Is This the High Priestly Palace Where Jesus Stood Trial?
In the 1970s, renowned archaeological architect Leen Ritmeyer, with his training in both ancient architecture and conservation of historic sites, supervised the team that reconstructed a large palace not far from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. He has tentatively identified the “Palatial Mansion” (or “Herodian Mansion”) as the place of residence for Annas the high priest. If this is correct, then this would be a “look inside” the first phase of Jesus’s Jewish trial. And it may explain things like where the courtyard was located and how Jesus could look at Peter though they were in two different locations (Jesus inside and Peter outside, warming himself by a charcoal fire).
In doing background research for a forthcoming volume co-authored with Andreas Köstenberger (Jesus’s Final Week: An Easter Chronology and Commentary), I corresponded with Dr. Ritmeyer, who was kind enough to answer a few questions and to share some of his reconstruction drawings with us.
How big is the Palatial Mansion?
The footprint of this magnificent building is 6,500 sq. feet. However, as the whole building was two stories high, the usable living space was almost twice as large. No other private residence of this size has been excavated anywhere in Israel.
Where is it located?
The Palatial Mansion is located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was excavated under the leadership of the late Prof. Nahman Avigad in 1973 and ’74 and later restored from 1985-’87. The Palatial Mansion is now part of the Herodian Quarter of the Wohl Museum that is open to visitors and is located on 1 Hakara’im Street, off the main Hurva Square in the Jewish Quarter.
What is it about the location and the features of the building suggest to you that this might be the palace of the high priest?
There is no doubt that this Mansion was occupied by priests that served in the Temple, especially as it was located on the eastern slope of the Upper City just opposite the southwest corner of the Temple Mount. From the Mansion it was only a short walk from here to the Royal Bridge whereby the priests could cross directly to the Temple platform without first having to descend into the Tyropoeon Valley.
The Palatial Mansion is the largest of the six dwellings that were excavated in this area and that are now incorporated in the Wohl Museum. These dwellings are the finest examples of Herodian architecture, with mosaic floors and walls decorated either with fresco or stucco.
Could you “walk” us through it and describe what we would see?
Its overall plan is centred round a paved courtyard. The entrance to the building was from the west via steps which led down from an entrance door. This led into a vestibule whose mosaic floor with a central rosette pattern was found almost completely intact with the charred beams of the ceiling lying on top of it.
From the vestibule, one could either turn into the fresco room on the right, which had panels painted in red and yellow on its plastered walls in the style of the Pompeian frescoes or, to the left, into the magnificent Reception Room with its stuccoed walls and ceiling.
Proceeding straight on from the vestibule, the visitor entered the courtyard, from where the rooms of the eastern wing could be reached. Of this wing only one of the ground floor rooms, a bathroom, has been preserved. This contained a low bench and a stepped sitting pool. Its floor was paved with a simple patterned mosaic. The bathroom was probably used before descending into one of the two mikvehs [ritual baths] that lay beneath the courtyard.
A stairway in the northern side of the courtyard leads down to the basement level of the eastern wing. Again there is a vestibule from which one could gain access to a large vaulted storeroom on the west. On the basement’s eastern end were two additional mikvehs, one of which had a side bath. The second mikveh was much larger and had a vaulted ceiling. This mikveh was exceptional in that it had a double doorway and an entrance porch paved with mosaic.
The Mansion stands out from the other dwellings in that it had four mikva’ot (ritual baths) which is quite unusual and has no parallel in any building in Jerusalem or in all of the Land of Israel.
All of the above, coupled with the traces of a great conflagration found in the Palatial Mansion, point to a possible identification of this residence with the palace of Annas, the High Priest. Annas’ Palace is recorded in Josephus’ War 2.426 as having been burnt, together with the Palace of Agrippa and Bernice, in A.D. 70.
Tell us a little bit about the size and features of reception hall, where the first phase of the trial before part of the Sanhedrin may have taken place.
The Reception Room of the Palatial Mansion, which would better be described as a hall, measures 33 feet by 21 feet. Because of its large size, it is assumed that it was used to receive guests and for various functions. The walls of this magnificent room were decorated with white stucco. The northern wall was in the best state of preservation, with the stucco remains preserved almost to the height of the ceiling.
