The Jerusalem of Jesus

While much of Jesus' three year ministry took place in the Galilee district, some eighty miles north of Jerusalem, many important threads of his life (and especially his death and resurrection) lay in the rich fabric of Holy City and the Temple, both of which, above all, were the creation of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, about 2 years after Jesus' birth.

Jesus' earliest recorded visit to Jerusalem was just after his birth, when Mary and Joseph brought him to the Temple to present him the Lord:


"When the time of their purification according to the Law of Moses had been completed, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, 'Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord"), and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: 'a pair of doves or two young pigeons.'" (Luke 2:22-24)

Among the remains uncovered during excavations at the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount is a fragment of a stone vessel inscribed with two crudely drawn birds with the Hebrew word corban, meaning "offering." Birds were the traditional sacrifice for the birth of a child, and perhaps it was offered for sale to a couple who, like Joseph and Mary, came to Jerusalem to make a thank-offering for a new son or daughter.

Every year thereafter, according to Luke's Gospel, Jesus went to Jerusalem with his parents "for the Feast of the Passover." (Luke 2-41) It was at one of these Passover pilgrimages when the then twelve-year-old Jesus was found by his anxious parents in discussions with the teachers in the Temple:


"When he was twelve years old, they went up to the Feast, according to the custom. After the Feast was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it. Thinking he was in their company, they traveled on for a day. Then they began looking for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they went back to Jerusalem to look for him. After three days they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him, they were astonished. His mother said to him, 'Son, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been anxiously searching for you.' 'Why were you searching for me?' he asked. 'Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?'" (Luke 2:42-49)

Following his baptism in the Jordan River, he was tempted by Satan on the "highest point of the temple" (KJV "pinnacle"):


"The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 'If you are the Son of God,"' he said, 'throw yourself down from here.'" (Luke 4:9 )

On yet another yearly Passover pilgrimage (his last) he assailed the merchants and money changers in the Court of Gentiles, the largest of the Temple courts:


"On reaching Jerusalem, Jesus entered the temple area and began driving out those who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money-changers and the benches of those selling doves, and would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts. And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations?' But you have made it a den of robbers." (Mark 11:15-17)

Tyrian silver shekels (right) were renowned for the purity of their silver content and were preferred for many payments and transactions. They were the only acceptable coins for the payment of the yearly half-shekel Temple tithe required of all men. Even though they bore human and animal images, they were more acceptable than the Roman coins in common circulation which bore images of the emperor—a Roman god— and other idolatrous symbols. Money changers performed a valuable—and very profitable—service for worshipers lacking the proper coins. Within the Court of Women of the Temple complex were 13 chests, each shaped like a shofar, or ram's-horn trumpet, to receive offerings given to defray the costs of sacrifices.

The day after the incident with the money changers, Jesus again returned to the Court of Gentiles to teach, and the Jewish authorities tried to ensnare him in a verbal trap, hoping to establish grounds for arresting him. One group came up to him and asked:


"'Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are; but you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or shouldn't we?' But Jesus knew their hypocrisy. 'Why are you trying to trap me?' he asked. 'Bring me a denarius and let me look at it.' They brought the coin, and he asked them, 'Whose portrait is this? And whose inscription?' 'Caesar's,' they replied. Then Jesus said to them, 'Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's.'" (Mark 12:14-17)

Right, a silver denarius minted in Rome during the rule of Tiberias, the reigning Caesar during Christ's ministry. On one side is a bust of the emperor; on the other is the seated figure of Livia, mother of Tiberius. This unit of Roman currency was apparently the most widely circulated coin and is the most frequently mentioned coin in the New Testament. It represented a typical day's wage for Roman soldiers and ordinary laborers, as in Matthew 20:2: "He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard." The denarius was also the main denomination used to pay Roman taxes.

A few verses later, Mark relates that, "Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.'" (Mark 12:41-44)

Right, examples of the "lepton" or "prutah, the familiar "Widow's Mite" of the Gospels, minted during the reign of the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Jannaeus (103 - 76 BC). Each Widow's Mite was hand cast from bronze, so each is uniquely shaped. Smaller than today's U.S. dime, the relief designs feature symbolic representations of anchors, stars, eight-spoked wheels, cornucopias, and other objects used in daily life some 2,000 years ago. These tiny bronze coins won't win any beauty contests, they were never well-crafted, even when new. They were the coinage of the common people, the peasants. The Widow's Mite was widely used throughout the Middle East. (Incidentally, antique coin dealers now sell "Widow's Mites" to collectors for $39.95 each.)

