The Pool of Siloam is best known from the New Testament where Jesus sent the blind man to wash and be healed (John 9:7-11). In the Hebrew Bible this pool is mentioned as the “waters of Shiloah that flow softly” (Isaiah 8:6). The waters originated from the Gihon Spring, but that was apparently forgotten in the 1st century as Josephus calls this pool a fountain. In the last couple of decades it was thought that the Pool of Siloam was the stepped pool that has become a major tourist attraction in Jerusalem.
“Where is the Pool of Siloam? If you visit the City of David Archaeological Park in Jerusalem, you would easily think it is the large pool formerly known as Birkat el-Hamra, that has been excavated since 2004 near the southern end of the ridge. However, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologist Nahshon Szanton believes this identification is almost certainly incorrect. Publishing in the journal ‘Atiqot, Szanton instead identifies the true Pool of Siloam with the more traditional Pool of Silwan, which is located only a few hundred feet to the north of Birkat el-Ḥamra.”
Szanton suggests that the square colonnaded pool that was excavated by Bliss and Dickie in 1896, should be identified as the Pool of Siloam mentioned by Josephus in War 5.140 as the “fountain of sweet and abundant water”, and that the water reservoir was Solomon’s Pool mentioned by Josephus in War 5.145.
In the context of my work at the Temple Mount Excavations, I visited the Pool of Siloam many times and studied the plans made by Bliss and Dickie, and those of Charles Warren. One of the ancient walls of this pool is still visible today.
We have argued for a long time that the excavated remains of a square colonnaded pool discovered by Bliss and Dickie in 1896 had a ritual function, and that the stepped pool was a water reservoir. The Pool of Siloam was built near the exit of Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This tunnel was dug at the time of King Hezekiah to bring water to the western side of the city. He also created a huge water reservoir by building a city wall at the end of the Tyropoeon or Central Valley that also funtioned as a dam. This, in turn, made it possible for the city to extend to the west. By building a city wall round the Western Hill and securing its water supply, it became possible for the city to more than double its size.
Many mikvaot – Hebrew for ritual baths, mikveh in the singular, – have been excavated in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel. A mikveh usually takes the form of a stepped pool carved out of the rock with a small dividing wall built on the upper steps. The more elaborate mikvaot had double entrances. The purpose of this was to allow users of the mikveh to descend on one side and, after immersion, ascend on the other side, thus preventing contact with those who were not yet purified.
Although we had incorporated the excavated steps all along the three walls of Birkat el-Ḥamra in our reconstruction drawings, only the steps on the east (right in the drawing) have been excavated. Since last year the whole of the area at the lower end of the Tyropoeon Valley has been excavated, but none of the proposed steps on the west have been found.
The absence of steps on the west strengthens our idea of a water reservoir with steps on one side only. Other water reservoirs in Jerusalem, such as the Pools of Bethesda and the Pool of Israel could be accesses from one side only.
Strabo wrote that Jerusalem was a “city well-watered within, but desert outside” (Geography 16:2:40). The history of Jerusalem can be presented in many ways, but the most critical factor in understanding the development of the city is based on the capacity of the ancients to provide its inhabitants with water. Water was the central resource that shaped the fortunes of the city. Jerusalem began around the Gihon Spring, after which many new water systems were created throughout the ages in order to keep pace with the growing population of the city.
I don’t agree with Nahshon Szanton that this water reservoir could have been used as a swimming pool. Swimming was more likely used as a method of crossing rivers for example rather than for recreational purposes.
The sanctity of the Pool of Siloam was recognised in the Byzantine period by the building of a church next to the pool. The same happened at the conclusion of the excavations by Bliss and Dickie when a mosque was built over it.
The construction of water reservoirs was necessary for making life in Jerusalem possible. No wonder that in Scripture, water is referred to as the water of life (Revelation 21:6; 22:1; 22:17).
Discovery of previously unknown Hebrew inscriptions
Arnon Segal, a journalist-friend from Jerusalem, sent me a link to a most interesting article he wrote for the Makor Rishon newspaper (Hebrew).
