Pools of Bethesda
As we exit the front entrance of the Basilica of St. Anne, we immediately encounter a deep pit, obviously ancient, lined with stone block masonry, from which piers and pillars rise. The potential for an unexpected, and serious, fall is clear. Who would have built something like this? Unless, of course, these pits were meant to be filled with water. They were. We are at the pools of Bethesda.
Arches and piers in the Pools of Bethesda. The north and south pools originally were a water supply, capturing seasonal flow behind dams in a shallow valley north of the Temple. The south pool became a public mikveh – a Jewish ritual purity bath – conveniently located for visitors to the Temple. Jesus is reported to have performed a healing miracle here (John 5: 2-9). A Byzantine era church was built on piers directly over the pools.
The doves we saw and heard in the Basilica of St. Anne that we have just exited are actively flying about and roosting in shaded spaces above the excavated remains of the pools. The rocks, shaded recesses, overhanging vegetation, and nearby fountains of water are perfect habitat for doves. And interestingly, the story of doves/pigeons intersected with the story of the Virgin Mary near this place.
According to the Law of Moses, a woman who had given birth had to become ritually purified by offering an animal sacrifice at the Temple. If the family had only modest means, then it could be a small animal. And so, literally across the street from here at the Basilica of St. Anne, where she probably grew up, Mary returned to the Temple after the birth of Jesus:
“And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’ ” (Luke 2: 22-24)It is hard for many modern people to conceptualize the worldview of observant Jews of the time, particularly the degree to which the ritual purity obligations and practices literally defined the limits to the world around them - where they could be present, when they could travel, who they could speak to, what they could touch. Prior to about the second century B.C., continuous ritual purity was expected only for the priests. But starting about then, maintaining ritual purity came to be seen as important for all the people of Israel. The Tosefta (Aramaic for “supplements” or “additions”), a compilation of the Jewish oral law from about the time of the Mishnah, says of this period, “Purity broke out in Israel.” The idea was that because Jerusalem was holy, any people there had a special obligation to honor it by maintaining a state of ritual purity, and no doubt particularly so at this location so close to the Temple.
The two pools of Bethesda, as confirmed by recent archeological work, were a major facility to achieve ritual purity, and understanding this system is important to interpreting the site and what happened to it subsequently. The site contains a northern pool (farthest up the ancient ravine), and a southern pool (downstream and closest to the Temple). The southern pool was a mikveh – a pool used in Judaism for water immersion to achieve ritual purity. The northern pool was an otzer, (literally, “storehouse”) a kind of reserve pool. Archeologists, pilgrims, and tourists will encounter mikvaot (plural of mikveh) at many sites in the Holy Land, and it is not possible to interpret many sites without understanding this system. The requirements of Jewish law are described this way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikveh):
“Most forms of impurity can be nullified through immersion in any natural collection of water. Some, such as a Zav, however require "living water," [flowing water, or in Greek, “zoe” water] such as springs or groundwater wells. Living water has the further advantage of being able to purify even while flowing as opposed to rainwater which must be stationary in order to purify. The mikveh is designed to simplify this requirement, by providing a bathing facility that remains in ritual contact with a natural source of water.”The architecture of the Pools of Bethesda, as it was from the second century BC until the Imperial Roman conquest in 70 AD, met exactly those requirements. Ritual bathing or cleansing took place only in the southern pool or mikveh. A series of steps and landings extended across the entire width of the pool, like countless others in the region. These steps and landings, because they considerably diminished the volume of water storage capacity, indicate that the southern pool of Bethesda was no simple water supply structure. The steps were designed to accommodate large numbers of people so they could stand comfortably and obtain continuous access for immersion, even as the water level gradually fell through the dry season. The northern pool or otzer, was constructed with a number of structures to maintain contact with the mikveh (southern pool) and thus meet the requirement that the receiving pool was “living water.”
In a recent article in Biblical Archeological Review, Urban von Wahlde explained the significance of the connections between the pools:
“According to Jewish law (halakhah), the water in a mikveh must be ‘water given by the hand of God,’ as opposed to ‘drawn water.’ The former is water that flows into the mikveh directly from a natural source, such as rain or a stream. Impure or drawn water, however, can be purified by contact with the pure water, that is, the naturally collected water. Even if the mikveh became impure, it could be purified by contact with the naturally collected water of the otzer.”
The first half of Chapter 4 of the Gospel of John is a sophisticated and multifaceted interplay of symbols, allegories, and concepts having to do with living water, presented in deceptively simple language. It seems apparent that John assumes that the reader would have the understanding of the mikveh system of a Jew from late Second Temple times (the first century AD). John also appears to assume that any reader would know that all Jews would be expected to be ritually purified for the great feast of Passover (in Hebrew: “Pesach;” also known as Hag Ha Aviv “Festival of Spring”). This obligation to keep the feast in proper form played a role in the “endgame” of the authorities who were seeking to arrest the Nazorean Jesus:
“Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover, to purify themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? That he will not come to the feast?’ Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if any one knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” (John 11:55)We will shortly visit the place where the order for the arrest was given, the place where the “endgame” was decisively joined.
A Place of Healing
Bethesda is a combination of two Hebrew words: beit means “home” or “house” and hesed which means "grace” or “mercy.” One of the main sources of human misery in Biblical times was the intractability of illness, injury, and physical suffering. A few practical treatments were available for the sick or injured, but in reality not many treatments actually worked, let alone avoided making the victim’s condition worse. Today with science-based, advanced medical care as a first option, people tend to look at prayer for the sick or injured, if at all, as a sort of private hobby or coping mechanism for the truly desperate – but in any case, definitely a last resort.
But in Biblical times, without medical care, the sick or injured spent their days in a lingering twilight of suffering. What could a concerned friend or family member do? They could pray for Divine healing, however much they realized it was unlikely in a probabilistic sense. Prayer was still something they could do in a spirit of trust. The analogy would be in a court of law where the defendant today can “throw themselves on the mercy of the court.” Only in this case, it was the hesed (mercy) of the Heavenly court. And so, the practice of prayer for healing, among most peoples, was widespread. Biet hesed or Bethesda was the name for the premier place that Jews and those attracted to Judaism came for receiving this mercy - the house of healing. Ever since, the name has had deep resonance.
In the U.S. today, the National Institutes of Health are located in Bethesda, Maryland, which derives its name from these pools. Some today look to contrast Greco-Roman culture, with its nascent empirical approach to medicine, to religious or belief-healing of Judaism or other religions. But in reality the proliferation of gods within the polyglot Roman Empire simply proliferated the potential targets to implore for divine favors, and healing prayer was pervasive. Massive accumulations of written prayer requests thrown into pools or caves at Greco-Roman temples even give us good insight into the trends in beliefs and changing popularity of the various gods at different times.
The belief in Jerusalem, of long standing by the late Roman or Second Temple period, was that the Sheep Pool or Pool of Bethesda would be visited daily by an angel, who would stir the still waters into ripples. The schedule of the angel’s daily visit was not predictable, but the first person to touch the water after it had been stirred (“troubled”), would be healed. The Gospel of John recalls an incident of healing there:
“Now there is in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate a pool, in Hebrew called Beth-za'tha [Bethesda], which has five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of invalids, blind, lame, paralyzed. One man was there, who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him and knew that he had been lying there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be healed?’ The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is troubled, and while I am going another steps down before me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Rise, take up your pallet, and walk.’ And at once the man was healed, and he took up his pallet and walked.” (John 5: 2-9)The way the early Church Fathers interpreted it, the miracle was also an analogy to the spiritual life of the believer. The believer seeks health and healing in the spiritual realm. But, being crippled by sin, believers are unable on their own power to move forward to receive what the Divine offers. Even the impulse to pull oneself toward the metaphorical place where healing can take place is crowded out (“…while I am going another steps down before me.”) by the desires and cares of the world. But at the invitation of the Divine healer (‘Do you want to be healed?’ - seemingly a redundant question to direct at someone who has been there for thirty-eight years), the recognition of the need for help allows the healing to take place. Thirty-eight years was the length of time that Israel spent in the wilderness after receiving the law at Sinai (Deuteronomy 2:14), invoking the promise of deliverance out of slavery, with the application in this incident of slavery to sin.
In any case, the reference in the Gospel of John to five porticos is consistent with the archeological reconstruction of the site here at that period. There are two slightly irregular quadrangular pools surrounded by remains of columns and covered porticos, with a central portico dividing the two, and so the four perimeter porticos plus the central portico do in fact make five porticos. The reference in John’s Gospel, generally conceded to be the last of the four gospels to be written, to the existence of the Sheep Pool in the present tense is particularly notable.
The Pools of Bethesda were along the main axis of attack by the Imperial Roman Legions in 70 AD. Any structures on the north perimeter of Jerusalem, especially those near the Temple where resistance was fiercest, were torn down or filled by the Romans during the campaign against Jerusalem as a matter of military expediency. And in the aftermath of the campaign, of course, the entire city was systematically destroyed. So the casual use of the present tense in reference to the Sheep Pool with an accurate description of its features that were subsequently obliterated appears to set an upper limit on the date of the production of the Gospel of John, and at a considerably earlier date than a number of recent theories placed it. If this limiting date is correct, then John and all the earlier Gospels were written by eyewitnesses to the events described, and their accounts circulated to audiences among whom for many the events were within living memory.
The association of the site of the Sheep Pools or Pools of Bethesda with healing was maintained after the Imperial Roman conquest. After the Bar Kokhba Revolt from 132 to 136 A.D., the Roman Emperor Hadrian decided to rebuild Jerusalem in the image of a Greco-Roman city. As a young man, Hadrian was so fond of Greek literature that he was given the nickname Graeculus ("Greekling"). He was a devotee of all things from the then-past Greek golden age, including its religion. Hadrian intended to eradicate from the memory of the Jewish people, including (in the eyes of the Roman ruling class) the Jewish cult followers called ‘Christian’, their attachment to the places, events, and people of this, to them, supremely troublesome land.
To accomplish this objective, Hadrian had three Greco-Roman temples strategically placed over key Jerusalem sites of veneration by the former natives who practiced their soon-to-be displaced religion. A temple to the Roman god Jupiter (in Greek: Zeus) was built over the ruins of the Jerusalem Temple, substituting the chief god of the Roman pantheon (Greek = “all the gods”) for the God of the Jews and Christians. As we have seen before, over the empty tomb of Jesus a temple was built to Venus or perhaps Jupiter at the centre flanked by Juno and Minerva (surviving accounts and physical evidence are not completely clear). And, here at the ruins of the Pools of Bethesda, a Roman structure was dedicated to the god Serapis (Hellenistic or Greek/Egyptian) and/or the god Asclepius (Greek), both of whom were gods of healing.
Ruins of the Temple of Asclepius/Serapis built over the site of the Pools of Bethesda by the Roman Emperor Hadrian, on the grounds of the Basilica of St. Anne. These were the Greco-Roman gods of health and healing.
