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Archaeology of Christian Sites

One of my favorite fields of research and travel is Holy Christian sites. Time and time again I find myself so moved by the excited pilgrims when visiting these sites. Throughout the year there are also several interesting Christian Holidays (see a nice  Christian calendar for 2011  here).
Below is a series of articles reporting on Holy Christian sites in the Holy Land. They are all off-prints from articles I originally published in ARHCAEOLGICAL DIGGINGS.

Archaeological diggings

I am also trying to publish a book on the “Archaeology of the New Testament”. This project requires funding. If you are interested in contributing to this project, please contact me.

1. Ein Kerem: Birthplace of John the Baptist

Ein Kerem (“spring of the vineyard” in Hebrew) is a small pastoral village on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. Watered by a perennial spring, this green valley was inhabited as early as the Neolithic period. Ein-Kerem may be the same place as “Beth-Hakerem” (“The house of the vineyard”) mentioned several times in the Old Testament. Jeremiah states that fire signals were lit at Ein-Kerem during the Babylonian invasion (Jer. 6:1). Ein-Kerem is mentioned again in Nehemiah 3:14 after the return from the captivity in Babylon. But Ein-Kerem acquired far more fame because of events described in the New Testament. According to Christian tradition, Ein-Kerem was the birthplace of John

2. Beth-Lehem: Birth Place of Jesus

The Biblical city of Beth Lechem (Bethlehem) is located about 5 km south of Jerusalem, along the Judean mountain highway to Hebron and the Be’er Sheva valley. Before the time of David (ca 1000 BCE) the Bible gives only a little information on Bethlehem. Rachel, Jacob’s wife, died and was buried near Bethlehem (Gen 35:19); A prophet called Ibzan lived in Bethlehem (Judges 12:8); and a “young man” from Bethlehem became a priest for a man called Micah (Judges 17:7). He was no relation to the 8th century BCE prophet Micah who predicted that although Bethlehem was insignificant, it would be the birthplace of an important figure: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of

3. Nazareth: The Cradle of Christianity

Nestling on the western slopes of the lower Galilee mountain range, Nazareth was a small village from the Canaanite down to the Roman periods. Although the view from the southern edge of the village is excellent and would have enabled its citizens to monitor the important roads in the Jezreel valley, Nazareth did not develop in antiquity as a strategic military site. The Old Testament does not even mention Nazareth, nor does Josephus, the 1st century CE Jewish historian, even though he does mention 45 other sites in Galilee. But events that took place in Nazareth during the days of Josephus changed the history of the Nazareth, and effect it to

4. Cana: The First Miracle

The first recorded miracle of Jesus took place in the village of Cana (John 2:11). Jesus, his mother and his disciples attended a wedding, but the wine was all gone before the celebrations concluded. To the amazement of both host and guests, Jesus made water, stored in six stone jars, into wine. Jesus performed another miracle at Cana, when he healed the son of a nobleman from the town of Capernaum (John 4:46-54). Cana was also the hometown of one of the disciples –  Nathanael (also known as Bartholomew) (John 21:2). The location of Cana is unclear. The Gospels only mention that Cana is in Galilee, and today two sites are

5. Capernaum

Capernaum is today a site of antiquities on the northwestern short of the Sea of Galilee, along the road connecting the Golan Heights and the Galilee. Capernaum means “the village of Nahum”, although it is not known to after which Nahum is the village named. Capernaum owes its fame to Jesus, who left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum after his baptism (Matt 4:12). Why he chose to settle in Capernaum is not clear. One possibility is that because it was located on an important road, Jesus was able to spread his messages here more successfully than in isolated Nazareth. Another suggestion is that Capernaum was sufficiently apart from administrative centers, like Tiberias, where Herod

6. Bethany beyond the Jordan

The messianic activity of Jesus begins only after been baptized by John the Baptist. According to Gospel of Matthew, John the Baptist was preaching in the Judean desert when Jesus came to him, yet John baptized him in the Jordan river (Matt 3:1,6). That means the baptismal site has to be close to the Judean desert. The only possible location is the Jordan River near Jericho, just before it enters the Dead Sea. The Gospel of John actually mentions a location: “These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing” (John 1:28), but later he mentions another site: “And John also was

