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Can Archaeology Uncover Eschatology?

Can archaeology aid exegesis in understanding the Last Days as a historical epoch, A.D. 30 – 70? Can the stones speak to us today, as well as the text? Do material remains, in addition to scribal reflections, witness to the End of the Age?The book of Joshua recounts how a new generation set up twelve stones at Gilgal (Joshua 4:20-21) after reaching the west bank of the Jordan. Their aim was to provoke their descendants to ask, What do these stones mean? This act of stone-piling was an intentional witness to future generations that would run parallel to the record of covenantal renewal in the book of Joshua.

For nearly thirty years, the third quest for the historical Jesus has sought illuminate the historical world that shaped both Jesus and Paul.  Few if any have reflected on what archaeology might add to our understanding of Jewish restoration theology and that culminating period of the Old Covenant age.

Can archaeology aid exegesis in understanding the Last Days as a historical epoch, A.D. 30 – 70? Can the stones speak to us today, as well as the text? Do material remains in addition to scribal reflections, witness to the End of the Age?

In his book, Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, Jonathan L. Reed1 claims that artifacts cannot be excised from their stratigraphic or regional contexts and blindly injected into a reconstruction of ancient life without a framework from the literary sources. He compares the textual scholars’ use of hermeneutics to understand a text within the context of the entire Bible, to archaeologists’ use of layered typology to infer how an object should be dated and then interpreted as part of a broader pattern of material culture. In this way, the material and textual remains can be brought together on the common ground of social reconstruction.

Just as we dig to get behind the texts, so we dig to get beneath the stones. The gospel talks, but so does the ground. This paper aims to survey key archaeological discoveries of the past generation and ask what relevance they might have to Covenant Eschatology. I hope to encourage leaders to cultivate a habit of reading the texts and stones together as an integrated whole.

1. Caesarea Maritima and the Roman Empire

Caesarea Promontory

Ruins of Herod’s Ocean Palace at Caesarea

In the generation before Jesus, Herod the Great undertook massive building projects in the Jewish homeland to integrate it into the Roman empire economy. Chief among these projects was the building of a world-class port city of Caesarea Maritima (not to be confused with Caesarea Philippi farther north). As a client-king of Rome, the city of Caesarea with its man-made harbor, paid tribute to Caesar Augustus, from which Herod derived his power.

Herod took twelve years to build Caesarea. Great festivities were held in 10 BC to mark its completion, including gladiator contests in the stadium. Herod’s engineers and thousands of workers toiled to make the city a marvel of modern architecture and engineering. Josephus claims that Herod built an artificial harbor with a 200 feet wide entrance that stood in 120 feet of water, supported by hundreds of pile stones, 50 feet high, sunk into the sea.

Caesarea Aqueduct

Roman Aqueduct at Caesarea

Each summer from the 1950s onward, American and Israeli archaeologists, along with a team of international volunteers, have excavated Caesarea. North of the town, a massive overland aqueduct could still be seen in ruins that had brought fresh water from springs some four miles away. Divers explored the harbor underwater, confirming Josephus’s descriptions and locations of public buildings have been pinpointed, including a theater, stadium, hippodrome and lavish royal place. At the intersection of the major north-south streets was a massive temple, rising to 110 feet, dedicated to the goddess Roma and Caesar Augustus. Archaeologists have yet to discover any statues of Caesar Augustus, but they have found life-sized bronze and marble torsos of later emperors, suggesting that Herod’s temple in Caesarea promoted the imperial cult for Roman citizens living there. As the king of the Jews, Herod saw no conflict in promoting emperor worship in Caesarea alongside Yahweh worship in Jerusalem.

What significance, if any, does Caesarea hold for Covenant Eschatology? In Caesarea, Jews lived alongside Romans in greater numbers than any other place in Palestine, and often tensions were considerable. In A.D. 66, Jews found an insulting sacrifice of a bird outside their synagogue door, and this incident sparked protests, that escalated into anti-Jewish riots. Several thousand Caesarean Jews were killed in a few days, and news of this event sparked a countrywide revolt against Rome, that would last from A.D. 66 – 74. The headquarters of the revolt later would shift to Jerusalem and then a last stand at Masada, but Caesarea was the birthplace of the Jewish tribulation. Covenant Eschatology scholars would identify this period as the time of Jacob’s troubles, a tribulation that Jesus taught his disciples to pray against, saying, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Sea-side Theater at Caesarea seated 4,000

