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The Scourging of Jesus at a Palace of Luxury

By John W. Moore


When visitors arrive to the old city of Jerusalem, they are met by a cacophony of sounds and an array of odors and fragrances. They also encounter the hustle and bustle of residents moving through the crowded streets on their way to the market, or perhaps to their favorite restaurant or place of residence.In the northern section of the Muslim and Christian quarters, visitors and residents alike may also find themselves having to navigate a line of Christian pilgrims carrying a large wooden cross en route to the church of the Holy Sepulcher. These pilgrims believe they

Christian pilgrims carrying a cross along the Via Dolorosa at the church of the Flagellation
The Beginning of the Via Dolorosa at the Church of the Flagellation

are retracing the steps of Jesus as they slowly make their way along the traditional Via Dolorosa, (i.e. “way of sorrows”). This was the path taken by Jesus when he bore his cross from “the Praetorium” (Mark 15:16)[1] to “Golgotha”, the place of execution (Matthew 27:33). The traditional location for this path begins in the courtyard at the Catholic Church of the Flagellation in the Muslim quarter, near Omariya Moslem College; the location of the now extinct fortress Antonia that had once overlooked the Temple complex. The Via Dolorosa ends at the church of the Holy Sepulcher and evidence suggests that this may very well be the actual location for both the crucifixion and burial of Jesus [2]; but, the beginning point for the Via Dolorosa is debated. The argument centers upon identifying the actual location for the trial and condemnation of Jesus at the Roman Praetorium (John 18:28).


An examination of the term praetorium used within ancient sources, along with the remains of the western palace of King Herod the Great discovered by archaeology (at the site of the present day “Tower of David"), and various connections made in scripture, offers compelling evidence that the church of Flagellation was not the site of this terrible miscarriage of justice. Instead, it seems highly probable that the Lord’s trial before Pilate was conducted at or near King Herod’s palace and three-towered fortress at the crest of the western hill in the old city of Jerusalem. These places are in the areas of the present-day “Citadel and Tower of David”, the Kishle (and old Ottoman and British Prison), and near the parking lot of the Armenian Church of St. James (all three located south of Jaffa gate).

Citadel and Tower of David in Jerusalem
The Citadel and "Tower of David" on the Western Hill

Ancient Sources Related to the Location of the Praetorium

The Praetorium, where Jesus was scourged and condemned, was the official residence of a Roman governor, and the word originally referred to “the building or tent that served as the headquarters for military generals, governors, and traveling officials.”[3] The gospels indicate that Pilate was residing in Jerusalem when he confronted and condemned Jesus to death.They also mention that Jesus appeared before Pilate in the “Praetorium” (John 18:28, 33; Mark. 15:16). Mark then identifies the praetorium as "the palace" (Mark. 15:16; cf. Acts 23:35), and Shimon Gibson likewise asserts that the palace of Herod was “the seat of the Roman governor when in residence in Jerusalem, the praetorium.”[4] Both Josephus (War 2.31) and Philo (Legatio Ad Gaium 38.299)[5] mention that King Herod’s palace served as the residence of the Roman governor when he came to Jerusalem. All of this suggest that during the feast of Passover when Jesus was crucified, Pilate resided at King Herod’s palace on the western hill (see the footnote and use of the term lithostratos from John 19:13). [6]

Antonia Fortress at the Temple Complex Herodian Mark Antony
Fortress Antonia at the Northwestern Corner of Temple Complex

Herod’s Palace vs. the Fortress Antonia

As mentioned above, one of the most popular sites identified as the location for the trial of Jesus was at the Fortress Antonia, which was located at the northwest corner of Herod’s temple complex. However, both modern and ancient sources typically do not identify this as a type of residence palace for royalty. [7] Built sometime before 31 BCE in honor of Herod’s client magistrate Mark Antony (the famed military leader and ally of Julius Caesar),[8] Josephus tells us that the location of the Antonia fortress was situated at the north end of the temple mount, possessed a number of amenities, and even suggested that it was akin to a “royal palace” (Wars, V. 21.401). However, compared to his elaborate descriptions of Herod’s lavish palace located on the western hill, the Fortress Antonia seems to have been an unlikely residence for Rome’s highest ranking official in Palestine. Considering the palaces of Herod found elsewhere in Israel and Jordan, the Antonia fortress would not have been nearly as luxurious or comparable in size nor in opulence. When describing Herod’s Jerusalem palace (built sometime around 25 BCE) [9] versus the Antonia fortress near the temple, Josephus gives us a clear indication that the two were not to be compared; revealing that Herod’s personal residence was even more luxurious than the temple itself:


