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Pilate's Pavement, the Lithostratos

The Gospel of John recounts that Pilate brought Jesus to the lithostratos where he condemned him to death (19:13). The announcement by Israeli archaeologists that they have restored sections of the inlaid tiled floors of the Jewish Temple built by Herod the Great in Jerusalem from debris salvaged from the Temple Mount sheds light on identifying the location of the lithostratos of John’s Gospel.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus describes the floor of the open court of the Jerusalem Temple as “from end to end variegated with paving of all manner of stones” (War 5.193). The patterned inlaid portions of the temple’s tile floor restored by the team of archaeologists led by Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira is known as opus sectile. It speaks to the wealth and grandeur of Herod’s building projects, like the temple and its courts. Prior to Herod’s rule opus sectile flooring did not exist in the land of Israel. Archaeological excavations have uncovered opus sectile floors at Herod’s palaces in Jericho, Herodium, and Masada.

Herod’s primary palace was his palace in Jerusalem, and while archaeological excavations have not uncovered opus sectile floors, Josephus describes Herod’s Jerusalem palace “in which the variety of the stones is not to be expressed; for a large quantity of those that were rare of that kind was collected together” (War 5.178) and “he constructed exceedingly large, high rooms and decorated them in very costly fashion with gold, stones, and color-washes” (Antiquities 15.318). We can assume that Herod’s Jerusalem palace also had inlaid tiled (opus sectile) floors.

In describing the siege of the Roman army of Titus upon Herod’s Temple in A.D. 70, Josephus twice mentions the pavement of the temple courts: “But one Julianus, a centurion in the Bithynian contingent…for wearing, like any other soldier, shoes thickly studded with nails, while running across the pavement (lithostratos) he slipped and fell on his back, with a loud clash of armor, which made the fugitives turn” (War 6.81-86; see 6.189). Josephus used the Greek term lithostratos in both accounts to describe the inlaid tile pavement of the temple courts, i.e., the opus sectile floor. The Greek term lithostratos means “a floor paved with stones,” and the recent restoration of the sections of the opus sectile floors from the temple courts enables us to visualize the pavement of Herod’s Temple and gain an idea of what the floors looked like in his palaces.

The archaeological evidence and Josephus’ descriptions of Herod’s buildings, even identifying the opus sectile floor of the temple as lithostratos, suggests that Pilate’s judgment of Jesus at the lithostratos took place within a Herodian structure within Jerusalem. Since the period of the Crusades, Christian tradition has identified the location of Pilate’s judgment of Jesus as within the Antonia Fortress, which was located north of the Temple Mount and east of the Holy Sepulcher (the traditional location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial). Mark’s Gospel, however, identified Pilate’s location, the praetorium, as the palace (15:16). The book of Acts identifies Herod’s palace in Caesarea as “the praetorium of Herod” (23:35) indicating that the residences of Herod the Great were designated as praetorium. The first century Jewish writers Josephus (War 2.31) ad Philo (Legat. 38.299) mentioned that Herod’s palace in Jerusalem served as the residence of the Roman governor when he came to Jerusalem. First century sources never identified the Antonia Fortress as a palace. All of this suggests that Pilate resided during the feast of Passover at Herod’s palace on the western hill of Jerusalem, near present day Jaffa Gate. There he condemned Jesus to death, the Roman soldiers beat him, and from there Jesus was led to his place of execution.[1]

The restoration of the Herodian opus sectile floor sections from the Temple Mount enable us to visualize the pavement upon which Pilate pronounced his judgment of Jesus. The announcement of these restored sections of the temple’s tiled floor permit us to once again address the location of Pilate’s judgment of Jesus and answer the question as to the meaning of the term lithostratos within John’s Gospel.

[1] R. Steven Notley, Jerusalem, City of the Great King (Carta: Jerusalem, 2015), 40-41.

(c) Marc Turnage 2017

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