Sea-side Theater at Caesarea seated 4,000

Beyond playing a role in inciting the Jewish-Roman War, Caesarea represented the ultimate contrast in values to the ancient Jewish covenant. John Dominic Crossan, leading Jesus scholar, claims Caesarea was Herod’s proclamation to the Jewish homeland that this was “how to build a kingdom.” In contrast to the promised “covenantal kingdom,” Herod’s seaport managed a huge “commercial kingdom.” And that seaport kingdom, according to Crossan, was financed through an asymmetrical exchange of goods. Herod commercialized the kingdom by moving goods and agriculture from the rural countryside into the urban city. Crossan states, “Luxury increasing on one end of society made labor and poverty increase at the other.”2

So when Jesus comes proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near,” Crossan claims his audience would have understood his proclamation as relief against the intensive Romanization, urbanization and commercialization that first entered the Jewish homeland through Caesarea. Crossan is not saying that Jesus was calling for colonial revolt, but was calling Jewish peasants to something more profound, covenantal renewal, in view of the injustice that the Roman-Herodian intrusions had caused.

2. Sepphoris and Galilee

Sepphoris of Galilee

Aerial view of Sepphoris excavations, with theater in middle

While Herod the Great built Caesarea as a center of coastal commerce, he left it to his son Herod Antipas to bring this more intensive urban and commercial pattern to Galilee. Following the death of Herod, the son of a murdered revolutionary, Judas the Galilean, raided the royal armory of Galilee’s leading city, Sepphoris. With the arms seized, a localized Jewish uprising began in Galilee. According to Josephus, the Roman legate Varus from Syria came down to burn the city and crush the uprising in 4 B.C.3

Following the imposition of order, Herod Antipas chose Sepphoris as the site to build his first capital city, according to the “commercial kingdom” pattern of his father. From there he reimposed Roman taxation, along with the tithe system for the Jewish Temple state.

Sepphoris lies in the heart of Galilee, perched on a hill “like a little bird,” from which it gets it name (Zippori is Hebrew for bird). It had a commanding view of traffic from the Sea of Galilee to the Mediterranean. Following the enslavement and crucifixion of much of the population after the death of Herod the Great, the city was rebuilt by Antipas to become the “ornament of all Galilee.”4

The political and commercial importance that Sepphoris played in Galilean history throughout the first century renders its absence in the New Testament all the more notable. This omission is surprising since Sepphoris was only 3.5 miles north of Nazareth. In his book, Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, Jonathan Reed summarizes the scholarship of archaeology and how they largely “discovered” Sepphoris in the 20th century.

Speculation ruled throughout the 1920s and 30s as to whether Jesus or his earthly father Joseph had ever worked in or visited Sepphoris. Some scholars suggested that Jesus would have been familiar with Sepphoris, as his parables drew upon images from Antipas’ city, such as elite dining habits in the parable of the royal banquet (Matt. 22:1-14), or banking and lending habits toward peasants in the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14-30).

Full scale archaeological excavations of Sepphoris were commenced following the 1948 Israeli war. They confirmed that Antipas had launched a considerable building program, and the population within this walled city grew from one thousand up to eight or twelve thousand by the early first century.

Like Caesarea, Sepphoris was bisected by two perpendicular streets, a north-south cardo and an east-west decumanus, imposing a Roman grid pattern on the rest of the city. In terms of facades, the city revealed what Galilean villages did not have, white plastered walls, frescoes, mosaics and red roof tiles, all signs of new wealth, that craved Greek culture.

Despite the veneer of Roman architecture, the first-century strata of Sepphoris shows that Herod Antipas was mindful of Jewish sensitivities. Coins were not minted with the emperor’s or his image, but retained traditional symbols of the harvest. Furthermore, all excavations of Sepphoris at the first-century layer have revealed its citizens were primarily Jewish, and its rich villas kept kosher in how they ate. Like observant Jews of their day, they practiced purity through ritual baths, located in their upscale homes.

Sepphoris Mona Lisa

“Mona Lisa” of Galilee, 2nd Century

The evidence of Jewish extravagance and penchant for aristocratic Roman-style houses has been seen in an excavated Dionysos Villa at Sepphoris, first uncovered in the early 1990s by Eric and Carol Meyers of Duke University. Even though this villa dates in the second century, its architectural features made inroads in the early first century. The Meyers report that the villa was laid out as an enclosed courtyard house, with a three-sided, u-shaped Roman dining arrangement presumed in Luke 12. Those impoverished on the outside could peer through the atrium’s entrance to see how the elite Jews on top of Galilee’s social pyramid would dine while reclining on lush couches.

