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 … 

The Jerusalem Temple on Mount Gerizim

A Brief Visual History of the Sacred Mount

In the 1980’s, I used to visit Mount Gerizim as part of my work making reconstruction drawings for the Staff Officer of the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria. These drawings showed what the different buildings from the area, dating from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods, would have looked like.           

Archaeological remains of a Samaritan sacred precinct were discovered in these excavations around the turn of the 21st century. These date from the time of Nehemiah (mid-fifth century BCE). The Bible doesn’t mention any temple as standing on Mount Gerizim, so we wondered how such a building fitted in with the biblical history. It was the reading of Josephus that provided the missing historical information, as we will see later on. 

 After the return from Babylonian Exile, a new temple was built in Jerusalem under the leadership of Jeshua and Zerubbabel. This temple is described in Ezra 6:3 as being 60 cubits high and wide. Although the stone work was inferior, it nevertheless functioned as a proper temple.

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

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

A view of the Temple Mount in the time of Nehemiah. Chapter 3 of the Book of Nehemiah indicates that the square Temple Mount, that was initially built by Hezekiah, was also restored.

            During that time, Sanballat the Horonite was the leading figure among those who opposed the building of Jerusalem and the temple. It is generally believed that he was descended from the Babylonian settlers whom the Assyrians deported to Samaria (2 Kings 17:24). Sanballat, whose name means “Sin (the moon god) gives life”, was the governor of Samaria. During the absence of Nehemiah, a grandson of Eliashib the high priest named Manasseh, had become the son-in-law of Sanballat (Neh. 13:28). On his return, Nehemiah rejected Manasseh and sent him away. The vital additional information for our question was found in Josephus, who records that Sanballat then offered to make Manasseh high priest and build a new temple on Mount Gerizim similar to that in Jerusalem (Ant. 11:310).

            The archaeological remains of the Samaritan sacred precinct indeed indicate that at this time a rival temple was built on this mountain by the Samaritans. A closed courtyard, that could be entered through three gates, was built around the Temple. No remains of a temple have been found, as, due to hostilities between the Jews and Samaritans, the temple and sacred precinct were destroyed in 128 BC by the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I. However, archaeological finds of inscriptions, finely cut ashlars and proto-Ionic capitals attest to the existence of a Samaritan temple. 

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

            The site remained unoccupied until the Byzantine period, but despite this, Mount Gerizim remained a sacred place for the Samaritans. That is why the woman of Samaria said to Jesus that her fathers worshiped on this mountain, while the Jews worshiped in Jerusalem. Jesus answered that God must be worshiped, not in a sacred space such as Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem, but in spirit and truth (John 4:20-24).

            According to Samaritan sources, a temple of Zeus was built on the northern ridge of Mount Gerizim after the Roman destruction of 70CE. This temple, which was built in the mid-second century, stood on a podium measuring 64m long and 44m wide. 

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

            Coins from about 160CE depict a temple that overlooked the city of Neapolis (modern Shechem or Nablus), and that was reached from the city by a stairway of about 1500 steps. This temple continued in use until the fourth century.

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

          

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

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

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

            In the center of this walled complex stood an octagonal church, the Church of Mary Mother of God (Theotokos – literally God-bearer), which was established by Emperor Zenon in 484CE. Centrally designed churches are built to commemorate certain events, in this case, the Orthodox belief in Mary’s bodily resurrection before being taken up into heaven.

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

            Mount Gerizim has been a sacred place for almost 2,500 years, and continues as such up to the present time. A large population of Samaritans lives on or near Mount Gerizim today and every year they celebrate the feast of Passover, with many pilgrims joining them. In this picture we see a priest holding up the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Samaritans marking Passover on Mount Gerizim (Wikipedia)

Jesus’ birthplace in Bethlehem

Many tourists visit Bethlehem, specially at this time of the year (except in 2020 because of the pandemic), as that is where Jesus was born (Luke 2:11). We first learn about Bethlehem in the Book of Ruth, where we read that Boaz purchased Ruth the Moabitess according to the law of the levirate marriage, who then became his wife (Ruth 4:10). They had a son called Obed, who became the grandfather of David. Jesus is, of course, the greater son of King David. What do we know about his birthplace?

