A small chest or box, usually made of stone but occasionally of clay or wood, used for reburying human bones after the flesh has decayed, is known as an ossuary. It was used with some frequency in the Early Roman period in Jewish tombs in the vicinity of Jerusalem.
A typical ossuary from that period is hollowed from a single block of limestone and measured about 60 × 35 × 30 cm; there were smaller ossuaries for children. It had a removable lid that might be flat, rounded, or gabled. Most ossuaries were plain, but many were decorated with motifs typical of Jewish art of the period: geometric designs (e.g., the six-petaled rosette) or representations of Jewish architectural and religious themes (e.g., tomb monuments or palm branches). (See figure 1.) Often only one long side of the ossuary was decorated and professionally incised by chip carving. Inscriptions, by contrast, were not professionally done but were scrawled with charcoal or scratched with a sharp object almost anywhere on the ossuary—on its sides, ends, lid, or even along a top edge. Written in Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, ossuary inscriptions identify the deceased by name, only occasionally adding details about family relations, place of origin, age, or status.
The deceased was initially laid in a niche or on a shelf to decompose in a family burial cave. When decomposition was complete, the bones were gathered in ossuaries for secondary burial and placed in a niche, on a shelf, or in a separate chamber (e.g., in the family tomb located on Reḥov Ruppin in Jerusalem, in the “Goliath” tomb in Jericho, and at Dominus Flevit, a first-century cemetery on the Mount of Olives). The bones of more than one individual could by custom be placed in the same ossuary: according to the third-century rabbinic document Semaḥot 13.8, persons who shared a bed in life could share an ossuary in death. Even the “Caiaphas” ossuary contained the bones of more than one person. The Caiaphas ossuary is a large (74 × 29 × 38 cm) richly ornamental ossuary with a vaulted lid inscribed on the side and back with the name “Caiaphas.” This name also belonged to the High Priest during the days of Jesus (Mt. 26:57). The ossuary was found In 1990 in a tomb located in North Talpiyot, a southern suburb of Jerusalem.
The historical development of Jewish ossuaries is still debated. Eric Meyers sees them as an adaptation of the long-standing ancient Near Eastern custom of secondary burial, with parallels in Chalcolithic bone containers, Cretan larnakes, and Persian astodans. L. Y. Rahmani argues, however, that Jewish secondary burial in ossuaries was unique to Jerusalem in the Early Roman period. Rachel Hachlili and Amos Kloner have in turn questioned Rahmani's view. They note several finds of Jewish ossuaries at locations quite distant from Jerusalem as late as the fourth century CE. Kloner cites the finds at Ḥorvat Tilla, in the southern Shephelah, in particular. Although there presently is no scholarly consensus, ossuaries can reasonably be regarded as the form of secondary burial that was most popular among Jews living near Jerusalem in the Early Roman period.
It is widely agreed (based on literary evidence from the Mishnah and the two Talmuds) that Jewish secondary burial in ossuaries was driven by two theological beliefs: resurrection of the body, and expiation of sin via the decomposition of human flesh. The former motivated the use of an individual burial container and the latter the practice of secondary burial. For Palestinian Jews in the Roman period, bones that had been placed in an ossuary were purified from sin and ready for the resurrection.
- Figueras, Pau. Decorated Jewish Ossuaries. Leiden, 1983. Brief introductory study with many useful diagrams and photographs.
- Greenhut, Zvi. “The ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb in North Talpiyot, Jerusalem.” ῾Atiqot 21 (1992): 63–71. Exemplary report from a recent excavation of a tomb containing ossuaries, including one marked with the name Caiaphas.
- Hachlili, Rachel. Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Land of Israel. Leiden, 1988. The most thorough presentation of Hachlili's perspective on Jewish ossuaries, based on her tomb excavations at Jericho.
- Meyers, Eric M. Jewish Ossuaries: Reburial and Rebirth. Rome, 1971. Early attempt to relate Jewish ossuaries to the wider context of ancient Near Eastern practices of secondary burial. Rahmani's unnecessarily harsh review may be found in Israel Exploration Journal 23.2 (1973): 121–126.
- Rahmani, L. Y. “Ancient Jerusalem's Funerary Customs and Tombs.” Biblical Archaeologist 45.1 (1982): 43–53; 45.2 (1982): 109–119. Brief and readable summary of Rahmani's view that ossuaries are “uniquely Jerusalemite.”
Byron R. McCane