunt Sally tells how she was healed at the summer camp revival meeting by Jesus Christ himself or Cousin Jimmy tells how he was miraculously preserved from falling headlong into a pot of acid by his guardian angel.

One does not have to accept the miraculous element of the story to acknowledge that Cousin Jimmy really did almost fall into a pot of acid, and that two workmates saw it happen at Florsheim Fertilizer Plant in Boondock Missouri on January 27 at 3:00 in the afternoon. One does not have to accept that Aunt Sally was miraculously healed by Jesus to accept that she really did go to the revival meeting led by Pastor Billy Bob at the Hosannah Camp Meeting in Houndstooth, North Carolina on August third and that she went in feeling sick and came out feeling better. In other words, it is reasonable to attempt to sift out what is verifiable and provable from a reported story which, by its nature, is subjective and perceived as supernatural and therefore not verifiable with ordinary means of enquiry.

This is what scholars quite sensibly do when confronted with the gospel accounts. The scholarship on the questions of authorship and date, sources and genre are a scholarly industry in themselves, but the topic for this post is the various tools used to help determine whether  particular sayings or events from the recorded gospel accounts are authentic. There are different scholarly means used to analyze the text: Read more.

The Puri-Fire
Answering Margery Eagan on Homosexuality
Atheism or Catholicism - You Choose
Idol Speculation
  • Anil Wang

    To be honest, if all we had was the Bible and attestations that the Early Church believed it was accurate, my response would be “so what”. Seriously, Jesus, Socrates, Confucius, and Buddha all had historically verifiable stories and writings and even Socrates had a claim of revelation from God which the early Platonists believed.

    But Christianity is more than the Bible. If you look at the Church and how it was almost wiped out half a dozen times, the lives of its saints and martyrs, the fact that Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the West that despite often bitter (and sometimes bloody) civil war, and sometimes truly corrupt or weak Popes, remains intact and did not change a single doctrine in all that time or try rewrite doctrines.

    Such a thing is just unheard of in either the secular or religious world and there isn’t even a remotely similar institution or religion that is comparable. If the Catholic Church is not divinely protected, nothing else is.

  • Korou

    I’d disagree with you, but I would have to take a place behind anybody from an other religion in the world.

  • Glenn Juday

    Here is another way we know the gospels are historical. The gospels claim that Capernaum was the town where Jesus was based during the time of his public ministry in Galilee. “And leaving Nazareth, He came and dwelt in Capernaum, which is by the sea…” (Matthew 4:13). Jesus stayed at Peter’s house, and the story of the calling of the Galilean fishermen is recounted in the gospels.

    Recent archeological and historical research has identified, with high confidence, Peter’s house, much of the village of Capernaum of the Second Temple period, and an ancient synagogue. At the archeological site the antiquities are managed by the Franciscan Custody. The national park around the antiquities site is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Why the confidence in the authenticity of the site?

    With essentially the entire village site exposed at least in outline, it was clear that Capernaum was a small town. There was only one main first century fishing residence/business (net fragments, stone net weights, etc.) on the site. At that site, as the Israel Nature and Parks Authority website describes it:

    “The floor of one of the rooms was covered with white plaster and its walls were adorned with plaster painted with geometric patterns and colorful flowers. Apparently as early as the first century, the building served as a gathering place for the first Christians (Judeo-Christians). Discovered at the site were 173 plaster fragments bearing inscriptions, mostly in Greek. Some, like “our Lord; “the Nazarene,” “the greatest of all” and “Simon,” attest to the existence of a Christian community.”

    The indications are that these are mid first century inscriptions and paintings. Now, imagine if some group of fabulists had invented any aspect of the story of Peter and his family’s relationship to Jesus and tried to impose it on this village – taking over the space for the main business in the village, introducing blasphemous words and veneration, etc. Instead the material culture we find is perfectly congruent with what is known from just the times claimed. Here is evidence of the exact details of the gospels. And at the time there are no documented riots or condemnations from the authorities other than – those precisely described in the gospels.

