Jewish and Christian Burials

In recent publications, Leonard Rutgers and David Noy have each considered the question of where Jews in Ancient Rome buried their dead before the construction of catacombs began at the end of the second century CE (1).  Although Jews were already living in Rome in the first century BCE, and some, at least, may have arrived in the city even before that, apparently no real evidence has been found to solve this problem.

Among the many Jews who first came to live in Rome were slaves who, when freed, remained among the poorest inhabitants of the city.  They likely would have had little choice or means to carry out burial customs and all the prescribed funerary ritual obligations of their ancestral religion.  Noy commented that the poorest among them probably shared the common graves of the lowest classes of Rome.  The less indigent may have been buried in undifferentiated burial grounds among the Romans or where other foreigners were buried.  As their situations improved, families or other groups may have begun to purchase particular sections of pagan necropoleis where they could be buried amidst their relatives and friends.  Although cremation was not an accepted practice for the Jews, as Noy pointed out, since "many slaves and ex-slaves were cremated and buried in the columbaria of the familiae..." it is likely that some Jewish slaves or freedmen might have been among them (2).

Many of the surface graves may have been unmarked.  Of those that had ben marked with an epitaph of wood or stone, no doubt the wood markers perished,  and the stones may have been carried off for other uses.  According to Noy, only "seven clearly Jewish epitaphs from western Europe... can be dated ... to before the third century CE."  Of the seven, however, one of the earliest, of the first century BCE, from Aquileia, "is not certainly an epitaph," Nor is a first century CE  inscription from Marano.  For the remaining five, (from Ostia, Castel Porziano, Naples, Villamesias in Spain and Rome), there is not exact provenance (3).  All of these inscriptions were written in Latin, which, as Noy observed, was probably the epigraphic habit of other minority groups within the Roman milleu, whatever their native language (4).

The common burial areas or necropoleis used also by Jews and Christians, with burial places built above the ground or hewn just below the surface, were called sub divo ("under the heavens").  The graves were not easily distinguishable from one another.  The Apostles Peter and Paul originally were buried in such funerary environments.  The necropolis below Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, is an example of such fraternization (5).  In another instance, the Semitic names of freedmen, who might have been Jews (6), are incised in fine Latin lettering on a late first to early second-century tombstone on the via Appia.  In addition to sub divo burial sites for Jews and Christians in Rome, other such sites are thought to exist at Portus.  There, the geological conditions were unfavorable for underground burials because water from the nearby Tiber River and the sea infiltrated the marshy, sandy soil.  Had there been any subterranean burials at Portus, all vestiges must, by now, have been obliterated by the action of the water (8).

At Civitavecchia, northwest of Rome, a monument dedicated by Julius Juda to his wife, Julia Maria, was found.  It was flanked densely by tombs of the Late Empire in a pagan necropolis alongside the route of the via Aurelia and not far from a Christian cemetery.  The memorial inscription (9) was incised on the front of a plinth that was decorated on its left face with a prefericolo (a bronze bowl used in Roman sacrificial rites), and on the right face, a patera (saucer for libations).  It seems curious that a Jewish tombstone should show both a libation dish and a sacrificial bowl, customarily used in pagan religious rituals, but show no Jewish symbols.  Yet, the names "Juda" and "Maria" are Jewish; as Noy pointed out, by this time, a Christian would have avoided the name Juda (Judas), and it was not a common name among pagans.  Perhaps this marble plinth, set on a base and crowned by a cornice, is an example of pagan material recycled in an epitaph, or of motifs from other sects adapted for Jewish funerary iconography.

Aboveground burials probably remained contemporaneous with underground interments until the catacombs fell into disuse in the fifth century (10), and sub divo burials the rule once again.  Not many remains of aboveground burials are extant, however, because they are more exposed to vandalism or other accidents that would destroy them.

Jewish or Jewish-influenced epigraphy, as well as Jewish artifacts and symbols, have been found in Christian burial sites.  An instance of this was discovered by de Rossi in one of the later sections of the Callisto catacomb.  On a small square of plaster on the tuff partition between two burial niches, the name of a Biblical angel, "Schephael," was incised in Hebrew characters along with a Christogram (chi rho) crowned with stylized palm fronds (11).  De Rossi thought that the subject of the inscription had been interred in one of these loculi.  But since the names of many of the angels ending in the divine "el" were often invoked for protection against evil by the Jews in spite of admonitions against such practices, this name might have been used apotropaically (12).  It is possible that the departed may have been a Christian convert who was hedging his bets to ensure whatever future he envisioned with incantations or charms that would protect a believer in Judaism or a follower of its offshoot.  De Rossi further noted that this was the only epitaph with Hebrew characters that had been found up to that point in the Christian catacombs of Rome, and he commented that "the paleography does not differ from that of the Hebrew words sometimes added to the Greek inscriptions" in Rome's Jewish catacombs.  Those Greek inscriptions were not dated, but because of the location of Schefphael's epitaph in the fourth to fifth century galleries of Callisto with the triumphal crown over the symbol of Christ, de Rossi dated the Schephael inscription "not before the fourth century."

In a seemingly parallel situation in the Jewish catacombs at Beth She'arim, Mazar detected a cross-like symbol and three other signs along with "an incomplete attempt to incise a Menorah" enclosed within a raised circle at the center of the facade of an arcosolium (tomb)" (13).  A lamp with the Christian monogram chi rho incised on the handle was found in debris at Beth She'arim.  Avigad made the point that "perhaps the Jewish buyer (of the lamp) did not notice the symbol," or perhaps it did not offend his sensibilities, since "at that time, the first half of the fourth century CE, this symbol was still relatively new" (14).  Perhaps the motif was considered an amuletic symbol at this early stage of its usage.  In Rome, three lamps bearing the Christian monogram on their disks were found in the Jewish catacomb of Monteverde, and in the Christian catacomb of Commodilla, a map with a menorah on the disk (15).

Perhaps another indicator of relations among various sects is the fragment of a "Late third- or early fourth-century" Jewish gold glass found by G. B. de Rossi in the Christian catacomb of Saints Marcellino and Pietro, which was close to the lost Jewish catacomb of the via Labicana (now via Casilina).  Decorated with what could be a rare image of the Temple at Jerusalem, the fragment was discovered under rubble near the doorway of an chamber not yet excavated (16).  There was speculation that the gold glass may have belonged to a tomb in the neighboring Jewish catacomb, where other gold glass fragments were noted, and purchased by a Christian to decorate the place near where it was found.  In a discussion of Jewish gold glasses, Rutgers mentioned the custom of gift-giving at the time of the Roman new year, and raised the possibility that gold glasses might have been among the gifts presented to friends, even by Jews (17).  He cited a fourth-century canon forbidding Christians from accepting festive presents from Jews, which leads one to consider the possibility of such a custom (18).  It is to be noted also that Rutgers said that none of the gold glass fragments that can be traced to the Jewish catacombs shows specific Jewish iconography.  This bears out his observation that gold glasses, like so many examples of the arts and crafts in the Roman world. were made in the same workshops to be sold to all (19). 

Next: Early Burial Arrangements.

  1. L. V. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora.  Leiden: Brill, 1995, p. 96; D. Noy, "Diaspora Jews" pp. 79-85.
  2. Noy, "Diaspora Jews," pp. 83-85.  But Rutgers cautioned that "even if one accepts the hypothesis that some Jews were laid to rest in columbaria," it was unlikely that the wider Jewish community would have followed this practice: Cultural Interaction, p. 97. 
  3. Noy, "Diaspora Jews," pp. 79-80.  The inscriptions are JIWE 1 n. 7 (Aquileia); n. 23 (Marano); n. 14 (Ostia); n. 18 (Castel Porziano); n. 26 (Naples); n. 188 (Villamesias).  In JIWE 2, n. 553 (Rome).
  4. Noy, "Diaspora Jews," p. 82.
  5. Guarducci, Peter, the Rock, pp. 7-9.
  6. The paintings uncovered in the fourth-century catacomb below the via Latina, with themes drawn from pagan myths as sell as the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, had been thought to be evidence of the continuation of mixed burials in subterranean tombs.  But Father A. Ferrua, SJ, the excavator of the catacomb, believed it to be wholly Christian, with the pagan myths adapted by that time as allegories to express Christian ideas: A. Ferrua, The Unknown Catacomb: A Unique Discovery of Early Christian Art (trans. Ian Inglis). New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grossett, 1991, pp. 154-158.
  7. Frey, CIJ 1 n. 70* p. 572.  The epitaph, not accepted as Jewish by Leon or Noy, apparently was for three freedmen of Lucius Valerius: Baricha (Baruch), Zabda (Zabadiah), and Achiba.  The names seem to be Jewish, yet they were found to have been used by non-Jews in Palmyra, and in the Trans-Jordan, the name Baricha was used by a Christian.
  8. For Jewish and Christian burials at Portus see de Rossi, Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana 4:3 (1866), pp. 40-45.  He reported as Jewish the Greek inscription of Claudius Joses, an archon, and that of Marciana, which is fragmentary and includes an enigmatic reference to a "proarchon."  See also Frey, "Inscriptions Juives inedites (1)" in the Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 8 (1931), pp. 83-125.  Leon questioned whether some citied burials at Portus were actually Jewish in "The Jewish Community of Ancient Portus," Harvard Theological Review 45 (1952), pp. 168-175.  For Claudius Joses' epitaph, see JIWE 2, n. 585. 
  9. JIWE 1, n. 11.
  10. For example, there are surface burials surrounding the atrium of the lower Torlonia catacomb: U. M. Fasola, "Le due catacombe ebraiche di Villa Torlonia," Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 52 (1976), p. 41.  In Il Cimitero, p. 220 and p. 302, Muller noted that an aboveground cemetery probably succeeded the Monteverde catacomb.
  11. G. B. de Rossi, La Roma sotterranea cristiana descritta ed illustrata 3.  Rome: Cromo-litografia pontificia, 1877, p. 386, pls. 28-29, fig. 35.  J. B. Northcote and W. R. Brownlow recorded de Rossi's discovery "in the Roman (meaning, for them, Christian) catacombs," and gave the name as "Scaphael": Roma Sotterranea, or An Account of the Roman Catacombs, 2d ed., 1879, p. 374.
  12. E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, vol. 2.  New York: Pantheon, 1953, pp. 210-211.
  13. In Room 3, Hall A of Catacomb 1: B. Maza, Beth She'arim: Report on the Excavations During 1936-1940, vol. 1: Catacombs 1-4.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973, p. 83.
  14. The lamp was found near the entrance of Hall A in Catacomb 17: Avigad, Beth She'arim 3, p.188, n. 23.
  15. R. M. Cosentino, L. Ricciardi, Catacomba di Commodilla.
  16. G. B. de Rossi, "Verre représentant le temple de Jérusalem," Archives de l'Orient Latin 2 (1884), pp. 439-455.  Later, a gold glass fragment with similar Jewish motifs was found in the cemetery of S. Ermete at Parioli: Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, p. 82, n. 87.
  17. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, pp. 81-85.
  18. O. Marucchi, "Di un nuovo cimitero giudaico scoperto sulla via Labicana," in Dissertazioni della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 2.2 (1884), pp. 524-526.  Spurred on by this find to search for other Jewish artifacts in the same catacomb (of Marcellino e Pietro), Estelle Brettman identified several possible graffitti of menorot.
  19. Rutgers, Cultural Interaction, p. 85.