Christmas and Easter are the two times of the year when the thoughts of the world are most centered on the person of Jesus Christ. They also attract the unwanted attention of critics and skeptics who work to overturn the biblical portrait of Christ, who offer revisions and new interpretations of the biblical text. It is not difficult to find a documentary claiming Jesus was nothing more than a quirky rabbi, a family man, or a first-century magician. Most recently, Bart Ehrman published his book Jesus, Interrupted in 2009, another in a long line of popular works that criticizes the text of the New Testament (cf. Bryant, 2010, 30:5-7).
On December 21, 2009, archaeologists announced they had uncovered an ancient house in Nazareth dating to the New Testament period. The house, quite small in comparison to modern homes, consists of two rooms and a courtyard totaling about 900 square feet of space, although excavation could uncover additional rooms. Excavation is difficult, particularly since modern structures sit directly on top of much of the ancient site. Pottery from the location shows that a relatively poor Jewish family occupied the residence.
Scholars are quick to point out that the house did not belong to Jesus and His family. It is often impossible to identify the names of the residents of a particular house in antiquity, and this one is no exception. Still, scholars suggest that it may have been a place that Jesus knew. Yardena Alexandre, excavations director at the Israel Antiquities Authority, notes, “This may well have been a place that Jesus and his contemporaries were familiar with,” adding, “A young Jesus may have played around the house with his cousins and friends. It’s a logical suggestion” (Bazar, 2009).
The location of Nazareth has long been known, in part by the tombs that existed outside the city dating to roughly the New Testament period. It was within a walking distance of three to four miles from Sepphoris, where Joseph may have worked as a builder (Greek tekton; Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3). Some have also suggested that Jesus may have followed in Joseph’s footsteps. Participating in a trade that involved strenuous work with wood and heavy stone probably provided Jesus with considerable physical resilience. Just before His crucifixion, already suffering from exhaustion after an illegal, night-long trial and blood loss from His vicious treatment, Jesus was able to withstand a Roman scourging. The scourge claimed the lives of many of the condemned before the Roman authorities had a chance to crucify them.
Absent from the discussion involving the house in Nazareth is any talk of Jesus’ status as a mythological creation of the early church. Alexandre, as well as other archaeologists commenting in news reports, simply assume the existence of Jesus. This is fully in line with virtually all scholars and historians. Nearly all experts who study ancient history believe Jesus existed, with only the rare exception. Robert Price, a member of the Jesus Seminar, is one of the few scholars who has dismissed Jesus as a historical figure. His peers have roundly criticized his beliefs. One such example is the recently published The Historical Jesus: Five Views. In this volume, the contributors weigh Price’s arguments and find them wanting (Beilby and Eddy, 2009, pp. 84-103)—not surprising, since the Bible does not betray any of the characteristics of ancient mythology (Oswalt, 1996, p. 548).
The discovery of the house has not escaped the notice of critics, who commented on the discovery almost immediately. Comments posted on Richard Dawkins’ Web site (www.richarddawkins.net), as well as the Web site for Sam Harris’ The Reason Project (www.reasonproject.org) are revealing. That the find would elicit any discussion on discussion forums is surprising, since the discovery is not connected explicitly to Jesus. Yet it seems that any mention of Jesus in the media is enough for the militant atheists to release the hounds of frenzied dissent. In one post after another, forum participants downplay the Nazareth house as evidence of Jesus’ life. No reputable archaeologists are making such a claim, however, and the life of Jesus is well-attested in a variety of ancient sources. Such a small discovery unleashed such illogicality from those who claim to prize logic and reason most.
Bazar, Emily (2009), “Israel: First Jesus-era House Found in Nazareth,” USA Today, December 21, http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2009-12-21-jesus-house-nazareth_N.htm?csp=34.
Beilby, James K. and Paul Rhodes Eddy, ed. (2009), The Historical Jesus: Five Views (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic).
Bryant, Dewayne (2010), “Jesus, Rudely Interrupted,” http://www.apologeticspress.org/articles/240291.
Oswalt, John N. (1996), “Myth,” Baker Theological Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).