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.

Recommended Reading:

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 5: Rock Cut Tombs

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.

During the Late First Temple Period (8th to 6th century BC), we begin to see the creation of multichamber rock-cut tombs. Reached by rock-cut stairs leading to an unadorned opening, these tombs were carved into the living stone, with a central space opening into subchambers. Each subchamber was lined–often on all three sides–by low benches. Over time, narrower loculi (fit for a single body) also began to appear.

The dead were wrapped in a shroud (and, on occasion, placed in a coffin) and then placed on these benches. Bodies may well have been treated with oil, herbs, resins, and other methods, many of them adapted from Israel’s extensive experience of foreign cultures. As the tombs were used and reused by families over many generations, bones would be removed to make way for new bodies. (We will address what happened to them in the next post.) Thus, we have a practical connection the Biblical phrase. “And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers” (Judges 2:10 and elsewhere). People were, quite literally, gathered to their fathers.

Because cutting a tomb of this type was extremely expensive, they were only used by wealthy Jews. That’s why they were reused for many, many generations. Tombs were almost always located outside the walls of the city, unlike some earlier burials which were inside the city and even the home.

Foreign influences began to creep into the designs of these tombs, with carved headrests on the benches and various architectural details betraying the Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman influences over time. We may speculate that this shows the tendencies of the upper classes to adapt to foreign influences: a complaint also reflected in the scripture.

After the Babylonian Captivity (c. 586 BC), these tombs vanish for a time, along with the people who built them, and do not reappear until the Hasmonean Dynasty (late 2nd century BC). In the intervening period, Mausolus built his famous tomb at Halicarnassus (c. 353 BC), this giving us a Wonder of the World, a new word (mausoleum) and a new style of tomb: a grand edifice on a raised platform with columns and a pyramid roof.

The upper class Jews began to the imitate this form, and there is a description of a tomb (subsequently destroyed) in 1 Maccabees 13:27-30:

27 And Simon built a monument over the tomb of his father and his brothers; he made it high that it might be seen, with polished stone at the front and back. 28 He also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers. 29 And for the pyramids he devised an elaborate setting, erecting about them great columns, and upon the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor carved ships, so that they could be seen by all who sail the sea. 30 This is the tomb which he built in Modein; it remains to this day.

Josephus also describes the tomb of Simon in Antiquities of the Jews (13:210-11).

Other tombs follow a similar design: Jason’s Tomb, the Tomb of Absalom, and Zechariah’s Tomb all use the platform/column/pyramid form inspire by the tomb Halicarnassus.

Tomb of Absalom (interior)

These tombs, of course, raise as many questions about burial as they answer, because they only reflect the practices of a small, elite group. What about the common people and the poor? They have, unfortunately, left very little mark on the archaeological record because they used burial techniques that do not leave many obvious signs. Most likely, they simply buried their dead in trench or pit graves, perhaps using older structures or adapting some of the techniques already discussed.

We know from the Gospels that Judas was buried in a “Potter’s Field” (so named because the site was used as a source of clay by potters), so by the first century simple inhumations in earth were common, and we have no reason to think this had not been the case for the lower classes for most of First and Second Temple Periods. Excavation at Qumran, which features a large cemetery filled with simple trench or pit graves, suggests the practice was widespread.
Recommended Reading:

The Earliest Biblical Painting?

Is this it?It comes from a house in Pompeii (buried by volcanic ash in 79 AD) and is believed to show Biblical scene of the Judgement of Solomon.

Bible History Daily has the whole story. Theodore Feder writes:

In the building known as the House of the Physician, excavators found a wall painting clearly depicting King Solomon seated on a raised tribunal and flanked by two counselors. As described in the Bible, two women have come to the Israelite monarch, each claiming to be the mother of the same infant. When Solomon orders the baby to be divided in half, the real mother, shown at the foot of the dais, pleads with him to spare the child and announces her willingness to relinquish her claim. The other woman is shown standing by the butcher block on which the infant has been placed. As a soldier raises an axe to do the king’s bidding, she seizes what she believes will be her portion, saying, according to the Biblical text, “Let it be neither mine, nor thine, but divide it.” It is obvious who the real mother is. The child is given to her unharmed as soldiers and observers look on, marveling at Solomon’s wisdom (1 Kings 3:16–28).

