Margaret Williams of the Centre for the Study of Christian Origins recently conducted an epigraphy workshop which consisted of a couple of half-day seminars which provide a really useful overview of what is currently known in regards to Jewish epigraphy in Hellenistic/Roman times. Even better, all the materials (handouts, audio, powerpoints) have been made available online. This seems to be a useful model that other talks/seminar/paper sessions might want to emulate. In any event, details and links available here.
Israel Hayom has a very lengthy piece which provides further details of the claims being made by Benny Liss which we mentioned the other day … Here’s a lengthy excerpt from that lengthy piece:
[...] On Sunday, the main points of Liss’ theory were printed on the news pages of Israel Hayom. Since then, the foreign and local media have had Liss’ phone ringing off the hook. I went back to him as well, and together we watched the film again.
Laid out in an orderly fashion
First, here is a clear, succinct description of the footage. Night. Darkness. Liss holds a flashlight. The cameraman holds a lamp. The lighting is not optimal, but they make do. Liss goes down the stairs into the cave, the photographer following him. The floor of the cave is covered with skeletons, bones and fragments of bones. There is also a bit of carbonized material there. Some of the skeletons are not intact. One is missing a leg. Two of them look like they were laid there in a more orderly manner instead of merely thrown inside.
The images are reminiscent of a large mass grave. Thousands upon thousands of bones, if not more. Liss recalls: “It was very disturbing.”
“I wanted to see how deep the bones went. I lay on top of them and put my arm in as far as it would go, until my shoulder was also inside. I didn’t reach the bottom,” he says. The last images in the film are of Liss and his cameraman leaving the cave, breathing heavily and reciting the blessing: “Blessed is He who raises the dead.” Cut.
Liss offers a theory, “not a scientific statement,” he says. Unlike the adjacent burial caves, there are no Christian symbols, such as crosses, or accessories or sandals in this cave. The cave, which is near the Golden Gate, was the ideal place for the Romans, who stayed on the Temple Mount for a month after destroying the temple, to bury the thousands of corpses. The corpses could not be removed west of the area of the Western Wall because that was the way to the upper city, which the Romans had not yet occupied. They could not go north because that was the way they had come to conquer the city. Nor could they go south to the built-up area of the Hulda Gate, which was the entrance to the Temple — that was not proper. For the Romans, the caves to the east, near the Golden Gate, which were much lower down at the time, were a natural solution.
Liss relies on Josephus’ shocking description of the events and also on the research done by historian Nathan Shor, who documented the literature of travelers to the Land of Israel. Shor’s research cites evidence that Jews were among those buried on the slope that Liss and his associates visited that night. Shor quotes the account of an unnamed Jew, a student of Nahmanides, who wrote about the discovery of Jewish graves on the slope facing the Mount of Olives, at the foot of the city wall. He also quotes a similar account by an Italian monk, Niccolo da Poggibonsi, but relies mostly on the description of the region given by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Meir Latif, who was born in Italy in the second half of the 15th century. Latif reports that the Muslims took the Jewish cemetery beside the Golden Gate from the Jewish community and pushed the Jews to the lower slope that was closest to the Mount of Olives.
Retracing past excavations
Dr. Dotan Goren of Bar-Ilan University, who documented the Jewish efforts to buy land in the holy sites in Jerusalem and its environs during the Ottoman era, gathered quite a few accounts of ancient Jewish burial sites there. Liss believes that the cemetery that was taken from the Jews was the continuation of the Jewish settlement that existed there and of the disorderly burial that the Romans gave the Jews who had been killed during the destruction.
The big problem for Liss, and also for the archaeologists with whom we spoke this week, is that the burial cave was never sampled. The bones and any other findings that may be there were never dated. The cave was sealed by officials of the Antiquities Authority as quickly as it had been opened because the people in charge of the Ophel promenade project had promised that the caves would not be disturbed during the construction of the promenade and the improvement of the road nearby.
