9. Remaining a subject of immense speculation and doubt for centuries, the discovery of the Walls of Nehemiah demonstrated at least partial accuracy in the long-suspect historical account provided by the Bible
Known as the Babylonian Exile, following the conquest of the Kingdom of Judah by Babylon in 598 BCE, the Jews were forced into exile until they were given permission to return to Jerusalem by the Persian ruler Cyrus the Great after his own conquest of Babylon in 538. As described in the Book of Nehemiah, upon their return to Jerusalem, Nehemiah bemoaned that the walls “had been broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire”. Ordering his people to rebuild the wall “so that we may no longer suffer disgrace”, the building works were completed in just fifty-two days whereafter “when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid”.
The archaeological remains of Jerusalem have long been held as a litmus test for biblical historicity and, with no evidence of these walls found across centuries, the first-hand account written in the Book of Nehemiah was regarded dubiously. That was until Eilat Mazar and her team, who while excavating a stone tower unintentionally weakened its foundations, discovered a five-meter-wide wall whilst attempting to repair the damage. Accompanied by pottery dating from the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, including biblical names concurrent with the timing of the story, the discovery single-handedly affirmed the core narrative of an entire questionable section of the Bible.
8. Despite the New Testament gospels lacking in historical validity, the existence of Jesus, if not his divinity, can be confirmed via concurrent non-Christian historical sources
Before the Enlightenment, without facing genuine historical critique the biblical narrative of the life of Jesus was simply accepted as historically accurate. In the centuries since, increased examination of the history presented rendered many prior assumptions incorrect. Offering unreliable, even conflicting narratives, the gospels are not, nor were they intended to be biographical accounts of the life of Jesus, but instead were written to explain his theology and the alleged significance of his ministry. This unreliability, if only for a time, even resulted in speculation surrounding the question of whether or not such a person indeed existed at all.
However, where the canonical Christian sources falter, non-Christian sources, viewed as more impartial than early Christian writings, serve to provide independent certification of at least the core elements of the biblical narrative. Corroborating many of the most important moments, including Josephus’ recollection of Jesus serving as a priest and Tacitus’ account of the execution of Jesus by crucifixion at the orders of Pontius Pilate, these writings provide independent Roman concurrence to Jesus’ existence. Today, the question of whether or not Jesus existed has become settled, with historical attention focusing on more particular details concerning his life.
7. Although not corroborating whether or not the Exodus indeed occurred, the Parting of the Red Sea can be supported by natural science and alternative historical events
One of the more fantastical moments of the early biblical narrative, during the Exodus – wherein the Israelites, led by Moses, escaped enslavement in Egypt – to allow the Israelites to cross the Red Sea to safety the waters were parted by God, exposing the ground beneath before closing upon the pursuing Egyptian army. Although sounding unrealistic without divine involvement, a natural rationale offers at least some support in favor of the alleged event. Winds in excess of sixty miles-per-hour in coastal regions have been observed parting waves and, consequently, the opening might have been temporarily created by atypically strong gusts.
Equally, an alternative and historically feasible theory revolve, akin to the aforementioned ten plagues, around the monumental eruption of Thera in the 16th century BCE. Connecting the entire saga around the apocalyptic event, it has been suggested that the colossal eruption might have triggered atypical weather and oceanic patterns throughout the region. Despite these interesting natural explanations allowing for the possibility of truth behind the famed biblical story, the central issue remains, however, that no archaeological evidence has ever been discovered confirming the crossing of the Red Sea actually took place.
6. Among the oldest pieces of physical proof for any individual appearing in the Bible, an ancient seal bearing the name of the Prophet Isaiah strongly indicates the physical existence of a correlatory figure
Isaiah, an 8th-century BCE prophet commonly ascribed authorship of the eponymous sixty-six chapter book of the Bible, remains a highly disputed figure within the biblical narrative. Living supposedly during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, who reigned as Kings of Judah between the mid-8th century and the late-7th century, Isaiah, however, enjoys no corroborating reference in any alternative historical sources reducing his story that of considerable skepticism. Despite this doubt regarding the veracity of his legend, Isaiah most likely did exist and remains the most ancient biblical character for whom archaeological evidence has been discovered concerning.
In the course of an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem, in a stroke of luck, a small clay seal dating to the 8th-century BCE was discovered. Although surviving only partially, upon the ancient artifact is inscribed the name “Yesha’yahu” – Isaiah in Hebrew – and is followed by what is believed to be the beginning of the ancient Hebrew word for prophet: “Nvy…” The conclusion one must reach from this historic find is that, although by no means confirming anything stated in the Book of Isaiah, that an individual in a position of religious significance bearing his name almost certainly did exist around this time.
5. Caiaphas, a Jewish high priest and prominent antagonist of Jesus, was an uncertain historical character until his remains were discovered by an unassuming bulldozer in Jerusalem
Joseph Caiaphas, commonly known simply by his last name, was, according to the New Testament, the Jewish high priest responsible for the plot to kill Jesus. Beyond the Bible itself, few historical references corroborate the narrative offered, with Romano-Jewish historian Josephus providing the only legitimate written source. Claiming that Caiaphas was appointed as a member of the high priesthood by the Roman prefect Valerius Gratus in 18 CE, this divisive historical conclusion was uncertain until the accidental discovery of the Caiaphas ossuary in the Peace Forest, Jerusalem, in 1990.
