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Archaeology of the New Testament (B’rit Hadashah)


capt.jrl80111202110.mideast_israel_simon_verse_jrl8011.jpg (24477 bytes)Zacharias, father of John the Baptist

and Simeon the Elder identified on

1st Century Jerusalem Monument

By Robert Mock MD


The Zacharia inscription on the upper left and the Simon the Elder inscription on the right on Yad Avshalom (Tomb of Absalom).  




Absalom’s Tomb (Yad Avshalom)

Zacharia and Simeon the Elder

Joe Zias, Anthropologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority

“One Day the Letters Emerged”

Father Emile Peuch of the Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique

The Tomb of Absalom – A Nazarene-Christian Monument?




In the Kidron Valley across from the Temple Mount are three monuments known ever the centuries as Jewish shrines. New archeological evidence is confirming the 6th century writings of Theodosius and the 4th century Byzantine documents that at least one of these is a mortuary monument to three of the revered Nazarenes in the New Testament:  Simon the Just, Zacharia the priest, father of John the Baptist and James the Just, son of Joseph and brother of Jesus.


Discovered two years ago, an article about the discovery and interpretation of the inscription was published recently in the French scientific quarterly, Revue Biblique, in Paris in July, 2003.  This inscription was discovered by Jerusalem archeologist, Joe Zias of the Israeli Antiquities Authority and deciphered by Father Emile Puech of the East Jerusalem Ecole Biblique, the archaeological and biblical research center of the Catholic Dominican Order. 


A horizontal inscription of 47 letters which was 1.2 meters long and 10 cm. high read as follows:  "This is the tomb of Zacharia, martyr, a very pious priest, father of John,"


On the walls about nine meters high was also a 4th century vertical inscription which claimed to mark the site of the burial place of the temple priest of Zacharias the father of John the Baptist who baptized Jesus.  The six lines in the Simeon inscription ran vertically instead of horizontally. The letters are of different heights, slightly crooked in placement and carved out rather shallow.


"Zacharia… father of John," reads the inscription, seen in a reconstruction made on a polyester cast.  Photo by Alex Levac


It was Shimon Gibson, of the Albright Institute of the Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem who observed while Zia and Puech set to work to make a cast replica of the engravings using dental silicon. Using scaffolding they were able to access the site.  Recreating a 19th century technique, they applied the silicon like you would paper mache over the inscription and from the silicon impression they made a polyester mold.  According to Zia, “we photographed and played around and invited experts - and nothing. It was very difficult to read it, but for the first time I heard people admit that there really was something there."


According to Gibson, "These were folks who knew their Greek and their Luke, but didn't know how to be masons." With the help of the lab director of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, Andre Weiner, and excellent craftsman, they finally had a readable mold.


The vertical inscription on the monument states that this is the tomb of "Simeon who was a very just man and a very devoted old (person) and waiting for the consolation of the people."


This verse as found in the Gospel of Luke 2:25, is written exactly as it was in the Codex Sinaiticus which according to scholars was later revised extensively.  According to Zia, who presented his findings in November, 2003, at the annual conference of the American Schools of Oriental Research in Atlanta, said, "This (the inscription) shows there were different versions of the Old and New Testament going around," 


Absalom’s Tomb (Yad Avshalom)


Looking down upon the Kidron Valley from the Mount of Olives is an observation point that is called Absalom’s Tomb observation point.  From this vantage site, one can look down upon three ancient tomb mortuary monuments that are carved into the side of the Mount of Olives: Absalom’s Tomb (Yad Avshalom), the Tomb of the Sons of Hezir and Zacharia’s Tomb (Kever Zachariah) 


It was in 1965 and Israeli scholar, Avinoam Haimi wrote an article in the Haaretz News about these three tombs.  According to his studies, these Kidron Valley Monuments were associated with important people of both the TaNaKh (Hebrew “Old Testament”) and the Brit Had     (Nazarene-Christian New Testament).  Absalom’s Tomb was associated with not only the rebel son of David the king, Absalom, but also the prophet Isaiah and King Jehoshaphat. 


The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir was associated with Simeon, the righteous man who held the baby Yahshua (Jesus) in the temple and recognized Him to be the promised Messiah, plus Joseph the husband of Mary, father of Jesus and James the Just, brother of Jesus. 

According to Haimi, the Tomb of Zacharia with its pyramidal top was associated with King Hezekiah and the Arabs associated all the tombs with Pharaoh. 


