Christian Archaeology Sites
Once captured, all Gospels record that Jesus was questioned by the High Priest. Two of the Gospels (Matthew and John), mention the high priest by name – Caiaphas.
From Josephus we know that the full name of Caiaphas was Joseph Caiaphas (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.2.2/35; 18.4.3/95), and that apparently he was in seat between 18 and 36 AD.
Catholic tradition argues the estate of Caiaphas the High Priest was on the eastern slopes of Mount Zion, in an area known as Peter in Gallicantu (Peter of the Cockcrow). Visitors to the site are presented with a set of underground caves, one of which is arguably the pit where Jesus was kept while being interrogated by Caiaphas.
However from an archaeological point of view, this “prison” seems to really be a first century AD Jewish ritual bath (miqveh) which was later deepened and turned into a cistern.
The other finds from the site indicate the landlord was wealthy, but there is no conclusive evidence to suggest he was a High Priest, nor that the pit was used to detain anyone. Furthermore, Byzantine sources describe the home of Caiaphas as being elsewhere, on the top of Mount Zion, near Hagia Zion church. Remains of a wealthy residential area from the first century AD were recovered close to Hagia Zion church in the 1970s, but they did not bear any finds to suggest this was necessarily the estate of the High Priest.
Clearer archaeological evidence of Caiaphas surfaced by surprise in 1990, during a salvage excavation on a mountain ridge south of the old city of Jerusalem. As a new road was being constructed in that area an ancient burial cave was accidentally discovered. Archaeologist Zvi Greenhut of the Israel Antiquities Authority was called to the scene, and he recovered in the cave 12 ossuaries (secondary burial bone boxes). One of the ossuaries was very ornate and bore two inscriptions on its side, both saying “Yoseph of Caiapha” (Joseph of Caiaphas). Inside the ossuary, among others, were the bones of a male in his sixties. Being so, it seems possible that this was the ossuary used for the secondary burial of Caiaphas, the High Priest who questioned Jesus.
This ossuary today is on permanent display in the Israel Museum. A photo and a review of it can be seen here.
One would not expect the find of another ossuary that could be connected to Caiaphas, but archaeology has its surprises, and just a few months ago another ossuary related to Caiaphas was purchased by the state of Israel.
An ossuary purchased recently by the state of Israel is less ornate then the Caiaphas ossuery, but is inscribed as belonging to “Miriam, daughter of Yeshua“. Her grandfather, according to the inscription, is – “[Priest] CAIPHAS“.
Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus (Luke 6:16). The meaning of his surname is unclear. Most believe that, similar to Mary Magdalene which meant ‘Mary from Migdal’, Iscariot meant Judas was a ‘man from Cariot’.
A place called “Cariot” or “Craiot” is mentioned in the Old
Testament in Joshua 15:25, and in Jeremiah 48:24, but the exact location of these sites is not known, and they are not mentioned in contemporaneous sources of the first century AD.
I personally believe Iscariot was simply a nickname, and it meant ‘the man from the cities\regions’. “Ish” means Man in Hebrew, and “Kiryah \ Kartha” means City in Hebrew and Aramaic.
Since all of the other disciples were fishermen and villagers from the rural Galilee, a member from a non-local urban environment could be nicknamed by his foreign origin. Judas therefore may have been an outsider “city boy”, perhaps even speaking a different dialect.
About two kilometres north of Tel Arad, in the northern part of the Negev, is a 200 dunam site of antiquities called Kh Kiryatin, ‘the ruins of Kiryatin’ in Arabic. The site was partially excavated in 1991-2 by the Israeli archaeologist Yehudah Guvrin, and it proved to have been inhabited in the Roman Byzantine periods.
In the Byzantine-Christian period a church was built on the western edge of the site and was exposed by Guvrin’s excavations. Guvrin is of the opinion that in late antiquity Christians may have believed that the site was the hometown of Judas Iscariot, and erected a memorial church. The finds in the church, however, bare no clues to a local veneration of Judas Iscariot, nor is such a memorial church mentioned by contemporaneous sources. The remains of the church can still be seen at the site.
