Family tomb of priest who opposed Jesus is found

August 14, 1992|By Michael Specter | Michael Specter,New York Times News Service

TC Israeli archaeologists have discovered the family tomb of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest who presided at the trial of Jesus and delivered him to the Romans to be crucified.

Buried in an ancient cave on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the family's bones were sealed in ornate and elaborately carved ossuaries, ceremonial boxes used widely by the Jews of the late first century.

Archaeologists say no comparable evidence exists for the remains of any other such major figure mentioned in the New Testament. And after 2,000 years, the presence of Caiaphas' bones in the tomb cannot be finally verified either.

But the age of the bones, the inscriptions on the ossuaries and the artifacts that surrounded them all point directly toward his influential family.

One of history's most reviled and enigmatic men, Caiaphas has often been portrayed by historians as malevolent, mad for power and blindly eager to please Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.

The Gospel describes Caiaphas' condemnation of Jesus in John 11:49-50: "Ye know nothing at all, nor consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people and that the whole nation perish not."

Like many such discoveries, this one came by accident, when workers widening a road in Jerusalem's Peace Forest in 1990 stumbled upon an unusually large burial site.

Although it has been nearly two years since the site was uncovered, researchers have taken until now to assure themselves through the writing on the walls of the tomb and artifacts found with the bones that the remains were indeed those of the high priest's family.

"I can hardly imagine a more significant discovery from that period," said Bruce Chilton, a professor of religion at Bard College and an expert on early Christianity and Judaism who has written widely on Caiaphas.

The burial cave was in excellent condition, according to Zvi Greenhut, Jerusalem's chief archaeologist, who began excavating the ruin within hours of its discovery.

His article describing the contents of the cave, along with one by Ronny Reich of the Israeli Antiquities Authority discussing the significance of the Aramaic writing, will appear next week in the September/October issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review.

Twelve such ossuaries, limestone boxes in which the bones of the dead were often stored, were discovered in the cave, which had a pit in the floor making it just tall enough for mourners to stand in.

As was the custom of the time, the bodies were almost certainly first laid out in a niche of a burial cave. After the flesh had decomposed, the bones were gathered and placed in ossuaries, possibly to await resurrection, Mr. Greenhut and others said.

Many boxes had been broken into and their contents ransacked, ancient evidence, it appears, of grave robbers. But others seemed untouched, and one in particular stood out in splendor.

It was decorated with a rare, intricate pattern of rosettes and carried the inscription "Joseph, son of Caiaphas." Joseph was another name of the Jewish high priest now known as Caiaphas, who ruled in Jerusalem from A.D. 18 to 36.

Inside this uniquely elaborate ossuary were the bones of a 60-year-old man.

"The writing on the side is the equivalent of his nickname," Mr. Reich said in an interview. He noted that the Aramaic writing on the wall and the ossuaries was in the language used by working-class people of the time, cemetery workers, for example.

There is further evidence placing the burial site in the first century: A bronze coin minted in A.D. 43, during the reign of Herod Agrippa I, was found in one of the ossuaries. It is the first known example of the pagan custom of placing coins at a Jewish burial site.

Caiaphas was one of the most important high priests of Israel, largely, historians argue, because of his unusually close relationship with Pontius Pilate.

It was during Caiaphas'reign, the Talmud notes, that the Jewish high court was removed from the Temple Mount, thus weakening its power. And it was Caiaphas, according to the Gospels, who encouraged money changers and the sellers of animals to enter the main court of the Temple, strengthening his control of trade.

Debate about Caiaphas' role in condemning Jesus and his desire to please the Romans has raged for nearly 2,000 years. Some historians contend that he played only a minor historical role; others, supported largely by the Gospels, suggest that without the decision by Caiaphas, Jesus would surely have lived.

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