Tomb of the Sons of Hezir and Tomb of Zechariah (Pyramid of Zacharias) in Kidron Valley, view from Derekh Ha'Ofel road. Jerusalem, the Middle East, December 13, 2002.


When you stand on the round observation point called the Absalom's Tomb observatory, and look down at the arid Kidron Valley, you can see several ancient tombs carved into the mountain: Absalom's tomb, the Tomb of the Sons of Hezir and Zacharia's Tomb. Absalom's Tomb is the only monument that remains whole, and is the most magnificent of them all: a pitcher-shaped structure, about 20 meters high, hewn from the rock. Archaeologist and Anthropologist Joe Zias spent most of his free time over the past two years next to this structure.


The name, Yad Avshalom, was given to the structure in medieval times for the son of David who murdered his half-brother for raping his sister and later started a rebellion that for awhile sent King David into exile. The reason this was believe was in Samuel is states:


2 Samuel 18 - "Now Absalom in his lifetime had taken and reared up for himself a pillar, which is in the king's valley, for he said, I have no son to keep my name in remembrance, and he called the pillar after his own name, and it is called to this day, Absalom's Monument."


Even though the Tanakh states that Absalom had three sons and a daughter, the rabbinic sources state that his children did die before him so he built a monument for himself before his death.  Over the years the Jews, Christians and Muslims all participated in a ritual of throwing stones at the structure which resulted in damage to the facade and all the inscriptions engraved on it.  


Absalom's Pillar (Cape of Pharaoh Tomb), or Yad Avshalom in Kidron Valley, view from Derekh Ha'Ofel road. Jerusalem, the Middle East, December 13, 2002.


Yet the first mention of an association of the Monument called Absalom’s Tomb with the son of David, Absalom came from a Karaite manuscript dated to the 10th century and found in the Geniza of the Cairo Synagogue.  This is the same repository of ancient Jewish documents in which a copy of the 5th century BCE manuscript, Emeq HaMelekh, was discovered that told of the five Jewish priests responsible for hiding the treasures of Solomon’s temple prior to the destruction of Jerusalem by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar. 


It was the evidence discovered by Joe Zias that gave scientific credibility that this site truly was a holy place for early Jewish Nazarenes in Jerusalem. The later Byzantine monks documented in the 4th century by these inscriptions that this site was the burial place of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist and Simeon the Elder who held the infant Yahshua in the temple. 


Zacharia and Simeon the Elder


So the question must be asked, who were these two prominent Jewish men whose remains were preserved for the memory of Nazarene and Christian believers?  According to the Jewish anthropologist, Joe Zias, he gives this account


"One has to read the New Testament, chapters one and two in The Gospel According to Luke. There it tells of the priest Zacharia, who was an old man, and about his elderly and barren wife Elizabeth. When Zacharia served in the Temple, saying the prayers and burning the incense, he saw the angel Gabriel to the right of the altar. The angel promised him that a son would soon be born to him, `And thou shalt call his name John ... and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother's womb.'"

Zacharia, who didn't believe the promise because of his wife's advanced age, was punished by losing his power of speech. Five months later, the angel Gabriel embarked on a mission in Nazareth, where he informed the Virgin Mary that she would become pregnant by the Holy Ghost and would give birth to a son who would be called Jesus and who would be the Son of God. The angel also informed her that her cousin, the barren Elizabeth, "hath also conceived a son in her old age and this is the sixth month with her, who was called barren. For with God nothing shall be impossible."

Elizabeth gave birth to a son. When they came to circumcise him on the eighth day they wanted to call him Zacharia, after his father, but Elizabeth insisted that they call him John. Therefore the father was also asked his opinion, and since he was mute, he wrote the name John on a writing tablet. At that moment the power of speech returned to him. "This John is John the Baptist," says Zias.


And Simeon? In Luke, we read:


"And behold there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and the same man was just and devout. The Holy Ghost appeared to Simeon as well, and from it he learned that he would not die before seeing the Messiah. The same spirit brought him to the Temple on the day the baby was brought there for the ceremony of the redemption of the firstborn son. When Simeon saw the baby he said that now he could die "because my eyes have seen your salvation."

Joe Zias, Anthropologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority


For almost twenty years, Joe Zias lived in an old apartment in the city center, close to a small boutique, Miss Sigal, on Jaffa Road, near the Sbarro restaurant.  Reminiscent of an old European city, this alley lane hosted a green iron gate opening into a paved yard shaded by one large tree that led to the apartment of Joe Zias. 


