Aphrodisias's ancient agora

A quiet, fertile valley folded into the Mediterranean hills, clear streams, tall poplars, ancient ruins more than 1,400 years old—a picture of pastoral quiet. Twenty-five years ago Kenan T. Erim, archaeologist and art historian at New York University, decided that the site of the ancient Roman city of Aphrodisias had more to offer than that. Now in southwest Turkey (an area known in ancient times as Caria), Aphrodisias was located next to a great marble quarry. The names of its sculptors have shown up as far away as Italy. Wouldn’t this be an ideal place to dig for ancient statues, thought Erim. It would, and it was: In two decades, systematic excavation(1) has produced scores of stone-cut works of art including a great temple complex decorated with marble sculptures. So many statues have been found, in fact, that a site museum has been built to house them.

In 1976, while digging the site intended for the museum, excavators uncovered, to their complete surprise, one of those rare finds that make archaeology the most unpredictable of sciences. A Turkish workman’s spade rang against an immovable object. Carefully unearthed and meticulously brushed off, a massive square pillar, tapering toward one end and taller than a man in its original upright position, saw, for the first time in 14 centuries, the light of the sun. This exposure revealed, on two sides, line after line of Greek lettering.

It came as no surprise that the text was in Greek: Greek was the official, and usually the spoken, language of the cities of the whole eastern half of the Roman empire. Nor was it surprising that the text was inscribed on marble: In this quarry town, marble was almost as freely used for public inscriptions as posters would be today. Erim’s dig had already uncovered a whole catalogue of public messages inscribed on stone.(2) What made this inscription special was that it was installed by the Jewish community of Aphrodisias. Before this, scholars hadn’t even known there was a Jewish community at Aphrodisias. Moreover, this was the longest Jewish inscription ever recovered from the Classical world.

It will undoubtedly shed new light on the history of Judaism, and probably early Christianity as well. But exactly in what way is likely to be debated by archaeologists, historians and theologians for the next generation.

The inscription seems to date to the early third century, about 210 A.D. It is a list of donors—126 of them preserved, perhaps a few more missing. They had contributed to a fund for the construction of a building for community use—the same kind of list that might be found on the wall of a modern synagogue.

The inscription has been dated, read and transcribed by the expedition’s epigrapher, Joyce Reynolds of Newnham College, Cambridge University. The first eight lines introduce the list. Here is a more-or-less literal translation of the text, which is full of scholarly booby traps:

“God [theos] our help [illegible word] dish. The members, listed below, of the board of ten [or “of the association”] of the lovers of learning, also known as those who continually praise [God], have built, at their own expense, for the alleviation of suffering [or “of grief”] in the community, this memorial building [or “this tomb”].

The ambiguities come sometimes from abbreviations that can be spelled out in two ways, and sometimes from Greek words that simply are ambiguous. How were we to choose between alternatives? I say we because Miss Reynolds showed me her transcription of the text when I was passing through Cambridge, and then asked me to try my hand at interpreting it since we had worked together on inscriptions before.

The word “dish” in the first sentence (the Greek word is patella) completely baffled me. “God our help dish” seemed to make no sense at all. Finally, I tried translating the word patella into mishnaic Hebrew, the language of the Palestinian rabbis of the time. The word for dish in mishnaic Hebrew is tamhui. Tamhui also means the daily collection and distribution of food for the poor, which is required by the Mishnah(a) of every Jewish community. Tamhui also means the soup-kitchen from which the distribution to the poor was made. If patella is indeed a translation from Hebrew it seems to mean, on this stone, a kind of soup-kitchen for the poor.
Other ambiguities in the inscription yielded sense in the light of parallels from other more-or-less contemporary rabbinic sources in Palestine.

What is reflected in the introduction, then, is an association of prominent Jews from Aphrodisias. Possibly it was a community association for the supervision of charities and to assure a quorum of ten (a minyan) at synagogue services. Its name also indicates that it was a society for prayer and study. Its members provided the money to begin construction of a soup-kitchen, as a memorial to their piety. Their names are listed below the introduction, followed by lists of later donors to the fund.

What can this tell us about the history of Judaism? First, these men were collecting money to build (not “rebuild” or “refurbish”) a charity station required by the Mishnah in every Jewish community. The Mishnah was just being codified at this time, under the direction of Judah the Prince (Yehudah ha-Nasi’), the leader of the rabbinical movement and, by Roman decree, the chief religious authority of the Jews of Palestine. Known simply as Rabbi, Judah appears to have inherited this position from his father, Rabban Simon ben Gamaliel II. But the Romans seem to have regarded Judah, and possibly also his father, as head of all the Jews in the empire, as well as those in Palestine. We know that Judah, and perhaps his father, sent out official representatives (in Hebrew shaluhim; in Greek apostoloi) to Jewish communities in the Diaspora, to collect money, to regulate the Jewish calendar and to supervise community officers and their activities. We even know the name—Rabbi Me’ir, Judah’s teacher—of one such official who was sent to the cities of Asia, the Roman province in which Aphrodisias lay. To such a man, it would be natural to suggest, when he visited a city like Aphrodisias, the need for a soup-kitchen if one did not exist, and then to name it by a too-literal translation (patella) from mishnaic Hebrew. In other words, he would begin to apply the rules of the Mishnah to the Diaspora.

