The Bible and Archaeology: Jesus Christ's Early Ministry

by Mario Seiglie Estimated reading time: 15 minutes. Posted on 3-Dec-1999
In the September-October Good News we examined historical and archaeological evidence that helps us better understand the time in Judea when Jesus Christ was born and grew up in the household of Joseph and Mary. We continue with the beginning of the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

After briefly discussing Jesus’ childhood, the Gospels go right into His ministry. According to Luke, “Jesus ... began His ministry at about thirty years of age ...” (Luke 3:23).

Archaeologists generally date the start of Christ’s ministry to the year A.D. 27. “The beginning of Jesus’ public ministry,” writes archaeology professor John McRay, “is dated by synchronisms [chronological arrangements of events and people] in the Gospel of Luke (3:1-2). A date of A.D. 27 seems likely ... The dates mentioned by Luke are rather well established ...” (Archaeology and the New Testament, 1997, p. 160).

Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown

At first Jesus Christ’s ministry centered on the hill country of Galilee and Nazareth, His hometown. “So He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up. And as His custom was, He went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and stood up to read” (Luke 4:16).

During the last century archaeological excavations have confirmed the New Testament description of Nazareth as a small, insignificant village. The Gospels record that one of the disciples, Nathanael of nearby Cana, quipped, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). So far archaeologists have found it to have been an agricultural village with wine and olive presses, caves for storing grains and cisterns for water and wine.

However, Jesus’ ministry in Nazareth was short-lived. When Jesus entered the synagogue and revealed He was the Messiah, the townspeople rejected His message and tried to kill Him. “So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff. Then passing through the midst of them, He went His way. Then He went down to Capernaum ...” (Luke 4:28-31).

The Bible reveals that members of Jesus’ own family did not believe in Him and were embarrassed when He cast out demons. At one point they thought He had lost His mind. “Then the multitude came together again [seeking healing], so that they could not so much as eat bread. But when His own people heard about this, they went out to lay hold of Him, for they said, ‘He is out of His mind’ ... Then His brothers and His mother came, and standing outside they sent to Him, calling Him. And a multitude was sitting around Him; and they said to Him, ‘Look, Your mother and Your brothers are outside seeking You.’ But He answered them, saying, ‘Who is My mother, or My brothers?’ And He looked around in a circle at those who sat about Him, and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of God is My brother and My sister and mother” (Mark 3:20-21, 31-35).

Jesus ended His ministry in Nazareth with the words, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country” (Luke 4:24).

Relocation to Capernaum

Having been rejected in His hometown of Nazareth, Christ moved to Capernaum, one of the towns around the harp-shaped Sea of Galilee. This region had a large population sustained by a thriving agricultural and fishing industry.

“Their soil,” wrote the Jewish historian Josephus, “is universally rich and fruitful, and full of the plantations of trees of all sorts, insomuch that it invites, by its fruitfulness, the most slothful to take pains in its cultivation. Accordingly it is all cultivated by its inhabitants, and no part lies idle” (Wars of the Jews, Book III, Chapter III, Section 2). Jesus drew many of His parables and illustrations from daily life and activities around the lake.

The site of Capernaum, which means “village of Nahum,” was identified in 1838 and was extensively excavated during this century. What have archaeologists found?

John Laughlin, professor of religion at Averett College,Danville, VA., participated in excavations at Capernaum. He comments: “What is known indicates that at this time Capernaum was a small village located on the shore of the Sea of Galilee with a population of probably no more than 1,000 people. The few architectural remains indicate the buildings were spacious and well constructed of dressed stones and large amounts of plaster. This suggests that the village flourished economically during Jesus’ time. Its location on the crossroads of important trade routes, the fertile lands surrounding it and the rich fishing available all contributed to its economic development” (Biblical Archaeological Review, September-October 1993, p. 59).

The synagogue at Capernaum

“Then He went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and was teaching them on the Sabbaths ... Now He arose from the synagogue and ... when the sun was setting, all those who had any that were sick with various diseases brought them to Him; and He laid His hands on every one of them and healed them” (Luke 4:31, 38, 40).

Archaeologists have found at Capernaum the remains of a beautiful limestone synagogue dated to the fourth or fifth century. Yet what caused more excitement was the discovery in the 1960s that beneath this building was the foundation of an earlier synagogue built of basalt, which is common to that area, that apparently dates to Christ’s time.

The Gospels even include the detail of who built the synagogue in Capernaum. “Now when [Jesus] concluded all His sayings in the hearing of the people, He entered Capernaum. And a certain centurion’s servant, who was dear to him, was sick and ready to die. So when he heard about Jesus, he sent elders of the Jews to Him, pleading with Him to come and heal his servant. And when they came to Jesus, they begged Him earnestly, saying that the one for whom He should do this was deserving, ‘for he loves our nation, and has built us a synagogue’ “ (Luke 7:1-5, emphasis added throughout).

