Is the world of the Bible history or fiction, fact or myth? Does it really matter? If we were talking about The Lord of the Rings, for example, it doesn’t matter that the whole story is based in a fantasy world. In my opinion, it is the mythical element that makes the stories of Tolkien so attractive.
But, what about a religion that claims two billion followers? What about other religions? If we take Mormonism, for example, you have a whole book that purports to describe historical events in actual places, but no independent archaeologist has been able to find a shred of evidence to support those claims. We should have found evidence of Israelite and Egyptian migration to North America – Hebrew and Egyptian inscriptions, pottery, plant and animal remnants. So far, no archaeological evidence for the world described in the Book of Mormon has been found.
In contrast, Craig Evans in his little book, Jesus and His World (Westminster/John Knox Press: 2012) describes in detail how the physical evidence discovered over the centuries supports the story of the Jesus’ life in the gospels. He describes Sepphoris, a town within view of Jesus’ hometown, Nazareth (a ‘city set on a hill’) as a thoroughly Jewish place. Prior to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple (70 CE), there is no evidence of pig bones, Roman coins, pagan idols or temples. All of these things are located post-70 AD (CE). Jesus, therefore, was not influenced by Roman mystery religions, or by Greek Cynics, as some have tried to suggest. The archaeological evidence is exactly as the New Testament describes it.
Contrary to the claims of some, Evans describes the evidence for the existence of synagogues at the time of Jesus, just as the gospels describe. He moves on to show that an illiterate Jesus is harder to explain than a literate one, that the people (Pharisees) and issues (Judaistic exclusivism) that Jesus came into conflict with are all real, and that the burial narratives of the gospel align exactly with the archaeological evidence we have today on first century Jewish burial customs.
As Evan’s points out, often ‘significant’ archaeological funds might not be anything more than a coin or piece of pottery. If they are lucky, the scholar may have a text that can be studied alongside the finds (e.g. Troy and the Iliad). The ideal is to have a text that describes people, places and dates that that the evidence supports, and in the New Testament, that is what we have. We have a massive amount of archaeological evidence and an immaculately preserved text.