Thursday, December 1, 2011

Archeology of the Bible

Archeology of the Bible:

The New Testament:

Part One: The Gospels


Stephen Andrew Missick


NOTE: Videos that accompany this lecture can be found at


When investigating the New Testament, we need to look at our ancient sources and relics of the past. The one we start off with is the New Testament itself. During the recent controversies regarding the "Da Vinci Code" and the "Gospel of Judas," scholars brought attention to the fact that the Four canonical Gospels are our earliest and most dependable accounts of the Life of Jesus Christ.

We can glean many historical facts through critically analyzing the text of the Gospels. Through reading the Gospels, we get a picture of common life in the time of Jesus. Jesus told stories about farmers, shepherds and fishermen. Jesus saw God's Kingdom all around him. He saw it in the simple life of the people of Galilee.


The Land of Galilee


Jesus was a Galilean. Having lived in Galilee, I found it to be a tranquil and spiritual place-a very fitting place to preach about the Good News of the Kingdom of God. The area around Galilee is also very green and fertile.


Hiking the Jesus Trail


Jesus was an itinerant (or "traveling") rabbi.


While I was in Israel for the archeological dig, I was able to hike part of the "Jesus Trail." The Jesus Trail is a trail for hikers in which you can follow the footsteps of Jesus and walk where he walked when he traveled preaching the Good News of the Kingdom of God throughout all Galilee.

For information about the "Jesus Trail" visit or or get the book "Hiking the Jesus Trail and other Biblical Walks in the Galilee" by Anna Dintaman and David Landis.


Jesus was obviously in good physical condition. Hiking certain parts of the Jesus trail and walking the entire length can be physically arduous. However, I think that it is very rewarding. To actually walk in Christ's footsteps and seeing the beauty of Galilee for yourself gives you a unique insight into Jesus and his perspective and mentality.


The Fishers of Men and the Sea of Galilee


Jesus was a carpenter but most of his followers were fishermen. The "Sea" of Galilee is actually a large lake. However, at it's widest it is only eight miles across. You can see a range of hills and mountains from one side of the Sea of Galilee to the other. From Tiberius you are looking at the Golan Heights on the other side of the Lake. The Golan Height used to be Syrian territory before the 1967 War.


Tiberius is the largest city on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. It is an ancient city. It was built by Herod Antipas and named in honor of Tiberius Caesar. During the time of Jesus it was viewed as an "unclean" city, apparently since it was built over tombs. So, it seems that Jesus never visited that city. Magdala, the home of Mary Magdalene, is very close to Tiberius. In the Bible, the Sea of Galilee is called the Lake of Tiberius. After the time of Jesus, the "ban" on Tiberius was rescinded and rabbis settled there and the city became famous for its sages and its scribes.


We know that Christ's followers Peter (Cephas), James (Jacob), John (Johannan), and Andrew were all fisherman but we usually don't consider what a Jewish fisherman's life in the first century was like. Recent research and discoveries now help us to look into this world.


The "Jesus Boat"


In 1986, residents of Kibbutz Ginosar discovered a boat from the time of Jesus on the shore between Ginnosar and Magdala. Israel was experiencing a severe drought and the coastline of the Sea of Galilee had receded extensively. (There is still a problem with the receding coastline of the Sea of Galilee but the problem is not as acute as it was in the mid-1980s.) The wood from the boat was sponge-like. With a light touch the fingers would cut through the boat. When it dried it would crumble into dusk. Scientists were immediately called. They sprayed water onto it to keep it wet and encased it in polyurethane. After careful treatment over several years, it was dried out and preserved. It is now on display in a darkened room in the Kibbutz Ginosar. It is a first century boat very well preserved considering its age and that it was under water for two thousand years. (Apparently, it was encased in wood, which preserved it.) The boat is important in that it is the same kind of boat that was used by Jesus and his Apostles. Also, during the Jewish War of AD 66-73, there was a great naval battle between the Romans and the Jews in which boats of a similar sort were used. One interesting thing about the "Jesus Boat" is that it is a patchwork boat-made from the parts of different boats and from twelve different kinds of wood!


