16. Remaining a matter of historical dispute, the James Ossuary supports the biblical inclusion of Jesus’ brothers in defiance of traditional church teachings
James the Just, an early leader of the Jerusalem Church of the Apostolic Age who died in martyrdom in approximately 69 CE, has remained the focus of sustained speculation regarding his relationship with Jesus. Described in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as the “brother of Jesus who is called Christ”, among other siblings, traditional Christian doctrine teaches that Mary remained a perpetual virgin and thus did not bear any other children than Jesus. Held by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant Churches, the argument remained inconclusive until the discovery of the James Ossuary.
Unearthed southeast of the Temple Mount, in the Kidron Valley region, the James Ossuary is a limestone box that once housed the bones of a highly respected individual. Dating from the 1st century of the Common Era, it bears the inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. The authenticity of this inscription, but not the box itself, has been challenged. The refusal of the State of Israel to permit the international archaeological community to perform their own independent assessment has merely intensified speculation concerning the relic, with historical opinion divided regarding the veracity of the ossuary.
15. Long thought to have been an invention of an imaginative author, the discovery of Solomon’s Walls in Jerusalem has renewed speculation concerning other biblical wonders
According to the First Book of Kings, Soloman, the son of David and King of Judah, at some time after marrying the daughter of the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered the construction of a great wall around the ancient city of Jerusalem. Written many centuries after the alleged event, and with no corroborating evidence of the defensive structure’s existence, the historical consensus was that it did not exist and, as is common throughout scripture, was merely allegorical. Demonstrating that the absence of evidence cannot be taken for certain as evidence of absence, modern archaeological excavations led by Eilat Mazar proved otherwise.
Measuring approximately 70 meters in length and 6 meters high, these ancient remains situate the wall’s location precisely encompass the best estimates of the city of Jerusalem during this time. Including a gatehouse and guard tower, the purpose of the structure as one for military defense is indisputable. Helping to date the remains of the ancient wall, remnants of pottery from the late-10th century BCE, the reign of Solomon, help corroborate the contextuality of the structure. Providing the first evidence of Soloman’s great building works, the discovery of the wall has renewed speculation regarding other attributed projects including the First Temple.
14. Although a worldwide flood as depicted in the Book of Genesis did not occur, evidence strongly suggests widespread localized flooding in the Ancient Near East
According to the Genesis mythology, as punishment for the sinful lifestyles of humanity, divine retribution was brought down upon the Earth in the form of a destructive all-encompassing flood. Whilst a global flood categorically has not occurred during the lifespan of our short-lived species, and the largest known such incident – stemming from the Chicxulub impact – was only enough to cover the Western Hemisphere in water, ancient historical texts, in conjunction with modern scientific analysis, strongly suggests the possibility of extreme localized flooding rendering an impression of a global struggle upon those experiencing it.
Excavations in modern-day Iraq have revealed evidence of severe flooding at Shuruppak around 2900 BCE, mirroring ancient accounts of flooding throughout Sumeria. Similarly, the regions of Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf are believed to have experienced significant shifts in sea levels as a result of the last glacial period. Submerging large areas of low-lying land as a result of rapidly rising water levels, this theory has been applied in several cultures, notably by the Black Sea deluge hypothesis proposing a catastrophic tsunami raged across the Mediterranean Sea into the Black Sea in approximately 5600 BCE.
13. Thought to have been merely another historical inaccuracy of the New Testament, the second Pool of Siloam was accidentally discovered by sewage workers underneath modern-day Jerusalem
One of the many miracles described in the Book of John, the disciple tells the story of Jesus restoring the sight of a blind man at the Pool of Siloam. Placing clay onto the man’s eyes, after washing it off the man delights in finding his vision returned to him. Known to have existed during the reign of Hezekiah (r. 715-866 BCE), it was long believed by historians that the ancient reservoir system had been destroyed after an invasion by the Assyrian ruler Sennacherib centuries before the birth of Jesus. Despite claims by biblical adherents that it must have been rebuilt at a later date, without evidence supporting this claim the story was widely rejected.
