Christian Leadership Center



Biblical Archaeology Index


Class Twenty-One




When Herod the Great died in 4 B.C., he left his kingdom to be divided among three of his sons.  But he also passed on to them his high style of living, his desire to satisfy all the passions, and his wickedness in gaining and controlling power over the people.  As we have noted in the historical section of the family of Herod, Archelaus was given Judea, Antipas Galilee, and Philip the northern regions.

There is not much that we can say about Archelaus’ activities, for he was removed in 6 A.D. by the Romans.  So our interest will be in the other two.  Antipas, also called Herod in the Bible, built Sepphoris in Galilee to be his major city; we shall look at the archaeology of that site in some detail.  In addition to this we will include a brief word about Tiberius as well.  And since these two cities were also centers for Jewish teachers, we will add Bet Shearim.

Philip built Caesarea Philippi up near Old Testament Dan, and so we shall look at the remains of that area as well. 

In addition to these two main sites we shall study the Herodian Quarter in Jerusalem to get some idea of how the rich and famous lived in the times of Jesus.  And while we are focused on the way that the Roman lifestyle was preferred by the ruling classes in the land, we shall take a close look at Bet Shean, one of the most spectacular archaeological sites in the land.      





The History of the City

The city of Sepphoris, Hebrew Zippori, is one of the most important cities in the region of Galileebut it is not mentioned in the New Testament at all.  This is  amazing because it was once the largest city in Galilee, rebuilt by Herod Antipas and made the capital of the region.  He wanted to make it the center of culture, commerce, finance, and government.  Josephus called it the ornament of all Galilee.

The word Zippori means bird, but the reason for this name is unclear. The Talmud said it was because like a bird the city sat on top of the hill.  The Romans called the place Diocaesarea, the city of Zeus (Dio) and the emperor.

An early tradition says that Joseph was one of the scores of people employed in building this city.  This is certainly plausible, since Sepphoris is about four miles north of Nazareth.  Another tradition makes Zippori the home of Mary.  This has been handed down by the Sisters of Anna, an Italian order that runs an orphanage nearby.  There is a crusader church and monastery to St. Anne that is said to be on the site of the home of Mary, the dwelling of Anna and Joachim, her parents.  In it are inscriptions from the Byzantine period (fourth-fifth centuries).  The tradition says that when Marys father died, her mother Anna moved to Nazareth.  In Nazareth the angel appeared to Mary to announce the birth.  And then after Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt with the child they settled in Nazareth.

As Jesus grew up in Nazareth he most likely had occasion to visit the big city of Zippori, perhaps as an apprentice to his father, which would have been the custom.  Page suggests that in this cultured city he may even have seen a play or two in the theater.  He wonders if a Greek play in the theater might have contributed to the theatrical imagery of Jesus teaching, notably his use of the word hypocrite (Matt. 5--7; 23).  The hypocrite in the Greek language refers originally to one who acts in a play, or playacting.  Of course there is no room for playacting in righteousness.[1]


The Archaeology of the City

The Theater.   The theater is one of the first things that the visitor to Sepphoris sees.  Its presence is one clear indication of the pagan culture that thrived in this place.  It was built in the second half of the first century and was still in use in the Byzantine period.  Built in the natural topography, its diameter was seventy-two meters, and it could seat about four thousand people.  Only the foundations remain today since the seats have been removed.  But one can visualize how lovely an evening must have been for the people of this city sitting in this theater on the hillside overlooking the Galilean hills and valleys.

The Mosaics.  Even more interesting, though, are the mosaics that have been found here.  A luxurious Roman residence was discovered, built at the beginning of the third century and was probably destroyed by the earthquake in 363.  Even though this actual mosaic was laid after the time of Jesus, it still shows what Roman life was like in the first few centuries. 

The house was built around a colonnaded yard and had two floors.  It had a spectacular mosaic floor in the triclinium (banquet hall) depicting the Greek festivals of wine and revelry for the god Dionysus.  The portrait of a beautiful woman is in the medallion frame around the mosaic carpet.  She has been called the Mona Lisa of Galilee.

Another building with mosaics were found east of the colonnaded street.  The largest mosaic portrays the festival in Egypt when the Nile River is at its highest level. It also includes several hunting scenes.

The Colonnaded Street.  The city had a system of crisscrossing roads; the most interesting one is the colonnaded street built during the second or third centuries by the Romans, perhaps over a road from the first century times.  It was paved with lime stones and had mosaics along the sides.  Shops would have lined the street.  The grooves from the carts can still be seen in the roadway.

Statues of Pan and Prometheus were also found in Sepphoris.  Walking through the streets of this city and into its main areas one would be constantly reminded that it was a pagan city.

The Water Supply.  Also of importance are the tunnels prepared for the water.  The water supply for the city is lower than the town itself, and so aqueducts were built to carry the water from other springs in the area to a large underground reservoir, about 1.5 kilometers from the city.  On the top of the hill, where the aqueducts did not reach, cisterns were dug to collect rain.  Because there was sufficient water in the region of the Galilee, the people could grow vegetables, olives, and  grapes.

There are also a number of ritual baths cut out of the rocky slope of the city, giving the clear indication of a sizeable Jewish population here.