    This is only one of many, many more verified sites in the Holy Land. Considering the evidence presented by these sites, we must conclude that many skeptics are reactionary – considerably behind the times, not conversant with the latest science. If they want to deal with this subject with intellectual integrity, they have a lot of catching up to do.

  • Glenn Juday

    Another example of historical verification of the Gospels from not one, but 3 sources: (1) an extra-biblical document, (2) continuously, uninterrupted local memory, and (3) archeological confirmation. Not the slightest disagreement among them.

    The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The location is also accorded honor by Muslims. It was built over a cave which very early tradition holds as Jesus’ birthplace. The earliest available surviving written identification of the site comes from Justin Martyr (b. ~100, d. 165). In his publication Dialogue with Trypho he says:

    “Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.”

    Justin was clearly not asserting something novel, but what he confidently believed could be verified by anybody who would take the time to do so from local testimony a generation or two removed from the event. First century Jewish village culture had a robust tendency to remember significant events in the community, and an exceptional record of marking locations of religiously significant locations.

    It’s a case of a cave dwelling, a tradition not always understood outside the region and almost universally misunderstood in Western Christianity today. The cave theme certainly is coherent: Jesus was born in a cave, naked and wrapped with a simple cloth (“swaddling clothes”), and after a life of never taking anything, at his death he was placed, naked, in a cave tomb with a cloth (the shroud) to wrap him.

    The misunderstanding comes from the phrase “… no room for them at the inn.” This is a case of weak translation into English. The word “inn” suggests to English speakers a commercial establishment of late medieval or early modern times for dispensing food and accommodating travelers. The actual word in the original Greek of the Gospel of Matthew describing the birth of Christ is kataluma, meaning an “upper guest room,” a regular feature of most cave-associated houses of the time, not pandocheion, which would be closer to the commercial type. In the first century Holy Land, lower cave levels were reserved for family livestock, which were a main source of wealth and kept close to the family for protection. Apparently at the birth of Jesus, because of the crowded circumstances (upper guest room was taken) and for privacy, Mary went to the stable level to give birth because there was no room in the “inn” or inner chamber.

    First century excavations to enlarge and customize a cave dwelling are present under the Church of the Nativity in the configuration typical of the time and consistent with other findings in the nearby area. The location of first century Bethlehem is well-plotted, and the place was not that big. The available candidate cave dwellings for the birth of Jesus were not all that numerous, and it is not as if the villagers were at risk of loosing track of which one “it” was – the location of what they came to believe was the greatest event in history.

    After the chaos and destruction following the revolt against Imperial Rome in A.D. 70, Jewish Christians and then the new populations of Christians cycled through, but kept a low profile, especially under Emperor Hadrian who had a specific goal of supplanting Judaism and, in Roman eyes, the related sub group called Christian. In the 4th century St. Jerome translated the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into the Latin Vulgate, starting in the year 384. He decided that he would translate the Word (Greek: Logos) at the place where the Word/Logos (Christ) came into the world. He reported no difficulty at all finding the appropriate cave, and he lived in the cave adjacent and connected to it. Again, verifiable as an archeological fact.

    The first basilica on the site was begun by Saint Helena (mother of the Emperor Constantine I) with the supervision of the Bishop of Jerusalem in 327 and was completed in 333. The first church was burned down during the massacre of Christians at the time of the revolt of the Samaritans in 529. The current basilica was rebuilt, essentially in its present form, in 565 by the Emperor Justinian I (Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus Augustus), otherwise famous for the Justinian legal code still in use.

    Of all the Churches in the Holy Land, this was the only one not destroyed during the Persian/Judean raid or conquest of 614. Why? The tradition is that the Persian commander saw a mosaic that depicted the Three Magi (“three wise men from the east” Matthew 2:1-12) in distinctive Persian clothing, and so did not wish to destroy the structure in case this site was somehow honoring his people. Further repairs and additions to the building were made during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem in the 12th century with assistance from the Byzantine Emperor. The first King of Jerusalem was crowned in the church. This is another of the shared custody churches, jointly administered by Greek Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic delegates. The other two are the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher and the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in Jerusalem.