The wall painting has now been removed and is on exhibit at the Museo Nazionale in Naples. While it is therefore well known to scholars, it has not previously been noted that this is the earliest depiction of a full-fledged Biblical scene known to us!

Was the painting commissioned by a Jew, an early Christian, a so-called God-fearer (gentiles who adopted many Jewish customs and beliefs, but did not converta) or simply an educated Roman?

There is good evidence that Jews lived in Pompeii. Kosher brands of the locally popular fish sauces were packed there and appropriately labeled Kosher Garum and Kosher Muria (garum castum, muria casta).1 A two-word inscription, Sodoma Gomora, also survives from a house front in Pompeii and may have been written by a Jew or, less likely, by an early Christian, either before the eruption of Vesuvius or by a digger soon afterwards. It is perhaps more affecting to imagine its having been hastily written in the midst of the eruption by someone who analogized the town’s impending fate with that of the two doomed Biblical cities.

Almost as intriguing is the big-head-style Socrates and Aristotle at the lower lefthand corner, intended to draw a connection between the wisdom of Solomon and the Greek philosophers.

Socrates and Aristotle

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 4: A Biblical Interlude

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.

Dore used one of the few methods of burial NOT practiced by the Israelites (wall burial) in his “Burial of Sarah”

I want to pause at this point and turn from the archaeological record to the Biblical record to see what evidence we have for burial and attitudes toward the dead in scripture.

Genesis 23:19 tells us that “Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Mach-pe’lah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan.” This is a very specific reference to a location (land being strongly tied to the identity of the Jews) and a type of burial (in a cave). It honors the dead, records the place of her grave, and makes a claim to the land on which she is buried. Gen 25:9 tells us that Abraham was buried in the same place, and later Isaac, Rebekeh, Leah, and Jacob, while Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, was buried under an oak below Bethel (Gen 35:8).

This tomb may be at site called the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, over which Herod built a magnificent structure with walls six feet thick. (This is the last surviving intact Herodian structure.) The site is holy to Jews and Muslims, and a source of constant tension in modern Israel. It has not been thoroughly studied by archaeologists in modern times due to political and religious tensions.

Burial was considered imperative to preserve the dignity of man, made in the image of God, and to prevent any chance of contamination. (Saul is cremated, but this the exception rather than the rule.) The fear, as expressed in scripture, was that the body would be eaten by wild animals (Deut 28:26, 1 Kings 23:22, 24:11, 2 Kings 12:34-37, Jer 7:33, etc), and this was unacceptable. The idea so horrified the Jews that even condemned prisoners (Deut 21:23) and enemy combatants (1 Kings 11:15) were supposed to be buried. Tobit is considered righteous because he buries strangers even though he is persecuted for it.

Tobit Burying the Dead (Andrea di Lione, 1640s)

Although Deut 21:23 refers to the condemned (“his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance”) it was considered the source for the mandate to bury the dead within 24 hours of death, so as not to contaminate the land.

This was major issue, and Num 19:11-16 explains the seriousness of ritual impurity from dead bodies:

11 “He who touches the dead body of any person shall be unclean seven days;12 he shall cleanse himself with the water on the third day and on the seventh day, and so be clean; but if he does not cleanse himself on the third day and on the seventh day, he will not become clean. 13 Whoever touches a dead person, the body of any man who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown upon him, he shall be unclean; his uncleanness is still on him. 14 “This is the law when a man dies in a tent: every one who comes into the tent, and every one who is in the tent, shall be unclean seven days. 15 And every open vessel, which has no cover fastened upon it, is unclean. 16 Whoever in the open field touches one who is slain with a sword, or a dead body, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be unclean seven days.

