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Derided Tomb Earns More Reverential Study

The site was thought to be the crypt of King David's son Absalom. Now some say it may be that of John the Baptist's father.

September 06, 2003|Thomas H. Maugh II | Times Staff Writer

It was a classic case of mistaken identity, archeologists and Bible scholars say.

For more than four centuries, residents of Jerusalem -- Jews, Christians and Muslims alike -- have thrown rocks and stones at a monument thought to be the tomb of Absalom, the son of King David who rebelled against his father and threw pre-Christian Israel into turmoil.

But a faint inscription on the tomb, a fortuitous photograph and some inspired detective work have led some experts to believe the monument's true identity is the tomb of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist.

And not only that. Christian tradition holds that Zacharias was buried in the same crypt as the priest Simeon the Elder, who cradled the baby Jesus and recognized him as the Messiah, and James the Just, brother of Christ.

The tomb is empty of all artifacts now, and the inscription is thought to have been written in the fourth century by Byzantine Christians, long after it was probably looted. So, it is not clear if any of those biblical figures was ever actually buried there. But the Byzantines took their lead from local Christians, who maintained a strong oral tradition about the sites of various landmarks of the early Christian community.

"This is a find of great significance," said Eric Meyers, a professor of religion at Duke University, "not so much because it verifies anything about the personalities from the first century, but because it shows how they were venerated in the early Byzantine period."

"It will change our understanding of the period," added James Strange, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida. "Later tradition has it that Zacharias and Simeon were all buried somewhere inside the city. If this has historical significance, they were buried outside like everybody else. And they were buried in a monument that had already been there for a century, which is kind of startling in itself."

The inscription's discovery, revealed last month in a French journal, comes on the heels of widespread publicity about the ossuary, or bone box, that was purported to have held the remains of James the Just. That artifact -- which has no link to the tomb-- subsequently was dismissed as a clever forgery.

But the new announcement about the tomb comes from two highly respected researchers: Joseph E. Zias of the Science and Archeology Group at Hebrew University, and Father Emile Puech of the Ecole Biblique in East Jerusalem. Zias is a former curator with the Israel Antiquities Authority and Puech is the chief epigrapher of the Dead Sea Scrolls Project.

"This is the real deal," Meyers said. "There is no question of fraud."

But Zias has been keeping his announcements about the discovery low key because of the earlier notoriety about the James ossuary and the so-called Jehoash tablet, another recent fraud. "We didn't make a lot of noise," he said. "People were very reluctant to believe anything was there, but no one has been able to challenge us. That's because of Puech. He is beyond challenge."

The 60-foot-tall tomb is in the Kidron Valley, between Jerusalem's Old City and the Mount of Olives. Medieval Jewish tradition held that it was the tomb of Absalom, who murdered his half brother Amnon for raping their sister Tamar, slept with his father's concubine, and had himself declared king of Israel while his father still reigned. Ultimately, his hair got caught in a tree during a battle and he was killed by King David's men.

The tomb has been stoned by passersby for at least 400 years. Fathers take their sons to view the stoning as a rite of passage, noting: "This is what happens when you rebel against your father." At times, the monument would be half-buried under stones, until the government in power would remove them and place them in piles nearby -- fresh ammunition.

But despite tradition, it is extremely unlikely that Absalom was buried there. The tomb was built nearly a 1,000 years after his death, experts note.

Zias became interested in the tomb in the winter of 2000 when a student brought him a 30-year-old picture of one facade that showed two Greek letters that no one seemed to be aware of. "I drove over to it and couldn't see anything," Zias said. The photographer told him the original photo had been taken in summer, late in the afternoon, and it might be necessary to go back then, when the shadows were just right to see the inscription.

"I went back week after week, month after month," he said. "I would come in the morning with a book, and take a picture every hour." Ultimately, "at the end of a summer day, around 7 p.m., I could see the letters appear almost like magic. But they were 9 meters in the air" -- about 30 feet.

Clearly, he said, the continuous stoning of the monument had nearly obliterated the inscription.

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