Early Christian Tombs Near Jerusalem

Avoiding sensational statements and stories concerning archaeological discoveries.

By SIEGFRIED H. HORN, Former Missionary to Java, Far Eastern Division

Under the sensational title "Eye-Witness Story of Crucifixion Discovered," news­papers all over the world reported under the date line of October 3, 1945, that a discov­ery of first historical and theological impor­tance had been made. The dispatch from Jerusalem contained the following startling statement:

"Probably written within a few weeks of the Cruci­fixion, writes the Daily Herald Jerusalem correspond­ent, it is by far the oldest record. The next oldest ac­count was written over a century later—and its au­thenticity has not been proved. The newly-discovered writings, which are in clear Greek, were in four stone coffins in a vault just outside Jerusalem on the way to Bethlehem. They consist of a bitter moving lamenta­tion." 1

Cautious readers of the report were not too much impressed, because of several obvious illogical statements contained in it. That eye­witnesses of the crucifixion were still lament­ing Christ's death bitterly a few weeks after the crucifixion was unbelievable, as they were all acquainted with the fact of His resurrec­tion. That the next oldest account of Christ's death was written over a century later, not be­fore A.D. 131, and that its authenticity has not been proved, was furthermore, a gross misstat­ing of facts, because it is indisputably recog­nized that the Gospels were written in the first century after Christ, some within forty years of the death of Jesus.

Subsequent reports from London and Jeru­salem, appearing in the newspapers a few days later, tempered the high expectations aroused by the earlier sensational account of the discov­ery. It was learned that a Jewish tomb had been found containing several ossuaries (bone re­ceptacles), and that the sign of the cross had been marked on each of the four sides of one ossuary, with the word woe appearing among the inscriptions as the basis for the "bitter mov­ing lamentation" of the first report.

In February, 1946, an excellent critical ar­ticle appeared in The Biblical Archaeologist, written by Prof. Carl H. Kraeling, of the Yale Divinity School, under the title "Christian Burial Urns?" 2 Without being acquainted yet with all the facts of the new discovery, Krae­ling warned his readers against overexcitement, and recalled the case of the ossuaries found by Charles Clermont-Ganneau in 1873, in a tomb on the way to Bethany containing the names Jesus, Mary, Martha, Lazarus with cross signs on them, which are not recognized by any scholar as belonging to the family in whose house Christ dwelt. He also reminded the reader that in 1931 the finding of an ossuary with the name "Jesus, son of Joseph" written on it had given rise to the thought expressed in the daily press of that time that the actual tomb and casket of Christ had been found. The fact that the names Jesus, Joseph, Martha, or other Bible names appear on ossuaries is un­derstandable, because they were very common among Jews of the time of Christ. Such was­Kraeling's argument against accepting these-bone receptacles as early Christian witnesses,

A letter written by Father M. Abel, professor of Greek epigraphy and archaeology in the Dominican Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, ap­peared in The Homiletic and Pastoral Review for March, 1946! It presented further facts on the discovery in a dispassionate way, and from it the reader could draw the conclusion that noth­ing more than a few Jewish ossuaries had been found. Life published an account of the discov­ery in its issue of December 22, 1947. Carefully avoiding any sensational claims, it stated the opposing views on the find and advised its read­ers that the final conclusions could only be made after the full publication of the excava­tions.

This has finally been done by the excavator, Prof. E. L. Sukenik, of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in an article "The Earliest Rec­ords of Christianity," which appeared in the October-December number of The American Journal of Archaeology for 1947, but which was not distributed before July, 1948.4

It is learned from this report that in Sep­tember, 1945, an underground burial chamber was discovered south of Jerusalem on the road to Bethlehem. Into its walls five shafts (kok­him) had been cut, containing eleven ossuaries, or bone receptacles, which range in size from 16 by 10 by 11 1/2 inches to 26 by 14 inches.

From the pottery and the lamps found in the tomb, the form and character of the inscrip­tions on the ossuaries, and a coin of King Agrippa I, which dates from A.D. 42-43, Dr. Sukenik says that the tomb must have been in use from the first century before Christ until the middle of the first century after Christ.

