Authentic Remains from First Century Palestine (I)

Ferrell Jenkins
Akron, Ohio

Our purpose in this and two other articles is to study the land of Palestine in the period of Christ and the Apostles to see what remains of that time which may still be seen by the- Bible student who travels there. A second purpose in this connection is to sift the contradictory claims of tourist guides and tradition from the really authentic remains of the first century. It was my pleasure, along with William E. Wallace, to lead a group of Christians in a tour of the Bible lands in the spring of 1967. We visited most of the places mentioned in these articles. This material was actually prepared in anticipation of a trip to Palestine.

When questioned as to whether this or that place in Palestine is historical. Dalman has always answered "Here everything is historical."1 He meant that even those unmentioned places played a part in the whole story recounted in the Gospel records. Finnegan suggests that the whole country itself often speaks more clearly than any specific object.

Its hills, lakes and rivers, its sky, sun and springtime flowers, must be much the same as they were in Jesus' day. Also, in many ways the life of the people, their villages, activities and customs, remain little changed. One still sees the women at the village well, the sower going forth to sow, and the shepherd leading his sheep, exactly as it is said in John 10:4, "He goeth before them, and the sheep follow him."2

Archaeological exploration can reveal a great deal about first century Palestine, but it does have its limitations. The remains of this period are "recent" according to archaeological classifications, often being near the surface. Surface remains of the small villages had little opportunity for survival. In many areas, such as Jerusalem, extensive excavation is impossible due to the buildings of later periods still in use. "We must resign ourselves to the fact that there is no way to re-create the Bethlehem or the Nazareth of Jesus, as Mr. Rockefeller has re-created Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia." 3

The Remains of Herod the Great

Herod the Great held the position of king, given him by the Romans, from 3 7 - 4 B. C. He proved to be a miniature Augustus in building projects. "Augustus found Rome in brick and left it in marble; the same can be said of Herod in Jerusalem and throughout his domain." 4 He beautified and strengthened the entire area with architecture in the western tradition. The historian Josephus5 informs us that there was not any place in his kingdom fit for the purpose that was without something to Caesar's honor. Jesus came into a world like this just prior to Herod's death6. Many of the structures erected or begun by Herod played a part in the story of Jesus. We shall follow Wright7 in noticing three cities transformed by Herod in his building campaign, with special emphasis on the remains.

(1) Samaria was completely changed and renovated by Herod, with the major effort being expended on a magnificent temple erected in honor of Augustus. It is the most imposing ruin at Samaria today. The next finest remaining ruin of this period is a stadium,

(2) What is left of the theater, amphitheater, and the stadium at the Roman city of Caesarea can be seen. The amphitheater was recently discovered by Israeli archaeologists with the aid of aerial photography,

(3) Josephus gives the best descriptions of the work of Herod in Jerusalem. His information has proved most helpful to students of this period. The first and second walls at Jerusalem were in existence when Herod became king. Almost the whole length of the first wall can be traced and remains of Herodian masonry identified.8 Herod strengthened the walls and erected three large towers at the spot where the two walls joined together. This was on the northwest corner where protection would be most needed. The towers were named Hippicus, Phasael and Miriamne, after a friend, a brother, and his murdered wife respectively. The remains of one of the towrers can I be seen in the masonry of the lower part of the "Tower of David" near the old Jaffa gate. Herod's palace was built just south of these towers. It is possible that Jesus appeared before Pilate here. We will discuss this matter in the next article.

Where the second wall approached the temple enclosure Herod rebuilt a Maccabean fortress. If was named Antonia in honor of Mark Anthony. This is the traditional place where Jesus appeared before Pilate. These remains will also be discussed in the next article.

The best remains from the Herodian projects in Jerusalem are found in the wall built around the temple court. Herod decided to build a larger courtyard. On the southeastern side the ground fell rapidly away. It was necessary to build a platform over this area supported by columns. Herod also built a retaining wall, portions of which may still be seen along the western, southern and southeastern sides. On the west is the famous "Wailing Wall." It is the most vivid illustration of the typical Herodian construction. Remains of two arches where bridges probably spanned the Tyropoeon Valley are still to be seen.

Of the Temple itself scarcely a fragment remains. This reminds one of the prophecy of Jesus that "Not one stone shall be left upon another which will not be torn down." 9 This was fulfilled with the destruction by the Romans in 70 A.D. There are two Greek inscriptions, one complete and another partial, warning Gentile not to enter certain areas of the Temple. These likely dates to a period later than the time of Herod. In 1871, Clarmont Ganneau found one of these inscriptions near the Temple area. The inscription is now in the Istanbul Museum. One translation of the text reads:

No Gentile may enter inside the enclosing screen around the Temple. Whoever is caught is alone responsible for the death which follows. 10

This inscription is especially interesting in connection with the accusation in Acts 21:28 against Paul of bringing Greeks into the holy place. The second inscription was found in 1935 near St. Stephen's Gate amidst debris. 11

Herod the Great was of Idumaean stock. Religiously he was a Jew, being of the third generation after the Idumaeans who were compelled by John Hyrcanus to accept circumcision and the Jewish religion. 12 The re-building of the Temple seems to have been his device to win the goodwill of the Jews. 13 There are also traces of Herodian masonry in the buildings at the traditional site of the Cave of Macphelah where Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried and the site of Mamre where Abraham's Oak supposedly stood. 14

Other ruins of the Herodian period, including public buildings, fortresses, and places can be seen at Ascalon, Frank Mountain (the Herodium, Herod's building in honor of himself), Masada overlooking the Dead Sea, Machaerus, Qarn Sartabeh (Alexandrium north of Jericho), and Jericho. 15 J. L. Kelso and J. B.' Pritchard excavated Herodian building remains overlooking Wadi Qelt, south of modern Jericho, in 1950-51. Kelso cleared constructions belonging to the winter palace of Herod. The masonry and art proved to be similar to Augustan work in Italy. 16 A piece of ancient wood used for bonding the wall of the tower was found in excavations at Jericho. The Yale School of Forestry identified it as sycamore. 17 it was at Jericho that Zaccheus climbed the sycamore tree to get a glimpse at Jesus. 18

In the next article we shall take a look at places in the life of Jesus.


1 Gustaf Dalman, Sacred Sites and Ways, trans. Paul Levertoff (New York: Macmillian Co., 1935), p. 13.

2 Jack Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (Princeton: University Press, 1946), p. 221.

3 Emil G. Kraeling, Rand McNally Bible Atlas (New York: Rand McNally and Co., 1956), p. 357.

4 Morton S. Enslin, "New Testament Times: 11 Palestine," The Interpreter's Bible, ed. G. A. Buttrick (New York: Abingdon Press, 1952), 1, p. 104.

5 The Jewish Wars, 1:21:4.

6 Matthew 2: 1.

7 G. Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology (2nd ed, rev.; Philadelphia, The Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 221-229.

8 William Foxwell Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (4th ed. rev.; Baltimore: Penguin Books, Inc., 1956), p. 156.

9 Mark 13:2.

10 J. A. Thompson, The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: Wm, B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962), p. 314.

11 Ibid., 315.

12 Albright, 156.

13 Wright, 228.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Albright, 157.

17 Kraeling, 395.

18 Luke 19:1-4.

TRUTH MAGAZINE, XII: 5, pp. 13-15
February 1968