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ArchaeologyJewish law requires ritual purity for olive oil production

Ancient ritual bath may mark first New Testament-era find at Jesus’ Gethsemane

Olive grove where Jesus spent a night of agony, accepted his betrayal, and was arrested ahead of his crucifixion has until now had no physical link to Second Temple era

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

  • Second Temple-era ritual bath that was discovered during construction work on a modern tunnel under the 1920 Catholic Church of All Nations. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Second Temple-era ritual bath that was discovered during construction work on a modern tunnel under the 1920 Catholic Church of All Nations. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Second Temple-era ritual bath that was discovered during construction work on a modern tunnel under the 1920 Catholic Church of All Nations. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Second Temple-era ritual bath that was discovered during construction work on a modern tunnel under the 1920 Catholic Church of All Nations. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Archaeologist Amit Reem next to the ritual bath at Gethsemane on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. (Yaniv Berman/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Archaeologist Amit Reem next to the ritual bath at Gethsemane on Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. (Yaniv Berman/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, next to the ancient ritual bath. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, next to the ancient ritual bath. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • David Yeger, director of the excavation at Gethsemane in Jerusalem, in the Byzantine church. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
    David Yeger, director of the excavation at Gethsemane in Jerusalem, in the Byzantine church. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Israel Antiquities Authority excavations at the Byzantine church. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Israel Antiquities Authority excavations at the Byzantine church. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
  • Israel Antiquities Authority excavations at a 6th century Byzantine church at Gethsemane in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)
    Israel Antiquities Authority excavations at a 6th century Byzantine church at Gethsemane in Jerusalem's Mount of Olives. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

A Second Temple-era ritual bath that was recently uncovered on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives at the site believed to be the New Testament’s Gethsemane is being touted as the first evidence that links the pilgrimage site to the period in which Jesus lived.

According to all four Gospels, it is at Gethsemane — which idiomatically means “olive press” in Hebrew — that Jesus spent a night of agony following the Last Supper, accepted his eventual betrayal and execution, and was arrested by the Temple guards of the Sanhedrin.

“For the first time, we have archaeological evidence that something was here in the Second Temple period, in the days of Jesus,” said Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district head Amit Re’em on Monday.

While the find does not lend any physical credence to the Gospels, it does point to the possibility of there having been an oil press at the site, which would appear to align with the New Testament name of the site where Jesus spent his final night before the crucifixion.

Second Temple-era ritual baths are not particularly unusual for archaeologists to uncover: there are dozens of similar baths dotting the Land of Israel — if not hundreds, Re’em told The Times of Israel. But this ritual bath, also known as a mikveh, represents the first time there is any physical archaeological evidence at the traditional site of Gethsemane, where Christians have made pilgrimages for centuries, to connect it to the New Testament era.

“It is not from the mikveh that we are so excited, rather the interpretation, the meaning, of it. Because despite there being several excavations in the place since 1919 and beyond, and that there were several findings — from the Byzantine and Crusader eras, and others — there has not been one piece of evidence from the time of Jesus. Nothing! And then, as an archaeologist, there arises the question: Is there evidence of the New Testament story, or maybe it happened elsewhere?” said Re’em.

Archaeologist Amit Re’em next to the ritual bath at Gethsemane on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. (Yaniv Berman/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

During the era in which Jesus walked in Jerusalem, Gethsemane would have been a field outside the walls of Jerusalem full of olive trees.

According to Re’em, there was likely some kind of olive press, for making oil, in the middle of the field, though no sign of such a thing had been discovered. Re’em said, tentatively, that the discovery of the ritual bath outside the walls of Jerusalem — meaning, not in a residential settlement — points to an implicit need for ritual purity in an agricultural context.

Most ritual baths from the period have been excavated in the homes of wealthy individuals, inside settlements for public use, near cemeteries, or in agricultural areas, where they were used to ritually purify those involved in the production of wine and olive oil, according to Re’em.

Second Temple-era ritual bath that was discovered during construction work on a modern tunnel under the 1920 Catholic Church of All Nations. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)

“According to the Jewish law, when you are producing wine or olive oil, you need to be purified,” said Re’em. “So there is a high probability that during the time of Jesus, at this place was an oil press.”

Archaeologists used stratigraphical context and typological comparisons to date the bath to the Second Temple era, though the research has not yet been scientifically peer-reviewed or published.

The next step for researching the mikveh, he said, will be to take plaster samples and send them to micro-archaeologists who will look for minuscule olive pollen grains, among other substances.

Second Temple-era ritual bath that was discovered during construction work on a modern tunnel under the 1920 Catholic Church of All Nations. (Yaniv Berman, Israel Antiquities Authority)

If these are discovered, then the connection to oil production will become more certain, said Re’em.

But he cautioned that such testing is time-consuming and answers will not be immediate. Nor will they definitively prove the beliefs of pilgrims who have associated the site with Gethsemane for at least 1,500 years.

“Let’s not get carried away,” said Re’em. Even with this ritual bath, “there’s no evidence to the truth of the Gospels.”

A gift from God

The existence of the bath — the first and so far only evidence of the Second Temple period at the site — came during a chance cave-in during construction of a tunnel to link the modern Church of the Nations to the Kidron Valley ahead of a new visitors center. Since then, the Israel Antiquities Authority and students from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum have carried out and completed salvage excavations at the location.

Israel Antiquities Authority excavations at a 6th century Byzantine church at Gethsemane in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

Excavations were also undertaken at the foot of the 1920s church in the Kidron Valley, where remains of a Byzantine church and a Crusader-era monastery were unearthed. According to an IAA press release, the church was used from circa 6th century CE through the 8th century, which was after the Muslim conquest.

On the church’s floor, a Greek inscription was discovered, stating, “For the memory and repose of the lovers of Christ (cross) God who have received the sacrifice of Abraham, accept the offering of your servants and give them remission of sins. (cross) Amen.” The inscription was jointly deciphered by Dr. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Rosario Pierri of the Franciscan Institute.

According to IAA excavation director David Yeger, “It is interesting to see that the [Byzantine-era] church was being used, and may even have been founded, at the time when Jerusalem was under Muslim rule, showing that Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem continued during this period as well.”

David Yeger, director of the excavation at Gethsemane in Jerusalem, in the Byzantine church. (Yoli Schwartz, Israel Antiquities Authority)

Regarding the newly discovered Byzantine-era church, Re’em said there is no documentation of this particular church, but he believes that the area must have been at one time a compound that included several churches, each documenting a different facet of Jesus’s trials at the location.

The medieval monastery, or hospice or visitors’ center, had several chambers and a “sophisticated” water system, which included two large, cross-decorated cisterns, according to the IAA. Re’em said that it was likely destroyed by the Ayyubid Sultan Salah-a-Din in 1187 CE, according to debris found at the site, and that there is textual documentation that the sultan ordered that stones from razed Mount of Olives churches be used to fortify city walls.

Fr. Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, next to the ancient ritual bath. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

The findings were presented on Monday at a small conference attended by Custos of the Holy Land Fr Francesco Patton, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists, and scholars from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, including Studium Biblicum Franciscanum archaeologist Father Eugenio Alliata.

The Church of the Nations, built between 1919-1924, is one of multiple Franciscan holdings in the Holy Land. The seat of the Franciscan custos is located adjacent to the Old City’s New Gate, and since 1217, a succession of custos have overseen the order’s work in the Holy Land, including the territories of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt (in part), Cyprus, and Rhodes.

Israel Antiquities Authority excavations at the Byzantine church. (Yoli Schwartz/ Israel Antiquities Authority)

Members of the Franciscan order were among the pioneering archeologists in the Holy Land and its Terra Sancta Museum, in continuous operation since 1902 in Jerusalem’s Old City, has served as a sanctuary for archaeology from war-torn areas, including the Islamic State-ravaged Palmyra, Syria.

The order maintains that eight olive trees on the site date back to the time of Jesus, which would make them the oldest in the world.

Fr. Francesco Patton, custos of the Holy Land, said in an IAA press release, “Gethsemane is one of the most important sanctuaries in the Holy Land, because in this place the tradition remembers the confident prayer of Jesus and his betrayal and because every year millions of pilgrims visit and pray in this place.

“Even the latest excavations conducted on this site have confirmed the antiquity of the Christian memory and tradition linked to the place, and this is very important for us and for the spiritual meaning connected with the archeological findings,” said Patton.

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