As promised a while ago, I will post today on the necropolis of Beth She’arim in Galilee, which, as Fergus Millar observed, is “the most significant archaeological and documentary side-light on the rabbinic period”. I will discuss the popular notion that Beth She’arim derived its popularity from the idea that an important patriarch, Rabbi Judah, was interred here. Let me first give a brief introduction of the necropolis, before I argue that there is no reason to expect that patriarch Judah was really buried there, let alone that his burial caused the blossoming of Beth She’arim.
The town of Beth She’arim was located at the point where the coastal plain, the hills of Gallilee, and the western end of Jezreel Valley meet. The Roman Road to Legio used to run a little to the south of the cemetery, through the Jezreel Valley. Thus Beth She’arim was close to the important routes that connected the cities of the coastal lowlands with the interior of northern Roman Palestine. The site was excavated in the 1930s and 1950s by Benjamin Mazar and Nahman Avigad. An exceptionally large cemetery was discovered: 27 catacombs were uncovered, some of which contained hundreds of burial places. The largest, catacomb 1, had sixteen halls, comprising a total of 400 burial places! The cemetery and the town peaked in the 2nd to 4th century CE, probably falling in disuse somewhere in the Byzantine period.
The cemetery was uncovered in the foundational period of the State of Israel, and its remains were incorporated into the nationalist narrative of that state. When inscriptions were found with names that could be related to members of the family of Rabbi Judah the Patriarch, a central figure in the Talmuds and the legendary composer of the Mishnah, “…this possibility fired everyone’s imagination. The place bustled with visitors from all sections of the community: the president of Israel, the late Yitzhak Ben-Zvi; the prime minister, the late Moshe Sharett; the late David Ben Gurion; Mrs. Golda Meir (the minister of labor); cabinet ministers; the chairman and members of the Knesseth (the Parliament of Israel); the chairman of the Jerwish Agency; the Heads of the Hebrew University; teachers and students; citizens and tourists. All shared the wish to view the inscriptions of Rabbi Shim’on and Rabbi Gamaliel — Vivid evidence of so important a chapter in jewish history and a tangible reminder of two outstanding personalities among the spiritual leaders of the people.”  “Rabbi Judah Ha-Nassî was ‘the great builder’ of Beth She’arim; it was he who adorned the city with magnificent edifices and the necropolis with monumental memorials.” The vision of Beth She’arim as a patriarchal cemetery has been almost as persistent as the image of an international cemetery, which I will not discuss here. The two have lived an intertwined existence in the reception of the site: “Beth She’arim attracted many people who chose to be buried near the burial site of the Patriarchal family.”
However, right from the start doubt has been casted upon the identification of the graves. Even the excavators concede, clearly with some regret, that it is only a “very likely” hypothesis. Lifshitz in the edition of the Greek inscriptions goes as far as calling any identification “highly speculative.”  As Martin Jacobs observes, it is highly questionable whether Rabbi Judah was buried at Beth She’arim, as not one inscription referring to a patriarch or a nasi has been discovered in Beth She’arim. Surprisingly, quite a few generally careful scholars are a little gullible here. Thus Rajak: “by far the most important find related to the rabbinical world are the three graves plausibly connected with the family of patriarch Judah himself,” and also Schwartz: he sees the burial of “possible members of the patriarchal family” as one of the confirmations of the atypicality of Beth She’arim. Here I will propose a more radical suggestion. My impression is that we are mystified by a double mirage. Although the identification of the graves is, cum Lifshitz and Jacobs, very insecure, it remains feasible because of the support of rabbinic literature. In fact, as we saw above, the whole excavation project was charged with belief that a patriarchal enterprise was being uncovered – even before the discovery of the graves. It is time we take a closer look at the literary support.
