Matthew 2:1 states: "Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king . . ." From archaeological excavations and the writings of Josephus, a large amount of evidence pertinent to this king has been revealed; some has already been mentioned here. He is known to have been involved in building projects at twenty sites within his kingdom and thirteen outside its borders.

These activities included the construction of villages, cities, palaces, fortresses, ports, squares, colonnaded streets, theaters, stadia, hippodromes, gymnasia, public baths, monuments, agricultural and urban water systems, formal gardens, vaulted warehouses, water reservoirs, pagan sanctuaries, and the renovation of the Temple in Jerusalem. Whether Herod himself was directly involved in the architectural planning and execution of these projects is still being debated among archaeologists, but his influence upon them, directly or indirectly, is unmistakable.

Cave of MACHPELAH in Hebron

Herod built a monumental wall around the Cave of Macpelah in Hebron where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah were buried, but not Rachel, whose tomb is in Bethlehem. The beautifully dressed "Herodian" stone is laid with a smooth surface half way up the wall, at which point slight alternating indentations produce the effect of pilasters reaching to the top. This design is identical to the design Herod used on the enclosure wall of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The desert palaces/fortresses of Herod the Great

In the deserts of Judea, Herod built a number of palaces that also functioned as fortresses. Their locations were probably chosen, among other reasons, to provide him with luxurious living-quarters when he was traveling outside Jerusalem and to give him safe fortresses in times of political and military danger. Three of these palace/fortresses, Herodium, Jericho, and Masada, have been excavated and reveal evidence of considerable beauty,  reflecting in their design Herod's love for Roman architecture, acquired while living in Rome.

Herodium, south of Bethlehem

On a hill at Herodium, about 3 miles southeast of Bethlehem, Herod built a desert palace/fortress that was the third largest in the entire Roman world. The palace was surrounded by two concentric circular walls with four towers. Inside the walls Herod had living-quarters, a courtyard that functioned as a garden, a triclinium (dining hall) that was later converted into a synagogue by Jewish Zealots, and a full Roman bath with hot, cold, and warm rooms. To supply the necessary water, four large underground cisterns were built in addition to the one above ground, which may be seen in the top of the tall eastern tower.

At the foot of the hill Herod built a huge lower palace covering 45 acres (18.4 hectares) which included the residence, a huge causeway, a monumental building, and a magnificent garden containing a huge colonnaded pool with a circular island in the middle. The colonnade has been partially restored on the western and southern sides of the pool. According to Josephus, when Herod died, he was buried at Herodium with lavish ceremony. Archaeological excavation has not yet discovered his burial place, but it is thought to he somewhere in the vicinity of an elaborate building south of this pool. Excavations have revealed part of the palatial administrative complex north of the palace on the north side of the modern road. It was used by Herod's staff and contained baths for use by the servants.

Jericho: another desert palace of Herod 

Although Herod was buried in Herodium, he died in Jericho where he had built another of his desert palaces. Excavations in Herodian Jericho, several miles to the south of Old Testament Jericho and southeast of the modern city, have revealed three areas of construction in which Herod the Great had apart.

Herod rebuilt the older Hasmonean palace in the northwest sector of the Herodian site on a smaller scale, probably as a villa. Beside it, on the east, is a large swimming pool, more than 100 feet (30 meters) long, sixty feet (18 meters) wide, and twelve feet (3.6 meters) deep. It was divided in the center by an 18-foot-(5.4-meter-) wide partition of earth which was only 6 feet (1.8 meters) high. Herod had Aristobulus III, his seventeen-year-old brother-in-law and rival, drowned one night in this pool (Josephus, War 1.437). In this general area the Hasmoneans had several residential quarters for themselves and guests. In these houses six ritual baths have been found, the earliest yet discovered in the Holy Land, along with other pools and even stone bath tubs.

A second area of construction by Herod is located on the south bank of the little valley called the Wadi Kelt. A huge sunken garden, 360 feet (110 meters) long, and a large swimming pool, 130 feet (40 meters) by 300 feet (91.5 meters), were discovered here. South of the southeastern corner of the sunken garden Herod built a mound on which he put a 50-foot by 66-foot square (15 meters by 20 meters) building, containing a round hall measuring 52 feet (16 meters) in diameter and built of Roman concrete. The building may have been another villa, a pavilion, a reception hall, or even an elaborate, elevated Roman bath.

The third and latest area of Herod's building program in Jericho lay on the northern bank of the Wadi Kelt. Here Herod built an impressive palace with a large reception hall or triclinium, 95 by 62 feet (29 meters by 19 meters),   adorned   with   mosaic   floors.

Adjacent to the reception hall, on its east side, Herod built one of his two open courtyards. Ionic in style, it was 62 feet (19 meters) by 61 feet (18.5 meters) in diameter with a northern semicircular apse almost 30 feet (9 meters) in diameter. Adjoining the courtyard on the east was a large full Roman bath consisting of five rooms with a well-preserved circular room similar to the central pavilion in another of his palaces built on the northern slopes of Masada.

Masada by the Dead Sea 

Masada is a 1,300-foot- (396.5-meter-) high rock butte located on the west side of the Dead Sea about 30 miles south of the northern shore. Its history was written by Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, who vividly described the deaths here of 960 patriotic Jewish men, women, and children, who, during the first Jewish revolt against Rome, came under siege by the Roman general Flavius Silva in the spring of A.D. 73 and committed suicide rather than surrender. Josephus was the only source for the history of the site until Yigael Yadin, a preeminent archaeologist, military commander, and later deputy prime minister of Israel, excavated the site from 1963 to 1965. His book, Masada, confirmed in broad outlines the account of Josephus ... that is until now.

Three articles in the journal Biblical Archeology Review (24:6, November/December 1998) by eminent Jewish archaeologists have challenged many of the details given in Josephus' account and seemingly corroborated by Yadin's work. The articles include the following questions: Did the Jews really commit mass suicide? Did the Masada commander really make the speech encouraging suicide? Did Yadin really find the lots used to select the ten men who killed the others? Were there really 960 rebels? What happened to the bodies of so many people? Did Yadin really find some of these bodies, as he claimed? These scholars have not only challenged Yadin's conclusions, they have even accused him of dishonesty.

One of the more significant charges relates to the description Yadin gave in his report of "about twenty-five skeletons scattered in disorder about the floor" in a cave on the south end of Masada. On 7 July 1969, these bones, presumably of the Jewish defenders of Masada, were buried with full military honors in a funeral attended by Yadin, future prime minister Menachem Begin, and other dignitaries. Yoram Tsafrir, who directed the cave excavations for Yadin, said, however, that he saw only ten to fifteen skeletons, that only five appear in the excavation photo of the cave, and only one skeleton was intact and undisturbed. Dr. Nieu Haas of Hebrew University, to whom Yadin turned over the bones, cataloged only 206 bones and observed that since an adult skeleton has 220 bones, if Yadin actually found 25 skeletons, 5,300 bones (96 per cent) are missing!

Furthermore, Joseph Zias, in an article entitled "Whose Bones?" states that the bones of pigs were found with the skeletons and that Yadin admitted this both to him in the early 1980s and in 1982 to a Jerusalem Post reporter. Pigs were used by Romans as sacrificial offerings for the dead, and according to the first century B.C. Roman philosopher Cicero, "Only when a pig had been sacrificed was a grave legally a grave." Since the bones of non-kosher animals would not be found in a Jewish burial, further research was done in caves in Judea, which led to the conclusion that this cave in Masada was a small cemetery for Roman soldiers and perhaps their women (a well-preserved three-month-old fetus was found among the bones). It was later disturbed by hyenas, which carried off most of the bones to their dens. Tooth marks and mutilations have been found on many of the bones.

A related question concerns the failure of Yadin to find the bones of the 960 defenders of Masada. Zias suggests the possibility that they were buried near the Western Palace. It is possible, however, that the thousands of Jews who were forced by the Romans to build the siege ramp for them were also made either to bury their own dead somewhere on the top of Masada or in the valley beneath. That many bones could not easily disappear. Zias writes:

All in all we must conclude that the picture Yadin draws of the skeletal remains at Masada is highly exaggerated in an apparent attempt to dramatize his finds by having them corroborate Josephus' description of the Jewish rebels' last stand.

Another scholar feels that the failure to find the bones is irrelevant, asking, "Were the bodies from Jerusalem ever found?"

Others argue that a passage in Josephus' The Jewish Wars (7.8.3) was altered relatively soon after it was written, either accidentally or intentionally, by people who wanted to obscure the location of this mass suicide and burial. The original Greek text, as well as early translations into Latin and Syriac, also omit a crucial part of this verse—the part that makes it appear that the burials took place at the Northern Palace rather than at the Western Palace where the Roman ramp was built. As it now reads, part of the verse makes no sense, contradicting the geographical description given in the rest of the verse, which requires a burial near or under the Western Palace.

Meshel's article argues that Masada was not just a place of refuge for Jewish rebels hiding in the desert but represented a familiar scenario of the time, a kind of Jewish mini-state, functioning during the two revolts against Rome. David had similarly fled to the desert about 1000 B.C. to escape the wrath of King Saul and may have lived here. One of his desert strongholds is called mesadot (1 Samuel 22:4; 23:14) which Meshel thinks may have been Masada. The Hasmoneans also fled to the Judean deserts when overthrown by Herod the Great in 37 B.C., and the rebels during the Bar-Kokhba revolt (a.d. 132-135) did the same, being defeated finally at Bethar, west of Bethlehem. Perhaps the events that happened at Masada during the years of the first revolt and destruction of Jerusalem were part of what Jesus prophesied when he said:

So when you see the abomination that causes desolation spoken about through the prophet Daniel standing in the Holy Place (let the reader understand the allusion), that will be the time for those in Y'hudah [Judea] to escape to the hills''(Matthew 24:15-16).


At the present time many archaeological sites are being re-examined and the original excavators' views challenged. Included in the general furor are Qumran, Jericho, Megiddo, Hazor, and Jerusalem. Masada is one more name on a long list. This may be an inevitable consequence of the ongoing quest of archaeologists' spades, but the symbolism of Masada makes these latest conclusions especially disappointing. Perhaps it needs to be re-emphasized that archaeology is not an exact science, and much of what is set forth in a final archaeological report of an excavation should be reported not as irrefutable fact, but as educated, conscientiously researched, and carefully documented conclusions that in the last analysis are, nevertheless, still opinions. Opinions change; facts and truth do not.


Paul was converted to Christ on the road to Damascus in Syria. In New Testament times the city was located in the southeastern section of modern Damascus, and its ancient streets are still discernible in the modern street plan. The street called "Straight Street" where Paul went immediately after his conversion (Acts 9:11) probably lies beneath the modern street. It was a fifty-feet-wide (15-meter) colonnaded street and was the cardo maximus, that is, the main street of the city. Some of its columns have been excavated while others stand amid the modern day shops. Remains of a theater, a monumental Roman arch, and perhaps a palace have been found along this street.

Part of the city's Roman wall has been found about a 1,000 feet (305 meters) south of the East Gate, beneath a small chapel built by Greek Catholics under the present Ottoman gateway (opposite). A gate from the Roman period once stood beneath the chapel built into the wall that tradition associates with Paul's escape, when he was "let down in a basket through a window in the wall" (2 Corinthians 11:32-33; Acts 9:25).