Immortality and the Afterlife

Immortality and the Afterlife. Excerpt from: Estelle Shohet Brettman, Vaults of Memory: The Roman Jewish Catacombs and their Context in the Ancient Mediterranean World, with Amy K. Hirschfeld, Florence Wolsky, & Jessica Dello Russo. Boston: International Catacomb Society, 1991-2017 (rev. 2024).

In both structure and semantics, the catacombs reveal the belief of many Jews and Christians in death as a state of suspended life or sleeping and in resurrection (for the latter a basic tenet) and afterlife.[1] Since the main purpose here is to touch upon the concepts that influenced the form, imagery, and epigraphy of the catacombs, only brief reference will be made to some of the burial customs and beliefs concerning man's mortality or eternal existence in some form that are pertinent. For example, in exploring the possible relationships of structural elements in the catacombs to the concept of immortality, the careful separation of individual burials in the Jewish catacombs of Rome, differing from the earlier practice of family bone collection, might have been influenced by particular Jewish doctrines of individual personal immortality.  

According to BT Semahoth 13, 8, two bodies must not be buried beside each other, but the close burial of bones belonging to two individuals was not interdicted, and ossuaries from the Second Temple period have contained bones from several burials. Perhaps related to this exemption was the current belief, that with the deterioration of the flesh, the period of expiation was completed was, and, therefore, it was no longer necessary to separate rigorously the individual physical identity of the deceased. Avigad opines that the burial in Beth She'arim of a nine and one half year old girl in a sarcophagus with her twenty-two year old aunt, both members of rabbinical families, is not an apparent exception to this proscription, but rather that these were a secondary burials of bones.[2] Adherence to the Talmudic tradition is particularly apparent in an unusual type of burial in the lower catacomb under Villa Torlonia, to which P. Fasola gives the name "loculo ad arcosolio" a tomb that combines features of the loculus and the arcosolium.[3] This type of tomb would permit members of a family to be buried near each other according to Biblical tradition while still maintaining their individuality.

Confusing ideas as to the exact whereabouts of the hereafter occur in ancient belief. It could be the tomb which, at times being underground, served as the home of the departed in the netherworld over the centuries--a concept of many peoples as evidenced by tomb furnishings or their representations. Thus the departed would be cradled by Mother Earth in whose womb life originated (Job 34:15; Ps. 104:29; Eccl, 3:20; 12:7). Then again, the more fortunate (especially in Greek and Roman thought) might inhabit a realm of light, or the Isles of the Blessed a type of Elysium (comparable to the Egyptian Fields of Iaru) across waters. The popularity of this concept is attested to in the repeated representations of ships and marine creatures in tombs inhabited especially by heroes, a term which could apply to an honored individual or to the deceased who has been idealized as a hero. This particular selectivity is evident in early Greek and Roman texts.[4]

Envisioned as alternative residences were the radiant upper atmosphere or the heavenly realms, where the departed could share in an astral apotheosis. The latter options often restricted to the more privileged individuals, in earlier periods of cultures as for example the pharaoh in the Old Kingdom. But, in later imperial times, as in Zoroastrianism, when the thought that earthly behavior might predetermine the quality of one's afterlife, others could aspire to residence here, especially the wise and the virtuous. Apparently the idyllic life generally became more accessible or was democratized in the imperial Roman period, a chronological development apparent in other beliefs.

Generally, the Romans, like the Etruscans (who, it seems from most remains, viewed death as a brief interruption, sometimes accomplished by violent means, in the continuity of the enjoyment of the amenities of life) and most ancients, consciously or subconsciously, believed in the indestructibility of some form of the soul. On the other hand, the occasional dubiousness occurring in Greco-Roman thought of the turn of the millennium may evoke teachings of the Stoic and Epicurean schools of philosophy. Their rationale is reflected by the biblical sage (presumably of the third century B.C.E.) in the rhetorical question "who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth?" (Eccl. 3:22).

The adherents of these Greek schools embraced concepts of the soul's assimilation into a universal or cosmic vital force or its dissolution upon death. Thus they subscribed to the idea of a finite individual existence, beliefs offering the profligate a pretext for dedication to the pursuit of sensual pleasures. Exhortations like that in the epigram of Justus from Beth She'arim and three Jewish inscriptions from Rome--curiously, possibly all three originated in the catacomb of Monteverde-- appear reflected such philosophic thought. Perhaps the author of these epigrams hoped to offer comfort guided by the principle that "misery loves company" or encouragement for trauma of the passage to the hereafter.

Fig. 1. DAPICS n. 2172.

Fig. 1. "Here lies Samuel, a child of a year and nine months. In peace his sleep. Be of good courage Samuel. No one is immortal." From the catacomb of Monteverde, Rome (Frey #401, Noy #187). These phrases are also to be found in pagan and Christian funerary inscriptions. And yet, the pessimistic overtones of this closing formula are diminished here by the customary wish for a peaceful "sleep," and the wistful hope for some sort of life after such an untimely death may be indicated by the presence of those ineffable, roughly carved Jewish symbols of salvation, the Torah shrine flanked by two menorahs.