7. The Temptations Sites

After his Baptism Jesus went into the wilderness where he fasted for forty days, and  Satan tempted him in various ways at a few sites. Can these sites be identified today? The Pinnacle of the Temple First, Satan urged him to turn a stone into bread, to which Jesus replied by quoting from the Old Testament: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4). Then Satan took him to “the pinnacle of the temple” (literally, “the wing of the holy”) in Jerusalem, where he challenged him to jump, arguing that if

8. Jacob’s Well

The Gospel of John is known for its unique narrative. John mentions several events and places that are not referred to in Matthew, Mark or Luke. This report is devoted to a site mentioned only in John, chapter 4: “Now [Jesus] had to go through Samaria. So he came to a town in Samaria called Sychar, near the plot of ground Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there, and Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well” (John 4:5-6). Here Jesus met a Samaritan woman who came to draw water from the well. Jesus explained to her

9-11. The Decapolis

Decapolis is an ancient term used to describe a group of supposedly ten cities that co-existed during the Roman period. Eight were located on the eastern side of the River Jordan, one was in northern Israel and one in Syria. Despite the term “Decapolis” (Greek: deka, ten; polis, city), the number of cities in this treaty is actually uncertain. The Roman historian Pliny the Elder (Natural History 5, 16, 74), lists the ten cities as: Gerasa (Jerash); Nyse-Scythopolis (Beit-Shean); Hippos-Sussita; Gadara (UmmQays); Pella (Pahal); Philadelphia (modern Amman); Dion; Canatha; Raphana (Abila); and Damascus. However, Ptolemy, a later Roman geographer, lists 18 cities as members of the Decapolis. Perhaps the league began with ten cities, and other cities

11. Tyre and Sidon

Tyre and Sidon are two ancient cities that are mentioned frequently in the New Testament, and Jesus on at least one occasion visited their area and healed the daughter of a Canaanite woman. Since Tyre and Sidon were not part of Israel, the people were non-Jewish and were considered to be “Gentiles.” Both cities are along the coast of Lebanon and have a long and significant history. They were inhabited from the earliest stages of urbanization, and both were important Phoenician maritime trade centers in the first millennium BCE.  They continued to thrive under Roman, Byzantine, Islamic and Frankish rule, and are commercial and agricultural centers to this day. Although Tyre and Sidon were neighboring port cities,

12. Magdala: Home of Mary Magdalene

About 4.5 km north of Tiberias, at the junction with a road coming down from Nazareth, are the remains of the Arab village called “Majdala”. This village was settled by Egyptian farmers in the 19th century and was abandoned in 1948, but its name preserves the ancient name of the site – Magdala. Ancient Magdala is famous in Christian tradition for being the city from which Mary “Magdalene” came. Mary Magdalene is mentioned for the first time in Luke 8:1-2 as a woman “from whom seven demons had come out”. Apparently she was a very close follower of Jesus: She is one of the few persons

13. Nain: the First Resurrection Miracle

(For the section on the Nain church jump to 2:08) An event that is documented only in the Gospel of Luke (7:11-17) presents a truly miraculous event performed by Jesus. After healing the centurion’s Servant (or one of the king’s men, in the version of John’s gospel), Jesus and his disciples are recorded as visiting Nain. There they are met by a funeral procession. The only son of a widow had died. Having compassion on her, Jesus decided to act: “Then he came and touched the open coffin, and those who carried [him] stood still. And he said, “Young man, I say to

14. Mountain of the Beatitudes

The Mountain of the Beatitudes got its name from the event documented in Matthew 5: “Now when he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…’” Verses 3 to 11 begin with the words “Blessed are…”, hence the name Beatitudes, which mean in Latin “blessings” (cf. Luke 6). The Mountain of Beatitudes is perhaps also the

