After Jesus moved to Capernaum, he made it a base for his preaching activities. The Gospels tell us that “Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues” (Matthew 4:23). He would go into the synagogues on sabbath days, as it was here that the people came together to worship. Although the Gospels don’t mention any particular synagogue where Jesus may have preached, archaeology has revealed the remains of a few Galilean synagogues that existed in the first century, namely in Capernaum, Magdala and Gamla. These synagogues were built of local basalt stones and this is reflected in our reconstruction drawings. A synagogue in Nazareth is mentioned in the Gospels, but no remains have been discovered so far. We have posted before on the Synagogue at Capernaum.
All three synagogues had a large meeting room with benches built around the walls. Some synagogues, such as that in Gamla, had a ritual bath, (called a mikveh in Hebrew), for ritual bathing nearby. This synagogue had a study hall attached to the building, as did the one discovered in Magdala.
The Gospels tell us that the Law of Moses was read every sabbath in the synagogue: ” For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). The public preaching in the synagogue was usually done from a chair called “Moses’ Seat”, as mentioned in Matthew 23:2. When Jesus spoke in the synagogue of Nazareth, after having read from the prophet Isaiah, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.” Two such “Moses’ Seats” have been excavated, one in Chorazin and the oher in Hammath-Tiberias. These two latter synagogues were from the later Byzantine period, but it is possible that similar seats were used in the first century too.
In 2009, a first century synagogue was uncovered in Magdala during a salvage dig in preparation for the building of a new hotel in the Franciscan Church compound. The synagogue features a large reading room and a smaller study room in front of it. The entrance was from the west. A large stone in the study room was found to have two grooves near the sides and may have been used to place a scroll for reading or copying.
The synagogue room has a raised corridor with a bench running along the wall. A central rosette with flanking meander patterns made of mosaic decorated the floor. The walls were decorated with fresco patterns in dark red panels inside a mustard-coloured frame. The roof was supported by six columns that had red coloured fresco still clinging to some of them. Near the centre of the room, a rectangular stone with four feet was discovered. This stone, that apparently served as a support for a reading platform or lectern, was decorated with a relief of a seven-branched menorah, flanked on either side by amphorae and columns. These decorations are reminiscent of the Jerusalem Temple.
Magdala is the city where Mary Magdalene came from. It was a large city and recently another synagogue was discovered there. It is not recorded that Jesus preached in a synagogue at Magdala. However, as he usually went to synagogues to preach, it is highly likely that he did and would have met many people there, including Pharisees. One of those Pharisees had invited Jesus to his home to have a meal with him (Luke 7:36). That is where Mary Magdalene approached Jesus and was healed by him. She became an ardent follower of Jesus, was present at the crucifixion and was the first woman to whom Jesus appeared to after his resurrection.
The four centuries between the Old Testament (Tanakh) and the Gospels are sometimes called the “Silent Years”. This time period is also known as the intertestamental or deuterocanonical period. Yet there are historical sources and archaeological evidence that can take away the veil of silence. The Works of Josephus, the Books of Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus, also called the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, and others, contain important information about this enigmatic time. Beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great, the new culture of Hellenism changed the way people were thinking and acting. These changes can be detected in archaeology, ancient architecture, politics, culture and religion. During this time, three empires, Persia, Greece and Rome successively ruled the then-known world. In this brief outline, we hope to cast some light on this fascinating period in the history of the Jewish people, and especially on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, his empire was split among four generals, known as the diadochi. Alexander and his successors imposed the Hellenistic culture on their new subjects. The Hellenistic period in Judea lasted from 332-152 BCE, and that was followed by the Hasmonean kingdom which terminated when Herod the Great became king in 37 BCE. During this period, Judea was first under Ptolemaic rule from 301-200 BCE. The Ptolemies were benevolent toward the Jews. Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who ruled from 285-246 BCE, commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Bible in c. 250 BCE. Seventy-two scholars from Jerusalem translated the Torah, the five books of Moses, into Greek.
During the 3rd century BCE, many battles took place between the Ptolemies in the south and the Seleucids in the north. In 200 BCE, a final battle between the two forces took place in Panion (modern Banias) which was lost by the Ptolemies. The Seleucids then controlled the Holy Land.
The Temple that was built by Jeshua and Zerubbabel three centuries earlier undoubtedly needed structural maintenance and repairs.
In 200 BCE, restoration work was indeed carried out on the Temple Mount. In the deuterocanonical book of the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, the work is described as follows:
“It was the High Priest Simon son of Onias who repaired the Temple during his lifetime and in his day fortified the sanctuary. He laid the foundations of the double height, the high buttresses of the Temple precincts. In his day the water cistern was excavated, a reservoir as huge as the sea.” (50.1-3).
It is clear from this text that the bulk of these works were concerned with the repair and strengthening of existing structures, as no archaeological remains can be demonstrated as belonging to this enterprise. The cistern that was excavated was probably initially quarried to supply stones for the repair work, and was afterwards used as a water cistern.
Whereas the Ptolemies were benevolent rulers, the Seleucids were the very opposite. The most infamous of the Seleucid rulers, Antiochus Epiphanes went to Jerusalem in 169 BCE, where he plundered the Temple, sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar, and and took all the Temple furniture and treasures away to Antioch. He was determined to Hellenize all the Jews in Judea, forbidding worship on the Temple Mount and the practice of rituals, such as sacrifice and circumcision and compelled them, on penalty of death, to sacrifice to pagan gods. This sparked off the revolt led initially by Mattathias, and then by his five sons, Eleazar, Simon, Judah, John and Jonathan, known as the Maccabees, and which lasted from 167 to 160 BCE.
