An unbelievable discovery: Uncovering the site of John the Baptist’s martyrdom
Herod [Antipas] had seized John and bound him and put him in prison, for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife; because John said to him, “It is not lawful for you to have her.” And though he wanted to put him to death, he feared the people, because they held him to be a prophet. But when Herod’s birthday came, the daughter of Herodias danced before the company, and pleased Herod, so that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she might ask. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me the head of John the Baptist here on a platter.” And the king was sorry; but because of his oaths and his guests he commanded it to be given; he sent and had John beheaded in the prison, and his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.
Gospel of St Matthew 14: 3-11
By Christopher Wells
The infamous birthday banquet of Herod Antipas, which culminated in the beheading of St John the Baptist, took place in the royal city of Machaerus, east of the Dead Sea in what is now the country of Jordan.
Lost for more than a thousand years after it was destroyed by the Romans at the end of the First Jewish Revolt in 71/72 A.D., the site of Herod’s palace was definitively identified in 1968, when a German scholar discovered the remains of the siege wall erected by the Roman legions.
For more than a decade, Hungarian architect and archaeologist Dr Győző Vörös has led the excavation and conservation efforts at Machaerus, having won a contract from Jordan’s Royal Department of Antiquities.
“They contacted me in 2009 as an answer to the wish of His Holiness, the Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, as during his papal visit, he expressed his interest concerning Machaerus… the most important Gospel scene in Jordan,” said Dr Vörös, in an interview with Vatican News. “They wanted to have it seriously excavated and also discover the opportunities for monument presentation [and] the conservation of the ruins.”
Dr Vörös was in Rome to receive the prestigious Gold Medal of the Pontificate, presented by the Pontifical Academies, in recognition of his outstanding work on Machaerus, which has been published in three volumes.
'Unbelievable' time capsule
He explained the historical significance of the death of John the Baptist, “the only Gospel passage which has a parallel narrative from the same era written by a non-Christian author,” the Jewish historian Josephus. The location of John’s execution was confirmed some 250 years later by the Christian writer Eusebius of Pamphilia.
“In addition to the uniqueness of its historical value, there are two unique characteristics” of Machaerus, said Dr Vörös. The first “is that it is an archaeological site [that has] remained as a time capsule… it’s unbelievable. It’s a miracle that you have a Gospel scene that has survived as an archaeological time capsule.”
The site is also unique in that it affords historians – but also visitors – the opportunity to gain a truly accurate picture of a Gospel event.
Dr Vörös and his team have been able to present a reconstruction of Herod’s palace, the very place where the daughter of Herodias danced for Herod Antipas and his guests, and was promised the head of John the Baptist.
“These are Bible illustrations of reality, and this is the heart of the [archaeological] mission” at Marchaeus, said Dr Vörös. “There is no history without geography, without visible and visit-able historical monuments,” he said, adding that archaeological research is able to provide “the framework and the real context for the Gospels in the Holy Land.”
Exploring the 'Fifth Gospel'
Recalling the words of Pope Francis, that the Holy Land is “the fifth Gospel” helping us to understand the first four, Dr Vörös said the sites of the Holy Land offer historical context not only for us “but for our children, for the next generation” for whom “we can provide religious books that are illustrated with historical reality.”
He emphasized the significance of the death of John the Baptist, which Jesus Himself compared to His own Passion and death.
“So, when we speak about the imprisonment and beheading of John the Baptist, it is somehow the precursor, of the event of the Calvary as well,” Dr Vörös said. “John was also the precursor of Jesus Christ with his sufferings, and it is not a theological fantasy. Jesus Himself gave the key to Machaerus to us, when He spoke about the sufferings of John the Baptist that the Son of Man will suffer similarly. So, it is a very important passage of the gospels and have it in our hands with its historical reality it is… It is, I am ready to say, a certain kind of 21st century gift of the Almighty God.”
Noting that we will soon mark the 2,000th anniversary of the martyrdom of St John the Baptist (who died in 28 or 29 A.D.), Dr Vörös said he hopes the archaeological site of Machaerus will be ready to be presented “in a very clear way, a very authentic way, which is most important” – and that he hopes, with the Jordanian authorities, that Machaerus “will be once again on the map of the Holy Land when the next Pope of Rome will visit this sacred archaeological site.”
