Scientific Report on Bones Found in the Abba Tomb
(Deceased had been both crucified and beheaded = King Antigonus)
This is an update to a prior article on this topic, Has The Tomb of Mattatayah Antigonus Been Found? Herein, I discuss the 1977 scientific report on the remains found in the Abba Tomb. To briefly recap, in 1971 a tomb from the Second Temple period was discovered in Jerusalem's Givat Hamivtar district. It contained an ossuary with remains and an inscription carved into the wall that seems to indicate that this was the burial tomb of King Antigonus, the last Hasmonean king. See speculation from Prof. Segal on this issue.
Background on King Antigonus Mattathias
Antigonus was capture by Herod in 37 BCE when Jerusalem fell and transported to Roman counsel Marcus Antonius in Antioch. At first blush, there appear to be conflicting reports on how Antigonus died. Josephus says that Marcus Antonius beheaded King Antigonus. Antiquities XV 1:2. Cassius Dio gives more detail in his history, "Antigonus he (Marcus Antonius) bound to a cross and flogged--treatment accorded to no other king by the Romans--and subsequently slew him." Dio's Rome XLIX v.22, emphasis added. Reading Dio closely, he tells us Antigonus was flogged, crucified, then executed by another unnamed means. Josephus identifies that other means as beheading. Thus, I believe the two accounts are compatible (and not contradictory).
It may seem excessive for Antonius to have both crucified then beheaded Antigonus but the act makes more sense when taken in context. Josephus records that Antonius intended to bring Antigonus back to Rome to march in his triumph but decided, instead, to execute him immediately in Antioch due to two factors: (a) a bribe paid by Herod and (b) the Jewish people "grew seditious" seeking the return of Antigonus "so great a fondness they had for their former king; so (Antonius) thought that this dishonorable death would diminish the value they had for Antigonus' memory." Antiquities, ibid. This explains a public flogging and crucifixion but why also behead Antigonus? The Romans / Herodians and Antigonus engaged in something of a tit for tat exchange by beheading each other's royal captives. The Roman general Scipio started it off by beheading Alexander, the elder brother of Antigonus, in 47 BCE. Antigonus then beheaded Joseph ben Antipater, the younger brother of Herod, in 38 BCE. Thus, the beheading of Antigonus in 37 BCE completed the violent circle.
Which brings us to the scientific report of Dr. Patricia Smith entitled "The Human Skeletal Remains from the Abba Cave", Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 27, No. 2/3, 1977. This report is available online to academics possessing a JSTOR account, which I do not. Luckily a book seller in nearly Alton, IL happened to be selling this exact volume of the Israel Exploration Journal on eBay and it arrived in the mail on Christmas Eve. Our internet world is an amazing thing. I found the report startling on several levels. First, Dr. Smith was then a professor of dentistry at Hebrew University - Hadassah. She was the only expert who signed the report. That's odd. I had previously known that a skeleton found inside the ossuary at the Abba Tomb exhibited characteristics of having been beheaded. Upon reading the full report, the following words practically knocked me out of my chair:
Two iron nails were found in association with the phalanges. One had the base of a proximal phalange adhering to it. The second, which was bent, had a proximal phalange adhering to one side and a medial phalange to the other side. In neither case had the nail perforated the bone. A third nail was also present, but no bones were in contact with it.
Three iron nails, one of which was bent, with two nails still affixed to hand bones!!! To my knowledge, there has only been one other archaeological find made in Israel from the Second Temple period of a skeleton with nails attached to the bones. See case of heel bone of Yehohanan ben Hagkol.1/ Note: the nail was also bent in case of Yehohanan ben Hagkol. In my view this is huge news that has gone completely unreported in the media (assuredly due to the issues with the Smith report discussed below). There is no other case of nails found embedded into the hands of a Second Temple skeleton. None! In the Gospel of John at 20:25 the disciple Thomas says he will not believe Jesus is alive after the crucifixion unless "I see in his hands the imprint of the nails." This mention of nails has troubled scholars for years because they assumed a nail placed in the hands (without being imbedded in bone) would not support the weight of the body resulting in the nail being pulled right through the flesh of the hand. New medical research indicates this prior assumption is incorrect.2/ Until recent years, scholars generally hypothesized the Romans crucified using ropes and not nails.
This finding in the Abba Tomb then constitutes the smoking gun settling the argument whether the Romans could have crucified Jesus with nails through the hands as alluded to in the Gospel of John ... or does it? Surprisingly, Dr. Smith reached the following conclusion with regard to crucifixion: "The iron nails found in the Abba Cave were associated with the phalanges (fingers) and did not penetrate the bone; it would not seem, therefore, that this can be considered evidence of crucifixion." I find this conclusion to be particularly weak. How else did the nails get embedded in this individual's hands?
