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 Beyond the Bible itself, few historical references corroborate the narrative offered, with Romano-Jewish historian Josephus providing the only legitimate written source.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”.