What Counts As Archaeological Evidence Confirming a Biblical Person’s Existence?

In a previous post I referred to Lawrence Mykytiuk’s recent BAR article, “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible” and asked about the criteria employed in such a task. In other words, what counts as archaeological evidence confirming a biblical person’s existence?

I was fortunate enough to have Prof. Mykytiuk reply to my question in the comments to that post. He referred to his published dissertation, Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E. In addition, he cited two online resources summarizing the criteria he has employed in his work: 1) his article, “Sixteen Strong Identifications of Biblical Persons (Plus Nine Other IDs) in Authentic Northwest Semitic Inscriptions from before 539 B.C.E.,” which was published in an edited volume; and 2) K. A. Kitchen’s review of Mykytiuk’s published dissertation.

To summarize, Mykytiuk has identified 11 criteria to be used to establish a connection between a biblical character and a piece of archaeological evidence identifying the person. These can be summarized under three questions:

• Are the initial data reliable, in the sense that epigraphic data are authentic, not forged, and that biblical data are well based in the ancient manuscripts, as determined by sound text criticism?
• Do the settings (time and socio-political “place”) of the inscriptional person and of the biblical person permit a match? They should normally be within about fifty years of each other and members of the same socio-political group, for example, late-eighth-century Israelite.
• How strongly do identifying marks that help to specify an individual, such as name, patronym, and title, count for or against an ID? For a reliable ID, they need to be sufficient to insure that the inscription and the biblical text are not referring to two different persons.

Consult Kitchen’s review for further elaboration of the 11 criteria. Note also that Mykytiuk has used 50 years as the maximum allowable time between the biblical person’s alleged existence and the estimated date of the archaeological evidence.

New Testament People Confirmed by Archaeology: Reader Contributions

Archaeology is not my area of expertise, but I do find the subject fascinating. Last week the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review published Lawrence Mykytiuk’s article, “Archaeology Confirms 50 Real People in the Bible.” It summarizes the data for 50 figures from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) whose existence has been confirmed by archaeological discoveries, mainly in the form of inscriptions. Fortunately for those without a subscription to BAR, Bible History Daily has provided the information from the article.

As a scholar of early Christianity, I wonder what a similar list would look like for figures from the New Testament. Going off the top of my head, I came up with these (EDIT: I will add to this list based on new info):

  • Herod the Great
  • Various Caesars (Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius)
  • Pilate
  • Gallio
  • Lysanias
  • Sergius Paulus
  • Aretas
  • Erastus (? – disputed)
  • Simon and Alexander of Cyrene (? – strongly disputed)
  • Caiaphas (? – disputed)

Of course there is the (in)famous James ossuary, too, which I’m leaving off the list. I’m sure that I’m missing others. I’m thinking specifically of the various officials mentioned in Acts that might be candidates for archaeological evidence. So I’m turning to readers to help with this list.

Bart Ehrman vs. Michael Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, et al.

This could be interesting…

Bart Ehrman will soon be publishing How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee, in which he offers his explanation of the evolution of early Christology.

Michael Bird has just announced that he and several others will be publishing a book responding to Ehrman’s work, which is titled (not coincidentally, I’m sure) How God Became Jesus: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature – A Response to Bart Ehrman.  Expect to see both books in March.

Cast your vote now for the winner.

N.T. Wright Writes Books Faster Than I Can Read Them

I still haven’t made my way through N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God, but I noticed today that he has yet another book scheduled for publication in the coming months, and it might be of interest to some readers of this blog:

Here is the publisher’s description:

A thoughtful and provocative collection, in the vein of the intellectual spiritual classic The Weight of Glory, from N. T. Wright, the influential Bishop, Bible scholar, and bestselling author widely regarded as a modern C. S. Lewis.


An unusual combination of scholar, churchman, and leader, N. T. Wright—hailed by Newsweek as “the world’s leading New Testament scholar”—is not only incredibly insightful, but conveys his knowledge in terms that excite and inspire Christian leaders worldwide, allowing them to see the Bible from a fresh viewpoint. In this challenging and stimulating collection of popular essays, sermons, and talks, Wright provide a series of case studies which explore how the Bible can be applied to some of the most pressing contemporary issues facing us, including:


  • Why it is possible to love the Bible and affirm evolution
  • Why women should be allowed to be ordained
  • Where Christians today have lost focus, and why it is important for them to engage in politics—and why that involvement benefits everyone
  • Why the Christian belief in heaven means we should be at the forefront of the environmental movement
  • And much more

Helpful, practical, and wise, Surprised by Scripture invites readers to examine their own hearts and minds and presents new models for understanding how to affirm the Bible in today’s world—as well as new ideas and renewed energy for deepening our faith and engaging with the world around us.

‘Tis the Season… for Scholars to Shatter Christmas Myths

EDIT: The link to Stephen Carlson’s article has now been fixed.

I can remember as a teenager the first time one of my “know everything about the Bible” friends whispered to me during a church service, “Hey, you know there weren’t actually THREE wise men, don’t you?” And I was, like, “What are you talking about? Of course there were. We see it every year in the Nativity play.”

That single remark from a friend sent me on a teenage quest to discover how many other places our church’s Nativity play had screwed up. At the time, I really couldn’t find much. Fast forward a few years (and by “years,” I mean “decades”) and things are different.

