Pool of Siloam: New Information

By Todd Bolen,
Associate Professor of Biblical Studies
The Master's College, Israel Bible Extension
Judean Hills, Israel
Last Updated: August 12, 2005

 

The LA Times has a story from the press conference by the Biblical Archaeology Society announcing the discovery of the Pool of Siloam. Paleojudaica notes that it's been more than a year since the pool was initially discovered (as you can see too from my report on the progress here), but the press conference apparently makes it "new" again. Indeed, much has been found since the initial report a year ago and then the Christmas reports. The September/October issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (usually out about mid-August) will have an article with more information and photos from the excavation team. I won't go through the whole LA Times story, but want to comment on portions. 
 

 

the biblical Pool of Siloam, a freshwater reservoir that was a major gathering place for ancient Jews making religious pilgrimages to the city

I'm curious what the basis for this designation as a "major gathering place" is. My guess is that archaeologists assume this because of the monumental steps leading into the pool. But I'm curious if there are any literary sources which would attest to that. I don't see it in the Gospel of John explicitly. If true, then one thing we can say we have learned from the excavations is that Jesus sent the man to the pool where many people were used to going. Not all pools were so used; many were simply storage pools.

three tiers of stone stairs allowing easy access to the water
Each tier has 5 steps. I also note that there is an additional "tier" of 5 steps on the northwest side. Perhaps this was not part of the pool proper, but it seems that additional excavations will be needed to confirm that.
"Scholars have said that there wasn't a Pool of Siloam and that John was using a religious conceit" to illustrate a point, said New Testament scholar James H. Charlesworth of the Princeton Theological Seminary. "Now we have found the Pool of Siloam exactly where John said it was." A gospel that was thought to be "pure theology is now shown to be grounded in history," he said.
This is a great quote, from a journalist's perspective. I admit that I'm not up on liberal scholarship of the gospel of John, but I would be surprised if the majority position denied that this pool existed. I'm sure that there are some scholars somewhere in print denying its existence, but I'm not sure that we should make the main point of this story: liberals proved wrong (again). In fact, I'm sure we shouldn't. In addition, I'm struck by Charlesworth's statement that the pool was found "exactly where John said it was." I don't see anything in the Gospel of John that indicates a location. Look for yourself: chapter 9. So is this a misquote or a "caught up in the heat of the moment" misstatement? Or maybe he simply means that it was found in Jerusalem.
Religious law required ancient Jews to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once a year, said archeologist Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa.
Actually Deuteronomy 16:16 says three times a year, though it doesn't seem that most (including Jesus?) actually went three times each year.
"Jesus was just another pilgrim coming to Jerusalem," [Reich] said. "It would be natural to find him there."
True enough, though it should be noted that there's nothing in the Bible that says that Jesus ever went to the pool of Siloam. The miracle has the blind man going, not Jesus.
The newly discovered pool is less than 200 yards from another Pool of Siloam, this one a reconstruction built between AD 400 and 460 by the Empress Eudocia of Byzantium, who oversaw the rebuilding of several biblical sites.
Actually, from the edge of one pool to the edge of the other is much less than 200 meters; I would guess that it's not more than 50 meters. New information here is the notion that the small pool at the outlet of Hezekiah's Tunnel was a "reconstruction" built by Eudocia. I wonder if that means there was no pool here before that time. If so, then there must have been another connection from the end of Hezekiah's Tunnel (which clearly ended where it does presently) to the newly discovered pool. Or there was another pool under the Byzantine pool. In other words, I'm saying that we are very limited in what we can say about the "Byzantine" pool and the new pool.
The site of yet another Pool of Siloam, which predated the version reputedly visited by Jesus, is still unknown. That first pool was constructed in the 8th century BC by Judean King Hezekiah, who foresaw the likelihood that the Assyrians would lay siege to Jerusalem and knew a safe water supply would be required to survive the attack.
Just to make this all more challenging, there is indeed at least one other pool in this area mentioned in the Bible. The excavator told me last month that they had found initial evidence of this pool beneath the newly discovered 1st century pool, but I don't see any mention of that in this article. Perhaps they're saving that for the next press conference.
