Category Archives: Places in Israel

A First Century Synagogue at Chorazin?

Many visitors to Israel will visit Chorazin which is located about 2.3 miles north of ancient Capernaum on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. Chorazin is mentioned two times in the New Testament (Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13) and in both cases it, along with Bethsaida are cursed for their lack of belief in Jesus. The text implies that miracles were performed there, and most have assumed that Jesus would have ministered in a synagogue there as well.

The reconstructed 4th-6th century synagogue at Chorazin.

When visiting the 4th-6th century synagogue at Chorazin, typically the question is asked “where is the synagogue that Jesus preached in?” Up until two years ago, the answer was, “we don’t know.”

Recently I came across a YouTube video by “Sergio & Rhoda in Israel” entitled “Lifting the ancient floor of the cursed city of Chorazin.” It was posted on September 27, 2020 (during the “heart” of the pandemic), and features the excavations led by Achia Cohen-Tavor in the synagogue and elsewhere at Chorazin. The whole video is worth watching (23 minutes long) but for those pressed for time, the work on the synagogue begins around 9:15. There are great images, drone shots, and expert commentary by Achia. He believes, based upon excavations below the floor of the late synagogue that he has found first century A.D. remains: pottery sherds and coins.

An important 23-minute video. The portion regarding the excavation of the synagogue begins at 9:30.

There appear to be a few referals to this video on the internet, but I have not seen any official reports of this discovery and would appreciate any references to official reports.

The interior of the synagogue where the excavation took place.

For additional images of the synagogue see Here. For the remainder of the site of Chorazin see Here.

The synagogue before excavation in 1967 on a field trip led by the late Anson Rainey — in the hat above the center of the image.

The Best Rolling Stone Tomb in Israel — Khirbet Midras

As Easter approaches, I thought I would share a few related blog posts that contain some images that some of you might find useful for Easter presentations.

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View Looking East at the entrance to the First Century A.D. Tomb

View looking east at the entrance to the tomb. The rolling stone was 6 ft. [1.8 m.] in diameter and 1.3 ft [0.4 m.] thick. It was placed between two walls, each built of hewn stone. When discovered, it still rolled in its trough!

The tomb itself was in use during the Roman Period — up until A.D. 135.

In my estimation, it was the best example of a rolling stone tomb in the country of Israel. It seems to illustrate well passages from the Gospels which speak of Jesus’ tomb as being closed by a rolling stone. See especially Matthew 27:57-66; 28:1-2; Mark 15:42–47; 16:1–8; Luke 24:1–2, 10–11; and John 20:1, 11–18.

MidrasMap3Horvat Midras (Hebrew) or Khirbet Durusiya (Arabic) is located 19 mi. [30 km.] southwest of Jerusalem in the Shephelah. The ancient remains are spread over hundreds of dunams in the area. The site dates to the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

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View of the Courtyard of the “Rolling Stone Tomb” at Khirbet Midras—prior to its destruction

In 1976 part of the cemetery was excavated. Several tombs were uncovered, including, in my estimation, THE BEST ROLLING STONE TOMB in the country. Unfortunately in the late 1990’s the tomb site was totally destroyed by vandals!#%$@!!

BUT it has been reconstructed and is now visible in the Adullam Park!

To view 3 additional images of the tomb Click Here.

For images of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher see: Calvary and Tomb.

Click to see images of Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb.

A Monumental Herodian (Hasmonean?) Hall in Jerusalem — Is this where the Sanhedrin Met?

Near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, there is a Monumental Hall that dates to the late Second Temple Period  (New Testament era).  There is some speculation that the Sanhedrin may have (occasionally) met here—see below.

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View looking northwest at the northern and western walls of the hall. Click on Images to Enlarge and/or Download.

Note the finely finished stones in both walls as well as the chest-high decorative horizontal ridge/railing that separates the lower and upper portion of the walls.  Near the corner of the west (left) wall note the delicately carved protruding pilaster.

I visited this all in the 1970s with Gabi Barkai and I thought he said it might be Hasmonean.  But our guide said it was Herodian (37–4 B.C.) with possibly some Hasmonean elements.

I am not sure of its function but it certainly is “monumental.”  In my Zondervan Atlas of the Bible I labeled it as a “Public Building” (p. 250).

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View of the northeastern corner of the Monumental Hall.

In the above image note, the delicate protruding pilaster to the right of the center of the image and to the left of center note the well–defined horizontal “railing” that is about chest high that separates the lower and upper portions of the wall.

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View looking at the southeastern corner of the Monumental Hall.

