Archaeologists Find Jewish Ritual Bath From Jesus' Time at Jerusalem's Gethsemane

This is the first archaeological evidence found of activity at the Jerusalem site during the Second Temple period, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, next to the ancient ritual bath.
Fr. Francesco Patton, Custos of the Holy Land, next to the ancient ritual bath.Credit: ATEF SAFADI - AFP
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

A mikveh dating to the Second Temple period has been found in the garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, the Israel Antiquities Authority announced on Monday.

As happens a lot in Israel, it was found during infrastructure works. Specifically, builders were working on a tunnel near the Church of Gethsemane and were surprised to discover an underground cavity.

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The cavity in the rock would later be identified as a Jewish ritual bath dating to around 2,000 years ago – about the time Jesus was active in the area, according to Christian tradition.

The bath was found by archaeologists working with the antiquities authority and scholars from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, a Franciscan research institute near the modern Church of Gethsemane.

Construction on that church began in 1919 and took five years. During the process the builders discovered remains of a previously unknown ancient Byzantine church dating back about 1,500 years, and a later Crusader church.

The ritual bath from the Second Temple period that was discovered at Gethsemane.Credit: Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority
2000-year-old ritual bath and the remains of a recently discovered church at the Garden of Gethsemane, December 21, 2020Credit: ATEF SAFADI - AFP

This is the first archaeological evidence found of activity in Gethsemane during the Second Temple period, the antiquities authority stated. The discovery was presented in a joint press conference attended by the Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Francesco Patton.

The Byzantine church has been dated to the 6th century C.E., just before the caliphate conquest of the Holy Land. It remained in use until the 8th century, the authority says. It had been decorated in characteristic Byzantine style – which includes inscriptions in Greek in the floor.

Dr. Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Dr. Rosario Pierri of the Franciscan Institute reveal that the inscriptions read: “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”.

“It is interesting to see that the 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,” Yeger stated.

Excavations at the Byzantine Church.Credit: Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority
The Gethsemane Church.Credit: Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority

Purifying the manufacturers

The name Gethsemane means “oil press” in Hebrew, and is taken to reflect the manufacture of olive oil. Possibly the ritual bath was used by the ancient manufacturers ahead of their daily production, who under Jewish law were supposed to purify themselves before working.

“The discovery of the ritual bath probably confirms the place’s ancient name, Gethsemane,” Amit Re’em, Jerusalem district archaeologist at the Israeli authortity, explained.

It bears noting that a large number of mikvehs have been found in ancient Jerusalem, not a few dating from that Second Temple period. A lucky family living in the capital found one underneath their living room.

But none such had been discovered in Gethsemane, now was any archaeological evidence found from that period.

Second Temple-period mikvehs are also found elsewhere in ancient Israel – and in Jordan too, where archaeologists found a monumental ritual bath in King Herod’s palace in Machaerus. They were however apparently quite rare in the Galilee.

Construction work on site.Credit: Yaniv Berman/Israel Antiquities Authority
The Byzantine Church.Credit: Shai Halevi/Israel Antiquities Authority

One Second Temple-period carved into the chalky bedrock near Kibbutz Hannaton was recently rescued by members of the cooperative from the indignity of being covered over by roadworks. Unable to persuade the authorities to build elsewhere, the kibbutzniks collected money and managed to carve it out of the bedrock and relocate the whole enchilada next to their own “egalitarian” mikveh.

The ruins of Gamla, a windswept hilltop site perched on the east of the Sea of Galilee overlooking the lake, also contain a mikveh inside the courtyard of the synagogue. In contrast to the bath at Gethsemane, this one was pretty clearly used by worshippers, not olive oil artisans.

Jesus betrayed

The Church of Gethsemane, which is also known as the Church of the Agony or Church of All Nations, sits right at the foot of the Mount of Olives, at the spot where tradition has it that Jesus was betrayed.

The site has become a key pilgrimage site for Christians. The book of Luke says Jesus would pray on the Mount; Matthew relates that he did so also on the night before his crucifixion:

Inscription in the Byzantine church discovered in GethsemaneCredit: Atef SAFADI / AFP
David Yeger, director of the excavation, in the Byzantine church.Credit: Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority
Excavations at the Byzantine Church.Credit: Yoli Schwartz/Israel Antiquities Authority

“Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder” (Matthew 26:36). Mark details how Peter, James and John joined him, and Jesus’ despair, saying to them:

“My soul is exceeding sorrowful unto death: tarry ye here, and watch. And he went forward a little, and fell on the ground, and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him.” Mark 14:34

But his disciplines did not keep watch, they fell asleep, gospel tells us. And he says, “The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.”

“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,” Patton said.

“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,” he added.

Patton also applauded the fruitful collaboration between the Custody of the Holy Land, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and the Israel Antiquities Authority.”

It bears adding that the origin of the mikveh in Jewish history is obscure. Total immersion in the ritual bath, head and all, is supposed to confer purity, a practice dictated in the Torah.

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