Did this, or something like this, actually happen? We can’t be sure. But, if it did, the Turkish earth has now relinquished our earliest evidence of rabbinical orthodoxy imposed on the Jews west of Palestine.

Weren’t the Jews of the West always Orthodox? Not exactly. Scraps of evidence from the first two centuries of the Christian era seem to show that Diaspora Judaism wasn’t completely of a piece with rabbinical Judaism in Palestine—close enough on basic questions, but not an exact fit in matters of detail. There were some differences in liturgy (some synagogues in the Diaspora seem to have had an independent prayer book), and other differences in theology (some Jews preached a philosophical deity after the manner of the Stoics). There may have also been some differences in law: Philo of Alexandria, the first-century A.D. Jewish philosopher, cites legal rules that disagree with or ignore rules later codified in the Mishnah. We do not know how widespread or how profound these differences were. By the sixth century, however, it does not matter: there were no differences left. We hear then of Palestinian-style rabbis in the backwaters of Egypt and Italy, and of Jews studying the Mishnah in Constantinople. Orthodox rabbinical Judaism had become universal; it was to remain so for over a thousand years. Does the Aphrodisias inscription show us the beginnings of this process—by which the West was won? So I believe. But there will be endless argument.

That argument will not hold a candle to the coming quarrel over the word theosebeis. On Greek inscriptions from Rome to the Crimea, people called theosebeis (plural of theosebes) appear from time to time. The word means “God-fearers.” Although none of these God-fearers have identifiably Jewish names, they nonetheless donate to Jewish causes. Many scholars have sought to equate these theosebeis with men and women mentioned in Acts as “those who fear God” (hoi phoboumenoi ton theon), or, alternatively as hoi sebomenoi ton theon (sebomenoi is from the same verbal root [sebeo] as it appears in theosebeis). Whether or not Luke’s God-fearers are the theosebeis of the inscriptions is, however, a hotly disputed conclusion.

The people mentioned by Luke in Acts include many of Paul’s first converts; who and what they were is therefore of great importance for understanding the earliest history of the Church and the nature of Paul’s mission.

Paul finds these people in synagogues. He begins speeches in these synagogues with “Men of Israel and those who fear God” (Acts 13:16, 13:26) as though Jews and God-fearers are two different categories of people who attend the synagogue service. Luke calls some of them “Greeks” (Acts 14:1, 17:4, 17:12, 18:4) meaning non-Jews.

Over a century ago, it was pointed out that God-fearers as a description also fits a class of people mentioned in the Talmud,(b) the yirei shamayim, “those who fear (i.e., revere) Heaven (i.e., God).” The yirei shamayim were gentiles interested in Judaism, but not enough to convert; some rabbis said these gentiles would have a share in the resurrection; others argued that they would have to convert first. If these yirei shamayim are the same as the theosebeis of the inscriptions, then we must recognize a great number of gentile fellow-travelers scattered all over the Roman empire; in that case, it would not be surprising that Paul encountered them in the synagogues.

What is a surprise, however, is to find so many of these theosebeis in one place—that is, in Aphrodisias. The names of 54 theosebeis are inscribed on the donors’ list uncovered at Aphrodisias. This is nearly half the total number of names in the inscription. Miss Reynolds’s exhaustive analysis of these names proves that the theosebeis are gentiles. There are only two names among them that might possibly be identified as Jewish. The theosebeis are listed separately from the Jews; and although not all of the Jews on the list have Jewish names, the majority of them do.

The theosebeis not only donate to a Jewish community charity, two of them are members of the Jewish association for, among other things, study and prayer, referred to in the introduction to the inscription. It is clear that the theosebeis are gentiles interested in the Jewish religion, and attached, however loosely, to the Jewish community. The word theosebeis is just another version of “God-fearer.” If that is true at Aphrodisias, it is probably true elsewhere, where theosebeis also contribute to Jewish causes.

We have, then, a widespread phenomenon of Judaizing gentiles in the synagogues: What are they doing there? The Aphrodisias inscription shows us that some devote themselves to study and prayer, just as Jews do.

But what about the rest? Nine of the Aphrodisias God-fearers are members of the city council. Meetings of Greek city councils opened with a sacrifice to one or more of the pagan gods. The city of Aphrodisias was named after Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, the patroness of the city, whose famous temple Professor Erim has excavated. Perhaps the councillors invoked Aphrodite’s aid when they met. In any case, the council included gentiles who feared/revered the Jewish God, but who felt free to join in pagan sacrifice. This would surely be frowned on by Palestinian rabbis. But in fact our inscription confirms what we find in the writings of the Church fathers, where men called theosebeis are said to have one foot in pagan temples and another in the synagogue.(3) God-fearer then is a catch-all term covering a wide spectrum of degrees of interest in Judaism—from the half-hearted to the fully committed—but short of actual conversion.