15. Kursi: Site of the Miracle of the Swine

Kursi is a picturesque site on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, maintained today by the Israel Nature Parks Authority. It was discovered by chance after the Six Day War (June 1967). After the war a plan to construct a road on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee was executed, but as the tractors were clearing the way, Mendel Nun, a member of the nearby kibbutz Ein Gev, noticed that the tractors were cutting through ancient remains. He persuaded the authorities to halt the work, and an archaeological expedition exposed much of the site between 1970 and 1974. Head of the

16. Machaerus: The Execution site of John the Baptist

   After giving the “Sermon on the Mount” and performing the “Swine Miracle” all the synoptic Gospels describe how Jesus returns to Capernaum for some unknown time, and performs various acts. According to Luke he then heals an ill woman, and brings back to life the daughter of Yair, “head of the Synagogue” at Capernaum (Luke 8:40-56). At this stage Jesus also ordains 12 disciples to announce of the arrival of “kingdom of Heaven” (Luke 9:1-6). Luke then mentions that “Herod the tetrarch” hears of the deeds occurring in the north, and is confused whether this is John the Baptist, or one of the Biblical prophets who returned from

17. Tabgha: Site of the multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes

Two miles west of Capernaum lies a site known in Arabic as “Tabgha”. The name is a distortion of the ancient name of the place in Greek “Heptapegon” or “Seven springs”. Indeed a set of springs emerge in this area, attracting fish, and fishermen, throughout the centuries. Yet today the site is far more known than a popular fishing area. Here, according to Christian tradition, Jesus performed the miracle of multiplying loaves and fish in order to feed to multitudes that followed him. The site is not mentioned by the name “Tabgha” or even “Heptapegon” in the New Testament. The Synoptic Gospels

18. Gennesareth: Site of Anchorage and Healings

“When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesareth and anchored there. As soon as they got out of the boat, people recognized Jesus. They ran throughout that whole region and carried the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. And wherever he went – into villages, towns or countryside – they placed the sick in the marketplaces. They begged him to let them touch even the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed” (Mark 6:53-56, cf. Matthew 14:34). Ancient Gennesareth was probably a fishing village. It is identified by most scholars as Tell Kinnereth or Tell el-Oreimeh, a site

19. Bethsaida – the Lost Village of Peter, Philip, and Andrew

They Came to Bethsaida, and some people brought a blind man and begged Jesus to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him outside the village. When he had spit on the man’s eyes and put his hands on him, Jesus asked, ‘Do you see anything?’ He looked up and said, ‘I see people; they look like trees walking around.’ Once more Jesus put his hands on the man’s eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Jesus sent him home, saying, ‘Don’t go into the village.’’’ (Mark 8:22-26).

20. Chorazim – the Condemned City

Most of the sites in this series are places mentioned in the Gospels which were later developed as Holy Christian sites, and are venerated by pilgrims to this day. But Luke 10:13-16 (cf. Mat 11:20-24) records a surprisingly negative statement made by Jesus on some of these sites: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to the skies? No,

21. Caesarea-Philippi: Springs, Shrines, and Symbolic Rocks

Located forty kilometers (25 miles) north of the Sea of Galilee and at the base of Mt Hermon, Caesarea-Philippi is the location of one of the largest springs feeding theJordan River. It is also situated along the “Via Maris”, the international road that connected Egypt and Mesopotamia. The site may have been a cultic centre already in the Canaanite period, as Joshua mentions “… Baal Gad, below Mount Hermon …” as part of “the land that remains” (Joshua 13:5, cf. Judges 3:3). However so far the earliest remains recovered at the site are pottery shards from the late Iron Age and the Persian Period. Caesarea-Philippi was inhabited for certain in

