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Jewish Funerary Inscriptions—Most Are in Greek, Pieter W. van der Horst, BAR 18:05, Sep-Oct 1992.

Beth Shearim CatacombNo less than 1,600 Jewish epitaphs—funerary inscriptions—are extant from ancient Palestine and the Diaspora dating to the Hellenistic and Roman-Byzantine periods (300 B.C.E.–500 C.E.a). They tell us a great deal about the life and ideas of Jews living almost all over the then-known world. This, in turn, sheds considerable light on problems of Jewish history, as well as on Biblical history and exegesis.

New Testament scholars are increasingly studying their sources in the light of Jewish literature of the period, yet strangely enough, the sometimes startling evidence of funerary inscriptions is often ignored. Many scholars simply seem unaware of this evidence. The exceptions stand out- G. H. R. Horsley’s five-volume New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity1 is one; Martin Hengel’s Judaism and Hellenism and The Hellenization of Judaea in the First Century After Christ are others.2

This situation is especially puzzling because most of these inscriptions were collected in the 1930s by the Roman Catholic scholar Jean-Baptiste Frey in his two-volume Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum.3 To be sure, these volumes have been severely criticized not only for sloppiness in presentation, but also because Frey included inscriptions that are probably or certainly not Jewish and excluded inscriptions that probably or certainly are Jewish. This may explain, at least in part, why scholars are hesitant to rely on Frey’s collection. In any event, this collection is now outdated because numerous Jewish inscriptions from the period have been discovered in recent decades. Happily, teams of scholars at both Tubingen and Cambridge Universities are now working on new editions of Jewish epigraphic evidence from various parts of the ancient world. In the meantime, I have recently published a study of ancient Jewish tomb inscriptions- Ancient Jewish Epitaphs.4

Several ancient writers, Jewish as well as pagan, attest to the fact that as early as the first century C.E. there was no part of the then-known world that did not have its share of Jewish population.5 Are these reports reliable, however? Funerary inscriptions enable us to check the veracity of these statements. The geographical spread of these inscriptions, even more than the literary sources, reveals that Jews were indeed living all over the ancient world, especially in the Roman period. When Jesus’ brother James states in Acts 15-21 that “Moses has been preached in every city for generations past and is read in the synagogues on every sabbath” (italics added), we can say that this is a slight exaggeration, if any. The same can be said of the list of countries from which Jews came to Jerusalem, as enumerated by Peter in his famous Pentecostal sermon (Acts 2-9–11).6

One of the most surprising facts about these funerary inscriptions is that most of them are in Greek—approximately 70 percent; about 12 percent are in Latin, and only 18 percent are in Hebrew or Aramaic.

These figures are even more instructive if we break them down between Palestine and the Diaspora. Naturally in Palestine we would expect more Hebrew and Aramaic and less Greek. This is true but not to any great extent. Even in Palestine approximately two-thirds of these inscriptions are in Greek.

Apparently for a great part of the Jewish population the daily language was Greek, even in Palestine. This is impressive testimony to the impact of Hellenistic culture on Jews in their mother country, to say nothing of the Diaspora.

In Jerusalem itself about 40 percent of the Jewish inscriptions from the first-century period (before 70 C.E.) are in Greek. We may assume that most Jewish Jerusalemites who saw the inscriptions in situ were able to read them.

In a first-century C.E. tomb near Jericho, a Jewish family nicknamed the Goliaths (because of their extraordinary stature) inscribed more than half their epitaphs in Greek.b7 A couple of centuries later, the rabbis and their families who were buried at the Palestinian necropolis of Beth She’arim (in the Galilee) inscribed most of their epitaphs in Greek.8 The great rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, the compiler of the Mishnah (a collection of Jewish oral law) in about 200 C.E., was buried in Beth She’arim; the majority of pious Jews who wanted to be buried with him at Beth She’arim had their funerary inscriptions written in Greek.9

This is not to say that Hebrew and Aramaic ever died out completely as languages for the Jews. Especially in the eastern Diaspora, Jews continued to speak a Semitic language. But in the first five centuries of the Common Era, exactly the period when rabbinic literature was being written in Hebrew and Aramaic, a majority of the Jews in Palestine and the western Diaspora spoke Greek. That is probably one reason why there is so little evidence of influence of the Mishnah outside rabbinic circles; this rabbinic document in Hebrew was never translated into Greek (unlike the Hebrew Biblec) and hence could not be read or studied by the majority of Jews.

