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Ritual Bath Discovered at Biblical Location of Gethsemane May Prove its Existence

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It’s still the Christmas season, but the archeological news out of Israel is focused on the other major holiday of Christians – Easter. An excavation at the Church of Gethsemane, a modern church located at the foot of the Mount of Olives where the biblical story of betrayal occurred, has uncovered a 2,000-year-old mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath, that puts it in the 1st century CE, which means it would have been filled with water and people on the days when those events were said to have occurred. If so, it could confirm the existence of Gethsemane and bring the biblical stories one step closer to historical realities.

“Most ritual baths from the Second Temple period have been found in private homes and public buildings, but some have been discovered near agricultural installations and tombs, in which case the ritual bath is located in the open. The find 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. The Jewish laws of purification obliged workers involved in oil and wine production to purify themselves. The discovery of the ritual bath may therefore hint at the origin of the place’s ancient name, Gethsemane (Gat Shemanim, ‘oil press’), a place where ritually pure oil was produced near the city.”

Amit Re’em, Jerusalem District Archaeologist for the Israel Antiquities Authority, explained the discovery and its importance in a press release. The work was being done to the current the Church of Gethsemane to build a tunnel to accommodate the growing number of tourists (pre-coronavirus) visiting the site. After an accidental cave-in, workers found an underground cavity which the archeologists identified as a ritual bath and dated it to the time when the Second Temple was on the Temple Mount, between approximately 516 BCE and 70 CE.

“It is not from the mikveh that we are so excited, rather the interpretation, the meaning, of it. Because despite there being several excavations in the place since 1919 and beyond, and that there were several findings — from the Byzantine and Crusader eras, and others — there has not been one piece of evidence from the time of Jesus. Nothing! And then, as an archaeologist, there arises the question: Is there evidence of the New Testament story, or maybe it happened elsewhere?”

The Times of Israel reports Re’em’s excited comments on the discovery of a site mentioned in all four of the Gospels, as well as his caution:

“Let’s not get carried away. (Even with this discover) there’s no evidence to the truth of the Gospels.”

Fr. Francesco Patton from the Custos of the Holy Land (the Franciscans who act as custodians of the area), who was a part of the joint press conference announcing the discovery, linked it to the New Testament passages that give it such importance to Christians.

“Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder” (Matthew 26:36).

Even if you’re not a Christian or one who seeks to historically prove the biblical stories, you’ll recognize the famous commentary on the disciples falling asleep during the big event.

“The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.”

That’s no longer the case – Fr. Patton points out to Haaretz that the excavation is a joint effort between the Custody of the Holy Land, the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and the Israel Antiquities Authority. In addition, the mikveh is linked to both the Hebrew bible and the total immersion in a ritual bath is a purity practice of the Torah.

If nothing else, that confluence of major religions around the discovery of one ritual bath should be an impetus to bring them together. However, as it may have been stated once before at that very site:

“The spirit truly is ready, but the flesh is weak.”

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