The Cenacle
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BibArch Home Up Pinkerfeld Report

Madaba-Jeru-ID.jpg (56530 bytes)

The Cenacle, also known as the Coenaculum and erroneously as The Tomb of David, appears as number 5 in this index to the famous Madaba Map of Jerusalem.

Just outside the Zion Gate of the old city in Jerusalem, near the crest of Mount Zion, lie the partial remains of an ancient building known as the Cenacle. These consist of a niche, walls, floors, and foundations incorporated into a building now venerated by both Jews and Christians.

For Jews the site is the traditional location of David's Tomb (the pseudo-tomb not the actual tomb) marked by a small synagogue on the first floor. Christians regard this location as that of the ancient venue of the Upper Room or Cenacle. A memorial of this heritage, dating to the 14th century, consists of the reconstructed Room of the Last Supper and the adjoining Chapel of the Holy Spirit on the second floor. While a single building houses the two memorials, each has a separate entrance.

Although there is general agreement that the original building was a first-century CE synagogue, both Jews and Christians claim it as their own relying on a statement by Epiphanius (CE ca. 315- 402/3 ). Writing late in the fourth century, he claimed that when the Roman emperor Hadrian (CE 76-138 ) visited Jerusalem (ca. 131/132) a small "Church of God" and seven synagogues existed on Mount Zion. Christians argue that the present-day remains are those of the small Judeo-Christian synagogue, which Epiphanius called a Church of God, constructed on the site of the Upper Room by Judeo-Christian refugees returning from Pella about CE 73. Jews claim it as one of the seven synagogues of the Jews observed by Hadrian. Epiphanius stated in chapter 14 of his work De Mensurius et Ponderibus (Treatise on Weights and Measures), a biblical dictionary that discusses, among other things, the geography of Palestine, that Hadrian

…found the entire city devastated and the temple of God trampled down, except for a few houses and the church of God, which was small, where the disciples, after they returned when the savior was taken up from the Mount of Olives, went up to the upper room. For there it had been built, that is, in the part of Zion that was kept from the destruction, and the blocks of houses around Zion itself, and seven synagogues, which stood alone like huts, one of which remained until the time of Maximona the bishop and Constantine the king, "like a booth in a vineyard," as it is written. Therefore Hadrian decided to build the city, but not the temple. And he took this Aquila, who was mentioned before, as interpreter…. (Koester 1989:93.)

An earlier account by a pilgrim from Bordeaux, presumably a Judeo-Christian who visited Jerusalem in CE 333, refers to the tradition of seven synagogues on Mount Zion as well. This visitor wrote:

Inside Sion, within the wall, you can see where David had his palace. Seven synagogues were there, but only one is left, the rest have been "plowed down and sown," as was said by the Prophet Isaiah. (Wilkinson 1983:157- 158.)

Above is a section of the mosaic in the apse of Basilica of St. Pudentiana in Rome. The building to the immediate right of Jesus' head is the Octagonal Memorial Church built by Theodosius I (ca. 382). To its immediate right is the Church of the Apostles, incorporating the original the small synagogue building, as it appeared about CE 400.A BIBARCH™ Photo.

In reference to the Upper Room, there are conflicting opinions as to whether or not there was but a single upper room put to use by the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth at the time of the Passover in ca. CE 30. Luke's gospel employs anagaion for upper room (Luke 22:12) while the writer of the Acts of the Apostles uses huperion for upper room (Acts 1:13). These two passages mark events in the roughly eight-week period from the Passover through Pentecost. The word anagaion refers to the venue of the Last Supper at the first Christian Passover and huperion the place where the disciples resided at the time of the Ascension and presumably at Pentecost. The question of whether these were the same location remains.