Accordingly, in the fifteenth year of his reign, Herod rebuilt the temple, and encompassed a piece of land about it with a wall; which land was twice as large as that before enclosed. The expenses he laid out upon it were vastly large also, and the riches about it were unspeakable. A sign of which you have in the great cloisters that were erected about the temple, and the citadel which was on its north side. The cloisters he built from the foundation, but the citadel he repaired at a vast expense; nor was it other than a royal palace, which he called Antonia, in honor of Antony. He also built himself a palace in the upper city, containing two very large and most beautiful apartments; to which the holy house itself could not be compared [in largeness]. Wars, 1.21.401-402.


Josephus’ reference to Herod’s personal palace clearly places it in the “upper city,” and from other descriptions identified in relationship to city of Jerusalem overall we know that it was positioned just south of Jaffa gate, situated along the western wall of the upper city (Wars, V.IV.176-183). Shimon Gibson maintains that the length of the complex must have been “140 meters from north to south…and 140 meters from east to west.” [10] Gibson also maintains that the northern boundary would have begun somewhere within the area of the courtyard of the present day citadel, and that its southern boundary would have gone as far as the present-day Armenian Church of St. James.[11] Accordingly, this seems to be much better suited for Rome’s high ranking official and a much safer place to reside—so near to an entry and exit point of Jerusalem, away from the heart of the city, and which possessed a three-towered fortification system.

Herod's Defensive Tower at the Citadel Palace
Portions of a Defensive Tower Remain from Herod's Citadel NearJaffa Gate

The location for Herod’s palace so closely adjoined to a citadel structure with large defensive towers offers further evidence that this would have been the likely residence of the Roman Praetorium. [12] Josephus’s reference to the upper city towers as being a part of “the citadel” is for good reason.This part of the city constituted the westernmost limits of the city’s expansion during the days of King Herod the Great. [13] Two major finger-like spurs jut out from the Judean arch of the hill country, forming the geographical foundation and development for the history of Jerusalem.[14] The first, Mount Ophel and the Temple Mount were bounded on the east by the Kidron Valley and on the west by the Tyropean Valley. This was the location for the ancient City of David and the temple to the north. The northern part of this spur was vulnerable to attack and was thus protected by the Antonia fortress. The second major spur which juts away from the Judean ridge exists to the west of Ophel and is bounded on the east by the Tyropean Valley and to the west by the Hinnom Valley. This area, known as the Western Hill, was likewise vulnerable to attack from the north, so both the Hasmoneans and King Herod the Great established fortifications there.[15] Thus, the establishment of a palace near a strong military fortification, out and away from the center of a tumultuous inner city often bent on rebellion, would seem to be the ideal location for such a structure, and a likely place of residence for a high ranking Roman official.

Herod's Palace and Citadel with Defensive Towers The Fortress Antonia just out of view in upper right

Still further, the description given by Josephus of King Herod’s palace and adjoining citadel are truly befitting of a residence fit for the highest of magistrates (Wars, 2.IV.176-183).After a lengthy discussion regarding the grandeur and beauty of three protective towers which he named for a wife, friend, and brother (one of which whose tower base remains today), Josephus says that “the king had a palace inwardly there to adjoined, which exceeds as my ability to describe it” (Wars, 2.IV.176). From a discussion mentioned above, we learn that this palatial structure was made up of “two very large and most beautiful compartments…the one apartment he named Caesareum, and the other Agrippina” (Wars, 1.21.401-402). Josephus also gives attention is given to its size, the number of beds, and the length of its beams and vast porticoes.He also discusses aspects of its opulence with mention of fine vessels, precious stones, and beautiful ornamentation. He likewise gives attention to the unique pillars and porticoes. Josephus continues with the following:


There were moreover several groves of trees, and long walks through them, with deep canals, and cisterns, that in several parts were filled with brazen statues, through which the water ran out. There were withal many dove-courts of tame pigeons about the canal; (182) but, indeed, it is not possible to give a complete description of these palaces and the very remembrance of them is a torment to one, as putting one in mind what vastly rich buildings that fire which was kindled by the robbers hath consumed. (Wars, V.4.181-182)


Two times—once here in sections 181-182, and earlier, Josephus mentions the impossibility to adequately describe the grandeur of Herod’s palace, not only because of its elaborate furnishings and design, but also because of the pain it caused him to remember something so elegant that subsequently came to lie in ruin. Jewish factions who had taken control of Jerusalem prior to its destruction in A.D. 70 by the Romans destroyed much of the palace. As modern readers, we are left with a similar dismay, but ours is due to being unable to see and experience it for ourselves. We are left with only a great deal of speculation and wonder as we seek somehow to visualize such a tremendous place. Models have been created which give us only a small window into the past with regard to its beauty and size,[16] but thankfully in recent years we have been able to gain at least a better understanding of it from the discoveries of archaeology.

Archaeology and the Herodian Palace

Hidden Gate Essenes Herod's Palace Gabbatha Place of the Pavement Judgment
Remains of the "Hidden Gate" in the Upper City's Western Wall Near Herod's Palace

While only a few artifacts remain which would give us confirmation of Josephus’ detailed descriptions of Herod’s Jerusalem palace, there are nevertheless some important items to consider that deepen our understanding. First, excavations conducted between 1973 and 1978 by Magen Broshi and Shimon Gibson unearthed a number of important items on the western hill which have revealed a highly developed area of the city. Included in their finds were “extramural Iron Age remains, substantial segments of the Hasmonean city wall, and a gateway which led into Herod’s palace on the western slope.”[17] This gateway, which is sometimes referred to as the “Hidden Gate” (see the local park signage associated with the site) has within recent years become the object of much discussion. Shimon Gibson admits that when first excavating the site he had not fully understood the nature of this gateway located midway along the upper's city western defensive wall. In his book The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence, he now identifies this gate as the Gate of the Essenes referred to by Josephus in his description of the boundaries of the “first wall” of Jerusalem (Wars. 5.145). Gibson likewise connects this gate with the place of judgment (Gabbatha) mentioned in John 19:13.[18] His book offers compelling evidence of the discoveries made there and the various connections between scripture, ancient sources, and the architectural design and layout of this entryway that he claims was used only by King Herod and was called the Gate of the Essenes because of its westward facing direction where an encampment of the Essenes is surmised.[19]


Second, consider the discovery of other palatial structures and buildings contemporary to that of King Herod’s palace in Jerusalem. The Hellenistic influences and motifs discovered at Herod’s palace at Masada, and in the Jewish quarter palatial mansion in Jerusalem (at the Whol Archaeological Museum), give us a better picture of the sophistication and elaborate designs that were in all likelihood incorporated into Herod’s palace at Jerusalem. At Masada, Herod’s Dead Sea fortress, one can observe an ornate terraced, three-tiered villa with beautifully adorned frescoes, staircase towers, elaborate water systems, bathhouses, swimming pools, a columbarium, etc.[20] Consider also the discovery of the palatial mansion discovered by N. Avigad at Masada which covered an area of about 10,000 square feet and was designed like a typical roman insula. According to Arav and Rouseau it possessed three major connecting buildings with mosaic floors leading to several rooms and a large banquet hall 35 feet in length. The mansion possessed “several rooms covered with panels painted in bright, varied colors, imitating marble slabs that only emperors and kings could afford. Other walls are decorated with fruit and leaf designs either in panels or friezes… [and equipped] with luxurious bathrooms, steam baths with underfloor heating, and ritualistic baths.”[21]

Kishle Turkish Prison Herod's Palace
Remains of Herod's Palace beneath this old Turkish Prison

