The Road to Emmaus

A new Emmaus trail in Israel is ready for pilgrims, but is it on the right track?

On the 21st of march, 2021, Linda Gradstein wrote in the Jerusalem Post  

“Pilgrims can walk the new 18-km. (11-mile) Emmaus Trail that now goes from the Saxum Visitor Center in Abu Ghosh, which hat exhibits on Christianity, and ends at the monastery of Emmaus Nicopolis.”

The important event that took place on the Road to Emmaus is reported fully only in Luke 24.13-35. These verses record Jesus appearing to two of his disciples while they were going to a place called Emmaus. One was called Cleopas and the other is unnamed.

The fact that on their return to Jerusalem, the two disciples told the eleven (or ‘the rest’ as they are called in Mark 16.13) that “he was known of them in breaking of bread”, shows what a significant occasion it was. It was the first time after the Last Supper that Jesus broke bread again.

From their conversation we learn that those two disciples did not understand why Jesus had to die. We read that “they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned …” (Luke 24.14,15). They were quite perplexed and when Jesus joined them, he asked them what they were talking about. Cleopas told him what had happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. These two disciples knew the sequence of the events very well, but they did not believe them and had walked away from Jerusalem. After Jesus opened the Scriptures to them, “their heart burned within them”.

Is it important to understand why the first breaking of bread in which Jesus participated after he was raised from the dead, had to take place near a village called Emmaus? And where was Emmaus[1]? Why is that important to know? One thing that I have learnt from following the journeys of Jesus is that he always went to places for a reason, usually to fulfil an Old Testament prophecy.

This map shows some of the candidates for Emmaus

We are told that Emmaus was about 60 stadia[2] (Luke 24.13) from Jerusalem, that is over 4 times as far as Bethany, which was 15 stadia (2.775 km, 1.72 miles) from Jerusalem (John 11.18). As I have lived for two years in Bethany, I know this measurement to be true, as it took me just over half an hour to walk from the back of the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount Excavations. Emmaus should be located therefore some 11 kms or 7 miles from Jerusalem. But in which direction did Jesus go? North, south, east or west? We are not told.


The name Emmaus does not occur anywhere in the Old Testament. However, in one of the New Testament manuscripts, the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis[3], as pointed out by Read-Heimerdinger and Rius-Camps, Emmaus is called Oulammaous[4]. Another ancient source also refers to these names[5]. This is because of an association that was made by some of the early translators with the name of the place where Jacob had a dream after he left his family to go to Padanaram. 

This sign near the modern settlement of Bethel indicates Jacob’s Rock where he had the vision of the ladder. The Hebrew text above it says The Place of Jacob’s Dream.

This first place where Jacob stopped overnight he called Bethel, which means the House of God: 

“And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first”. (Gen. 28:19)

The word order in Hebrew is different:

“And he called the name of that place Bethel: but Luz was the name of the place at first”. 

In the Hebrew text, “but Luz” is “Oulamlouz”, and this became Oulammaous in this manuscript, from which comes Ammaus by changing the “L” to an “M. (Emmaus is the Latin translation).

If Emmaus and Bethel are essentially the same place, then there are amazing parallels between Jacob’s stay in Bethel and Jesus going to Emmaus with the two disciples. 

Some questions still remain to be answered. When the two disciples returned to Jerusalem, they said, “The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.” (Luke 24:34)

How did they know that? And who was Cleopas? If the name of Bethel had been obscured, then maybe the name of Cleopas also stood for somebody else. I believe he was Peter, for Cleopas (if you take out the letter ‘L’, as with Oulamaous) sounds very much like Cephas, unto whom we know that Jesus appeared before the other disciples. In the gospels we read that after his resurrection Jesus appeared unto Mary Magdalene first, but it is also written in 1Cor. 15:4,5 that “Jesus was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve”.

In this Lucan account, Peter’s identity is hidden, reflecting perhaps the fact that his eyes were restrained. Jesus had earlier changed Peter’s name to Cephas when he made that good confession that Jesus was the Son of living God. This confession became the foundation stone on which the church is built. Jesus had called him also Simon son of Jonah[6], which means “hearer, son of a dove” – a dove is type of the Holy Spirit. Listening to Jesus’ explanation of why he had to suffer and die, and believing after Jesus had broken bread, made him a true hearer. 