On the left (east) wall there are two huge doorways.  Note the large carved doorposts and the huge lintels.  Currently, these doorways lead to the ritual bath that I described in a previous post, but originally they may have led to something else.

I believe that the far wall, with a doorway and other openings, is secondary, and that the original hall extended farther south.

Could this have been the hall where the Sanhedrin met?  If so, possibly Jesus, some apostles, Stephen, and/or Paul appeared here. (Unconfirmed speculation)

The early explorer Charles Warren called this structure the “Hall of the Freemasons (see below).  Additional comments/suggestions/correction are appreciated.

Not my “cup of tea” below.


From the Gallery of Masonic Sights from Israel
Hall of the Freemasons, Temple Mount, Jerusalem, Israel.
Discovered and named by the Freemason, Bro. Lieutenant Charles Warren [!] during the excavations of the late 1860’s near Wilson’s Arch.  Second Temple construction by Zerubbabel (536-516 BCE).

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!

The Tomb of the High Priest Annas? Part 1 of 2 — The Exterior

Annas was a very influential High Priest (AD 6–15) whose sons, and later son-in-law, Caiaphas, succeeded him in that office.  Annas is mentioned in the New Testament in Luke 3:2; John 18:13, 24;  and Acts 4:6.

One of the most richly decorated tombs from the Second Temple Period is located on the southern slope of the junction of the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys.

Junction of the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys with the Tomb of Annas

This is the area that some have called “Akeldama” or the “field of blood” that is associated with events surrounding the death of Judas.  In 1994 Leen and Kathleen Ritmeyer published an article suggesting that this special tomb may have been that of one of the High Priests mentioned in the New Testament and elsewhere.

Exterior of the “Tomb of Annas”
Badly defaced by later quarrying

Entrance to the “Tomb of Annas”

The above images show a view looking south at the exterior of the tomb.  On the right (west) side of the image notice the two semi-circular niches (for mourners/visitors?).  The entrance to the tomb has been heavily quarried/destroyed.  Notice the decorative partial shell conch over the now-almost-destroyed entrance to the tomb.

Detail of west side of tomb with an engaged column (pilaster) and the mourner niches.
When this photo was taken the tomb and forecourt were being used as a cattle pen!

West side of the tomb

In the image above, remnants of an engaged column (pilaster) are visible as are two apses—possibly used by mourners and/or visitors.

Standing in front of this tomb, looking north, one has a clear view of the Temple Mount—where Annas and his descendants had served.

For a detailed description of this, and other tombs in the area, as well as the logic that this is the tomb of Annas, please seen the article by Leen and Kathleen  Ritmeyer, “Akeldama: Potter’s Field or High Priest’s Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review 20 (1994): 23-35, 76, 78.

In the next post — images of the magnificent interior of this tomb!

Nazareth: Perfect Crusader Capitals — Scenes from the Gospels and Acts

One of the places in Nazareth that is rarely visited is the Archaeology Museum of Nazareth.  It is actually located below the plaza on to which visitors to the Church of the Annunciation exit!  Of the displays, pride of place must go to the five capitals of the crusade era, unearthed by Father Viaud at the beginning of the 1800s, in a grotto dug to the north of the crusade Basilica, close to the grotto of worship.

View of the only rectangular capital called the “Fides–Ecclesia.” Click on Images to Enlarge and/or Download.

The central capital shows a scene that has been open to several interpretations and represents a crowned woman holding a cross, while she travels to the left accompanied by a barefoot man among figures of the devil.
Some academics see the scene as the Byzantine theme of the liberation of Adam through the decent of Christ to the underworld. On the other hand, others identify the crowned woman with the Church Mother, holding the hand of an apostle, helping him to stand up to temptations, represented by the demons armed with bows and ready to shoot their arrows.

The capitals are made of high quality “sultan” stone.  The background surface is rough while the figures are very smooth.  The five, apparently unused, capitals from the Crusader Period depict episodes from the canonical apostles and from apocryphal writings regarding the life of the apostles.

View of one of the four octagonal capitals called the “Capital of Saint Peter.”

This capital represents two images of scenes from the life of the apostle Peter, taken from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles.
The three arches on the right in all likelihood represents the episode of the apparition of Jesus to the apostles, after the resurrection, at the lake of Tiberias. Peter, throwing himself from the boat to reach the shore, holds his hand out to Jesus, who is calling him. Below the three left arches there is a scene of the resurrection of the disciple Tabitha, in the city of Jaffa, by the hand of Peter, as told in the Acts of the Apostles. The apostle lifts the disciple from her deathbed, while three witnesses observe the prodigious miracle.

View of one of the four octagonal capitals called the “Capital of Saint Thomas.”