A video on Saint Onophorius monastery at Akeldama site.
The last report dealt with Gethsemane, the place where Jesus was captured and led away to his trial and crucifixion. According to the Gospels his arrest was made possible by the betrayal of one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot. The Gospel of Matthew records the remorse of Judas when Jesus was condemned to death: “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself.” (Matthew 27:3-5).
The High priests then decided to buy a burial plot with that money: “The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” (Matthew 27:6-8)
The book of Acts explains the origin of the term Akeldama: “With the payment he received for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.” (Acts 1:81-19)
Eusebius in the third century CE is the earliest source to identify Akeldama at the Hinnom Valley, the southern border of the old city of Jerusalem. This identification made the site a popular burial area for Christian pilgrims, especially in the Crusaders period (12th-13th century AD). A large burial structure, whose main vaults are still standing, was constructed in Crusaders time for the burial of pilgrims who died (or came to die) in Jerusalem. In the Middle Ages it was considered a good deed to be buried in Akeldama, and soil from that area was taken to be placed in Christian cemeteries in Europe. In 1892 a Greek Orthodox church was erected on the southern cliff of Akeldama in memory of a Christian monk named Onuphorius.
Large scale excavations were never carried out in the vicinity of Akeldama, but remains of burials from various periods can be seen, including some from the first century. A tomb that can possibly be connected to Judas Iscariot is yet to be found.
According to the Gospel of John of John, after the Last Supper Jesus and the disciples went into “a garden” which was “across the Kidron Valley”. (John 18:1).
Matthew (26:36)and Mark (14:32) name the place – “Gethsemane”. Gethsemane means “[olive] oil press”. The presence of an olive press across the Kidron Valley is not surprising. It is at the bottom of a mountain called the Mount of Olives. Olive trees were grown mostly for the purpose of producing olive oil. Olive oil was used throughout the ancient world, especially as a source of energy, mostly fuelling oil lamps. Archaeological research across Israel revealed hundreds of olive presses from antiquity. Olive presses can be outdoors, but often they are in a building, or a cave. In the past I lived in northern Jerusalem, in a building that was right next to such an installation – an olive press in a cave.
The event documented in the Gospels took place in the spring. Harvesting and producing olive oil was done in the autumn. That means that Jesus and the disciples could stay at Gethsemane, as it was simply not in use, and probably empty.
Then the book of Luke describes the events best:
“On reaching the place, he said to them, “Pray that you will not fall into temptation.” He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him. And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. (Luke 22:39-44).
Upon his return he found the disciples asleep. But “while he was speaking a crowd came up”, and among them was Judas Iscariot. Judas executed the plan of kissing Jesus as a sign to “chief priests, the officers of the temple guard, and the elders” that this is the person they are looking for. Jesus was then taken to the house of the high priest for questioning.
Gethsemane ends its role, and is never heard of again in the New Testament.
In the Byzantine period the “Rock of Agony”, upon which Jesus may have called to the Lord, was identified at the bottom of the Mount of Olives. The Byzantine period church built around the rock was destroyed by the Sassanids in 614, built again by the Crusaders, and again in 1924. The rock itself is still exposed in the church, though surrounded by a crown of thorns of wrought iron.
In the garden next to the church there are a few olive trees, some are about a thousand years old.
The Cave of Gethsemane is about a “stone’s throw” from the Rock of Agony, as the Gospels indicate. No traces of an olive press were recorded in this cave, but some Byzantine period sources mention round stone beds on which the disciples may have slept. It is quite possible that these round stone beds were really the millstones of the olive press, or its round base. These stones disappeared already in antiquity, perhaps taken by pilgrims as a “holy souvenir”.
