Biblical Links, Articles and Videos

Exodus Decoded: A review by Robert L. Smith

Jewish Canadian filmmaker, Simcha Jacobovici (Yak-ko’-bo-vich), created a modern detective thriller by solving the ultimate archaeological mystery of the epic Biblical Exodus story. Jacobovici’s attempt to solve the 3000 year old question, “Is the Exodus fact or fiction, and if fact, how could it possibly be true?” leaves believers completely convinced, even though some scholars remain skeptical.
Jacobovici is known as “The Naked Archaeologist,” on the History Channel documentary series for VisionTV, the two-time Emmy Award winning producer and director shows viewers Biblical archaeology like they’ve never seen it before. “My goal,” says Jacobovici “is to demystify the Bible in general, and archaeology in particular, to brush away the cobwebs and burst academic bubbles.”
The Exodus Decoded, which premiered on the History Channel on Sunday, 20 August, 2006, purports to prove the existence of the Israelites in Egypt, postulates scientific explanations of the ten plagues Moses called down upon the Pharaoh, including the parting of the sea and subsequent escape of the Israelites and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian army, as well as the location of this epic journey leading to the plausible location of the sacred Mt. Sinai, and the finding of an artifact depicting the Arc of the Covenant. The film is partially narrated by film director James Cameron, and includes scenes from “Raiders of the Lost Arc” to stimulate the feeling of adventure.

Pointing out that scholars believe this epic tale to be a myth, Jacobovici pieces together archaeological discoveries of the last century to bring the fragmentary jigsaw puzzle into amazing focus until myth becomes strikingly believable.

Over 100 years ago archaeologists unearthed a broken stone monument at Karnack, a village of east-central Egypt on the right bank of the Nile River on part of the site of ancient Thebes, erected by a Pharaoh named Ahmose I, from the eighteenth dynasty, who lived around 1550 BCE. The Ahmose stele, now in the basement of the Cairo Museum, and discovered by Henri Chevalier, may hold the key to the Exodus enigma. It tells of a furious storm, which is very unusual in the dry arid climate of Egypt. Hieroglyphic inscriptions on the stone mirror the Biblical tale. The Bible tells of a great storm at the time of the Exodus. The Ahmose stele also tells of an incessant tempest all over Egypt and that Egypt was enveloped in darkness when the God manifested his power. Jacobovici states that in Hebrew, the Egyptian name Ahmose would mean "Brother of Moses.” The Ahmose stele tells that the statues of the God’s of Egypt were toppled to the ground (probably from an earthquake storm).

In the 17th century BCE, (according to traditional chronology), the Hyksos who, like the Israelites, were Semites, invaded Egypt and ruled Lower and Middle Egypt for over 100 years, forming the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Dynasties of Egypt (c. 1648–1540 BC). (Wikepeidia). In the 1960’s the ancient Hyksos capital Avaris was discovered north of Cairo. The Hyksos were expelled in a mass exodus, known as the Hyksos expulsion, by Pharaoh Ahmose I about 1500 BCE.

Most scholars date the Hebrew Exodus to 1270 BCE during the rein of Ramses II, but he Bible gives evidence that the exodus occurred about 480 years before the rein of Solomon in the middle of the 15th century BC, or 1470 BCE, less than 100 years from the traditional date of the Hyksos expulsion. (Prof. John Bismon, Trinity College).

Jacobovici, like the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus before him, equates the Hyksos with the Israelites, and postulated a new date for the Exodus around 1500 BCE. Israelites arrived in Egypt some 200 years before their Exodus, which would have been 1700 BCE, the same time as the arrival of the Hyksos in Egypt. Hebrew Bible calls the Israelites, “God’s People,” or “Amo Israel.” About 400 Km south of Avaris is the tomb of Beni Hassan, which dates to about 1700 BCE. A perfectly preserved wall painting records a migration into Egypt from the area of modern Israel. Bearded Semites are depicted riding donkeys and bringing their families and flocks into Egypt and wearing multi-colored tunics, like the Biblical Israelites. The Hieroglyphic inscription on this painting calls these people the “Amo,” or God’s People.

As confirmation that the Israelites where the same as the Hyksos, Jacobovici explores the artifacts unearthed at the archaeological excavations of Avaris, and finds that nine signet rings made of clay were found bearing the inscription Yakov (or Jacob). The Bible tells that Joseph wore a ring with the seal of Pharaoh. Joseph, son of Jacob, would have been identified by his family name. A Hebrew name on an Egyptian royal seal seems to directly connect Avaris with the Joseph and Jacob of the Bible.

Searching for additional proof that the Israelites were actually in Egypt during that period, Jacobovici explores the turquoise mines at Serabit el-Khadin 400 Km south of the Nile delta in the Sinai desert, where he knows the Egyptians employed slave labor. Miraculously, he finds a 3500 year old alphabetic inscription, “El, save me,” chiseled in the wall of the copper mines, the second oldest alphabetic inscription known. The Egyptians at that time used hieroglyphic symbols, unlike the Hebrews who used an alphabetic form of writing, and worshiped one God named Elohim, not the multiplicity of Gods worshiped by the Egyptians.

