The Scientific Evidence

Does Archaeology Confirm or Contradict Jesus' Biographies?

There was something surreal about my lunch with Dr. Jeffrey Mac-Donald. There he was, casually munching on a tuna fish sandwich and potato chips in a conference room of a North Carolina courthouse, making upbeat comments and generally enjoying himself. In a nearby room a dozen jurors were taking a break after hearing gruesome evidence that MacDonald had brutally murdered his wife and two young daughters.

As we were finishing our meal, I couldn't restrain myself from asking' MacDonald the obvious questions. "How can you act as if nothing is wrong?" I said, my voice mixed with astonishment and indignation. "Aren't you the slightest bit concerned that those jurors are going to find you guilty?"

MacDonald casually waved his half-eaten sandwich in the general direction.of the jury room. "Them?" he chortled. "They'll never convict me!"

Then, apparently realizing how cynical those words sounded, he quickly added, "I'm innocent, you know."

That was the last time I ever heard him laugh. Within days the former Green Beret and emergency room physician was found guilty of stabbing to death his wife, Colette, and his daughters, Kimberly, age five, and Kristen, age two. He was promptly sentenced to life in prison and carted off in handcuffs.

MacDonald, whose story was masterfully recounted by Joe McGin-niss in the best-seller and TV movie Fatal Vision, was cocky enough to think that his alibi would help him get away with murder.

He had told investigators that he was asleep on the couch when drug-crazed hippies awakened him in the middle of the night. He said he fought them' off, getting stabbed and knocked unconscious in the process. When he awakened, he found his family slaughtered.

Detectives were skeptical from the start. The living room showed few signs of a life-and-death struggle. MacDonalds wounds were superficial. Though he had poor eyesight, he was somehow able to provide detailed descriptions of his attackers even though he had not been wearing his glasses.

However, skepticism alone doesn't win convictions; that requires hard evidence. In MacDonalds case detectives relied on scientific proof to untangle his web of lies and convict him of the slayings.

There's a wide variety of scientific evidence that's commonly used in trials, ranging from DNA typing to forensic anthropology to toxicology. In MacDonalds case it was serology (blood evidence) and trace evidence that dispatched him to the penitentiary.

In an extraordinary— and for prosecutors, fortuitous—coincidence, each member of MacDonald's family had a different blood type. By analyzing where bloodstains were found, investigators were able to reconstruct the sequence of events that deadly evening—and it directly contradicted MacDonald's version of what happened.

Scientific study of tiny blue pajama threads, which were found scattered in various locations, also refuted his alibi. And microscopic analysis demonstrated that holes in his pajamas could not have been made, as he claimed, by an ice pick wielded by the home invaders. In short, it was FBI technicians in white lab coats who were really behind MacDonald's conviction.

Scientific evidence can also make important contributions to the question of whether the New Testament accounts of Jesus are accurate. While serology and toxicology aren't able to shed any light on the issue, another category of scientific proof—the discipline of archaeology-— has great bearing on the reliability of the gospels.

Sometimes called the study of durable rubbish, archaeology involves the uncovering of artifacts, architecture, art, coins, monuments, documents, and other remains of ancient cultures. Experts study these relics to learn what life was like in the days when Jesus walked the dusty roads of ancient Palestine.

Hundreds of archaeological findings from the first century have been unearthed, and I was curious: did they undermine or undergird the eyewitness stories about Jesus? At the same time, my curiosity was tempered by skepticism. I have heard too many Christians make exorbitant claims that archaeology can prove a lot more than it really can. I wasn't interested in more of the same.

So I went on a quest for a recognized authority who has personally dug among the ruins of the Middle East, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of ancient findings, and who possesses enough scientific restraint to acknowledge the limits of archaeology while at the same time explaining how it can illuminate life in the first century.


When scholars and students study archaeology, many turn to John McRay's thorough and dispassionate 432-page textbook Archaeology and the New Testament. When the Arts and Entertainment Television Network wanted to ensure the accuracy of its Mysteries of the Bible program, they called McRay as well. And when National Geographic needed a scientist who could explain the intricacies of the biblical world, again the phone rang in McRay's office at well-respected Wheaton College in suburban Chicago.