We also see Greek influence in the forms, formulas and motifs of the Jewish epitaphs. That is only to be expected since there was no Israelite tradition in composing tomb inscriptions. It was the Greeks who elevated funerary inscriptions to an art form. Thus we find poems in Greek with hexametric and iambic meter on Jewish tombstones; Greek literary motifs like death as the equivalent of marriage to the god of the netherworld; references to Greek mythological figures such as Hades, Charon, Lethe and others; all kinds of other Greek concepts and formulas of pagan origin; and Greek epigraphical conventions like the dialogue of the deceased with a passerby and threats and curses aimed at potential tomb-robbers. Apart from their literary aspects, pagan mythological motifs are also found in Jewish funerary art, for example at Beth She’arim, where we find things like a bas-relief of Leda and the Swan.

Let us look at a few samples of these Jewish epitaphs from various parts of the ancient world. A marble slab from the Jewish catacombs in Rome is decorated with a menorah, and is inscribed with the following text in Greek-

“Theodotus, the foster father, to his most sweet child. Would that I, who reared you, Justus, my child, were able to place you in a golden coffin. Now, oh Lord, [grant] in your righteous judgment a sleep in peace to Justus, an incomparable child.

“Here I lie, Justus, 4 years [and] 8 months, who was sweet to my foster father.”10

The inscription combines several classical elements- It begins with a dedication by the foster father to the deceased foster child. Then the foster father addresses the deceased boy himself. Further words are then addressed to God. Finally, there are words the deceased child is supposed to have spoken. Most of the time these elements occur only in isolation on different inscriptions; sometimes two are found in one inscription; but here all of them occur together.

From Rome, let us go to the catacombs of Beth She’arim in the Galilee where we find this poetic epitaph-

“I, Justus, son of Leontius and Sappho, lie here dead. I plucked the fruit of all kinds of wisdom and then left the light. I left my poor parents in endless mourning, and also my brothers in my Beth She’arim, alas!

“And having gone to Hades, I, Justus, lie here with many of my own kindred, since mighty Fate so willed. Be of good courage, Justus, no one is immortal.”11

This epitaph is clear proof that Palestinian Jews were familiar not only with the Greek language but also with Greek literature. This poem is full of Homeric phraseology and diction. Note also the reference to Fate, the Greek goddess Moira. Apparently Justus sees no problem in using the term, in the tradition of Greek epitaphs, in order to say that it was his destiny to die young.

The final formula in this epitaph, “be of good courage, no one is immortal” occurs frequently in both pagan and Jewish epitaphs. Its meaning has been much debated. At first glance it seems to be an expression of resignation. No one is immortal, death is common to all people, so try to be courageous in the face of the inevitable. Such sentiments may well have existed among Jews, who certainly did not all believe in immortality of the soul or resurrection of the body.12 That a belief in afterlife was not accepted by all Jews is evidenced, for example, in a somewhat cynical epitaph of a Roman Jew named Leo, which says, “Friends, I await you here!”13 Some evidence indicates, however, that the formula “Be of good courage, no one is immortal” was also used by Jews who did believe in a blessed afterlife. In two Beth She’arim inscriptions we find- “Keep courage, holy fathers, no one is immortal” and “Good luck with your resurrection.”14 Both inscriptions are by the same hand. The second indicates that the use of this formula could well go together with a belief in resurrection.

A very different tomb inscription in Greek comes from the island of Rheneia, near Delos. This is one of the earliest Jewish tomb inscriptions yet to be discovered, probably dating to the second century B.C.E. It is a prayer for vengeance-

“I call upon and pray to God the Most High, the Lord of the spirits and of all flesh, against those who have treacherously murdered or poisoned the poor Heraclea, who died untimely, and who have unjustly shed her innocent blood; may the same happen to them who have murdered or poisoned her and to their children, Lord, you who see everything, and you, angels of God, for whom every soul humiliates itself on this day with supplications, [hoping] that you revenge her innocent blood and settle your account with them as soon as possible.”15

Both the vocabulary and the phraseology echo the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint.16 For example, “the day on which every soul humiliates itself with supplications” is strongly reminiscent of Leviticus 23-29, “Every soul that shall not humiliate itself on that day shall be cut off from its people,” which is a reference to fasting on the Day of Atonement.

