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A Jewish Ossuary

September 6, 2018



An ossuary is a small rectangular box made of chalk or limestone, but also attested in wood or clay. Ossuaries usually stand on four short legs and have flat, vaulted or gabled lids and ranged from 45-75 cm in length, 25-30 cm in width and 25-40 cm in height (Magen 2002: 132).  The word for ossuary derives from the Latin term ossuāriumor charnel house.  Ossuaries functioned as bone containers and are primarily found in the Jerusalem area, but also in selected areas in the southern Levant in Jewish tombs dating to the New Testament period (first century B.C. to first century A.D.; e.g., Rahmani 1981; 1982a; 1982b; 1994a; 1994b; Avni; Greenhut; and Ilan 1994).  Following a death, family members prepared the body for burial then interred the deceased on a bench inside the family tomb.  After a year, when the flesh had fully decayed from the corpse, family members returned to collect the bones and place them in an ossuary, positioning large bones at the bottom, covered by smaller bones with the skull at the top.  Then they reinterred the ossuary, sliding it into one of several loculi or recessed niches (kokhim) within the confines of the same tomb. This practice cleared space on the tomb bench for the next newly expired family member.  Aside from transferring remains from the Diaspora to the Land of Israel, following the biblical precedent regarding the reburial of Jacob and Joseph in Canaan, rabbinical writings generally banned reinterment (Gafni 1981: 96-97; e.g., Genesis 47:30; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32). The extensive Jewish necropolis uncovered at Beit She’arim, dated to the late Roman and Byzantine periods contains the remains of Diaspora Jews from as far away as Yemen and attest to this idealistic desire.  Nevertheless, reinterment of a person’s remains within their tomb was a commonly accepted Jewish burial practice during the New Testament era.  Jewish reinterment practice also occurred during the Old Testament, but did not include the use of ossuaries.  The bones of the deceased were simply placed in a repository underneath the burial bench amongst those of his or her ancestors, giving literal meaning to the biblical phrase “gathered to his fathers” (e.g., Genesis 25:8, 17; 35:29; 49:29, 33; Numbers 20:26; 27:13; 31:2; 32:50; 2 Kings 22:20; 2 Chronicles 34:28).

While some ossuaries are plain, most exhibit some degree of decoration, usually on the sides.  The ornamentation include geometric, floral and architectural motifs, including rosettes, palm trees and quasi-ashlar walls. The rosette motif is particularly common and may represent the façades of the scores of monumental tombs that surrounded Jerusalem (Figueras 1983; Houston Smith 1983; Rahmani 1994a; 1994b; Magen 2002: 134).  Many ossuaries bear Aramaic or Greek inscriptions, usually the name of the deceased. Often carelessly incised or crudely written in charcoal, these names often reveal more about the people buried than the tomb itself and the corpus includes names attested in written sources.


Relevance to the Biblical Account


The coffin containing the body of the widow of Nain’s son in the gospel of Luke (7:11-17) does not refer to an ossuary as he had just died.  Likewise, the raising of Lazarus after four days in his tomb does not include any reference to ossuaries (John 11).  Nevertheless, several inscribed ossuaries, originating from excavations as well as the antiquities market, have made sensational headlines.  In 1990, archaeologists excavated a tomb in north Talpiyot containing twelve ossuaries, two of them, including a richly decorated one, were inscribed with Caiapha, most probably Caiaphas the High Priest, mentioned in the New Testament (Matthew 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2; John 11:49; 18:13-14, 24-28; Acts 4:6) as well as by Josephus (Antiquities18, 35, 95; Greenhut 1994; Reich 1994).  In 1980, archaeologists unearthed a family tomb dating to the New Testament period in East Talpiyot, a southern suburb of Jerusalem (Kloner 1996).  An inscribed ossuary from a private collection in Israel rose to prominence in 2002 when a renowned scholar took notice of the Aramaic inscription and read it as follows: Ya’akov (James)son of Yosef (Joseph)brother of Yeshua (Jesus).  Because this ossuary had no known provenance, numerous scholars argue that at least part of the inscription was forged.  While a reasonable assertion for any unprovenanced inscription, numerous tests and studies, as well as forgery charges made against the owner of the ossuary, have not led to any consensus regarding the authenticity of the writing.  If the inscription is ancient, whether or not the individuals it mentions have any relation to Jesus’ family remains tantalizing, but uncertain (e.g., Shanks and Witherington 2003).  In a notorious 2007 media event, followed by a series of sensationalistic books, certain people made shocking assertions that this tomb actually contained ossuaries belonging to the family of Jesus.  Swift and decisive responses from both many in the believing and non-believing archaeological community soundly refuted these spurious claims (for a balanced discussion, see Charlesworth 2013).


