Per a statement, researchers from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum uncovered the mikveh, as well as the remains of a 1,500-year-old Byzantine church, near the foot of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. Workers stumbled onto the underground cavity while constructing a visitors’ tunnel for the modern church of Gethsemane, also known as the Church of the Agony or the Church of All Nations.
The four Gospels state that Jesus spent the night before his betrayal and execution in Gethsemane, a garden outside of Jerusalem whose Hebrew name roughly translates to “oil press.” As Amit Re’em, the IAA’s Jerusalem district head, tells the Times of Israel’s Amanda Borschel-Dan, the newly discovered bath marks the first physical archaeological evidence of activity at Gethsemane “in the days of Jesus.”
Though the find doesn’t verify the Gospels’ account, it does suggest that an oil press existed near the ancient garden, potentially corroborating the New Testament moniker for the site, according to the Times.
“The Jewish laws of purification obliged workers involved in oil and wine production to purify themselves,” says Re’em in the statement. (In other words, people during the Second Temple period, which spanned 516 B.C. to 70 A.D., may have used the ritual bath prior to beginning the day’s work.)
Built between 1919 and 1924, the Church of All Nations is a major pilgrimage destination for modern Christians. Construction and excavations at the site had previously revealed traces of a Byzantine church and a Crusader-era monastery, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz, but the bath is the first find dated to the time of the Second Temple.
As Michelle Honig explained for the Forward in 2018, the Talmud describes the mikveh, which remains part of Jewish culture today, as “a vehicle of ritual purity.” Worshippers immersed themselves fully in a bath drawn from a natural source, such as a spring or rainwater, for purposes ranging from religious conversion to healing and preparing for marriage. Dozens, if not hundreds, of historic ritual baths are scattered across Israel. Though most are found in private homes and public buildings, a small number were built in more open spaces, near agricultural structures and tombs.
Speaking with the Times, Re’em says, “It is not from the mikveh that we are so excited, [but] rather the interpretation, the meaning, of it. Because despite there being several excavations in the place since 1919 and beyond, … there has not been one piece of evidence from the time of Jesus. Nothing!”
The researchers’ assessment of the Gethsemane mikvah has yet to be peer reviewed and published, but Re’em notes that the team drew on stratigraphical context and comparisons to other ritual baths to estimate the structure’s age. Next, the archaeologists plan to obtain plaster samples and examine them for tiny olive pollen grains and other substances.
“This is a significant discovery, shedding new light on how Gethsemane was used at the time it is mentioned in the Gospels,” Ken Dark, an archaeologist at the University of Reading who recently discovered what he thinks may have been Jesus’s childhood home, tells artnet News’ Brian Boucher.
In addition to the ancient bath, Re’em and his colleagues found the ruins of a Byzantine church. Dated to the sixth century A.D., the house of worship—which was outfitted with ornately carved stone features that testified to its importance—remained in use until the eighth century A.D., when Jerusalem was under control of the Muslim Umayyad dynasty. As the Times reports, Ayyubid Sultan Salah-a-Din likely destroyed the church around 1187 A.D., using stones from the razed structure to strengthen the city’s walls.
Per the statement, a Greek inscription found on the church’s floor reads, “For the memory and repose of the lovers of Christ (cross) God who have received the sacrifice of Abraham, accept the offering of your servants and give them remission of sins. (cross) Amen.”