22. Mount Tabor: Site of the Transfiguration

Mount Tabor is an impressive dome shaped mountain in the eastern lower Galilee. It rises 400m above its surroundings, and is 562m above sea level. Mount Tabor is located not far from Nazareth, on the side of the main road leading from the coastal plain to the Sea of Galilee. Its unique shape captured the imagination of ancient people who attributed to the mountain qualities of power and beauty (Jeremiah 46:18; Psalms 89:13). In historical context, Mount Tabor is mentioned for the first time in the book of Joshua as the border mark between the tribes of Zebulun, Issachar, and Naphtali (Joshua 19:22). The book of Judges (4:6) records Deborah the prophetess summoning Barak, “The Lord,

23. Tiberias: The Ancient Capital of the Sea of Galilee

“Then some boats from Tiberias landed near the place where the people had eaten the bread after the Lord had given thanks.” (John 6:23) Tiberias was founded by Herod Antipas around 20 CE, about a decade before Jesus started his public ministry. It was named “Tiberias” in honor of the emperor Tiberius (14-37 AD). Although mentioned in the New Testament only twice, the centrality of Tiberias is evident. In the Gospel of John the Sea of Galilee is called the “Sea of Tiberias” (John 21:1). It seems Tiberias was so important, that sometimes the Sea of Galilee was named after it. And yet the Gospels

24. Sepphoris: the Forgotten City

Located six km north-northwest of Nazareth, Sepphoris was an urban center in Galilee in the Roman and Byzantine periods. Under Roman rule Sepphoris became the capital of the region, and until Herod Antipas moved to his new capital city Tiberias, he lived in Sepphoris. During the late Roman period the city was also known by other names such as Autocratis, Eirenopolis, and Diocaesarea, although her original name, “Sepphoris”, remained in use throughout the Byzantine period (4th-7th century CE). In the Crusader period Sepphoris was known as La Sephorie, and a fort built on the hilltop can be seen today. By Christian tradition, Sepphoris was the hometown of Anna

25. Jericho: the City of Palms – and a Sycamore Tree

Located twelve kilometers North west of the Dead Sea and nine kilometers west of the Jordan river, Jericho holds two world records: it is the lowest city on earth, and it is also the oldest fortified site on earth. Its unique topographical location derives from its proximity to the Dead Sea, which is 422 meters below sea level. The city itself is some 250 m below sea level, set near a perennial spring. The spring attracted various groups of people, from the dawn of history, and at the Biblical mound of Jericho (“Tell el-Sultan”) archaeologists recovered 20 layers of occupation, the oldest dating to the Neolithic Period. The Old Testament titles Jericho as

26. The Good Samaritan Inn

In Luke 10 Jesus is challenged with a question – What is needed to inherit eternal life? Part of his answer quotes Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” But this it followed with a parable. “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed

27. Bethphage

Bethphage, “house of the unripe figs” in Aramaic, is mentioned in the synoptic Gospels as the site where Jesus, before entering Jerusalem, sends his disciples to look for a donkey and a colt upon which he enters the capital city: “As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. If anyone says anything to you, tell him that the Lord needs

28. Bethany

Bethany was a Jewish village, three kilometers east of Jerusalem according to John 11:18. In the Greco-Roman times it was also known by the names Beth-hini, and Beth-Ania. The name is perhaps derived from the Aramaic word Ania, which means ‘poor’, or the village may have been part of a plot belonging to a man named Ania. But Bethany is known mostly by the event documented in John 11 – the site where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus was the brother of a certain Mary. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary were all loved by Jesus, and when he heard of the death of Lazarus, Jesus came to Bethany, and

30. The Temple Mount

Reputed to be the Holiest city in land of Israel, and perhaps in the whole world, Jerusalem is sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. The holiest mountain in Jerusalem is undoubtedly the Temple Mount. By Jewish tradition the Temple Mount is where “the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). It is also where Abraham bound Isaac for sacrifice (Genesis 22:1-19). The Book of Samuel records how later David bought this mountain from Aravnah the Jebusite, and later David’s son Solomon built the temple to the Lord (I Kings 6-7). This temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and rebuilt some fifty years later by Jews returning from

29. Dominus Flevit

Before entering Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus sent his disciples to look for a donkey and a colt to ride upon. The Gospel of Luke adds that just before his entrance, Jesus saw the city of Jerusalem, and lamented its future destruction: As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in

