BMCR 2005.09.58

Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis I. Eastern Europe. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 101

, , , Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis I. Eastern Europe. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 101. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004. xvi, 397. €99.00.

The first in a series of publications devoted to inscriptions identified as Jewish (and Samaritan), this important volume covers the areas Pannonia, Dalmatia, Moesia, Thrace, Macedonia, Achaea, Crete and the north coast of the Black Sea.1 A total of 141 (Pannonia 5; Dalmatia 5; Moesia 2; Thrace 5; Macedonia 18; Achaea 75; Crete 3; The Black Sea north shore 28) inscriptions for nearly a millennium of history, these snippets into the lives of individuals and communities provide precious testimony regarding the Jewish and Samaritan Diasporas between the fourth century BCE and the seventh century CE. These epigraphical texts are all the more tantalizing in view of the paucity, indeed often the complete absence, of literary testimonies that refer either to Jews or to Judaism in these parts.

Few are dated but the dates supply crucial anchors: Pannonia no 3 to 233-5 CE (dedication to Severus Alexander and Julia Mamaea); Pannonia no 5 to 198-210 CE (joint reigns of Caracalla and Geta); Dalmatia 4 to CE 539 consulship and indiction); Achaea 38-9 and 74 to 37-4 BCE (Herod’s reign); Achaea 42 to 163/2 BCE (archonship); Achaea 43 to 158/7 BCE (archonship); Achaea 53 to 246 CE; Achaea 69 to 4 BCE-39 CE (reign of tetrarch Herod Antipas); Black Sea 4 to 306 CE (Diocletian and Maximian; local era); Black Sea 5 to 81 CE (local era); Black Sea 8 to 58 CE (local era); Black Sea 17 to 17 CE (local era); Black Sea 18 to 52 CE (local era); Black Sea 20 to 41 CE (local era); Black Sea 21 to 93-123 CE (local era); BS 22 to 68 CE (local era); BS 23 to 59/60 CE (local era); BS 27 to 45-63 CE (local era). Half of the dated inscriptions (10 out of 20) belong to the north coast of the Black Sea and range between the first and the early fourth centuries CE. Discounting BS 4, which is a dedication of a “synagogue” (or rather proseuche, prayer house), all the dated Black Sea inscriptions belong to a thematically and chronologically homogeneous group dealing with manumission between c. 50-100 CE. The other ten dated inscriptions of the region, ranging from 163 BCE to CE 539 reflect the vast chronology of the project. Based on these scant statistics it seems that Jews had migrated from Palestine to the Greek mainland as early as the third century BCE, if not before. Yet, the small number of the inscriptions overall also suggest that in spite of the relative proximity of Greece to Judaea-Palestine, other destinations, such as Asia Minor, proved considerably more attractive.

In a brief (2 page) introduction the editors acknowledge the difficulties of identifying an inscription as ‘Jewish’. They suggest the following criteria in determining the Jewishness of the inscription: use of Hebrew, Jewish symbols, Jewish terminology or designations, distinctively Jewish names, synagogal provenance, reference to famous Jews, ‘Jewish’ formulae, and reference to Samaritans. These are useful although each one is problematic, not the least the need to distinguish between Jewish and Samaritan, a distinction sharply drawn in rabbinic sources and somewhat less sharply delineated in the reality, for example, of late ancient Palestine. Even the Jewish symbol par excellence, the menorah or the seven branch candelabra, is not always seven branched or used within an exclusively Jewish realm. In fact, Samaritan oil lamps boast with considerable frequency the same symbols which are commonly associated with Judaism.2

Rarely, the inscription itself clearly refers to ‘a Jew by race’, as does Ach 42 from Delphi which deals with the manumission of one Iudaios without disclosing the circumstances of the enslavement. The Black Sea manumitting inscriptions feature the formulaic “community of the Jews” ( synagoges ton Iudaion). Funerary inscriptions, the majority of the collection, are less revealing, and their Jewishness often rests solely on the use of ‘Jewish’ symbols.

