This post is a continuation of our Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology series. To see the complete series please click here.
1967 was an active year. The Doors kicked off the year releasing their self-entitled debut album. The United States was fully involved in the Vietnam War. The Green Bay Packers won their third consecutive championship against the Dallas Cowboys in the frozen “Ice Bowl.” In 1967 NASA had a lunar orbiter circling the moon taking photos of the surface looking for the best place to take that famous, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
In the Middle East, June 5th through the 10th of 1967 has become known as the Six Day War. It was a war between Israel and the neighboring countries of Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The Arab countries of Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria additionally sent troops to the war. At the war’s end, Israel had gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The results of the war affect the geopolitics of the region to this day.
For the first time in centuries Jerusalem was again a unified city. To commemorate the new unification of Jerusalem a forest was planted. The Jerusalem Peace Forest links the city’s eastern and western parts. The forest’s name symbolizes the hope for peace and brotherhood among the united city’s residents.
The Jerusalem Peace Forest, which was planted at the edge of the desert, offers its visitors a unique spectacle created by the natural contrast of green trees surrounded by a barren landscape. Unknown to those in 1967 a marvelous archaeological discovery just happened to lay underneath the Jerusalem Peace Forest. The discovery we will focus on today would never have happened without the six day war in 1967. The discovery would have never happened without the creation of the Peace Forest.
Uneventful Construction Project Turned Eventful
Many archaeological discoveries in Israel come from pure chance. The discovery we are focusing on today is no exception. In December, 1990, a new park was being constructed within the Peace Forest. As the workers, using modern construction equipment, dug down they soon picked up their telephones. A long forgotten ceiling collapsed revealing a room deep in the earth.
The construction superintendent knew he had stumbled upon something ancient. The construction workers suspected they may have found an ancient burial tomb. The park project would be put on hold until the ancient room could be inspected. Israelis, like most cultures, put a priority on honoring the graves of their ancestors. It would be dishonoring for a large modern-day excavator to press on and brashly dig up human bones.
The construction superintendent contacted the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Zvi Greenhut arrived on the scene to see what the construction workers stumbled upon.
Burial Chamber Discovered
Greenhut writes, “When I arrived at the site, I found a rock-hewn loculi burial cave, the type of tomb that is typical of the Second Temple period in Jerusalem. The cave is located in an area in which scores of other such tombs have been discovered, all part of the Jerusalem necropolis which stretches southward as far as the vicinity of the Arab village of Sur Bahir.
The limestone bedrock into which the cave is hewn is soft and crumbly and full of cracks, very characteristic of the area. The cave has an irregular floor plan, and its entrance is on the east side. We reached the entrance from within the burial chamber, entering the tomb through what had been the roof.”
What a great sight. They get into the hole dug by the construction equipment. Then they see the secondary hole from the collapsed ceiling. They lower themselves through the ancient ceiling and quickly recognize they’re in a burial tomb from the period of the Second Temple.
The archaeologists have just stepped back in time more than 2,000 years. As the flashlights sweep the tomb several ossuaries are found. An ossuary is a surprisingly small burial box. When looking at an ossuary you think there’s no chance a body could fit inside the box. That’s not the point. The ossuary is only used to store the bones after the body has decomposed.
An ancient burial chamber would include an area where the most recent death in the family lies on a chiseled-out rock bench. A family member would come into the chamber about a year after their death, take the bones, and place them in an ossuary in order to make room on the bench for the next deceased family member.
Zvi Greenhut discovers an exceptionally fancy ossuary. The ossuary is dated to the first century. It measures 37 centimeters high (14.6 inches) and 75 centimeters long (29.6 inches). The ossuary is covered with an ornate design which would seem to point toward an important person. The contents of the ossuary are studied and found to contain the remains of several people. This is not unusual. A family would place as many deceased relatives as possible into one ossuary.
Inside this ornate ossuary are found the bones of two babies, an adolescent child, a teenage boy, an adult woman, and a man about 60 years of age. The ossuary is an interesting chance discovery but not something to rock the archaeological world.
On the outside of the ossuary is found an inscription in Aramaic dramatically increasing the value of the ossuary and importance of this piece to the world of archaeology. In Aramaic the inscription reads, “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Another ossuary, additionally, is found in the tomb containing an inscription reading simply, “Caiaphas.” The first ossuary draws the most attention.
The name Caiaphas is found in the New Testament. Cool, we found someone sharing the same name as someone from the Bible. The excitement from this discovery came from the big question, “Is this ‘the’ Caiaphas from the Bible?”
The New Testament describes Caiaphas as one of the primary individuals involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew, Luke and John each identify Caiaphas as the high priest that presided over the arrest and trial of Jesus. Being the high priest made him second in power only to the Roman governor. Jewish law did not allow the high priest to sentence people to death. The Bible explains Caiaphas worked with the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, to carry out a death sentence on Jesus. You may be thinking, “Wait a second. The inscription says Joseph son of Caiaphas. Not just Caiaphas.” That’s what I originally thought too. The way the inscription is written is actually why it drew so much attention.
The first-century historian Josephus helps piece together the significance of the discovery. He identifies the high priest at the time of Jesus as not only Caiaphas but “Joseph Caiaphas.” Josephus tells us additionally Caiaphas was the Jewish high priest from 18 to 36 AD (Jewish Antiquities 18:35). A source outside the Bible helps us to establish the right name at the right time. Josephus later refers to him as “Joseph who was called Caiaphas of the high priesthood” (Jewish Antiquities 18:95).
Significance of the Ossuary
The discovery in 1990 brought excitement to the world of archaeology. The 60 year old man found in the ossuary is determined by Greenhut and others to be the high priest involved in the crucifixion of Jesus. The discovery is significant for really only one reason.
For the past 2,000 years Christians have viewed the crucifixion of Jesus (and subsequent resurrection) as the most important event of all human history. My objective in this series is not to make a reasoned case for the importance of the crucifixion. If you do not hold to the belief that Jesus, the Son of God and Son of Man, paid for the sins of humankind on the cross then you will not find any significant value in the Caiaphas Ossuary. If you do believe in the crucifixion as the most important event of human history then the Caiaphas Ossuary holds substantial significance. The Caiaphas Ossuary shows to us the bones of a 60 year old man who 2,000 years ago led the charge to put Jesus on the cross. The ossuary strengthens the historical reliability of the cross by supporting the existence of one of its central characters.
What do you think? Do you find the Caiaphas Ossuary to be a significant discovery in archaeology? Join the conversation by commenting on the post. In the next post we head to Jerusalem to get our feet wet.