Explainer: The archaeology of Christianity
An estimated 2 billion Christians around the world celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While those believers take the stories of Jesus as told in the New Testament on faith, archaeologists have scoured the Holy Land and beyond in search of clues about the real life of Jesus and his followers. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about eight of their finds.
— John Roach, msnbc.com contributor
First reference to Christ?
Does the world's first known reference to Christ refer to him as a magician? An inscription on a bowl uncovered from the underwater ruins of Alexandria in Egypt reads "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which archaeologists translate to mean either "by Christ the magician" or "the magician by Christ." The bowl dates to between the late second century B.C. and the early first century.
If the word "Christ" does indeed refer to the biblical Jesus Christ, then it would be the first known written reference to Christ and might provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world. The archaeologists who discovered the bowl think that a magus could have practiced fortune telling rituals with the bowl and used the name Jesus to legitimize his supernatural powers. At the time, the people of Alexandria were likely aware of stories about Jesus' miracles, such as turning water into wine and multiplying loaves of bread.
Turning water to wine
Jesus' first and perhaps best-known miracle, as recorded in the Gospel of John, was turning water into wine at a Jewish wedding in Cana that had run short of the celebratory drink. Archaeologists at a salvage dig in modern-day Cana found pieces of stone jars, including the one shown here, that date to the time of Jesus and appear to be the same type of jar mentioned in the water-to-wine story.
A similar find at a rival dig several miles to the north of this site, however, is leading some archaeologists to yearn for further excavations before the issue is settled. One crucial question was where exactly the biblical Cana was located.
Nailed to the cross
Ancient literature suggests that crucifixions — central to the story of Jesus' death and resurrection — were common in Roman times, but there is scant archaeological evidence for the practice. Some scholars argue that since there was likely little concern for people who were crucified, their remains were simply scattered. A rare exception came in 1968 when a first-century funerary box was discovered with the remains of a man who had apparently suffered the grisly form of execution.
Analysis of the remains revealed that the feet of the crucifixion victim really were nailed to the cross — one of the foot bones, in the center of this image, has a nail driven through it from the side. The nail is bent, which is perhaps why it was left intact instead of being removed, according to archaeologists. The hand bones, however, showed no signs of being nailed to the cross, suggesting this practice often depicted in crucifixion artwork may not have always occurred.
Wrapped in a cloth
A long piece of cloth, or a shroud, kept under close guard at a cathedral in Turin, Italy, is believed by many to be the burial cloth that was wrapped around the crucified Jesus. Scientific interest in the shroud began in earnest when negatives from a 1898 photograph revealed the image of man who appears to have suffered a crucifixion. Since then, biblical scholars, archaeologists and the faithful have hotly debated the authenticity of the so-called Shroud of Turin.
Vatican-approved carbon-dating tests on fibers taken from the cloth in 1988 indicated that the shroud dated to medieval times — ranging from 1260 to 1390. Scientists concluded that the claims about Jesus' image were an elaborate hoax. Other studies have since argued that the dated fibers were from a repaired section of the cloth and that the carbon dates were therefore invalid.
Other evidence supporting the authenticity of shroud includes pollen residues on the cloth that are unique to Israel and Turkey, indicating it must have spent time in those countries. In support of the skeptics, a second burial shroud that dates to the time of Jesus is of a completely different style than the Turin shroud.
Laid to rest
For many Christians, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the heart of Jerusalem is where the crucified Jesus was laid to rest, rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Archaeologists, naturally, have attempted to verify the site's history. While proof remains elusive, the scientific sleuthing has pieced together a trail of evidence to support the claim.
For example, excavations indicate the site was a limestone quarry in the seventh or eighth century B.C. that was filled in the first century B.C. with stone and soil and turned into a garden and cemetery. According to the Gospels, Jesus was buried in a garden near the city. Though the church today is inside the city walls, the site was outside city walls until Jerusalem was expanded in A.D. 41 — a few years after the traditional time frame for the crucifixion.
Of course, other theories abound, including one widely publicized in a controversial TV documentary by the director James Cameron and investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici. In that program, some experts suggested that 10 ossuaries found in a suburb of Jerusalem in 1980 may have contained the remains of Jesus and his family — including a son. The burial boxes are inscribed with names that match those of Jesus and his family — Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judah, the purported son of Jesus, among other relatives. The team said statistics argue against another family having that combination of names. Other archaeologists, however, have dismissed the claim.
The baptism cave
Did John the Baptist perform the spiritual cleansing ritual at a cave near the village where he was born, Ein Kerem? That's one theory mulled by archaeologists who discovered thousands of presumably ritually broken pottery shards, a stone used for foot cleansings and drawings related to John the Baptist on the cave walls. Scholars say the evidence that John actually performed baptisms there is inconclusive. Nevertheless, the evidence suggests that some sort of ritual water purification rites took place in the first century.
The history of the cave goes even deeper: It was apparently carved by Israelites in the Iron Age between 800 B.C. and 500 B.C. and perhaps used then as a ritual immersion pool. More recent excavations have revealed corridors leading to what appears to be a second cave. A secular theory on the cave's purpose suggests it was used as a clay production facility.
The bones of St. Paul
For centuries, the faithful have believed the bones of St. Paul, who helped spread the Christian faith after the death of Christ, were in a tomb under the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside the Walls in Rome. Though the belief has seldom been questioned, Vatican archaeologists recently carbon-dated the remains for the first time and found that they date from the first or second century.
"This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of Apostle Paul," Pope Benedict XVI said as he announced the findings. In addition to the bone fragments, archaeologists found grains of incense, a piece of purple linen with gold sequins, and a blue fabric with linen filaments.
Early worship in Israel
An Israeli prisoner tasked with clearing rubble prior to construction of a new prison ward uncovered the edge of an elaborate mosaic on the floor of what may be the oldest church in the Holy Land. Archaeologists have dated the church to the third century, decades before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the early fourth century.
The mosaic includes drawings of fish, which was an ancient Christian symbol that predated the widespread use of the cross, and three inscriptions. One tells the story of a Roman officer who contributed towards paving the floor, the second is dedicated to the memory of four women, and the third mentions a woman who contributed a table, or altar, to God Jesus Christ, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority.