The Pool of Siloam

Where is the true Pool of Siloam?

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.

However, my friend Dr. David E. Graves alerted me to a recent article by Nathan Steinmeyer in Biblical Archaeological Society’s Bible History Daily called “Rethinking the Pool of Siloam.” 

“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.

In the centre of the photo is an ancient ashlar wall topped by a moulding. Photo taken during my first visit in 1973.

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. 

This reconstruction drawing of the Pool of Siloam, dating from the first century, is based on the excavations of Bliss and Dickie . According to their plan, the almost square pool had a double entrance that indicates a ritual function. The double entrance gave access to a colonnaded porch that was built round a pool. It received water from Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This, I believe, was the building in which the blind man washed and was healed by Jesus.

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.

Washing and bathing are important parts of Jewish ritual and are referred to in the Gospels, e.g. Matthew 15.2 and John 9.7.

Here we see the water reservoir in the foreground and the Pool of Siloam higher up.

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.

A stepped pool was discovered at the mouth of the Central or Tyropoeon Valley, which is located between the Western and Eastern Hills of Jerusalem. This large pool served as one of the water reservoirs of Jerusalem. The building with the double entrance at the top of the drawing had a religious function.

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. 

These large twin pools formed the Pools of Bethesda in Jerusalem, mentioned in John 5:2. Each of the pools had steps on one side only. Next to these large water reservoirs was a temple dedicated to Asclepius, the Roman snake god of healing. Around this small building were five sacred baths where sick people hoped to be healed. Jesus healed the paralytic man in this complex (John 5.2).

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.

In the Byzantine period, a church was erected above the Pool of Siloam. The pool could be reached from a door inside the church.

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).

The Golden Gate interior

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’ar haRachamim, “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 French archaeologist, 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.” 

In 1975, I stood by this pillar (at right), unaware of the barely visible inscriptions right next to me. The red circle indicates the location where these inscriptions were found.

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?”

The Middle Gate

“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. 

Here we see the corner of a large L-shaped fortified gate that was excavated in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

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.

A partial reconstruction of the excavated remains of the Middle Gate.

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. 

Here we see a reconstruction drawing of the Middle Gate before it was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. © Leen Ritmeyer

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.

Where in Jerusalem will the Jewish Temple be Rebuilt?

In this video, Jim Scudder of InGrace ministry interviews me on the spiritual significance of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, its history and future.

One correction, the quote about the Middle Gate is in Jeremiah 39:3.

The Beautiful Gate

What was so beautiful about it?

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.  

This reconstruction model shows the Double Gate in the Southern Wall of Herod’s Temple Mount in Jerusalem. A 210 feet (64 m) wide stairway led up to this gate from the lower plaza. Because of its monumental proportions, this gate was probably used by most of the pilgrims going to worship at the Temple.

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. 

The southern part of the Double Gate underground passageway is preserved in its entirety and dates to the Herodian period, including the domes in the ceiling. The preserved part of this ceiling is divided into four square bays (there were apparently six originally) that are separated from each other by four shallow arches that spring from a monolithic column. The carved decorations of the western domes have been completely preserved. The southeast dome is not decorated, and only two decorated pendentive stones in opposite corners of the northeast dome have survived.

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.”

In this reconstruction drawing of the underground passageway of the Double Gate of Herod’s Temple Mount in Jerusalem people can be seen entering in through the right (east) gate and others exiting through the left (west) gate. Peter and John can be seen standing by the lame man near the central gate post.

Two of the west domes are beautifully decorated with carved floral and geometric designs interwoven in intricate patterns. 

The southwest dome has a vine with grape bunches twined among eight squares arranged in an eight-pointed star. This ink drawing was made by Martha Ritmeyer and digitally enhanced by Daniel Smith.
The northwest dome has a giant wreath made of rosettes arranged around a circular multi-petalled scallop with acanthus leaves in the corners. Drawing by Leen and Nathaniel Ritmeyer and digitally enhanced by Daniel Smith.
The northeast dome is partially decorated, as only two decorated pendentive stones in opposite corners of the northeast dome have survived (see the plan above). It is possible to reconstruct a large wreath of interweaving strands that create scrolls filled with rosettes in between two egg-and-dart motives that surrounded a central design. Apart from a wave pattern, the central design has not survived. Drawing by Leen Ritmeyer, with thanks to Orit Peleg-Barkat for providing a photograph of the small northeast pendentive of this dome.

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.