In 168 B.C. Antiochus IV Epiphanes built the Akra, a fortress for his Macedonian garrison, from which the Jewish population could be controlled. Hellenized Jews also joined this garrison. Josephus records that it commanded or overlooked the Temple. Josephus writes in Antiquities 12.252 that Antiochus …
built the Akra in the Lower City; for it was high enough to overlook the Temple, and it was for this reason that he fortified it with high walls and towers, and stationed a Macedonian garrison therein. Nonetheless there remained in the Akra those of the (Jewish) people who were impious and of bad character, and at their hands the citizens were destined to suffer many terrible things.
This description agrees with that given by the author of the Books of Maccabees, who, when referring to the event mentioned above, puts the Akra in the Lower City, which he calls the City of David:
They fortified the City of David with a great and strong wall, with strong towers, and it became unto them an Akra. There they installed an army of sinful men, renegades, who fortified themselves inside it, storing arms and provisions, and depositing there the loot they had collected from Jerusalem; they were to prove a great trouble. It became an ambush for the sanctuary, an evil adversary for Israel at all times. (1 Maccabees 1.33–36)
Archaeological remains of the fortifications have been found:
When in 168 BCE, an imperial emissary came to Modiin demanding that the people sacrificed on a pagan altar, Mattathias the priest refused to obey. When one of his countrymen came forward to sacrifice, Mattathias killed him and the emissary. This was the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt (1 Maccabees 2:23-25). Mattathias, his sons and many villagers left Modiin immediately and set up camp in the Gophna Hills, from where they fought many battles against the Seleucid army.
In 164 BCE, Judas, the eldest son of Mattathias, defeated the Seleucid forces at the battle of Beth-zur, and when he and his men went up to Jerusalem to purify and dedicate the sanctuary, they found the Temple in a shocking state of neglect and its buildings in ruins. After they had purified the Temple and a new altar was built, there was great rejoicing. It was then decided to make a law that the keeping of this Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) would be kept every year for eight days (1 Maccabees 4:36-61; 2 Maccabees 10:1-8). This Dedication of the Temple is still celebrated today by the Jewish people during the feast of Hanukkah, and, as three New Testament references (John 10:23, Acts 3:11, 5:12) show, was also observed by Jesus and his disciples.
In 142 BCE, Simon the Maccabee demolished the hated Akra, the fortress that the Seleucids had built to the south of the Temple Mount. He then leveled the mountain on which it was built, incorporating the whole area into the Temple Mount complex. The bloodline of the Maccabees evolved into the Hasmonean dynasty that established an independent Jewish state lasting till 37 BCE, when Herod the Great became king of Judea.
So, when Jesus walked here and taught the people, it would have reminded them of a unique point unparalleled in their history, when they celebrated God’s intervention in the restoration of their place of worship. And when the name of Solomon’s Porch was used for the eastern stoa, it represented a powerful connection with the dedication of both Solomon’s and the Hasmonean Temple, allowing the silent years to speak.
A new presentation by Ritmeyer Archaeological Design
After the Temple Mount, the most popular images in our Image Library are those that depict Jerusalem in the Time of Nehemiah. Most probably, this is because so little is known about the layout of the city at that time. The archaeological data to support the record of Nehemiah, is thin on the ground or should we say, appears to be thin on the ground. In fact – if we look carefully- scattered archaeological remains of the entire circumvallation can be detected.
Chapter 3 of the Book of Nehemiah gives a detailed account of the massive repair work undertaken under Nehemiah’s guidance and the groups of people that volunteered to give this city a new span of life after the terrible disaster of the Babylonian destruction.
The Sheep Gate is the first feature mentioned and also the last in Nehemiah’s list of restored wall sections and gates. This gate had not been referred to previously in the Old Testament record, whereas other features mentioned by Nehemiah, such as the Towers of Meah and Hananeel were. Archaeological evidence for the Sheep Gate can be deduced from an underground tunnel in the northern wall of the city, called in Middot, one of the books of the Mishna, the earliest code of rabbinic law, the Tadi Gate. The model below shows how this part of the city would have looked in the time of Nehemiah:
In verse 13 of the chapter, the Valley Gate is mentioned. This is an element of Nehemiah’s wall of which we also have ancient remains, with J.W. Crowfoot discovering in 1924, a stretch of wall into which was built a gate which gave access to the City of David from the west.
Its location in the western wall of the city is shown in the model:
After the completion of the work that took 52 days, two companies praising God walked over the eastern and western walls and met at the Sheep Gate. The Sheep Gate was the northern gate into the Temple Mount. It was so called as through this gate the animals for sacrifice were brought into the Temple Mount. It must have been a wonderful sight to see these two groups merging into one, united both in body and spirit to praise the Lord for his mercy and his goodness:
We have combined all our information about the layout of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah to create a new RAD CD – Volume 9 with 41 slides, called Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah. This presentation is profusely illustrated with photographs of a specially designed model, reconstruction drawings and photographs of archaeological remains. We use these illustrations in a verse by verse commentary on the third chapter of the Book of Nehemiah to follow the description of the restoration of Jerusalem’s walls.
“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? 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.
We are told that Emmaus was about 60 stadia (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, as pointed out by Read-Heimerdinger and Rius-Camps, Emmaus is called Oulammaous. Another ancient source also refers to these names. 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 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, 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). When some Baal-worshipping youths 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.
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.
 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.
 This manuscript is held at the University of Cambridge: https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-NN-00002-00041/1
 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.
 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.”
 The site of Ras et-Tahunah at al-Bireh is an elevated hill, which has been tentatively identified as the high place of Bethel.
 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.
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).