Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus: Excavations Along the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount

In recent years an area of remarkable significance has been excavated and made accessible to the public. Nevertheless, it is overlooked by the vast majority of Christian pilgrims. On the slopes of the upper portion of Ophel, the Southern Wall excavations are a treasure for those with an interest in Jerusalem, as it existed in the time of Jesus and the early church.

These excavations are rich in finds from various stages in the history of Jerusalem, but particularly impressive are the remains from the expansionist period of Herod the Great (37–4 B.C.). The first century Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, provides us with a detailed account of Herod’s auspicious undertaking to renovate and embellish the Temple which the king believed would assure his eternal remembrance (Jos. Ant. XV. 11).

In the course of his renovation project Herod nearly doubled the surface area of the plaza surrounding the Temple, enlarging it to over 144,000 square meters. This expansion was not accomplished without overcoming challenging topographical obstacles. Most visitors to Jerusalem are aware of the two valleys (Hinnom and Kidron) which border the extremities of the Old City. They take little note, however, of a less severe valley, the Tyropoeon, which transverses the city from the site of present day Damascus Gate southward to its junction with the Hinnom and Kidron valleys outside the city walls (Figure 1). In effect the Temple Mount is positioned on a sloping ridge between the Kidron and Tyropoeon valleys above the City of David.

To increase the available surface area on the platform Herod had to extend the Eastern Wall southward (Figure 2). Evidence of this extension can be seen in the ‘seam’ found in the Herodian courses of stone along the Eastern Wall. The Southern and Western walls were then constructed, reaching a height of over 30 meters and functioning as ‘retaining walls’. Utilizing the excess space which had been created behind the two walls, Herod’s engineers constructed a system of arches (Figure 3) which supported the platform and created room for goods storage and cisterns.

 

Access to the platform was facilitated by various gates. One of the most interesting was a gate located in the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. Today this Herodian entrance is marked by the remaining ‘spring’ of Robinson’s Arch, named for Edward Robinson, dean of the New York Theological Seminary in the early 1800’s. He is credited with the identification of the arch during the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

The arch was one of the largest in the classical world and supported a staircase which provided access to the southern end of the Temple Mount. Josephus relates that at this end stood the Royal Portico, ‘a structure more noteworthy than any under the sun/’ (Ant. XV.11.5). The size of the staircase (15.2 meters wide) gives some indication concerning the importance of the Royal Portico and its adjoining staircase. Meir Ben Dov, one of the Israeli archeologists responsible for the excavation, notes a similar portico in the Agora in Athens ‘which served s the religious, commercial and political center of the city.’ It would appear that the Royal Portico was the location of various businesses, courts, and possible places for religious study. The size of the staircase would have been to accommodate the many people who ascended the steps each day in order to enter the portico. It is also likely that this is the area mentioned in the New Testament in connection with Jesus’ confrontation with the money-changers in the Temple (Luke 19.45-48).

 

Still visible today among the excavations near the arch is the broad thoroughfare which ran parallel to the Western Wall in the first century. Following the course of the Tyropeon Valley, it proceeded southward under Robinson’s Arch and was lined with various shops and businesses. One has little difficulty visualizing Jesus in his boyhood running and playing on these streets during his family’s annual visits to the holy city (Luke 2.41). Today, however, such idyllic thoughts are quickly tempered by the presence of piles of huge stones and debris, reminders of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Roman army in 70 A.D.

 

Among these ruins the archeologists discovered a large stone toppled in the destruction. It bore the inscription ‘to the place of the blowing’ (Figure 5). This stone marked the place where the priest stood on the corner on top of the wall to blow the shofar (ram’s horn). This was done to notify those dwelling in the city that the Sabbath or other holy day had begun.

The Hulda Gates located in the Southern Wall controlled access to tunnels leading from southern steps of ascent to the plaza near the Temple. These tunnels were primary means of access and departure for pilgrims coming to worship. The gates on the right in the location of the present-day ‘Triple Gate’ were the entrance to the Temple Mount, and the gates on the left (today partially blocked by a Crusader tower) were the exit. Through these gates Jesus and his followers, with countless other Jewish pilgrims, would have journeyed.


