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An ossuary is essentially a container for bones. In ancient Palestine, people were not buried "six feet under" as they are in the modern West. Instead, their bodies were wrapped with cloth, including heavy doses of spices and ointments, and placed in caves, the mouths of which were covered. The New Testament illustrates this for us not only in the burial of Jesus, but in the burial of Lazarus as well (John 11). After the flesh had rotted off the bones, the bones would be collected in ossuaries for preservation. This practice probably goes far back into the past, as the example of the bones of Joseph may show (Genesis 50:25; Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32).
In the 1950’s an ossuary, dating to the first part of the first century AD was discovered in Jerusalem. This ossuary had an inscription on the lid that reads: "All that a man may find-to-his-profit in this ossuary is an offering (qrbn) to God from him who is within it." The Aramaic wording on the lid of the ossuary is very close to the wording of the Peshitta in Matthew 15:5. The latter uses the same terminology as the ossuary inscription, differing only in some points of syntax. The inscription also corresponds exactly to the Greek of Mark 7:11. Thus it seems to be the case that term corban refers to a dedicatory formula regarding mortuary offerings. The purpose of these dedications would have been to set something apart for sacred use, removing it from the sphere of the profane. In the Old Testament period, such a dedication was reversible, though it was expensive, as the system of reversing the dedication set out in Leviticus 27 shows. As an example, Leviticus 27:15 reads, "And if he who dedicates it wishes to redeem his house, he shall add a fifth of the valuation in money to it, and it shall be his."
Apparently, by the time of the New Testament, the ability to redeem (that is, to reverse the dedication) had been lost, and the dedicatory offerings had been classed with the herem (dedicated to the ban) dedications of Leviticus 27:28, "But no devoted thing that a man devotes to the Lord, of anything that he has, whether of man or beast, or of his inherited field, shall be sold or redeemed; every devoted thing is most holy to the Lord." The herem was a particular sort of ban, under which the thing devoted was devoted for destruction. The most graphic example of this dedication is the city of Jericho, in which not only the city itself, but the population as well was devoted to the Lord for destruction.
The fact that by the time of the New Testament the Jews had lost sight of the distinction between herem and qurban indicates their failure also to recognize that keeping this tradition could require the breaking of the commandment. It is this failure that Jesus emphasizes in his critique.
Later, in the rabbinic period, the qurban does gain the additional sense of pronouncing a curse on the one who would seek to reverse such a dedication. Thus the dedication would be pronounced with a self-curse on the one making the dedication if he failed to keep it. But this is a development beyond the thought of the New Testament period.
Anyone interested in further study of this topic is directed to recent technical commentaries on Mark, and to the essay "Qorban and Mark 7:11/15:5" by Joseph Fitzmyer in The Semitic Background of the New Testament.
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