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Of the thousands of limestone ossuaries, or bone boxes, found in and around Jerusalem, at least one depicts the facade of the Temple—this from a time when that magnificent structure still stood on the Temple Mount in all its splendor.
For about 100 to 150 years before the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., Jews in the Jerusalem area practiced ossilegium, or secondary burial- About a year after the initial burial, when the flesh had decomposed, the bones of the deceased were placed in a small stone box, called an ossuary. Ossuaries were often decorated, generally with geometric designs (such as various kinds of rosettes), or at times with plant motifs or with architectural elements such as columns, ashlars (courses of shaped rectangular stones) or parts of a building. No human faces or figures were represented because of the Second Commandment’s prohibition, as interpreted at the time, on the making of graven images.
A number of ossuaries also have inscriptions. Usually these are graffiti-like inscriptions commemorating the deceased and preserving his name; occasionally, the deceased’s profession or place of origin is also mentioned. The inscriptions are in Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew, and some ossuaries carry inscriptions in more than one language.
The ossuary with the depiction of the Temple is typical. It is a little over 2 feet long, 1 foot wide, and slightly more than 1 foot high; inscribed on one of the narrow ends is the name “Yehosah.”a This ossuary, like a number of others, rests on four simple pedestals. Its barrel-vaulted lid is also common, as are both flat and peaked lids.
One of the long sides is highly decorated. Two incised, rectangular frames enclose this side of the ossuary. The outer frame is cut in a ribbed pattern; the inner frame appears to consist of a course of building stones or ashlars. These frames contain two finely carved rosettes enclosed within concentric circles; between the rosettes is what appears to be a drawing of a building with two paneled doors.
Is this drawing a depiction of Herod’s Temple? To address that question, we must look at several of the ancient literary descriptions of the Temple’s facade.
The Temple is described in two sources- in the writings of the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who actually saw the Temple before the Romans destroyed it in 70 C.E.; and in Middot, a tractate of the Mishnah.b Although they vary in certain details, the descriptions of the Temple in these sources are similar. Both tell of a tri-partite building consisting of (1) a porch or Portico (ulam), (2) the main hall or Sanctuary (heikhal) and (3) the inner shrine or Holy of Holies (dvir, in the Bible).c
The Portico had a large portal without doors, so that a visitor to the Temple could look through the Portico to the doors of the Temple itself. The size of this open doorway is reported differently in Josephus and Mishnah Middot, but both indicate that it was large. According to Josephus, it was 70 cubits (105 feet) high and 25 cubits (38 feet) wide.1 Middot 3.7 says it was only 40 cubits (60 feet) high and 20 cubits (30 feet) wide.
According to Middot, above this doorless portal were five oak-wood beams; between the beams ran courses of ashlars. The lowest beam was two cubits longer than the width of the portal, and each beam was two cubits longer than the one beneath it, so that the length of the uppermost beam was 30 cubits (45 feet). The entire construction made a trapezoid with its narrow side at the bottom. Here is the description in Middot 3.7-
Above [the Portico doorway] were five carved oak beams (maltera’ot); the lowest one projected beyond the entrance one cubit to either side, the one above it projected beyond it one cubit to either side, [and so on]; thus, the uppermost was 30 cubits long. Between every two beams was one course of stones.
Through the Portico could be seen the doors of the Sanctuary, which was smaller than the Portico- 55 cubits high by 16 cubits wide (83 by 24 feet) according to Josephus, and 20 by 10 cubits (30 by 15 feet) according to Middot. The doors were covered by a curtain; during pilgrimage festivals, the doors were opened and the curtain pulled aside, allowing pilgrims to see into the Sanctuary.
As for the two pairs of doors leading into the Sanctuary—two on the inside facing the Sanctuary itself, and two on the outside facing the Portico—Middot gives two contrasting reports.2 In one, the outside doors, which opened into the Sanctuary’s entrance, lay flat along the wall; and the inside doors opened into the interior of the Sanctuary. On the other hand, Rabbi Judah, who compiled the Mishnah, observes that both inner and outer doors stood within the entrance to the Sanctuary and folded back upon one another when opened. In this manner, they covered the thickness of the wall, which was 6 cubits (9 feet).
