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‘Abba Cave’ is the name given to a rock-cut burial cave found in the north of Jerusalem in 1970. The cave dates to the 1st century BCE. It is famous for having a highly decorated bone box (ossuary) and an inscription alluding to the burial of the last Maccabean king, Matithyahu Antigonos II.

The Discovery of Abba Cave

abba cave ossuaryAfter the Six Days War in 1967, Jerusalem was unified under Israeli rule. A new neighborhood was planned at the former no-man zone of the city, which required an archaeological survey. Various finds from ancient times were uncovered, most notably the tomb of the Crucified Man and Abba Cave.

Abba Cave was a rock-cut tomb comprised of two chambers. A highly decorated stone bone box (ossuary) was found in one of the rooms. An inscription in Paleo-Hebrew letters was affixed to the wall in the second room. It read, “I am Abba, son of Eleazar the priest. I am Abba, the oppressed, the persecuted, born in Jerusalem and exiled to Babylon, who brought back Mattathiah, son of Judah, and buried him in the cave that I purchased.”

Professor of Anatomy Niko Haas examined the bones inside the ossuary. He estimated the deceased was in his 20s and that he died by decapitation.

Who Was Buried in the Ossuary? And Who is Abba?

Shortly after the discovery, professor of History Joshua Meir Grintz suggested that this was the tomb of the last Maccabean king, Matityahu Antigonos II. Matityahu was crowned in 40 BCE and reigned for only three years. He led an ill-fated battle against Herod, whom the Romans favored as King of Judea. In 37 BCE, Matityahu lost and was sent to Antioch (in today’s Syria), where he was eventually decapitated.

Grintz speculated that Abba was a loyal Jewish priest who managed to obtain Matityahu’s body and bring it for final rest on the outskirts of Jerusalem. While this theory seemed attractive, it was rejected by most scholars.

Additional Discoveries, By the Owner of the Property

abba cave delarosaabba cave delarosaThe decorated ossuary and the inscription were removed from the cave and taken to the Israel Museum, where they are on display today.

The Jewish Delarosa family built a private home above the burial cave. In 1982, a member of the family, Refael, decided to conduct further research in the cave. Surprisingly, he discovered a niche in the cave the archaeologists failed to notice, with another ossuary in it. Inside were the skeletal remains of an adult and a child.

So, Who is Buried in Abba Cave?

All the evidence seems to suggest that the tomb in Abba cave was indeed formed for the burial of King Matityahu Antigonus II. The highly decorated ossuary was of the decapitated king himself, while the second ossuary was of Abba and possibly his child, who died very young.

The main problem with Grintz’s theory is that the inscription does not label Matityahu as “King” but names his father “Judah.” King Matityahu’s father was called Aristobulus, not Judah. Professor Grintz was well aware of that. He speculated that Judah was the Hebrew name of Aristobulus, and Abba, the priest, preferred using only the Hebrew names of the kings in the inscription. After all, the Inscription was in Hebrew and written in Paleo-Hebrew Letters.

Yet the lack of the title “King” is disturbing. Perhaps Abba deliberately avoided the royal title of the deceased to keep his identity discrete? Maybe he feared the Romans might discover that tomb and it would be destroyed. If so, he achieved keeping the tomb a secret.

Visiting the Abba Cave

The cave is within the private property of the Delarosa family, yet they welcome visitors. The highly decorated ossuary and the inscription were taken to the Israel Museum, but the second (Abba?) ossuary is presented inside the cave.

A visit to Abba Cave can integrated into a day tour of Jerusalem.

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