“Between Testaments” Episode

I recently had the honour of an extended chat with John Dickson for his podcast, Undeceptions. The episode (“Between Testaments”) takes a look at the four hundred years leading up to the New Testament. These centuries were anything but “silent.” They were, in fact, pivotal to the ongoing revelation of God, his work in history, and his relationship with his covenant people. If we ignore them, we end up misconstruing the mission of Jesus himself.

Please have a listen, and please also consider subscribing to John’s podcast.

Antiochus IV’s Acra Fortress in Jerusalem Has Purportedly Been Found

History has remembered the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BC) as one of the greatest villains of antiquity. In 167 BC, he outlawed Judaism, desecrated the Jerusalem temple by sacrificing swine on its altar, and set up an image of himself in the guise of Zeus in its courts. His persecution was the culmination of the pressure that Hellenism was exerting over Judea at the time. This pushed conservative Jews to breaking point, and sparked the Maccabean Revolt. Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the Jewish nation successfully overthrew Seleucid sovereignty and established a Jewish commonwealth that lasted a century until the arrival of Rome’s celebrity general, Pompey (63 BC).

A coin (tetradrachm) of Antiochus IV minted in Acco-Ptolemais (c. 167 BC)

As part of his program to control Judea and provide a better launching platform for operations against Ptolemaic Egypt, Antiochus constructed a fortress in Jerusalem. This fortress was known as the ‘Acra’, from the Greek word ἄκρα (akra), meaning ‘citadel’ or ‘summit’. The term is seen in the word ‘Acropolis’, which means ‘fortified city’ or ‘city on the summit’. 1 Maccabees 1.33–36 gives us this account of Antiochus’ construction of the Jerusalem Acra:

Then they fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel. They stationed there a sinful people, men who were renegades. These strengthened their position; they stored up arms and food, and collecting the spoils of Jerusalem they stored them there, and became a great menace, for the citadel became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel at all times.

The Acra, then, housed a garrison of Seleucid Greek soldiers, and their cache of weapons. It was approximately 250 x 60 m in area, and towered tall enough to provide a vantage point for all activities being conducted in the Jewish temple. Understandably, it was viewed by conservative Jews as a symbol of oppression.

The exact location of Antiochus’ Acra has been a subject of debate. If it afforded a good view into the temple courts, it would seem to have been located either to the immediate north or west of the temple. Yet nothing has been forthcoming in excavations and surveys.

But now, it seems, the riddle has been solved.

Archaeologists excavating in the Giv’ati Car Park in the City of David (just south of the Old City of Jerusalem) have uncovered what they believe to be the remains of the Acra fortress. While the ruins have been exposed for some time now, archaeologists have only recently been able to understand their configuration properly. They are now quite confident that they have indeed located the Acra. Furthermore, this makes complete sense of the reference in 1 Maccabees to its location in the ‘City of David’.

Excavations at the Giv’ati Car Park, Jerusalem—the location of the Acra.

The surprising thing about this is that the Acra was located on ground that was a good deal lower than the Temple Mount. Yet, we must realise that the Temple Mount in the second century BC was lower than its current level. The Second Temple was renovated on a monumental scale by Herod the Great (beginning in 19 BC), and he built the massive retaining walls that achieved the levels we can observe today. But before Herod’s renovation, the temple was most likely sitting at a lower altitude (albeit on the same spot). In any case, the Acra was located at a lower altitude. Therefore, it must have been quite an imposing tower to provide the garrison with its vantage point into the temple complex.

The Acra is a very significant find, as it dominated the landscape of Jerusalem at a critical time of its ancient history. It will be interesting to see if archaeologists can determine whether construction of the Acra in 167 BC compromised previous levels of occupation (‘strata’) from earlier historical periods.

What eventually happened to the Acra?

