Jewish and Christian Burials

Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs in Context within the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017.

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, Noy notes that, 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 were among them.(2)

Many of the surface graves may have been unmarked.  Of those marked with an epitaph of wood or stone, no doubt the wood markers have perished,  and many of those on stone 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 milieu, whatever their native language might have been.(4)

The common burial areas or necropoleis used also by Jews and Christians, with tombs 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, at the very heart of the modern Roman Catholic Church, is an example.(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 the 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, by now, must 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 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, and sub divo burials the rule once again.(10)  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 Jews and Christians 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. The Greek inscriptions in question 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 also was found in debris in the Beth She'arim catacomb complex.  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 had been purchased by a Christian to decorate the place near where it was found.  In a discussion of Jewish gold glasses, Rutgers mentions the custom of gift-giving at the time of the Roman new year, and raises the possibility that gold glasses might have been among the gifts presented to friends, even by Jews.(17)  He cites a fourth-century canon forbidding Christians from accepting festive presents from Jews, which leads one to consider the possibility of such a custom,(18) but clarifies 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) 

For a period, polytheist, Christian, and possibly Jewish burials existed in close proximity above or near the site of the catacombs of Domitilla.(20) This burial ground included columbaria and a number of sumptuous mausolea. Fr. Ferrua believed that the necropoleis was in use over several centuries, at least from the first through third centuries CE for non-Christians, and commented that the occasional Christian tomb is found in mixed settings everywhere. Ferrua saw no difficulty for the peaceful coexistence of polytheistic and Christian burials "before the Christians became the actual proprietors of all the terrain above the catacomb... perhaps at a much later time".(21) The attitude of this twentieth-century Jesuit archaeologist and epigrapher is very different from that of Antonio Bosio, more than 350 years earlier, when he reported on his startling discovery of the Jewish catacomb of Monteverde. Bosio assured his readers that it was necessary to include a description of a Jewish cemetery in the publication of Christian catacombs, in order to not mix profane things with the sacred. For this reason, Bosio relegated the Jewish catacomb account to a separate chapter: he wanted to make it clear that ".. our [Christian] cemeteries have never been profaned or contaminated by the bodies of either Hebrews or Gentiles (polytheists)."(22)

Polytheist and Christian burials in the same area also occurred above other catacombs until the sites became Church property, particularly the catacombs of Callisto and S. Sebastiano. Above the S. Sebastiano catacomb, Fr. Ferrua found "the most magnificent Christian mausolea" of the fourth century CE built above and around second to fourth-century private mausolea, destroying a number of the latter. In the construction of the access stairway to a section of the catacomb, parts of a late first century CE mausoleum and columbarium were utilized.(23) A situation comparable to that of many Christian catacombs was found in the Vigna Randanini are, where tombs not marked as Jewish, including columbaria, were situated near the Jewish catacomb.(24)

Mixed burials must have been the norm also on the grounds above the catacomb of Praetextatus, to judge from its monumental ruins and lavish late second to third century sarcophagi. Located near the Vigna Randanini catacomb, the Praetextatus site was thought to form part of what had been the estate of the Greek aristocrat, Herodes Atticus.(25)

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, “Where Were the Jews of the Diaspora Buried?” in M. Goodman, ed., Jews in a Graeco-Roman World, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998, pp. 79-85.
  2. Noy, "Diaspora Jews," pp. 83-85. Rutgers cautions 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. M. Guarducci, Peter, the Rock on which the Church is Built: A Visit to the Excavations Beneath the Vatican Basilica. Vatican City: Rev. Fabbrica di S. Pietro in Vaticano, 1977, pp. 7-9.
  6. The paintings uncovered in the fourth-century catacomb below the via Latina, with themes drawn from pagan myths as well 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 (an idea since challenged): 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 and 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 degli ebrei posto sulla via Portuense,” Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 2.12 (1915), p. 220 and p. 302, N. Muller noted that an aboveground cemetery probably succeeded the Monteverde catacomb. L. V. Rutgers suggests in "Cultural Interaction," p. 1, that a sharp decrease in Rome's population contributes to the dwindling presence of new burials in the catacombs by the mid 5th c. 
  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. Mazar, 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 e L. Ricciardi, Catacomba di Commodilla, Lucerne ed altri materiali dalle gallerie 1, 8, 13. Studia archaeologica 66. Rome: L'Erma di Bretschneider, 1993, pp. 138-139, n. 86.
  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, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora, p. 82, n. 87.
  17. Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora, 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, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora, p. 85.
  20. An inscription JIWE 2.536 was uncovered in 1820 during excavations above the Domitilla catacomb. Fr. Frey identified it as Jewish (CIJ 1., pp. 201-202) because of the closing phrase "in peace your sleep", but Ferrua thought it likely to be Christian. Noy's opinion is that the wording is appropriate for either sect (JIWE 2 p. 420). In what Ferrua has determined to be a "Christian" region of the same sub divo cemetery, a large tombstone was unearthed during his excavations to Bonifatia, inscribed with a dove and a large leaf and the expression "sleep among the good", which, Ferrua says, has a "distinctly Jewish flavor": Il cimitero sopra la catacomba di Domitilla," Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 36 (1960), pp. 189-190, fig. 10. 
  21. Ferrua, "Il cimitero", pp. 181, 185-186.
  22. A. Bosio, Roma Sotterranea, 1632, p. 143. Yet, as Rutgers has observed, in light of the prevailing religious climate of the time, Bosio's attitude toward the Jewish antiquities in Rome was singularly objective and non-pejorative: Rutgers, The Jews in Late Ancient Rome: Evidence of Cultural Interaction in the Roman Diaspora, pp. 9-10.
  23. A. Ferrua, "Due mausolei da pagani e cristiani presso San Sebastiano," Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 28 (1952), pp. 40-41. This entire area in the locality "Tor Marancia" might have been taken over by Christians in the fourth century (op. cit., pp. 17, 22-26).
  24. C. L. Visconti, "Scavi di Vigna Randanini," Bullettino dell'Istituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica (1861), pp. 16-22; E. Herzog, "Le Catacombe degli Ebrei in Vigna Rondanini (sic)," Bullettino dell'Istituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica (1861), p. 91; R. Garrucci, Cimitero degli antichi ebrei scoperto recentemente in Vigna Randanini, Rome, 1862, p. 4.
  25. P. Testini, Le catacombe e gli antichi cimiteri cristiani in Roma, Bologna: Cappelli, 1966, p. 60.