Capernaum’s octagonal church

from the domus ecclesia to memorial church

During the reign of Constantine the Great (306-337) and especially after his conversion in 312, Christianity spread rapidly in the Byzantine Empire and even more so in the Holy Land. After the visit in 326 AD by Queen Helena, Constantine’s mother, many Gentile pilgrims came to visit the Holy Land. Some remained and chose to live lives of seclusion in remote areas such as Sinai, around the Sea of Galilee, in the Judean Desert, and in Samaria, while others lived in towns and cities.

In the wake of this influx of pilgrims from the Byzantine Empire, the prominence of the domus ecclesia diminished and larger buildings became necessary to accommodate the many worshipers. Church buildings came into the ascendency, and their construction became the primary architectural focus during the later Byzantine period. Two kinds of churches developed: the basilica with its long hall, and the centrally designed (circular, octagonal, or hexagonal) memorial church. Basilicas were mainly used for communal worship, while the centrally designed churches commemorated special Biblical places or events.

During this time, the Gentile Christian population of Capernaum had increased dramatically and outnumbered the Jewish Christian members of the congregation. Radical changes were made to create a new Byzantine-style church inside the fourth century enclosure wall. 

The basalt foundation stones of the octagonal church and some limestone blocks of the superstructre are visible beneath the concrete beams of the modern church. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

Substantial remains of the foundations of an octagonal church, that dated to the fifth century and was built with limestone blocks, were excavated in Capernaum. This limestone that came from the Arbel region could be carved easily and polished to a high degree. In the first half of the fifth century, the buildings that stood inside the enclosure were demolished and covered over. Instead of the domus ecclesia with its explosion of colour of the fourth century, a new and monumental was built in its place.

The walls of the inner octagon, which measured 7.9 m (26 feet) across, were built on the basalt foundations of the domus ecclesia and then another octagon, measuring 16.53 m (54.2 feet) across was added around it to complete the first phase of the new church. The church was paved with mosaics. The centre of the inner mosaic has a medallion with a peacock design, apparently symbolising immortality to the early Christians. Annexes were built to the west of the church and in the northeast and southeast corners of the square enclosure.

Sometime in the second half of the fifth century, a partial octagonal porch was added on the north, west and south, and an apse containing a baptistry on the east. This apse was constructed on the other side of the east wall of the enclosure.

The baptistry had steps leading down to it, indicating that adult baptism by immersion was practised in the fifth century.

After the Islamic invasion of 638 AD, Capernaum was abandoned and the church and synagogue, that had existed side by side, fell into ruin. After the earthquake that hit Galilee in 749 AD, Arab inhabitants began to systematically rob the buildings of their stones, leaving precious little for future archaeologists to investigate.

In 1866, Captain Charles Wilson exposed some foundations of the synagogue, with the unfortunate consequence that local people began to dig deep into the ground near the synagogue and near the church to find more limestone blocks which they either sold as building material or burned into lime. Other contractors used the exposed ruins as a quarry. 

To stop this looting the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land acquired the site in 1894 and exploratory excavations were conducted in 1905 by Heinrich Kohl and Carl Watzinger. Other excavations were conduction under leadership of F. V. Hinterkeuser and these continued until the outbreak of World war I, After the war, excavations were resumed by Gaudenzio Orfali until 1921. Orfali initiated the restoration of the Byzantine synagogue in 1922-1925.

The results of Orfalo’s restoration. Photo: Matson Collection.

In 1968, Virgilio Corbo and Stanislao Loffreda continued excavating Capernaum and conducted eighteen campaigns until 1985, and the restoration of the synagogue was continued by Corbo since 1969. It would have been great if similar efforts would have been put in the restoration of the Byzantine church, but unfortunately that won’t happen unless that new and incongruous UFO-like modern church that was built over Peter’s House (designed by the Italian architect Ildo Avetta and dedicated in 1990) would start its engines and fly off!

Nevertheless, it is thanks to the labours of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land that tourists and pilgrims can visit Capernaum again and see the place that was made famous when Jesus chose it as his hometown.

