By December 27, 2015 Read More →

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor. “Where Was the Capitol in Roman Jerusalem?” Bible Review 13, 6 (1997).

Madaba MapWhen Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem, the site of what would one day be the Holy Sepulchre Church was an abandoned stone quarry. A catacomb cut into the western side of the quarry attests that the quarry had fallen into disuse. The innermost chamber of the catacomb contains kokhim tombs. These deep recesses into the rock, typical of the first centuries B.C. and A.D., can still be seen behind the Syrian Chapel in the Holy Sepulchre Church today.

In the fourth century A.D., the Roman emperor Constantine, who had shown strong Christian leanings long before being baptized on his deathbed, built the Holy Sepulchre Church to commemorate the death and resurrection of Jesus at the site where Jerusalem Christians traditionally venerated these events. The complex he erected above the ancient quarry included a columned rotunda over the catacomb’s first chamber, which he isolated by cutting away the cliff around the chamber. A porticoed garden separated the rotunda from a great basilical church, which in turn was separated from the Cardo Maximus (the main thoroughfare of the city) by a colonnaded courtyard.

When Constantine’s engineers arrived on the site, they did not see the quarry in which Jesus had been crucified. At some point between the time of Jesus and Constantine, the quarry had been filled in, creating exactly the sort of level platform needed for construction. This occurred some time after the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (called the Bar-Kokhba Revolt) in 132–135 A.D., which was provoked by Emperor Hadrian’s transformation of Jerusalem into a Roman colony, called Aelia Capitolina. To punish the Jews, who had pushed the Roman forces to the limit, Hadrian banned all Jews from the city and its vicinity and rebuilt it completely.a The first word of the city’s new name, Aelia, honored the great family of the emperor, whose full name was Publius Aelius Hadrianus. The second evoked the new patrons of the city, Jupiter, the sovereign god of the Romans, and his companions, the goddesses Juno and Minerva. The three were worshiped in a great temple on the Capitol Hill, or the Capitoline, the most sacred part of Rome, where new consuls and provincial governors took their oaths of office, and where victorious Roman generals made sacrifices as the climax of their triumphs.

Aelia Capitolina remained the official name of the city throughout the Byzantine period, although Jerusalem was commonly used. Among the general population the names were interchangeable. Only after the Arab occupation of Jerusalem in the seventh century did the use of Aelia begin to wane.

The site of the ancient quarry, cut into a hill that dominated the midpoint of the Cardo Maximus was indeed impressive. Yet to fill the quarry demanded tremendous effort. Why did the Romans undertake this project? No archaeological data exist to help us answer the question. Everything from the time of Hadrian was demolished and taken away by Constantine’s engineers. Eusebius, the fourth-century A.D. bishop of Caesarea and an eyewitness, tells us: “The emperor also commanded that the stone and timber of the ruins should be removed and dumped as far away as possible, and that a large area of the foundation soil, defiled as it was by devil-worship, should be dug away to a considerable depth, and removed to some distance.”1

Thus we have to rely on written sources of the Roman and Byzantine periods, and they do not agree.

Jerome, the great fourth-century A.D. Bible scholar who lived at Bethlehem, tells us, “From the days of Hadrian until the reign of Constantine, roughly 180 years, the pagans worshiped a likeness of Jupiter set up in the place of the resurrection and a marble statue of Venus on the rock of the cross.”2 Thus, for Jerome, the platform above the ancient quarry, on Jerusalem’s western hill, supported the Capitoline temple, in which the principal cult object was a statue of Jupiter, and a smaller temple dedicated to Venus.

Dio Cassius, the third-century A.D. Roman historian, tells a different story: “At Jerusalem, Hadrian founded a city in place of the one that had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new temple to Jupiter.”3 The “temple of the god” can only be the Jewish Temple that had stood on the Temple Mount, on Jerusalem’s eastern hill, until the Romans destroyed it in 70 A.D. Dio Cassius places the Capitoline temple across the city from the ancient quarry where Jerome locates it.

Both of these authors correctly maintain that a Capitoline temple stood in Jerusalem. Such a temple was a common feature of the civic center of Roman colonies, and here it was demanded by the very fact of Aelia’s dedication to the three gods of the Capitol in Rome. It could not be Aelia Capitolina without a Capitoline temple in which Jupiter, Juno and Minerva were worshiped.

Jerome and Dio Cassius, however, differ on the location of this Roman temple. Who is to be trusted? The answer is important, not only for the history of the Holy Sepulchre, but also for that of the Jewish Temple. I believe Jerome was correct: The Capitoline temple was built on the site where the Holy Sepulchre Church stands today.

Considerable evidence indicates that instead of a Roman temple, some statues of the emperors stood on the old Temple Mount.

The earliest Christian pilgrim to the Holy City who has left us any record is the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who came to Jerusalem in 333 A.D. He reports that “two statues of Hadrian stand there [on the Temple Mount] and, not far from them, a pierced stone to which the Jews come each year.”4 It is very unlikely that the pilgrim would have failed to report a Roman temple standing here.

The Bordeaux Pilgrim does seem to have made a mistake about the two statues of Hadrian, however. For the Romans to have erected two statues of the same emperor right beside each other is so odd as to be improbable. But I think I know why the Bordeaux Pilgrim made this error. The reason is revealed by a Latin inscription on a stone that was found in secondary use, incorporated into the southern wall of the Temple Mount just above the Double Gate (photo of Temple Mount Wall). This stone is often pointed out to tourists because it was placed in the wall upside down. The inscription reads “To Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, Father of the Country, Pontifex, Augur, by Decree of the Decurions.”5

This dedication refers not to the Hadrian who suppressed the Second Jewish Revolt but to his successor, Titus Aelius Antoninus Pius (who lived from 86–161 A.D.). In 138 A.D. Antoninus Pius was adopted by Hadrian and named as his successor. From that time forward Hadrian became part of his name. The upside-down stone originally formed part of the plinth of a statue dedicated to Antoninus Pius. The Bordeaux Pilgrim evidently saw one statue that really did portray Hadrian and read or recalled the first line of this inscription, which contained the adoptive name Hadrian, and so identified two statues as Hadrian.

When the church historian Eusebius visited the Temple Mount in the fourth century A.D., he reported these conditions:

Those who live in the city draw on its ruins for materials for private houses, common buildings, and public edifices. Such is the saddening spectacle that any can see: The stones of the temple itself, even those of the once inaccessible sanctuary, are pillaged for the construction of temples to idols or for the erection of places of public display.6

If the stones had been used to construct a pagan temple on the Temple Mount, Eusebius would certainly have said so. Moreover, the passage makes explicit that the site of the old Jewish Temple was just a source of building materials to the Romans.

The first-century B.C. Roman architect Vitruvius wrote an authoritative treatise stating that a Capitoline temple should stand on the highest ground of the city. The site of the Holy Sepulchre Church meets this criterion admirably. It was a small hill that dominated the logical line of the Cardo Maximus, the main street, which bisected the city from north to south.

The one problem with the site was that a rock quarry had been located there in ancient times.7 Hadrian’s engineers ameliorated the situation in the only way possible: by filling and leveling.8 Eusebius actually reports on the leveling of the site regarded as Jesus’ tomb; however, he describes this as a pagan attempt to cover the tomb rather than to provide a level surface on which to build the Capitoline temple:

Godless people have gone to great pains to cover up this divine memorial of immortality [Jesus’ tomb] so that it should be forgotten. With much labor they brought in soil from elsewhere and covered the whole site, and by raising the level and laying a stone pavement they concealed the divine cave under a heap of earth. And as though this were not enough they built above ground a tomb of souls, a gloomy shrine of lifeless idols dedicated to the impure demon Aphrodite, where they poured foul libations on profane and accursed altars.9

Here is additional evidence that the Romans built a pagan temple on the site where the Holy Sepulchre Church would later stand. True, Eusebius attributes the temple to Aphrodite. That the temple was in fact dedicated to more than one deity, however, is indicated by the plural terms “lifeless idols” and “accursed altars.” Remember, Jerome too said that “a likeness of Jupiter [was] set up in the place of the resurrection and a marble statue of Venus [in Greek, Aphrodite] on the rock of the cross.”

It is quite possible that a separate shrine or temple to Aphrodite-Venus stood on the site. A temple to Venus Erycina was on the Capitol in Rome.10 But that Aphrodite-Venus was not the sole deity venerated here can be deduced from the enormous amount of work required to level the site and build the temple. The effort and expense would be justified for a Capitoline temple, the central sanctuary of the city, but not for the shrine of a relatively minor deity.

So now, having made our case, we must confront the text (cited in this article) in which Dio Cassius says that a temple of Jupiter was built on the Temple Mount. Further, although we have relied on Jerome’s statement that a statue of Jupiter was set up in the place of the resurrection and a statue of Venus was erected on the rock of the cross, Jerome seems to contradict himself in another passage: “The statue of Hadrian and the idol of Jupiter have been placed where once there was the temple and worship of God.”11 In still another passage, however, Jerome refers to an “equestrian statue of Hadrian, which stands in the place of the Holy of Holies [the innermost chamber of the Jewish Temple] to this very day.”12 The absence of any mention of Jupiter is telling.

We can only speculate as to why Dio Cassius and Jerome (only in this one epistle—elsewhere he locates the Capitol at the future site of the Holy Sepulchre Church) happened to describe the Capitoline temple on the Temple Mount: After Constantine built his Christian complex over the former Capitoline temple, the site could no longer be referred to as the Capitol; it was now the Holy Sepulchre. But the city continued to be called Aelia Capitolina. This doubtless reflected a general awareness of the city’s origins as a Roman colony to which a Capitol was indispensable. To visitors in the early Byzantine period, the imperial statues still standing on the Temple Mount were the clearest evidence of the city’s Roman past. With the remains of the Roman Temple obscured,the name Capitol may well have become associated with this site.

We have one other reason to question Dio Cassius’s account: His statement has not been transmitted to us directly but through an 11th-century abridgment by Xiphilinus, a monk from Constantinople.13 His assertion thus reflects a late Byzantine understanding of the location of the Capitol in Jerusalem.

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