Judaism and Sepphoris

The city is also important for the study of Rabbinic Judaism.  At the beginning of the third century A.D. Rabbi Judah the Prince (Yehudah HaNasi) came to live herehe was the one responsible for putting the Mishnah together (about 250 A.D.). The Mishnah is the collection of teachings of the famous teachers (Hillel, Shammai, Gamaliel and many others) that date from about 200 B.C. to about 200 A.D., most of them coming from the latter end of this time frame.  The teachings are arranged topically (festivals, tithing, marriage, divorce, the Sanhedrin, Passover, etc.).  The material is particularly valuable for the study of the New Testament because it provides us with a good deal of the teachings of the Jewish teachers from that time

The Sanhedrin (the supreme governing body of Judaism, the high court of the land for Jewish law) also moved here; but then in the middle of the third century it moved to Tiberias on the western side of the Sea of Galilee.  Rabbi Judah lived here for seventeen years until his death.  Other famous sages lived in Zippori; and at one time there were eighteen synagogues.

A coin found in the city has this inscription: Diocaesares, the holy city, city

of shelter, loyal friendships and alliance between the Sanhedrin and the Senate of the Roman people.


Christianity and Sepphoris

There also seems to have been a large population of  Messianic Jews here as well.  There was a church in Sepphoris with bishops during the Byzantine period (330-550 A.D.).  An inscription on a lintel says, archisynagogue followed by the Greek letters chi and rho, representing Jesus Christ. 

During the crusader period (ca. 1100 A.D.), Le Saphorie, as it came to be called, was a small town with a church and a castle.  But it was from here that the army set out for its fateful battle with Saladin at the Horns of Hattin in 1187.  That battle took place on a hilltop west of the sea of Galilee.  Saladin and the Moslem army came to the western side of the sea and effectively cut off the crusaders route to the sea (and water).  The crusaders were caught on the hilltop and encircled by Saladins forces.  It was an extremely hot day, and they in their heavy armor, thirsty to start with, were burning up.  Saladin then lit the fields on fire, and in effect did burn them up.  It was a crushing blow to the crusaders, but not their end in the land at that troubled time.  Saladin was never able to give that final blow; he conquered Jerusalem and most of the country, but had to settle for a peace treaty.  But a hundred years later in 1291 the crusaders would finally be defeated at Acco by Baybars.


[1]Charles R. Page, II, Jesus and the Land (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 55.  Jesus could have witnessed drama here, but the present theater may not have been built at that time.. 




The modern city of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee is best known for its resort hotels, restaurants, and discos; its “modern” lifestyle is as off-putting to the ultra-orthodox Jews as the ancient city of Tiberias would have been to the pious Jews of that era.

As with any modern city, it is often difficult to see much of the ancient site.  But the area of southern Tiberias to Hammath Tiberias is the ancient Roman city.  It covers an area of about twelve hundred meters by two hundred fifty meters and lies along the shore of the lake.


Historical Overview

Tiberias was the capital city of Herod Antipas.  The city was named after the emperor Tiberias (who reigned from 14-27 A.D.), although the name of the old town in the tribe of Naphtali was called Rakkah, meaning “strip” or “coast.”  Likewise the lake was also named after the emperor (see John 6:1; 21:1).[1]  The city was known, then, for its pro-Roman loyalties, as well as patronage of the Jews.  It became the capital of Antipas--but it is not mentioned in the New Testament at all.  Yet many of Jesus’ activities took place just a few miles to the north in Capernaum and other fishing towns.

Jewish traditions says that the Roman city was built over a graveyard, and so was considered unclean (Josephus, Antiquities, 18. 2. 3).  That would prove that there had been no city on that spot at an earlier time, because Jews always buried outside a city.  At any rate, Jews boycotted the city proper and settled just a little north of it, in what has become modern Tiberias.  The old city of Tiberias, then, was settled and occupied by Gentiles and baser sorts of Jews.  It is one of nine towns around the lake that had more than 15,000 population.  Jesus may have avoided going to the city because it had so few Jews in it.

The city became known for its moral laxness as a hot bath resort visited by wealthy Greeks and Romans.  Foreign customs were prevalent, and this further offended the pious Jews.  After the destruction of 70 A.D., the part of Tiberias to the north of the Roman center became a Jewish metropolis and center of learning.

In the middle of the second century Tiberias became the seat of the Yeshivah (academy) and the Sanhedrin (court and ruling body), because the Jews no longer had free access to Jerusalem.  This became the center of Judaism in the land during the Diaspora.  From this center came the Palestinian Talmud (which included Mishnah and Gemara).[2]  And from the sixth to the ninth centuries A.D. Tiberias was the place where the scribal family of Ben Asher meticulously copied the manuscripts of the Bible and vocalized them (added the vowel indicators--dots and marks).  These scribes were known as Masoretes or “traditionists.”   Hebrew students learn these markings for vowels, called “points,” when they learn to read Hebrew.  A manuscript with the vowel points added is called a “pointed text”; one without them is called an “unpointed text.”  And the system of vocalization that all Hebrew students learn is called the “Tiberian” vowel pointing.  Without the work of these Masoretes our study of the Old Testament would be extremely difficult, to say the least.

In the time of the crusaders Saladin captured the city of Tiberius just before engaging the crusading knights at the top of the hills to the west of the city, at the place called the “Horns of Hattin.”

The Jewish population remained in Tiberias until the decline on the Middle Ages.  Many of their tombs are located in the northern part of the modern city.  Many others are in the nearby Bet Shearim


Archaeological Discoveries

The work in this location did uncover the basic features of a Roman city--the cardo (which was colonnaded), spacious houses, the basilica, and a Byzantine bath house with mosaic pavement.  There was a wall three miles long, a palace, a forum, and even a synagogue.  The wall was not bonded, in order to withstand earthquakes.  The gate and foundation of the city date from the second decade of the first century, or about 16-22 A.D.

