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 Ossuary

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.

    26 replies to "Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in Archaeology – #8 Caiaphas Ossuary"

    • […] Kimberley over at the Parchment and Pen blog, is featuring a series based on the top ten Biblical discoveries in […]

    • Sam

      Just a quick correction. The “Ice Bowl” was not a Super Bowl game. It was the NFL Championship game to determine who would represent the league in the second Super Bowl on Jan. 14th, 1968.

      It WAS the Pack’s 3rd consecutive NFL championship, but the first couple of Super Bowls were played between the NFL and AFL league champions. It wasn’t until 1970 that the two leagues joined, after which the game was played between what then came to be called the Conference champions.

      And, actually, the first two Super Bowls weren’t even called “Super Bowl”. The 3rd one, in 1969, was the first to carry the name.

      But that’s probably way more than you wanted or needed.

    • Tim Kimberley


      Thanks for the correction…I edited the sentence to be accurate.

      thanks again,

    • casey

      This is very interesting and cool, but since Josephus already independently affirms Caiaphas the High Priest around 30 AD its not quite as exciting for me.

      • Victor

        That’s weird considering that archeology keeps confirming the reliability of the Bible.

    • Jason Dulle

      I’m still not getting how “Joseph son of Caiaphas” translates into “Joseph Caiaphas.” It sounds like the ossuary contained the bones of one named Joseph, who was the son of someone else named Caiaphas.

      You mentioned that there was another ossuary found which simply had the name “Caiaphas” on it. Why not think that Caiaphas was in that ossuary, and his son was in the the one labeled “Joseph son of Caiaphas” (perhaps the teenage boy)?

    • Tim Kimberley


      The naming convention during those times was commonly [name “son of” another name]. So Josephus mentioning Caiaphas as “Joseph Caiaphas” or “Joseph called Caiaphas” could have easily implied “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” The “son of” is so common that Josephus disregarding it isn’t unheard of. You can see that based on the excitement of the inscription. Scholars recognize that the two important names are “Joseph” and “Caiaphas”…the “son of” does not immediately disqualify this from being Caiaphas.

      Dr. Craig A. Evans from Acadia University, however, has raised questions along the same line as yourself. Dr. Evans doesn’t absolutely deny that it could be Caiaphas…he just wants to leave the door open that the ossuary may not contain the bones of the high priest partly based on Josephus omitting “son of”.


    • Jason Dulle

      Do we have other examples of historical figures who were “X son of Y” but who dropped “son of,” and referred to themselves as “XY” (or were referred to by others as “XY”)?

    • bethyada

      I found this quite interesting. I am not too impressed with many claims (such as Jehu and Ahab) as I think in our enthusiasm to see Christianity vindicated in archaeology we accept unlikely correspondences such as these and also pharaohs and the Anatolian Hittites.

      It would be helpful if you clarified the son of aspect as per Jason. I get here that you are saying that the term “son of” can be left out as although the origin of “son of” for a specific person identifies him with his father, the father’s name becomes his name? Joseph was son of Caiaphas, but Joseph ben Caiaphas became Joseph Caiaphas became Caiaphas? Is this what you are saying?


    • Tim Kimberley


      The portion “son of” can also carry the meaning “of the family of.” We see the shortening happen in Scripture. The writers of the New Testament continually refer to the high priest as only Caiaphas. We know for sure that wasn’t his full name…it was more like a nickname. Interestingly it looks like they chose his surname as his nickname. People in the first century didn’t have one word names like Madonna, Bono or Cher. This is what Josephus helps to clarify. Josephus tells us that his first name is Joseph and his last name is Caiaphas. Then Josephus goes a step further and says his name is Joseph and he is called Caiaphas. So Josephus lets us know that the high priest was called by his surname…Caiaphas.


    • JRoach

      I really am enjoying your series. These first three are fascinating and brings the scriptures to life. I believe these people are real even without any archaelogical evidence but it is good to see that once again the Bible is like a lion that does not need anyone to defend it. It is capable of defending itself.


    • Reg

      Fascinating! I am really enjoying this series and can hardly wait until the next post. Thanks for taking the time to do this!

    • Gary Simmons

      Jason, take the Herod family members mentioned in Matthew.

      Herod in chapter 2 is now known as Herod the Great. He dies. Then his son Herod Archelaus (mentioned in the NT only as “Archelaus”) reigns in his place. Later, his brother Herod [Philip] is mentioned as demanding the head of John the Baptist. I find it strange that Herod Philip went by “Herod” in Matthew, even though one person by that name had already died in chapter 2. The concept of calling a son by a father’s name must have been common enough that readers did not immediately assume a plot inconsistency by seeing a Herod die and then a living Herod.

      *Shrug*. Names are weird.

    • Jason Dulle

      Great explanation Tim, and great Biblical example Gary. Thanks!

    • Jason Dulle


      Your argument in comment 9 presumes that “Caiaphas” was a family surname. What evidence is there for that conclusion? How do we know it wasn’t a nick-name given specifically to Joseph—a name none of his forefathers bore? Josephus’ comment that Joseph was “called Caiaphas” gives me the impression that Caiaphas was a nick-name given to Joseph by others, not a name he inherited from his father. In support of this conclusion, consider what Josephus said about Jesus: “He [Ananias] convened a meeting of the Sanhedrin and brought before them a man named James, the brother of Jesus, who was called the Christ…” (Antiquities 20.200). The same terminology is used. Jesus didn’t inherit the name “Christ,” so why think Joseph inherited the name “Caiaphas?”

      If Joseph was the first in his family to be called “Caiaphas,” then the famous ossuary cannot contain the Biblical figures bones because he could not have been the son of himself!