The attempt to retrace earlier archaeological excavations did not help to solve the mystery either. In 1869, Charles Warren, the well-known archaeologist, excavated, by means of shafts and tunnels, the lower portion of the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. Robert Hamilton, the British archaeologist, dug there in 1935 and discovered graves from the Byzantine era. In 1995, Ronny Reich and Eli Shukron excavated as part of the development of the Ophel road. Their dig uncovered findings that hint at dwellings, evidently Jewish ones, that existed in the area in Second Temple times. It also documented about 25 Byzantine burial caves along the length of the eastern slope.
Even the many renowned Israeli archaeologists whom we contacted kept their statements vague. They all spoke of the need to take samples from the cave before drawing any conclusions, and said that the footage was not enough. Professor Dan Bahat raised the possibility that the skeletons could be the remains of Christians massacred by the Persians in 614 C.E. Dr. Gabriel Barkai mentioned Muslim group burials in the area. Hillel Geva, the director of the Israel Exploration Society and the archaeologist of the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter, mentioned the possibility that the remains might belong to victims of an earthquake or an epidemic. He also mentioned the massacre of the Christians by the Persians. Everybody said that all options were open, including the option that Liss mentioned.
But Liss found himself in an impossible situation this week. Everyone wanted to know what had brought him to the cave, and he told a different story to each person who asked him. He wanted to protect his sources.
That is, until I reached Boaz Zissu, then an employee of the Antiquities Authority and now Professor Boaz Zissu of the Department of Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology at Bar-Ilan University. He also co-wrote, together with Professor Amos Kloner, a book titled “The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period.” Zissu was able to shed some light on the mystery for me.
“I was there that night,” he said. “Even though I didn’t go inside the cave that Liss and his crew documented, I went into one that was nearby. With us in there were people from the Antiquities Authority, including the late director-general, Amir Drori, the district archaeologist, Gideon Avni, and others. After studying still photographs from Liss’ film and comparing them to other photographs from that night, Zissu said that Liss’ film showed that the cave was a Byzantine burial site.
“What shows this clearly is the double trough where the skeletons and bones are placed,” Zissu said. “Also, the entrance shafts to the caves that I remember from that area were covered by stone slabs, which is characteristic of Byzantine burials.”
Which cave are we talking about?
Zissu also relies on Gideon Avni’s doctoral thesis, which was published in 1997, about a year after that night. In his thesis, Avni writes that at the junction of the Ophel highway (on the basis of conversations with Reich and Shukron), there was “a series of hewn burial caves, extremely crowded together. These included caves built of a single hewn room with curved walls and flat areas, and more complex caves that had several rooms and flat areas. Large accumulations of bones were found in each of the flat areas. Many glass vessels from the Byzantine era were also found in some of the caves.”
But the last word in this mystery-filled debate has not yet been uttered. Liss insists that the cave that he documented was higher up, near the wall. Zissu is talking about a few meters above the road, much lower down. Liss insists that in the cave he filmed there were no Christian symbols. Also, it was not a hewn cave but rather a natural one, unlike the nearby caves that he documented, which were lower down.
He also mentions the carbon remnants, which he says may hint that the skeletons do in fact belong to the victims of the massacre on the Temple Mount, and bones with cuts or other kinds of damage that could be evidence of wounds sustained in battle.
Officials of the Antiquities Authority say that they know nothing of this issue and would be happy to receive information from Liss about it.
One of Avni’s successors at the Antiquities Authority says that he heard about a large burial cave in the region that has never been investigated.
One way or another, the chances that the cave that Liss documented, with its thousands of skeletons, will be opened anytime soon, are slim. The cave is below the Muslim cemetery, which spreads out over a large area below the eastern wall of the Temple Mount. Only recently, the Temple Mount Rescue Committee won its battle to prevent the cemetery’s expansion southward, into uninhabited areas.
The Muslims will firmly oppose anyone who dares to approach their territory to try to solve the mystery, so Schmidl and his colleagues in Atra Kadisha can relax.
The story also shows us how little we know about Jerusalem in ancient times. It also shows the major archaeological role that the Temple Mount itself, which has never been excavated due to Muslim opposition, could play in drawing up a more precise map of Jerusalem’s past.
