Western Wall Rubble: Caused by Fourth-Century Earthquake?

Archaeologist Shimon Gibson believes rubble due to earthquake, not Romans

shimon-gibson-western-wall

Archaeologist Shimon Gibson believes a fourth-century earthquake, not the Romans, caused stones to topple from the Western Wall. Photo: Emil Salman.

Along the southern section of the Western Wall, in the Jerusalem Archaeological Garden and Davidson Center, lies a pile of giant stones. The stones were first discovered during excavations led by Professor Benjamin Mazar in the 1970s. It’s commonly believed that these stones toppled from higher up the Western Wall—constructed during Herod’s rebuilding of the Temple Mount beginning in 19 B.C.E.—when the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. at the end of the First Jewish Revolt. However, one archaeologist, as Haaretz reports, believes the rubble was caused not by the Romans but by an earthquake that hit Jerusalem and nearby regions in 363 C.E.

Shimon Gibson, Senior Associate Fellow at the Albright Institute and codirector of the Mount Zion excavations, recently presented his research on the Western Wall rubble at Bar-Ilan University. Gibson compared the artisanship of the toppled stones, among which are pilaster stones, with supporting pillars from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the church over the Tomb of the Patriarchs and the church at Mamre near Hebron. He proposes that the builders of these Byzantine structures imitated what they saw at the Temple Mount in 325 C.E. in an effort to demonstrate Christianity was the successor of Judaism. How would the fourth-century builders have been able to copy these Temple Mount stones, Gibson reasoned, if they were not standing at the time?

“Half of Jerusalem was destroyed during this earthquake,” Gibson said in Haaretz. “I suggest that the Temple Mount walls fell at the same time. The way the stones lie is also more consistent with an earthquake than destruction by man. I propose that perhaps the debris we see there are also from the destruction of 363 C.E.”

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Professor Ronny Reich, who codirected the excavations of the southern Temple Mount with Professor Yaakov Billig in the 1990s, is unconvinced by Gibson’s theory. Reich cites the discovery of coins, the latest of which dates to 69 C.E., in a destruction layer under the rubble as part of the evidence against Gibson’s assertion that the wall stood for another 300 years after the First Jewish Revolt.

“If Gibson is right, could it be that for 290 years, no other coins were collected under the pile of stones? What happened between 70 and 363?” Reich told Haaretz.

ritmeyer-western-wall-rubble

This sectional drawing, republished with permission from Ritmeyer Archaeological Design, shows the pile of stones lying on the Herodian street next the Western Wall (yellow). A Roman bath house and Byzantine drain (blue) were built over this destruction layer. The Roman and Byzantine levels were covered by an Umayyad Palace (green) in the last half of the seventh–first half of the eighth centuries C.E. Image: © Leen Ritmeyer.

Leen Ritmeyer, who was chief architect of the Temple Mount excavations under Prof. Benjamin Mazar, commented on his blog on Gibson’s theory:

If the earthquake of 363 AD did destroy the Western Wall, where is the evidence? The heap of fallen Herodian stones is only three meters (10 feet) high. No stones were ever added on top of this, as this Roman destruction was covered by a late Roman bath house and Byzantine street level and drain. The Roman floor level was later covered over by the floor of an Umayyad palace. If the Western Wall was destroyed in 363 AD, then a large pile of stones would have been found on top of the Roman bath house and Byzantine street level which would have been completely destroyed, but no sign of this was found.

Read more on Gibson’s new proposal in Haaretz, and examine the Western Wall rubble further in Ritmeyer Archaeological Design.
 


 
The colorful, oversized two-volume work The Walls of the Temple Mount by famed archaeologist Eilat Mazar records every stone in the walls of Jerusalem’s holiest site, the Temple Mount, and explains their significance–the gates, the arches, the secret passages, the sealed-up entrances, the underground tunnels and more.
 

 

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Temple Mount in the Herodian Period (37 BC–70 A.D.)
Archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer presents drawings of the Temple Mount in the Herodian period.

The Stones of Herod’s Temple Reveal Temple Mount History

Herod’s Temple Mount Revealed in Al-Aqsa Mosque Restoration

Ancient Chisel Unearthed at the Western Wall

Study Investigates Western Wall Erosion

The Fourth-Century Earthquake that Rocked Galilee
 


 

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  1. gerald says

    Would not ALL of Jerusalem have been flattened with an earthquake of such magnitude, with next to zero survivors except a very, very few, in outlying areas, where even bodies would have been thrown into the air, upwards of one hundred feet? Would not have destruction been the case all the way into the sea ports? No, such a potent earthquake being so focused in inconceivable.

  2. Nate says

    Gerald, I don’t think bodies would have been thrown into the air from an earthquake (knowing this from first hand experiences of many earthquakes in California, including 1989); but many bodies would have been buried under the rubble.
    In theory, an earthquake is plausible, but the evidence presented in this article alone combined with other historical artifacts/writings, show a different result. It would be quite interesting to see how Dr. Gibson responds to Dr. Reich in regards to the coins, and Dr. Ritmeyer concerning other evidences that link it back to the first Century and lack of 4th Century evidence (or if he does at all).

  3. joe says

    There were people buried there, I in fact, excavated them hastily in the rain, for fear that the ultra orthodox would intervene.

  4. Kurt says

    The Jews used the temple area as a citadel, or fortress, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. They themselves set fire to the colonnades, but a Roman soldier, contrary to the wishes of the Roman commander Titus, fired the temple itself, thereby fulfilling Jesus’ words regarding the temple buildings: “By no means will a stone be left here upon a stone and not be thrown down.”—Mt 24:2; The Jewish War, VI, 252-266 (iv, 5-7); VII, 3, 4 (i, 1).
    http://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1200273104

  5. Kurt says

    Jewish historian Josephus reports an earthquake in the Jerusalem area shortly before the city’s destruction 70 C.E
    About Passover time 70 C.E, Roman troops returned under General Titus, who was determined to stamp out the Jewish rebellion. His army surrounded Jerusalem and built “a fortification with pointed stakes,” making escape impossible. (Luke 19:43, 44) Despite the threat of war, Jews from all over the Roman Empire had flocked to Jerusalem for the Passover. Now they were trapped. According to Josephus, these hapless visitors made up the majority of the casualties of the Roman siege. When Jerusalem finally fell, about one seventh of all Jews in the Roman Empire perished. The destruction of Jerusalem and its temple meant the end of the Jewish state and its religious system based on the Mosaic Law.*—Mark 13:1, 2.

  6. Christoph says

    Shimon Gibson is not the first to draw attention to this. Max Küchler, in his monumental “Handbuch” on Jerusalem, mentions on p.221f (2nd ed. 2014 – translation from original German is mine): “… there is a … level of clay, dust and earth between the fallen blocks and the flagstones of the Herodian street below. Therefore at least decades must have passed before the wall-blocks fell … This must have happened not immediately after the Roman conquest in 70 AD, but later …”
    He does not speculate on “when exactly”, but at least it seems no longer tenable that it was part of the immediate destructive acts to the temple mount in 70 AD. The massive 363-earthquake is well-attested and is definitely a “candidate”, even though the evidence of the coins points to something earlier, my guess would be the time of reconstruction of Jerusalem als “Aelia Capitolina” during Hadrian’s reign and as a response to the second (Bar Kochba) revolt in the 130s.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. 傘下人和事二-和理非非與猶太戰爭 - 信仰百川 linked to this post on January 27, 2015

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