BEIT SHEMESH, Israel – When a revamped highway into Jerusalem fully opens in coming months, it will be just the latest makeover of a road that has served Holy Land travelers for centuries.
Almost as a testament to a path well-trodden, tractors and plows that made way for a new tunnel that is part of the project revealed a Christian village that provided refuge to weary pilgrims making their way into the holy city more than 2,000 years ago.
On Sunday, Israeli archaeologists announced the discovery at the site of a rare cache of Byzantine-era coins. They had lain hidden for some 1,400 years inside the stone walls of an old building in the unearthed village, which archaeologists now believe was called Einbikumakube.
At a time when the Christian presence across the Middle East is diminishing and believers often face persecution, archaeologists in Israel say that more than a third of the roughly 40,000 artifacts found in the country each year are linked in some way to Christianity.
It’s a potent point, offering proof of the Christian connection to the Holy Land and the Middle East, alongside Judaism and Islam.
The Israel Antiquities Authority gave journalists an up-close look at the coins on Sunday during a rare tour of its central warehouse, which is tucked away in a quiet industrial zone in the city of Beit Shemesh, about 40 minutes west of Jerusalem.
Tens of thousands of relics found across Israel since its creation in 1948 are kept at the site, though some go on display in museums. Many of the items are from the period that Jesus is believed to have lived or are evidence of his followers from the ensuing centuries.
Archaeologists say the excavated items might give an indication of how Jesus lived 2,000 years ago, but they aren’t physical evidence of his existence.
“He was one of more than a million people living here then, an ordinary Jew who had original ideas and attracted some followers,” said Gideon Avni, head of archaeology at the Israeli Antiquity Authority. “His fame only really started after his death.”
Avni said it is difficult, perhaps even impossible, to find proof of one ordinary person from thousands of years ago. But based on finds from hundreds of archaeological digs, he believes archaeologists can accurately reconstruct Jesus’ life from the Church of the Nativity, the site revered as his birthplace, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where he is believed to have been buried after the Crucifixion.
Eugenio Alliata, a professor of Christian archaeology at the Franciscan biblical school in Jerusalem, said that what has been found to date corroborates biblical accounts of Jesus’ life and puts his existence into a real context.
“We have not found any evidence of the person of Jesus, but we have found lots of things about what happened at the time he lived, such as the population and the material culture that grew because of him,” Alliata said.
Artifacts stored at the Israeli Antiquities Authority warehouse also provide insight into those who followed Jesus after his death. The earliest evidence of Christianity as a movement is from the end of the 1st century, Avni said.
After that, throughout the Byzantine period and during the Crusades, Christian pilgrims regularly traveled to Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Archaeologists are now using the day-to-day items and rare commodities from those ancient times to study Jesus’ life and his teachings.
Among these precious finds are the nine Byzantine coins.
“These coins give us a rare look into this Christian ancient world,” said archaeologist Annette Landes-Nagar, who estimated that the coins were minted sometime between 604-609 because they bear the faces of Byzantine emperors of the time.
The coins were probably placed in the walls of the building around 614, toward the end of the period when Persian armies invaded the Holy Land, destroying churches and Christian communities, just before the rise of Islam in the area.
“The hoard was found amongst large stones that had collapsed alongside the building. It seems that during a time of danger the owner placed the coins in a cloth purse that he concealed inside a hidden niche in the wall,” she said. “He probably hoped to go back and collect it, but today we know that he was unable to do so.”