The Talmud says that there was an open space of about a mile between Tiberias proper and Hammath Tiberias.  This area is from the hot springs, known as al-Hammam, to the southern boundary of the city.  It was originally a separate city, walled; it then became incorporated into one large.

The synagogue may have come from the early Roman period; but it seems more likely that it was later, perhaps from the fourth century.  It went through four phases of development, from the fourth to the eighth centuries.  The cemetery with the sarcophagi begin with the third and fourth centuries.

The area near the hot springs includes buildings with some magnificent mosaics, including images and zodiac signs, which were permitted by the sages of Tiberias.  There are even nude representations of the signs of the zodiac, which shows the freedom allowed for creative art under the spirit of Hellenistic-Roman influence in the fourth century.  A similar work of art worth seeing is the floor of the synagogue at Bet Alpha, down in the Jezreel valley near Mount Gilboa.



Herod Antipas was obviously trying to live up to his father’s reputation as a builder, but he was not up to the task.  Tiberias and Sepphoris are amazing in their own way, but they cannot compare to the building programs of Herod the Great.


“Bet Shearim”


The small Galilean town of Bet-Shearim (pronounced bait sheh-ah-reem) lies just west of Nazareth on the northern edge of the Jezreel Valley.  After the Bar Kochba revolt ended in 135 A.D. and the Jews were banished from Jerusalem, this town became a center of Jewish life along with Sepphoris and Tiberias.  But Bet Shearim became famous when the great Jewish patriarch Judah (the Prince) was buried here (catacomb 14).

Then, in the third and fourth centuries when the Mount of Olives was no longer available (as the favorite place for burial), this city became the place for burial for Jews from all over the land.  About thirty catacombs have been excavated here.  They all have an entrance hall and burial chambers with arched-over burial troughs (arcosolia) or rectangular spaces cut into the rocks (loculi).  The chambers contained relief-ornamented sarcophagi[3] with inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek.  Some have drawings of biblical scenes, and some have Jewish symbols, and even pagan mythological symbols.  These carvings altered the understanding of Jewish art, for a place that was designated for “holy rabbis” permitted such representations.  Two of the catacombs have ornate arched facades and open air spaces for prayer.

A synagogue, an oil press, and a basilica were also discovered in the area.

Bet-Shearim was destroyed by the Romans in 351 A.D.  It remained abandoned until a small Arab town was built on the site in the 19th century.


“Bet Shean”


About fifteen miles south of the Sea of Galilee in the fertile Jordan Valley is the site of Bet Shean (pronounced bait shawn).  Visitors to this site have the benefit of seeing two archaeological excavations, the Old Testament hill of the city Bet Shean proper, and the large Roman city of Scythopolis that was built on the ground at the base of the hill.


Historical Overview

Bet Shean was one of the most strategic cities of ancient Canaan.  It stood at the eastern end of the Jezreel Valley guarding an important crossing of the Jordan River; it also lay at the junction of two important trade routes, one leading north to Damascus and the other leading from the Jezreel Valley east to Gilead.  The richness of the area no doubt had attracted settlers to the region for millennia; the Jewish sages used to say, “If the Garden of Eden is in the land of Israel, then its gate is at Beth-Shean.”

The name remains an enigma.  Early Egyptian references use a determinative to indicate that Shean (Hebrew s-n or s-'-n) referred to a deity.  Later Egyptian stele refer to the city as the domain of the great god Mekal.  Noth suggested an etymological connection with the Semitic word n-kh-sh meaning “serpent,” or to the name of a Sumerian snake-deity shakhan.  Albright compared it with she,ol, but made no strong suggestion.  The discovery of clay figurines of snakes with female breasts, and of pottery shrines with snakes attached (these are in the museum in Jerusalem) is not enough to suggest an etymology for the name of a serpent god.  We must be satisfied that it was named as a seat of a deity whose nature “shean” should reveal.

The tel, one of the highest in the country, stands at a height of 213 feet atop a natural hill; its base is about half a mile in circumference.  Excavations identified the place as Tell el-Hosn, “mound of the fortress,” from Egyptian inscriptions.

Excavations have uncovered about twenty levels of occupation beginning in the middle of the fourth millennium B.C.  The city was mentioned in the Egyptian Execration Texts (19th century), the Campaign of Thutmose III (16th century), the Amarna Letters (14th century), and the Campaign of Seti I (13th century).  It also is named in the victory stele of Ramses II and the papyrus of Anastasi from the same period.  Egyptian texts state that Bet Shean (as well as Gaza and Joffa) was used as military base by the Egyptians.

The city was in the area first given to Issachar, but then transferred to Manasseh (Josh. 17:11).  It was not taken in the Conquest but retained by the Canaanites (Josh. 17:12-16, and Jud. 1:27-28).  The Philistines took control of the place next (1 Sam. 31:7).

It is best known in the Old Testament from the time of the Israelite-Philistine wars.  According to the Bible the Philistines defeated King Saul at the Battle of Gilboa across the valley (1010 B.C.); they then brought the bodies of Saul and his sons to Bet Shean to disgrace them.   The bodies were hung on the walls, and Saul’s head was displayed on the temple to Dagon.  But after nightfall men from Gilead, whom Saul had fought for, came over from the other side of Jordan and took away the body and buried it (1 Sam. 31:10-13; 2 Sam. 21:12-14; 1 Chron. 10:10).  David later destroyed the city, perhaps in an effort to bring vengeance on the Philistines.