An overall view of a model of the Temple Mount looking from the northwest. In the foreground is the Antonia Fortress, while the Temple with its surrounding buildings stood close to the centre of the Temple Mount. The lower portico above the Eastern Wall (upper centre) was known as Solomon’s Porch, mentioned in John 10.23 and Acts 3.115.12.

 

A reconstruction of the Magdala Synagogue

Did Jesus preach in this synagogue?

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.

This is a reconstruction drawing of the Synagogue of Gamla, on the Golan Heights, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It dates from the 1st century A.D., making it one of the earliest synagogues excavated. Four tiers of steps were located behind the columns which supported the central part of the roof. A study room was located at the back of the synagogue. The building was made entirely of basalt stones and the drawing reflects this. A mikveh is located in front of the synagogue.

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 synagogue served as a place for the reading of the Torah and its study. Opposite the entrance in the east wall of the first century synagogue at Capernaum in which Jesus preached, were stone benches on three sides. In the centre of the hall was a reading platform, consisting of a decorated square stone on which a wooden lectern was constructed. This reconstruction is based on a similar stone that was found in nearby Magdala. The reader read from the Torah scroll that was brought into the synagogue in a wheeled cart, which was placed at the left side of the entrance. The ruler of the synagogue placed the scroll on the lectern. On the right side of the entrance was a stone seat, called Moses’ Seat, where the teacher sat. Such seats have been found in the synagogues of Chorazin and Tiberias.

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.

Jerusalem and the Temple Mount in the Hellenistic period

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. 

In 200 BCE, a crucial battle was fought at Panion (Banias) between the Ptolemaic forces led by general Scopas, and two Seleucid forces. The force led by Antiochus the Younger was stationed on the lower slopes of Mount Hermon, and the other by Antiochus III. Antiochus II won the battle and captured southern Syria and annexed Judea.

The Temple that was built by Jeshua and Zerubbabel three centuries earlier undoubtedly needed structural maintenance and repairs. 

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 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.

Although no archaeological remains of these buttresses have been found, nevertheless they have been indicated on the drawing as a suggestion. The location of the cistern is also indicated.

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.

The Seleucid Akra, was built to the south of the Temple Mount and east of the Huldah Gates. These gates were the main ones that were used by people that went up from the Lower City, the City of David, to the Temple. The garrison that was stationed inside the fortress, could easily control access to the Temple Mount. 

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:

Schematic plan of the excavated Hellenistic city showing the locations where large stretches of city walls with adjoining ramparts have been discovered in archaeological excavations (darker color). These massive earth ramparts were built outside the city walls, both on the west and east of the city. 
In 169 BCE, Antiochus Epiphanes ordered Jerusalem to be fortified and a fortress to be built south of the Temple Mount. The city walls were strengthened and massive ramparts were added on the outside, making it very difficult for enemies to climb up. A year later, a new fortress – the Seleucid Akra – was built south of the Temple Mount.

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.

The Feast of Dedication, known as Hanukkah, lasted eight days. According to Talmudic sources, the oil that was left in the Temple was sufficient for one day only, but miraculously kept the seven oil lamps of the menorah (Lampstand) filled for eight days. The Hanukkiah, in contrast to the menorah, has eight branches. The ninth oil lamp on the central stem, called the shamash, was used to light the other oil lamps. The Feast of Dedication is also mentioned in the Gospel of John 10:22 when Jesus went to Jerusalem and visited the Temple Mount.

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.

According to Josephus (Ant. 13:215), after the demolishment of the Akra, Simon the Maccabee lowered the mountain on which it was built, incorporating the whole area into the Temple Mount complex, extending it to the south. This was the first time that the Temple Mount was no longer square.

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.

An overall view of a model of the Herodian Temple Mount looking from the northwest. In the foreground is the Antonia Fortress, while the Temple with its surrounding buildings stood close to the centre of the Temple Mount. The lower portico above the Eastern Wall (upper centre), known as Solomon’s Porch, was built in the Hasmonean period, and by King Solomon. However, at that time, any pre-Herodian structure was attributed to Solomon .

The Road to Emmaus

A new Emmaus trail in Israel is ready for pilgrims, but is it on the right track?

On the 21st of march, 2021, Linda Gradstein wrote in the Jerusalem Post  

“Pilgrims can walk the new 18-km. (11-mile) Emmaus Trail that now goes from the Saxum Visitor Center in Abu Ghosh, which hat exhibits on Christianity, and ends at the monastery of Emmaus Nicopolis.”