Both Mary and Joseph were descendants of King David. When the Roman government ordered a census to be carried out, they had to travel from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral home in Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David. Mary was descended from David through Solomon (Matth 1:16) and Joseph through another son of David, namely Nathan (Luke 3:31). We suggest that the place where Jesus was born was not a randomly chosen cave, but a place that was prepared centuries earlier for this purpose. 

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

Most people believe that the grotto in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the place where Jesus was born. In the early Byzantine period, a church was erected over this grotto by Constantine. After this building was destroyed in 529 CE, Justinian built a new church. In the floor of the Grotto of the Nativity is a silver star that indicates the traditional birth place of Jesus. It is important to remember, that after Jesus was born, he was laid in a manger (Luke 2:7). Mangers are found in stable blocks and not in caves or grottoes. The grotto in Bethlehem was originally a Roman shrine above which stood a temple to Adonis, the lover of Aphrodite.

What do we know about the ancestral home of the family of David? Near the end of King David’s life, he had to flee from his son Absalom. He stayed with Barzillai, the Gileadite, whose son Chimham returned with David to Jerusalem (2 Sam 19:37-40). In order to provide Chimham with a source of income, David apparently gave him a part of his own inheritance in Bethlehem on which to build a house, which is later mentioned in Jer. 41:17, as the habitation of Chimham. 

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

Joseph would naturally have gone to this home where this family members lived. In the Gospel record (Luke 2:7), we read that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn. The for word “inn” is kataluma in Greek, and means an upper room or guest room. When Joseph and Mary arrived at their ancestral home, they were told that all the upper rooms were occupied and the only available space left for Jesus to be born was the stable block. Joseph and Mary had to share this stable with animals. It wasn’t a romantic Christmas postcard stable with smiling camels and donkeys, probably drawn by artists who don’t know how bad camels can smell and how loud the braying of donkeys can be!

What actually did a stable look like in the time of Christ? From archaeology we know that stables looked like large rooms with a fenestrated wall, i.e. a wall with several low windows, built in the middle of the room. Animals were placed behind this wall and fodder was put in wooden boxes or baskets, called mangers, and placed in these windows. Sacks of provender were stored in the first half of the room. It was probably in this part of the stable that Mary and Joseph were allowed to stay and where Jesus was born and eventually placed in one of the wooden provender boxes, which would have served as his crib. 

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

If that is so, then one can only marvel at God’s providence that a birthplace was prepared by David, so that Jesus could be born in his own inheritance a thousand years later. 

When Jesus was born, shepherds came to pay their respect, in fulfilment of Micha 4:8 that the former dominion will be restored to “the watchtower of the flock” (Migdal Eder in Hebrew). This Migdal Eder is the place where Rachel was buried (Gen. 35:21). At the time when Jesus was born, Migdal Eder was the place where special shepherds kept the flock from which the sacrificial animals for the daily sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple were chosen. Angels from heaven announced to these special shepherds the good tidings of the Kingdom of God.

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

The Synagogue of Capernaum

A reconstruction of the synagogue’s interior

Apart from the first century Synagogue of Capernaum, the only other known synagogues from this period were found at Masada, Herodium, Gamla and Magdala. In Jerusalem, the  Theodotus Synagogue inscription, dating from the same time, was found, but no remains of the actual synagogue have been found. 

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

We know that the Synagogue of Capernaum served as a place for the reading of the Torah and its study. But, what did the interior of the Capernaum Synagogue look like and how did the synagogue operate? In Luke 4:16-22 we read that in the synagogue of Nazareth, Jesus first stood up to read, and then sat down to teach. The question is, where did the reader stand and where did the teacher sit?

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

In a previous post, we have seen that in Capernaum the Torah Scrolls were transported in a wheeled carriage from the home of the ruler of the synagogue (archisynagogas) to the synagogue. These scrolls were apparently kept in the home of the ruler of the synagogue for security reasons.

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

The Law of Moses was first read, and then expounded on from Moses’ Seat, for in Acts 15:21, it says “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath”.  And in Matt. 23:2,3 Jesus said, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do”.

