What is an Ossuary?
An ossuary (in Latin, “Ossuarium”) is a container for the purpose of the burial of human bones, commonly used in the First Century. Common burial practice within Judaism was that after one year following the burial of a deceased person, the grave would be exhumed and, the body having decomposed, the bones would be moved from the grave into an ossuary and stored in the family tomb.
What is the Caiaphas Ossuary?
What is now known as the Caiaphas Ossuary was one of twelve ossuaries found in a tomb which was discovered in 1990 in Jerusalem’s Peace Forest; this specific ossuary, the one believed to be of Caiaphas contained the bones of a 60-year-old male. These are believed to be the bones of Caiaphas, the high priest at the time of Jesus’ ministry and crucifixion and who was high priest from 18-36 AD (as identified by Josephus), thus its relevance to the studies of the Gospel. However, it cannot definitively be said that these remains are of Caiaphas; while the dates and would match up perfectly.
The box itself is constructed of limestone and is marked with intricate decoration on the front as well as the words “"Yehosef bar Kayafa," inscribed on the side, which translate as "Joseph, son of Caiaphas.". The box measured 14.6” high and 29.6” long, and decorated with rosettes carved into the front of the box. The remains have now been buried in the Mount of Olives while the ossuary is kept in the Museum of Israel in Jerusalem.
It is interesting to note that while they were not contained within the actual ossuary, also found within the tomb were nails that scholars have suggested could have been the nails used to crucify Christ.
Construction workers in the Peace Forest discovered the tomb accidentally. It was evident that it had been entered before, (probably by grave robbers) in ancient times. When it was excavated, a burial-chamber with four compartments was revealed.
Throughout the tomb there was fragments of pottery; two lamps; six unbroken ossuaries; and six damaged ossuaries. It is thought that the tomb must have been used over a long period of time, and belonged to a family. Ossuaries 3 and 6 have inscriptions that resemble the name ‘Caiaphas’.
The skeletal remains of sixty-three people were collected from the tomb. It was in Ossuary 6 that the remains of Caiaphas are thought to have been found. In this same ossuary were the remains of four other people (adult female, youth, child, two infants).