For centuries it has been known as "Absalom's Tomb." People made pilgrimages to it. Jews, Christians, and Muslims would throw stones at it to punish King David's rebellious son. But now, because of an almost chance discovery, one of Jerusalem's oldest landmarks is reemerging as one of the sites of early Christianity.
A recently unveiled inscription, believed to date circa AD 350, identifies the monument as the tomb of Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist. Scholars say it does not necessarily mean Zacharias was buried on the site and some completely discount that possibility. But the find is seen as adding significantly to what they know of the lore of the fourth century Christian community in Jerusalem. Some believe it could lead to further significant finds about early Christians.
The funerary monument in the Kidron Valley, with its striking colonnades and roof shaped like an inverted siphon, has for at least eight centuries been associated with the burial place of David's third son, Absalom, who led an insurrection against his father during which he was killed.
Scholars say there is scant basis for the idea the monument houses Absalom's remains, stressing that the monument was built hundreds of years after his death. Still, local lore had a power of its own. According to Gideon Foerster, a Hebrew University archaeologist, it became associated with David's son around the 12th century.
Scholars say that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all recognized it as his burial site. Pilgrims' and visitors' accounts, as well as 17th-century etchings, show stones piled in front of it and recount a Muslim tradition to pelt the building to punish Absalom for rebelling against King David. Its facade bears marks from centuries of stoning.
The Absalom tradition held considerable power. One of Israel's renowned geographers, Zeev Vilnay, wrote in his encyclopedia of Jerusalem that it was customary to bring disobedient children to the memorial. Parents, he wrote, would strike children while telling them "look what end came upon the rebellious son, everyone strikes him."
The link to early Christendom came through a series of improbable events. Although the tomb had been neglected in recent years, a Hebrew University art history student made it the subject of a seminar paper.
In 2000, the student showed a picture of the monument to Joe Zias, a physical anthropologist and a retired curator for the Israel Antiquities Authority. "I looked at it and said, 'There's an inscription - you can clearly see the Greek alpha,' " he recalls. Mr. Zias found the photographer who had taken the shot years earlier and was told that, judging from the light, the photo was taken at the end of a summer day. "I went there many times, knowing there was something there, sometimes sitting there for hours. One day when the sun was sitting on the walls of Jerusalem just before dusk conditions were optimal. It was then I could see more letters, six to eight. In the morning, I could see only two to three....
"What was unnerving," he recalls, "was the drug addicts coming down to the place from time to time, smoking a joint or two and doing their deals. It was then I knew I had to make a cast and work from that with artificial lighting under lab conditions."
Zias worked in cooperation with Father Emile Puech, a scholar known for his work on the Dead Sea scrolls, who lifted off casts and unraveled the inscription. It reads in 47 Greek letters: "This is the Tomb of Zacharias, martyr, very pious priest, father of John." On the same edifice, an entire verse of the New Testament was found dating from the same period.
Next to the Zacharias inscription, the two have also discerned the word Simeon, a reference, they say, to the old priest who recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah. According to the Jerome who translated the New Testament from Greek into Latin, James, Zacharias, and Simeon were buried together, but there has been no discovery of James's name so far, Zias says.
In the 4th century, Zias says, Queen Helena, mother of Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, identified many Christian sites in the Holy Land such as the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. "She would say, 'Yes, there's a tradition that this is the place where it happened.' But here not only do we have the tradition as mentioned by Jerome and others. We have something written in stone."
Zias says before the 4th century, Christians were unable to make such inscriptions because Christianity wasn't recognized in the Roman Empire. They did so as soon as they could.
Scholars differ over how significant the findings at "Absalom's Tomb" are. Professor Foerster says, "It fills a gap and gives us one more detail of what we know about that historical site. The fact that the name Zacharias is mentioned there shows us that Christians in the 4th, 5th, 6th, or 7th century believed he was buried there. If you have a literary source, it's just a literary source. If you have an inscription this is real evidence."
Foerster discounts that Zacharias was buried at the site, saying that during the 1st century those monuments belonged to the Jewish priestly families of Jerusalem, and Zacharias did not belong to such a family.
Like Puech and Zias, he says the building is from the 1st century and the inscription is from the 4th century. But Jim Strange, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida, says the recovery of the inscription is "quite amazing."
"Here you have something showing 4th-century Christians were trying to locate the traditional places of the gospels," he says. "We don't know if it actually is Zacharias's tomb ... but it is clear someone in the 4th century was convinced it was. This suggests that the Byzantine Christians had some piece of intelligence to make the identification. They spoke to locals who told them, 'We know where Zacharias and Simeon are buried.' "
He is calling for more searches for inscriptions nearby. "The Kidron Valley could be full of sites offering insights about what 4th-century Christians believed."
Zias says his discovery also tells us about the futility of disputes over sacred sites in the Holy Land. "If the Absalom Memorial is not Absalom's tomb, but rather Zacharias's Tomb, then we could ask, What about David's Tomb, or Rachel's Tomb, or Joseph's Tomb in Nablus? The question of whether we are killing each other over something authentic is highly relevant."