Is the Ark of the Covenant depicted on a carved stone at Capernaum?

The reconstruction drawing that illustrated our previous post, which described the 1st century synagogue of Capernaum, includes a figure pulling a small ornate carriage towards the entrance of the building.

The 1st century Synagogue of Capernaum where Jesus preached. In the foreground we see the ruler of the synagogue bringing the Torah Scrolls in a chest on wheels, called the Holy Ark. © Leen Ritmeyer

Is this vignette just an artistic flourish or does it have a historic basis? In this post, we hope to show that ancient sources and evidence from one of the architectural fragments found scattered on the site of Christ’s “own city” (Matthew 9.1), make it reasonable to assume that such a device was once used to transport the precious scrolls of the Law to the synagogue from a place where they were stored safely.

But firstly we must release the element (pictured below) from the layers of misidentification it has accrued since it was first displayed on a wall by the Franciscan custodians of the site, together with other elements of a frieze that originally adorned one of the walls of the later (Byzantine) synagogue.

A carved stone on a frieze that came from the Byzantine Synogogue in Capernaum shows a wheeled shrine, decorated with a double winged panelled door, topped by a scallop. The side has five pillars as in an Ionic temple, while the roof is convex. 

I have lost track of the number of times, on visits to the site, that I have heard tour guides explain to their group: “this is a model of the Ark of the Covenant made by Moses and carried for 40 years in the wilderness.” A well-known tour company has a photo of this stone on their website with the caption “Stone carving of Ark of the Covenant at Capernaum” (now amended since this post) and this is repeated many times, for example by Tripadvisor.

An easy explanation – but could it be true? Opinions vary greatly, even among scholars. This is partly due to the lack of comparative material. There is one illustration from the Dura Europos Synagogue that shows the Ark on a wheeled cart, but that was the Ark of the Covenant as it was sent back on a cart by the Philistines (1 Samuel 6:7) and therefore cannot be used as a parallel:

This fresco from Dura Europos shows the Ark of the Covenant placed on a cart by the Philistines.

There is an insight in the book “Capernaum” 1  by Sapir and Ne’eman (pp 63, 64) into the dichotomy between two religious requirements of the synagogue: “the first religious demand was – and still is – to focus the attention of the whole praying congregation on the Ark of the Law – (aron hakodesh) containing the scrolls of Torah. Another independent demand, no less imperative – was to orientate the synagogue toward Jerusalem” … “If the Ark were permanently built in the south wall or a little before it, the view towards Jerusalem would be blocked for ever. If, on the contrary, the Ark of the Law were arranged on the blind doorless north wall,the worshippers would have to turn their backs on Jerusalem -which was considered a blasphemy.”

 A passage in Mishnah Taanit 2:1 may explain how a solution to this problem was found: “They used to bring out the Ark [containing the Scrolls] into the open space in the town”. Although this was done during times of fasting, it nevertheless shows that the Torah scrolls were sometimes transported from a place, such as the home of the archisunagogos, as the ruler of the synagogue is called in the New Testament, to the synagogue and back again. Continue reading “Is the Ark of the Covenant depicted on a carved stone at Capernaum?”

The Synagogue of Capernaum in which Jesus taught

Was it white or black?

The best compliment I can receive about any of my reconstruction drawings is for the viewer to say: “It really makes the site come to life!” Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about photographs, however professionally taken. Take the site of Capernaum, perhaps the most visited site in the Galilee in any tour of the Land. Here, the place in which Jesus taught and in which he cast out an unclean spirit (Mark 1.21-28, Luke 4.31,32) is shown. It is all too easy to shoot photos of your group with the impressive synagogue structure emphasizing the magnificence of its architectural decoration and the dazzling white limestone from which it is built.

A cutaway reconstruction drawing of the 4th century Byzantine Synagogue of Capernaum.

But this then is the image you take away with you and the picture that springs to mind when next you read Jesus’ reference to the centurion: “he loves our nation and has built us a synagogue” (Luke 7.5).

But look more closely beneath the ruins of the beautiful white synagogue and you will see that it rests on an older building made of dark stones.

The 4th century synagogue rests on the remains of the 1st century synagogue that was made of basalt stones.

What is the relevance of these? This is where the value of making reconstruction drawings can be shown, with the process allowing historical and archaeological information about the site to be presented in a meaningful way. Continue reading “The Synagogue of Capernaum in which Jesus taught”

A Seal Impression of Isaiah the Prophet

 

To commemorate the retirement of Hershel Shanks from the Biblical Archaeology Society which he founded in 1975, Eilat Mazar published an article in the latest issue of Biblical Archaeology Review about a bulla (seal impression) that was found in the Ophel area. The title of the article is “Is This the Prophet Isaiah’s Signature?” The seal was discovered back in 2009, but only came to light after cleaning by wet-sifting.

