Ancient Ritual Bath Found At Biblical Garden of Gethsemane
While constructing a tunnel near the garden of Gethsemane east of Jerusalem, builders uncovered an underground cavern that was later identified as a mikveh, or ritual bath, that was apparently used during the Second Temple era (516 BC to 70 AD). The bath was unearthed at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the ridge where the exalted garden of Gethsemane is located.
The discovery of the ancient ritual bath was announced on December 21 (2020 AD) by the Israel Antiquities Authority, whose archaeologists conducted formal excavation procedures at the site. Scholars from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, a Franciscan research institute, were consulted on the excavation and subsequent analysis of the ritual bath, which was found near the modern Franciscan Church of Gethsemane.
Ritual baths from the same time period have been discovered elsewhere in Israel. But is the first significant archaeological finding of any type from the Second Temple era found at Gethsemane.
Jesus’ Last Free Night Spent In The Garden Of Gethsemane
According to the New Testament , Jesus spent his last night of freedom in the garden of Gethsemane, in prayer and meditation, before being arrested by the Romans the following day. Gethsemane is considered sacred to Christians as a result, and has long been a popular pilgrimage site.
“Gethsemane is one of the most important sanctuaries in the Holy Land,” Father Francesco Patton, the Vatican’s chief representative in Israel, told The Times . “The tradition remembers the confident prayer of Jesus and his betrayal, and because [of this] every year millions of pilgrims visit and pray in this place. The latest excavations conducted on this site have confirmed the antiquity of Christian memory and tradition linked to this place.”
Indeed, the discovery of the ritual bath suggests that Jesus’ famous visit to Gethsemane was not motivated by a preference for beauty and solitude alone. Gethsemane has been viewed as a sacred place for millennia, dating back to the days when Jesus walked the earth.
The ancient ritual bath was discovered during construction work in the Gethsemane garden area. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority )
Did Jesus Pray And Bathe In The Gethsemane Gardens?
In Hebrew, the name “gethsemane” means “oil press,” which has led historians and religious scholars to conclude that the area was covered with rich olive groves in ancient times. Under ancient Jewish law, manufacturers and farmers involved in the harvest of olives and production of olive oil were supposed to purify themselves from head to toe each day before going to work.
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“The discovery of this bath, unaccompanied by buildings, probably attests to the existence of an agricultural industry here 2,000 years ago, possibly producing oil or wine,” archaeologist Amit Re’em, the director of site excavation, explained. He added, “The discovery of the ritual bath probably confirms the place’s ancient name, Gethsemane.”
Site researchers say the baths likely had a dual purpose, however. Workers in the olive groves would have used them, but they also were likely used by those who planned to visit a nearby Jewish temple on an adjacent hill, and by visitors who came to the garden to pray.
A closeup of the ritual bath wall exposed at Gethsemane. (Yaniv Berman / Israel Antiquities Authority )
If the garden of Gethsemane was one of Jesus’ favorite spots to pray and meditate, he may have been a regular user of the ritual bath, as he sought to purify his soul and spirit before climbing the Mount of Olives to call out to God. He may have even bathed in the Gethsemane baths on that fateful final evening, shortly after finishing the Last Supper.
An archaeologist cleaning one of the pillar bases upon which the 1,500-year-old Byzantine church was built. The church was found in the garden area before the ritual bathes were discovered. (Yoli Schwarz / Israel Antiquities Authority )
Spiritual Tradition Unites Past And Present
There is an impressive lineage of spiritually motivated activity that connects the site at Gethsemane to solemn Christian practices over the centuries.
Even before the discovery of the ritual bath, Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists were busy exploring the ruins of another significant discovery found at Gethsemane. A 1,500-year-old Byzantine church, constructed in the typically elaborate, highly decorative Byzantine style was also discovered in the gardens. This particular church has been dated to the 6 th century AD and was believed to have been in use for at least two centuries after that.
This is an intriguing discovery, since the church was apparently built right around the time when the Holy Land was captured by the caliphate.
“It is interesting to see that the church was being used, and may even have been founded, at the time when Jerusalem was under Muslim rule, showing that Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem continued during this period as well,” noted David Yeger , the archaeologist supervising the Byzantine church excavation.
Among their many elaborations, ancient Byzantine churches generally feature Greek inscriptions on the floor, and the church found at Gethsemane is no exception. According to the translation offered by Dr. Leah Di Segni from Hebrew University and Dr. Rosario Pierri from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum the inscription found at this church read as:
“For the memory and repose of the lovers of Christ and God who have received the sacrifice of Abraham, accept the offering of your servants and give them remission of sins. Amen.”
This dedication was offered to a religious shrine constructed more than 15 centuries ago. But the millions of pilgrims who visit Gethsemane each year are coming for the same reason that visitors have been coming for at least the last 2,000 years, and possible for centuries even before that. Ritual baths may have gone out of style, but the sentiments that motivated their construction are still strongly maintained in the hearts and minds of true believers.
Top image: The Gethsemane garden area archaeological site where the ritual baths were found (far left just beyond the frame of this image). Source: Yoli Schwarz / Israel Antiquities Authority
By Nathan Falde