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UCGia Bible Insights Thursday, April 13 2023

Jesus Christ: The early years

Archaeology has much to tell us about the life of Jesus of Nazareth and His Apostles, as the physical evidence supporting the biblical record and the characters mentioned in the Gospels increases.

Jesus Christ: The early years
Image courtesy
by Mario Sieglie

Herod The Great

One of the first people to appear in the New Testament account is Herod the Great: "... Jesus was born…in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? …When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him ....Then Herod.. said, 'Go and search carefully for the young Child… that I may come and worship Him also" (Matthew 2:1-3, 7-8).

John McRay, archaeologist and Wheaton College professor of New Testament comments: "Archaeological excavations have uncovered a surprisingly large amount of evidence pertaining to Herod the Great Idumean who, in 41 B.C., was granted provisional rule of Galilee by Mark Anthony [the friend of Julius Caesar and Cleopatra´s last lover] .... In 30 B.C. Octavian (Caesar Augustus) affirmed Herod's rule over Judea, Samaria, and Galilee .... Herod remained in power until his death in 4 B.C; thus Christ was born in Bethlehem prior to that date" (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 91).

Herod was a great builder and left his name on many monuments. F.F. Bruce, former professor at the University of Manchester in England, says, "Had Herod done nothing else, he would have made a secure niche in history for himself as a great builder" (New Testament History, 1972, p. 20). He is known to have initiated construction projects in at least 20 cities or towns in Israel and more than 10 in foreign cities. (Click on the link below for details of Herod’s most renowned building projects.)

From studying the remains of Herod's building programs, archaeologists and architects have nothing but praise for the beauty, massiveness and ingenuity of his projects. For instance, at the base of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem archaeologists discovered, among other massive foundation stones, one block that weighed 415 tons. In comparison, the largest blocks in the Great Pyramid of Cheops in Egypt weigh only 15 tons, and the megaliths in Stonehenge, England, weigh only up to 40 tons.

Herod was also known for his great cruelty. When his scheme to identify the newborn Messiah failed, Herod resorted to violence: “Then Herod…was exceedingly angry; …and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under [the approximate age of Jesus]…" (Matthew 2:16).

A.T. Robertson, chairman of New Testament interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes Herod's cruelty towards his own family: "Herod in his rage over his family rivalries and jealousies put to death the two sons of Mariamne [his wife] (Aristobulus and Alexander), Mariamne herself, and Antipater, another son and once his heir, besides the brother and mother of Mariamne (Aristobulus, Alexandra) and her grandfather John Hyrcanus." (Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer Software, 1997).

The New Testament description of Herod the Great is thus confirmed by what historians and archaeologists have found concerning his rulership, building projects, political strength and uncontrollable wrath toward anyone threatening his kingship.

Caesar Augustus's Census

Caesar Augustus, or Octavian, was Julius Caesar's adopted son. He ruled the Roman Empire for 57 years (43 B.C. to A.D. 14), establishing an era of peace and stability that facilitated the growth of Christianity. Luke tells us: "And it came to pass…that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city" (Luke 2:1-3).

A papyrus in the British Museum describes a census similar to Luke's account, taken in 104, in which people were ordered to return to their birthplaces. It reads: "Gaius Vibius Mazimus, Prefect of Egypt: …the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all… to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out…the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments" (Frederick G. Kenyon, Greek Papyri in the British Museum, 1907, plate 30). For many years some scholars had doubted the Bible's accuracy since they thought Luke had erroneously referred to another Quirinius who ruled a decade after Christ's birth. But now the biblical account has been confirmed.

Researcher Randall Price writes: “The Gospel of Luke gives the time of [Christ’s] birth with a specific reference to a census decreed by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:2)…a Quirinius within the time frame of Jesus' birth has been found on a coin placing him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 B.C. until after 4 B.C." (The Stones Cry Out, 1997, p. 299).

Joseph's Occupation in Nazareth

Joseph, a skilled craftsman, is referred to as a carpenter in the Bible, which is misleading. Joseph worked not only with wood, but with stone masonry. “The Greek term tekton, translated 'carpenter' in Mark 6:3, has the root meaning of 'artisan,' that is, a skilled worker who works on some hard material such as wood or stone or even horn or ivory ...." (Richard A. Batey, Jesus & the Forgotten City: New Light on Sepphoris and the Urban World of Jesus, p. 76).

Although Nazareth was a small Galilean village of no more than a few hundred inhabitants, Joseph and Jesus likely found steady work in the city of Sepphoris four miles away. About the time of Jesus' birth, Herod Antipas—son of Herod the Great chose Sepphoris as his capital.

"For more than three decades while Jesus grows up in Nearby Nazareth …Sepphoris rapidly becomes the largest and most influential city in the region ....Shirley Jackson Case, professor of New Testament at the University of Chicago, [wrote:] '.... It requires no very daring flight of the imagination to picture the youthful Jesus seeking and finding employment in the neighboring city of Sepphoris.‘“ (Batey, pp. 70-71).

This historical record helps us better understand the background of Christ's teachings, which included illustrations drawn not just from farming and animal husbandry, but also construction, the theater, government, finance and other aspects of city life.