Aaron Lipkin communicated that Jewish and Christian volunteers have restored the destroyed wall of the Mount Ebal archaeological site of Joshua’s altar (photo: Aaron Lipkin).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to protect ancient sites:
“Concerning the terrible event at Mt. Ebal – I instructed today to conduct an investigation immediately to apprehend the people responsible (for the destruction) and to setup security in the site. We will safeguard our historical sites.”
A couple of days ago, the Palestinians destroyed part of the surrounding wall of an important archaeological site on Mount Ebal. Although its identification is controversial, many believe that these are the remains of the altar that Joshua built on Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:30) . Whatever the identification, the destruction of archaeological sites in Israel is deplorable. For further comments, see: here, here and here (with aerial video).
I know the site well, for in 1983, I was asked by Prof. Benjamin Mazar to visit a new archaeological site on Mount Ebal that was being excavated by Adam Zertal and make reconstructions drawings of this altar.
As Zachi comments: “What happened recently in Mount Ebal is the tip of the iceberg about everything that has been happening in Judea and Samaria in recent years.” Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for the relevant authorities to put a stop to this senseless destruction.
In the Gospels, Jesus speaks parables about “masters of the house”. In Matthew 20:1-16, he speaks of a master of the house who hired labourers to work in his vineyard, and in Matthew 21:33-39 of another master of the house who planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants. There are also references in Mark and Luke.
The Greek word for ‘master of the house’ is oikodespotes. Many lessons can be learnt from these parables which stresses the authority of the master of the house, but here we would like to examine the archaeological background of the parable.
From the description in the Gospels, this was a wealthy landowner, who had vast tracts of lands with vineyards, oliveyards and agricultural fields for the growing of crops. No wonder he needed labourers to work in his fields at harvest time. These landowners would have lived in large country mansions with outbuildings to store their crops and with installations, such as winepresses and olive presses, for post-harvest activities.
Such an estate from the Second Temple period was found on Mount Carmel, in the grounds of Ramat haNadiv, the Rothschild Gardens near Zichron Ya’akov. It is called Mansur el-‘Aqeb in Arabic or Horvat ‘Aqav in Hebrew. Here, a fortified farmstead, surrounded by a wall and protected by a large tower, was discovered. It was L-shaped with the longest walls about 200 feet (60m) long and a surface of 0.7 acres (2,800m2). Inside the compound were the remains of extensive living quarters, storerooms, two winepresses, an oil press and a threshing floor. As the lower part of a mikveh (ritual bath) was found inside the building, the owner must have been Jewish.
The mansion is located at the highest point of the southwest cliff line of Mount Carmel, and overlooks the agricultural fields below. Caesarea by the Mediterranean Sea can be seen in the distance.
After the destruction of this complex in 70AD, a farmstead was built over the remains of the 1st century estate in the Byzantine period, confirming the importance of the location and ground of this agricultural estate.
In the late 1980’s, I was asked by the excavator, Yizhar Hirschfeld, to restore a circular Byzantine winepress.
This was followed up by a request to restore the whole site and design explanatory signs.
Eventually these black and white signs faded and the metal frames rusted. A few years ago, I was asked to design new signs which were to be done in color.
When the pandemic is over, God willing, tourists and visitors will again be able to visit this fascinating archaeological site. We have found “reading in the ruins” one of the most effective ways to bring an ancient site to life. Reading the parables that Jesus spoke about landowners or masters of the house in this particular farmstead, paints a vivid picture in the mind and illuminates the cultural and material background.
In the 1980’s, I used to visit Mount Gerizim as part of my work making reconstruction drawings for the Staff Officer of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. These drawings showed what the different buildings from the area, dating from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods, would have looked like.
Archaeological remains of a Samaritan sacred precinct were discovered in these excavations around the turn of the 21st century. These date from the time of Nehemiah (mid-fifth century BCE). The Bible doesn’t mention any temple as standing on Mount Gerizim, so we wondered how such a building fitted in with the biblical history. It was the reading of Josephus that provided the missing historical information, as we will see later on.
