Category Archives: Places in Israel

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!

Another Son of God? Pilate’s Tiberieum at Caesarea Maritima

Pontius Pilate was the Prefect of Judea that condemned Jesus to death (Matthew 27; Mark 15; Luke 23; John 18 and 19). He is mentioned 61 times in the New Testament.  He governed Judea from A.D. 26 to 36.

The Pontius Pilate Inscription from Caesarea Maritima—now in the Israel Museum.

Pilate was facing at least two major problems when Jesus appeared before him to be tried.  The first was that he needed to deal with any potential rebellion against Rome—what else would a “king of the Jews” do?

A second problem was how seriously should Pilate take the accusation that

John 19:7-8  . . .  he [Jesus] must die, because he claimed to be the Son of God.”  When Pilate heard this, he [Pilate] was even more afraid,

Why was Pilate “more afraid” when he heard this charge?  Well, the dead “ascended” Augustus was worshiped throughout the Roman Empire as a deity.  By the time that Jesus began his public ministry there were Imperial Cult Temples (namely those at Caesarea Maritima, Sebastia, and the one near Caesarea Philippi [= Omrit])  that had been in existence for over 40 years!

And in addition, Augustus’ son, and now Emperor(!), Tiberius, was worshiped as the “son of god” (that is, the son of the deified Augustus)!  In this regard it is not often remembered that it was Pilate who built a temple for the worship of Tiberius as the “son of god” at Caesarea Maritima!  How could there be a “son of God” to compete with the Imperial “son of god?”  In addition Pilate was confronted with the potential accusation of the local leadership: “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar” (John 19:12).  Pilate had a “lot on his plate!”

In light of this, I invite you to check out the following description and discussion of the “Pilate Inscription” from Caesarea Maritima.


In 1961 by an Italian expedition that was excavating the theater at Caesarea Maritima discovered a Latin inscription that actually mentions him.

The “Pilate” Inscription from Caesarea Maritima

When scholars comment on this inscription they usually emphasize that now there is actual archaeological evidence for Pilate’s activity in Judea and that his title was “Prefect.”  This is fine,  BUT what about the word “Tiberieum” in the first line?  To what does “Tiberieum” refer?

This stone was used at least three ways.  First, it was probably a dedicatory inscription in a temple called a “Tiberieum.”  Pilate built this temple to honor the Roman Emperor Tiberius (A.D. 14–37)—the current “son of god”!  This was then the second imperial cult temple in Caesarea—the first was the (probably much larger) Imperial Cult Temple that had been built by Herod the Great (37– 4 BC) for the worship of Augustus and deified Roma!

Thus it should be noted that at Caesarea Maritima the imperial cult founded by Herod the Great was still being practiced AND that Pilate as a good governor was also promoting the Imperial Cult—adding a structure for the worship of the ruling Roman emperor, Tiberius (14–37).  All of this going on during the time of Jesus’ public ministry (ca. 26–30)!

Secondly, the stone was taken from the temple and used as part of a well–head—note the half-circle on the right hand side.  Finally, it was used as a step in the fourth century Byzantine theater (where it was discovered).

Four lines of the Latin inscription are visible.

[_ _ _]S TIBERIÉUM
[_ _ PO]NTIUS PILATUS
[PRAEF]ECTUS IUDA[EA]E
[_ _ _ _ _ ] É [_ _ _ _ _ _ _] (Taylor, p. 564)

[. . .] Tiberieum
[. Po]ntius Pilate
[Pref]ect of Judaea
[. . .]e[. . .] (p. 565)

Joan E. Taylor translates the inscription as:   “Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judaea, [made and d]e[dicated] the Tiberieum for the (Augustan) gods” (p. 570).

For a detailed development of this topic please see Joan E. Taylor “Pontius Pilate and the Imperial Cult in Roman Judaea.” New Testament Studies 52 (2006): 555–82—especially pages 564–65.

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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ICSHMD01

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 image 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.

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—were Annas and his descendents 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!

Seldom Visited Aqueduct at Caesarea

The High Level aqueduct at Caesarea Maritima is a site usually visited by tour groups to Caesarea.

Aqueduct Junction  — Note how one part turns left while the other channel continues straight.  Eventually, both sections lead to Caesarea.

