Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah

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.

A reconstruction drawing of Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah

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.

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.”

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 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).

Shiloh

The place where the Tabernacle stood

At present, renewed excavations are being carried out under leadership of Dr. Scott Stripling, on behalf of the Associates for Biblical Research (ABR). He said that he answered the call of the prophet Jeremiah, who wrote: “Go now to my place that was in Shiloh … and see! (Jeremiah 7:12) – and so he did!  What do we know about Shiloh and what did he and his team find?

Shiloh seen from the north. Drone picture by Gregor Brandson. Used by permission.

Certain places have a soul-stirring quality about them and on visiting them, you feel you are walking through shades of history in company with those who walked before you. Shiloh is one such place. To go back in time to this site that was so significant in the early history of Israel and in the lives of biblical characters such as Hannah and Samuel, is an exciting experience. No other biblical site has a geographical location so accurately described as that of Shiloh. According to Judges 21:19:

Shiloh, is north of Bethel, on the east of the highway that goes up from Bethel to Shechem, and south of Lebonah.” 

These directions could be followed today on a GPS or road atlas. Using this description, the American philologist E. Robinson, was able to identify Shiloh with Khirbet Seilun (Tel Shiloh) as early as in 1838, as it matches this geographical description exactly. Ancient sources such as Eusebius and Jerome confirm the accuracy of the identification. Today, this road on which Shiloh is located, is called Highway 60. It is nowadays also called the “Route of the Patriarchs”, as it follows the path of the ancient road that ran along the Central Mountain Range from Hebron to Shechem, that features often in the travels of the biblical patriarchs.

Shiloh in 1967. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer
Shiloh in 2019. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

During the wars waged by the Israelites against the Canaanites in the heartland of the country, the Tabernacle and the Ark stayed in Gilgal. Then, we read in the Book of Joshua: “the whole congregation of the children of Israel assembled together at Shiloh and set up the Tabernacle of meeting there.” (Joshua 18:1)

The Tabernacle was surrounded by an open court, formed by 60 pillars with silver capitals and linen curtains in between (Exodus 27). The Tabernacle itself stood at the back of this court with the Laver and the Altar of Burnt Sacrifices in front of it.
In this drawing, we see the inside of the Tabernacle. Inside the Holy Place was the Lampstand (menorah), the Table of Shewbread and the Altar of Incense. The Ark of the Covenant stood in the Holy of Holies.

In contrast to many of the sites we have encountered, the site of Shiloh is almost devoid of notable features. All that remains is a small tell of not more than eight acres, secluded at the end of a fertile and quiet valley in the heart of the hill country of Ephraim, (although a thriving Jewish settlement has taken root adjacent to the tell). It was most probably the very seclusion of this site that determined its choice as the new site of the Tabernacle. Here the allotment of territory to the various tribes could proceed unhampered by interference of the Canaanites who still held large areas in their possession further to the north, south and west. 

Leen and Kathleen standing next to a screen with Hannah’s Prayer in Hebrew and English.

Shiloh later became the permanent seat of the priesthood. The story of Hannah and Samuel in the first chapters of the Book of Samuel takes place against the background of Eli as High Priest. From these chapters, we get the impression that the Tabernacle was kept in some sort of permanent structure referred to as the “house of the LORD” (Hebrew – beth Yahweh) (1 Sam. 1:7,24 etc.), in contrast to the movable structure which was continually erected and dismantled during the wilderness wanderings. The Mishnah says as much:

 “After they came to Shiloh, the high places were forbidden. There was no roof-beam there, but below was a house of stone and above were hangings and this was the ‘resting place’ “ (Zebachim 14.6). 

Tell Shiloh was first excavated by two Danish expeditions in the 1920’s and 30’s. Their excavations determined that the site was surrounded by a city wall in the Middle Bronze Age period, and had been destroyed by the Philistines in the mid-eleventh century BC. An Israeli expedition team led by Israel Finkelstein’s team in the 1980’s, made interesting findings on the west of the tell in their so-called Area C. Here they found, as shown in my reconstruction drawing, two Iron Age or Early Israelite buildings built against the outside of the Middle Bronze Age city wall.

During the excavations in Shiloh, an Early Israelite house was excavated near the city wall. Evidence shows destruction by fire. The ritual nature of the objects found in the debris above the destruction level suggested a connection with a cultic complex, perhaps that of the Tabernacle that stood here during the time of the Judges.

These pillared buildings contained an abundance of early Israelite pottery with over twenty of the collar-rim jars (although of a different collar-rim type than the Bronze Age ones) that characterize Israelite settlement in this part of the Land. Evidence that the buildings of this period had been destroyed by fire, confirmed the conclusions of the Danish teams. Because of the ritual nature of the objects found in the debris above the destruction level of these buildings, it was suggested that they stood fairly close to a large structure of a cultic nature on the summit. Can we deduce from this that the Tabernacle stood on the summit?

On the summit of the hill, south of the circular visitors centre, is a flat area the size of the Tabernacle court. Was this the place where it stood beneath these later remains?

Certainty is impossible in view of the destruction of the earlier remains in this area. However, the identification of the tell of Seilun with ancient Shiloh is undisputed and these pillared buildings are authentic remains from the stirring times which saw the erection of the Tabernacle in its new home here in the mountains of Ephraim.

