(Communicated by the Israel Antiquities Authority)
A unique discovery was revealed in excavations that were conducted north of Jerusalem: a fragment of a sarcophagus cover was found that is engraved with square Hebrew script, characteristic of the Second Temple period. The fragment (length 0.60 m, width 0.48 m) is made of hard limestone, is meticulously fashioned and bears a carved inscription that reads: "…Ben HaCohen HaGadol…" - "Son of the High Priest."
Numerous high priests served in the temple during the latter part of the Second Temple period and there is no way of knowing which of the priests the inscription refers to. However, it should probably be identified with one of the priests that officiated there between the years 30 and 70 CE. Among the high priests we know of from the end of the Second Temple period were Caiaphas the priest, Theophilus (Yedidiya) Ben Hanan, Simon Ben Boethus, Hanan Ben Hanan and others.
The excavations were conducted by the Unit of the Archaeological Staff Officer of the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, under the direction of Naftali Aizik and Benyamin Hareven, within the framework of the salvage excavations that are currently being carried out along the route of the security fence and underwritten by the Ministry of Defense.
During the course of the excavation public and residential buildings, agricultural installations, pools and cisterns were discovered which range in date from the end of the Second Temple period to the Early Islamic period.
The Land of Benjamin is known in scientific literature as the place where the priests resided during the Second Temple period. This region is analogous to the peripheral settlements of modern Jerusalem where an affluent population dwelled that was active and earned its living in the central city of Jerusalem. The site that was exposed is an estate of one of the high priests who served in the temple in Jerusalem. One can assume that the son of the high priest passed away for some unknown reason at the time when his father still officiated as the high priest in Jerusalem. It can further be assumed that this high priest, as well as the rest of his family, was interred at the same estate located north of Jerusalem; however, no other artifacts have been found yet that verify this theory.
It should be noted that the fragment of the sarcophagus cover was not discovered in the estate itself, rather it was recovered from the debris of the later remains. It seems that the fragment was plundered from its original location approximately one thousand years ago and was used in the construction of a later Moslem building that was erected atop the ruins of the houses from the Second Temple period.
The high priest was first and foremost among the priests in the temple, but his greatest importance was the role he played on Yom Kippur. This was the only day of the year when the high priest was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies. In the Yoma Tractate (Yom Kippur) of the Mishnah the process which the high priest underwent seven days prior to Yom Kippur, before he entered the Holy of Holies, is described in detail. He would walk between the ornamental curtains that separated the hall of the temple and the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies. Here he would burn the incense about which it was said "…the entire temple filled with the smoke of incense."
Until the Hellenistic period (the time of Antiochus Epiphanes IV) the high priesthood was a position that was passed on hereditarily; however after this period the high priest was appointed by the ruling authorities. During Herod’s reign individuals who were not Jerusalemites were appointed as high priests and it reached the point whereby the priesthood became an office which was purchased with money.