In a recent review of Craig A. Evans’ Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence, a blogger condemned the book for not proving that Jesus existed. However, if the critic had read the first page of the work, he would have noted that Evans himself never posited that it would achieve that goal. The author writes that, while archaeology sometimes proves things, “often what archaeologists uncover is not so much proof but clarification” (1).
This is what Evans, Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Nova Scotia, Canada, offers in his book. He discusses a variety of discoveries that provide the backdrop for a number of first-century New Testament locations, practices and events including Christ’s death and burial. In doing so, he heightens our understanding of the culture of that era and, consequently, our understanding of the Bible.
In a lengthy introduction, Evans presents examples of how archaeology has addressed the arguments of minimalists including those of Canadian author Tom Harpur who, being convinced that Jesus is merely a mythical figure, has taken “the ultimate minimalist position” (4). He offers a bit of information about the discipline of archaeology and how modern technology such as Ground Penetrating Sonar and Neutron Activation Analysis has aided researchers in their work.
Chapter 1, entitled In the Shadow of Sepphoris: Growing up in Nazareth, includes details about agriculture, dwellings, roads and surrounding cities that suggest the town in which Jesus grew up was not a sleepy little backwater village as some believe. Evans addresses the issue of whether Christ was a Cynic as Jesus Seminar pundit John Dominic Crossan maintains. Cynics were an unkempt, rough lot that Crossan referred to as the hippies of their generation. Evans notes the similarities with Jesus are few and superficial, using archaeological information to support his argument.
In the second chapter, Evans takes a look at synagogues in Jesus’ day in response to the accusation that there were none in existence prior to 70 A.D. when the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. He looks at the literary evidence from Josephus and Philo and archaeological information including inscriptions from the North African city of Berenike and excavations around Mount Ophel, as well as discoveries in Capernaum, Magdala and other Jewish towns, to refute this claim. He then examines what the Bible says about Jesus and synagogues in light of the information gleaned by archaeologists.
Much discussion has arisen over the issue of literacy in Christ’s time with some suggesting that men like Peter and even Jesus himself were likely illiterate. Evans provides evidence to the contrary in chapter 3. Not only do the many discovered documents attest to a decent literacy rate, but so, too, do the many writing tools and even the existence of graffiti. Evans journeys from Rome to Pompeii to northern England looking at the evidence for literacy in the first century. Then he selects passages from the gospels that indicate Jesus could indeed read.
In Chapter 4, Evans looks at the archaeological discoveries that elucidate the conflict between Jesus and the ruling priests. He spends a significant amount of time on the Caiaphas ossuary which is thought to contain the bones of the high priest and members of his family. It is interesting to see the process scholars go through in their attempts to identify such remains. Evans also discusses how scientific testing on a burial shroud confirms the reality of Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) in Jesus’ time, something that had been in dispute prior to the discovery.
Chapter 5, entitled Life with the Dead, is a fascinating look at Jewish burial traditions. Evans notes that “there is significant archaeological evidence that has a direct bearing on the question of whether the body of Jesus of Nazareth, crucified by order of Pontius Pilate, was place in a tomb as the Gospels say it was” (122). He outlines how the Gospel accounts are in keeping with Jewish customs and the Roman tolerance of them as indicated by archaeological finds. Of particular interest is his discussion of the ossuary of a Jewish man named Yehohanan who, having been crucified, provides insight into how Christ himself died on the cross.
Evans concludes his book with two appendices, one about the bogus claim that the tomb of Jesus has been found as documented in a 2007 film by James Cameron, and one exploring suppositions about what Christ would have looked like.
One of the strongest aspects of the book is Evans’ ability to tie archaeological discoveries into Scripture and show how they confirm the people, places, events and customs presented there. He includes a couple of dozen black and white photos. Unfortunately, many of them are of poor quality and do little to enhance the book.
Despite that flaw, Jesus and His World is recommended. The author says he has written his book for the non-scholar and he has succeeded in producing a work that is accessible to all. It would make a fine introduction to archaeology for the novice and an excellent resource for the individual or Bible study group wanting to learn more about life in the first century. With only five per cent of the sites of the Biblical world excavated and only partially so at this time (3), we have much to look forward to from archaeology in the future with, hopefully, another book from Evans outlining more discoveries and how they clarify the contents of the Bible.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist currently working on a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. She holds three other degrees, including one in history, and writes poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction.