The Earliest Synagogue in Israel? Used by the Maccabees?

First of all — Happy Hanukkah!
A SYNAGOGUE USED BY THE MACCABEES?

The folk over at Bible History Daily have drawn attention to  an article “Modi’in: Where the Maccabees Lived Have excavations uncovered the hometown [synagogue?] of the Maccabees, heroes of Hanukkah’s Maccabean revolt?”  Just in time for Hanukkah!

I don’t believe that any tour groups stop at this site so I thought I would share two images of the site (Umm el–’Umdan; Arabic for “Mother of the Columns”).

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View looking west at the synagogue at Umm el–’Umdan (Arabic for “Mother of the Columns”.

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The red “c’s” are column bases. Note the remains of the courtyard, entrance, and benches.

Excavations conducted in the past decade at Umm el-‘Umdan (Arabic for “Mother of Columns”) by authors Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn (recently deceased) revealed a previously unknown synagogue—featuring eight imposing columns—likely built during the reign of King Herod. But what about earlier? What was at Umm el-‘Umdan during the time of the Maccabees and the Maccabean revolt?

Directly beneath the Herodian synagogue lies a smaller synagogue constructed during the Hasmonean period, and beneath this was a structure securely dated to the end of the third or beginning of the second century B.C.E. According to the excavators, this structure must have been contemporaneous to the time of the Maccabees and the Maccabean revolt. While this Early Hellenistic building influenced the location and shape of the two synagogues built atop it in subsequent centuries, the excavators believe that there is not enough information at the time to conclude that the Early Hellenistic building was also a synagogue.

If the excavators are correct in their interpretation and dating of the above mentioned three structures, then structures two and three (earliest) might well be the earliest synagogue(s) discovered in Israel!   They seem to suggest that structure 2 is a synagogue.

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A more detailed view of Umm el–’Umdan.

For more evidence confirming Umm el-‘Umdan’s Jewish identity in antiquity as well as a discussion of the linguistic relationship between the Hebrew name Modi’in and the Arabic name Umm el-‘Umdan, see “Modi’in: Hometown of the Maccabees” by Shlomit Weksler-Bdolah and Alexander Onn in the March/April 2014 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Happy Hanukkah!

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An “Unknown” Christmas Site Near Bethlehem

KathismaMap02All Christian tour groups will make the bus trip from Jerusalem south to visit the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.  Along the short 5 mile journey there are so many things to see that buses race past the remains of an important octagonal church that is located just along the east side of the busy highway—just inside of pre–1967 Israeli Jerusalem.

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View looking south at the foundations of the Kathisma Church

The usually unnoticed excavations are the remains of the  “Kathisma Church” that is located about half way between New Testament Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  It was built around A.D. 456 to commemorate the spot where, according to the Protoevangelium of James, Mary rested (Kathisma, Greek for “seat” or “chair”) on the way to Bethlehem (text below).

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It is octagonal in shape with three concentric octagonal walls and a large apse area on the eastern side.  This type of church is called a martyrium.  Its octagonal design probably facilitated processions in the building.  Examples from Israel include churches from Capernaum, built over St. Peter’s house, and one at Caesarea (another is found at Hierapolis in Turkey).

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View looking northeast at the foundation walls of the octagonal
Kathisma Church — Place where Mary rested on the way to Bethlehem
Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download

Between the two outer octagonal walls are four good-sized chapels—on the northwest, northeast, southeast, and southwest.  The floors of the chapels were covered with geometric and floral mosaics (now covered with sand).  In the center of the octagon is a large stone (bedrock?) that was probably venerated as the spot where Mary rested.

The church was turned into a mosque when the Muslims conquered Palestine in the seventh century.

“And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him [Joseph]: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth.  And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whiter shall I lead thee, and cover thy disgrace? for the place is a desert.  And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem”
(Protoevangelium of James 17 and 18)

To view more images of the Kathisma Church Click Here.

