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Biblical Pool Uncovered in Jerusalem

The reservoir served as a gathering place for Jews making pilgrimages and is said in the Gospel of John to be the site where Jesus cured a blind man.

August 09, 2005|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

Workers repairing a sewage pipe in the Old City of Jerusalem have discovered the biblical Pool of Siloam, a freshwater reservoir that was a major gathering place for ancient Jews making religious pilgrimages to the city and the reputed site where Jesus cured a man blind from birth, according to the Gospel of John.

The pool was fed by the now famous Hezekiah's Tunnel and is "a much grander affair" than archeologists previously believed, with three tiers of stone stairs allowing easy access to the water, said Hershel Shanks, editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, which reported the find Monday.

"Scholars have said that there wasn't a Pool of Siloam and that John was using a religious conceit" to illustrate a point, said New Testament scholar James H. Charlesworth of the Princeton Theological Seminary. "Now we have found the Pool of Siloam ... exactly where John said it was."

A gospel that was thought to be "pure theology is now shown to be grounded in history," he said.

Religious law required ancient Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once a year, said archeologist Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, who excavated the pool. "Jesus was just another pilgrim coming to Jerusalem," he said. "It would be natural to find him there."

The newly discovered pool is less than 200 yards from another Pool of Siloam, this one a reconstruction built between AD 400 and 460 by the Empress Eudocia of Byzantium, who oversaw the rebuilding of several biblical sites.

The site of yet another Pool of Siloam, which predated the version reputedly visited by Jesus, is still unknown.

That first pool was constructed in the 8th century BC by Judean King Hezekiah, who foresaw the likelihood that the Assyrians would lay siege to Jerusalem and knew a safe water supply would be required to survive the attack.

He ordered workers to build a 1,750-foot-long tunnel under the ridge where the City of David was located. The tunnel connected Gihon Spring in the adjacent Kidron Valley to the side of Jerusalem less vulnerable to an attack.

The first Pool of Siloam was the reservoir holding the water brought into the city. It was presumably destroyed in 586 BC when Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar razed the city.

The pool of Jesus' time was built early in the 1st century BC and was destroyed by the future Roman Emperor Titus about AD 70.

The pool was discovered by a repair team excavating a damaged sewer line last fall under the supervision of Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority. As soon as Shukron saw two steps uncovered, he stopped the work and called in Reich, who was excavating at the Gihon Spring.

When they saw the steps, Shukron said, "we were 100% sure it was the Siloam Pool."

With winter approaching, the two men had to hurry their excavation so the sewer could be repaired before the rainy season.

As they began digging they uncovered three groups of five stairs each separated by narrow landings. The pool was about 225 feet long, and they unearthed steps on three sides.

They do not yet know how wide and how deep the pool was because they have not finished the excavation. The fourth side lies under a lush garden -- filled with figs, pomegranates, cabbages and other fruits -- behind a Greek Orthodox Church, and the team has not yet received permission to cut a trench through the garden.

"We need to know how big it is," Charlesworth said. "This may be the most significant and largest miqveh [ritual bath] ever found."

The excavators have been able to date the pool fairly precisely because of two fortunate occurrences that implanted unique artifacts in the pool area.

When ancient workmen were plastering the steps before facing them with stones, they either accidentally or deliberately buried four coins in the plaster. All four are coins of Alexander Jannaeus, a Jewish king who ruled Jerusalem from 103 to 76 BC. That provides the earliest date at which the pool could have been constructed.

Similarly, in the soil in one corner of the pool, they found about a dozen coins dating from the period of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which lasted from AD 66 to 70. That indicates the pool had begun to be filled in by that time.

Because the pool sits at one of the lowest spots in Jerusalem, rains flowing down the valley deposited mud into it each winter. It was no longer being cleaned out, so the pool quickly filled with dirt and disappeared, Shanks said.

The story of Jesus and the blind man, as told in John, is well known. Jesus was fleeing the Temple to escape either the priests or an angry crowd when he encountered the man. His disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, the man or his parents, to cause him to be born blind.

Jesus said that neither had sinned, but that the man had been born blind so that God's work might be revealed in him. With that, he spat in the dust to make mud, which he rubbed in the man's eyes before telling him to wash it off in the Pool of Siloam. When the man did so, he was able to see.

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