    Now, as from the very earliest time, anybody that asserts a claim to the place is asking for exceptional scrutiny and such levels of trouble as to make a frivolous claim unthinkable.

  • John Cantor

    That was a good one. Kept me occupied for a bit. Here’s a cool little photographic journey I uncovered in my virtual travels:

    But I’m an atheist and I got my own bias going on…

    ~With the absence of a continuous Capernaum tradition connected to any site, nowadays only one site is considered a candidate for the gospel village; Telhum, 2.5 miles SW of where the Jordan flows into the Sea of Galilee. Indeed, Israeli maps call the place Kfar-Nachum (the Hebrew equivalent of Capernaum), and both Catholic and Israeli tourist agencies are absolutely delighted.

    The above is the first of five paragraphs (on that site, didn’t wanna c&p the entire content and wall up the text, right here) that seemingly debunk this claim. Note, I said seemingly. What I can attest to is spending a goodly bit of time wading through pages and pages of search results with a clear religious bias. I wasn’t looking for “atheists(.)org,” I was looking for something(.)edu. Because I’m biased like that.

    There ain’t no “many verified sites,” there’s archaeology debunking Biblical historicity left and right.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    So choose your expert…

  • John Cantor

    Me. Prophet outranks priest. I win. :D

    Nah. But that’s always a problem. Back when I was really dumb (I’m just kinda dumb now), I thought “science” meant, go to the expert, learn a theory… ah, no. Quantum theory? At least eighteen flavors of that stuff around. String theory? After forty years of mathematical chicanery, we have precisely zero evidence beyond “it is the only paradigm that fills the gaps indicated by the Standard Model,” or some such. I actually think that stuff is more fictional than this stuff. ;)

    Which is to say – and my fellow atheists sure don’t like me saying it – but it always comes down to faith.

  • Glenn Juday

    The author of “Where Jesus Never Walked” truly, profoundly does not know what he is talking about. The information in the opinion piece is out of date and the “interpretations” offered are tendentious on the face of it. One key claim was that no residence, only tombs, has ever been excavated in first century Nazareth. But an apparent first century Nazareth residence now (2009) has been excavated. And it is not far from the Basilica of the Annunciation. The idea that the Gospel account of Jesus early life is falsified because of the absence of a residence (until 2009) is exactly the mistake in logic that critics of the fundamentalist’s “God of the gaps.” And unfortunately for his case, the contention that Nazareth is a small, obscure place with no previous mention in the Hebrew Scriptures (when almost every little place is mentioned) proves too much – in fact is the essential to a coherent interpretation and reception of the Gospel text. When informed by real scholarship of the full context of the places, environment, people, customs, language, and history of the time, the honest inquirer finds that everything falls into place perfectly in a way no mythology could possibly contrive. And as the crowning element (so to say) this can be verified by walking into the nearest available Catholic Church and looking above the corpus of Jesus on the cross.

    In the Gospel of Matthew the angel calls Mary’s husband Joseph, “son of David” (Mt 1:20), confirming his descent from the royal line of King David. As he entered into the marriage to Mary, his adoption of Jesus conferred the legal status of inheritance. The rules of kingly accession to the throne occasionally could depart from the norm. For example, even though David was not his father Jesse’s first son in birth-order, he was anointed as firstborn (head or lead) and because of that inherited the honor of his father’s house as King of Israel. He was promised a house (dynasty) that would rule forever.

    “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom…I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me…Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:12–16)

    But a few centuries after David established this dynasty, events challenged its survival. The Babylonians conquered the southern kingdom (Judea), leveled its capitol Jerusalem, and carried off its citizenry to exile in 586 B.C. When the Babylonian conquerors blinded the last king (Zedekiah) and executed his sons (2 Kings 25:7; Jeremiah 39:7) as successors of David, they assumed that they had finally destroyed the Judean line of royal descent. It did appear that the royal line of David had come to an end. But there were rumors.