For a convenient description of this church see Hershel Shanks, “Rediscovering the Kathisma—Where Mary Rested.” Biblical Archaeological Review 32, no. 6 (November/December, 2006): 44–51.

Away in a Manger (feeding trough!)

Megiddo Manger

Feeding trough found at Megiddo on the southern edge of the Jezreel Valley

The gospel of Luke contains specific details regarding Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem of Judea.  One of the things mentioned in this narrative is that he was placed in a “manger” (Luke 2:7, 12, and 16).

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, … and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  And there were shepherds … find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger … found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.

The Greek word φαντη that is used here typically refers to a stone type trough that was used for feeding of animals—sometimes in the stalls within a dwelling.

This word is used once more in the Gospels (Luke 13:15) where it refers to a “stall” (NIV), actually a feeding trough, for a donkey—and it is clear from the context that this was within a house (Luke 13:10–17).

Megiddo Trough at Rockefeller Musem

Reconstructed Feeding Trough and Pillars from OT Megiddo

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall (φαντη; “manger“) and lead it out to give it water?

It appears that after the birth of Jesus, that he was actually placed in a feeding trough somewhat similar to the ones presented here if not ones that were carved into the stone floor of the “stable”—a far cry from the rickety wooden “mangers” of Christmas pageants.

For details on this topic see Kenneth E. Bailey Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes — Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008, pp. 28–32 as well at the various Greek lexicons.

As Christmas approaches, I thought I would repost a few “blogs” that are related to the celebration.

Three Christmas Videos

Wayne Stiles today launches three videos related to the birth of Jesus Christ.  Wayne filmed them on location in Israel.  The photography is great and Stiles is a master of linking the Land and the Bible to the Christian Life!

Each video is about 15 minutes in length.  Click Here for the first free, no obligation video.  Be sure to scroll down to see the content of the three videos.  Enjoy!

The three-part series is called, “The Promise that Changed the World.”

The prophecies and preparation for the Incarnation
The birth of Jesus and the announcement to shepherds
The aftermath of His birth, including the Magi and Herod’s rage

In the Fullness of Time (Galatians 4:4) and the Altar of Peace (Rome)

An Era of Peace and Harmony. Full-size image below.

The Ara Pacis Augustae, (the “Altar of Augustan Peace”), commonly called the Ara Pacis, is not one of the places normally visited by groups that only spend a day or two in Rome.

As Christians begin to celebrate the season of Advent, I thought I would share a reflection on how the Ara Pacis illustrates at least one aspect of “the fulness of time.”

Gal. 4:4 But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law,

The Ara Pacis Augustae, (the “Altar of Augustan Peace”) is commonly called the Ara Pacis.  Please see below for two images of the altar that illustrate these “peaceful conditions.”

This altar was dedicated to Pax, the Roman goddess of peace in honor of the peaceful conditions that the Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14) was able to bring to the Roman Empire. It was dedicated on January 30, 9 BC.  Thus, this altar was over 60 years old by the time Paul arrived in Rome as a prisoner!

This Augustus is the same Roman Emperor who is mentioned in

Luke 2:1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.

Roman Emperor Augustus (r. 27 B.C.–A.D. 14) could write about himself

I extended the borders of all the provinces of the Roman people which neighboured nations not subject to our rule. I restored peace . . . with no unjust war waged against any nation.

It is interesting that Paul wrote in the book of Galatians

Gal. 4:4 But when the fulness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under 1the Law,

During the years following Augustus—ca. First Century A.D.—it was relatively safe to travel by land and by sea, the Greek language was understood and spoken by many, and peaceful conditions prevailed.

In the providence of God, it was during such an era that people such as Paul had the freedom to travel about to spread the “Good News”—the Gospel of Jesus Christ (but see note 1 below).


The following two images of the Ara Pacis exhibit the “peacefulness of the era”—think Royal (governmental) propaganda!

Harmony and peace surround either Pax herself, or Tellus, the earth goddess.  See below for a color representation of how it might have originally looked.