So, if Cleopas is indeed Cephas, then Jesus indeed first appeared to Peter before the other disciples, and if that is so, then how great is the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus toward the disciple who had betrayed him! 

There may be other reasons why the name of Bethel does not appear in the New Testament and that the Canaanite name of Luz (Gen. 28:19) for Bethel was used instead. First of all, Bethel in Hebrew means the House of God, which at that time was understood to be the Temple in Jerusalem. 

The second reason may be that the people of this place were ashamed of their connection with the temple that Jeroboam had built for the worship of Baal, who was often portrayed as a bull (1 Kings 12:26-33)[7]. When some Baal-worshipping youths[8] returned from Bethel to Jericho, they met Elisha and mocked him. Elisha then cursed them in the name of Yahweh, as this meeting had become a confrontation between the worship of Yahweh and that of Baal. Elisha was vindicated when, by divine intervention, two she bears mauled these idol worshippers. The people of Bethel may have wanted to disassociate themselves from their shameful past.

In the fifth year of Rehoboam, the Kingdom of Solomon split. The ten northern tribes set up the Kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam. To prevent the people from going to Jerusalem during the feast days, Jeroboam made two golden calves and put them in temples, one in Bethel and one in Dan (1Kings 12:28,29). The temple in Bethel has not yet been found, but the one in Dan survived and has been excavated.
In this reconstruction drawing, we see the complete temple for the golden calf in the centre of the courtyard, with a stairway leading up to it. In front of the temple was an altar, while other rooms were arranged around the sanctuary.
The site of Ras et-Tahunah at al-Bireh is an elevated hill, which has been tentatively identified as the high place of Bethel.

It also makes sense that Emmaus would have been located on the Way of the Patriarchs, on which Abraham, Jacob and Joseph had travelled. This ridge road connects places, such as Beersheba, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Bethel, Shiloh and Shechem, where some of the most important events in Scripture took place. 


[1] Several candidates for identification with Emmaus have been suggested, e.g. Mozah (Qaloniyeh), Abu Gosh (Castellum), el-Qubeibeh and Imwas (Emmaus-Nicopolis). None of these places, however, have a relevant historical connection to the site under consideration. 

[2] One Roman stadium is about 185 m.

[3] This manuscript is held at the University of Cambridge: https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-NN-00002-00041/1 

[4] Read-Heimerdinger, J. and Rius-Camps, J., “Emmaus or Oulammaous? Luke’s Use of the Jewish Scriptures in the Text of Luke 24 in Codex Bezae”, Revista Catalana de Teologia (RCatT) 27 (2002), pp. 23-43.

[5] Eusebius of Caesarea, in Onomasticon 40.20 writes, Baithel (Bethel) is now a village twelve miles from Ailia (Jerusalem) to the right of the road going to Neapolis (Shechem). It was formerly called Oulamma and also Luza. It was given to the lot of the tribe of Benjamin, near Bethaun (Bethaven) and Gai (Ai). Josue (Joshua) also fought there killing the king.”

[6] Matthew 16:17.

[7] The site of Ras et-Tahunah at al-Bireh is an elevated hill, which has been tentatively identified as the high place of Bethel.

[8] These youths were not little children. The Hebrew na’arim ketanim indicates young people, not little children.  Abraham’s 318 young men that defeated the armies of Chedorlaomer and his allies, were also called na’arim (Gen. 14:24). When Solomon became king at the age of 40, he asked God for wisdom as he said that he was but a “little child” (na’ar katan), the same Hebrew words that were used to described the youths in 2 Kings 2:23,24.

The destruction of the site of Joshua’s altar on Mount Ebal (cont.)

Some good news

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.”

The destruction of the site of Joshua’s altar on Mount Ebal

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).

Photo from Zachi Dvira’s blog. Part of the enclosure wall in the centre of the photo is being destroyed.

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. 

Here I am following Adam Zertal who is explaining the site to me.
Adam (c) talking to Amihai Mazar (r) and Kathleen (l).
A reconstruction of the altar site
The enclosure wall round the altar site. Part of the surrounding wall on the right (not visible in this drawing) was destroyed.

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.

Jesus’ parables of the Master of the House

A country manor in Israel

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. 