"The Sea of Galilee and Its Fishermen in the New Testament" by the late Mendel Nun


Probably the definitive work on fishery on the Sea of Galilee is this book by Mendel Nun. One interesting thing about the fish of the Sea of Galilee is its cat-fish. They look like some sort of primeval creatures and look like a cross between an eel and a catfish. Mendel Nun did a thorough investigation on fishermen's techniques in the Galilee. The old fishing culture of Galilee was basically an Arab affair and has largely died out. The Arab community along the Sea of Galilee is small. Nazareth is an Arab "Israeli" city. It seems that, along the coast of the Sea of Galilee that the Arabs work menial jobs for Israelis.


Archeological Villages


There are two "archeological villages" where early Jewish life is re-created. Both parks have re-enactors and are very professionally done. The first is Nazareth Village and the second is Qatzrin. It seems to me that Qatzrin (or Katzrin) mostly caters to Israelis.


Nazareth Village: Jewish life from the time of Christ is recreated at Nazareth Village in the city of Nazareth. Nazareth is an Arab city and it still has a large number of Arab Christians. The village was a little smaller than I had envisioned but it is large enough. I would highly recommend a visit to Nazareth Village. Of particular interest is the reconstructed synagogue. The synagogue is an authentic reconstruction built to the size it would have meet to meet the religious needs of the populace of Nazareth during the time of Jesus. This synagogue is based on the synagogue found in Gamla, that also dates to the time of Jesus. The synagogue was a large open hall with three tiers of steps along the wall that served as seats for those attending.




Qatzrin Talmudic village:
You can go on a walk-thru of Rabbi Abun's 2000 year old house in Katzrin in the Golan Heights. This two-story single family home boasts a large master suite, family room (that doubles as a bedroom for the kids) eat-in kitchen with wood burning stove, and a lovely courtyard for your chickens and goats. Sorry folks, but there are no bathrooms and no running water. And it's not for sale. It's at the Ancient Talmudic Village at Katzrin Park Living Museum. By special arrangement, bread-baking, pottery-making and even olive-pressing in season can be part of the experience. A kitchen, pantry, living room, bedroom and courtyard have been restored and outfitted with objects of daily life. Many of these implements are real ones that the region's farmers continued to use until recently; Talmudic-era synagogue, where modern-day Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and weddings can even be arranged. The younger set will enjoy making the audio-visual acquaintance of ancient sages in a presentation shown in a replica of the synagogue. The Synagogue doesn't have a roof but most of the other buildings have been restored. There is also a fully functional winepress and a carpentry shop. Katzrin is a "Talmudic Village" the Talmudic period here is 200-the 700s AD. However, life had not changed much from the time of Jesus, so there are strong similarities between Qatzrin and Nazareth Village.

See Biblical Archeological Review "Qatzrin—Reconstructing Village Life in Talmudic Times" May/Jun 1991

Important Archeological sites I visited:


Capernaum: Near the Synagogue are Aramaic inscriptions. Aramaic and Syriac inscriptions were also found in the House of Saint Peter.


Beth Shear'im: This is a Talmudic rabbinic cemetery. It is near to Sepphoris. There were many Aramaic inscriptions found here. The tomb of Rabbi Gamaliel is here.


Chorizen: The Seat of Moses has an inscription on it-in the Aramaic language.

Tel Megiddo: Site of the future apocalyptic "Battle of Armageddon."


Sepphoris: A Greco-Roman city a few miles outside of Nazareth.


Cana: An Arab town right outside of Nazareth where Jesus changed the water into wine.


Tel Dan: The site of a temple (or perhaps a tabernacle) perhaps of Yahweh erected by King Jeroboam.


Paneas (or Baneas) also known as Caesarea Phillipi. This is where Jesus asked his disciples "Who do men say that I am?"


Where I excavated:


Bethsaida is Aramaic for "House of the Fisherman." Bethsaida is mentioned several times in the Gospels. As a fishermen's village, Bethsaida was the home of Andrew and Peter, Phillip and Nathaniel.

It is especially noted that Phillip was from Bethsaida.

John 1:44 Now Philip was from Bethsaida, of the city of Andrew and Peter.

John 12:21 These, therefore, came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida of Galilee, and asked him, saying, "Sir, we want to see Jesus."

(Although Jesus was from Nazareth, the city of Capernaum became "his city." It was the base of his operations. Jesus was from Galilee. Nazareth is in the region of Galilee but is a distance from the Sea (actually lake) of Galilee.

Jesus rebuked the city of Bethsaida for its lack of faith.

Luke 10:13 and Matthew 11:21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works had been done in Tyre and Sidon which were done in you, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes.

So, what sort of Mighty works were done in Bethsaida?