“A Muslim acquaintance from abroad, a lover of Israel and a devout Zionist named M.A. [name withheld for obvious reasons], visited the Temple Mount in recent years and photographed up close a series of sites that are not accessible to Jews there, and the Gate of Mercy in particular [The Golden Gate is called Sha’arhaRachamim, “The Gate of Mercy” in Hebrew]. He provided rare photos from there, including a sensational discovery that will be described below.”
Arnon and I met in Jerusalem, and he published articles about my work on the Temple Mount in this newspaper. In this present article he writes:
“The gate complex became a mosque almost five years ago, and since then changes have been made to it that pose a great danger to the antiquities located there. The Gate of Mercy, as it is called today, dates to the seventh century AD. However, researchers such as archaeologist Leen Ritmeyer are convinced that a gate has stood in this place since the days of the First Temple, in the seventh century BC, the days of Hezekiah. Ritmeyer suggests that the Mercy Gate is the gate known in the Mishnah as “the Shushan Gate”, through which the scapegoat went out into the desert, and from there the Red Heifer was taken to the Mount of Olives.”
The inscriptions that probably date back to the 9-11th century prove that Jews went up to the Temple Mount on, what must have been for some, a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage.
In the 19th century, Félicien, or Félix de Saulcy, a Frencharchaeologist, discovered an inscription in the underground Double Gate passageway. Jonah and Shavtia his wife, who had travelled from Sicily, wrote their names on the inside wall, with the addition of “strong in life”, meaning that they had prayed for a long life. Unfortunately, this inscription has recently almost been erased by a layer of new plaster.
In 1908, a well-known Jewish researcher discovered another Hebrew inscription on the southern wall of the Golden Gate, mentioning Abraham son of Loles, followed by the same formula “I will be strong”. This phrase means “getting stronger” and shows that Jews went up to the Temple Mount to give thanks for recovery of an illness.
“Benjamin of Tudela, who visited the Holy Land in the 12th century, mentioned this custom in the underground structure of Solomon’s Stables in the south of the mountain: “And there in Jerusalem, by the house where Solomon had horse stables built… the Jews who come there write their names on the wall.” “All of these appeared in the researchers’ articles in the last 170 years. Photographs provided by M”A from the Gate of Mercy structure recently prove that there are other ancient Hebrew inscriptions in the place, which the archaeological research has not caught up with yet .”
Photographs of the newly discovered inscriptions can be seen in the article, especially those written on the first column inside the gate.
“The archaeologist Tzachi Dvira believes that he was able, after seeing the photos taken at the site, to decipher some words from the inscriptions on the column. He reads there, among other things, the words “I have overcome”, and then a blurred word that may include the letters “for Bacher”. Next to these, the name “Reuben son of Machir” and the word “Degel- flag” were engraved on the column. Below them appears the name “Yosef (Joseph) son of …”, with his father’s name that is possibly Aryeh. It seems that another inscription appears beneath it in which the name “Yosef” is mentioned a second time, as well as other names, which are more difficult to identify.”
The letters are written in the so-called square Hebrew script that has been in use for many centuries. Even a pupil at a modern Hebrew school can easily read them. However, as Jews were allowed on the Temple Mount during the Early Muslim period from 838-1099 AD, but not afterwards, it is assumed that these newly discovered inscriptions date from that period.
Segal concludes his article with these words:
“So, in the heart of very sad days in our history, we received greetings from Jews who a thousand years ago went up to the Temple Mount freely. They engraved their names in the Gate of Mercy for eternal remembrance in the Temple of God.
“They roamed the place undisturbed, under the auspices of the very kind Muslim government of the 11th century, while we – the 21st century citizens of supposedly free Israel – are not allowed to go there.
“How did we come to terms with a reality where an address located in the heart of the free capital of Israel, not in Tehran or Baghdad, needs a Muslim to come here from abroad to reveal it to the world for the first time?”
Jeremy Park of bible-scenes.com asked me a while ago if I could help him with his project of developing a 3D video of Herod’s Temple Mount. Last week he wrote the following:
“Shalom to you all. I am so excited to say that after almost two years working on this project it is finally finished; Herod’s Temple Mount. Journey back through time and see what Herod’s Crowning glory the Temple Mount could have looked like two thousand years ago. Places that we can see the remains of today, places like Robinsons Arch and Barclays Gate, Solomon’s Stables and the Western Wall, to name but a few.”