This concern for impurity led to observant Jews burying their dead away from living space and marking the graves so that no one might inadvertently walk on contaminated land, and thus become contaminated themselves. Impurity was removed by the Sacrifice of the Red Heifer, which was unusual in that it was conducted outside the camp by the person designated as successor to the high priest, rather than the high priest himself.

Modern view: Tomb of the Patriarchs

These proscriptions and rituals were even somewhat mysterious to the Jews, but the reason for them was not: sin had brought death into the world. Contamination by the dead is the most serious form of impurity in the Torah, not just because of squeamishness (ancient peoples lived in much more pronounced proximity to suffering, dying and death), but because of the connections to sin. The person who dealt with the dead was, in a sense, in the realm of death and sin, and needed to be purified in order to pass back into the realm of the living and the pure.

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 3: The Bronze Age

Excavation at Bab ed-Dhrah cemetery

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.

The Intermediate Bronze Age is so heavily marked by a rise in lavish burials that it’s one of the central features of the age. One of the largest ancient cemeteries in the Holy Land is at Bab edh-Dhra, where 20,000 tombs have been discovered, including many shaft graves filled with grave offerings. One unusual feature of this location is a charnel house: a room 35×17 feet, with bones and pottery stacked at the center, and an entryway paved with skulls.

Cairn burials were also found at this location. People were buried in shallow graves, which were then stacked with dirt and stones and capped with pile of rock. Tumuli–which are essentially barrows: graves heaped with small rocks and soil–also start emerging during this period. Thousands of tumuli have been found in the Negev Highlands.

As we can see, a rich array of funeral practices was observed in the region as we progress through the Bronze Age. Some tombs were inside of city limits, close to homes. Some were outside. As the Bronze Age continues, there’s a rise in the appearance of larger stone tombs holding as many as 40 bodies.

Bronze Age tumulus at Makhtesh Ramon

The methods of internment in these tombs was unusual. People would be laid out in the center of the tomb on a mat (and, in once case, on a bed), usually flat on the back, sometimes with knees raised. Food and other offerings were left with the body. Jewelry was rare, but personal items like combs, oil, and decorated boxes were quite common. The tombs was closed after each burial and then reopened for the next. Bones and objects from the previous burial were pushed off the sides to form a heap, and the next body laid in the center. As time went on, large mounds of intermingled bones and objects began to line the walls of these tombs.

During the Middle Bronze Age, the region came under the sway of the Hyksos, we begin to see warriors interred with their horse. Such tombs have been found at Jericho and Tell el-Ajjul, but are exceptional rather than commonplace, and represent a clear foreign influence.

Example of a Hyksos horse burial (Tell el-Dab’a, Egypt)

As the region entered the Iron Age (approximately 1200 BC), the people we call the Israelites appear as a force in Palestine. The fading of imperial rule allows local people to build their own authority, and we enter the period described in Judges, leading to the formation of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The Israelites adapt some of the burial customs they find in the region, and reuse preexisting graves. None of the more exotic techniques–such as skull decoration or mounted burials–are used by the Israelites, but it’s fair to say most of the techniques described thus far were in use at some point, and in some places, during the period covered by the Old Testament.

In addition, new techniques begin to emerge that will become more standard for the area, with adaptations that will be used through Greek and Roman periods and into the time of Christ.
Recommended Reading:

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 2: Early Ossuaries and Shaft Tombs

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.

During the Chalcolithic Period (the “Copper Age”), a new kind of burial started appearing along the coastal plain, at sites like Azor, Bene-Berak, and Hedera. This marks the first appearance of ossuaries, which will become a key element in the treatment of the dead. These early ossuaries are made of clay, with a diversity of styles and shapes indicating they were intended to resemble to homes of the deceased, which may suggest a sense of continuity between life and death. (Then again, some ossuaries resembled animals, so perhaps not.) We shall see how these theological elements affected ideas about burial as we get into the Second Temple and New Testament times.

