Window into the Bible
16 New Testament People Attested in Archaeology
The New Testament is packed with the names of many people. Some of these people were rulers: emperors, kings and governors. Others played a significant role in the early Church or may have simply encountered one of the early Christians. Over time. archaeologists have unearthed a range of items that shed light on some of these people, and confirm their roles and existence. There are busts and statues that show what some of these rulers looked like. There are coins that bear their names and positions in society. And there are inscriptions, and even some very personal items, that tell us information about these people. Here are a few discoveries relating to 16 people mentioned in the New Testament.
Augustus was ruler of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the New Testament era.
Luke 2:1 informs us that ‘In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.’ People were required to return to their ancestral hometowns for the census and therefore Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem the birth place of their ancestor King David.
Augustus is well attested in archaeology with many busts, statues, inscriptions, coins and other items either depicting him or recording his name and achievements.
Image courtesy of BiblePlaces.com - not for reproduction
King Herod the Great
Herod began to rule the region of Judea, for the Romans, in 37 BC and was still ruling at the time of Jesus’ birth.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all mention him at the beginning of their Gospels. He was a very talented ‘builder’ and was responsible for, among other things, the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple at the time of Jesus. He also had a huge problem with jealousy, which led him to develop a very murderous nature. This included the murder of many young boys in Bethlehem when he discovered that a new King of the Jews, Jesus, had been born (Matt 2:13ff).
Herod is attested mainly through the coins that he had minted. Most of his coins are clearly stamped with his name in Greek “BASILEWS HRWDOU” or KING HEROD. The ruins of many of his building projects also survive.
Herod’s Three Sons
All three of Herod’s sons, who survived his murderous plots, appear in the Gospels.
Matthew 2:22 tells us that when Joseph, Mary and Jesus returned from Egypt “when he (Joseph) heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there.”
Herod Antipas and Herod Philip
In chapter 3 of Luke’s Gospel, Luke sets the scene for Jesus’ baptism and the events that follow. Among the list of rulers given are “Herod tetrarch of Galilee” and “his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis.”
Antipas (Herod the tetrarch) and Philip also feature in the account of the eventual beheading of John the Baptist (Matt 14), and Jesus is mocked by Antipas and his soldiers during his trial (Luke 23:5ff)
Like their father Herod, Archelaus, Antipas and Philip are attested through the coins they minted. Their Herod “HRWDOU” name and their title Ethnarch “EQNARCOU” or Tetrarch “TETRARCOU” appear on the coins.
Images courtesy of BiblePlaces.com - not for reproduction
Tiberius, the adopted son of Augustus, ruled the Roman Empire from 14 – 37 AD. Luke tells us in chapter 3 of his Gospel that it was “in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar …” that “the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” This indicates that John the Baptist began his prophetic ministry in about the year 29 AD.
Tiberius, like most of the early Caesars, is well attested in archaeology. He is depicted in busts and statues, and his name and titles appear on many inscriptions and coins.
Pontius Pilate was the Roman appointed governor of Judea during Jesus adult life. He is well known for his involvement in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus described in all four gospels.
In 1961, archaeologists discovered an inscription while excavating at Caesarea Maritima. The inscription, known today as the Pilate inscription, bears both the name of Pontius Pilate and his role as prefect (governor) of Judea. To date, this is the only archaeological evidence of Pontius Pilate to be found.
The High Priest Caiaphas
Caiaphas was a member of the Jewish priesthood. At the time of Jesus trial he was the appointed High Priest. Peter and John also meet him during their trial in Acts 4:7.
In 1990, archaeologists excavating a tomb in Jerusalem discovered an ornate bone box (ossuary) bearing the name of Caiaphas. Inside the ossuary they found the bones of a man aged around sixty. The ossuaries of other members of Caiaphas’ family were also found.
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Alexander Son of Simon from Cyrene
During the last hours of Jesus life, as he lugged his cross toward Golgotha, a pilgrim attending the Passover was to become tied up in the events that happened that day Mark 15:21 tells us that “A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.”
