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Blog / Jesus and the Culture of His Day: An Interview with Craig A. Evans

Jesus and the Culture of His Day: An Interview with Craig A. Evans

Dr. Craig A. EvansArchaeological evidence enlightens our understanding of the life and death of Jesus and the culture in which he lived, providing a context for the different periods in time.

Bible Gateway interviewed Craig Evans (@DrCraigAEvans) about his book, Jesus and the Remains of His Day: Studies in Jesus and the Evidence of Material Culture (Hendrickson Publishers, 2015).

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[Read the Bible Gateway Blog post, The Undeniable Reliability of Scripture: An Interview with Josh McDowell]

Please explain the meaning of your book’s title, Jesus and the Remains of His Day.

Craig A. Evans: All that we have of history are “remains,” either remains of writings or the physical remains of human culture. With respect to Jesus we have a significant body of writings and physical remains, which are brought to light through archaeological excavations and analysis. My book assembles the most important of these remains and then interprets the remains and the written records in a way that sheds light on one another.

How is modern archaeology reinforcing the Bible’s veracity?

Craig A. Evans: Modern archaeology supports the general veracity of the Bible’s narratives in two ways:

(1) What we learn of the biblical world thanks to archaeology is consistent with what the biblical narratives describe. That would not be the case if the biblical narratives were nothing more than fiction or wildly inaccurate stories.

(2) Often archaeology confirms specific claims in biblical narratives. Again, if the biblical narratives were fiction, this would not happen. Historians and archaeologists call this verisimilitude, in that the biblical narratives—or in the case of the New Testament Gospels, with which my book is primarily concerned—align with the historical data we find in other sources, both written and archaeological. If a source does not exhibit verisimilitude, historians and archaeologists will not use it.

Explain why even non-Christian archaeologists use the four Gospels as a basis for their digs.

Craig A. Evans: All archaeologists in Israel/Palestine make use of the New Testament Gospels. They do this because the Gospels exhibit verisimilitude. In short, the Gospels help archaeologists know where to dig and they help archaeologists understand what they unearth. The 2nd-century Gospels and Gospel-like writings rarely exhibit verisimilitude, so archaeologists rarely appeal to them. The Gospel of Thomas, greatly favored in some circles, is ignored by archaeologists, primarily because it exhibits no verisimilitude. It tells us nothing about the historical Jesus and the world he and his disciples lived in. I’ve heard it said, that if all we had was the Gospel of Thomas, would we even know that Jesus was Jewish?

How does archaeological evidence enrich a person’s study of Jesus and the Gospels?

Craig A. Evans: Archaeological evidence provides significant help in interpreting the Gospels. In a sense, archaeology is an exegetical tool. To ignore the evidence of archaeology would be almost as irresponsible as making no appeal to the original text. The archaeological evidence is a vital component in the context of Scripture.

What’s important about the cities of Bethsaida and Magdala and what’s been learned from artifacts found there?

Craig A. Evans: In the year 30 CE Philip the tetrarch of Gaulanitis, where Bethsaida is located, announced the re-founding and renaming of Bethsaida. It was now Julias, in honor of Livia, recently deceased widow of Caesar Augustus, who had been deified as “god” or “son of god.”

In Caesar’s will Livia was adopted into the imperial family and received the name Julia Augusta. A movement got under way urging her deification. Evidently Philip supported it. Such a move would have offended pious Jews. It’s important for Jesus and his disciples when we remember that at least three disciples (Simon Peter, Andrew, and Philip) came from Bethsaida. Atop the rock precipice of Bethsaida, now Julias, the tetrarch planned to build a temple in honor of divine Julia.

I believe that Jesus “pushed back” against this political announcement by renaming his Bethsaida disciple Simon Peter or “Rock” (petros), adding that he would build his church or community on the rock (petra) and that the gates of hell (that is, the government) would not prevail against it. Philip, the tetrarch, could build his temple on the rock of Bethsaida, in honor of a pagan Roman woman; Jesus promised to build his church on the rock of Simon Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Anointed Son of God.