The compilation video can be seen here on YouTube.
“When I made each scene I tried to include people. There were two reasons for this, firstly they gave a sense of proportion and scale as sometimes it is only when you see a person in the shot that you realise just how big some of the structures really are. Secondly, I tried to create a story of each scene where something is happening or has happened. For example, the picture of the two weary travellers on the road in the Kidron valley are obviously talking about the politics of the day:
Here are some additional images:
“As most of you are aware by now, I have followed Leen Ritmeyer’s model for this project and if anyone is interested in learning more about the Temple Mount, his book “The Quest” is a gold mine of information.”
“I was fortunate to discover the Ritmeyer Archaeological design Website where I was able to purchase comprehensive plans, elevations, images and information about all aspects of this incredible site that would have been the setting for many Gospel narratives. Without the Ritmeyer resource I don’t think I would have been able to have done justice to the historic and archaeological authenticity of the site.”
I am probably a little biased when I say that this is the best 3D rendition of the Temple Mount I have seen so far.
Do watch the video and let Jeremy Park know what you think. He would love to hear from you. His HD videos are free to watch and download, but only subscribers can download high-resolution 4K copies:
The High Definition (HD) videos on this site are free to download and are accessed from the HD download buttons that accompany each scene.
4K videos are available to all subscribers.
When anyone subscribes, an e-mail will be sent out with the necessary password enclosed.
Jeremy’s Bible Scenes is not a separate charity but a branch of his company Park 3D Ltd. Until Bible Scenes can provide him with a sufficient income to work full time on it he has, by neccessity, a day job. He would love to have your support!
What comes next?
“Over the next few days I will be uploading each camera move that you see in this video in HD and 4K to the Bible Scenes Website. As subscribers you will have access to these videos 4 weeks before they are released to the general public (and of course access to them in 4K). I will let you know as soon as the website is updated with the new videos. After this I will be concentrating on producing individual descriptive videos of most (if not all) of the elements that make up the Temple Mount. For example, there are 18 chambers that surround the Temple itself, all of which serve a different purpose and while I may not be including all of them, I think there is a wealth of information to share regarding them. Then there are the various entrances and gates, the Royal Stoa, the Antonia Fortress and all the other parts that make up this project, all have their own story. I am excited to start producing them and will let you know as soon as they are completed.”
In our previous blog, we looked at the Middle Gate as an example of the description in Lamentations 2:9 that Jerusalem’s “gates were sunk into the ground.” We published it on the 1st of September, as that was one of the readings for the day according to the Traditional Daily Reading plan of the Avery Bible app.
Today, on the 5th of September, according to this plan, we begin reading the Prophecy of Ezekiel. From Chapter 1 we understand that Jehoachin, King of Judah, was exiled to Babylon along with Ezekiel and several thousands of Jerusalem’s leading citizens.
According to Ezra 2:59, the Jews lived in villages like Tel Abib, Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Cherub, Addan, Immer and Casiphia, from where they returned following the Edict of Cyrus in 539 BC. The location of these places is not known, but it is understood that these were clustered round the River Chebar, where the Jews were forced to work on government projects.
A few years ago, in 2017, as part of an archaeological project we were doing in the area, we visited the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. At that time, the curators had put on a dazzling display called “Jerusalem in Babylon”, showing archaeological evidence for some of the places where the exiles lived. This was the first time that archaeology had proved that Jews lived here during the Exile. The following images are photographs taken by permission of the Bible Lands Museum.
While reminiscing recently about the highlights of our archaeological careers, we could not help but include our visit to this exhibition as a stand-out experience.
We had assumed that this was only a temporary exhibition and expected it to be dismantled. We were pleasantly surprised, however, to see on their website that this exhibition is still very much on!
An animated movie in Hebrew (but with English subtitles) introduces the story of the Exile for children. We were indeed relieved to see that this unforgettable exhibition could still be enjoyed by the next generation.