Capernaum’s House Church

the domus ecclesia from the first to the fourth century

In our previous post we wrote that the House of Peter eventually developed into a church. It was a slow process that took four centuries. The first stage began in the second half, or perhaps even at the end of the first half of the first century, when the east courtyard transformed into a large room. While before the sky was its ceiling, this large space, measuring 5.80 by 6.45 m (21 by 19 feet) was now roofed over.  A central wooden beam placed on top of the walls divided the ceiling into two parts so that shorter beams could be used to span the large room. 

Several layers of plaster were found on the walls and the floor. Quite unusually, this is the only room in Capernaum that was plastered at this time, pointing to the use for non-domestic purposes. There was also a change in pottery. Beneath the plastered floor, the usual repertoire of domestic vessels, such as cooking pots, bowls and juglets, was found. Above the plastered floor, however, only storage jars and oil lamps were discovered.

Reconstruction of Peter’s House in the late first century.

Who worshiped in this sacred space? After Pentecost, the early Christian believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42), and according to Acts 2:46, this was done “in their homes”, or “from house to house”. The archaeological evidence points to the use of this plastered room in Capernaum as a large house-church or domus ecclesia. This space is sometimes referred to as the ‘venerated room’. 

Until the 4th century, the population of Capernaum was entirely Jewish, and the Synagogue of Capernaum continued to operate as normal. The people that worshiped in the domus ecclesia were Jewish converts to Christianity, called minim by the rabbis: 

“In passages referring to the Christian period, minim usually indicates the Judæo-Christians, the Gnostics, and the Nazarenes, who often conversed with the Rabbis on the unity of God, creation, resurrection, and similar subjects (comp. Sanh. 39b). In some passages, indeed, it is used even for “Christian”; but it is possible that in such cases it is a substitution for the word “Noẓeri,” which was the usual term for “Christian.” 

In the late fourth century, at the initiative of Count Joseph of Tiberias, who was a friend of Constantine the Great, major changes took place in the development of Peter’s House. An approx. 120m long enclosure wall was built around Peter’s House, turning it into an almost square sacred compound, or insula sacra. Some of the first century rooms were destroyed to create more space around the domus ecclesia, giving the whole complex a stronger religious character.

There were two entrances in this enclosure wall, one in the north and one in the south. Interestingly, no entrance was made in the east wall to the Cardo street, the main north-south road on which the synagogue was located. Instead, a new east-west street (decumanus) was constructed north of the complex. Is this an indication that the two communities, Jewish and converts to Christianity, tried to remain separate? 

Reconstruction of Peter’s House in the fourth century.

The domus ecclesia room was also changed. A central arch was built in the room to support a higher ceiling, and the walls of this room were decorated with fresco. Various colours, such as red, pink, yellow, brown, green and white were used to create rectangular panels with alternating geometric and floral designs.

Broken fresco remains found in the domus ecclesia, photograph by Stanislao Loffreda.
Remains of fresco in the southwest corner of Peter’s House, photograph by Stanislao Loffreda.

In line with Jewish practice, no human or animal forms were portrayed. Inscriptions, or rather graffiti, in Greek, Latin, Syriac and Aramaic were scratched in the walls by apparently Christian pilgrims. Some of these graffiti mention monograms of Jesus and of Christ. The name of Peter is one of the many inscriptions scratched on the walls. 

Reconstruction the house church in Peter’s House, looking east.

Reconstruction the house church in Peter’s House, looking south.

On the northern side of the domus ecclesia, a sacristy was built where were usually sacred vessels and vestments were kept. On the east side an atrium was added which served as an entrance hall to the main room. This shows that in the fourth century the Jewish Christian population had increased substantially but were still living side by side with the Jewish people of Capernaum. All this was going to change in the fifth century when there was a huge influx of Gentile Christians … 

Capernaum

The town where Jesus chose to live

After Jerusalem, Capernaum is the site most visited by Christian pilgrims and tourists. Their main interest is to see the place where Jesus made his home after his words were rejected in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30).

A statue of Peter at the entrance of the Franciscan archaeological site of Capernaum

The fulfilment of the prophecy of Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone”, required that Jesus would move from Nazareth to Capernaum. In the days of Isaiah that great light was Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz, but this prophecy ultimately referred to the future Messiah. Matthew 4:13-17, confirms Isaiah’s prophecy as the main reason why Jesus made Capernaum his home: “And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles – the people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death, on them a light has dawned.”