We know of only one reference to a burial of patriarch Judah in the rabbinic literature. It is attested for the first time in the Palestinian Talmud, a document that was probably produced in the fourth and early fifth century. PT Kelayim 9:3 II-IV is a midrash from the end of this period, composed about two hundred years after patriarch Judah’s death. It was probably placed in PT’s treatment of whether the laws prohibiting the intermingling of certain things were applicable to towels and other garments, because part of it (II.L-Y) pays attention to the kind of garments several rabbis wished to be clothed in at their burial. The original core of the tradition is the commentary upon three sayings of patriarch Judah as to what should happen after his death. These comments are followed by the story on the burial of patriarch Judah. It tells of a series of strange events that surrounded the funeral:
[III. F] …and [the people of Sepphoris] tore [their clothes], and the sound of tearing reached Gupaphta, a distance of three mîl.
[G] R. Nahman in the name of R. Mena [said], “Miracles were performed on that day. It was Sabbath eve, and all of [the people of] the towns gathered to eulogize [Rabbi (i.e. patriarch Judah)]. And they set down [his bier] eighteen times [for this purpose], and they took him down to Beth She’arim. And the day was suspended for them until everyone reached his home, filled up a jug of water, and lit the [Sabbath] light. Once the sun set, the cock crowed, [indicating that the next morning had already arrived].
[H] The people began to be distressed [and] said, ‘Perhaps we have desecrated the Sabbath.’
[I] A heavenly voice went out and said to them, ‘Whoever did not shirk from the eulogizing of Rabbi, let him be proclaimed for life in the world to come,’
[J] Except for the launderer, [who did not attend the eulogy].
[K] Once [the launderer] heard this, he went up to the roof, threw himself off, and died.
[L] A heavenly voice went out and said, ‘Even the launderer [is proclaimed for life in the world to come].'”
This narrative is laden with miracles, proclaiming the greatness of patriarch Judah, who was considered “holy” at the time of the composition of PT. As with other hagiographic accounts, we cannot a priori accept the non-miraculous elements as facts. We might heed the warning Robin Lane Fox gives in his analysis of the panegyric of bishop Gregory Thaumaturgus: “it is deeply misleading to use the panegyric as if it gives a correct historical image of Gregory’s appeal in the 250s. The story was shaped to suit the tastes of an author and an audience in the 380s.” Note that both Gregory and his panegyric are close contemporaries to the patriarch and his midrash! Significantly, a little further Lane Fox shows “how stories had become attached to local landmarks”. My suggestion is that something similar happened here. It is doubtful whether in the late fourth century anybody actually remembered where patriarch Judah was buried. When this story was composed, maybe elaborating some older traditions about miracles surrounding his death, it was linked to a well known landmark, the monumental cemetery of Beth She’arim. Not a strange choice, as in other traditions patriarch Judah was already claimed to have spent his early career in Beth She’arim. So the story of Judah’s funeral is possibly a second mirage, next to that of the identified graves. Whenever a scholar doubts one of the mirages, the other comes to mind to reassure him that Beth She’arim nevertheless was patriarchal. But in fact the midrash only tells us something about the reception of the necropolis in fourth century Palestinian society. Maybe we see here no more than that it was a well known landmark, with enough prestige to be considered worthy to receive the funeral of such a holy man.
We can thus bury the hypothesis of a close link between the patriarch and the cemetery. Beth She’arim was a fairly “normal” cemetery, although of some stature and with a rather wide catchment. The existence of such a cemetery, not necessarily connected to institutions like the patriarch or the rabbinic movement, but nevertheless distinctly “Jewish”, can be seen as support for my argument that a distinctly Jewish society continued to exist in the 3rd and 4th century (see this post).
Ⓒ Paul Gill (May 2007)
 Millar 2006, 147-8.
 Avigad 1976, 13.
 Avigad 1976, 263.
 Weiss 1992, 366-7.
 Avigad 1976, 65.
 Lifshitz and Schwabe 1974, 148 n. 6.
 Jacobs 1995, 247, n. 95.
 Rajak 1997, 351; Schwartz 2001, 155.
 I follow Neusner’s outline.
 Late midrash: Hezser 1997, 413.
 PT Kelayim 9:3 (translation by Neusner).
 Hezser 1997, 413.
 Lane Fox 1986, 530-1.