How strong is the archaeological and historical evidence for Jesus and the Gospels? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with Dr. Titus Kennedy, a field archaeologist and adjunct professor at Biola, about his latest book: Excavating the Evidence for Jesus. They discuss some of the key discoveries that offer illumination and historical support for key events in the life, ministry, and burial of Jesus.
Dr. Titus Kennedy is a field archaeologist working primarily with sites and materials related to the Bible. He has been involved in excavations and surveys at several archaeological sites in Bible lands. He is a research fellow at Discovery Institute, an adjunct professor at Biola University, and the author of multiple books including Unearthing the Bible.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith & Culture. A podcast from Talbot School Theology, Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics.
Scott Rae: And I'm your co-host Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics.
Sean McDowell: We're here with Dr. Titus Kennedy to talk about his recent book that is now officially my go-to book on archeology and Jesus, and it's simply called Excavating the Evidence for Jesus. Dr. Titus Kennedy also is an adjunct faculty with us here at Biola University and the author of a bunch of other books and a field archeologist. So eminently, just train and qualify to talk about this. We're going to jump into your book, but thanks so much for coming on.
Titus Kennedy: Hey, I appreciate you guys having me on the podcast.
Sean McDowell: Yeah, I'm really curious as a whole, if you could give us a sense of your assessment as an archeologist of the archeological evidence for Jesus and what I mean by that is the archeological evidence available during the time period, the life Jesus lived. Is it less than we would hope for? Is it roughly what we would expect or just say, it's surprisingly more than what we might expect?
Titus Kennedy: Well, if we look at Jesus in terms of his social status and the area in which he lived during the Roman period, then I would say that overall, the amount of archeological and historical evidence that we have for Jesus and His life is astounding, because He was not a king.
Sean McDowell: Wow.
Titus Kennedy: He was not a general, a prince, a wealthy businessman or major religious leader of established religions at the time. He was essentially a craftsman who became an itinerant teacher and had disciples. And yet, when we look at the accounts and the gospels, and then we connect that to archeology and historical sources outside of the Bible, we see so much attestation, not only of Jesus Himself, but of events in His life. And so many of the places that He went, even getting down to specific buildings in some situations. And that's just so far beyond what we should expect in other situations.
Scott Rae: So Titus, let me follow up on that just a bit, when we're talking about archeology and the historical Jesus, what exactly does it help us do? Does it just illuminate the time period in which He lived and give us a lot of good historical background or does it help support the actual reliability of the gospel accounts?
Titus Kennedy: It does both. We have archeological material, of course, that helps us with illuminating the text. As you said, helping us to better understand scripture and the gospel specifically, and not just the world in which Jesus live, but even details that are written within the gospel so that we can interpret things better. But it also corroborates the historical reliability of those gospel accounts about Jesus in many different places. Of course, not the entire four gospels, every word is corroborated, but we have many major locations, events and people that are.
Sean McDowell: So we're going to jump into some of those, from His birth, through His ministry, to His trial, to His death, which you cover in the book so holistically and helpful fashion. But one more question before we jump at those, I'm curious, give us a sense of how has the archeological community or assessment of Jesus change over the past few years or the past few decades?
Titus Kennedy: I think over the past few decades, there has been a slight change. Now, in the archeology community and really the ancient history community. There hasn't been a serious challenge to the existence of Jesus. Although, they're looking at the historical Jesus and saying, "Is that the same as what's depicted in the gospels?" But no scholars are really saying that Jesus didn't exist, but we have over the last few decades uncovered many different types of archeological material that corroborate the gospel stories and even the existence of Jesus, in some cases. For example, a couple of inscriptions that have come to light over the last 20 years.
