The evidence that Phoenicians ritually sacrificed their children comes from four sources. Classical authors and biblical prophets charge the Phoenicians with the practice. Stelae associated with burial urns found at Carthage bear decorations alluding to sacrifice and inscriptions expressing vows to Phoenician deities. Urns buried beneath these stelae contain remains of children (and sometimes of animals) who were cremated as described in the sources or implied by the inscriptions.
Still, some scholars like Dr. Fantar deny that the Phoenicians sacrificed their children. They dismiss the texts as tendentious or misinformed, and they ignore the sacrificial implications of the inscribed stelae. The archaeological evidence, however, especially the bones found inside the burial urns, cannot be so easily explained away.
Evidence from classical authors. Ancient authors, both Greco-Roman historians like Kleitarchos, Diodorus and Plutarch and Church fathers like Tertullian, condemn the Carthaginians for the practice of child sacrifice. Some add lurid but unverifiable details—sacrifices witnessed by distraught mothers, grimacing victims consumed by flames, human offerings received in the outstretched arms of a brazen statue. On one point these sources are completely in accord: The Carthaginians sacrificed their children to their supreme deities.
To be sure, some historians who wrote about Carthage, such as Polybius, took no note of this practice. Why Polybius failed to mention Carthaginian child sacrifice is a mystery. He was a member of Scipio’s staff in 146 B.C., and he must have known the city well. The revisionists seize on such omissions as an excuse to dismiss all reports of Phoenician child sacrifice as pure fabrications arising from anti-Phoenician bias. But this is a non sequitur. The fact that Polybius does not mention Carthaginian child sacrifice does not mean that other testimonies are false; it simply means that he has nothing to say on this point.
Evidence from the Hebrew Bible. The sixth-century B.C. prophet Jeremiah accused syncretizing Judahites of setting up a “high place of Tophet” in the Valley of Ben-Hinnom outside Jerusalem (Jeremiah 7:30–32), where they “burn (sharaf) their sons and their daughters in 031the fire (b’esh).” This is clearly not a description of sons and daughters “passing through” the fire in some sort of rite of passage from which they emerge singed but not incinerated. These children, both male and female, “burn … in the fire,” that is, they are cremated, according to Jeremiah. This testimony is not from a foreigner who accuses the Judahites of evil ways; it is from one of their own. Any Jerusalemite who thought that the prophet might have been fabricating charges of child sacrifice could have taken a short walk down the valley of Ben-Hinnom and become, like Jeremiah, an eyewitness to the human sacrifices taking place there.
The word “Tophet” can be translated “place of burning” or “roaster.” The Hebrew text does not specify that the Judahite victims were buried, only burned, although the “place of burning” was probably adjacent to the place of burial. Indeed, soil in the Carthage Tophet was found to be full of olive wood charcoal, no doubt from the sacrificial pyres. We have no idea how the Phoenicians themselves referred to the places of burning or burial or to the practice itself, since no large body of Phoenician writing—no Phoenician “Bible,” as it were—has come down to us.
Evidence from Phoenician inscriptions. What have come down to us are thousands of Phoenician inscriptions, the vast majority of which are from the Carthage Tophet. These inscriptions, however, are highly formulaic and tantalizingly laconic. None refers explicitly to child sacrifice, only to vows made to Tanit and Ba’al Hammon. For example, an inscription on a stela from the Tanit II period (sixth to third century B.C.) reads: “To our lady, to Tanit … and to our lord, to Ba’al Hammon, that which was vowed.” The placement of such stelae immediately above the jars containing burned remains strongly suggests that these vows had something to do with the cremated individuals, human or animal, inside the jars.
Somewhat unexpectedly, inscribed stelae in the Carthage Tophet occasionally mark jars containing animal remains, incinerated and buried in the same careful fashion as the human victims. In this regard, a second- or third-century A.D. Neo-Punic stela from Cirta (Constantine), in Algeria, is relevant. The stela is inscribed in Latin: vita pro vita, sanguis pro sanguine, agnum pro vikario (Life for life, blood for blood, a lamb for a substitute). This act of substitution is reminiscent of the biblical Akedah, in which Abraham’s sacrifice of his son Isaac was forestalled by the miraculous provision of a ram as a substitute (Genesis 22:13).a
Evidence from archaeology. The burned bones found inside jars from the Carthage Tophet provide conclusive evidence for Phoenician child sacrifice. Animal remains, mostly sheep and goats, found inside some of the Tophet urns strongly suggest that this was not a burial ground for children who died prematurely. The animals were sacrificed to the gods, presumably in place of children. It is highly likely that the children unlucky enough not to have substitutes were also sacrificed and then buried in the Tophet.
Moreover, the osteological evidence reveals that most of the victims were children two to three months old, though some were as old as age five. So far no skeleton has shown any signs of pathological conditions that might have caused death. These were healthy children deliberately killed as sacrifices in the manner described in the classical and biblical texts.
The sex of the victims is unclear. We do not know for certain whether they were exclusively males, as some have asserted, or both males and females. Some biblical texts suggest that firstborn males were chosen as the ultimate sacrifice to the deity. For example, during a military engagement between the Moabites and the Israelites, the king of Moab “took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering.” Upon witnessing this sacrifice, the Israelites retreated and “returned to their own land” (2 Kings 3:27). The prophet Micah lists the sacrifice of the firstborn male as the highest form of offering a human can give to a god—even better than “calves a year old,” rams or “rivers of olive oil” (Micah 6:6–7). Other texts, however, specify that both “sons and daughters” were sacrificed in the Tophet (Jeremiah 7:31 and 2 Kings 23:10).
Infant skeletons are insufficiently developed to allow the determination of sex on the basis of bone morphology alone. Ongoing DNA analysis of bones from the jars, however, may resolve the question of whether the victims were all males or a mix of males and females.
The classical and biblical texts, as well as the archaeology, all indicate that healthy living children were sacrificed to the gods in the Tophet. Our purpose in making this case is not to malign the Phoenicians but to understand them.
The evidence that Phoenicians ritually sacrificed their children comes from four sources. Classical authors and biblical prophets charge the Phoenicians with the practice. Stelae associated with burial urns found at Carthage bear decorations alluding to sacrifice and inscriptions expressing vows to Phoenician deities. Urns buried beneath these stelae contain remains of children (and sometimes of animals) who were cremated as described in the sources or implied by the inscriptions. Still, some scholars like Dr. Fantar deny that the Phoenicians sacrificed their children. They dismiss the texts as tendentious or misinformed, and they ignore the sacrificial implications of the inscribed […]
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For a superb study of the rite of human sacrifice from the Akedah to the Crucifixion, see Jon D. Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993).