Jewish tomb inscriptions also tell us a little about life expectancy in ancient times. The average age at death for men in these Jewish epitaphs is 29 years; for women, 27 years.17 No wonder that in the following Jewish epitaph from Rome gratitude is expressed for a life so long that the deceased enjoyed 34 years of marriage and lived to see her grandchildren-

“Kattia Ammias, daughter of Menophilus, father of the synagogue of the Karkaresians, who lived a good life in Judaism. Having lived 34 years with her husband she saw from her children her grandchildren. Here lies Kattia Ammias.”18

The deceased woman was the daughter of a “father of the synagogue.” This title is found in many inscriptions, but unfortunately they yield no information on the tasks or authority of this official. Most scholars assume that the title was “purely an honorary one, probably involving no active duties.”19 Some scholars, however, believe this synagogue official was the organizer of the charitable activities of the community. There is no supporting evidence for either opinion; we simply do not know.

Since Kattia’s marriage lasted 34 years, she probably reached an age of almost 50 years,20 a ripe old age for the time.

Some 80 Jewish epitaphs have been found at the site of Leontopolis in Egypt, where, in the middle of the second century B.C.E., the Jerusalem high priest Onias established a rival temple after having been expelled from his position in Jerusalem. Even today the site is called Tell el-Yehudieh (hill of the Jews). The following epitaph from Leontopolis is in typical Greek poetic form. It also contains a major theme21 in ancient funerary epigraphy- A deceased child never got the chance to marry. The death of an unmarried person involved a lack of completeness; it meant an unfinished life-

“This is the tomb of Horaia; wayfarer, shed a tear. The daughter of Nikolaos, who was unfortunate in all things in her thirty years. Three of us are here, husband, daughter, and I whom they struck down with grief. My husband died on the third, then on the fifth my daughter Eirene, to whom marriage was not granted. I then with no place or joy was laid here after them under the earth on the seventh of Choiak. But, stranger, you have already all there is to know from us to tell all men of the swiftness of death.”22

The next epitaph, also from Leontopolis, is that of a woman who died in childbirth, a frequently mentioned cause of death-

“This is the grave of Arsinoe, wayfarer. Stand by and weep for her, unfortunate in all things, whose lot was hard and terrible. For I was bereaved of my mother when I was a little girl, and when the flower of my youth made me ready for a bridegroom, my father married me to Phabeis. And Fate brought me to the end of my life in bearing my firstborn child. I had a small span of years, but great grace flowered in the beauty of my spirit. This grave hides in its bosom my chaste body, but my soul has flown to the holy ones. Lament for Arsinoe.”23

That “my soul has flown to the holy ones” surely indicates that whoever set up this tombstone believed in some form of afterlife, possibly the everlasting life of the immortal soul. In the period of these inscriptions, around the turn of the era, Judaism was developing various forms of belief in life after death, which is nearly absent, however, from the Hebrew Bible (apart from its latest book, Daniel). In the Jewish literature of the Hellenistic and Roman periods, we can see a wide variety of ideas on afterlife existing side by side with one another. Some of this variety is reflected in funerary epitaphs. Only gradually, over the centuries, did the doctrine of the bodily resurrection at the end of time become the “orthodox” view.

One Jewish funerary inscription even testifies to a belief in astral immortality, an immensely popular notion in educated pagan circles in the Hellenistic and Roman world.24 Literary evidence, too, indicates that this notion had penetrated Jewish circles.25 In a Jewish inscription from Corycos in Cilicia (in modern Turkey), we are told-

“Don’t be despondent, for nobody is immortal except One, He who ordered this to happen (and) who has placed us in the sphere of the planets.”26

The author of this epitaph believed that, probably immediately after the deceased’s death, God allowed the deceased to dwell among the planets or stars and to experience eternal bliss by being a heavenly body. The heavenly bodies were regarded as living beings, most often as angels.27 The deceased thus becomes an angelic or heavenly being that lives the eternal life of a heavenly “body.” “Body” must be in quotation marks here, because this certainly does not imply a belief in bodily resurrection.

