Fr Bargil Pixner

Archaeologist with a key to the 'first Vatican'
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Bargil Pixner, priest and archaeologist: born Untermais, Italy 23 March 1921; ordained priest 1946; clothed a monk 1972; died Jerusalem 5 April 2002.

One should never forget the "Fifth Gospel", the Benedictine monk and archaeologist Bargil Pixner declared to his students and pilgrims, referring to the archaeological sites of the Holy Land. "They explain much of what the Bible tells us." Indeed, he went on to write a book entitled With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (1996), using archaeology to bring biblical events alive.

Among the pilgrims of many Christian denominations Pixner conducted around the holy sites were the former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the former US President Jimmy Carter.

Pixner had a gift for linking archaeology with the Bible through his talks and writings – available not just in German but in English and other languages – but his theories were not always accepted by other archeologists.

He insisted Jesus had Essene connections, encouraged in this by the excavations he began in 1977 in an area of Mount Zion which he termed the Essene Gateway. This led him to argue that Jesus almost certainly died in the afternoon of Friday 7 April in AD30, after being arrested two days earlier.

"Jesus' extended family was close to the Essenes," he claimed. "But Jesus distanced himself from them and very often criticised them. But – at least at the end of his life – he kept to the Essenes' calendar of festivals followed by his family."

Pixner identified what he believed was the site of the biblical Bethsaida on the north shores of the Sea of Galilee. Combing the scriptures and other historical records (Flavius Josephus, for example) for clues, he determined that the city lay on a 100ft rise simply called et-Tel ("the mound"), one and a half miles north of the Sea, just east of where the Jordan River flows into the lake.

In 1985 he published a landmark article in the Biblical Archeological Review, but many experts disagreed with his conclusion, arguing that the site was too far from the lake. Excavations began in 1987.

Pixner felt vindicated when, in 1989, the Israeli government recognised et-Tel as the official location of Bethsaida on maps. In 1991, the Bethsaida Excavation Project was formed to recover the site. He was present at the festive opening ceremony, along with the Israeli Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin Shahak and the local Greek Orthodox and Catholic bishops.

In March 2000 Pixner had the highest endorsement – he welcomed Pope John Paul II to the site and showed him an ancient key recovered from a house which some believe to be the home of the disciple Peter. "This is the key to the first Vatican!" he told the Pope triumphantly.

Pixner was born in 1921, the eldest of eight children in a devout Catholic family in the German-speaking region of South Tyrol, which had been handed to Italian control after the First World War. He began theological studies in Brixen (Bressanone) in 1940. The following year he joined the Tyrolean branch of the Mill Hill Missionary Fathers, with its headquarters in London.

Called up in 1944, Pixner refused to take the oath of allegiance to Hitler and was sent in punishment to the Eastern Front. In May 1945 he escaped from Silesia and returned home. He took his final vows and was ordained priest in Brixen in 1946, immediately leaving for missionary work in the Philippines. He headed a leprosy centre in Santa Barbara in Iloilo for eight years.

He then served in France, Italy and the United States, where he founded a home for priests in difficulties and acquired US citizenship.

In May 1969, Pixner fulfilled a long-time dream when he moved to the Holy Land, where he co-founded a peace village, Neve Shalom, close to the biblical village of Emmaus and bringing together Catholics and Protestants.

In 1972 he entered the Benedictine Order and took his final vows in 1974 at the Dormition Abbey in Jerusalem, a German Benedictine foundation also known as Hagia Maria Zion. He spent 12 years at the affiliated abbey at Tabgha on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, helping to organise the building of a fine church, returning in 1994 to Dormition Abbey, where he later served as prior.

"Life on this earth is short, but the life to follow is without end," ran Pixner's motto. "May the lifespan given to you be a preparation for your life with the eternal God."

Felix Corley