The text on some of the clay tablets that were discovered showed that the exiles lived in an area called Al-Yahuda (City of Judah) or Al-Yahudaiah (City of the Judeans), where they were initially forced to dig and dredge canals for transportation of goods as part of their obligatory service to the king and state.
Some clearly recognisable Jewish names, such as Gedaliah, Zechariah, Hananiah, Nethanyahu, Obadiah and Zedekiah, have been found on several of these tablets.
The Akkadian word for man-made canals (naru, Hebrew nahar) is one and the same for rivers. Therefore, it is possible that the words in Psalm 137:1, “By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down, yea we wept when we remembered Zion”, do not refer to the main rivers, the Euphrates and Tigris, but rather to those canals that branched out from them, which the Jewish captives were forced to dig. It was hard work, especially for a labour force that had just survived the destruction of their country and a long march from Judah to Babylon. These canals were needed to bring water for irrigation purposes and for bringing goods to inland cities, such as Babylon.
When that work was completed, the Jews were allowed to settle in the land.
The text on these tablets also showed that after an initial hard time, the Jews quickly settled down and became prosperous. Some preferred to stay in Babylon rather than to endure the hardship of pioneering work in the province of Judea.
However, after 70 years, many exiles that had been living in Babylon since the conquest of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar, returned from Babylon to Jerusalem and Judea.
At the end of the 19th century, Jews again, after a much longer exile, returned to the Land of Israel, and many saw a historical parallel with the return of the exiles from Babylon.
This engraving by Ephraim Moses Lilien was printed on the invitation for the 5th Zionist Congress, held in 1901, as stated in Hebrew at the top of the drawing. The pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe at that time stimulated Jewish immigration to Palestine. This ideal has profound religious and historical roots, one of which was the return to Zion after the Babylonian exile.
The lower Hebrew inscription reads: “May our eyes behold your return in mercy to Zion.”
“her gates have sunk into the ground.” (Lamentations 2:9)
The Middle Gate is mentioned in Jeremiah 39.3 as the place where the Babylonian princes came together to celebrate their conquest of Jerusalem. The destruction of Jerusalem was dramatically exposed in the excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem that were directed by the late Prof. Nahman Avigad. After digging down for some 10 m., a large L-shaped fortified wall of the Israelite period was found.
This gate was called the Middle Gate as it was built in the middle of the northern wall of Jerusalem of that time. It is amazing to think that the Babylonian princes, who sat in the Middle Gate, Nergal-Sharezer, Samgar-Nebo, Sar-Sechim, Rab-Saris, Nergal-Sharezer and Rab-Mag, all came from what is now known as Iraq.
Jeremiah witnessed and lamented the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. “O wall of the daughter of Zion, let tears run down like a river day and night; give yourself no relief; give your eyes no rest” (Lamentations 2:18).
In Lamentations 2:9, we read that “her gates have sunk into the ground.” As all large buildings in Jerusalem, including the gates, were built on the bedrock, these gates could not have sunk deeper into the bedrock on which they were built.
However, there is a logical explanation for this description. The Today’s English Version (formerly the Good News Bible) paraphrases this verse as, “the gates are buried in rubble”. After the destruction, rubble and destruction debris would have accumulated around the destroyed gate and raised the ground level around it, so that the preserved top would have been barely visible. This would have given the impression that the gates had sunk into the ground.
It is exciting to find the remains of buildings that are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, but also sad to reflect on the terrible destruction that took place some two and a half thousand years ago.
The New Testament (Acts 3.2,10) records a notable miracle that was performed at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. This was the gate where a man who had been lame from birth was begging. When Peter and John saw him, they told him that they did not possess any gold or silver or worldly riches. Instead, they healed him in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. He then “went with them into the temple courts, walking and jumping, and praising God” (Acts 3.8). What a joyful occasion that must have been and one that was witnessed by many people. Jesus had healed blind and lame people before (Matthew 21.14), but now his disciples could perform similar miracles.
The time at which the miracle was performed was very significant. It was the ninth hour – the hour of prayer during which the evening sacrifice was offered in the Temple (Exodus 29.41).
