Have any burial sites of people in the Bible been found?


      Throughout Bible lands, there are numerous "traditional" tombs of various Biblical personages, sometimes several for one individual! In many cases, there is no historical or archaeological evidence to back up the identification. There are various instances where there is strong, if not certain, evidence for locating the burial site of a person, or persons, named in the Bible.


Jesus Christ

      In Jerusalem today, there are two sites claiming to be the location of the tomb of Jesus: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb. The Garden Tomb was identified as the tomb of Jesus only in the late 1800s and lacks historical credibility. A long tradition going back to the first century, however, maintains that Jesus' tomb is at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem. In the 4th century, Constantine supposedly located the tomb site beneath a second century Roman temple. He constructed a church over it. This church has been restored and maintained over the centuries ever since. It is today shared by six faiths: Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrian, Copts and Ethiopians.


Caiaphas the High Priest

      Caiaphas was high priest for 18 years, A.D. 18-36. He most likely gained the position by marrying the daughter of Annas, head of a powerful high-priestly clan (John 18:13). Caiaphas is infamous as the leader of the conspiracy to crucify Jesus.

      At a meeting of the religious leaders, Caiaphas said, "It is better for you that one man die for the people than the whole nation perish" (John 11:50). He was referring to the possible intervention of the Roman authorities if Jesus' teaching should cause unrest. His words were prophetic in that Jesus did die for the people, all the people of the earth, as a sacrifice for sin.

      After He was arrested, Jesus was taken to Caiaphas' house and detained overnight. The guards mocked and beat Him (Luke 22:63-65). In the morning He was interrogated and further beaten. Caiaphas asked Him, "Are you the Christ (Messiah), the Son of the Blessed One?" "I am," Jesus replied (Mark 14:61-62). Caiaphas then handed Jesus over to Pilate to be tried.

      Following Jesus' crucifixion, Caiaphas continued to persecute the early church. He brought the apostles before the religious leaders and said to them, "We gave you strict orders not to teach in this Name. Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and are determined to make us guilty of this man's (Jesus') blood." Peter and the other apostles replied, "We must obey God rather then men" (Acts 5:28-29).

      The Caiaphas family tomb was accidentally discovered by workers constructing a road in a park just south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Archaeologists were hastily called to the scene. When they examined the tomb they found 12 ossuaries (limestone bone boxes) containing the remains of 63 individuals. The most beautifully decorated of the ossuaries was inscribed with the name "Joseph son of (or, of the family of) Caiaphas." That was the full name of the high priest who arrested Jesus, as documented by Josephus (Antiquities 18: 2, 2; 4, 3). Inside were the remains of a 60-year-old male, almost certainly those of the Caiaphas of the New Testament. This remarkable discovery has, for the first time, provided us with the physical remains of an individual named in the Bible.


Caesar Augustus

      A great politician and administrator, Augustus ruled the Roman empire from 27 B.C.-A.D. 14. It was Augustus who issued the census decree that brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born (Luke 2:1-7). Augustus erected for himself a grand mausoleum in Rome, on the east bank of the Tiber River, one quarter mile northwest of the Roman Forum. The remains exist today in the middle of the Piazza Augusto Imperatore.

      It was 285 feet in diameter and 143 feet high, surmounted by a statue of the emperor. His ashes were placed in an urn in the center, while those of other members of the dynasty were place in urns in a corridor around a central cylinder. Although some of the urns were found in place by excavators, the ashes had long since disappeared.


Tomb of the Patriarchs

       The Bible says that Sarah, Abraham, Isaac, Rebekah, Leah and Jacob were buried in Hebron, in a cave called the Cave of Machpelah, purchased by Abraham (Gen. 23).Traditionally, this cave has been located below the Haram el-Khalil ("sacred precinct of the friend of the merciful One, God") in Hebron, today a Muslim mosque. References as early as the Hellenistic period (2nd century B.C.) testify that this is the authentic location of the burial place of the Patriarchs. The cave was explored by the Augustine Canons in 1119, at which time they claim to have found the bones of the Patriarchs.


Joseph, son of Jacob (grandson of Abraham)

      The Bible tells us that when Jacob and his family migrated from Asia to Egypt, they were settled in "the land of Rameses" and that they became property owners there (Genesis 47:11, 27). Eventually, the Israelites were used as slave laborers to build the city of Rameses (Exodus 1:11), and when they left after 430 years (Exodus 12:40), they departed from Rameses

      (Exodus 12:37). From these references, we can conclude that the Israelites spent the years of the Egyptian Sojourn in and around Rameses. "We not only know where Rameses was located, but we know much about the history of the ancient site."

      The name Rameses actually comes from a later period than the Israelite Sojourn. It was the name given to a city built by Rameses the Great (Rameses II) in the eastern Nile Delta in the 13th century BC. This more familiar name was then used retrospectively by later scribes when copying the Biblical texts. Although the location of Rameses was in dispute for some years, that dispute has now been settled. We not only know where Rameses was located, but we know much about the history of the ancient site.