Asclepius was the god of the healing arts, and a simple recounting of some of his offspring gives testimony to it. Among his daughters were Hygieia (“hygiene’), Iaso (“medicine”), Aceso (“healing”), and Panacea (“universal cure”). Hippocrates himself, an ancient Greek physician in the Classical period of Athens and the father of scientific medicine, worshiped Asclepius. But beyond language, perhaps the most enduring contribution of this Greco-Roman devotion was the rod of Asclepius - a staff with a snake twisted about it. To this day the rod of Asclepius is the principal and universal icon or symbol of medicine (sometimes the caduceus, or staff with two snakes, is mistakenly used instead).
But the symbols of the Greco-Roman cults have deep Biblical roots as well. The symbol of a snake and a staff on a pole used for healing is called a nehushtan in Hebrew, and is mentioned in the Book of Numbers:
“Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses, and said, ‘We have sinned, for we have spoken against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD, that he take away the serpents from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it on a pole; and every one who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ So Moses made a bronze serpent, and set it on a pole; and if a serpent bit any man, he would look at the bronze serpent and live.” (Numbers 21:6-9)
The term nehushtan is a bit of a play on words in Hebrew, because “nachash” means serpent, and “nachoshet” means brass or bronze. This incident in Hebrew scriptures takes on symbolic or allegorical role at the heart of Christianity, as related in the Gospel of John:
“And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” (John 3:14-15).A more aggressive form of cultic devotion related to healing was the one centered around Serapis, a Greco-Egyptian god. The temple here has been identified in some accounts as dedicated to this god. Devotion to Serapis appeared during the 3rd century BC, and it may have been invented by, but certainly was actively promoted by, the Greek ruler Ptolemy I of Egypt. Artistic depictions of Serapis show him as essentially Greek, but with Egyptian and other symbols and icons on or about his figure. The cult of Serapis was originally used or even imposed in order to unify Greeks and Egyptians who were being ruled under a Hellenistic culture and polity. So the imposition by the Romans of the same Serapis cult here in Jerusalem, close to Egypt, for essentially the same purpose of smothering a local religious belief system, would not be a surprise. It is possible that both the Asclepius and Serapis deities were accommodated here as not entirely distinct manifestations of the same cult or as a deliberate accommodation of different traditions, particularly since it was a well established custom in classical antiquity to at least acknowledge the gods of different places while present in the regions where they were believed to hold sway.
The remarkable thing is how supremely ascendant in military/political power terms the Greco-Roman cultic system was in Jerusalem under Emperor Hadrian, and how utterly it disappeared, almost literally without a trace. In fact, the uncertainty about the specific deities and practices at these Hadrian-era temples is simply a reflection of how thoroughly forgotten and abandoned they were by all subsequent ruling authorities and cultures and virtually all subsequent inhabitants of Jerusalem. The ruins of Asclepius/Serapis in front of us give silent testimony to the fact that the indifference of the powerless can often overcome the might of even the greatest imperial authority.
Pater Noster Church
Our pilgrimage group loads the coaches for the short journey across the Kidron Valley to the top of the ridge that makes up the Mount of Olives. On a narrow, twisting street that first ascends the mountain and then threads along the ridgeline, our Arab coach drivers have the opportunity to impress us with their driving skill, which they demonstrate in good order. The topography here is strategic, as it forms a ridgeline with a commanding view, to the west and slightly downward, into the Old City of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives represents the highest topography to the east of Jerusalem before the long descent into the Jordan Valley. The Mount of Olives also contains intertwined holy sites for Christians and Jews and to a lesser extent Muslims as the aftermath of the historical events that have periodically swept through.
Of the three mounts in the ridge system making up the Mount of Olives, the southernmost in particular has been an important burial place for Jews for about 3,000 years. Near the current village of Silwan is the burial place of many of Jerusalem’s important residents during the period of Biblical kings. As our coach climbs through the twisting roads leading up to the summit ridge, we travel through some of the 150,000 gravestones that cover a considerable amount of the southern and western slope that faces the Temple Mount. There is a traditional belief among both Jews and Christians that the resurrection of the dead will begin on the Mount of Olives. For those with an otherworldly orientation, the slope of the Mount of Olives would represent the very choicest real estate for repose in the interim. The drama of the envisioned scene is easy to conceive from our position, as the rays of the rising sun would strike the Temple Mount across the Kidron Valley on the appointed day.
Given the location, topography, and history, it is no surprise that the Mount of Olives and nearby areas were seriously contested in the fighting that followed the 1948 UN Partition Plan and declaration of the State of Israel. At the cease-fire in 1949, the Mount of Olives remained an Arab district, while the Jewish district of Mt. Scopus, which included Hebrew University and Hadassah Hospital just to the north, became an enclave. The enclave was connected to the rest of Israel only by a corridor the width of a road and it was routinely besieged and shot at for years afterward. During the 1948-67 period of Jordanian control, many of the Jewish gravestones on the Mount of Olives were smashed, new roads were constructed through the gravesite, and tombstones were laid down as paving for Jordanian military installations. Following the 1967 war, a permanent Jewish presence on the Mount of Olives was established through land purchases, seizures, permissions for Jewish construction, denial for various Palestinian construction. The East Jerusalem area was annexed by Israel in 1980, an action that is rejected by international law in the absence of a final settlement. Today East Jerusalem remains one of the biggest flashpoints, if not the top one, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward. … Then the LORD your God will come, and all the holy ones with him. … there shall be no more curse; Jerusalem shall dwell in security.” (Zechariah 14: 4 ff)
As our coach drives through a district near the summit, our trip leader Steve Ray points out an individual who is making his desire to cause trouble in the area plainly known. Steve points out the indicators that the individual is a member of Hamas. If looks (and gestures) could kill, this individual certainly would be lethal. If tone and volume of voice transcend the language barrier, his verbal message was clear to anyone, no matter the language it was in.
