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).