Catacombs’ Jewish Origins Shown

Times Staff Writer

Jewish catacombs under the ancient city of Rome, once thought to be copies of Christian burial sites, actually predate the Christian catacombs by at least a century, Dutch scientists say, suggesting that early Christian burial practices were modeled after those of Jews.

Carbon dating indicates that the Jewish catacombs were begun in the 2nd century, a full century before the earliest Christian catacombs are believed to have been used, archeologist Leonard Rutgers and his colleagues at Utrecht University in the Netherlands reported this week in the journal Nature.

Catacombs surround the walls built around Rome during the reign of Emperor Aurelian in the late 3rd century. Miles of tunnels were dug into soft volcanic tufa rock 50 to 100 feet underground, providing burial space for more than 1 million bodies, Rutgers said. Scientists thought, based on artwork and writings, that the catacombs had been used from the early 3rd century to the early 5th century.

Though two of the more than 60 complexes bore Jewish markings, the catacombs were thought to be “a typically and quintessentially Christian invention,” Rutgers said.


His group studied the Jewish catacombs at the Villa Torlonia complex in the north of the city. They carbon-dated bits of charred wood taken from among the bricks and lime sealing the individual graves, called loculi. The wood had been used to obtain the lime by heating limestone to about 1,600 degrees. Rutgers said archeologists needed to perform a similar study to confirm the Christian catacombs were used later.

“The Jewish roots of Christianity were more important than believed previously,” Rutgers concluded. “There was a time [when] Christianity was proud of its Jewish origins.”