Having studied at Hebrew University, the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise in Jerusalem, Vanderbilt University Divinity School, and the University of Chicago (where he earned his doctorate in 1967), McRay has been a professor of New Testament and archaeology at Wheaton for more than fifteen years. His articles have appeared in seventeen encyclopedias and dictionaries, his research has been featured in the Bulletin of the Near East Archaeology Society and other academic journals, and he has presented twenty-nine scholarly papers at professional societies.

McRay is also a former research associate and trustee of the W. E Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem; a former trustee of the American Schools of Oriental Research; a current trustee of the Near East Archaeological Society; and a member of the editorial boards of Archaeology in the Biblical World and the Bulletin for Biblical Research, which is published by the Institute for Biblical Research.

As much as McRay enjoys writing and teaching about the ancient world, he relishes opportunities to personally explore archaeological digs. He supervised excavating teams at Caesarea, Sepphoris, and Herodium, all in Israel, over an eight-year period. He has studied Roman archaeological sites in-England and Wales, analyzed digs in Greece, and retraced much of the apostle Paul's journeys.

At age sixty-six, [that was 16 years ago - remember this book was published first in 1998 - Keith Hunt] McRay's hair is turning silvery and his glasses have become thicker, but he still exudes an air of adventure. Over the desk in his office-—and in fact also over his bed at home—is a detailed horizontal photograph of Jerusalem. "I live in the shadow of it," he remarked, a sense of longing in his voice, as he pointed out specific locations of excavations and significant findings. 

His office features the kind of cozy couch you'd find on the front porch of a country home. I settled into it while McRay, casually dressed in an open-necked shirt and a sports jacket that looked comfortably worn, leaned back in his desk chair.

Seeking to test whether he would overstate the influence of archaeology, I decided to open our interview by asking him what it can't tell us about the reliability of the New Testament. After all, as McRay notes in his textbook, even if archaeology can establish that the cities of Medina and Mecca existed in western Arabia during the sixth and seventh centuries, that doesn't prove that Muhammad lived there or that the Koran is true.

"Archaeology has made some important contributions," he began, speaking in a drawl he picked up as a child in southeastern Oklahoma, "but it certainly can't prove whether the New Testament is the Word of God. If we dig in Israel and find ancient sites that are consistent with where the Bible said we'd find them, that shows that its history and geography are accurate. However, it doesn't confirm that what Jesus Christ said is right. Spiritual truths cannot be proved or disproved by archaeological discoveries."

As an analogy, he offered the story of Heinrich Schliemann, who searched for Troy in an effort to prove the historical accuracy of Homer s Iliad. "He did find Troy," McRay observed with a gentle smile, "but that didn't prove the Iliad was true. It was merely accurate in a particular geographical reference."

Once we had set some boundaries for what archaeology can't establish, I was anxious to begin exploring what it can tell us about the New Testament. I decided to launch into this topic by making an observation that grew out of my experience as an investigative journalist with a legal background.

Digging for the Truth

In trying to determine if a witness is being truthful, journalists and lawyers will test all the elements of his or her testimony that can be tested. If this investigation reveals that the person was wrong in those details, this casts considerable doubt on the veracity of his or her entire story. However, if the minutiae check out, this is some indication-—-not conclusive proof but some evidence—that maybe the witness is being reliable in his or her overall account.

For instance, if a man were telling about a trip he took from St. Louis to Chicago, and he mentioned that he had stopped in Springfield, Illinois, to see the movie Titanic at the Odeon Theater and that he had eaten a large Clark bar he bought at the concession counter, investigators could determine whether such a theater exists in Springfield as well as if it was showing this particular film and selling this specific brand and size of candy bar at the time he said he was there. If their findings contradict what the person claimed, this seriously tarnishes his trustworthiness. If the details check out, this doesn't prove that his entire story is true, but it does enhance his reputation for being accurate.

In a sense, this is what archaeology accomplishes. The premise is that if an ancient historian's incidental details check out to be accurate time after time, this increases our confidence in other material that the historian wrote but that cannot be as readily cross-checked.

So I asked McRay for his professional opinion. "Does archaeology affirm or undermine the New Testament when it checks out the details in those accounts?"

McRay was quick to answer. "Oh, there's no question that the credibility of the New Testament is enhanced," he said, "just as the credibility of any ancient document is enhanced when you excavate and find that the author was accurate in talking about a particular place or event."

As an example, he brought up his own digs in Caesarea on the coast of Israel, where he and others excavated the harbor of Herod the Great.

