Ancient inscription points to Jewish past for early Christian site
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Ancient inscription points to Jewish past for early Christian site

Marble slab with 7 lines of Aramaic and Hebrew text found at biblical town on banks of Sea of Galilee may be from Byzantine-era synagogue. ‘There’s been nothing like this before,’ says archaeologist

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Archaeologists unearth a marble slab bearing a Hebrew inscription found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the Byzantine Jewish site of Kursi. (University of Haifa)
Archaeologists unearth a marble slab bearing a Hebrew inscription found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the Byzantine Jewish site of Kursi. (University of Haifa)

When Haifa University archaeologist Haim Cohen called the head of the Golan Heights regional council Eli Malka earlier this month, he said he had a Hanukkah present for him.

“The good news: We’ve found a new 1,600-year-old Jewish settlement on the shores of the Sea of Galilee,” the archaeologist recounted in a phone interview with The Times of Israel. “The bad news: They haven’t been paying municipal taxes.”

Cohen’s team recently unearthed a monumental Hebrew inscription at Kursi, on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee on the Golan Heights, providing conclusive evidence that the Roman- and Byzantine-era town mentioned in the New Testament and Talmud was Jewish.

Digs this month at the previously obscure site yielded a village with a large public building — possibly a synagogue — and an enormous inner harbor for large ships.

More impressive, however, were seven lines of Hebrew and Aramaic text carved into a large slab of imported Greek marble. It includes the words “marmaria,” “amen,” “the holy king” and “the merciful,” researchers said.

Excavations at the site are funded by the Avery-Tsui Foundation, and headed by Cohen with the collaboration of the Israel Antiquities Authories and the Israel Parks Authority. High school student volunteers also took part in the dig.

Cohen was reluctant to reveal much about the inscription until experts had a chance to study the text more thoroughly. He did suggest, however, that “marmaria” could refer either to a type of marble, or — more intriguingly — “the rabbi of Mary.”

University of Haifa archaeologist Haim Cohen at Kursi, a Byzantine Jewish site on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. (Haim Cohen)
University of Haifa archaeologist Haim Cohen at Kursi, a Byzantine Jewish site on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. (Haim Cohen)

Haggai Misgav, a Hebrew University expert in ancient inscriptions who studied the slab on site, said the text was a standard kind of dedicatory text from a synagogue, dismissing as unlikely the possibility that it was from a Judeo-Christian house of worship.

The script used in the text was highly reminiscent of the Trumpeting Place inscription found at the base of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, suggesting the preservation of highly skilled Hebrew masons over the centuries. While it likely dates to around the 4th or 5th centuries CE, the village probably predates it by centuries.

Part of a Hebrew and Aramaic inscription on a marble slab found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the Byzantine Jewish site of Kursi. (University of Haifa)
Part of a Hebrew and Aramaic inscription on a marble slab found on the shores of the Sea of Galilee at the Byzantine Jewish site of Kursi. (University of Haifa)

The fact that it was carved into expensive stone, rather than embedded in a mosaic floor as was common in that period, was even more remarkable, Cohen said.

“There’s been nothing like this before. We didn’t know something like this existed,” he said, calling the discovery of Kursi’s Jewish history “an exceptional accomplishment.”

The site is associated with the account in the Gospels of Jesus exorcising the Gerasene demoniac, casting the demons into a herd of pigs. Early Christians venerated the place and established a monastery there. The remains of the monastery were found in 1970 during the construction of a road, and excavated in the years following.

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