The Roman city of Scythopolis is not mentioned in the Old Testament; it is a later (3rd century B.C.) city built for Scythians in the armies.  But Bet Shean was one of the cities of the Decapolis (along with Jerash); and so it is likely that Jesus came here on his ministry, although the city may not have been as fully developed and built up as it later came to be.


Archaeological Discoveries on the Tel

TemplesEspecially significant to the discovery were a group of temples built on the Old Testament site to honor local deities.  The archaeologists dated four to the final period of Egyptian rule 1400-1200 (the earliest had a victory stele of Pharaoh Seti I, and the next had one from Ramses II; the third was believed to have come from the time of Merneptah, and the fourth from Ramses III).  Not all archaeologists today are in agreement with the original dates given to these temples, because the early excavation of the site was not done with as much care as it should have had.

Two later temples (1200-1000) were built during the Philistine control, one to a god and another to a goddess.  They were similar in structure to other ancient temples: they were rectangular, built of brick, and divided into an antechamber, a central hall, and a “holy of holies.”  This latter cubicle held the statue of the deity; it was approached by steps, and at the base of the steps was an altar for sacrifices.  These two temples may very well have been the temples to Ashtaroth and Dagon from Saul’s time.  1 Samuel says the Philistines put Saul's armor in the house of Ashtaroth and fastened his body to the wall.  The Book of Chronicles says they put his armor in the house of their gods and fastened his head to the wall of the temple of Dagon.  An image to the goddess Ashtoreth (Astarte) was found on a stele in the sanctuary.

Solomonic Walls.  Above the Canaanite levels are remains from the Israelite period.  The evidence suggests that these may be part of the Solomonic walls, for Solomon made this an administrative center during his reign.

The city was attacked by Sheshonq I of Egypt (ca. 926 B.C.) and it ceased to be a significant city after that until the Hellenistic period.


The Archaeology of Scythopolis

When archaeologists were working high up on the mound, they saw almost nothing of the city below, except the tops of a few columns sticking up from the dirt.  These columns seemed to be fingers beckoning them to come and dig--and dig they did, uncovering over thirty acres of a well preserved Roman city.

HistoryBet Shean later fell to the Assyrians, the Babylonians, and then the Persians.  It was in the Hellenistic period (3rd century B.C.) that the city was again occupied--this time by Scythian veterans.  With them it became a wealthy Greek city with all the clash of cultures that that would suggest for Israel.  It continued the ancient tradition of pagan sanctuaries with its temples to Dionysius and Zeus. 

During the Maccabean wars (166-140) the Jews attempted to drive out Hellenistic rule and influence.  John Hyrcanus went even further; when he controlled Bet Shean in 107 B.C., the inhabitants were given the choice to convert to Judaism or leave.  The majority chose to leave and the city became Jewish.  Under the Hasmoneans the city became an important administrative center again.

In 63 B.C. Pompey took over the place.  He rebuilt the city according to Roman interests.  He made it a free city and it became one of the cities of the Decapolis (ten cities that shared a common Greek origin and culture), the only one on this side of the Jordan.  He named it Scythopolis (Josephus says it retained the old name as well; see Antiquities, v. i. 22).  The Jewish population that remained here was now a minority again.

In the first Jewish revolt of 66 A.D. Vespasian made the city the winter camp of his 5th and 10th Legions.  In the wars many Jews of Scythopolis sided with the Romans against the Jewish zealots.  But later in the warring, almost 13,000 Jews of the city were slaughtered by the Greek residents of the city.  The large amphitheater on the edge of town saw many Christians and Jews fed to the lions. 

In Byzantine times Scythopolis was the capital of Palestine Secunda and the See of a metropolitan bishop.  It became the home of Count Joseph in the fourth century; he was one of the active church builders, responsible for some of the churches around Galilee.  In the middle of the century it was the scene of a famous treason trial; numerous people were accused of consulting oracles in their disloyalty and put to death.

The city began to decline in 639 after the Islamic conquest.  For a while it became a center of wine-making, in spite of Moslem prohibition.  It was destroyed in 749 by an earthquake; evidence of the earthquake may be seen in the ruins of the colonnaded streets, where the columns still remain fallen in the way that they fell at the time.

          Theater.  During the second and third centuries A.D. this city became a thriving center for textiles.  Proof of its prosperity is the theater that was built about 200 A.D. by the Emperor Septimus Severus.  It is one of the finest to be found in the land of Israel.

The theater stands about 250 yards south from the tel; it measures 270 feet wide and 190 feet deep.  It could have seated between 7,000 and 8,000 people.  As a theater (in contrast to the oval-shaped amphitheater) the structure has a semi-circular form, the stage area (proscaenium) being the diameter, and the seating area the semi-circle (cavea).  Distinguished guests sat in the special seats on the same level with the stage.  The lower part of the semi-circle with seats for spectators was dug out of the hillside, and the upper part was supported on massive foundations.  Entry to the theater was by nine vomitoria that formed passageways between a walkway or diagoma round the auditorium.  Seating would have originally extended over this walkway, allowing for possibly a greater number of spectators.  Archaeologists have been reconstructing the seating, the entrances, the stage and the walls behind the stage, which originally would have been decorated with pillars and statues.     

Archaeologists have uncovered staircases going up to the theater on the Jordan side.  These come from an area of public toilets, where the seats and the drain gutters underneath remain in place today.  The remains of the building reveal a very important side of Roman life, one concerned with sanitation but one that must have been rather unpleasant in its setup.

Amphitheater.  Nearby is a Roman Amphitheater that was used for games and gladiatorial fights.  This arena could seat 7000 people.  Without doubt, many Christians died in this arena.

BathhouseReconstructive work continues on the bathhouse.  It is one of the largest that has been found, covering about one and a half acres.  The whole complex had rooms, pools, gathering areas, and inside the baths the same system we saw at Masada, except much larger--the room for the cold bath, then the warm, and then the hot, with the  floor on top of small columns to allow the heat to circulate under the floor and heat and steam the room.

Colonnaded StreetIn typical Roman design a colonnaded street (cardo) runs from the bathhouse to the town center where it intersects with the cross street at the foot of the tel.  The main street had to take a jag around the mound, but then continued down to the gate system.  The street was wide, with places for shops along the sidewalks and behind the columns.  The center of the street was arched a bit, allowing for draining water to run to the gutters at the side of the street, and into the main drain that ran along under the middle of the street.

Circles of shops would have been located along the street, for the archaeologists have uncovered their foundations and walls.  Some of these were probably brothels, judging from the mosaics and the graffiti.

At the main intersection is evidence of a temple that stood to the worship of Dionysus, or at least with deities associated with the worship of Dionysius, notably the Temple of Nyssa.  Here the residents could have come and received their dream-inducing drugs, slept, and then had their dreams explained.

Along the cross street would have been the basilica and the main shopping areas.  Here the columns that fell in the earthquake have been left in place.  Temples with pools of water were built along this street.





There is so much to see and learn at a spot like this--Canaanite worship, Hebrew history, cultural clashes, Roman life-styles--the lot of it.  But what is striking is that there is little here that would be in any way spiritually uplifting, apart from evidence that Christians were here and had churches.  Bet Shean stands more for the culture and the religions of the world, and as a place of death through wars and persecution. 

We know that Jesus spent time in the area of the Decapolis; but there is no direct evidence that he ever came into this city.  It is possible that he could have, but we know nothing of it.  Some have suggested that pious Jews--including Jesus--would have avoided association with such a “Gentile” city.  But Jesus did not follow that ruling elsewhere; in fact, his association with sinners and Gentiles irritated the pious.  The best we can say is that Scripture is silent on whether or not he came here.  Undoubtedly he went to many more places than the Bible mentions.





Hamilton, R. W.  “Beth Shan” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible.  Volume 1, Pp. 397-401.



[1] The sea, or better lake, had several names.  The Hebrew name for it was Kinnereth, which means “harp,” because the sea was shaped like a harp.  It is also called Galilee because of the region around the lake; the word galil in Hebrew means “circle” or “region.”  Isaiah referred to it as “Galilee of the Gentiles [Nations]” in Isaiah 9:1.

[2] The Babylonian Talmud is the more widely used one.  It was prepared by the scholarly Jews still living in Babylon, the foremost location outside the land.

[3] The word is etymologically derived from “flesh-eater”; the reference is to the large casket usually made of stone into which was placed the body of the dead.



“Banyas--Caesarea Philippi”


Banyas (or Baniyas) lies to the southwest of Mount Hermon on a tributary of the Jordan River.  This is also the traditional site for the city of Caesarea Philippi, the other Caesarea in the Bible.



The name is Arabic for the Greek name Paneas.[1]  From Hellenistic times there existed by these springs[2] a shrine to the god Pan and the Nymphs. 

Pan had replaced the ancient fertility deity Baal.  In the Old Testament this was known as Baal Hermon (Jud. 3:3; 1 Chron. 5:23).  It was also known as Baal Gad (Josh. 11:17; 12:7).  The area was given to the tribe of Manasseh. 

The most striking thing one sees here is the immense reddish-grey stone cliffs that tower over the whole area.  The large cave at the base of the cliffs was the source of a spring of water that flowed out and became one of the heads of the Jordan River.  The River Banyas no longer flows from the cave; an earthquake disrupted that so that now the water comes out underneath a few yards away, and then flows down through some spectacular waterfalls to join the Jordan.

To the right of the cave’s mouth on the side of the cliffs are a series of five niches with Greek inscriptions; they were to Echo, the mountain nymph, Diopan, the god who loved music, and Galerius, priest to Pan.  These niches, which would have housed the statues of the deities, are remains of a Temple of Pan, for whom the entire area was named. 

On the plateau in front of the niches are the remains of the foundations of a temple, built on the rock, which would have been dedicated to Caesar too.  Very little of this remains, but enough does to suggest what it might have looked like at one time.


Caesarea Philippi

Philip’s City.  Caesar Augustus gave this area to Herod as part of his dominion, and Herod built the temple to honor Caesar.  His son Philip inherited it; he built the capital of his tetrarchy here, naming it Caesarea to honor the emperor.  To distinguish it from other places of that name, it was called Caesarea Philippi.  Later, Agrippa II renamed it Neronias in honor of Nero.

Archaeological work on Caesarea Philippi has only recently begun, so there is little to see from that perspective. But opposite the cliff and the caves there is some work that shows foundations of houses and walls. The temple remains at the mouth of the cave are of greater interest anyway.

Peter’s Confession.   But it was here that Peter made his great confession that Jesus was the “Christ, the Son of the Living God” (Matt. 16:13-28; Mark 8:27-30).

If you rethink the events in Matthew 16 against the backdrop of the area you will appreciate more what is happening.  Matthew 16:13 says that when they came into the region of Caesarea Philippi Jesus asked them, “Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?”  Two things prompted the question.  One was the rejection by the leaders that just preceded this.  Jesus may have been testing to see how effective the opposition had been.  But the other is that they were passing all these niches and shrines to false deities that had long held influence among the local people.  In view of the rejection, and in contrast to these false gods, Jesus asked, “What do they say?” and “What do you say?”

Peter’s response was, of course, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”  We do not know exactly what Peter understood by that; no doubt he said more than he understood.  But he knew Jesus was the promised Messiah, the coming King, the one known as Son of Man (from Daniel) and Son of God (from Psalms).   Jesus’ answer was striking: “Flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in Heaven.”  In Matthew 11 Jesus said no one could know the Father unless He, the Son, revealed it to him.  This statement now to Peter affirms that the system worked, that God’s chosen means of revelation had worked.  But then Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”  One cannot help but think this massive rock cliff at Banyas formed the imagery for that name-change.  A solid, immovable Rock--that is the essence of the faith in Christ revealed to Peter.  This image of the revelation of the church’s solid foundation in the person and work of Christ can be appreciated all the more by visualizing the strength and security of such a rock.

On the rock at the mouth of the cave was a temple to a pagan god.  Jesus declared he would build his church on a rock.  Not this rock, a physical rock, in a specific location, but on the revelation of himself to Peter and the others, on the nature of the Messiah.  Jesus no doubt was alluding to the surroundings when he used that imagery.   

And the “gates of Hell” will not prevail against his building.  We have been looking at “gates" in some of the ruins, and will see more of them in Israelite cities.  It was in the gates that the leaders sat to make decisions and judgments, that the elders sat as jury (Book of Ruth), that the people milled about in business and socializing.  The image here represents “leaders” who would sit in the gates--Satan and his powerful servants.  Jesus is saying that the “powerful leaders of Hell” will not prevail against the Church.”

Jesus and the disciples then probably continued up the slopes of Mount Hermon behind Caesarea Philippi where Jesus was transfigured in the presence of the three disciples.[3]  Matthew 17:1 says it was a high mountain, and Mark 9:3 says that his raiment became shining, “white as snow.”  Hermon would fit those descriptions very well. 

There appeared to him Moses and Elijah speaking with him about his “departure” which he should accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31; the Greek word is exodus).  No doubt the transfiguration was of significant value to Jesus before going up to Jerusalem.  Scripture says that it was “for the joy that was set before him that he endured the cross.”  It encouraged him.  And it was designed to reveal to the disciples the true nature of Jesus in view of what lay before Him.  No matter what happened in Jerusalem--exactly what Jesus said would happen--this was indeed the Beloved Son of God, the King of Glory.  John could speak for them later, saying, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt (Greek is ‘tabernacled’) among us (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

Peter’s response at the transfiguration was what one would expect from the Jewish people looking for their Messiah.  His interpretation was correct; his timing was wrong.  The Feast of Tabernacles was the celebration of the fulfillment of the promises.  With this vision of Christ in glory it seemed that the kingdom was about to come; Peter concludes “This is it!  Let’s celebrate with Tabernacles.”  He, and the others, put the death of Jesus out of their minds.  But the Son of Man would suffer before entering into His glory, as Jesus had to remind them on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24).


Nahal Hermon

The Water and the Waterfalls.   Today this area around Banyas (and Tell Dan) is called the Nahal Hermon Reserve (nahal means “river”); it is the location of the River Hermon, one of the four sources of the Jordan River.  The drainage basin covers an area of 150 square kilometers, including the northern part of the Golan Heights and the mountainous area of Hermon inside Israel.   

There are three principal tributaries of the River Hermon: Sa‘ar River, Si’on River, and Govta River.  The River Hermon drops about 190 meters in 3.5 kilometers, and has a sufficient volume of water to cut through the rock and form a canyon with rapids and waterfalls (the annual supply is approximately 125 million cubic meters of water).  It flows down to the Huleh Valley and eventually joins the River Dan to flow into two other sources that all come together to form the Jordan. 

The walking trail along these little tributaries of the River Hermon passes over a bridge that was built during the Roman period and comes upon the Matruf Mill, the only water-powered flour mill still operating in Israel.  One trail then leads down to the 30 foot high Banyas waterfalls.  It may well have been in this place that the writer of Psalm 42 would have been inspired to write his poem--“deep calls to deep, at the sound of your waterfalls” (42:7), for the psalm locates the event in the region of Hermon.

Living Water.  The water that comes from the springs is fresh and pure and running.  Much of it is rainwater and melted snow that has seeped into Mt. Hermon to feed the underground springs.  The Hebrew Bible calls it “living water”; it was essential for drinking, for washing, for ritual purification--for all of life.  This and other waters could be collected in cisterns and pools, but then it could easily and quickly be contaminated or become stagnant.  But fresh “living water” was always pure and clear, always life-giving.  And with the annual cycle of rains and snows there seemed always to be a steady flow of these waters.  Scripture makes much of the contrasts in water (see Hareuveni); Jesus especially used it as the symbol of eternal life, “a well of water springing up into everlasting life” (John  4:14) that comes by the Holy Spirit producing the life like "rivers of living water" (John 7:38,39). 




Hareuveni, Nogah.  Desert and Shepherd in Our Biblical Heritage. Lod, Israel:  Neot Kedumim, The Biblical Landscape Reserve in Israel, 1991.

Nahal Hermon Reserve.  Published by the Nature Reserves Authority, Jerusalem.