After the return from Babylonian Exile, a new temple was built in Jerusalem under the leadership of Jeshua and Zerubbabel. This temple is described in Ezra 6:3 as being 60 cubits high and wide. Although the stone work was inferior, it nevertheless functioned as a proper temple.
In the time of Nehemiah, the square precinct of the Temple Mount, previously built by King Hezekiah, was restored.
During that time, Sanballat the Horonite was the leading figure among those who opposed the building of Jerusalem and the temple. It is generally believed that he was descended from the Babylonian settlers whom the Assyrians deported to Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). Sanballat, whose name means “Sin (the moon god) gives life”, was the governor of Samaria. During the absence of Nehemiah, a grandson of Eliashib the high priest named Manasseh, had become the son-in-law of Sanballat (Neh. 13:28). On his return, Nehemiah rejected Manasseh and sent him away. The vital additional information for our question was found in Josephus, who records that Sanballat then offered to make Manasseh high priest and build a new temple on Mount Gerizim similar to that in Jerusalem (Ant. 11:310).
The archaeological remains of the Samaritan sacred precinct indeed indicate that at this time a rival temple was built on this mountain by the Samaritans. A closed courtyard, that could be entered through three gates, was built around the Temple. No remains of a temple have been found, as, due to hostilities between the Jews and Samaritans, the temple and sacred precinct were destroyed in 128 BC by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I. However, archaeological finds of inscriptions, finely cut ashlars and proto-Ionic capitals attest to the existence of a Samaritan temple.
The site remained unoccupied until the Byzantine period, but despite this, Mount Gerizim remained a sacred place for the Samaritans. That is why the woman of Samaria said to Jesus that her fathers worshiped on this mountain, while the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem. Jesus answered that God must be worshiped, not in a sacred space such as Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth (John 4:20-24).
According to Samaritan sources, a temple of Zeus was built on the northern ridge of Mount Gerizim after the Roman destruction of 70CE. This temple, which was built in the mid-second century, stood on a podium measuring 64m long and 44m wide.
Coins from about 160CE depict a temple that overlooked the city of Neapolis (modern Shechem or Nablus), and that was reached from the city by a stairway of about 1500 steps. This temple continued in use until the fourth century.
After that time, a large Byzantine complex surrounded by walls and towers was built on the highest summit of Mount Gerizim.
In the center of this walled complex stood an octagonal church, the Church of Mary Mother of God (Theotokos – literally God-bearer), which was established by Emperor Zenon in 484CE. Centrally designed churches are built to commemorate certain events, in this case, the Orthodox belief in Mary’s bodily resurrection before being taken up into heaven.
Mount Gerizim has been a sacred place for almost 2,500 years, and continues as such up to the present time. A large population of Samaritans lives on or near Mount Gerizim today and every year they celebrate the feast of Passover, with many pilgrims joining them. In this picture we see a priest holding up the Samaritan Pentateuch.
Many tourists visit Bethlehem, specially at this time of the year (except in 2020 because of the pandemic), as that is where Jesus was born (Luke 2:11). We first learn about Bethlehem in the Book of Ruth, where we read that Boaz purchased Ruth the Moabitess according to the law of the levirate marriage, who then became his wife (Ruth 4:10). They had a son called Obed, who became the grandfather of David. Jesus is, of course, the greater son of King David. What do we know about his birthplace?
Both Mary and Joseph were descendants of King David. When the Roman government ordered a census to be carried out, they had to travel from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. Mary was descended from David through Solomon (Matth 1:16) and Joseph through another son of David, namely Nathan (Luke 3:31). We suggest that the place where Jesus was born was not a randomly chosen cave, but a place that was prepared centuries earlier for this purpose.
