Archaeology and the New Testament (I)

By Mike Willis


When one turns to study the field of archaeology and its relation to the study of the New Testament, immediately he realizes that he has much less material relative to his study than if he had chosen to study the relationship of archaeology to the study of the Old Testament.

There are some very logical reasons for this apparent lack of material. First of all, the time period covered in the Old Testament is approximately two millenniums while the New Testament is confined to a bare century. Secondly, a large portion of the New Testament deals with matters which cannot be confirmed by the archaeologists spade. “Archaeology cannot produce extensive evidence from the world of the New Testament for the life of Christ offers nothing that would leave any material traces on this earth: neither royal palaces, nor temples, neither victorious campaigns nor burned cities and country sides. Jesus was essentially a man of peace; he taught the Word of God. Archaeologists have recognized their task to be that of reconstructing his environment and rediscovering the villages and cities where he lived, worked, and died.” (Werner Keller, The Bible as History, New York: William Morrow and Company, 1956, p 340) Thirdly, the New Testament deals with a group of people held together by a spiritual union instead of a group in national union. Obviously, a nation is more apt to leave material evidence for the archaeologists because of its political ties whereas a spiritual union will leave little or no trace. Therefore, this held of study is more limited than the field of archaeology and the study of the Old Testament.

Lest I leave the impression that this study is altogether unimportant, let me list some areas in which the study of archaeology has aided in the study of the New Testament. Since neither the New Testament nor the Old Testament claims to give a complete history, archaeology has added much hitherto unknown historical information. At the same time, this has given us a wider general background in which to place the events recorded in the New Testament. Thus, archaeology has given us many facts which generally corroborate statements of the New Testament. Recent discoveries of New Testament passages on papyri in Egypt have also affected the dating of several of the books of the New Testament. Also, as would be expected, in several places specific statements of the New Testament have been corroborated by recent archaeological work.

Thus, our subject of study offers great potential. I now proceed in the next article to show how archaeological research has helped in the study of the New Testament.

August 24, 1972