Five of the ossuaries bear short inscriptions of names, three in Hebrew letters and two in Greek. The inscription on ossuary Number reads, "Simeon Barsaba." Sukenik points out that this name was known thus far only from the New Testament, where it also appears as a family name of one Joseph (Acts 1 :23) and of another Judas (Acts 15 :22), both early Christian believers. The inscription on ossuary Number 4 reads, "Miriam, daughter of Sim­eon." On ossuary Number to are found three Hebrew letters, the abbreviation for Mattathias or Matthias, a name appearing both in the New Testament and in Jewish literature. One of the Greek inscriptions (on ossuary Number 7) was written in charcoal, and has the words Jesus, woe !" and the other is incised on the lid of ossuary Number 8 and reads, "Jesus aloth," the last word having been suggested by Sukenik to be an expression of mourning taken over from the Hebrew and Aramaic.

Inasmuch as the last-mentioned ossuary has a cross drawn in charcoal on all of its four sides, the excavator, who is recognized as the greatest authority on Jewish ossuaries,' holds the opinion that it is of Christian origin. With­out insisting that the cross had already become a venerated symbol of Christianity, he thinks that it may be a pictorial expression of the event, tantamount to exclaiming, "He was cru­cified." And his "suggestion therefore, is that the crosses and graffiti on ossuaries nos. 7 and 8 represent a lamentation for the crucifixion of Jesus by some of His disciples."'

Dr. Sukenik closes his report with the fol­lowing words: "All our evidence indicates that we have in this tomb the earliest records of Christianity in existence. It may also have a bearing on the historicity of Jesus and the cru­cifixion."

Until a few years ago the appearance of the cross was considered to be evidence of a late date of the object bearing this sign, because it was thought that the cross was not considered a Christian symbol before A.D. 200. A discov­ery made in the winter of 1939 in the ruins of Herculaneum in Italy has, however, reversed this opinion entirely. Herculaneum is one of the three cities which was entirely destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, and everything found in its ruins, therefore, dates from before that event. In one room on the sec­ond floor of a house, a square in the middle of the back wall was covered with very fine plas­ter, in which the sign of a Latin cross, seven­teen inches long and fourteen inches wide, was deeply engraved. Holes of nails show that a wooden cross had been fastened to the wall. A wooden chest having the appearance of an altar stood below the cross. Prof. A. Maiuri, the discoverer of the place, after several attempts to find an explanation of this find, came to the conclusion that the room was a Christian cult place, a conclusion which has been generally accepted ever since.'

This discovery has also changed the evalua­tion of the group of ossuaries described first by Charles Clermont-Ganneau in 1873, which were mentioned above. In his first communication the famous French archaeologist described them as "Judaeo-Christian Sarcophagi." The ossuaries in question had been found in a tomb on the Mount of Offence, not far from Bethany. The Hebrew inscriptions present names like Judah, Salome, Simeon, Joshua, Martha, Elea­zar (the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek Laza­rus), Hananiah, Nathan, and Pasach, while among the Greek names Mary appears, and twice Jesus with the sign of the cross. When Clermont-Ganneau published his final report on the discovery in 1899," he expressed some doubts about the Christian origin of the ossu­aries:

"Its meaning is questionable; I do not think that it can be anything but the sign of the cross, but I do not overlook the difficulties which beset that view, consid­ering our hitherto received ideas on the one hand as to the earliest period at which the cross was recognized as the emblem of Christianity, and, on the other, as to the latest date commonly attributed to all Hebrew in­scriptions in the ancient square characters, in Jerusa­lem and the neighbourhood. If this cross is really a Christian symbol, we must either admit that the chron­ological rules upon which all archaeologists have hith­erto justly agreed with regard to Christian monuments in the West do not apply without modification to Christian monuments in the East, or else that the theory that every Hebrew inscription at Jerusalem and in its neighbourhood is necessarily earlier than Titus's siege, or at all events than the foundation of Aelia Capitolina, must not be regarded as absolutely true, and that Hebrew inscriptions must exist belong­ing to a date later than that epoch. Our case, there­fore, if proved, would tend either to put back a date agreed on by Christian archaeology, or else bring down to later times one admitted in matters of Semitic epig­raphy." 11

Dr. Sukenik, however, is convinced that the cult place in Herculaneum, and the discovery of the new tombs, prove that the sign of the cross existed as a Christian symbol in the first century after Christ, and that the tombs, de­scribed by Clermont-Ganneau and himself, con­tained remains of Jewish Christians.