Each inscription is well presented with reference to its previous editions, illustrations, bibliography, provenance, language, date, text, translation and discussion. Each of the provinces earns a brief historical survey with references to what is known of Jewish history in this area. Map references rely on TAVO (= Tubinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients). A cross reference to the Barrington Atlas would have been welcome.

With exemplary care the editors reconstruct the micro-cosmos that lurks behind each of these inscriptions. An example suffices. A Jew named Aurelius Dionysius from Palestinian Tiberias, seat of the Palestinian Jewish patriarch in late antiquity, passed away in Dalmatia some time in the 3rd or 4th centuries (Dal 2). His Latin epitaph, written in Greek characters, refers to his religion, provenance and, more surprisingly, to his three children. No less astonishing, if contemporary, is the appearance of an ascia on the tombstone, unless the Tiberian father had been a carpenter. Did the man migrate to Dalmatia in search of better job opportunities? Had he had relatives there already? Did he marry a woman from the area and left Palestine to join her family? Who knows? The use of Latin in Greek characters reflects the peculiar linguistic heritage of the province which, in the late fourth/early fifth century (as part of the Illyrican prefecture), also became a major bone of contention between the East and the West. The Tiberian’s mother tongue would have been Palestinian Aramaic or, less likely, Greek. His children may have found no one capable of inscribing Hebrew letters on their parent’s tombstone.

Such vignettes constitute valuable though patchy fragments of narratives. The value and limitations of epigraphy are well illustrated in the case of the Samaritan inscriptions included in this volume side by side with the Jewish one. Samaritan history goes back to the pages of the Hebrew Bible. Well documented in later Jewish sources such as the writings of Josephus and rabbinic literature, the Samaritans burst into the pages of Christian writers of late antiquity as bearers of rebellion in Palestine. Several Samaritan revolts and riots are recorded between the late fifth and the late sixth centuries. Samaritan chronicles, however, are late medieval products and preserve the haziest outline of their ancient history. Samaritan liturgy, a product of late antiquity, is fascinating but it is rather difficult to derive history from texts of synagogal services. The identification of several inscriptions as Samaritan is crucial for the history of a minority whose diaspora is meagerly documented.

From the Christian necropolis of Salone (Split) hails a Samaritan woman (the Sama part being a modern reconstruction) who died in CE 539 (consulship dating) at the age of 27 (Dal 4). The editors entertain the possibility that this woman was either a Christian or a Samaritan or, one may add, a Samaritan who converted to Christianity. Her interment in a non-Samaritan cemetery should not occasion surprise. Even in Palestine Jews and non-Jews are occasionally found within the same funerary context. That she was a refugee from Palestine, as is suggested, seems unlikely. No known locality beginning with Pito- is listed anywhere in late ancient Palestine.3 Moreover, the family of a Samaritan from Palestine was hardly likely to favor the use of consular dating in view of the strained relations between the Roman imperial government and the Samaritan communities in Palestine. Since the inscription proclaims that the young woman has lived well during her 27 years she must have been a native of the area where she was buried, unmarried and childless.

Less doubt appears, at first, in the case of a family from Macedonian Thessalonike (Mac 17) who paid to have biblical verses from the Pentateuch (Numbers 6.22-7) inscribed in Greek translation laced with a blessing in Hebrew written in the Samaritan script. Even here not all is clear. The Greek translation is not entirely consistent with the LXX nor the letters with other samples of the so-called Samaritan script. But the quotation from the Pentateuch and its subject, the blessing of Aaron, a favorite Samaritan biblical figure, as well as the use of the formula ‘one God’ ( heis theos), commonly (but not exclusively) associated with Samaritans, and the hailing of Neapolis (Schechem), the major Samaritan urban center in late antiquity, all point in the direction of Samaritans. Dated somewhere between the fourth and the sixth centuries CE this inscription hints at the existence of a Samaritan synagogue in Thessalonike and of a community that used not the Hebrew Pentateuch, as did the Palestinian Samaritans, but a Greek (LXX?) translation, as did indeed the Jews of the Diaspora. In CE 553 a law of Justinian (Novella 146) enforced the use of the LXX in synagogues, possibly Jewish and Samaritan alike. Whether this inscription indicates compliance or deviance remains to be seen.