View of the upper left rear panel of the Ara Pacis with Tellus, the earth goddess—or possibly Pax, the goddess of Peace. Note the peacefulness of the image—Augustus had established peace in the Roman Empire (= pax Romana).

The two infants look so contented in the arms of the goddess.  The two semi-nude figures on the left and right of the goddess, with the billowing cloth, may represent the sky (on the left with the bird) and the sea (on the right with a tamed sea creature).  The sheep and the large ox seem very docile!

A procession of dignitaries processing to the dedication of the altar—including Augustus himself on the very left side of the image.

View of the upper south panel of the Ara Pacis.  Near the center of the procession is a child holding his father’s hand.  The father, tall, head–covered (like a priest), facing to the left of the image, is the son–in–law of Augustus, Marcus Agrippa.  The woman on our right of the child is Agrippa’s wife, Livia/Julia, daughter of Augustus, and the child is Gaius Caesar their offspring—an intended heir of Augustus.

On the left side of the image, there is a partial figure with a sharp vertical break.  This figure is that of Augustus himself!

The Ara Pacis was located in the Campus Martius, a large, formerly swampy, parade ground on the east side of the Tiber River—about 1 mi. northwest of the center of the Roman Forum.  Because of the flooding of the Tiber, it was buried in 12 ft. of debris and gradually fragments of it have been recovered.  It was reassembled in 1938.

Check Here to view additional images of the altar.

BTW — Ara Pacis was originally in full color:

This image is from this website.

Note 1 — obviously, in Judea and Galilee there was much discontent with Roman Rule during the first century A.D.

The REAL Saint Nicholas! December 6

On December 6 the feast of Saint Nicholas is celebrated and so I thought I would bring back this oldie but goodie.

On the outskirts of the Turkish town of Demre is a church that is associated with Saint Nicholas—Father Christmas, a.k.a. in northern Europe as Santa Claus!

Saint Nicholas StatueSt. Nicholas was born in nearby Patara about A.D. 300 and served as the bishop of Myra later in his life.  A number of miracles are attributed to this revered bishop, including his providing a dowry to the three daughters of a local baker.  Thus he is associated with “gift giving!”  He was also the patron saint of sailors and was prayed to for protection at sea—note that Myra is very near the Mediterranean Sea.  He died about A.D. 345.

It is said that he was buried in this church, but that his relics (bones) were taken to Bari, Italy, about A.D. 1088, although other claims are made that the Venetians took them.

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View looking down at the altar area from the top of the synthronon
Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download

Every 6 December, the feast day of St. Nicholas, Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant Christians celebrate the Divine Liturgy here.

To view (or download) additional images of the Church of Saint Nicholas Click Here.

Deir Aziz Synagogue (Golan Heights)

Deir Aziz (“Monastery of Aziz”) is a site  located 4 mi. [6.5 km.] east of the Sea of Galilee on the north side of a wadi that flows into the Nahal Qanaf.  There is a very powerful spring at Deir Aziz and the remains of a prominent synagogue that dates to the Talmudic/Byzantine Period.

Synagogue at Deir Aziz — Looking Southwest

View looking down, southwest at the interior of the synagogue.  The woman in the image is sitting near the south wall of the synagogue.  On the upper right note the stairs that lead down into the synagogue.

The synagogue was first built during the sixth century AD and was evidently destroyed in the earthquake of AD 749.  The scattered remains are from the synagogue and subsequent usage.

Deir Aziz — Interior — Looking East

The door on the far side is the entrance to the synagogue from the east.  On the left (north) side of the image notice the three-tiered bench and behind it the plastered wall.  Above the wall notice the projecting stones.  These stones probably supported wooden beams that supported the roof of the synagogue.

Deir Aziz — Spring and Pool

View of the “modern” pool at Deir Aziz that is fed by the powerful spring at the site.  Note the sabra cactus plants on this side of the pool.

To locate Deir Aziz on a map, and for additional images, Click Here.