… there seem to be some big names in Israel archaeology commenting on this. From my poking around, all I can say is that Josephus doesn’t say anything about the disposal of the bodies. I’m not sure we really know what the Romans did in the wake of a successful seige with all the dead … did they just bury them? Or did they cremate them? Whatever the case, in this particular situation it’s obvious we won’t learn anything more until this is properly investigated and it doesn’t sound like that’s on anyone’s agenda …
From a Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena press release:
Archaeologists of the Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena found one of the oldest archaeological evidence so far of Jewish Culture on the Iberian Peninsula at an excavation site in the south of Portugal, close to the city of Silves (Algarve). On a marble plate, measuring 40 by 60 centimetres, the name “Yehiel” can be read, followed by further letters which have not yet been deciphered. The Jena Archaeologists believe that the new discovery might be a tomb slab. Antlers, which were found very close to the tomb slab in the rubble gave a clue to the age determination. “The organic material of the antlers could be dated by radiocarbon analysis with certainty to about 390 AD,” excavation leader Dr. Dennis Graen of the Jena University explains. “Therefore we have a so-called ‘terminus ante quem’ for the inscription, as it must have been created before it got mixed in with the rubble with the antlers.”
The earliest archaeological evidence of Jewish inhabitants in the region of modern-day Portugal has so far also been a tomb slab with a Latin inscription and an image of a menorah – a seven-armed chandelier – from 482 AD. The earliest Hebrew inscriptions known until now date from the 6th or 7th Century AD.
From Jena to Jerusalem
For three years the team of the University Jena has been excavating a Roman villa in Portugal, discovered some years ago by Jorge Correia, archaeologist of the Silves council, during an archaeological survey near the village of São Bartolomeu de Messines (Silves). The project was aiming at finding out how and what the inhabitants of the hinterland of the Roman province of Lusitania lived off. While the Portuguese coast region has been explored very well, there is very little knowledge about those regions. The new discovery poses further conundrums.
“We were actually hoping for a Latin inscription when we turned round the excavated tomb slab,” Henning Wabersich, a member of the excavation reports. After all, no inscriptions have been found so far and nothing was known about the identity of the inhabitants of the enclosure. Only after long research the Jena Archaeologists found out which language they were exactly dealing with, as the inscription was not cut with particular care. “While we were looking for experts who could help with deciphering the inscription between Jena and Jerusalem, the crucial clue came from Spain”, Dennis Graen says. “Jordi Casanovas Miró from the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona – a well-known expert for Hebrew inscriptions on the Iberian Peninsula – is sure that the Jewish name “Yehiel” can be read, – a name that is already mentioned in the Bible.”
Hebrew unusual in Roman villa
Not only is the early date exceptional in this case, but also the place of the discovery: Never before have Jewish discoveries been made in a Roman villa, the Jena Archaelogist explains. In the Roman Empire at that time Jews usually wrote in Latin, as they feared oppressive measures. Hebrew, as on the re-discovered marble plate, only came back into use after the decline of the Roman supremacy, respectively in the following time of migration of peoples from the 6th or 7th century AD. “We were also most surprised that we found traces of Romans – romanised Lusitanians in this case – and Jews living together in a rural area of all things,” Dennis Graen says. “We assumed that something like this would have been much more likely in a city.”
Information about the Jewish population in the region in general was mostly passed down by scriptures. “During the ecclesiastical council in the Spanish town Elvira about 300 AD rules of conduct between Jews and Christians were issued. This indicates that at this time there must have been a relatively large number of Jews on the Iberian Peninsula already”, Dennis Graen explains – but archaeological evidence had been missing so far. “We knew that there was a Jewish community in the Middle Ages not far from our excavation site in the town of Silves. It existed until the expulsion of the Jews in the year 1497.”
In the summer the Jena Archaeologists will take up their work again. Until now they have excavated 160 square metres of the villa, but after checking out the ground it already became clear that the greater part of the enclosure is still covered in soil. “We eventually want to find out more about the people who lived here,” Graen explains the venture. “And of course we want to solve the questions the Hebrew inscription has posed us.”