Erected in the catacomb of Monteverde by her anonymous husband, the tombstone of Gaudentia, the nineteen-year old daughter of Oclatius, also bore the same two concluding phrases. Of course the variety of beliefs and complex religious ideas of late Republican and imperial Romans, inherited from their predecessors and absorbed from their widespread conquests, surfaced in varying degrees in catacomb art and text seemingly presenting contradictions as always.

Light and darkness, ascent and descent, death and life all appeared to have their place and special meanings in the religious concepts of antiquity. Noted below was the equating of the dark of the grave with Sheol, referred to in the Septuagint as the Greek Hades, descended to by Homeric and Virgilian dead. Scratched onto the lid of a limestone ossuary from about the turn of the millennium, and uncovered on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is the word "Sheol" in the Hebrew along with CAY/LOS in the Greek.[5] The facade is decorated with the standard encircled star-like rosettes (asymmetrically placed) flanking architectural elements, one possibly representing an entrance to an aedicula-like tomb, the other perhaps a tombstone in the form of column capped by a pyramidal structure. Ossuaries were used as receptacles for bones from single burials after the flesh had decomposed, mainly in Jerusalem and the surrounding regions, from about 50 B.C.E. to circa 150 B.C.E. This custom, in addition to facilitating reburial, if necessary, in the family tomb according to tradition (II Sam. 21:12-14), may have indicated the influences of oriental concepts of resurrection on the Jews of this period, since the ossuaries were used for individual burials in contrast to earlier bone collecting. Precedents exist for bone-collecting in the Near East as early as the fourth millennium.

Then again, recovered from the vestiges of a mausoleum near Catacomb 11 at Beth She'arim, was a fragmented epitaph (first half of the third century) in the Greek, bearing the word for Hades. Here the finality of death is also suggested by the surrendering of light: "I, the son of the late Leontius, lie dead, Justus the son of Sappho/who having plucked the fruit of all wisdom/left the light, my poor parents in endless mourning/and my brothers too, alas, in my Beth She'arim/and having gone to Hades, I, Justus, lie here/with many of my own kindred, since mighty Fate so willed. /Be of good courage, Justus, no one is immortal." [6]

As in Christian epitaphs, leaving the light, or its equivalent was a Homeric euphemism for death which is actually mentioned here, a rarity for such Jewish epigraphy.[7] Homeric sunlight can allude to living on earth as does Vergilian light, and Hades is referred to as "the western gloom"--the fact that the sun sets in the west also made the west the land of the dead for Egyptians.[8] Like much of this metrical inscription in which the deceased himself addresses the passerby in Old Kingdom-Egyptian and Greek fashion, the concluding rather negative encouragement found also in the catacombs of Rome, is influenced by Greek funerary epigrams as is the surprising reference to Moira, the Greek goddess Fate.[9]

Conversely, on the Roman Regina's tombstone from the catacomb of Monteverde, the symbolic allusion to light, inscribed in Latin, indicates deep faith in an afterlife: "She will live again, return to the light again," In II Esdras 34-35 the Lord will grant the deceased "eternal rest" and permit that "perpetual light shine upon them" (compare with Is. 60-20). A Greek epitaph from Cairo perhaps later than the assigned date of 344 CE not only commends the repose of the soul of the father (apa, in Coptic) Pasino to the breast of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but to the place of light, and the place of the avauucis or refrigerium.[10] Jesus promises his followers "the light of life" (John 8:12), and alludes to a man walking "in the day," and seeing the "light of this world" as living in contrast to the man stumbling in the dark night "because there is no light in him" (John 11:9-10); Job 38:19 refers to the "dwelling of light."

That immortality was associated with daylight and the birth of the day at Dawn in Roman belief, is substantiated sculpturally on the tomb marker of the first-century eminent Roman dignitary, T. Flavius Abscantus, lolling, with scroll and cup in hands, in the glow of a flaming torch raised by Lucifer, the Morning Star. Other familiar emblems of victory and apotheosis such as a famed charioteer driving his quadriga and an eagle also grace his monument. Among his duties as psychopomp, Hermes liberated the souls of the departed into the light, and the hope of Anchises and Aeneas for perpetuity of their nation lay in those spirits in the shady "groves of the blessed" whose "destiny was light."[11] Light for the Greeks could signify enduring intelligence.[12] And earlier, duly propitiated Egyptian divinities of the netherworld reciprocally offered the soul of the deceased the mobility of going "forth again into the light" or returning to the body as desired.[13]

In a late New Kingdom hymn, the resurrection of Osiris is described: "Re-Kepri shines on thy body… and he drives away the darkness which is upon thee, that he may bring light to thy eyes."[14] The glow of divine radiance--emanating from the Torah shrine or the menorah depicted in Jewish catacombs, from Christ/Helios in the Christian imagery of the catacombs, and from the gods of contemporary Pagan funerary art--could have alluded to the hope for immortality in contrast to the darkness of death. For example, in a rare semi-pictographic phrase (both in Greek and transliterated Hebrew), composed of words and a symbol (the menorah) expressing the hope of the departed, the sacred lamp stand presumably signifies divine light and life in the hereafter.