Ossuaries are not meant to contain entire bodies, but only the bones. Along with the discovery of the skulls of Jericho, they show the increasing use of two-stage burials. In the first stage, a person is either buried or placed in a niche or cave until the flesh decays, leaving only the bones. In the second stage, the bones are collected and reburied, or gathered into these boxes and placed in niches dug out of sandstone. The openings of the ossuaries were large enough for a skull (the bone with the largest circumference) to be placed inside. Miniature ossuaries have been found in larger ones as some kind of offering. Doors were sometimes fitted to these openings, and some of these doors contained decorations representing human faces, in either paint or relief.

At roughly the same time the first ossuaries appeared, people in the Levant began using cist burials as well. A cist is, basically, a square hole dug in the ground and lined with stone slabs, sometimes with a slab over the top. Sometimes several appear in a row, and we may assume these were for family burials.

These trends in burial continue for many year, and are joined during the Bronze Age (roughly beginning in 3000 BC) by shaft burials in which a vertical hole was dug in limestone, sandstone, or soil. If it was dug in soil, the walls were lined with stone. A chamber opened at the bottom of this shaft, and was blocked with a large stone. Chambers have been discovered in various shapes (rectangular, circular, and amorphous) and sizes. Three, four, or even more rectangular chambers may branch off from this main chamber, providing niches for the dead.

Because fewer people were buried in these shaft tombs, we see a sudden spike in larger cemeteries during the Intermediate Bronze Age. Many of these are primary burials, but secondary burials are also found in shaft tombs. During this period, modest grave offerings are common. Pottery, metal tools and weapons, pins, bracelets, beads, and coins are common in these graves. The materials are humble, in keeping with the relative poverty of the region.

The BiblePlaces Blog has a superb photo essay showing excavation of shaft graves from the Intermediate Bronze Age. Here’s just one example, but you should see the whole thing to get a sense of the excavation, the shafts, and the burial spaces.

In some tombs, bones were heaped at the center, with pottery and utensils arrayed around the perimeter. Food has been discovered in some vessels, and there are some suggestions that they provide evidence for a final meal with the dead. Eating with the departed in a common practice in folk culture throughout the world. Are these pots, jugs, and utensils evidence of the practice in ancient Palestine?

There are no grand tombs filled with treasures, but rather small offerings intended as gifts for the dead. May we assume these were simply treasures associated with the deceased without implying any metaphysical, cultic, or religious aspect to the offerings? Or does the proximity of the region to Egypt suggest some kind of ties to a developing and vivid sense of the afterlife and the objects one would need to make the journey? As we get into the Second Temple period, the answers to these questions become slightly clearer.

Burial in Ancient Israel Part 1: The First Graves

Rather than just leaving you postless and bereft as I work on an essay, I decided to share little slices of it over the course of the week. The essay concerns burial practices in the Levant, from the earliest evidence up to the time of Christ. The way we handle our dead is of immense cultural significance, bound up in our faith, our sense of family, our ideas of continuity, and our vision of life and the afterlife. The funeral practices of ancient Palestine are no exception.

The earliest human remains in the Levant were found in the es-Skhul Cave on Mt. Carmel (about 13 miles south of modern Haifa, Israel). These date to approximately 110,000 years ago, and are linked to the Mousterian culture of the Middle Paleolithic period, a group of Neanderthals classified by their use of a certain kind of flintwork tool. The caves continued to be occupied (perhaps intermittently) well into the Mesolithic period, with evidence showing that the Natufian culture was present sometime between 13,000 and 9000 BC.

Excavations at es-Skhul uncovered the bodies of 10 individuals buried in pits with their knees drawn up, hands across the chest, and some objects included with the bodies. The various layers of occupation, stretching over so long a time, suggest that graves may be been reused. The burials of es-Skhul were linked to the occupants of the nearby et-Tabun Cave , indicating that these early humans did not go far to bury their dead. The odd, mixed morphological features of these remains suggest, to some, that Homo sapiens and Neanderthals had lived contemporaneously and perhaps even interbred, resulting in a new type identified as Palaeoanthropus palastinensis.

