Liberal scholars and radical skeptics like to say that gospels have more holes than swiss cheese. Aside from the gospels being full of unresolvable contradictions, they also make grave historical blunders. If they were reliable historical documents based on eyewitness testimony, they’d get the details right. Therefore, they’re mere religious fictions.
But in recent times many of the holes that critics have tried to poke through the gospels have been filled by the shovel of archaeology. Excavators have come to the rescue and provided a counterbalance to suspicious views against the gospels.
Here I’m going to share three examples where biblical archaeology has made the critics look flat-out silly. If that whets your appetite for more, at the end I’ll point you to a couple of awesome resources on the topic.
1. The Capernaum Synagogue
Luke 7:1-5 says “When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening, he entered Capernaum. There a centurion’s servant, whom his master valued highly, was sick and about to die. The centurion heard of Jesus and sent some elders of the Jews to him, asking him to come and heal his servant. When they came to Jesus, they pleaded earnestly with him, “This man deserves to have you do this, because he loves our nation and has built our synagogue.”
You know the rest of the story. The Centurion says Jesus only needs to speak a word and the servant will be healed. Impressed by his faith, Jesus said it was as good as done. Yet some skeptics have cried foul. Here’s Robert M. Price, a “scholar” who argues that Jesus never existed:
“A major collision between the gospel tradition and archaeology concerns the existence of synagogues and Pharisees in pre 70 CE Galilee. Historical logic implies that there would not have been any since Pharisees fled to Galilee only after the fall of Jerusalem.”
Price says there could be no synagogues in Capernaum. But what does archaeology say?
“Remains of the First Century Jewish synagogue where Jesus spoke and performed a miracle has been excavated. The synagogue also marks the beginning of His public ministry. The site was first identified by Sir Charles Warren in the 19th Century. Further research has confirmed its identity.” – Ted Wright, founder of EpicArchaelogy.org.
The “White Synagogue” (4th-century) is built on the exact ruins of the synagogue of Jesus’ day (the darker stones).
Ouch. Strike one for the critics. But let’s see what other objections they’ve raised to the historicity of the gospels.
2. The Pool of Bethesda
It’s been said that John was just inventing some theological fan-fiction when he described the pool of Bethesda. Here’s John 5:1-3:
“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed.”
There Jesus finds a paralyzed man and heals him on the Sabbath, creating a controversy. Here’s Alfred Loisy, an early 20th-century French liberal scholar who says John was symbolically making things up, including the pool itself:
“The ancients who thought they found in the spring a symbol of Judaism, and in the five porticoes an allusion to the five books of the law, no doubt encountered the thought of the evangelist.”
Until recently, there was no evidence outside of John for the existence of the pool of Bethesda. Then in the 1950s, archaeologists discovered the remains of a pool matching the information in John’s Gospel.
And what do you know? It was located by the sheep gate just like John described and enclosed by roofed colonnades and spanned across the center by a fifth collonade.
That’s strike 2 from the critics. But let’s give them another shot.
3. No “King” Herod?
Here’s one from one of the founding American fathers Thomas Paine. Paine was no fan of Christianity and wrote an extensive criticism of the Bible. Here’s one of his objections to the historical reliability of the gospels:
“There could be no such person as a King Herod because the Jews and their country were then under the dominion of the Roman Emperors who governed then by tetrarchs, or governors.”
Centuries later, Paine would be proven wrong with some hard evidence in the form of coins:
Each of these coins has the inscription βασιλιάς αγριπάπα (King Agrippa). Go here for more.
That’s strike three. The critics are out.
Archaeology confirms the gospels
The legitimate use of archaeology has repeatedly proven that cynical charges made against the gospels and the Bible as a whole have been proven wrong. This stands in stark contrast to Mormonism, which makes historical claims that have no external confirmation from archaeology. Even their own scholars admit as much.
Christian philosopher and apologist William Lane Craig tells us why external proofs like these are so important:
“Christianity is not a code for living or a philosophy of religion [although it contains that]; rather it is rooted in real events of history. To some, this is scandalous because it means that the truth of Christianity is bound up with the truth of certain historical facts, such that if those facts should be disproved, so would Christianity. But at the same time, this makes Christianity unique because unlike most other world religions, we now have a means of verifying its truth with historical evidence.”
For more resources
I hope this tickled your tastebuds for more evidence like this. Here are a few resources that will help you:
First, let me recommend this talk by Dr. Tim McGrew on the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts. It’s the source of three of the examples I listed.
Tim gives several other examples plus a ton of other good reasons why we can trust the gospels. Warning: It might feel a bit like drinking from a firehose. There is so much good stuff. You’ll want to watch it more than once. (One of the reasons I write these blog posts is to help me remember all the data!)
Secondly, check out the tremendous work done by Dr. Ted Wright at EpicArchaeology.org. He has a Facebook page that regularly posts great pictures, graphics, and articles that include amazing finds that confirm what we read in both the Old and New Testament. Here’s an article that includes a top 10 archeological finds for the New Testament to get you started.
Erik is a Reasonable Faith Chapter Director located in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He’s a former freelance baseball writer and the co-owner of a vintage and handmade decor business with his wife, Dawn. He is passionate about the intersection of apologetics and evangelism.