    The rumors were that a shoot (in Hebrew “netzer’) would sprout from the fallen tree of Jesse (David’s father) and a branch would arise (Isaiah 11:1). In essence the underground (and dangerous) belief was that the murders committed by the Babylonian conquerors had not been quite complete, and that God’s promise that the Davidic throne would last forever might yet be fulfilled. It is known that a clandestine family line whose members believed that they were offspring of David kept alive the consciousness of that identity during the first and second centuries B.C. They believed that ultimately it was their destiny to provide a royal heir who would resume legitimate dominion of Judea, rather than Idumean (Edomite) usurpers or, even worse, pagan Greek or Roman control. This (understandably) secretive clan was identified by the semi-cryptic (to outsiders) name Netzoreans or Natzoreans – the ‘branch’ family of David.

    They kept contacts with Jerusalem (by marriage, among other means). But the Nazoreans chose an out-of-the-way location in Galilee for their family seat, a place so small it was on the margin between a village and simply the dwellings of an extended set of relatives. The name applied to the place had no connection to the deep history of the land, and unlike nearly any other inhabited place in the Holy Land it was not mentioned in the Old Testament. Instead it was simply named after the family line (Netzorean) of royal Davidic origin – Nazareth – or, if you will, branch-town. The place name Nazereth was even the diminutive form of the word – “little branch.”

    But while the place did not count for anything, the Netzoreans or Nazoreans thought of themselves as special. At the time it would have been logical to look to them to provide the long awaited messianic leadership, and early in the New Testament exactly that claim is made. “He will be called a Nazorean.” (Matthew 2:23). But the view from outside of the clan may not have been as confident, particularly as the Roman occupation of Judea and Galilee dragged on, and as the Edomite usurper Herod and his degenerate clan became more entrenched on the throne. What were the people to think?

    “Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him and said of him, ‘Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael said to him, ‘How do you know me?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Before Philip called you, when you were under the fig tree, I saw you.’ Nathanael answered him, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ ” (ESV John 1: 45-49).

    In the English-speaking world of today, it is common to speak of “Jesus of Nazareth,” with the implicit assumption that the modifying phrase conveys geographical information exclusively. But from the perspective of the people, places, and circumstances of the time, the geographical component to the term Nazareth may well have been secondary. Instead, the term Nazarene applied particularly to lineage, status, and destiny. This deeper historical view provides insight into another incident in Jericho in which a stranger, hearing only that a Nazarene (or Nazorean) was passing by, immediately made the association with the royal line of David:

    “As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind beggar was sitting beside the road. When he heard the noise of a crowd going past, he asked what was happening. They told him that Jesus the Nazarene was going by. So he began shouting, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! ‘Be quiet!’ the people in front yelled at him. But he only shouted louder, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ ” (NLT Luke 18: 35-39).

    At the end of Jesus’ life the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate decided to make the same association – of Nazarene status with having royal Davidic lineage, even if he intended to send a mocking/warning message against troublemaking from any other members of the clan. He ordered a titulus (public notice or declaration) to be placed on the cross above the prisoner he was about to execute, with the words in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew/Aramaic, the latter possibly in Hebrew letters in the Syraic dialect (John 19:19-20):

    Latin: “Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum”
    “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews (Judeans)”.

    To this day, all Latin Rite Catholic churches and chapels are required to have a crucifix (a cross with the corpus or body of Jesus attached) in place at the altar during Mass, and virtually all such crucifixes include the Latin letters of abbreviation of this titulus – INRI. These words were, at the same time a political/criminal charge, a simple matter of self-identification for any Nazorean, and of course, ever since then a claim that arouses passions, for and against, much like it did at the time.

    The pseudo-sophistication of skeptic’s scorn that is offered as actual knowledge cheats any audience that receives it and should be an embarrassment to those offering it. Actual scholarship is what is called for.