The important event that took place on the Road to Emmaus is reported fully only in Luke 24.13-35. These verses record Jesus appearing to two of his disciples while they were going to a place called Emmaus. One was called Cleopas and the other is unnamed.

The fact that on their return to Jerusalem, the two disciples told the eleven (or ‘the rest’ as they are called in Mark 16.13) that “he was known of them in breaking of bread”, shows what a significant occasion it was. It was the first time after the Last Supper that Jesus broke bread again.

From their conversation we learn that those two disciples did not understand why Jesus had to die. We read that “they talked together of all these things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned …” (Luke 24.14,15). They were quite perplexed and when Jesus joined them, he asked them what they were talking about. Cleopas told him what had happened to Jesus in Jerusalem. These two disciples knew the sequence of the events very well, but they did not believe them and had walked away from Jerusalem. After Jesus opened the Scriptures to them, “their heart burned within them”.

Is it important to understand why the first breaking of bread in which Jesus participated after he was raised from the dead, had to take place near a village called Emmaus? And where was Emmaus[1]? Why is that important to know? One thing that I have learnt from following the journeys of Jesus is that he always went to places for a reason, usually to fulfil an Old Testament prophecy.

This map shows some of the candidates for Emmaus

We are told that Emmaus was about 60 stadia[2] (Luke 24.13) from Jerusalem, that is over 4 times as far as Bethany, which was 15 stadia (2.775 km, 1.72 miles) from Jerusalem (John 11.18). As I have lived for two years in Bethany, I know this measurement to be true, as it took me just over half an hour to walk from the back of the Mount of Olives to the Temple Mount Excavations. Emmaus should be located therefore some 11 kms or 7 miles from Jerusalem. But in which direction did Jesus go? North, south, east or west? We are not told.


The name Emmaus does not occur anywhere in the Old Testament. However, in one of the New Testament manuscripts, the Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis[3], as pointed out by Read-Heimerdinger and Rius-Camps, Emmaus is called Oulammaous[4]. Another ancient source also refers to these names[5]. This is because of an association that was made by some of the early translators with the name of the place where Jacob had a dream after he left his family to go to Padanaram. 

This sign near the modern settlement of Bethel indicates Jacob’s Rock where he had the vision of the ladder. The Hebrew text above it says The Place of Jacob’s Dream.

This first place where Jacob stopped overnight he called Bethel, which means the House of God: 

“And he called the name of that place Bethel: but the name of that city was called Luz at the first”. (Gen. 28:19)

The word order in Hebrew is different:

“And he called the name of that place Bethel: but Luz was the name of the place at first”. 

In the Hebrew text, “but Luz” is “Oulamlouz”, and this became Oulammaous in this manuscript, from which comes Ammaus by changing the “L” to an “M. (Emmaus is the Latin translation).

If Emmaus and Bethel are essentially the same place, then there are amazing parallels between Jacob’s stay in Bethel and Jesus going to Emmaus with the two disciples. 

Some questions still remain to be answered. When the two disciples returned to Jerusalem, they said, “The Lord is risen indeed, and hath appeared to Simon.” (Luke 24:34)

How did they know that? And who was Cleopas? If the name of Bethel had been obscured, then maybe the name of Cleopas also stood for somebody else. I believe he was Peter, for Cleopas (if you take out the letter ‘L’, as with Oulamaous) sounds very much like Cephas, unto whom we know that Jesus appeared before the other disciples. In the gospels we read that after his resurrection Jesus appeared unto Mary Magdalene first, but it is also written in 1Cor. 15:4,5 that “Jesus was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures: and that he was seen of Cephas, then of the twelve”.

In this Lucan account, Peter’s identity is hidden, reflecting perhaps the fact that his eyes were restrained. Jesus had earlier changed Peter’s name to Cephas when he made that good confession that Jesus was the Son of living God. This confession became the foundation stone on which the church is built. Jesus had called him also Simon son of Jonah[6], which means “hearer, son of a dove” – a dove is type of the Holy Spirit. Listening to Jesus’ explanation of why he had to suffer and die, and believing after Jesus had broken bread, made him a true hearer. 

So, if Cleopas is indeed Cephas, then Jesus indeed first appeared to Peter before the other disciples, and if that is so, then how great is the forgiveness and mercy of Jesus toward the disciple who had betrayed him! 

There may be other reasons why the name of Bethel does not appear in the New Testament and that the Canaanite name of Luz (Gen. 28:19) for Bethel was used instead. First of all, Bethel in Hebrew means the House of God, which at that time was understood to be the Temple in Jerusalem. 