As seen incised on the jambs of the archway between Rooms I and II of Hall A in Catacomb 12 at Beth She'arim, this combination could infer: “(May) I attain [eternal happiness)."[15] Perhaps this is still another explanation for the prevalence of the revered (venerated) seven-branched lamp stand in the tombs of the Jews of the Roman Diaspora and its occurrence, although with much less frequency, in some Christian cemeteries.

Often suggestive of divine presence and metaphors for life, representations of light-giving elements (either in epigraphy or image) such as the sun, are not only revealed in the catacombs of this period, but also in precursive instances from other Mediterranean burials. on the late fifth-century Athenian tombstone dedicated to Ampharete on which a child is shown in the arms of a seated woman, the inscription reads, "I hold here this dear child of my daughter. When, in life, we both beheld with our eyes the rays of the sun, I held her thus on my lap; and now, both dead, I hold her still."[16]

Light (life) shall brighten the way of the virtuous and darkness (death) shall be the lot of the transgressor: "But the path of the just is as the shining light" and "The way of the wicked is as darkness" (Prov. 4:18-19) reflected in Paul's mission from Jesus to the Gentiles "to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God [that they may receive forgiveness of sins"-include last?] (Acts 26:18).[17]

Still other inscriptions found in burials of the period give insights into the nature of the anticipated afterlife. Several inscriptions from the Beth She'arim catacombs suggest optimism ("may your lot be good," or similar). As incised on another fragmented marble (second half of the third century CE) with Greek poetic, particularly Homeric overtones, unearthed in the courtyard of Catacomb 18 at Beth She'arim.[18] Karteria was promised "new indestructible riches." Ploutos, the word for riches in the Greek (in the Latin Pluto), also signifies Hades, the Greek god of the underworld. Here, the use of this word could refer to the wealth (especially of the earth) symbolized by renewal into eternal life or immortality as well as a life which would presumably offer permanent riches in contrast to those which are only temporal. Also in the Karteria inscription appeared the reference to makartate in the Greek or "blessed," perhaps related to the Egyptian term for souls "who passed muster" and lived happily in the "fields of the blessed," Egyptian counterpart of the Greek "Isles of the Blessed," thereby suggesting a concept of judgment.[19] In Jewish epitaphs, it was associated with the idea that those observant of religious tenets, and devoted to a good life like their deserving antecedents share in divine living in the world-to-come.

According to the textual evidence of the Pentateuch, during the early history of Israel there were no expectations of personal immortality--only continued life through children, family, and race; but, probably, there existed a concept of some type of "consciousness" after death, as suggested below.

Transformed into a shade, the deceased was never to ascend from Sheol (Job 7:7-10), the universal tomb or grave, isolated from the Lord (Job 14:1-22). In pre-Exilic thought, Sheol, also known as the pit and the earth among other terms, was a soundless, dismal, dark, end of the road, an infernal region vividly described in Pe. 88:4, 6 where the weakened shade of the deceased --good or evil--wandered aimlessly in a semi-conscious, soporific state. The lack of "knowledge"" or "wisdom" is lamented much later by the Jewish philosopher in Eccles.10:10.[20] These descriptions evoke descriptions of Homeric Hades inhabited by "the blurred and breathless dead," and "the dark where these dimwitted dead are camped forever, the afterimages of used-up men."[21]

Yet, as is often the case, there was a dichotomy of thought on this condition. Curiously, one theory on the etymology of the term Sheol is that it is derived from the Hebrew word for inquire and therefore was used for the dwelling of the dead because oracles were requested of them. This assumption could be reinforced by the description of the calling up, through a medium, of Samuel as an Elohim, or divine being (I Sam. 28:7-15) by Saul for divination again calling to mind the summoning of the seer Teiresias by Odysseus. Thus here, in the very early biblical period, as well as in Homer is a divergence where the deceased retains intelligence or at least the capability to revive it, and even a body in the case of Samuel. To make an enigmatic subject more complex, very often old ideas were perpetuated with new ones.

This view of a gloomy netherworld was reminiscent of the earlier references to the Sumerian "Great Dwelling." When a Sumerian died, "his emasculated spirit descended to the dark, dreary netherworld where life was but a dismal and wretched reflection of its earthly counterpart."' The Land of No-Return, the Sumerian/Akkadian/Babylonian House of Darkness or Dust is described as "bereft of light" where the "dwellers… see no light residing, in darkness."[22]

Idyllic sunlit fields and lakes were not always envisioned for the Egyptian dead. For the deceased Mose, "the lord of many granaries" during the reign of Rameses II Egyptian mourners lament: "Woe for thee who [wast] rich in people… he hath hastened to the land of eternity and darkness, in which there is no light.” [23]

And almost a half a millennium later, a priest of Amon (a forerunner of later hedonist Romans, heirs to Greek philosophies) rationalizes his love of the good life with this view of his fate "..,[it] means sitting in the hall of unconsciousness at the dawn of a morning which does not come…, [[it] means not knowing, [it] means sleeping when the sun is in the east."[24]