“The Herodian Quarters in Jerusalem”


One of the largest and most important sites discovered in the Upper City of Jerusalem was revealed during excavation of a site between 1969 and 1983.  The preparation for new construction uncovered what has now come to be called the Herodian Quarters of Jerusalem, the remains of very expensive, very exclusive residences from the first century.  Since their discovery, the new construction has been completed, the buildings put up over the site--but the site was prepared as an exhibit underneath the new construction, so that visitors now may walk through the remains of the luxury villa to see what the archaeologists found and preserved.

The history of Jerusalem shows that this portion of the old city, the northeast peak of the western hill of the Upper City, reached the peak of its development in the Herodian period, that is, from 37 B.C. to 70 A.D.  These quarters show that whoever lived here lived in the best possible homes--palaces actually--that could be found.  Money was no barrier for these residences, judging from the mosaics, the imported utensils, the frescoes on the walls, and the size of the place.

But what we also find in this area is evidence that the residents were devout Jews.  The homes have elaborate and numerous ritual baths as well as ordinary bathtubs.  And there are no human images in the decorations.  Moreover, one of the residences nearby, the famous burnt house (see below), was clearly the home of a priestly family.  We know from that period of time that the ruling class, the nobility, were very much hellenized, and this discovery fits that.  The nobility that lived here would have had the same kind of lifestyle as the people who lived in Pompeii--without the grotesque sexual drawings on the walls.  We also know that the Sadducees were very wealthy, denying themselves nothing of the material world since that was considered by them to be part of God’s blessing.  The wealth of the priestly families can be easily seen in their tombs in the Kidron Valley, especially the so-called Tomb of Absalom.  And we know that the families of the High Priest were usually in the Sadduccean party.   Josephus says that Agrippa and Berenice had a residence in Upper Jerusalem, which was burnt by the zealots; he also says that the High Priest Hananiah lived here (BJ 2; 17:6).  We can only guess, but the High Priest and his priestly family are certainly the most likely candidates.  Everything fits.

If this is true, not only do we have first hand evidence of the enormous wealth of the High Priest and his family, but also their love for the Greek and Roman material world--while trying to live out the Law as a priestly family.


The Archaeological Highlights

It is impossible to cover everything that was found in these expensive villas in a few pages.  Several quarters and palatial mansions were discovered, and while it takes only a short while to walk through them and see what is there, a thorough discussion on each is much more involved.   I shall try to give a summary, but focus mostly on the things that are most relevant for biblical studies.

The remains of six houses are on display in this location.  They were situated on the slopes of the hill facing the Temple Mount.  One was on the western side (it is the first one that visitors see, and the others clustered together on the eastern side. Remains of other houses were found between these, but they have been covered over by the new construction.  The houses had two stories, with the living quarters on the ground floor, and the services in the basements.  There is some indication that some of the houses had another floor.  Two of the houses, the mansion and the southern house, were very large, having internal courtyards surrounded by groups of rooms.  One of the houses had a peristyle (a colonnade surrounding an open courtyard) but the full plan is unclear.  The construction is solid, founded on bed rock and built of ashlars in one or two rows.   The best masonry was in the mansion, where the walls were laid in headers and stretchers.  The houses were equipped with many water installations, cisterns, pools, bathrooms, and ritual baths. Every apartment had a bathroom with a bathtub, and was decorated with beautiful mosaics.  They clearly were keen on hygiene and beauty.  The bathrooms were used for washing, and the ritual baths were used only for cultic immersion.

Ritual Baths (Miqva’ot).  At least one, and usually two or more, of these baths were found in every house, attesting to strict observance to ritual law.  The number of the baths also suggests priestly families used them, for they would be required to use ritual baths more often than ordinary people.  The ritual bath by Jewish Law was to contain no less that forty seah (198 gallons) of spring water or rain water drawn  directly into the bath without being transported, and it had to be three cubits deep. Since the conditions were not always practicable, a provision was made for the “purifying” of the water by bringing it into contact with ritually pure water.  For this purpose normally a stone pool of rainwater was placed next to the immersion pool; this water would be poured into the pool to make it ceremonially acceptable, or a pipe inserted in the partition between the pools to bring the waters into contact.  No stone pool was found here, suggesting that they fulfilled the law by other means (money being no object). 

The most common ritual bath style here was the stepped rock cut pool with a vaulted ceiling built of ashlars.  The stepped lower part was plastered with gray plaster, while the ceiling was left bare (it did not touch the water).  The bather usually entered into the pool one way, and exited another, or, the steps would be divided by a low partition, to guide the proper use.

Small basins for washing feet were found by the ritual baths.  There were no drains for these ritual baths, because they were cut into the bed rock.  Apparently they were emptied and filled by hand.   The numerous cisterns in the location indicate that these folks knew how to collect the rainwater in the rainy season, so that they had their own supply of water ready for use in all their washings and baths.

The Mosaics.  The beautiful mosaic floors are of the same style that were discovered in Herod’s palaces at Masada.  The Jewish craftsmen borrowed the style and method from the Hellenistic-Roman world, of course, but adapted it to their own laws and concepts.  There were, therefore, no figurative representations found; the Jews adhered strictly to the law against graven images.  Later, in the Talmudic period, the Jews did use artistic representations of humans and animals in mosaics, especially in the synagogues.   The mosaics also have two other features, intertwined meanders and checkerboard patterns. 

