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Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor: Why scholarship trumps archaeology

Father Jerome Murphy-O'Connor

This year marks the 175th anniversary of the beginning of scientific biblical archaeology in the Holy Land. As yet, though, no spade has dug up any stones or scrolls to add facts to the historical Jesus. Nor to his disciples. This was confirmed to me recently by Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, professor of the New Testament, at the École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem.

“The light shed by archaeology on the New Testament is indirect – and with varying degrees of clarity,” he said firmly in his lilting Irish accent. Despite his 50 years in Jerusalem, the Irish tones in his voice remain strong. “Generally,” he said, “archaeology can do no more than fill in the backgrounds against which the drama of evangelisation was played out.”

These words came as a shock to me. The idea of there being no substantial finds at all about the life of Jesus, after nearly two centuries of archaeologists digging down amid the stones and dusty ruins of Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem and Capernaum, is disappointing to say the least.

Fr Jerry, as he is known, then referred to Jesus himself, adding: “For an understanding of His person and mission we must turn to other sources and disciplines.”

When we met at the beautiful old stone École Biblique on the outskirts of the Old City, he stressed that not too much should be expected from archaeology. “It can never speak as precisely or as specifically as a text,” he said. He spoke with authority. Such is his international standing as an esteemed professor of New Testament studies that academics, professors and researchers from all over the world consult him. No other Catholic priest in Jerusalem is as well known. Nor has any other reached his level of scholarly prestige. As well as being a leading authority on St Paul, Fr Jerry has written critically acclaimed books and papers on New Testament studies. His output, though, has not just been limited to academia. His best-selling guide, The Holy Land, an Archaeological Guide (Oxford University Press), which has gone into five editions and sold more than 60,000 print copies, is now selling on Kindle.

Although 78, confined to a wheelchair and reliant on an oxygen machine, Fr Jerry, a handsome man, has retained his good looks, his sense of humour and strict habits of working for long hours each day. Somehow, he also entertains a constant stream of guests. Recently I joined a lunch party hosted by him at the École Biblique with two American biblical scholars. One of them suggested that excavations had verified more about the locations, patriarchs, prophets and kings in the Old Testament than facts in the New Testament. Fr Jerry was somewhat defensive, saying: “Well, the Old Testament covers a much, much longer period, and a much larger area than the New Testament.”

But New Testament archaeology, he insisted, should not be written off. Far from it. It may not have substantiated any facts about Jesus himself, but it has illuminated the material culture of the first century in which Jesus and his disciples lived. The vast array of sites from which piles of potsherds, coins, walls, floors, and bones have been found have added a tangible reality to many aspects to day-to-day life in Palestine. Citing some of the geographical and cultural details which have been unearthed, Fr Jerry said: “We know, for instance, where Jesus was baptised, the sort of room in which he lived in Capernaum and the type of boat from which he preached. We can trace the paths he walked.”

Using the approach of relating archaeological data to specific texts of the New Testament to which it might be relevant, he summed up some of the research. Details of the actual towns and locations mentioned in the gospels – Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan, Capernaum, Bethsaida, Magdala, Jericho and Bethany – are now firmly established on maps. His summaries of two of them, Jerusalem and Nazareth are, indeed, fascinating. He says that so much is known about the Jerusalem in which Jesus lived “that a 1:50 model has been built in the grounds of the Israel Museum. In general, it is very accurate.”

In contrast, he does not believe that all the 14 Stations of the Cross can be traced precisely, but he confirmed: “The location of the site of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus is solidly attested by a critically tested pre-Constantinian tradition. Both are enclosed in the Holy Sepulchre church. Excavations beneath the church show that the tomb was located in a quarry abandoned in the second century BC.”

As the archaeology in the Jerusalem area has included a survey of a large number of its ancient tombs, it is now known that, “the tomb of Jesus must have been a kokhim (the bodies were placed in sealable horizontal shafts fronted by a ledge), first introduced into Palestine in the second century BC. Being short of time the disciples would have simply deposited the body of Jesus on the ledge. To prevent violation of the body by animals or birds, the entrance to the burial chamber from the vestibule would have been closed by a blocking stone like a plug (circular ones were very rare), which would have made removal difficult; the women were right to worry.”

Fr Jerry went on to say that the two miracles that Jesus worked in Jerusalem have been given accurate locations. Both were large open-air ritual pools, one at Siloam and the other called Bethesda, near Lion’s Gate. “There was a pagan healing temple at Bethesda in the second century AD, as the votive objects show. Its location, however, must have been determined by a tradition of healing going back at least to the previous century. This explains why Jesus found the sick gathered in the one place that gave them hope.”

As Nazareth has a special place in the hearts of many Christians, it was especially interesting to hear that archaeological discoveries have provided solid facts about life there during the boyhood of Jesus. “Even though excavations there have been sporadic and no clear picture emerges,” he explained, “first-century house foundations, together with the silos, oil presses and storage areas show what one would expect of a farming village. Nazareth would have been the agricultural supply centre of the nearby city Sepphoris, which in the youth of Jesus was in the process of reconstruction as a Roman city.”

Evidence points to the population of the city of Sepphoris, until AD70, being predominantly Jewish. This has been deduced not just by what archaeologists have found but what they have not. There are the remains of ritual baths along with a large number fragments of stone vessels (which cannot become ritually impure) – but there is a complete absence of pig bones or coins with pagan images.

As one can see, in the 175 years since Edward Robinson, a Connecticut Yankee, came to the Holy Land in 1838 to seek the exact locations of places in the Bible, archaeologists have managed to animate the world of Jesus. But so far the spade has proved itself to be no rival to the pen.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, dated August 16, 2013