MonthMay 2015

Bank Holiday Update

Jenny tells me that people keep asking her when I’m going to post something new on my sabbatical blog. So here’s what I’ve been doing for the last couple of weeks.

I had a lovely holiday for the first week of the period in question with the Revd Ade Evans and Mr Chris Bright QC, who came to visit me. We walked around Jerusalem a fair bit, drove down to Masada, and then up to Tiberias. They asked me lots of questions which I couldn’t answer and then, sadly for me, they went home.

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The Revd Ade Evans looking cool in the courtyard of Christ Church Guest House


Mr Chris Bright QC considering whether a spot of rappelling might be in order

The highlights for me (next to the deep theological reflection which we of course engaged in daily) were (1) the “Tomb of the Prophets” on the Mount of Olives, and (2) excavated Magdala in the Galilee. I loved the sweet apologetic nature of the Russian Orthodox chap who seems to live in (1) who knew full well that Haggai, Zechariah, & Malachi had never really been buried there, but wasn’t allowed to admit it. And I had a great conversation with the Mexican archaeologists at (2) who had absolutely no idea why a few (and just a few) Herodian ashlars had turned up in the Magdalene synagogue. “We’re hoping someone will come up with a theory” they told me.


Excavated synagogue at Magdala


As for the second week, I have mostly spent it in the library. Sorry, I know that’s a bit dull.

Although on Thursday I got to visit the inside of the Al Aqsa and the Dome of the Rock, both of which have been mostly closed to tourists since the Second Intifada. I also visited the Jewish Quarter, where I had an exhausting conversation with a party of schoolgirls at the Cardo, who were very keen to know if I personally knew One Direction. And I met a chap called Evan, who, like me, was trying to gain access to the Israelite tower uncovered by Nahman Avigad in the 60’s. We failed: it’s locked up because of the drug addicts, and no-one seems to know who has the key to the gate which guards it.

The library work, I fully understand, is not of much interest beyond the world of my own small mind – it all relates to a long fascination I have had with the prophecy of Zephaniah.

And so now, I am drinking this.

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It is made by nuns.


Silwan (Part 2)

The second part of my morning on the 5th (for the first part see the previous post) included a small resident of the village of Silwan pretending to shoot me, and a walk through the Kidron Valley followed by a herd of goats.


I left the Pool of Siloam on the east side. The school parties were all getting coached back up the hill, and the tourists were paying 5 shekels to get a minibus ride back up to the Old City. I turned left and started to walk through the village of Silwan.

I have to admit to being slightly anxious about this venture, because this is not always a particularly calm part of East Jerusalem. Google “Silwan” and click on “News” (or just click here) and you’ll see what I mean. Besides, no one else was going this way. But they should. I bought some supplies from the little village shop, not because I needed them, but because I felt they ought to have some tourist dollars. There’s much more to write on all this, but now isn’t the sensible time.

Up ahead as I walked along the street was a multi story house with a group of six children – all about five years old – on a square balcony. They were calling to me and waving, even from quite a distance. I guess I wasn’t really blending in with my DMs and my straw hat.

I stopped at the foot of the house and called up to them “!مساء الخير” which entertained them greatly.

They shouted some things back at me which I did not understand. I can only say five things in Arabic with any confidence, despite the course I went on at the University of Birmingham – although I can read the road signs, which is nice.

One of the boys had a green toy gun which he shot at me. I pretended to be wounded. They loved it. As I walked on I wondered whether maybe I shouldn’t have done that.

After passing a few more homes, a school, some kind of centre – all perfectly peacefully – I began the walk along the path up the Kidron Valley in the direction of Gethsemane.

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I wanted to do this because I feel quite sure that this must have been the route taken by Jesus and his disciples after they had eaten the Last Supper together.

The traditional site of the Last Supper is pointed out on Mount Zion1 where the Coenaculum stands today. Although this site is undoubtedly one with important historical significance dating back to the early Christian era (more about this another time, maybe) and its association with the events of Pentecost is reasonably solid, its connection to the Last Supper is tenuous.

Here’s a relatively uncontroversial map of Herodian Jerusalem, drawn by Leen Ritmeyer.


He’s marked out the Pool of Siloam in the south, which is helpful, and I’ve very clumsily marked it up to include the site of the Coenaculum on Mount Zion (I’m sorry, I didn’t bring any decent digital tools with me, I only have Microsoft Paint).

