Hippos-Sussita (Israel) Tomb of Unknown Saint Found


The churches at Hippos, including the northeast church, are three-aisled basilicas. They have two major sections: the chancel including the apse and altar, separated from the aisled portion, Schuler explains. The central aisle is the nave, and there are two smaller aisles to the north and south.
The congregants probably stood in the smaller aisles. Some suggest they were segregated by sex, with females in the north aisle and males in the south aisle. The nave was likely for processions.
"It's not unusual to find burials in churches…usually in the nave or the aisles. The unusual thing here is burials in the chancel, and this one had them," says Schuler. 

1287961682East church apse, from south aisle - Concordia University Northeast Insula Project
In fact, the chancel in this Hippos church had burials in two sites, he says: one off the center axis, beneath the floor, which contained the remains of 12 people.
“There was a wooden coffin at a lower level, which was gone, but its nails were still there. That had three individuals in it. Later somebody inserted the bottom half of a sarcophagus box on top of that coffin. There were nine individuals interred in there,” says Schuler.
But the really interesting tomb was at the head of the south aisle in the chancel.
“It was a single sarcophagus, exposed above the floor, faced with marble and crosses. It had a hole bored on the top of the sarcophagus that could have been used for pouring oil or wine on the remains,” says Schuler.

2754089758The northwest church at Hippos - Concordia University Northeast Insula Project
Or that hole might have had another purpose: for rods to be inserted by the early Christians, to touch the remains inside. Why would they want to do that? The early Christians believed that a rod touching a saint’s relics could serve as a conduit of sorts to transfer the holiness to themselves.
“When we opened the tomb, it contained a single skeleton. The bones had been rearranged at the west end of tomb,” Schuler says. “She was an elderly woman, at least 55 years old, with osteoporosis. Possibly, an unknown saint.”
Possibly, what happened is that tomb was opened for extraction of relics, and was pried open from the west end, he explains. The relics removed, the remaining bones were intentionally gathered at the west end, where the skull would have lain. The revered woman had initially been buried on her back, as usual, with her feet to the east: the archaeologists found 17 metatarsals and phalanges of the foot at the east end of the sarcophagus.
Further evidence of her sanctity was even less direct. “I have theories about that,” Schuler says. “I feel there was a healing cult around this woman.” A key point, as far as he is concerned: After the church fell into disuse and was blocked off, access to her tomb remained possible, through the one remaining open doorway at the west end of the south aisle.
The bishops of Hippos
The bishops of Hippos in the sixth century were advocates of the Chalcedonian perspective of Christianity. Schuler explains.
"Although early Christianity came to assert that Jesus was fully God, in the fifth century the debate shifted to how Jesus could be both divine and human. The Chalcedonian view is that Jesus has a dual nature, human and divine," he says.

3998087546Hippos, schematic of city layout in ca. 6 C.E. - Concordia University Northeast Insula Project
"The monophysite theory holds that Jesus is divine and human but has one single unified nature. The monophysite tradition was very strong in Palestine. But in the 6th century, around 516, John became the patriarch of Jerusalem, renounced his former monophysite perspective, and embraced Chalcedonian Christianity."
And there was a bishop from Hippos, Colon, present at the Jerusalem synod in 518 that endored pro-Chalcedonian views.
The year 538 brought the Second Synod, at which John’s successor, Peter, made strong statements in support of the Chalcedonian (Western) opinion, Schuler says. And who was at the synod? The bishop of Hippos. After which, the churches of Hippos, which had featured different architectural configurations, began to undergo Western-style structural modifications some time during the sixth century.
“We saw a baptistery added to the cathedral during the sixth century according to the Western design,” says Schuler. More examples? Sure. If the Israeli army hadn’t reburied the ruins because they wanted to build barracks, the professor tells Haaretz, we would have been able to see the eastern church – which, according to the Israel Antiquities Authority, had a second apse added during the sixth century. The most southwest church had a reliquary inserted into its chancel, which accords with the Western tradition, says Schuler.
An apse was also added to the north aisle of the northwest church. "The western-style modifications going on in the 6th century correlate, in my view, with what was happening in Jerusalem, the struggle between the monophysite and Chalcedonian opinions. Jerusalem was becoming more officially Chalcedonian," says Schuler.
Discoveries in Hippos were not confined to the Christian era. There is evidence of early settlement in the Neolithic period, excavations director Michael Eisenberg tells Haaretz. In the excavation season of 2011, Schuler and the team found a fresco of Tyche, the Greek goddess for fortune and fate, in the ruins of an ornate, 1,700-year-old Roman villa. Evidently veneration of pagan gods continued well into the Byzantine era. “Tyche was a popular goddess throughout the Greek east, not just at Hippos, possibly because life was so capricious and short,” Schuler suggests.
Yet paganism waned after all and Christianity took hold. “What is interesting is this idea that as the church worked on how it identified itself, and there was certainly a struggle going on in Palestina at that time, with monks becoming involved in it in the Judean Desert – we see those struggles playing out architecturally,” says Schuler.
The multiple churches of Hippos-Sussita (which is in the Sussita National Reserve, run by the Parks and Nature Authority) and other towns of the time probably represented diversity in early Christinity in the east. There were also some Jews in the town too, it seems, going by rabbinic references, says Schuler (Lamentations Rabbah 19, J.T. Shevi’it 8, 38a, Tosefta Shevi’it 4:10). But come the sixth century, Christianity began to consolidate around the Western perspective of Jesus’ nature, and it shows up in modifications to the churches.