Mark 6:45 Immediately he made his disciples get into the boat, and to go ahead to the other side, to Bethsaida, while he himself sent the multitude away.


Mark 8:22 He came to Bethsaida. They brought a blind man to him, and begged him to touch him.


Luke 9:10 The apostles, when they had returned, told him what things they had done. He took them, and withdrew apart to a deserted place of a city called Bethsaida.

Despite Jesus performing such wonderous signs, the city of Bethsaida refused to believe in him. So, Jesus pronounced a woe upon the city. As a consequence, like the fig tree, the city of Bethsaida dried up, withered away, and disappeared. It has recently been rediscovered by archeologists.



Excavating at Bethsaida

Earlier this year I applied for the annual dig scholarship to excavate at Bethsaida. I had recently returned from a deployment to Iraq as a chaplain with the National Guard. I decided that I wanted to enter into a doctoral program focusing on the Old Testament and I felt that participating in an archeological expedition would help me in my academic career. Through the spring, I became busy and I had to deal with the tragic loss of a dear friend. I was devastated. Going on an archeological excavation then became the furthest thing from my mind. So, a few weeks before the dig I was surprised to learn that I had won the scholarship. (I was notified by email-but I didn't notice the email. Therefore, I was notified by phone.) With all that had happened in my personal life, I pondered whether or not I should accept the scholarship. Then I thought that participating in the dig was a wonderful opportunity and the chance of a lifetime and I decided it would be folly not to participate in the excavation. I resolved to go. At this time it became a last minute thing. I had to rush to buy a ticket and throw my things together. I think I needed to go for other reasons. I think that traveling to Israel would be a good way for me to unwind after coming home from Iraq. However, I was ready for some hard work. The dig was hard work indeed. But not as bad as I had imagined.

Bethsaida is mentioned several times in the Gospels. It is significant as the home town of Peter, Andrew, Phillip and Nathaniel. (Apparently, although Peter came from Bethsaida, by the time of Christ's ministry, he had settled in Capernaum.) Bethsaida means "Fisherman's House" in Aramaic.

I arrived on a Monday. I took a bus from Tel Aviv to Tiberius and from there I went to Ginnosar. I checked in and checked out the famous "Jesus Boat" which is located in a special museum dedicated to it in Kibbutz Ginnosar. The next day I went to Bethsaida and we began the dig. We would wake up in the morning and catch the bus at 530 and we would dig from 600 until 900. At 900 we would have breakfast. Then, after 30-45 minutes from breakfast we would work until 1130 when we would have "popsicle break." We would start cleaning up at 1145 and be done at 1215. Then we had lunch at about 100. Then we had a break until 400. At 400 we would have "pottery reading." (This means we would sort the pottery and count it. Then our experts would examine it and take out the valuable finds. They had a professional photographer and he would take professional photographs of the important finds.) Then at 800 we would have a lecture. We had a lecture by a different professor every night. The dig is tiring-so it was hard to stay engaged with the lectures-especially if the professor was longwinded. We had the weekend off. On the first weekend, I was able to join the Australians for a tour. (So, who was at the dig? About 60 people. Some would come and go. A few people come to the dig every year. We had a Truman University group, an Australian group and a New Zealander group.) So, I went on a Galilee tour with the Australians. We went to Chorizen, Capernaum and Tabgha. (Tabgha is traditionally, the location of the feeding of the Five Thousand.) Then we went to Baneaus (also called Caesarea Phillipi). After that we went to Tel Dan. I went on a wilderness hike and made it to the ruins of Dan-where the Israelite king Jeroboam built a temple. We then went to Gamla-but we were denied entrance because they people at the facility were tired and wanted to go home early. The next day, I went (alone) to "Yardenit" which is a place on the Jordan River that is open for baptisms. There was a sign that argued that the site was "Beth Arbara." John the Baptist baptized at different places-so it may be a site where he baptized. In the evening I went on a boat across the Sea of Galilee. The next day it was back to digging. Midweek, I was able to go to Nazareth, where I went to Nazareth Village. In the last weekend, I joined the Truman University group and we went to Megiddo, Beth Shemarim (which is an important Rabbinic cemetery and a very impressive site), Sephoris and then we went to Chorizen again. The next day I went, by myself, to the ancient Talmudic village at Qatzrin. I tried to go to Gergesa-where the incident with the demonic took place-it got late and I wasn't able to go. The following day, I climbed Mount Arbel (by myself) and I went to Magdala. I climbed to the top of Mount Arbel-but not to the peak- I was alone and I was concerned about my safety. I like to take risks-but if I feel that I am alone and I could really get hurt –sometimes I chose not to take that risk. If I had a partner with me, I would have gone to the peak. I had a great trip-but with only a few minor disappointments-I didn't get to Kursi (Gergesa) and I didn't climb to the peak of Arbel. I hope to do both some day.