The more traditional notion of life after death is found in the only Jewish funerary poem in Latin from Rome, which begins,

“Here lies Regina, covered by such a tomb … ”28

It is depicted with a full translation of the long poem. In this inscription the phrase, “abode in the hallowed land,” refers either to paradise or to Jerusalem, where the resurrection was sometimes expected to take place. There the deceased will live again a life in the body- “to rise” and “to come to the light again,” traditional formulas for resurrection.

Recent discoveries are of additional interest because of possible links with individuals mentioned in the New Testament. The 1990 excavation of a first-century family tomb in Jerusalem, which may have belonged to the family of the high priest Caiaphas, is examined in “Burial Cave of the Caiaphas Family.”29

Are there any other epitaphs of biblical persons? Perhaps. Another first-century Jerusalem ossuary from the Kidron Valley reads on the front and on the back in Greek, “Alexander, the son of Simon”; on the lid in Greek, “of Alexander,” and in Hebrew, “Alexandros Qrnyt.”30 One interpretation is to read the final word as qornit, which is the name of an aromatic plant; then it would be a nickname for Alexander. Another possibility, tentatively suggested by Nahman Avigad, is to read these letters as qrnyh= qireniyah= Cyrene. Then the name is “Alexander of Cyrene.” This solution is not certain beyond any doubt, but if it could be made more certain, we would have the epitaph of a Jew from Cyrene named Alexander, with a father called Simon. In the Gospel of Mark, we read that the Roman soldiers compelled a passer-by, Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander, to carry Jesus’ cross (Mark 15-21). Of course, this may be a sheer coincidence, for one may argue that the names Alexander and Simon are too common to establish such a connection with Mark’s story. On the other hand, this is the only instance we have of the combination “Alexander the son of Simon.” If indeed they were from Cyrene, there is at least a good chance that we have here the ossuary of the son of the man who carried Jesus’ cross.31

Clearly, there are many uncertainties here. But as this modest harvest is increased, there is one certainty- The future will bring more surprises.32

a. B.C.E. (Before the Common Era) and C.E. (Common Era), used by this author, are the alternate designations corresponding to B.C.E. and A.D. often used in scholarly literature.

b. See Rachel Hachlili and Ann Killebrew, “The Saga of the Goliath Family—As Revealed in Their Newly Discovered 2,000-Year-Old Tomb,” BAR 09-01.

1. G.H.R. Horsley, New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, 5 vols. (New South Wales, Aust.- Macquarie Univ., 1981–1989).

2. Martin Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism (London- SCM, 1974); Hellenization of Judaea in the First Century After Christ (London- SCM, 1990).

3. Jean-Baptiste Frey, Corpus Inscriptionum Judaicarum (CIJ), 2 vols. (Rome- Pontificio Istituto di Archeologia Cristiana, 1936–1952). The first volume was reprinted (Hoboken, NJ- Ktav, 1975) with an extensive Prolegomenon containing many additions and corrections by Baruch Lifshitz. The often-used abbreviation CII should be avoided since it also stands for Corpus Inscriptionum Iranicarum.

4. Pieter W. van der Horst, Ancient Jewish Epitaphs- An Introductory Survey of a Millennium of Jewish Funerary Epigraphy (300 B.C.E.–700 C.E.) (Kampen, Neth.- Kok-Pharos, 1991).

5. See, for example, Philo, Legatio ad Gaium 214; Josephus, The Jewish War 2.398 and 7.43; Sibyline Oracles 3.271; Strabo, cited in Josephus, Antiquities 14.115; Seneca, cited in Augustine, City of God 6.11.

6. See Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Tübingen- Mohr, 1989), pp. 222–223. For an extensive survey of Diaspora settlements (based to a very great extent on epigraphical evidence) see Menahem Stern, “The Jewish Diaspora,” in The Jewish People in the First Century, ed. Shmuel Safrai and M. Stern (Assert, Neth.- van Gorcum/Philadelphia- Fortress, 1974), vol. 1, pp. 117–183, and also Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. ed. Geza Vermes et al. (Edinburgh- T & T. Clark, 1986), vol. 3, pp. 1–86.

7. Rachel Hachlili, “The Goliath Family in Jericho- Funerary Inscriptions from a First-Century A.D. Jewish Monumental Tomb,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 235 (1979), pp. 31–66.

8. Moshe Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She’arim II; The Greek Inscriptions (Jerusalem- Massada, 1974).

