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The Historicity of the Two Men Who Authorized Jesus’ Death – Evidence for Easter (Part 2)

Photo of Bobby HarringtonBobby Harrington | Bio

Bobby Harrington

Bobby is the point-leader of Renew.org and Discipleship.org, both collaborative, disciple-making organizations. He is the founding and lead pastor of Harpeth Christian Church (by the Harpeth River, just outside of Nashville, TN). He has an M.A.R. and an M.Div. from Harding School of Theology and a Doctor of Ministry degree from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of more than 10 books on discipleship, including Discipleshift (with Jim Putman and Robert Coleman), The Disciple Maker’s Handbook (with Josh Patrick) and Becoming a Disciple Maker: The Pursuit of Level 5 Disciple Making (with Greg Weins). He lives in the greater Nashville area with his wife and near his children and grandchildren.

The truth of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is supremely important. But the position a person takes on these events should not be a matter of pride, arrogance, or blind faith. (For Part 1 on the historical evidence that Jesus existed, click here. For Part 3 on evidence regarding Jesus’ death and resurrection, click here.) 

It should be a matter of fact.

The Koran says that Jesus did not die on the cross. The New Testament says he did. Judaism says Jesus is not the Messiah. The New Testament says he is the Messiah. Atheism says that Jesus did not rise from the dead. The New Testament says the entire Christian faith is based upon his resurrection.

They can’t all be right. These are historical questions.

What does the evidence show us?

In the last post we looked at the historical evidence—from outside the Bible—that shows that Jesus was a historical person. We have seen a consistent and reliable collection of evidence that corresponds to what the Bible tells us about Jesus.

In this post we are going to look at more historical information that clearly corroborate what the Gospels teach about others involved in Jesus’ death. The third and final post will look at three additional bodies of evidence supporting Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection.

As the Bible presents them, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ likely took place during the Jewish Passover feast of A.D. 30.[i]  The Jewish leaders wanted this “teacher” to be taken out of the way. They believed that Jesus’ claims about himself would cause such a political upheaval that the occupying Roman army would seize the opportunity to destroy their nation. So they bribed one of Jesus’ disciples named Judas to betray him. Judas betrayed Jesus by bringing the temple officials to the Garden of Gethsemane just after midnight, where they arrested him (Mark 14:43).

Jesus then went through a series of six trials, of various sorts, which extended through that night and well into the next morning.[ii] These trials were described as both unfair and rigged. The two key men who provided oversight for these trials were Caiaphas and Pilate. According to Caiaphas and the Jews, his crime was blasphemy, because he claimed to be the “Son of God” (Matthew 26:63). According to Pilate and the Romans, however, his crime was insurrection, because he claimed to be the King of the Jews (Matthew 27:37).

Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate

The two main characters who were instrumental in Jesus’ trial and condemnation to death were Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate. We are going to look at the historical evidence that independently supports what the Bible teaches about these two men.

Caiaphas

The Bible tells us that Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest under whom Jesus stood trial. Matthew 26:57 describes it this way:

”Those who had arrested Jesus took him to Caiaphas the high priest, where the teachers of the law and the elders had assembled.”

Archaeological discoveries and ancient writings confirm some basic historical facts about Caiaphas.

For one thing, there is reason to believe that archaeologists have found Caiaphas’ home.[iii] In 1889, archaeologists found a first century home in Jerusalem that seems to match the details of what the New Testament tells us about Caiaphas. It is a palatial home from the time of Jesus.[iv] Watch a video of this location (from one of my trips to Israel):

As seen in the video, the courtyard of the home was right beside a road that is still in existence from the first century. This is another picture of the nearby road where people walked in the time of Jesus:

Caiaphas’ house is the place where, according to the Bible, Jesus was tried and where Peter warmed himself by the fire and then denied three times that he knew Christ (John 18:25-27).

Further, there is a prison or torture chamber that was a part of the home (in the basement). This prison would fit what the Bible says about Jesus’ trial (Matt. 26:3; John 18:13-28). For presumably, they would have held Jesus in this chamber until he could appear before Pilate first thing in the morning—after his trial by Caiaphas and the Jewish leaders. In the early centuries, Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land etched a cross on the top of the prison hole, which you can see in the picture below.