Capernaum is located in a basalt region and the darkness mentioned in this Scripture is perhaps reflected by the dark basalt stones of which all the buildings were made. 

The houses of Capernaum, as seen in the foreground, were built of dark basalt stones. The building with the red domes in the background is the Greek Orthodox Church.

Jesus would, of course, have known beforehand that he couldn’t stay in Nazareth, for it was not located in Galilee of the Gentiles, nor on the Way of the Sea (aka the Via Maris). Bethsaida, for example, was by the sea, but not in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, and Chorazin (or Chorazim) was not by the sea. Only Capernaum met Isaiah’s criteria. Capernaum wraps around the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee and was located on Via Maris, the major trade route between Syria and Egypt. Jesus’ move from Nazareth to Capernaum was not a retreat into remoteness but a deliberate move into a more diverse region where his message and impact could have a wider and more receptive audience. It was nothing less than a move from the shadows to the spotlight. Capernaum was engaged with the world, via the International Highway and the Imperial Road. 

The Via Maris was the major trade route between Egypt in the south, and Syria with Mesopotamia in the northeast. Part of the Via Maris, namely the imperial road, ran west through Capernaum and then northwest and north along the west side of the Jordan River to the nearest crossing point where it joined the Via Maris again.

This major highway was used by many traders, who, apart from buying and selling, also exchanged items of news. By living on the Via Maris, Jesus could be assured that what he did and said would be carried far and wide to the larger audience for whom his message was intended. This explains how, according to Matthew 4:24, the fame of Jesus “spread throughout all Syria, and they brought him all the sick, those afflicted with various diseases and pains.” Jesus himself, as far as we know, never went to Syria, but the traders would have told the people they met all about him and the wonderful works he did.

This milestone from the time of Hadrian (2nd century AD) was found in Capernaum, indicating that this town was located on the Via Maris.

The inscription reads:

So, what do we know about Capernaum? Excavations by Franciscan archaeologists have revealed that Capernaum was established in the 2nd century BC and abandoned in the 11th century AD. We are going to examine what the major developments of Capernaum were and specially that of Peter’s House.

Capernaum was much larger than the excavated area and originally stretched for 300m along the shore and measures about 200m from north to south. The village was probably divided into 4 quarters by the main north-south running Cardo and east-west going Decumanus, with two sections of fishermen’s houses situated on either side of the southern part of the Cardo, close to the sea and harbour, while wealthier houses, such as the ones belonging to the centurion, the ruler of the synagogue and the tax collector, were probably located closer to the hills, away from the harbour and nearer the Decumanus.

The House of Peter where Jesus may have stayed was located west of the Cardo, in between the synagogue (see also here) and the harbour.

Peter’s House consisted of ten rooms built around three courtyards. Most of the domestic activities took place in the northern courtyard. Animals were kept in the courtyard to the east, and the southern courtyard, which was next to the harbour, was presumably used for fishing activities such as mending nets, selling fish and other activities. Later in the century, the east courtyard was used as a place for religious gatherings.

In this reconstruction drawing we imagine Peter’s boat moored alongside his house. In the courtyard we see two men under an awning mending their nets, and ask ourselves if Jesus perhaps did help Peter sometimes with the mending of the nets? Women are preparing food and baking it in an oven, and there was a stall where fish was sold. On the roof are two stands for the drying of fish.

Capernaum, Kfar Nachum in Hebrew, means the Village of Comfort. Jesus brought comfort to people that suffered from all sorts of diseases, to people that were politically and militarily oppressed by the Romans, to people that wanted to hear the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, but received no spiritual comfort from their Jewish leaders. 

Making Capernaum his home, was also a comfort for Jesus. The son of man had not “where to lay his head.” He was often like David in the wilderness, finding rest wherever he could. The story of the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, who after she was healed “rose and ministered to them” gives the idea that when he was in Capernaum, he probably stayed in one of the rooms in Peter’s house. It shows that Jesus loved being with his friends. We all need friends and so did Jesus.

Over the next few centuries, the House of Peter developed into a church building, which will be the subject of a subsequent post.

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?”