A Jerusalem tomb, ‘blind leading the blind’ or just another Day in Paradise?

If it is the tomb of Mattathias Antigonus, which the present owner wishes us to believe, then in the words of Nietzsche there are ‘those who choose to believe and those who choose to know.’ For the latter category, it’s simply but another Second Temple Period Jerusalem family tomb with an enigmatic inscription and an ossuary containing the remains of an elderly woman who tragically had been beheaded.

By Joe Zias
Jerusalem, Israel
April 2014

Tombs in the ancient world have always attracted widespread public interest. While they provide a wealth of information, they can be scientifically and historically abused for political, religious and financial gain. Whereas today many readers are familiar with tombs of Jesus, three to date in Jerusalem alone, there are other tombs of lesser importance, one of which I would like to address in this essay.

In 1971, the year before I began working as a curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority, a first century Jewish tomb was accidently discovered, in Giv’at Ha-Mivtar, the same Jerusalem suburb where in 1968 the first and only evidence for crucifixion had been uncovered.1, 2 Dubbed the ‘Abba tomb’, due to a very intriguing Aramaic tomb inscription, written in Paleo-Hebrew script, there arose wide speculation as to whom the enigmatic inscription actually was referring to, speculation concerning which continues today. The inscription reads as follows:3

“I Abba, son of the priest E/leazar, son of Aaron the high (priest), I, / Abba, the oppressed and the persec/uted, who was born in Jerusalem, / and went into exile in Babylonia and brought (back [to Jerusalem]) Mattath/iah son of Juda(h), and I buried him in the c/ave, which I acquired by the writ.”

At first glance it would appear that Abba, the original owner of the family tomb may have been referring to Mattathias Antigonus, the last ruler of the Hasmoneans, killed by the Romans in 37 BC. However, this turned out not to be the case.

The human remains found in one of the two beautiful, undisturbed ossuaries contained the remains of four individuals, including two adults, one an adult male whom, Professor N. Haas claimed, had been beheaded. Initially they were examined by Professor N. Haas from the Hebrew University, however, as there was speculation that this age/sex determination may have been incorrect, L.Y. Rahmani, the Chief Curator for the State of Israel asked for a second opinion from Professor Patricia Smith, a dentist turned Physical anthropologist who, like Professor Haas, also taught in the Hebrew University Medical School.4

Smith’s preliminary conclusions after viewing the remains were in some disagreement with those of Professor Haas, in that while the individual had indeed been beheaded due to a sharp blow to the cervical vertebrae, what Haas had regarded as a male in his 30’s, Smith now concluded were the remains of an elderly female.

Faced with two contradictory opinions and the possibility that we may see the tomb declared an important burial place for a historical figure mentioned in ancient sources, Rahmani, much to his credit, had the remains examined by a third individual from Denmark, Professor V. Moller-Christensen, who was totally unaware of the controversy surrounding the findings. He concurred with Smith that the remains were those of an elderly female who had been beheaded, a conclusion also supported by Professor Arensburg from Tel Aviv Medical School.

Meanwhile, Israel television was working on a documentary on the tomb (The Last Maccabee, 1974) and the inscription, which had been removed to the Israel Museum where it remains today. As I was the curator responsible, along with L.Y. Rahmani, for the State’s ossuaries, I had the privilege of taking this particular ossuary to the studio for filming.

Present in the studio were the producer, Yigal Lossin one of the finest film-makers in the early days of Israeli television, Professor Haas, the archaeologist Vassilious Tsfaris, and Professor David Flusser, a leading authority on early Christianity. During the filming, the producer turned to Haas and asked him about the remains he had examined, in particular those of the young adult male whom had been beheaded. Haas replied that ‘the individual in question who indeed had been beheaded was not young, but a somewhat aged individual’. Lossin was taken aback, immediately demanded a halt to filming, and replied to Haas that ‘during all our discussions prior to filming, I was told that the individual was in his 30’s which fits well with the story and now the skeletal remains of a man in his 30’s suddenly becomes a somewhat elderly man! Faced with a dilemma in which the whole story was based to some extent on this one skeleton, Haas paused and replied, ‘ok, no problem, the individual was a man in his mid 30’s’ and cameras again began to roll.

While viewing the finished documentary The Last Maccabee, one must admit that it was well received by the public, despite the fact that the public was totally unaware of the discrepancy over the aging and sexing of the skeletal remains. Evidently the producer was also unaware of the fact that three prominent physical anthropologists had re-sexed the ‘male in his 30’s’ to be that of an aged female who had been beheaded. The following year it was rebroadcast on Israel television and colleagues subsequently informed the producers that while the documentary was compelling and very well edited, the fact that the male skeleton, in his mid 30’s, upon which the documentary was based, was later determined to be that of an elderly female, raised many questions in terms of media responsibility, and consequently it was never re-broadcast on Israeli television. In today’s media driven archaeology, it perhaps would likely still be running.