Before entering the Temple area each person was required to undergo ritual immersion or baptism (t’vila). This practice is also attested in the New Testament (John 11.55-56; Acts 21.23-26; 24.18). Among the excavations of the area round the Southern Wall almost 50 ritual baths (mikva’ot) have been discovered (Figure 6). 

Many scholars identify the Jewish practice of ritual immersion as the predecessor to Christian baptism. In light of this, Dr. Robert Lindsay of Jerusalem has suggested that John the Baptist’s function should be understood as a witness to the ‘baptismal candidate’s’ self-administered rite, and not as an active administrator as found in the modern Christian practice. His view is bolstered by the fact that the passive voice of the verb ‘to baptize’ in Hebrew does not exist in the technical sense of ‘ritual immersion.’ The reason is that such a concept does not exist in Jewish religious life. Indeed, in Jewish practice, the baptismal candidate is forbidden to touch anyone while in the mikveh.

In connection with the subject to baptism, we may identify this area as the locus for another New Testament event. Christian tradition has identified the events of Pentecost (Acts 2) as occurring in the ‘Upper Room’.
 
However, the reader is reminded that the reference in Acts 2.1 to ‘one place’ has no specific designation. Instead, we must rely upon the description of the event to assist us in identifying the ‘one place’.

‘Pentecost’ was the Jewish Feast of Weeks (Shavuoth). It occurred 50 days after Passover, and was one of the three Jewish pilgrimage feasts. In this context we are able to understand why we find Jews from throughout the Roman world in Jerusalem at the time. Josephus tells that during these times hundreds of thousands of Jews came to Jerusalem. We have already stated that such also was the practice of the family of Jesus (Luke 2.41).

When the Spirit descended on those gathered ‘in one place’ the Jewish pilgrims from the Diaspora (the Jewish dispersion) heard these Palestinian Jews glorifying God in various tongues or languages. When the pilgrims enquired how this could be Peter stood and explained that the event was in fulfillment of what had been prophesied by the Prophet Joel (3.1-5). Peter then called on his listeners to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus. Peter’s call to repent and be baptized would have been familiar to his Jewish listeners. The novelty to his message, however, was the addition ‘in the name of Jesus’. His listeners were now to understand their ‘repentance and purification’ in the context of Jesus’ life and ministry.

The conclusion of the story relates that 3,000 received Peter’s message that day and were baptized. The logistics of Jerusalem require us to ask at least two questions about the traditional site of Pentecost. Where is it likely that 3,000 pilgrims from the Diaspora would have been gathered on the first day of the Feast of Weeks? IN addition, where does one find sufficient water to baptize 3,000 people.

We have already hinted at the existence of numerous mikvaot or ritual immersion baths scattered near the access to the Temple Mount. These served to accommodate the thousands of Jewish pilgrims who streamed into Jerusalem three times a year. They could have easily met the needs of this small messianic movement. Are we to identify the events of Pentecost in the proximity of the Temple Mount? Such a conclusion is surely not beyond the realms of possibility.

The greatest benefit Christians can gain from exploring these ancient excavations is a profound appreciation to the Jewish world of the New Testament. Jesus and his followers did not live in a vacuum, but in the midst of a very turbulent, yet exciting, period of history. If we are truly to understand the life and message of Jesus and the early church, we must enter their world and find the contemporary meaning of their words. In that aim the antiquities along the Southern Wall of the Temple Mound can assist us in discovering the Jewish roots of our Christian faith.

Reading List

1. Mei Ben-Dov, In the Shadow of the Temple: The Discovery of Ancient Jerusalem. Keter Publishing, 1985.

2. Yigael Yadin (ed.), Jerusalem Revealed: Archeology in the Holy City, 1968-74. Israel Exploration Society, 1976.

3. William S. LaSor, ‘Discovering What Jewish Miqva’ot Can Tell Us About Christian Baptism’, BAR. Vol. Xiii, No. 1, Jan-Feb, 1987.


Sources

Biblical: Psalms 120-134; Luke 2.21-38, 41-52; 19.45-48; Mt. 21.12-16; Mk. 11.15-18; Acts 2: 21.15-40.

Josephus: Antiquities, 15.11

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