Burial in Ancient Israel Part 6: Ossuaries

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.


Since rock-cut tombs were reused over many generations, an issue arose: what to do with the bones? Two approaches have been found.

There is evidence that, for many years, bones were placed in shallow depression underneath the beneath the bench where the bodies had been laid out. Grave goods were swept into the same depression, creating a jumble of bones beneath the bench.

Over time, this practice grew less common and the use of ossuaries becomes more prominent. Ossuaries make their first appearance in Jerusalem’s rock-cut tombs during the reign of Herod, with the earliest dating to approximately 20 BC. Unlike earlier clay ossuaries found elsewhere in the Levant, these are carved from local stone, almost always in a casket design. They’re rarely larger than 2 feet long, and, in the case of children, quite a bit smaller.

Capped with curved, gabled, or flat lids and sometimes carved with a design, they exhibit a Roman style in keeping with the influences of the Herodian period. When names appear on ossuaries, they often seem to have been carved by a different hand than the decorative design, perhaps by a family member scratching a name in Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek after transferring the bones in the tombs.

Notable Ossuaries

Association: Caiaphas, high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus
Verdict: Genuine

In 1990, a tomb was found southwest of the Old City, Jerusalem. Inside this rather small tomb was a well-decorated ossuary with an evocative name carved into the side: “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Based on date, location, and name, archaeologists immediately knew it could be none other than the tomb of the man who served as high priest from 18-36 AD: the man responsible for the death of Christ.

Please note: yes, it looks like the inscription was rather poorly and hastily scratched into an otherwise beautiful box. This was quite common (as noted above), since a family member usually transferred the bones in the tomb and scratched the name himself, in cramped, dimly lit conditions.

Association: The “family” of Jesus
Verdict: A rather lame and obvious hoax. (Please note: the inscriptions and artifacts are genuine. It’s the association with Jesus of Nazareth that is false.)

Filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, along with religious studies professor James Tabor, attempted to make the case that ossuaries discovered in the “Patio Tomb” in Talpiot in 1980 were actually from the family grave of Jesus, complete with wild and unfounded speculation that they proved Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son named Judah. The claim was widely ridiculed, with archaeologist Jodi Magness saying that it “flies in the face of all available evidence.”

Given that Jesus had a poor family, was not from Jerusalem (his tomb would have been in Nazareth), was not married, did not have a child, was laid in a borrowed tomb (thus proving he did not have a family tomb), and that the names on the ossuaries (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) were quite common at the time, the entire claim was an absurd tissue of lies created to generate headlines, booksales, and viewers for a Cameron-produced documentary. When I saw the artifacts in the United States, the exhibit didn’t even mention the ridiculous claims, and no one except the original promoters believe it was anything but a hoax.

James Charlesworth offers a summary of a symposium during which the hoax was addressed, and the weasley methods of the people promoting it. The consensus: not even close. His verdict on the grandstanding techniques of those involved and the media they duped is withering. (Please note: Charlesworth is not a marginal figure: he’s pretty much the dean of deuterocanonical and pseudepigrapha study.)

Association: St. James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem
Verdict: Undetermined. Almost certainly not the ossuary of St. James (who was inhumated).  The box is genuine.  The inscription may or may not be forged. (My opinion, FWIW: forged.)

The so-called James ossuary did not provide the tidy closure of the debunked Talpiot claims. The name on this ossuary–James son of Joseph brother of Jesus–ignited a firestorm of debate that resulted in claims of forgery and a highly publicized trial in Israel. The connection to St. James, leader of the church in Jerusalem and one of the major figures in the early church, made the find important, if true. The trial, however, was unable to prove that the inscription was a forgery, and the issue remains up for debate.

The Meaning of Ossuaries
The question naturally arises: what led to the sudden appearance of ossuaries in stone-cute tombs in Jerusalem around the Herodian period? One answer may have to do with a shift in theology. A theory has been proposed by archaeologist Levi Yitzhak Rahmani that ties the sudden appearance of the ossuaries to a new belief among Jews in the 1st century BC: belief in the resurrection of the dead. Although the Sadducees rejected the idea of a literal resurrection of the physical body, it was strongly held by the Pharisees, and was eventually accepted by Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

Rahmani believes that the practice of intermingling bones ends with the spread of this belief, with the shift to ossuaries driven by a need to keep body parts together and as undamaged as possible, ready for the resurrection. Furthermore, the decay of flesh emphasizes the Pharisaical association of flesh with sin, with sin being devoured along with the decomposing flesh.

It’s an appealing theory, offering a neat solution to an unanswered question, but it has problems. First, ossuaries often contain bones from multiple bodies, and often those are missing certain pieces. Second, many of the ossuaries were found in the richest tombs and areas, and those belonged to the Sadducees, not the Pharisees.

Ossuary from “Patio” (Tapliot) tomb, with remains

More likely, the appearance of ossuaries at this place and this time is simply a reflection of the Roman influence upon the upper classes, encouraged by the Herodians The ossuaries suddenly disappear with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, further suggesting ties to a Roman influence. It may also be tied to a sudden sense of individuality inspired by Greek thought. As we’ve seen, an extreme diversity of burial customs has characterized the region, so it’s not unusual to find new practices developing suddenly and fading from popularity just as suddenly.

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