I thought that was the end of the story until some years later when I received a phone call from the owner of the apartment built over the tomb, who informed me that there was a chamber under the tomb floor which had apparently been overlooked by the Israel Antiquities Authority during the initial excavations. I was somewhat skeptical concerning his story as the tomb had been cleared by an experienced archaeologist, so I asked for details, which, had I not known the owner since the 70’s, I would not have believed.

According to the owner, he wanted to enlarge the Abba tomb beneath the apartment for personal use, however a friend who believed in mysticism convinced him to take an earthen sample to a blind, mystical darwish5 in Bethlehem before he would undertake any cosmetic changes, due to the important Abba inscription discovered in 1971. According to the owner, the Bethlehem blind ‘darwish’ informed him that there were additional artifacts in the tomb which the archaeologist had missed and that he should return home and start searching, which the owner did. As the visually-challenged darwish had prophesied, the owner now discovered a small underground chamber which had gone unnoticed in 1971, and therein was a beautifully decorated ossuary which now needed to be examined by physical anthropologists. Perhaps this was the ossuary which had been hoped for, hidden away beneath the floor, containing the remains of an individual marked by violence. Immediately I called Professor Patricia Smith, informed her of the find and we agreed to arrive at the site after dark due to problems with the ultra-orthodox haredim who were making life difficult for anyone examining human skeletal remains. We agreed to reexamine the tomb on the following two conditions: 1) there would be no media present and 2) it would be done quietly after dark. When we arrived, much to our surprise and contrary to our agreement, the media were present, a precursor of things to come. After a short conversation with the owner, the media, aside from one reporter, were asked to leave and we entered the open tomb. Beneath the floor in one corner was, as the owner had promised, an ossuary, untouched since the first century CE.

The skeletal material was in excellent condition, untouched for 2,000 or more years, however within a minute or two it was evident that no signs of trauma whatsoever were appearing on the human remains. We resealed the ossuary, immediately reported our findings to the apartment owner, explaining that it was not the remains of the Hasmonean ruler he had envisioned. We then departed. One theory being tossed around by the owner at the time was that the first ossuary discovered, along with the Abba inscription, was in fact an attempt to conceal the true burial of Mattathias Antigonus.

I later asked my colleague Vassilous Tsfaris out of curiosity as to how he had failed to uncover this chamber beneath the floor, since the rule in clearing a tomb, of which there are over a thousand in Jerusalem, was to clear, draw, photograph, describe the family tomb and remove its contents for further research and eventual publication. He replied that the haredim, who were protesting archaeological research in 1971 (as they do today) were milling around and rather than remove the earth which had in-filled the cave, they were forced to transfer the earth to a corner of the cave, and it was there that the niche, beneath the cave floor, was some two decades later discovered by the owner, with a blocking stone. I’m sure that had Tsfaris been able to complete the work properly, the niche would undoubtedly have been uncovered in the floor.

Meanwhile, the owner returned to the Bethlehem darwish who purportedly told him, to go back to the tomb, knock on all the walls and in a hidden chamber will be more treasures. The owner reported to me that he did just that, however he told me that nothing else was found.

Meanwhile as an archaeologist/anthropologist I had been following for decades the claims of mystics, seer’s, self proclaimed archaeologists, and healers of one type or another. Thus I travelled with two colleagues to Bethlehem to have a meeting with the blind darwish. Our meeting, after some small talk meant to convince the client that he, though blind, was able to see and foretell the future, was to ask the individual, while holding their hand, on which day of the week they were born, which few are aware of. When they replied that they were unaware of which day, then there was a minute of silence in which the blind darwish’ went into deep thought. He would then reply, one of the days of the week, and the typical response would then be, well, ‘maybe yes, maybe no’. The darwish immediately pulled out a black box, battery operated and typed in the date and after some buzzing, the box would validate, in English, the exact day which the client had received a minute earlier from the darwish. This confirmation from the darwish’s black box, which for the naïve audience standing in line on Saturdays, was, I have to admit, initially very convincing evidence that the ‘seer’ possessed some special power. In the meantime his young children were ‘shilling’ for him, twice during our visit they brought him the telephone from ‘callers’ thanking him, one who had won the local lottery and a second, a female, who at last had found a husband, all in broken Hebrew. When it came to my turn, I took a pass, more concerned with how he pulled off the con, and returned to Jerusalem.

That evening I found the black box on-line which cost at the time, for New Agers interested in bio-rhythms, ca. $30.00 dollars. As for the minute of deep thought which preceded his attempt to determine the exact day of birth, it’s but a mathematical formulae which he had memorized and enabled him to correctly cite which of the seven days was the person’s birthday. Actually, the mental calculation can easily be done in seconds.6

A few years ago I was contacted by a film maker about a documentary on Jerusalem tombs. The director had heard about the Abba tomb, so he asked if I knew its location. I had known the owner since the 1970’s, so I called him and asked for a short meeting in order to film the tomb, which I had not seen in over 20 years. He agreed and much to my surprise, the formerly secular owner now greeted me dressed in black and white and bearded; he had become a member of the Hasidic community. We briefly discussed the tomb which I thought, aside from the inscription on display in the Israel national museum, was but a footnote in the history of Jerusalem. He was fully aware of the fact that we had re-aged and re-sexed the human remains discovered in 1971. He then emerged from his study with a thick file from which it became apparent that over the years he had attempted to turn the tomb into a site of pilgrimage, something which L.Y. Rahmani was determined for historical/scientific reasons to prevent.

He now took me to the tomb beneath his apartment and I immediately found the exterior unrecognizable. Over the years he had invested a considerable amount of personal funds for ease of access, adding stairs and railings leading down to the chamber, where visitors and tourists could glimpse the tomb of Mattathias Antigonus the last of the Maccabeean rulers.

If it is the tomb of Mattathias Antigonus, which the present owner wishes us to believe, then in the words of Nietzsche there are ‘those who choose to believe and those who choose to know’.7 For the latter category, it’s simply but another Second Temple Period Jerusalem family tomb with an enigmatic inscription and an ossuary containing the remains of an elderly woman who tragically had been beheaded.8

As for the blind Bethlehem darwish, I doubt if he was ever credited with the find.

Postscript- While preparing the references for the above, it was brought to my attention by a colleague that the owner, over the years, had invested what appears to be a considerable amount of time and money in the tomb beneath his house. Listening to his dramatic recreation of events (on-line) which have taken place the past 40 plus years, I was somewhat astounded to hear his narration and his intent to turn the tomb into a tourist attraction. For example, in his recounting of events over the past four decades he mentions that DNA tests show that the remains of Abba, son of Aaron the high (priest), matched up with the genetic profile of today’s priestly lineage (Cohanim). The only problem with such a notion is that the first reported study on the genetic background of today’s Cohanim did not appear until 1997,9 and according to Professor Smith the human remains had been handed over to the burial society in 1976, some twenty-one years earlier! Furthermore, he omits, in his narration, for whatever reason, how he traveled on two occasions to Bethlehem to visit the blind darwish10. In addition, the fact that three physical anthropologists independently concurred that the remains found in the first ossuary were in fact those of an elderly woman and not a male in his mid 30’s were omitted. It’s also presented as if there were the remains of but two individuals interred there: Abba, the first century owner of the tomb, and Mattathias Antigonus. However, in my experience these kinds of Second Temple Jerusalem extended family tombs often contained an additional fifty or more individuals.

The owner now declares that tens of thousands of people from all walks of life have visited the tomb, which is a bit hard to believe because the tour guides with whom I have spoken, and in fact I also work as a tour guide, are unaware of his tourist site. Why has the owner invested all this time effort in something of little importance, aside from the unique, somewhat enigmatic inscription now displayed in the museum and the second ossuary which still rests there? The answer can possibly be found in the ‘non-profit’ which has been established, although I think that the, ‘born again’ owner, truly believes the story. And who could doubt the blind Bethlehem darwish who found the hidden niche containing the second ossuary?


1 Zias, J. and Sekeles, E. 1985 The Crucified Man from Giv’at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal. Israel Exploration Journal 35:22–27.

2 Haas, N. 1970 Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar. Israel Exploration Journal 20:38–59. Fifteen years after the original publication, due to widespread, public interest, we decided to reappraise the original find.

3 Rosenthal, E.S.The Giv’at ha-Mivtar Inscription, in IEJ 23, (1973) p. 72-81.

4 Smith,Patricia, “The Human Skeletal Remains from the Abba Cave,” Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2/3, 1977. Unfortunately, Professor N. Haas was unable to reply due to a tragic accident which occurred in 1975. He died 13 yrs later. See Nicu Haas, A Pioneer in Anthropology (2011).