"For a long time people questioned the validity of a statement by Josephus, the first-century historian, that this harbor was as large as the one at Piraeus, which is a major harbor of Athens. People thought Josephus was wrong, because when you see the stones above the surface of the water in the contemporary harbor, it's not very big. But when we began to do underwater excavation, we found that the harbor extended far out into the water underground, that it had fallen down, and that its total dimensions were indeed comparable to the harbor at Piraeus. So it turns out Josephus was right after all. This was one more bit of evidence that Josephus knew what he was talking about."

So what about the New Testament writers? Did they really know what they were talking about? I wanted to put that issue to the test in my next line of questioning.

Luke's Accuracy As a Historian

The physician and historian Luke authored both the gospel bearing his name and the book of Acts, which together constitute about one-quarter of the entire New Testament. Consequently, a critical issue is whether Luke was a historian who could be trusted to get things right. "When archaeologists check out the details of what he wrote," I said, "do they find that he was careful or sloppy?"

"The general consensus of both liberal and conservative scholars is that Luke is very accurate as a historian," McRay replied. "He's erudite, he's eloquent, his Greek approaches classical quality, he writes as an educated man, and archaeological discoveries are showing over and over again that Luke is accurate in what he has to say."

In fact, he added, there have been several instances, similar to the story about the harbor, in which scholars initially thought Luke was wrong in a particular reference, only to have later discoveries confirm that he was correct in what he wrote.

For instance, in Luke 3:1 he refers to Lysanias being the tetrarch of Abilene in about AD 27. For years scholars pointed to this as evidence that Luke didn't know what he was talking about, since everybody knew that Lysanias was not a tetrarch but rather the ruler of Chalcis half a century earlier. If Luke can't get that basic fact right, they suggested, nothing he has written can be trusted.

That's when archaeology stepped in. "Aninscription was later found from the time of Tiberius, from AD 14 to 37, which names Lysanias as tetrarch in Abila near Damascus-—-just as Luke had written," McRay explained. "It turned out there had been two government officials named Lysanias! Once more Luke was shown to be exactly right."

Another example is Luke's reference in Acts 17:6 to "politarchs," which is translated as "city officials" by the NRV, in the city of Thessalonica. "For a long time people thought Luke was mistaken, because no evidence of the term 'politarchs' had been found in any ancient Roman documents," McRay said. "However, an inscription on a first-century arch was later found that begins, in the time of the politarchs ...' You can go to the British Museum and see it for yourself. And then, lo and behold, archaeologists have found more than thirty-five inscriptions that mention politarchs, several of these in Thessalonica from the same period Luke was referring to. Once again the critics were wrong and Luke was shown to be right."

An objection popped into my mind. "Yes, but in his gospel Luke says that Jesus was walking into Jericho when he healed the blind man Bartimaeus, while Mark says he was coming out of Jericho. Isn't this a clear-cut contradiction that casts doubt on the reliability of the New Testament?"

McRay wasn't stung by the directness of my question. "Not at all," came his response. "It only appears to be a contradiction because you're thinking in contemporary terms, in which cities are built and stay put. But that wasn't necessarily the case long ago. Jericho was in at least four different locations as much as a quarter of a mile apart in ancient times. The city was destroyed and resettled near another water supply or a new road or nearer a mountain or whatever. The point, is, you can be coming out of one site where Jericho existed and be going into another one, like moving from one part of suburban Chicago to another part of suburban Chicago."

What you're saying is that both Luke and Mark could be right?" I asked.

"That's correct. Jesus could have been going out of one area of Jericho and into another at the same time."

Again archaeology had answered another challenge to Luke. And given the large portion of the New Testament written by him, it's extremely significant that Luke has been established to be a scrupulously accurate historian, even in the smallest details. One prominent archaeologist carefully examined Luke's references to thirty-two countries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands, finding not a single mistake.

Here's the bottom line: "If Luke was so painstakingly accurate in his historical reporting," said one book on the topic, "on what logical basis may we assume he was credulous or inaccurate in his reporting of matters that were far more important, not only to him but to others as well?"

Matters, for example, like the resurrection of Jesus, the most influential evidence of his deity, which Luke says was firmly established by "many convincing proofs" (Acts 1:3).