Third, excavations made under the Kishle (Ottoman Prison immediately to south of the present-day Citadel), along with those made within the courtyard of the present day Citadel, and still other excavations done within the crusader moat surrounding the present-day citadel, “have suggested that several walls unearthed in these excavations, belong to the foundations of the palace…and created a raised artificial podium” upon which the palace stood.[22] These excavation areas also revealed the remains of an “impressive rock pool with wide steps leading to it (dating to the Byzantine period) and a rock cut installation from the Hasmonaean period (140 B.C. to 63 B.C). According to Peleg-Barat, excavators Svan and Solar suggested that these rock cut pools were “incorporated into Herod’s palace.”[23] Finally, portions of monumental ionic columns, column bases, and capitals were discovered in secondary use on the southwestern hill. While not found in situ, they are believed to have come from Herod’s temple.[24]


Conclusion

While the data regarding the palace of King Herod in Jerusalem is far from what one might prefer, what does exist is never the less compelling and of great interest. Information gathered from the Bible, archaeology, and especially Josephus can offer for us a unique perspective and understanding on first-century Jerusalem. Perhaps, as time goes by, more will be discovered, but at least for the moment we can find some satisfaction in knowing that such a palace and accompanying citadel did in fact exist as revealed by the documents of history. The geographical elements visible today, the narrative of long-ago historians, and archaeological remains are enough to keep investigators excited about possible future discoveries. Through the process of further study and new evidence which may come to light, we are compelled to clarify and suggest more compelling and plausible explanations for the events of scripture, especially with regard to the location of the trial of Jesus before Pilate. While specific detailed information about the “place of the pavement” is inconclusive, I think enough information has surfaced that would warrant a highly favorable response to the position that Jesus was scourged and brought to trial at Herod’s luxurious palace and adjoining citadel located in the immediate area just south of the modern day “Citadel of David.” Near this location Jesus might also have been presented to the crowd at the "Hidden Gate", where Pilate said "behold the man" (John 19:5). I'm sure many aren't too keen on overturning years of tradition associated with the traditional site of the Lord's scourging and path to the cross, but sometimes tradition can be wrong.


Endnotes


[1] Unless otherwise stated, all scripture quotations are taken from the 1995 edition of the New American Standard Bible


[2] See Bahat, Dan. “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” Biblical Archaeology Review 12, no. 3 (1986): 26–45.


[3] Aernie, Matthew D. “Praetorium.” Ed. John D. Barry et al. The Lexham Bible Dictionary 2016. (compare Caesar, De bello civili. 1.76.2; 3.82.1; Cicero, Div. 1.72.33; In Verrem. 2.4.65).


[4] Gibson, Shimon, “The Trial of Jesus at the Jerusalem Praetorium.” The world of Jesus and the Early Church, ed, Chapter 7, p. 98.


[5] Yonge, Charles Duke with Philo of Alexandria. The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.


[6] Additional evidence suggesting that the trial of Jesus took place at Herod’s palace in Jerusalem concerns a possible reference to a style of architecture in John’s gospel. When Pilate sat down at the judgment seat John tells us that it was at a place called “the stone pavement, and in Aramaic Gabbatha” (John 19:13). In Greek the place is

called lithostratos, and both Todd Bolen (bibleplaces.com) and Marc Turnage (https://www.marcturnage.com/single-post/2017/09/20/pilates-pavement-the-lithostratos) make references to Steven Notley’s book, Jerusalem: City of the Great King, (Carta: Jerusalem, 2015; pp. 40-41) where Notley makes the argument that lithostratos refers to a paved floor with colorful tiles known as opus sectile. This type of floor design was used in the temple and in Herod’s palaces as discovered in Jericho, Masada, and Machaerus. Bolen and Turnage point to some of Notley’s arguments that include references to Josephus’ use of the term in describing the siege of the Roman army of Titus upon Herod’s Temple in A.D. 70. Josephus mentions this twice in reference to floor of the temple courts: “But one Julianus, a centurion in the Bithynian contingent…for wearing, like any other soldier, shoes thickly studded with nails, while running across the pavement (lithostratos) he slipped and fell on his back, with a loud clash of armor, which made the fugitives turn” (Wars 6.81-86; see 6.189). They also go on to suggest that lithostratos refers to the tiled floors that surrounded the two wings in Herod’s palace. I did not include this in the main body of the article due to the fact that I did not have access to Notley’s book to verify their analysis.


