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‘A Catholic Guide to the Holy Land’: An interview with a biblical archaeologist


Lica Ostaleri | CC

Daniel Esparza - published on 03/14/18

Aleteia: What would you say has been the most important finding in the last century? Maybe something related to the opening and restoration of the Holy Sepulchre? 

Fr. Samson: The most important findings of the last century are certainly the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls near Qumran, and indeed the recent discoveries related to the opening and restoration of the Holy Sepulchre itself.

The Dead Sea Scrolls’ significance is both linguistic and cultural: linguistic, in the sense that they, the oldest manuscripts of the Old Testament that we have, reveal important perspectives for both the study of textual criticism (that is, issues ranging from what are the most “original” readings of Old Testament texts, what are some attested textual variants on individual verses, how [well] did textual traditions or trends get transmitted over the centuries) and the study of the development of the Hebrew language over time; cultural, in the sense that the content of the non-scriptural manuscripts found at Qumran, and which treat the life and beliefs of the radical sect known as the Essenes, open up real and important windows and insights into the religious and societal understandings and expectations (particularly Messianic expectations) of a significant part of the larger culture in which both Jesus lived and much of the New Testament texts were written. If anyone would like to read about the importance and impact of the Dead Sea Scrolls in biblical matters, I would recommend the works of Gaza Vermes (a Jewish historian, who has overseen also the translation of these scrolls into English) and Emmanuel Tov (a Jewish scholar who oversaw the official publication of the Discoveries in the Judean Desert series) and the following Christian scholars, the majority of whom are Catholic: James VanderKam, John Bersgma, John Collins and Craig Evans, Joseph Fitzmyer, and Roland de Vaux.

The discoveries made regarding the opening of the tomb of Jesus are the other incredibly important find of the last century. The “Edicule”—the technical term for the small structure that stands within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre over what has been long-believed to be the spot in which Jesus was buried and rose from the dead—was becoming not long ago very structurally unsound due to the passing of time and also some earthquakes, and was even in danger of collapsing. However, due to unfortunate factors and difficult ecumenical dynamics, the religious communities that occupy the church could not agree on who would be responsible, and even trusted, for its refurbishing. The King of Jordan then stepped in and pledged to finance the Edicule’s restoration (it should be pointed out that all of the land of ancient Israel, now divided among the State of Israel and the Palestinian Authority, used to belong to the country of Jordan, which lost that land in the post World War II warring with the now-State of Israel), and the work was recently concluded. The tomb looks great now! All the soot has been cleared off of its exterior, and the entire structure has been reinforced with supports. One thing that they discovered, though, while undertaking all of the renovations, was something quite remarkable under the altar in the innermost part of the Edicule. They found two slabs of marble therein: one dating to the 12th century (and, so, which was placed there by the Crusaders), and one underneath it dating to the 4th century (and, so, which was placed there by Constantine, the Roman emperor who legalized Christianity and built for Christians various churches throughout the Roman Empire). The Greek archaeologists and technicians undertaking this research lifted up the lower, 4th-century slab and beheld underneath it a mass of bedrock—on which, they concluded, the body of Jesus was lain when he, having been just crucified, was laid in a new tomb not far away from Mount Calvary (see John 19). This is a fantastic find, both in itself and in the fact that it shows that the early Christian witness with regards to where certain events in the life of Jesus transpired should be trusted way, way more than most critical, skeptical scholars give credence.

Aleteia: How can biblical archaeology change our understanding of biblical texts? Does it provide hermeneutical keys to unlock some “contextual” meanings in the text? 

Fr. Samson: Biblical archaeology certainly does provide concrete context that helps to explain the biblical text in a fresh, and, so, very enlightening, way. I will offer one example, which regards the calling of Matthew (Mt 9:9-13). Not long ago, the water level of the Sea of Galilee receded a significant distance, and there was uncovered at Capernaum a long, and fairly wide, bench-like structure. Scholars have identified it as a customs booth, where there was likely collected, there on the sea shore, a fishing-tax on all catches made by fishermen in those waters. Such a discovery casts a new light on the drama contained in the account of the calling of Matthew, whom Jesus invited to follow Him while Matthew was sitting at his customs booth in Capernaum. Let’s think about this for a second. We all know that tax collectors were despised by most Jews not only because they worked for Rome (and, so, were visible reminders to the Jews of their societal submission to a foreign—and, so, unclean—people and power) in collecting from their fellow Jews (which con-nationality served as salt in the wound) monies that contributed to the Empire, but also because they were known to be money-cheats who would bump up the official taxable amount so as to skim off of the top of the increased taxes a little bit of extra income for themselves. Now, when we combine this societal background-baggage of tax-collectors with the archaeological discovery of the fishing-tax booth at Capernaum, we can appreciate a little bit more the drama of the scene—specifically, among other things, we are given a fresh and new window into the reaction that Jesus’ action of calling Matthew at his fishing-tax booth must have stirred up within the hearts of Jesus’ other disciples. Place yourself in the minds and hearts of the 11 disciples, who were all, of course, fishermen: not only is Jesus’ calling of a tax collector to be a close disciple of his shocking enough, but even more shocking is the fact that Jesus was calling, to join his chosen and intimate band of disciples, the very man who personally ripped off all of those who were already Jesus’ disciples, who had to pay taxes to pre-conversion Matthew on all of their past catches of fish. Wow! We can imagine that not only the Pharisees were indignant at the choice on Jesus’ part (Mt 9:11), but perhaps also some of the apostles were rubbed a bit the wrong way by Jesus’ calling of Matthew, the fishing-tax collector. How hard it must have been, for the disciples, to avoid offending against charity in their hearts either by anger (Mt 5:21-26) or judgment (Lk 6:27-37) towards their newly-made fellow disciple, who was formerly very much seen as and considered to be a personal enemy!

In this way, we can see that Jesus’ act of calling Matthew was not intended to have transformative, conversional effect in Matthew’s heart only; it was also intended to expand the hearts of his disciples, whom he not long ago exhorted and commanded to “love your enemies,” not just “those who love you” (something “the tax collectors do”), and so strive to be “perfect, as [their] Heavenly Father is perfect”) (Mt 5:43-48). The mercy of Jesus in choosing and calling Matthew—a theme commented-upon by St. Bede the Venerable, and which Pope Francis chose for his own papal motto: miserando atque eligendo—was, we see in light of this newly-found archaeological context to the passage of Matthew 9:9-13, not only intended to transform the former tax collector’s heart, but also the hearts of Jesus’ other disciples. This latter insight, though it indeed could be found (in a general way, by recourse to the widespread disdain of tax collectors by in large) in the passage, itself, of Matthew’s calling, is fortified by being personalized through consideration of this passage in the light of the archaeological discovery at Capernum of the fishermen-tax booth. In this way, archaeology can be seen to change our understanding of biblical texts by providing hermeneutical keys that unlock meaning hidden underneath the cultural and scriptural context of a given passage of the Bible.

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