Judas Maccabeus was able to take Jerusalem and besieged the Acra in the course of his campaign. Yet the garrison managed to hold out for quite some time. With the Greco-Syrian soldiers watching on, Judas rededicated the temple in December 164 BC (or January 163 BC, depending on calendrical calculations). This was the origin of the festival of Hanukkah. Judas and his successors, his brothers Jonathan and Simon, managed to fortify Jerusalem effectively against the garrison, eventually winning complete freedom for the Jewish nation. Simon besieged the garrison and starved them out in 142 BC. Josephus tells us what Simon then did with the Acra in Antiquities 13.6.7:

He… cast it down to the ground, that it might not be any more a place of refuge to their enemies, when they took it, to do them a mischief, as it had been till now. And when he had done this, he thought it their best way, and most for their advantage, to level the very mountain itself upon which the citadel happened to stand, that so the temple might be higher than it. And, indeed, when he had called the multitude to an assembly, he persuaded them to have it so demolished… so they all set themselves to the work, and levelled the mountain, and in that work spent both day and night without any intermission, which cost them three whole years before it was removed, and brought to an entire level with the plain of the rest of the city. After which the temple was the highest of all the buildings, now that the citadel, as well as the mountain whereon it stood, were demolished.

Here’s a news clip with some good visuals of the excavations.

Here is Israeli archaeologist, Doron Ben Ami, speaking about the discovery of the Acra:

You can also read further articles on the discovery by clicking the following links:



Aerial view of Jerusalem today. The Givati Car Park, where the Acra was discovered, is located in the very centre of the picture.

Have we found the remains of the last Hasmonean King?

Could this be the jawbone of the last Hasmonean king of the Jews, Antigonus II Mattathiah, and one of the nails used to crucify him?

Antigonus II Mattathiah was an ambitious man. He was an active opponent of Antipater and Herod, the Idumean father and son pair who attempted to gain control of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in the mid to late first century BC. Eventually, with Parthian backing, Antigonus II became King of the Jews in 40 BC. His alliance with the Parthians, however, put him out of favour with the Romans, who were attempting to maintain control of the region against the Parthian threat. As a result, Rome awarded kingship over the Jewish nation to Herod in 39 BC. And so, for the next couple of years, Antigonus and Herod wrestled for control of the Jewish nation.

Antigonus’ grip on power rapidly slipped, and in 37 BC Herod gained control of Jerusalem. He captured Antigonus and dispatched him to Antioch for Roman justice at the hands of Herod’s Roman patron, Mark Antony. Jewish historian Josephus (AD c.100) claims Mark Antony had Antigonus beheaded (Ant 15.8–10):

Now when Antony had received Antigonus as his captive, he determined to keep him against his triumph; but when he heard that the nation grew seditious, and that, out of their hatred to Herod, they continued to bear good will to Antigonus, he resolved to behead him at Antioch, for otherwise the Jews could no way be brought to be quiet. And Strabo of Cappadocia attests to what I have said, when he thus speaks:—“Antony ordered Antigonus the Jew to be brought to Antioch, and there to be beheaded; and this Antony seems to me to have been the very first man who beheaded a king, as supposing he could no other way bend the minds of the Jews so as to receive Herod, whom he had made king in his stead; for by no torments could they be forced to call him king, so great a fondness they had for their former king; so he thought that this dishonorable death would diminish the value they had for Antigonus’s memory, and at the same time would diminish the hatred they bare to Herod.”

Josephus’ account is corroborated by his Roman contemporary, Plutarch. However, later Roman historian, Dio Cassius (early third century AD), claims a slightly different end for Antigonus (Roman History 49.22.6):

These people [i.e. the Jews] Antony entrusted to a certain Herod to govern; but Antigonus he bound to a cross and flogged, — a punishment no other king had suffered at the hands of the Romans, — and afterwards slew him.

Dio Cassius’ testimony leaves open the possibility that Mark Antony tortured Antigonus by crucifixion ‘and afterwards slew him’ by beheading him. If this is the case, then we may have found some of the remains of Antigonus.