The pool was discovered by a repair team excavating a damaged sewer line last fall under the supervision of Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Minor point, but it was actually found in the summer, as you can see from the fourth photo on this page. By the way, Shukron is doing a fabulous job.
As they began digging they uncovered three groups of five stairs each separated by narrow landings. The pool was about 225 feet long, and they unearthed steps on three sides.
This is the first measurement I've seen on this; I previously guessed incorrectly on this radio interview (link may be removed now). On the steps on "three sides," that simply means they found the corners of the steps on the one side, but very little has been cleared of those two (northwest and southeast) sides.
They do not yet know how wide and how deep the pool was because they have not finished the excavation. The fourth side lies under a lush garden filled with figs, pomegranates, cabbages and other fruits behind a Greek Orthodox Church, and the team has not yet received permission to cut a trench through the garden.
Yes, indeed. A photo that gives you that perspective is second from the bottom on the previously mentioned photo page at BiblePlaces.com. My hopes are much higher: not just a trench through the garden, but a removal of the garden so that the entire pool can be seen and visited. I think this would bring many tourists to the City of David; currently very few come even though there are impressive finds in Area G, Warren's Shaft, and Hezekiah's Tunnel.
"We need to know how big it is," Charlesworth said. "This may be the most significant and largest miqveh [ritual bath] ever found."
I'm curious on what basis the pool is being considered a mikveh. All I know of is the large, monumental steps leading into the pool. Perhaps that is enough, though some literary evidence would sure be nice. Regarding the dating of the pool's construction, there is some new information:
When ancient workmen were plastering the steps before facing them with stones, they either accidentally or deliberately buried four coins in the plaster. All four are coins of Alexander Jannaeus, a Jewish king who ruled Jerusalem from 103 to 76 BC. That provides the earliest date at which the pool could have been constructed.
It should be noted here that these coins are very common and were in use for many years after this time, even in the time of Jesus. Meshorer says they are "the most widespread of all Jewish coins." So I'm not sure that they are very helpful, except in establishing that the pool was certainly not built before this time. My guess though is that the pool was not made before the time of Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.), because conditions were not good for monumental construction (e.g., political turmoil, economic weakness).
Similarly, in the soil in one corner of the pool, they found about a dozen coins dating from the period of the First Jewish Revolt against Rome, which lasted from AD 66 to 70. That indicates the pool had begun to be filled in by that time.
This is valuable information, but not necessarily surprising, given the extensive destruction of the city by the Romans. Clarity would be improved if the sentence was modified to, "That indicates that the pool began to be filled in during or soon after AD 70."
Because the pool sits at one of the lowest spots in Jerusalem, rains flowing down the valley deposited mud into it each winter. It was no longer being cleaned out, so the pool quickly filled with dirt and disappeared, Shanks said.
Yes, indeed. You can get a sense for the pool's location at the lowest part of the city from the first photo on the photo page.
The story of Jesus and the blind man, as told in John, is well known. Jesus was fleeing the Temple to escape either the priests or an angry crowd when he encountered the man. His disciples asked Jesus who had sinned, the man or his parents, to cause him to be born blind. Jesus said that neither had sinned, but that the man had been born blind so that God's work might be revealed in him. With that, he spat in the dust to make mud, which he rubbed in the man's eyes before telling him to wash it off in the Pool of Siloam. When the man did so, he was able to see.
These final two paragraphs were clipped out of a reprint at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and likely will be in other publications that carry the LAT story, but it's nice to see a simple re-telling of the biblical story, complete with the theological challenge. Hopefully some people will scratch their heads and wonder what it means that a man was born blind "so that God's work might be revealed in him." Indeed, God received much glory by the miraculous healing of this man, and even 2000 years later the story is being told. May the world marvel at the only one who can make blind eyes see. I'll have more updates as more becomes available. If you haven't already, take a look at my page of photos telling the story of the pool's discovery of the last year.

UPDATE 8/12: More on the pool, including the Biblical Archaeology Review article is here.