Commentary Magazine

The Catacombs

To the Editor:

Profound thanks to Michael Ledeen for his article, “The Unknown Catacombs” [September]. In 1970 a Friar at the San Sebastiano catacombs almost directly across the Via Appia Antica angrily insisted to me that he had never heard of the Jewish catacombs, that they did not exist, and that he would have no interest in them if they did exist. Yet the Jewish catacombs are clearly indicated . . . on my tourist map of Rome published by OTO Edizioni Roma. They are also mentioned . . . in the 1965 Hachette English-language guide to Italy.

Can Mr. Ledeen suggest ways of achieving positive action in this matter?

[Dr.] Harvey T. Adelson
Montvale, New Jersey



To the Editor:

May one who has spent several summers visiting archaeological sites in Rome and Italy be allowed to comment on Michael Ledeen’s article? I have found the state of most Italian archaeological sites deplorable, but in general those administered by the Church are less deplorable than those run by the Italian state. In this respect I have always thought that until Rome’s Jewish community and others took an interest in the Jewish catacombs, they were better off under the benign neglect of the Vatican than under Italian supervision.

Vatican-Jewish relations in Rome have been so bad until recently that it is difficult to discuss the Vatican’s maintenance of the Jewish catacombs dispassionately. I agree with Mr. Ledeen’s belief that it is hard not to exclude residual anti-Semitism as a factor in keeping the Jewish catacombs of Rome in obscurity. However, Mr. Ledeen’s further assertion that this is possibly due to the fact that the catacombs contain some bombshells about early Christian history is just plain silly. . . . Christian theologians have long realized that there existed in early imperial Rome a clear-cut division between Christians and Jews. In addition, art historians have explained the absence of representations of Christ’s crucifixion and death not, contrary to Mr. Ledeen’s view, as some attempt to deny their occurrence (why were they kept in the Gospels if this was the case?), but to play down this shameful aspect of Christ’s ministry (his execution by Roman officials as a common criminal in a disgusting manner) in favor of emphasizing the more attractive aspects of the Christian story. . . .

The article should be followed up by the formation of a committee of interested Americans to work with Roman Jews to effect a transfer of these catacombs into the hands of more interested parties. After achieving that, such a group could begin work on restoring other neglected sites of Jewish interest throughout the Mediterranean. I myself saw neglected Jewish catacombs in Sicily and Malta whose restoration the authorities there would no doubt encourage. . . .

John T. Marrone
Scarsdale, New York



Michael Ledeen writes:

Many thanks to Harvey T. Adel-son and John T. Marrone for their kind words. Dr. Adelson’s experiences at San Sebastiano were quite typical, and I should add that since the writing of my article the catacombs at Villa Torlonia—which had briefly been opened to the public for one-half day a week—have been closed.

Mr. Marrone may well be right in claiming that the Jewish catacombs contain no “bombshells,” but it is difficult to verify that, or its opposite, so long as the catacombs remain under Vatican control. He has also misunderstood one of my points: I did not argue that there was an attempt in early Christian art to deny that the crucifixion and death of Jesus had taken place. I argued, in line with the best scholarship in this field (in which I am most surely not an expert), that “Christian” and “Jewish” art in the early years of the Common Era are indistinguishable, and that they most likely form part of a common tradition. This, along with the existence of a far larger and more important Jewish community in ancient Rome than is commonly recognized, could perhaps be established by an analysis of the Jewish catacombs. But since all the artifacts from these catacombs have been stowed away by the Vatican, we simply are groping in the dark, both metaphorically and literally. To take the most elementary problem: will there be any reason to believe that the Vatican has turned over the full inventory if and when a transfer of control takes place?

As for the method of getting at this important Jewish patrimony, at present the Vatican controls the catacombs as a result of Italian law, and the law must be changed in order for transfer of control to occur. I am personally convinced that nothing will happen as long as the officials of the Roman Jewish community continue to pretend that all is well, and that the Vatican administration of the catacombs has been exemplary. Consequently, the first step in this process must be for concerned organizations to assure the Italian Jews that they will have full support if they decide to press for Jewish control. This will inevitably mean guarantees of financial and cultural aid. Without that, one must agree with Mr. Marrone that the Vatican, on balance, probably does better than the Italian state (it has far greater financial and cultural resources), even though one must doubt that the Church has shown “benign neglect” in this field. The destruction of several catacombs and the sack of others are hardly benign; nor does it stop at neglect, any more than disposing of Jewish religious culture in a tiny display case—as the Vatican Museum did in its exhibit of religious cultures of the world—constitutes a mere oversight.

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