Now 61 years, he worked for twenty five years with the Israel Antiquities Authority investigating ancient excavated bones and skeletons discovered in Israel only to have his research abruptly halted by the disputes with the Haredim (ultra-Orthodox rabbis) decrying the desecration of human skeletons.  In 1997, in the face of budgetary cutbacks, Amir Drori, director general of the IAA informed him that the bones in their archives had to be returned in a day or two.  As stated, "Until now, I had to return all my anthropological research to the earth and to the Haredim [ultra-Orthodox Jews]."


The discovery of an ancient inscription and one associated with prominent New Testament figures had a special significance to Joe Zias.  Born a Catholic to a Michigan Czech family and later converted to Judaism, it seemed surreal that he should be the discoverer of an early Christian inscription documenting a righteous Jewish man mentioned in the New Testament.  For a Catholic, now a converted Jew, to have found an inscription on a Jewish holy place that identifies it with someone related to the life of Jesus is astounding to him.  As he states, "Finally there's something that they can't take away from us, and this is something that has been here for about 1,600 years."


“One Day the Letters Emerged”


According to his story documented by in a special article in Ha’aretz, One Day the Letters Emerged by Dalia Karpel on January 18, 2004, he states, "As absurd as it sounds, the whole story began here in the apartment," he says. "I was sitting on the sofa with a student of art history who had written a thesis about Absalom's Tomb. She showed me a few black-and-white photos and asked me about the meaning of the circle that appears on the monument and can be seen in the photo. Although it isn't my field - because after all, I work with bones, and what interests me is someone who died of some disease thousands of years ago - I looked at the circle and told her that I actually could recognize the shapes of Greek letters. In other words, [there was] a kind of inscription next to the circle she was pointing to."


Yad Avshalom Monument – view from the Mount of Olives looking towards the city walls of Jerusalem

Recognizing that the photos were taken by prominent archaeological photographer in Israel, Zev Radovan, he states, "I went to visit him, and it turned out that he didn't remember when he had taken the pictures, maybe 20 years ago, nor had he written the date on the negative. I told him that I recognized letters as part of a Greek inscription and he laughed and said: `Forget it.'"  Continuing, "Radovan told me that if Avigad didn't write about an inscription, then it doesn't exist, because Avigad - and he said this in English - `didn't miss a heartbeat.' I knew Radovan was right, because the pedantic Avigad really didn't miss a thing, but I showed him the photo again, and he had to admit that I might be right. According to the angle of the sun he saw that the photo had been taken in the summer, toward dusk."


Nahmad Avigad, prominent archaeologist from the Hebrew University, noted as the eminent authority on the history of these monuments, published in 1954 a book called "Ancient Monuments in the Kidron Valley" (Bialik Institute, in Hebrew).  In this book are no accounts of these inscriptions on this monument.

According to Avigad, "It was a popular custom for a passerby to take a stone in his hand and throw it at the monument of the prodigal son, and sometimes they would add curses and spit."

That this was done by both Jews, Christians and Moslem is well attested to in medieval times. 


Zias had in his collection a woodcut by a 1677 European artist in whom he describes, "Here one sees people in European dress throwing stones at the tomb of Absalom, who took his father's mistresses to the rooftops of Jerusalem in order to enjoy their company, and also decided that he was the king of Israel. In a photo from 1890, the site is seen surrounded by rocks thrown by pilgrims, and this is one of the reasons why the inscription became blurred and couldn't be seen."


This winter conversation between Radovan and Zias could not be resolved until they had a visual inspection.  So the both of them drove to Absalom's Tomb. "We went up to the site and ... gornisht [nothing]," says Zias. "We didn't see a thing.

Though he felt foolish, is was Radovan who with his incredible eye for archaeological details explained how important the light is when looking and observing sites of archaeology.  The slant and the angle of the sun is critical in the observation of lettering and fine details.  What you see at 9 A.M. you won't see at noon, because of the angle of the shadow. Even the season or the angle of the sun makes a difference.  Radovan’s advice to Ziac was to go the tomb at the beginning of the summer at dusk, when the sun sits on the walls of Jerusalem."

According to Zias, for days he rested beside the grave.  During the day, Zias would sit beneath a shade tree, reading a book, when every hour on the hour with camera in hand he would document where the angle of the light would highlight any inscriptions.  H would come in the evening accompanied by security guards because this area was a known rendezvous point for drug dealers for both Jews and Palestinians. 

