Saturday, January 3, 2009

Report on "The Birth of Christianity: A Jewish Story" Exhibit: The Alexander son of Simon Ossuary

The exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural History on the Jewish birth of Christianity shows many fascinating objects. Over the next few weeks, I will occasionally comment on those I have found to be particularly important. I have already posted a few comments on the Apocalypse of Gabriel stone, and I will continue to do so as I work on the stone in the next couple of months.

For now, I want to point out one of the objects that most fascinates me. It is a first-century ossuary that we are lucky to have in this exhibit. The ossuary is a rather crude plain white stone box with rough letters carved into it. The inscription reads in Greek: "Alexandros (son of) Simon". On the lid, "Alexandros" is repeated, along with the Hebrew inscription QRNYT. Scholars have made sense of this odd word by suggesting that the final "T" is a mistake that we should read "H". If this is the case, then QRNYH would mean that Simon was Cyrenian since this is the Hebrew word of someone of Cyrenian origin. If not a mistake, it may be that the word should be read "Cyrenite" instead of "Cyrenian." Cyrene was the capital city of the province Cyrenaica in North Africa.

The ossuary was found in the Kidron Valley of eastern Jerusalem in 1941 by archaeologist Eleazar Sukenik from Hebrew University. The tomb contained eleven ossuaries and pottery from the first century CE. The use of ossuaries occurred during a very short period in Jewish history, mainly from 20 BCE to 70 CE. The deceased would be laid in a stone niche in the wall of the tomb and after a year the bones would be collected and stored in a small stone box. The inscriptions were often done crudely by a family member who scratched the deceased person's ID on the box so that the family could identify what box belonged to whom. Mistakes were common as were interring more than one person in a box so that the box has multiple names.

In this particular tomb, there were bones that were never interred, a fact that has led some to conclude that the tomb was abandoned during the Jewish War, and the family never returned to Jerusalem to rebury their dead in the ossuary.

The inscriptions on these particular ossuaries are unusual names among the Greco-Jewish inscriptions of the Palestinian Jews at that time. Yet some of them were common in Cyrenaica, a point that confirms the interpretation of the Alexandros inscription. So the tomb is of a Jewish family with connections to Cyrenaica.

Do we know more? It is wonderful that the biblical story mentions a Simon of Cyrene. He is the one who carries Jesus' cross (Mt 27:32; Luke 23:26). According to Mark 15:21, Simon has two sons, Alexander and Rufus. Could this ossuary be the bone box of Simon's son (or even both father and son as Tom Powers thinks)? Of course we can never know for certain. But it is a fascinating possibility.

For some earlier web articles on the Alexander son of Simon ossuary, see:

Tom Powers, "A Simon of Cyrene in Jerusalem."
Tom Powers, "A Second Look at the 'Alexander son of Simon' Ossuary."

PHOTO: The Alexander son of Simon ossuary pictured in Powers' article, "A Second Look..."


Bob MacDonald said...

Hi April
Nice to be reminded of this grave inscription which I first read about in 'Reading and Writing in the time of Jesus' by Alan Millard

You might enjoy this story segment I wrote some early morning several years ago - not sure when, but republished here in which my storyteller notes Alexander's end in Jerusalem.

Alice Thomas said...
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