Based on the Ahmose stele which tells of a great storm and darkness that enveloped Egypt, Jacobovici looks for a volcanic eruption as the likely cataclysmic event described in the carving.
Around 1500 BCE was there was such an eruption of the Santorini volcano in modern Greece, one of the most cataclysmic events in history. Island of Santorini, is 700 Km from the Egyptian coast, and this was one of the worst volcanic eruptions in human history bringing to an end the Minoan civilization that once flourished here. Jacobovici theorizes that such an eruption would have been preceded by numerous earthquakes, since the Nile delta is in an earthquake zone.

By now Jacobovici has correlated the Pharaoh named Ahmose, the Hyksos expulsion, the Exodus, and the Santorini eruption all to 1500 BCE. He then explores possible scientific explanations for the Biblical story of Moses’ ten plagues, and the parting of the sea.

The ten plagues of Moses.

The Nile river was turned to blood. When earthquakes trigger gas leaks, such as at Lake Nyos, Cameroon in 1986, the water suddenly turned blood red, due to an underground gas leak. Bottom layers contained high concentrations of iron. When the gas brought this iron to the surface, it formed iron hydroxide or rust, which caused the reddish color to the surface of the lake. Earthquakes could cause the gas leaks. Water becomes devoid of oxygen. Everything in the water would die except frogs, which unlike fish, could hop out. The lack of clean water then leads to lice, flies, and bacterial epidemics.
Frog epidemics.
Boils and blisters for men and animals. At Lake Nyos, Cameroon, carbon dioxide mixed with air and put people into a kind of coma, reducing circulation to the skin resulting in boils and blisters.
Hail of ice and fire mixed together. An Egyptian papyrus, called the Ipuwer Plague Papyrus, dated by many scholars to the Hyksos period says that Egypt was struck by a strange hail made of ice and fire mingled together, what scientist describe as volcanic hail. When the ash cloud from the volcanic eruption goes into the upper atmosphere it causes a hail storm which then falls to the earth along with the volcanic ash.
Locusts. The volcanic eruptions and the hail would have caused large swarms of locusts which are common in this part of the world to land in Egypt. Cold weather produces a drop in their body temperature and makes them land in mass. They swarm in groups of 40 to 80 million locusts per square Km.
Darkness. Finally, the major Santorini eruption. Santorini pumice was found in Avaris that dates to 1500 BCE. Santorini ash was found in the Nile delta.
Death of every first borne male. In the1986 enigma at Lake Nyos, Cameroon, carbon dioxide gas that turned the lake blood red had reached a critical point. Surface of the lake was keeping the gas dissolved in the water until another earthquake caused a landslide of rock into the lake breaking the surface pressure and releasing the gas. The invisible fog of carbon dioxide then rolled across the land suffocating everything in its path. Those on higher ground found 1800 people dead and hundreds of animals dead. Then the cloud simply dissolved into the atmosphere, leaving no trace of its deadly effect. The Bible tells that the selectivity of the deaths of the firstborn males caused Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. The Egyptian custom was for the firstborn sons to sleep on beds near the ground while their brothers slept in lofts and roof-tops. Archaeologists at Avaris have discovered mass graves dating to 1500 BCE containing only males who were all buried at the same time. The mummy of Pharaoh Ahmose’s son Prince Sapair, preserved in the Cairo Museum, shows that he died at the age of 12.

The parting of the Sea. The Hebrew text names the sea that Moses parted Yam Suf. Jacobovici says that the correct translation of Yam Suf is “reed sea”, not Red Sea. Reeds, or marshes, grow in sweat water, not salt water, in lakes, not oceans. In the Ismailia Regional Museum, Jacobovici found an ancient hieroglyphic inscription, the El Arish inscription, on a granite monument that tells the entire story of the Exodus from Pharaoh’s point of view, and that provides the exact location of Yam Suf. If also provides the first archaeological evidence of the parting of the sea. Moses is called the Prince of the desert. The Israelites are called the evil ones. There is a symbol, three waves and two knives, suggesting the parting of a sea or body of water. The engravings on the stone identified the place where the water was parted as Pa Tufe, the marshy sea. Tuff, the Egyptian word for reed, is the same word as Suf in Hebrew, now called the El Balah Lake, which in Hebrew means the lake where God devoured. This ancient lake survived until the 1850’s when the Suez canal drained its waters. Jacobovici speculates that seismic activity associated with the earthquakes could have caused temporary drainage of the REED Lake or Sea, and a subsequent tsunami could have buried the perusing Egyptian army. The missing piece to the puzzle however is the lack of discovery of chariots and horses bones in the dry El Balah Lake bed.