This capital is one of the four octagonal capitals. Below six arches, a unique scene is depicted, narrating the episode of the meeting between Saint Thomas and Jesus Christ, after the resurrection.
Thomas, absent at the time of the first apparition, is put to the test by Jesus who is showing the apostle the wound on his ribs, which Thomas had previously not believed in when hearing the take from the other apostles.
Christ is recognizable by the halo and the cross. The other saints present at the scene are the apostles: among these can be noted Peter, to the right of Christ and the brothers James and John in the arch on the left [not visible in image].

 


The Crusader Period in the Holy Land is from 1099 until 1291.  However, after the battle of the Horns of Hattin on July 4, 1187 the rule of the Crusaders was doomed.

Unique Tombs from 2200–2000 BC

Dhahr Mirzbaneh is a site located about 16 mi. northeast of Jerusalem. The hillsides in the area are covered with tombs from the Middle Bronze I Age (2200-2000 B.C.).

Cut Away of MB I Tombs During Construction of the “Alon Road”

View looking northwest. When the “Alon Road” was being constructed in the 1970’s, the construction workers cut through the hillside of Dhahr Mirzbaneh exposing a side, “cut-away,” view of a number of Middle Bronze I (2200-2000 B.C.) tombs.  Some scholars place the migration of Abram from Ur to the Land of Canaan during this period.

A perfect “cut-away” view of such a tomb is visible on the left side of the image. The shaded semi-circular area is a tomb chamber, and to its left the “cut-away” outline of a vertical shaft (partially filled with rubble) is visible.

On the right side of the image more exposed tomb chambers are visible.

Detail of MB I (2200–2000 BC) Tomb

View of a MB I (2200-2000 B.C.) tomb which was sliced in half by road building activity.

A typical MB I tomb consisted of a vertical shaft, 4 to 9 ft. [1.2 to 3 m.] deep, cut into the rock. At the bottom of the shaft one or more chambers radiated from it. Usually only one person was placed in each chamber.

To the left of the leg of the man, the shaded arched outline of a burial chamber is clearly visible – it had an arched top and a flat horizontal floor. To the left of the chamber, partly shaded, is the outline of the vertical shaft, which led down from the surface to the burial chamber. This shaft is partly filled with rubble.

To view more images of Dhahr Mirzbaneh, and a map, Click Here.

A Catalogue of Synagogues in the Land of Israel

The research into the synagogues of Ancient Israel is a fascinating subject. For example in this blog see: Magdala, Umm el-Umdan, Deir Aziz, Qanatir, Baram, and Umm el-Amud.

The Synagogue at Baram.

The following looks like a very useful site for those interested in Synagogues in the Land of Israel.  The site description follows:

The main goal of The Bornblum Eretz Israel Synagogues website is to display the world of synagogues from the Land of Israel for the scholar, student and layperson.  This website provides information such as bibliographical references, geographical location, photos, plans and brief descriptions of ancient synagogues from the Roman and Byzantine periods in the Land of Israel.  It also presents information on selected historically significant synagogues from the Middle Ages through the beginning of the 20th century.  This site will be constantly updated including the latest relevant research news and scholarly works. A search of bibliographical references is currently in preparation.

Public structures in the Land of Israel dating as early as the beginning of the 1st century BCE have been identified by excavators, surveyors and researchers as synagogues. This region contains the largest concentration of identified ancient synagogues in the world.  The number of identified ancient synagogues reaches a peak in the Roman and Byzantine periods, mainly from the 3rd through 7th centuries CE, and decreases during the 7th through 10th centuries with the collapse of the Jewish population. From the Middle Ages to the early modern period, the size of the Jewish population in the Land of Israel was relatively limited, and usually perceived as secondary to the major thriving Jewish communities in the diaspora. The relatively few synagogues, which were established and functioned in the Land of Israel during this period, had a significant social and spiritual status. From the beginning of modern times, the number of synagogues serving the different Jewish communities grew gradually to over 500 by 1948, and were diverse in terms of their appearance, social significance and liturgical nature.

Bethsaida (el–Araj) Flooded

This past fall (2019) we had a chance to visit el–Araj—the “real” Bethsaida—on two occasions (see here for a report).  This past year Israel has received heavy rains and the Sea of Galilee has risen to about -686 ft.  The first-century harbors around the Sea of Galilee were roughly at the -696 ft. level.  On May 11 our guide, Ofer Drori, had a chance to visit the site and found that the water had infiltrated the site and has given me permission to share some of his photographs.

Compare the November 2019 and May 2020 photos of the same area.

Excavations at el–Araj in November 2019.

Excavations at el–Araj in May 2020.