31. The Temple Tax Coins

The Jewish Temple, reviewed in the previous post ( #30), was also a major economical centre. By Jewish law, as commanded in the Bible itself (Exodus 30:13; 38:25), every male Jew over the age of 20 had to give an annual contribution to the temple, of “half a shekel”. A shekel was equated in the first century AD with the Greek tetradrachm (equal to four drachms), which was a silver coin of the weight of nearly 14 grams. Half a shekel therefore would be in the value of nearly7 grams of silver, and could be equated with the Greek didrachm

32. Pools of Bethesda

The Gospel of John records several events in the life of Jesus that are not documented in the other Gospels. The wedding in Cana is one example (John 2, see report #4). During his stay in Jerusalem, the Gospel of John records Jesus healing a person, at a site called Bethesda: “Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades.” (John 5:1-3). The name Bethesda means ‘house of mercy’ or

33. Pool of Siloam

The “Pool of Siloam” is a rock-cut pool located at the southern end of the City of David (Biblical Jerusalem). The water in the pool comes from the Gihon Spring via a 533 meter-long tunnel, known also at “Hezekiah’s Tunnel”. Not much is known about the pool from the Old Testament, but it was one of the reasons Jerusalem survived an Assyrian attack against the city in 701 BCE. (2 Kings 18). The site traditionally identified as the POOL OF SILOAM. Pillar parts in the water of the pool once decorated a Byzantine period church which stood at this site.

34. Site of the Last Supper

One of the most formative events in Christianity documented by the New Testament is the ceremonial meal Jesus and his disciples conduct on the eve of Passover in Jerusalem. During that feast Jesus declared over the unleavened bread, “Take and eat; this is my body” (Matthew 26:26) and when drinking the wine, he said, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins”. This is the source for one of the main sacraments in Christian liturgy – the mass. The exact location of this event is not

35. Garden of Gethsemane

According to the Gospel of John  of John, after the Last Supper Jesus and the disciples went into “a garden” which was “across the Kidron Valley”. (John 18:1). Matthew (26:36)and Mark (14:32) name the place – “Gethsemane”. Gethsemane means “[olive] oil press”. The presence of an olive press across the Kidron Valley is not surprising. It is at the bottom of a mountain called the Mount of Olives. Olive trees were grown mostly for the purpose of producing olive oil. Olive oil was used throughout the ancient world, especially as a source of energy, mostly fuelling oil lamps. Archaeological research

36. Akeldama = Field of Blood

A video on Saint Onophorius monastery at Akeldama site. The last report dealt with Gethsemane, the place where Jesus was captured and led away to his trial and crucifixion. According to the Gospels his arrest was made possible by the betrayal of one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot. The Gospel of Matthew records the remorse of Judas when Jesus was condemned to death: “When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have

37. Judas ISCARIOT

Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve disciples chosen by Jesus (Luke 6:16). The meaning of his surname is unclear. Most believe that, similar to Mary Magdalene which meant ‘Mary from Migdal’, Iscariot meant Judas was a ‘man from Cariot’. A place called “Cariot” or “Craiot” is mentioned in the Old Testament in Joshua 15:25, and in Jeremiah 48:24, but the exact location of these sites is not known, and they are not mentioned in contemporaneous sources of the first century AD. I personally believe Iscariot was simply a nickname, and it meant ‘the man from the cities\regions’. “Ish” means

38. Caiaphas – the High Priest

Once captured, all Gospels record that Jesus was questioned by the High Priest. Two of the Gospels (Matthew and John), mention the high priest by name – Caiaphas. From Josephus we know that the full name of Caiaphas was Joseph Caiaphas (Antiquities of the Jews, 18.2.2/35; 18.4.3/95), and that apparently he was in seat between 18 and 36 AD. Catholic tradition argues the estate of Caiaphas the High Priest was on the eastern slopes of Mount Zion, in an area known as Peter in Gallicantu (Peter of the Cockcrow). Visitors to the site are presented with a set of underground