We pass by a site that has been associated with the account of the Ascension of Jesus into Heaven (Acts 1: 9), the Chapel of the Ascension. Before the time of the Emperor Constantine and the construction of churches and chapels supervised by his mother St. Helena, followers of Jesus venerated a cave on the Mount of Olives as the site of the Ascension. Late in the fourth century a site more in the open and uphill, the current site, became the site of a chapel in commemoration. The church that St. Helena had erected over the site was called the Eleona Basilica, from the Greek word for olive garden, “elaion” (derived from “elaia” for olive tree). The Persian/Judean invasion of 614 of course physically rearranged the structure so that it subsequently took the form of rubble. In the 8th century a chapel was rebuilt, then destroyed again, then rebuilt by the Crusaders. With the Muslim destruction of the Crusader Kingdom, the outer structure of the final church was torn away and destroyed, but an (originally) interior octagonal structure, the edicule, survives today.
In 1198 the site of the Chapel of the Ascension was acquired by representatives of Saladin, the conqueror of Jerusalem, and transferred to an Islamic Trust (“Waqf”). The structure that remained to commemorate the Ascension, primarily the edicule, was turned into a mosque. But even after this conversion the vast majority of visitors were Christians. As a result, Saladin allowed the Christian pilgrims to use what was left of the old chapel, and had a mosque and mihrab constructed adjacent to the older remains. That arrangement has persisted ever since, with the Chapel of the Ascension open to visitors for a small fee transferred to the waqf.
The main textual clue to the location of this event is given in Acts 1:12. After the witnesses reported the Ascension: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away;” A Sabbath day’s journey (in Greek: sabbatou hodos) was the distance the rabbis determined that a Jew could travel on the Sabbath without performing “work,” which would break the commandment to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest. This distance by this tradition was 2,000 cubits, which would be about 3,000 feet or 900 meters. Interestingly enough, using the scaling tool on Google Earth, the distance from the Chapel of the Ascension to the east wall of the Dome of the Rock (built over the Second Temple) is 900 meters.
We roll by the Chapel of the Ascension, and continue on west to the Church of the Pater Noster (English: “Our Father”) where we disembark. The local tradition is that this site is where Jesus taught his disciples the prayer, originally in an overhang type of cave shelter during the heat of the day. The prayer is earlier quotes by Matthew as part of the Sermon on the Mount:
“Pray then like this: Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; And forgive us our debts, As we also have forgiven our debtors; And lead us not into temptation, But deliver us from evil. ” (Matthew 6: 9-13).
We disembark and enter a shaded, landscaped courtyard. Along the walls of the courtyard are large engraved or tile plaques with the words of the Our Father, or Lord’s Prayer as is it also known, in 140 languages. The Our Father prayer takes the classic ascending/descending form of a Jewish prayer. The following quote is from a Vatican document (USCC Publication No. 970):
The great prayer of Jesus (the “Our Father”) is characteristic of Jewish prayer not only in terms of its special phrasing (every line of the Our Father is paralleled in the Jewish prayer book, Siddur) but also in terms of structure. The first part of the prayer consists of ascending blessings in which God is praised as a Father. The worshiper expresses the missionary longing for the honoring of His Name and the coming of His Kingdom. In the second part of the prayer, the worshiper asks for those descending blessings appropriate for God as a Father to bestow: bread, forgiveness, deliverance. In between the two parts is a “hinge” line expressing the desire for correspondence between heaven and earth.
The original church, built at the order of Emperor Constantine, commemorated the site as a place of Jesus’ teaching but did not specifically commemorate the Our Father. A recent partial reconstruction shows what the original church was like before its destruction in 614. The Crusaders first built a small oratory, and then in 1152 rebuilt a church funded by the bishop of Denmark, who is buried there. That church was damaged following the Ottoman conquest, and then destroyed by 1345. In the late Ottoman period, stones from the church were being sold to Jews for tombstones in the Valley of Jehoshaphat. An Italian widow of a French prince. Aurélie de Bossi, the Princess de la Tour d’Auvergne had the church and a convent completed in 1874. She suggested where the cave that was the cause of all the interest in the site might be found, and although she did not live to see it, archeologists discovered the cave and the foundations of the Byzantine church where she indicated in 1910-11.
Pilgrims in the 12th-century mention seeing marble plaques with the Our Father inscribed in Hebrew and Greek at the church. Excavations have uncovered a plaque with the prayer from the same period inscribed in Latin, the most widely understood language for pilgrims of that era. By the time of our mid-morning arrival pilgrim numbers have begun to swell, and soon the courtyard and cloister (covered walk in a convent, monastery, or college with a wall on one side and a colonnade open to a quadrangle on the other) is busy with groups moving about or queuing up for entrance into the church. In our group we have members who go to the appropriate plaque and recite the prayer aloud in different languages, including French and an Indonesian language. One of our Arab guides reads the prayer in Hebrew and then in Aramaic, the probable spoken language of the original, from an adjacent plaque. I find the plaque in the language nearest to Athabascan of Interior Alaska, the Cree language from north central Canada.
Carved engraving of the text of the Our Father prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13) in Aramaic and Hebrew in the courtyard of the Church of the Pater Noster (Latin: Our Father), on the summit of the Mount of Olives. The courtyard is part of a Catholic Church and convent of Carmelite Cloistered (enclosed) Sisters. The site has a partly reconstructed fourth century church. Local Christians have a traditional belief that Jesus taught the Our Father prayer here as he and the disciples took shelter from the midday sun in a shallow, rock-overhang type of cave.
