Archaeology and the New Testament (V)

By Mike Willis

Examples of Specific Corroboration in the Gospels

After showing places where archaeology has helped general information of a background nature for New Testament 9tudies and where archaeology has helped in dating the books of the New Testament, there remains the citation of instances in which specific points recorded in the New Testament have been confirmed.

No point in New Testament archaeology has been so closely studied as has been Lukes mention of the enrollment taken while Quirinius, was governor of Syria. Here is Lukes mention of it:

“Now it came to pass in these days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census should be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all were proceeding to register for the census, everyone to his own city.”1

“In the past generation it was believed that I-mke bad made almost as many mistakes as could possibly he made in these few lines, for it was thought that he was in error with regards to (1) the existence of such an imperial census; (2) Cyrenius (Quirinius-MW) being governor at that time (Lk. 2:2); (3) everyone having to go to his ancestral home.” 2 Although all the points have not been specifically corroborated, the existing evidence is certainly in Lukes favor.

“The point may be raised as to whether there is evidence that Augustus did in fact have an arrangement for such a system of enrollment. Here we have a good deal of material on hand. Clement of Alexandria (A.D. 155-220) spoke as though he knew of such a system and said that it began with the census at the time of the birth of Christ. It is established that in the later empire there was a cycle of fourteen years between enrollments; and in Egypt, at any rate, there is documentary evidence in the form of actual census papers, for enrollments in A.D. 90, 104, 118, 132, and on till 230.” 3

Earlier scholars objected that a census held by Quirinius could not have occurred in the time of Herod, since Quirinius had not become governor of Syria. However, it is clear from contemporary inscriptions that Quirinius exercised some kind of executive power on two distinct occasions in Syria. One of these sources, found at Antioch in Pisidia, spoke of P. Sulpicius Quirinius duumvir waging a campaign in Syria about 10 B.C. in his capacity of chief magistrate, while a second inscription attested to his prominence in the Imperial army c. 6 B.C. It should be noted that Luke does not say that Quirinius held the census himself, but only that it was conducted at the time he was legate . . . On the basis of the evidence at hand, the Classical scholar W. M. Calder concluded that Quirinius had held two governships in Syria . . . The census may well have begun about 8 B.C., during the legateship of Quirinius and completed within the next two years, which would bring it within the lifetime of Herod the Great . . .” 4

“Supporting also the now widely admitted possibility that Lukes census may have involved the return of everyone to his ancestral home is the evidence from periodic enrollments in Egypt which were conducted on a fourteen year cycle and were by households. The edict in question is that of G. Vibius Maximus, prefect of Egypt and dated 104 A.D. Since the enrollment by households is approaching, it is necessary to command all who for any reason are out of their own district to return to their own home in order to perform the usual business of taxation”5

“It should in all candor be noticed just what archaeology has proved concerning this matter, and what points are still, from the archaeological side, outstanding. It has proved that the census was a periodic occurrence once in fourteen years, that this system was in operation as early as 20 A.D., and that it was customary for people to go to their ancestral abodes for enrollment. It has made probable that the census system was established by Augustus, and that Quirinius was governor of Syria twice, although the last two points are not yet fully established by archaeological evidence. So far as the new material goes, however, it confirms the narrative of Luke.” 6

Moving now to other things mentioned in the gospels and confirmed by archaeology, we find Luke mentioning the time when Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene. 7 “An inscription at Abila, dating from the reign of Tiberius, mentions Lysanias as tetrarch at that time, thus confirming Lukes statement. Lukes accuracy in distinguishing Abilene from Philips tetrarchy is also confirmed extra biblically. Some years later the tetrarchies were still separate, for the Emperor Caligula (47-41 A.D.) gave the tetrarchy of Philip, by that time deceased, and the tetrarchy of Lysanias to Herod Agrippa, and Emperor Claudius confirmed to him Abila of Lysanias.8

On another occasion, Jesus was misunderstood by those listening to him when lie foretold the resurrection of his body and they thought lie was discussing the building of the Jerusalem temple. They replied, “It took forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?” 9 “Herods greatest accomplishment was; the Hellenistic rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple, which had been constructed by Solomon and restored after the exile by Zerubbabel, but was now beginning to deteriorate. Work on the third temple was begun in 20 B.C. After nine and a half years, the structure of the temple proper was finished; the rest of the temple precinct took longer (more than forty-six years mentioned in John 2:20).”10 Thus, Jesus statement must have occurred around 26 A.D. while work was still being done on the temple.

Archaeological research has worked on the reference in John 19:13 to the “Pavement” where Jesus was tried before Pilate. Two suggestions have been forwarded as to the specific location of the “Pavement.” One suggests that the reference is to the paved floor in the Tower of Antonia adjacent to the temple. Others, feeling that Pilate would not likely have stayed with common soldiers while visiting Jerusalem, place the location of the “Pavement” in Herods palace. “Josephus tells us of a later occasion when the procurator Florus sat in judgment before Herods palace. There was evidently a judgment seat (bema) set up there for Herod to carry out his own ordinary judicial functions. Hence the entrance to the palace could well have been the Praetorium on that occasion.” 11

Thus, archaeology has confirmed several facts in the gospels and will confirm many more as new evidence becomes available.


1. Lk. 2:1-3.

2. Joseph P. Free, Archaeology and Bible History, (Wheaton, Van Kampen Press, 1952), p. 285.

3. James A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids, Win. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), p. 376.

4. R. K. Harrison, Archaeology of the New Testament, (New York: Association Press, 1964), p. 25.

Merrill F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1970), p. 64.

6. George A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (Philadelphia: American Sunday-School Union, 1946), p. 558.

7. Lk. 3: 1.

8. Op. Cit., Unger, p. 73.

9. John 2:20.

10. Bo Reicke, The New Testament Era (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1968) p. 98.

11. Op. Cit., Thompson, p. 346.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XVI: 45, pp. 6-7
September 21, 1972