David had composed a special psalm for this hour (Psalm 141.2). Jesus died on the cross at that very same hour (Matthew 27:46). Elijah’s sacrifice was also offered at the time of the evening sacrifice (1 Kings 18.29). At this time also, the angel Gabriel was sent to Daniel to answer his prayer (Daniel 9.21). The angel that came to Cornelius came at this time (Acts 10.3). God answers faithful prayers, but there appears to be a special time at which certain prayers are answered.
The miracle took place at the Beautiful Gate, but the question is, which gate is the Scripture referring to and how can it be identified? There were at least seven gates in the outer walls of Herod’s Temple Mount, but only in one of these gates have decorations been found.
In a previous post we wrote that some scholars have proposed that the Nicanor Gate or the Shushan Gate were the best candidates for the Beautiful Gate. However, we have argued that neither of these gates would have been suitable places for a lame man to beg.
A more likely location would have been the Double Gate in the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount, which I have described in my book The Quest, Revealing the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, 67-74.
The ceiling inside the double passageway has beautifully carved domes, which have survived up to today. In 1973, I received permission from the Muslim authorities to survey these domes. At the time, scaffolding was erected beneath the southwest dome, so that we could touch and measure it. That was an unforgettable experience. The domes were photographed under my direction, and I planned and set up the drawings, which were completed in pencil by Nili Cohen and in ink by my late sister Martha.
Most of the worshipers went up to the Temple Courts through this gate, which was certainly worthy of the appellation “beautiful”. It also allowed for effective begging practices, as suggested on p. 74 of the above-mentioned book. According to Mishnah Middot 2.2, “whosoever it was that entered the Temple Mount came in on the right and went round and came out on the left, save any whom aught befell, for he went round to the left.”
Two of the west domes are beautifully decorated with carved floral and geometric designs interwoven in intricate patterns.
We had suggested (The Quest, p.74) that these two eastern domes may have fallen during the original construction or because of an earthquake. They were rebuilt during the same Herodian period but were left undecorated.
Nevertheless, it was indeed a gate with beautifully decorated domes that have survived the Roman destruction and are still there until this day. We suggest then that Peter and John healed the lame man at the Double Gate and from there he went “walking and jumping” to the Temple as far as Solomon’s Porch.
My friend and colleague Hillel Geva, director of the Israel Exploration Society and editor cum publisher of the Jewish Quarter Excavations in the Old City of Jerusalem Conducted by Nahman Avigad, 1969-1982, sent me a copy of Volume VIII of this important series. Hillel is to be congratulated on the preparation and publication of this beautiful volume which sets a high standard of how excavations should be studied and published.
This Volume VIII describes the excavation of the archaeological remains of the Palatial Mansion, which, as suggested by Avigad, may have been the Palace of the High Priest. This mansion may have been built by Annas who was High Priest from 6-15 AD, as he was one of the few people who could have afforded to build such a large and lavishly decorated residence. The family of Annas was very wealthy as they controlled the Temple Market that was set up in the Temple Courts and out of bounds for normal moneychangers. Josephus called one of the sons of Annas “a great hoarder of money”.
This building covers 600 square meters and is one of the largest residences dating from the Second Temple period ever uncovered, not only in Jerusalem, but in the whole of the country. This mansion is located on the eastern edge of the southwestern hill which slopes down to the Tyropoeon Valley. Overlooking the Temple Mount, it would have been considered prime real estate in the 1st century AD, as indeed it is today.
In the first chapter of this magnificent volume, Hillel describes the stratigraphy and architecture of the Palatial Mansion in great detail. The structure is built on two levels, each consisting of two stories and has many rooms built around a central open courtyard. The walls of several of these rooms were decorated with fresco and stucco designs. Seven rooms had mosaic floors, three of which were decorated with colorful carpets.
Eight mikva’ot (ritual baths), catering for the purification requirements of the residents, were found in the mansion indicating that the complex was occupied by priests who served in the Temple.
After making the publication drawings and studying the architectural remains, I made this new reconstruction drawing to give an overall idea of what the mansion may have looked like:
In this volume, every wall and locus is recorded and accompanied by photographs, plans and sections. Of necessity, this takes up the bulk of the book. Different authors have written short chapters on the fresco and stucco decoration, mosaic floors, and ritual baths.