Instead of a pagan Roman city like Caesarea, Sepphoris was a cosmopolitan Jewish city, comprised of a large priestly component that assimilated Hellenistic forms and fashions into their urban lives.

Rather than speculate on whether Jesus ever visited Sepphoris during his childhood or later in his ministry, archaeologists have been lately focusing on the influence of Sepphoris on the regional economy of Galilee. Though Herod Antipas was cautious to avoid a direct confrontation with Jewish culture, he did fund his kingdom’s construction through wealth generated through agriculture. Large tracts of land outside the walled city were confiscated as royal lands and turned into estates that urban landowners could manage. In the surrounding villages that were not seized (i.e. perhaps Nazareth), he introduced more productive agricultural methods, permitted fewer fallow years and promoted monocropping over subsistence polycropping. This left village peasants vulnerable to drought and crop failure. Herodian taxes forced peasant families to go into debt, and even sell the land they owned and to become sharecroppers. Reed states, “Architectural grandeur increased at one end of the Galilean society by making poverty increase at the other.”5

Again, Sepphoris illustrates the clash between a Herodian “commercial kingdom” and an ancient “covenantal kingdom” that Jesus preached. It is noteworthy that come A.D. 66, as the Great Jewish Revolt began, Jewish peasants under Sepphoris’s regional grip stormed the royal granaries at Sepphoris twice, seizing the surplus they had produced. The general Vespasian had to station a garrison to protect Roman interests. Rather than be wiped out by class warfare, or swept up into colonial revolt, the Jewish citizens of Sepphoris took a pro-Roman stance throughout the war, avoiding the destruction that came to Jerusalem in A.D. 70. It is likely the collective memory of the city’s razing some 70 years earlier had fostered a passive resignation toward Roman occupation.

3. Tiberias and the Fishing Industry

Sepphoris was not the only commercial city that Herod Antipas built. In A.D. 14, Caesar Augustus died and Tiberius eventually became Emperor. To cultivate the emperor’s favor, in A.D. 19 Herod Antipas began building a second capital city, this time on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. He called his new capital, Tiberias. Today Tiberias is a thriving tourist city, and excavations have not been undertaken near to the degree that Caesarea and Sepphoris have witnessed. But archaeologists have discovered the same Roman grid pattern of street design, and evidence of a Roman theater, albeit, yet to be stratigraphically dated.

From literary sources we understand that Herod Antipas built a royal palace at Tiberias. It is likely that he beheaded John the Baptist at this palace in the late ’20s. The primary function of Tiberias was to regulate the fishing industry around the Sea of Galilee, including the cities of Capernaum and Magdala. The fish could be salt preserved or made into a fish sauce for export.

Jesus Boat

“Jesus Boat” found in 1986

In 1985, droughts exposed large shore front areas of Lake Kinneret, the New Testament’s Sea of Galilee. In January of 1986, Moshe and Yuval Lufan, from Kibbutz Ginnosaur, near the biblical city of Magdala, discovered a boat submerged in the mud. The discovery had the consistency of wet cardboard, but thanks to the efforts of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, the boat was preserved in a plaster coating and floated ashore.

Today the 8-by-26 foot boat sits preserved on the northwest shore of the lake, three miles east from Capernaum, in the Yigal Allon Museum. Carbon-14 dating on the wooden planks dated the boat to the first century, consistent with the cooking pot and undecorated lamp found in it. The “Jesus Boat,” as it is sometimes called, could squeeze in 13 passengers and was typical of vessels used for fishing or ferrying passengers across the lake in Jesus’ time.

A closer examination of the boat reveals it was built and rebuilt many times, from sparse resources. It originally was constructed from wood of another boat, and then held together by craftsmanship that used inferior local wood, including pine, jujube and willow. Over time the materials betrayed the boat as its tendons snapped and its wood pegs rotted. After salvaging all usable parts, including its mast, the wreck was waded out to sea, where it was deliberately sunk. Fortunately it sank in silt and mud, preserving it from ravages of bacteria for some 2,000 years.