In 1992, perfectly preserved Minoan paintings were discovered at Avaris, proving that in Biblical times this city was populated not only by Israelites, but also by people from ancient Greece, indicating that there was commerce between the Hyksos and the Minoans on the island of Santorini. Jacobovici concludes that some of the people who followed Moses in the Exodus, or Hyksos expulsion, did not follow him to the Promised Land, but instead boarded ships and sailed to Greece. In 1972, while digging among the ashes of Santorini in Greece, archaeologists made a startling discovery linking this area of the world with the Exodus. They found Minoan style wall paintings and a map depicting an ancient journey from Egypt to Greece, which may be the oldest map in the world. It depicts an ancient Egyptian city which is believed to Avaris.

The Bible tells that Moses and his followers left Egypt with great quantities of Egyptian swords and gold. Jacobovici takes us to Mycenae, 50 Km from the coast on the Greek mainland, where in 1876, Heinrich Schliemann, the excavator of Troy, at Myceane found 3500 year old tombs. They contained a treasure trove of swords and Egyptian gold. The bodies in the tombs were dated to1500 BCE, and the grave stele of Mycenae, now in museums, have images on the gravestones, in three different panels which depict in graphic detail the Egyptians pursuing Moses, who turns his staff on them, and then the chariots are turned over, and buried in the sea. Using computer animation, he brings the figures of Moses and the pursuing Egyptian off of the stone and recreates the chase, where Moses turns to face his enemy, who is then swallowed in the tidal waves that sweep over him.

In a new scene, the video goes on to show oil and gas fires of Kuwait, suggesting that similar fires could have resulted from the earthquake activity, which would explain the pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night which the fleeing Israelites would have seen in the Exodus as described in the Bible.

From El Balah Lake Jacobovici continues to follow the Exodus trail in search of Mt. Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments while the children of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years. He discounted the traditional cite of Mt. Sinai, showing that it did not fit the Biblical descriptions, and focused instead on the two central routes that existed from Egypt to Israel. Northern and southern routes were ruled out.
Mt. Sinai is a 14 day journey from Elim, just south of Lake El Balah, called the springs of Moses. Assuming travel of 15 Km per day, he drew an arc on his map of the area.
Exodus 3:1-2 says that God appeared to Moses on Mt Sinai, while grazing the flocks of his father in law, a Mideonite (before the Exodus). Timna, the only place where Mideonites lived in the area. Assuming a traditional distance for grazing sheep, he drew another arc, which intersected with the first.
Deut 1:2 states that Mt. Sinai was an 11 day journey from Kadesh Barnea. Drawing another arc bisecting the first two defined an area which included several mountains which could have been Mt. Sinai.

The Bible tells of plateau around Mt. Sinai where hundreds of thousands of Israelites gathered to listen to Moses as he read the Ten Commandments from a cleft in a rock on the mountain. It also says there was a fresh water spring on the top of the mountain which is very unusual for desert mountain. Jacobovici found a mountain which met all of the required criteria, including numerous grave sites, and sacrificial monuments around the base of the mountain.

As if this wasn’t enough evidence for confirmation of the Exodus epic, Jacobovici turned his thoughts to the Tabernacle of Moses and its sacred Arc of the Covenant, which has been the quest of adventurers and treasure hunters ever since it was lost following the destruction of Solomon’s Temple by the Babylonians in 597 B.C. Remembering the Egyptian gold and swords discovered in the tombs at Myceane in Greece, Jacobovici explored the National Archaeological Museum of Athens in search of some gold artifact which might possibly describe the elusive Arc of the Covenant. The Bible says the tribe called Dan helped craft the Arc of the Covenant. Homer called the people buried at Mycenae Danites. Once again, miraculously, he found three gold pieces of jewelry which he cleverly decoded as a view from the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle of three objects: the Arc of the Covenant in front of the ramp leading to the alter, and the alter of the Tabernacle. Using computer animation once again, he was able to separate the ramp and the alter, which are described in the Bible, to reveal the Arc of the Covenant which had gold crowns on each corner with two birds with spread wings on each end.

By citing scientific explanations for the miraculous events of the Exodus epic of the Bible, Jacobovici does not deny the hand of God, but suggests that he used the forces of nature to preserve his people. However, he leaves it to the viewer to draw his own conclusions.
This feeble attempt to review this incredible work of Biblical archaeology research is a poor substitute for viewing this amazing film which is available on DVD for less than $20 on various web sites. You’ll have to see it to believe it, even though some conventional archaeologists and scholars are yet to be convinced. I, for one, can’t imagine a much stronger case for evidence of the Exodus.