Most people believe that the grotto in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born. In the early Byzantine period, a church was erected over this grotto by Constantine. After this building was destroyed in 529 CE, Justinian built a new church. In the floor of the Grotto of the Nativity is a silver star that indicates the traditional birth place of Jesus. It is important to remember, that after Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). Mangers are found in stable blocks and not in caves or grottoes. The grotto in Bethlehem was originally a Roman shrine above which stood a temple to Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite.
What do we know about the ancestral home of the family of David? Near the end of King David’s life, he had to flee from his son Absalom. He stayed with Barzillai, the Gileadite, whose son Chimham returned with David to Jerusalem (2 Sam 19:37-40). In order to provide Chimham with a source of income, David apparently gave him a part of his own inheritance in Bethlehem on which to build a house, which is later mentioned in Jer. 41:17, as the habitation of Chimham.
Joseph would naturally have gone to this home where this family members lived. In the Gospel record (Luke 2:7), we read that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn. The for word “inn” is kataluma in Greek, and means an upper room or guest room. When Joseph and Mary arrived at their ancestral home, they were told that all the upper rooms were occupied and the only available space left for Jesus to be born was the stable block. Joseph and Mary had to share this stable with animals. It wasn’t a romantic Christmas postcard stable with smiling camels and donkeys, probably drawn by artists who don’t know how bad camels can smell and how loud the braying of donkeys can be!
What actually did a stable look like in the time of Christ? From archaeology we know that stables looked like large rooms with a fenestrated wall, i.e. a wall with several low windows, built in the middle of the room. Animals were placed behind this wall and fodder was put in wooden boxes or baskets, called mangers, and placed in these windows. Sacks of provender were stored in the first half of the room. It was probably in this part of the stable that Mary and Joseph were allowed to stay and where Jesus was born and eventually placed in one of the wooden provender boxes, which would have served as his crib.
If that is so, then one can only marvel at God’s providence that a birthplace was prepared by David, so that Jesus could be born in his own inheritance a thousand years later.
When Jesus was born, shepherds came to pay their respect, in fulfilment of Micha 4:8 that the former dominion will be restored to “the watchtower of the flock” (Migdal Eder in Hebrew). This Migdal Eder is the place where Rachel was buried (Gen. 35:21). At the time when Jesus was born, Migdal Eder was the place where special shepherds kept the flock from which the sacrificial animals for the daily sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple were chosen. Angels from heaven announced to these special shepherds the good tidings of the Kingdom of God.
Apart from the first century Synagogue of Capernaum, the only other known synagogues from this period were found at Masada, Herodium, Gamla and Magdala. In Jerusalem, the Theodotus Synagogue inscription, dating from the same time, was found, but no remains of the actual synagogue have been found.
We know that the Synagogue of Capernaum served as a place for the reading of the Torah and its study. But, what did the interior of the Capernaum Synagogue look like and how did the synagogue operate? In Luke 4:16-22 we read that in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus first stood up to read, and then sat down to teach. The question is, where did the reader stand and where did the teacher sit?
In a previous post, we have seen that in Capernaum the Torah Scrolls were transported in a wheeled carriage from the home of the ruler of the synagogue (archisynagogas) to the synagogue. These scrolls were apparently kept in the home of the ruler of the synagogue for security reasons.
The Law of Moses was first read, and then expounded on from Moses’ Seat, for in Acts 15:21, it says “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath”. And in Matt. 23:2,3 Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do”.
We have tried to put this information in a new reconstruction drawing of the interior of the Capernaum Synagogue. Opposite the entrance in the east wall, we see people sitting on stone benches, placed along three sides of the room.
In the centre of the hall is a reading platform, consisting of a decorated square stone on which a wooden lectern stands. This reconstruction is based on a similar stone that was found in the nearby synagogue of Magdala.
