Christian Living

BibleArcheology 10/05/10

The Man Who Made the Doors

I love a good cemetery in any form - graveyard, necropolis, sepulcher, or catacomb. And in my mind, Jerusalem has some of the world's best cemeteries. In his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote a line that I've never been able to get out of my head: "And what the dead had no speech for, when living, they can tell you, being dead."

One of my favorite graveyard storytellers is a man called Nicanor of Alexandria.

Nicanor was a craftsman who lived sometime in the first century A.D. Some traditions say he lived in the Egyptian capital of Alexandria; others say he later moved to Jerusalem. He is best known for donating an elaborate set of bronze doors for a gate in Herod's Temple in Jerusalem.

Jewish tradition spins a tall tale about the journey of these doors from Egypt to Jerusalem. Here's the rather unbelievable story, straight from the Talmud:

"When Nicanor went to Alexandria in Egypt to bring the doors, on his return a huge wave threatened to engulf him. Thereupon they took one of the doors and cast it into the sea, but still the sea continued to rage. When they prepared to cast the other one into the sea, Nicanor rose and clung to it, saying, 'Cast me in with it.' The sea immediately became calm. He was, however, deeply grieved about the other door. As they reached the harbor of Acre (present-day Akko in Israel), the door broke the surface and appeared from under the sides of the boat. Subsequently, all the gates of the Temple were changed for golden ones, but the Nicanor gates, which were said to be of bronze, were left because of the miracles wrought with them." (Yoma 38a).

According to the historian Josephus, the Nicanor Gate separated the Court of Women from the court of the Israelites. Other Jewish writings give us a little more detail: "In the east there was the Gate of Nicanor, which had two rooms attached, one on its right and one on its left, one the room of Phinehas the dresser and one the room of the griddle cake makers" (Mishnah, Middot 1:4).

None of the writers, however, said exactly when during the first century Nicanor's doors were added to the Temple complex. Were they standing in Jesus' day? If they were, Mary and Joseph would have sacrificed their pigeons or turtledoves just outside the Gate of Nicanor when they presented Jesus in the Temple. This is where the prophetess Anna, who, according to Luke's gospel, "never left the Temple," would have met them and prophesied about the infant Jesus, in the Court of the Women. This gate is where the lepers Jesus had healed would have presented themselves to the priests so they could worship. Jesus himself would have walked through the Nicanor Gate into the Court of the Israelites to worship or teach.

After the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Nicanor was relegated to a supernatural legend that added to the mystique of the long-lost Temple.

That is... until someone found his tomb.

To view a slide show of Nicanor's Tomb please click here.

In October, 1902, a limestone ossuary (bone box) was found in a cave on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, on what is now the campus of Hebrew University. Nicanor's name was inscribed on the box in Hebrew, along with a Greek inscription that read "the bones of the children of Nicanor of Alexandria who made the doors." His gift was still so well-known at the time of his death that everyone in Jerusalem knew what "The Doors" were.

Today, the so-called "Cave of Nicanor" is still one of the most elaborate and best-preserved tomb complexes ever found in Jerusalem, with a large courtyard and five burial chambers. Hidden away in a botanical garden on the University's campus, it's an unusually quiet, green spot in a city of dust, car horns, shouting peddlers, and camera-snapping tourists. Nicanor's ossuary is now in the London's British Museum, but the rest of the bone boxes remain in situ, beautifully arranged in the cave complex, ornately carved in vivid colors. You can walk as far inside the caves as you want and even touch the ossuaries. Or maybe you're not allowed to touch them, and I just did because no one was around to stop me. That's highly possible.

No one knows exactly when Nicanor and his family died. Clearly, they were gone by the time Titus and his Roman legions torched the Temple in A.D. 70, or else they wouldn't have been allowed burial in Jerusalem. I'm sure he would have been surprised to learn that his bone box survived almost 2000 years longer than his "miraculous" doors.

Which leads me to ask this: what are you doing today and how long will it survive after you're gone?

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