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The Ossuary

A central part of ancient Jewish burial practices and as a cornerstone of the Jewish religionís belief in burial as a sacred way in which to bury the dead, the ossuary became a means in which to preserve the bones of a deceased loved one in the Jewish faith and in early Christian faith.

What is An Ossuary?

An ossuary, or bone box, is a rectangular-shaped container in which the bones of a deceased individual were placed for burial after the bodyís flesh had decomposed and when mostly bones remained, sometimes up to a year later. Ossuaries were carved from limestone, a sedimentary rock largely comprised of the mineral calcite, which is found on the beds of evaporated seas, lakes and from animal shells. This stone was chosen for its capacity to withstand humid temperatures of the region and is still in use to construct buildings in Israel today.

The Use of Ossuaries in Ancient Jewish Burial Practices

Jewish families used ossuaries as part of the burial process between 30 BCE and 70 CE to store the bones of loved ones, a hundred year period that surrounds the time during which Jesus Christ lived. It is believed that ossuaries became popular due to the belief that sin was of the flesh; therefore, allowing the skin to decay would enable the bones to be gathered for bodily resurrection, according to the doctrine of the Pharisees.

On average, an ossuary was about 20 inches long, 10 inches high and 12 inches wide in diameter. These measurements were large enough in order to fit the femur or thighbone and wide enough to fit the deceasedís skull. An ossuary was placed into a small niche or shelf that was cut into the side of the chamber or rock in which the tomb was created.

Ossuaries of different family members of different generations were placed in the same tomb together. In some cases, bones of different individuals were placed in the same ossuary and were inscribed with the names of more than one individual.

Generally, the family name of the individual was inscribed on the side of the ossuary. In some cases, the ossuary was also decorated with geometric designs that held symbolic religious value. The individualís status and his notable accomplishments were also sometimes carved into the side of the ossuary.

The use of ossuaries dwindled following the Jewish Revolt against Roman rule in 66 to 70 CE. The Romans crushed the Jewish uprising and destroyed the Second Temple as a symbol of their victory over the Jewish people.

Since the 1970s, thousands of ossuaries have been found scattered throughout Israel, demonstrating the widespread use of secondary burials in this area. The ossuaries have been located in especially large quantities in the rock-hewn tombs that are found outside of the city of Jerusalem.


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