"I had the time, and after all, it's a matter of patience," he says. "For about two years I sat there regularly. For entire days. Sometimes I would go two or three times a week only to see if the situation had improved. I could have sat there for months on end. I read a book and every hour I took a picture, until one day, actually at the end of the day, at dusk, the letters emerged."


Father Emile Peuch of the Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique

With polyester cast from a silicon mold in hand, Joe Zia then enlisted the 62 year old Professor Peuch, a researcher at the French school for Bible studies the Ecole Biblique et Archaeologique Francaise, located next to the Damascus Gate in East Jerusalem.  Born in France, he studied Semitic languages at Sorbonne, France where he received a scholarship from the Academie Francaise.  In 1971, he was sent to conduct his first research in Jerusalem and never returned. Since that day, he has participated extensively in the research of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has written two books and is about to complete a third on the scrolls and collaborated on two other books with scroll scholars.  Here began the laborious task of deciphering the letters eroded by wind, elements and human destruction.


According to Peuch, . "First of all I identified the word `Zacharia" and I said to myself - oo-la - and when I figured out two words in Greek, which said that this is the monument of Zacharia, I said oo-la-la. Zacharia was a high priest and a righteous man, and when I read that he was a martyr and his father was John. That was already an amazing thing. That was a very moving moment for me."

According to Father Peuch, these inscriptions validate the diary of the Byzantine traveler, Theodosius, in the 6th century, who wrote that the Biblical Zacharia, the father of John the Baptist, was martyred and was buried together with the remains of Simeon the Elder, the first Jewish witness to recognize that the young babe Yahshua was the Christ.  These two were also buried with James the Just, the brother of Jesus.


The Tomb of Absalom – A Nazarene-Christian Monument?


The Zacharia inscription, according to Peuch, was written in the 4th century CE, near the time of Constantine the Great and the Nicean Council. This was over 300 years after the tomb had been built and a valid testimony that it was recognized as a historical monument revered by the Hebrew Nazarene Ecclesia in Jerusalem.  Also according to Peuch, in the upper left hand corner is the Greek work, “psycho”, meaning soul in reference to the tomb.


Yet the testimony and other Christian traditions state that this site is also the resting place of James the Just, the nasi or president of the Hebrew Nazarene Ecclesia in Jerusalem interpreted in Christian translation of the Book of Acts as the “Jerusalem Church”. Eusebius, Christian church historian at the time of Constantine the Great quoted Hegesippus, a 2nd century Christian historian in his Ecclesiastical History,


Hegesippus – “Going up therefore, they cast down the Just one, saying to one another, “Let us stone Jacob the Just.’


And they began to stone him as he did not die immediately when cast down; but turning round, he knelt down, saying, ‘I beseech Thee, O Lord God and Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.


Thus they were stoning him, when one of the priests of the sons of Rechab, a son of the Rechabites spoken of and by Jeremiah the prophet, cried out, saying, ‘Stop! What are you doing?  The Just is praying for you.’


Thus one of them, a fuller, beat out the brains of the Just with the club he used to beat out clothes.  Thus he suffered martyrdom, and they buried him on the spot where his tombstone still remains, close to the Temple. He became a faithful witness; both to the Jews and to the Greeks that Jesus is the ChristImmediately after this, Vespasian invaded and took Judea.” (Hegesippus as quoted in Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book II, xxiii)


With this evidence Absalom’s Tomb, initially recognized as a Jewish Holy Site with the Ministry of Religious Affairs in accordance with the Holy Places Law, the question has been asked, will it also be accorded a Christian Holy Site?


There are few sites in which inscriptions from the Bible are found.  According to scholars there are several Old Testament phrases found on monuments and on a floor mosaic in the ancient Roman city of Caesarea is a passage found in the writing of the Apostle Paul in Romans 3:13. 


In the writings of Flavius Josephus, a Zacharia is mentioned as one of ten Jerusalemites who were put on trial, his head was severed and his body was thrown into the Valley of the Kings. Early on he became known as a ‘martyr’ for our Lord. As noted in the inscription by quoted by Eusebius above, the same treatment was given to James the Just, the brother of Jesus, who was stoned, clubbed and bludgeoned to death and his body was thrown over into the Kidron Valley below. 


Whereas in early Christian writings there are found several conflicting versions regarding the burial places of Zacharia, Simeon and James.  Yet by the 4th century, one established traditions states that all three were buried in one site in the Kidron Valley.


"The important thing here in the inscription," says Zias, "is that Simeon and Zacharia appear. We are continuing to work, because there are other inscriptions on the tomb and there's a chance that we'll find the name James as well."



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