Jerusalem’s Gateway to Hell

In Deuteronomy 12, Moses warns the nation against following a particularly egregious form of Canaanite worship. “The Lord your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” You must not worship the Lord your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”

Despite Moses’ warning, the temptation to burn their children was too great. In 2 Chronicles 28, Ahaz, king of Judah, fell into this practice. “He followed the ways of the kings of Israel and also made idols for worshiping the Baals. He burned sacrifices in the Valley of Ben Hinnom and sacrificed his children in the fire, engaging in the detestable practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before the Israelites.”

A century later, Jeremiah warned Israel of what was to come as a result of this practice. “The people of Judah have done evil in my eyes, declares the Lord. They have set up their detestable idols in the house that bears my Name and have defiled it. They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire, something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind. So beware, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when people will no longer call it Topheth or the Valley of Ben Hinnom, but the Valley of Slaughter, for they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” (Jeremiah 7)

In the original Hebrew version of 2 Chronicles 28, Ahaz is said to have sacrificed his children at the site of “Gai ben Hinnom,” which is translated to the “valley of the son of Hinnom.” In later forms, the term appears to be condensed into the Valley of Hinnom, or in the Hebrew, Gai Hinnom.

Ancient place names tend to be “sticky.” Jerusalem appears to be same Jerusalem as the Middle Bronze Age town. Megiddo and Hazor are easily identified at their ancient sites. Gaza, Ashkelon and Ashdod today are on the sites the ancient cities of that name once stood. The Valley of Hinnom today originates along the western edge of the Old City of Jerusalem. The valley runs south and then turns east, until it joins the Kidron Valley, the valley to the east of the Old City. This is likely the same location as the Valley of Hinnom in the Bible.

Jeremiah warned the nation that “they will bury the dead in Topheth until there is no more room.” The exact location of the Tophet is unknown, but there have been graves discovered at Ketef Hinnom, on the edge of the Valley of Hinnom.

Because of the areas sordid past of child sacrifice, the Valley of Hinnom became associated with another horror. Gai Hinnom was associated Gehenom, the Hebrew word for Hell. The exact location is undetermined, but this area become known as the entrance to hell in later sources.

For a modern day entrance to hell, this fire has been burning continuously for 40 years:

Jerusalem Abandoned for Monotheism


In Deuteronomy 7, Moses tries to instill confidence into the Israelites before they will cross into Canaan and conquer the land. “You may say to yourselves, These nations are stronger than we are. How can we drive them out? But do not be afraid of them; remember well what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. You saw with your own eyes the great trials, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and outstretched arm, with which the Lord your God brought you out. The Lord your God will do the same to all the peoples you now fear.”

While the evidence in Jerusalem about the status of Jerusalem in the Late Bronze Age is sparse, evidence from outside Jerusalem points to the city having been a significant entity during that period.

In the mid-14th century, Egypt’s 18th Dynasty king Amenhotep IV led a monotheistic religious revolution in Egypt. He banned the worship of the Egyptian pantheon of gods, and focused all worship on the Aten, the sun disk. To honor the Aten, Amenhotep IV changed his name to Akhenaten. Akhenaten moved his capital to a new site in central Egypt, and called it Akhetaten.

As the king of Egypt, Akhenaten appears to have expended his energy on his religious movement, at the expense of other responsibilities. Egypt’s earlier 18th Dynasty kings sent Egypt’s military to seize control of Canaan, to give the Egyptians control of trade routes and to provide a buffer zone to protect Egypt from an invasion from Asia. Akhenaten neglected these Egyptian vassal states in Canaan.

Akhenaten’s capital Akhetaten was discovered at modern day Tel el-Amarna in central Egypt. Letters on clay tablets sent by rulers of Canaanite city-states were unearthed at Akhetaten. These letters show increasingly desperate rulers pleading for assistance from Akhenaten to protect them from attacks.

In a series of letters, Abdi-Heba, the ruler of a city in Canaan called Urusalem, seeks assistance from Egypt to protect him and his city from attacks by the Hapiru. The letters sound increasingly desperate, and seem to be ignored by Akhenaten.

The ultimate outcome of the attacks is unknown. What, if any, connection the Hapiru have to the Hebrews cannot be stated with any certainty. But the series of letters demonstrates that in the 14th century BCE, Jerusalem was a significant city, with literate scribes and the resources and connections to communicate with the ruler of Egypt.

The image above is of an Amarna Letter, with both cuneiform and Egyptian hieratic writing. 

Jerusalem’s Known Unknowns

As Moses began to transition power to Joshua, he had a request from God: “Let me go over and see the good land beyond the Jordan—that fine hill country and Lebanon.” But because of you the Lord was angry with me and would not listen to me. “That is enough,” the Lord said. “Do not speak to me anymore about this matter. Go up to the top of Pisgah and look west and north and south and east. Look at the land with your own eyes, since you are not going to cross this Jordan. (Deut. 3)

Towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, the land which Moses looked upon had been in decline under centuries of Egyptian control. Fortified cities of the Middle Bronze Age became unfortified cities in the Late Bronze Age. Jerusalem may be counted amongst those cities left exposed to raiders.

A lack of fortifications or royal architecture in the Late Bronze Age is one of the limiting factors for studying the archaeology of Jerusalem. But this is only one of the factors that complicate efforts to study Jerusalem’s history.

