Biblical archeology sheds light on ordinary people and extraordinary Jesus

Majd al Krum, Arab town located in the Upper Galilee in Israel's Northern District about 16 km east of Acre. Majd al Krum, October 31, 2017.
Majd al Krum, Arab town located in the Upper Galilee in Israel's Northern District about 16 km east of Acre. Majd al Krum, October 31, 2017. | (Photo: TPS/Kobi Richter)

If you believe in the doctrine of the incarnation and in the Trinity, you believe that Jesus lived in a specific place, at a specific time, for specific reasons, and that His humanity is an essential part of His nature. Within our generation, archaeology has unearthed a lot about the part of the world and the time Jesus lived in. If we don't take into account as much as we can about that context, we're ignoring important dimensions to understanding the gospels.

Someone who's furthering that archaeological work is Professor David Fiensy, one of the most accomplished scholars on the archaeology of the Holy Land, especially in Galilee. Professor Fiensy has written many fascinating books about his work, including several focused on his findings on the economics of Galilee. His newest book is The Archaeology of Daily Life: Ordinary Persons in Late Second Temple Israel, and my recent discussion with Professor Fiensy on Christian Post's Business in the Kingdom podcast focused on exactly that: the incredible insights you get when you look into the ordinary.

Here are a few excerpts of our conversation, edited lightly for length and clarity:

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The elite archaeological darlings were not Jesus' audience

Jerry: "Why ordinary? That's an emphasis in the book, what's the point of that?"

David: "This is a very incarnational-type of investigation. If Christ were not in flesh, we wouldn't need to study Greek and Aramaic and Hebrew and read Josephus and look at the material remains in the soil. But He didn't just come to speak to Herod the Great and Herod Antipas, the rich and famous. He came to minister to the ordinary person. In the past, our investigations have kind of focused on the lifestyles of the rich and famous, but that didn't really touch on the ordinary person's life. We're seeing in the historical investigation of the time of Jesus a kind of revolution. We're not just looking at the artworks, monuments, cities, magnificent constructions, but we're looking at things that were passed over by previous generations of historians and archaeologists.

"Here's an example: the great Israeli historian and archaeologist Tal Ilan said that in the past, they would discover ossuaries, boxes for holding bones of relatives. Archaeologists used to throw away the bones and examine the artwork on the ossuary, and in her book she points out how that seems backwards. Aren't you interested in the people? They can discover so many things about the person whose bones are in that box! There are pathologists that can look at those bones and tell you what diseases they had, how long they lived, whether they were male or female, if they died a violent or natural death. These are the ordinary people that you can't read about in historical works because the historians talk about the politicians and the wealthy people. We can meet these people in other ways by looking at things in the soil or tombs that were passed over in previous generations.

"Now, nothing is wasted. It's like the difference between what the American Indians did when they kill buffalo and what the white people did: White people shot the buffalo and let them lie there to rot, and the Indians used every part of the buffalo."

Jerry: "So Biblical archaeologists are starting to become Indians and use every part of the dig!"

David: "That's right, we're learning! There's nothing that is superfluous or irrelevant. Ask questions of everything."

Jerry: "Jesus hardly said anything to Pontius Pilate and as I recall, I don't think there's any record of Him ever saying a thing to Herod Antipas. He pointedly refused to speak to him! He did speak to the rich young ruler so I'm not saying he only talked to the people, but he certainly hung out in Bethany which is probably a lower-class town. 'What did you go out into the wilderness to see? [...] A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces.' Jesus had his own bias away from the people who had monuments built around them. For a long time I think archaeology was biased towards the people that Jesus didn't spend much time with, and away from the people that Jesus spent most of His time with."

David: "Yes, archaeology was following the ancient historians. Josephus, who is a Jewish historian, didn't have much good to say about the ordinary person. He's kind of a snob, and when he talks about them he puts them down. He talked about people like himself - an aristocrat, a Roman conqueror. Archaeologists tend to follow the ancient historians. Now, I think there's a kind of a revolution both in archaeology and historical studies. The teachings of Jesus were given to the average, working-class man and woman. Wouldn't we want to know about them?"

Jesus' education is a "tremendous, mysterious question"

David: "[The people of Galilee] were working hard to get their food, their daily bread. Let's not pretend they're white collar, these are working-class people. The bones show that these people worked hard."

Jerry: "The bones are thick or bent. If someone's carrying heavy loads their whole life, you can see that in the spine."

David: "Yeah, I saw a guy live to be 65, which is a pretty good age but his structure was completely deformed. He had enough food to live to be 65, but he had to work hard. So you've got to have all hands on deck. You can't send kids to school until they're 16 or 21, that's just not going to happen in this culture. But somebody who has amazing capabilities is going to learn to read the Torah."

Jerry: "Well Jesus read, He appears to have been literate. He read from the Torah scroll."

David: "It makes tremendous mysterious questions."

Jerry: "Who taught Jesus to read?"

David: "To read, and not just that but to argue with the rabbi. He has rabbinic arguments! He probably had to do midrash."

Jerry: "Have you read Chris Keith on this, Jesus Against the Scribal Elite?"

David: "I haven't read that, no."

Jerry: "He kind of decodes these confrontations with the Pharisees and shows how they're following established rabbinical forms. So maybe Jesus was super unusual in that. I don't know who taught him. Probably not Joseph, he doesn't seem to have been around long enough. Could it have been Mary, who might have been from Sepphoris and more educated? I love this stuff, and I also need to hold it loosely."

David: "I don't think we know, but He's not just an ordinary carpenter. He's not just a guy that makes yokes and plows, he's had special training. It doesn't offend my trinitarian view of incarnation to say he had special educational training."

Jerry: "Of course not! You have to be a docetist to rule out the idea that he learned things, you have to deny the human nature."

David: "Yeah. [Perhaps He learned from] some rabbi. I think that's part of the providential nature of His early life. He's not just some guy from Galilee arguing with these scribes. He went toe-to-toe. That's not easy to do!"

Jerry: "Yes! He knows His stuff. Look at His parables, they're financially sophisticated."

David: "Yeah, they're very artistically-narrated parables. He's a master at telling a story. You raise a great question: He doesn't start His ministry until He was 30, why? Why wait until 30?"

Jerry: "He's learning."

David: "He's in an academy somewhere, like Paul, or some version of that. He may not be in Jerusalem with Gamaliel, but some version of that. He's learning, and at age 30 He's ready to go."

Jerry Bowyer is financial economist, president of Bowyer Research, and author of “The Maker Versus the Takers: What Jesus Really Said About Social Justice and Economics.”

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