Jerusalem pilgrims and immigrants during the first century
What was the population of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time?
Much as today, Jerusalem was a diverse city and pilgrimage center in the first century C.E. Many different people visited and called it home. In the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill reconstructs part of its population in her article, “Journey to Jerusalem: Pilgrims and Immigrants in the Time of Herod.” She analyzes ancient texts, monuments, and burials to illuminate some of the city’s Diaspora Jewish communities.
Before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., Jerusalem was home to numerous Diaspora Jewish communities. Evidence of these communities abounds. Texts, such as the New Testament, Mishnah, and Josephus’ writings, help us reconstruct who they were. Additionally, burials and inscriptions serve as major sources for understanding the population of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time.
In her BAR article, Magness conducts a thorough investigation of texts and artifacts. Here, we highlight three of them:
(1) Tomb of the Kings. The so-called Tomb of the Kings is an elaborate first-century C.E. burial complex. With eight interior chambers and a grand entry porch, once topped with three pyramids, a large courtyard, staircase, and ritual bath, the Tomb of the Kings is one of the most impressive tombs in all of Jerusalem. Yet, despite its name, it served as the final resting place not for a king—but a queen. Queen Helena of Adiabene, who had converted to Judaism and moved from the kingdom of Adiabene (located in modern Kurdistan), was entombed in the complex.
(2) Nicanor Burial Cave. A large tomb complex on Mt. Scopus sheds light on another Jerusalem pilgrim: Nicanor of Alexandria, a wealthy Jew from Alexandria, Egypt, who had famously donated two bronze gates to the Jerusalem Temple. This tomb also featured a courtyard, pillared entry porch, and five interior chambers. One of the chambers contained an ossuary (bone box) with an inscription identifying Nicanor.
(3) Theodotos Inscription. A synagogue inscription from Jerusalem reveals that numerous pilgrims visited the city in the first century C.E. The inscription describes guest accommodations for sojourners at the synagogue itself. Theodotos, the head of the synagogue, and his father, Vettenos, are named in the inscription. The name Vettenos is Latin, which suggests that Theodotos’ family may have originated in Rome or Italy.
These tombs and synagogue inscription show that Jews traveled from diverse locations—from Mesopotamia, Egypt, and even Italy—to visit and sometimes move to Jerusalem. Other texts and artifacts highlight additional Jewish Diaspora communities and pilgrims amid the population of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. Learn more about them in Jodi Magness’s article “Journey to Jerusalem: Pilgrims and Immigrants in the Time of Herod,” published in the Fall 2022 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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