The recent discovery of a decorated stone in the center of a 1st-century Magdala synagogue is very important. The decorated stone exhibits Temple themes, including the menorah. Not only have we finally discovered a synagogue in Magdala that dates to the time of Jesus, the decorated stone provides evidence of the Galilean Jews’ loyalty to the Jerusalem Temple. Although not proven, it’s possible that Jesus preached in this very synagogue. Excavations of the nearby market, street, and private homes, some with mikvoth, continues. It is probable that the street that’s been uncovered was walked by Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’ prominent female followers.

What are the difficulties of correlating textual data with material evidence on the Bible?

Craig A. Evans: The principal problem is that textual data and material remains are often incomplete and sometimes lack adequate context, in order to know precisely how they correlate. Sometimes all we can say is that the textual data and the material remains are probably related but how exactly can’t be said until additional discoveries are made.

Talk briefly about your book’s exploration of hanging and crucifixion during the time of Jesus.

Craig A. Evans: As I write in Jesus and the Remains of His Day, the archaeological evidence of crucifixion is quite significant and has until quite recently been under-reported. We have 148 iron nails that have been recovered from pre-70 Jewish tombs. Most of these nails are probably crucifixion nails. Many of them were placed in tombs as good-luck charms, as strange as that may sound. Some of these nails are encrusted with human calcium. Best known are the nails that remain in the right heel of Yehohanan and the hand of Antigonus.

The evidence as a whole suggests that many people who were crucified were probably buried, according to Jewish customs. Study of Roman law (as seen in the Digesta) allowed for the burial of the executed. According to Philo and Josephus Roman authorities in the land of Israel permitted burial of the crucified. The idea that Jesus was probably not taken down from the cross and buried, but was left exposed to animals, is most unlikely and is in fact rejected by archaeologists, Jewish and Christian alike.

One of your chapters discusses an ossuary and its significance. What are you saying can be learned from it?

Craig A. Evans: Ongoing scientific study of the ossuary, whose inscription reads “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” has show that the ossuary and its inscription are in fact ancient and authentic. Unfortunately this has not been widely reported in the popular media, so even some scholars who ought to know better remain under the impression that the so-called James Ossuary is a fake. The ossuary and inscription are genuine. Whether the inscription’s names are those of the well known Jesus and family remains uncertain. If they are, then we know that James did indeed live in Jerusalem, as the book of Acts states, that he and his family were probably Aramaic-speaking, as many in Galilee were, and that they continued to live according to Jewish customs, including burial practices.

Why are Christian epitaphs included in your book?

Craig A. Evans: Christian epitaphs provide important evidence of views that differ, sometimes sharply, from the views of Jews and pagans. Christian epitaphs provide important insights into beliefs about Jesus, God, heaven and hell, and virtue. What’s starkly different about Christian epitaphs, in contrast to pagan epitaphs, is the hope that’s expressed. Rarely do we find hope in pagan epitaphs; we almost always do in Christian epitaphs.

What is your response to someone who says the Bible is historically unreliable?

Craig A. Evans: That person doesn’t know the sources or the archaeological evidence.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Craig A. Evans: Bible Gateway is a great tool.

Bio: Craig Evans is the John Bisagno Distinguished Professor of Christian Origins and Dean of the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University in Texas. A graduate of Claremont McKenna College, he received his MDiv from Western Baptist Seminary in Portland, Oregon, and his MA and PhD in Biblical Studies from Claremont Graduate University in southern California. He was awarded the D.Habil. by the Karoli Gaspar Reformed University in Budapest.

Author and editor of more than 60 books—including From Jesus to the Church: The First Christian Generation, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, and God Speaks: What He Says, What He Means—and hundreds of articles and reviews, Professor Evans has given lectures at Cambridge, Oxford, Durham, Yale, and other universities, colleges, seminaries, and museums, such as the Field Museum in Chicago, the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. He also regularly lectures and gives talks at popular conferences and retreats on the historical Jesus, Archaeology, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Bible.

Along with countless interviews on radio networks across Canada and the US, Evans has been seen on Dateline NBC, CBC, CTV, Day of Discovery, and many documentaries aired on BBC, The Discovery Channel, History Channel, History Television, and others. He also has served as a consultant for the National Geographic Society and for The Bible miniseries, produced by Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

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Filed under Apologetics, Archaeology, Bible, Books, History, Interviews, Jesus