Archaeology and New Testament Studiesby Duane Patterson on 04/21/11
In the early history of Biblical Archaeology there was very little focus on the New Testament period. In the late 19th century when Biblical Archaeology was in its infancy, Biblical Archaeologists were first focused on the geography of the Holy Land and identifying the locations of ancient cities mentioned in the stories of the Hebrew Bible. As Biblical Archaeology developed into the 20th century, it began to excavate sites throughout the Syria-Palestine and was mainly concerned with the historicity of the Hebrew Bible. This almost total focus of Biblical Archaeologists on the historicity of the Hebrew Bible was a response of conservative Christian theologians to Source and Form Criticism of the 18th and 19th century. The wide acceptance of the Documentary Hypothesis among liberal scholarship was a serious challenge to the traditional held views of the historicity of the Hebrew Bible. The documentary Hypothesis challenged the Mosaic authorship and the traditional date of the writing of the Torah. According to this hypothesis, the stories of Israel contained in the Torah are myths and non-historical. Conservative theologians viewed Biblical Archaeology as an avenue to prove the historicity of the Hebrew Bible and thus refute the liberal views of the Documentary Hypothesis[i].
Although there have been serious questions about the historicity of the Gospels, almost all scholars accept the premise that Jesus of Nazareth was a person who lived in the Galilee in the early first century CE. Because of this and other reasons, New Testament studies have historically focused on theological issues. New Testament Scholars avoided archaeology because in their opinion it had really nothing to offer to their theological studies. Also, most New Testament scholars were not familiar the field of archaeology and thereby skeptical of its ability to make a contribution to New Testament studies. During the last 50 years archaeology has developed into more of a science and has expanded its scope of inquiry to include such areas of inquiry as ethnicity, economic systems, social systems and political systems. With this broadened scope of inquiry within archaeology, New Testament scholars have begun to see ways that archaeology can be a resource to New Testament studies.
Archaeology has proven to be of special interest in two areas of New Testament studies within the last 30 years. The area of New Testament Studies which have found Biblical Archaeological the most beneficial is termed by James H. Charlesworth as "Jesus Research."[ii] This term is used to describe and area of New Testament study which focuses on understanding the ethnic, social, religious, and economic issues in Syria-Palestine during the second temple period. Jesus Research attracts not only Christian scholars but Jewish experts – like Flusser, Vermes, Gruenwald, Mendels, and Segal – whose interest in Jesus Research is concerned with learning about such things as the ethnicity of a given area, what were the trade patterns, social-economic status, religious practices and economic activity. Archaeology studies can develop excellent information in these areas which gives insight into Jesus' teachings and the development of Early Christianity. With the improved archaeological field methods that have been developed in the last 60 years, archaeology is able to develop information into these areas which are not available in the written historical documents.
The second area of Christianity which has found Biblical Archaeological useful is the Jewish Roots movement sometimes called the Restoration Movement. There is presently a relatively large movement within Christianity which has a strong interest in learning about the Jewish roots of their faith and interpreting the New Testament from a Hebraic perspective. This movement is sometimes known as Hebraic Studies and is also related to the Messianic Jewish movement. These groups also have a strong interest in the culture, social systems and religious practices of the Second Temple period. Even though the objectives of these groups are different than Jesus Research Scholars, they have an interest in the same information which only archaeology can provide. In the last thirty years there has been a large amount of archaeological information produce in both the Galilee and Judea which pertain to the Second Temple period.
Archaeological finds such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi Codices have made major contributions to our knowledge of both Early Judaism and Early Christianity. There has also been many archaeological excavation and surveys which have provided a tremendous amount of knowledge about the everyday lives of the people of the Galilee and Judea during this period and provide an excellent resource for New Testament Studies. In the future archaeology will make a major contribution to New Testament studies and our understanding of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and His teachings.
[i] This theory's most pervasive protagonist was Julius Wellhausen. He formulated a theory explaining how four originally independent documents (J, E, D, &P) were combined to form the Torah.
[ii] (James H. Charlesworth, Jesus Research and Archaeology: A New perspective, Jesus and Archaeology, [Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2006], 11 - 47)