  • John Cantor

    ~The IAA report makes no mention of first-century remains, much less of evidence from the turn of the era (“time of Jesus”). ~ from

    ~No first century CE residence has ever been discovered at Nazareth. Period. In 2009, Yardenna Alexandre completed an excavation in which see recovered the foundation of a Mamluk period building, during the course of which she identified two lateral cuts into the bedrock beneath the building. She found no stratified or otherwise contextualized artifacts that would date these cuts, nor did she recover any other indications of a first century CE edifice. She made no mention of any first century structures in her closing report on the excavation, and she has never published so much as a single sherd that would be diagnostic for that period. She did, however, participate in a series of press conferences and releases in December 2009, primarily on behalf of the Israeli Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Tourism, in which she announced she had recovered a first century CE residence in Nazareth in spite of not having recovered any artifacts indicating such (the “solid evidence” underlying her dating is her problematic identification of a nearby depression as the remains of a refuge pit, as well as her claim that she discovered sherds that may date to the second century CE that she is illegally withholding from the IAA and from publication).~ from

    Actual scholarship? From dubious sources with Christian sponsorship and a clear Christian agenda? That’s not “actual,” that’s biased. :/

    Of course, there is always bias; with science, the effects of this bias can be lessened by collaboration from independent researchers. Here, this is lacking. There’s one researcher, just like the Tel Hum scenario, where the goal is not scholarship, but rather tourism.

  • Julie

    I believe that not only can we analyze what is in the gospels, but also what is not included. The Resurrection narratives consist basically of two stories – the tomb stories and the appearance stories. If the gospels were fabricated, why not throw in 1 or 2 eyewitnesses to the actual Resurrection itself, not just appearances afterward. Surely they could have made up some fanciful story about exactly how the Resurrection transpired. But they didn’t! They were honest about exactly what was seen and not seen. And for the skeptics who say the gospels were written 100 years later after the Resurrection, that does not account for the massive amount of Jews and Gentiles both who converted to Christianity after hearing firsthand the eyewitness accounts straight from the eyewitnesses themselves. They must have been very convincing because we do know from history, and I am sure no atheist or skeptic can disagree, that within just 30 years of the Resurrection, Christianity had grown and spread to all corners of the Roman Empire.

  • Glenn Juday

    The quite remarkable assertion that Nazareth was not inhabited by Jews during the time that Jews reached one of their highest peaks of occupancy in the Galilee district, before the demographic disasters of the First and Second Revolts against Imperial Rome, is an extremely tenuous assertion at the most generous. The positive case that it was not inhabited has been called “… archeologically unsupportable …” (see Ken Dark, “book review of The Myth of Nazareth: The Invented Town of Jesus”, STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, vol. 26 (2008), pp. 140–146; cf. Stephen J. Pfann & Yehudah Rapuano, “On the Nazareth Village Farm Report: A Reply to Salm”, STRATA: Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, vol. 26 (2008), pp. 105–112.)

    Most of this is special case pleading. First comes the contention that no evidence equals presumption that the specific individuals and places desired to be absent were absent. Then when evidence is found comes the contention that the evidence is no good. Of course, there is scope for debate about any evidence, but that presumes a good faith commitment to open mindedness about all the evidence. Then come the contention of bad faith motives on the part of the individuals or institutions offering the evidence. That pattern is called polemics, and has its place in aspects of life, but it is not scholarship.

    Throughout these controversies there is one source that repeatedly has served as an accurate guide to locations, features, interpretation of ancient texts, cultural artifacts, history, elements of word usage, etc. That is the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Some alternative theories and interpretations, to the degree that they engage with evidence at all, can be identified by no particular coherent pattern other than apparent appeal as the best way to avoid having to accept the reliability of Hebrew and Christian Scriptures.

  • Glenn Juday

    Another example of the historical reliability of the Gospels:

    In the early first century, the High Priest of the Temple had real, but limited, powers conceded by Roman provincial administrators. Caiaphas was appointed in A.D. 18 by Valerius Gratus, the Roman prefect who preceded Pontius Pilate. The circumstances of first century Jerusalem were certainly delicate, with extreme tension between an indigenous governing structure (the Jewish priestly class) and an occupying power (Rome). Caiaphas was a member of a family-based quasi-dynasty that, depending on the point of view, either monopolized the office of High Priest or provided long-term stability from A.D. 6 to 63.

