Eighteen hundred years ago, a convert to Judaism called Jacob wrote a grave marker in red ink, warning the world against opening his grave in the prestigious Jewish Beit She’arim cemetery in the Galilee.
The marker, discovered a year ago in the national park, was published in a joint press release from the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority ahead of a one-day conference on June 1. The inscription was delivered to the IAA, which is working to preserve it in the hopes of one day putting it on display, according to IAA head Eli Eskosido.
While over 300 inscriptions in four languages have been discovered in the Beit She’arim necropolis to date, this “convert” inscription and another written on a wall beside it are the first to be identified in the past 65 years. Additionally, this is the first that unequivocally states that a convert is buried there.
Dating from the late Roman or early Byzantine period, the inscription idiomatically states, “Jacob (Iokobos) the convert swears upon himself that any who open this grave will be cursed.” Following that statement, there is a thick red line drawn and another scribe wrote, “Aged 60.”
While it is very common to have a formulaic curse warning against the opening of a grave — which were generally shared by several corpses — this marker was composed in “odd,” redundant Greek, said Tel Aviv University Prof. Jonathan Price, who deciphered the inscription. “That’s how he spoke, apparently,” Price told The Times of Israel.
In the ancient world, said Price, it was not uncommon for individuals to compose their grave markers prior to their death. Therefore, it is fair to treat the “curse” as the speech of Jacob himself.
“I’m sure he prepared his stone before he died. Whether he wrote with his hand or not, we can’t know,” although the shape of the letters is “pretty good relative to other homemade inscriptions,” said Price.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site Beit She’arim is considered the final resting place of Judah HaNasi, the leading 2nd century CE rabbi who is credited with redacting the Mishnah and was head of the Sanhedrin. Following his burial, Jews from all over the region made huge efforts to be buried there as well, said Price.
“Beit She’arim is known for being an international burial ground for Jews from all over the east,” said Price, including from Yemen, Palmyra, and all over the ancient Holy Land.
“Who knows where he [Jacob] came from,” he said, laughing, “And we will never know unless we find his diary, which we won’t.” At the same time, Price assumes his native language was Greek. “His funny Greek doesn’t mean he felt uncomfortable in Greek.”
The inscription has four elements, said Price. First, it teaches the name of the deceased, Jacob, or Iokobos in Greek, potentially not his given name but rather one he took on later in life. And secondly that he died aged 60.
We learn that Jacob is a “full convert,” through the use of the Greek word “proselyte.” During this era, said Price, there was another category of semi-adherents called “God-fearers,” who would not have adopted all commandments or likely been circumcised.
The final piece of information garnered from the grave marker is the warning not to open the grave. Not, however, the placement of the grave, said Price, since the marker was certainly moved by ancient looters.
The marker was found a year ago propped up against a wall in a burial cave by Parks and Recreations head of preservation Yehonatan Orline in a cave that was until then unknown. Next to it, however, was inscribed on the wall a second inscription, which definitively identified one of the occupants of the nearby burial niche, said Price.
Beit She’arim excavation director University of Haifa Prof. Adi Erlich said in a statement that it is impressive that in an era in which Christianity was becoming the dominant religion, we see evidence of continued conversion to Judaism.
“The present find is one of the few which note the word ‘convert’ in the late Roman era,” said Erlich.
According to Erlich, the inscription teaches about late-Roman era/early Byzantine-era life in the Galilee, which was the center of the Jewish settlement after the destruction of Judah in the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE.
“Despite the decline of Judea, and after a number of failed Jewish revolts and the strengthening of Christianity and its spread in the empire, we see that there are still people who choose to join the Jewish religion and even proudly declare it,” said Erlich.