The reader read from the scroll that was brought into the synagogue in the wheeled carriage, which was placed at the left side of the entrance. The ruler of the synagogue took the relevant scroll out of the carriage and placed it on the lectern. On the right side of the entrance is a stone seat, called Moses’ Seat, where the teacher sat. Such seats have been found in the synagogues of Chorazin and Tiberias.
Jewish worship consisted initially mainly of prayers and the reading of the Law. This worship later developed into a full-blown service. The order of the services in the synagogue was as follows: (1) Reciting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41) (2) Prayer (3) Reading the law (4) Reading the prophets (5) Discourse by anyone who desired to speak (Acts 13:15) (6) the Benediction.
The order of the traditional Christian service is based on this Jewish one.
Apart from teaching in the synagogue, Jesus also performed miracles there, such as the healing of the man was there whose right hand was withered (Luke 6:6 – 10, Matthew 12:9 – 13, Mark 3:1 – 5), the man with an unclean (demonic) spirit (Mark 1:21-25), and perhaps also the woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up (Luke 13:11-14). Jesus did these signs, not only to prove that he was the promised Messiah, but also to show the deeper significance of the Sabbath day as an example of the promised Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:8-10).
Josephus Flavius, also known as Yosef Ben Matityahu, was an eye-witness to the siege of Jerusalem. He somehow survived the siege of Yotvat in Galilee and with one of his soldiers surrendered to the Roman forces in July 67 CE. The Roman forces were led by Flavius Vespasian and his son Titus, both subsequently Roman emperors. Two years later, Josephus was released (cf. War IV.622-629) and according to his own account, he appears to have played a role as a negotiator with the defenders during the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. The works of Josephus provide crucial information about this First Jewish-Roman War. Here, we would like specially to examine his account of the Roman destruction of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Josephus and the Mishnah, especially the book of Middot (Measurements) were the main historical sources we consulted. Initially, we read Josephus with some skepticism, as we found his measurements prone to exaggeration and his text not always easy to understand. However, after having worked out the layout of the Temple Mount, we could begin to visualize the events he described with the latter as a backdrop. We found his account of the siege of Jerusalem to be quite reliable, apart from his personal comments on the character and actions of Titus and others, especially when they conflict with other historical sources.
The Roman destruction of the Herodian Temple Mount was a tragedy that is still mourned today. Nevertheless, Josephus’ report about the battle for the Temple Mount, despite its many gruesome details, provides us with many helpful indications about the layout of the Sanctuary and its buildings, courts, porticoes and gates.
Seven different stages of this war can be observed which confirm the layout of the Temple Mount.
1. First unsuccessful attempt to capture the Antonia Fortress
2. Second successful attempt to capture the Antonia Fortress
3. Construction of a road into the Herodian Outer Court
4. Capture of the square Temple Mount
5. Capture of the Court of the Women
6. Capture of the Temple Court
7. The Destruction of the Temple
To make this information available, we have produced a new presentation consisting of 50 slides which follow these seven different stages of this battle.
The Location of the Music Chamber in the Court of the Women
As noted in our previous post, music played an important role in the Temple services. Although the real service of praise in the Temple was done mainly by voice, this was often accompanied by the playing on musical instruments. Silver trumpets were blown by priests to accompany the sacrifices.
The Levites stood on the fifteen semi-circular steps to sing the Psalm of the day, and on other occasions, all of the fifteen Songs of the Steps, namely Psalms 120-134.
The number of instrumentalists was not limited, and not confined to Levites only. Middot Arakhin 2.4 indicates that some of these were from the families of Emmaus, another name for Bethel. The musical instruments were kept in a special underground chamber that opened to the Court of Women. We can imagine that when the Levites sang on the steps, the players on harps, trumpets and lyres, stood next to them in front of the Music Chamber.
This Chamber of Music is mentioned in Middot 2:6, “And there were chambers under the Court of Israel, which opened into the Court of the Women, where the Levites played upon harps and lyres and the cymbals and all instruments of music”. I previously speculated that some remains of this music chamber may have survived the Roman destruction of 70 CE.