In 1990, archaeologists were stunned by a discovery that confirmed Caiaphas’ existence in a very physical way. Workers were widening a road in Jerusalem’s Peace Forest when they accidently dug into a large, cavernous burial site. Inside, archaeologists found a family tomb which had been covered over for many centuries and had been lost from history.[v] On a particularly ornate ossuary (i.e. bone box) was inscribed the words “Joseph, son of Caiaphas.” This fits with what first century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus said, when he described the high priest as “Joseph who was called Caiaphas of the high priesthood.”[vi] Scientists examined the bones and determined that they were those of a sixty-year-old man believed to be Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who condemned Jesus. His ossuary is pictured below. It is the oldest ossuary of a known person from Israel ever found.

Pilate

For most of modern history, scholars knew about Pilate only from literary sources. Pilate is described in the New Testament as an official who was very conscious of pleasing the Roman emperor. In fact, in his final decision to send Jesus to death by crucifixion, he seems to have been reacting to a threat from the crowd which hit a nerve. They shouted,

“If you release Jesus, you are no friend of Caesar!” (John 19:12).

It was after this threat that “Pilate handed him over to them to be crucified” (John 19:16).

This capitulation is consistent with other sources outside the Bible which tell of Pilate establishing a small temple in honor of Tiberius, as a god, while Tiberius was living. Although this was considered in poor taste, it goes to show how Pilate was very concerned with pleasing his emperor, just as the New Testament describes him.[vii]

In 1961, two Italian archaeologists excavated the Mediterranean port city of Caesarea. They were very surprised to uncover a two-by-three foot inscription in Latin that reads: “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea.” This archaeological discovery of a historical reference to Pilate confirmed his exact position, which was in step with how the Bible described him. [viii] A picture of the stone from the Israel museum is at the top of this article. Here is a picture of a stone replica of the inscription on the ground, near where it was found:

Corroboration with Reality

These are two key men in the Gospels who sentenced Jesus to death. Historians and archaeologists, not just the Bible, show us that they both existed and had the exact roles described in the Bible, and from the exact same time as described in the Bible.

Caiaphas and Pilate are part of a much larger historical, archaeological, and factual picture that confirm what the Gospels teach us. New Testament scholar Craig Evans describes the picture in his book, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence.

“The more we explore the history, archaeology and facts from the time of Jesus, the more we learn that it is exactly as it should be if the Gospels are true…what the Gospels describe matches the way things really were in early first-century Jewish Palestine.”[ix]

It is important to know that this kind of corroboration exists.

In our next article, we will look at three other vitally important historical facts:

  • Jesus died by crucifixion.
  • Jesus’ tomb was empty.
  • Jesus’ disciples believed he rose from the dead.

[i]For the purposes of narrating the historical account, I am primarily relying upon the information recorded in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and the historical books referred to above.

[ii]See John 18:13, Matt. 26:57; 26:59; 27:2; Lk. 23:7; 23:11–12.

[iii] Broshi, M. “Excavations in the House of Caiaphas, Mount Zion.” Y. Yadin (ed.), Jerusalem Revealed: Archaeology in the Holy City 1968–1974. 1974. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society. 57–60.

[iv] Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (p. 166). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[v] Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

[vi] Read one of the first reports on the discovery by Michael Specter, “Tomb May Hold the Bones of the Priest Who Judged Jesus,” New York Times (August, 1992). See also, R. Steven Notley, Jerusalem City of the Great King (Carta, Jerusalem: 2015), p. 81.

[vii] R. Steven Notley, Jerusalem City of the Great King (Carta, Jerusalem: 2015), p. 42.

[viii] Josh and Sean McDowell,. Evidence for the Resurrection (pp. 161-162). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[ix] Craig Evans, Jesus and His World: The Archaeological Evidence (Westminister John Knox Press, 2013) p. 9. Kindle Edition.