We have tried to put this information in a new reconstruction drawing of the interior of the Capernaum Synagogue. Opposite the entrance in the east wall, we see people sitting on stone benches, placed along three sides of the room. 

In the centre of the hall is a reading platform, consisting of a decorated square stone on which a wooden lectern stands. This reconstruction is based on a similar stone that was found in the nearby synagogue of Magdala. 

The reader read from the scroll that was brought into the synagogue in the wheeled carriage, which was placed at the left side of the entrance. The ruler of the synagogue took the relevant scroll out of the carriage and placed it on the lectern. On the right side of the entrance is a stone seat, called Moses’ Seat, where the teacher sat. Such seats have been found in the synagogues of Chorazin and Tiberias. 

Jewish worship consisted initially mainly of prayers and the reading of the Law. This worship later developed into a full-blown service. The order of the services in the synagogue was as follows: 
(1) Reciting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9; 11:13-21; Num. 15:37-41)
(2) Prayer 
(3) Reading the law
(4) Reading the prophets
(5) Discourse by anyone who desired to speak (Acts 13:15)
(6) the Benediction.

The order of the traditional Christian service is based on this Jewish one.

Apart from teaching in the synagogue, Jesus also performed miracles there, such as the healing of the man was there whose right hand was withered (Luke 6:6 – 10, Matthew 12:9 – 13, Mark 3:1 – 5), the man with an unclean (demonic) spirit (Mark 1:21-25), and perhaps also the woman who had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bent over and could in no way raise herself up (Luke 13:11-14). Jesus did these signs, not only to prove that he was the promised Messiah, but also to show the deeper significance of the Sabbath day as an example of the promised Sabbath rest for the people of God (Heb. 4:8-10).

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.

The Golden Gate of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem

The interior of the Golden Gate in the 1970’s

The Golden Gate is very much in the news today, as it has become a point of conflict between Jews and Muslims, or Palestinians and Israelis.

But what do we know about this gate?

The Golden Gate, around which swirl various traditions, is the most intriguing of all the gates of the Temple Mount. In Jewish tradition, it is through this gate (Sha’ar haRachamim—Gate of Mercy), blocked since the ninth century, that Messiah will enter at the end of days, led in by the prophet Elijah. This is based on the prophecy of Ezekiel 44.1–3. Christians believe that Christ made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem (recorded in all four of the gospels) through this gate on the Sunday before his crucifixion (Palm Sunday). By riding on a donkey, he fulfilled the messianic prophecy recorded in Zechariah 9.9. Muslims refer to it as the Gate of Eternity (Bab-al-Dahariyeh) and believe it will be an important part of the last judgment of mankind. The Muslim cemetery along the Eastern Wall is thought to have been placed there in the belief that the forerunner of Messiah, Elijah, being of a priestly family, could not pass through the Golden Gate, thus preventing the coming of the Messiah.  

Some claim that the Golden Gate was built by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius after the expulsion of the Sassanians from Jerusalem. However, the absence in the architectural decorations of any Christian symbols, such as a cross makes that difficult to believe. There are actually four distinct historical phases represented in the architecture of this gate: Turkish, Umayyad, Herodian and First Temple period. In the 1970’s I was privileged to spend one week inside this gate, measuring and recording its plan and drawing accurate elevations of all the interior surfaces.

Standing in the middle of the Golden Gate interior. Two monolithic massive gateposts are visible in the far corners.

The Golden Gate’s outer façade is composed of two blocked-up gateways adorned with intricately carved relief arches. The decoration of the arches to the front and back of the gate are identical to the applied arches of the Double Gate which date from the Early Islamic period. The gate appears therefore to have been rebuilt in the Umayyad period, on the foundations of an earlier gate.

The exterior of the Golden Gate in the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. Photo: Leen Ritmeyer

View of the Golden Gate from inside the Temple Mount. Photo: Nathaniel Ritmeyer

The remains of two massive monolithic gateposts are preserved inside this gate.

Section through the Golden Gate looking north, showing the massive monolithic gatepost. © Leen Ritmeyer

The gateposts are set in the same line as the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount and line up with the massive masonry that can be seen on either side of the Golden Gate.