The Reliability of John and Mark

Archaeology may support the credibility of Luke, but he isn't the only author of the New Testament. I wondered what scientists would have to say about John, whose gospel was sometimes considered suspect because he talked about locations that couldn't be verified. Some scholars charged that since he failed to get these basic details straight, John must not have been close to the events of Jesus' life.

That conclusion, however, has been turned upside down in recent years. "There have been several discoveries that have shown John to be very accurate," McRay pointed put. "For example, John 5:1 — 15 records how Jesus healed an invalid by the Pool of Bethesda. John provides the detail that the pool had five porticoes. For a long time people cited this as an example of John being inaccurate, because no such place had been found. But more recently the Pool of Bethesda has been excavated—it lies maybe forty feet below ground—and sure enough, there were five porticoes, which means colonnaded porches or walkways, exactly as John had described. And you have other discoveries-—the Pool of Siloam from John 9:7, Jacob's Well from John 4:12, the probable location of the Stone Pavement near the Jaffa Gate where Jesus appeared before Pilate in John 19:13, even Pilate's own identity—-all of which have lent historical credibility to John's gospel."

"So this challenges the allegation that the gospel of John was written so long after Jesus that it can't possibly be accurate," I said.

"Most definitely," he replied.

In fact, McRay reiterated what Dr. Bruce Metzger had told me about archaeologists finding a fragment of a copy of John 18 that leading papyrologists have dated to about AD 125. By demonstrating that copies of John existed this early and as far away as Egypt, archaeology has effectively dismantled speculation that John had been composed well into the second century, too long after Jesus' life to be reliable.

Other scholars have attacked the gospel of Mark, generally considered the first account of Jesus' life to be written. Atheist Michael Martin accuses Mark of being ignorant about Palestinian geography, which he says demonstrates that he could not have lived in the region at the time of Jesus. Specifically he cites Mark 7:31: "Then Jesus left the vicinity of Tyre and went through Sidon, down to the Sea of Galilee and into the region of the Decapolis."

"It has been pointed out," said Martin, "that given these directions Jesus would have been traveling directly away from the Sea of Galilee."

When I posed Martin's critique to McRay, he furrowed his brow and then went into a flurry of activity, pulling a Greek version of Mark off his shelf, grabbing reference books, and unfolding large maps of ancient Palestine.

"What these critics seem to be assuming is that Jesus is getting in his car and zipping around on an interstate, but he obviously wasn't," he said. "Reading the text in the original language, taking into account the mountainous terrain and probable roads of the region, and considering the loose way 'Decapolis' was used to refer to a confederation of ten cities that varied from time to time," McRay traced a logical route on the map that corresponded precisely with Mark's description.

"When everything is put into the appropriate context," he concluded, "there's no problem with Mark's account."

Again archaeological insights had helped explain what appeared at first to be a sticking point in the New Testament. I asked McRay a broad question about that: had he ever encountered an archaeological finding that blatantly contravened a New Testament reference?

He shook his head. "Archaeology has not produced anything that is unequivocally a contradiction to the Bible," he replied with confidence. "On the contrary, as we've seen, there have been many opinions of skeptical scholars that have become codified into 'fact' over the years but that archaeology has shown to be wrong."

Still, there were some matters I needed to resolve. I pulled out my notes and got ready to challenge McRay with three long-standing riddles that I thought archaeology might have some trouble explaining.

PUZZLE l: The Census

The birth narratives of Jesus claim that Mary and Joseph were required by a census to return to Joseph's hometown of Bethlehem. "Let me be blunt: this seems absurd on the face of it," I said. "How could the government possibly force all its citizens to return to their birthplace? Is there any archaeological evidence whatsoever that this kind of census ever took place?"

McRay calmly pulled out a copy of his book. "Actually, the discovery of ancient census forms has shed quite a bit of light on this practice," he said as he leafed through the pages. Finding the reference he was searching for, he quoted from an official governmental order dated AD 104:

Gaius Vibius Maximus, Prefect of Egypt [says]: Seeing that the time has come for the house to house census, it is necessary to compel all those who for any cause whatsoever are residing out of their provinces to return to their own homes, that they may both carry out the regular order of the census and may also attend diligently to the cultivation of their allotments.

"As you can see," he said as he closed the book, "that practice is confirmed by this document, even though this particular manner of counting people might seem odd to you. And another papyrus, this one from AD 48, indicates that the entire family was involved in the census."