The Dead Sea Scrolls: Voices from the Dust
by Robert L. Smith

One of the most exciting archaeological discoveries of our generation was made in 1947 when two young Bedouin  goat herders found several earthen jars in a cave near the northwestern corner of the Dead Sea.  The lids of the jars were sealed with wax to preserve the ancient scrolls which had been sealed in these jars over 1900 years earlier. Some of the scrolls were wrapped in fabric covered with pitch to keep them dry to preserve them for a future generation. The Assumption of Moses scroll describes how the books were to be sealed and preserved until “the end of the days.”   The importance of this discovery was not understood by these desert tribesmen, but eventually some of the scrolls fell into the hands of scholars who recognized their priceless value.  The scrolls contained the oldest known copies of many books of the Old Testament, (over 1000 years earlier than our oldest manuscripts), and included the writings of a secluded society which rejected the authority of the rulers of the Temple in Jerusalem, and tried to preserve the purity of their ancient Hebrew religious worship by secluding themselves in a community near the caves where the scrolls were found..

Between 1947 and 1956, hundreds of caves near the Dead Sea were explored.  Eleven caves revealed over 800 scrolls and over 30,000 fragments of scrolls, of which over 200 were books of the Old Testament.  Most of the scrolls were made of animal skins, some were papyrus, and one was made of copper.  Most were written in Hebrew, but some were in Aramaic, and some in Greek.  Every book of the Old Testament, except for the Book of Esther, was discovered in its entirety or represented among the thousands of fragments.  Multiple copies of many of the Old Testament Books were found, although most are extremely fragmented.  The Isaiah Scroll, which includes all 66 chapters of Isaiah, was preserved in its entirety, and was 24 feet long.  In addition to the Old Testament books, many of the scrolls described a communal society of Jews who lived near the caves in a religious center named Qumran.

Kirbat Qumran was excavated and partially restored between 1951 and 1956, and revealed a complex that had been built around 150 BC and was inhabited until AD 68. An earthen jar found at the Qumran excavation was identical to one of the jars found in Cave #1, which conclusively tied the inhabitants of Qumran to the scrolls found hidden in the nearby caves.  What makes this discovery so unique in the history of archaeological excavation, is that it is extremely rare to find a complete library documenting the history of  a society buried next to the ruins of their habitation.  Normally archaeologists have to interpret their findings based on pottery, artifacts, and sometimes art or cave drawings, but rarely do they find a written history of the ancient inhabitants of the ruins being excavated..

Scholars believe that the inhabitants of Qumran were members of a religious group known as the Essenes.  According to the Apocryphal Books of 1st and 2nd Macabees, the Helenization of the Holy Lands began in the third century BC. In 172 BC, Onias III, the legitimate High Priest, was murdered in Jerusalem.  Onias was a descendent of Zaddok, King David’s High Priest, and all legitimate High Priests in the Temple of Jerusalem were descendents of Zaddok.  Onias was replaced by the Syrian rulers of the region with an intensely Hellenized Jew, not of the line of Zaddock.   Jewish Rabbi’s began to apply  logic and reasoning for interpretation of the scriptures based on Greek influence, instead of seeking revelation from God as did the ancient prophets.   They believed that “the holy spirit departed from Israel,” after the last biblical prophets, and began to rely on the wisdom of the Rabbi’s.  Eventually, some Jews rejected what they believed was the pollution of their ancestral religion by illegitimate holders of the high priesthood, and chose to seclude themselves in a desert commune, where they could preserve their religious heritage under the leadership of their prophet leader, known in the Dead Sea Scrolls as the Teacher of Righteousness.

Excavation of the Kirbet Qumran complex, built of stone, revealed  a 75 ft long dining room, where the communal meal was observed each day.  The adjoining panty held over one thousand bowls, plates, and other dishes.  Water was provided to the complex by a gravity flow aqueduct from the cliffs nearby to fill cisterns, a ritual bath and a  pool.  Among the many scrolls found in the nearby caves was the Rule of the Community, or Manual of Discipline, which described the religious order, and the requirements for purification by bathing in the fresh water before entering the “Holy Temple,” or sacred area to partake of the communal meal.  One of the rooms in the Qumran complex has been called the “scriptorium,” or writing room because of inkwells found in desks in this room.

The inhabitants of Qumran were a communal society of righteous Jews who believed that the Rabbinical Jews of the Temple in Jerusalem were apostate from the teachings of the Prophets.   They were a covenant group devoted to perfect observance of the Law of Moses, and regarded themselves as true Israel, surrounded by spiritual traitors and corruption. After 20 years at Qumran, the Lord sent them the Teacher of Righteousness who claimed that God revealed to him all the mysteries of the prophets.  After the passing of the Teacher of Righteousness, the society was governed by a quorum of three Priests, and a quorum of twelve laymen.   The names or identities of this society listed in the scrolls include:  The Community, The Council, The Congregation, Men of Essa, Assembly of God, The Council of Truth, The Sons of the Eternal Council, The Sons of Zadock, The Elect of God, The Seers, The Pious, the Silent Ones, the Performers of the Law, the Physicians, the Puritans, the Retired Ones, the Brethren, the Servants of God, the Stout Ones, the Strong Race, the Mysterious Ones, the Holiness Sect, the Prophesiers, the Saints, the Bathers, the Daily Baptists, the Observers of the Laws of Purity, and the Apron Wearers.