As the region entered the Neolithic period, 10,000 BC, we begin to see different kinds of burials. In homes in Jericho, skulls have been discovered beneath the floors in an extraordinary condition. Plaster had been placed over the skulls to recreate the face of the departed, with shells from the Red Sea used for eyes. The plaster was painted to render facial details, including eyebrows and facial hair. Some lower jaws were removed and reconstructed so the base could be flat, indicating that the item was meant to be displayed, possibly in a niche or shrine.

 

At the same time, monumental structures were being erected to the dead. The most common was the dolmen: upright rocks (usually two, but sometimes more) with another rock laid across the top, forming a kind of table structure. Hundreds have been found just in the Golan Heights, and more dot the landscape of modern Israel. One or two people may be buried in this kind of tomb, and sometimes earth was piled around the dolmen to bury it, thus creating a barrow. This marks a major shift in the way the dead were memorialized, and they continued to appear until at least the 4th millennium BC.

St. Augustine Asks the Hard Questions Atheists Don’t Ask UPDATED

It’s fun to read or listen to super-duper-smart professional atheists (well, they think they’re smart) banging on about the book of Genesis. It’s a useful issue for them, because the primeval history in scripture is mysterious, complex, and rich in symbolism. So, naturally, Reason Warriors approach it with the childish literalism of a young-earth creationist. Perhaps this works for them because fundamentalism is ill-equipped to properly understand Genesis, which is why friends don’t let friends be fundamentalists.

Atheists think Christians believe this is how things really happened.

One of their techniques is to throw out an endless litany of questions about the creation of the world and then demand instant answers, usually from some poor sap unequipped to respond knowledgeably. “Oh yeah, so God made light before he made the sun? He made plants before he made the sun needed for them to grow? Why are there two creation stories? Huh? HUH?!” And then they stand back in triumph, fold their arms across their chest, marvel at their own genius, and wait for the poor sap to fumble his way through a few pathetic replies.

This kind of low-hanging fruit is the bread-and-butter of the atheist combox troll and meme-maker, but the really hilarious thing is that their questions are all so pathetic. Because atheists believe they have the corner on reason and logic, they develop an inflated sense of their own intelligence. They gather for “Reason Rallies” as though reason was a wholly owned subsidiary of Atheism Inc., rather than something inherited from the centrality of Aristotelianism to Catholic theology, and thus to Western civilization. Their questions barely even skim the surface of the incredibly deep, profound, vexing, and glorious texts of Genesis 1 & 2. Continue reading

Seal Depicting Samson Discovered (Or Maybe Not)

It’s hard to know what to make of this story at this point, so I’m just going to put it out there as reported.

Excavations at Tel Beit Shmesh have turned up an interesting stone seal at a level dating to about the 11th century BC. This is the seal:

 

It’s about 1.5 cm and shows a large animal and a human. The date places it in the period covered by the book of Judges, so some are jumping straight to Judges 14, in which Samson fights a lion. Tel Beit Shemesh is near Tel Batash, identified with Timna, the home of Samson’s wife and his destination during the encounter with the lion.

From Haaratz (behind the pay wall)

But excavation directors Prof. Shlomo Bunimovitz and Dr. Zvi Lederman of Tel Aviv University say they do not suggest that the human figure on the seal is the biblical Samson. Rather, the geographical proximity to the area where Samson lived, and the time period of the seal, show that a story was being told at the time of a hero who fought a lion, and that the story eventually found its way into the biblical text and onto the seal.

Two structures were unearthed from the same period, which were apparently used for ritual purposes. Installations that Bunimovitz concedes are “enigmatic” were also found at the site, one of which is a kind of table next to which numerous animal bones were unearthed. Scholars think they might have been used for sacrifices.