The basic decorative pattern consisted of broad panels in between two bands of imitation masonry, modelled on “headers and stretchers.” However, on the basis of the stucco remains of the northern wall that extended to the greatest height, it was clear that there was an additional band of decoration just below the ceiling. The ceiling was destroyed, but many ceiling fragments were found lying on the floor. All the pieces showed geometrical patterns in relief—raised sections separated by a narrow band which had a groove cut in its centre which was picked out in red paint. It was clear that the original design must have been divided into two separate parts, as some fragments had an “egg and dart” motif, which is a pattern based on alternate eggs and arrow-heads, while the remainder were plain. My reconstruction design shows that a band of just over 3.5 feet broad of hexagonal patterns surrounded the ceiling of the room, while the central panel was divided into two squares of a design based on octagons, with a narrow strip in between. The octagonal pattern was formed using the fragments with the “egg and dart” design, while the hexagonal pattern, which had as its basis four hexagons attached to the four sides of a square, used the plain fragments. This design is conjectural but fits in well with the room and has definite parallels with patterns preserved in the vaulted stucco ceilings at Pompeii dating from the first century B.C. and also in the stone ceilings of Baalbek and Palmyra.
Let me review what we know from the biblical accounts about the place of Peter in this story. After Jesus’s arrest, Peter and John followed the arresting party at a distance. Because John “was known to the high priest, he entered with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest, but Peter stood outside at the door.” John put in a good word for Peter, and the servant girl guarding the door let Peter in to the courtyard (John 18:15-16). So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the servant girl who kept watch at the door, and brought Peter in. While Jesus was inside the residence, Peter stood with the guards and servants in the middle of the courtyard outside, warming himself by a charcoal fire (Matt. 26:58, 69-71; Mark 14:54, 66-67; Luke 22:54-55, 61; John 18:18). In the Palatial Mansion you reconstructed, where was the courtyard from the Reception room?
To the east of the Reception Room was a large open stone-paved courtyard round which all the rooms were arranged.
So if Jesus was inside (on trial) and Peter as outside (in the courtyard), how could Jesus turn and look at Peter?
The Gospel record speaks of Jesus being interrogated by the priests, elders, and council in the palace of the High Priest, which at that time was Caiaphas, son-in-law of Annas (Matt. 26.57; Mark 14.53; Luke 22.54). However, John 18:13 intimates that the director of the first interrogation was Annas himself. The task of harmonising this gospel record with those of the Synoptic gospels would be far less difficult if we were to assume that the old High Priest’s Palace of Annas continued to be used for such functions, even if it was a relative of his and not he himself that held the office. He was, after all, a type of éminence grise who continued to direct affairs by promoting members of his own family to the high priest’s office, long after he himself had vacated it.
It must be said that the plan of this Palatial Mansion, with its central courtyard and lavish reception hall, makes a visualisation of the scene of Peter warming himself at an outdoor fire while Jesus is interrogated inside, eminently possible. To heat the rooms of the Palatial Mansion, wooden beams, that had been previously prepared and partly burnt, would have been ignited and the glowing embers placed in braziers that were put in the rooms. It is not difficult to imagine Peter standing near the burning logs to warm himself.
After Peter was identified as a follower of Jesus, he tried to leave the building (Matt. 26:71). First, he would have removed himself from the light of the fire and then edged closer to the exit. Here, at the southwest corner of the courtyard, there is a direct line of vision to the centre of the Reception Room. The arrow in the picture shows the line of vision from the corner of the courtyard to the centre of the Reception Room.
This makes it possible to visualise how Jesus, if he was standing in the middle of this room, could look back to see Peter standing in this part of the courtyard (where the young lady in the photograph is standing—see picture below). This is the only scenario that allows the tragic meeting of eyes described in Luke 22:61: “And the Lord turned, and looked upon Peter and Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said unto him, Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.”
There is one particular place in a corner of the courtyard, from where, looking through two open doorways, one has a straight line vision to the centre of the Reception Room. It is chilling to stand at that place and imagine Jesus looking back at Peter after the cock had crowed the final time. This picture shows where Peter would have stood in the corner of the courtyard, viewed from the centre of the Reception Room.
Here’s a detail I recently noticed for the first time in rereading the Gospel accounts. Mark 14:66 says that Peter was in the courtyard “below.” What could that mean?
The Mansion is built on a slope, going down in an easterly direction. The entrance was higher than the courtyard, so Peter would have come down to where he was. To leave the palace, he would have had to climb up some steps before leaving by the front door.
What happened to Annas’ palace?
As previously mentioned, Josephus records in War 2.426 that the Palace of Annas the high priest was burnt, together with the Palace of Agrippa and Bernice in A.D. 70. When the Palatial Mansion was excavated, there was evidence that the building had been destroyed in a massive conflagration. The same fate befell most of the buildings of the Upper City, a prime example of which is the Burnt House.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, this area was buried by destruction debris and not uncovered until the reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter in the wake of the wanton Jordanian destruction that was carried out between 1948 and 1967. We are very fortunate to have been able to excavate and restore this most important historical building.