The first day at the dig was the orientation. I missed the orientation as I arrived late in the afternoon. Part of the orientation was a visit to the Ginnosar museum, which houses the famous "Jesus Boat." (The "Jesus Boat" is a typical Galilean fishing boat from the first century which was discovered near Magdala during a drought in the late 1980s. There was a severe drought and the coastline receded and the miraculously preserved fishing boat was discovered uncovered after being underwater for two thousand years.) (The archeological team stays at the Kibbutz Ginnosar and commutes to the Bethsaida archeological site each morning. It is a 20-30 minutes bus ride.)

We worked Monday through Friday and had Saturday and Sunday off. Naturally, I traveled on the weekend, trying to squeeze as much site-seeing into those two days as I could. (I was able to visit the Jordan River. Interesting archeological sites included Chorizen, Capernaum, and the rabbinic cemetery at Beth Sheraim. Nazareth Village was very interesting with its reconstruction of a first century synagogue (which was modeled after the one discovered at Gamala in Galilee). The Talmudic Village at Katzrin was fascinating-and it was featured in a cover story of an earlier edition of Biblical Archeological Review. I was also able to visit Sephoris-a city near Nazareth. I was also able to interact with the local Arab Christians.

So, what did our days consist of? First, wake up was at 445 AM. We had to get on the bus at 530 AM. We arrived at Bethsaida at about 0600 AM. Once there, they opened up a connex storage shed from which we got our tools. The tools were a pick axe, a trowel and a bucket. Those were the tools that you need. Brushes, pads for sitting on,shovels and other assorted tools were also available. So, from 0600 to 0900 we worked at the excavation site. At 0900 we were served breakfast. At 0930-0945, it was time to head back to work. Then, at 1130 we had a "popsicle break." After working in the heat and sun for so long the popsicles were appreciated. We finished for the day at about 1215 and then headed back to the Kibbutz where we were staying. At about 100 PM we were served lunch. Then, we got to take a break until 400 in the afternoon. At that time we had "pottery reading." This consists of sorting the pottery shards (or "sherds") and getting statistics on them. We had trays full of pottery fragments. After we sorted the trays, the archeological directors examined them. They took out the important finds. The directors would talk to us about important finds which were then photographed by a professional photographer. After pottery reading we were given a break until dinner (at about 630). Then at 800 PM, one of the directors or one of the academics working with the excavation gave a lecture. Often, the lectures were an hour long. Finally, once the lecture was over we could turn in for the night.

The question I always get is, "Did you find anything?" Well, yes we did, quite a bit actually. But, we didn't find any "lost scrolls," gold, or buried treasures. Not this year. More "significant" finds like that were found in previous years. But what did we find and what did I find particularly? I found human remains-probably Bedouin and about 300 years or so old. I found many pieces of pottery, most of which was first century. (Some large pieces but mostly small shards or "sherds.") I also found two nails that were probably from the Roman period. In my "locus" my team found several coins from the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Probably the most significant finds this year were two Egyptian Scarabs found at the site. One Scarab was found in the sifter. This illustrates why you should pay attention when you are sifting. (Here is how it works. You have an area in which you are assigned to work. This is your "locus." You have one bucket with a tag. This is the "Find Bucket." If you find something you put it in the "Find Bucket" unless it is obviously very significant, such as a coin or a nail, in which case you notify the director. You also have your bucket (or hopefully buckets) which you put your dirt that you dig up with your pickaxe and trowel. Once you have your buckets filled up you dump them at the dump site. But you should sift them first. Invariably, pottery shards or other relics-such as the Scarabs-are found.)

The point isn't sensational finds. Everything adds to our understanding of the site, and that in turn expands our understanding of Jewish life in the first century, which in turn expands our understanding of Jesus of Nazareth, the Gospels and the New Testament.