One of the most formative events in Christianity documented by the New Testament is the ceremonial meal Jesus and his disciples conduct on the eve of Passover in Jerusalem.
During that feast Jesus declared over the unleavened bread, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26) and when drinking the wine, he said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”.
This is the source for one of the main sacraments in Christian liturgy – the mass.
The exact location of this event is not given. According to Matthew, it was “in the city” (Matthew 26:18) meaning Jerusalem, and according to Mark and Luke it was in a “large room, upstairs” (Mark 14:15; Luke 22:12).
Most Christians identify the place of the Last Supper on the second floor of a building on Mount Zion in the southern part of the old city of Jerusalem. The site is called ‘Cenacle’ or ‘Cenaculum’. The word is a derivative of the Latin word cena, which means ‘dinner’.
Today this building is outside city walls, but there is no doubt that in the first century CE Mount Zion was within city walls, thus matching the description given by Matthew that the place of the last supper was in the city. And by being on the second floor of the building, the Cenacle site fits the descriptions of Mark and Luke – that the feast was held upstairs. But is the second floor of the building from the first century? Hardly. A visitor to the site today sees an interior design that is clearly typical to the middle ages, and is dated to the 13th -14th century. This style, known as ‘gothic’ style, is characterized by pointed or ogival arches. There is no doubt that this interior design was not in use in the first century. Furthermore, in the 16th century the Ottoman confiscated the building and turned it into a mosque. To this day a Muslim prayer niche or michrab can be seen in the southern wall of the Cenacle, as well as Arabic inscriptions.
Possible remains from the first century can only be seen outside the building. Some of the stones used in the foundation of the building are possibly from Roman times, but only an archaeological dig could provide better details on the date of the structure.
The Syrian Orthodox church in Jerusalem suggests the last supper took place at a site now known as the Monastery of Saint Mark, but in its current state it bears no remains from Roman times.
From an archaeological perspective, the location of the
Last Supper remains unknown
The “Pool of Siloam” is a rock-cut pool located at the southern end of the City of David (Biblical Jerusalem). The water in the pool comes from the Gihon Spring via a 533 meter-long tunnel, known also at “Hezekiah’s Tunnel”.
Not much is known about the pool from the Old Testament, but it was one of the reasons Jerusalem survived an Assyrian attack against the city in 701 BCE. (2 Kings 18).
The New Testament provides more information about the pool. According to the Gospel of John, it was beside the Pool of Siloam that Jesus restored the eyesight of a blind man by making clay with his spittle and spreading it on the man’s eyes. The man was then ordered, “Go wash in the pool of Siloam”… So he went and washed, and came back seeing (John 9:7).
In the fifth century CE a Byzantine church commemorating this miracle was built over what was then believed to be the Pool of Siloam. It was named ‘Our Saviour, the Illuminator’, and the sick would come to bathe in the water in the hope that they would be cured.
This church was destroyed in the Persian invasion of 614 CE, and the Muslims later erected a mosque over the remains. In the 19th century an Arab village developed over what remained of Biblical Jerusalem. It was named Silwan, after the Pool of Siloam.
For many years the Pool of Siloam was believed to be located at the end of Hezekiah’s Tunnel, and the remains of pillars from the Byzantine church can be seen today in this pool. In 2004 however archaeologists Ronny Reich and Eli Shukrun discovered another pool some 65 meters from the supposed Pool of Siloam. It was 70 meters long, with a wide flight of steps leading down into it. The small finds from the site dated this pool to the first century, so it seems that this was the real Pool of Siloam in the time of Jesus.
The wide steps were probably designed to enable Jewish pilgrims to purify themselves in the pool before entering the holy presence of the Temple Mount. Indeed, next to the pool a wide stepped street was also recovered, leading towards the Temple Mount.
Today both pools are popular tourist and pilgrimage destinations. One can also walk on parts of the stepped street connecting the first century Pool of Siloam with the Temple Mount.