Excavations at el–Araj in May 2020. Photo courtesy of el–Araj excavations (see below).

Excavations at el–Araj in May 2020.

The bus “parking lot” at el–Araj.

Ofer described his visit — ‘splashing my way into el–Araj via swamps, marshes and the lagoons of the mighty Jordan delta — stepping on schools of Saint Peter’s fish and Catfish.  Noting egrets, herons, cormorants, and jackals along the way.  The site is almost an island.  Water fills the pits of the excavation area.’


The official el–Araj Excavation can be found here.

To contact our guide Ofer, click Here.

For helpful information on the site please see the following:

Notley, R. Steven and Mordechai Aviam. “Searching for Bethsaida — The Case for El–Araj.” Biblical Archaeology Review 46, no. 2 (Spring, 2020): 28–39.

Nun, Mendel.  “Has Bethsaida Finally Been Found?” Jerusalem Perspective no. 54 (July–September, 1998): 12–31.  For a pdf of this article see Here.

 

Emperor Worship In “Israel” in Jesus’ Day

When Christian tour/academic groups visit the area of Galilee it is natural to ask “what was Galilee like in Jesus’ time?”  This is actually a tricky question to answer for what is meant by “Galilee?”  I think it is best to let Josephus define it (War iii.3.1-2 [35–43]) and if this is the case then it was very limited in size and actually surrounded by Gentile populations! (see for example the map on p. 212 of The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible)

Foundation of the Temple to Augustus that Herod the Great built in the vicinity of Caesarea Philippi—at Omrit
The southwest corner
Note the delicately carved molding and the remnants of fresco on the wall

Archaeological excavations in Galilee — Galilee as defined by Josephus, and pre- 70 CE — show that it was  Jewish in nature and was not yet greatly influenced by Greco- Roman culture (except for some frescos at Yodfat and Herod Antipas’ new city of Tiberias).  Indeed, the archaeological remains (ritual baths, stone vessels, lack of pig bones, shaft graves) at most sites in Josephus’ Galilee seem to indicate that Jews were living in small villages that were rural in nature.  Most tour leaders/guides will rightfully expound on the Jewish context of Jesus’ upbringing and focus of ministry, and will also reference the close proximity of Greco- Roman culture via the caravan routes that ran around and through Lower Galilee.

In two previous posts I have commented on the archaeological finds at Omrit and the Imperial Cult (worshiping the Roman Emperor) in Asia Minor.  IMHO we also need to give emphasis to the fact that Herod the Great had built  three Imperial Cult Temples — all less than 40 miles from Nazareth/Capernaum.  By the time that Jesus began his public ministry these Imperial Cult Temples (namely those at Caesarea Maritima, Sebastia, and the one near Caesarea Philippi [= Omrit])  had been in existence for over 40 years!

When tour leaders/guides expound upon “Peter’s Great Confession” at/near Caesarea Philippi — “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt 16:16; etc.) — usually the emphasis is upon “Christ” as the Greek word for Hebrew Messiah/Mashiach and Jesus as the fulfillment of the divine promise that had been made to David and his descendants (2 Samuel 7).  In addition, often reference is made to failed messiahs and rebel leaders that lived before, during, and/or after the days of Jesus — and that Jesus’ “kingdom” was of a different nature than the typical expectation of these folk.

But when Peter’s confession is made within 5 miles (or less) of  one of the three Imperial Cult Temples that had been dedicated to Roman Emperor Augustus — who was to be worshiped as a god, or at least the “son of god”  — the confession takes on all kinds of additional overtones!  And one of the first thoughts of many of the hearers of the Gospels (living in a Greco- Roman context in Asia Minor, Greece, North Africa, and Italy) had to have been, how could anyone ever think that  a crucified Galilean Jew named Jesus could be “the Son of the Living God?”   There already was a “son of god!”  Namely the reigning Roman Emperor who was worshiped as a “son of god” by (almost) all his subjects at Imperial Cult Temples scattered throughout his kingdom—not to mention previously deceased emperors (and some family members) who had ascended to heaven and were worshiped “as gods!”

The above just hints at some of the topics that could be thought through and expanded upon, and what better place to do this than at Omrit—where the foundations and some artifacts of the Herodian Imperial Cult Temple are still there in all their glory!

Directions to Omrit
Left is north in the image.
The road running from left (north) to right (south) in the bottom of the image is Hwy 918

It is easy to travel to Omrit by driving south on Hwy 918 (from the junction of Hwys 99 and 918) and turning east on the paved road just before (north) of the Bezek antenna.  To visit this unique site you need to budget about 90 minutes or so once you turn off  highway 918, but IMHO it is well worth the time!