The doors are described by Josephus3 and in the Mishnah.4 Both sources agree that the doors were covered with gold; they also agree that the doors to the Sanctuary were massive. The Mishnah describes how they were opened every morning,5 and recounts that during the pilgrimage festivals (Passover, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles), and on Yom Kippur, crowds of worshipers gathered in the court early in the morning.6 During these festivals, the Table of the Shewbread was displayed in front of the Sanctuary’s open portal, having been brought out to be shown to the pilgrims. Closing the heavy doors at night, reports Josephus, required many people.7
We learn of another architectural feature of the Temple facade from Jewish coins minted during the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome (132–135 C.E.), the so-called Bar-Kokhba Revolt. Although the Temple had been destroyed more than 60 years earlier, its memory was still fresh. There is an almost universal consensus that the structure depicted on these coins is indeed the Temple—representing the nationalist ambitions of the revolutionaries. A tell-tale sign, as on the coin pictured on page 49, is the trapezoidal shape formed by the arrangement of increasingly longer superimposed beams, which conforms to the description in Middot. The additional architectural element revealed by the coin is the pillars flanking the doorway of the Portico. Inside the Portico, the Table of the Shewbread is on display in front of the Sanctuary doorway, as was done during pilgrimage festivals. The doors of the Sanctuary are not visible on the coin because they are open and the Table of the Shewbread blocks the portal.
As for our ossuary, in the center are two rectangular designs, each with two square panels—apparently representing closed doors in the facade of a building. Above the closed doors are superimposed, horizontal strips, which look like rafters or beams between what seem to be two courses of ashlars. This feature appears to represent the trapezoidal oak beams separated by courses of ashlars above the Temple Portico’s doorway.
On either side of the doorway are two pillar-like rectangles, apparently representing the two pillars flanking the doorway of the Sanctuary.d Depicted on this ossuary is a view through the Temple Portico to the closed doors of the Sanctuary.
There is yet another piece of evidence indicating that the structure on the ossuary is Herod’s Temple- The tomb where it was found probably belonged to a family of priests. What better image to engrave on the ossuary of a priest, or that of a member of his family, than the Temple where he officiated?
But how can we tell that the tomb belonged to a priestly family?
Scratched on one of the narrow sides of the ossuary is a name, presumably the name of the person whose bones it contained- Yehosah (YHWSH).8 Two other ossuaries from the same cave-tomb include the name Tarfon. On one, the name Tarfon appears in both Hebrew and Greek. On the other, a woman is identified in Aramaic as “Elisheba [the] wife [of] Tarfon.” The name Elisheba (Elizabeth) is engraved in Greek and in Aramaic. This Biblical name—the name of Aaron’s wife (Exodus 6-23)—appears only once in the corpus of private names of Jews in Palestine in the Second Temple period- It is the name of the mother of John the Baptist (Luke 1-5)—Elizabeth, “a descendant of Aaron,” that is, of a priestly family.
The name Tarfon is even more indicative of a priestly family than is the name Elizabeth. The Talmud mentions a priest by the name of Rabbi Tarfon, who in his childhood served in the Temple. His uncle Simeon, we are told, “blew the trumpet in the Temple courtyard at the time of the command haqhel (gathering of the community).”9 Rabbi Tarfon relates that one Yom Kippur, when he stood among the priests in the Temple, he heard the High Priest utter the Ineffable Name of God in his Yom Kippur confession.10
Of course, we cannot be sure that the Tarfon family buried in these ossuaries was the same as the priestly Tarfon family mentioned in our sources. But there is a reasonable probability that this is the case.
In addition, four other names on ossuaries from this cave-tomb were common among priestly families of the time. In fact, six or seven of the ten names on the ossuaries in this cave-tomb can be associated with contemporaneous priestly and Levite names.e Thus it seems probable that the cave-tomb belonged to a family of priests, making it all the more likely that the structure depicted on Yehosah’s ossuary is the Temple.
One prominent scholar, Levy Y. Rahamani, has argued that all the structures appearing on ossuaries represent the carved facades of burial caves.11 But that is not necessarily the case. The ornamentation on the ossuaries can also include scenes of places familiar to Jerusalem’s Jews. What more appropriate scene, especially for a priestly family, than the facade of the Temple?12 True, the image was intended merely to express a connection with the Temple, not to produce an accurate representation. Nonetheless, the Yehosah ossuary’s unusual decoration above the open doorway of the Portico, crude as it may be, is a definite sign that this image is the Temple.