Much of old Jerusalem is built over. Both the City of David and the Temple mount sit under structures and are politically difficult to analyze.

Archaeological research in Israel has benefited from the existence of ‘tells,’ or mounds. These mounds, typically near a water source, were built up over time. Each subsequent layer covered up the previous settlement, locking in the artifacts of the earlier time period. The area of the City of David is believed to have been the original city of Jerusalem. The site sits between two valleys, both of which were once steeper. Much of the construction on the hill was not built over earlier layers. Instead, the ground appears to have been cleared to the bedrock, removing evidence for earlier settlement periods.

In the Bible, Jerusalem became contested ground during invasions by King David, by the Egyptian pharaoh Shishak, by the coalition of Rezin king of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah, king of Israel, by the Assyrian king Sennacherib, and by the Babylonians led by Nebuchadnezzar. However, only the invasion by the Babylonians appears to have left a clear destruction layer. Without evidence of the earlier destruction layers, it is hard to establish a clear timeline.

Because of the paucity of evidence, the status of Jerusalem in the late 2nd millennium and early 1st millennium BCE cannot be firmly argued from an archaeological perspective. All that can be said is the combination of evidence that debris was removed to the bedrock and lack of destruction layers is that uncertain interpretations are a known unknown. 

This uncertainty means that the Jerusalem of the Iron IIA period remains at the center of the debate around timing as it relates to the biblical stories.

The image above is of the City of David taken from the east.

Beyond the Temple: An Enduring Legacy of Sinat Chinam

Fallen stones from the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Credit:, Jerusalem

The 9th day of the month of Av serves as a day of national mourning on the Hebrew calendar. The destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem is central to the day because of its outsized impact on later Jewish history, but arguably its greatest impact on Jewish history continues to go unrecognized.

The Mishna in Taanit 4:6 lists tragedies that occurred on the 9th of Av: the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans and 65 years later the city of Beitar was destroyed by the Romans, ending the Bar Kochba rebellion. The assigning of these great tragedies to the identical date has led Tisha B’Av to serve as a singular date to recall other tragedies that have befallen the Jews across history, including the crusades, expulsions in Europe and the Holocaust.

For all the catastrophes that are memorialized on this date, it is the destruction of the Second Temple stands out above all. While the First Temple was rebuilt approximately 70 years after it was destroyed, the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt. In Babylonian Talmud Tractate Yoma 9b, the Talmud pinpoints the reasons for the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem and the later Second Temple. The First Temple was destroyed for the cardinal sins of idol worship, prohibited sexual relations, and bloodshed. The Second Temple was destroyed for the sin of ‘baseless hatred.’ The Talmud deems the latter to be worse, for the First Temple was restored with the construction of the Second Temple, and the Second Temple has yet to be rebuilt.

The destruction of the Second Temple stands out as a nadir in Jewish history. It marked the beginning of the exile, where without political power Jews were vulnerable in their host lands. It was the precursor to the Kitos War, which brought an end to the Jewish communities in Cyprus, Cyrenaica and Alexandria, and to the Bar Kochba Revolt, with its catastrophic loss of life. The destruction of the Temple forced a change in the religion, from a Temple-centric religion in a national home to a text-based religion in exile. Yet its most enduring impact for Jews may have been its effect on a nascent Jewish religion.

Nascent Christianity

In the third or fourth decade of 1st century CE Judea, a new Jewish religious movement emerged.

The New Testament covers the life and death of Jesus, the rise of early Christianity and the meaning of Jesus’ teachings as understood by his followers. It contains 27 books that can be divided into four categories: the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, Epistles and Revelation. The four books of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell the story of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles follows the events after Jesus’ death and the rise of early Christianity. The Epistles are letters that were sent to individual Christians, Christian communities or to Christians at large, to provide guidance on practical and theological matters. The last book is Revelation, an apocalypse, with visions of the end times.

Combining the four gospel books produces the following account. Joseph’s virgin wife Mary conceived Jesus by miracle. Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. As an adult, Jesus was baptized in water by John the Baptist and began to preach in the Galilee. Gradually Jesus began to accumulate followers. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount laid out his fundamental message, including a system of morality, to not judge others, to love your enemy, and if struck, to turn the other cheek.

Jesus traveled the region as a faith healer, but ran into trouble with Jewish authorities when he began healing the sick on the Jewish Sabbath, in violation of Jewish ritual law. Before the pilgrimage holiday of Passover, Jesus traveled to Jerusalem. At the Temple in Jerusalem he overturned the tables of the moneychangers, accusing them of turning the Temple into a den of thieves.

Jesus and his apostles gathered for Jesus’ Last Supper. Judas, a disciple of Jesus, betrayed Jesus to the Romans for money, and after the meal, Jesus was arrested on the Mount of Olives.

Jesus was tried by the leading Jewish judicial body, the Sanhedrin, and sentenced to death. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate was unconvinced of Jesus’ guilt, but to avoid unrest he ordered Jesus to be crucified. On Friday morning, Jesus was crucified and he died on the cross. He was buried on Friday, before the Sabbath started in the evening. On Sunday morning, Jesus’ body was not in his tomb. He had been resurrected and risen to the heavens.

In the Acts of the Apostles, Jesus’ followers continued Jesus’ mission. Jesus’ close disciple Peter preached Jesus’ message to the Jews and performed acts of healing, attracting Jewish followers. A Jewish inquisitor named Paul, who was persecuting Christians, never met Jesus during Jesus’ own lifetime. While traveling on the road to Damascus, Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision, and asked Paul why he was persecuting him. This episode convinced Paul to preach Jesus’ message to both Jews and gentiles.

A Jewish Religion

In the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ life and mission occur entirely within a Jewish context. Jesus is a descendant of King David, and an itinerant Jewish preacher. His disciples are Jews and he preaches to Jews in the synagogues. His message challenged the establishment Jewish Sadducees and Pharisees. He headed to Jerusalem to the Temple and he celebrated Passover at the Last Supper. But the New Testament does not present a uniform idea of what Jesus represented, taught, or for whom he preached.

In Matthew and Mark, a gentile woman asked Jesus to heal her possessed daughter. Jesus replied “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel…It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs,” gentiles being likened to dogs, the implication being that Jesus’ message is for Jews only. By contrast, Paul in Acts 28 declares “God’s salvation has been sent to the gentiles.”

The New Testament is unclear about whether or not Jewish ritual law, such as eating only kosher food or observing ritual purity, was still applicable after Jesus’ mission. In Mark 7, Jesus says “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them?…In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.” This implies a negation of the Torah’s laws against eating non-kosher food. In Matthew 5, when Jesus introduces his Sermon on the Mount, he says to his followers that Jewish ritual law remains binding. “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” In the Epistle to the Galatians 3, Paul declared the laws of the Torah to be a curse, and that Jesus redeemed people from this curse.

Two episodes in the Book of Acts of the Apostles are telling for Christian adherence to Jewish law, authority within the church and the centrality of the church in Jerusalem.

In Acts 15, at the Council at Jerusalem, Paul and Barnabas appear before Jesus’ closest disciple Peter and Jesus’ brother James at the church in Jerusalem to discuss whether or not gentile converts to Christianity have to be circumcised. James issued the ruling that gentiles do not require circumcision; gentile Christians only had to abstain from food polluted by idols, sexual immorality, the meat of strangled animals and consuming blood. An implication of the ruling was that Jewish Christians still remained bound by Jewish ritual law and required circumcision. Notably, Peter and James in Jerusalem are the authorities, and Paul appears to be subordinate. Additionally, Paul and Barnabas’ traveling to Jerusalem demonstrates that the church in Jerusalem was recognized as the central decision-making body for early Christians.

The same pattern is evident six chapters later. In Acts 21, when Paul returned to Jerusalem, he visited with James. James advised Paul to join others in ritual purification in accordance with biblical rules. Acts records that thousands of people were joining this new Christian movement, and Jewish Christians were keeping the Bible’s ritual laws. James said to Paul, “You see, brother, how many thousands of Jews have believed, and all of them are zealous for the law.” (Acts 21:20) Again, Jewish ritual law remained binding for Jewish Christians, James is the authority and a decision about Christian practice is made in Jerusalem.

This emerging Jewish movement grew in popularity amongst Jews. In Acts 4, the Christians in Jerusalem count 5,000 followers. In Acts 6, the number of Christians in Jerusalem, which included priests, increased sharply. In Acts 21, thousands of Jews are said to be Christians. Later Christian and Jewish traditions indicate that the Jewish leadership had become aware of the Christians’ success in attracting Jews to their movement. Justin Martyr, in his 2nd century CE ‘Dialogue With Trypho,’ wrote that Jews were cursing the Christians in their synagogues. According to the Babylonian Talmud Berachot 28b, Shmuel HaKatan authored the ‘Birkat HaMinim,’ the blessing against the heretics, at Yavneh, after the destruction of the Second Temple: “And for the slanderers let there be no hope, and may all the heretics be instantly destroyed.” The heretics in the blessing logically refers to Jewish Christians, not gentile Christians, and is likely the curse to which Justin Martyr is referring.

It is not even entirely clear if Jewish Christians believed that Jesus was God. Eusebius, in his 4th century Church History, wrote of a Jewish Christian group known as the Ebionites who believed that Jesus was human and not divine, and who required adherence to Jewish ritual law. The Nazarenes, another Jewish Christian group, accepted the divinity of Jesus as the son of God and his resurrection and ascension, but required Jewish Christians, and not gentile Christians, to follow Jewish ritual law.

Notwithstanding the bread in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, Jesus' last supper in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke would have been a Passover meal.

The Parting of the Ways

If not for the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66-70 CE, it is reasonable to suggest that Christianity would have remained primarily a Jewish sect, committed to Jewish law and centered in Jerusalem. With its core adherents in Judea and Jewish nationalist underpinnings, this might have limited Christianity’s appeal to gentiles, and possibly produced a different trajectory for Christianity. Instead, events drove a wedge between Jews and Christians.

Rome had traditionally maintained good relations with Judea. In the midst of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Kingdom, Rome entered into a treaty with the Maccabean leader Judas to counter the Seleucid Greek rulers of Judea. Julius Caesar gave the Jews protected status, which was later reaffirmed by the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Before the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, it would have been in a Christian’s best interests to align with Judaism, if only to obtain the benefit of being recognized as belonging to a religion from antiquity and exempt from worshiping pagan gods. After the revolt, it would be in a Christian’s best interests to disassociate from the Jews. The revolt set in motion a “parting of the ways.” It helped establish the primacy of gentile Christianity, a Christian movement led by non-Jews which did not adhere to Jewish ritual law, to the detriment of Jewish Christianity.

