One of the most significant events in the history of the early Christianity is documented in the book of Acts. While visiting the house of Simon the tanner in Jaffa, Peter experienced a vision while on the rooftop: “Peter went up on the housetop to pray, at about the sixth hour. Then he became very hungry and wanted to eat, but while they made ready, he fell into a trance and saw heaven opened and an object like a great sheet bound at the four corners, descending to him and being let down to the earth. In it were all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and bird of the air. And a voice came to him, “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “Not so Lord! For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.” And a voice spoke to him again the second time, “What God has cleansed you must not call common.” This was done three times. And the object was taken up into heaven again” (Acts 10:9-16).
This event is of major importance in the formation of the Christian religion. Together with exemption from circumcision, and later sanctifying Sunday instead of Saturday, by these new definitions Christianity departed from Judaism in a fundamental and unbridgeable way.
Jaffa and the House of Simon the Tanner
The city of Jaffa has a long and rich History. Settled already in Neolithic times, Jaffa was a fortified city by the Bronze Ages.
Nevertheless in the 15th century BCE Thutmosis III conquered the city, by deception. He offered the king of Jaffa jars of fine beer, but some of them really contained Egyptian soldiers. After a big party, when the king and all the inhabitants of the city fell into a deep sleep, the Egyptian soldiers quietly opened the gates of the city, andThutmosis’ general, Dahuti, easily captured the city.
Archaeological research at Jaffa found evidence of Egyptian presence in Jaffa at the end of the Bronze Age, in the form of a gate lintel from the time of Ramesses II.
In the time of the Israelites Jaffa was the main harbor for international trade. Through Jaffa Solomon imported the timber he needed for the building of the temple inJerusalem (II Chron. 2:10-15); and so did the Jews when they returned from the Babylonian exile and rebuilt the temple (Ezra 3:7). Jonah took a boat from Jaffa to get toTarshish (Jonah 1:3) but ended up being swallowed by a whale before reaching Nineveh.
In the Greco-Roman period the city was known in Greek mythology. Its queen, Cassiopeia, boasted about her, or possibly her daughter, Andromeda’s, beauty. The Nereid Mermaids were offended by that human vanity and complained to their father, Poseidon, the god of the seas. Poseidon sent a tide of water and a monster to desolate the city.
The king of Jaffa, after consulting with the local oracle, decided to sacrifice his daughter Andromeda to the sea monster. Andromeda was chained to the rocks near the harbor awaiting her fate. The sea monster was about to devour her when suddenly Perseus appeared. Flying with his winged sandals over the beast, he faced it with the head of the gorgon that he had previously killed. Anyone who looked at the face of the gorgon instantly turned into stone. Perseus overcame this obstacle by using the shield Athena gave him as a mirror. The sea monster however turned into the scraps of rock visible to this day at the entrance to Jaffa harbor. He then freed Andromeda from her chains, took her safely to shore and later married her.
The city continued to be inhabited through Byzantine and Muslim periods, and today has 46,000 residents.
Since the Middle Ages a house in Jaffa became known as the “house of Simon the tanner.” It is owned by an Armenian family who in the past also operated the lighthouse in its back yard.
Being a private house, it is closed to the public. Often pilgrims and tourist groups stand in front of the entrance while guides explain about the house and the event that took place on its roof. But the roof itself, to my knowledge, has never been open to the public, or even been seen by anyone.
Climbing to See the Roof
For this reason, I think I made history. In April 2005 I conducted a field trip with Bible translation students whom I teach on behalf of the Hebrew University. We visited Jaffa, including the house of Simon the Tanner.
The house was closed, as always, but the opposite house was being renovated and scaffolding covered its the front.
I could not resist the temptation. There were no signs prohibiting anyone from climbing on the scaffolding and there was no one from whom I could ask permission. I asked Ruth, one of the students, to borrow her camera. Because the scaffolding was quite unstable I climbed very carefully up to the top, but the risk and the effort were both worthwhile. From the top I could observe the roof of the house, and even the lighthouse at the back. The view was captured, once and for all, on my borrowed camera. As far as I know it is the first photo ever of the rooftop of this house.
Like the façade, the doomed roof of the house is typical of the Muslim periods. If this house is from the Muslim times, obviously Peter never stayed in this house and did not have a vision on its roof. But perhaps this house is located on the same spot where the original 1st century CE structure stood. And there is only one way to find out – let archaeologists excavate this site.