Scott Stripling driving in the first stake in 2016. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

In June 2016, Scott asked me to help set out the excavation site and be the site architect. In the last three years of excavations, the team has revealed a large stretch of the Bronze Age city wall in the northern part of the tell. Digging between two previous excavations, the continuation of the 5.25m (10 cubits) wide city wall from the Canaanite period with storerooms on the inside, was traced. Storage jars and ritual objects were found in these rooms that were probably associated with a Canaanite temple that had stood at the summit of the hill. These storerooms were organised in units of three underground rooms with a narrower room on one side that served as an entrance from above. The remains of a nearby large structure are also being uncovered, in and near which Israelite sacred objects such as the horn of a stone altar and a ceramic pomegranate were found. 

This is a reconstruction drawing of Shiloh during the time of Samuel, looking northeast. Already in the Canaanite period this site was used as a cult site for religious gatherings. The Tabernacle is shown on top of the hill, inside some sort of permanent structure, possibly the remains of a Canaanite temple courtyard. In the foreground, two Israelite houses are shown, built into the glacis and against the outside of the city wall. At its northern end are the storerooms and a large building, that at present is being excavated by the ABR team. © Leen Ritmeyer

The absence of houses and streets also indicate that this site was used as a cult site for religious gatherings. This site was abandoned at the end of the Middle Bronze Age, in about 1550 BC and remained virtually unoccupied until the end of the 13th century. This appears to have been the time when Joshua gathered the tribes to divide the Land. 

It would appear that Joshua took over this site and placed the Tabernacle there, presumably inside the remains of a Canaanite temple courtyard, as the linen curtains of the original court had probably perished by then. Indeed, the text of 1 Sam. 3:15 seems to indicate that this courtyard may have been replaced by a stone wall and possibly an entrance gate.  The cultic nature of the site made it therefore possible for the entire community of Israel to gather here for the division of the Land.

It would be wonderful if the location of the Tabernacle site could be determined. 

After the Philistine disaster, the Tabernacle was moved first to Nob and then to Gibeon. Scott’s team is not looking for the remains of the Tabernacle itself, of course, but perhaps some remains of the courtyard in which it stood may have survived. Keep digging Scott! 

Reading Between the Walls

Interview with Eve Harow on her Rejuvenation program

Last week, Kathleen and I were in Jerusalem for the Shiloh Excavations which are directed by Dr. Scott Stripling. On one of the afternoons, Eve Harow of the Rejuvenation programme for The Land of Israel Network interviewed me.

She wrote:

Leen Ritmeyer’s extraordinary journey from Holland to the Temple Mount- and beyond -has defined his life and contributed immensely to ours. He speaks with Eve about the field of Biblical Architecture; how the study of ancient structures in the Land of Israel and Near East enhances our comprehension of history, archeology, the Bible and mankind’s connection to God. He has made an indelible mark in particular on our understanding of Temple Mount transformations thru the millennia and continues to interpret and redefine discoveries both recent and past. This Dutchman is still flying. Listen and learn.

If you have the patience, you can listen to this hour-long interview here:

The Land of Israel Network: http://thelandofisrael.com/reading-between-the-walls/

SoundCloud:https://soundcloud.com/thelandofisrael/rejuvenation-june-16-2019

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rZ15M_SvI74&feature=youtu.be

As of today, the 16th of June, you can also follow the interview in the Israeli newspaper: Arutz Sheva, or Israel National News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Synagogue of Capernaum in which Jesus taught

Was it white or black?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remains of Roman odeon found in Jerusalem

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

A view of the southwest corner of Herod’s Temple Mount. In the foreground is Robinson’s Arch with its monumental stairway that led up from the main street in the Tyropoeon Valley and entered the Royal Stoa through a gateway.
On the left of Robinson’s Arch is Barclay’s Gate with Wilson’s Arch at far left. The Temple towered high above the Temple Mount.

Photograph of Wilson’s Arch looking north. The new excavations are located deep below the floor in this photo. © Leen Ritmeyer

Continue reading “Remains of Roman odeon found in Jerusalem”

Victims of Great Revolt against the Romans laid to rest in Ofra

It has been reported, eg. here (Hebrew with pictures) and here, that remains of Jews who perished in the Great Revolt against the Romans and were discovered in Binyamin were secretly buried in Ofra.

The bones of Jews who perished in the Great Revolt by Jews against the Roman Empire, and which were discovered at an archaeological site near the community of Givat Assaf in the Binyamin region, were recently brought to burial secretly in Ofra.

The remains were discovered in 2013 at the archaeological site, which is a Jewish village from the time of the Second Temple. Mikvahs, coins from the time of the Great Revolt and vessels made out of stone were discovered at the site.

The bones belonged to seven women and a boy who hid in a cave, and were killed by the Romans in 69 CE, one year before the destruction of the Second Temple.

The archaeological excavation in question is Kh. el-Maqatir and was carried out by the Associates for Biblical Research, headed by Dr. Scott Stripling and Dr. Bryant Wood. I served as architect of the Maqatir excavation.

Five skeletons were found in a large cave that housed an oilpress and possibly also a winepress and three in a secret cave that led off from it.

An oilpress was discovered inside a cave at Kh. el-Maqatir. The olives were deposited through the hole in the ceiling and put in circular baskets. These were stacked and placed under a beam that was weighed down with stone weights. Nearby stood two upright stones that supported a screw press that may have been used for pressing grapes. The liquids were stored in the large vat at the right of the reconstruction drawing. Five skeletons were found here.

Continue reading “Victims of Great Revolt against the Romans laid to rest in Ofra”