Other archaeological finds in Jerusalem related to Jesus' life, death and ministry)

At the base of the southern wall of the Temple Mount is the Ophel Archaeological Garden where excavations have brought to light remains from several different eras in the history of Jerusalem. Among them is the broad flight of steps that carried the Jewish faithful up to the Temple in Jesus' time.

Right, View of the southern wall of the Temple Mount, with the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aksa Mosque (dark dome). At the base of the wall is the excavated staircase that once gave access to the Temple Mount from the south via the Double Huldah Gate (half its lintel is just visible in the corner formed by the Crusader wall on the left). It had 30 steps and measured 214-feet wide. Here pilgrims can truly walk in the footsteps of Jesus.

Caiaphas ossuary

In 1990, a soft limestone burial box (ossuary) was accidentally discovered during construction of a water park in south Jerusalem; a tractor plunged into a cave on a ridge in an area used for burials during the Second Temple period. Around the time of Jesus, it was customary to wrap the dead in linen shrouds and place them in small niches in tombs. About a year later, after the flesh had decayed, the bones were transferred to small stone boxes to save space in tombs. A masterpiece of the stonecutter's art, the front of this ossuary is especially richly ornamented over its entire surface. The decorations consist of varieties of stylized floral patterns and rosettes drawn with a compass. This ossuary contained the bones of four children, one adult woman and one 60-year-old man. The unique element that made it especially interesting is that the name of one of the deceased, apparently the elderly man, had been inscribed in Aramaic with a sharp nail on the back and on one of the narrow sides: Yehosef bar Qayafa—Joseph Caiaphas—who, in the New Testament is simply called Caiaphas, and the Jewish historian identifies as "Joseph who was called Caiaphus," the high priest who interrogated Jesus and handed him over to Pontius Pilate for trial. We know that Caiaphas left his family home in Beth Meqoshesh and married the daughter of Annas, the high priest from 6 to 15 AD and founder of a dynasty of high priests who controlled the Temple over much of Roman era of Jerusalem. We know too that he was a Sadducee, who, unlike the Pharisees, did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Why, then, did he have his remains preserved in this elaborate ossuary? It is unlikely that he purchased it in anticipation of coming to life again. Most likely, he adopted the common burial custom of other wealthy Jerusalmites and did so in grand style. (Now exhibited at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem).

Yohanan's ossuary

Thousands of ossuaries have been found around Jerusalem. But one in particular, in a tomb at Givat ha-Mivtar, 1 1/2 miles north of the Old City, contained the first skeletal remains of a crucifixion ever unearthed from the 1st century AD. The victim was a young man between twenty-four and twenty-eight years old, he stood 5 feet, 5 3/4 inches tall and was of slight build. Both his ankle bones had been pierced by a long nail. The ossuary also contained the bones of a three or four-year-old child with no marks of violence or disease.

Two names appear on the ossuary. The first is Yohanan, or John, and the second "Yohanan, son of hzqwl." As it stands, the last word is unreadable, but it may be a corruption of Ezekial. It may also be read "the one hanged with knees apart," reading "hzqwl" or "h'qwl." Thus the name of the victim was certainly "John," and his son (?) was perhaps called "John, son of the hanged."

The nail-point (on the right) had been bent, probably from hitting a knot while being driven into the upright beam of the cross, and it had bits of olivewood attached. Fragments of acacia or pistacia wood were also found between the nail head and the heels, indicating that a board had been placed over Yohanan's ankles before the nail was driven in. His legs were not broken to speed his death (unlike those of the men crucified with Jesus). Therefore, he died slowly and painfully of asphyxiation, as the muscles of his diaphragm slowly gave out and he simply stopped breathing. Normally, crucifixion victims were left unburied, a final disgrace, for non-burial was feared as much as crucifixion itself. It meant eternal separation from your ancestors. Why, then, despite his horrible death, were Yohanan's remains, like those of Caiaphas, buried in an ossuary? It seems that he, like the infamous high priest, was probably a member of a  wealthy family that was allowed to reclaim his body from the cross. Jesus died in same manner and he, too, was given the burial of a wealthy person, one befitting royalty in a new (and expensive) tomb in a garden setting.

