For two hundred years, the municipality of Aelia – the
erstwhile city of Jerusalem – was demonstrably and triumphantly
pagan, enjoying all the refinements of a Roman colonia.
It was also a garrison city for legio X
Fretensis – the Roman legion which had
destroyed Gamala, Qumran and Masada. In the siege of Jerusalem
in 70 AD the Tenth had camped on the Mount of Olives,
and rained ballisticae onto the city. In the war of 135
it had reduced the fortress of Betar, killing the messianic claimant
and the last of his supporters. Post-war, legio
heavily involved in reconstruction, its expertise deployed in a
vast number of public works.
This pagan past is dimly perceived today,
even though the Roman imprint determined the size and layout
of the city for more than a thousand years. "Pagan
regarded by all and sundry as an alien interlude in an essentially
Judeo-Christian story. Yet Aelia Capitolina is
crucial in the history of Christianity. It was while Jupiter
was venerated on "Temple
Mount" and Venus honoured in the heart of the city
that the fable of Jesus was given form and substance. It was
upon, not the city of Herod, but the 2nd century city of
Hadrian that the gospellers imposed their fable.
A Roman Colonia
"The whole nation (of the Jews) was prohibited
from this time on by a decree, and by the commands of Adrian,
from ever going up to the country about Jerusalem. For the emperor
gave orders that they should not even see from a distance the
land of their fathers. Such is the account of Aristo of Pella.
And thus, when the city had been emptied of the Jewish
nation and had suffered a total destruction
of its ancient inhabitants, it was colonized
by a different race, and the Roman city which subsequently
arose was called Aelia, in honour of the emperor Aelius Adrian."
– Eusebius, History of the Church, 39.6.3.
If 4th century Christian historian Eusebius is to
be believed, the new city that Emperor Hadrian built upon the ruins
of Jerusalem was colonized by a "new race of Gentiles".
When the gospels took the shape familiar to us today Jerusalem
was a memory. In its stead stood the Romano-Hellenic city
of Aelia Capitolina, a minor town of the province of Syria
Roman Jerusalem – Aelia
Coins issued by Hadrian confirm that Colonia
Aelia Capitolina was founded about the year 132 AD, before,
not after, the second war of the Jews. It was originally intended
to be the emperor's gift to the Jewish people,
drawing them into the world empire of Rome. A Roman colony entitled
the residents to many tax benefits not awarded to citizens of
a regular polis.
But soon after Hadrian returned to the west resentful
religious reactionaries placed themselves at the head of impoverished
peasants and urban malcontents and began a well-planned second
war against Rome. Evidently, in munitions workshops Jewish craftsmen
had deliberately spoiled weapons intended for the Roman army and
stored the rejects for future use.
Three years of vicious warfare against rebels led
by Simon ben Kosiba left
the emperor furious with the Jews. When the revolt was eventually
crushed, Hadrian wiped off Judaea from the map. Privileges
which the Jews had enjoyed from the time of Julius Caesar were
revoked. Except for the ninth of Av, the day of mourning,
the Jews faced penalties for even laying eyes on the city. Under
the edicts of Hadrian the Roman administration made no distinction
between Judeo-Christians and orthodox Jews – all were expelled.
Not to be thwarted, the emperor pressed ahead with
his plans for the new city. His architects marked out a colony
extending further north than the earlier Herodian city – its
full extent is yet to be established. But Aelia would no longer
be a city for the Jews. Under new Roman laws they were forbidden
to live in the city or anywhere between Jerusalem and Hebron. Capital
punishment faced any Jew who so much as stepped foot in the city.
The Aelia which arose would make no concessions to the Jews.
The city itself, no longer the hub of a theocracy,
took on the status of a minor provincial town. No major trade route
passed its way and rabbinic Judaism
established itself elsewhere. Caesarea,
the provincial capital, became the city of choice for both the
Jewish elite and ambitious artisans, attracted by the thriving
port and Hellenistic lifestyle. Aelia, lost in the high country,
was on the road to nowhere.
But Aelia was a city with a dimly perceived "past"
that would colour a wondrous tale of a saviour god. Who would
have anticipated that within a few centuries this minor provincial
town would flourish as the "centre of the earth" and enjoy the
dubious honour of being the maelstrom of conflict and war for the
next two millennia?
in the city of Hadrian?