This, however, did not entirely dispose of the issue. Luke said the census that brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem was conducted when Quirinius was governing Syria and during the reign of Herod the Great.

"That poses a significant problem," I pointed out, "because Herod died in 4 BC, and Quirinius didn't begin ruling Syria until AD 6, conducting the census soon after that. There's a big gap there; how can you deal with such a major discrepancy in the dates?"

McRay knew I was raising an issue that archaeologists have wrestled with for years: He responded by saying, "An eminent archaeologist, named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing; or what we call micrographic letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod."

I was confused. "What does that mean?" I asked.

"It means that there were apparently two Quiriniuses," he replied. "It's not uncommon to have lots of people with the same Roman names, so there's no reason to doubt that there were two people by the name of Quirinius. The census would have taken place under the reign of the earlier Quirinius. Given the cycle of a census every fourteen years, that would work out quite well."

This sounded a bit speculative to me, but rather than bog down this conversation, I decided to mentally file this issue away for further analysis later.

When I did some additional research, I found that Sir William

Ramsay, the late archaeologist and professor at both Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England, had come up with a similar theory. He concluded from various inscriptions that while there was only one Quirinius, he ruled Syria on two separate occasions, which would cover the time period of the earlier census.

Other scholars have pointed out that Lukes text can be translated, "This census took place before Quirinius was governing Syria," which would also resolve the problem.

The matter was not as precisely pinned down as I would like. However, I had to admit that McRay and others had offered some plausible explanations. I could conclude with confidence that censuses were held during the time frame of Jesus birth and that there is evidence people were indeed required to return to their hometowns—which I still thought was odd!

PUZZLE 2: Existence of Nazareth

Many Christians are unaware that skeptics have been asserting for a long time that Nazareth never existed during the time when the New Testament says Jesus spent his childhood there.

In an article called ""Where Jesus Never 'Walked,'" atheist Frank Zindler noted that Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament, by the apostle Paul, by the Talmud (although sixty-three other Galilean towns are cited), or by Josephus (who listed forty-five other villages and cities of Galilee, including Japha, which was located just over a mile from present-day Nazareth). No ancient historians or geographers mention Nazareth before the beginning of the fourth century. The name first appears in Jewish literature in a poem written about the seventh century AD.

This absence of evidence paints a suspicious picture. So I put the issue directly to McRay: "Is there any archaeological confirmation that Nazareth was in existence during the first century?"

This issue wasn't new to McRay. "Dr. James Strange of the University of South Florida is an expert on this area, and he describes Nazareth as being a very small place, about sixty acres, with a maximum population of about four hundred and eighty at the beginning of the first century" McRay replied.

However, that was a conclusion; I wanted the evidence. "How does he know that?" I asked.

"Well, Strange notes that when Jerusalem fell in AD 70, priests were no longer needed in the temple because it had been destroyed, so they were sent out to various other locations, even up into Galilee. Archaeologists have found a LIST in Aramaic describing the 'twenty-four courses,' or families, of priests who were relocated, and one of them was registered as having been moved to Nazareth. That shows that this tiny village must have been there at the time."

In addition, he said there have been archaeological digs that have uncovered first-century tombs in the vicinity of Nazareth, which would establish the village's limits because by Jewish law burials had to take place outside the town proper. Two tombs contained objects such as pottery lamps, glass vessels, and vases from the first, third, or fourth centuries.

McRay picked up a copy of a book by renowned archaeologist Jack Finegan, published by Princeton University Press. He leafed through it, then read Finegan's analysis: "From the tombs ... it can be concluded that Nazareth was a strongly Jewish settlement in the Roman period."

McRay looked up at me. "There has been discussion about the location of some sites from the first century, such as exactly where Jesus' tomb is situated, but among archaeologists there has never really been, a big doubt about the location of Nazareth. The burden of proof ought to be on those who dispute its existence."

That seemed reasonable. Even the usually skeptical Ian Wilson, citing pre-Christian remains found in 1955 under the Church of the Annunciation in present-day Nazareth, has managed to concede, "Such findings suggest that Nazareth may have existed in Jesus' time, but there is no doubt that it must have been a very small and insignificant place."

So insignificant that Nathanael's musings in John 1:46 now make more sense: "Nazareth!" he said. "Can anything good come from there?" 