Ariel David of Haaretz provides the details. Is he right? Here are the main highlights of David’s article:

In 1970, a rock-cut tomb was discovered by workers building a private house in Jerusalem’s Givat Hamivtar neighborhood. Inside the two-chambered burial, dating back to the first century BCE, archeologists found a decorated ossuary – a limestone box containing the bones of the deceased – and an enigmatic Aramaic inscription affixed to the wall.

“I am Abba, son of Eleazar the priest,” proclaimed the 2,000-year-old text. “I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah son of Judah and buried him in the cave that I purchased.”

[…] Now. new research indicates that the initial interpretation of the find, that has long been dismissed, may have been right all along. This view identifies the Abba cave as the final resting place of a key figure in Jewish history: Mattathiah Antigonus II, the last king of the Hasmonean dynasty…

[…] Historians initially came up with the Antigonus II theory based on the names on the inscription and the tomb’s unusual features. Abba’s boastful claim and the painstakingly decorated ossuary, considered by archeologists one of the finest ever found, pointed to an important personage.

At the same time, the cryptic text, the fact that the ossuary lacked any identifying inscription and that it was found buried in a niche under the floor of the cave suggested that Abba may have acted in secret, which is consistent with the persecution the Hasmoneans and their followers suffered after the fall of Mattathiah.

[…] The theory that Abba may have retrieved the Hasmonean king’s body from Antioch… and secretly buried it in his family tomb received a boost in 1974, when Nicu Haas, Israel’s top physical anthropologist at the time, discussed his analysis of the bones found inside the ossuary on Israeli television.

[…] Haas said he had identified the bones of at least two individuals, one older and one a young adult, around the age of 25, who had suffered a horrific death. Three nails where found in the ossuary with pieces of hand bones attached to two of them, suggesting the victim had been crucified.

Haas also identified clean cuts on the man’s second vertebra and lower jaw, indicating he had been decapitated with a sword or other sharp object. These findings were consistent with Mattathiah’s age and with the account of his execution given by ancient historians Josephus Flavius and Dio Cassius who recount that Marc Antony had the king crucified, scourged and beheaded.

With Haas’ analysis, all the pieces of the puzzle seemed to fall into place. But then… Haas… spent the last 13 years of his life in a coma and never published his findings on the cave.

The bones were passed on for analysis to Patricia Smith, an anthropologist from the Hebrew University. While agreeing that the remains included the skull fragments of a young man, she concluded that the cut jaw belonged to the elderly person – and that this individual was a woman. In her report, published in 1977 in the Israel Exploration Journal, she also dismissed the idea that crucifixion had occurred because the nails had not passed through the bones.

[…] Based on Smith’s analysis, the Hasmonean hypothesis was abandoned…

In a paper published last year in the IEJ, Yoel Elitzur, a Hebrew University historian… notes that in Jewish texts and manuscripts the name Abba and Baba were often used interchangeably. He identifies Abba as the head of a family mentioned by Josephus as the “the sons of Baba” and described as being supporters of the Hasmoneans long after Herod had taken power.

Elitzur also speculates that following Haas’ accident, Smith may have received a disorganized mix of bones including remains from other sites, leading to a possible mistake in identifying the person with the cut jaw as a female.

[…] In yet another twist of this puzzling cold case, Haaretz can reveal that researchers did not return all the bones for reburial in the cave.

Some key remains, including the nails and the cut jaw and vertebra, were sent for safekeeping to Tel Aviv University anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz and remained untouched in his lab for years.

After reading Elitzur’s paper, Hershkovitz re-examined the remains. He analyzed the nails using an electron microscope, determining that they did break the bones of the hand, as would occur in crucifixion. This itself is a blow to skeptics, since Romans rarely crucified women, Hershkovitz said.

He also doubts Smith’s finding that the time-worn jaw belonged to a woman.

[…] Hershkovitz has been trying to extract DNA from the jaw in order to confirm whether it belonged to a man or a woman. Though that would not confirm Mattathiah’s identity, it would give weight to all the other evidence that points to him, he said.

“Once you remove the idea that the cut mandible belonged to a woman, you are left with all the other elements that prove that this is Mattathiah,” he said. “In this case, the writing was literally on the wall.”