The PhysOrg rewrite of the piece includes this photo:
The July/August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review has a very interesting article by Herschel Shanks about Jewish oracles relating to the destruction of Pompeii. A useful summary can be found in the Jerusalem Post, post alia:
[...] Shanks recently told The Jerusalem Post that the idea to examine a connection between the two events came to him on a tour of the ruins of the Roman city located in the vicinity of modern-day Naples.
“On my own visit to Pompeii, I tried to find out when the destruction of the Temple occurred,” Shanks relates. “When I learnt of the supposed date, I thought, ‘Hey I wonder if anyone has connected the two.’” Shanks, described by the The New York Times as “probably the world’s most influential amateur Biblical archaeologist,” said he called Harvard’s Shaye Cohen, who directed him to Book 4 of the Sibylline Oracles, a text composed by “mostly Jewish oracles” shortly after the eruption.
The book first mentions the destruction of the Temple, and then seemingly refers to the Vesuvius eruption: “When a firebrand, turned away from a cleft in the earth [Vesuvius] In the land of Italy, reaches to broad heaven It will burn many cities and destroy men.
Much smoking ashes will fill the great sky And showers will fall from heaven like red earth.
Know then the wrath of the heavenly God.”
The second piece of evidence cited by Shanks is ancient graffiti etched onto a fresco at a Pompeii building. The grafitti reads “Sodom and Gomorra.”
In Shanks’s opinion, the text is proof that a Jewish visitor to the ruins believed its fate followed that of the two sin cities that the Bible says were destroyed by God.
In any case, if the destruction of Pompeii was an act of divine retribution, then some Jews were also caught up in his vengeance. It is almost certain there were some Jewish individuals, perhaps a fullyfledged Jewish community in Pompeii, that perished along with the city’s gentiles.
Shanks said a fresco of King Solomon, the most ancient depiction of a biblical scene, is located not far from where the Sodom and Gomorra graffiti was found.
Also, relates Shanks, a vase with what some believe is an ancient kashrut stamp has been found in the famous ruins.
For Jews elsewhere, it is easy to imagine how news of the catastrophe at Pompeii would have been greeted with joy in light of the devastating defeat they had suffered only a few years earlier.
“It attacked the core of Roman society and, as if to emphasize the point, it extended all the way to Rome,” Shanks said. “You had the scary white and dark soot as far as Rome. There’s very good reason to conclude there was a perceived connection and in the eyes of some, God was clearly at work.”
It’s rather nice that the full article is also this particular issue’s freebie:
While I like the idea of the oracle as a retrojective prophecy, the thing I can’t buy into are the comments on the Sodom and Gomorrah graffito. The JPost summary gives the impression that people visited the site of Pompeii shortly after Vesuvius was done with its wrath. I didn’t think he really meant that but in the online version of the article:
One such person came back to a house in an area of Pompeii designated today as Region 9, Insula 1, House 26. After having walked through the desolation of the city, he (unlikely to be a “she”) looked about and saw nothing but destruction where once there had been buildings and beautifully frescoed walls. Disconsolate and aghast, he picked up a piece of charcoal and scratched on the wall in large black Latin letters:
... the citation for this is:
See Carlo Giordano and Isidoro Kahn, The Jews in Pompeii Heculaneum, Stabiae and in the Cities of Campania Felix 3rd ed., Wilhelmina F. Jashemski, trans. (Rome: Bardi Editore, 2003), pp. 75–76.
… which I don’t have at hand. Will someone please correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve always been under the impression that the site was covered with between four and six metres of ash and pumice. There was nothing to ‘visit’ and scratch graffiti on AFTER the eruption …
UPDATE (August 24): In addition to Mark Davidson’s comments below, see also Jim Davila’s coverage of this item over at PaleoJudaica, which includes a link to an article (also in BAR) from a few years ago by Theodore Feder about a fresco possibly depicting Solomon, Socrates and Aristotle. The excerpt from Feder (included at Paleojudaica, but not in the abstract at BAR) is much more realistic on this one …