Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (revised and updated)

“Why did Jesus happen when and where he happened?” Excavating Jesus is a groundbreaking work of popular biblical scholarship, an extraordinarily mature and accessible integration of textual study with archeological research. “Words talk. Stones talk too. Neither talks from the past without interpretive dialogue with the present. But each demands to be heard in its own way,” the authors write.

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts (revised and updated)

  1. Review

    When I told friends the title of this book, I was met with one of two reactions – a quizzical smile, as if you must be kidding or an apprehensive frown, as if you might be serious. The image that precipitated these reactions was that someone had or was going to dig up Jesus, in the sense of recovering his body. Of course, "Excavating Jesus" is used metaphorically for the process of "digging down archeologically amidst the stones to reconstruct his world and digging down exegetically amidst the texts to reconstruct his life."

    The question the book addresses is "Why did Jesus happen when and where he happened?" The authors point out that what is unique about their book is that they have worked together "on a single track with each discipline woven into each and every chapter." John Dominic Crossan is professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and a premier authority on the historical Jesus. Jonathan L. Reed is professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of La Verne in California and is lead archeologist at Sepphoris. The book includes a full color insert of twelve drawings by Blage Balogh, the "best archeological artist in Israel today," as well as black-and-white illustrations.

    The book is based on the top ten archeological discoveries and the top ten exegetical discoveries that the authors believe are significant for understanding the world in which Jesus lived and engaged by his vision and program. Within the ten archeological sites are five specific objects, including an ossuary, an inscription, a house, a fishing boat and a skeleton with direct links to gospel texts. There are also five discoveries, which involve such places as cities, monuments, villages, and plastered pools. The ten top exegetical discoveries include The Dead Sea Scrolls, The Nag Hammadi Codices, the dependent relationship of the four canonical Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, The Q gospel, the Didache, the Gospel of Peter and some papyrus and sacred observations.

    The problem, the authors point out, is that while everyone recognizes that archeology is the discipline of excavating multiple layers of habitation to discover the earliest evidence, not everyone recognizes the necessity to use the discipline of exegesis to excavate the multiple layers of the New Testament gospels to discover the earliest "textual stratum of Jesus’ life." Such "layering" is "denied in theory and therefore ignored in practice" by some scholars, while other scholars affirm "layering" in theory and fail to practice it. However, the authors maintain that "there is now a massive consensus that the words and deeds attributed to Jesus in our New Testament gospels fall into major layers built successively one upon (that is, over, under, around and through) another." There is the first or original layer, which goes back to the historical Jesus in the late 20’s. Next is the traditional layer which originated from the adoption and adaptation of the first layer in the 30’s, 40’s or even later. Finally there is the evangelical layer which we find in the canonical gospels of the 70′ through the 90’s. Archeological and exegetical layering sets 2.

    The challenge of the author’s joint effort to see if there is an interaction between the layers of archeological discovery and the layers of a gospel text and to read "stones and texts as an integrated whole."

    The result of their careful excavations and interactive interpretations gives the reader a picture of Jesus in the context of the political, economic and social world of his time. In the generation before Jesus, Herod the Great ruled Galilee, a rural and agricultural society, as a client king of the Roman Empire. He embarked on a process of urbanization and commercialization, which began to transform the country. During the generation of Jesus, his son Herod Antipas intensified the process, which threatened the livelihood of the peasantry, who farmed family owned plots of land. They were pushed into debt, became tenants, then day laborers, and often in desperation became beggars and bandits. In opposition to the "commercial kingdom" of Herod and Caesar, a "covenantal" Kingdom of God, with roots in the Hebrew tradition of "divine distributive justice" was proclaimed and lived by Jesus and his companions in the "lifestyles of alternative share-communities." The vision and program of the Kingdom of God was a radical nonviolent resistance movement against political oppression, economic exploitation, and social fragmentation.

    Obviously, the Kingdom of God would be a threat to the Kingdom of Caesar. Consequently, Jesus was executed by crucifixion, reserved for those condemned for political crimes against Rome. His crucifixion was the result of his life lived in the pursuit of the justice of God. The resurrection of Jesus was the vindication by God of Jesus who had lived, suffered, and died for justice. To proclaim the resurrection of Jesus, the authors add, was "to claim that "God’s long-awaited vindication of all who had lived, suffered and died for justice and all those who had lived, suffered and died from injustice had already begun." That is "Good News!"

    This book is an essential resource for anyone on the quest for the historical Jesus.

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