Vast underground Jewish burial caves demonstrate synergism of Greek art with Jewish tradition

Carved into the southern foothills of Lower Galilee, an immense necropolis served for almost two centuries—from the end of the second century C.E.—as a burial place for Jews from Israel and throughout the Diaspora. The honeycomb of burial caves occupied hills near the ancient town of Beth She’arim and on the slopes below the town. Twenty-seven catacombs were discovered during the years of systematic exploration of Beth She’arim.d

Within the labyrinths of the underground caverns were instances of the full range of Jewish burial practices in those times: arcosolia or arched niches cut into walls to receive a body or a coffin; loculi or kokhim, long, narrow niches where bodies or ossuaries were placed (ossuaries contained the bones of the deceased gathered together after the flesh had decomposed); pit graves dug into the floor; and elaborately decorated sarcophagi, freestanding within the spacious corridors of the caverns.

Here, in this vast necropolis, were buried revered rabbis. The most famous was Judah ha-Nasi—Judah the Prince—also called the Patriarch, or simply Rabbi. Honored for his learning and authority, Judah is most remembered for his redaction of the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish law completed in about 200 C.E. Judah ha-Nasi lived in and established a yeshiva, an institution for Jewish religious studies in Beth She’arim. Following his death in the early third century C.E. and his burial at Beth She’arim, the burial caves that held the remains of the great sage, his family and followers became a magnet for Jews of importance throughout the Diaspora, whose bodies were brought for burial near Rabbi.

The epitaphs tell the story of Jews from far and wide: the head of the Council of Elders of Antioch in today’s Turkey; the heads of synagogues in Tyre, Sidon and Beirut in Lebanon of our day; men and women from Byblos, Palmyra and Messene in southern Babylonia; and the head of a Jewish community in South Arabia.

Jewish and Greek artistic and linguistic traditions meet within the network of Beth She’arim’s caverns. Most of the epitaphs are inscribed in Greek. Rabbi himself is said to have admonished his followers: “What has the Syrian [Aramaic] tongue to do with the land of Israel? Speak either Hebrew or Greek” (Bava Kamma 82b–83a). Within the same catacomb we find familiar Jewish decorative motifs, such as the seven-branched menorah, and clear Hellenistic themes such as the eagle, bull and lions that decorate a sarcophagus discovered in catacomb 20 and a fragment from a sarcophagus bearing a finely sculpted relief depicting the Greek myth of Leda impregnated by the god Zeus in the guise of a swan.

Today, visitors to Beth She’arim can enter two of the most elaborate catacombs, 14 and 20, through exquisite triple-arched facades. The partially restored facade of catacomb 14 is seen close up below. Many other catacombs remain inaccessible to the public. Those that are open dearly evidence the melding of Greek and Jewish influences and the grandeur of this huge necropolis, which was used until the destruction of the town by Roman legions in the middle of the fourth century.