Attempted antiquities looting at site linked to blood money of Judas Iscariot

30-year-old Jerusalem man nabbed with excavation tools at ancient Christian graveyard in Jerusalem

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Judas Iscariot (right), retiring from the Last Supper, in painting by Carl Bloch, late 19th century (public domain, via wikipedia)
Judas Iscariot (right), retiring from the Last Supper, in painting by Carl Bloch, late 19th century (public domain, via wikipedia)

Israeli Border Police arrested a 30-year-old on suspicion of antiquities looting in the ancient Christian pilgrim graveyard at Akeldama, located in Jerusalem’s Hinnom Valley and associated with one of Jesus’s 12 apostles, Judas Iscariot.

Early Friday, police units patrolling the area noted unusual activity on the grounds of the archaeological site located about half a kilometer from the Old City of Jerusalem. After surveying the site, they found three disturbed areas, excavation tools and a hidden place for tool storage, or possibly a hideout for looters.

From the 4th through 7th century, Byzantine monks and hermits lived on the site, which is still occupied by a Christian monastery built on the spot where Judas is meant to have hanged himself, the Greek Orthodox Monastery of St Onuphrius, built in 1874. The monastery includes two ancient tombs, an altered burial cave called “Refuge [or Retreat] of the Apostles” and a subterranean Second Temple-period tomb whose roots may stretch even to the First Temple, according to scholars.

Since 680 CE, most Christian pilgrims who died in Jerusalem were buried here and there is an impressive Crusader period “charnel house” or bone vault at the site called “Chaudemar.” Also among dozens of Christian graves is what could possibly be the burial place of the family of the high priest Annas, according to a Biblical Archaeology Review article.

Excavation tools discovered at the Jerusalem archaeological site of Akeldama on May 4, 2018. (Courtesy of Israel Police)

An inspector from the Israel Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit was summoned to the scene and began an investigation. If charged, the 30-year-old Jerusalem resident faces up to five years in jail for antiquities theft and damage to an archaeological site.

Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said in a statement, “The Border Police / Israel Police view with great severity any attempted damage to sites which preserve the historical heritage of the Land of Israel. Any person who commits an unauthorized act at archaeological sites, harms and/or loots them, commits a crime of up to five years in prison.”

Tainted land?

In Christian tradition, the land surrounding Akeldama is associated with Judas Iscariot, the traitor among the 12 apostles who sold his master for 30 silver pieces. Accounts differ, but the one from the Book of Acts, excerpted in a Biblical Archaeology Review article on the site, also may account for the soil’s ruddy color:

“Now this man [Judas] acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. This became known to all the residents of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood” (Acts 1:18–19).

An image of Akeldama by artist John Douglas Woodward in his 1881 ‘Picturesque Palestine, Sinai, and Egypt.’ (Public domain, via wikipedia)

In another account found in the Book of Matthew, Judas returns the blood money to the priests, who, viewing it as tainted, purchase this field instead, calling it in Aramaic Hakal-Dema, or a “Field of Blood.”

According to the BAR article, the site “was identified as Akeldama as early as the third and fourth centuries” by the early Christian historian, Eusebius, who made a site visit in 335 CE. Other Christian writers, including Jerome, who in 400 CE attempted to match names with important biblical sites, also identified this spot as the Field of Blood.

There are some 80 burial caves in the area, the majority of which date to the Herodian period (37 BCE – 70 CE), according to the BAR article.

“Some of these tombs are in magnificent condition, still standing to their full height,” write the authors, Leen and Kathleen Ritmeyer, who label Akeldama as “one of the most impressive, important, yet largely unknown archaeological sites in the Holy Land.”

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