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In the Footsteps of Jesus Digging up the past Judging by the many TV programmes, such as ‘Time Team,’ which feature it and reports in the newspapers about the activities of metal detectorists, there seems to be more than a little interest in archaeological discoveries these days. For many people what is even more fascinating about digging up the past than, hopefully, finding hordes of gold or silver coins or outstanding artefacts is something else. This is because what is unearthed, whether of monetary worth or not, provides valuable insights into what life was like for people living hundreds or thousands of years ago. Of national importance are the digs which have been going on virtually on our doorstep. The work on improving the 21 miles of the A14 from Cambridge to Huntingdon has in fact resulted in one of the biggest and most complex archaeological projects ever undertaken in the UK. Amongst the more notable discoveries are three Neolithic henge monuments which were used for ceremonies which we hardly know anything about to day. A Roman trade centre for the distribution of pottery was also found. Furthermore, the remains of a number of Anglo Saxon timber buildings were revealed and some abandoned medieval villages were also uncovered. These, together with many other interesting finds, are giving us a glimpse of what everyday life was like in over 6,000 years of human occupation of the Cambridgeshire landscape. Uncovering the past takes us all right back to our ancestors in surprisingly tangible ways. We know that they were there and had a life, though different to our own in many respects, yet similar in some recognisable ways. Archaeology and the Bible Some of the investigations of ancient Middle Eastern sites have focussed on places and events in the Bible’s record of the history of Israel and the life and times of Jesus Christ. Naturally what has been revealed is of special interest to Christians and others to find out when and where and how Jesus spent his thirty or so years travelling and teaching in Palestine. Two recent discoveries have highlighted details of Jesus’ existence in quite a dramatic way. The first is the remarkable claim (as reported in the Church Times on 27/11/20) by a British archaeologist that the site of Jesus’ childhood home in Nazareth has been identified. A first century dwelling lying underneath an old convent is now believed to be where Jesus spent his early years. Well-preserved and well-constructed, the building was cut into a limestone hillside incorporating a natural cave. Several living and storage rooms arranged around a courtyard with a roof terrace and a staircase cut out of rock are its main features. This is evidently the work of a skilled craftsman and it significant to note that Joseph is described in the Gospels as a skilled carpenter-builder. Was this, then, where Jesus really lived before he began his public ministry? It was certainly the type of dwelling he would have been familiar with. Practical considerations like these take us nearer to Jesus, showing him to be a real person who actually lived. A Further Piece of Evidence Another significant discovery, taking us back to Jerusalem in the time of Jesus, is an ancient pilgrimage route (published by CBN News in 2019). This stone-paved street, leading uphill from the Pool of Siloam (where Jesus healed a blind man) to the Temple Mount, is the way taken by pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. First, they took a ritual bath in the Pool so purifying themselves before ascending to offer sacrifices and worship in the Temple. The route pilgrims followed was one third of a mile long and 26ft feet wide and was probably lined by shops. Coins found during the excavation have dated it to the time of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who condemned Jesus to death. It may have been he who ordered the street to be constructed, taking in fact 10 years to build. In order to reach the first century level several metres below the surface, the excavators have tunnelled the length of the ancient street and put in arches to support the buildings which exist overhead. So eventually modern-day pilgrims will actually be able to walk where Jesus walked when he came to the Holy City to reach the Temple, the centre of Jewish worship in those days. So, imagine probably following in Jesus’ footsteps when he first visited the Temple with his parents when he was 12 years old and then on subsequent visits, including the notable one when he took action against the commercial activity going on in it sacred precincts! The striking thing about these two, and indeed numerous other discoveries in the Holy Land, is that they bring into sharper focus the accuracy of the Bible’s record of people, places and events in the Old and New Testaments. Regarding the circumstances of Jesus Christ’s life in particular, they tie him down as living in a certain location in the Middle East and at a specified time in history. And this is important for it means that we are dealing with plain facts and not legends, myths or fairy tales but with events which really took place. Due to the passage of time, that is, over a period of more than two thousand years, there will of course be details about which we do not precisely know (although they were known at the time). However, the value of archaeology in bringing the past to life serves to anchor the accounts of Jesus’ ministry in geographical space and historical time. As someone has put it, the four Gospels are ‘diary accounts’ combining together to give a truthful record of Jesus from his birth, teaching and miracles to his death, resurrection and ascension. Jesus, then, is no longer distant or remote-someone we just read about- but is brought closer to us by the discoveries which can be seen and examined today. Confirming Scripture The historical accuracy of the New Testament Gospels, which give an account of Jesus’ life and ministry from four different viewpoints and which are carefully written to appeal to Jewish and non-Jewish readers alike, is confirmed by such archaeological finds as mentioned above. Yet the main aim and purpose of the New Testament record of Jesus is not simply to give us reliable information about someone who lived two thousand years ago. To be transported back to Jesus’ day as we are by various significant finds is interesting but there much more to it than that. St John towards the end of his Gospel clearly states why he wrote it. He says: ‘Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name’(John 20,v.31). Such an unambiguous invitation means far more than believing that Jesus actually lived and died and then returned to life. It is a call to place our full trust and confidence in him as our personal Saviour and to give him our whole allegiance as Lord. And the reason why we should do that can be seen as we look at Jesus’ death on a cross outside Jerusalem’s ’city wall at a particular moment in time. Having a present meaning for each of us it can be put simply as: ‘we owed a debt we couldn’t pay; Jesus paid a debt that he didn’t owe’. All the factual information found in Scripture, corroborated as it is by some really significant archaeological evidence, is intended to help us become present-day disciples of Jesus Christ and thereby to enjoy the amazing blessing of forgiveness of sins and real life now- and for ever- as promised in this verse. The challenge is: are we ready to accept the invitation which is so freely offered to everyone?
Michael L. Diamond - May 2021
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In the Footsteps of Jesus by Rev Michael Diamond Please click below to download the article