July 7, 2003
By KARIN LAUB, Associated Press Writer
The discovery was a stroke of luck: the light of the setting sun hit an ancient tomb at just the right angle and revealed hints of a worn inscription, unnoticed for centuries, commemorating the father of John the Baptist.
“This is the tomb of Zachariah, martyr, very pious priest, father of John,” the inscription of 47 Greek letters reads.
The inscription probably does not mean that the father of the biblical figure is actually buried in the 60-foot-high funerary monument at the foot of the Mount of Olives, say the text’s discoverers. But it does give new insight into the local lore surrounding the early figures of the Christian Church.
Scholars say the words were probably written several hundred years after Zachariah’s death – and after the tomb’s construction – by Byzantine Christians.
The Byzantines scoured the Holy Land in the 4th and 5th centuries and, drawing on local tradition, marked sites they felt were linked to the characters they knew from the Bible. Leading the charge was Helena, the newly converted mother of Emperor Constantine, who selected the site now marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said to be the site where Jesus was crucified and buried.
But even such second hand references are important, scholars say, because they confirm the traditions among early Christians and because there are so few artifacts directly relating to biblical narrative.
“We actually have contact with ancient history through Byzantine Christians,” said Jim Strange, a New Testament scholar at the University of South Florida.
The text was discovered by physical anthropologist Joe Zias and inscriptions expert Emile Puech. Zias, an Israeli originally from Ypsilanti, Mich., and the French-born Puech are publishing their findings on the Zachariah inscription in the upcoming July issue of the Revue Biblique, a French quarterly.
The inscription is carved into the facade of what is known as Absalom’s Tomb, one of three large funerary monuments in the Kidron Valley, between Jerusalem’s Old City and the Mount of Olives. The monuments were apparently built for Jerusalem’s aristocracy around the time of Jesus.
It’s unlikely Absalom, son of King David, lies buried in the tomb, which was built hundreds of years after his death.
Medieval Jewish tradition, however, held that the monument was his tomb, and – based on that tradition – Jews, Christians and Muslims stoned the monument for centuries to curse Absalom for his deeds: murdering his half brother Amnon for raping their sister Tamar, and later inciting a rebellion against his father.
The once smooth facade became badly pockmarked, and the Zachariah inscription carved above the entrance arch, about 30 feet from the ground, began to fade.
Zias, a member of the Science and Archaeology Group, a team of scholars affiliated with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, discovered the first letters by chance, on a photograph shown to him by an art history student asking for advice on a paper about Absalom’s Tomb.
The photographer told Zias he shot the picture years ago, toward dusk in summer, with just the right shadows, and that at any other time, the letters might have remained unnoticeable.
Zias put up scaffolding to get a closer look and Puech, using a low-tech method involving paper mache, lifted off a cast.
Puech made out the inscription – two lines, each about four feet long, with letters up to four inches tall. The letters correspond to the Byzantine period, he wrote.
Puech and Zias said they’ve spotted several more lines of writing and will lift more casts off the facade this week.
They’ve already made out one name, “Simon,” perhaps a reference to “Simon the Elder,” the pious man who cradled the infant Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah.
It’s possible the additional lines include the phrase, “He who held in his arms God’s Messiah,” wrote Puech, a scholar at Jerusalem’s Ecole Biblique research institute.
Zias and Puech hope they’ll also find the name of James, brother of Jesus, citing one 4th century Christian tradition that Zachariah, Simon and James were buried together in the Kidron Valley.
There’s no biblical clue to the nature of Zachariah’s death or the location of his tomb.
The Gospel of Luke describes him as an elderly man from the priestly caste of Abijah who, while burning incense in the Temple one day, was told by an angel that his wife Elizabeth, also advanced in years, would bear a son, who was later to become John the Baptist.
Jewish historian Josephus writes that a priest named Zachariah was slain by Zealots in the Temple and thrown into the Kidron Valley below – which would explain the “martyr” reference in the Greek text.
The inscription suggests that local Christians believed Zachariah was buried at the site of the tomb. But because hundreds of years had passed from his death to the inscription, and with no other corroboration, Zias and other scholars say they’ll never know for sure.
The inscription, at best, sheds light on ancient Christian beliefs.
“You may be able to confirm the existence of a tradition there,” said Stephen Pfann, a Bible scholar and head of the University of the Holy Land. “It’s a very important witness to the history of Byzantine Christianity.”