Unearthing the World of Jesus

Ariel Sabar in Smithsonian Magazine:

JesusThe 19th-century French theologian and explorer Ernest Renan called the Galilean landscape the “fifth Gospel,” a “torn, but still legible” tableau of grit and stone that gave “form” and “solidity” to the central texts about Jesus’s life—the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Renan’s somewhat romantic views were not unlike those of the tourists whose gleaming buses I got stuck behind last summer on the road to places like Nazareth and Capernaum; pilgrims have long come to these biblical lands hoping to find what Renan called “the striking agreement of the texts with the places.” Modern archaeologists working here, however, are less interested in “proving” the Bible than in uncovering facts and context absent from the texts. What religion did ordinary people practice? How did Galileans respond to the arrival of Greek culture and Roman rule? How close did they feel to the priestly elites in Jerusalem? What did they do for work? What, for that matter, did they eat?

The Gospels themselves provide only glancing answers; their purpose is spiritual inspiration, not historical documentation. As for actual firsthand accounts of Galilean life in the first century, only one survives, written by a Jewish military commander named Josephus. This has made archaeology the most fruitful source of new information about Jesus’s world. Each layer of dirt, or stratum, is like a new page, and with much of Galilee still unexcavated, many chapters of this Fifth Gospel remain unread.

More here.