Yet biblically there were intimations of immortality in a collective resurrection for the people in such passages as "Thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise to Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust… “(Is. 26:19) For the individual, in Genesis 5:22, 24: "Enoch walked with God and he was not: for God took him." This chapter was not part of earlier versions of Genesis, thus reflecting concepts developed later. But in the course of time for the Jews, the belief in the existence of the soul, the transcendent inner being or personality and, therefore, a form of life linked with the spirit which would go on after death, came into being.[25] Such a belief in some form of life after death--usually equivocal, with many different interpretations--had existed among the ancient Hebrews. Resurrection was also a major component of many Near Eastern religions such as Zoroastrianism and mystery religions where only initiates, often purified in a baptismal-like ceremony, were accorded this privilege.

Individual immortality was often perceived as a belief in the continuance after physical death of the soul or spiritual essence, a part of the spirit of a transcendent supreme being. The doctrine of personal immortality which the Pharisees espoused was a likely result or progression from their belief in the creation of man in the image of God, and the mirroring of the Divine in the spirit which is the enduring element in man. A being modeled after God (Pl. Ptah) could surely not be destroyed forever but must be destined for spiritual resurrection and, consequently, immortality.[26] The Pharisaic concept of immortality and resurrection would endure and influence later rabbinic, Christian, and Islamic thought.

Thus, eventually, according to the interpretations of the Pharisees, the early homogeneity of Sheol (still embraced by the Sadducees) gave way to judgmental differentiations and was seen by some as a way-station for the righteous en route to a paradise-like hereafter as in New Testament passages or, alternately, the waiting room for all saints and sinners until the Judgment Day and resurrection.  And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Dan. 12:2). Such rising from the dead might be for all or, in some cases, only for the righteous.

As examples, of the constantly changing and divergent views of man's inescapable fate, in the Second Temple period, the Shammmaite sages envisioned three destinies; immortality, "eternal shame and disgrace," and punishment of those whose good deeds and sins are evenly balanced by a descent into Gehenna (hell), therein to be purified by fire, and made acceptable for the ascent to Gan Eden (or rabbinical Paradise).[27] The more optimistic Hillelites, believing that God was merciful, opined that those whose merits and sins were balanced equally would not be tormented in Gehenna. Then again, the Jewish philosopher Philo opined that sinful Jews will suffer eternal punishment in Tartarus, an infernal region perhaps below Hades.[28]

Like the required twelve-month expiatory period of decomposition of the flesh, a twelve-month sentence only is required for the "unrighteous" who could then be united with the just in Gan Eden (M. Eduyoth 2:10) or the bodies of all who "sin with their bodies" will descend to Gehenna to be punished for twelve months, after which time, "their body is consumed, and their soul is burned, and the wind scatters them under the feet of the righteous" (Bab. R.H.17 a.)

Although suffering punishment by fire is alluded to in Isaiah (33:14; 66:24), most likely the earliest Jewish reference to Gehenna, as Hell's torment for the evil and to Gan Eden, as Paradise for the righteous, is made in the late first century by the sage Johanan b. Zakkai: "There are two ways before me, one leading to Paradise and the other to Gehinnom" - Hebrew for Gehenna - (Ber. 28b.). The two opposites are also counterpoised in the Babylonian Talmud (Sot. 22a): "Lord of the Universe! Thou hast created the Garden of Eden and Gehenna; Thou hast created the righteous and the wicked."

Early use of the fiery Gehenna appears in such passages of the New Testament as Matt. 5:22, 29-30; 10-28. In 2 Esdras (7:33, 36 RSV) when "only judgment shall remain”, "the place of rest" is contrasted to the "pit of torment," and the "paradise of delight" to the "furnace of hell (Gehenna)." Presumably the resurrected condemned, must acquire corporeal form in order to be physically tortured by the fires of Gehenna, subject to reward and punishment, and thus were linked to the normal earthly life "through the continued consciousness of self."[29]

The notion of a fiery hell was acquired, most likely from Iranian beliefs. Vergil wrote of cleansing of the plagues of the body and guilt remaining with the seed of life, a spark of fire, after death by punishment, and fire as well as wind and water's absolution.[30] As with Jewish teaching of this time, New Testament texts also indicate a state of flux engendered by divergent traditions. In the New Testament, the penitent criminal would join Jesus in Paradise (Luke 23:43--a very early use of this term in the eschatological sense), and Abraham's bosom becomes the abode of the deserving and thus a euphemism for Paradise (Luke 16:22-25). Although the word Paradise is mentioned in only two other passages of the New Testament (II Cor. 12:1-4; Rev. 2:7), a number of texts describe an afterlife for the righteous, and others may have implied (assumed) that the righteous descended to Sheol at death (Matt. 12:40; Acts 2:24-32; I Thess. 4:13-16; Rev. 20:13). In spite of the multiplicity of notions, about life after death, the essence of New Testament eschatology was its affirmation of renewed life in Christ (John 12:26; 14:2-3, 18 ff; 16:16 ff. Acts 7:59; Rom. 6:8-11; 8:17, 29; 14:7-9; II Cor. 4:14; 5:817 assured by the resurrection of Jesus.

Fig. 2. DAPICS n. 3429.

Fig. 2. The only allusions to resurrection in the Jewish catacombs of Rome lie in the usage of the names Anastasia.[31] Conversely, while the Beth She'arim catacombs were marked with important epigraphy documenting contemporary Jewish belief in individual resurrection, in fact only once, up to this time in Palestine, the name Anastasios is recorded only once.[32] Even so, we read on one tomb in the site: "I, Hesychios, lie here with my wife. Hay anyone who dares to open (the grave) above us not have a portion in the eternal life." This dire threat also expresses the contemporary Jewish belief in immortality. carved and painted in red on the front of arcosolium 2 in room v, hall A in Catacomb 2 in Beth She'arim.[33] In addition to the belief in immortality, faith in a resurrection and judgment current in this period is expressed in the following funerary inscription also found at Beth She’arim: "Anyone who changes this lady's place (i.e., the woman buried in this grave), Be who promised to resurrect the dead will Himself judge (him)." carved and painted in red above arcosolium I, room II, hall D, in catacomb 13, Beth She'arim.[34]

These examples serve to illustrate a Jewish belief of this period in immortality that carried with it the concept of judgment with appropriate recognition for the righteous--and unrighteous, an association, in various forms, of long-standing in the eastern Mediterranean. The suitable apparatus for such trials appeared in tombs from ancient times.[35] That this was an anxiety shared alike by commoners and personages of high rank is attested (to?) in the 5th c. B.C.E. inscription of Tibnat, the King of Sidon - an excerpt from which reads "Whatever person you may be who shall turn over this coffin, do not open it upon me and do not anger me… and if you shall open it upon me and if you shall anger me, may you not be bestowed with offspring in this life under the sun and may your resting place be with the shades.[36]

Unexpectedly disclosed in 1955, the Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, housing burials of Christians and other sects, included myths such as those of Admetus and Alcestis, featured in the narrative illustration of the exploits of Hercules.[37] Hercules, the long-suffering hero and Greco-Roman savior, whose cult was embraced in pre-Christian Rome by such groups as the Pythagoreans and the Stoics, attained apotheosis after overcoming many challenges and could, as in the recovery of Alcestis, intercede for the deceased effecting a return to this life -- a resurrection as it were. This legend suggests such miracles as Jesus' descent to Hell on a deliverance mission as well as the raising of Lazarus (illustrated in an adjoining chamber in this catacomb), and in Mesopotamian lore, a similar venture for Ishtar. It was shortly after the mid-fourth century during the reign of Julian the Apostate that the cult of Hercules, as a divine hero, became a pagan parallel to the worship of Jesus. Another Herculean feat, the slaying of the Nemean lion evokes Samson's slaying of the lion, an Old Testament story drawn upon in early Christian iconography.

That the belief in resurrection for the individual became wide spread among Jews by the second century B.C.E. is evinced by 2 Mace. 7:14; 12:43-44 and by the Targum addition to "thy dead men shall live, together with my dead body shall they arise (Isa. 26:19) of the phrase: "the bones of their dead bodies."

Fig. 3. DAPICS n. 0349.

Fig. 3. A Return to the Living. The savior Heracles, with reminiscent lion pelt falling from his shoulders, rescues a veiled Alcestis, the archetypal self-sacrificing wife, from death and the underworld. Garbed in a palla (a cloak for Roman women) and tunic, with right hand extended in tentative greeting, Alcestis rejoins her husband who is seated on a rock with spear grasped in right hand and the lower part of his nude body modestly concealed by the draped robe on his lap in front of the swagged entrance to their palace. The entrance to Hades yawns on the left. Its ferocious barking custodian, the three-headed dog Cerberus, is restrained by the nimbed, immortalized, hero who carries his club slung over his left shoulder, and with his right hand pushes a retiring Alcestis forward encouragingly. This motif of salvation is enacted under a vault painted with geometric figures enclosing floral designs which surround a central tondo. Within the tondo, a ram gambols in front of a thyrsos, a Dionysian wand usually crowned by vine leaves or a pine cone.

Other frescoes depicting episodes from the cycle of the labors of Heracles decorate the lateral walls in the front section of the arched niche. On the vaulted ceiling [or on the vault?] of this section, painted coffers surround stellate stylized floral designs. The entire ornate architectonic setting for these hemes resembles an aedicula crowned with a pediment shell above red columns, painted to simulate marble like the lower side walls to which they are attached and the coffin which they flank. Familiar motifs exuberantly abound, such as flying putti bearing wreaths, vine leaves, rosettes, festoon, and peacocks facing a vessel. Lunette painting in the right arcosolium. Sala N, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome.

Fig. 4. DAPICS n. 0390.

Fig. 4. Vaults catalogue, p. 7, fig. 2. After defeating the Nemean Lion, here resembling an overgrown pussycat, Heracles does battle with the legendary force of evil, the many-headed Hydra. Wall painting, Sala N, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome. Heracles Engaged in His Labors. In this framed painting, decorated at the corners with roses, symbolic motifs in ancient funerary art, the Greek demigod Heracles (Roman Hercules) proceeds to do battle with that legendary force of evil, the multi-headed Hydra.[38] His earlier conquest of the menacing lion who became the emblem of his courage and strength is alluded to by the presence of an evanescent, overgrown, pussycat- like beast lurking on his right, in a space-saving conflation of the first two of Heracles' twelve labors. Left wall painting of the "anterior sector" of the right arcosolium. Sala (hall) N, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome. This long-suffering hero attained apotheosis after overcoming many challenges and could, as in the myth of Alcestis depicted nearby, intercede for the deceased effecting a return to this life--or resurrection. Such Herculean feats as the slaying of the Nemean lion and the recovery of Alcestis had parallels in early Christian iconography.

Fig. 5. DAPICS n. 0361.

Fig. 5. Vaults catalogue, p. 7, n. 3. Biblical Superman. As in the biblical narrative, Samson, attired in sandals, tunic and pallium with clavi (or cloak with vertical stripes--frequently indicating position in the Roman world -- customary garb for scriptural figures in the catacombs, is depicted rending a lion, the traditional opponent of heroes, while on the right swarms of bees busily make honey in the dead lion's mouth, a visual depiction of Nature's life-giving forces and bounty literally born from the jaws of death (Judg. 14:6, 8). Stylized vegetal designs border the sides of the scene: on the left, the schematic ivy leaf; on the right, plants germinating from scrolls. Like the above fresco from the cycle of Heracles' labors this subject is new to Roman catacomb art and is a fusion of two sequences (albeit this time part of the same episode) into a single scene. Right wall painting[39] in Vano (room) L, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome. The birth of the superhuman folk hero, Samson, who could claim analogies in Phoenician and Babylonian as well as Greek mythology, was heralded by the "angel of the Lord" as were other scriptural figures who, like him, were "moved by the "Spirit of the Lord.”[40] This could signify the conferring of the gift of superhuman power, either physical or spiritual.

Fig. 6. DAPICS n. 0314.

Fig. 6. Brandishing the jawbone of an ass, a similarly clad Samson attacks the Philistines, in short tunics with clavi (Judg. 15 :14-16). Some lie in a pool of blood, others, seemingly more fortunate, flee with only bloody heads or unscathed. The scene takes place near a building architecturally resembling somewhat a Roman temple on a stepped podium in three-quarter view. Between apparent pilasters, windows, of a translucent material possibly selenium or mica, reflect shadow and light. A curtain is drawn aside between the two columns supporting the pediment -- perhaps a conflation suggesting Samson's ultimate fate or the Timnite's house.[41] Painted lunette of rear arcosolium of Cubiculum F, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome.

Fig. 7. DAPICS n. 0278.

Fig. 7. Primogenitors. A pensive Adam and Eve, garbed in animal skins, sit on rocks; the right contour of the rocks resembles a suggestive serpent-like configuration. Drawing near in a rural setting are Abel, in tunic and pallium, bearing a lamb and Cain, dressed in a short tunic and cloak falling from his left shoulder, carrying a bundle of grain, their offerings to the Lord (Gen. 4: 3-4), as seen on sarcophagi. Painted vault on the lower right of the "first sector a" of the left arcosolium in Cubiculum B, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome.

Fig. 8. DAPICS n. 0280.

Fig. 8. A Portentous Visitation. A patriarchal Abraham, seated under the tree at Mamre, converses with his three guests standing above him on a plateau-like elevation. They are clad in the usual tunic, pallium and sandals. Beside Abraham a miniature calf resignedly awaits his fate (Gen. 18:1-8) in the fulfillment of God's covenant that "Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation." Upper right of painted vault in "sector c" of the right arcosolium of Cubiculum B, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome.

Fig. 9. DAPICS n. 0281.

Fig. 9. Jacob's Dream or Divine Revelations. An imposing Jacob reclines against a pile of rocks in a setting of wispy shrubs, while youthful angels arrayed in the customary dress, ascend and descend the heavenly ladder (Gen. 28:11-20). Another biblical episode referring to the Lord's promise that the "seed" of the patriarchs "shall be as the dust of the earth" disseminated to all points of the compass. The biblical episodes of Jacob's Dream, Jacob blessing Ephraim and Manasseh, and the Finding of Moses as well as the Crossing of the Red Sea and the Sacrifice of Isaac also appear in a Jewish context in the Dura Europos synagogue, albeit treated differently.) Lower right of painted vault in "sector c" of the right arcosolium of Cubiculum B, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome.

Fig. 10. DAPICS n. 0274.

Fig. 10. Misbegotten Blessings or The Blessing or A Stolen Legacy or A Denied Birthright or Inheritance? In the left foreground of an impressionistically rendered open countryside, a venerable Jacob, in tunic and pallium with clavi, restrains a lively kid, while on the right, Esau garbed in short tunic and "alicula" and leggings, wields a bow and hunting baton (Gen. 27: 1-38).  An imposing Isaac reclines on his cushioned couch with hands crossed above the wrist in a scene presaging the founding of the nations of Edom and Israel. This Oriental manifestation of reverence was probably adapted to religious usage during the period of the Roman Empire and was alluded to in a proper praying posture in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbath).[42] Another somewhat damaged pictorial version of the same story appears closer to the entrance of this catacomb where the dates are slightly earlier. Outside of a few rural scenes, Cubiculum B seems to be mainly a gallery for Hebrew Bible scenes alone. Upper right of painted vault in the "more interior sector d" of the right arcosolium in Cubiculum B, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome.

Fig. 11. DAPICS n. 0266.

Fig. 11. Jacob Blessing Ephraim and Manasseh. Framed by a setting of sketchy trees, a bearded Jacob, leans from his couch to bless Ephraim and Manasseh, with left hands concealed by their pallia,[43] Jacob's arms are crossed so that he is able to reverse Joseph's preferred order of blessing (Gen. 48:9-20). Israel/Jacob's grandsons who "shall grow into a multitude" appear to be engaged in a lively debate. Lower left painting in the right arcosolium of the chamber.

Fig. 12. DAPICS n. 0269.

Fig. 12. Prophetic Dreams. Two seemingly very much awake Josephs, in customary dress, representing Joseph's two prophetic dreams (Gen. 37:5-10), prop themselves up on their couches in an arboreal landscape. Above the larger image of Joseph on the right, four sheaves of wheat are depicted, three bowing in obeisance to the upright sheaf in front of them. A solemn Sol appears above the drowsier, smaller Joseph in the left lower foreground. Also on the left, Antonio Ferrua describes the "three-quarter curve of Luna" with a half-moon on the head.[44] Above the previous scene.

Fig. 13. DAPICS n. 0279.

Fig. 13. A Critical Journey. Oxen draw the three two-wheeled carts bearing a bearded Jacob, apparently discoursing with one son in the center wagon, and other members of the family towards the walls of an Egyptian city. The Nile, redolent with fish, perhaps an augury of a productive future, flows before the approaching seven figures, representing in abbreviated form, the seventy "souls of the house of Jacob who came into Egypt" (Gen. 46:5-27) to change the course of history for the Israelites. Lunette painting, in "interior sector b" of the left arcosolium. Cubiculum B, Catacomb of via Dino Compagni, Rome.

[1] As in, for example, John 11:11-13, Matt. 9:24 n.; Mark 5:39; Acts 7:60; 1 Cor. 15:6.

[2] N. Avigad, Beth She'arim, 3 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society and Hebrew University, 1976), p. 243.

[3] U. M. Fasola, “Le due catacombe ebraiche di Villa Torlonia,” in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 52, 1-2 (1976), p. 52.

[4] Hesiod, Works and Days, pp. 170f.; Homer Odyssey, xi, and Virgil, Aeneid, vi. See also, for example, E. Panofsky, Tomb Sculpture: Four Lectures on Its Changing Aspects from Ancient Egypt to Bernini (London: Thames and Hudson, 1964), pp 9-46, which includes a brief survey of ancient concepts of the locale of the afterlife in the Mediterranean, and other resources are listed throughout this publication. Specifically, E. Vermeule, Aspects of Death in Early Greek Art and Poetry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1979), particularly, p. 72, and F. Cumont, Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains. Bibliotheca Cumontiana - Scripta Maiora (BICUMA), 4, eds. J. Balty, J.-C. Balty (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2015), and J. M. C. Toynbee, Death and Burial in the Greco-Roman World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1971), especially pp. 34-38, respectively.

[5] L. Y. Rahmani, "Jerusalem's Tomb Monuments on Jewish ossuaries," Israel Exploration Journal 18 (Jerusalem, 1968), p. 222, Pl. 23.

[6] M. Schwabe and B. Lifshitz, Beth She’arim, 2 (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Society and Hebrew University, 1974), pp. 97-107.

[7] Odyssey, xi, 1. 223; 11 Aeneid, vi.

[8] P. Testini, Archeologia Cristiana, 2d. ed. (Bari: Edipuglia, 1980), p. 395.

[9]  J. Breasted, Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt (New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1912), p,169)

[10] Testini, p. 409; H. Leclercq, Dictionnaire d' Archeologie Chretienne et de Liturgie, v. I, coll.1531--1532.

[11] Indicating the positive belief in a return by some to earthly life, long-delayed and selective though it be. Aeneid, vi.

[12] E. Vermeule, Aspects, pp. 25-26.

[13] The Wandering of the Soul, translated with commentary by A. Piankoff (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. XVIII.

[14] A. Z. Brman, Zeitschrift fur aegyptische Sprache, 38 (1891), pp. 30-33.

[15] Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She’arim 2, pp. 121-123 and Avigad, Beth She'arim 3, pp. 22-23.

[16] D. Kurtz and J. Boardman, Greek Burial Customs (London: Thames & Hudson, 1971), p. 262.

[17] Allusions to light as the equivalent of life and darkness as the symbol of death are expressed in Job (38:19-20): "Where is the way where light dwelleth? and as for darkness, where is the place thereof… that thou shouldest know the paths to the house thereof?" The followers of Jesus "shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).

[18] Avigad, Beth She'arim 3, pp. 157-167.

[19] A. Erman, A Handbook of Egyptian Religion (New York and London: Constable, 1907), pp. 91-93; Vermeule, pp.72-73, 119.

[20] Also see Ps. 115:17; Job 10:21-22; 17:17 Gen. 37:35, Is. 38:18, among others.

[21] Odyssey, XI, 11. 29, 479-480. Translated by R. Fitzgerald, (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books), 1963.

[22] From "The Epic of Gilgamesh," edited by J. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975), p. 59, lines 36, 39-40.

[23] E. Luddeckens, "Untersuchungen uber religiosen Gehalt, Sprache und Form der agyptischen Totenklagen", Hittailungen des Deutschen Archaologischen Instituts, Abteilung Kairo 11 (Berlin, 1943), p. 112.

[24] From the text and translation of H. Kees, Zeitschrift fur agyptishe Sprache und Altertumskunde Agyptens 74 (Leipzig, 1938), pp. 78 f.

[25] S. N. Kramer, The Sumerians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963), p.123.

[26] The development of this belief is described by Rabbi L. Finkelstein in his essay on "Jewish Doctrine of Human Immortality," Harvard Divinity School Bulletin (1944-1945) p. 11 ff.

[27] Not unusual for the Jews in many periods or for that matter other cultures or sects.

[28] In Execrations, 6.

[29] Finkelstein, Jewish Doctrine, p. 24.

[30] Aeneid, VI, 836-869.

[31] Including Frey n. 298 on an epitaph in the Museo Nazionale Romano and anastasis on a tombstone (Frey 364).

[32] Schwabe and Lifshitz, B.S. II, n. 99.

[33] Schwabe and Lifshitz, B.S. II, p. 112, n. 129.

[34] Schwabe and Lifshitz, B.S. II, p. 139, n. 162.

[35] The idea of judgment is articulated in Daniel 12:2.

[36] Avigad, B.S. III, p. 256, n. 18 quoted from G. A. Cooke, A Text-Book of North Semitic Inscriptions, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1903), no. 4, II.3-4.

[37] All confined to Sala N, and therefore probably representing the beliefs of one group in this catacomb. This room is quite remote from the entrance of the catacomb; it is located between two chambers (M and O) displaying Biblical iconography.

[38] Symbolic of ancient traditional battles of Good against Evil on a cosmic level, such as God against Rahab and Leviathan (Pss. 89:10, 74:13-14, Is.27:1 51;9; Job 26:12-13.

[39] These are also new to the painted decoration of the catacombs. There are similar renditions of Samson's contest with the lion and his launching of the foxes as fiery missiles (Judg. 15:4-5 -- depicted in a damaged state in this catacomb) in the Early Christian mosaic floor at Mopsuestia in ancient Cilicia. See E. Kitzinger, "Observations on the Samson Floor at Mopsuestia," in Dumbarton Oaks Papers 21 (1973), pp. 133-144. The birth of the superhuman folk hero, Samson, who could claim analogies in Phoenician and Babylonian as well as Greek mythology, was also heralded by the "angel of the Lord" as were other scriptural figures who, like him, were "moved" by the "Spirit of the Lord."" This could signify the conferring of the gift of superhuman power, either physical or spiritual (see Genesis 2:7, 104), described the life principle, animating spirit or soul
(psyche sometimes equivalent to pneuma in the New Testament) see 4 Judg. 13:3, 25; 14:6, and compare Matt. 1:20, 24; 3:16, Luke 1:35, for example.

[40] 3 Judg. 13:3, 25; 14:6, and compare Matt. 1:20, 24; 3:16, Luke 1:35, for example.

[41] L. Kotsche opts for the building as being "probably the Timnite's house,” in K. Weitzman, ed., Age of Spirituality (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1979), pp. 472-473.

[42] See C. H. Kraeling, “The Synagogue," The Excavations at Dura-Europos (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1956), pp.166-167.

[43] It was a Jewish tradition, as it was in religious observances of other cults, to cover oneself in the presence of deity (BT., Shabbath 10a), and the reason for the origin of the wearing of the prayer shawl or tallith. The covering of hands was a practice in the presence of royalty in the Persian court (as in Xenophon, Hellenica, II, 1, 8; Cyropaedia, VIII, 3, 10) and was depicted on Roman imperial monuments. This gesture usually indicated the receiving of a divine gift or royal gift -- here probably suggesting the divine promise to Abraham and his descendants to multiply their seed, and in that "seed shall all of the nations of the earth be blessed”.

[44] A. Ferrua, The Unknown Catacomb: A Unique Discovery of Early Christian Art, trans. I. Inglis (New Lanark, Scotland: Geddes and Grossett, Ltd., 1991), p. 50: observes it is "very blackened and difficult to see above the green clouds."