Every year hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims travel to Israel to walk the Via Dolorosa, also known as the Stations of the Cross, the route that takes them from where Jesus was sentenced to death by Pontius Pilate to where he was crucified and buried. It is a deeply meaningful journey to adherents of the faith.
But new archaeological findings suggest that the origin of this walk might need to shift. When excavations started several years ago for an expansion of the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem's Old City, archaeologists discovered something interesting under the floor of a neighboring abandoned building.
They knew it had been used as a prison when the Ottoman Turks and then the British ruled these parts. But, as they carefully dug down, they eventually uncovered something extraordinary: the suspected remains of the palace where one of the more famous scenes of the New Testament may have taken place — the trial of Jesus.
Now, after years of excavation and a further delay caused by wars and a lack of funds, the archaeologists’ precious find is being shown to the public through tours organized by the museum.
Why don't we already know for certain where Jesus was tried?
The debate over the site of the trial continues among Christian spiritual leaders, historians and archaeologists. Questions about the location stem from various interpretations of the Gospels, which describe how Jesus of Nazareth was brought before Pilate in the “praetorium,” a Latin term for a general’s tent within a Roman encampment. Some say Pilate’s praetorium would have been in the military barracks, others say the Roman general would probably have been a guest in the palace built by Herod.
Today, historians and archaeologists are certain that Herod’s palace was on the city’s western side, where the Tower of David Museum and the Ottoman-era prison stand.
For Shimon Gibson, an archaeology professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, there is little doubt that the trial occurred somewhere within Herod’s palace compound. In the Gospel of John, the trial is described as taking place near a gate and on a bumpy stone pavement — details that fit with previous archaeological findings near the prison, he said.
“There is, of course, no inscription stating it happened here, but everything — archaeological, historical and gospel accounts — all falls into place and makes sense,” Gibson said.