"Jerusalem ... was so
thoroughly laid even with the ground by those that dug it up to the foundation,
that there was left nothing to make those that came thither
believe it had ever been inhabited." – Josephus, War
"And Jesus answering
said unto him, Seest thou these great buildings? there
shall not be left one stone upon another, that
shall not be thrown down." – Mark 13.2.
The whole world knows that the gospel pageant is
set in the first half of the first century. Rather more pertinent
is determining precisely when and by
whom the fabulous
tale was concocted. The inspired religious writers of the second
century – who
quite possibly had no familiarity with real Jerusalem
at all – would
have been very aware that the city had changed drastically
in a century of turmoil and war. But, in fact, that hiatus helped
to establish their salvation drama as a cosmic
event. The gospellers' Jerusalem was no mere geography
but was the Holy City, a sacred mountain where God had
communed with his chosen people.
Aelia's existence on the ruins
of Jerusalem – erasing all that had
gone before – underscored
the transcendent and timeless nature of the gospel message. Divinity
had intruded briefly into human affairs and, for the Christian
story writers, the comings and goings of Jesus had been a sacred
drama, occurring not in simple past and common place but in "sacred
time" and "sacred
Sacred space is replete with a Holy
of Holies, hallowed ground, Paradise, and – inevitably – an Abode
of the Damned. Sacred space has place for a "centre", "four
corners" and the "ends" of the earth and for a
firmament that "divides the
waters from the waters" (Genesis 1.6). In sacred space
zodiacal coordinates and the position of the stars have meaning
shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars"
– Luke 21.25.)
Sacred time is no less a departure from rationality
– and is certainly not linear, chronological and unidirectional.
What importance has normal
time to eternal truths or eternal beings? – a day is as
a year or a millennium. Sacred time has an "In the Beginning",
an "End Time", a "time before time", "first and last days" and,
by inference, an indeterminate "meantime". The once and future
king is always with us, his pithy "wisdom" statements are true
now, have always been true, and will remain true for all time.
The superhero who utters them does so in times past, present
and future. In this quirky universe Joshua can make the sun stand
still and a sacrificial redeemer can still live two thousand
years after his death, forever dying and resurrecting.
or supposed "higher truths" exist in a dimension all
their own and a fake historicism confuses the
unwary. The problem arises when the theological
misinterpreted as literal truth and lesser minds impose
the cosmic event onto a real geography and intrude a holy pageant
into real history. The "fit" is gross, the anachronisms rife.
Here and there, a particular town or place may be favoured as
a candidate for the miraculous but "mysteries", enigmas and anomalies
abound. By its very nature the supernatural cannot be compelled
to fit the merely natural. Only within the imprecision of the
human mind can the circle be squared, water run up hill, and
cool and measured rationality coexist with the passion, emotionalism
and irrationality of faith. The discordance is celebrated as
Thus it is not surprising that the gospels can
mention Jerusalem more than a hundred times yet make fewer than half
a dozen references to
any named or identifiable topography. The "pre-war" sacred Jerusalem
of their tale is glimpsed only in the most general terms and
the story, for the most part, avoids all specifics as it moves
Jesus about his "theatrical" setting. Thus, for example,
for that climatic "last supper" JC's
instructions for finding a suitable venue for the passover meal
"Now the first day of the feast
of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto
him, Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?
And he said, Go into the city to such
a man, and say
unto him, The Master saith, My time is at hand; I will keep
the passover at thy house with my disciples. And the
disciples did as Jesus had appointed them; and they made ready
the passover." – Matthew 26.17,19.
To this breathlessly vague direction Luke and Mark add
a curious astrological element: the disciples
are led to the guesthouse by "a man bearing a pitcher
of water" (Luke 22.10; Mark 14.13) – a symbolism
typical of Aquarius.
Whatever else that suggests (perhaps it's an oblique
reference to John the Baptist, the water man "who goes before"),
it has no credibility as history. Who are these men? If Jesus
can manipulate their behaviour why not simply "guide"
his disciples? Better yet, why not just tell them the address?
(And a late booking on the eve of Passover for a party of thirteen?
Fat chance!) The whole pericope is a patent literary device,
a preamble introducing the last supper itself and the grand finale.
