The Discovery of the Tombs of Mary, Martha,
Some writers have claimed that there is virtually no
archaeological evidence to back up the historical claims of the Gospels. The
truth is that tremendous archaeological evidence has been discovered in Israel that
proves the accuracy of the New Testament!
Over a century ago a French Christian archaeologist,
Charles Claremont-Gannueau, wrote a little-known report, dated November 13, 1873,
to the Palestine Exploration Fund. In this report he told of his monumental
discovery, in a sepulchral cave near Bethany, of a
group of Jewish ossuaries (stone coffins) from the first century of the
Christian era. To his great surprise, Claremont-Gannueau found that these
ancient Jewish stone coffins contained the names of numerous individuals
mentioned in the New Testament as members of the JerusalemChurch. Despite
its importance, this report was not published in the newspapers of the day. As
a result, it was virtually lost to history. Several years ago I purchased a
book, from a rare book dealer in London,
which contained this obscure report by Charles Claremont-Gannueau. The 1874
report, published by the Palestine Exploration Fund, included his translation
of several of these inscriptions, which indicated that he had discovered the
tombs of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, as well as numerous other Christians from
the first- century church. A Christian newspaper from Israel, the
Jerusalem Christian Review, has carried several fascinating articles in the
last few years about the wonderful archaeological discoveries that confirm the
historical accuracy of the Gospel account.
In the spring of 1873, Effendi Abu Saud,
while constructing his house on the eastern slopes of the Mount
of Olives near the road to ancient Bethany,
accidentally discovered a cave that proved to be an ancient burial catacomb.
Inside, he found 30 ancient stone coffins. Professor Charles Claremont-
Gannueau examined the ossuaries in this ancient family sepulchral cave carved
out of limestone rock. The Jews in the first century buried their dead either
in the ground or in a tomb. Several years later they would clean the bones of
the skeleton and re-bury these bones in a small limestone ossuary, often 45
inches long, 20 inches wide, and 25 inches high. The lids of these ossuaries
are triangular, semi-circular, or rectangular. Inscriptions containing the name
and identification of the deceased were painted or engraved on the sides or on
the lids of the ossuaries, in Hebrew or Greek. Claremont- Gannueau was excited
to note that several ossuaries were inscribed with crosses or the name
"Jesus," proving that these Jewish deceased were Christians. Although
he was unable to take photographs, he did take squeezes with a special cloth of
the ornamented surfaces as well as of the inscriptions.
Engraved on the sides of three of these ossuaries from
this cave were the names of "Eleazar" (the Hebrew form of the Greek
name "Lazarus"), "Martha," and "Mary." These
names were followed by the sign of the cross, proving they were Christian. In
the Gospel of John we read the touching story of Christ raising His friend
Lazarus from the dead. "Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town
and her sister Martha" (John 11: 1).
Claremont-Gannueau noted that this was one of the most
important archaeological discoveries ever made concerning the origins of the
early New Testament Church. He wrote, "This catacomb on the Mount
of Olives belonged apparently to one of the
earliest families which joined the new religion of Christianity. In this group
of sarcophagi, some of which have the Christian symbol and some have not, we
are, so to speak, [witnessing the] actual unfolding of Christianity.
Personally, I think that many of the Hebrew-speaking people whose remains are
contained in these ossuaries were among the first followers of Christ.... The
appearance of Christianity at the very gates of Jerusalem is, in my
opinion, extraordinary and unprecedented. Somehow the new [Christian] doctrine
must have made its way into the Jewish system.... The association of the sign
of the cross with (the name of Jesus) written in Hebrew alone constitutes a
The 1874 report contained the following additional
inscriptions found on ossuaries:
1. Salome, wife of Judah, engraved
in very small characters ... a cruciform sign.
with the cross. Perhaps the husband of Salome.
the Scribe. On another face of the sarcophagus, Judah, son of
Eleazar the Scribe.
4. Simeon the Priest (Cohen).
5. Martha, daughter of Pasach. Perhaps the name is
Jewish as well as Christian.
6. Eleazar, son of Nathalu. The form "Nathai" for Nathan is not uncommon.
7. Salamtsion, daughter of Simeon the Priest. The
name of the woman, SalamSion,
is of the greatest interest.
It is the name Salampsion of
Josephus (daughter of Herod).
1. Jesus, twice repeated, with the cross
2. Nathaniel, accompanied by a cross.
It is interesting to note that Claremont-Gannueau also
found in one of the ossuaries "three or four small instruments in copper
of bronze, much oxidized, consisting of an actual small bell, surmounted by a
ring. The Arabs thought they were a kind of castanets. Can we trace here the
equivalent of the bells hung on the robe of the high priest? And do these
ornaments come from the sarcophagus of our Simeon?"
The French archaeologist realized that there is a high
degree of probability that these tombs belonged to the family of Mary, Martha,
and Lazarus, the close friends of Jesus. Claremont-Gannueau wrote, "What
gives additional value to these short inscriptions is that they furnish a whole
series of names found in the Gospels, in their popular and local Syro-Chaldaic forms. The presence of the names of Jesus and
Martha, of which we only knew historically that it was the feminine form of the
Aramaic, would alone be sufficient to make this collection important from an
exegetic point of view. By a singular coincidence, which from the first struck
me forcibly, these inscriptions, found close to the Bethany road, and very near
the site of the village, contain nearly all the names of the personages in the
Gospel scenes which belonged to the place: Eleazar (Lazarus), Simon, Martha ...
a host of other coincidences occur at the sight of all these most evangelical
In addition, the Italian scholar P. Bagatti discovered another catacomb holding 100 ossuaries
on the western side of the Mount of Olives,
opposite the TempleMount,
near the Catholic chapel called DominusFlevit. Coins minted by Governor Varius
Gratus (A.D. 16) proved that these tombs were used for burial of Christians
before the fall of Jerusalem
in A.D. 70. Several of the coffins in the cave belonged to a family of priests
buried in the first century. Based on the inscribed crosses and the name
"Jesus," Baggati concluded that several of
these priests were followers of Jesus Christ. Bagatti
found many ossuaries containing the following names inscribed on their sides,
together with the sign of the cross or the name of Jesus: Jonathan, Joseph, Jarius, Judah,
Matthias, Menahem, Salome, Simon, and Zechariah. Many
of these names appear in the New Testament records of the EarlyChurch at Jerusalem. One
ossuary contained the Greek inscription "Iota, Chi and Beta," which
read "Jesus Christ, the Redeemer."
Without question, the most fascinating ossuary was the
one inscribed with crosses and the name "Shappira."
This is a unique name which has not been found in contemporary Jewish
literature outside the New Testament passage of Acts 5: 1. Luke recorded the
death of this woman and her husband when they lied to God and the Church (Acts
5:1, 5-10). "But a certain man named Ananias,
with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession. . .
During the fall of 1945, Dr. Eleazar Sukenik of HebrewUniversity
investigated another first century Jewish catacomb at the southern end of the KidronValley
on the road to Bethlehem.
He found several ossuaries with the sign of the cross, Greek inscriptions, a
coin minted in A.D. 41 for King Herod Agrippa 1, proving the tomb was sealed by
A.D. 42. Professor Sukenik concluded that the
ossuaries "contain almost the whole dictionary of names in the New
One coffin had a surprising dedication in Greek to
"Jesus" followed by the exclamation "Y'ho,"
meaning "Jehovah" or "the Lord." The inscription reads:
"[To] Jesus, the Lord." In light of the A.D. 42 date for the sealing
of this tomb, the presence of this dedication to "Jesus, the Lord"
attests to the acceptance by Christians of Jesus Christ as God within ten years
of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Christian theologian Professor
Alexander Hopkins commented on this significant inscription as follows:
"The inscription which was hidden for almost 2,000 years and inscribed at
least two decades before any part of the New Testament was written.
. . bears a personal testimony of faith ... a message from the past with a very
modem meaning for the present."
Several years ago they found another Jewish Christian
ossuary in Jerusalem
that contained the inscription "Alexander, son of Simon of Cyrene." The Gospel of Mark refers to this person as
follows, "Now they compelled a certain man, Simon a Cyrenian,
the father of Alexander and Rufus, as he was coming out of the country and
passing by, to bear his cross" (Mark 15:21).