So, let us examine the archaeological information.
The three openings had already been noticed in the 19th century by Conrad Schick and Warren. Warren noted that there was a hollow space behind the wall, and called it the Cell of Bostam. The name ‘Bostam’ appears to be a corruption of ‘bustan’, a group of trees and vegetation that grew here and which can be seen in some Crusader illustrations. Warren wrote that “in 1881 an attempt was made to obtain permission to open this doorway and explore the unknown cells and vaults. This was not only refused, but a large heap of earth was soon after piled in front of the closed doorway.”
For interest’s sake, the structure called Cell of Kashan to the south of the Raised Platform, has a cistern. Schick noted that over this cistern (2 on the plan), the Kashan Mosque, which has long been demolished, once stood.
Below is a plan showing the location of the Court of the Women on the present day Temple Mount, followed by updated archaeological evidence we presented in our previous blog.
Next, I made an accurate elevation of the ancient stones in the eastern wall of the Raised Platform, showing the ancient stones at the northeast corner, and further to the south, the visible masonry on the sides of the previously mentioned arches.
To check if this discovery agreed with the description in Middot, I compared the location of this triple entrance with a reconstruction drawing I had made of the Court of the Women for a model I had designed many years ago.
After superimposing the newly discovered masonry on this drawing, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the central opening was exactly where I had drawn it earlier.
Putting this information together, I was able to draw a reconstruction of the Court of the Women and the Music Chamber, or Music Room. To the left (south) of the Court of the Women was the Chamber of the House of Oil, and on the right (north) was the Chamber of the Lepers.
Behind the Levitical choir is the Nicanor Gate, and the Temple towered in the background. The musicians that stood in front of the Music Chamber have now been added to a previous drawing of the Temple Courts.
It must have been very impressive to hear the choir, accompanied by the musicians playing on their instruments, praising God. They sang different Psalms each day, and on the Shabbat they sang Psalm 92, “It is good to give thanks unto the Lord”.
Now, of course, we can praise God wherever we like, at home or in a congregation, but it is good to remember that acceptable worship was first instituted by King David who wrote the Psalms, which were sung in the subsequent Temples of Jerusalem.
 Gibson, S. and Jacobson, D.M., Below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (1996).
 Warren, Ch. and Conder, C.R., Survey of Western Palestine, Jerusalem Volume (Vol. 2), (1884, 219).
 Schick, C., Beit el Makdas oder der alte Tempelplatz zu Jerusalem; wir er jetzt ist. (1887, 86)
Could this be the remnant of the gate to the southern underground Music Room?
Here is my translation of an article written on the 4th of October 2020 by Arnon Segal for the Makor Rishon Hebrew newspaper with additional comments and illustrations.
“In the eastern wall of the Raised Platform on which the Nikanor Gate stood during the days of the Temple, two arches were recently discovered that had been blocked at some point. Where did they lead to and who built them? And does this have anything to do with the holiday of Sukkot?”
“The eastern wall of the Raised Platform that supports the plaza around the Dome of the Rock, is closely connected with Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles, or Booths). According to the Jewish tradition that places the Holy of Holies in the center of the Dome of the Rock, the Nicanor Gate stood on this wall during the days of the Temple. The staircase that descends from it today numbers 25 steps, but originally there were only 15 steps. On the feast of Beit Hashoeva (the Water Drawing ceremony) on the feast of Sukkot, when they went down to draw water from the Pool of Siloam, the Levites stood on these steps and sang the 15 songs of the degrees in the Book of Psalms.”
“This wall is oriented in an almost precise north-south line (a half-degree deviation that may be explained by a certain change in the magnetic north for thousands of years), just as the Temple itself was oriented according to precise astronomical directions. This eastern wall preserves a memory of the most significant difference in height on the ancient Temple Mount, namely that which separated the higher Court of Israel from the lower Court of the Women.”