Scott Rae: Let me ask you about one of these things in particular. What I was drawn to was the evidence for the House of Peter in the City of Capernaum. I've visited that site on several trips to Israel. And in watching The Chosen, Peter's home is depicted as a real thing. And there's quite a lot of activity in some of The Chosen episodes that goes in and out of Peter's home. So what's the evidence for the fact that Peter actually had a home in Capernaum, which was doubted, I think for a long time, until we had archeological evidence to show that it actually did exist.
Titus Kennedy: Right. And there's good reason for people to be skeptical of that if we had no archeological material connected to that. But as you said, the excavations in Capernaum did uncover this house. Actually, it was a church that was built around a house and as they continued to examine the material recovered there, they found all these inscriptions, basically graffiti that Christians had carved into the plaster walls of the house. And many of these were things like praising Jesus Christ, but at least a couple of them mentioned the name Peter on there. And we have accounts from early pilgrims who talk about this church having been the House of Peter, started out as the House of Peter, Peter leaves Capernaum.
Titus Kennedy: And of course, Judea at some point in the second half of the first century, because we know that he ends up in Rome. So roughly we would say after 50 AD, and that is when the house seems to change from a house into more of a community meeting place. And that's reflected in the archeological material there and the change in the architecture. And so we have ancient accounts talking about the House of Peter being located there. We've got the graffiti from the structure itself and the change in the structure. And then we have the Byzantines who end up building an actual, "Official church building," around that in order to preserve it and commemorate it.
Sean McDowell: Titus, as you well know one of the most common critiques of the gospel account involves the Census by Quirinius at the birth of Jesus. Sometimes we're told a Quirinius ruled at a different time. Sometimes we hear that people were not sent to their place of origin for a census like this. Does archeology shed light on that critique? In other words, is such a census during that time and place as the gospels, describe it historically plausible.
Titus Kennedy: Absolutely. And that's a really important question and issue to address because it is one of the most criticized sections in the gospel, especially in the gospel of Luke, because Luke claims that there is this empire-wide census that's ordered by Augustus. And then he claims that Quirinius was the ruler in Syria who was involved in the local administration of this census. And further, we have Joseph going back to his hometown to register for it. Well, all of those things are attested by archeological discoveries. First of all, we have inscriptions from the biography of Augustus and he talks about three empire-wide censuses that he ordered. And one of those is eight 8 BC. And so of course, we're looking for sometime close to the Death of Herod the Great in 4 BC, March of 4 BC. So it's got to be a bit before that.
Titus Kennedy: So an 8 BC order would coincide. And then there is an inscription that was recovered in Beirut which was at the time Syria province. And it talks about Quirinius being the legate in that area and how he was the one who was administering the census that Augustus had ordered. And then we have documents from Egypt, Papyri that are census documents. And some of these explained to us how people had to go back to their registered home, to their hometown in order to fill out the information for the census. So all this stuff is consistent in the manner it's done in the chronology, and even in the main officials and particularly Quirinius who were involved in this census.
Scott Rae: Titus, one of the episodes that you write about in the book that I'm fascinated with is the one that I think is pretty typical of what we think about King Herod as megalomaniac as he was. But The Massacre of the Innocence by Herod is recorded in Matthew's Gospel. I know has been the subject of a lot of controversy, even though, I think, it fits the portrait in the gospels of Herod, but what's the evidence that actually took place, other than what the gospels record?
Titus Kennedy: Right. As you said, it does fit the portrait of Herod and the gospels. It also really fits the portrait of Herod in Josephus. So Josephus, of course, doesn't talk about everything that Herod did. And he focuses on the major political rivals and his family, but he talks about how Herod had numerous political rivals put to death because he was so paranoid about losing his throne, but then Herod even ordered the execution of three of his own sons in the final few years of his life. So around 7-4 BC, which is the same time that we're looking at for Herod allegedly ordering the killing of the babies in Bethlehem. Now, not only is it consistent, but we have a couple of interesting texts from antiquity that seem to relate to this. One of them is called the assumption of Moses. And this is a 1st Century text seems to be a Jewish apocryphal.
