Jesus then came out, wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, “Behold, the Man!” (John 19:5).
Where did the trial of Jesus take place? Perhaps it would be more accurate to speak of the trials of Jesus, as he was interviewed by Annas (Jn 18:13), interrogated by Caiaphas (Jn 18:24), tried by the Jewish ruling council (Mt 27:1), questioned by the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate (Lk 23:3), passed off to Herod Antipas (Lk 23:7), and finally sentenced by Pilate (Lk 23:24). Specifically, where was Jesus sentenced by Pilate? Can archaeology related to the account of the first Easter help us answer this question?
A careful reading of the gospel accounts provides the following clues:
- It was near the palace of Herod the Great, which functioned as the Praetorium at this time. Mark 15:16 says that after Pilate sentenced Jesus to death, “The soldiers took Him away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium), and they called together the whole Roman cohort.”
- It was in an area that was large enough for a crowd to gather while Pilate sat on his judgment seat (Mt 27:17-19).
- John records that Pilate “brought Jesus out, and sat down on the judgment seat [bema] at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha [literally, elevated place] (Jn 19:13).
Thus, the location of Jesus’s sentencing before Pontius Pilate took place in a paved, open place with an elevated platform for the judgement seat (or tribunal), which was near Herod’s old palace, then functioning as the Roman Praetorium.
The Praetorium was the official residence of the Roman governor. At this time, Pilate ruled from Caesarea Maritma; the official praetorium there was Herod the Great’s old palace (Acts 23:35). In The Carta Jerusalem Atlas Dan Bahat summarized the three possible locations for the praetorium:
“The first is the Antonia fortress at the northwestern corner of the Temple Mount. This has been the traditional site ever since Crusader times….a second possibility: Pontius Pilate used the Hasmonean palace (located in the present-day Jewish Quarter) as his residence, making this the site where the trial of Jesus took place. However, other scholars suggest he would have preferred the luxurious palace of King Herod, near the present-day Citadel.”1
In the 19th century Alfred Edersheim wrote, “Although it is impossible to speak with certainty, the balance of probability is entirely in favor of the view that, when Pilate was in Jerusalem with his wife, he occupied the truly royal abode of Herod, and not the fortified barracks of Antonia.”2
Further evidence that Pilate used Herod’s palace as his residence is found in the writings of Philo of Alexandria.3 Moreover, Josephus records that a later Roman procurator of Judea, Gessius Florus (ca. AD 64-66), when in Jerusalem, “took up his quarters at the palace; and…had his tribunal set before it, and sat upon it.”4
Archaeologist Shimon Gibson notes that the Antonia fortress would have been too small to function as much more than a Roman outpost and observation tower. He summarizes, “Today, a consensus of opinion exists among scholars that Herod’s Palace on the west side of the city was the same as the Praetorium and that in its immediate vicinity Jesus was tried and condemned to death.”5
So where was Herod’s palace? Ehud Netzer notes:
“There is general consensus among scholars with regard to the location of the palace in the western part of the Upper City, in an area where the Kishleh (a Turkish police station and jail) and the Armenian Seminar are presently located, in the southwestern corner of the Old City. Very few remains have survived in this locality, and it appears that in the past the palace was almost entirely leveled and only its foundations have survived….the proximity of the palace to the three towers on the north , the topographical conditions in the western part of the Upper City (which are most suitable for a large palace building), and the recent archaeological finds remove any doubts about this being the site.”6
Today, the remains of the foundations Herod’s palace, which likely functioned as Pilate’s praetorium, can be seen beneath the Kishleh near the Tower of David.
Having identified the praetorium where Pilate resided in Jerusalem as Herod’s palace, can we further narrow the search for the trial location? It would need to be a place large enough for a crowd (Mt 27:17-19) with a pavement and an elevated place for the judgement seat (Jn 19:13).
The Trial Location
Shimon Gibson was part of a team that excavated the remains of a gate in the western wall which would have led into Herod’s palace complex. He believes it to match the biblical data and be the place Pilate passed sentence on Jesus. He describes their findings:
“The discovery of a well-defended gateway…which has an inner courtyard paved with flagstones and with a rocky outcrop on one side corresponds perfectly with the situation of the place of the Roman tribunal as suggested by Josephus [in the account of Gessius Florus] and John. Hence, while it is a fair assumption the gate was used mainly as a private entrance into the Praetorium, this does not exclude public activities from taking place inside the gate and within the large courtyard situated between the walls. Indeed, this spot would have been ideal as a place for proclamation and public trials, and crowd control would have been pretty easy owing to the fact that it was so well defended.”7
Leen Ritmeyer, on the other hand, believes this gate probably led into the soldiers’ barracks, not into the part of the palace where Pilate resided. Furthermore, he points out that the tribunals could be located inside the palace complex accessible from inside the city, where people could witness (or sometimes be forced to witness) the Roman governor’s judgements.8 It does seem odd to imagine the Pharisees traveling outside the city and around to gate in the western wall to reach the governor’s residence. Presumably there would have been an entrance to Herod’s palace inside the city as well. Other scholars have suggested that there was a public square outside the eastern entrance to Herod’s palace (see photo of Herod’s palace in the Jerusalem model below, which was reconstructed based on ancient descriptions). John’s account implies that Pilate went in and out of his residence multiple times (Jn 18:29, 33, 38; 19:4) to speak with Jesus in private and then speak to the Jews who were waiting outside. Moreover, we know that Roman tribunals were often in public squares in other cities; for example the judgement seat of the proconsul Galilio in Corinth before which Paul was brought (Acts 18:12-16) was in the agora (marketplace). The trial location was not inside the palace itself (Jn 18:28), and it would be logical if it was somewhere in Herod’s palace grounds near an eastern entrance (Ritmeyer’s view) or in a public square outside the eastern entrance of the palace complex (another option).
The praetorium where Pontius Pilate resided while in Jerusalem was almost certainly Herod’s palace. Shimon Gibson’s theory that the trial took place a paved gate into Herod’s palace in the western wall is strengthened by the fact that it is, to date, the only site with plausible archaeological evidence matching the biblical text.9 However, it seems more likely the trial was held in a location accessible from inside the city, either inside the palace complex near an eastern entrance, or in a public square near the eastern side of the palace inside the city. As of yet, no archaeological evidence has been found to support such sites, so they remain, at present, theoretical. However, one needs to remember that the absence of evidence is not necessarily the evidence of absence. Given that very little remains from Herod’s palace itself, it is hardly surprising that there are few first-century remains to the east of Herod’s palace. While one cannot be certain of the precise location, I believe the balance of probability points to either a location inside the palace complex near an eastern entrance, or in a public square to the east of Herod’s palace. It was likely somewhere near the eastern palace entrance of the praetorium that Pilate washed his hands before a crowd calling for Jesus’ crucifixion, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves” (Matt. 27:24).
Cover Photo: Ecce Homo (Behold The Man), by Antonio Ciseri (1871) / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
1 Dan Bahat, The Carta Jerusalem Atlas. (Jerusalem: Carta, 2011), 63.
3 Afred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus The Messiah. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1883) 566.
3 Philo, The Embassy to Caligula, 299
4 Josephus, Wars, 2.14.8.
5 Gibson, Shimon, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009) 91.
6 Ehud Netzer, The Architecture of Herod the Great Builder. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 130.
7 Gibson, Shimon, The Final Days of Jesus: The Archaeological Evidence. (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2009) 104-105.
8 Leen Ritmeyer, Personal Communication, April 6, 2022.
9 Todd Bolen, Personal Communication, April 6, 2022.