Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus: A Re-examination of the Evidence

By Jonathan L. Reed
Harrisburg, PA : Trinity (2001). xvi + 253 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Dennis Swanson
13.2 (Fall 2002) : 291-294

 The so-called “quest for the historical Jesus,” has been an ongoing process for more than a century and in recent years has been re-energized by the work and related activities of the “Jesus Seminar”. These endeavors have centered mainly on the Synoptic Gospels and some extra-biblical material (e.g., the Gospel of Thomas). Utilizing various and often contradictory methodologies to examine the texts, the results of these efforts have been massive in terms of a body of literature, including most notably the manufacture of a “gospel” document entitled “Q” or, as the author of this work calls it, “Sayings Source Q .”

This work, by an archaeologist who, while wholeheartedly sympathetic to the endeavor, expresses dissatisfaction over the results of the quest by purely historical-critical methodology. He details his concern and prejudices in the introductory chapter:

For the most part, biblical scholarship has been the domain of literary studies and textcentered. The text of the Bible was the primary object of study, and exegesis the chief goal. This near myopic focus on words, perhaps a remnant of Christian and particularly Protestant theology, rendered archaeology biblical studies’ “handmaiden,” whose role was to assist exegesis or discover new written materials (1).

The author’s concern is that biblical studies have not been adequately informed by the work of archaeology and that discipline’s emphasis on detailing the “material culture” of a given era within a particular geographic region. The goal of this work is to bring archaeological data, particularly from the region of Galilee to bear on the subject of the “historical Jesus,” in an attempt to provide what the author apparently perceives as a lack of factual underpinnings to the foundation of these studies. Related to these studies, he perceptively notes,

With rare exceptions, notably the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls or Nag Hammadi Library well over a generation ago, scholars working on Jesus and Galilee with literary evidence simply introduce new methods or innovative theories to analyze these texts. The collage of citations is re-shuffled or re-mixed, emphasizing some passages over others, while re-interpreting a few, perhaps in dialogue with other disciplines (214).

The author is a professor of New Testament and Christian origins at the University of LaVerne in California and is the field director of the Sepphoris Acropolis excavations. The overall work is well accomplished in terms of layout and logical progression. Though the author indicated that this work would not be a “collection of archaeological artifacts” (xi), the volume is nonetheless adequately illustrated with diagrams, charts and some photographs. There is also a brief, but adequate subject index. There is a remarkably thorough bibliography (221-46), which is one of the strongest aspects of the work. The bibliography is so large that it might have been helpful for the author to make some categorical subdivisions within it. Also, in light of the author’s discussion of the road system, his insistence that no major roadway went through Capernaum (148-49) and the subsequent discussion of trade and commerce in Galilee, it seem s strange that David A. Dorsey’s definitive work, The Roads and Highways of Ancient Israel (Johns Hopkins Press, 1991) is not referenced. The book is divided into three main sections: the first part dealing mainly with the cultural geography of Galilee; the second centering on two Galilean cities, Sepphoris and Capernaum; and the third the integration of the author’s archaeological conclusions to “Q” and the “historical Jesus” quest.

In the chapter “Jesus and Sepphoris Revisted,” (100-138), he details the issues related to this interesting, and in terms of secular history, significant city. Sepphoris was a leading city of Galilee, and under Herod Antipas had been the regional capital. Josephus called the city “the ornament of all Galilee” (Ant. 18.27). The issue of Sepphoris has always been that, despite Jesus’ extensive ministry in Galilee, this city is never mentioned in the NT. This omission has long perplexed NT scholars who have insisted that the largely Greek-speaking, cosmopolitan center located only a few miles from Nazareth must play a large role in understanding the cultural background of Jesus’ life and ministry. The author notes, “[H]ow Sepphoris affected Galilee, and how this impact is addressed in Jesus’ teachings as recorded by his followers, is the principal concern” (114). However, in this reviewer’s opinion, this quest, like the quest for Q, is ultimately doomed to irrelevance because of the author’s minimalistic approach to the text of Scripture, even beyond the exp licit rejection of inspiration and inerrancy.

In the author’s view, the lack of mention (in this case of Sepphoris) in the text is a factual omission, an omission so significant, that the text cannot possibly be understood without being informed by some method of cultural and social reconstruction via the archaeological data. Of course, when the text of Scripture is viewed as just another “source document” and not a thoroughly reliable one at that, such conclusions are to be expected. That the biblical text is not exhaustive in terms of the history and events it covers is certainly without question and even admitted by the biblical writers themselves (John 20:31; 21:25). In the OT era the famous battle of Qarqar (853 B.C.), where Ahab, the well-known king of Israel, led a coalition that defeated the then-emerging Assyrian Empire, is an example of a famous and politically significant incident that receives no mention at all. But such omissions do not contain material or information that is of primary importance in arriving at a proper exegesis of the text. The same can be said for Jesus and Sepphoris; apparently no ministry or other issue of significance occurred there that the inspired writers were led to include.

In chapter six the author endeavors to give a geographic location of “Q” in terms of its literary center and the influences of the surrounding culture on the writing itself. As an underlying assumption, the author makes an interesting admission when he says,

The first assumption about the nature of Q is that it was a literary document written in Greek. Although the early sayings may well have been first articulated in Semitic, attempts to uncover a written Aramaic Vorlage behind Q have failed. Q, therefore, must be located in an area where at least some level of Greek literacy existed (214-15).

The author then moves to postulate a Galilean locale for Q and, in so doing, recasts Jesus from Messiah and Savior to a socio-religious Galilean activist opposed to urbanization and economic policies of Herod Antipas.

In terms of the collection of information with interesting and, in some cases perhaps illuminating parallels, the author has done a service to the scholarly discussion. His comments as to the failure of the purely literary efforts to locate the “historical Jesus” are incisive and in many ways condemnatory of that process. However, he himself is following the same path as those on the Jesus Seminar quest. The Jesus Seminar approaches “simply introduce new methods or innovative theories to analyze these texts” (214). This author, in the blending of social science theories from cultural geography, sociology, and the like with the interpretative process of archaeology, has simply created a “new method or innovative theory” to interpret the archaeological data. This is most clearly seen when he criticizes strict examination of the text in terms of its geographical data: “This strict empirical approach neglects the intricate blending between the literary and symbolic worlds and adds little to an understanding of the community’s perspective on the world” (172). His concept of keeping in mind the “distinctions between the ‘textual world,’ ‘symbolic world,’ and ‘concrete world’” in evaluating the textual and archaeological data is reminiscent of Origen’s “Threefold Sense of Scripture,” now transposed into the archaeological method.

The author’s insight that the literary attempts to find the “historical Jesus” have, for the most part, failed is certainly valid. His solution, however, to further subjugate the text of Scripture under another layer of interpretation from another ancillary discipline is certainly invalid and wholly unsatisfactory. If this book marks a trend to move further away from Scripture to prop up the superstructure of historical criticism, it is a most unwanted trend, and one evangelicals will need to be wary of.