Hasmonean Staircase

This stairway is undoubtedly among the major archaeological finds of recent times. It connected the old Pool of Siloam at the southwest corner of the City of David (Lower City) with the residential districts of the Upper City. The name "Hasmonean" refers to the era in which staircase was built (141-37 BC), and it was in use at the time of Jesus. Most likely Jesus walked on this stepped-street at least twice on the evening of Maundy Thursday: once on his way to Gethsemane after the Last Supper, and again after his arrest at Gethsemane, from where he was taken (according to the Gospels):

  • "to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year" (John 18:12);
  • "to Caiaphas, the high priest" (Matthew 26:57);
  • "to the high priest" (Mark 14, 53);
  • "into the house of the high priest" (Luke 22:54).

Most likely the residence was somewhere in Jerusalem's Upper City, where influential Jews of Jesus' day lived in large splendid houses, many built during Herod the Great's massive reconstruction of the city in the 1st century BC. The steepness of this stepped-street is an indication of how high the Upper City was in comparison to the Lower City.

Pool of Siloam

The Pool of Siloam was originally built in the 8th century BC as a storage reservoir for the water from the Gihon Spring, Jerusalem's only permanent source of fresh water. It was located at the southwestern end of the the old City of David where the early kings of Judah—David, Solomon, Hezekiah, etc.—resided. Under the threat of a siege by the armies of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, Hezekiah blocked "off the water from the springs outside the city" (2 Chronicles 32:3) and diverted inside the perimeter of the city walls by means of a 1,750-foot-long tunnel. Even by today's standards the so-called "Hezekiah's Tunnel" was an extraordinary technical achievement and was dug by workers tunneling with pickaxes from both ends simultaneously. Both the Pool of Siloam and Hezekiah's Tunnel, were in use in Jesus' time and the pool is mentioned in John 9:1-7 in connection with the healing of a blind man:


"As he [Jesus] went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, 'Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?' 'Neither this man nor his parents sinned,' said Jesus, 'but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no-one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.' Having said this, he spat on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man's eyes. 'Go,' he told him, 'wash in the Pool of Siloam' (this word means sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing."

Siloam is a Greek name, derived from the Hebrew "Shiloah," meaning "sending." Here John uses the term Siloam as a play on words to emphasize his point that a blind man was sent to Siloam by Jesus, the one who was sent. To gain his sight, the blind man came to and obeyed the one who was sent.

Today, the location of the pool is indicated by a small minaret (below) at the tip of the Ophel ridge, south of the Temple Mount, where the Kidron and Hinnom Valleys meet.

The original form of the Siloam Pool was lost until the summer of 2004, when work along a drainage pipe revealed some large stone steps. Archaeologists revealed a series of steps leading down into an adjacent garden (below) 

After some months of work, a large section of steps was revealed. Still later more sections of the pool on the northern and southern ends were uncovered, including large paving stones. Excavations on the southern end uncovered a large wall and a section of the pool from the Old Testament period. 

Over the centuries Christians have been attracted to the pool because of its association with Jesus' healing miracle. In the 5th century AD a church was built there by the empress Eudoxia. It was destroyed by the Persians in 614 AD, but the tradition of the curative powers of the water, mentioned by Byzantine pilgrims, continued among the Arabs. A colonnade around the pool is mentioned in the Middle Ages, but what happened thereafter is a mystery. Possibly debris from higher up the valley washed down into the pool and was sporadically cleared by those who needed the water. The mosque in the above photo was built on the site in the I890s. Even today people came here to wash themselves, believing the waters hold curative powers.

Pool of Bethesda

Upon entering the Old City via the Lions Gate in the eastern wall, immediately to the right is the beautifully austere Church of St. Anne constructed in 1142 by Crusaders on the traditional site of the home of Anne and Joachim, the parents, according to the Protoevangelium (first Gospel) of James, of the Virgin Mary. This "jewel of crusader's art" has been described as a virtual instrument for the human voice, and its extraordinary acoustics are frequently tested by pilgrims. Immediately northwest of the church are the ruins of the Pool of Bethesda (Hebrew "house of mercy" or "flowing water"), the setting for John 5:1-15, in which Jesus healed a man crippled for 38 years. In gospel chronology this miracle took place early in Jesus' ministry and is an illustration of Jesus' compassion for person in need even in violation of the Sabbath.