The theology of the Qumran society included: Common ownership of property (Consecration of all earthly goods to the society),  belief in Pre-Destination, belief in the afterlife but not physical resurrection, ritual bathing and cleansing, a required repentance for admission to the community, and baptism by immersion.  They emphasized belief in the Holy Spirit and looked for the coming of Two Messiah’s (One spiritual and one Political).  Qumran was an all male celibate society who wore white linen garments to symbolize purity, and ate ritual Communal Meals.
Their religious beliefs were very much like Christians 150 years before birth of Christ, which caused some concerns among modern theologians, who presumed that some of the theology of Jesus Christ may have been copied from this earlier civilization.  Others, who believe that Jesus Christ was Jehovah of the Old Testament, believe that the Qumran leaders received their doctrines from the ancient Prophets and were merely trying to preserve them until the coming of the Messiah.  Although the Qumran complex was inhabited until the destruction of the Jews by the Romans in AD 68, there is no evidence that the inhabitants of Qumran recognized Jesus Christ as the Messiah, and there is no mention of Christ in the scrolls found at Qumran.

The Scrolls have been dated from 327 BC – AD 73 based on Carbon 14 Dating of the linen wrappings, and from
135 BC – AD 68 based on coins found in the community center and scroll caves.   Besides the books of the Old Testament, the collection of scrolls includes: the Temple Scroll; the War Scroll (Sons of Light vs Sons of Darkness); Thanksgiving Hymns; and commentaries on Books of the Old Testament, including Habakkuk, Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, and Pslams.  Also included in the collection are some Apocrapha, or Pseudepigraphical texts including the Genesis Apocraphon (Book of Adam and Eve), the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the Book of Jubilees, the Book of Enoch, Tobit, Sirach, and the Zadokite Text.  The greatest significance of the contents of the scrolls is the discovery of two complete copies of the book of Isaiah, which are nearly identical to the Book of Isaiah in our Bible today.   Finding a copy of the book of Isaiah, and his Messianic prophesies which pre-date the birth of Jesus of Nazareth proves that these prophesies were not revised after the ministry of Jesus to “predict” his ministry and his sacrifice after the fact.   

The translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls was painstaking  slow because only a select group of scholars were allowed access to them, but this policy was changed in 1993 when the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to release all official photographs of the scrolls and scroll fragments on microfiche.  In 1992 an electronic database was developed by Brigham Young University in conjunction with the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS), which became the source for the book Discoveries in the Judean Desert published by the Oxford Press.

The Dead Sea Scrolls provide Bible scholars with the opportunity to compare variant readings and discover errors in translation in the text of the Bible.  The fact that many of the Old Testament Books were found in multiple copies of scrolls aided in studies of these variations.  Numerous modern translations of the Old Testament have been revised based on these variant translations from the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was equivalent to finding a time capsule dating almost 2000 years ago, and giving us a view of history that would otherwise have been lost to the world forever.

This article is based on LDS Perspectives on the Dead Sea Scrolls. Published by FARMS, and on The Dead Sea Scrolls and other Important Discoveries, by Vernon W. Mattson, Jr.

The Jesus Cup
by Craig A. Evans

On Discovery Channel in the fall of 2008 French marine archaeologist Franck Goddio, co-founder of the Oxford Centre of Maritime Archaeology, announced the discovery of a ceramic cup during underwater exploration of the ancient city of Alexandria, Egypt. Goddio and his team found a cup on which are inscribed the words dia crhstou o goistais, which may mean “the magician by Christ,” perhaps in the sense that “the magician (possesses his power) by (or through) Christ.” (goistais would be understood as a variant of gohth/j or go/hj [“enchanter”].) Goddio and Egyptologist David Fabre date the cup sometime between late second century BC and early first century AD. If the reference is to Jesus Christ, then it would indeed be the earliest inscriptional reference to the founder of Christianity.
However, there are several problems with this suggestion. Although the spelling Xrhsto/j (instead of Xristo/j) is attested in reference to Jesus Christ (e.g., see no. 10 below), the early date of the cup is problematic. Of course, the inscription itself may not be as old as the cup. Another problem has to do with the odd spelling o goistais. Is this really a variant for o9 goh/thj, or some other form of magician? Klaus Hallof, of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy, and Bert Smith, professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford, have suggested that the inscription should be read ogoistais, in reference to the god Ogoa, mentioned by Pausanias (c. 160 AD), whose followers may have been called Ogoistai. Ogoa, or Osogoa, is another name for Zeus. For references, see Pausanias, Description of Greece 8.10.3 (“the sanctuary of the god [i.e., Zeus], called in the native tongue Osogoa [  0Osogw~a]”); Strabo, Geography 14.
Although the possibility that the inscription may have referred to Jesus, whose power was invoked by a magician, cannot be ruled out, in my view it is more likely that the reference is to someone named Chrestus (a common enough name), who was either a magician and/or was among the Ogoistai.