Elevation of the Golden Gate showing the location of the two monolithic gateposts in relation to the masonry of the First Temple period (Iron Age) in the Eastern Wall of the Temple `Mount. © Leen Ritmeyer

The gateposts and the two masonry sections appear therefore to be part of the same construction. The top of the southern gatepost is level with the top of the ancient masonry that can be seen south of the Golden Gate. The northern gatepost is one stone course higher and is located only one stone course below the surface of the Temple Mount. This means that the top of the original lintel would have been identical with the present-day level of the Temple Mount. The two gateposts belong to a gate that dates from the First Temple period and is most likely the Shushan Gate, mentioned in Mishnah Middot 1.3 as the only gate in the Eastern Wall.

This composite drawing shows the four historical phases of the Golden Gate. © Leen Ritmeyer

The gate most probably was given this name by builders who had returned from exile in Babylon and for whom the Palace of Shushan lived on in their memories. However, if so there would have been a tradition of an eastern gate in this location from the time of the construction of the original Eastern Wall. It seems reasonable to suggest that the central section of the Eastern Wall dates from the First Temple period, in particular to the time of King Hezekiah. This square mount was extended south in the Hasmonean period, while both the southern and northern additions were made by King Herod the Great.

In 1969, the remains of an underground arch were discovered inside a grave in front of the Golden Gate. It was suggested that this may have been a pre-Herodian gateway. However, as the arch stones appear to be Herodian, it is more reasonable to suggest that this arch was part of a Herodian staircase leading up to the original gate. It is fascinating to contemplate that the stairway may still be intact under this gate, although hidden from sight by the Muslim Cemetery. 

This model shows the Shushan Gate in the Eastern Wall of the Temple Mount and the stairway leading down to the Miphkad Gate. © Leen Ritmeyer

We do know that the remains of an ancient city wall lie under the present-day path that runs through the Muslim cemetery, which was discovered by Warren in the 1860s. The above-mentioned arched stairway led down through a gate in this city wall, the so-called Miphkad (Muster, or Inspection) Gate mentioned in Nehemiah 3.31, apparently still in use in the Second Temple period. During the latter period, it was through these gates that the Red Heifer was led out from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives (Mishnah, Parah). On the Day of Atonement, the scapegoat was led by the same route into the wilderness (Mishnah, Yoma).

It is therefore obvious that the Golden Gate is a very important historical building for the Jewish people, as reported by Arnon Segal of the Hebrew newspaper Makor Rishon Here is a translation of the article that refers to my research:

HT: Dr. Eli David


Conservation program at Tel Shiloh

During the months of May/June 2017, excavations were carried out at Tel Shiloh[1]. At the conclusion of the dig, conservation work[2] 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).

Fig. 1. The MBA city wall, W 17, before conservation. Note the many smaller stones that were placed in between the large ashlars.

Continue reading “Conservation program at Tel Shiloh”

Virtual Jerusalem

Two new apps have been developed to help visitors visualize ancient Jerusalem, including the Temple Mount. The BYU has developed a free app, which can be downloaded here.

The Virtual New Testament app is one of the most accurate digital recreations of first-century Jerusalem. It’s purpose is to enhance scripture study by allowing you to experience the city, engage with the environment, and immerse yourself in the world of Jesus’ mortal ministry.

This app works for both Mac and Windows desktops and can be downloaded for mobile devices at the Apple App Store or at Google Play.

 

The Jewish News Online reported on another app that was developed by Lithodomos VR. This app only costs a couple of dollars and is worth getting if you have a Virtual Reality headset. An introduction can also be viewed on YouTube.

Young and old alike now have the chance to wander the streets of ancient Jerusalem, after archaeologists recreated the city at the time of King Herod in a virtual reality headset.

Half a million pounds of investor funding helped created the Android app, called Lithodomos VR, based on the archaeology of Temple Mount in 20BC, before it was destroyed some 90 years later.

The app (at £1.59 or S2.00) and headset let the user experience market streets, the Western Wall, the temple precinct, and the Jewish and Roman period districts, with buildings virtually reconstructed based on the latest archaeological evidence.