We could harbor romantic notions about the Sea of Galilee in Jesus’ time, and muse on how brave independent fishermen followed a noble carpenter from Nazareth. But fishing was anything but an entrepreneurial activity, especially after Herod Antipas moved to the lake. The fishing industry was a regulated economy. In the book, Palestine in the Time of Jesus, the authors reveal how Herodian rulers sold fishing rights to brokers, commonly known as tax collectors or publicans, who in turn contracted to fishers. The toll office in Capernaum, operated by Matthew (or Levi), probably identifies him as a contractor of royal fishing rights (Matt 9:9, Mk. 2:14). Fishing families, like those of the sons of Zebedee, formed cooperatives or collectives in order to bid for fishing leases. They in turn hired day laborers to man their boats, along with their sons.6

In a recent interview, John Dominic Crossan, comments, “So if you look at the ’20s and you knew nothing about Jesus, you would say, ‘OK, Romanization has just hit lower Galilee full forced and it’s focused on the lake. So if I find two prophets—say, the Kingdom Movement of Jesus and the Baptism Movement of John appearing in the ’20s—that is more than coincidence. The social situation of Romanization is being resisted, in the name of God and in the name of ancient traditions of the peasantry and of the law.”7

4. Qumran as a Last Days Community

Quman Cave 4

Quman Cave 4

By far, the most monumental archaeological discovery of the past generation has been the Dead Sea Scrolls found in caves along the western shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956. The manuscripts total 867 documents. They include fragments of every book of the Hebrew Bible except Esther, and numerous commentaries on the Scriptures. In addition to biblical books and commentaries, fragments of extra-canonical books were found, specifically apocalyptic literature such as JubileesEnoch, and the Book of Warfare. No New Testament texts have been found at Qumran, but the outlook of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) is similar to the Jesus movement in seeing themselves as forerunners of the Last Days. The scribal authors of the DSS are presumed to be members of the Essene community, a Jewish monastic community that lived in self-imposed exile from Jerusalem. The Qumran Community established itself in the years after the Maccabean revolt apparently in protest to the Hasmonean regime and their administration of the Jewish Temple through non-levitical priests. The community continued up through the first century until the Jewish-Roman War when Rome disbanded their settlement in A.D. 68 to discourage zealot activity.

The ruins at Qumran were excavated between 1951 and 1956 by Roland de Vaux of Jerusalem’s School of Biblical Archaeology, shortly after the discovery of the DSS in nearby caves by Arab Bedouin sheep herders. What Vaux found was a walled monastic settlement a mile off the Dead Sea, that apparently supported itself by farming and herding goats on nearby land tracts. The complex enclosed a number of large buildings, including kitchens, a refectory, pottery workshops and a scriptorium, a room where scrolls were copied.

Qumran Mikvah

Ritual Bath at Qumram

Of particular note is a vast installation that channeled rainwater from nearby ravines into cisterns and a dozen miqwaoth, ritual baths or step-down pools. According to the DSS, the sectarian members purified themselves prior to their daily “pure meal.” This concern with ritual purity was not unique to the Qumran community, but was an extension of practices that Temple priests observed in Jerusalem. They believed by intensifying obedience to the law, they would hasten God’s salvation on their behalf as a last days community.

C. Marvin Pate has written an excellent book about the Essenes, entitled, Communities of the Last Days, comparing their apocalyptic teachings to the Jesus movement.8 He argues that the Essenes at Qumran, like the early Christians, read the story of Israel to suit their own worldview. They, like the Gospel of Matthew, used an eschatological hermeneutic in portraying themselves as the embodiment of the true Israel prophesied in the Old Testament.

Qumran Temple Scroll

The War Scroll, anticipating a forty-year war that God’s righteous warriors (the Sons of Light) would fight at the end of the age against God’s enemies (the Sons of Darkness)

In today’s parlance, the Essenes would be an end-time apocalyptic sect. In concluding his book, Pate interprets the Damascus Document, one of the DSS, to indicate that the Qumran community believed its original founder, a “Teacher of Righteousness” to be the messiah. They saw his death as inaugurating the restoration period of Israel, with the full consummation of the kingdom 40 years later. Pate notes that the Qumran community must have witnessed the non-occurrence of this prophecy. Even though their initial millennial visions did not find fulfillment, the community kept up its apocalyptic beliefs for the next hundred years. Surprisingly, he compares the Jesus movement with the Qumran community. He points out that the early churches held a similar belief in its founder as being the messiah, despite his death. Only this time, 40 years later, their founder was vindicated through the fall of Jerusalem. Pate claims that unlike Qumran’s failed apocalyptic expectations, the Jesus movement was a millennial success.9

Restoration and Resistance

In the past thirty years, New Testament scholarship has been increasingly branching out into various disciplines such as archaeology, social history, rabbinic literature, and apocalyptic literature. From these studies, a clearer picture of first-century Judaism, or Second Temple Judaism (539 B.C. – A.D. 70) has emerged.

