Coming out of the Memorial Day weekend, I will discuss Jodi Magness’s chapter on tombs. A good many of the finds around Jerusalem have concerned the rock-cut tombs that envelope the old city on three sides.
We are not entirely sure how the common people disposed of their dead–probably in burial trenches. The traces are long gone. But the elites of Jerusalem went to the expense of cutting chambers out of rock.
The first era when they did this was during the first temple period. Typically a family would use a chamber with a bench or benches to lay out their dead. After decomposition the bones, along with artifacts and burial gifts, would be moved deeper into the chamber to make way for the newly dead. Sometimes the bones and artifacts would get put into shallow depressions, which became repositories. A big find in one of these repositories included a silver amulet with the Aaronic blessing from the Book of Numbers inscribed on it. This is the most ancient biblical text that we have.
After the Babylonian conquest there were no elite families in Jerusalem for a long time, so the use of rock-cut tombs ended. But after the Maccabean revolution, the Hasmonean rulers had many wealthy families and rock-cut tombs came back.
Many of these tombs featured Greek-style porches. Families would apparently gather at the tomb entrance at times (as we might on Memorial Day). There is even evidence that some of them shared meals at the tombs. We have found some very fancy mausoleums. But there also continued to be simpler rock-cut tombs with little or no adornment at the entrance.
Sometime during the reign of Herod the Great, they began to use ossuaries. These were stone bone boxes. The bones of a dead relative would be gathered and deposited in such a box. Even for the wealthy, the ossuaries were simple. After, 70 C.E. ossuaries fell out of use. So it was just this period from, say, 20 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. Why this narrow period?
One theory connects the ossuaries with belief in the resurrection. The Pharisees pushed the notion of an individual resurrection from the dead. Also, Pharisees believed that the dissolution of the body was a judgment for sin. So that idea might relate. But mostly, the theory is that ossuaries might be to place an individual’s remains in a discrete location in anticipation of resurrection.
Magness convincingly shoots this theory down. Some of the tombs where we found ossuaries certainly belonged to Sadducees, who famously did not believe in the resurrection. Also, some ossuaries contain more than one individual’s remains.
Her alternative theory is that the ossuaries derived from Roman urns. Sometimes Romans use boxes for the ashes of the dead. The Romans cremated. The Jews did not. But, starting in Herod’s time, Roman fashions and customs became more and more prevalent among the elite in Jerusalem. The ossuaries were a Jewish way, she thinks, of imitating another Roman custom.