According to Christian legend, just before the revolt erupted, Christians in Jerusalem received a divine warning to leave Jerusalem, which would soon be destroyed. They were directed to escape to the town of Pella in Transjordan. While this may have helped some Jewish Christians survive, when the Jewish revolt was finally suppressed by the Romans, the church in Jerusalem was a diminished church in a diminished city. Many Jewish Christians likely remained in Jerusalem and were killed during the suppression of the revolt. Jerusalem itself suffered large scale destruction and a reduction in its population. With the destruction of the Temple, Jerusalem ceased to function as an annual pilgrimage site, reducing the number of travelers and potential converts to Jewish Christianity. The surviving apostles chose Symeon son of Clopas, a cousin of Jesus, to lead the church in Jerusalem. He was followed by a series of nondescript leaders, with brief reigns, without a direct connection to Jesus.

In the year 69 CE, Vespasian became Roman Emperor and founder of the Flavian dynasty. Because Vespasian captured the throne through war, he took steps to legitimize his family’s claim to rule by highlighting the achievement of defeating the First Jewish Revolt. The Romans issued ‘Judea Capta’ coins, ‘Judea has been conquered,’ memorializing the victory. They held a triumphal parade to celebrate the defeat of this Jewish provincial revolt. The spoils of war were earmarked for the construction of Rome’s Colosseum. Vespasian’s son and Titus’ brother Domitian built the Arch of Titus, with its relief of the Jerusalem Temple’s menorah lamp being carried away in Roman triumph. The Flavians imposed a ‘fiscus Judaicus,’ literally meaning ‘Jewish basket,’ a tax on Jews. Prior to the revolt, Jews living outside of Judea would send money to support the Jerusalem Temple. Under the Flavian emperors, that money would be redirected towards the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus in Rome.

The friction between Rome and the Jews did not abate. The Kitos War from 115-117 CE was launched by Jews in Cyprus, Cyrenaica and Egypt and resulted in widespread destruction on both sides of the conflict.

In 132 CE, the Bar Kochba Revolt erupted at Modiin and spread across Judea. The spark was likely the Roman Emperor Hadrian banning circumcision and his intention to rebuild Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina, with a temple to Jupiter. The leader of the revolt was Simon ben Kosiba. Simon went by the name Bar Kochba, the son of a star. He was seen by many Jews as a messiah figure. Bar Kochba struck his own coins, some of which displayed a representation of the temple building with a star above it, the star in reference to himself. This messianic element put the revolt beyond the pale for Christians, for whom Jesus was the Messiah. As a result, Bar Kochba “ordered that only the Christians should be subjected to dreadful torments, unless they renounced and blasphemed Jesus Christ.” [1]

At its outset, the Bar Kochba Revolt achieved success through the use of guerrilla warfare. Ultimately though, the Romans prevailed, with catastrophic consequences for the Jews. In the final showdown at the fortress of Beitar in 135 CE, the Romans captured the city and perpetrated the wholesale slaughter of its inhabitants. According to Cassius Dio, in the suppression of the Bar Kochba Revolt, 50 towns and 985 villages were destroyed with a loss of 580,000 men killed and innumerable others lost to disease and starvation. Jerusalem was renamed Aelia Capitolina. A temple to Jupiter was built near the site of the Jerusalem Temple. The Hebrew Bible and its laws were banned. The land of Judea was renamed Syria Palestina to erase the connection between the Jews and the land. Jews were banned from living in Jerusalem and its environs and were limited to visiting Jerusalem only on the ninth day of the month of Av, when the Jews were allowed in to mourn its destruction. With Jews banned, only gentile Christians could return to Jerusalem. The church in Jerusalem would from then on be led by uncircumcised gentile Christians. Henceforth, gentile Christianity would be the dominant form of Christianity, Jewish Christianity relegated to the margins.

A Bar Kochba Revolt coin with a star representing Bar Kochba above the Temple building.

Anti-Jewish Theology

When its books are combined, the New Testament can be woven into a coherent story of the life and times of Jesus. But upon closer inspection, the various books of the New Testament contain contradictions both large and small.

In the Gospel accounts, the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate condemned Jesus to death, but the individual Gospels place varying amounts of blame on the Jewish crowd. In Mark, when Pontius Pilate questioned Jesus, Jesus was obstinate and refused to speak, forcing Pilates’ hand. In Matthew, Pilate washed his hands to demonstrate his innocence in Jesus’ execution. Pilate announced “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” to which the assembled Jewish crowd responded, “his blood is on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:24)

What are presented as intra-Jewish tensions in the earlier New Testament books become criticisms of Jews more broadly in the later New Testament books. In Matthew’s account, Jesus gives an extended warning about the Pharisees. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites!…You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?…upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth.” (Matthew 23: 25-35) In John, written later, Jesus tells the Jews “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires.” (John 8:44) In the Book of Revelation, a Jewish house of worship is referred to as a “synagogue of Satan.” (Revelation 2:9)

In the absence of clear guidance, early Christian Church Fathers tried to determine what they believed occurred in Jesus’ lifetime and to interpret the meaning of Jesus’ message. One issue they addressed was how a Jewish religion, of Jews, by Jews and for Jews, was now a gentile religion for all peoples. In doing so they took an increasingly anti-Jewish stance.

