Authentic Remains From First Century Palestine (II)
Places in the Life of Jesus
Having discussed the general period into which Jesus and the church were born, we shall now notice some of the main places in the life of Jesus and the authentic remains of His time. The locations of the main cities connected with the ministry of Jesus have long been known. The Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Mount of Olives, are certainly known and need no archaeological investigation to verify their location. There are other locations about which the Gospel records are not so specific and may never be known. The "mount" of transfiguration is merely a conjecture.
It is common to hear of the excellent Roman roads of the first century. By 150 A. D. good roads connected the Roman military camps with other areas; none of these had been built in the time of Jesus. 19
There is no question about the location of Bethlehem, but the actual site of the birth of Christ is a matter of tradition. By 160 A.D. Justin Martyr had said: "when the child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village." 20 Near the middle of the third century Origen said that the cave where Jesus was born was being shown and that even the enemies of the faith were talking of it." 21 Jerome was a resident of 'Bethlehem from 386 until his death in 420 A.D."22He tells how the birthplace of Jesus, the place of the crucifixion and the tomb where Jesus had lain were defiled from the time of Hadrian to the reign of Constantine.20 The Church of the Nativity now stands at this spot. Of this location, Dalman says:
No one could discern in this former rocky chamber the place of the Nativity. The altar at the east end was perhaps not erected originally to designate the exact spot, although the background of the grotto would make it probable. Here also is the only remarkable feature in it, namely a small adjoining room which contains in the right wall a low niche resembling a manger.24
Typical of so many, this site has enjoyed its share of fanciful speculations. Tradition locates the spot where the adoration of the Magi took place, and a projection in the background is taken to be the table at which the Virgin ate with the Magi.25 Like so much speculation, these overlook the fact that the gospel account represents the Magi as arriving at some time after the birth of Jesus and that they found the child with Mary in a "house." 26 The Wise Men may have had a fast means of transportation, but one should not forget that they traveled by plain, not by plane; they came not from the east side of town, but from the East.
Jesus grew up in Nazareth. In the modem city there is one good spring of water. The waters are conducted -under St. Gabriel's Church and led into the "Well of Mary." The thought that this well was used by the mother of Jesus takes a bit of pious imagination. Most likely the water supply for the Roman city was on a hill above this new fountain.27
The place where John baptized Jesus in the Jordan may not certainly be known. The best ancient manuscripts place John's work at that time at "Bethany" beyond the Jordan, while some hold that the reading should be "Bethabara."28 This is a textual problem and archaeology may not be able to offer much help. Wright reports that the modern traveler in Palestine will be shown "precisely where every major biblical event took place."29 He advises that little attention should be paid to many of these identifications. He cites Cana of Galilee, where Jesus performed His first miracle, as an example. The traditional location of Cana is with Kefr Kenna, about four miles northeast of Nazareth. By the guides one can be shown the place where the miracle was performed, and the spring where the water was secured. "Actually, however, the name of the biblical town is preserved in Khirbet Qana, 8 miles directly north of Nazareth." 30 Our guides learned that we were fairly well equipped with biblical and archaeological information and usually kept the facts "straight." Some times they would present some fanciful theory and then smile about it.
The location of Capernaum has been long disputed. Since 1905 it has been identified with Tell Hum. A synagogue was unearthed there and is often pointed out as the one in which Jesus worshipped. Archaeologists believe that this synagogue belongs to the early part of the third century. Synagogues have been found at about 40 locations. Until very recently there was no surviving ruin that belonged to the first century. The synagogues standing in 70 A.D. were all destroyed by the Romans. 31 The oldest trace of a synagogue in Palestine is an inscription from Jerusalem. This mentions the building of a synagogue by a man named Theodotus. Several, including Albright, see good reason to connect this synagogue with the Synagogue of the Freedmen, mentioned in Acts 6: 9.32 Sukenik cautions that this is, not impossible, but that "it cannot be proved." 33
In the recent excavations at Masada on the Dead Sea, conducted by Yigael Yadin, a synagogue of the Zealots was found. Two scrolls were found beneath the floor laid by the Zealots. One contained Ezekiel 37; the other contained part of the two final chapters of Deuteronomy. The "date of the scrolls cannot be later than 73 A. D. and not even the most skeptical of scholars can challenge this." 34 The Zealots were at Masada between 66 and 73 A.D. Rather than surrender to the Romans, 960 men, women and children took their own life. Prior to 66 A.D. Masada was occupied by a Roman garrison. During that time the synagogue may have served as a stable. Yadin says, "It is difficult to determine the function of the building in the original Herodian plan, but one may hazard the guess that even then it served as a synagogue." 35 The assumptions for this conjecture are (1) Herod would not have denied a place of worship to those who lived at Masada; (2) the architectural plan is reminiscent of the plan of several early synagogues in Galilee; (3) the Zealots chose this place for their synagogue knowing it bad served as a synagogue. We have no record that Jesus visited Masada but it is interesting to know that the ruin of at least one first century synagogue has survived.
Sychar is the place where Jacob's well was located and where Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman about eternal water. The site has been usually identified with 'Askar at the foot of Mt. Ebal, but this has been shown to be a relatively recent settlement. Here another textual problem is involved and some hold that the old Syriac translation of Sychem (Shechem) is the proper word. 36 About one-half mile south of 'Askar is the traditional well of Jacob. Kraeling says there can "scarcely be any doubt," 37 but Finegan cautiously points out that there are other wells in the neighborhood. 38
The final article in this series will be used to consider first century remains in Jerusalem that pertain to Jesus, as well as some miscellaneous matters.
19 Wright, 239.
20 Justin Martyr Dialogue With Trypho. 78
21 Origen Origen Against Celsus. L 51
22 Finegan, 439.
23 Jerome Letter LVIII to Paulinus.
24 Dalman, 38.
25 Ibid., 39.
26 Matthew 2:7, 11.
27 Kraeling, 360.
28 Ibid., 370. The passage under construction is Jn. 1: 28.
29 Wright, 239.
31 Ibid., 240.
32 Albright, 172.
33 E. L. Sukenik, Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece (London: The British Academy, 1934), p. 70.
34 Yigael Yadin, Masada. (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 189.
35 Ibid. 185.
36 Wright, 239.
37 Kraeling, 392.
38 Finegan, 233.
TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 6, pp. 13-15