So, Mark’s gospel tells the story of how the guest room for the celebration of the Last Supper was secured. It’s a bit cloak-and-dagger. Two unnamed disciples are sent by Jesus to the city on the lookout for a man carrying a jar of water (Mark 14:13). I am assuming that they make the journey from Bethany, which is where the first part of the chapter is set. This means that they enter the city from the east – and given the paucity of water sources on the east side of the city, ones eye is drawn to the Pool of Siloam in the south-east, a known public water supply.

The account is clearly short on detail. How were the disciples to know which man carrying the jar of water was the man? Perhaps he was also carrying a copy of the Financial Times under his left arm, and was all set and ready to respond to a question about the weather in Paris – I don’t know. But, the point is, we have to try to make sense of the clues we do have.

Why would you carry a jar of water from the Pool of Siloam all the way up to a house in the Upper City? You wouldn’t. It makes no sense. Archaeological excavations on Mount Zion have demonstrated that houses in this area had cisterns. If you’re on Mount Zion and you need some water, then get it from your own supply. Or your neighbour’s.

The most likely explanation, cloak-and-dagger stuff aside, is that the room Jesus was going to rent for the Last Supper was not too far from the Pool of Siloam.

What this means is that the walk to Gethsemane after the supper had been eaten was essentially a journey north up the Kidron Valley.

One possible point of confusion here is John 18:1, which, if your bible translation of choice is the NIV, you will know says that “When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley.” At first sight, this would appear to rule out the route I am describing.

I’m saying that Jesus walked up the wadi, following its path; the NIV says that Jesus “crossed” the valley to get to Gethsemane. So, a bit like when we talk about “crossing the road” this conjures up the image of Jesus’ party taking the shortest route they could from one side to the other.

This is unfortunate, and surely unintentional on the part of the NIV translators. The verse could more closely be rendered “Saying these things, Jesus went out with his disciples – to the other side of the Kidron valley where there was a garden”. It is not the purpose of the description to set out the route in detail; the purpose is to make clear the destination.2

So I’m convinced that, having eaten the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus made his way from the vicinity of the Pool of Siloam up the Kidron Valley to Gethsemane with his disciples. This is the route I walked, leaving the village of Silwan and the excitable kindergarten behind.

I’m glad I did. Even though I was, quite bizarrely, followed up the valley by a herd of goats whose shepherd got in to trouble with the police as they approached the Church of All Nations.

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I ran up the bank a bit to take this photo. Spot the goats.

For a long time I have read the account of Gethsemane, and have felt that it describes Jesus at his most vulnerable and weakest moment. The falling to the ground, the pouring sweat (not sweating actual blood, just sweating in the manner of blood pouring from the head, read Luke 22:44 carefully), the garbled prayer (“Take this cup”, yet, “Your will be done” – which we read far too calmly in church as if it all makes logical sense) all points towards something like a mental breakdown.

Walk the route. You’ll see it, I’m sure. To your right, and up above you, your route is lined with graves. It is now. It was then. Some of these graves are extremely imposing, like the Tomb of Pharaoh’s daughter and the tomb of Absalom. This is the valley of the shadow of death.

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And if you’ve already come to realize that your own death is imminent, what would this sight, by the light of the Passover moon, do to your soul?


1 Just to confuse us all, there are three Mount Zions. The first is the Fortress of Zion, the place the bible says was conquered by King David, on the lower south eastern hill of Jerusalem (where the Siloam tunnel is, which I wrote about yesterday). The second is the site of the Temple Mount to the north, which gets called “Zion” by extension. The third is the south western hill, to which the name “Zion” became attached even by the first century AD when Josephus wrote his history of the Jewish war against the Romans. It’s this third Mount Zion I’m talking about here.


2 Similar language is used in the same gospel in Chapter 6, which describes Jesus going to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. He clearly didn’t take the direct route across the lake, because a great crowd followed him. The author of the gospel doesn’t expect us to imagine a flotilla tearing across the lake in pursuit of Jesus, sailing alone. Again, the destination is the point – not the route.

Silwan (Part 1)

I haven’t written anything for a few days, mostly because I’ve been reading these two fat books, and some journal articles, and have been going through the prophecy of Zephaniah again (which is what I wrote my Master’s thesis on in 2003). It’s going to be a while before I’m ready to write anything about all of that.


But I hear folks at home want an update! Yesterday I went out into the sunshine again to do some things which are maybe a bit more entertaining to read about. I took what everyone calls the “Arab bus” into Jerusalem (it only costs 5½ shekels, which is about £1) and walked from the Jaffa Gate down to the village of Silwan. This is where you can visit the “City of David”, the oldest part of Jerusalem, although it now lies outside the city wall.

