This book is a “find” (I found it serendipitously in an off-price book store, which of course vastly increased my enjoyment of it). It is very scholarly – the author is a Professor of religion at Wofford College SC, and Academic Director of the Sepphoris Acropolis Excavations – and its five chapters are all fairly self-contained, so you can read some, then put it down for a while.
The first chapter provides convincing answers to two interesting questions: why did Palestinian Jews start to use ossuaries for secondary burial only in the 1st century BCE, and why are cooking pots often found in burial caves from this period ? His answer to the first question is that the ossuary was the product of the impact of the Hellenistic emphasis on individual identity – in death as well as in life – on Jewish traditional practice of secondary burial. For centuries the Israelite secondary burial practice was reflected in the term “to be gathered to one’s fathers”, that is to have one’s bones collected and placed in a communal repositary with those of other family members’. As Hellenistic values gradually permeated into Jewish rituals, the loss of individuality inherent in the ancient practice was solved by preserving the individual’s corporeal remains intact in an ossuary. As for the cooking pots, they were apparently left behind following the widespread folk practice – officially strongly condemned by the religious authorities – of “sharing” a meal, and therefore communing with the dead. The fact that the pots were abandoned at the tombs reflects the ambivalence of the practice; contact with the dead imparted a ritual impurity – to people and objects; hence its official banning , so for those for whom the call of their departed was strong enough to overcome this taboo, the cooking pots and utensils they had brought with them were irretrievably infected by their contact with the dead, and therefore had to be abandoned.
The second chapter introduced me to “Q” – a collection of words spoken by the historical Jesus – written down in three phases between ca. CE 50 – 75 and subsequently used by both the Gospels of Matthew & Luke. These are part of a non-canonical tradition known as the Gospel of Thomas, of which fragments in Greek had been preserved, and banned as heretical by the early church authorities. In 1945 a Coptic translation of the full text was found preserved in a jar in in Egypt. The author uses several extracts from Q to deduce what were the underlying values, relating to death and burial, of members of the early Jesus movement. He concludes that these early Judeo-Christians shared with other Palestinian Jews of the 1st century CE the identical burial and mourning practices.
The author’s broader purpose is to show when and how Christian practice diverged from the Jewish one, and when in effect the two religions ceased to be just variations on a theme. He develops this in the latter two chapters, outlining the change in the early Byzantine period – 3rd and 4th centuries CE – when the the norms regulating contact between the living and the dead were redrawn by the early Christian church, effectively creating a cult of the dead (who were – like their Saviour – not permanently dead) and bringing the dead – often literally, as in the placing of reliquaries in church – into the center of religious life and worship.
In the course of developing his arguments, the author provides a comprehensive review of death and burial in 1st century Palestine, and gives detailed descriptions of first century Jewish tombs. This alone makes this short book a very worthwhile read.