The Apostolic Fathers were early Christian leaders who were believed to have personally known Jesus’ apostles, and so would have been best positioned to understand Jesus’ teachings. The Epistle of Barnabas argued that the Torah’s laws should be understood as allegory, that the meanings were spiritual in nature and not material, or physical. The Hebrew Bible was a Christian document, which foretold Jesus’ mission.

With the passing of those with direct connections to the apostles, the Ante-Nicene Church Fathers worked to define and shape Christian thought and practice. Justin Martyr argued that the Hebrew Bible’s laws were given because of the Jews’ sins and not as a means to righteousness. Christians were now the people of God’s covenant with Abraham, Jesus is God of Israel and Christians are the new Israel. Tertullian saw the destruction of Jerusalem, the desertion of the land and dispersal into exile as the Jews’ punishment for rejecting Jesus. Melito of Sardis accused Israel of killing their God.

In the ancient Greco-Roman world, there were gentiles who did not convert to Judaism but enjoyed participating in Jewish festivals and religious activities. This tradition continued with gentile Christians either participating in Jewish rituals or following a Jewish form of Christianity. These practices could be referred to as Judaizing.

John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century CE, was opposed to Judaizing. His ‘Eight Homilies Against the Jews’ contain some of the most vitriolic anti-Jewish material in all of Christian writing. For Chrysostom, the synagogue is a den of thieves, a lodging-place for demons, a fortress of the devil. One should hate and avoid the synagogue. The Jews killed their master Jesus. The Jews themselves are demons. “If the devil is a murderer, it is clear that the demons who serve him are murderers, too.” (Homily 8,8,6) “Although such beasts are unfit for work, they are fit for killing. And this is what happened to the Jews: while they were making themselves unfit for work, they grew fit for slaughter.” (Homily 1, 2,6)

Temple Rebuilding Thwarted

For all the anti-Judaic sentiment in these early Christian writings, they were in the main attacking Judaism from a theological perspective. Early Christians did not have access to power, and posed little physical threat to Jews.

The turning point for Christianity and Jews came at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. In the early 4th century CE, Roman Emperors Constantine and Maxentius squared off across the Tiber River from Rome. According to the church historian Eusebius, before the battle, Constantine looked up towards the sun and saw a vision of a cross of light and the Greek words ‘En touto nika,’ meaning ‘in this sign conquer.’ Inspired by this vision, Constantine’s troops defeated Maxentius’ army. Constantine now had control of Western Roman Empire, and Licinius the Eastern Roman Empire. In 313 CE, Constantine and Licinius combined to issue the Edict of Milan, allowing for the toleration of Christianity within the Roman Empire.

In 324 CE, Constantine went to war against Licinius, and defeated him at the Battle of Chrysopolis. The Western Roman Empire and Eastern Roman Empire were now united under Constantine. With power now consolidated in his hands, in 325 CE, Constantine convened the Council of Nicaea. He gathered Christian bishops from across the Roman Empire, representing the universe of Christianity, to establish a Christian orthodoxy; a universal consensus about what Christians were to believe. Importantly, the results of the gathering at Nicaea had the might of the Roman Empire behind it. Christianity could now enforce an orthodoxy, a ‘right opinion,’ across the entire Roman Empire. To the degree that they had survived until this point, Jewish Christian groups such as the Ebionites and Nazarenes would now be opposed by the Roman Emperor.

With Christianity married to Roman power, Jews began to experience Christian animus. Constantine enacted a series of anti-Jewish laws. A Jew who harassed a convert to Christianity could be executed, as could a non-Jew who chose to convert to Judaism. The next emperor Constantius prohibited Jews from owning Christian slaves, which had an adverse economic impact on Jews, as the Roman economy was dependent upon slave labor.

In 361, the pagan Julian became Roman emperor, and he attempted to rollback Christian advances. For his efforts, he is known to history as Julian the Apostate.

In Julian’s ‘Letter to the Jewish Patriarchate,’ he stated that he took steps to protect the Jews and punished those who were planning them harm. At the end of the letter he wrote “This you ought to do, in order that, when I have successfully concluded the war with Persia, I may rebuild by my own efforts the sacred city of Jerusalem, which for so many years you have longed to see inhabited, and may bring settlers there, and, together with you, may glorify the Most High God therein.” [2]

Work on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem began. Gregory of Nazianzus, the Archbishop of Constantinople, recounted that the Jews arrived in numbers to begin rebuilding their temple, but were thwarted by miracle. They were pushed back by the wind, the earth shook and the crowd panicked. Unseen forces shut the doors in front of them, flames shot out of the church and consumed some of the people, and a cross appeared in the heavens. The pagan writer Ammianus Marcellinus wrote that despite the assistance of the governor, fire burst from the foundations and made the site inaccessible, the elements themselves conspiring to prevent the Temple reconstruction.

These authors describe a seemingly miraculous event. It is possible that the work was halted due to an earthquake. But there remains the distinct possibility that the rebuilding effort was thwarted by interference from gentile Christians. In 363, Julian was killed in battle against the Persian Parthians and was replaced by the Christian emperor Jovian. There would be no further work to restore the Temple under Jovian.

In the 7th century CE, another attempt to restore the Temple in Jerusalem appears to have been foiled by gentile Christians. The Byzantine–Sasanian War of 602–628 was a prolonged conflict between the Byzantine Roman Empire and the Persian Sasanian Empire. In the 610s, the advancing Persian army captured Jerusalem with the support of local Jews.