In his Latin translation of the New Testament, known as the Vulgate (translated 382-405), Jerome rendered these two Greek words by the single Latin word coenaculum, or cenaculum, meaning "dining room" (customarily located on a second floor). At times translators render coenaculum into English as cenacle. Whether rightly or wrongly, the Christian tradition ever since has been that these two places were the same. In early Christian tradition the location of the Upper Room was the home of Mary the mother of John Mark (Acts 12:12). John Mark, who presumably was the young man who fled naked to escape authorities at Jesus arrest in the garden at Gethsemane by shedding his linen sleeping garment as they seized him (Mark 14:51), was the author of the second gospel. In his gospel he also uses anagaion for upper room (Mark 14:15).

A section of the Madaba Mosaic Map, dating to the sixth century CE, showing the Cenacle, the small structure to the right, as an extension of the Hagia Sion basilica (CE 415-1009) shown in the foreground. Insufficient data is available for a conclusive identification of this index map symbol as the Cenacle. A BIBARCH™ Photo.


The importance of the Upper Room to Christians arises in its symbolic imagery of three critical, or watershed, events in Christian history. First, it is the acknowledged site of the introduction of the Eucharist (called Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Eastern Church, Mass in the Roman Catholic Church, and generally Holy Communion in Protestant churches) at the first Christian Passover where, on ca. April 5, 30, a Tuesday evening, Jesus of Nazareth introduced the rite to his followers at the end of the Last Supper. Third, it is the traditional location of the meeting place on Shavuoth, May 28, 30, a Sunday, where the Holy Spirit descended on the disciples some fifty days following the Resurrection creating the Church of God (Hebrew: qehal'el; Greek Ekklesia tou Theou).

The remains of the ancient building on Mount Zion were subject to two archaeological investigations, that in 1859 by E. Pierotti, and in 1951 by Jacob Pinkerfeld (Israel Exploration Society 1975:116-117; Mackowski 1980:145).

The stones showing to the left are some of those identified by Pinkerfeld as Herodian. A BIBARCH™ Photo.

In 1949, Pinkerfeld examined this site in connection with damage caused by the explosion of a mortar shell entering the Tomb of David through its eastern window during the War of Independence. The Director of the Moslem and Druse Department in the Israeli Ministry of Religious Affairs later entrusted Pinkerfeld to make repairs to the marble floor and the damaged walls (Pinkerfeld 1960:41). In the course of making repairs in 1951 Pinkerfeld collected data and prepared a preliminary report on the history of the building (see Table 1 below for his reported data).

He concluded that the original building incorporated into the Tomb of David was a first-century Jewish synagogue since (1) the niche of the apse (a repository for Torah scrolls) in the first century wall resembled the style of other first-century synagogues and 2) the orientation of the building was toward the Temple site on the Temple Mount and not in an easterly direction in the pattern of later Christian church( buildings. Since Pinkerfeld was one of the victims of the Jordanian attack on the Archaeological Convention of 1956 at Ramat Rahel he did not complete his research. His posthumous preliminary report appeared in Hebrew (Pinkerfeld 1957). later his widow consented to its translation and publishing through the auspices of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Pinkerfeld 1960). Click here to read his report.

TABLE 1 Physical Data for the Cenacle


Distance from Present Day Floor


Distance from Original Floor Level

Top of Niche

3.66 m.


4.36 m

Threshold of the Apse

1.22 m.

1.92 m

Present Floor Level

0.00 m.

Present Day Floor (marble slab)

0.70 m

Next Floor

0.12 m.

Crusader Floor (plaster floor)

0.58 m

Next Floor

0.60 m.

Byzantine Floor (mosaic floor)

0.10 m

Next Floor

0.70 m.

Original Floor (either a plaster or mosaic floor)

0.00 m

Gregory Armstrong, writing in 1967 apparently unaware of Pinkerfeld's work, mentions in his analysis of imperial church buildings of the fourth century the Cenacle on Mount Zion as a pre-Constantine structure. Armstrong held, however, that the apse of the ca. 400 mosaic in the Basilica of St. Pudentiana in Rome shows the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem to the right (Armstrong 1967:92, 99).

