Radiocarbon dating

Jewish inspiration of Christian catacombs

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A Jewish cemetery in ancient Rome harbours a secret that bears on the history of early Christianity.


The famous catacombs of ancient Rome are huge underground cemeteries, of which two Jewish catacomb complexes of uncertain age and 60 early-Christian catacombs have survived1,2,3. Here we use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of wood originating from one of the Jewish catacombs and find that it pre-dates its Christian counterparts by at least 100 years. These results indicate that burial in Roman catacombs may not have begun as a strictly Christian practice, as is commonly believed1,3,4, but rather that its origin may lie in Jewish funerary customs.

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Figure 1: Layout of upper and lower Jewish catacombs in Villa Torlonia in Rome.


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Correspondence to Leonard V. Rutgers.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Rutgers, L., van der Borg, K., de Jong, A. et al. Jewish inspiration of Christian catacombs. Nature 436, 339 (2005) doi:10.1038/436339a

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