Rahamani also argues that this depiction could not be the Temple because that would have violated the religiously mandated separation of the pure from the impure, the holy from the profane.13 Rahamani notes that the Temple represented, especially for Jerusalemites, the highest degree of sanctity and holiness, while death and corpses were the source of the greatest ritual impurity. For this reason, Rahamani argues, the Temple would never have been depicted on an ossuary.
The depiction of the Temple facade on an ossuary, however, does not violate any religious commandment regarding impurity and purification, nor does it contradict the required distancing between the impure and the pure, which was strictly observed in the days of the Second Temple. Despite the feeling of some today that it is inappropriate to depict Temple scenes on ossuaries, Jewish law does not prohibit this, and Rahamani does not provide any citation from the Jewish sources that says it does.
It would follow from Rahamani’s thesis, for example, that a dead body was prohibited from being brought onto the Temple Mount. But even this was not forbidden14—despite the proximity of the Temple and its courts, which had to be kept completely free of dead bodies and any impurity connected with death.f
Other ossuaries may also depict the facade of the Temple, although not quite so clearly.15 One was discovered in the same cave-tomb- the ossuary with the inscription of Elisheba, wife of Tarfon. It too depicts the facade of a building with two closed paneled doors. Here, however, there are no beams above the doorway.
Instead, long horizontal rectangles appear to represent a wide lintel. At the sides of the doors, below the ends of the lintel, are two vertical rectangles, which apparently represent two pillars.
Rahamani argues that depictions of paneled doors are extremely common on Jerusalem ossuaries. These, it is generally accepted, are depictions of cave-tomb doors. Would I argue that all of these paneled doors represent the Temple doors? Not entirely. But the representation on the “Yehosah” ossuary, especially the structure of beams between two courses of stones, is unique. There is no similar depiction on other ossuaries or on the facades of burial caves of that time.
Double doors, such as on the ossuary inscribed “Miryam the wife of Yahqiah,” may well represent the Temple. The burial caves that Rahamani believes were represented on ossuaries had only one door, not two. Some of the double doors depicted on ossuaries may represent the Sanctuary’s doors, whereas others may depict the Double Gate—called the Huldah Gates in the Mishnah—of the southern wall of the Temple Mount. Still others may depict the famous Nicanor Gate—the gate to the Temple’s Court of the Israelites.
In any case, the ossuaries’ depiction of the Temple is symbolic, expressing a connection with the Temple; the precise identification of a specific gate is less important. It is not surprising, therefore, that priests, whose lives involved a ritual relationship with God, should wish to preserve this relationship symbolically after their deaths.
The facade of the Temple appears in later illustrations, most of them from ancient synagogues. At the third-century C.E. Dura-Europus synagogue, the Temple’s facade is depicted in several places- One depiction resembles that on tetradrachma Bar-Kokhba coins; others show two doors with square panels. Two similar carvings have been found in a cave-tomb in the third-century C.E. Beth She’arim burial ground; the design on these carvings—closed doors with square panels, flanked by pillars—appears in many ancient synagogues. Also, the mosaic floors in numerous ancient synagogues show the Temple’s facade flanked by ritual objects having a direct connection with the Temple- seven-branched menorahs, lulavs and shofars. These depictions are not Torah shrines, which are depicted differently; on fourth-century C.E. gold glasses from Rome, for example, Torah shrines are represented with their doors open and their scrolls plainly visible. It seems likely that the design of the Torah shrine, as on these glasses, was influenced by traditional depictions of the Temple facade.
The tradition of representing the facade of the Temple in the post-Second Temple period (after 70 C.E.) is well known. Our ossuary shows us that this practice was underway even while the Temple still stood. Indeed, our ossuary may contain the earliest known depiction of the Temple!
a. This “Yehosah” ossuary was one of eight ossuaries bought by Eleazar L. Sukenik in the 1940s. One of these ossuaries is now exhibited in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, two may be lost, and five (including the Yehosah ossuary) are in the Institute of Archaeology at Hebrew University. According to the institute’s records, the ossuaries were discovered in a cave-tomb in the southeastern part of Jerusalem, perhaps in the early part of this century; they were later bought by Sukenik from the Dormition Monastery.
b. The Mishnah, compiled in about 200 C.E., is the earliest rabbinic document and the core of the Talmud.
c. The term dvir does not appear in the Mishnah tractate Middot, which refers to the Temple’s inner sanctum as the Holy of Holies.
d. The facade of the Sanctuary is depicted as having two pillars, whereas the facade of the Portico is depicted as having four pillars.
e. The six names are (1) Tarfon and his wife, (2) Elisheba, (3) Yahqiah (condensed from Yehezkiyah/Hezekiah), (4) Jehohanan, (5) El’azar and (6) Levi. The additional names are Eliezer, Judah, Yehosah and Miryam (wife of Yahqiah).
f. On a similar note, in the Mishnah we find a discussion between Sadducees and Pharisees concerning the fact that the water channel that flowed to the Temple Mount passed through a burial ground (Mishnah Yadaim 4.7).