The most famous Samaritan diaspora was attested, of all places, on the island of Delos, with a handful of much discussed and controversial inscriptions. A century ago an excavated area on the island was identified as a synagogue. Several inscriptions which record vows have been associated with Jews of Delos. Two, Ach 66 and 67 (dated between 250-50 BCE, are clearly connected with Samaritan matters. They contain a reference to Mount Garizim, the holiest Samaritan sanctuary (near Schechem-Neapolis) and the object of the donations recorded, and they qualify the Delian Samaritan community as ‘Israelites’. In both cases the subject is an act of generosity, rewarded with a golden wreath and a marble stele, by an individual from Crete, possibly a Samaritan by creed if not by birth. Another donor, this time to the Delian temple of Sarapis (Ach 68, dated 100 CE), is identified as a man hailing from Samaria. Whether pagan or, Samaritan, and more likely the former, it seems that Delos has attracted a number of individuals from Samaritan settlements in Judaea who flourished in their newly chosen home.

A few other inscriptions associated with Samaritans point to marital networks (Ach 35, 1st century CE?, from Athens refers to a Samaritan woman married to an Antiochene); Ach 36 and 37 record names of women who are identified as Samaritan; Ach 41, dated to the 4th-3rd century BCE indicates involvement in civic affairs, numbering a “Samaritan” among members of a local thiasos. An intriguing amulet from Corinth (Ach 50), covered with a pastiche of Pentateuchal verses in Samaritan script, possibly also provides covert references to Baba Rabba, a well known Samaritan leader and reformer, whose dates remain uncertain (late third/early fourth?) and whose exploits, including organized opposition to the Roman authorities, are recorded solely in late Samaritan chronicles. That this amulet found its way into the coffers of a Christian owner has been suggested on the basis of the absence of references to Samaritans in Thessalonike. This is not unlikely but problematic. Perhaps Baba Rabba’s fame has reached the Samaritans in Corinth. He is alleged to have spent some time in Constantinople at the imperial court. In any case, the Hebrew amulet, if a Palestinian product, seems to have followed Paul in his meandering through the Mediterranean.

The difficulties of associating an inscription with ethnicity, creed, symbolism, or language are strikingly illustrated on a funerary stele from Aquincum, Pannonia (Pan 2, late 4th century CE) which bears a family portrait, a Greek text (memorial) naming three individuals, including one named Benjamin, three menorahs, and three times the phrase ‘One God’ ( eis theos). The editors correctly state that this is a case of reuse, printing the original (Latin) funerary inscription and diffusing the excitement createdy by the possibility of a unique Jewish group portrait, not to mention the seeming violation of the Second Commandment of no graven images. The formula ‘One God’, seems to be most often associated with Samaritanism rather than with Judaism of late antiquity. The triad of menorahs and of the heart of the Shema prayer suggest a polemical context aimed at the Trinity. Whether Jewish or, as I suspect, Samaritan, the reuse of a pagan (?) stele, and the triple assertion of monotheistic identity along the Danube in late antiquity suggest the extension of contemporary polemics to the northern frontiers of the empire.

At the end of the volume are many indexes (but no straightforward list of all the inscriptions and their date) and two maps referring to sites of inscriptions. Overall, this enormous undertaking is an exceptionally welcome addition to the sources relating to minorities in antiquity in general and, of course, to Jewish and Samaritan diasporas in particular. Together, the volumes in this series provide an indispensable tool of scholarship and a model of erudition.


1. For review of vol. 3 see BMCR 2005.02.23.

2. See the various publications of Varda Sussman.

3. Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea-Palestina does not list a village by that name.