The Gospel of John records several events in the life of Jesus that are not documented in the other Gospels. The wedding in Cana is one example (John 2, see report #4).
During his stay in Jerusalem, the Gospel of John records Jesus healing a person, at a site called Bethesda:
“Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.” (John 5:1-3).
The name Bethesda means ‘house of mercy’ or ‘house of grace’. The name could stem from the reputation of the site as a place of healing. Indeed the Gospel describes how paralytics were cured at the pools of Bethesda, and Jesus heals an invalid who could not reach the healing water.
The pools of Bethesda were identified in the Byzantine period (4th-7th Century CE) at a complex of the two large size pools north of the Temple Mount. A large church was constructed over the dam between the two pools, and it was dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus.
In the Crusaders time (12th-13th Century CE) the pools of Bethesda were again venerated. A small chapel was built over the dam, yet next to it a Romanesque style large church was constructed as well. It was dedicated to the birth and childhood of Mary, and was named after her mother, Saint Anna.
This church was not destroyed by the Muslims after the expulsion of the Crusaders, and was turned to a Muslim religious school (Madrase). The Turks used the church as a stable, and in 1856 it was given back to the Christians. Under the direction of the French archaeologist Mosse the site was excavated and the church was renovated.
A visit to the site today enables pilgrims to see archaeological remains of the Pools, the Byzantine and Crusader churches built over them, and even evidence that in the late Roman period the site was also known as a healing centre (Ascelpieion). The Crusaders church next to them, complete and functioning now again, is also very impressive.
The Jewish Temple, reviewed in the previous post ( #30), was also a major economical centre. By Jewish law, as commanded in the Bible itself (Exodus 30:13; 38:25), every male Jew over the age of 20 had to give an annual contribution to the temple, of “half a shekel”.
A shekel was equated in the first century AD with the Greek tetradrachm (equal to four drachms), which was a silver coin of the weight of nearly 14 grams. Half a shekel therefore would be in the value of nearly7 grams of silver, and could be equated with the Greek didrachm (equal to two drachms).
What is the value of about 7 grams of stamped silver? The New Testament provides an estimated value of a similar silver coin. In one of his parables Jesus mentions the wages of a day’s work in a vineyard to be “one Denarius” (Matthew 20:2). The Roman denarius was about 3.4 grams of silver, and so half a shekel would be worth about 2 days of labor in a vineyard. Comparing this with labor wages in agriculture in Israel today, I would estimate the half a shekel contribution to be worth about 50-75 USD.
If the Jewish population was estimated to be 8 to 10 million in the first century AD, and the adult males to be about a third of this society, I estimate the half a shekel temple tax provided an annual income of about 150,000,000 USD. And as if that was not enough, various sources document many additional donations and contributions made by individuals to the temple in Jerusalem. In fact Mark 12:41-44 documents Jesus praising a widow giving two leptons to the temple treasuries:
“Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything all she had to live on.”
A lepton is the smallest denomination in Greek currency, equal to the nickels and dimes of today. And yet Jesus praised the widow for her contribution.
What did these coins look like?
Although the official name of the temple tax coin was half a shekel, Jewish sources record that the only coin type the priests acknowledged was the one called the Tyrian shekel. That silver coin was minted by the Phoenician city of Tyre, and research proved that the priests knew why they insisted on accepting only this currency – The Tyrian Shekel
(unlike the Roman Denarius) always had a high level of silver, between 90 and 95 percent. The lepton was the smallest denomination of Greek coins. It is identified with a 1.5-2 gram coin minted in large numbers by the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus). Such coins can be found in large numbers even today, in antiquity stores around the old city of Jerusalem.
Before entering Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus sent his disciples to look for a donkey and a colt to ride upon. The Gospel of Luke adds that just before his entrance, Jesus saw the city of Jerusalem, and lamented its future destruction:
As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” Luke 19:41-44.