Archaeological Evidence for
 First-century Synagogues in Ancient Judaea
By James F. Strange


In Israel there are ancient structures at Gamala, Capernaum (beneath the white limestone synagogue), Qiryat Sefer, Masada, Jericho, Modi'in, and Herodium. The archaeologists who unearthed these buildings have identified them as synagogues of the first century CE.  These halls resemble later synagogues recognized as such from their Jewish art and from dedicatory inscriptions in Greek or Aramaic that actually identify the buildings as "synagogues."
But are the first century examples actually synagogues?  After all, they do not seem to contain Jewish art, nor do they have inscriptions identifying them as such.
There are at least five reasons to identify these seven possible synagogues as the real thing:
1.    These buildings organize innermost space in a similar manner, namely, it is rectangular and surrounded on three or four sides by rows of columns, then by ranges of benches on two, three, or four sides.  
2.    One must use the benches as steps to move from the top bench or landing to the floor.  This calls to mind a saying of Jesus in Mark 12:39 and parallels that excoriates the Scribes for preferring the "first seats" in synagogues, presumably on the top rank.  
3.    Worshipers sitting or standing on the benches must look through a balustrade of columns to see what is going on centrally. This is echoed in the construction of the Diaspora synagogues at Priene in Greece and at Ostia in Italy.
4.    The “Jewishness” of these structures is not given by art or inscriptions, but by their presence in a Jewish town or village, or even in a Jewish fortress.  
5.    Although parts of these buildings resemble structures in the Roman Empire, their total organization is novel.  The closest analog is the ancient basilica, but the basilicas we know are far larger than most of these buildings. These buildings resemble one another more than anything else. The commonality between them also suggests strongly that their builders were seeing some structure or structures that gave them the extraordinary idea of arranging seating between the columns and the walls. I believe that "something else" to be the stoa on the temple Mount in Jerusalem.
    That is, the space from wall to columns is in effect a porch or stoa. Two porches running parallel with a roof on top is a basilica, as is usually reconstructed on the south side of the Temple court in Jerusalem, following Josephus. The first century synagogues that we have found tend to model themselves after Israel's holiest shrine.
These structures surely represent those mentioned by Josephus and by the New Testament authors and situated in the Holy

Archaeology and the Historical Jesus: Recent Developments
Craig A. Evans

A major driving force behind biblical archaeology in its early days were apologetics. In recent years these interests have been eclipsed by the new quest for context and meaning. By and large, this new quest has seen major advances on many fronts, especially where it concerns the historical Jesus.
In some cases discoveries touch directly on the story of Jesus as presented in the New Testament Gospels, such as in the 1961 discovery at Caesarea Maritima of the inscription that mentions Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, and perhaps (much more doubtfully) in the 1990 discovery in the vicinity of Jerusalem of an ossuary, whose inscription may contain the name of Caiaphas the high priest. One also thinks of the 1986 discovery of the first-century (BCE or CE) Galilee boat, which has answered some important general questions about this occupation and perhaps one or two very specific questions relating to Jesus and his disciples.
These discoveries are of great interest, to be sure, but of much greater significance are discoveries relating to travel, commerce, economy, social activities, and religious loyalties of the people of first-century Palestine, especially as these things relate to the inhabitants of Galilee.
Here might be mentioned three important areas of archaeological findings in recent years that shed light on aspects of the life of Jesus and the world in which he was active: (1) the Jewishness of Galilee, (2) the existence of pre-70 synagogue buildings, and (3) Jewish burial traditions.

