Updated: May 25, 2022
One of the most amazing sites in Jerusalem is also one that is overlooked by more than 99.9% of tourists, and sadly, even educated tour guides don’t realize its significance. Millions of tourists pass through this site every year. In fact, I would guess that less than 1% of 1% realize that when they are in the Upper Room, they are actually standing in a building that might have become the first Messianic Synagogue.
The very first Jewish believers did not see a need for a synagogue of their own. They all continued to go to the traditional synagogue—the only place to hear the Scriptures read on a weekly basis—and then, they met together on the first day of the week (believed to be Saturday evening, not Sunday—a work day in Israel). These meetings were held in homes, and they also met daily in the Temple courts as well (Acts 2:46).
However, persecution grew intense in the 60s CE. It is believed that Yaakov (James), despite being one of the most respected Jews in Jerusalem, was martyred through a conspiracy led by the Pharisees in 62 CE. The Book of Hebrews encourages Jewish believers to stand strong in the face of persecution (Heb. 12:1-4).
Messianics Flee Jerusalem
Then, in the late 60s, the Zealots, a Jewish sect seeking independence from Rome, rebelled. The Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem and prepared to raze it to the ground. The Messianic Jews were warned by an angel to escape according to the historian Eusebius[i]. They remembered the words of Yeshua.
“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city.” (Luke 21:20-21)
The Second Coming was just around the corner they assumed. They fled across the Jordan River. After Jerusalem was destroyed and the Zealots were thoroughly defeated, the Messianic community returned to Jerusalem.
An Amazing Discovery
Now, this is where our story gets interesting. In 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence, a shell exploded near the traditional site of King David’s tomb (we now know that is not his tomb) and the site of the Upper Room. In 1951, an Israeli archeologist, Jacob Pinkerfeld, was tasked with repairing the damage. In doing so, he discovered the original Roman floor less than a mater below the present floor. He also discovered an alcove, or niche. Bargil Pixner, the renowned Benedictine monk, Biblical scholar, and archaeologist, writes:
“Similar niches at similar heights above floor level have been found in ancient synagogues and were presumably used to house an ark for Torah scrolls.”[ii]
In other words, he was claiming that this room, the Upper Room, was actually an ancient synagogue. The question is, was it always a synagogue and if not, when did it become a synagogue? Some claim that the Roman General Titus spared the area during his conquest in 70 CE. However, it is more likely—since we know that the entire city was destroyed—that it was rebuilt into a synagogue after the 70 CE war. We know that in the time of Yeshua, forty years prior, it was not a synagogue, but merely a home.
Pinkerfeld concurred that this was indeed a synagogue. Unlike churches that faced toward the east, this building was oriented toward the Temple or where the Temple once stood. Pinkerfeld was correct; it was a synagogue, but his conclusion that it could not be a church, or for our purposes, a gathering of Yeshua believers because it did not face east, is erroneous. Churches didn’t begin to face east until the second half of the fourth century.
Not Facing the Temple, but…
Pixner claims that Pinkerfeld also erred also in his assumption that the building was facing the Temple. It was an obvious assumption, but when actually measured, the niche or the alcove that was discovered is slightly off. Instead of facing the Temple, it faces more northwest toward a most interesting place.
Just think for a minute. You are a Jewish Yeshua follower. You have returned to Jerusalem. The city is in ruins. The year is 74 CE or so. The Temple is gone! Please understand the significance of this. The Temple was the center of Jewish life and religion. Even in the lives of first-century Messianic Jews, the Temple was very significant. The believers met there for worship and teaching, as well as for outreach (Acts 3-4, 5:25). This must have been a huge blow. In addition, the Second Temple was the most amazing structure of its time. It was a marvel and a wonder. And now it was in ruins.
The writer of Hebrews warned of this when he said that that which “is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear.” (Heb. 8:13) Theologians have wrongly assumed he was speaking of the entire Old Covenant, when in fact he was referring to the sacrificial system—as a few years later the Temple would be burned to the ground.
A Self-Imposed Curse Forces Them Out of Traditional Synagogue
But now that the Jewish Yeshua-followers have returned and plan is derived to weed them out of the local synagogue. In just a few years, the Pharisees, under Gamaliel II, will add a ‘blessing’ to the Amida—prayed three times a day—that calls all Messianic Jews heretics and curses them[iii]. These Messianic Jews could not pray this prayer and probably, heart broken, left the synagogue. Pixner believed they turned the Upper Room (or the Room below it, to be more precise) into the first Messianic Synagogue.
A Most Awesome Orientation
But when it came time to orient the niche, they concluded not to point it in the direction of where the Temple once stood, but rather in the direction of its replacement.
In fact, the synagogue’s orientation is toward what is presently the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which, at the time the synagogue was built, was believed to be the site of Jesus’ tomb and of his crucifixion at Golgotha.[iv]
How powerful is that! Without a Temple, the source of sacrifice and forgiveness, they rightly discerned that the new source of everlasting forgiveness and redemption was Golgotha. But should it point towards the place where he was crucified and uttered the words, “It is finished,” or towards the place of His resurrection, where the proof of redemption lies? How about both? He was buried where he was crucified.
At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid. (John 19:41)
The Upper Room points to both the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Garden Tomb, the two places where archaeologists say Yeshua was most likely crucified and buried.
If we needed any more proof that this building was the first Jewish synagogue erected for the exclusive use of Messianic Jews, we have it in the form of suppressed graffiti that Pinkerfeld found under the later floors (he removed several floors to get to the original). The graffiti was only later published and claims that the building was erected in the first century:
One graffito has the initials of the Greek words which may be translated as “Conquer, Savior, mercy.” Another graffito has letters which can be translated as ‘O Jesus, that I may live, O Lord of the autocrat.’[v]
The fact that the words are in Greek is evidence that it was later used by Gentile Christians after all Jews were barred from the city in 135 CE. This was in response to the last Jewish rebellion. The Roman Emperor Hadrian expelled all the Jews and turned Jerusalem into a pagan city. He even built a temple to Venus on the place where Yeshua was crucified.
But how did these Gentiles know for sure that this was the place of the Upper Room and the first Messianic Synagogue? Though Hadrian banned all Jews from Jerusalem in 135 CE, Christians not of Jewish ancestry could and did live in Jerusalem from Hadrian’s time on. Eusebius even preserves a list of the Gentile bishops of Jerusalem. It was then passed down from generation to generation orally.
The evidence supports the idea that the Messianic Jews returning from a self-imposed exile after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, built the first Messianic Synagogue in the former Upper Room and oriented it to face Golgotha—the place of Yeshua’s execution and resurrection.
To be clear, this is just a theory—one I believe—but it has not been proven beyond all doubt.
*Originally published on April 11, 2015
[i] Early Christian History, ECCLESIASTICAL HISTORY OF EUSEBIUS PAMPHILIUS (c. 265 – 339) BISHOP OF CESAREA, IN PALESTINE, Written In A.D. 325, Book III, 5:4
[iii] The Amidah is comprised of 18 benedictions. The newly re-formed Sanhedrin, under Gamaliel II, grandson of the Gamaliel from Acts 5, added a nineteenth that stated, “For the heretics let there be no hope. And let the arrogant government be speedily uprooted in our days. Let the Nazarenes (a name for Jewish believers) and the minim be destroyed in a moment. And let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who humblest the arrogant.” Messianic Jews could not pray this prayer and the pray had its intended consequence—the Messianic Jews left the traditional synagogue.