2017 saw numerous archaeological discoveries that researchers connected to stories in the Bible, including new analysis strengthening historical accounts concerning the supposed tomb of Jesus Christ.
From mug workshops near the ancient town of Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine; to the possible discovery of the bones of St. Peter, the first disciple and first pope in the Catholic Church; to excavation work giving evidence for major battles and conquests described in the Bible, the year offered plenty in the way of apologetics discourse.
In some instances, such as the analysis of mortar samples at the Tomb of Christ, it was the reliance on technological methods that produced new insight into the evidence for some of the most important Christian events in history.
Here are seven of the biggest biblical archaeological discoveries in 2017:
1. Tomb of Jesus Christ
The renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem began last year, but it was new scientific tests in November that found that the tomb, believed to be where Jesus Christ’s body was rested after the crucifixion, matches previous historical accounts of the famous site.
Mortar samples collected from between the original limestone surface of the tomb and a marble slab that covers it were analyzed using optically stimulated luminescence, which allowed researchers to determine when quartz sediment was most recently exposed to light.
The tomb was dated back to 345 A.D., which aligns with accounts describing how Constantine, Rome’s first Christian emperor, discovered and enshrined it somewhere around 326, in his quest to lead the Roman empire to embrace Christianity.
“This is a very important finding because it confirms that it was, as historically evidenced, Constantine the Great who was responsible for cladding bedrock of the tomb of Christ with the marble slabs in the Edicule,” remarked Antonia Moropoulou, chief scientific coordinator of the restoration works.
2. Babylonian Conquest of Jerusalem
Excavation work carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority at the Jerusalem Walls National Park found numerous pieces of evidence in July pointing to the conquest of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of the Babylonian Empire in the sixth century B.C., as described in the Old Testament.
The IAA said that it found various unique and rare artifacts, including charred wood, grape seeds, pottery, fish scales and bones.
“These findings depict the affluence and character of Jerusalem, capital of the Judean Kingdom, and are mesmerizing proof of the city’s demise at the hands of the Babylonians,” an IAA video stated.
The historical event is significant for both Jews and Christians, with accounts sharing that the exile ended in 538 B.C., when Cyrus the Great gave the Jews permission to return to Palestine.
3. First Apocalypse of James
Biblical scholars from the University of Texas at Austin revealed in November that they discovered an “original copy” of the First Apocalypse of James, an ancient Christian text deemed heretical by the Church.
The scholars uncovered the fragments of the manuscript, written somewhere in the fifth or sixth century, while exploring archives at Oxford University.
The text, which is considered heretical because it falls outside the canon of the New Testament books, includes revelations made by Jesus to James about the heavenly realm.
“The text supplements the biblical account of Jesus’ life and ministry by allowing us access to conversations that purportedly took place between Jesus and his brother, James — secret teachings that allowed James to be a good teacher after Jesus’ death,” explained Geoffrey Smith, an assistant professor of religious studies at UT-Austin.
The ancient text is part of 52 manuscripts put together between the second and sixth century as part of the Nag Hammadi library, most of which are written in Coptic.
4. Bones of St. Peter
A worker in Rome discovered in September bones inside clay pots at the Church of Santa Maria in Cappella, which allegedly belong to St. Peter, one of Jesus Christ’s apostles, considered by Roman Catholics to be the first pope.
The Vatican said at the time that it will wait for a DNA comparison between the newly discovered relics and other bones of St. Peter that it keeps before commenting on their authenticity.
The workman said that the pots containing the bones were found buried beneath a large marble slab near the medieval altar of the church, which has been closed for 35 years.
The relics may have been kept at the Santa Maria church for centuries following an internal power conflict in the Catholic Church going back to Pope Urban II’s reign in the 11th century.
The Bible says that Peter denied Christ three times, before repenting, and later being crucified upside down in Rome in the first century as a Christian martyr.
5. Home of Jesus’ Disciples
Another discovery concerning Peter was reported on in August, when a team of archaeologists said that they might have found the home of three of Jesus’ disciples in the lost Roman city of Julias off of the Sea of Galilee.
Julias was built as part of the town of Bethsaida, which John 1:44 in the Bible lists as the hometown of Philip, Andrew, and Peter.
“A multi-layered site discovered on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, in the Bethsaida Valley Nature Reserve, is the spot, the team believes,” Haaretz reported at the time.
“The key discovery is of an advanced Roman-style bathhouse. That in and of itself indicates that there had been a city there, not just a fishing village …”
Researchers from Kinneret College noted that the discovery of a church on the former site of the apostles’ home correlates with accounts of a Christian traveler in the eighth century, who said that “in the house of Tsaida the church is in honor of Peter and Andreas.”
6. King David’s Battle
Archaeologists said in January that they excavated an ancient wall dating back to the 10th century B.C. in southern Israel’s Arava desert region, alluding to King David’s capture of the land of Edom, as found in 2 Samuel 8:13 in the Bible.
The researchers found a copper smelting site along with the wall at the Timna copper mines, which once stood at least 16.5 feet tall.
Numerous sling stones found near the site also could serve as evidence of the large biblical battle, they added.
Erez Ben-Yosef of Tel Aviv University, head of the team that discovered the structure, pointed out that copper had a great value for military organizations back then.
“Because copper — like oil today, perhaps — was the most coveted commodity, it landed at the very heart of military conflicts. The discovery of the fortification indicates a period of serious instability and military threats at that time in the region,” he said.
7. Mug Workshop
The discovery of an ancient mug workshop near what was once the town of Cana in Israel hearkened back to one of the most famous Bible stories, namely the wedding where Jesus turned water into wine.
Archaeologist Yonatan Adler and his team found “fragments of chalkstone mugs and bowls along with thousands of cylindrical chalk cores discarded in the process of hollowing out the vessels with a lathe,” AFP reported.
“They are typical of a period from the second half of the first century BC to the middle of the first century AD. Jews of the period used stoneware for reasons of religious observance,” it added.
John 2:1–12 mentions the wedding feast where Jesus performed His first miracle, and also details six large stone water jars, which were used for Jewish purification rites.
Adler suggested that such stone jars would have been produced somewhere in the area.
“What’s exciting here is that for the first time we have physical evidence of production of stone vessels here in Galilee,” he said.