Bible in backpack. Words talk. Stones talk too. Neither talks from the past without interpretive dialogue with the present. But each talks and each demands to be heard in its own way. Only after archaeology and exegesis gets each its own full voice should they come together in doubled chorus and common report.
The purpose of this book is to integrate the archeology of ground and the exegesis of gospel by giving each its full explanatory power and by refusing to privilege one over the other. There is nothing new in archeologists reporting on what they have excavated. There is nothing new in exegetes describing what they have discovered. What is novel here is for a seasoned field-archaeologist and an experienced Jesus-scholar to work together and to do so not just on parallel tracks with alternatively written chapters but on a single track with each discipline woven together within each and every chapter. How do we read stones and texts as an integrated whole?
Why, then, is the book titled “Excavating Jesus”? On the one hand, how do we justify “Excavating Jesus ”? We can certainly talk about excavating villages, towns, and cities, about digging up houses, tombs, and even boats. But who can dig up Jesus? We could certainly speak of excavating Caiaphas, the high priest under whom Jesus was crucified by Pilate, because archaeologists have discovered his family tomb, his burial bone-box, and even his very skeleton. But how can archaeology ever speak of excavating Jesus ?
Take an example. The droughts of 1985 and 1986 exposed large areas usually hidden beneath the waters of Lake Kinneret, the New Testament’s Sea of Galilee. In January of 1986, Moshe and Yuval Lufan from Kibbutz Ginnosar on the lake’s northwestern shore, discovered a first-century boat completely covered beneath centuries of mud. That precious discovery started with a consistency of wet cardboard but now, after a magnificently successful preservation under Orna Cohen of Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, it stands firmly restored in the nearby Yigal Allon Museum. With two rowing oarsmen on either side, a steering oarsman at the stern, a mast and sail, it is certainly the type of boat imagined in the gospel accounts about Jesus on the lake. Let us imagine, just for now, that it is the actual boat used by Jesus. Unlikely, to be sure, but how, by excavating it, would we have excavated Jesus ?
The boat did not sink far offshore so it does not speak of sudden and dangerous storms on the lake. But it speaks of something else. First, apart from some cedar and oak, there were several other inferior woods such as pine and willow used in the boat’s construction. Second, part of the keel was reused from some earlier boat. Third, the stempost and sternpost were removed to be reused in some later boat. Finally, the useless hulk was sunk offshore. It is, of course, all very random, just one boat that happened to be discovered and restored. But this 26-foot rower-sailer is one index of the social world of fishers on the Kinneret at the time of Jesus: it speaks of good craftsmen with limited and inferior materials nursing them along to last as long a possible. To fill out that social world to its thickest description we must ask who controlled fishing on the lake, could anyone fish from shore or boat at will, were boats and catches taxed and how heavily, how many individuals or families managed that boat, and did management mean freehold ownership, mortgaged lands, or rented equipment. Yes, you can excavate Jesus from that boat but very, very carefully and only within the realities of antiquity’s elite-controlled economies rather than in modernity’s conceptions of entrepreneurial possibilities.
On the other hand, how can we speak of “Excavating Jesus”? Granted that archaeology excavates and can excavate Jesus not just by digging up where he lived or traveled but by filling out as completely as possible the social world in which he operated, but why should excavation be used for texts as well as stones? Certainly texts such as the Dead Sea Scrolls of 1947 or the Nag Hammadi Codices of 1945 were found in the ground although by the random acts of shepherds and peasants rather than the exploratory probes of scientists. But when this book speaks of “Excavating Jesus” not just in archeology but in exegesis, it does not intend those external textual excavations. There is something peculiarly distinctive to the gospels which justifies speaking of their internal excavation, which justifies using excavation for both archaeology and exegesis in this book, and which gives us the way, the manner, the method in which the work achieves its main purpose.
Unless a site has only a single layer built on bedrock, soon abandoned, and untouched thereafter by anything save time the destroyer, digging archaeologically demands a careful attention to stratigraphy, to the multiple layers of habitation as later ones built upon earlier ones. Sometimes a text can be like that former case, a single layer of writing passed down untouched save for the errors of copyists, like most of Paul's letters in the New Testament. But our exegesis in this book focuses primarily on gospels and, whether those are inside or outside the New Testament, they are as multi-layered as an archaeological mound. For example, when Matthew absorbs the gospel of Mark almost totally inside his own gospel, there are clearly earlier Markan and later Matthean layers or strata in that latter text. If an ancient site is a series of superimposed over-dwellings, an ancient gospel is a similar series of superimposed over-writings. In both cases, therefore, stratigraphy is the absolutely fundamental challenge to be faced. We could give our common work a fancy new name and call it correlative stratigraphy , an interaction between the layers of an archaeological mound and the layers of a gospel text. In both cases, for our present purpose, we must excavate down or back to the archaeological stratum of Jesus’ world and the textual stratum of Jesus’ life. The problem of course is that, while everyone recognizes the inevitability of archaeological stratigraphy, the necessity of determining and dating the successive layers in a site, not everyone recognizes the similar inevitability and necessity, given the actual nature and relationship of the New Testament gospels, to do exactly the same with them.
Finally, in briefest summary, what do we get when we integrate archaeology and exegesis through a correlative stratigraphy? Why did Jesus happen when and where he happened? In the generation before Jesus, Herod the Great ruled the Jewish homelands under Roman sponsorship and built magnificently in Jerusalem by expanding the Temple’s esplanade and in Caesarea Maritima by developing a world-class port. Nothing tells so clearly that Romanization equaled urbanization equaled commercialization as the great storehouses and giant breakwaters of that all-weather harbor. In Judean Caesarea Maritima, in Samaritan Sebaste, and in far-northern Caesarea Philippi, Herod build pagan temples to the goddess Roma and divinie Emperor Augustus but he hardly touched Galilee at all as he did those other parts of his kingdom. In the generation of Jesus, then, it fell to his son Herod Antipas to begin a more intensive Romanization, urbanization, and commercialization of Galilee, with the rebuilding Sepphoris as his first capital in 4 BCE and with the newly-built Tiberias as its replacement in 19 CE. Under Antipas, then, and in proportionate imitation of his father, the Kingdom of Rome struck Lower Galilee forcibly for the first time by the 20s. But, though a veneer of Graeco-Roman architecture covered the Jewish homelands, and its Roman-urban commercialization redistributed wealth, archaeologists have discovered in both Judea and Galilee the persistence of the Jewish people to remain and live in ways distinct from those others with whom they lived in close proximity.
Next, as texts combine with stones, archaeological artifacts indicative of Jews clearly derive from a covenantal faith and a divine law which mandates justice and righteousness, purity and holiness, because the land belongs to a God who always acts from what is just to do what is right. In that Law or Torah, God says: “the land belongs to me.” So how about those Herodian client kings and their use of land? And what about the Roman Empire which says: the land belongs to us, we took it from you, that’s called war, or, if you prefer theology, our Jupiter took it from your Yahweh? When, therefore, Jesus announced the Kingdom of God in the 20s in Lower Galilee, he and his companions taught, acted, and lived in opposition to Herod Antipas’ localization of the Kingdom of Rome among his peasantry. We do not speak of the violent military resistance to Rome which would later leave the Temple in Jerusalem and the fortress atop Masada in ruins to this day. That type of resistance was not present with either John or Jesus, else Antipas would have beheaded more than John and Pilate would have crucified more than Jesus. But even though non-violent, it certainly was resistance against the distributive injustice of Roman-Herodian commercialization, hence Jesus’ emphasis on food and health, and it was enacted in the name of the covenant, the land, the Torah, and the God of Judaism.
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