The building was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, while it was in the middle of undergoing extensive renovations with fresco wall decorations being covered over with white stucco. This consisted of broad panels in between two bands of imitation masonry, modelled on “headers and stretchers.” However, on the basis of the stucco remains of the northern wall of the Reception Room that extended to the greatest height, it was clear that there was an additional band of decoration just below the ceiling. This different style of imitation stone work could only be reconstructed on the basis of a complete panel which was found in the debris on the floor below this wall – see reconstruction drawing below.
The floor was also found littered with small fragments of decorated stucco with different patterns, which had fallen from the ceiling. Before restoration work on the Palatial Mansion began, Avigad presented me three large trays of a representative sample of ceiling fragments and asked me to try and make some sense of them.
All the pieces showed geometrical patterns in relief. It was clear that the original design must have been divided into two parts, as some fragments had an “egg-and-dart” motif and the remainder were plain. Measuring the angles in the first group – squares, octagons and triangles of 45 degrees could be discerned. The second group consisted of squares, hexagons and triangles of 30 degrees. After trying out various possibilities and taking into consideration the dimensions of the room, the number of fragments found and their representative proportions, I hit upon this ceiling design which was later partially incorporated in the restoration.
I was not part of the original team, as I was then working as architect on the Temple Mount Excavations. However, since 1978, I have spent many years working on the publication plans of all the excavation areas of the Jewish Quarter Excavations. Each of the publication plans, elevations and sections of this magnificent residence including reconstruction drawings, were prepared by me on completion of the excavation.
It should be noted that this volume, like the previous ones, is a scientific publication and of interest to archaeologists, historians and the interested lay person. Other readers may be more interested in a popular book, such as that published by Avigad, who summarised the excavation of this extraordinary mansion in his book Discovering Jerusalem. This Vol VIII is the complete excavation report, published some 30 years after the first spade went into the ground.
When the excavations were finished, a four-story high modern building, the Yeshivat Hakotel (a Jewish school for the study of the Torah and the Talmud) was built over the preserved remains. The mosaic floors were removed and, after conservation, exhibited in the Israel Museum. On completion of the building of the yeshiva, an archaeological museum, named the Herodian Quarter, or Wohl Archaeological Museum, was planned in what had become the basement of the new building. Avigad planned and directed the work for two years, from 1985-87, putting me in charge of its execution. He visited the site twice a week for a couple of hours, leaving me in charge for the rest of the time.
Although in this Volume VIII, only just over two pages are dedicated to this restoration work, it required a lot of thought as to how best to preserve the remains and how to decide where to add stones. Some of the the walls were made higher to help the visitor with spatial orientation. The restoration of the Reception Room demanded special attention as we tried to give an impression of what the beautiful stucco decoration of both the walls and ceiling would originally have looked like. This restoration work was published in book form by Avigad. I treasure my copy of this book which he gave me, inscribed with the dedication “a souvenir from a joint work”.
This volume is a worthy addition to the previous seven volumes of the Jewish Quarter Excavations which cover the excavations of the Broad Wall, the Israelite Tower (later identified as the Middle Gate of Jer. 39:3) and other fortifications, the Byzantine Cardo and the Nea Church, and other buildings of the Second Temple period.
Avigad passed away in 1992 and therefore was unable to publish the final reports of these important excavations directed by him. We are grateful that Hillel Geva, who served as archaeologist since the beginning of the dig, has taken upon himself to publish the results in such magnificent volumes. The next volume will describe the many small finds that were discovered in the Palatial Mansion.
After Jesus moved to Capernaum, he made it a base for his preaching activities. The Gospels tell us that “Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues” (Matthew 4:23). He would go into the synagogues on sabbath days, as it was here that the people came together to worship. Although the Gospels don’t mention any particular synagogue where Jesus may have preached, archaeology has revealed the remains of a few Galilean synagogues that existed in the first century, namely in Capernaum, Magdala and Gamla. These synagogues were built of local basalt stones and this is reflected in our reconstruction drawings. A synagogue in Nazareth is mentioned in the Gospels, but no remains have been discovered so far. We have posted before on the Synagogue at Capernaum.