5 The Islamic term ‘darwish’ is roughly translated as a ‘seer’ or mystic which can be found today in many villages in the region.

6 http://www.wikihow.com/Calculate-the-Day-of-the-Week

7 http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/1938.Friedrich_Nietzsche

8 In 2011 a blogger tried to make this find into something important, and it’s a prime example of what happens when those with little or no experience delve into the world of archaeology. For starters, Professor Smith is a dental anthropologist, i.e. she has a doctorate in both fields and is one of the most eminent scientists in her field. http://www.jjraymond.com/religion/abbatomb.html. Secondly, the nails he describes adhering to the phalanges are more in the realm of tacks, rather than nails which would have been used for crucifixion.

9 Nature(January 2, 1997

10 I recently spoke with a tour guide who guides settlers, and he told me that on occasion he takes people there, but that he was aware of the darwish connection.

Comments (8)

Just a question of detail re your footnote 8: since so little (i.e. nothing, in terms of hard information) is known concerning the mechanics of nailing of hands in ancient Roman crucifixion, how are you certain concerning the sizes of nails and/or tacks that "would have been used" on hands? A claim of certainty concerning large size of nail would seem to make sense only on the assumption of suspension of weight (and nailing through bone), but if ropes suspended weight and the nail/tack only went through flesh to pin the hand from moving (as suggested), without suspending weight, where the basis for negative certainty on this point? In this light, can crucifixion be excluded as an explanation for nails attached to finger bones found on a corpse (as distinguished from a conclusion of uncertainty)?

#1 - Greg Doudna - 04/10/2014 - 17:44

Part 1 of 3.

I have followed the scholarship on the Abba Inscription with interest for some time, for a reason that goes beyond what has been raised in any published article so far: if it were not for one very major objection, I have wondered if "Abba" was Hyrcanus II. The major objection is that Hyrcanus II is not known to have been named "Abba". On the other hand, it is likely that Hyrcanus II had a second name, and it is not known from any ancient source what that second name was. However, "Abba" was not a common Hasmonean name, and in default of actual information, presumably Hyrcanus II's second name was one of the common Hasmonean names, perhaps "John" if a firstborn son would be given a paternal grandfather's name. That is the major objection. Josephus says Hyrcanus II was addressed as and known as "Father" (Ant. 15.21), but Josephus presents that as a title of honor, not as a proper name. The Abba Inscription presents "Abba" as a proper name. Again, that is the major, perhaps decisive, objection. If it were not for that single, significant, objection, however, the rest of the case would be intriguing. If the Inscription's MTTY son of Judah does refer to bones of Antigonus Mattathias, the body might logically have been handed over to the custody and care of Hyrcanus II, since Hyrcanus II was the head of the family or clan, for burial after Antigonus's execution in Antioch. Abba's self-description corresponds to both Hyrcanus II and language of the Teacher of Righteousness in Qumran texts. The identity of MTTY son of Judah as Antigonus Mattathias is not certain, not least because it is not known that Aristobulus II (Antigonus Mattathias's father) was named "Judah". The naming of a second-born son after an uncle, i.e. Judah in the case of Aristobulus II, is very plausible but unattested in the case of Aristobulus II.

#2 - Greg Doudna - 04/11/2014 - 19:23

Part 2 of 3.

According to the Abba Inscription the bones of MTTY would have been in the Abba cave, but since only a portion of the individuals' bones likely there were recovered, it would not be certain that any of the recovered bones in the “Abba” cave were those of MTTY. However, contra Zias and others who have written on the Abba Cave, I am convinced that the nails attached to the fingers of the older individual's remains clearly do suggest crucifixion. (Although I arrived at my arguments independently, some of these points were well made in the JJ Raymond reference of Zias’s fn 8 above.) The reconstruction would be that those nails were nailed through flesh in the hands, then remained in the hands when the body was removed for burial. As the flesh decomposed the nails became stuck to the surviving bones, and remained that way until found in modern times. As previously noted, the length of the nails is no negative argument since that objection is entirely based on a wholly unverified, and also implausible, assumption (that nails in the hands in crucifixion supported body weight). The suggested identification of the bones as female is an objection to those bones being those of MTTY of the Inscription, but the identification as female is characterized by Patricia Smith in her conclusion as “tentative … based on the smaller size and gracility of the femur and mandible in the specimen. No positive identification could be made since the pelvis and much of the skull were missing” (IEJ 1977: 123). I hesitate to dispute Zias on a point within his field of expertise, but this reads to me as an identification which is tentative and not positive, as reported by the one who made that identification. The identification as female appears to have been based essentially on a reconstructed shorter height compatible with most women, compared to taller average heights of most men. But while height is suggestive, is it decisive? Josephus tells of Antigonus being remembered for having been mocked as womanly by his Roman captors, which need not, but could, have drawn upon an existing womanly appearance in some way. In any case, nothing of Antigonus Mattathias's height is known, and the negative argument that the bones in question were female is characterized by P. Smith as tentative and not capable of being asserted with certainty.