Titus Kennedy: And it compares Moses to the Pharaoh who had the Hebrew male babies killed. So they know that something like that has happened. And then the only event like this that we know at that time would be the one that's talked about in Matthew. And then we have another later text, a Roman text, Saturnalia by Macrobius, which talks about Herod killing these children. And even of course his own sons, which we know about from Josephus. So it does seem consistent with historical record. It does seem like it's alluded to, even though it isn't as explicitly stated with all the details like in Matthew.
Sean McDowell: Now, before we jump onto your thoughts on Pilate and the existence of character Pilate, could you walk us through a little bit, how we as Christians look at the text, and we assume it talks about Herod Massacre of the Innocence, we assume that's innocent until proven guilty. The wider archeological community probably approaches a text like that assuming it's guilty in terms of not reliable until proven to be true. Is that a fair assessment? Walk us through a little bit, how you, and maybe other archeologists, even look at historically events like this recorded in the gospels?
Titus Kennedy: So the majority of scholars in modern times would look at any biblical text, but if we're just talking about the gospel specifically here, as something to question and be skeptical of, and they would look at it and say, "Okay. The gospel's claim A, and B, and C, now let's see what we have in archeological inscriptions or material or an ancient historical text, and say that they found corroboration of point B. So they are still going to look at A and C and say, "We don't know if that happened because it's just in the gospels." So they've basically disqualified the biblical text from being a historical document, unless part of it is corroborated by outside sources. So like you said, it is guilty until proven innocence in that regard.
Sean McDowell: That's really helpful. So let's apply that to somebody like Pilate, you and I, even if there were no inscriptions or ancient writings or archeological discoveries would trust the text and believe that Pilate existed in a time and place that the gospels record, others might be more critical. What has archeology revealed, if anything, about the existence of Pilate over the past few years?
Titus Kennedy: So 1961 was when the first archeological evidence of Pilate was discovered, and this happened at the theater in Caesarea Maritima, where they found this monumental inscription in reuse. And this inscription had originally been a dedication to some sort of building for Emperor Tiberius. And it was dedicated by Pontius Pilate Prefect of Judea, which is the name and title that appears on this Latin inscription. So while people didn't necessarily, or I should say, well, historians didn't necessarily question the existence of Pilate. This was still a really important artifact in just physically establishing his existence, his presence in Judea, his position, just as we had read in the gospels.
Titus Kennedy: And then more recently, this was actually just a couple of years ago that this was published or announced, there was a ring of Pilate, or at least with his name, his seal, that was discovered Herodium. And while this probably wasn't the ring that Pilate himself used, it would've been one of someone who served in his administration. And so had a governmental authority during the governorship of Pilate. So those two things really give us the name and the position of Pilate. We have ancient sources like Josephus, and Tacitus, and Pullo that reference Pilate. And then we have structures that are also connected to Pilate in the gospel that have been explored archeologically.
Sean McDowell: Mm-hmm.
Scott Rae: Titus, so one thing I want our listeners to know is that your book is just full of these fascinating references to archeological finds and digs that support some account that maybe our listeners don't even know there's controversy about. So one of the ones that was fascinating to me was your discussion of the archeological evidence for the account in John 4 of Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. And you said that there's actually evidence that it has to do with the well itself where Jesus talked to the Samaritan woman. Can you spell that out a little bit further?
Titus Kennedy: Right. So there's a place that we call Jacob's Well, and this is located in what is now the City of Nablus. But back at that time, it would've been Sychar, which is the name that we see in the gospels. And this is a well that goes back, at least probably, to the Roman period, but looks like it could be even older, too. It's been explored a few times and we think that it could have been more than 135 feet deep, but it's still there and it's still there and it's still visible, I should say. Not only because wells are needed particularly in that area, but they also associated it in very early Christian times with the well that Jesus visited in that tiny, little village, which wouldn't be hard to pick out. And so a church was eventually built around it to commemorate that. So while it isn't one of the most solidly established locations that we could associate with Jesus, it's very, very likely based on its location and antiquity.
