JERUSALEM: For centuries passers-by have thrown rocks at an ornate tomb in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley, reviled as the traditional burial place of the biblical King David’s villainous son Absalom.
But in one of those strange twists unique to the Holy Land – where tombs can post-date by a millennium those believed buried there – an inscription found on the crypt now points to it belonging not to Absalom but rather John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, and maybe even James, who some Christians regard as the brother of Jesus.
“It could be the most exciting discovery in absolutely decades,” said Professor James Strange, an archeologist at the University of South Florida who specialises in the Christian and Byzantine periods.
Early Christian writings refer to a tomb in Jerusalem where the bodies of Zacharias, James and Simeon – another figure mentioned in the New Testament’s Gospel of Saint Luke – were buried. But the tradition was lost centuries ago.
Incredibly, the eye-catching mausoleum is a landmark in Jerusalem’s Kidron Valley but has been mistaken for the tomb of Absalom, who actually died 1000 years before the edifice was erected in the first century AD.
The mistaken association with Absalom inspired passers-by to pelt the tomb with stones as a sign of disgust with the behavior of the Israelite prince who rebelled against his father.
“The stones wore away the surface, especially the inscription,” said Joe Zias, the scholar who discovered the inscription. “It was no wonder people couldn’t read the thing.”
INSCRIPTION VISIBLE ONLY AT SUNSET
Chiseled into slabs of limestone, the Greek writing was so faded from centuries of defacement by stone throwers that nobody noticed it until Zias saw the letter alpha in an old black and white photograph taken of the tomb’s entrance.
Since the photograph was taken about 30 years ago, the ancient burial ground where the tomb is located has become derelict, attracting local drug dealers and criminals. An addict even squats in the burial chamber itself.
Zias was undeterred. He sat in front of the tomb for months on end until he found that the inscription could be seen only before sunset in the summer – the time of year that the photograph was taken – when a combination of light and shade made some letters visible.
Zias, a physical anthropologist who studies ancient bones, then teamed up with one of the world’s experts on ancient writings, Father Emile Puech, to decipher the text.
“I think the people were maybe bilingual. Maybe they thought in Aramaic and then translated it into Greek,” said Puech of the inscription which he has dated to about AD 350.
In large letters that were once painted black so they could be seen from across the valley, the inscription reads, “This is the funerary monument of Zacharias, the martyr, the very pious priest, father of John.”
Puech believes it was carved by monks around a decade after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.
During that period Holy Land Christians began to set up shrines connected to Jesus, among them Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site of the crucifixion.
While no one can be certain the tomb really was Zacharias’ burial place, experts say the shrines located when Christianity changed from being a persecuted religion to a powerful one tended to be the most authentic.
“In the fourth century they had at least somebody to talk to who knew something” about locations of events chronicled in the New Testament, said Strange.
Zias and Puech are now trying to decipher another inscription along the side of the tomb. The only word they can currently read is Simeon, who according to the Gospel of Saint Luke blessed baby Jesus as the future messiah.
Zias now hopes to find an inscription linking James the Just – whom some Christians believe to be Jesus’ brother – to the tomb as according to Christian tradition, Zacharias, Simeon and James were buried together. Roman Catholics – who believe Jesus’ mother Mary was a virgin all her life – say James was his cousin.
“There is room for three people (in the tomb). There are three burial niches so it certainly fits,” Zias explained.
He is bitterly aware that any discoveries related to James may be greeted with skepticism by the archeological world which is still reeling from a scandal over an ossuary or burial box that purported to be that of James.
It has since been declared a fake by a panel of leading Israeli archeologists.