According to the gospel fable, it was the praetorium where JC was tried and condemned. But what praetorium was
After Herod Archelaus was deposed in 6 AD his palace
on the western side of the city of Jerusalem was sequestered
as the seat of the Roman Prefect, complete with "judgement
hall". This was the praetorium. It was NOT, as
Christians long-supposed, located in the Antonia
tower, a fortress built by Herod and named for
his Roman patron.
" Pilate entered into
the judgment hall again, and called Jesus,
and said unto him, Art thou the King of the
Then came Jesus forth, wearing
the crown of thorns, and the purple robe.
And Pilate saith unto them,
Behold the man! ... And went again into the
judgment hall, and saith unto Jesus, Whence
art thou? But Jesus gave him no answer."
– John 18.28-19.9.
Homo" – a favourite scene
in the Christian dreamscape.
the arch of Christian legend – named
by Edward Robinson, a 19th century evangelical
and still revered on the Via Dolorosa – was
part of a triumphal arch built by the Emperor
Hadrian on the east-west road just north
of Temple Mount – a century
too late for Jesus!
So Who DID sit on a judgement seat?
Our old friend Josephus reports the tribunal
of a much later procurator than Pilate – Gessius
Florus, whose provocations forced the Jews into
"Now at this time Florus took
up his quarters at the palace; and on the
next day he had his tribunal set before it,
and sat upon it, when the high priests,
and the men of power, and those of the greatest eminence
in the city, came all before that tribunal;
Upon which Florus commanded them to deliver
up to him those that had reproached him, and told
them that they should themselves partake of the
vengeance ... But they begged forgiveness for
those that had spoken amiss ... it was impossible to distinguish
those that offended from the rest ... that he ought ...
to forgive a few that were guilty..."
– Josephus, War of the Jews, 2.14.
The Florus episode prefigures aspects of the Passion
narrative, both the "alliance" of the Roman Procurator
with Jewish high priests against offenders – and that odd
appeal to clemency of the Barabbas release. But the "uncanny" parallels
do not stop there. Josephus continues:
"Florus was more provoked at this, and
called out aloud to the soldiers to plunder ... and to slay
such as they met with. ... The soldiers slew those that they
caught ... they also caught many of the quiet people, and brought
them before Florus, whom he first chastised with stripes,
and then crucified ... Those that were destroyed
that day, with their wives and children ... was about three
thousand and six hundred.
And what made this calamity the heavier was
this new method of Roman barbarity; for Florus ventured then
to do what no one had done before, that is, to have men of
the equestrian order whipped and nailed
to the cross before his tribunal; who, although they
were by birth Jews, yet were they of
Roman dignity notwithstanding."
Not only do we have a Roman Procurator flogging
and crucifying his critics but victims include the "quiet
people" ("Jesus gave no answer") and "Jews
of Roman dignity". So much for St Paul's wondrous get-out-of-jail card "I am a Roman"!
With more than 3,000 victims, including infants,
it is hard to give credence to the notion – dreamed up
by the 2nd century Christian 'historian' Hegesippus – that
it was the "martyrdom of James the Less" and not the
barbarity of Florus that was the catalyst of war.
Jesus was here? No
The praetorium was
built on the ruins of Herod's palace and was itself
a fortress. As a formidable strong point it was subsequently
occupied by Crusader kings, Mameluke chieftains and
Ottoman governors. Today it even masquerades as
the "Tower of David" although there is no link to
the Jewish hero.
During the Roman period a cohort of guards would
have been stationed at the praetorium but the main
body of the legion would have been housed elsewhere.
Although few pilgrims notice, "informed Christians"
moved the trial and flogging of Jesus across town
to this "Citadel", making a farce of the Via
all perfectly compatible with religious "tradition".
the Christian dreamscape, the 2nd century paving adjacent
to the ceremonial arch of Hadrian has become the scene
of JC's flogging, ridicule and condemnation! Dream
Early in the 20th century French religio-archeologist,
Father Hugues Vincent discovered a large expanse of ancient
pavement and declared that it was the "lithostrotos"
of John's gospel. The misidentification became clear after
later investigation brought to light various Roman flagstones
and artifacts under the nearby covent.
Archaeology has proven conclusively that
the pavement and associated arch were features of the forum
constructed by Hadrian after the
second Jewish war (132-135) – a century later than "Jesus".
When the new city of Aelia was built, the open pool of Struthius north
of Temple Mount was vaulted over – and then the
pavement was laid.
The Roman pavement extends under the Convent
of Sion and the adjoining Monastery of the
Flagellation and is an estimated 1500 square metres.