This is the seal with the Isaiah inscription. Clicking on the image shows a video explaining the importance of this find. Credit: Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar.

As expected, this find has been widely published here, here, here and in many other places. Here is an excerpt from the latter report:

The clay impression is inscribed with letters and what appears to be a grazing doe, “a motif of blessing and protection found in Judah, particularly in Jerusalem,” according to the BAR article.

The oval-shaped bulla, however, is not intact. On its legible portion, there is an inscription with First Temple Hebrew letters that seem to spell out the name l’Yesha’yah[u] (Belonging to Isaiah). On a line below, there is the partial word nvy, which presumably spells out “prophet.”

“Because the bulla has been slightly damaged at end of the word nvy, it is not known if it originally ended with the Hebrew letter aleph, which would have resulted in the Hebrew word for ‘prophet’ and would have definitively identified the seal as the signature of the prophet Isaiah,” Mazar said.

 

Drawing by Reut Livyatan Ben-Arie of the Isaiah Bulla, a 2,700-year-old clay seal impression which potentially belonged to the biblical prophet Isaiah. (Illustration: Reut Livyatan Ben-Arie/© Eilat Mazar; Photo by Ouria Tadmor/© Eilat Mazar)

The above drawing by Reut shows that there is space on the bottom register for the missing aleph. Reut is well known to us from the Shiloh Excavations directed by Scott Stripling.

Although the identification is not 100% watertight, it is unlikely to have belonged to anybody but the Prophet Isaiah who supported King Hezekiah through difficult times.

The seal was found in trash that had been dumped outside the city wall of the time. The seal of King Hezekiah on which we commented in a previous post was found nearby.

During the reign of King Hezekiah, many refugees from the Assyrian invasion of the northern tribes came to Jerusalem for protection. As the city on the Eastern Hill was too small to accommodate the new comers, they settled on the Western Hill. Eventually, King Hezekiah built a new city wall around this hill to protect it from invasion.                                                                            The arrow points to the location where the seal was found, not far from the Temple Mount.

 

The Antonia Fortress

A guard to the real Temple Mount in Jerusalem

One of my readers, Daniel Wright, commented on my previous blog: “Once again Leen, I would like to thank you for addressing the persistent “temple location” confusion. I frequently get questioned as to my point of view on the “City of David” location theory. Directing the inquisitive to your blog is a real asset. It is important and useful to remind readers that you worked directly for Dr. Benjamin Mazar and you were also a contemporary of Ernest L. Martin, as both of you were there in Jerusalem during the same timeframe. Your personal involvement with Mazar’s team as these things were discovered, and your role as archaeological illustrator make you a primary authority on this topic. I am grateful that you continue to publish materials that address this needless controversy.”

Thanks, for the encouragement Daniel. As promised, I now hope to deal with yet another aspect of the Temple Mount that proponents of the City of David location often bring up in support of their theory, i.e. the Antonia Fortress.

These theorisers have a problem with the existing walls of the Temple Mount and have therefore suggested that they must have belonged to the Antonia Fortress that stood north of the Temple. Such a suggestion shows ignorance of and contradicts the historical sources and archaeological evidence. Let’s begin with the historical sources. Continue reading “The Antonia Fortress”

Trumpeting on the Temple Mount

How a Hebrew inscription blasts the Temple Mount deniers

One of the most interesting and important discoveries at the Temple Mount Excavations directed from 1968 till 1978 by the late Prof. Benjamin Mazar, was made at the southwest corner in 1969. After digging through Umayyad, Byzantine and Roman destruction levels, a large corner parapet stone was found lying on its side on the paving stones of the Herodian street, about 1.5 meter (5 feet) from the southwest corner. A niche was cut out of the inner slope of the stone on its southern side. Above this niche was an inscription written in Hebrew, which reads (from right to left) “l’bet hatqia l’hakh . . . ”

The first two words “l’bet hatqia” mean “to the place of trumpeting,” but the last Hebrew word is incomplete. Scholars have suggested completing the inscription with l’hekhal (to the Temple), l’ha-kohn (for the priest) or “l’hakhriz,” (announce). The latter suggestion, which would make the inscription read, “to the place of trumpeting to announce”, has the most support.

As it was found lying directly on the street and underneath other fallen Herodian stones, it must originally have been located at the top of the southwest corner whence it was the first stone to have been thrown down.

