Category Archives: Archaeology

What Were the Early Christians Like?

One of the earliest sources describing Christians is

Amisus-01that of Pliny the Younger who was the Roman “governor” of Pontus and Bithyna from A.D. 111–113 — very possibly describing the Christian community in Amisus.  He does this writing to the Roman Emperor Trajan (A.D. 98–117) asking him how to deal with the relatively new group.

Pliny writes this fascinating description of Christian (ca. A.D. 112):

that they [called Christians in the preceding paragraph] were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but not to commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food–but ordinary and innocent food.  —  (Pliny Letters 10.96–97)

This text does not say from where he was writing but in the paragraphs before those asking about Christian he mentions the people of Amisus (see map above) and in a paragraph after (99) he mentions Amastris.  Thus, many have concluded that he penned these words describing Christians in Amisus.

The modern Turkish city of Samsun is partially built over the ruins of Amisus.  At Amisus there is an ancient citadel (acropolis) and several large tumuli that contain burials from the Hellenistic/Roman Periods.

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The modern port of Samsun — Ancient Amisus — where Christians were persecuted by the Roman governor Pliny
Click on Image to Enlarge

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Two Tumuli (burial mounds) at Samsun (ancient Amisus)
They date roughly from 300 B.C. to 30 B.C. and were thus one hundred years old by the time Pliny wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan

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Erecting an Obelisk

TWMRISHP11Have you ever wondered how the ancients actually set up an obelisk?  In the Late Roman/Byzantine hippodrome in Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul there is still standing the top third of an obelisk of the Egyptian ruler Thutmose III (r. 16th century B.C.).  This obelisk was brought from Egypt to Constantinople and erected by the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius around A.D. 390.

One of the reliefs on its marble base depicts the erection of the obelisk with the emperor and his family watching.

TWMRISHP06For additional images of the obelisk and the hippodrome area Click Here.

Paul at Assos — Part 1

In a previous post, “Paul on the Road to Assos,” I shared some comments and an image of the road that led from Troas to Assos (Acts 20:5–12).

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The western road that led to Assos from the north—through the “necropolis”
The road was lined with funeral monuments honoring the élite of the city
Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download

As Paul approached Assos he probably would have come down this road that was lined with funerary monuments that honored the deceased of the city.

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View south at the Western Gate of Assos that dates to the Hellenistic Period
The road in the foreground is probably the one that Paul used to approach the city
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He then would have entered this magnificent city gate that was built in the fourth century B.C. and is still standing to a height of 46 ft.!  Alternatively, he may have taken the road that skirts this gate to the west and descends directly to the harbor.

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Western Wall and Western Gate at Assos
Built in the 4th century B.C.
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The Hellenistic walls at Assos are some of the best preserved from ancient times.

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The remains of the Doric Temple of Athena on the Acropolis of Assos
It was built around 530 B.C. In the distance is the Island of Lesbos
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At the time of Paul’s visit, the Temple of Athena was almost 600 years old.  It is situated on the Acropolis that towers 780 ft. over the Aegean Sea.

For additional images of the Temple of Athena Click Here.
For images of the walls, necropolis, and gates Click Here.

Herod the Great and The Stadium and Theater at Jericho

About half way between Old Testament Jericho and the Second Temple Palaces of Jericho there is a site called Tell es–Samarat.  This tell was partially excavated and the area surveyed by Ehud Netzer.

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View looking south from the top of Tell es–Samarat at the “stadium” of Second Temple Jericho. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

In the foreground is the top of the cavea of the small (3,000 seat) theater that faces south.  The flat area beyond it from the house in the lower right to beyond the hot houses is were the “stadium” of Herodian Jericho was located.  The stadium was bounded on the right (west) by the asphalt road and on the left by a line of green trees.

The first–century Jewish historian Josephus mentions several  important events that happened here.

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Murder of a Jewish High Priest at NT Jericho

For the few tour/academic groups that visit New Testament Jericho usually, because of time constraints, the main (northern) site is viewed from the south of the Wadi Qilt, but an exploratory walk on the north side of the wadi does pay dividends.

One of the distinctive structures north of the wadi is a double pool that was built in conjunction with the Hasmonean Palace during the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 BCE).  It was refurbished by Herod the Great.

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View of the double swimming pool where the handsome, eighteen year old, Hasmonean High Priest, Aristobulus III was murdered by Herod’s colleagues. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

Each pool measures 42 x 60 ft. and each is 10 ft. deep.  Note the staircases that lead down into the north (near) and south (far) basins.  A wide wall separates the two basins.

It was probably here, in 35 BC, that the brother-in-law of Herod, the young High Priest Aristobulus III, “accidently” drowned while “playing” with some of Herod’s youth.  His death marked the end of potential Hasmonean take over of Herod’s throne.

(53) Upon all this Herod resolved to complete what he had intended against the young man [Aristobulus III]. When therefore the festival was over, and he was feasting at Jericho with Alexandra, who entertained him there, he was then very pleasant with the young man, and drew him into a lonely place, and at the same time played with him in a juvenile and ludicrous manner.

(54) Now the nature of that place was hotter than ordinary; so they went out in a body, and of a sudden, and in a vein of madness; and as they stood by the fish ponds, of which there were large ones about the house, they went to cool themselves [by bathing], because it was in the midst of a hot day.