"The pavement of the courtyard is
generally regarded as being from the time of Herod. It
is thought to be the inner court of the [Antonia] fortress,
commonly identified with the lithostrotos, the stone
pavement where Pilate condemned Jesus.
however, had no connection with either Jesus
or the Antonia fortress; it is merely a Roman
the days of Hadrian."
– P. Benoit, Jerusalem Revealed,
paving of Hadrian's 2nd century market – most assuredly
NOT the "lithostrotos" of John 19.13.
the "Jesus pavement", is a vaulted 2nd century
cistern, 52 metres by 18 metres. The Roman reservoir still
provides water today, after more than 1800 years.
Across town, on the eastern
side of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and beneath
the Greek Orthodox Convent of St. Abraham, is
another, similar cistern – below Hadrian's west forum.
The recogntion of Hadrian's forum and monumental
arch has serious implications for the identification of that
other confectionery in models of ancient Jerusalem – the "Antonia
Fortress". It was the "lithostrotos" more
than anything else, which convinced the first archaeologists
that they had located the Antonia. In fact, the fortress has
never been found, despite pious enthusiasms:
"It is unlikely that the Hadrianic
architect would leave the ruins of a gate from the Herodian
period blocking the opening of his arch. Thus there is only
one solution; the construction generally regarded as "Herodian" is
actually much later – Byzantine, or possibly even Medieval."
– P, Benoit, Jerusalem
Conventional wisdom – and
quite a few models! – locate the Antonia on the site
of the present El Omariya madrasa on the northwest corner
of the esplanade but that location – on a hill of five
metres – does
not match the 25 metre hill described by Josephus, nor the vastness
of the "tower":
"Now as to the tower of Antonia, it was situated
at the corner of two cloisters of the court of the temple ...it
was erected upon a rock of fifty cubits in height ... on a great
precipice ... the rock itself was covered over with smooth pieces
of stone ... that any one who would either try to get up or to
go down it might not be able to hold his feet upon it ... the
tower of Antonia itself was ... the height of forty cubits.
inward parts had the largeness and form of a palace ... all
kinds of rooms and other conveniences, such as courts, and
places for bathing, and broad spaces for camps ...
having all conveniences that cities wanted, it might seem to
be composed of several cities,
but by its magnificence it seemed a palace ... on the corner
where it joined to the two cloisters of the temple, it had
passages down to them both ... there always lay
in this tower a Roman legion ... for the temple was
a fortress that guarded the city, as was the tower of Antonia
a guard to the temple." – War,
If Josephus can be relied upon, this vast "multi-city
palace", accommodating camps and an entire legion,
cannot be the same "tower Antonia" thrown down by Titus
in a matter of days during the siege of 70 AD.
a part of what is now the esplanade of Temple
Mount itself must have been the site of the Fortress Antonia. If
this is the case, then Herod's Temple actually must have
occupied a site further south, somewhere in the vicinity of the
Al Aksa mosque. This would place it much closer to the
sacred spring of Gihon – and Tacitus reports that the spring
was indeed within the temple:
"The temple resembled a citadel,
and had its own walls, which were more laboriously constructed
than the others. Even the colonnades with which it was surrounded
formed an admirable outwork. It contained
an inexhaustible spring; there were subterranean excavations in the hill, and
tanks and cisterns for holding rain water." – Tacitus, History,
According to Josephus,
the western wall and certain towers of Herod's city were retained
after the first Jewish war to provide some defence for the legionary
"Caesar gave orders that they should now demolish
the entire city and temple, but should leave as many of the towers
standing as were of the greatest eminency; that is, Phasaelus,
and Hippicus, and Mariamne; and so much of the wall as enclosed
the city on the west side. This wall was spared, in order to
afford a camp for such as were to lie in garrison." – War, 7.1.1.
From this comment, the presumption is that site
of the legionary camp extended south and west from the praetorium,
that is, occupying much of what had been the Upper
Herodian Jerusalem on the western hill. Curiously, perhaps because
of looking in the wrong place, the buildings of the 10th Legion – which
was stationed in Jerusalem for 200 years – have never been
In any event, the Roman garrison, several thousand
strong, provided rich opportunities for the enterprising. It is
not unreasonable to suppose that, in the middle decades of the
2nd century, some Jews professed Christian beliefs in
order to reoccupy businesses and premises left derelict for more
than half a century.
