The Archaeology of Religion ...

Whilst sensational stories tend to make the press - I'm thinking of one recent dubious tale about the nails from the Crucifixion being found, followed by scholars nailing the facts down as fantasy* - the many archaeological discoveries that are of genuine interest in illuminating the Bible and those who follow its teachings, tend to get overlooked. So many Noah's Arks have been 'found' that the only explanation I can think of is that he built a dozen of them to house all the animals. The Dead Sea Scrolls were a genuinely great find, but their importance too often gets lost in the various claims and counter-claims. My personal theory is that they were a Geniza of some sort, hidden in the years and decades after the destruction of the Temple in AD 70 (but unless The Jesus Project gets sorted out, this Fellow can't present that paper).

In fact the archaeology of monotheistic religion - or 'archaeology of the Bible' - is better studied by piecing together a whole series of lesser finds which make up a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Last week there was a confirmation by the IAA that the ossuary of "Miriam Daughter of Yeshua Son of Caiaphas, Priest ..." was genuine (see above). This is interesting as it further confirmed the historicity of a priestly family named Caiaphas, and therefore of Yehosef Bar Kayafah who according to the New Testament was the High Priest overseeing the Sanhedrin trial of Jesus. It also makes it more likely that an ossuary found in 1990, and engraved "Joseph son of Caiaphas" is also kosher ... It confirms that Caiaphas was a Jewish Priest, even if not the High Priest of the New Testament; some scholars claim he did not exist or that the epigraphy is fake because he is called Priest not High Priest (as on this sarcophagus of which reads "son of the High Priest"), but I prefer to see it as a miss-interpretation of his rank by the Christian writers describing a Jewish court in the past. A good bio of Caiaphas can be found here, and a small photo of his ossuary here (it is strikingly similar to the one in the IAA photo above).

Christianity split out of Judaism (Jesus could not have been a Christian before he became Christos, post hoc ergo propter hoc, etc). There is Roman interest in Judaism as a religion noted in a number of ancient sources, and it can be difficult to work out which monotheistic religion is meant in some of them. Flavia Domitilla, the grand-daughter of Vespasian, and her cousin-husband Titus Flavius Clemens are a good example of how difficult the story can be to work out from the literary sources, and how much easier it would be if we found their final resting place and it had some symbol denoting which religion they converted to. Domitilla's brother Titus sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Temple, and her brother Domitian succeeded their father as emperor, so this is a pretty well documented and important family.

From Cassius Dio, a Roman pagan source, we have this account (Epitome 67, 14) :
"Domitian slew, along with many others, Flavius Clemens the consul, although he was a cousin and had to wife Flavia Domitilla, who was also a relative of the emperor's. The charge brought against them both was that of atheism, a charge on which many others who drifted into Jewish ways were condemned. Some of these were put to death, and the rest were at least deprived of their property. Domitilla was merely banished to Pandateria."
The passage states the charge as αθεοτση and does not specifically say that it was conversion to Judaism, just that this was also the charge others who did convert to Judaism were accused of. Flavius is executed, Domitilla exiled.

There are many Christian versions of their life stories, or rather their deaths. In one Late Antique version Flavius is also the fourth pope, Clement I, who had known and travelled with Simon Peter. In another, before she was exiled, Domitilla convinced her husband to commit suicide, forcing the election of another Consul and so delaying the enforcement of Domitian's slaughter of Jews and Christians. A variant has this delay allowing for the assassination of Domitian and the election of Nerva in his place.

The Talmudic version has Flavius and Domitilla meeting the great Jewish Sage Akiva off the coast of Italy in AD 81 (Rabbi Akiva was a Jewish ambassador welcoming the new emperor Domitian). To cut a long story short, they were so impressed they converted to Judaism, and ... In AD 96 Akiva returned to Rome and lodged in the home of the man who soon became emperor. Flavius killed himself, and the rest of the story pretty much tallies with the Christian accounts.

Except for one important detail. In the Talmud, Flavius circumcises himself before he commits suicide, and takes a name which reflects this "Ḳeti'a b. Shalom". It is unclear if the same knife was used for both acts, but their relics were long claimed to be in a church in Rome. One of the oldest and best preserved catacombs in Rome are named after St Domitilla, but this seems to be because they were under her protection rather than because of any direct link. They can be interpreted as particularly 'Jewish' in their iconography - I love this fresco of the Last Supper where the guests recline Roman style - but I've always felt that was stretching the point a little, and that by this point Christian art had not yet established it's own iconography.

Domitilla and Flavius' story may seem an odd one to bring up, since there have been no recent archaeological discoveries linked to them, but this story of circumcision provides a nice bridge between the Temple world of Caiaphas and the next discovery. Many Romans were interested in Judaism but refused to make the final sacrifice that would allow them to enter into the synagogue and worship God as Jews - their foreskin. They became known as 'converts of the threshold' since they could not cross it, something which may strike us as strange, but might not have to them. Pagan gods were worshipped not in temples but by sacrifices made on their altars outside. With the exception of Mystery Cults, by their natural practised in private, Greek and Roman gods' religious rituals took place outdoors.

Whilst Romans found Judaism's ounce of skin more than they wanted to sacrifice, increasing numbers of them converted to Christianity, which eventually became the dominant religion (and yes, I do know that the appeal of Christianity is more than men not wanting to get nipped). Initially, the religions were very similar, so that at the first Christian Council of Jerusalem (probably not in AD 70 as traditionally claimed, since that when Titus was besieging the city), had participants confirming many tenets of Judaism such as the requirement to eat kosher food. As Christianity diverge from Judaism, the number of Christians increased, and this led to a need for them to find somewhere to worship once they out-grew House-Churches (for a late example of one, see Dura Europos). Synagogue were only beginning to be being developed in the post Temple period, so could not provide a model. Nor could pagan temples, which were designed to house cult statues and treasure. Instead, Christians looked to the Roman basilica or law court, so when Christianity became the state religion the basilica became the church.

There are several rebuilt Republican basilicas in the Roman Forum, and the Late Antique Basilica of Maxentius (now believed to have been built by Constantine). The only building erected for certain by Vitruvius was a basilica at Fanum. Despite this, they are quite rare, so it when the Egyptians announced that they had found one outside Alexandria it was exciting (photo above, press coverage here).

One final archaeological discovery surprised me. Last night we were discussing eruvin (eruv עירוב‎), and whether the practise of erecting them as a way of bypassing Sabbath restrictions was acceptable or not. We wrongly concluded that eruv chatzerot was a relatively modern concept, but it turns out that we were wrong.

When I turned to the brilliant PaleoJudaica this morning, I saw the discovery of an ancient eruv, more specificaly an eruv techumin, a boundary stone that allowed a Jew to travel without being in breach of the law. It was found by Lake Kinneret inscribed in Hebrew with one word "Shabbat" - the date is not certain, but it is Roman or Byzantine (probably pre-dating the 7th century Arab conquest), and the only such stone known in Hebrew. A similar stone has been found, but with the word inscribed in Greek - showing that the oldies might complain about younger generations loosing their way, but at least young Jews can point out that this same complaint has been made against them since Seleucid times. Nostalgia is fine, but it ain't what it used to be ...

* = not to over-egg the analogies, but Joe Zias, who did brilliant work on the only certain remains of a crucified man, in turn crucifies Simcha Jacobovici's claims about finding the original ancient nails used for Jesus' crucifixion here. For more about ancient crucification, just follow the label below this post.

1 comment:

  1. You mean Professor Simcha from that non-accredited 'univ' in Canada...


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