Beit Shemesh is today a flourishing Jerusalem suburb, built near the remains of an ancient city, mentioned multiple times in the Hebrew Bible and first identified by the pioneering American scholar Edward Robinson in 1856. While the town’s western tel (archaeological mound) had been thoroughly explored in the 20th century, Boaz Gross led an excavation that began in 2018 of the previously unstudied eastern tel. Shortly after it began, the current residents of Beit Shemesh successfully lobbied the Israeli government to change its highway-expansion plan in order to preserve Gross’s findings, which have since revealed thousands of years of near-continuous life:
[Previous] excavations concluded that the site was inhabited from the Middle Bronze Age IIB (ca. 1750 BCE) to the end of the Iron Age IIB (8th century BCE), when King Sennacherib of Assyria destroyed the Judahite city in 701 BCE. [However], in no place where we found Iron Age II remains did they superimpose any prior occupational layer.
Further, the material remains [suggest] that the site remained strongly affiliated with Judah even after Sennacherib’s campaign. No destruction or abandonment was identified at the site—neither from the Assyrian campaign nor from the Neo-Babylonian campaigns of the early 6th century BCE. Alterations to the olive oil and wine installations suggest a continuation of an agricultural economy at the site. This, together with the few yhud (Judah) impressions and even a yršlm (Jerusalem) impression, may indicate a continued economic and political affinity to Jerusalem.
Even more astounding are the discoveries concerning the Hasmonean and early Roman periods, i.e. from about 160 BCE to 135 CE:
Late Second Temple-period settlements share a distinct material culture, such as the presence of ritual baths (or mikva’ot), of which at least seven have been found at Beit Shemesh) and limestone vessels, and an absence of pig bones. Unfortunately, many of the architectural elements of the village did not survive, likely due to the massive construction activities that took place later during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods.
And yet, one special building did survive. In the northwestern part of the site, we found a monumental rectangular structure (measuring 21 by 33 feet), originally built during the early Roman period (late 1st century BCE–1st century CE). Built of finely dressed ashlar blocks with drafted margins, the structure survived to a height of ten feet on its northern side. Along its interior walls, we identified a plastered bench. Due to the building’s quality of construction, position, and uniqueness within the site, it can be clearly interpreted as a public structure. Further, given its architectural elements, as well as the masonry and bench, it most likely served as a synagogue during the latter part of the Second Temple period.
It appears the building was taken over and converted into a church during the Byzantine period.
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More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, Hebrew Bible, Second Temple, Synagogues