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).
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?
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 ofthe 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 philologistE. 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.
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)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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 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.
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 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.
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 Israel HaYom Newsletter announced today that new 10 ancient storage jars have been found in a new excavation in Shiloh:
Excavation at ancient Shiloh seeks to locate site of Jewish tabernacle that dates to the time the Jewish people first arrived in the land of Israel • “This is a very exciting find,” says Archaeology Coordinator in the Civil Administration Hanania Hizmi.
During the months of May/June 2017, excavations were carried out at Tel Shiloh. At the conclusion of the dig, conservation work needed to be carried out on some walls that were in danger of deterioration or collapse.
One section of the Middle Bronze Age city wall, W17 in Square AC-30, was selected for conservation. This wall was built of large ashlars, but in between these large stones were patches of small stones that needed to be consolidated (Fig. 1).
Spreading the chart out on the table, we were able to retrace many of the trips and explorations we made when living in Jerusalem. At the time, some of these had required poring over Ordnance Survey maps and reading archaeological reports before we could identify the sites involved. Now, with the acquisition of this map, we can easily find the location of these sites, as well as, and most importantly, the latest sites to have been discovered.
Twenty-three years ago, the publication of the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land, a a joint venture by the Israel Exploration Society, Carta, and Simon and Schuster’s Academic Reference Division, was a landmark in the quest to provide a comprehensive work that would summarize the results of archaeological work in the Land of Israel for the English reader. It had a 102-page long section on Jerusalem. Ephraim Stern wrote in the Editor’s Foreword to the Supplementary Volume, published in 2008:
“Since the publication in 1993 of the four volumes of the New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land (NEAEH) archaeological excavations have continued at a staggering pace. Many of the entries of those four volumes quickly became outdated and the need arose for this volume, which updates the NEAEH to the year 2005. It is a joint venture of the Israel Exploration Society and the Biblical Archaeology Society.”
So, while we await the next update, a mammoth undertaking, this handily portable map will play a vital role in guiding the visitor around the archaeological sites of Jerusalem,
The front part of this large map (63×94 cm, or 25×37 inches) shows the Old City and its surroundings, while the reverse side is dedicated to the Old City in much greater detail. The map was made in collaboration with the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority, or Reshut Atiqot in Hebrew), with the text and scientific advice provided by Dr. Yuval Baruch. The archaeological sites are described in small text boxes with an arrow pointing to the exact location of each.
Most of the sites on the front part are familiar to us, but by no means all of them are. It is good to see the site of Lifta on the northwest of the city included. This has been identified as the site of the Waters of Nephtoah of Joshua 15.9 and 18.15, defining here the border between Benjamin and Judah. We remember exploring the village and its spring in the 1970’s, but then it seemed very much off the beaten track, being hidden away on two steep slopes in the last valley of the ascent into Jerusalem.
There are other sites we are not so familiar with such as Khirbet Adaseh North and Khirbet Adaseh, 2 miles to the southeast. Adasa, was, of course, the place where the Maccabees were victorious in their battle against the Seleucid general Nicanor, who lost his life there.
The Old City map is also informative with sections dedicated to the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys, Mount Zion, the City of David and the Aqueducts of Jerusalem. We are pleased that the Tomb of Annas the High Priest, a site we were able to identify in the early 1990’s, is included among the sites in the Hinnom Valley.
A glaring omission on this side of the map is any detail on the vast platform of the Temple Mount. However, giving the impression that the site is a terra incognita is part of the political reality in this area. Only some of the gates are mentioned, with the Double and Triple Gates unfortunately still called the Huldah Gates. The original Huldah Gates were in fact located in the southern wall of the pre-Herodian Temple Mount some 72 m (240 ft) north of the present Southern Wall.
No reference is made to the Step, which is the remains of the Western Wall of King Hezekiah’s Square Temple Mount or of The Rock, identified by many as the site of the Holy of Holies of Solomon’s Temple. The many well-heads visible on the platform indicate the location of the many underground cisterns, of which two, Cisterns 6 and 36, may have been mikva’ot. These would also have added interest to this part of the map.
Information on the Temple Mount platform is, however, available in our guide bookJerusalem, the Temple Mount in which we have produced a map showing 19 points of archaeological and historical interest:
Despite these shortcomings, however, we foresee copies of this map being given as presents for those who love exploring the Old City of Jerusalem and its environs. And if you have friends visiting who have been to Jerusalem, framed reproductions are bound to stimulate some lively conversation.