Found after a tomb’s roof was unintentionally opened by a bulldozer during construction works, the discovered necropolis bore similarities to other Second Temple period burial sites in Jerusalem. Contained within were twelve ossuaries, including two bearing the name “Caiaphas”, one of which was inscribed in a highly ornate fashion: “Joseph, son of Caiaphas” and held the remains of a sixty-year-old male dating from the 1st century of the Common Era. Although not confirming the particulars of the biblical narrative, the find definitively validates that such an individual did exist around the time described and was of high status.
4. The ancient fortress of Jerusalem, the disputed discovery of the “Spring Citadel” supposedly captured by David offers partial corroboration of aspects of the ancient biblical narrative regarding the Kingdom of Judah
A prominent feature of the early biblical narrative, the “Spring Citadel” was a giant 18th-century BCE fortress that protected the city of Jerusalem from prospective invaders. Allowing access to the Gihon Spring only from inside the city, its 7 meter thick walls were overcome by the armies of David during his conquest of the city against the Jebusites before disappearing from history at some later date. A focal point of archaeological inquiry in an effort to verify aspects of several important historical moments of the Bible, after almost twenty years of searching evidence of the ancient fortification was eventually identified.
Discovering remnants of stacked five-ton stones reaching approximately 6 meters in thickness, the largest walls to date stemming from the pre-Herod era of the region, the archaeological find is also situated suspiciously close to the ancient city’s water source, seemingly confirming the historicity of the citadel. However, demonstrating the problems endemic in the Bible’s historical reliability, radiocarbon dating of the site has now brought into question the entire biblical timeline, suggesting that the fortress was constructed at a much later date than originally assumed.
3. Although not corroborating the biblical narrative of Herod hunting Jesus, the King of Judea unquestionably existed and ruled, at least at times, in a tyrannical fashion
Herod I, also known as Herod the Great, reigned as the Roman client king of Judea and acts as a key antagonist in the New Testament narrative of the life of Jesus. Claimed in the Gospel of Matthew to have ordered the so-called “Massacre of the Innocents” and the murder of the baby Jesus in response to a prophecy, no historical evidence exists to support or corroborate this alleged event, which is today widely regarded as a fictitious invention by later Christians. However, this untrue insertion does not overrule the existence of Herod as ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth or his immense influence upon the world in which Jesus grew up.
A controversial ruler, Herod did unquestionably exist and was possessed of murderous proclivities. Responsible for the deaths of his wife, brother-in-law, and three of his sons, in addition to hundreds of others, Matthew’s depiction of Herod as a cruel and authoritarian ruler was not without merit. Dying in 4 BCE, the estimated year of Jesus’ birth, Herod was buried in a gigantic mausoleum complete with a pool more than twice the size of an Olympic swimming pool. Unfortunately, despite recovering his sarcophagus, along with definitive proof corroborating countless Roman sources of Herod’s existence, his body has already been looted.
2. Like Herod, supporting historical evidence for the existence of Pontius Pilate, the Roman official responsible for condemning Jesus to death, is abundant
Pontius Pilate, the fifth prefect of the Roman province of Judea under the reign of Emperor Tiberius, is widely held by the Christian biblical narrative as the official responsible for the trial and sentencing of Jesus. Detailed as seeking to spare Jesus his execution, appealing to the crowd for his pardon, all four canonical gospels depict Pilate as eventually relenting to popular demand and washing his hands of the affair. Although this narrative is uncertain, with no corroborating evidence to support it, the existence of Pilate, in general, is upheld by a number of independent historical sources, among them the “Pilate Stone”.
Discovered in 1961, the Pilate Stone is a limestone block bearing a Latin inscription situated behind the stage house of the Roman theatre at Caesarea: the administrative center of the Roman governors of Judea. Detailing that Pilate was indeed a prefect of Judea, this archaeological find offers plausible support to his overall role in Jesus’ involvement with the authorities. In addition to the Pilate Stone, the Roman official was recorded by several contemporary historical writers, including Tacitus, Philo, and Josephus, who highlight his harsh suppression of religious dissent and eventual removal in or around 37 CE for these oppressive tactics.
1. Among the most important figures in the Christian canon, the existence of Judas Iscariot was not widely accepted by the historical community for many years
Judas Iscariot, one of the original Twelve Disciples of Jesus, remains among the most notorious and important individuals in the New Testament, responsible for the betrayal of Jesus to the Romans in the Garden of Gethsemane. Today synonymous with betrayal and widely accepted to have been a real person, lacking corroborating evidence outside Christian literature, the literal existence of Judas was a topic of considerable historical debate for many centuries. Relying instead on logical argumentation rather than actual earthly discoveries, historians have coalesced around the firm conclusion that such a person did indeed exist.
Firstly, as reasoned by Ehrman who contended Judas’ betrayal “is about as historically certain as anything else in the tradition”, the inclusion of an Apostle turning on Jesus would not have been made up for its negative aspersions cast upon the divine persona by connotation. Moreover, few narrative traditions are shared by all four canonical gospels, contradicting each other on many other crucial points; Judas, in contrast, is almost unique in their collective agreement. As a result, the prevailing historical opinion has concluded that although “we only know two basic facts about Judas”, one of these is that “he handed over Jesus to the Jerusalem authorities”.