The original location where the Trumpeting Stone was found. Archaeologist Ron Gardiner stands next to the stone.
This photo was taken by Leen Ritmeyer in 1973.
This photo, taken by Leen Ritmeyer in 1973, shows the place where the Trumpeting Stone was found. It was later moved a couple of meters to the west and put the right way up, so that visitors can better appreciate this special find. The original inscription is in the Israel Museum and a facsimile put in its place .

Why was this find so important? Continue reading “Trumpeting on the Temple Mount”

Seal of Jerusalem Governor found

The Jerusalem Posts reports today:

The new find supports the biblical rendering of the existence of a governor of Jerusalem 2,700 years ago, says archeologist.

A rare, well preserved Hebrew-inscribed and stamped piece of clay from the First Temple Period belonging to the “governor of the city” of Jerusalem was recently discovered during excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the Western Wall Plaza.

According to Dr. Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah, excavator of the site on behalf of the IAA, “The Bible mentions two governors of Jerusalem, and this finding thus reveals that such a position was actually held by someone in the city some 2,700 years ago.”

“The finding of the seal with this high-rank title – in addition to the large assemblage of actual seals found in the building in the past – supports the assumption that this area, located on the western slopes of the western hill of ancient Jerusalem, some 100 m west of the Temple Mount, was inhabited by highly ranked officials during the First Temple period.”

Two governors of Jerusalem are mentioned in the Bible, Joshua in 2 Kings 23:8 and Maaseiah in 2 Chron. 34:8, both of whom lived at the end of the First Temple period.

This drawing shows what Jerusalem at the end of the First Temple period looked like:

Jerusalem’s Garbage

How garbage disposes of the idea that the Temple once stood over the Gihon Spring.

No, Jerusalem is not garbage, but the ancient 2000-year old garbage dump discovered in 2013-2014 on the eastern slope of the City of David refutes recent suggestions about a different location of the Temple in Jerusalem.

I am often asked what I think about the idea that the Temple stood in the City of David and not on the Temple Mount. This was first suggested by Ernest Martin and then followed by Bob Cornuke, Marilyn Sams and others, and this idea has found credence in some circles, mainly in the United States.

The idea that the Temple didn’t stand on the Temple Mount, but in the city of David, is based on the misreading of two Bible passages. Continue reading “Jerusalem’s Garbage”

The Royal Stoa of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

During the Herodian period, a colonnaded hall, known as the Royal Stoa, graced the whole length of the Southern Wall. Constructed in the shape of a basilica with four rows of forty columns each, it formed a central nave in the east end and two side aisles. The central apse was the place of meeting for the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish Council. The main part of this building was used for the changing of money and purchase of sacrificial animals.

In 19 BC King Herod the Great, began the most ambitious building project of his life, the rebuilding of the Temple in lavish style. To facilitate this, he undertook a further expansion of the Hasmonean Temple Mount by extending it on three sides, to the north, west and south. The Royal Stoa stood above the Southern Wall, on the left of the drawing.

Although the existence and location of this magnificent building was never doubted, questions remain about its plan and decoration. I was pleased therefore to hear of Dr. Orit Peleg-Barkat’s new publication, “Herodian Architectural Decoration and King Herod’s Royal Portico,” that appears in Qedem 57, edited by Eilat Mazar, The Temple Mount Excavations in Jerusalem, 1968–1978 Directed by Benjamin Mazar Final Reports Volume V. Continue reading “The Royal Stoa of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem”

Biblewhere

Carta Jerusalem, the publishing house that has published so many of our books, has embarked on a new venture: BIBLEWHERE. This Online Visual Content Collection was developed by Shay Hausman, the present CEO of Carta and continues to expand.

Those who are attending the AAR/SBL Conference in Boston can see it demonstrated at Booth 2616. Continue reading “Biblewhere”

Remains of Roman odeon found in Jerusalem

The Israel Antiquities Authority and The Western Wall Heritage Foundation made an important announcement today, reporting the discovery of the remains of a small Roman theatre or odeon in Jerusalem, just below Wilson’s Arch. This report includes a video in English. The Jerusalem Post also reports this find.

A view of the southwest corner of Herod’s Temple Mount. In the foreground is Robinson’s Arch with its monumental stairway that led up from the main street in the Tyropoeon Valley and entered the Royal Stoa through a gateway.
On the left of Robinson’s Arch is Barclay’s Gate with Wilson’s Arch at far left. The Temple towered high above the Temple Mount.
Photograph of Wilson’s Arch looking north. The new excavations are located deep below the floor in this photo. © Leen Ritmeyer

Continue reading “Remains of Roman odeon found in Jerusalem”