To what extent did God-fearers feel bound by Jewish law? The Talmud lists generalized requirements—“the seven commandments [given] to the Sons of Noah,” (i.e., non-Jews)—that sometimes seem to apply to God-fearers; but these talmudic lists differ. Diaspora Jewish religious texts in Greek from the second century B.C. to the second century A.D. (the pseudepigrapha) contain lists of what gentiles must do to be saved. But these lists vary even more. It appears that there were no fixed rules for God-fearers to follow, just desirable attitudes they ought to acquire. The law simply does not apply to gentiles, and that would seem to include God-fearers. Yet some God-fearers in Aphrodisias studied the law; many elsewhere observed the Sabbath rest and other customs. The extent to which they obeyed Jewish law seems to have been up to the God-fearers themselves.

To be a God-fearer, then, meant to share in the advantages of Judaism (monotheism, a divinely revealed system of ethics, a hope of immortality and of salvation to come) without having to take on the disadvantages (painful circumcision, 613 commandments, a life hedged about with observances and avoidances). This helps explain why there were so many God-fearers in Aphrodisias—perhaps nearly as many as Jews. (Our list is, of course, limited to those sufficiently well-to-do to contribute to the building fund, but this category would not be limited only to the very wealthy; our list contains the names of several craftsmen as well.)

Can we assume the same high proportion of God-fearers in the synagogues where Paul preached? The late second century A.D., just before the date of our inscription, marks the high point of our evidence for pagan interest in new religions imported from the East, the mysteries of Isis, Cybele, Mithras and other deities. Pagan interest in these Oriental mystery religions is just beginning to leave a mark in our literary sources in the first century B.C. So probably the number of God-fearers was proportionately less in the first century A.D. than in the third.

Nevertheless our inscription does give us valuable insights into the relations between Judaism and Christianity at the beginning of the Christian era. Judaism, by the early third century, may well have been a more popular religion among the pagans, and therefore a more powerful rival to Christianity in the race for the soul of the Roman world, than we have had any reason to think until now. This helps us to understand the tension between the Church and the Synagogue in the first few centuries A.D.

But, in the mid-first century, when Christianity was just emerging from Judaism, how are we to understand the opposition of gentile Christians to Jewish law? They were taught by Paul, a Jew trained in a Jerusalem rabbinical academy. Over half of Paul’s converts mentioned in Acts are God-fearers insofar as we can identify their background. The God-fearers of the Diaspora were not, in practice, bound by Jewish law. In his Epistles (1 Corinthians 7:19; Galatians 6:15), Paul reminds his converts (apparently against the opinion of James, the first bishop of Jerusalem, among others) that gentile Christians need not be circumcised, that baptism is sufficient.(4) Nor need they follow the law, because they are “justified” (i.e., saved, in a preliminary sense) by their faith alone, and will therefore share in the resurrection of the righteous. Paul, in other words, agrees with those rabbis who teach that uncircumcised God-fearers “will have a share in the world to come”; James and his supporters say the opposite.

Paul also agrees with those rabbis who insisted that God-fearers adhere to monotheism; he warns his converts against turning back to “the elements” (Galatians 4:9). “Elements” is a metaphor for pagan gods in the pseuepigrapha. In other words, Paul opposes the more permissive practice of the Diaspora reflected in the Aphrodisias inscription by those God-fearers who were members of the Greek council and sacrificed to pagan gods.

Does Paul’s theology of gentile Christianity (and therefore of all future Christianity) derive from what the rabbis of Palestine and the Jews of the Diaspora said and did about God-fearers? Was the doctrine of Justification by Faith created for the God-fearers whom Paul was able to convert? I do not know how to answer these questions. In the limited state of our evidence, every answer will necessarily be a guess. The God-fearers, of whom this inscription has so much to tell us, will therefore be the subject of a debate that cannot reach a resolution, and the Jewish inscription from Aphrodisias will inevitably be a stone of contention.(5)

1. The excavation has been funded in part by the National Geographic Society.

2. The most important have been published in Joyce M. Reynolds, Aphrodisias and Rome (London: Athlone Press, 1982).

3. So Commodian, a third-century Christian poet, and Cyril of Alexandria, a fifth-century patriarch, who use the word theosebeis.

4. Some of the pseudepigrapha imply the same of pagan converts to Judaism (The Sibylline Oracles 4.164, c. 80 A.D.).

5. The Jewish inscription from Aphrodisias is being published, with extensive commentary, in Reynolds and R. F. Tannenbaum, Jews and God-fearers at Aphrodisias: Greek Inscriptions with Commentary (Cambridge, England: Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society Supplements, 1986).

a. The Mishnah is the collection of rabbinical legal rules compiled in the first decades of the third century A.D.

b. The Talmud is a legal commentary on the Mishnah, in two versions, Jerusalem and Babylonian, published between the fifth and seventh centuries, often embodying older material (and often not).