All three synagogues had a large meeting room with benches built around the walls. Some synagogues, such as that in Gamla, had a ritual bath, (called a mikveh in Hebrew), for ritual bathing nearby. This synagogue had a study hall attached to the building, as did the one discovered in Magdala.
The Gospels tell us that the Law of Moses was read every sabbath in the synagogue: ” For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (Acts 15:21). The public preaching in the synagogue was usually done from a chair called “Moses’ Seat”, as mentioned in Matthew 23:2. When Jesus spoke in the synagogue of Nazareth, after having read from the prophet Isaiah, he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.” Two such “Moses’ Seats” have been excavated, one in Chorazin and the oher in Hammath-Tiberias. These two latter synagogues were from the later Byzantine period, but it is possible that similar seats were used in the first century too.
In 2009, a first century synagogue was uncovered in Magdala during a salvage dig in preparation for the building of a new hotel in the Franciscan Church compound. The synagogue features a large reading room and a smaller study room in front of it. The entrance was from the west. A large stone in the study room was found to have two grooves near the sides and may have been used to place a scroll for reading or copying.
The synagogue room has a raised corridor with a bench running along the wall. A central rosette with flanking meander patterns made of mosaic decorated the floor. The walls were decorated with fresco patterns in dark red panels inside a mustard-coloured frame. The roof was supported by six columns that had red coloured fresco still clinging to some of them. Near the centre of the room, a rectangular stone with four feet was discovered. This stone, that apparently served as a support for a reading platform or lectern, was decorated with a relief of a seven-branched menorah, flanked on either side by amphorae and columns. These decorations are reminiscent of the Jerusalem Temple.
Magdala is the city where Mary Magdalene came from. It was a large city and recently another synagogue was discovered there. It is not recorded that Jesus preached in a synagogue at Magdala. However, as he usually went to synagogues to preach, it is highly likely that he did and would have met many people there, including Pharisees. One of those Pharisees had invited Jesus to his home to have a meal with him (Luke 7:36). That is where Mary Magdalene approached Jesus and was healed by him. She became an ardent follower of Jesus, was present at the crucifixion and was the first woman to whom Jesus appeared to after his resurrection.
The four centuries between the Old Testament (Tanakh) and the Gospels are sometimes called the “Silent Years”. This time period is also known as the intertestamental or deuterocanonical period. Yet there are historical sources and archaeological evidence that can take away the veil of silence. The Works of Josephus, the Books of Maccabees and Ecclesiasticus, also called the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, and others, contain important information about this enigmatic time. Beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great, the new culture of Hellenism changed the way people were thinking and acting. These changes can be detected in archaeology, ancient architecture, politics, culture and religion. During this time, three empires, Persia, Greece and Rome successively ruled the then-known world. In this brief outline, we hope to cast some light on this fascinating period in the history of the Jewish people, and especially on Jerusalem and the Temple Mount.
After the death of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE, his empire was split among four generals, known as the diadochi. Alexander and his successors imposed the Hellenistic culture on their new subjects. The Hellenistic period in Judea lasted from 332-152 BCE, and that was followed by the Hasmonean kingdom which terminated when Herod the Great became king in 37 BCE. During this period, Judea was first under Ptolemaic rule from 301-200 BCE. The Ptolemies were benevolent toward the Jews. Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who ruled from 285-246 BCE, commissioned a translation of the Hebrew Bible in c. 250 BCE. Seventy-two scholars from Jerusalem translated the Torah, the five books of Moses, into Greek.
During the 3rd century BCE, many battles took place between the Ptolemies in the south and the Seleucids in the north. In 200 BCE, a final battle between the two forces took place in Panion (modern Banias) which was lost by the Ptolemies. The Seleucids then controlled the Holy Land.
The Temple that was built by Jeshua and Zerubbabel three centuries earlier undoubtedly needed structural maintenance and repairs.
In 200 BCE, restoration work was indeed carried out on the Temple Mount. In the deuterocanonical book of the Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach, also called Ecclesiasticus, the work is described as follows:
“It was the High Priest Simon son of Onias who repaired the Temple during his lifetime and in his day fortified the sanctuary. He laid the foundations of the double height, the high buttresses of the Temple precincts. In his day the water cistern was excavated, a reservoir as huge as the sea.” (50.1-3).
