The Final Days of Jesus: What Can Archaeology Tell Us?
I would argue that Jesus did not plan to threaten the Jewish Temple authorities and that his teaching was regarded as fairly harmless. Instead, his aim was to capture the attention of the thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathering at the pools by performing acts of healing and baptism. By doing so, Jesus was hoping that he might be regarded as the successor of John the Baptist, whom almost everyone in the country had revered a few years earlier.
By Shimon Gibson
Adjunct Professor of Archaeology, University of North Carolina, Charlotte
Senior Associate Fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeology, Jerusalem
Director of Archaeological Excavations on Mount Zion, Jerusalem
Easter for Christians all over the world marks the crucifixion and burial of Jesus and celebrates his resurrection. Thousands of books have been written about the theology of those events and about the literary analysis of the Gospel narratives. Surprisingly, only a handful of them actually deal with the results of historical and archaeological research. This is what led me to write The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence (HarperOne, 2009). It was time, I felt, to present readers with a picture of the successes of archaeological work in recent decades and the contributions made to a fuller understanding of the final days of Jesus in Jerusalem.
The book begins by tracing the route Jesus took from Galilee to Jerusalem, from Capernaum and through the Jordan Valley, where it is shown, Jesus must have come into contact with surviving members of the baptism group (John the Baptist having been beheaded two years earlier by Herod Antipas). These meetings would have occurred at places such as Aenon and Bethabara, both of which are sites that are better known as a result of archaeological work. Jesus eventually reached Bethany, a small village on the outskirts of Jerusalem, where he stayed at the house of his friends Mary and Martha. Bethany was the scene of the anointing of Jesus’ feet and new archaeological finds from a cave west of Jerusalem (Suba) sheds light on the manner in which this would have been done. The significance of the anointing must now be understood in terms of hospitality rites combined with Jewish ritual purification measures.
The Jewish Passover was about to be celebrated when Jesus entered Jerusalem in the year 30 CE. Based on the many new archaeological evidences available, I attempt to reconstruct the appearance of the city at the time of Jesus. It was evidently a small city dominated by the Jewish Temple, and opposite it to the west was the Praetorium – previously the palace of Herod the Great – which was now the seat of the Roman Governor (Praefectus) Pontius Pilate. The Jewish Temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world at that time. It glittered from afar and was a beacon to the many thousands of pilgrims flocking to the city for the festivities. It was also the scene of Jesus’ teaching, but he would have found himself there in direct competition with others espousing a variety of messages. In fact, Jesus’ teaching at the Temple might easily have been overlooked by the milling crowds attending the festivities. Hence, some of his activities there, such as the overturning of the tables, should probably be regarded as minor events in the grand scheme of things, except perhaps for his immediate followers.
I would maintain, therefore, that Jesus’ most important work was actually not undertaken in the Temple area at all, but in the immediate vicinity of the Siloam and Bethesda Pools. Because of Jewish regulations prohibiting entrance to the inner Temple courts unless first ritually cleansed, pilgrims to Jerusalem were obliged by necessity to immerse in ritually-cleansing waters. The only available places in Jerusalem where hundreds or even thousands of pilgrims might immerse themselves was at the Siloam and Bethesda Pools. Archaeological work has successfully brought to light these two enormous pools, with steps and landings, and they clearly functioned as public Jewish ritual cleansing pools (miqwa’ot). It was here Jesus would have had large audiences. With unfettered ease, he was able to perform his healing procedures and to expand upon his teachings, and it was this, more than anything else, that irritated the local authorities and sealed his fate. The Romans would have been concerned that Jesus’ activities at the pools might lead to unrest among the thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem.
So where did the trial of Jesus actually take place? Already in the 1950s, New Testament scholars conceded that the most likely spot for the place of the trial was not at the Antonia Fortress, a location cherished by Christians since medieval times, but at the site of Herod’s royal palace, on the west side of the city. At the time of Pontius Pilate, the palace served as his residence whenever he came to Jerusalem, and it was referred to as the Praetorium. What the book shows for the first time – on the basis of new archaeological evidence combined with data gleaned from the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius – is that the place of the trial can now be pinpointed within the actual gate of the Praetorium (also known as the Gate of the Essenes). The old palace compound was comprised of twin palatial residences with service buildings to its north, an enormous garden with trees and fountains, and finally military barracks in the south. The excavated gate was situated on the west side of the barracks and had a large courtyard area open to the sky, and it was situated between two fortification lines with towers. This courtyard fits perfectly the “pavement” and gabbatha location as mentioned in the Gospel of John. What is important is that crowds of people attending the trial could easily be controlled by the Romans at all times.
Many other important matters regarding the final week of Jesus in Jerusalem are dealt with in my book, notably also the subject of his crucifixion and burial. Is the place of the crucifixion as shown on top of the “Rock of Calvary” in the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre a correct location? If not, where are we to locate Golgotha? I think there is sufficient evidence, as I demonstrate in my book, to show that Golgotha was actually a broad expanse of rock extending beneath the Church of the Martyrium built by Constantine the Great. The question as to the whereabouts of the place of the Tomb of Jesus is also examined in my book. Is the traditional spot in the present Church of the Holy Sepulchre a correct location? Much new evidence is presented to the reader, including the full story of the discovery of a first-century burial shroud in a rock-cut tomb at Akeldama (the “field of blood”). This is the only shroud found in Jerusalem from the time of Jesus, and it opens up a discussion on the manner in which Jesus’ body was prepared for burial.
The question I kept asking myself when writing this book was what precisely was Jesus hoping to achieve in Jerusalem during that Passover visit of 30 CE? Did he want to fulfill some idea of predestination, did he want to rile the masses into an insurrection, or did he have another plan of action altogether? It seems to me that the answer is to be found in what Jesus was doing at the Siloam and Bethesda Pools. I would argue that Jesus did not plan to threaten the Jewish Temple authorities and that his teaching was regarded as fairly harmless. Instead, his aim was to capture the attention of the thousands of Jewish pilgrims gathering at the pools by performing acts of healing and baptism. By doing so, Jesus was hoping that he might be regarded as the successor of John the Baptist, whom almost everyone in the country had revered a few years earlier. Since John never practiced healing himself, Jesus wanted to take things further by combining baptism with healing and with “signs and wonders.” This is what the city authorities (Jewish and Roman) dreaded the most: the return of the powerful figure of John the Baptist (or one who might represent his ideas), and they feared that this could signal upheaval with major changes ensuing. Order had to be maintained in the city and the status quo had to be kept. A John-the-Baptist redivivus in the person of Jesus was something the authorities could not stomach and the threat of an upheaval had to be avoided at all costs. Ultimately, this sealed Jesus’ fate.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]