Our pilgrim group walks out from the busy, but tranquil courtyard of the Pater Noster Church and down a side street to another of the panoramic promenade parks that provide great views of Jerusalem. At this point in the pilgrimage, the landmarks and sights, the routes and relationships between them, the valleys and the hills are beginning to settle in and take on the sense of the personal, the familiar. As we stand along the rail looking across the Kidron Valley into the Old City, an Israeli police vehicle speeds by. The Hamas trouble we saw incubating earlier has reached a point of intervention by the authorities. Up and down the street large Israeli flags fly from residences that have taken on subtle aspects of fortifications. The local residents on both sides seem to have internalized the lesson that only the tough survive in this neighborhood - the looser will be found by archeologists in the next pile of rubble to take its position atop the others.
An Israeli police vehicle speeds by a street along the summit of the Mount of Olives to respond to a security incident. The separation wall between Israeli and Palestinian controlled territory is very close and the Hamas organization has a strong presence in the neighborhood and across the wall, from which it pursues a program of attacks on Jews in particular, and security incidents on both sides of the barrier.
Church of St. Peter in Galicantu
A few hundred meters south of the southern wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, on the steep slope down to the City of David (earliest Jerusalem) is a church with a golden rooster figure, like a weather vane, on its roof. This is a Catholic Church built in 1931 on the ruins of earlier churches, and staffed by French Assumptionist Fathers. It has an arresting name – the Church of St. Peter in Galicantu.
Galicantu is Latin for cock-crow (from “gallus” for rooster, and “cantus” meaning singing or song). Based on a chain of historical accounts back to the early fourth century, and modern archeological investigation from the late 19th century until today, the consensus is that this church is built over the house of the official who ordered Jesus’ arrest, the High Priest Caiaphas. The house of the High Priest, Caiaphas (Yosef Bar Kayafa), in addition to being a residence per se, was an administrative and ceremonial center for carrying out public acts of governance. Excavations at St Peter in Gallicantu have revealed a cistern, servants’ quarters, a complete set of weights and measures for liquids and solids used by Temple priests, and a door lintel with the word “Korban” (sacrificial offering) inscribed in Hebrew. While some published guides place the dwellings of Caiaphas and Pilate at a single location some distance further up the hill, Bargil Pixner notes that, “this late and astonishing theory originated at the time of the Crusaders and is quite improbable”.
Below the Church of St. Peter in Galicantu is a cistern that may have served as a dungeon during the time of Caiaphas. During the fifth century it was venerated as a shrine commemorating the imprisonment of Jesus as he was held overnight awaiting interrogation by the Roman Procurator Pontius Pilate, with mosaics, coins, and religious artifacts that date from the early Byzantine period.
To simply recount the history of the Church of St. Peter in Galicantu on this site is to recount the major upheavals of the past 2,000 years in the region. A pilgrim from Bordeaux, France, mentioned the ruins of the house of Caiaphas in 333 AD. A large church was built here in 457, and then was damaged in the Samaritan Revolt of 529. The original church was destroyed during the Persian/Judean incursion of 614. A Byzantine church was rebuilt in about 628, then it was destroyed during the time of the mad Caliph Hakim in 1009. The Crusaders rebuilt a church on the site about 1100, which was destroyed in 1219 at the time of the Ottoman conquest. A chapel that was rebuilt was also destroyed about 1300. Archeological investigation began on the site in the last decades of the 19th century.
Our Footprints group has come to the last destination of this pilgrimage. After late morning Mass in St. Peter in Galicantu, we will be free for the afternoon. Some will wander the Old City on their own. Steve Ray will lead a jog around the walls of the Old City – a reminder of the compressed scale of the events of human drama that have played out here, even though the after-effects have echoed virtually across the planet. For our group, as we can see for many others as well, years of historical scholarship and over a century of modern archeological investigation have made the Holy Land considerably more comprehensible, real, even tangible. And these developments have come together with the historical/gospel narrative in a particularly vivid way at this place.
Dropping in on the Historical Caiaphas
In the early first century, the High Priest of the Temple had real, but limited, powers conceded by Roman provincial administrators. Caiaphas was appointed in AD 18 by Valerius Gratus, the Roman prefect who preceded Pontius Pilate. The circumstances of first century Jerusalem were certainly delicate, with extreme tension between an indigenous governing structure (the Jewish priestly class) and an occupying power (Rome). Caiaphas was a member of a family-based quasi-dynasty that, depending on the point of view, either monopolized the office of High Priest or provided long-term stability from AD 6 to 63.
Caiaphas’ term in office was recorded by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, so there should have been little question of his existence. But, strangely enough, several decades ago the lack of tangible archeological evidence for his existence was taken as a serious challenge to the reliability of Christian scriptures and Jewish history, or at least the historical accounts generally accepted then. Recently the challenge to produce archeological evidence of his existence was answered, and in a particularly impressive fashion. It all started with a forest and a dump truck.
After Jerusalem was united under Israeli rule (or, depending on your point of view, East Jerusalem was conquered) following the 1967 war, the Jerusalem Peace Forest was planted. The purpose of the Peace Forest is to link the formerly separated eastern and western parts of the city by a living memorial. The Peace Forest is located between the districts of Abu-Tor (mixed Arab and Jewish) and Talpiot (Jewish), about 2.5 km south of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount across the Hinom Valley from Mount Zion. The municipal government of Jerusalem is said to plant a tree in this forest for every child, of whatever background, who is born in Jerusalem. In the course of some construction work a few years ago in the Peace Forest, a dump truck partially caved in the roof of an ancient tomb. The tomb was easily dated to the time between the late 1st century BC and the 1st century AD. Why? Because of the presence of ossuaries.
