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.

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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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  • 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.

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