Archaeology and the New Testament (II)

By Mike Willis

General Corroboration of Background Material

On opening ones New Testament, almost immediately a king named Herod commits an act of almost unbelievable wickedness when he “sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its environs, from two years old and under.”1 Our knowledge of Herod the Great is now completed enough that this statement, or any other, is no longer unbelievable. He murdered his favorite wife, Marianne I, because he suspected her of unfaithfulness. Later, he convicted and executed his two sons by Mariamne I, Alexander and Aristobulus, for treason. 2 Thus, when in his old age Herod committed many acts showing emotional instability, why should one be overly appalled if lie murdered a few more babies because of his fear of one of them eventually taking over his throne?

Later reading in the gospel of Matthew (14:1-12) records the mention of another Herod called “the tetrarch” that had some type of marriage which did not meet the approval of John the Baptist. This Herod was called Herod Antipas and became a tetrarch following the death of Herod the Great. He ruled from 4 B.C., to 39 A.D.3 He was married to Herodias, who had formerly been married to Antipas half brother, Herod Boethus. Prior to Antipas marriage to Herodias, he had been married to a Nabatean princess whom he divorced. The divorce led to a war with Aretas IV, king of the Nabateans, who was determined to revenge his daughters mistreatment by Herod. 4 Since both Herod Antipas and Herodias had been previously married and divorced, no wonder John the Baptist said, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” 5

In Acts 8:27, the historian Luke introduced us to a certain eunuch who was treasurer under Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. “Archeological light on this group of queens called Candace was found by Melver in his excavations in Nubia, 1908-1909. In the Christian period these Nubians still called their queen Candace: they fed her on milk, and regarded obesity as an attribute of royalty.” 6 The British Museum contains a large relief showing one of these queens named Candace.

Paul recorded his escape from the ethnarch of Damascus under Aretas the king. 7 Regarding the king Aretas, this quotation relates the following:

“Dr. A. Cowley, 1914-1915, found a particularly interesting inscription at Khalasa … dating from about 96 B.C.: This is the place which Nuthairu made, for the life of Aretas, king of the Nabateans. A number of other inscriptions mention Arems, who loves his people. One of these date from A.D. 31, and anotherfromA.D. 37. Itwas sometime between these dates that Paul escaped from the governor of Aretas in Damascus.” 8

Thus, little by little, archaeologists are able to piece together knowledge of history for that age in which New Testament history occurred.

Of no less importance has been the many papyri discoveries in the arid sands of Egypt. One significant help of these discoveries has been the light shed on the day to day living. “At Tebtunis in the southern Fayum 1899-1900, Grenfell and Hunt found papyri … Here in a sacred crocodile cemetery, where the deified animals had been mummified and interred ceremoniously, papyri turned up in profusion as wrappings for the crocodile mummies … There before the amazed eyes of the archaeologists were fragments of ancient classics, private A letters, petitions, land surveys, accounts contracts and royal ordinances.” 9

In addition to the rebuilding of the ordinary daily life of first century citizens, papyri finds brought new discoveries such as the one by Mjr. Adolf Deissman. “Deissman was the first to )recognize that these papyri were written exactly in the language of the New Testament, and to draw the conclusive inference that Biblical Greek could not any longer he regarded as an esoteric, sacred language, or as a language to any considerable degree Hebraized by its Jewish autbors.”10 With this discovery, a new period in the study of New Testament Greek began. Rather than considering the New Testament to be a “sacred Greek” or “Holy Spirit Greek,” the scholars found the New Testament to be written in the language of the common man. “The N.T. Greek is now seen to be not an abnormal excrescence, but a natural development in the Greek language; to be, in fact, a not unworthy part of the great stream of the mighty tongue. It was not outside of the world language, but in the very heart of it and influenced considerably the future of the Greek tongue.”11 “Numbers of New Testament words, once considered strictly biblical, are now known to be common to the Koine of the period. Even more important is the elucidation of the meanings of words. Words once thought to have special biblical or New Testament meanings in many instances have been found not to differ appreciably from their usage in the papyri.” 12

Archaeology, therefore, blew up some old-fashioned theories and completely re-vamped the study of the New Testament.


1. Matt. 2:16.

2. Bo Reicke. The New Testament Era, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 19681 pp. 91-106)

3. Ibid., p. 115.

4. Ibid., p. 125.

5. Matt. 14:4.

6. Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History, (Wheaton, Van Kampen Press, 1952), p. 311.

7. 2 Cor. 11:32.

8. Camden M. Cobern, The New Archaeological Discoveries, New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1917), p. 369.

9. Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), p. 331.

10. Op. Cit., Cobern, p. 30.

11. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1934), p. 30.

12. Op. Cit., Unger, p. 335.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 42, pp. 11-13
August 31, 1972