Right, reconstruction of the Pool of Bethesda in the model of 1st century AD Jerusalem at the Israel Museum (moved from the Holyland Hotel).

At the time of Jesus the Pool of Bethesda was located outside the city walls near the Sheep Gate. The gate no longer exists. In reality, it was not a single pool, but a pair of large rectangular water reservoirs with steps going down into the water. John describes it as "surrounded by five covered colonnades," indicating that there was a covered portico on each side of the pool, with a fifth along a causeway between its two halves.

The first of the pools was dug during the 8th century BC; it was called "the Upper Pool" and it is mentioned in Isaiah 7:3:

"Then said the LORD unto Isaiah: 'Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shear-jashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool, in the highway of the fullers' field.

A second pool, the "Washers Pool" was dug in the 3rd century BC by Simon the High Priest. The pools were used to wash sheep prior to their sacrifice in the Temple which gave the water a halo of sanctity. Many sick and crippled people gathered here in the hope of being cured by bathing in its waters.

As Jesus walked past the pool on his way into the city, he noticed a lame man sitting at the top of the steps and asked him, "Do you want to get well?" to which he replied, "I have no-one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred." The use of this phrase suggests several things: that the pool was fed by a spring which gushed periodically; that its healing properties were thought to be greater when the water moved; that the Gospel was written to a Greek audience, because there was a common belief in the Greek world that moving water was associated with healing. By healing the men, Jesus proved his divine authority. The message here is the need for persistence in asking for help, and the need for faith in the healing power of Jesus.

Today, the excavated site of the pools (now dry) is within the city walls. Pilgrims can see the excavated remains  (right) just beyond the Crusader Church of St. Anne near the First Station of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa.

Over the centuries several structures were built on the site including a Roman temple dedicated to Asclepius (the Greek god of healing, or Serapis, his Egyptian equivalent), replaced in the 5th century AD by a Byzantine church dedicated to the virgin Mary (note the remaining support arch of the church in this view of the southern pool). The church was destroyed in 1009 AD by the mad Caliph al-Hakim.

For the benefit of pilgrims the remains of these structures are identified by colored signs.

Just visible behind the arch are the original steps, cut into bedrock, of the southern pool.

Golden Gate

The synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, tell us that after Jesus' triumphal ride from Bethpage and Bethany over the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday, he went to the Temple. It is assumed that he entered the city through an eastern gate which led directly there. Today that would be the now closed Golden Gate, which dates to the Umayyad period (7th-8th centuries AD), long after the time of Jesus. The story is told that the gate was walled-up to prevent the entry of the Messiah, who was expected to come from the east and enter through that very gate. Even now, there is a belief among Christians that these measures are futile, and that the Golden Gate will miraculously reopen when Jesus comes for the second time. In truth, it was closed after the Muslim conquest, when the Dome of the Rock and the aI-Aksa Mosque were built, to prevent unsupervised access to the Temple Mount by "unbelievers." At the time of the Crusades it was opened twice a year, on Palm Sunday and the feast of the Exaltation of the cross. The gate was finally closed under Turkish rule and has remained so to this day.

Evidence exists of an earlier gate beneath the Golden Gate, possibly the one used by Jesus. Its remains were accidentally discovered in 1969 by James Fleming, a young Bible student who was exploring the Golden Gate after a heavy rain the previous day. While kneeling to frame a picture of the gate in his camera view finder, the ground beneath him gave way. He found himself in an eight-foot hole, in a mass grave full of human bones. To his astonishment, directly beneath the Golden Gate, were the remains of a hitherto unknown earlier gate. He managed to take a few pictures of the five trapezoid-shaped stones that made up the arch of the gate. The similarity of the stones to the Herodian masonry of the original double Huldah gate leading to the Temple Mount from the south suggests that this lower gate was also Herodian. If so, it very well could have been the gate Jesus rode through on Palm Sunday, or to teach in the Temple courts at other times. Another theory suggests the arch supported a bridge that ran across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives known as the "Causeway of the Heifer," since the High Priest used this way to reach the place on the Mount of Olives where the ritual burning of the Red Heifer took place to purify pilgrims with its ashes (see Numbers 19:2). If so, than Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives on a bridge supported by the stones of this arch, entered the eastern gate, then proceeded to cleanse the Temple.

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