1. The Jewishness of Galilee
One of the most important questions for studying Jesus in his environment asks how Jewish Galilee was in the early first century. Several books in the last decade or so have appeared that address this question in one way or another. Books by Mark Chancey, Sean Freyne, Richard Horsley, Eric Meyers, Marianne Sawicki, and James Strange, among others, immediately come to mind.
The discovery of numerous Greek inscriptions (and a few Latin inscriptions as well), along with a network of roads (for example, linking Caesarea on the Mediterranean and Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee) and major Greco-Roman style buildings and city layouts, has led scholars to reassess the old, quaint notion of Galilee as a cultural and commercial backwater. The significance of the proximity of Sepphoris to Nazareth was immediately appreciated by scholars. It has become apparent that Jesus did not grow up place-bound, in a rustic, unsophisticated environment.
But in the excitement of assessing the implications of a Galilee now seen in a new light, in some circles there was a lack of recognition of just how Jewish much of Galilee was in the pre-70 period. Greco-Roman style urbanization and loyalty to the Torah were not mutually exclusive. The excavations of Sepphoris in the 1980s showed us how urban and wealthy the city of Sepphoris was, but the ongoing excavations of the 1990s and on into the twenty-first century have also shown us how Jewish the inhabitants of this city were in the time before 70.
The discovery of a number of miqvaoth (ritual immersion pools) and stone water pots (which resist ritual impurity; cf. John 2:6) points unmistakably to the Jewish presence. The absence of pork bones, pagan cultic buildings, and coin imprints and other icons offensive to Jewish sensibilities argue not only for a Jewish presence, but the near absence of a non-Jewish population. In short, the evidence thus far uncovered suggests that the people of Sepphoris were either Jewish or at least lived in a manner unobjectionable to Torah-observant Jews.
The upshot of these discoveries is that the intriguing hypothesis (advanced by John Dominic Crossan and a few scholars linked to the Jesus Seminar) that Jesus was influenced by Cynic philosophers resident in Sepphoris is greatly weakened. It is not altogether ruled out, but its plausibility is serious diminished. Moreover, recent excavations in Nazareth itself suggest that the assumption that Jesus and members of his family would in all probability (and perhaps of necessity) have worked in nearby Sepphoris is no longer so obvious. It appears that Nazareth had its own thriving economy—including building, if the evidence of the stone quarries tells us anything. The commercial and economic activities of Nazareth were more than adequate to keep the local residents fully occupied, with little need to seek out-of-town employment.
Ongoing excavations at other sites in Galilee, such as Cana, Capernaum, and Bethsaida lend additional support to the growing conviction that the Jewish population of Galilee embraced its historic faith and traditions. To be sure, Greek language and literature and Greco-Roman architecture were present in Galilee. But this presence co-existed with a people firmly committed to Jewish faith and practice. It is in this world that Jesus grew up and ministered.

2. Pre-70 Synagogue Buildings
The New Testament Gospels and book of Acts leave us with the impression that Jesus frequented Jewish synagogues and that these synagogues seem to have met in buildings designated for this purpose. There are more than fifty references to synagogues. Admittedly, some of these references could be simply to gatherings of Jewish people (which is what the Greek word synagoge actually means) and not necessarily to buildings themselves called synagogues. Howard Kee has argued this view in a series of studies. He suggests that the Gospel writers, especially the author of Luke-Acts, has anachronistically retrojected a post-70 reality into the earlier time of Jesus. Kee’s interpretation not only requires him to interpret the references to synagogue buildings in Josephus in the same manner (cf. J.W. 2.285-89; 7.44; Ant. 19.305) and ignore a clear reference in Philo (cf. Prob. 81-82), it also requires him to date the Theodotos Inscription (CIJ 1404), which thanks various persons for donating money for the building of the synagogue, to a time much later than the pre-70 period.
Archaeology offers this interpretation no support. Not only does the style of incising in the Theodotos Inscription suggest a Herodian date (probably early first century), but its discovery beneath the rubble of the 70-destruction of Jerusalem argues strongly for a pre-70 date. Moreover, the Berenike synagogue inscription from Cyrene of North Africa (SEG XVII 823) dates to the year 56 CE and Ehud Netzer has recently reported the discovery of a synagogue at Jericho, which was damaged by the earthquake of 31 BCE. Kee’s  hypothesis has been convincingly rebutted by studies by Richard Oster and John Kloppenborg, who have reviewed the literary and archaeological evidence summarized above.
Even without the more problematic dating of the older, black basalt foundation beneath the ruins of the fourth-century synagogue at Capernaum and the synagogue ruins at Gamla, it seems clear from the archaeological evidence that synagogue buildings did indeed exist in the time of Jesus. Confident of this fact, we can study these early buildings for clarification of aspects of Jesus’ activity (such as seating arrangements, auxiliary rooms, furnishings, and the like). Moreover, this archaeological and inscriptional evidence lends import support to the historical accuracy of the portraits that the New Testament Gospels present.

