Doing archaeology is hard work under any circumstances, not just in the physical labor of uncovering ancient layers of civilizations, but also in walking the tightrope of ethical propriety.
Such an issue is plaguing a newsworthy excavation in East Jerusalem: an ancient stepped street with a large drainage channel beneath that leads from the Pool of Siloam through the Tyropoean Valley and to the southwest corner of the Temple Mount, that may have been authorized by Pontius Pilate and traveled by Jesus.
That’s exciting: so what’s the problem? The excavation is sponsored by the right-wing, Zionist-promoting Elad organization, which is supported largely by UltraOrthodox Jews in Israel along with American Zionists and fundamentalist Christians who think every sign of an ancient Jewish presence gives authorization for current Israeli ownership — never mind the evidence that other residents were there before the Hebrews arrived.
The excavation site is on and around the “Hill of Ophel,” the site of the city that David conquered, according to 1 Samuel 5. It is now part of the village of Silwan, a crowded Palestinian neighborhood that is legally part of the West Bank. It just happens that Silwan is built over many layers of ancient civilization going back through the Ottoman and Roman periods to the time of David and before. Looking for David’s palace or Roman remains sounds attractive, but requires destroying Palestinian homes, or tunneling under them.
Portions of the street in question, a popular walkway for pilgrims coming to the temple, have been known for more than a century, but excavations over the past 14 years have uncovered more than 350 yards of it. Until recently the stepped street was described as Herodian (that is, built by Herod the Great, who died around 4 BCE), but no more. In a recent article published in Tel Aviv, the Journal of the Institute of Archaeology of Tel Aviv University, researchers have demonstrated numismatic evidence that the road must have been built between 30 and 41 CE. Of the 100-plus coins found, the latest of those sealed beneath the mortar leveling the large stone slabs of the street dated to year 30/31, and the oldest coins found above the street dated to 41 CE.
That puts the construction well after Herod the Great’s building programs, and during the period in which Pontius Pilate ruled as the Roman prefect over Jerusalem. It’s likely, then, that one of the most despised people in Christian history built the street on which Jesus would have walked and interacted with the people of Jerusalem.
That’s something of interest to both Christians and Jews. Unfortunately, in excavating the street, which lies well below ground level, archaeologists and construction workers have tunneled beneath a number of private homes in Silwan, with or without permission. Homeowners have complained of foundation cracks and other damage as a result of the tunneling below. Elad would be happy to purchase their homes with American donations, but that only contributes to the removal of Palestinians from the area: a primary goal of Zionists.
Contributing to the problem, the tunnel and the excavated street were recently opened to the public in ceremonies led by right wing politicians, including the wife of indicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a nod to American supporters, Donald Trump’s envoys were front and center: current ambassador David Friedman, Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, and Adelson were among a select few chosen to break through a temporary mud brick wall with small sledge hammers as a way of “cutting the ribbon” to open what Elad is calling the “Path of Pilgrims.”
The American officials’ presence is clearly another move by the Trump administration to undermine Palestinian sovereignty and support Israel’s desire to claim East Jerusalem as its own and declare Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, given Friedman’s comments at the ceremony (you can watch a video of the lengthy ceremony here), even though such actions are at variance with international agreements when the modern State of Israel was founded. Sheldon Adelson, who built his wealth through casinos and donated $25 million to Trump’s 2016 campaign, was also present, along with South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham and the U.S. ambassadors to Portugal, France, and Denmark. Underscoring U.S. involvement, Friedman said “This place is as much a heritage of the United States as of the State of Israel.”
Archaeology is a wonderful science, but seeing it weaponized for political ends is discouraging in a major way. Pontius Pilate was not the only one to sell out the innocent for the sake of popularity with the crowd.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.