The Upper City and Pilate

by Victor Hoagland, C.P.

The Upper City

Ancient stairway to the upper city

After Jesus' arrest in the Garden of Gethsemani, where was he taken? The gospels say it was "to Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas"(Jn 18,12-13) "to Caiaphas" (Mt 26,57) or "to the high priest"(Mk 14, 53) or "to the high priest's house" (Lk 22,54). Most likely the place was somewhere in Jerusalem's Upper City, where influential Jews of Jesus' day lived in large splendid houses, many built during Herod the Great's massive reconstruction of the city.

Connected directly to the temple by a viaduct over the Tyropoean Valley, the Upper City was a convenient home for families and officials with temple duties. Recently archeologists have excavated some of these homes, constructed in the style of 1st century Roman villas, with courtyards and elegant furnishings. Like the rest of Jerusalem, the Upper City was destroyed by fire in the Roman siege of 70 A.D.

After the city was rebuilt on a smaller scale by Hadrian in the 2nd century, there is evidence of a small Jewish-Christian church located in the southerly outskirts of Aelia Capitolina, called by Christians, "Mount Sion." Early Christian traditions mark this as the place of Pentecost, the upper room, where the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles after Jesus' resurrection. Somewhat later it was honored as the Cenacle where Jesus ate the Last Supper. By the 4th century the house of Caiaphas was also located in this vicinity. Today the modern church of the Dormitian is the most prominent Christian shrine marking the ancient Christian "Mount Sion."

Where was Jesus judged by Pilate?

Jesus "was crucified under Pontius Pilate," the Roman Procurator. The credal statement summarizes the gospel report: Jesus, while in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover, was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate, who represented Roman authority in Judea.

Traditions point out three sites where this judgment may have taken place. All three were major administrative and military locations built or renovated by Herod the Great (+ 4 A.D.) in his massive reconstruction of the city. During the time of Jesus they were used by the Roman authorities.


Upper city: from Herod's palace eastward to the temple and the Fortress Antonia (from the model: Holy Land Hotel)

Herod's Upper Palace, the most magnificent of the three, and perhaps the most likely place for Pilate to reside in Jerusalem, was built around 24 B.C. on the strategic southwestern hill of the city protected by the city wall to the west and three large towers on its northern flank. A large wall separated the opulent palace from a city forum to the east.

Pilate's inscription

Pilate's inscription; Caesarea Maritima

Entering the forum of the Upper Palace, Pilate set up his judgment seat and sentenced Jesus to death before the crowd, which would not enter the palace precincts for fear of incurring ritual impurity. Afterwards, he gave Jesus to the soldiers, whose barracks probably adjoined the palace to the north. They scourged him and then led him through the nearby gate to Calvary.

Herod's Lower Palace, formerly the Hasmonean Palace, was located near the bridge connecting the Upper City with the Temple enclosure. Many early Christian traditions point it out as the place where Jesus was judged.

The Fortress Antonia, was built by Herod in the northwestern corner of the temple area to provide security in that important place. From the time of the Crusaders (12th century) this site was usually considered the place of judgment, but today a better understanding of the topography and times of Ist-century Jerusalem has led experts to favor Herod's Upper Palace as the place where Pilate sentenced Jesus.

Pontius Pilate

In 1961 Italian archeologists discovered in Caesarea Maritima, a fragmentary inscription carrying the name of Pontius Pilate. Caesarea Maritima was the usual residence of the Roman authorities in Judea. They would come to Jerusalem only on occasions, such as a religious feast.

In full, the inscription states that Pilate, the Procurator of Judea from 26-36 A.D., dedicated a temple in honor of Tiberius.


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