The Jews were led by a wealthy benefactor, Benjamin of Tiberias, and by Nehemiah ben Hushiel, who led the Jews in Jerusalem. The Jews appear to have restarted the sacrificial service on the Temple Mount, and begun to draw up plans to rebuild the Temple.[3] But by 617 CE the Persians reversed their policies favoring the Jews in favor of the local Christians. When in 629 CE the Byzantine emperor Heraclius returned, the Jews were killed in numbers and forced to flee. Again, the Jews’ attempt to rebuild the temple was blocked by gentile Christians.

Isaac of Norwich and other Jews in league with the Devil. Credit: The National Archives, London.

An Enduring Legacy

Christians are likely to have thwarted the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, but even if it had been rebuilt, there is no way to know if that structure would have survived the Muslim conquest, the Crusades, or any other challenge that might have arisen over time. But gentile Christianity produced another enduring legacy.

Xenophobia is the dislike or prejudice against foreigners, or those outside one’s social group. This phenomenon is widely observed throughout history. Pagan writers described Jews as being antisocial for their refusal to participate in pagan rituals, but they were similarly critical of Christians. Ethnic groups that are prominent in trade are particularly vulnerable to attack. Jews have been targeted for their role in commerce, as were the ancient Carthaginians who dominated seaborne trade in the Mediterranean, as are the Lebanese in west Africa and the Chinese diaspora of southeast Asia.

The deleterious effect of the shift from Jewish Christianity to gentile Christianity extended beyond interference in the Temple reconstruction. Gentile Christianity created a negative image of Jews beyond simple xenophobia. Early Christian descriptions of Jews as hypocrites, God killers and the devil became the basis for two millennia of anti-Jewish sentiment. The Gospel of John’s quote of Jesus telling the Jews that “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desires,” and the Book of Revelation description of a Jewish house of worship as a “synagogue of Satan,” fed into John Chrysostom’s description of the synagogue as a “lodging-place for demons” and “a fortress of the devil,” and that “If the devil is a murderer, it is clear that the demons who serve him are murderers, too.” (Homily 8,8,6)

The idea of Jews as the devil became anchored in history. The earliest image of Jews in Europe, from 13th century England, features Isaac of Norwich and other Jews in the company of devils. This fed into ideas of Jews as a physical and spiritual threat to Christianity, which led to violence, forced conversions and expulsions. In Martin Luther’s ‘On the Jews and Their Lies,’ he wrote that Christians should save their souls “from the Jews, that is, from the devil and from eternal death.” Adolph Hitler in Mein Kampf wrote of Jewish supporters of Marxism, “Considering the Satanic skill which these evil counselors displayed, how could their unfortunate victims be blamed?” This imagery contributed to a debasement and demonization of the Jew, ultimately to deadly effect. It is a challenge that persists today, in propaganda imagery that demonizes Israel.

If we accept the Talmud’s statement in Yoma 9b that sinat chinam, or baseless hatred, was the cause of the destruction of the Second Temple, then through its impact on early Christianity, we continue to live with that result. Twice the Temple was set to be rebuilt, and twice it was likely thwarted by Christians. Early Christian depictions of Jews have haunted Jews for much of the past 2,000 years. Through its continued influence on novel forms of anti-Judaism, this gentile Christian legacy continues to endure.


  1. Justin Martyr. The First Apology of Justin, Chapter 31, Translated by Thomas Falls.
  2. Emperor Julian’s Letter to the Jewish Patriarchate, Translated by Wilmer Cave Wright.
  3. Simon Sebag Montefiore. Jerusalem: The Biography, Chapter 16.

Gezer, Closed (Middle Bronze) City

Credit:, Judah and the Dead Sea

In Numbers 34, God delineated for Moses the boundaries of Caanan: “Your southern side will include some of the Desert of Zin along the border of Edom. Your southern boundary will start in the east from the southern end of the Dead Sea, cross south of Scorpion Pass, continue on to Zin and go south of Kadesh Barnea. Then it will go to Hazar Addar and over to Azmon, where it will turn, join the Wadi of Egypt and end at the Mediterranean Sea. Your western boundary will be the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This will be your boundary on the west. For your northern boundary, run a line from the Mediterranean Sea to Mount Hor and from Mount Hor to Lebo Hamath. Then the boundary will go to Zedad, continue to Ziphron and end at Hazar Enan. This will be your boundary on the north. For your eastern boundary, run a line from Hazar Enan to Shepham. The boundary will go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of Ain and continue along the slopes east of the Sea of Galilee. Then the boundary will go down along the Jordan and end at the Dead Sea.”

In listing these cities, it indicates that before Israel entered Canaan, there were already cities established in the land.

The archaeological evidence points to Jerusalem having been established by the Middle Bronze Age, well before the period described in the exodus story. Jerusalem’s fortifications and water system appear to have been built. Jerusalem was a known entity outside of Canaan.

Another city in Canaan can demonstrate that cities in Canaan were well established in the Middle Bronze Age, and provide support to the idea that Jerusalem could have been similarly built up at that time.

Gezer, today the archaeological site of Tel Gezer or Tell el-Jezari, is located at the edge of the Shephelah, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Because of its position along the trade routes along the coast and to the central hill country, Gezer was an important Canaanite city, significant enough to earn mention in the story of King Solomon.