It was a tradition among the Jews to build a new synagogue on the foundation of the older one. “Pottery found in and under this basalt floor,” explains archaeologist Hershel Shanks, “clearly dates the basalt structure to the first century A.D. or earlier. Since the site of a synagogue rarely changed in antiquity, this basalt building, which closely follows the plan of the later limestone synagogue, must also be a synagogue, and very likely the one in which Jesus preached” (Biblical Archaeological Review, November-December 1983, p. 27).

Peter’s house discovered?

Between this synagogue and the nearby lake, excavators discovered what many believe to be the remains of the house of the apostle Peter. Along with his brother Andrew, Peter made his living as a fisherman on the Sea of Galilee (Matthew 4:18). Matthew records that Peter had a house in Capernaum in which Jesus healed his mother-in-law (Matthew 8:5, 14-15).

In 1968 the excavators of the synagogue investigated the remains of a nearby octagonal structure with mosaic floors. During the Byzantine period such structures ofen were constructed over what were thought to be significant religious sites.

Archaeologists dated the structure to the fifth century. Beneath it they found an earlier church that they dated to the fourth century based on writings and inscriptions on the walls. The central hall of this church “was part of an earlier house built, according to the excavators, in the mid-first century A.D.” (McRay, p. 164).

“The first century house was built around two courtyards with the outside entrance opening directly into one of the courtyards. A taboun (round oven) was found in this courtyard, which indicates it was used as the main family room. The southern courtyard may have been used for animals or as a working area. In either size or building material, the house is not unlike all the other houses found in Capernaum” (McRay, pp. 164-165).

In other ways, however, the house was distinctly different. At some point early in its history the house’s large center room had been plastered, making it the only house in Capernaum yet discovered to have plastered walls. The walls and floor were later replastered twice.

“During the mid-first century the pottery used in the room ceased to be of the typical domestic variety. Only storage jars and oil lamps were found after this point. Thus the use of the room must have changed from normal residential living. More than one hundred fifty inscriptions were scratched on its walls in Greek, Syriac, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin from this time until the fourth century ...

“Sometime after the first century two pillars were erected to raise the roof of the large central room, creating an impressively high ceiling. The fifth-century octagonal chapel was built with the center of its concentric walls directly over this room. Evidence now available suggests that this chapel was built over a first-century house which was set apart in the middle of that century as a public area. It was made into a church and at some point came to be venerated as the house of Peter. It would not be prudent to apply the data beyond that” (McRay, pp. 165-166).

Around the Sea of Galilee

The Gospels record even such detail as meteorological conditions around the Sea of Galilee. “Now when they had left the multitude, [the disciples] took [Jesus] along in the boat as He was. And other little boats were also with Him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that it was already filling” (Mark 4:36-37).

Since most of Christ’s disciples lived around the Sea of Galilee, it is not surprising many of them were fishermen. The Gospels faithfully describe the life, work and occasional dangers of fishing in the lake. Why did dangerous storms sometimes arise on what normally should have been a large, placid inland lake?

“We do not realize,” explains biblical geographer George Adam Smith, “that the greater part of our Lord’s ministry was accomplished at what may be truly called the bottom of a trench, 680 feet below sea level ... The cold currents, as they pass from the west, are sucked down in vortices of air, or by the narrow gorges that break upon the Lake. Hence sudden storms arise [for] which the region is notorious” (The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 1931, p. 286).

Some who have doubted the biblical accounts of sudden storms on the lake have been caught by surprise. William Barclay notes: “Dr. W.M. Christie, who spent many years in Galilee, mentioned of a company of visitors who were standing on the shore of Lake Galilee, and, noting the glassy surface of the water and the smallness of the lake, expressed doubts as to the possibility of such storms as those described in the gospels. Almost immediately the wind sprang up. In twenty minutes the sea was white with foam-crested waves. Great billows broke over the towers at the corners of the city walls, and the visitors were compelled to seek shelter from the blinding spray, though now two hundred yards from the lakeside. In less than half an hour the placid sunshine had become a raging storm. This is what happened to Jesus and His disciples on certain occasions” (Daily Bible Study Commentary, Bible Explorer Software).

Discovery of a fishing boat of Jesus’s time

A few years ago archaeologists excavated a fishing boat dating to around the time of Christ.