This drawing shows the remains of a Second Temple period manor house that were found in Ramat haNadiv on Mount Carmel. It consists of a fortified compound with a mansion, storerooms and agricultural installations. The presence of a mikveh indicates that the owner of this estate was 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.

This reconstruction drawing of the Second Temple period country manor is based on the remains excavated in Ramat haNadiv on Mount Carmel. This site, called Horvat ‘Aqav in Hebrew, consists of a fortified compound with a mansion and agricultural installations. When Jesus in his parables spoke of a “master of the house”, he would have had the owner of estates like this in mind. 

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.

The restored circular winepress (left) with a new sign.

This was followed up by a request to restore the whole site and design explanatory signs.

Here am I (r) discussing the restoration of the Byzantine farmhouse with Eli (l) the construction engineer.

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.

This new sign is placed at the entrance to the archaeological site, and has general information in English, Arabic and Hebrew.

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.

The Jerusalem Temple on Mount Gerizim

A Brief Visual History of the Sacred Mount

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.

This drawing shows the newly rebuilt Temple that apparently was not as grand as the previous one, for Haggai (2.3) said: “Who is left among you that saw this house in her first glory? And how do ye see it now, is it not in your eyes in comparison of it as nothing?” The internal layout of the Temple undoubtedly remained the same and would therefore have been able to function normally, although the quality of the architecture must have appeared inferior in the minds of the ancient people who remembered the first Temple.

            In the time of Nehemiah, the square precinct of the Temple Mount, previously built by King Hezekiah, was restored. 

A view of the Temple Mount in the time of Nehemiah. Chapter 3 of the Book of Nehemiah indicates that the square Temple Mount, that was initially built by Hezekiah, was also 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 remains of a Samaritan sacred precinct dating from the mid-fifth century BC have been excavated on the highest point of Mount Gerizim. Tensions had developed between the Jews and the Samaritans when Nehemiah did not allow Sanballat, the leader of the Samaritans, and other adversaries to help them build the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. These remains show that a rival temple was built here by the Samaritans.  A closed courtyard that could be entered through three gates, was built around the Temple. No descriptions or remains of this east-facing temple have been preserved, but it probably followed the well-known pattern of having a porch in front of the actual sanctuary.

            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. 

This Roman Temple was built on the northern peak of Mount Gerizim, probably during the reign of Hadrian. The temple stands on a large platform and was reached by a long stairway that ascended from the valley below, where Shechem is located.

            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.

A drawing of a coin from the reign of Antoninus depicting Mount Gerizim. At the top is the temple of Zeus with an altar further to the right. A road leads up the mountain on the right, and a stairway, lined with buildings on both sides, leads up to the temple from the city of Neapolis.

          

In the mid-second century CE, a temple of Zeus was constructed on the northern ridge of Mount Gerizim, while on the highest peak an altar was built. The temple overlooked the city of Neapolis (modern Shechem or Nablus), and was reached from the city by a stairway of about 1500 steps.

  After that time, a large Byzantine complex surrounded by walls and towers was built on the highest summit of Mount Gerizim. 

During the Byzantine period, in 484 CE, the octagonal Church of Mary Mother of God (Theotokos) was built on the summit of Mount Gerizim. This church was built on the same place where the previous Samaritan temple stood. The church is located inside a rectangular enclosure (71x56m) with a peristyle and towers at the four corners. The many rooms around the enclosure may indicate that the complex could have been used as a monastery. A gate house gave access to the northern enclosure which was divided into two parts. One part was used for agriculture and the other part contained a large water reservoir.

            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.

During the Byzantine period, in 484 CE, an octagonal church, the Church of Mary Mother of God (Theotokos),was built on the summit of Mount Gerizim. Its centralized form is typical of commemorative churches, known as martyria. Mount Gerizim is a sacred place for the Samaritans, and this building shows that many of them had converted to Christianity.

            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.

Samaritans marking Passover on Mount Gerizim (Wikipedia)

Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem

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. 

A reconstruction drawing of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This church is a basilica type building with a central nave and two double aisles. At the back of the church is a stairway that descends to a series rock-cut caves, one of which is the traditional Grotto of the Nativity.

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. 