This is a complex part of East Jerusalem, with complex politics, where the academic exercise of archaeology serves multiple ends. I’ll not write any more about that at the moment for reasons I’ll explain when I get back home.

I came here with Jenny in 2010, but there were a couple of things I wanted to do which I thought I could combine. One was to try to get a better understanding of the complex ancient water systems focussed around the Gihon spring. The other was to walk what I think must be the route to Gethsemane taken by Jesus and his disciples after the Last Supper.

Everyone agrees that the reason Jerusalem finds its origin on the South Eastern hill, rather than on the higher, more easily defensible, surrounding hills is that there is water there. The Gihon rises in a cave on the eastern slope of the hill. A complex system of ancient tunnels testifies to various schemes through the ages employed to move pool this water, or to move it to the south of the city.

The most famous of these feats of engineering is what has become to be known in recent years as “Hezekiah’s Tunnel”. Here’s a nice, over-simplified map, nicked from the Biblical Archaeological Review, illustrating this solution and ignoring the other more ancient ones.


Over a length of 533 meters this tunnel carries the water from the spring downwards (a change in height of just 30cm across its length) through a pitch dark tunnel to a pool, known in Second Temple times as the Pool of Shelakh/Siloam (Nehemiah 3:16; John 9; Josephus, Wars 5.140).

The reason this tunnel has become known as “Hezekiah’s Tunnel” is that in four places the bible describes the king undertaking a project such as this (2 Kings 20:20, Isaiah 22:9-11; 2 Chronicles 32:1-4, and 2 Chronicles 32:30). If this identification is correct, then it means the tunnel was cut in the years leading up to the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem is 701 BC.

An inscription found inside the tunnel describes its method of construction:

And this was the matter of the tunnelling. While [the hewers wielded] the axe, each man toward his fellow, and while there were still three cubits to be he[wn, there was hear]d a man’s voice calling to his fellow, for there was a zdh1 in the rock on the right and [on the lef]t. And on the day of the tunnelling through, the hewers hacked each man toward his fellow, axe upon axe. And there flowed the waters from the spring toward the reservoir for two hundre[d and] a thousand cubits. And a hu[nd]red cubits was the height of the rock above the head(s) of the hewers.

Last time I went through this tunnel I didn’t notice the “join” where the two groups of tunnellers met and I was quite keen to have a good look at it this time. However, at the time I turned up yesterday – about 10am – it was just when all the school parties were arriving. Lots and lots of excited children whooping and screaming as they stepped into the watery darkness of the tunnel. The problem is you can’t really stop if there are people behind you, because there’s not enough width in the channel for anyone to pass you. And you certainly can’t start insisting that people turn round and go back if you think you’ve missed something.

So I waited until the screams of the children had faded away in the distance, and then I set off. Being on my own I was acutely aware that the only light source I had was my own torch. It’s completely pitch dark in there, and it would have been wise to bring spare batteries or a second torch!

Eventually to my great satisfaction I found the “join”. As can be seen on the map above, the tunnel is very twisty in the region of the join, almost certainly bearing witness to a trial-and-error final stage in the word of the two cutting crews. The heights of the two tunnels are slightly different too, which is something I attempted to capture in this photograph. I fear I may have failed.

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At the “join” in the Siloam Tunnel

When you emerge from the south side of the tunnel you reach what used to be thought to be the pool of Siloam. The rags-to-riches Empress Aelia Eudocia (401-460 AD) thought so, and had a church built there, the remains of which can be seen today.

However, on the 30th May 2004, Gihon, the municipal water company, started digging a channel in a nearby orchard in order to replace a sewage main. Within minutes their bulldozer struck some ancient steps. The work was stopped, and the area properly excavated, and lo-and-behold, the true Pool of Siloam once again saw the light of day.


Or at least part of it. The rest of it lies under the orchard belonging to the Greek Orthodox Church.

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I spent some time here drying my feet and the soggy bits at the bottom of my trouser legs, thinking of the people of Second Temple Jerusalem who came here for vital supply of water that the pool provided. And of the man who once came here to wash spit-formed mud from his eyes, and went away having experienced the power of Jesus.

The Siloam Pool marked the end of the first part of my day, and the start of the next part. I’ll write about that tomorrow, while everyone at home is busy at the polling booths.




1 Hebrew word of uncertain meaning. Perhaps “fissure”.

2 The story is very entertainingly told by Ronny Reich, Excavating the City of David (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2011) 225-236.


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