In the Middle Bronze Age, Gezer appears to have developed into a significant center. The Middle Bronze city was fortified by a rampart, and its defenses reinforced with stone walls, possibly with stone towers to aid in defense. The city also developed a major water system. This three part water system included an entrance, a tunnel leading to the pooled water, and a cavern where the water was stored. This allowed for city residents to access water from within its defenses, and not to have to retrieve water from springs outside the city’s defenses.

Arguments in support of Jerusalem as a Middle Bronze Age fortified city would be consistent with similar cities within Canaan.

The image above is of the walls which enclosed Gezer. Some closing music from Rome, Open City:

Along the Middle Bronze Watchtower

Credit:, Jerusalem, City of David

The story of Phinehas son of Eleazar killing an Israelite man and Midianite woman in Numbers 25 highlights the rivalries between nations. On the heels of Phinehas’ actions, God told Moses to “Treat the Midianites as enemies and kill them. They treated you as enemies when they deceived you in the Peor incident involving their sister Kozbi, the daughter of a Midianite leader, the woman who was killed when the plague came as a result of that incident.”

In the Middle Bronze II period, war was a consistent threat in the area of Canaan, as city-states emerged. In the Middle Bronze Age, new weapons of were developed, including the shield and axe used in combination, chariots, the composite bow and metal armor.

To counter the threat of invasion, cities built defensive walls, and in the Middle Bronze II period there is evidence of an increasing number of walled cities. These walls would be manned by guards. In the event of a war, people from the immediate surrounding area would collect their livestock and find shelter with in the city walls.

In the event of a war, the attackers would undertake a variety of measures to break through the city walls, including using battering rams, building siege towers higher than the city walls, attempting to undermine the walls or using ladders to climb over the walls.

The City of David lies just to south of Jerusalem’s Old City walls. It is the likely site of the original city of Jerusalem, where the waters of the Gihon Spring emerged. In the Middle Bronze II, Jerusalem is believed to have had a defensive wall more than halfway up the hill to protect the city. This defensive set up would have left the city without its water source in the event of a siege.

To resolve this problem, a tower, referred to as the Spring Tower was built over the spring. Two large walls constructed with massive stones, one on the northern side and the other on the southern side, were built to create a corridor through which the residents of Jerusalem could reach the water safely even under siege.

Archaeological finds are subject to interpretation, and therefore fertile ground for debate. There is no unanimity about the dating of Jerusalem’s walls, the corridor and Spring Tower. Some place these nearly 1,000 years later in the Iron II period. But there is a school of thought that believes that all these fortifications were in place in the Middle Bronze II period, and that Jerusalem at that time was a fortified city.

The image above is of the massive stones which were part of the construction of the Spring Tower.

And a song about a watchtower:

Egyptian Voodoo and Jerusalem

In Numbers 22, Balak son of Zippor, the king of Moab, feared the arrival of the Israelites. To counter this threat, he summoned Balaam son of Beor to curse the Israelites, “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.”

Attempts to curse another nation are seen in the archaeological record, and produced the earliest known mention of the city of Jerusalem.

In ancient Egypt, execration texts were used to curse Egypt’s enemies. A scribe would write the names of Egypt’s enemies, which would typically include the Nubians from the south, the Libyans to the west, and the city-states in the Levant to the northeast. The execration text would contain curses aimed that these groups. The final step in the ritual would be to break the object on which the curse was written.

A collection of execration texts written on bowls that were acquired in Thebes, in Upper Egypt, meaning southern Egypt, is today housed in Egyptian Museum of Berlin. Another collection of execration texts discovered at Saqqara, in northern, or Lower Egypt, is held at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. These execration texts date to the first half of the second millennium, during the Middle Bronze Age.

One of the execration texts at the Egyptian Museum of Berlin contains a list of rulers in the Levant. Included in this list is “the Ruler of Jerusalem, Yaqar-‘Ammu, and all the retainers who are with him; the Ruler of Jerusalem, Setj-Aim, and all the retainers who are with him.” To them “Every evil word, every evil speech, every evil slander, every evil thought, every evil plot, every evil fight, every evil quarrel, every evil plan, every evil thing, all evil dreams, and all evil slumber.”

Jerusalem on the execration texts is written as “URUSRMM.” Not all agree that this is in fact Jerusalem. But at this early stage, the Egyptian language did not have a distinct ‘L’ sound, and the ‘R’ sound is often found in its place. And the double MM suffix in place of one M is not entirely uncommon, and thus “URUSRMM” can be said to be Jerusalem with a degree of confidence.

Importantly for the history of the city, the execration texts demonstrate that in the Middle Bronze Age, the city of Jerusalem was significant enough to be deserving of a curse in both Lower Egypt and Upper Egypt.

An image of the execration text figurine from the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels that mentions Jerusalem can be seen via the link here:


Spring Water to Go and Grow

Credit:, Jerusalem, City of David

Water is a central theme in Numbers 19-20. In Numbers 19, God instructs Moses on the process on purifying someone who has come in contact with a dead body. This process includes purification in water mixed with the ashes of a red heifer. In Numbers 20, the Israelites complained to Moses about a lack of water. “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to this terrible place? It has no grain or figs, grapevines or pomegranates. And there is no water to drink!” Moses’ act of hitting the rock to produce water instead of talking to the rock led God to punish Moses by denying him entry into the land of Canaan.