“In recent weeks, Dr. Eli David has noticed two blocked arches on this wall, which as far as is known, are not mentioned in the research literature of the Temple Mount from the 19th century. There seemed to be a passage here that had been blocked at some time in the past. Archaeologist Dr. Leen Ritmeyer, who has been researching the Temple Mount since the 1970s, also did not know these arches, but has now speculated that they were built during the Crusader period or even earlier.”
“According to Ritmeyer, the plaza round the Dome of the Rock was probably founded in the seventh or eighth century AD for the purpose of supporting the Dome of the Rock. And yet, it probably also incorporates much older components. At the northern end of this wall there are three courses of ancient construction that also extend along the northern wall of the Raised Platform. In his hypothesis it is possible that this corner served as an end to the soreg which marked the area beyond which foreigners and the unclean were forbidden to enter.”
“At the southern end of the eastern wall, there are indications of the existence of additional underground spaces that have been sealed off. In the mid-19th century, the British expedition officer Charles Warren asked permission to explore this space, but the very next day a pile of earth was placed in front of the opening that prevented it, a pile that was later replaced by a stone blocking wall. According to Ritmeyer’s calculations, this was the place of the Chamber of Hewn Stone where the Sanhedrin used to hold court sessions.”
“And this wall has a few more things to tell us. At one point in the wall, north of the stairway, two large stones remain at the base of the wall, which Ritmeyer speculates may have been from the time of Herod and may have served as part of the retaining wall of the Court of the Women.”
“Going back to the blocked arch openings located by Dr. Eli David, Ritmeyer points out that on the sides of these two arches two large stones can be seen that seem to belong to a triple opening. According to Ritmeyer, it is difficult to date the exact style of construction, but in his opinion, these are stones are similar to the ancient stone courses mentioned before, which are located at the northeast corner of the eastern wall. In his estimation, the opening may be from the Crusader period or even earlier. “These architectural remains show that there is still much to explore and discover,” Ritmeyer admits, “not only around the outer walls of the Herodian Temple Mount, but also on the Temple Mount plaza itself.”
“Even if Dr. Ritmeyer assumes that the arches are from the Crusader period, they may have served as an opening to a much earlier underground space. When was it created and by whom?”
“It is not clear, but perhaps one should recall the words of Tractate Middot (2:6) regarding this very place, which indicates that this is the place where the musical instruments of the Temple were stored:
“And there were chambers under the Court of Israel, which opened to the Court of the Women, where the Levites played upon harps and lyres and the cymbals and all instruments of music”. At the Simchat Beit Hashoeva (the rejoicing of the Water Ceremony) that took place on the holiday nights, they played loudly.”
I find it very exciting to speculate that some remains of the entrance to this Music Room may have survived the Roman destruction of 70 AD. It is of special importance that this discovery was made during the days of Sukkot.
Music played an important role during the Feasts of Israel, especially during the present days of Sukkot. Trumpets were used to announce Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the civil New Year, which fell on the 19th of August 2020. On the 10th of Tishrei, which was the 29th of September, was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. During a Jubilee year, the trumpet of the Jubilee was sounded on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the Day of Atonement you shall make the trumpet to sound throughout all your land. And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you; and each of you shall return to his possession, and each of you shall return to his family (Leviticus 25:9,10).
Every morning of Sukkot at daybreak, a group of Levites and priests went down to the Siloam Pool, which is located south of the Temple Mount, and drew three log (a Talmudic liquid measurement) of fresh water to be poured on the altar after the daily morning sacrifice. Their arrival at the Temple with the water was accompanied by trumpet blasts. (For Shabbat, the water was collected before the onset of Shabbat and stored in a golden vessel in the Temple.) It says in the Talmud: He who has not seen the Water-Drawing Celebration has never seen joy in his life.
Jesus used this act to draw the attention of the spectators to this ceremony when he said in John 7.37–39: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”