      Since 1966, extensive excavations have been undertaken there under the direction of Manfred Bietak of the Austrian Archaeological Institute, Cairo . It is possible that Prof. Bietak may have, for the first time, found physical evidence for the presence of the Israelites in Egypt.

      Ancient Rameses is located at Tell el-Dab‘a in the eastern Delta, approximately 100 km northeast of Cairo. In antiquity, the Pelusiac branch of the Nile flowed past the site, giving access to the Mediterranean. In addition, the town lay on the land route to Canaan, the famous Horus Road. Thus, it was an important commercial and military center.


        Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.

             -Exodus 1:8


      We can divide the history of the site into three periods: pre-Hyksos, Hyksos and post-Hyksos. The Hyksos were a Semitic people from Syria-Palestine, who took up residence in the eastern Nile Delta and eventually ruled northern Egypt for some 108 years, ca. 1663-1555 BC (15th Dynasty).[1] Jacob and his family arrived in Egypt around 1880 BC, based on an Exodus date of ca. 1450 BC. That was in the pre-Hyksos period when the name of the town was Rowaty, "the door of the two roads"

      The earliest evidence for Asiatics at Rowaty (the city that later named Rameses) occurs in the late 12th Dynasty (mid 19th century BC). At that time a rural settlement was founded. It was unfortified, although there were many enclosure walls, most likely for keeping animals. The living quarters consisted of rectangular huts built of sand bricks. It is highly possible that this is the first material evidence of Israelites in Egypt. It is the right culture in the right place at the right time.

      Not all residents of the first Asiatic settlement at Tell el-Dab‘a lived in huts. One of them, evidently an important official, lived in a small villa. The Bible tells us that Joseph became a high official after he correctly interpreted pharaoh's dreams (Genesis 41:39-45). We are not told where Joseph lived while serving in the Egyptian bureaucracy. It seems logical to assume, however, that after discharging his duties associated with the famine, he would have moved to Rameses to be near his father and brothers.


Joseph’s Home?

      Archeologists have discovered several villas that could have been Joseph’s or his family’s. One villa, in particular, was 10 x 12 meters in size, situated on one side of an enclosure measuring 12 x 19 meters. It consisted of six rooms laid out in horseshoe fashion around an open courtyard. The most striking aspect of the house is that the floor plan is identical to the Israelite "four-room house" of the later Iron Age in Palestine. In this type of house two side rooms and a back room were arranged around a central space, or courtyard.

      Nearby, arranged in a semi-circle around the villa, were poorer two-roomed homes, approximately 6 x 8 meters in size. If the villa was the home of Joseph, then the surrounding huts might have been those of Joseph's father and brothers. Approximately 20% of the pottery found in the settlement debris was of Palestinian Middle Bronze Age type. In the open spaces southwest of the villa was the cemetery of the settlement. Here, some of the most startling evidence was found.


Hebrew Tombs?

      The tombs were constructed of mud bricks in Egyptian fashion, but the contents were strictly Asiatic. Although they had been thoroughly plundered, 50% of the male burials still had weapons of Palestinian type in them. Typically, the deceased males were equipped with two javelins, battle-axes and daggers. Tomb 8 contained a fine example of a duckbill-ax and an embossed belt of bronze. One of the tombs, however, was totally unique and unlike anything ever found in Egypt...


Joseph's tomb?

      At the southwest end of the burial area, some 83 meters from the villa compound, was a monumental tomb, Tomb 1. It was composed of a nearly square superstructure containing the main burial chamber, and a chapel annex. In a robbers' pit sunk into the chapel, excavators found fragments of a colossal statue depicting an Asiatic dignitary. The likeness was of a seated official 1½ times life size. It was made of limestone and exhibited excellent workmanship. The skin was yellow, the traditional color of Asiatics in Egyptian art. It had a mushroom-shaped hairstyle, painted red, typical of that shown in Egyptian artwork for Asiatics. A throwstick, the Egyptian hieroglyph for a foreigner, was held against the right shoulder. The statue had been intentionally smashed and defaced.

      In his book Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest, David Rohl suggests that this is the tomb of Joseph himself. The evidence seems to support this hypothesis. We must assume that Tomb 1 was that of the occupant of the villa, and thus possibly of Joseph himself. The Bible is very specific as to what became of Joseph's body.


        "So Joseph died, being one hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt."

             -Genesis 50:26

      Moses took the bones of Joseph with him during the Exodus because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath.

        Joseph had said,


"God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with your from this place."

             -Exodus 13:19; cf. Genesis 50:25


      Inside the burial chamber excavators found fragments of an inscribed limestone sarcophagus and a few bone fragments, but no intact skeleton as in the other tombs in the cemetery. Sometime after the burial, a pit was dug at the end of the chapel and a tunnel dug into the burial chamber. The "coffin" (sarcophagus) was then broken and the remains of the deceased removed by these "tomb robbers". It was common for tombs to be broken into in antiquity and the valuables removed, but to have the body taken is highly unusual.

      Was the statue broken at the time the bones were removed, or was that done at another time? Archaeology cannot tell us the answer; we can only speculate.

