Richard T. Nowitz

King David’s traditional tomb, as it is erroneously identified, on Zion III. Venerated at various times by Jews, Moslems and Christians, this stone cenotaph, placed here by the Crusaders, lies draped in velvet cloth before a niche blackened by pilgrim’s candles.

An unexpected opportunity to investigate this building occurred in 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence. A mortar shell hit the site, and Israeli archaeologist Jacob Pinkerfeld was sent to repair the damage. In the course of repairs, he removed the marble floor slabs and dug two pits revealing three earlier floors (see drawing). Five inches below the present floor was a 12th-century Crusader floor; 1.5 feet below that, Pinkerfeld discovered a mosaic floor with geometric designs dating to the Byzantine period (fifth century); 4 inches below the mosaic, he uncovered the remains of a Roman floor (end of the first century), consisting of plaster fragments and stones from a possible pavement. A foundation ledge projecting into the hall at this final level indicated that this earlier Roman floor was the original building’s floor.

Pinkerfeld observed that the niche in the northern wall, behind the cenotaph, was part of the original construction. Standing 6 feet above the earliest floor level, the niche resembles other niches in ancient synagogues. These niches probably held an ark for Torah scrolls. Pinkerfeld concluded that the original building was a Roman-period synagogue.

Two pieces of evidence suggest that this synagogue was built by Judeo-Christians, rather than by traditional Jews. The first consists of several fragments of plaster scattered on the earliest floor and bearing graffiti, apparently Christian, from the building’s original walls. Although the readings are controversial, one graffito (see drawing) seems to have Greek initials for words that have been translated, “conquer, savior, mercy.” Another, even more controversial, graffito has letters that may be read, “O Jesus, that I may live, O Lord of the autocrat.”

The second piece of evidence is the orientation of the synagogue’s niche. If the structure had been a traditional Jewish synagogue, its niche should have been oriented toward the Temple Mount, where the Temple had stood until its destruction in 70 A.D. The builders had a clear view of the Temple site, and yet they oriented the synagogue niche slightly east of north, on a direct line with the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial (see drawings showing the synagogue’s floor plan and orientation).

History provides a third reason to identify this synagogue as Judeo-Christian in origin. It was probably built in the late first century, after the Romans had destroyed Jerusalem, a time when traditional Jews were not building synagogues in Jerusalem. Our author suggests that Judeo-Christians constructed this synagogue after their return to Jerusalem from Pella, in today’s Jordan, where they had fled shortly before the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. They chose to build their synagogue on Zion III because they remembered this as the place where the Last Supper occurred, where the apostles returned after witnessing the ascension of Jesus and where Peter delivered his sermon after the Holy Spirit had descended upon the apostles on Pentecost. The room immediately above the “Tomb of David” is dedicated to the descent of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and is called “Chapel of the Holy Spirit.”