Acts 1:12 – Archaeology and the Upper Room

In his Acts commentary Clint Arnold says archaeologists have recovered several Herodian homes near the Tomb of David, one of which is the traditional site of the upper room (ZIBBC, 11). I visited this room on my first trip to Israel in 2005 and recall being unimpressed. Although I was skeptical at the time, there is at least a possibility that the location known as the Cenacle today is built on top of the site of the original upper room. Yet Jerome Murphy-O’Connor argued the location of the Cenacle in Jerusalem ought to be seriously considered as evidence for the location of a Jewish-Christian congregation in the second century.

The Cenacle Today

The Cenacle Today

The evidence for this is less an exercise in archaeology but a study of traditional locations of holy sites in Israel. The Cenacle (the Latin cena means “dinner,” so the place is a “dining room”) is a building outside the south wall of the Old City of Jerusalem which contains the so-called Tomb of David and the Upper Room. As he comments in his article, “Nothing visible. . . has the slightest claim to authority.” The building was converted to a Mosque in 1524, which was closed in 1948 after Israelis took the Zion Gate. Since then there have been only a few archaeological studies of the site, but they have confirmed that there was a building there in the second or third century.

Two witnesses from the fourth century claim that there was a “little church” on Mount Sion as early as A.D. 130. Epiphanius was a Christian born in Eleutheropolis (Bet Guvrin) in 315 and directed a monastery there for thirty years. He claimed there were seven small synagogues left around Jerusalem, include a small one on Mount Sion which was “like a hut.” He then quoted Isaiah 1:8, which predicted that Jerusalem would be “ploughed and sown.” The Bordeaux Pilgrim also describes seven small synagogues, including one on Mount Sion (although it is likely the Bordeaux Pilgrim drew on the same source as Epiphanius).

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor thinks this “little synagogue” was a Jewish Christian church. Both Epiphanes and the Bordeaux Pilgrim were Christians from large metropolitan areas and knew what church looked like as opposed to the general design of a synagogue. For them, the Mount Sion building was built like a synagogue, so it must be Jewish. On the other hand, if this were a church built by Jewish Christians, it may have looked more like a synagogue.

If the Jewish Christians returned to Jerusalem, it is possible they returned to the general location “where it all started” for them and built a little church. This indicates a continuation of Jewish Christianity in Jerusalem well into the second century. What is more, it argues for the authenticity of the traditional site of the upper room, even if the present building is relatively modern.

Bibliography: Clint Arnold, Acts (ZIBBC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002); Jerome Murphey-O’Connor, “The Cenacle and Community: The Background of Acts 2:44-45,” pages 296-310 in Coogan, Exum, and Stager, eds., Scripture and Other Artifacts (FS for Philip J. King; Louisville, Kent: Westminster John Knox, 1994).


11 thoughts on “Acts 1:12 – Archaeology and the Upper Room

  1. It truly blows my mind to think of having the opportunity to go to the places where Jesus might have been teaching during His time on earth or the places where the early church began. Historical findings have always been something that I like to learn about and explore more. knowing whether or not a place is actual legit is something that one must truly examine. One can parallel the teachings and the places stated in the Bible as well and see how true and accurate people are with their descriptions. Going to these places where people claim was the beginning churches and the places Jesus spoke are so exciting to see because we can picture yourself as one who might have been apart of the crowd so enthralled with the teachings. In Acts 3 it mentions the temple courts and then later on it mentions the location of Solomon’s Colonnade. It would be so incredible to be able to go to these places and see where these things could have taken place!

  2. As a lover of archaeology, I thought that this was really cool and though it is likely not the exact spot that Jesus and the disciples had the last supper, I had to smile when you said that you weren’t exactly impressed by the room. I’m sure even then it wasn’t a very impressive room, certainly not something grand enough for the Son of God to eat in, but it reminded me that even Jesus Himself according to Isaiah 53:2, “had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him” (ESV). The ESV Study Bible notes even say that Jesus “was an outwardly unimpressive person in a failed culture” (Polhill, 1338). Even archaeology can remind us that beauty and worth aren’t founded in the outward appearance of something as even the possible upper room became a place where people worship and consider as a holy place simply because Jesus was in it. That’s where we as believers should realize that our worth comes from. Not from us, but from Him who lives in us.
    Our hearts are nowhere near a “proper” place that the Holy Spirit should dwell in, but because of God’s deep love for us, “the Spirit of God dwells in [us]” and we have life because of Him (Rom. 8:11, ESV). We can compare ourselves to the room that Jesus spent the last supper in. We are neither impressive nor even desirable because of our sinfulness, but God made us worthy because of how worthy He is who now lives within us.

  3. Having also visited this site 4 years ago, I really enjoyed reading this post and seeing the picture of the room again. Time has a way of making you forget small details, and as I was reading Acts 1 this week, I had a hard time imaging 120 people in the “small “room that I remembered. However, your picture brought make much more vivid memories of how much larger the room actually was.
    I found Jerome Murphy O Connor’s statement that “nothing visible…has the slightest claim to authority”, as well as your admission of being skeptical, to echo many of my own thoughts while touring Israel and Jordan for 2 weeks. I remember while visiting many historic sites thinking to myself “how do they really know this is the actual place?” Quite possibly, many times this was due to how the sites were more touristy than one would hope, or the refurbishment that had taken place. However, regardless of whether it was the actual room (or tomb, birth site, etc) or not, I was not prepared for the emotional and spiritual impact of these sites. To be in the same room, or one very similar, where Jesus had his final meal with the disciples, and where later those disciples returned, was an experience I will never forget. If I had the opportunity to go again, I would do it in a heartbeat….taking my family with me!