      It is likely that the statue was broken during a time of political turmoil, possibly when the Hyksos took over rule of the region.

      It appears most likely that the "new king, who did not know about Joseph" (Exodus 1:8) was the first Hyksos king who came to power ca. 1663 BC. At that time, the Israelites came under intense oppression (Exodus 1:9-11). Perhaps the Hyksos destroyed the statue when they overthrew local Egyptian authority. Since the remains in the tomb would also have been in danger, faithful Israelites may have removed them for safekeeping at this time.


Evidence that the Hyksos took control

      In the next phase of occupation, the humble dwellings were covered over and a huge palace complex constructed. It is obvious that the newcomers, although Asiatic, were different from those in the previous period.

      The palace complex comprised several large buildings, purely Egyptian in style. It included upper stories, porticos, courtyards, pools, gardens and cemeteries. The rich finds of this phase suggest that the occupants were high officials engaged in foreign trade. It appears that this was the initial phase of Hyksos settlement at the site.

      With the coming of these peoples, the fortunes of the families of Jacob's sons declined (Exodus 1:8-12a).

      Without identifying inscriptions, we will never know for sure if the earlier people were Israelites. Contemporary references to Jacob's 12 sons have not been found. Since the sons of Jacob were humble shepherds, we should not expect to find such records, except possibly for Joseph.

      However, there are ancient references to several of the tribes of Israel which, of course, were named after the sons of Jacob. So, in an indirect way, we do have inscriptional references to the sons of Jacob, albeit from a later time.

        There is a canal connecting the Nile with the Faiyum in the western desert named Bahr Yusuf, the "canal of Joseph." Development of the Faiyum is associated with Dynasty 12, the time when Joseph was in Egypt carrying out land reforms (Genesis 41:46-49). Whether the name of the canal is ancient or from a relatively modern tradition is not known. Otherwise, the name of Joseph has not turned up in Egypt.

      This much we can say about the discoveries in Rameses. The finds represent exactly what we would expect to find from Israelite occupation in Egypt.


Tombs of David and Solomon

      Throughout the kingdom period, the kings of Judah were buried within the city of David. At the southern end of the City of David, south of the Old City of Jerusalem, there are two monumental tunnel tombs which many scholars believe are the tombs of David and Solomon. Unfortunately, they were damaged by later quarrying, so no identifying inscriptions have survived. In the same area are many Iron Age tombs, possibly those of other kings of Judah.

      One exception to the normal custom was the burial of Uzziah. Since he was a leper, he was not buried with the other kings, but "near them in a field for burial that belonged to the kings, for people said, 'he had leprosy'" (2 Chr 26:23).

      Interestingly, an inscription was found on the Mount of Olives in 1931 dating to the first century A.D. which reads, "Here were brought the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah – do not open." Evidently, because of his leprosy, Uzziah's bones were removed from the field belonging to the kings and transferred to yet a more remote location.


Cyrus the Great

      Cyrus ruled the Persian empire from 559-530 B.C. He is best known for his capture of Babylon in 539 B.C. Already in the 8th century B.C. Isaiah predicted this defeat (Isaiah 45:1-3), and went on to say that Cyrus would "set my exiles free' (Isaiah 45:13). That Cyrus released the Jewish exiles from Babylon is not only documented in the Bible (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:2-4), but also implied in the contemporary Cyrus Cylinder. This ancient record states, "I (Cyrus) gathered all their former inhabitants and returned to them their habitations."

      Cyrus was buried in a simple gabled stone tomb outside his capital of Pasargadae in modern Iran. According to the historian Strabo, this inscription once graced the structure, "Oh man, I am Cyrus, the son of Cambyses, who founded the empire of Persia, and was king of Asia. Grudge me not therefore this monument" (Geography xv.3.7).


Darius-I the Great

      Darius I was king of the Persian Empire from 522-486 B.C. He gave permission to renew the rebuilding of the Temple (Ezra 6:1-12), which had been discontinued for some 10 years. His is the first of three monumental tombs cut into a cliff near the Persian capital of Persepolis, Iran. The inscription on his tomb reads,


        King Darius states: King, whoever you are, who may arise after me, protect yourself well from lies. Do not trust the man who lies. … Believe what I did and tell the truth to the people. Do not conceal (it). If you do not conceal these matters, but you do tell the people, may Ahura Mayda protect you.

      There are three other tombs at the site, thought to be those of the Persian kings Xerxes (485-465 B.C.), Artaxerxes I (465-424 B.C.), and Darius II (423-405 B.C.). There are no accompanying inscriptions, however, to be certain of these identifications. Xerxes is the Ahasuerus of the book of Esther, the king whom Esther married. Ezra was a scribe (Ezra 7:6) and Nehemiah a cupbearer (Nehemiah 2:1) under Artaxerxes I. He authorized both Ezra and Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem, Ezra to carry out religious and judicial duties (Ezra 7:12-26), and Nehemiah to rebuild the city walls (Nehemiah 2:1-9). Darius II may be the Darius mentioned in Nehemiah 12:22, but this is not certain.