It is clear from this text that the bulk of these works were concerned with the repair and strengthening of existing structures, as no archaeological remains can be demonstrated as belonging to this enterprise. The cistern that was excavated was probably initially quarried to supply stones for the repair work, and was afterwards used as a water cistern.
Whereas the Ptolemies were benevolent rulers, the Seleucids were the very opposite. The most infamous of the Seleucid rulers, Antiochus Epiphanes went to Jerusalem in 169 BCE, where he plundered the Temple, sacrificed a pig on the Temple altar, and and took all the Temple furniture and treasures away to Antioch. He was determined to Hellenize all the Jews in Judea, forbidding worship on the Temple Mount and the practice of rituals, such as sacrifice and circumcision and compelled them, on penalty of death, to sacrifice to pagan gods. This sparked off the revolt led initially by Mattathias, and then by his five sons, Eleazar, Simon, Judah, John and Jonathan, known as the Maccabees, and which lasted from 167 to 160 BCE.
In 168 B.C. Antiochus IV Epiphanes built the Akra, a fortress for his Macedonian garrison, from which the Jewish population could be controlled. Hellenized Jews also joined this garrison. Josephus records that it commanded or overlooked the Temple. Josephus writes in Antiquities 12.252 that Antiochus …
built the Akra in the Lower City; for it was high enough to overlook the Temple, and it was for this reason that he fortified it with high walls and towers, and stationed a Macedonian garrison therein. Nonetheless there remained in the Akra those of the (Jewish) people who were impious and of bad character, and at their hands the citizens were destined to suffer many terrible things.
This description agrees with that given by the author of the Books of Maccabees, who, when referring to the event mentioned above, puts the Akra in the Lower City, which he calls the City of David:
They fortified the City of David with a great and strong wall, with strong towers, and it became unto them an Akra. There they installed an army of sinful men, renegades, who fortified themselves inside it, storing arms and provisions, and depositing there the loot they had collected from Jerusalem; they were to prove a great trouble. It became an ambush for the sanctuary, an evil adversary for Israel at all times. (1 Maccabees 1.33–36)
Archaeological remains of the fortifications have been found:
When in 168 BCE, an imperial emissary came to Modiin demanding that the people sacrificed on a pagan altar, Mattathias the priest refused to obey. When one of his countrymen came forward to sacrifice, Mattathias killed him and the emissary. This was the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt (1 Maccabees 2:23-25). Mattathias, his sons and many villagers left Modiin immediately and set up camp in the Gophna Hills, from where they fought many battles against the Seleucid army.
In 164 BCE, Judas, the eldest son of Mattathias, defeated the Seleucid forces at the battle of Beth-zur, and when he and his men went up to Jerusalem to purify and dedicate the sanctuary, they found the Temple in a shocking state of neglect and its buildings in ruins. After they had purified the Temple and a new altar was built, there was great rejoicing. It was then decided to make a law that the keeping of this Feast of Dedication (Hanukkah) would be kept every year for eight days (1 Maccabees 4:36-61; 2 Maccabees 10:1-8). This Dedication of the Temple is still celebrated today by the Jewish people during the feast of Hanukkah, and, as three New Testament references (John 10:23, Acts 3:11, 5:12) show, was also observed by Jesus and his disciples.
In 142 BCE, Simon the Maccabee demolished the hated Akra, the fortress that the Seleucids had built to the south of the Temple Mount. He then leveled the mountain on which it was built, incorporating the whole area into the Temple Mount complex. The bloodline of the Maccabees evolved into the Hasmonean dynasty that established an independent Jewish state lasting till 37 BCE, when Herod the Great became king of Judea.
So, when Jesus walked here and taught the people, it would have reminded them of a unique point unparalleled in their history, when they celebrated God’s intervention in the restoration of their place of worship. And when the name of Solomon’s Porch was used for the eastern stoa, it represented a powerful connection with the dedication of both Solomon’s and the Hasmonean Temple, allowing the silent years to speak.