This is the first volume in a projected series of nine volumes dedicated to the classical epigraphy of Israel, a modern state with somewhat fluctuating borders that do not, however, correspond to either ancient Judaea or to Roman Palestine. The corpus’s uniqueness, according to the brief introduction, resides in its multi-lingual aspect. Its chronological spectrum embraces nearly a millennium (c. 300 BCE to c. 640 CE), and the editors ought to be commended for attempting to break away from the traditional chronologies that have dominated the field of Jewish studies. Thus, instead of “Second Temple” and the “Mishnah” and “Talmud” eras (c. 450 BCE to 70 CE; c. 70 to c. 200 CE; and c. 200 to 400/600 CE, respectively), the editors have adopted the conventional classical boundaries of the “Hellenistic” period (which they do, however, terminate with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE); the “Roman Period” (from 70 to Constantine), and “Late Antiquity” (from Constantine to the Arab Conquest). The inscriptions themselves do not appear to lend support to these temporal divisions, at least not in part 1 of volume 1 which, according to page 39, solely covers “inscriptions from the Hellenistic period up to the destruction of the Second Temple.” Perhaps, for the sake of clarification, this important piece of information should have been placed on the title page.
Not unnaturally, Jerusalem was selected to head the entire collection. No indication is given regarding the extent and contents of part 2 of the Jerusalem volume. Based on vol. 1 part 1 alone, a number of patent paradoxes emerge.
To begin with, the vast majority, indeed all but a handful, are loosely dated to the first century BCE/first century CE, in other words, to the century preceding the Jewish revolt that culminated in the destruction of the Herodian temple, a period for which we also have the indispensable evidence of Josephus Flavius and of Philo of Alexandria. All but a few appear to have been Jewish, a factor that reflects the city’s predominantly Jewish character and population, or, to be precise, the religious affiliation of those buried around the city. Of the 704 inscriptions recorded, 590 are funerary, often amounting to little beyond a name inscribed on an ossuary. The other categories include “inscriptions of religious and public character” (17); “instrumentum domesticum” (ostraca, inscribed jar fragments, and weights) (83); and “varia” (inscribed ossuary lid, bullae, pottery) (11).
The absence of any index, contrary to p. viii of the introduction that promises “an index of names,” renders any consultation a very difficult task indeed. It would have been interesting to have an overview, via indexes, of the use of Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek; of the spread of mono-, bi-, and trilingual inscriptions; and the habits of Hebrew and non-Hebrew naming. I have not perused every ossuary but I did not see an inscription with a single male boasting a brother. The infamous James’ ossuary receives no support from the genuine inscriptions gathered from Jerusalem.
With so many funerary inscriptions the Jerusalem of this corpus is predominantly the domain of the dead. The overview of the history of the city (“Jerusalem – an introduction,” pp. 1-37) reads as something of an oddity since it surveys a city that is strikingly at odds with the information provided by its epigraphy. The survey also follows a chronology that differs from the one proposed by the volume editors. Only the first few pages (pp. 1-8) cover the pre-70 city. A very useful component of the survey is the brief overview of the burial caves around the city (pp. 8- 10) which provided the bulk of the funerary inscriptions recorded in this volume. No less than some 900 caves and more than 2000 ossuaries have been documented, although most of the latter are uninscribed. There may have been many more and I have no doubt that more will be discovered. The main point is that the use of burial caves apparently dropped dramatically after 70 and may have stopped altogether after 135 (p. 10). Whatever else may have taken place in Jerusalem under the Seleucids, the Ptolemies, and the independent dynasty of the Hasmoneans had been swallowed by the soil of the city. One wonders, then, about the contents of Jerusalem vol. 1 part 2.
The rest of the historical survey deals with 1. Jerusalem between 70 and 135 CE (pp. 10-17); Aelia Capitolina, namely Jerusalem from Hadrian to Constantine (pp. 18-26), a period documented by two inscriptions (p. 21); and late antiquity (pp. 26-37), from Constantine to the Muslim conquest. There is no doubt that the latter signaled a remarkable facelift launched by the building projects that Constantine and Helena undertook and by the ever increasing dominance of the church of Jerusalem. 1 There is no trace of this Christianized city anywhere in this volume.
Two interesting inscriptions merit attention. One (no. 1), allegedly from Jerusalem, is an oath inscribed on a stele, dated to the third or second century BCE and clearly not Jewish. But then, it may not be from Jerusalem at all, as the editors prudently add (p. 40). It was interpreted at one point as an oath “taken by the Seleucid garrison” during the “Maccabean revolt” (p. 40), and at another point as a confession relating to a flute player who tried to abuse priests at a sanctuary and was punished accordingly (ibid.). Another inscription (no. 9), also in Greek, is a perennially problematic one, erected by Theodotos, and found south of the Temple Mount. It seems rather handsome by comparison with the scribbling nature of most of the Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic documented in this volume. The inscription records both the genealogy of Theodotos, son and grandson of archisynagogues, as well as the contribution of the family to the building of a synagogue complex which included even a xenodochium. If the synagogue operated “in the shadow of the Temple” (p. 55), then one wonders what, precisely, its functions were, in addition to offering hospitality to “those who are in need of it from abroad”. That the synagogue itself is designated as a place “for the reading of the law (nomos) and the teaching of the commandments” seems to indicate that it served as a space of learning to read the Torah rather than of praying. Nor is it clear whether such synagogues thrived in competition or in collaboration with the Temple. Perhaps, as the editors propose in the wake of many others, the family of Theodotos had been transplants from Italy and were accordingly attuned to the needs of fellow immigrants and fellow pilgrims. Both men and structures capture a sense of the myth within a city where solitary births are rarely recounted.
Two inscriptions (nos. 14 and 15, gilded shields set up by Pilate in honor of Tiberius; the trilingual inscriptions on Jesus’ cross) are based solely on literary sources. When, then, does one draw the line between these and other reported inscriptions in literary sources, like the unusual line on a skull mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud?
Rabbi Perida’s grandfather found a skull lying at the gate of Jerusalem with the inscription: “This and yet another.” He buried it. It resurfaced. Again he buried it. It surfaced once more. He then said: “This must be the skull of Jehoiakim [the last of the kings of Judah], of whom it is written: He shall be buried with the burial of an ass and cast beyond the gates of Jerusalem” (Jer. 3:20). Yet, the sage reflected, he was also a king, and hence it was inappropriate to treat him with contempt. So he took it home, wrapped it up in silk, and placed it in a chest. When his wife came home and saw it, she went and told her neighbors about it. “It must be the skull of his first wife” they said to her, “whom he cannot forget.” So she fired the oven and burnt the skull in it. When her husband came he said to her: “So that was what the inscription meant!” (BT Sanhedrin 82a)
One of the singular assets of this volume is that each inscription is conveniently accompanied by a good photo and by a transcription and translation, as well as a brief discussion and bibliography. Overall, it is indeed a major enterprise and one looks forward to the other volumes in the series.
1. H. Sivan, Palestine in Late Antiquity (2008), ch. 5: “Jerusalem: The Contrasting Eyes of Beholders.” J. Ashkenazi, The “Mother of All Churches”. The Church of Palestine from its Foundation to the Arab Conquest (Jerusalem 2009), (Heb.), reviewed by H. Sivan in JLA 2.2 (2009), 385-88.