Scholars today, such as N.T Wright and S. McKnight, are identifying the dilemma of Israel’s restoration as primary problem of Jews during Jesus’ generation. By the first century, the Jewish homeland had been held by Greek cultural imperialism for over three-hundred years and by direct Roman rule for over a century. Earlier, the Jewish people had won some short-lived victories against Syria, such as through the Maccabean revolt of 167 B.C., only to fall later under Rome’s orbit.

Coins Revolt 67 AD

A coin minted by Jews in A.D. 67 marking the 2nd year of the Great Revolt

How would observant Jews explain this paradox of being back in the land, yet still under foreign occupation? Steck claims various groups, such as the Pharisees, Zealots, Essenes or Christians followed the sin-exile-restoration pattern of thinking of Israel’s history, taken from the book of Deuteronomy (see Ex. 33:3, 5; Num. 22:14; Deut 27:1-26; 28:15-68; Deut. 29:4; 29:19-28; 31:27; Isa. 63:10; Jer 9:26). Each of these groups recalled that Moses prophesied that the nation would fall into disobedience through idol worship, be warned by the prophets, only to reject them and finally fall into captivity. Only repentance would bring about covenantal restoration and a return to the land.

Various groups, including the Pharisees, Essenes, Christians and Zealots presented divinely sanctioned formulations to the quandary of exile. C. Martin Pate writes, “In providing alternative answers, however, each circle rewrote, indeed subverted, the story of Israel, redefining its symbols (Torah, temple and racial ethnicity), rituals (feasts, sacrificial system) and beliefs (monotheism, election and eschatology).”10

The Jews of Jesus’ day believed in covenantal restoration through resistance to Roman rulers and their Herodian collaborators. This resistance might range from violent revolt, to silent defiance, to shrewd acquiescence.

It is in this culture of defiance that the Jewish faith struggled to find a future, recalling the restoration of its national life, promised by the prophets. In this context, Christian eschatology was a subset of Jewish restoration theology. This is why Max King’s term, Covenant Eschatology, is such an excellent title for the matrix of belief that created the Jesus movement.

Like most Jews of their day who resisted Roman occupation, the Jesus movement believed that the tables soon would be turned. The commercial kingdom of Herod, legitimized by the Jewish Temple, would fall, and the ancient covenantal kingdom, backed by the power of God, would rise. Their descendants would live in a New Covenant world, marked by prosperity and fertility, justice and peace, purity and holiness.

What set Jesus and the early church apart from other Jewish sects was their principled embrace of non-violent resistance in the name of God. Knowing the eventual fate of those who took up the sword, the movement was able to practice “new covenant” lifestyle of sharing, enabling their communities to survive the hardships and eventual destruction of the Jewish nation.

Archaeology and eschatology, the material and textual remains are not mutually exclusive. They can be brought together to provide a fuller understanding of the common ground of the Gospel. The challenge lies before us to increasingly relate the social conditions and conflicts of the first century to the apocalyptic and kingdom teachings of Jesus. Only in this way will both the Gospel and ground once again be united in witness to the great acts of redemption.


1 Reed, Jonathan L. Archaeology and the Galilean Jesus, (Trinity Press, 2000).

2 Crossan, John Dominic and Jonathan L. Reed, Excavating Jesus: beneath the stones, behind the texts (HarperCollins, 2001), page 62.

Jewish War 2.68-69, Jewish Antiquities 17.288-89.

Jewish Antiquities 18.27.

Excavating Jesus, page 70.

6 Hanson, K.C. and Douglas E. Oakman, Palestine in the Time of Jesus: social structures and conflicts, (Fortress Press, 1998), page 106-110.

7 “Is America the 21st Century Rome? What archaeological digs tell us about why Jesus emerged in the first century,” An interview with John Dominic Crossan.

8 Pate, C. Marvin. Communities of the Last Days: The Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament & the Story of Israel, (IVP, 2000).

9 This observation about a 40-year lag between the kingdom’s inauguration and consummation is significant; all the more so given it is made by a professor at Moody Bible Institute. Apparently Pate is a premillennialist, of the progressive dispensationalist variety. Another recent book, by Hebrew University professor, Israel Knohl, entitled The Messiah Before Jesus, speculates on the messianic conciousness of Qumran with respect the nation of Israel.

10 Pate, page 19.

Dr. Jay Gary is president of, a foresight consulting group. Over the past twenty years he has helped non-profits, foundations, civic leaders, and strategic alliances to create more promise filled futures. He also teaches strategic foresight, innovation and leadership at the graduate level and through professional development courses.

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