In 1969, Jack Finegan, in reference to the synagogue on Mount Zion identified by Pinkerfeld, had this to say:

Moreover, since the Christina traditions are so persistent on this site, and since an early Christian assembly-place, particularly a Jewish-Christian one, can be called a "synagogue... (Jas 2:2), one wonders if this "synagogue" on Mount Sion, and even others of the seven of which we hear earlier, could perhaps have been Jewish-Christian churches... (Finegan 1969:150.)

Richard Mackowski, in his 1980 Jerusalem City of Jesus, develops the evidence in support of the proposition that the St. Pudentiana mosaic displays the Hagia Sion basilica with the site of the Cenacle to its right. In passing he mentions the work of Bargil Pixner and argues that the remains of the ancient building on Mount Zion is that of the Cenacle. In his thinking, the "site, therefore, must be secure, for it has been the only candidate for the Cenacle (Coenaculum or dining hall) from primitive Christianity until today" (Mackowski 1980:145).

In 1985, F. E. Peters, providing extensive textual evidence from ancient authors, following Pinkerfeld saw the building as "a likely candidate for the surviving synagogue mentioned by both the Bordeaux pilgrim and Epiphanius" (Peters 1985:1256).

W. Harold Mare, writing in 1987, reflecting on an editor's note published with Pinkerfeld's preliminary report, held that the question, whether or not the original building was one of the seven synagogues mentioned by Epiphanius and still existed when the Bordeaux Pilgrim visited the site in 333, remained open (Mare 1987:236)

In 1990, Bargil Pixner published the evidence for the remnants of the original building incorporated into the Tomb of David being those of the small Church of God (Pixner 1990). Based upon his investigation Bargil Pixner disputed Pinkerfeld's claim about the orientation of the building. Pixner held that its orientation is in fact with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and not the Temple Mount. He concluded that the earliest remains incorporated into the Tomb of David were those of the Judeo-Christian synagogue appearing in both the ca. 400 St. Pudentiana mosaic and the ca. 560 Madaba mosaic in the basilica floor at Madaba in Jordan (Pixner 1990:17, 24-25; see also Pixner 1991).

While written commentary on this site is quite brief both Finegan (Finegan 1992) and McRay (McRay 1991) provide additional commentary but agree with Pixner's determination that the original building was a Judeo-Christian synagogue. Pixner's conclusions did receive initial challenge from Jerome Murphy-O'Connor. He observed in note 1 of his 1994 article on the Cenacle and Community:

B. more correct in claiming that the niche is directed toward the Holy Sepulcher, but Pixner produces no parallels to prove intention. Moreover, the architectural parallel to the niche that Pinkerfeld offers is that of the synagogue at Eshtemoa, which is dated to the fourth century AD. A synagogue on Mount Zion in that period is inconceivable and orienting niches are not attested in first-century synagogues (e.g., Gamla, Masada). (Murphy-O'Connor 1994:306.)

The next challenge came from Hillel Geva. In a BAR article entitled "Searching for Roman Jerusalem" Geva, relying on archaeological evidence, disputes the contention that some Jews remained in Jerusalem following the destruction of the city in CE 70 and CE 135. He argues that both the literary and archeological evidence indicate the total destruction of the city (Geva 1997:37). He further argues that Mt. Sion, the Western hill, the exclusive domain of a small garrison of the Roman Tenth Legion, was "only sporadically and sparsely inhabited during the Roman period" (Geva 1997:40). This view is contra to that arguing a Judeo-Christian settlement on Mt. Sion in the Roman period.