    • I first visited the Upper Room in 2005, and the amount of renovation to that whole area over the last 15 years is remarkable. It is not very tourist friendly for both Christians who are there for the upper room and Jews, there for the Tomb of David. There is a good viewpoint on top of a building that gets a great view of that part of the city, though.

  4. I do find it quite interesting that the setting of this biblical passage has potential locations in Israel near the tomb of David. The fact that some archeologists are sure that this particular Herodian home is the site of the upper room is just mind blowing. Obviously even archeologists get things wrong, and some believe that this could just be a second century Jewish church, but it really makes the stories of the Bible come to life even more when we can physically see where the recordings we read in the text actually took place. Even if the location is not narrowed down to a particular building it is still neat to know that these places existed and still exist in modern day Israel. I would love to take a trip to visit historical and biblical locations in Israel because it would make everything come alive as I could see the upper room near the tomb of David in which Peter spoke to the 120 at Pentecost, or at least visit a room in which they believe to be the upper room or some historical Jewish church. Like mentioned in your original post, the room can seem unimpressive to some as it is skeptically modern in archeological terms, which makes it harder to picture bible time occurrences happening in that very space. I’m sure that it would be very interesting to see this for myself and see how my own emotions appeal to this particular room as well as the places surrounding the tomb of David that could potentially be a place as significant as the upper room where the Holy Spirit descended upon the 120 (Acts 1:15).

  5. I love the fact that you are skeptical of people claiming it to be the room where Jesus had his last supper. I see all the time people claiming to have found certain things from the Bible. Like the nails that were put into Jesus or they found Noah’s Ark. while these maybe true I feel like it is all for the fame and not for God. “Nothing visible. . . has the slightest claim to authority.” I think this is a great quote because it states that while this may be the room Jesus sat in for the last supper, it is not God himself. this room has no authority. I think it is very cool though the history of it. The fact that it might of been the general location of it is really cool. I read peoples comments who said they have been there and that it brought emotion. I have never been to a Biblical historical site before and do not understand the emotion they talk about. Acts 1:13 mentions the disciples coming back to the upper room. it is also a place where they slept I assumed. the reason being is because it says “they were staying” meaning this is where they ate and slept when not preaching. Great article, love history in general!

  6. Being a person who has always had a fascination of archaeology and historical significance, this article caught my attention right away. While reading it, I immediately thought about all of the historical sites that I have been to and how cool it is to be able to stand in these places and think what it may have been back then. I was intrigued with the skepticism that Dr. Long had when visiting the upper room because no one really knows if it was truly the location where the Last Supper was held, but it still brings that significance. I was interested when reading through Acts 1 it states that the upper room was where disciples stayed as well and probably lived for a little bit. (Acts 1:13) I have never been to Israel, let alone the upper room, yet by seeing the picture I know that this had to have been a very cool experience. Any single piece of history that can be linked and dated back to the time of Jesus and the early church blows my mind and is incredible. I remember seeing that they found the chariots in the Red Sea, or any of these artifacts from biblical times and thinking how cool it is to come across these because it only adds to the legitimacy of everything in the Bible. I loved seeing and reading about this history significance.

  7. Initially I was super shocked how you have been able to visit a site like this. I can’t even begin to imagine the feelings that would be going through my mind and body if I had the opportunity to do this. Then I continue reading to see that you recall being a bit unimpressed, maybe it was just because you were skeptical at the time as you stated. Although the “room” was not the original room but rather a room built on top of the perceived location that the upper room was located years ago, it must have still been pretty cool.
    As I read in Acts one, Peter, John, James, Andrew, Phillip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, and a few more including Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers were present in the upper room at this time. To me this would be a very special place to be. There are many more locations to visit that are probably a lot more surreal, but I find this to be very interesting.
    As I continued reading the rest of the blog I began to understand a little bit more about why you were unimpressed. I notice that you write on the Jewish Christians returning to Jerusalem, and how it indicated the continuation of that faith into the second century. I found this very interesting and it to be a pretty important event on the timeline of Jewish Christianity. We will never truly know if that was the authentic site of where the upper room really was, imagine all of the “proof” there would be if these Holy places were still intact.

  8. The thing that I always am curious about every time I read these passages in Acts 1 and 2 about the upper room is how they squeeze one hundred and twenty people into said upper room. I have been to some pretty up close and friendly worship gatherings, but they had to have been packed in there! We talk about how they may have had overflow outside and into the courtyard and such, but I wonder how communicating with a group that is overflowing outside is anything near efficient? It was not until reading a note on the ESVSB until I realized that perhaps the gathering was less about gathering for a sermon as much as it was more of a prayer gathering. “The main activity in the upper room was prayer. Jesus had told them to wait for the promise of the Father, but waiting on God and prayer are closely related in several places in the OT, and therefore likely that they were praying constantly that the promised Spirit would descend” (Polhill, p. 2081). After reading this comment, I went from thinking logically about this scenario to thinking more spiritually about it. How powerful it must have been to have over a hundred people in this very space praying such raw and authentic prayers to God right after Jesus told them to wait here for the Spirit! I never considered that the time spent in the upper room was more time praying and waiting than it likely was actually the day of pentecost that we usually focus on. That’s the kind of prayer life we need to lean into more of sometimes for us and our churches.

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