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Background comes to light on the family of the high priest who pursued Jesus

The bone box itself was plundered from a Second Temple-era grave by looters. But when archaeologists finally got their hands on it some 2,000 years later, they guessed its inscription could possibly shed light on one of the major figures surrounding the death of Jesus.

They were right.

"It is remarkable and exciting," Boaz Zissu, a senior lecturer in the Department of Land of Israel and Archaeology Studies at Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, told The Media Line.

Zissu and his colleague Yuval Goren, of Tel Aviv University, discovered that the ossuary, or small stone chest that Jews used at the time to store bones, belonged to a woman belonging to the family of Caiaphas, the high priest who the Gospels say sent Jesus to the Romans to be crucified.

While Christians may find an archeological remnant of the Gospel story to be intriguing, Zissu and Goren are more focused on the rest of the inscription, which for the first time revealed that Caiaphas was a member of the priestly division called Ma'aziahu and was probably born in the hills south of Bethlehem.

The Israel Antiquities Authority won't say who had possession of the bone box before its agents confiscated it three years ago. Such bone boxes are common, but with its ornate decorations and carefully engraved inscription, officials realized when they rescued it that they had something special and handed over to experts to decipher its secrets.

"We lack the original context of the ossuary, but we found it to be an original ossuary from the first century CE," Zissu said, adding that forensic examination of the ossuary determined that it likely came from the Elah Valley area in the Judean foothills.

The inscription in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jews at the time, reads, "Miriam Daughter of Yeshua Son of Caiaphas, Priest of Ma'aziah from Beth 'Imri." Yeshua was not the Caiaphas of the Gospel, whose name was Yosef (Joseph), but a less famous relative. Nevertheless, the ossuary sheds important light on the famous family.

"Until yesterday, Miriam the daughter of Yeshua was unknown. Now we know that there was such a person. And Caiaphas is a well-known character and we remember his role in the judgment of Jesus and here we have a Yeshua mentioned as the son of Caiaphas," the archaeologist said.

Zissu said the names Miriam (Mary) and Yeshua (Jesus) were two of the most popular names of the time.

According to the New Testament (Matthew 26:62), a high priest named Yosef Bar Caiaphas interrogated Jesus and then handed him over to the Romans. While a pivotal character in the New Testament, little is known of his origins.

An ossuary with Yosef Bar Caiaphas' name was found in 1990 in Jerusalem, not far from where the Gospel story would have taken place. But not all archeologists are convinced it's authentic, nor does its offer much additional information about the man or his family. The newer discovery of Yeshua Bar Caiaphas' ossuary, however, holds a key to the lineage and ancestral lands of the Caiaphas family, said Zissu.

"We learn that Caiaphas was a priest. We knew if from the New Testament and [the Jewish historian] Josephus, but now we read it here, from a contemporary inscription. Then we learn that Caiaphas' origins are from the priestly course of Ma'aziah," Zissu said.

The Bible and from other sources indentify Ma'aziah as the 24th priestly course, but this is the first time that a contemporary inscription where the name of the course is mentioned had been found.

"So Caiaphas is related to this 24th priestly course, which is something new. We never knew what were the origins of this family," he added.

According to the Bible, the priestly courses were established 3,000 years ago by King David, who divided the priesthood into 24 divisions, each serving two weeks a year conducting services in the Temple in Jerusalem. When the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, the priestly courses ceased to exist.

"The facts link this woman's father Yeshua with the high priest at the time of Christ's death Yosef Bar Caiaphas," Zissu said. "Maybe they were brothers? Or maybe not? Maybe there is another link. At this stage we don't know exactly. But Caiaphas is a rather rare name."

The rest of the inscription noted that this Miriam was from Beit Imri, which archaeologists speculate means she came from a village that is now known as Beit Ummar, located south of Bethlehem in the Palestinian Authority and today a hotbed of Palestinian nationalism.

"The village of Beit Ummar is built atop the ruins of an older village called Khirbet Kufin, a Jewish settlement identified from the Second Temple period," he said. "We have a linguistic connection between the names Caiaphas and Imri and the names of Beit Ummar and Kufin. So maybe we have here a clue, a hint of the origins of this family and their connection to this certain place."

Assahel Lavi, a former member of the government's unit for the prevention of the theft of antiquities, said the Judean hills are riddled with thousands of ancient graves, many containing ossuaries and other items spanning the millennium.

"But what attracts the grave robbers the most are the artifacts from the Second Temple period," Lavi told The Media Line. "Grave robbers want anything with a Jewish symbol on it, like a menorah, from that period because it fetches a lot more money than from other periods."

Lavi said items with crosses and other symbols from latter times, such as the Byzantine period, were much more common.

"This is one of the leading drivers for grave robbers seeking out ancient Jewish sites from the time of Second Temple," he said.

Zissu, who was once the commander of the anti-grave robbing unit, said he was very disappointed that the ossuary had not been found in situ, which prevented him from examining it in its archaeological context.

"Sadly, the robbers' desire of monetary gain has erased entire pages of the country's cultural history," Zissu said. "But I'm sure there is more to discover. This land is still full of surprises."