The Smith report indicates one of the nails was affixed to the base of the proximal phalange (or phalanx) bone, which is the third bone of each human finger. See graphic identifying hand bones. The proximal phalange joins the metacarpal bone at the knuckle. Two points: a) the research from Dr. Zugibe indicates that a crucifixion victim with feet resting upon a support could be nailed through the hands and b) the Romans also used ropes to bind their victims to the cross. Could both nails and ropes be used in conjunction? The answer is we really don't have enough evidence to positively say how the Romans bound their victims to the cross as we lack sufficient archaeological evidence. It could be ropes, nails, or some combination thereof. In the case of ropes binding the arms to the cross with nails through the hands, the nails would not bear weight and serve the sole purpose of holding the hands in place (i.e., to restrict the victim's freedom of movement on the cross) plus increase the victim's suffering. The point being that the mere fact that the location of the nail in the hand was not one that could support the full weight of the victim's body is not a reason, by itself, to dismiss the possibility of a crucifixion. The report of Dr. Smith doesn't address the potential use of ropes during crucifixion. No facts in her report cancel out the possibility of crucifixion in the case of the oldest skeleton found at the Abba Tomb.
Let's turn the question around and approach the issue from a different angle. The report makes no attempt to explain the elephant in the room. How does Dr. Smith explain the circumstances of this individual being buried with two nails stuck into his hands in the absence of crucifixion? They stuck two nails in his hands then chopped off his head for laughs? Further, one of the iron nails was bent meaning it had been nailed into something (such as a cross beam). The report rests its conclusion on the failure of the nails to pierce bone without any reasoning or facts on why nail must pierce bone in order to confirm a case of crucifixion. All the academic research admits over and over that we have very little hard evidence on the exact method by which Romans crucified their victims. History offers us no data outside of the Abba Tomb demonstrating exactly where the Romans placed nails in the hands (if at all) during crucifixion and, further, what damage to the bones one might expect to find. Again, no one has ever found a skeleton from the Roman period with nails affixed to bones of the hand so on what basis does the report conclude the nail must pierce bone in the case of crucifixion? Clearly, there is no factual basis for this conclusion.
Gender of the Older Skeleton
Unfortunately, I am not finished railing against the report of Dr. Smith. In fact, Dr. Smith made a second questionable conclusion in her report that I find more troubling than the first. The report indicates that the partial remains of four individuals were found inside the ossuary: two adults and two children. The first adult was age 25-40 and the second older, showing signs of arthritis. The older adult was the one who had been beheaded with the nails through the hands. As to gender, the report concludes the younger individual was male and states the following about the older individual.
Tentative identification of this individual as female was based on the smaller size and gracility of the femur and mandible in the specimen. No positive identification could be made since the pelvis and much of the skull were missing.
Emphasis added. So far, nothing is amiss. The bones of the older individual were smaller in stature leading the investigators to suggest the individual could have been a female but made no conclusion. Perhaps they were not aware of this fact, however, Josephus reports that upon capturing King Antigonus the Roman general Sossius called him "Antigone; yet did not treat him as if he were a woman, by letting him go at liberty." Antiquities XIV 16:2. The feminine version of Antigonus is Antigone. One interpretation could be that Sossius did this to mock Antigonus for surrendering (i.e., inferring Antigonus was a coward); however, I think the better interpretation is that Sossius mocked Antigonus for his feminine physical stature. Antigonus ran the Romans and Herod completely out of Israel and held them at bay during three long years of war during which two of Herod's brothers died and Herod was wounded in batttle. Antigonus didn't even surrender when the Romans breached the walls of Jerusalem but only when they reached the inner courtyard of the Temple. His efforts on the field of battle should not have been the object of ridicule. There is also circumstantial evidence that Aristobulus III, the nephew of Antigonus and briefly high priest during Herod's reign, was effeminate in appearance. According to Josephus, Marcus Antonius lusted after Aristobulus writing to Herod demanding the young high priest be sent to Antioch for the sexual pleasures of Antonius.3/ Based on the foregoing from Josephus, I suggest Antigonus was probably small in stature.
The report of Dr. Smith goes completely off the rails with the following conclusion:
The identification of the remains of the individual with the cut mandible and odontoid process as female and elderly was confirmed by independent observations made by another anthropologist. It may be concluded, therefore, that the remains in question are not those of Mattathiah.
Did not the report state one page earlier that "no positive identification could be made since the pelvis and much of the skull were missing"?!?!?!? All people of small stature are female? I'm completely at a loss to explain the foregoing conclusion. Males can be small in stature. Although size may be suggestive of gender, it is not a conclusive piece of evidence. Neither the pelvis nor cranium bones were found for this skeleton (meaning Smith completely lacked bones that allow for determination of gender to a high degree of probability). All she had on the issue of gender were relatively small bones. Does the professor really believe the Romans crucified then beheaded a woman? This conclusion is not supported by the facts listed in the report.
