Second Temple Period Discoveries at Biblical Hebron

Legendary home of the Cave of the Patriarchs

“After this David inquired of the Lord, ‘Shall I go up into any of the cities of Judah?’ The Lord said to him, ‘Go up.’ David said, ‘To which shall I go up?’ He said, ‘To Hebron.’”
—2 Samuel 2:1


This large structure was originally built by Herod the Great and later in history alternately served as a church, mosque, church and mosque—and now remains a mosque. The building sits over the Cave of the Patriarchs, the traditional burial ground of the patriarchs and matriarchs at Biblical Hebron: Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah. Photo: Djampa/CC BY-SA 4.0.

According to ancient Jewish historian Josephus, during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66–70 C.E.), Zealot leader Simeon Bar-Giora captured Hebron, but the Roman army under the command of general (and later emperor) Vespasian then retook the Judean town and burned it to the ground (Jewish War IV.529, 554). What happened to Hebron following its destruction? David Ben Shlomo discusses the evidence in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Referenced about 100 times in the Hebrew Bible, Biblical Hebron held the Cave of the Patriarchs—the burial ground of the Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs (Genesis 23:1–20; Genesis 25:9–10; Genesis 35:27–29; Genesis 49:29–33), was a fortified city when Moses sent spies to Canaan (Numbers 13:22) and served as David’s first capital in the Kingdom of Judah (2 Samuel 2:11).

The site of Tel Hebron resides 3,000 feet above sea level in the Judean hill country, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem. Excavations conducted in 2014 by David Ben-Shlomo and Emanuel Eisenberg revealed four occupational phases at Hebron during the Second Temple period, from the time of the late Hasmoneans (c. 100–37 B.C.E.) to the Bar-Kokhba Revolt (132–135 C.E.). Residential houses, pottery workshops and wine and oil presses were uncovered. Who lived at Biblical Hebron during the Second Temple period? Jewish, Edomite or pagan residents?

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The western mikveh, one of the two mikva’ot found at Biblical Hebron. Two separation walls divided this mikveh into three lanes. A wall can be seen in the middle of this mikveh: the wall was added in the Late Roman period, when the mikveh was converted into a roofed water reservoir. Photo: Assaf Peretz.

Ben-Shlomo describes how the excavators were able to confirm the identity of the Hebron residents:

If it was Jewish, we would expect to find a small mikveh, a Jewish ritual bathing place usually consisting of a small stepped pool. Jews immersed in such pools—often daily or when needed—to be cleansed of impurities. These were common in nearly all Second Temple period Jewish settlements in Judea.

Without a mikveh (plural, mikva’ot), we hesitated to label the site Jewish.

As often happens, near the last days of the excavation, the most surprising, interesting and important discovery of the season—and the answer to our dilemma—surfaced. We had excavated two large pools with the remnants of an arched ceiling and stairs leading to them. The bottom of the pools had not yet been reached, and the stairs were blocked by a transverse wall, which was puzzling.

Suddenly we realized that the arched ceiling and transverse wall were actually later additions (from the late Roman period), and underneath these were two large stepped pools, which we were able to identify as mikva’ot.

Read more about discoveries at Biblical Hebron from the Second Temple period that shed light on the town’s residents in “Hebron Still Jewish in Second Temple Times” by David Ben-Shlomo in the September/October 2017 issue of BAR.


BAS Library Members: Read the full article “Hebron Still Jewish in Second Temple Times” by David Ben-Shlomo as it appears in the September/October 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library member yet? Join the BAS Library today.


More on mikva’ot in Bible History Daily:

King Herod’s Ritual Bath at Machaerus

Magdala 2016: Excavating the Hometown of Mary Magdalene

Bet Shemesh Dig Uncovers 2,000-Year-Old Jewish Settlement

Secret Mikveh Discovered Under a Living Room Floor


1 Responses

  1. J. Joel Farber says:

    I think it would be more accurate to describe the present day structure above the Machpela as alternately a synagogue and a mosque.

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