Jürgen Zangenberg, a New Testament scholar at Bergische Universität, came to be more inclined to view the tradition of a Christian community on Mt. Sion as a later fiction and not as a fact. He suggested that as the archaeological data from post-70 CE Jerusalem becomes more available the early Christian sources on this matter will require a fresh look critically placing previous theories to the test. Zangenberg voiced his opinion in the Queries & Comments section of the Biblical Archaeology Review where he asked:

I wonder how this resolute policy of destruction and consequent Romanization might affect the theory of the possible presence of a Jewish Christian community on Mt. Zion, which is based upon fourth-century sources like Epiphanius and Eusebius. If Geva is right that no Jews were left in the city after 70 C.E.and I have every reason to agree with himthis must also mean that all Judeo-Christians were expelled, as Roman authorities would not have made any distinction between Judeo-Christians and Jews in those early years (cf. Suetonius' note on riots in Rome under Nero). (Zangenberg 1998:14.)

In his response to Zangenberg's comments Hillel Geva, relying on archaeological data, reiterates his contention that the entire southwestern hill, including Mt. Sion, was occupied by the camp of the Tenth Roman Legion during the second-third centuries C.E. and that there was no Jewish-Christian community on Mt. Sion during the Roman period. Geva argued:

In my opinion, there was no Jewish Christian community on Mt. Zion during the Roman period. The entire hill was an encampment for the Tenth Roman Legion. With the legion's removal from Jerusalem at the end of the third century C.E., civilian settlement began in the area. By the fourth century C.E., the locations of the holy sites on Mt. Zion became established and the large Hagia Zion church was constructed there. (Geva 1998:14.)

wpe12.jpg (11538 bytes)A drawing of the Cenacle based upon archaeological data courtesy of LTA - ARCHITECTURE. Based upon available evidence this drawing renders the basic shape of the building in the first century. The wall projection to the bottom left is apparently the remains of a wall. The entrance to the building is on the lower left. See Table 1 below for basic data. A later expansion of this building, to about double the size shown in this drawing, was known as the Church of the Apostles pictured in the St. Pudentiana mosaic.

Pixner also answered Zangenberg arguing his case primarily from literary evidence. He did not comment on the basic archaeological data prompting Geva's suggestion that the entire southwestern hill, including Mt. Sion, was occupied by the camp of the Tenth Roman Legion during the second-third centuries. He did, however, point out the significance of the orientation of the Cenacle building away from the Temple Mount and of the existence of the three tiered gate sills in the Essene Gate excavation area and the material extracted from below the middle sill identified as belonging to the Aelia Capitolina period (Pixner 1998:14; see also Pixner 1997).

Pixner's basic argument is that first century CE archaeological remains, dating to the early post-Herodian period, are now part of the structure on Mount Zion known as the Tomb of David. These remains are those of a Judeo-Christian synagogue, the traditional location of the Cenacle, later known as the "Church of the Apostles." The orientation of the niche of the original building is toward what is presently the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Theodosius I (ca. 382) caused an octagonal memorial church to be built adjacent to the Church of the Apostles and both structures appear in the Pudentiana mosaic. Later, he argues, the Church of the Apostles became an extension to the Hagia Sion (Holy Zion) basilica (415-1009 CE) as depicted in the Madaba mosaic. Following the 1009 partial destruction of Hagia Zion by Hakim, the Fatimid sultan of Egypt, Pixner believes the Crusaders constructed, on the southern part of the ruins of Hagia Sion, a new building incorporating the Church of the Apostles within it. They named the building St. Mary of Mount Zion (ca. 1110-1219). For Pixner the first-century ashlars in the present-day Tomb of David are the remnant of the "mother of all churches" and the site of the original Judeo-Christian See of Jerusalem.

In science a hypothesis cannot be rejected based upon an inadequate sample. The data offered by Pixner and Geva are not sufficiently compelling to develop an adequate explanation. In both cases we have the emergence of two basic theories. At this time more data is needed to explain the early history of the Cenacle building. Absent additional excavation of the site, an increasingly remote possibility, the matter is largely one of conjecture and religious faith.

Page last edited: 04/06/06 09:18 PM

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