PUZZLE 3: Slaughter at Bethlehem

The gospel of Matthew paints a grisly scene: Herod the Great, the king of Judea, feeling threatened by the birth of a baby who he feared would eventually seize his throne, dispatches his troops to murder all the children under the age of two in Bethlehem. Warned by an angel, however, Joseph escapes to Egypt with Mary and Jesus. Only after Herod dies do they return to settle in Nazareth, the entire episode having fulfilled three ancient prophecies about the Messiah. (See Matt. 2:13—23.)

The problem: there is no independent confirmation that this mass murder ever took place. There's nothing in the writings of Josephus or other historians. There's no archaeological support. There are no records or documents.

"Certainly an event of this magnitude would have been noticed by someone other than Matthew," I insisted. "With the complete absence of any historical or archaeological corroboration, isn't it logical to conclude that this slaughter never occurred?"

"I can see why you'd say that," McRay replied, "since today an event like that would probably be splashed all over CNN and the rest of the news media."

I agreed. In fact, in 1997 and 1998 there was a steady stream of news accounts about Muslim extremists repeatedly staging commando raids and slaying virtually entire villages, including women and children, in Algeria. The entire world was taking notice.

"But," added McRay, "you have to put yourself back in the first century and keep a few things in mind. First, Bethlehem was probably no bigger than Nazareth, so how many babies of that age would there be in a village of five hundred or six hundred people? Not thousands, not hundreds, although certainly a few. Second, Herod the Great was a bloodthirsty king: he killed members of his own family; he executed lots of people who he thought might challenge him. So the fact that he killed some babies in Bethlehem is not going to captivate the attention of people in the Roman world. And third, there was no television, no radio, no newspapers. It would have taken a long time for word of this to get out, especially from such a minor village way in the back hills of nowhere, and historians had much bigger stories to write about."

As a journalist, this was still hard to fathom. "This just wasn't much of a story?" I asked, a bit incredulous.

"I don't think it was, at least not in those days," he said. "A madman killing everybody who seems to be a potential threat to him-—that was business as usual for Herod. Later, of course, as Christianity developed, this incident became more important, but I would have been surprised if this had made a big splash back then."

Maybe so, but this was difficult to imagine for a journalist who was trained to sniff out news in a highly technological age of rapid and worldwide communications. At the same time, I had to acknowledge that from what I knew of the bloody landscape of ancient Palestine, McRay's explanation did seem reasonable.

This left one other area I wanted to inquire about. And to me, it was the most fascinating of all.

Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls

Admittedly, there is an allure to archaeology. Ancient tombs, cryptic inscriptions etched in stone or scratched onto papyrus, bits of broken pottery, worn coins—they're tantalizing clues for an inveterate investigator. But few vestiges of the past have generated as much intrigue as the Dead Sea Scrolls, hundreds of manuscripts dating from 250 BC to AD 68 that were found in caves twenty miles east of Jerusalem in 1947. They apparently had been hidden by a strict sect of Jews called the Essenes before the Romans destroyed their settlement.

Some bizarre claims have been made about the scrolls, including John Marco Allegro's absurd book in which he theorized that Christianity emerged from a fertility cult in which adherents tripped out on hallucinogenic mushrooms! In a more legitimate but nevertheless much-questioned assertion, papyri expert Jose O'Callaghan said one Dead Sea fragment is part of the earliest manuscript ever found of the gospel of Mark, dating back to a mere seventeen to twenty years after Jesus was crucified. However, many scholars continue to be skeptical of his interpretation.

In any event, no inquiry into the archaeology of the first century would be complete without asking about the scrolls. "Do they tell us anything directly about Jesus?" I asked McRay.

"Well, no, Jesus isn't specifically mentioned in any of the scrolls," he replied. "Primarily these documents give us insights into Jewish life and customs." Then he pulled out some papers and pointed to an article that was published in late 1997. "Although," he added, "there is a very interesting development involving a manuscript called 4Q521 that could tell us something about who Jesus was claiming to be."

That whet my appetite. "Tell me about it," I said with some urgency in my voice.

McRay unfolded the mystery. The gospel of Matthew describes how John the Baptist, imprisoned and wrestling with lingering doubts about Jesus' identity, sent his followers to ask Jesus this monumental question: "Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Matt. 11:3). He was seeking a straight answer about whether Jesus really was the long-awaited Messiah.

Through the centuries, Christians have wondered about Jesus' rather enigmatic answer. Instead of directly saying yes or no, Jesus replied, "Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor" (Matt. 11:4—5).