So, what is it like to participate in an excavation? Firstly, it is work and it is hot. The heat didn't bother me too much as I am from Houston and it was nothing like the 130 degree temperature I got used to when I was in Iraq with the army. Secondly, it was dirty. It consisted of shoveling dirt around and moving rocks too. So, at the end of the day I was covered with dirt. At first it was monotonous. It was also frustrating because during the Syrian occupation of the site pre-1967, the Syrians disturbed the site. They buried a concrete cylindrical bunker in the middle of the site and had obviously drove a bull-dozer over the site. What this meant is that the strata were disturbed. This means that we would find a Greco-Roman coin-but then the next coin discovered would be from the Arab Republic of Syria. We would find fragments of a first century pottery vessel and then a Pepsi bottle. Finally, we did manage to dig through the area that was disturbed by the Syrians. Finally, in a way, I took ownership of my locus and it became exciting as we found ancient walls and tombs. It became exciting as we dug deeper and I wanted to see all that we could find. And we dug through two-thousand years, from a recent Syrian military bunker, to centuries old Bedouin tombs, to remains and structures from the time of Jesus Christ-and elsewhere at the Bethsaida site, remains even more ancient that that. Participating in an archeological excavation was an amazing –indeed invaluable-experience. It was even more significant to me in that we were excavating a town that was of central importance in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. While I had been to Israel before, I had never been to Galilee. Galilee is very significant because of its history in the life of Jesus, the rise of early Christianity and also in its importance in Judaism. As I explored Galilee, I could feel the presence of Jesus. Galilee is a very tranquil and spiritual place and a very fitting location for the sharing of the good news of the kingdom of God and the message of his fatherly love. It was interesting to work with an international team. Many of my fellow excavators were Australians and New Zealanders. We also had German and Israeli archeologists at the site. It was also interesting working with Bible Scholars and experts in their fields. Some of the diggers have seldom missed a season since the excavations at Bethsaida began. I am glad I was able to participate in this adventurous journey of discovery-a journey through history, a journey of connecting with those who lived so long ago through the relics that they left behind.

Palestinian Christians


I believe Christians in America should be aware of and support our fellow Christians in the Middle East. However, some Christians are "ethnic Christians" and some have also accepted anti-Israeli propaganda. I believe that it is important that we support Israel. I also believe that the Arab-Israeli problem is fundamentally about religion, otherwise a peaceful settlement would have been made years ago. A balanced approached to the Palestinian Christian issue is found in "The Body and the Blood" by Phillip Sennot.



I have over one hundred videos uploaded onto my youtube:


I have hundreds of articles up at my blog at


The Words of Jesus in the Original Aramaic: Discovering the Semitic Roots of Christianity (Xulon Press, 2006)

Treasures of the Language of Jesus: The Aramaic Source of Christ's Teaching (Xlibris, 2006)

Aramaic: The Language of Jesus of Nazareth (Xlibris, 2008)

The Lord's Prayer in the Original Aramaic (Createspace 2011)

Jesus the Poet (Createspace 2011)

The Language of Jesus: Introducing Aramaic (Createspace, 2010)

Christ's Language: Spiritual Insight from Aramaic (2011)

Christ the Man (Xulon Press, 2010)

The Ascents of James: A Lost Acts of the Apostles (Create Space 2010)

Mary of Magdala: Magdalene, the Forgotten Aramaic Prophetess of Christianity (Xlibris, 2006)

Saint Thaddeus and the King of Assyria: The Aramaic Origins of Christianity (Create Space 2010)

The Secret of Jabez: The Mystery of the Kenite Rechabites

Moses and the Exodus

The Ennead (Createspace, 2011)

The Art of the Ennead (Createspace 2011)

The Hammer of God: The Stories of Judah Maccabee and Charles Martel (Xulon Press, 2010)

Judas Maccabeus: The Hammer of God (2010)

Charles Martel: The Hammer of God (2010)

A Soldier in Iraq (Createspace, 2011)


(Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies

The Assyrian Church in the Mongol Empire, Mar Thoma: The Apostolic Foundation of the Assyrian Church in India, and Socotra: The Mysterious Island of the Church of the East which were published in the Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies (Volume XIII, No. 2, 1999, Volume XIV, No. 2, 2000 and Volume XVI No. 1, 2002).


(Crossover Videos:

Iraq's Christians in Crisis

The Armenian Genocide



The Assyrians: The Oldest Christian People

Chronicles: Facts from the Bible

The Hammer of God: Character and Historical Reference

The Hammer of God Coloring Book

The Hammer of God Mini-Comic


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