“An example of the sort of boat Jesus and the disciples used was found buried in mud on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee in January 1986,” notes archaeologist John McRay. “It is the first work boat found on an inland lake in the entire Mediterranean area. The boat, dating between the first century B.C. and the end of the first century A.D., was excavated that February and found to measure 26.5 feet long, 7.5 feet wide and 4.5 feet high. It would have accommodated about fifteen average-size men of Jesus’ Galilee ... Originally it had a mast for sailing and two oars on each side. Jesus and his disciples could easily fit into such a boat and their use is mentioned or inferred often in the Gospels” (McRay, p. 170).

Many details in the Gospels, such as fishing methods and the use of different nets, reflect an accurate description of Jesus’ time. When Christ said, “The kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea” (Matthew 13:47), He was referring to the most common method of commercial fishing in his day—using a seine.

Historian and Jewish fisherman Mendel Nun, who in 1993 had lived near the Sea of Galilee for 50 years, writes: “The seine, or dragnet, is the oldest type of net. Until recently, it was the most important fishing method on the lake ... [The parable of the dragnet] exactly fits the function of the seine. It is spread into the sea, then dragged to the shore; in the process all kinds of fish are caught, which the fishermen sitting on the shore sort out. The ‘bad’ ones refer to the scaleless catfish, forbidden by Jewish law and not even offered for sale” (Biblical Archaeology Review, November-December 1993, p. 52).

Matthew 4:18 describes a different type of net. “And Jesus, walking by the Sea of Galilee, saw two brothers, Simon called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen.” This refers to a cast net, which is used by a single fisherman. It is circular, some 20 feet in diameter, with lead sinkers attached to the edge.

“Like the seine,” comments Mendel Nun, “the cast net is an ancient device. Complete cast nets have been found in Egyptian tombs dating to the second millennium B.C. Two kinds were used in the Sea of Galilee, one for large fish and the other for sardines” (ibid., p. 53).

No wonder this Jewish fishing expert concludes about the Gospel accounts, “I am continually surprised at how accurately the New Testament writers reflect natural phenomena on the lake” (ibid., p. 47).

The wedding in Cana

“On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Now both Jesus and His disciples were invited to the wedding ... There were set there six waterpots of stone, according to the manner of purification of the Jews, containing twenty or thirty gallons apiece” (John 2:1-2, 6).

One of the curious parts of the wedding account is the mention of large stone waterpots. In the ancient world such large containers were normally made of pottery or wood. It was an enormous and expensive effort to carve large pots from stone. Was this a period when the purity laws were enforced to the point that these pots were common in Israel?

“Until recently this question plagued historians of the era called the late second Temple period,” writes Israeli archaeologist Yitzhak Magen. “Indeed, recent excavations have confirmed that Jews of all social and economic levels were deeply concerned with ritual purity in this period ... Stone vessels were considered immune from impurity, and their popularity during this short period provides strong evidence of heightened interest in ritual purity among all Jews ...

“Large vessels—sometimes made from stone blocks weighing almost 800 pounds—were manufactured on massive heavy-duty lathes. Some of these vessels ... may have been used to store ritually clean water for washing hands, as illustrated in the New Testament story of Jesus’ transformation of water into wine at Cana, in Galilee ... Stone vessels have been unearthed at more than 60 sites” (Biblical Archaeological Review, September-October 1998, pp. 49-50).

Even such incidental details as the large waterpots mentioned in the Gospels have been explained by archaeological findings and discovered to have been in common use at the time.

Jacob’s well and Mount Gerizim

“So he came to a city of Samaria which is called Sychar, near the plot of ground that Jacob gave to his son Joseph. Now Jacob’s well was there” (John 4:5-6).

“Jacob’s well,” explains professor McRay, “is one of the few sites whose identity is agreed upon by Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Samaritans alike.” It is still in use. “During annual visits over the past twenty years,” he adds, “I have always found cold, refreshing water in the well” (McRay, p. 181).

Nearby, on the northern top of Mount Gerizim, archaeologists have found what appears to be the remains of the temple of Mount Gerizim mentioned in John 4:20. The building was 66 feet long by 66 feet wide by 30 feet high and was in the center of a large courtyard.

“The discovery of this monumental structure dating from the Hellenistic period on Mount Gerizim above Shechem, the chief city of the Samaritans,” comments The International Bible Dictionary, “has led the excavator to call the complex the Samaritan temple and the unhewn stone half cube the Samaritan altar of sacrifice [which present-day Samaritans still revere]. The remains of this altar would have been visible to Jesus and the Samaritan woman from Jacob’s well, as it is today” (Supplement Volume, 1976, p. 361).

So the scene from John 4 of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, with Jacob’s well and the temple of Gerizim as the backdrop, also reflects a historical setting.

Through these archaeological finds we have covered some areas of Jesus’ early ministry. In the next installment we will continue our study of His life and times. GN

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