An ossuary (from the Latin “os,” meaning bone) is a medium-sized stone box, nearly always carved limestone, used as a secondary burial container to contain the bones of deceased family members. The practice involved placing the deceased in a burial chamber and allowing the soft tissues of the body to decay, and then returning after a period of time and placing the disarticulated bones in a stone box, often with the bones of other family members. The length of the ossuary did not need to be much greater than the length of the longest human bone, the femur. The space-efficient packing of bones, as contrasted to an entire human corpse, allowed the remains of a number of family members to be placed in a very modest-sized stone box. This very specific form of burial was unknown in Judaism before about 15-20 BC, and essentially ceased after Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Why was the practice restricted to those particular years?
Herod’s reconstruction of the Jerusalem Temple provided employment for large numbers of stone masons. Herod also ordered several other large-scale construction projects, so there was plenty of work –an early example of particularly lavish stimulus spending. Naturally enough, members of this construction work force would offer their stone-carving skills on the market beyond the Temple upgrade and other public works. And there was a market for such services. The widespread prosperity among the Judean population, subsidized by Diaspora Jews (Jews from outside the Holy Land), provided consumers the means to purchase high-end consumer goods in general, and enhanced end-of-life products, including carved stone ossuaries, in particular.
Until the first century AD, the Jewish custom was to avoid artistic embellishment of many objects, particularly objects related to death. But decades of Roman rule had produced Jewish consumers whose tastes were noticeably more in line with the dominant motifs of classical antiquity than earlier generations. Carved ossuaries suddenly, and without precedent, became common in Jewish burial caves and chambers. Many ossuaries are decorated with elaborate geometric or flora patterns, and some have names of family members engraved on them. In the first century AD (although not a few centuries later) artistic representation of animals was strictly avoided.
When the dump truck working in the Jerusalem Peace Forest broke through the ceiling of a rock-cut burial chamber, one of the most intricately carved ossuaries found below had two engraved circles each with five rosettes, and engraved twice on the undecorated sides appeared the name, “Yehosef bar Qafa' ” (Joseph son of Caiaphas). The ossuary contained the remains of two infants, a young child aged 5 or less, a 13 to 18 year-old boy, an adult female and a man about 60 years old, which is an historically congruent age for Caiaphas. All indications are that it is ancient and genuine. It’s certainly one of the top finds in biblical archeology. And as if this were not enough, in 2008 an additional ossuary was recovered from tomb robbers, bearing the inscription ‘Miriam, daughter of Yeshua, son of Caiaphas.’ In 2011 the Israel Antiquities Authority declared this second Caiaphas family ossuary authentic. Caiaphas and the drama he participated in were quite real.
The verification of the connection to Caiaphas is a late 20th and early 21st century phenomenon. The historical memory of the place was maintained not for a Jewish High Priest, but in commemoration of a horrific scandal at the start of Christianity which any member of any religion or none at all can grasp with no difficulty. The cock-crow name of the Church of Saint Peter in Galicantu derives from the incident in which Peter denied Jesus as the Christos (anointed one) three times. The brash (one might say cock-sure) Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane (the garden of the oil-press that produced the oil of anointing) previously had boasted of his steadfastness.
“But Peter said to Him, ‘Even though all may fall away, yet I will not.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Truly I say to you, that this very night, before a rooster crows twice, you yourself will deny Me three times.’ But Peter kept saying insistently, ‘Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!’ ” (Mark 14: 29-31).
The High Priest Caiaphas convened the Sanhedrin (council) that agreed to arrest Jesus. The authorities were expecting trouble the night they discovered that the accused was in the garden of “gat shemanim” (Gethsemane), about a kilometer and a half away up the Kidron Valley. So a Roman cohort (about 600 men) and the Temple Guard were sent to arrest him. The steps of the main Roman Via (road) that descended from Mount Zion to the Kidron Valley have been exposed on the church property, and Jesus very probably walked down them earlier in the evening of his arrest as he and his disciples walked from the Upper Room of the Last Supper out to Gethsemane. Following his arrest, it is almost certain that Jesus would have been taken under guard to the high priest’s house along this via using these steps.
Steps on the ascending route of the Roman Via (road) that ran between the Kidron Valley and the southern limits of Jerusalem, past the house of the High Priest. Jesus was almost certainly led up these steps by the Roman Cohort that arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane.
After arriving at the house of Caphias, Jesus was questioned, abused, and held for the night, probably in a cistern/dungeon, to have his case reviewed by Pilate the next day. The key to obtaining a verdict of execution was to make the case on the grounds of insurrection – an offense against Roman rule – rather than a matter of Jewish religious law. And for that particular charge, it did not favor the accused that he had Nazorean (Nazarene) status.
Peter had followed at a distance since the arrest, and managed to sneak into the courtyard:
“And as Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the maids of the high priest came; and seeing Peter warming himself, she looked at him, and said, ‘You also were with the Nazarene, Jesus.’ But he denied it, saying, ‘I neither know nor understand what you mean.’ And he went out into the gateway. And the maid saw him, and began again to say to the bystanders, ‘This man is one of them.’ But again he denied it. And after a little while again the bystanders said to Peter, ‘Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean.’ But he began to invoke a curse on himself and to swear, ‘I do not know this man of whom you speak.’ And immediately the cock crowed a second time. And Peter remembered how Jesus had said to him, ‘Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.’ And he broke down and wept.” (Mark 14: 66-72).