The reaction of Jesus to this sight was surprising to those with him, but his words were true – only a few decades after his crucifixion, in 70 AD, all of Jerusalem was razed to the ground by the Romans, as a punishment for the rebellion of the Jews.
The exact location of where Jesus lamented over Jerusalem is not given, but the most likely place would be on the western slope of the Mount of Olives where one coming from the east sees Jerusalem for the first time. As one ascends toward Jerusalem from Jericho, the view of the city from the Mount of Olives is stunning. However, Roman Catholic tradition locates the place of Jesus’ lamentation about half way down from the Mount of Olives to the Kidron Valley, at a site where a Monastic complex from the Byzantine period existed.
The modern chapel, designed by Antonio Barluzzi and completed in 1955, is shaped like a tear drop, to echo the tears of Jesus at the sight of the city.
It is called Dominus Flevit, ‘The Lord wept’ in Latin. In the western wall of the chapel a large window provides an overwhelming panoramic view of the old City of Jerusalem, and especially of the Temple Mount.
Next to the entrance into the modern chapel, the remains of a Byzantine period mosaic floor can be seen. The mosaic is ornamented in the typical manner of Byzantine times, depicting various items in round medallions.
In the compound of Dominus Flevit 60 burial caves were recovered by the Franciscans, attesting that in the Roman period the Jews favored the Mount of Olives as a burial site. Some of the burials were in small stone coffins called ossuaries. The Franciscans argue that some of these ossuaries were used by the early followers of Jesus, the Nazareans, but this opinion is not supported with enough evidence to be considered fact.
Reputed to be the Holiest city in land of Israel, and perhaps in the whole world, Jerusalem is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. The holiest mountain in Jerusalem is undoubtedly the Temple Mount.
By Jewish tradition the Temple Mount is where “the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). It is also where Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-19). The Book of Samuel records how later David bought this mountain from Aravnah the Jebusite, and later David’s son Solomon built the temple to the Lord (I Kings 6-7).
This temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and rebuilt some fifty years later by Jews returning from Babylonian exile. The re-built temple was defiled by Antiochus IV, igniting the Maccabean revolt. After three years of struggle the Maccabeans managed to reach the temple and purify it. The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the event to this day. In the first century BCE Herod the Great, with his passion for building, more than doubled the size of the temple mountain by constructing retaining walls around the temple. The temple itself was replaced with a new larger and grander edifice.
It was in front of this temple that Jesus was presented to the Lord as a baby (Luke 2:22), and when he was twelve, he remained there for three days and talked to teachers (Luke 2:42-50). As an adult, in the vicinity of this temple Jesus argued with the Pharisees (John 10), and at the Passover here he overturned the tables of the moneychangers (Matthew 21:12). Furthermore, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” when Jesus died (Matthew 27:51), and as he had prophesied, the temple was destroyed in 70 CE.
621 years later the Muslims, at the very same spot where the temple stood, completed the “Dome of the Rock”, a monumental octagonal edifice. By Muslim tradition the Dome of the Rock marks the very spot from where Mohammad ascended to heaven to receive the five daily prayers of Islam. The Dome of the Rock was renovated several times, notably in the reign of Suleiman the magnificent, who replaced the exterior mosaics with tiles. The last major renovation was done in 1998, when King Hussein of Jordan sponsored the installation of 5000 new golden tiles on the outer face of the Dome, at the cost of 8.2 million USD. In the center of the building is the rock where, according to Islamic tradition, Ishmael (not Isaac) was to be sacrificed, and an indentation in the corner of the rock the supposed footprint of Mohammad is presented.
Since the 16th century Jews began to venerate the Western Wall, one of the remaining retaining wall of the Temple Mount, arguing that it is the closest to where the Holy of Holies of the Jewish Temple used to be.
Today it is considered the second holiest Jewish site in the world, after the nearby Temple Mount, which once held the Temple, and by Jewish belief will hold the Temple again, at the end of times.