Sean McDowell: I want to look at a couple more finds here, but you speak in words of like likely and probability, this is how historians approach their task, isn't it, and archeologists?
Titus Kennedy: It is, because we can't prove beyond the shadow of a doubt so many things, but we can look at the evidence and see what it best points to what the most likely explanation, what the strongest evidence indicates. And I think it's important to not overstate our case. We can talk in somewhat definitive terms, but if we're always saying we 100% know this and that, and that this happened here, and then it's shown that we were incorrect, then people are going to project that mistake onto so much of the other work on the topic. We're talking about the archeology of Jesus and say, "Oh, look at these archeologists. Look at these historians. They just said all this stuff was definitive. And yet we found this thing was a mistake. So their whole argument must just be wrong. And they are just trying to spew propaganda that we will believe these religious texts."
Scott Rae: Titus, just sort of to follow-up on that a bit. Are there any archeological finds that trouble you, that you have trouble accounting for, or that might seem to contradict the gospel accounts of Jesus?
Titus Kennedy: Throughout the Bible, they're in numerous places where I think we have archeological or historical issues that need to be worked out, we need more information and we need to find more material. We need to look into it and figure out explanations. A lot of this stuff has been dealt with in the past different issues that have been resolved. So there always is that, because we have incomplete information, as far as the gospels, I think that Quirinius Census is actually one of the big issues. Although, I think that we have strong evidence for the historical reliability of the Luke account.
Titus Kennedy: Another thing that comes up a lot is something like, "Where did the crucifixion happen?" And that's just something that I think we can only make an educated guess as, we don't have sufficient evidence for that at this time, maybe we will in the future. But I really don't think that even something like the accounts of the Death of Judas and trying to piece that together, the differences in the accounts, this is all stuff where we might need to find, discover more information. We might need to reassess and explain better than we have in the past. But I can't think of anything that is just blatantly contradictory.
Scott Rae: So rather than conclude that something's contradictory, what it sounds like you're suggesting is that all the evidence is not yet in?
Titus Kennedy: Right.
Scott Rae: Is that right?
Titus Kennedy: Right. Exactly. And we can't excavate everything and we can't expect to have every historical text from antiquity and complete. And so there are always going to be holes. But I think from an argument from silence against the reliability of the gospels is just not the way to go. It's not strong. And I mean, we could even say it's illogical. So we've got to look at what we do have and all the consistency between the archeological record and the gospels suggests that the whole of the gospels are correct.
Sean McDowell: You mentioned the crucifixion site as one where there's some debate taking place. What about if we step back to crucifixion as a whole of Jesus, does archeology give us any insight or reason to believe that the gospel accounts are actually reliable?
Titus Kennedy: Yeah. So the way that the gospels describe the crucifixion of Jesus is totally consistent with Roman crucifixion and even Roman crucifixion happening in Jerusalem of the first century for a long time, there was no evidence of Roman crucifixion of Jews in Jerusalem in this pre-70 AD period. But then this barrier of Jehohanan was discovered and inside his ossuary, they looked at his bones, they found in the heel bone, there was still the nail stuck in there from the crucifixion, and his wrist between the radius and the ulna looked like there had also been nails put through there. And so this was the first archeological evidence of crucifixion of someone like Jesus at that time.
Titus Kennedy: More recently, another one has been discovered where they found the nails still stuck in the wrist. So that type of thing is consistent. It was happening. The Jehohanan burial also shows us that crucifixion victims were able to be buried in Jerusalem, not just thrown into a trench or a pit grave. And so it's plausible that again, that Jesus was put in this rock human tomb. We have evidence of the crucifixion of Jesus from other ancient historical sources, like Tacitus and Lucian, for example, talk about this. So there's nothing to suggest that the crucifixion account of Jesus is incorrect.