Jesus' response was an allusion to Isaiah 35. But for some reason Jesus included the phrase "the dead are raised," which is conspicuously absent from the Old Testament text.

This is where 4Q521 comes in. This nonbiblical manuscript from the Dead Sea collection, written in Hebrew, dates back to thirty years before Jesus was born. It contains a version of Isaiah 61 that does include this missing phrase, "the dead are raised."

"[Scroll scholar Craig] Evans has pointed out that this phrase in 4Q521 is unquestionably embedded in a messianic context," McRay said. "It refers to the wonders that the Messiah will do when he comes and when heaven and earth will obey him. So when Jesus gave his response to John, he was not being ambiguous at all. John would have instantly recognized his words as a distinct claim that Jesus was the Messiah."

McRay tossed me the article in which Evans was quoted as saying, "4Q521 makes it clear that Jesus' appeal to Isaiah 35 is indeed messianic. In essence, Jesus is telling John through his messengers that messianic things are happening. So that answers [Johns] question: Yes, he is the one who is to come."

I sat back in my chair. To me, Evans' discovery was a remarkable confirmation of Jesus' self-identity. It was staggering to me how modern archaeology could finally unlock the significance of a statement in which Jesus boldly asserted nearly two thousand years ago that he was indeed the anointed one of God.

"A Remarkably Accurate Source Book"

Archaeology's repeated affirmation of the New Testament's accuracy provides important corroboration for its reliability. This is in stark contrast with how archaeology has proved to be devastating for Mormonism.    

Although Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, claimed that his Book of Mormon is "the most correct of any book upon the earth," archaeology has repeatedly failed to substantiate its claims about events that supposedly occurred long ago in the Americas.

I remember writing to the Smithsonian Institute to inquire about whether there was any evidence supporting the claims of Mormonism, only, to be told in unequivocal terms that its archaeologists see "no direct connection between the archaeology of the New World and the subject matter of the book."

As authors John Ankerberg and John Weldon concluded in a book on the topic, "In other words, no Book of Mormon cities have ever been located, no Book of Mormon person, place, nation, or name has ever been found, no Book of Mormon artifacts, no Book of Mormon scriptures, no Book of Mormon inscriptions ... nothing which demonstrates the Book of Mormon is anything other than myth or invention has ever been found."

However, the story is totally different for the New Testament. McRay's conclusions have been echoed by many other scientists, including prominent Australian archaeologist Clifford Wilson, who wrote:

"Those who know the facts now recognize that the New Testament must be accepted as a remarkably accurate source book."

With Craig Blomberg having established the essential reliability of the New Testament documents, Bruce Metzger having confirmed their accurate transmittal through history, Edwin Yamauchi having demonstrated extensive corroboration by ancient historians and others, and now John McRay having shown how archaeology underscores their trustworthiness, I had to agree with Wilson. The case for Christ, while far from complete, was being constructed on solid bedrock.

At the same time, I knew there were some high-profile professors who would dissent from that assessment. You've seen them quoted in Newsweek and being interviewed on the evening news, talking about their radical reassessment of Jesus. The time had come for me to confront their critiques head-on before I went any further in my investigation. That meant a trip to Minnesota to interview a feisty, Yale-educated scholar named Dr. Gregory Boyd.


Questions for Reflection or Group Study

What do you see as some of the shortcomings and benefits of using archaeology to corroborate the New Testament?

If Luke and other New Testament writers are shown to be accurate in reporting incidental details, does this increase your confidence that they would be similarly careful in recording more important events? Why or why not?

Why do you find Dr. McRay's analysis of the puzzles concerning the census, the existence of Nazareth, and the slaughter at Bethlehem to be generally plausible or implausible?

After having considered the eyewitness, documentary, corroborating, and scientific evidence in the case for Christ, stop and assess your conclusions so far. On a scale of zero to ten, with zero being "no confidence" in the essential reliability of the gospels and ten being "full confidence," where would you rate yourself at this point? What are some reasons you chose that number?

For Further Evidence

More Resources on This Topic

Finegan, Jack. The Archaeology of the New Testament. Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992. 

McRay, John. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991.

Thompson, J. A. The Bible and Archaeology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975.

Yamauchi, Edwin. The Stones and the Scriptures. New York: J. B. Lippencott, 1972.