But only 3 mi. [4.5 km.] to the north-northwest of Caesarea is a very well preserved portion of that same aqueduct—at the Israeli town of “Bet Hannanya.”

On the right, a Latin Inscription mentioning the the Roman Emperor Hadrian (ruled AD 117-138)

To visit the aqueduct, drive north on Route 4 from Caesarea.  Turn left (west) at the Bet Hannanya intersection, and left again toward the village.  The road passes right through the aqueduct—it is only two minutes from Route 4!

To view additional images of this aqueduct Click Here.

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!

New Museum at Caesarea Maritima

On a recent visit to Caesarea Maritima I had a chance to visit the recently opened museum.

This photo is of the exterior of the new museum at Caesarea Maritima

The museum is built into four of the fourteen vaults that Herod the Great built to support the platform of the temple of Augustus and Roma.  To the left (north) of the museum, reconstruction work continues—note the reconstructed staircase that leads up to where the Temple stood.

This is what the area looked like back in the 1970s.  And also Here 2000s.

Inside of the second vault is a theater where a short, 12-minute, movie on the life of Herod the Great and the construction of Caesarea Maritima is shown.

This photo is of the interior of the theater of the new museum at Caesarea Maritima.

The other three vaults contain artifacts, or replicas of artifacts from the excavations at Caesarea Maritima.

One of the displays, in the first vault, is composed of sequencing images of the layout of Caesarea Maritima at various stages in its history.

This image is of one of the rotating displays of the city of Caesarea Maritima at various periods. This image seems to depict the city in the early Byzantine Period.

To view additional images of Caesarea Click Here.

A Visit to the “real” Bethsaida — el-Araj

On a recent trip to Israel, I decided to try to visit the site of el-Araj that is located on the northeastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, just east of the Jordan River.  This site has been much in the news recently because it is a much better candidate for the Bethsaida mentioned in the New Testament, Josephus and other sources than “et-Tell.”

The Jordan River and Lagoon by el-Araj (Bethsaida/Julias).

According to the New Testament the disciples Philip, Andrew, and Peter were from the town (John 1:44; 12:21). In addition, Jesus performed mighty works there (e.g., healed a blind man [Mark 8:22], and fed 5,000 in the vicinity [Matt 14:13; Mark 6:30ff]) yet the town was cursed by him because of unbelief (Matt 11:21; Luke 10:13).

Steven Notley and Mordechai Aviam have conducted four seasons of excavations at the site and have found a bathhouse and a residence from the Roman Period.  In addition, they have found the remains of a large Byzantine Church that they believe was The Church of the Apostles that was mention by Willibald in A.D. 725 as having been built over the house of Peter and Andrew.

My first visit to the site was with a group of adult learners from the Jerusalem University College.  We turned off the main road east of the Arik Bridge at dusk and our bus took us partway in.  We “debussed” quickly and set off at a brisk pace to try to reach the site before we lost all our daylight.  We were surprised to find that there were already THREE tourist busses at the site—those of a large group led by Jonathan Cahn (of “Harbinger” fame).  I have no idea why they were interested in the site, but we did hear them finish their “devotional” with the blowing of the shofar.  Hmm . . . .

My second visit, a few days later, was with a group from the Biblical Archaeological Society that was being led by Ofir Dror and myself.

Our BAS Group hiking into el-Araj.

The tricky part in accessing the site was due to the fact that the Israelis were busy clearing minefields in the area.  It was about a 12 minute walk in from where our bus parked.

Heavy equipment clearing minefields west of el-Araj.

Once we arrived at that excavations, we had a great time looking at the main place of excavation—Area A.

Area A of el-Araj—looking east.

I also had a chance to peek at Area C, about 100 yards to the north of Area A, where they have begun to uncover remains of a residence that dates to the Roman Period.

Area C — the area where a Roman residence has been partially excavated.

Finds from the house date from the first to the third centuries CE and include pottery, coins, fishing net weights, and a cooking oven.

For additional images of el-Araj you are invited to check out HolyLandPhotos.org.

The official website for the el-Araj excavations can be found Here.  And there you will find numerous links to related newspaper articles.  There are also a number of good videos of the site that have been posted on YouTube see Here for example.