Robert L. Kern

Who’s Buried in the Maccabees’ Tomb?

I wasn’t upset to see the Hebrew and Latin inscriptions from Isaiah over the doorway of San Gregorio della Divina Pietà, a church near the Jewish ghetto of Rome and its Great Synagogue because they are symbolic of Jewish ingenuity. Until 1870, the Jewish residents of the ghetto were forced by the Vatican to attend compulsory sermons every Shabbat at that church. They showed up, but they avoided hearing the proselytizing messages by putting wax in their ears. Therefore the church engraved these verses from Isaiah 65:2-3 over the doorway. The Jews had the last laugh because they read the Hebrew.  The Latin was a mistranslation, interpreted by Christians to depict the Jews as being obstinate and rebellious for not accepting Jesus.

I was also not bothered by the synagogas found in a number of Roman churches. I’d seen many others in Paris and elsewhere. In medieval Christian art, “Ecclesia et Synagoga” (Latin for “Church and Synagogue”) depicted two female figures. Ecclesia represented the victorious church and Synagoga was the blindfolded, downcast Jewish People. This is called “Supersessionism,” visually depicting an old Christian belief that Jesus, who they identify as the messiah, was foretold in the Jewish Bible/Tanakh and Christianity therefore replaced Judaism.  By refusing to accept this, Jews were defying God’s will.

I was fascinated by the Arch of Titus, erected to mark the Roman victory over the Jews by Vespasian and his son Titus. The arch displays Jewish captives carrying items looted from the Second Temple in Jerusalem – most notably the large menorah. In 1948, Holocaust survivors waving flags and signs supporting the new State of Israel, walked backwards through it to symbolically erase that sad event.  Because I wanted to know where those items are now, I asked a guide at the Vatican where they were hidden. I figured, logically, that since the Emperor Constantine led the Roman Empire to adopt Christianity these sacred objects were eventually stashed away in some underground storeroom to ensure they would not be found or returned to us. I did not receive a satisfactory (or polite) response.

However, I was very upset when I visited San Pietro in Vincoli (“Saint Peter in Chains,” built on older ruins and said to house the chains that bound St. Peter when he was imprisoned in Jerusalem. This church includes Michelangelo’s famous statue of Moses with horns as part of the tomb of Pope Julius II.  The horns on Moses’ head were the result of yet another mistranslation. The Torah says when Moses came down from Har Sinai he had rays of light, carnaim, emanating from his forehead. The Latin Vulgate apparently translated that as kerenim, or horns. Both words are spelled קרניים.

What stopped me in my tracks was a tomb in the wall marked with a cross. Over it was the inscription, Reliquie Dei 7 SS. Fratelli Maccabei, “Relics/Remains of the Seven Most Holy Maccabees.”


I take Hanukkah very seriously and I don’t consider it a minor holiday. Hanukkah celebrates our People’s refusal to assimilate. By retaining our beliefs, traditions and observances in the face of Hellenism, and fighting to preserve them, our ancestors kept Judaism and Am Yisrael alive. Hanukkah is national liberation. We regained our sovereignty in our homeland and rededicated our Temple which had been desecrated by pagan worship. So, finding a tomb for Maccabees in a Roman church bothered me to no end. However, there is no historical evidence to indicate that any Maccabees are interred in Rome, let alone in a church.

Judea established relations with Rome and signed a treaty in 161 BCE. The emissaries, who were sent by Judah Maccabee himself, all returned home safely. However, with the treaty came commerce and the subsequent establishment of the Jewish community of Rome whose initial residents settled in the same neighborhood where they remain today, by the Portico of Octavia. This is the area of the Jewish ghetto of Rome.

So where are the Maccabees actually buried?  There is a sign in the Ben Shemen Forest identifying the tomb, near the village of al-Midiya (under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority) which many believe is the site of the ancient Modi’in. Although scholars have maintained that those graves are from a later period and are not Jewish, archeologists utilizing radar at that location have discovered subterranean walls and chambers beneath those later graves, leading to speculation that this may be the Maccabean burial site.

I’m now almost positive that there are no Maccabees entombed in Rome’s San Pietro in Vincoli, however every Hanukkah I still wonder if, far from Judea and Jerusalem, there is a chance that true Jewish heroes might be interred in an above-ground tomb marked with a cross.

About the Author
Robert L. Kern has served as Director of Marketing & Communications for several "American Friends," Zionist and Jewish organizations. He is a former President of the American Jewish Public Relations Society and a member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Press Association. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.
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