3. Jewish Burial Traditions
Jewish burial traditions can potentially tell us much about the world of Jesus, and perhaps even clarify at one or two points his teaching and, even more significantly, clarify aspects of his death and burial. The discovery and analysis of hundreds of skeletons and skeletal remains have told us much about the health and longevity of the people. It gives us pause to discover that in a typical two or three generation burial crypt more than one half of the skeletons are of children. Indeed, in some cases two-thirds of the remains are of children. From data such as these, some historical anthropologists have speculated that as many as one fourth of the population in Jesus’ time was ill, injured, and in need of medical help on any given day. This grim possibility gives new meaning to the Gospels’ notice that crowds were attracted to Jesus, because he was known as a healer (e.g., Mark 3:10; 4:1; 5:27-28).
The Jewish practice of ossilegium, that is, the reburial of the bones of the deceased (see the books by E. M. Meyers and C. A. Evans), may explain Jesus’ cryptic remark to the would-be follower who requested that he first be allowed to “bury his father.” Jesus replies: “Let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:22 = Luke 9:60). Byron McCane plausibly suggests that the man has requested delaying discipleship until he has reburied his father’s bones. Jesus has not urged the man to ignore his dying father. Rather, Jesus urges him to allow the dead (i.e., the dead relatives in the family crypt) to see to the final burial of the man’s dead father. Proclaiming the rule of God to the living takes precedence.
Jewish burial practices, including Jewish sensitivities regarding corpse impurity and the sacred duty to bury the dead, argue strongly against the novel theory proposed a decade ago that Jesus’ corpse may well have been unburied, either left hanging on the cross or perhaps was thrown in a ditch, exposed to animals as carrion. It has been pointed out that hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews who were crucified during war time or insurrection were left unburied. This is true, but Jesus was crucified during peace time. It is inconceivable that the bodies of Jesus and the other men would have been left unburied just outside the walls of Jerusalem, during Passover season. The grim discovery in an ossuary of the remains of Yehohanan, in whose right heel bone an iron spike was found, dated to the late 20s of the first century, is graphic evidence that Pontius Pilate permitted the crucified to be buried and sometime later the bones to be gathered and placed in an ossuary in the family crypt—all according to Jewish burial customs.
The remains of two or three other persons executed and then properly buried have also been found. In a tomb from Giv‘at ha-Mivtar in Jerusalem the skeleton of a woman who had been decapitated have been found. In another tomb in Jerusalem, on Mount Scopus, the skeleton of man who had been beheaded was found. Forensic study of these remains indicate that his head was taken off with two strokes or either a sword or axe. The significance of this evidence is that proper burial was permitted even in cases of capital punishment—which is exactly what the Gospels say with respect to Jesus.
Jewish burial practice may also shed light on the reasons why the women returned to Jesus’ tomb early Sunday morning. Evidently their motivation was to perfume Jesus’ body, so that the seven days of mourning could take place. Making note of which tomb contained Jesus’ body (for he was in a tomb reserved for criminals—not in his family’s tomb) they hoped eventually to gather the bones of Jesus and take them to his family’s place of burial. Accordingly, the women took special interest in the tomb. Finding the body removed would, therefore, have occasioned great consternation and not necessarily thoughts of resurrection. The appearances of Jesus, as well as the reality of the empty tomb, convinced his followers and he was indeed resurrected and was not simply a ghost or a vision.
Postscript: The recent hypothesis put forward by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino that the East Talpiot tomb south of Jerusalem, accidentally discovered and hastily excavated in 1980 by Yosef Gat and Amos Kloner, contained the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and various family members has been endorsed by no recognized archaeologist. The high quality tomb, complete with an impressive pointed gable and rosette over the entrance, which symbolize the Jewish temple, probably belonged to a wealthy, aristocratic Jerusalem family, with ties to the temple. Many of the claims and conclusions advanced by Jacobovici and Pellegrino are erroneous and in some cases highly misleading and deceptive.

Craig A. Evans is Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada, and author of Jesus and His Contemporaries (Brill, 1995) and Jesus and the Ossuaries (Baylor University Press, 2003). He is also a contributor to Jesus and Archaeology, ed. J. J. Charlesworth (Eerdmans, 2006).

Chancey, Mark A. The Myth of a Gentile Galilee (SNTSMS 118; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
Crossan, John Dominic. The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1991).
—. Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995).
Evans, Craig A. Jesus and the Ossuaries (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2003).
—. “Jewish Burial Traditions and the Resurrection of Jesus,” JSHJ 3 (2005) 233-48.
Freyne, Sean. Galilee and Gospel: Collected Essays (WUNT 125; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2000).
—. Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 BCE to 135 CE: A Study of Second Temple Judaism (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1998).
—. Galilee, Jesus and the Gospels: Literary Approaches and Historical Investigations (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988).
Kee, Howard Clark. “The Transformation of the Synagogue after 70 C.E.: Its Import for Early Christianity,” NTS 36 (1990) 1-24.
—. “The Changing Meaning of Synagogue: A Response to Richard Oster,” NTS 40 (1994) 281-83.
—. “Defining the First-Century C Synagogue: Problems and Progress,” NTS 41 (1995) 481-500.
Kloppenborg, John S. “Dating Theodotos (CIJ 1404),” JJS 51 (2000) 243-80.
McCane, Byron R. “‘Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead’: Secondary Burial and Matt 8:21-22,” HTR 83 (1990) 31-43.
Meyers, Eric M., ed. Galilee through the Centuries: Confluence of Cultures (Duke Judaic Studies 1; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999).
—. Jewish Ossuaries: Reburial and Rebirth (BibOr 24; Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute Press, 1971).
Nagy, R. M., C. L. Meyers, E. M. Meyers, and Z. Weiss, eds. Sepphoris in Galilee: Crosscurrents of Culture (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1996).
Oster, Richard E. “Supposed Anachronism in Luke–Acts’ Use of synagoge: A Rejoinder to H. C. Kee,” NTS 39 (1993) 178-208.
Sawicki, Marianne. Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000).
Strange, James F. Archaeology, the Rabbis and Early Christianity, with Eric M. Meyers (London: SCM Press, 1981).

Biblical Links and Resources