The events of Peter’s betrayal of his rabbi and master make a poignant tale. Despite whatever can be said in mitigation for the case of a man caught up in a potentially lethal situation, this is a shocking incident. Peter was the first to acknowledge Jesus back at Caesarea Philippi as the Christos (anointed one), and as a result his name was changed on the spot. Jesus gave the keys to Peter, the symbol of royal Davidic prime ministerial authority – “… I … will commit your authority to his hand; and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will place on his shoulder the key of the house of David; he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open.” (Isaiah 22: 21-22). Jesus claimed that the gates of the netherworld would not prevail against what he was founding. These promises, symbols, names are taken by the Catholic Church as the biblical foundation of the office of the papacy, with Peter as the first pope. And here, Jesus’ hand-picked instrument Peter swore and placed a curse on himself in denial of everything he had been groomed for, after bragging of how strong he would be when tested.
The climactic event of the denial that took place here at the house of Caphias, is depicted in one of the largest of the mosaics of the Church of St. Peter in Galicantu. The mosaic quotes the verse, “Et se retournant et le seignuer regarda Pierre.” (And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. Luke 22: 61). It’s an understated passage with a powerful implication. It’s difficult to imagine being on the receiving end of that look. Interestingly, the Gospel of Mark, apparently written by/dictated to Peter’s assistant John Mark possibly while in Rome, always presents Peter in an unflattering light - always floundering, misunderstanding. It appears to represent something of a work of reparation, an apology. The mosaics here also show Peter in his later and more favorable light, after his humiliation when his leadership is reaffirmed.
Wall mosaics in the early 20th century Church of Peter in Galicantu (Latin: cock crowing). The mosaics are Biblical verses relating to Peter. The inscription in large yellow letters on the red background is, “Et se retournant et le seignuer regarda Pierre.” (And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter. Luke 22: 61). The smaller letters are the following verses relating to Peter: “Avant que le coq ait chante duex fois tu me renieras trois fois.” (Before the cock crows twice you will deny me three times. Mark 14:30). “Tu es Pierre, et sur cette pierre j'édifierai mon Eglise; et les portes de l'enfer ne prévaudront point contre elle.” (You are Peter [rock] and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Matthew 16: 18). “Pais mes agneaux, pais mes brebis. (Feed my lambs, feed my sheep. John 21: 15, 17)
Ironically, the first and certainly one of the most spectacular incidents in which Peter displayed a radically altered attitude toward fidelity to his master was with the same officials that ordered the arrest of Jesus.
“And as they were speaking to the people, the priests and the captain of the temple … arrested them and put them in custody until the morrow, for it was already evening… On the morrow their rulers and elders and scribes were gathered together in Jerusalem, with Annas the high priest and Ca'iaphas and John and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family… Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus… ‘let us warn them to speak no more to any one in this name.’ But Peter and John answered them, ‘… we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” And when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding no way to punish them.”
The traditional explanation in the Catholic Church for why Jesus allowed and foretold the betrayal incident was to clarify once and for all that the leadership/papal office is never based on how clever and strong the occupant is on his own capabilities, but how faithful and powerful the founder is. The lesson is always physically close to popes, because the main altar at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome is built over what the early church believed and now Vatican archeology claims (since 1968) are the remains of Simon/Peter, the Galilean fisherman. The supporting evidence for this claim has become strong, for example the presence of inscriptions from at least 160 AD (Greek: Petros eni - “Peter is here”) around a particular burial niche.
At that niche on Vatican Hill in Rome, the remains of a robustly built man consistent with a first century Palestinian Jew have been recovered, or at least all but the bones of the feet. The tradition is that during the persecution of Christians by Emperor Nero following the great fire of Rome in 64 AD, Peter asked to be crucified upside down. He did not feel worthy to die in the same way as his Lord. When the time came to remove his corpse from the cross, in order to save time and trouble, a soldier gave a powerful swing of his gladius (straight stabbing/cutting sword used by legionaries) to simply chop off the feet and allow the remainder of the corpse to crumple to the ground.
Both Peter and Paul traveled extensively, but made the city of Rome a particular target. In their enthusiasm, they seemed to think that they could overcome the power of the Empire. At a convenient time the Imperial leader Nero decided that he had had enough of a cat and mouse game with a weak, and conveniently vulnerable sect. Choosing from among the tortures that Romans seemed to be fascinated by, Nero ordered up a couple of specially targeted executions that could be expected to leave the sect leaderless and adrift, like so many other cults that had come and gone in the great city. Peter was crucified, and Paul, as a Roman citizen exempt from the torture of crucifixion, was beheaded.
The early Christians were diligent in collecting whatever remains they could of their revered members and leaders. They would rush in and spirit away whatever remains they could for burial and veneration, even at the cost of their own safety. And of all their losses, they would have made extraordinary efforts to recover the remains of Peter, their leader chosen by their founder. The journey that Peter began back in Capernaum in Galilee, where our pilgrimage group first encountered him, ended on Vatican Hill in Rome, where his remains very probably lie today.
Down into the Pit
Beneath the Church of St. Peter in Galicantu, early archeological excavations of the site in the late 19th century discovered an extraordinary feature that may possibly date to the time of Jesus and involve his final days. A rock-cut pit chamber, capable of holding water, may have been a cistern during the Byzantine era. Along the wall are seven red oxide carved crosses, four black oxide crosses, and a primitive silhouette figure in prayer. Many offerings were recovered there as well, suggesting that it was a shrine where the earliest Jewish Christians believed Jesus had been held.
