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.” (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.) 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.
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!
Excerpted from Behold the Temple, Asher Grossberg, BAR 22-03, May-Jun 1996.