From Paganism to Christianity on the Temple Platform

Kenneth G. Holum

    During the 1995 and 1996 seasons, CCE explorations on Caesarea's Temple Platform brought dramatic new evidence for King Herod's Temple to Roma and Augustus.  On the northwest flank of the site, where the kurkar bedrock slopes away to the north and west, the excavators uncovered massive foundations of the temple, preserved to a height of more than two meters and resting on the bedrock at an elevation of 8.4 m.  The foundations lay in a Late Hellenistic/Early Roman fill that corresponded with leveling fills discovered earlier in other trenches and already thought to be associated with the temple's construction. 1  The foundations on the northwest consist of large stones, accurately hewn and fitted together with mortar. Many of the stones have bosses on their exposed sides, in the manner of Hellenistic defensive masonry, even though they lay below ground level and were presumably never seen by anyone but the builders.
    On the site's east and southeast flanks, the archaeologists exposed leveling courses of the temple's foundations, again embedded in a Late Hellenistic fill.  On the southwest, leveling courses and foundation blocks had already emerged in the 1990 and 1993 seasons that were thought as early as 1990 to represent the temple. 2  This estimate has turned out to be correct!  Combined with these earlier data, the new discoveries permit reconstruction of a large temple that measured 29.5 m. north-south and 54 m. east-west.   It did justice to the famous description of Flavius Josephus in the Jewish War (1.415): "Directly opposite the harbor entrance, upon a high platform, rose the temple of Caesar, remarkable for its beauty and its great size."  This temple could easily have accommodated the divine images that Josephus also mentions: "In it stood a colossal statue of Caesar, not inferior to the Zeus at Olympia . . . and one of the goddess Roma, equal to the Argive statue of Hera."
    In the meantime, Ronny Tueg and Lisa Kahn of the team's scientific staff have identified more than fifty architectural blocks, carved in the local kurkar building stone, on the site itself or nearby, among them fragments of the architraves and friezes, of Corinthian capitals, and of column bases and shafts.  The sizes and proportions of these blocks permit accurate reconstruction of much of the temple's superstructure, on a scale that matches perfectly the dimensions of the newly recovered foundations.  Dr. Kahn discusses some of these blocks and proposes a reconstruction of the colonnades and architraves in the volume Caesarea Retrospective honoring Baron Edmund de Rothschild that will soon appear. 3
    CCE, therefore, adds another to its list of important archaeological discoveries. A new architectural monument of Herod the Great has been unearthed that will further illuminate one of the most impressive building programs in the ancient world.  Of course, much remains to be learned about the building from further excavation and from further analysis of the architectural blocks already catalogued.
    It will be recalled, moreover, that on the same site CCE has been studying the remains of an Early Christian church, octagonal in plan, dated to about 500 C.E.  This church and the temple beneath it represent a classic case of the Christianizing of an ancient city.  A Christian church, embellished with costly marble pavements and wall revetments, and surmounted probably by a segmented dome, occupied the same elevated position in Caesarea's urban terrain long held by the city's most ancient and revered temple.  Nothing could demonstrate more clearly that from the urban perspective the Christianizing process consisted of Christian appropriation of a city's sacred topography.
    Research during the 1996 season, however, added significant nuances to this interpretation.  The excavators have long been puzzled by the chronological discrepancy between the Christianizing of the Roman Empire beginning in the reign of Emperor Constantine (died 337) and the building of the church about 500 or perhaps a bit later.  How could the most imperial and Roman city in Palestine, the episcopal see of the ambitious imperial biographer Bishop Eusebius, preserve a pagan temple long after cities like Jerusalem and Gaza (for example) had witnessed the destruction of pagan cult centers and the building of churches in their places?  The archaeologists have searched diligently for remains of interim church on the Temple Platform, built perhaps in the fourth century and replaced by the octagonal building after a fire, or simply because the time had come to upgrade the city's religious center.  After excavation in many parts of the site, the archaeologists have found no trace of such a building and now believe that the octagonal church was indeed the immediate successor of Herod's temple.
    The hard archaeological evidence is convincing.  On its northwestern flank the church foundations rest directly on the temple foundations--and in fact it may be assumed that the temple foundations survived because the Early Christian builders exploited the Herodian foundations as leveling where the bedrock sloped downward on the northwest of the site.  Furthermore, discovery of numerous kurkar architectural fragments from the temple embedded in the structure both of the church and of the staircase that provided access to it from the west makes it clear that the temple still stood--certainly long unused for cult purposes, and perhaps in a ruinous state--until about 500.  The bulk of its stones must have survived until then in their original positions.  This enabled the church builders to exploit the temple's superstructure as a convenient quarry for the kurkar blocks they needed for the church and staircase.  It appears that even after the city Christianized its inhabitants preserved their ancient temple, perhaps as a revered relic that linked them with their city's illustrious past.
    Thus if CCE's excavations on the Temple Platform have brought back from oblivion another monument of Herodian architecture, they are also casting new light on the profound religious and cultural changes in Mediterranean history between the early fourth century through the seventh.  With this in mind, the project is developing a new three-year plan of excavation and research to bring the Temple Platform excavation to a fruitful culmination.

    1A. Berlin, "Hellenistic and Roman Pottery, Preliminary Report, 1990," in Caesarea Papers: Straton's Tower, Herod's Harbour, and Roman and Byzantine Caesarea, edited by R. Lindley Vann, Journal of Roman Archaeology, supplement volume 5 (Ann Arbor, 1992), 112-23. Return to text.

    2K. Holum et al., "Preliminary Report on the 1989-1990 Seasons," in Caesarea Papers, 103-5. The temple foundation appears in fig. 41 on p. 105 as Wall 1080. Return to text.

    3L. Kahn, "King Herod's Temple of Roma and Augustus at Caesarea Maritima," in Caesarea Maritima, Retrospective After 2,000 Years: A Symposium of Scholars Held at Caesarea, Israel, January 3-11, 1995 edited by Avner Raban and Kenneth G. Houlm (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 130-45. Return to text.