9. Lifshitz, “L’hellenisation des Juifs de Palestine,” Revue biblique 72 (1965), pp. 520–538.

10. Frey, CIJ 358, imperial period. On Jewish Rome the best work is still Harry Joshua Leon, The Jews of Ancient Rome (Philadelphia- Jewish Publication Society, 1960).

11. Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She’arim, no. 127, third century C.E.

12. Think, for example, of the Sadducees; see Jean le Moyne, Les Sadduceéns (Paris- Gabalda, 1972), pp. 167–175.

13. Frey, CIJ 32.

14. Schwabe and Lifshitz, Beth She’arim, nos. 193 and 194.

15. Frey, CIJ 725.

16. Adolph Deissmann long ago pointed this out. See his Licht vom Osten, 4th ed. (Tubingen- Mohr, 1923), pp. 351–362.

17. For the extremely complicated demographic problems concerned with the calculation of the age at death, see my Ancient Jewish Epitaphs, pp. 73–84, where the relevant literature is discussed.

18. Frey, CIJ 537, not from Porto, as Frey asserted in CIJ, pp. 396–407; see the corrections by Leon, “The Jewish Community of Ancient Porto,” Harvard Theological Review 45 (1952), pp. 165–175.

19. Leon, Jews of Ancient Rome, p. 186; cf. Schürer, History of the Jewish People, vol. 3, p. 101.

20. For the average age at marriage, probably about 14 or 15 years, see my Ancient Jewish Epitaphs, chap. 7, “Women,” esp. pp. 103–104.

21. Richard Lattimore, Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (Urbana- Illinois Univ. Press, 1942), pp. 192–194, gives abundant references. Of special importance is the study by M. Alexiou and P. Dronke, “The Lament of Jephtha’s Daughter- Themes, Traditions, Originality,” Studi Medievali (3rd ser.) 12 (1971), pp. 819–863, esp. pp. 832–837 on funerary inscriptions.

22. Frey, CIJ 1509.

23. Frey, CIJ 1510.

24. Franz Cumont, Lux Perpetua (Paris- Geuthner, 1949), pp. 142–188, idem, AfterLife in Roman Paganism (New York- Dover, 1959 [1922]), pp. 91–109, esp. pp. 96–106; M. P. Nilsson, Geschichte der griechischen Religion 2nd ed. (Munich- Beck, 1961), vol. 2, pp. 278–279.

25. See e.g. Daniel 12-3; 1 Enoch 104-2; 4 Maccabees 17-5; 4 Ezra 7-97 (cf. 125); 2 Baruch 51-10.

26. Frey, CIJ 788.

27. See my Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides (Leiden- Brill, 1978), pp. 186–188, W. Bousset and H. Gressmann, Die Religion des Judentums im spathellenistischen Zeitalter (Tübingen- Mohr, 1926), pp. 322–323; Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, vol. 1, pp. 196–197. For a balanced discussion, see now Michael E. Stone, Fourth Ezra (Minneapolis- Fortress Press, 1990), pp. 244–245 (ad 7-97).

28. Frey, CIJ 476.

29. R. Reisner, “Wurde das Familiengrab des Hohenpriesters Kajaphas entdeckt?” Bibel und Kirche 46 (1991), pp. 82–84.

30. Nahman Avigad, “A Depository of Inscribed Ossuaries in the Kidron Valley,” Israel Exploration Journal 12 (1962), pp. 9–12.

31. See also Hengel, Hellenization of Judaea, p. 67, n. 39.

32. For a general survey of New Testament names occurring in Acts that are also found in Jewish inscriptions, see Hemer, The Book of Acts, pp. 221–239.

1 Comment on "Jewish Funerary Inscriptions—Most Are in Greek, Pieter W. van der Horst, BAR 18:05, Sep-Oct 1992."

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  1. Zev says:

    Dear Madam/Sir,

    Our Photo Archive specializes in Biblical subjects. We have one of the worlds largest collection (mosaics, carvings etc.) of Hebrew, Roman, Greek, Samaritan and other inscriptions from the middle east and mainly of the “Bible Lands” area.
    Please have a look at our site: , perhaps you will find interest in some of the material.

    Zev Radovan,

    P.S. when on site please click the word ‘mosaic’ or/and ‘inscription’