[7] While Orit Peleg-Barkat does suggest that the Antonia Fortress could be thought of as a type of palace, and that having two palaces within one general location would be consistent with findings at Masada, Jericho, and Herodium, she freely admits that the Western Palace in Jerusalem was “more luxurious” [Peleg-Barkat, “Herod’s Western Palace in Jerusalem: Some New Insights.” Electrum Vol. 26 (2019) p.54].

[8] Orit Peleg-Barak says, “as much as we can infer from Josephus’ text, Herod constructed two palaces in the city. The earlier is the Antonia Fortress, named for his earlier patron, Mark Antony and therefore a pre-31 BCE date for tis construction is certain (the year which Octavian defeated Mark Antony in the Battle of Actium)” p. 54.


[9] Orit Peleg-Barkat, p. 54.


[10] Gibson - “The World of Jesus and the Early Church.” P. 110


[11] Ibid.


[12] Netzer, Ehud, “The Missing Palaces in Jerusalem: Chapter Fifteen.” The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great. In his chapter, Netzer actually includes the citadel/towers as a part of the Herodian Palatial structure when he said that “any discussion of the palace in Jerusalem should also include the three towers in the area presently known as the Citadel, the highest point in the city at that time…whether these three towers were in fact an integral part of the main palace or merely auxiliary elements of sorts is, in our view , a minor point. Their proximity to the palace offered Herod not only greater security but also the opportunity to make occasional use of their palatial, no doubt exotic, facilities (situated at such high elevations)” pp. 127-128.


[13] Avigad, Nahman, Discovering Jerusalem, pp. 81-83.


[14] Avi-Yonah, Michael. “The Third and Second walls of Jerusalem.” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1968) p. 101.


[15] Avi-Yonah pp. 101-102 and Netzer pp. 128-129.


[16] For example, the first century model of Jerusalem designed by Michael Avi-Yonah.

[17] Broshi, Magen, and Gibson, Shimon. “Excavations Along the Western and Southern Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Ancient Jerusalem p. 147.


[18] On a personal visit to location of this excavation site I noticed that local signage, erected by Israeli officials, have identified this entry way and rock-cut steps as the “Hidden Gate.”


[19] Gibson, 98-106.


[20] Murphy O’connor, Jerome. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide. 381-385.


[21] Rouseau, John J. and Arav, Rami. An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary Rousseau, John J. and Arav, Rami; Jesus and His World Title: Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary. P. 170.


[22] Peleg-Barkat, Orit. p. 58.


[23] Ibid.


[24] Ibid., pp. 63-67.


Bibliography


Aernie, Matthew D. “Praetorium.” The Lexham Bible Dictionary. J. D. Barry and L. Wentz, editors. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012. As found in the Logos Bible study software program.


Avigad, Nahman, Discovering Jerusalem. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1980.


Avi-Yonah, Michael. “The Third and Second walls of Jerusalem.” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2 (1968) p. 101.


Bahat, Dan. “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” Biblical Archaeology Review 12, no. 3 (1986): 26–45.


Broshi, Magen, and Gibson, Shimon. “Excavations Along the Western and Southern Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Ancient Jerusalem, ed, Hillel Geva; Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1994.


Galor, Katharina, and Bloedhorn, Hanswulf. The Archaeology of Jerusalem: From the Origins to the Ottomans. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013.


Gibson, Shimon. The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence. New York, Harper Collins, 2009.


Gibson, Shimon, “The Trial of Jesus at the Jerusalem Praetorium.” The world of Jesus and the Early Church, ed, Craig A. Evans; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2011.


Josephus, Flavius, translated by William Whiston. The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1987.


Murphy-O’connor, Jerome. The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide (fifth edition). Oxford, 2008.


Netzer, Ehud, “The Missing Palaces in Jerusalem: Chapter Fifteen.” The Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great. Reprinted and Expanded Edition. Israel Exploration Society Jerusalem, 2001.


New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update. La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995.


Rouseau, John J. and Arav, Rami. Jesus and His World Title: Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictonary. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

Yonge, Charles Duke with Philo of Alexandria. The Works of Philo: Complete and Unabridged. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1995.


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Grady Miller
Grady Miller
Feb 09, 2023

Outstanding!

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