The Christmas season is a time for biblical scholars to show off as they wield the tools of careful exegesis and knowledge of first-century Palestine, or that other handy tool known as “dehistoricizing.” This has resulted in many questions related to Matthew and Luke’s Nativity stories, some more controversial than others: Was Jesus born in a stable? Was there really no “room in the inn” for Mary and Joseph? Was Jesus even born in Bethlehem? Did Herod really order the killing of all the young boys in the area around Bethlehem? And so forth.

There are three publications from the past couple years that I would recommend as great resources for promoting serious reflection on topics related to the stories of Jesus’ birth, regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with the views presented:

1. Stephen Carlson’s article, “The Accommodations of Joseph and Mary
in Bethlehem: Κατάλυμα in Luke 2.7,” published in NTS and available in its entirety here. I find his arguments to be very convincing. Here is the abstract:

The identity of the κατάλυμα in Luke has been debated among Western scholars for over five hundred years. Proposals have ranged from an inn to a guest room. This article argues that the term κατάλυμα has a generic sense of ‘place to stay’ and that the final clause of Luke should be rendered ‘because they had no space in their place to stay’. Moreover, three clues in the context—Joseph’s compliance with the census order, the betrothal of Mary, and the manger—suggest that the accommodations presupposed by Luke are a marital chamber too small for giving birth.

2. Steve Moyise’s short book, Was the Birth of Jesus According to Scripture? (Wipf and Stock, 2013). The link allows you to preview a significant portion of the book.

Each Christmas, the birth of Jesus is celebrated through carols, Bible readings, and nativity plays. The angelic announcements to Mary and Elizabeth, Jesus’ birth in a manger, and the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are some of the best-known stories in the Bible. But did they really happen? And were they predicted by Israel’s prophets, as the Bible claims? Steve Moyise suggests that the clue to answering these questions is to understand how Israel’s Scriptures were being interpreted in Jesus’ day. Was Isaiah thinking of a virgin birth when he uttered his famous prophecy (Isa 7:14), or is that a later Christian interpretation? Was there a star that led the magi to Bethlehem or should the story be taken symbolically? These and other questions are fully explored and the results are sometimes surprising.

3. Andrew Lincoln’s brand new book, Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Eerdmans, 2013). Of my three recommendations, this will certainly be the most controversial to those with a conservative background. But that’s what makes it so good – it is sure to be thought provoking on a number of fronts.

This engaging book enables ordinary Christians to understand and give honest expression to the problems surrounding the virgin birth — a concept that many Christians are not sure how to handle.

Andrew Lincoln’s Born of a Virgin? begins by discussing why the virgin birth is such a difficult and divisive topic. The book then deals with a whole range of issues — literary, historical, and hermeneutical — from a critical yet positive perspective that takes seriously creedal confessions and theological concerns.

As part of his exegetical investigation of the New Testament texts, Lincoln considers the literary genre and distinctive characteristics of the birth narratives as ancient biography. Further, he delineates how changes in our views of history and biography decisively affect any traditional understanding of the significance of an actual virgin birth. He also explores what that means for the authority of Scripture and creed, along with implications for Christology and for preaching and teaching from the birth narratives.

What other recommendations would you add?

Bauckham: “New Evidence” That Mark’s Gospel Is Based on Peter’s Testimony

On his blog, Larry Hurtado has posted a comment from Richard Bauckham, in which Bauckham is discussing the role of eyewitness testimony in the formation of the gospels. What I found especially interesting, though, is that Bauckham said that he is currently writing a sequel to Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, and that in this book he will present new evidence that Mark’s gospel is based largely on testimony from the apostle Peter. Here is Bauckham’s comment in its entirety (I’ve underlined the Mark/Peter details):

“I guess I ought to clarify my position on eyewitness testimony in the Gospels, since it has been raised and you, Larry, say: ‘As I understand him, he doesn’t mean that the Gospels are “eyewitness testimony” such as a court transcript would provide, but that the Gospels draw on “eyewitness testimony” as it circulated in early Christian circles.’ Well, no, certainly nothing like a court transcript, more like “oral history.” But my point was that the Gospels are CLOSE to the eyewitnesses’ own testimony, not removed from them by decades of oral tradition. I think there is a very good case for Papias’s claim that Mark got his much of his material directly from Peter (and I will substantiate this further with quite new evidence in the sequel to [my book] Jesus and the Eyewitnesses that I’m now writing). I think that the ‘Beloved Disciple’ himself wrote the Gospel of John as we have it, and that he was a disciple of Jesus and thus an eyewitness himself, as he claims, though not John the son of Zebedee. Of course, his Gospel is the product of his life-long reflection on what he had witnessed, the most interpretative of the Gospels, but still the only one actually written by an eyewitness, who, precisely because he was close to Jesus, felt entitled to interpret quite extensively. Luke, as well as incorporating written material (Mark’s Gospel, which he knew as substantially Peter’s version of the Gospel story, and probably some of the “Q” material was in written form), also, I think, did what ancient historians did: he took every opportunity to meet eyewitnesses and interviewed them. He has probably collected material from a number of minor eyewitnesses from whom he got individual stories or sayings. Matthew is the Gospel I understand least! But whatever accounts for Matthew it is not the form-critical picture of anonymous community traditions, which we really must now abandon!”

This has me curious. Any guesses as to what “new evidence” he might have in mind?