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Last updated on April 20, 2014 at 14:04 EDT

Jewish Catacomb Predates Christian Ones

July 20, 2005

ROME — A Jewish catacomb in Rome predates its Christian counterparts by at least 100 years, indicating burial in the city’s sprawling underground cemeteries may not have begun as a Christian practice, according to a study published Wednesday.

Scholars have long believed that early Christians were the first to bury their dead in Roman catacombs. But Dutch experts from Utrecht University who dated organic material from a Jewish catacomb in the city say it appears that early Christians inherited the practice from Jews.

“Perhaps it doesn’t clinch the argument, but it makes it very likely,” said Leonard Victor Rutgers, an antiquities professor who led the university’s team.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, would further illustrate links between early Christian culture and Judaism.

Radiocarbon dating showed the Villa Torlonia catacomb, a Jewish burial site, was constructed between the first century B.C. and the first century, long before any of Rome’s 60 Christian catacombs, Rutgers said.

“The radiocarbon dating shows that it is very likely that the Jewish community in Rome developed the method and then the Christians copied it,” Rutgers told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Although ancient Latin texts place a Jewish community in Rome as early as the first century B.C., burial places like Villa Torlonia previously were thought to have been used only from the third century, roughly around the time Christians began using catacombs.

“So where and how did this ancient community bury its dead?” Rutgers said. “Now it seems likely that they used catacombs from the beginning.”

Rutgers said that to confirm his findings, radiocarbon dating would have to be used on Christian catacombs as well, as those burials are usually dated by evaluating the style of the decoration and architecture used on the site.

Laura Supino, a Rome-based architect and expert in Jewish art and history not connected with the study, said several researchers have tried to push back the age of Jewish catacombs, but their theories were based more on conjecture than hard evidence.

She said carbon analysis could provide an interesting basis to date the burials, but cautioned that in antiquity, materials were often reused and it could be misleading to date a site using only this method.

Comparative studies of the Jewish and Christian catacombs also could help confirm the link between the two, Rutgers said.

“If you look at the layout of Villa Torlonia and compare it to the early Christian catacombs, the architecture is absolutely similar,” he said. “The only difference is in the inscriptions and the iconography.”

Christian catacombs are usually decorated with early Christian symbols like fish or doves and the interlacing Greek letters Chi and Rho, a monogram for the Greek word “Christos.”

In contrast, frescoes of Jewish symbols – menorahs, palm leaves, the Ark of the Covenant – cover the dark tunnels under Villa Torlonia.

Rutgers said his research may provide further evidence of the influence Judaism had on early Christianity.

“The extent to which Christianity has Jewish roots is a very widespread debate today and this research adds a new element to the discussion,” he said.

The study began two years ago, when Rutgers and his team collected samples of wood embedded in the stucco that covers the openings of many tombs in the catacomb, located under the city park that surrounds Villa Torlonia, where dictator Benito Mussolini lived for 20 years.

The lines of tombs and niches are cut into the sides of winding galleries dug in soft tufa stone to create one of six known Jewish catacombs in Rome.

Four of the ancient Jewish burial grounds in Rome have collapsed or were built over in past centuries, and unlike the more popular Christian catacombs, the other two are hard to visit. Visitors need a special permit from Rome’s archaeological authorities to enter the Villa Torlonia galleries, and the other Jewish burial site is on the property of a private villa near the ancient Appian Way.

On the Net:

Nature, http://www.nature.com