Physical Description


The Horn Museum acquired this ossuary (70.0056) in 1970.  Unfortunately, the lid and contents were missing when acquired.  The ossuary measures 36 x 19 cm (external dimensions) and 25 x 10 cm (internal dimensions) and 17 cm in height.  Because the thighbone (femur), which is the longest bone in the human body, determines the size of an ossuary, it is quite certain that this exceptionally small ossuary once held the bones of an infant.  Careful examination will reveal two faintly and somewhat crudely incised radiating circles enclosing simple rosette motifs with a herringbone border on one side, a common decoration on ossuaries (e.g., Figueras 1983: 36-41; Plate 4:296).  Although our ossuary has no provenance, it likely originated from the Jerusalem area.




Avni, Gideon; Greenhut, Zvi; and Ilan, Tal

1994    Three New Burial Caves of the Second Temple period in Aceldama (Kidron                                  Valley).  Pp. 206-218 in Ancient Jerusalem Revealed,ed. Hillel                                                      Geva.  Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.


Charlesworth, James H., editor

2013    The Tomb of Jesus and His Family?  Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs near                               Jerusalem’s Walls.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.


Figueras, Pau

1983    Decorated Jewish Ossuaries.  Documenta et Monumenta Orientis Antiqui Leiden:  E. J.              Brill.


Gafni, Isaiah

1981    Reinterment in the Land of Israel:  Notes on the Origin and Development of the                          Custom.  Pp. 96-105 in Vol. 1 of The Jerusalem Cathedra: Studies in the History,                        Archaeology, Geography and Ethnography of the Land of Israel,ed. Lee I.                                    Levine.  Jerusalem and Detroit:  Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Institute and Wayne State                            University.


Greenhut, Zvi

1994    The Caiaphas Tomb in North Talpiyot, Jerusalem.  Pp. 219-225 in Ancient Jerusalem                Revealed,ed. Hillel Geva.  Jerusalem:  Israel Exploration Society.


Houston Smith, Robert

1983    Decorative Geometric Designs in Stone—The Rediscovery of a Technique of Roman-                Byzantine Craftsmen.  Biblical Archaeologist46/3: 175-186.


Kloner, Amos

            1996    A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem.  ‘Atiqot29: 15-22.


Magen, Yitzhak

2002    The Stone Vessel Industry in the Second Temple Period:  Excavations at Hizma and                  the Jerusalem Temple Mount.  Judea and Samaria Publications 1. Jerusalem: Israel                Antiquities Authority.


Meyers, Eric M.

1971    Jewish Ossuaries:  Reburial and Rebirth.  Secondary Burials in Their Ancient Near                    Eastern Setting.  Biblica et Orientalia 24.  Rome:  Biblical Institute.


Raḥmani, Levi Y.

1981    Ancient Jerusalem’s Funerary Customs and Tombs—Part One.  Biblical                                      Archaeologist44/3: 171-177.

1982a  Ancient Jerusalem’s Funerary Customs and Tombs—Part Three.  Biblical                                    Archaeologist45/1: 43-53.

1982b  Ancient Jerusalem’s Funerary Customs and Tombs—Part Four.  Biblical                                      Archaeologist45/2: 109-119.

1994a  Ossuaries and Ossilegium(Bone-Gathering) in the Late Second Temple Period.  Pp.                  191-205 in Ancient Jerusalem Revealed,ed. Hillel Geva.  Jerusalem:  Israel                                Exploration Society.

1994b  A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of                                                 Israel. Jerusalem:  Israel Antiquities Authority.


Reich, Ronny

1994    Ossuary Inscriptions of the Caiaphas Family from Jerusalem.  Pp. 223-255 in Ancient              Jerusalem Revealed,ed. Hillel Geva.  Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.


Shanks, Hershel, and Witherington III, Ben

2003    The Brother of Jesus:  The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link              to Jesus & His Family.  New York: HarperCollins.

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