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The Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem.

In 2004, workers were summoned to repair a damaged sewer pipe. The pipe lay under a small potato field in the Palestinian Arab neighborhood of Silwan, in southeastern Jerusalem just outside the Old City walls. Following standard local practice, a team of archaeological observers accompanied them, wrote Yaakov Katz in "New Discovery in Jerusalem's City of David: 2,000-year-old Pilgimage Road," published June 30 in The Jerusalem Post, online at jpost.com.

To their surprised delight, the team discovered several wide stairs located just a dozen yards from what they soon confirmed to be the ancient pool or “mikveh” of Shiloah. Ancient pilgrims would ritually immerse themselves at Shiloah in order to be cleansed for their climb up to Jerusalem’s temple, which loomed just above them to the north, wrote Katz about his tour of the discovery. Shiloah, which gave the Arab village of Silwan its name, appears in the New Testament as “Siloam” — figuring, for example, in the account of the healing of a blind man given at John 9:1-9.

Eventually, a largely intact ancient stone road was identified, extending from Silwan up to the area of what is known today as Robinson’s Arch, a partially surviving entrance to the southwestern corner of the ancient temple platform. The “Pilgrim’s Road” or “Pilgrimage Road,” as it’s coming to be called, is approximately 2,000 old and is very likely the path that Jesus and his disciples — like other Jewish leaders and sages, as well as ordinary people — would have taken to ascend to the temple of Jerusalem, Katz reported.

The first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus estimated that roughly 2.7 million people visited Jerusalem annually for the various Jewish holidays — notably Passover, Shavuot (the “Feast of Weeks” or “Pentecost”), and Sukkot (the “Festival of Booths” or “Feast of Tabernacles”) — performing more than a quarter of a million sacrifices during their visits, Katz reported.

The great first-century rabbis Shammai and Hillel — famous still today for their prominence in the early third-century Jewish text known as the Mishna, the oldest surviving work of rabbinic literature — debated what age children must be before their fathers were obligated to take them along on pilgrimage, Katz noted. They were almost certainly discussing the “Pilgrimage Road.” Hillel said that the father need bring the child only if he or she was able to walk up the 750-meter road to the temple. The more demanding Shammai, by contrast, contended that a child should accompany parents on pilgrimage as soon as he or she was capable of sitting upon a father’s shoulders.

Unlike most archaeological digs, the excavations following the 2004 discovery were underground, leaving the busy modern Jerusalem streets and the mostly Arab neighborhood above it — and, to the limited extent possible, the area’s ever-sensitive politics — undisturbed. Dozens of fiber-optic cable cameras were used in order to determine where to work. The ceiling of the tunnel needed constant reinforcement with steel beams so as to support the weight of the city above, Katz wrote. The effort has been very expensive — costing hundreds of millions of dollars that have been supplied not only by the Israeli government but by such generous private donors as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Larry Ellison (founder of Oracle), and Jan Koum (co-founder of WhatsApp), Katz reports.

Midway up the road, archaeologists located a set of stairs alongside an ancient roadside shop. But the stairs lead only to a somewhat puzzling platform. Researchers have identified just one archaeological parallel to it, a platform in Rome that apparently served somewhat the same function as the famous “Speakers’ Corner” in London’s Hyde Park, Katz writes. Accordingly, they suggest, Jerusalem’s similar platform may have served as a place for announcements or speeches targeted at passing pilgrims. Next to it, they found the charred remains of a male palm tree (conceivably burned during the successful Roman siege of the temple in A.D. 70). Obviously not there to provide fruit, perhaps the tree supplied shade for speakers on the platform, he notes in the article.

Also found was a rather crude ancient depiction of a seven-branched candelabra, perhaps carved by a child who had just seen the great menorah at the temple.

2 comments on this story

Recently, Israeli authorities officially unveiled the site, where, in a tunnel, tourists will be able to walk a nearly 350-yard stretch of the ancient street.

There is a potentially ironic aspect to this: In recent years, vastly amplified by the internet, “mythicist” claims that Jesus was merely a fictional character — claims that are taken seriously by very few credentialed scholars, whether Christian believers or not — have become surprisingly popular. This occurs at a time when the tangible reality of Jesus’s first-century world is becoming ever more evident.