This drawing shows what a large house, such as the “habitation of Chimham” near Bethlehem, mentioned in Jer. 41:17, may have looked like in the first century. Rooms were arranged around the central courtyard, which had a well for drawing water. One, or perhaps more of the upper rooms, seen in the foreground, were reserved for important guests, while servants would have stayed on ground level.

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. 

This drawing shows a typical stable block. The animals were kept behind the fenestrated wall (a wall with windows), while animal fodder and other provender was kept on this side of the wall. Fodder was put in mangers, or wooden feeding troughs, which were placed in the windows, so that animals could eat. Mary and Joseph (pictured here) would have put baby Jesus to sleep in such a manger.

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.

Here we see two shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats in the Shepherds’ Field near BethlehemIt was to shepherds like these that angels from heaven announced the good tidings of the Kingdom of God. (Photo: Library of Congress, Matson Collection)

The Synagogue of Capernaum

A reconstruction of the synagogue’s interior

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. 

The inscription reads: “Theodotos son of Vettenus, priest and head of the synagogue (archisynagōgos), son of a head of the synagogue, and grandson of a head of the synagogue, built the synagogue (synagogē) for the reading of the law [nómou] and for the teaching of the commandments [didachín entolón], as well as the guest room, the chambers, and the water fittings as an inn for those in need from abroad, the synagogue which his fathers founded with the elders and Simonides.” (Wikipedia, photo: Andrey Zeigarnik)

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?

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 Ark of the Covenant.

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 Torah Scrolls were transported in a wheeled carriage from the home of the ruler of the synagogue to the synagogue in Capernaum. The carriage has a panelled double door, Ionic pillars on the side as in a Greek temple and a convex roof.

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).

Interview with Bryan Windle

Bryan Windle loves interviewing archaeologists. In his blog Discussions with the Diggershe says that he is learning from experts about different biblical sites. 

Although not officially a “digger”, I appear in his latest interview.

Other archaeologists that have been interviewed are Steve Ortiz, Robert Mullins, Gary Byers, Scott Stripling and Bryant Wood.

Reading Josephus: What His Record of the Sequence of the Destruction of Jerusalem Tells Us about the Layout of the Temple Mount

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.

In 19 B.C.E. the master-builder, 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 former extension required the filling in of a deep valley to the north of the pre-Herodian Temple Mount. The Shushan Gate remained the only gate in the Eastern Wall. Towers were erected at each corner and a large water reservoir was built at the northeast corner, the so-called Pool of Israel. At the northwest corner, the massive Antonia Fortress was built to protect the Temple against attacks coming from the north and to guard the mount in times of strife.

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.

Click on the image to go to the presentation

Music in the Temple

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. 

To the east of Herod’s Temple was the large Court of the Women, also known as the Treasury in the Gospels. This court was as far as women were allowed to proceed into the Temple. The Levitical Choir stands on the semi-circular steps.

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[1] and Warren[2]. 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.”

Adapted from Gibson and Jacobson, fig. 74.

For interest’s sake, the structure called Cell of Kashan to the south of the Raised Platform, has a cistern. Schick[3] 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.

On this plan of the present Temple Mount, we have drawn the location of the Court of the Women and the underground Music Chamber, or Music Room.

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.

The surviving stones of the western wall of the Court of the Women have been indicated in this elevation of the eastern wall of the Raised Platform.

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.

This drawing shows how music was performed in the Temple of Jerusalem. The Levites stood on the fifteen semi-circular steps that were in front of the Nicanor Gate, to sing Psalms. They were accompanied by the players on harps, trumpets and lyres, who stood next to them in front of the Music Room.

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.

To the east of the temple stood the Court of the Women (centre front). This large court was known in the Gospels as the Treasury. The Nicanor Gate stood in front of Herod’s Temple. It gave access to the Temple Courts from the Court of the Women. To the left of the Levites are some musicians, dressed in blue, standing in front of the Music Chamber.

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.


[1] Gibson, S. and Jacobson, D.M., Below the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (1996).

[2] Warren, Ch. and Conder, C.R., Survey of Western PalestineJerusalem Volume (Vol. 2), (1884, 219).

[3] Schick, C., Beit el Makdas oder der alte Tempelplatz zu Jerusalem; wir er jetzt ist. (1887, 86)