(55) At first they were only spectators of Herod’s servants and acquaintances as they were swimming; but after a while, the young man, at the instigation of Herod, went into the water among them, while such of Herod’s acquaintances as he had appointed to do it, dipped him as he was swimming, and plunged him under water, in the dark of the evening, as if it had been done in sport only; nor did they desist till he was entirely suffocated.

(56) And thus was Aristobulus murdered, having lived no more in all than eighteen years, and kept the high priesthood one year only; which high priesthood Ananelus now recovered again. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 15:53–56).

This is the same Herod (r. 37–4 B.C.) who murdered his beloved wife Mariamne, a mother-in-law, an uncle, and three of his sons.  The Herod who was alive when Jesus was born (ca. 5 B.C.) and before whom the “Magi” asked “where is he who is born king of the Jews?” and who subsequently slaughtered the infants of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:1–3, 16–18).

To view 18 high–resolution images of New Testament Jericho Click Here.

New Testament/Herodian Jericho

Most tour groups to Israel will visit the site of Old Testament Jericho.  However, there is a site about 2 miles south of there where first the Hasmoneans and then King Herod built a series of palaces along the Wadi Qelt.

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View looking north at Herod the Great’s Third Palace at Jericho—on the north side of the Wadi Qelt.  Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

From left to right is a large reception room, a large courtyard, a Roman bath (including cool, dressing, warm, and hot rooms), another courtyard and service area (sloping down and to the right).

HerodThirdPalaceDuring the winter, when there is rain, sleet, and snow in Jerusalem, generally the climate in Jericho is warm and pleasant!

Jericho was famous for the agricultural products that were grown here—especially Balsam shrubs/trees.

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This is a view of a pool that, according to the excavator, was used for the soaking of Balsam branches. Click on Image to Enlarge and/or Download.

The balsam plantations at Jericho were world famous and this precious commodity was shipped all over the Roman World.  To harvest it I believe that usually not-too-deep slits were cut into the branches of the bush with either a sharp bone or piece of glass—never with a metal knife.  The sap that came out was processed for its scent.

Evidently, another method included the cutting and soaking of crushed branches, in a pool such as this, but I am not certain how that process actually worked.  I am guessing that the finished product, although valuable, was not as good quality as that produced by the method described above.

For 18 high resolution images of Herodian/New Testament Jericho Click Here.

The road leading to and from Jerusalem passed by theses palaces.

  1. Jewish Pilgrims going up to and returning from Jerusalem.
  2. Jesus’s family visiting Jerusalem? (Luke 2:41–52)
  3. The setting for the Parable of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10:25–37)
  4. Healing blind Bartimaeus (and friend). (Matt 20:29–34; Mark 10:46–52; Luke 18:35–43)
  5. Visiting Zacchaeus the [balsam?] tax collector. (Luke 19:1–10)

The following 11 minute video traces the route of this road from Jericho to Jerusalem.

See Netzer, Ehud, and Rachel Laureys–Chachy. The Architecture of Herod, the Great Builder. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008, pp. 42–80.

A Jerusalem Synagogue Building from Jesus’ Time?

In 1913 Raymond Weill excavated in the “City of David” and found a large limestone block—ca. 30 in. x 16 in.—that contained a clear 10 line Greek inscription.

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“Theodotus Synagogue Inscription” found in Jerusalem. Click on image to Enlarge and/or Download.

The inscription reads:

“Theodotos, son of Vettenos, priest and head of the synagogue, son of the head of the synagogue, who was also the son of the head of the synagogue, built the synagogue for the reading of the Law and for the study of the precepts, as well as the hospice [inn or temporary residence] and the chambers and the bathing–establishment, for lodging those who need them, from abroad; it (the synagogue) was founded by his ancestors and the elders and the Simonides.” (Translation from a sign in Israel Museum where the object is on display)

Most scholars date the inscription to prior to AD 70—that is before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.  If this dating is correct, then this inscription provides clear contemporary evidence of at least one synagogue building in Jerusalem even while the Temple was still standing!

The term “synagogue” is used 43 times in the Gospels in association with the ministry of Jesus.  In one instance, Luke 7:1–8, there is a clear reference to a building—not merely a “gathering.”  But archaeologically, not many first century AD synagogue buildings have been found—thus the importance of a synagogue building being mentioned in this first century inscription.

According to this inscription it is also clear that the Torah was read and the “precepts” were studied (= teaching of the commandments) in the synagogue.

Note, that there is no mention of prayers and/or singing!  Note too that neither praying nor singing are mentioned in Jesus’ experience in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–30), nor in Paul’s experience in the synagogue of Pisidian Antioch, ca. AD 37 (Acts 13:14ff).

In addition there was an “inn” with auxiliary rooms and installations near the Jerusalem synagogue.  This was for the use of Jewish pilgrims from “abroad”—note the 15 different people groups that were in Jerusalem on Pentecost (Acts 2:7–12).


For an accessible discussion of this inscription see:   Fant, Clyde E., and Mitchell G. Reddish, “Theodotus Synagogue Inscription,” pp. 358–60.   Lost Treasures of the Bible — Understanding the Bible Through Archaeological Artifacts in World Museums. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008.  They also have provided a translation of the inscription on page 358.

For a detailed discussion of this inscription see:  Kloppenborg, John S.     “The Theodotos Synagogue Inscription and the Problem of First –Century Synagogue Buildings.” Pages 236–82 in Jesus and Archaeology. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2006.