Frescoes.  The decoration of the walls of these villas also followed the Roman world, for they were painted with colorful panels.  Here to we have no figures (contrast Pompeii).  The best fresco was found in the palatial mansion, where the entire wall of one of the rooms was found painted.  In other houses the pieces of painted plaster were found and had to be restored to their place.

Stucco.  Beside the frescoes the masons used a fine plaster-stucco to decorate the walls and the ceilings.  It is modeled in relief in the shape of panels and in imitation of ashlar masonry.  A few fragments show the use of floral designs, or the holy candelabra.

Stone Tables.  The first pieces of furniture found in the Second Temple period come from the Upper City.   Two types of tables were found, the high tables (32 inches high) consisting of a rectangular top and a single central leg, and the low tables consisting of a round stone top and three wooden legs.

Stone Vessels.  A group of domestic vessels made of soft white stone were found in the palaces.  These include jars, bowls, plates, cups and trays.  Some of this “stoneware” was carved, and some turned on a lathe. Since according to the Law stone was not susceptible to ritual defilement, large stone water pots were used to hold water that was for personal and cultic use.  A few of these large stone pots were found here.  They help us to visualize the account of the turning of water into wine at the wedding of Cana.  John tells us that six stone jars were standing there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding two to three gallons of water (John 2:6).  After the destruction of the city the stone industry fell into disuse for centuries.

Pottery.  All the usual range of fine pottery items were found in the site. But among them were some finely painted bowls that resemble the Nabatean wares.  Imported vessels include red terra sigillata and wine amphorae from Italy.

Peristyle.  In one of the houses there was a room that differed from everything else found at the site.  Six fragmentary columns were found standing on a stylobate of stone (a continuous base for columns) 31 feet long.  Only two of the columns were found in situ.   They probably belonged to an elaborate courtyard surrounded by a colonnade; the courtyard extended eastward, but was not excavated.  The floor was composed of a beautiful design of square black tiles, triangular red tiles, and hexagonal white tiles in the center, a style known as opus sectile.  

Stucco Hall.  In the Mansion there was a large hall, 31 feet by 21 feet in size.  It is hard to see the hall in its full dimensions because supporting piers had to be put in for the new construction above.  The hall was magnificent though; it must have been used for receptions and other important occasions.  The walls were covered with white stucco modeled in broad panels.  Some of the blocks that were found from the walls indicate that there were small windows up high near the ceiling.  The floor shows no evidence of mosaics; it is plastered, which indicates that rugs would have been used.

The Courtyard.  A wall separating the Hall and the courtyard was found in place; the outside had no traces of plaster, indicating that as a courtyard it was not finished as the Hall would have been.  The courtyard is 26 feet by 27 feet and was covered with flagstones.  It was surrounded on all sides by rooms.

Many other special finds were made at the site, sundials, glass pitchers, painted bowls, coins, and the like.  In fact, two of the sundials were the very rare portable kind.

The Wohl Exhibit on the site was a small model of the Mansion so that visitors can get a better understanding of what the place was like when fully functioning.


The Burnt House

Adjacent to the Herodian Quarters is the so-called “burnt house.”  Archaeologists found here the remains of a priest’s house suddenly destroyed in the great conflagration of the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 67 A.D.  It apparently happened so quickly that everything was left in place, but burnt.   Josephus tells how the Roman legions a month after the burning of the Temple, captured the upper city, set fire to it, and slaughtered the inhabitants.   The burnt house was the home of the High Priestly family of the “House of Kathros.” 



We cannot say for certain that this was the residential area of the priestly families, but every bit of evidence points that way.  If this was the area where Annas and Caiaphas lived, then it was to this place that Jesus was taken when he was arrested (they took him to the house of the High Priest according to the Bible, Luke 22:54).  Formerly, the traditional view was that he was taken to the priest’s home which was located under the Church of Gallicantu (“cock’s crow”); but the Herodian Quarter seems far more likely.  One can imagine Jesus being questioned by Annas and a few Jewish leaders in either the Hall or the courtyard, and then taken to Caiaphas[4] nearby and the assembled leaders of the Sanhedrin.  John tells us that Simon Peter and another disciple (probably himself) followed the arrested Jesus to this place, and “because this disciple was known to the High Priest, he went with Jesus into the high priest’s courtyard, but Peter had to wait outside the door” (John 18:15, 16).  The other disciple, John, came back and got Peter in with him.  Jesus was then questioned by Annas, the father-in-law of the high priest; he then was taken bound to Caiaphas, the High Priest, most likely in the same complex of villas.

Jesus was then taken to Pilate for the formal trial, and this was in the palace of the Roman Governor.  The traditional view again places that at Antonio’s fortress by the northeast corner of the temple mount.  But the Bible says it was a palace, and so it was probably Herod’s palace built in the area of Jaffa Gate.  That would mean about a five minute walk from the Herodian Quarter to the Palace.  This we shall consider in greater detail next time. 


     [1] Arabic will use a “b” in place of  “p”; hence, “Paul” is “Boulos,” and “Peter” is “Boutros.”

     [2]Any locations that had springs of water, groves of trees, or oases, were considered in antiquity to be the dwelling places of local baals or other pastoral deities.

     [3] The traditional site for the transfiguration, held to by the Orthodox and Roman churches, is Mount Tabor, south of Nazareth.  We will look at Mount Tabor in the next class discussion.

     [4] In another find, not connected to these quarters, the ossuary (bone box) of the High Priest was discovered.  It has written on the outside of it “Caiaphas.”  It can be seen in the Israel Museum.