One cold day in November 1990 the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in Jerusalem received what seemed to be a routine call. A construction crew working in the Jerusalem Peace Forest had uncovered an ancient burial cave. To the IAA this came as no great surprise, as that area, directly south of the Old City, had served as a huge necropolis in the late Second Temple period (30 B.C.E.–70 C.E.). Nevertheless, the IAA promptly sent archaeologist Zvi Greenhut to check out the report.

Looking down through the collapsed ceiling of the cave, Greenhut noticed four limestone ossuaries, or bone boxes, scattered about in the cave’s central chamber (photo below). He knew immediately that the cave was a Jewish burial site because the custom of secondary burial, for which ossuaries were used, arose in Jerusalem only among Jews and only during the century preceding the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 C.E., as described in later literary sources.

Secondary burial occurred about a year after the deceased had been laid to rest on a rock-cut shelf or in a niche cut into a wall of a burial cave. When the flesh had decomposed, relatives of the deceased would gather the bones and redeposit them in a bone box, and then slide the box into a niche, or loculus (or in Hebrew, kokh) in the cave. The box might later be retrieved and the bones of other family members be placed within it as well.

The cave-tombs in which secondary burial occurred were often elegantly appointed both inside and out, wrought by skilled craftsmen whose services were a luxury available only to the wealthiest of Jerusalem’s citizens.c

When Greenhut and other IAA archaeologists lowered themselves into the cave they found four loculi, cut about 6 feet deep into the rock and about 18 inches wide and high. Three of the loculi were empty because construction workers had moved from them the four ossuaries that Greenhut had first spotted from the roof. Six other ossuaries lay overturned and broken, vandalized long ago by tomb robbers. But wedged inside one of the loculi the team found two ossuaries resting, untouched, where they had been placed nearly two millennia before.

The ossuaries in the cave were attractively decorated with rosettes, geometric designs and architectural and plant motifs. Five were inscribed with the names of those whose bones were interred inside, a common practice. There was no hint of the exceptional find this cave was about to yield.

Only when the two previously untouched ossuaries were brought out from their loculus did the archaeologists begin to suspect they had found something special. On the lid of one ossuary they saw the name “Qafa,” an Aramaic form of the Greek family name Caiaphas. The second, an especially ornate box (above), bore on its side the Aramaic inscription “Yehosef bar Qayafa,” or “Joseph, son of Caiaphas” (below).

These two ossuaries with the same name indicate that this was the burial cave of the prominent priestly family of Caiaphas. Could the box be the repository of the high priest, who, according to the Gospels, interrogated Jesus before turning him over to the Romans?

The name Caiaphas appears in both Christian and Jewish sources, including the first-century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (whose reference to “Joseph who was called Caiaphas of the high priesthood” uses the same variation of spelling as on the ossuaries), as well as in several rabbinic works. Certainly the cave was appropriately located for a family of the Temple aristocracy, in the neighborhood of several other elaborate cave-tombs dated to the same period.

The ossuaries are awkwardly inscribed, obviously not by the practiced hands of professional stone workers. Perhaps a relative scratched the names on the boxes to identify their contents after they had been stowed away in their niche. The inscriptions were clearly not intended for public display.

In the embellished ossuary inscribed with the name “Yehosef bar Qayafa” were the bones of six different individuals: two infants, a child between the ages of two and five, a boy aged 13 to 18, an adult woman and a man about 60 years old. The latter, archaeologists believe, was the Caiaphas of the New Testament.

Among the hundreds of names in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, only six from the period between the second century B.C.E. and the second century C.E. had previously been attested by archaeological artifacts. To that short list, these ossuaries now added a seventh name. In providing the first historical confirmation of an important New Testament figure, the routine phone call of November 1990 had proved to be far from routine after all.