1. Josephus, Wars of the Jews V, 207.
2. Mishnah Middot 4.1.
3. Josephus, Wars of the Jews V, 208–212; and Against Apion II, 119.
4. Mishnah Middot 4.1.
5. Mishnah Middot 4.1–2 and Tamid 3.7–8.
6. Mishnah Yoma 1-8.
7. Josephus, Against Apion II, 119.
8. The inscriptions on the ossuaries from this cave-tomb were published in Hans H. Spoer, “Some Hebrew and Phoenician Inscriptions,” Journal of the American Oriental Society XXVIII (1907), pp. 355–358; Mark Lidzbarski, Ephemeris für semitische Epigraphik III (Giessen, Germany- J. Rickersche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1909), pp. 50–51; and J.B. Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaicarum II (Rome- Pontificio Instituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1952), pp. 296–300. See also Eleazar L. Sukenik, “Judische Graber Jerusalem um Christi Geburt, Archaologischer Anzeiger,” Jahrbuch des deutschen archaologischen Instituts XLVI (1931), cols. 309–316; and Erwin R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. III, Bollingen Series XXXVII (New York- Pantheon Books, 1953), no. 219.
9. Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 1-5, 38d.
10. Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 3-7, 40d.
11. See Levy Y. Rahamani, “Jerusalem’s Tomb Monuments on Jewish Ossuaries,” Israel Exploration Journal 18 (1968), pp. 220–225, plates 21–24; The Decoration on Jewish Ossuaries as Representations of Jerusalem’s Tombs (Jerusalem- Hebrew University, 1977; Ph.D. dissertation), pp. 92–95; and “Ossuaries and Ossilegium (Bone-Gathering) in the Late Second Temple Period,” in Hillel Geva, ed., Ancient Jerusalem Revealed (Jerusalem- The Israel Exploration Society, 1994), pp. 191–205.
12. See Michael Avi-Yonah, “Oriental Elements in the Art of Palestine in Roman and Byzantine Periods,” Quarterly of the Department of Antiquities in Palestine, X (1944), p. 147.
13. See the exchange between Rahamani, “Is the Temple Really Depicted upon Ossuaries from Jerusalem?” and Asher Grossberg, “Was the Portrayal of the Temple and Its Utensils upon Ossuaries Forbidden?” in Qadmoniot 27 (Jerusalem, 1994; in Hebrew), p. 142.
14. See Mishnah Kelim 1-8; Tosefta Kelim Baba Kamma 1-8; and Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, 3-4–5.
15. The decoration on one ossuary, No. 1509 in the Hebrew University collection, which comes from the Kidron Valley, combines features of the two ossuaries discussed here- In the two external panels are geometric rosettes identical to those on ossuary No. 1523 (“Yehosah”); and the facade of the structure resembles the one on ossuary No. 1522 (“Elisheba”). Only the columns flanking the doors under the protruding ends of the lintel are lacking. A representation similar to that on the ossuary of Tarfon’s wife Elisheba appears on an ossuary from Giv’at HaMivtar in Jerusalem (see Dan Bahat, “Four Burial Caves in Giv’at HaMivtar,” ‘Atiqot 8 [1982, in Hebrew], plate 9-4–5). On another ossuary, a single gateway with an arched lintel is depicted (see Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, ill. 216). A double gateway with an arch between two pillars is depicted on two ossuaries. One of these was found in Romema (see Rahamani, “Jewish Tombs in the Romema Quarter of Jerusalem,” Eretz Israel 8 [1967, in Hebrew], pp. 186–192). The other, No. 1520, was purchased from the Dormition Monastery and is displayed in the Israel Museum. Nahman Avigad also reported an ossuary with a schematic representation of a double-door gateway, featuring square panels between two pillars (see Avigad, “Jewish Rock-Cut Tombs in Jerusalem and the Judean Hill Country,” Eretz Israel 8 [1967, in Hebrew], p. 131, plate 2-5).