BeliefWatch: Entombed

In interviews with NEWSWEEK in the days before the announcement of the "Jesus family tomb" (the suburban Jerusalem cave said to contain the bones of Jesus and his relatives, a claim that later turned out to be overblown), publishers and publicists worried aloud that the public might be suffering from what they called "ossuary fatigue." What they meant was this: how many first-century bone boxes can archeologists boast of finding before people stop caring about first-century bone boxes? (Especially, one might ask in retrospect, when those discoveries often tend to be not so historically important.) The answer is: a lot. It's always cool when someone digs up a relic related to the Biblical past, and last week's alleged discovery of the tomb of King Herod is no different.

This time around, it was the archeologist Ehud Netzer, a respected Israeli scholar whose lifelong dream had been to find Herod's grave. He has been excavating Herodium, the palace complex Herod built near Jerusalem, for decades. What he found, on a slope halfway up a manmade hill, were pieces of a delicately carved pink stone burial box and pieces of a large stone podium, leaving little doubt in his mind that the discovery is real. "It's a great satisfaction. I'm not sure I myself have digested it fully," he said at a news conference.

As with all such discoveries, however, there's almost no proof, and already some of Netzer's colleagues are raising questions. Herod, says James H. Charlesworth, of Princeton Theological Seminary, was a ruthless leader—so paranoid that he had his own sons and his wife killed for allegedly betraying him. Why would a king who knew he was hated, a leader fully aware of the perils of grave-robbing and desecration, not hide his tomb away? "He certainly wouldn't put his tomb on the hillside where everybody would see it," says Charlesworth. "I would think he would put the tomb in the base. There are massive tunnels down there."

At the very least, Netzer's discovery gives an opportunity to revisit the biography of Herod the Great—not to be confused with Herod Antipas, who put Jesus to death and beheaded John the Baptist. Herod the Great died around the time of Jesus' birth, and according to the Gospel of Matthew, ordered the slaughter of all boy babies in Bethlehem. He built great forts and cities all over Israel, including the Western Wall. He claimed to be a Jew but was not. He was, says Charlesworth, "probably the most arrogant and paranoid person in antiquity." May he rest in peace.