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Unsolved mysteries (Israel edition)

Where was Jesus really buried? Who are those Masada Skeletons really? And who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? All this and more...

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A mysterious, colossal-sized structure sunken on the bottom of the Kinneret has recently gotten archeologists and budding x-file agents into a tizzy. Located in the southwestern corner of the lake, the structure is thought to be around 6,000 years old and to have originally been built on land that was later submerged by rising water. Still under investigation, it appears to be a pile of stones weighing around 60,000 tons. Researchers do not yet know the purpose the stones served, but connections have been made between the site and the ancient nearby city of Beit Yerah as well as monolithic European burial sites. Just the latest example of an unsolved mystery in the Holy Land, it really should come as no surprise that this land is full of mystery when you consider the country's ancient pedigree stretches back to the dawn of civilization. From the twisted alleyways of Jerusalem's Old City to deserted desert mountain-tops, Israel is a treasure trove of unsolved mysteries worthy of any late-night TV slot. 

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Location of Jesus' Entombment

Location of Jesus' Entombment

The Gospels' accounts of the entombment of Christ vary, but they all agree he was placed in a new tomb originally made for another person. The location most traditionally believed to be its site is the stunning Church of the Holy Sepulcher, in the Christian quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. This multi-denominational church, which was built by the Christian Emperor Constantine around 325 AD, has been a major pilgrimage site ever since, and features many holy relics including the rock on which Jesus was believed to have been crucified. But there are two other contesters for the tomb in Jerusalem: the first, dubbed the Garden Tomb and located just outside the Old City walls near the Damascus Gate, is argued to be the true location based on its proximity to an eerie skull-like rock formation that some believe to be Golgotha (“Place of the Skull” in Aramaic). The tomb is also nearby an ancient cistern and winepress, which some believe proves it was once in a garden as is told in the Gospels. The final alleged location, the Talpiot Tomb, located about five kilometers south of the Old City in East Jerusalem, was discovered in 1980 and is the focus of a documentary produced by James Cameron titled "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." This most recent theory is considered highly controversial and is based on an intriguing inscription on one of the ossuaries translating to “Jesus, son of Joseph.” 

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

Who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls?

One of the most important finds in the world of biblical and Ancient Near East scholarship, the Dead Sea Scrolls include the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament–some dating back to the fourth century BCE.  Discovered in caves near the Dead Sea, and now on display at the Israel Museum, the scroll's authorship has traditionally been attributed to the Essenes, a sect of mystic, ascetic Jews who inhabited the area.  This theory postulates that the Essenes wrote the scrolls and hid them in caves for safe-keeping during the Jewish-Roman wars. However, this has been disputed by those who believe the texts were carried to the desert from Jerusalem libraries by Jews fleeing the destruction of the city at the hands of the Romans in 70CE. This is backed by forensic analysis suggesting that half the containers holding scrolls were made elsewhere. Another more recent theory suggests the scrolls were actually penned by a community of exiled Jewish priests known as the Sadducees. However, the most controversial theory claims the Essenes are an elaborate hoax invented by Josephus as a sort of public relations campaign to gain the Jewish communities' respect from the Romans.  

Israel's own Stonehenge?

Discovered in the Golan, Gilgal Refaim is a mysterious display of concentric stone circles that has long baffled archeologists. Dated as five and six thousand years old, Gilgal Refaim (“Wheel of the Ghosts,” in Hebrew) is reminiscent of England’s famous (and similarly puzzling) ancient megalithic structure, Stonehenge. The site consists of around 42,000 tons of basalt rocks forming four circles, and archeologists believe that the walls of the structure once towered nine meters high.  Unsurprisingly, theories abound as to Gilgal Refaim’s role.  From hypothesizes revolving around astronomical observatories and calendars, to more intriguing whispers about Biblical giants from the heavens, no one has been able to say exactly why the ancients so carefully arranged thousands of rocks in this spot. Gilgal Refaim is assessabled only by foot and is located about a third of the way between road 808 and 98 in the Golan Heights, around an hour walk from the road. 

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True Location of the Maccabean Tombs

True Location of the Maccabean Tombs

While the status of the Maccabees as heroes is undisputed, their final resting place remains one of the Old Testament's most captivating mysteries. Spectacular tombs for seven members of the Maccabee family are described in the Book of Maccabees as well as by Jewish historian Josephus. Said to have been visible by ships in the Mediterranean an astounding eighteen miles away, their burial site featured seven pyramids and a series of tall columns unlike anything else in the country. The Maccabees hailed from ancient Modi'in, believed to be nearby the modern city of the same name, yet no remnants of this memorial have been discovered. Confusingly, a sign on Route 443, about 3 km north of the Modi'in, wrongly identifies a series of stone cut tombs as “Maccabean Graves.” These tombs were actually built hundreds of years after the Maccabees lived. Just up the road though is a site that some believe to be the true burial spot. Referred to as the Hagardi Ruins, a number of findings reflecting burial practices of the time have been discovered, and radar has revealed substantial construction hidden underground. Not very impressive now, perhaps further explorations will reveal extraordinary findings that may lead to solving this ancient mystery. 

Masada Skeletons: Who were they really?

Masada Skeletons: Who were they really?

Any self respecting Hebrew school pupil  knows the story of Masada. Rather than live as slaves under Roman rule, a group of heroic Jews chose death as their desert mountain-top home was breeched by their potential captors. A story deeply imbedded into the psyche of Israel, archeology has been used to bring it to life–but how much of that narrative is truth, and how much is wishful thinking? Josephus, the only known ancient source on the event, wrote that nearly 1,000 Jews died on Masada, but only 28 bodies have been discovered after extensive searches. These skeletons are celebrated as the remains of Jewish heroes, yet there is much speculation as to the true identity of these bodies. It has since come to light that 25 of these bodies were buried among pig bones - not something you would expect within the Jewish community, where pigs are considered unclean. However, it was a Roman funeral practice to sacrifice a pig along with the dead. Additionally, the braid of a woman, cut while she was alive and long believed to belong to a Jewish women, has since been considered as belonging to a Roman captive, based on the Bible's demand that Jews cut off the hair of female captives. So, exactly who were the people whose skeletons were found at Masada? And, if they weren't Jews, then what happened to the bodies of the Jews?

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