by Shimon Gibson
New York: Harper Collins, 2009, 272 pp.
Reviewed by Urban C. von Wahlde
Shimon Gibson is one of the more active and respected archaeologists in Jerusalem today. He has been a part of major excavations in and around Jerusalem for more than 30 years. In this book, he presents his view of the archaeological evidence pertinent to “the final days of Jesus.” Certainly not all of the discoveries are his, but a substantial number are.
Not only is Gibson a good archaeologist, he is a good writer. Intended for the general reader, the book is brimming with historical information and remarkable archaeological finds. His account of the pools of Bethesda and Siloam is fresh and founded on the latest discoveries. He presents a new theory regarding the location of the Roman Lithostrotos, where, according to the Gospel of John, Jesus was finally condemned by Pontius Pilate. The considerable number of photographs and illustrations are attractive and relevant.
Yet some caution is needed. The introduction says the book will settle some issues “once and for all.” Hardly likely. And the conclusion says he has “established a comprehensive picture of the Jewish cultural context into which Jesus was born.” Hardly. And raising the possibility of a similarity between Gibson and Indiana Jones is not the stuff of sober accounts. (Gibson appears to praise the comparison with faint damnation.) But real archaeology is better than Indiana Jones, as Gibson shows elsewhere in his book. Archaeological finds that enlighten the context of the life and death of Jesus (such as the discovery of the crucified man from Givat ha-Mitvar; the “new” Pool of Siloam; an ossuary, possibly that of Caiaphas; the evidence that tombs were almost never closed by rolling stones; and the description of the layout of first-century Jewish tombs, etc.) are fascinating all by themselves.
The book is excellent in the area of archaeology but less impressive in its interpretation of aspects of the life of Jesus. Gibson is given to harmonizing the gospels. Much of chapter 1 (“The Road to Jerusalem”) merges the Synoptic (Matthew, Mark and Luke) and Johannine accounts in an unhelpful way. In chapter 2 he suggests that Simon the Leper [from the Gospel of Matthew] is the father of Lazarus, Martha and Mary [from the Gospel of John]). On page 80, he implies that the events at Bethesda and Siloam took place in Jesus’ last week, contradicting evidence in the Gospel of John. He proposes that the other tombs near the tomb of Jesus (within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) were tombs of Jesus’ relatives, something for which there is no archaeological or literary evidence. (Indiana Jones’s father might well have said, “Careful, Junior!”)
Gibson also argues that the rock of Golgotha is not the actual location of Jesus’ crucifixion. However, his assumption that the rock of Golgotha in its present state (incapable of now holding three crucified individuals) is the same as it was in the first century, is just that: an assumption—and one that is unlikely, given the way the rock hillside surrounding the tomb of Jesus was cut away elsewhere in the Constantinian basilica to leave just the tomb itself.
So the book is not without its faults. But Gibson clearly and attractively shows the general reader just how archaeology has contributed, and continues to contribute, to an ever more precise understanding of the historical context of Jesus, especially in its Jerusalem setting.