Christianity Today and Biblical Archaeology Review recently posted competing year-end “Top Ten” discoveries from archaeology related to the Bible in 2014. Surprisingly, only two finds made both lists: an Old Babylonian tablet describing an early flood story in which the ark was round, and the discovery of a monumental royal entranceway to the inner courtyard of the Herodium, Herod the Great’s narcissistic monument to himself.
Those posts had hardly cooled before the Washington Post chimed in with the first major biblical archaeology story of 2015, an article supporting the view that ongoing excavations near the “Tower of David” may have uncovered the site of Jesus’ trial. The story, by Jerusalem-based correspondent Ruth Eglash, describes excavations on the western edge of the Old City that have been in process for more than 15 years.
The misnamed “Tower of David” — so called by Byzantine Christians who mistook it for David’s palace — is in an area of fortifications that go back to the eighth century BCE. Herod the Great remodeled and expanded a Hasmonean structure containing three towers in order to fortify his palace, which was located nearby. One of Herod’s towers remains standing — the one known alternately as the Tower of David or the Jerusalem Citadel.
Archaeologists working with the Tower of David Museum, located in southwest Jerusalem near the Jaffa Gate, discovered what they believe to be the site of Herod’s palace while excavating beneath an abandoned building adjacent to the museum, which hoped to expand. Not unexpectedly, they dug through layers representing periods of occupation by Muslims, Byzantine Christians, and Romans — including the remains of what may have been Herod’s palace.
While many scholars agree that the identification of the site as Herod’s palace is accurate, it remains uncertain whether it was the site of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, which the gospels say took place at the Praetorium — typically identified as the Antonia fortress located at the northwest corner of the temple complex. A floor and street from the Roman period — now located beneath a school — have long been suggested as a possible site for Jesus’ trial. Called “Ecce Homo,” Latin for Pilate’s charge for onlookers to “Behold the man,” the site has long served as the traditional starting point of the Via Dolorosa, a pilgrim pathway marking Jesus’ journey from his trial to place of his crucifixion.
That hasn’t always been the case, though. In the Byzantine period, according to some scholars, pilgrims traced Jesus’ steps from a location near the Tower of David, a path that didn’t change until after the 13th century.
Christian visitors to Jerusalem, whether modern or ancient, find special meaning in standing or kneeling on the same stone floor where Jesus may have stood before Pilate. Was it in the military-oriented Antonia, or was it in the courtyard of Herod’s formal palace? It’s possible that both could have some claim to it: Luke’s gospel claims that Pilate first judged Jesus in the Praetorium, the sent him to appear before Herod, who was happy to meet Jesus but promptly sent him back (Luke 23).
It is unlikely that archaeologists will ever uncover a first-century stone inscription that marks the exact spot of Jesus’ trial, or of his crucifixion, or of his tomb. There will always be differences of opinion on the precise location of those events, and that’s just as well: it’s too easy for believers to idolize a place while ignoring the person of Jesus.
While we can’t pinpoint the places, we can be sure that, somewhere in Jerusalem, Jesus was tried — and Jesus died — and that he did it for us. Christians likewise believe that Jesus rose again and continues to dwell in the hearts and lives of those who seek his presence, wherever they happen to be standing.
That, as always, remains the top religious news story of the year.