#3 - Greg Doudna - 04/11/2014 - 19:24

Part 3 of 3.

In contrast to that, there are the very clear and specific indications that this individual was BOTH beheaded AND nailed through the hands at the time of death. As I understand it, very few nails have been found inside any ossuaries (with the bones) in any case, and in no other case have nails been found attached to hand bones in an ossuary. And this particular individual was also fairly clearly beheaded (possibly with the executioner whacking twice to complete the job, per P. Smith’s analysis). The extremely unusual combination, with no other known parallel, of nails attached to hand bones and beheading corresponds specifically and exclusively to dual traditions of Antigonus Mattathias being hung up on a cross and flogged (Dio Cassius), and beheaded (Strabo). While that particular combination may have been done by Romans in cases not known to history, Antigonus Mattathias is the only case in which these dual traditions of these two particular kinds of death are recounted for the same person—the exact combination that turns up on a set of bones in an ossuary of a tomb with an Inscription referring to bones of one MTTY, of the approximate time as Antigonus Mattathias as independently established on dating grounds. What appears to be this startling specific coincidence, while it could be a red herring or false lead (i.e. only coincidence), nevertheless seems sufficiently striking to me to call for renewed focus on the security of the suggested, but short of certain, identification on physical anthropology grounds of the bones as female. With that background, I return now to the question: if the MTTY of the Inscription IS Antigonus Mattathias—if that—then who would be the wealthy, suffering, exiled-to-Babylon, priest "Abba" who bought the family tomb and arranged for the burial? It has long been supposed that "Abba" went into exile to Babylon with Hyrcanus II (“We may hazard a guess that Abba was a separatist of some kind, who was outlawed and persecuted either by the government, because of his zealous nationalism, or by the official Jewish establishment, as a result of his heterodox religious opinions….Thus one may think, as Prof. D. Flusser did at first, that both Mattathiah and Abba belonged to the entourage of Hyrcanus [II], who was exiled by the Parthians and ransomed by the Jews of Babylonia. Hyrcanus lived in Babylonia until he was tempted to return to Jerusalem by Herod, who killed him in 30 B.C. Such a suggestion of course remains entirely hypothetical” [Naveh, IEJ 1973: 91]). Yet despite the long-suspected association of Abba with the exile of Hyrcanus II to Babylon, "Abba” remains otherwise unknown. Again, if it were not for the significant objection of lack of knowledge that Hyrcanus II would have represented his proper name as "Abba", “Abba” would look to me as if he could be Hyrcanus II himself.

#4 - Greg Doudna - 04/11/2014 - 19:26

Joe Zias' article is entertaining, but quite sloppy and leaves A LOT MORE OPTIONS open:
1- IF the inscription was on the cave wall, not on an ossuary (was it?):
2- who was buried in the second ossuary found in 1971? (how many, age, gender, signs of violent death?)
3- who was the 2nd person buried in the same ossuary as the beheaded old woman? (same questions as above, all essential)
4- Ancient historians do NOT concur on type of execution: crucifixion or decapitation! Josephus + Plutarch ("beheaded") vs. Cassius Dio ("crucified"). So any of the other people buried there, male & ca. 30 of age, who cannot be excluded from having been crucified (signs only visible if nails hit bones), could theoretically be Antigonus.
5- Did the Haredi burial society get hold in 1971 of all the human remains before they could be studied (except for those of the elderly decapitated woman)?

#5 - Radu Mendrea - 12/12/2015 - 16:45

Also, pls. do pay more attention to names. The IAA archaeologist was Vassilios Tzaferis, not Vassilious Tzfaris. Important man, just died this year, some respect please.

#6 - Radu Mendrea - 12/12/2015 - 16:59

More: from the sentence "However, in my experience these kinds of Second Temple Jerusalem extended family tombs often contained an additional fifty or more individuals." we have to understand that Joe Zias has no clue on how many skeletons were actually found in the tomb.

#7 - Radu Mendrea - 12/12/2015 - 17:16

Joe, this is fantastic! I really loved reading it. "There are none so blind as those who refuse to see."

#8 - Yehudah Rapuano - 02/05/2017 - 07:35

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.