      If Joseph was the 1st to be called Caiaphas, it still wouldn’t rule out the possibility that we found his bones. Perhaps we’ve just identified them with the wrong ossuary. Maybe they are in the other ossuary bearing just the name “Caiaphas.” This is all the more believable if we have historical evidence that the Biblical Caiaphas had a son named “Joseph.” Do we?


    • Jason Dulle


      One might counter-argue that the engraving on the other ossuary is not specific enough to positively identify it as being the Biblical Caiaphas’ ossuary; however, I think a good case could be made that it is. Consider the following:

      1. It is from the right time period (1st century)
      2. It is ornate (right?), indicating it contains the bones of a wealthy man
      3. It would only contain a single name if that name was very rare, or if the individual it contained was a very famous person.

      In regards to #2, onomastic studies could tell us how popular or uncommon the name Caiaphas was in that time period. If it was rare, then it increases the likelihood that the non-famous ossuary contains the bones of the Biblical figure (assuming it contains bones) as opposed to some other Caiaphas (similar to the way in which the probability that a casket with the name “Elvis” on it actually contains the body of Elvis Presley is higher than the probability that a casket with the name “John” on it actually contains the body of John Adams since the name “John” is so common while “Elvis” is very uncommon).

      Additionally, I would argue that the person in the ossuary must have been famous if the creators of the ossuary felt the liberty to engrave a single name on the outside, and expected for that single name to clearly identify the bearer of the bones to anyone who might discover it. As you said yourself, no one in that day had a single name. They needed surnames and nick-names to distinguish one person from the next. A single name, then, seems to indicate that the ossuary contains a very well-known individual (just like Brandy, Bono, Beyonce, Ciara, Jewel, Selena, and Madonna can be easily identified by a single name today).

      BTW, what does Caiaphas mean?

    • Jason Dulle

      Tim, I’m hoping you’ll be able to respond to my questions/comments. I’ll be presenting a lesson on archaeological discoveries in the coming weeks and I would like to have this issue hammered out before then. Thanks!

    • Bryan Catherman

      Tim and Jason,

      I quickly learned during my time in Iraq and other Southwest Asian countries that there is still a practice somewhat like that of Joseph, son of Caiaphas happening today. Generally, the men in Iraq have two to three names. The first is their name, the second their father’s name, and the third, their grandfather’s name. Although most of the time a person would only go with the first name and in necessary settings, the second. (Still, it makes it really easy to figure out who’s related to who). If the family line had important and successful people some would carry their name out to a fourth or fifth name. Saddam’s legal name, for example, was four names long with Saddam and Hussein being only the beginning with two more family names providing honor in there too.

      However, on occasion I would run across a man who jumbled up his name for some reason. At times, a generational name would be dropped because that father or grandfather had brought some great dishonor to the family line and was being erased or forgotten. At other times, a man would carry his father’s name if his father’s life had been cut short or was, for some reason, in need of additional honor or memory being brought to that name. Once, I met a man who was using the name of his very successful father as a way to bring obvious credibility to himself although his legal name was reversed (I’m not sure how well this was received i the community).

      While only speculation (and I’m assuming a tradition I experienced today upon a different culture of 2,000 years ago), there may have been something like this playing out in this family too. Although I could be making a great mistake here.

      Thanks for the great read Tim!

    • Yohan Perera

      This got me thinking. God resurrected Jesus to a glorified body after 3 days of crucifixion. But the master mind behind the coup still rots in his grave… Amen!!!

    • Julie D.

      Amen to your Amen, Sister Perera!

    • […] information about the ossuary of Caiaphas excavated in Jerusalem in 1990, see this post in the series of “Top Ten Biblical Discoveries in […]

    • Peggy

      Do you know whether any attempt has ever been made to recover DNA from the bones of the elderly man? It would be interesting to know whether or not he carried any of the genetic markers popularly known as the Cohen or Kohanim gene. There’s a theory that the Kohanim gene may indicate descent from Aaron through a direct male line, although the theory is, of course, controversial and open to challenge. It’s possible that the presence or absence of the markers in these bones could provide an additional clue to the man’s identity.

      • David Keeney

        It is doubtful Caiaphas was of the Priesthood. He was Annas’ son-in-law, not his son, and thus not a candidate for High Priest.

        There were several High-Priests appointed by Annas in a span of several years prior to Caiaphas.

        Annas was more than likely himself just a political appointee in collusion with the Roman government for the collection of taxes and Temple proceeds.

    • Rex Kissinger

      This is an amazing part of the mystery of God. We have ancient writings telling the story of our combined religeous beliefs, but I’m sure you would agree, there are many parts to the verse less than easy to follow. Ibelieve as more and more discoveries are made similar to what we have here, the veil of uncertainty will be lifted and the story will become more clear

    • Marla

      I quote here the words of Luke Timothy Johnson: The claims of the gospel … can be validated only existentially by the witness of authentic Christian discipleship.… Christianity has credibility, both with its own adherents and with its despisers, to the degree that it claims and lives by its own distinctive identity.

    • Janice

      could Joseph Caiaphas be Jesus’ father, and Caiaphas his grandfather, OR could Joseph Caiaphas be Joachim, father of Mary (“blessed virgin”) with Caiaphas being her grandfather? You know what that means… there might have been a plot in the family/plan with the whole crucifixion thing, or some bad feelings in the family. i wish i knew the truth for my family tree. i wish they would do testing on the bones, and tell the truth. but, i can see where this would open up a whole “can of worms” ~ no hard feelings, people, just a theory

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