Transcipt of full interview
Dr Győző Vörös: As a simple Hungarian archaeologist, I had the privilege to be contracted by the Royal Department of Antiquities in Jordan for 20 years. They contracted me in 2009 as an answer to the wish of his Holiness, the Pope emeritus Benedict XVI, as during his papal visit to Jordan, he expressed his interest concerning Machaerus, or Macheronte in Italian; the most important Gospel scene in Jordan. And at that time, it was not an archaeological site that it was easy to visit. It was in the military buffer zone of the Dead Sea. So, they wanted to have it seriously excavated and also discover the opportunities for monument presentation, conservation of the ruins; and they were looking for someone who is not only an archaeologist but also an architect. And at that time, I was already working 15 years ago in the Levant, 10 years in Egypt, and then 5 years in Cyprus. At that time, I was the director of the Paphos excavations, the Greco-Roman capital of the site. And of course, as a Roman Catholic believer, I had very serious interest concerning this Gospel scene on the east bank of the Dead Sea. So that was an international competition, and I won on behalf of the Hungarian Academy of Arts in 2009.
CW: Many people may not be familiar with Machaerus. Can you tell us the significance for the New Testament first of all?
GV: There is a narrative account in the Gospels on the circumstances of the imprisonment and the death of John the Baptist, how Salome danced and John the Baptist was beheaded. This is the only Gospel passage which has a parallel narrative from the same era written by a non-Christian author. It is a unique situation that Josephus, the first-century Jewish philo-Roman historian wrote down very clearly that John the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded by Herod Antipas in Machaerus.
The word itself is [derived] from the Greek makhaira, which means sword. And in Italian they called it “Macheronte.” So Machaerus, in the Latin form, is the historical place the Baptist was imprisoned and beheaded in the Herodian royal city. But is very important that it is not only Josephus who testified that this Gospel scene happened on the east bank of the Dead Sea, in this very Herodian city; but [also] Eusebius of Pamphilia, the bishop of Caesarea Maritima, wrote down in 324 in the church history that, yes, John the Baptist was imprisoned and killed in Machaerus. So, we have the two most important historians of ancient Palestine, Josephus, and Eusebius, who both confirmed that it is the historical place, Machaerus, this Herodian royal city, where John the Baptist was imprisoned and killed.
CW: But then the city, although it was very important at the time of the New Testament, was lost for some years…
GV: Yes, the Herodian city was destroyed by the same Legion X Fretensis as Jerusalem in 70 [A.D]. Machaerus was destroyed during the winter of 71/72 and Machaerus completely disappeared from the maps. This is why it is extraordinary that Eusebius still speaks about the city, which nobody knew in the fourth century where it is. It was like that until 1968.
There was a fantastic German scholar, a Protestant archaeologist August Strobel, who visited the area, where a modern village, Mkāwer, is existing and since the name is resembling the ancient name there was an assumption that it would be possible that ancient Machaerus is also there. However, it was a Strobel, August Strobel, who had seen for the first time with his very sharp eyes that there is a circumvallation, siege wall around the site, very similar one that can be seen at Masada. And he wrote down in 1968 that in the epicentre of this circumvallation siege wall, there is a mountain and on the top of it has to be the ancient Herodian city of Machaerus, with the palace and the citadel, where the princess Salome danced, and where the tragic birthday banquet of Tetrarch Herod Antipas had to happen and our beloved St John the Baptist was beheaded.
CW: And you've been able now for more than 10 years, to work on this particular site. Can you tell us about your work there?
GV: The work has been started by an American mission, which was very short, only 4 weeks, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, led by Jerry Vardaman. They were the very first ones who made some sondage [surveys] there and found Herodian remains.
However, from ’78 [i.e., 1978] onward, two Franciscan archaeologists, the late Virgilio Canio Corbo and the late Michele Piccirillo continued the excavations. But unfortunately, everybody died prematurely and nobody published anything. So, when I received the concession from the royal authorities in Jordan, I had to go first Mississippi State University where they are keeping with the original legacy, nearly 5000 objects from the first mission of the Southern Baptists. Then in Jerusalem, I had to work on the archive material, the drawings, photographs, and a lot of archaeological material, everything unpublished, of the Studium Biblicum. And then ourselves in a very close collaboration with École Biblique and the Studium Biblicum started the large-scale project. I settled down in Jordan with my family, not to have campaigns but establish a permanent archaeological mission.