In 1941, an archaeologist discovered several ossuaries in a Cyrenean Jewish tomb in Jerusalem. Among the ossuaries was one inscribed, twice, with the name “Alexander son of Simon”. Many Biblical scholars believe this to be the ossuary of Alexander, son of Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross of Jesus.
Image adapted from churchintoronto.blogspot.com - not for reproduction
King Herod Agrippa I
Agrippa I was the grandson of Herod the Great. He ruled all the territories originally overseen by his grandfather.
In the book of Acts he is simply known as King Herod, and was involved in the trial of Peter in Acts 12. He met a gruesome end when as Acts 12:23 states: “Immediately, because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.”
Herod Agrippa is attested through the many coins he minted that bear his name “BASILEwS AGRIPA” or KING AGRIPPA.
Aretas IV was king of Nabataea at time of Paul’s conversion. Aretas’ daughter was married to Herod Antipas, who divorced her in order to marry his brother Philip’s wife Herodius (Luke 3:19).
Paul states in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 that “In Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.”
King Aretas’ is mentioned in Nabatean inscriptions and several coins minted during his reign.
Image courtesy of Ferrell Jenkins blog - not for reproduction
Image courtesy of Jason Wills - not for reproduction
Sergius Paulus was the Roman Proconsul of Cyprus during the reign of the Emperor Claudius.
Paul has an interesting encounter with Sergius Paulus while on his first missionary journey travelling through Cyprus. “There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God.” (Acts 13:6-7).
Sergius Paulus was to become the first recorded convert during Paul’s first missionary journey.
A couple of inscriptions bearing the name Sergius Paulus have been discovered. Although not guaranteed to be the Sergius Paulus of Acts, one inscription does speak of him being proconsul of Cyprus during the reign of Claudius and is likely to be the same man.
Claudius was the emperor of Rome during Paul’s first and second missionary journeys.
It was during the reign of Claudius that the famine mentioned in Acts 11:28 occurred. While in Corinth Paul also meets “a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. (Acts 18:2)”
Like Augustus and Tiberius, Claudius is attested through the many statues, busts, inscriptions and coins that were produced during his 14 year reign.
The Proconsul Gallio
While in Corinth, Paul was bought before Gallio, the Roman Proconsul of Achaia, to answer Jewish accusations about his preaching (Acts 18:12ff). After brief questioning, the case is dismissed and Paul is allowed to continue preaching in Corinth unhindered by the Roman authorities.
In the late 1800s some fragments of an inscription were discovered at Delphi in Greece which mention Gallio. They also tell us that he was Proconsul of Achaia in 51/52 AD. This has given scholars a dating for when Paul’s trial occurred and therefore his time in Corinth.
In the final chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans, Paul sends greetings from a man called Erastus (Rom 16:23). Erastus is described as the “Director of Public Works” for the city of Corinth.
In 1929, during excavations near Corinth’s ancient theatre, archaeologists uncovered a paved area with an inscription. The inscription read “ERASTVS. PRO. AED. S. P. STRAVIT” or "Erastus in return for his aedileship laid the pavement at his own expense." The aedileship was a role similar to Director of Public Works, which leads people to believe this inscription and pavement were laid by Paul’s friend Erastus.
Ross and Sarah Nightingale images: Augustus (Corinth Museum, Ancient Corinth, Greece), Tiberius (British Museum, London, England), Pilate Inscription (Replica at Caesarea excavations, Israel), Claudius (Vatican Museums, Vatican City, Italy), Gallio Inscription (Reproduction at Bibleworld Museum & Discovery Centre, Rotorua, New Zealand), Erastus Inscription (Corinth excavations, Ancient Corinth, Greece)
BiblePlaces.com: Herodian Coins, Caiaphas Ossuary
Churchintoronto blogspot: Alexander Ossuary
Ferrell Jenkins Blog: Aretas Inscription
Jason Wills: Sergius Paulus Inscription
Article provided by Bibleworld Museum & Discovery Centre, Rotorua, New Zealand. Please do not reproduce without permission. www.bibleworld.org.nz.