There is one additional problem with the conclusion that the bones of the individual subject to Roman punishment belonged to a female: i.e., it divorces the skeletal evidence found in the ossuary from the tomb inscription. The inscription identifies the individual in the ossuary as Mattathi ben Judah, obviously a male name. The inscription tells us that Abba ben Eleazar was "oppressed", went into exile in Babylon, then brought back the body of Mattathi ben Judah for burial in Jersualem. The obvious conclusion is that Abba was subject to Roman persecution, which forced him into exile. Further, one of the bodies place in the tomb by Abba was subject to Roman punishment giving rise to a reasonable presumption that, when reading the inscription together with the physical evidence from the bones, Mattathi ben Judah had also been oppressed by the Romans (just as Abba had been). Thus, it was Mattathi who was crucified and beheaded. If a woman had been the one subject to Roman punishment and her bones were placed in the ossuary by Abba, surely Abba would have mentioned her in the inscription.
Sword Strike Was Not Clean
The Smith report finds there were one or more strikes from a sword to the mandible and odontoid process of the older skeleton. The "blow or blows passed through the mandible and must have sheared off the face." Ibid at 123. Smith offers three alternative explanations for why the decapitation blow was clumsy and not a clean strike to the neck: (a) victim was moving in battle at time of blow (** a woman was beheaded in battle?), (b) executioner was inept, or (c) victim was already dead at time blow delivered. Antigonus was crucified then pulled down off the cross for beheading. Given the Roman practice was to maximize pain on the cross, it is reasonable to assume Antigonus was near death or dead at the time his body was removed from the cross. Thus, Antigonus' head would have been slumped into his chest at the time the decapitation blow was delivered by the Roman soldiers, which explains why the sword struck the mandible on its way to the neck. The findings of Dr. Smith on this point are consistent with the historical facts we know of King Antigonus' death.
Paleo Hebrew Script
The Abba Tomb inscription was made in an obscure palaeo-Hebrew script. "[I]t should be noted that, in addition to Hasmonean coins and stamps, as well as the coins of the two Jewish rebellions, palaeo-Hebrew script is also found in inscriptions nos. 13 and 138, from the 1 c BCE, and also on ossuaries from the 1 c BCE - 1 c CE. * * * In any case, the use of the script here probably reflects patriotic religious sentiment." Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae by Hannah M. Cotton, Leah Di Segni, Werner Eck (De Gruyter 2010) at page 100, emphasis added. Cotton associates palaeo-Hebrew with Hasmoneans and other Jewish rebellions and, also, places its use in Jerusalem tombs to between the first century BCE and the first century CE. These facts fit very nicely with the theory that this tomb and ossuary are that of King Antigonus.4/
Let's go through all the facts from the Abba Tomb, including both the inscription from the wall of the tomb and the bones, to review how they compare.
|Name: Mattathi||Name: Mattatayah Antigonus|
|Father: Judah||Father: Judah Aristobulus II|
|Bones brought to Jerusalem by Kohen priest||Was Kohen priest|
|Kohen priest held individual whose bones were in the ossuary in high regard||Was high priest and king of Israel|
|Bones brought to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, part of the Parthian Empire||Was ally of Parthian Empire|
|Bones show evidence of Roman punishment|
(Note: these words come from the Smith report.)
|Was an enemy of Rome|
|Bones show evidence of being both crucified and beheaded||Ancient sources indicate Antigonus was both crucified and beheaded|
|Bones of individual crucified and beheaded were small in stature potentially suggestive of female||Gen. Sossius referred to Antigonus as a woman upon capturing him|
The above facts indicate that the Abba Tomb is in fact the tomb of King Antigonus, the last Hasmonean monarch. This case cries out for reexamination by the Israeli antiquities authorities with examination of the bones by high level, independent experts. A modern DNA test can determine the gender of the older set of bones from the Abba Tomb. There is even a DNA signature that is found in a very high percentage of Kohanim (of which King Antigonus was one). For those not familiar with the thesis of my book Herodian Messiah, I argue King Antigonus was not just the last Hasmonean king but, also, the grandfather of Jesus the Nazarene.
FN1 Interestingly, the Abba Tomb and that of Yehohanan ben Hagkol are both located in the Giv'at ha-Mivtar neighborhood of East Jerusalem. Also, there was controversy surrounding the first report on the Yehohanan ben Hagkol remains. Later experts heavily criticized the initial report by Haas.
FN2 "[Dr.] Zugibe replied that the force on the hands has been exaggerated. By conducting safe simulations of crucifixion, he showed that if the feet of the victim rested on supports, as Jesus’ did, the force on the hand when the arm was outstretched 65º from the upright was only about 70 lbs." themoorings.org, Citing Frederick T. Zugibe, The Crucifixion of Jesus: A Forensic Inquiry, 2nd ed. (New York: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 2005).
FN3 Herod refused to send Aristobulus to Antonius fearing the Roman counsel would make the teenager king. Instead Herod drowned him in the pool of his palace at Jericho.
FN4 Cotton concludes that the theory identifying Antigonus as one of the skeletons in the Abba Tomb is "insupportable"; however, she gives no facts to support that conclusion. ibid at page 100. To the contrary, all the facts given in her description of the Abba Tomb and its inscription support a connection to the Antigonus. I thank Dr. Tabor for sending me the pertinent pages of the Cotton book.