A new god in residence – and the "wall
At the main intersection of Aelia, just north of
where the Cardo Maximus crossed the Decumanus Maximus,
Hadrian's architects laid out a vast forum. A sacred precinct was
built adjacent to this forum (in the area now occupied by the Church
of the Holy Sepulchre, the purported tomb of Jesus and Calvary itself).
The sources give conflicting reports but it
seems the honoured god of the pagan sanctuary was Hadrian's own
family deity Venus (Aphrodite to
the Greeks), a goddess also sacred to the occupying 10th legion:
the emblem on its Vexillum standard was Taurus
the bull, the zodiacal sign for April-May, the time of year
when the legend was founded and auspicious to Venus. Although
destroyed completely by the triumphant Christians 180 years later,
the temple doubtless had much in common with the dual temple
to Venus and Rome built
by the emperor at the same time in the imperial capital.
The Hadrianic temple was surrounded by a temenos (a
sanctified area, marked by a protective wall) with a main entrance
on the Cardo Maximus. The church built centuries later
by Constantine retained this feature.
Excavation work has revealed
the remains of the boundary wall, which, among
other things, proves that the Christian holy sites were NOT
buried by a vast infill. Stonework of Hadrian's temple
exists on the same level as the later Constantinian basilica.
The temenos wall
of the temple precinct
Coin from Aelia, minted during reign
of Antoninus Pius, shows tetrastyle temple and Tyche,
the Goddess of Fortune.
A 2nd century bronze mask from Aelia (probably
Apollo) found near Temple Mount.
To maintain the deceit that the area of the Holy
Sepulchre and Calvary were "outside the city wall",
the boundary wall of Hadrian's temple precinct
is pressed into a supporting role for the gospels by some of today's
apologists. They interpret the remains of the temenos as
part of the Herodian "second
northern wall". And yet an off-set lower course and pin holes
in the massive stonework of the higher courses are clear evidence
that the wall was clad with marble – as befits a
temple precinct not a mere city wall.
Capitolium temple, Dougga, Tunisia.
A fine example of how a Roman temple was
typically placed within a vast sacred space.
How the temple of Venus in Aelia may
have appeared viewed through the monumental arch on the
west forum. The Church of the Holy
Sepulchre now occupies
Close by the Colosseum,
Hadrian built a dual temple – the largest in Rome in
fact. It was no doubt a prototype for the structure in Aelia.
Today, its ruins, though large, can easily be missed.
Temple of Venus and Rome, Rome.
In the city "holy to three faiths" the process
of febrile invention and pious fraud has a particularly long,
if not very noble, history. Even churchmen have deplored
the "imagineering" that has fashioned the tacky religious
theme park. Byzantine Greeks, Latin Crusaders, Muslim clerics,
Franciscan monks and "biblical archaeologists" of the
19th and early 20th century have all contributed to the manufacture
of a "Holy Land" that has given visible form to a religious
fantasy. After 1948 Israeli archaeologists joined in the fun,
focusing almost entirely on the elaboration of an ancient history
that justifies an exclusive claim to the not-so-holy land.
Unfortunately, there is no money to
be made out of Aelia Capitolina. Instead, the lucrative
religio-tourist industry concentrates on the promotion of a
non-existent "Jerusalem of Jesus" and an overblown
biblical city of fabled Jewish ancestors.
Robert Gordon, Holy Land, Holy City (Paternoster, 2004)
H. J. Richards, Pilgrim to the Holy Land (McCrimmons,1985)
S. Gibson, J. Taylor, Beneath the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Palestine
Exploration Fund, 1994)
Joan Taylor, Christians and Holy Places: The Myth of Jewish-Christian
Origins (Clarendon, 1993)
Martin Biddle, The Tomb of Christ (Sutton, 1999)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor, The Holy Land (Oxford, 1986)
Karen Armstrong, A History of Jerusalem (HarperCollins, 1997)
Jerusalem Revealed (Israel Exploration Society, 1975)
Sami Awwd, The Holy Land (Sami Awwad, 1993)
Peter Walker, In the Steps of Jesus (Lion Hudson, 2006)
Some fifty articles are now available as a book.
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Copyright © 2007
by Kenneth Humphreys.
Copying is freely permitted, provided credit is given to the author and no
material herein is sold for profit.