CW: And tell us a little bit more about the significance – not in the sense of why this site is important because, historically we can understand that, but for people today who might now have the opportunity to visit or see the site or learn about the site. What is the significance for people today?
GV: Thank you for your question. In addition to the uniqueness of its historical value, that we have the confirmation from Josephus and Eusebius for this Gospel scene, there are two other unique characteristics of the place. The first one — it sounds peculiar — is that the archaeological site remained as a time capsule. We have nothing before the late Hasmoneans, and nothing after destruction of [by] the Legion X Fretensis. It is something like [if] Jerusalem would have remained deserted, and we would go there after the destruction of [by]Titus. Everything is there. It's like… I don't know how to say it. It's unbelievable. It's a miracle that you have a Gospel scene that has survived as an archaeological time capsule.
However, the other uniqueness in addition to all this, is that as an architect I started them more than a decade longer project of legal study, the complementary pieces of fragments putting them together, not in the size of a ceramic jar, but in the size of the royal palace. We had more than 100,000 architectural elements of these once magnificent Herodian royal palace — the only palace inherited by Antipas from King Herod the Great, so it was a very logical place for his birthday celebration. And then after putting these over 100,000 architectural pieces together, we were not simply able to re-erect complete columns from the period of the royal palace, but we were able to make the theoretical architectural reconstruction of its once really magnificent interior, which is not the interior of a Herodian royal palace simply, but this is the interior of a Gospel scene something that has never ever happened before, that you can have Bible illustrations, which are not based on imagination or fantasy. These are Bible illustrations of reality and this is the heart of the mission. There is no history without geography, and without visible and visit-able historical monuments, which are giving for us the framework and the real context for the Gospels in the Holy Land.
We have to call, with the words of the Holy Father Pope Francis, the Holy Land the fifth Gospel. It helps us to understand the first four. And this fifth Gospel, the Holy Land, is not only giving the historical context, but for our children, for the next generation, we can provide religious books which are illustrated with historical reality. At least on the two very important passages of the Gospels according to Mark and Matthew, which are describing the wonderful… Golgotha (I do not know how to call [with another] word) of John the Baptist because this moment was his real Golgotha. Jesus Himself, put in comparison the circumstances of the death of John the Baptist with Himself. After the Transfiguration, he came down and said the following: “They treated him as they wanted; and the Son of Man will suffer similarly.” And the disciples understood that He was speaking about John the Baptist. When Jesus said He Himself will suffer similarly to John, it is called metalepsis when you are putting yourself in comparison with someone. So, when we speak about the imprisonment and beheading of John the Baptist, it is somehow the precursor, of the event of the Calvary as well. John was also the precursor of Jesus Christ with his sufferings, and it is not a theological fantasy. Jesus Himself gave the key to Machaerus to us, when He spoke about the sufferings of John the Baptist that the Son of Man will suffer similarly. So, it is a very important passage of the Gospels and have it in our hands with its historical reality it is… It is, I am ready to say, a certain kind of 21st century gift of the Almighty God.
CW: I would love to speak with you a lot more about the site about your work. We don't have a great deal of time. Can you tell us two last things: are people are going to be able to visit the site and then what is the future of your work and of the site at Machaerus?
GV: I hope that for 2029, when my contract will expire; and even though we have another two years because of the pandemic — they prolonged with another two years the contracts at the Department of Antiquities of Jordan — that will be the second millennium [anniversary] because we know that John had his ministry in the 15th year of Emperor Tiberius, which corresponds to somehow 28 or 29 A.D. So, it will be a bi-millennial celebration. And I hope it will be ready at the moment when the monument is presented in a very clear way, an authentic way, which is the most important; and as my Jordanian superiors in the Royal Court like to say, that it will be once again on the map of the Holy Land, when the next Pope of Rome will visit this sacred archaeological site.