    Caiaphas’ term in office was recorded by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, so there should have been little question of his existence. But, strangely enough, several decades ago the lack of tangible archeological evidence for his existence was taken as a serious challenge to the reliability of Christian scriptures and Jewish history, or at least the historical accounts generally accepted then. Recently the challenge to produce archeological evidence of his existence was answered, and in a particularly impressive fashion. It all started with a forest and a dump truck.

    After Jerusalem was united under Israeli rule (or, depending on your point of view, East Jerusalem was conquered) following the 1967 war, the Jerusalem Peace Forest was planted. The purpose of the Peace Forest is to link the formerly separated eastern and western parts of the city by a living memorial. The Peace Forest is located between the districts of Abu-Tor (mixed Arab and Jewish) and Talpiot (Jewish), about 2.5 km south of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount across the Hinom Valley from Mount Zion. The municipal government of Jerusalem is said to plant a tree in this forest for every child, of whatever background, who is born in Jerusalem. In the course of some construction work a few years ago in the Peace Forest, a dump truck partially caved in the roof of an ancient tomb. The tomb was easily dated to the time between the late 1st century B.C. and the 1st century A.D. Why? Because of the presence of ossuaries.

    An ossuary (from the Latin “os,” meaning bone) is a medium-sized stone box, nearly always carved limestone, used as a secondary burial container to hold the bones of deceased family members. The practice involved placing the deceased in a burial chamber and allowing the soft tissues of the body to decay, and then returning after a period of time and placing the disarticulated bones in a stone box, often with the bones of other family members. The length of the ossuary did not need to be much greater than the length of the longest human bone, the femur. The space-efficient packing of bones, as contrasted to an entire human corpse, allowed the remains of a number of family members to be placed in a very modest-sized stone box. This very specific form of burial was unknown in Judaism before about 15-20 B.C., and essentially ceased after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Why was the practice restricted to those particular years?

    Herod’s reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple provided employment for large numbers of stone masons. Herod also ordered several other large-scale construction projects, so there was plenty of work –an early example of particularly lavish stimulus spending. Naturally enough, members of this construction work force would offer their stone-carving skills on the open market beyond the Temple upgrade and other public works. And there was a market for such services. The widespread prosperity among the Judean population, subsidized by Diaspora Jews (Jews from outside the Holy Land), provided consumers the means to purchase high-end consumer goods in general, and enhanced end-of-life products, including carved stone ossuaries, in particular.

    Until the first century A.D., the Jewish custom was to avoid artistic embellishment of many objects, particularly objects related to death. But decades of Roman rule had produced Jewish consumers whose tastes were noticeably more in line with the dominant motifs of classical antiquity than earlier generations. Carved ossuaries suddenly, and without precedent, became common in Jewish burial caves and chambers. Many ossuaries are decorated with elaborate geometric or flora patterns, and some have names of family members engraved on them. In the first century A.D. (although not a few centuries later) artistic representation of animals was strictly avoided. But the whole ossuary burial system ended, quite abruptly, with the destruction of Jerusalem by Imperial Roman legions in A.D. 70. So the presence of ossuary burials is a quite specific time marker in the history of the Jewish people, and carved ossuaries provides even an even more restricted time marker.

    When the dump truck working in the Jerusalem Peace Forest broke through the ceiling of a rock-cut burial chamber, one of the most intricately carved ossuaries found below had two engraved circles each with five rosettes, and engraved twice on the undecorated sides appeared the name, “Yehosef bar Qafa’ ” (Joseph son of Caiaphas). The ossuary contained the remains of two infants, a young child aged five or less, a 13 to 18 year-old boy, an adult female and a man about 60 years old, which is an historically congruent age for Caiaphas.

    All indications are that the “Yehosef bar Qafa’ ” ossuary is ancient and genuine. It’s certainly one of the top finds in biblical archeology. And as if this were not enough, in 2008 an additional ossuary was recovered from tomb robbers, bearing the inscription ‘Miriam, daughter of Yeshua, son of Caiaphas.’ In 2011 the Israel Antiquities Authority declared this second Caiaphas family ossuary authentic. Caiaphas and the drama he participated in were quite real.