Steven Law December 23, 2020
Summary: A Second Temple-era Jewish ritual bath recently discovered on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives may mark the first physical evidence for activity at the New Testament site of Gethsemane.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” – Matthew 26:36 (ESV)
2,000-Year-Old Jewish Ritual Bath Discovered by Accident at Gethsemane
The night he was betrayed, Jesus is said to have gone to an olive grove called Gethsemane where he spent hours in agony and prayer before being arrested, tried and finally crucified the next day. Aspects of the long night on the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem are recorded in all four New Testament Gospels. However, no physical evidence pointing to the site of Gethsemane has ever been found from the time of Jesus – until now.
A Second Temple-era Jewish ritual bath known as a mikvah was recently unearthed at a popular pilgrimage site long believed to be the location of the garden of Gethsemane.
“For the first time, we have archaeological evidence that something was here in the Second Temple period, in the days of Jesus,” said Amit Re’em, the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Jerusalem district head.
The mikvah was discovered by chance due to a cave-in during construction of a new visitor center. The cavity was encountered in a tunnel that was being constructed to link the modern Church of Gethsemane to the Kidron Valley. Archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and students from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum (a nearby Franciscan research institute) then discovered the ritual bath as they scrambled to complete salvage excavations at the site before construction resumed.
Ritual bath sites in Israel from around 2,000 years ago are fairly common finds as evidenced by several recent discoveries seen in the news, but it is the location of this one that makes it significant.
“It is not from the mikvah that we are so excited, rather the interpretation, the meaning, of it. Because despite there being several excavations in the place since 1919 and beyond, and that there were several findings — from the Byzantine and Crusader eras, and others — there has not been one piece of evidence from the time of Jesus. Nothing! And then, as an archaeologist, there arises the question: Is there evidence of the New Testament story, or maybe it happened elsewhere?” said Re’em.
Re’em thinks it likely there was some kind of olive press, for making oil, in the field nearby, though it is yet to be discovered. The ritual bath outside the walls of Jerusalem is a sign that this was a functioning olive field at the time.
“According to the Jewish law, when you are producing wine or olive oil, you need to be purified,” said Re’em. “So there is a high probability that during the time of Jesus, at this place was an oil press.”
The bath was dated by means of the archaeological layer of earth it was in as well as comparing its style and construction to other Second Temple era mikvahs. The results have not yet been officially published, however. (See olive presses and smashed idols that point to the reforms of a biblical king)
Discovery Made at Traditional Garden of Gethsemane Site
The site where the bath was found has a long history of being a pilgrimage site for Christians. The modern Catholic church there is known as the Church of Gethsemane and alternately as the Church of the Agony or Church of All Nations. It was constructed in the 1920s at the foot of the Mount of Olives. Remains of a Crusader-era monastery and a much earlier 6th century Byzantine church have also been unearthed at this traditional spot for Jesus’ betrayal. The Byzantine’s are especially known for their zealous drive to mark holy sites. (Read about the discovery of the site of Jesus’ trial.)
According to Re’em, the next step in researching the mikveh will be to take plaster samples to send to micro-archaeologists who will look for tiny olive pollen grains and other substances. If found, the connection to oil production will be strengthened.
However, he cautioned that such results do not prove the Gospel accounts. “Let’s not get carried away,” said Re’em. Even with this ritual bath, “there’s no evidence to the truth of the Gospels.”
Connecting the Find at Gethsemane with the Biblical Account
Of course, confirming that Gethsemane was, in fact, an operational olive grove at the time of Jesus does not in and of itself prove that his words and actions took place as recorded in the Bible. However, at minimum it supports the validity for the setting of those accounts.
The presence of an oil press would also fit the Hebrew meaning of “Gethsemane,” which is “oil press.” Additionally, it would be an apt reflection of the idea that Jesus’ soul was hard-pressed in the agony experienced following the Last Supper in the lead-up to the crucifixion.
Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch[ with me.” – Matthew 26:38 (ESV)
Father Francesco Patton is custos of the Holy Land in the Franciscan order that operates the church and oversees the work they do from Egypt to Lebanon. They were an early archaeological presence in the region. The order also maintains olive trees on the site that they say date back to the time of Jesus, which would make them the oldest in the world.
Patton said in an IAA press release, “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.
“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.
This thinking flows well into the Christian teaching of Christmas – that God sent the light of his son into the world on a rescue mission to remove the penalty for sins by paying the ultimate price, beginning with what happened on that night in the olive press of Gethsemane. Merry Christmas and Keep Thinking!
TOP PHOTO: The ritual bath from the Second Temple period that was discovered at Gethsemane. (Credit: Yaniv Berman – IAA)