His over-all conclusions have been succinctly expressed by J. F. Daniel, the editor in chief of The American Journal of Archaeology in his foreword to the special reprint of Sukenik's article:

"This tomb was in use from shortly before the birth of Christ until not more than twenty years after the Crucifixion. It belonged to a family which is men­tioned in the New Testament and certain members of which were among the personal followers of Christ. Inscriptions and crosses drawn on two of the ossuaries express the grief of members of the family at the Cru­cifixion. These are by far the earliest known records of Christianity."—Page 3.

A word of caution may, however, have its place here. Although Dr. Sukenik is the great­est authority on Jewish ossuaries and his judgment to see Christian records in these tombs, is of the highest value as coming from a Jewish scholar, it should be remembered, nevertheless, that other scholars of fame have so far refused to recognize these tombs as Christian. Their argument is that the inscriptions contain com­mon Jewish names of the time and that the name Jesus was in frequent use. The sign of the cross may have had a magical significance, being intended perhaps to guard the bones against demonic powers. They consider the Greek word iou (i.e. woe) to be a rare spelling of Jehu, and aloth (considered by Sukenik as an expression of lamentation) as a surname of that particular Jesus of ossuary Number 8."

The possibility exists that the tombs are Christian, and that in the one found in 1873 were buried members of that family, in whose house Jesus frequently lodged, although it is rather difficult to explain why Martha was the daughter of Pasach, and Lazarus was the son of Nathan, whereas the Bible mentions them as brother and sister. Another question is, Why were Martha's and Lazarus' names given in Aramaic, and Mary's name in Greek letters on the ossuaries, if they were contemporaries of the same family? The family name Barsabas found in the newly discovered tomb is only known from the New Testament, which seems to strengthen Sukenik's theory that it contains Christian remains. But it should be noticed that this particular inscription is very difficult to decipher, as the photograph in Sukenik's article clearly shows, and it was only after several un­successful attempts that Sukenik came to the conclusion that the name must be read "Simeon Barsaba." The reaction of other competent epigraphers to this reading must be awaited to see whether Sukenik's conclusions will stand the test of further investigation.

The Bible student should therefore beware of statements of a sensational character in regard to these and similar discoveries. Even if the tombs are Christian and contain bones of fol­lowers of Christ, known from the Scriptural record, they can hardly be said to help to sub­stantiate the Bible narrative. They would have more sentimental than theological value. And as far as the historicity of Christ's crucifixion is concerned, every Bible student recognizes that serious scholarship does not doubt this event at all.


1The Statesman (New Delhi, India), Oct. 4, 1945.

2C. H. Kraeling, "Christian Burial Urns?" The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 9 (February, 1946), PP. 16-20.

3 M. Abel in Homiletic and Pastoral Review, vol. 46 (March, 1946), pp. 407-409.

4 E. L. Sukenik, "The Earliest Records of Christi­anity," American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 51 (Oc­tober-December, 2947), PP- 351-365 and plates LXXVII-LXXXVIII. A full reprint of this article can be secured for $1.00 from the editor in chief of American Journal of Archaeology, University Museum, Philadelphia, Pa.

Kraeling, op. cit., p. /9.

6 Sukenik, op. cit., p. 365.

7 Ibid.

8 Egon C. C. Corti, Untergang und Auferstehung von Pompeji und Herculaneum (5th ed. Munchen: F. Bruckmann, 1942), PP. 53, 287, and plate 32; E. L. Sukenik, op. cit., pp. 364, 365.

9 Quarterly Statement of the Palestine Exploration Fund, January, 1874, PP. 7-20.

10 Charles Clermont-Ganneau, Archaeological Re­searches (London: Palestine Exploration Fund, 1899), vol. r, pp. 381-412.

11 Ibid., p. 404.

12 Kraeling, op. cit., pp. 18-20; G. E. Wright, "New Information Regarding the Supposed 'Christian' Os­suaries," The Biblical Archaeologist, vol. 9 (May, 1946), P. 43; M. Abel, O. cit., PP. 407-409.

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By SIEGFRIED H. HORN, Former Missionary to Java, Far Eastern Division

May 1949

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