At the upper entrance to the chamber, it appears to have the characteristic broad steps of a mikveh, but only to a point. Then the chamber is cut away and drops straight down 3 meters. One interpretation is that this was originally a mikveh in the house of Caphias, but was adapted for purposes of holding prisoners short-term by carving a sheer drop to a level where escape is not possible. Unlike other cisterns or mikvaot here is no practical exit in this one. Some published guide material describes the ancient practice of fastening a rope harness on to prisoners and lowering them into an empty, or even partially empty, cistern.
The possible site of Jesus’ overnight imprisonment in the cistern or dungeon in the house of Caiaphas.
Our Footprints pilgrimage group trickles down to the lower level of the church after Mass. We encounter about a dozen Christians ahead of us, down in the portion of the pit that modern visitors can access by a set of carved steps provided along one side near the rear of the pit. It’s a group from the southern U.S. As we wait we hear the familiar southern lilt and cadence of a preacher explaining the setting to his group. Steve Ray recognizes the characteristics of his Southern Baptist background. Like all our other dozens of encounters with Christians in the Holy Land, the atmosphere is warm and respectful. The preacher does an excellent job reading from Psalm 88: 1-18.
O Lord, my God, I call for help by day; I cry out in the night before thee. … I am reckoned among those who go down to the Pit; I am a man who has no strength, like one forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, … Thou hast put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. … Thou hast caused my companions to shun me; ... I am shut in so that I cannot escape; ...They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in upon me together.
Our Footprints pilgrimage group waits patiently while the Baptists sing an appropriate song in the distinctive praise and worship style of early 21st century American evangelicals. Not that many years ago an ecumenical encounter, such as this one in the chapel basement of a Catholic Church, would have been rare.
We walk out and get our final instructions about the evening departure for the airport from the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center, and then the Footprints pilgrims are on their own for lunch and the afternoon. With the instructions and the travel experience the group has gained, the pilgrims have a set of afternoon destinations in mind and the confidence to move about on their own through an environment that only a few days ago would have seemed impossibly complex and potentially risky, which it was not at all.
The Franciscan priest who welcomed our Footprints pilgrimage group at the tomb of Jesus in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built his remarks around a simple six-word phrase. “Come and see. Go and tell.” And as it relates to the geography, history, and natural history of the Holy Land, that is what I have tried to do.
For many Alaskans, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport is an extension of their state. It may be a pseudo-extension of Alaska, but at least at Seattle the real thing starts to become the focus of conversation, the factor in people’s plans, an actual place – the home we look toward. So many things written about Alaska or filmed here use the theme of an exotic, mysterious icy wonderland with essentially nobody living here. But that whole perspective has to be imported. To the people who do live here, it’s precisely where normality happens, and a willingness to concede that is the first step toward respecting those you don’t yet know. Every place has the potential to be exotic to somebody who has never been there.
As this day’s travelers heading home to Alaska we gather in the airline boarding area together with various ‘secular pilgrims’ now on a journey back from whatever exotic recent travel destinations they have visited so far and remote from Alaska. My wife and I have been on a pilgrimage that reenacted with modern technology what some of our long ago ancestors might have participated in. But for all of us travelers, secular and sacred, the process of assimilating our various pilgrimages has begun as we sit and wait for the late evening flight.
Alaska twice hosted one of the most-traveled pilgrims in history, Pope John Paul II. In addition to his many roles and talents (priest, university chaplain, university professor, two Ph.D. degrees, linguist, theologian, writer, diplomat, Polish patriot), he was a self-described “sportsman” (athlete). He loved the outdoors and would occasionally develop a far-away look in his eyes and slip out of the Vatican to ski alone in the mountains. Both times he was in Alaska, once in Anchorage and once in Fairbanks, he was reported to have had that far-away look in his eyes. In his visit to Fairbanks in May 1984 he made an explicit comparison between the abundance of unspoiled nature in Alaska - the harmony of nature as he called it - and human harmony.
“Here in this vast State … peoples of many diverse backgrounds find a common home... This wonderful diversity provides the context in which each person, each family … is challenged to live in harmony and concord, one with the other… To achieve this aim requires a constant openness to each other on the part of each individual and group -- an openness of heart, a readiness to accept differences, and an ability to listen to each other's viewpoint without prejudice. Openness … is expressed in a dialog that is honest and frank, one that is based on mutual respect… Openness to others begins in the heart… Only with a new heart can one rediscover clear sightedness and impartiality …Here in Fairbanks, you have the opportunity to rediscover such values and express them in your harmonious relationship with your neighbor, which reflects the stupendous harmony of nature which pervades this region. May God … give you the courage to share generously and selflessly the blessings that you yourselves have received in abundance.”
We board the airplane for the journey home in the gathering darkness in Seattle. According to the clock, we will fly into the night. But as everybody from the far north knows, making our journey home in June means the lingering light of the evening shadows in the mid latitudes will not cross the threshold into darkness. As we fly farther and farther north, a sort of suspended twilight turns imperceptibly into the light of a new dawn, a new day in the far north.
(All photos by Glenn Juday)
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Previous posts in this series:
- SNRAS professor shares Holy Land pilgrimage
- On to Nazareth
- Holy Land tour marches on
- Holy Land: Cana to Mt. Tabor
- Holy Land: One pilgrim, one suitcase
- Holy Land: Jerusalem
- Holy Land: Tourism, security, and religion
- Holy Land: The Fifth Gospel
- Holy Land: Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross, and the Israel Museum
- Holy Land: Down from Jerusalem to Jericho
- Holy Land Pilgrimage: A Gate, A Basilica, A Holy Match