However, during repairs on a damaged sewer line in Jerusalem, a team of workmen inadvertently stumbled upon an amazing discovery: two steps leading to the remains of a pool. Measuring almost seventy meters in length, buried within plaster foundations of the stone facade were four coins bearing the face of Alexander Jannaeus. Ruling Jerusalem from 103 to 76 BCE, in conjunction with pottery shards corroborating this timeline, it has been determined that this successor pool was created less than one hundred years prior to the birth of Jesus and was likely still in use throughout his lifetime.
12. The Tower of Babel, although serving as an origin myth to explain diverse language groups, is likely based on a gigantic ziggurat in the ancient Kingdom of Babylon
Featuring in the Book of Genesis, the Tower of Babel serves as an origin myth within the biblical narrative to explain the different languages of the world. Following the unification of humanity after the Great Flood, speaking one language mankind begins to create a giant tower to reach heaven; confounding this effort, God scattered humanity throughout the world and scrambled their speech so they may not replicate this effort ever again. Appearing in several other cultures, including the Sumerians and Toltecs, historical opinion is divided regarding the precise providence of the story and whether or not it bears any relation to real-world constructions.
The most prevalent theory connects the Tower of Babel with the Etemenanki: a ziggurat constructed by Nabopolassar, King of Babylon, in approximately 610 BCE and dedicated to the Mesopotamian deity Marduk. A reconstruction of a previous edifice, measuring at least three hundred feet in height, King Nebuchadnezzar later wrote that the tower had been originally built centuries prior, suggesting it would have coexisted with the Babylonian domination of the Hebrews. Destroyed by Alexander the Great in an ill-fated attempt to rebuild the colossal monument, the ancient wonder is today lost to history.
11. The hometown of Goliath, archaeological excavations have corroborated the existence, culture, and eventual destruction of the ancient Philistine civilization
Serving repeatedly as the antagonists in contrast to heroic Hebrews throughout the Old Testament, the neighboring Philistines were an ancient culture supposedly comprised of five city-states. Gradually conquered by the Israelites, the greatest and last to fall was the city of Gath, the hometown of Goliath. Long believed to have been apocryphal, after prolonged debate across centuries concerning the potential location of the settlement, during the late-19th-century archaeologists finally identified the lost city. Discovered by Edward Robinson, excavations of the ancient Philistine town, although not offering conclusive proof, have offered corroboration for small parts of the biblical narrative.
Included among these findings is a 3,000-year-old horned stone altar, bearing striking similarities to one described in the Books of Kings and Exodus. Furthermore, the remains of an enormous structure and two supporting pillars akin to those detailed in the story of Samson have been uncovered, suggesting, whilst not the veracity of the biblical figure’s story, the accuracy of the contextual setting. Perhaps most importantly, excavations have revealed evidence of a large-scale siege and subsequent destruction of the ancient city around the late-9th century BCE, in line with the biblical assertion of its capture by Hazael of Aram Damascus.
10. Offering partial confirmation of the disputed existence and reign of Queen Jezebel, a nearly three-thousand-year-old seal suddenly appeared on the antiques market in Israel bearing her name
The daughter of the Phoenician ruler Ithobaal I, Jezebel, according to the Book of Kings, married Ahab, King of Israel. Encouraging her new husband to abandon his religious convictions in favor of her own polytheistic worship of Baal and Asherah, in addition to converting his nation-at-large, Jezebel allegedly ordered a campaign of religious persecution. For these crimes against God, a member of her own court entourage threw her from a window to be eaten by stray dogs. The veracity underpinning the story of the “most wicked woman in the Bible” has long been questioned, with the Deuteronomistic history famously unreliable and was written centuries after the fact.
Widely accepted that the authors of the biblical narrative were writing at a time when polytheism had become far less tolerated within the Judaic tradition, hence exaggeration of Jezebel into an authoritarian barbarian, it remained a matter of historical dispute whether or not, if she even existed as a Queen, Jezebel might have wielded sufficient power to potentially engage in any of the claims made. Offering a dramatic, if not definitive answer, in 1964 an ancient seal from the 9th century BCE suddenly emerged on the antique market bearing a partial inscription: “Yzbl”, a likely reference to Jezebel. Although remaining a divisive question, the intricacy of the seal strongly suggests royalty.
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”.