The second reason may be that the people of this place were ashamed of their connection with the temple that Jeroboam had built for the worship of Baal, who was often portrayed as a bull (1 Kings 12:26-33)[7]. When some Baal-worshipping youths[8] returned from Bethel to Jericho, they met Elisha and mocked him. Elisha then cursed them in the name of Yahweh, as this meeting had become a confrontation between the worship of Yahweh and that of Baal. Elisha was vindicated when, by divine intervention, two she bears mauled these idol worshippers. The people of Bethel may have wanted to disassociate themselves from their shameful past.

In the fifth year of Rehoboam, the Kingdom of Solomon split. The ten northern tribes set up the Kingdom of Israel under Jeroboam. To prevent the people from going to Jerusalem during the feast days, Jeroboam made two golden calves and put them in temples, one in Bethel and one in Dan (1Kings 12:28,29). The temple in Bethel has not yet been found, but the one in Dan survived and has been excavated.
In this reconstruction drawing, we see the complete temple for the golden calf in the centre of the courtyard, with a stairway leading up to it. In front of the temple was an altar, while other rooms were arranged around the sanctuary.
The site of Ras et-Tahunah at al-Bireh is an elevated hill, which has been tentatively identified as the high place of Bethel.

It also makes sense that Emmaus would have been located on the Way of the Patriarchs, on which Abraham, Jacob and Joseph had travelled. This ridge road connects places, such as Beersheba, Hebron, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Bethel, Shiloh and Shechem, where some of the most important events in Scripture took place. 


[1] Several candidates for identification with Emmaus have been suggested, e.g. Mozah (Qaloniyeh), Abu Gosh (Castellum), el-Qubeibeh and Imwas (Emmaus-Nicopolis). None of these places, however, have a relevant historical connection to the site under consideration. 

[2] One Roman stadium is about 185 m.

[3] This manuscript is held at the University of Cambridge: https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-NN-00002-00041/1 

[4] Read-Heimerdinger, J. and Rius-Camps, J., “Emmaus or Oulammaous? Luke’s Use of the Jewish Scriptures in the Text of Luke 24 in Codex Bezae”, Revista Catalana de Teologia (RCatT) 27 (2002), pp. 23-43.

[5] Eusebius of Caesarea, in Onomasticon 40.20 writes, Baithel (Bethel) is now a village twelve miles from Ailia (Jerusalem) to the right of the road going to Neapolis (Shechem). It was formerly called Oulamma and also Luza. It was given to the lot of the tribe of Benjamin, near Bethaun (Bethaven) and Gai (Ai). Josue (Joshua) also fought there killing the king.”

[6] Matthew 16:17.

[7] The site of Ras et-Tahunah at al-Bireh is an elevated hill, which has been tentatively identified as the high place of Bethel.

[8] These youths were not little children. The Hebrew na’arim ketanim indicates young people, not little children.  Abraham’s 318 young men that defeated the armies of Chedorlaomer and his allies, were also called na’arim (Gen. 14:24). When Solomon became king at the age of 40, he asked God for wisdom as he said that he was but a “little child” (na’ar katan), the same Hebrew words that were used to described the youths in 2 Kings 2:23,24.

The destruction of the site of Joshua’s altar on Mount Ebal

A couple of days ago, the Palestinians destroyed part of the surrounding wall of an important archaeological site on Mount Ebal. Although its identification is controversial, many believe that these are the remains of the altar that Joshua built on Mount Ebal (Joshua 8:30) . Whatever the identification, the destruction of archaeological sites in Israel is deplorable. For further comments, see: here, here and here (with aerial video).

Photo from Zachi Dvira’s blog. Part of the enclosure wall in the centre of the photo is being destroyed.

I know the site well, for in 1983, I was asked by Prof. Benjamin Mazar to visit a new archaeological site on Mount Ebal that was being excavated by Adam Zertal and make reconstructions drawings of this altar. 

Here I am following Adam Zertal who is explaining the site to me.
Adam (c) talking to Amihai Mazar (r) and Kathleen (l).
A reconstruction of the altar site
The enclosure wall round the altar site. Part of the surrounding wall on the right (not visible in this drawing) was destroyed.

As Zachi comments: “What happened recently in Mount Ebal is the tip of the iceberg about everything that has been happening in Judea and Samaria in recent years.” Hopefully this will be a wake-up call for the relevant authorities to put a stop to this senseless destruction.