Fundamental to the stories of the Beit Shemesh and Samson stories is the existence in the area of the boundary between the Philistines and the local people, first the Canaanites and later the people of Judah.

One constant in the current approach to Biblical history is the stark divergence of approaches, from Biblical literalists on one side, to those who say the Bible cannot be used as a historical reference point and we must reconstruct the history of the region using only archaeological evidence and the texts of other cultures. (Why the texts of other cultures may be trusted but not the scripture remains a mystery to me.) Somewhere in the middle, most historians try to find a balance, but even the best are prone to weird tics that cause them to either dismiss whole chunks of the Bible, or rush to see Adam in every picture of a man next to a tree.

Or, in this case, both. The team simultaneously dismisses the notion of any Samson who is more than a folktale while also seeing “Samson” in a stone bulla. I’m not even sure how they got from “creature with four legs” to “lion” so quickly. It may well be in keeping with contemporaneous depictions of lions on other artifacts, but that’s hardly a settled issue, and the minuscule size of the bulla makes it hard to determine. Maybe it’s a donkey. Or a liger. (I know the picture is pretty low-res, and I may just be imagining this, but doesn’t it look like there may be a human figure on the “lion’s” back? The ancient Hebrews were pretty awesome, but I don’t recall them being so badass as to ride around on lions.)

That’s one of the weird things about current Biblical history and archaeology. Its practitioners almost certainly entered the field with a personal background in a Biblical faith tradition that takes these stories as holy writ, yet they developed this hard, and somewhat artificial, shell of radical skepticism somewhere in their training. Thus, their minds still go to the Biblical stories they no longer believe, but their training immediately tries to explain it away. Take the Bible out of the picture, and there’s no reason at all to even mention Samson (as either a real or imaginary character) in connection with this artifact. Include the Bible in the picture, and (if you’re a skeptic) you risk bias in your conclusions. Doesn’t it make more sense to regard Genesis to Judges as oral history–real events shaped over time by the community into the form we now have them–and try to understand them in that context?

In any case, I’m not seeing a whole lot of Judges 14 in this item, but like all such finds, it’s fascinating nonetheless.

Levantine DNA in Ethiopia May Support Biblical Story

Genetic researchers believe they’ve found evidence that people from Israel, Egypt, or Syria mixed with Ethiopians 3000 years ago. The timing of this appearance of the new DNA coincides with the historical period in which the Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon. According to legend, the queen returned to Ethiopia bearing Solomon’s son.

Professor Chris Tyler-Smith of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge, UK, a researcher on the study, told BBC News: “Genetics can tell us about historical events.

“By analysing the genetics of Ethiopia and several other regions we can see that there was gene flow into Ethiopia, probably from the Levant, around 3,000 years ago, and this fits perfectly with the story of the Queen of Sheba.”

Lead researcher Luca Pagani of the University of Cambridge and the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute added: “The genetic evidence is in support of the legend of the Queen of Sheba.”

More than 200 individuals from 10 Ethiopian and two neighbouring African populations were analysed in the largest genetic investigation of its kind on Ethiopian populations.

About a million genetic letters in each genome were studied. Previous Ethiopian genetic studies have focussed on smaller sections of the human genome and mitochondrial DNA, which passes along the maternal line.

Dr Sarah Tishcoff of the Department of Genetics and Biology at the University of Pennsylvania, said Ethiopia would be an important region to study in the future.

Commenting on the study, she said: “Ethiopia is a very diverse region culturally and linguistically but, until now, we’ve known little about genetic diversity in the region.

“This paper sheds light on the very interesting recent and ancient population history of a region that played an important role in both recent and ancient human migration events.

“In particular, the inference of timing and location of admixture with populations from the Levant is very interesting and is a unique example of how genetic data can be integrated with historical data.”

The scientists acknowledge that there are uncertainties about dating, with a probable margin of error of a few hundred years either side of 3,000 years.

Jumping straight to the Queen of Sheba seems like an awfully large leap, but it’s an interesting story nonetheless, and the time is suggestive.