Scott Rae: Mm-hmm. So Titus, let's go back a little bit further just to the trial of Jesus. Would you say that the accounts and the gospels have somewhat varying accounts of the trials of Jesus, but would you say that those are generally consistent with how we would expect trials to be held during that time period? And if so, what evidence do we have, if that's the case?
Titus Kennedy: As far as expecting trials during that time, I would say yes and no. So the trial of Jesus is somewhat unique, and yet, it's not historically implausible. And I say that because he goes to the house of the high priest and he goes to the Sanhedrin and he goes to the Roman governor. So it's a bit odd that there are these different people, but when you read the story, you understand why. And ultimately, they have to take him to Pilate the Roman governor. Because at that time, the Romans had the say over death sentences, not the Sanhedrin, even though the Sanhedrin was saying that it was a religious crime and that's why they were dealing with it. But what we do have in that trial of Jesus narrative is so much archeological and historical corroboration, in terms of the people involved in the trial, the locations, the different locations of the trial, and then just that it happened, of course, we also have that recounted in the writings of some 2nd Century historians.
Sean McDowell: Can you talk about some of the other findings or digs that are maybe going on right now that may in the future illuminate some insights about the gospel account of Jesus, or are these things just somewhat serendipitous where they pop-up as we're doing digs and just make the case less intentionally over time? What do we expect to find over the next two to five to 10 years in archeology as it relates to Jesus?
Titus Kennedy: Well, I don't know if we can say in the next 10 years that we should expect to find something significant connected to the life of Jesus, but it's possible, certainly. There are a number of digs going on in which more material connected to the gospels could be discovered. There were recently some excavations at one of the candidate sites for Cana of Galilee that I think helped to establish where that specific village was located. There have been numerous excavations in Jerusalem that have come up with additional evidence about priestly mansions. And perhaps, one of those will eventually come up with an inscription mentioning Caius or Anaphase so that we could more definitively locate the specific house that they were in. Although, we had good examples and a possibility now. There are excavations going on up in Galilee places like Tiberius or Sepphoris that might yield something that connects to the gospels. We never know for sure, we can expect that something will come up, but we can't really predict an exact thing.
Sean McDowell: Last question, more on a personal note for you. You've studied archeology for a long time. You've gone on digs. So your field archeologist, how has studying archeology affected your personal faith?
Titus Kennedy: Two ways, really. The first is that it's just to help me to better understand the ancient context of Christianity and how to think about the world in which Jesus and the disciples and the early Christians live so that I can have that frame of mind and that reference when I'm reading the New Testament and not projecting a 21st century settings or ideas onto it. Of course, we're all going to bring some of that to the text, but try not to. And then the second thing is that it's just continues to demonstrate to me the truth of Christianity, the truth of the Bible, and the more and more that we look into these things, even into situations where there's apparent contradictions or there's some historical problem. So many of these have been solved and continue to be solved and more I'm sure will be solved in the future. And the continuous theme here is that the gospels are true. The Bible is correct.
Sean McDowell: Dr. Titus Kennedy, we really appreciate you joining us. I just cannot suggest and recommend your book more highly. Again, the title is Excavating the Evidence for Jesus. And again, for our viewers, you start with the Birth of Jesus. You walk through his ministry in different areas, Bethany, of course, Jerusalem and Galilee. You walk through the trial, death, burial, and even some archeological evidence that supports somewhat indirectly the Resurrection of Jesus. So it is my go-to book. It's great stuff. Thanks for writing it. And thanks for teaching with us here at Biola.
Titus Kennedy: Oh, my pleasure. And I appreciate the kind words and endorsement.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast Think Biblically: Conversations On Faith & Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. We offer programs in Southern California and online, including our new fully-online bachelor's degree in Bible Theology and Apologetics visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoy today's conversation, please give us a rating on your podcast app and consider sharing it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening. And remember, Think Biblically about everything.