Water too was a major consideration in the establishment of Jerusalem. The City of David is the likely site of the original city of Jerusalem. Typically, a city might be built on the highest point of a hill, to take advantage of the natural defenses that a higher elevation provides. However, in Jerusalem, the original city was founded on the slope below the area of the Temple Mount. The reason was water.

A karst aquifer is an aquifer created in the space of hollowed out limestone rock. These hollowed out spaces carry water from the groundwater or other forms of precipitation. The City of David sits on a hill made of hard limestone. Water is carried from areas that feed into the limestone, through fissures in the rock. At the City of David, the waters of the Gihon Spring emerged on the eastern slope of the City of David, above the Kidron Valley.

The waters of the Gihon Spring were not constant. The flow of water at the City of David depended on the accumulation of water in the groundwater that fed into the cracks in the rock and then flowed to the surface. This feature would lead to the residents eventually devising methods to collect the waters in wetter periods for use during dry periods.

But the presence of water, so crucial for sustaining life, allowed for Jerusalem to be settled at its earliest stages.

The image above is of a pool of water that earlier would have fed into the Gihon Spring, before tunnels were built to divert the water.

The Ancient Local Hub Jerusalem

Credit:, Judah and the Dead Sea, Hebron

Numbers 18 highlights the centrality and importance of the Tabernacle shrine. It was a place where all the tribes would bring their offerings, yet was restricted to Aaron and his sons, assisted by members of the Levite tribe.

In the Bible, King David captured Jerusalem, and made it into his royal center. His son Solomon built a temple in Jerusalem as a national center of worship. While King David had earlier been based in Hebron and only transitioned to Jerusalem later, in the archaeological record Jerusalem appears to have been an earlier regional center.

The Middle Bronze Age II (MB II) period in the southern Levant falls into the 18th and 17th centuries BCE. This period is noted for an increase in the number of fortified cities and city-states. These city-states would typically have man made defenses around the city, but also be surrounded by smaller, unfortified villages. This layout is evident in Middle Bronze Age II cities such as Hazor in the Upper Galilee, Beth-She’an at the junction of the Jordan River and Jezreel Valleys, at Shechem in Samaria and at Hebron in the southern hill country. Jerusalem too appears to be at the center of this setup.

Jerusalem appears to have been a city by the MB II. The City of David, to the south of today’s Old City of Jerusalem, was the likely site of the ancient city. The city had the natural defenses of the Kidron Valley to the east and the Tyropoeon Valley along its western edge. Walls were an important part of cities’ defenses in this period, and the city also appears to have a fortified wall during the MB II period.

Excavations within the vicinity of modern day Jerusalem have revealed a number of smaller sites that date to the MB II period. One such site was found to the southwest of the City of David in Malha, the area today between the Malha mall and Teddy Stadium. Another MB II village was found at Pisgat Ze’ev, to the north of the City of David. South of Jerusalem, on a mound adjacent to the Palestinian village of Battir, archaeologists found a small site with Middle Bronze II fortifications. These details all point to Jerusalem having been a fortified city, with surrounding villages under its control, similar to other MB II cities.

The image above is of the Middle Bronze II wall at Hebron, part of that city’s fortification system.

A Bronze Age Stone Wall

Credit:, Jerusalem, City of David

In Numbers 13 God tells Moses to send men to scout the land to which Israel was destined to enter. The selected men “went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, toward Lebo Hamath. They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived. Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.” Upon their return they reported that “the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.”

In 2 Samuel 5, King David captured a Jebusite city. “The king and his men marched to Jerusalem to attack the Jebusites, who lived there. The Jebusites said to David, “You will not get in here; even the blind and the lame can ward you off.” They thought, “David cannot get in here.” Nevertheless, David captured the fortress of Zion, which is the City of David.

Human history is divided into periods defined by the level of technology that humans had reached. The Stone Age is followed by the Copper Age, which is followed by the Bronze Age. The Middle Bronze Age in the southern Levant is roughly between the years of 2100-1600 BCE. Subdivided further, the Middle Bronze Age II period falls in the 18th century BCE.

The Middle Bronze II period coincided with the demise of centralized authority in Egypt. Egypt’s Middle Kingdom declined, initiating the more localized rule of the Second Intermediate Period. It also marks the early period of the establishment of the Hittites in Anatolia, before it later developed into the Hittite Empire. With the relative weakness of the kingdoms in Anatolia and Egypt, cities in the region of Canaan, were able to develop.

One city in Canaan that may have developed and become fortified at this time is Jerusalem. 

Today’s Old City of Jerusalem encompasses the Temple Mount on Mount Moriah, the Tyropoeon Valley, in the area of the Western Wall Plaza, and the Western Hill, in the area of Jaffa Gate. But this entire area may not have been part of the original city of Jerusalem. Instead, some believe that the original city is in the area of what is today called the City of David, the area beyond the Old City’s southern wall.

In the City of David, archaeologists unearthed an ancient wall on the eastern side of the hill. The dating of the wall is a matter of debate, but many place the date of the ancient fortification to the Middle Bronze II period. The wall bears a similarity to other Middle Bronze defensive walls in Hebron, Shechem and other sites, potentially anchoring it to this period. If correctly dated, it is early evidence for Jerusalem having been in existence during the Middle Bronze Age. 

In the image above, the stones in the foreground are of the wall some identify as the Middle Bronze Age wall.

If the wall in Jerusalem was about keeping people out, a Johnny Cash song about a wall to keep people in: