Jewish and Christian Burials

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

In recent publications, Leonard Rutgers and David Noy have 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.[i] Although Jews were already living in Rome by the first century BCE, and some, at least, may have arrived to the city even before that, no real evidence has been found to resolve the chronological gap.

Ancient sources indicate that among the many Jews who first came to live in Rome were slaves who, when freed, remained among the poorest inhabitants of the city.  Many would have had little choice or means to construct familial tomb monuments and all the prescribed funerary ritual obligations of their ancient homeland and 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 other Romans or where foreigners were buried. As their situations improved, families or other groups of Jews may have begun to purchase particular sections of pagan necropolises where they could be buried amidst their relatives and friends. Although cremation was not an accepted practice for the Jews, Noy notes that "many slaves and ex-slaves were cremated and buried in the columbaria of the familiae", and it is likely that some Jewish slaves or freedmen were among them.[ii]

Many of the surface graves may have been unmarked. Of those marked with an epitaph of wood, clay, or stone, no doubt the wood markers and many of the clay ones have perished, and a good number as well 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 in Italy's north, "is not certainly an epitaph," nor is a first century CE inscription from Marano. Nor do the remaining five, (from Ostia, Castel Porziano, Naples, Villamesias in Spain, and the one from Rome), provide an exact provenance.[iii] All of these inscriptions were written in Latin, which, as Noy pointed out, was probably the epigraphic habit of other minority groups within the Roman milieu, whatever their native language might have been.[iv]

Fig. 1. Tombstone of late first-early second century CE on the via Appia to three freedmen with Semitic names, who might have been Jews. DAPICS n. 2479.

Fig. 2. Mausoleum at Portus. DAPICS n. 1876.

The common burial areas or necropolises used by Jews and Christians, with tombs placed above the ground or hewn just beneath the surface, were styled sub divo ("under the sky/heavens"). In this context, the graves of members of different religious communities were not easily distinguishable from one another. Thus the Apostles Peter and Paul were buried amidst non-Christians.[v] The necropolis below Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican, at the very heart of the modern Roman Catholic Church, shows ample evidence of such fraternization.[vi] In another instance, the Semitic names of freedmen, who might have been Jews, are incised in fine Latin lettering on a late first to early second-century tombstone on the via Appia.[vii] In addition to examples of sub divo burial sites for Jews and Christians in Rome, other such sites are thought to exist at Portus, where the geological conditions were unfavorable for underground burials because water from the nearby Tiber River and the sea infiltrated the marshy, sandy soil. If there had been subterranean burials at Portus, any vestiges by now would have been obliterated by the action of the water.[viii]

At Civitavecchia, northwest of Rome, a monument dedicated by Iulius Juda to his wife, Iulia 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 in proximity to documented Christian tombs. The memorial inscription 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).[ix] It seems curious that a Jewish tombstone should show a libation dish and a sacrificial bowl, customarily used in pagan religious rituals, but not any Jewish symbols. Yet the names "Juda" and "Maria" are Jewish; as Noy pointed out, a Christian would likely have avoided the name Juda (Judas) for its negative connotations, 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.

Above-ground burials continued even as underground interments were in fashion in the third and fourth centuries, and when the catacombs fell into disuse in the fifth century, sub divo burials became the rule once again.[x] Not many remains of the above ground burials are extant, however, because they have been exposed over a very long period to land transformation and artifact theft. 

Jewish or Jewish-influenced epigraphy, as well as Jewish artifacts and symbols, have been found in Christian burial sites. In a late region of the Callisto catacomb, de Rossi came across a small square of plaster on the tuff partition between two burial niches, containing the name of a Biblical angel, "Schephael," incised in Hebrew characters along with a Christogram (chi rho) crowned with stylized palm fronds.[xi] De Rossi wondered if 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.[xii] 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 written with Hebrew characters attributed to a Christian catacomb in Rome, and 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 Schephael's epitaph in galleries of Callisto marked also 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).[xiii] 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 simply it did not offend his sensibilities, since "at that time, the first half of the fourth century CE, this symbol was still relatively new".[xiv] It is also a possibility that 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 lamp with a menorah on the disk.[xv]

Fig. 3. Gold-glass with Jewish motifs on grounds of Temple-like enclosure, found ca. 1880 in the Catacombs of Ss. Marcellino e Pietro in Rome. DAPICS n. 1266.

Perhaps another indicator of relations among the various sects is the fragment of a Jewish gold glass found by G. B. de Rossi in the Christian catacomb of Saints Marcellino and Pietro on the via Labicana (now via Casilina) around the same time that a Jewish catacomb was discovered on the same road in 1881. Decorated with what could be a rare image of the Temple at Jerusalem, the fragment was discovered under rubble near the doorway of a chamber not yet excavated.[xvi] There has been speculation that the gold glass may have belonged to a tomb in the neighboring Jewish catacomb, where other gold glass fragments were noted, or had in fact been purchased by a Christian. 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 gifts between friends, even the Jews.[xvii] 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,[xviii] but clarifies that none of the gold glass fragments that can be traced to Jewish catacombs shows specifically 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.[xix]

For a period, polytheist, Christian, and possibly Jewish burials existed in close proximity above or near the site of the catacombs of Domitilla.[xx] This burial ground included columbaria and a number of sumptuous mausoleums. Fr. Ferrua believed that the necropolis 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 in mixed settings is found everywhere. He 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".[xxi] 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)."[xxii] Without the pejorative tone, this view of exclusivity in the catacombs is still upheld by many who study these sites.

Polytheist and Christian burials in the same area also occurred within the precincts of other catacombs until the sites became Church property, particularly the catacombs of Callisto and S. Sebastiano on the via Appia. 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 pagan mausoleums, 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.[xxiii] 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.[xxiv]

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.[xxv]

[i] 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 Greco-Roman World (Oxford-New York: Clarendon Press, 1998), pp. 79-85.
[ii] Noy, Jews of the Diaspora, pp. 83-85. Rutgers cautions, however, 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: see Rutgers, Jews in Late Ancient Rome, p. 97. 
[iii] Noy, Jews of the Diaspora, 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).
[iv] Noy, Jews of the Diaspora, p. 82. Latin could also have been preferred in public areas, where passersby would have been likely to see them and, if literate, understand the content.
[v] M. Guarducci, Peter, the Rock on which the Church is Built: A Visit to the Excavations Beneath the Vatican Basilica (Vatican City: Reverenda Fabbrica di S. Pietro in Vaticano, 1977), pp. 7-9.
[vi] Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum (CIJ) 1, n. 70, p. 572. The epitaph, which Leon and Noy do not accept as Jewish, commemorates three freedmen of Lucius Valerius: Baricha (Baruch), Zabda (Zabadiah), and Achiba. While the names appear to be of Jewish origin, they were also used by non-Jews in Palmyra. Additionally, there is an example from the Trans-Jordan where the name Baricha was used by a Christian.
[vii] The paintings discovered in the fourth-century catacomb beneath the via Latina, incorporating themes from both pagan myths and the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, were initially considered evidence of the continuation of mixed burials in subterranean tombs. However, Father A. Ferrua, SJ, the excavator of the catacomb, asserted that the complex was entirely Christian, interpreting pagan myths as allegories expressing Christian ideas—an idea that has been subsequently 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.
[viii] For information regarding Jewish and Christian burials at Portus, refer to G. B. de Rossi's report in Bullettino di Archeologia Cristiana 4:3 (1866), pp. 40-45. De Rossi identified the Greek inscriptions of Claudius Joses, an archon, and the fragmentary inscription of Marciana as Jewish. The latter includes an enigmatic reference to a "proarchon." Additional insights can be found in Frey's work, "Inscriptions Juives inedites (1)," in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 8 (1931), pp. 83-125. Leon, in "The Jewish Community of Ancient Portus", Harvard Theological Review 45, 1952, pp. 168-175, raised questions about the classification of some cited burials at Portus as Jewish. For Claudius Joses' epitaph, see JIWE 2, n. 585.
[ix] JIWE 1, n. 11.
[x] For instance, surface burials are evident around the atrium of the lower Torlonia catacomb, as discussed by U. M. Fasola in "Le due catacombe ebraiche di Villa Torlonia," in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 52 (1976), p. 41. In his study "Il cimitero degli ebrei posto sulla via Portuense," Rendiconti della Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia 2.12, 1915), N. Muller observed that an aboveground cemetery likely succeeded the Monteverde catacomb, as indicated on pages 220 and 302. L. V. Rutgers, in Jews in Late Ancient Rome, p. 1, proposes that a noticeable decline in Rome's population may contribute to the diminishing occurrence of new burials in the catacombs by the mid-5th century.
[xi] G. B. de Rossi's findings are documented in La Roma sotterranea cristiana descritta ed illustrata (vol. 3, Rome: Cromo-litografia pontificia, 1877), on p. 386, with accompanying plates 28-29 and figure 35. J. B. Northcote and W. R. Brownlow, in Roma Sotterranea, or an Account of the Roman Catacombs (2nd ed., London: Longmans, 1879), recorded de Rossi's discovery within what they referred to as the "Roman" (meaning Christian) catacombs, identifying the name as "Scephael" on page 374.
[xii] E. R. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, Vol. 2 (New York: Pantheon, 1953), pp. 210-211.
[xiii] In Room 3, Hall A of Catacomb 1: in B. Mazar, Beth She'arim 1: Report on the Excavations During 1936-1940, Catacombs 1-4 (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1973), p. 83.
[xiv] The lamp was found near the entrance of Hall A in Catacomb 17: N. Avigad, Beth She'arim 3, The Excavations 1953-1958, Catacombs 12-23 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1976), p.188, n. 23.
[xv] 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.
[xvi] G. B. de Rossi, "Verre représentant le temple de Jérusalem," in 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, Jews in Late Ancient Rome, p. 82, n. 87.
[xvii] Rutgers, Jews in Late Ancient Rome, pp. 81-85.
[xviii] O. Marucchi, Le catacombe romane (Rome: Desclée-Lefevre, 1903), pp. 524-526.  Spurred on by the find of this gold glass to search for other Jewish artifacts in the same catacomb (of Marcellinus and Peter), Estelle Brettman identified several possible graffiti of menorahs.
[xix] Rutgers, Jews in Late Ancient Rome, p. 82, note 87.
[xx] 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 Fr. Ferrua thought it likely to be Christian. Noy's opinion is that the wording is appropriate for either sect: see 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": see "Il cimitero sopra la catacomba di Domitilla," in Rivista di Archeologia Cristiana 36 (1960), pp. 189-190, fig. 10. 
[xxi] Ferrua, "Il cimitero", pp. 181, 185-186.
[xxii] A. Bosio, Roma Sotterranea (Rome, 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, Jews in Late Ancient Rome, pp. 9-10
[xxiii] A. Ferrua, "Due mausolei da pagani e cristiani presso San Sebastiano," in 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).
[xxiv] C. L. Visconti, "Scavi di Vigna Randanini," in 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; and R. Garrucci, Cimitero degli antichi ebrei scoperto recentemente in Vigna Randanini (Rome: Civilta' Cattolica, 1862), p. 4.
[xxv] P. Testini, Le catacombe e gli antichi cimiteri cristiani in Roma (Bologna: Cappelli, 1966), p. 60.