Could a Jewish author have been first to record destruction of ancient Pompeii?
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Archaeology'The very nature of the 'prophecy' makes it Jewish'

Could a Jewish author have been first to record destruction of ancient Pompeii?

The Sibylline Oracles, likely written by a Jew post-Vesuvius eruption, ostensibly prophecy the city’s devastation as divine retribution for sacking of Second Temple 9 years prior

  • Illustrative: Tourists gather at the Pompeii ancient site near the Villa of Mysteries on the occasion of its presentation to journalists in Pompeii, Italy, Friday, March 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
    Illustrative: Tourists gather at the Pompeii ancient site near the Villa of Mysteries on the occasion of its presentation to journalists in Pompeii, Italy, Friday, March 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)
  • Illustrative: An undated picture made available by the Pompeii Archeological site Press Office, bones recently discovered in Pompeii, near Naples, Italy. Italian and French archaeologist team, digging in the outskirts of Pompeii, have discovered four skeletons and gold coins in the ruins of an ancient shop. Pompeii archaeological site officials said Friday, June 24, 2016, the skeletons are those of young people, including an adolescent girl, who perished in the back of the shop when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79. (Pompeii Archeological Site Press Office via AP)
    Illustrative: An undated picture made available by the Pompeii Archeological site Press Office, bones recently discovered in Pompeii, near Naples, Italy. Italian and French archaeologist team, digging in the outskirts of Pompeii, have discovered four skeletons and gold coins in the ruins of an ancient shop. Pompeii archaeological site officials said Friday, June 24, 2016, the skeletons are those of young people, including an adolescent girl, who perished in the back of the shop when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79. (Pompeii Archeological Site Press Office via AP)
  • In this May 14, 2014 photo, plaster casts showing victims as they were overcome by the heat and toxic gases of the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which in A.D. 79 destroyed the ancient town of Pompeii, near modern-day Naples, Italy. The victims were found in an orchard that came to be known as the Garden of the Fugitives, a reference to the doomed locals’ attempts to flee disaster. An estimated 2.5 million people visit the ruins each year. (AP Photo/Michelle Locke)
    In this May 14, 2014 photo, plaster casts showing victims as they were overcome by the heat and toxic gases of the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which in A.D. 79 destroyed the ancient town of Pompeii, near modern-day Naples, Italy. The victims were found in an orchard that came to be known as the Garden of the Fugitives, a reference to the doomed locals’ attempts to flee disaster. An estimated 2.5 million people visit the ruins each year. (AP Photo/Michelle Locke)

POMPEII, Italy — In the gift shop at the Pompeii archaeological site, tourists might notice a book entitled, “The Jews in Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and in the Cities of Campania Felix.”

Dedicated “to the Jewish victims of the eruption of 79 CE,” it claims that a Jewish author was actually the first to record the destruction of the ancient Roman city just a year after the disaster. Or, more accurately, that we owe the oldest written record of the eruption of Vesuvius to an ancient Jewish author.

The book, authored by Rabbi Isidoro Kahn from Naples and archaeologist Carlo Giordano, is the only one ever written about the Jews of Pompeii. It was first published in Italian more than 40 years ago, and by now both of the authors have died.

On the first page, the authors reference the Sibylline Oracles — an ancient text that seems to attribute the eruption of Vesuvius to a punishment sent by God for the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, Rome sacked the city and destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD, just nine years before Pompeii was buried by ash and lava.

Translated from Greek, the passage from the Sibylline Oracles reads:

“And out of Syria shall come Rome’s foremost man,
Who having burned the temple of Jerusalem,
And having slaughtered many of the Jews,
Shall (bring) destruction on their great broad land. (…)
But when from deep cleft of Italian land
Fire shall come flashing forth in the broad heaven,
And many cities burn and men destroy,
And much black ashes shall fill the great sky,
And small drops like red earth shall fall from heaven,
Then know the anger of the God of heaven,
For that they without reason shall destroy
The nation of the pious.”

Ruins of ancient Pompeii in southern Italy. (Julie Masis/ Times of Israel)

Reverse prophecy

The Sibylline Oracles are prophesies attributed to female priestesses, but historians believe the so-called revelations were actually written after the events took place in order to make it appear as though God were the cause.

“Our assumption is that if the prophesy is accurate, it must be written after the fact,” said Shaye Cohen, a professor of Jewish studies at Harvard University.

The timing of the text is murky. Historians think it was probably written at the end of the first century simply because it does not mention any events that took place in the second century, Cohen said, adding that the above hypotheses are “all conjecture by scholars.”

Tiles arranged in the form of six-pointed stars in Pompeii. (Julie Masis/ Times of Israel)

For instance, David Noy, a professor of classical studies at the Open University in the United Kingdom, said that one might conclude that the text was written no later than 81 CE because it says that “Rome’s foremost man” burned the temple, which sounds like that emperor was still on the throne. Titus, who destroyed the temple, lived until September of the year 81 CE.

Historians believe this oracle was likely written by a Jew because it tends to make predictions such as the fall of Rome and the success of Jerusalem, “so the very nature of it makes it Jewish,” said James Aitken, a professor of early Jewish studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK.

Another clue concerning the timing of the text comes from the Greek language. In the first century, Jews were writing in Greek because it was the language that people were speaking at the time, just as many Jews speak English today. This was no longer true in the second century, according to Cohen.

“It’s hard to find any Jewish Greek texts from the second century,” he said.

Prof. James Aitken teaches early Jewish studies at the University of Cambridge in the UK. (Courtesy)

If the fourth Sibylline Oracle was really written no later than 81 CE, it might predate by several decades the letters of Pliny the Younger, who survived the eruption when he was a teenager and wrote a lengthy account of the experience later on. Pliny published his letters between the years 100 and 109.

Still, the Sibylline Oracle cannot begin to compare with the details included in Pliny’s letters, which provide a first-person account of the disaster.

“You’d never know that Pompeii was destroyed by Vesuvius from this text,” Cohen said about the Sibylline Oracle. “The main text is the letter of Pliny the Younger, which actually gives you details.”

Interestingly, even though the Sibylline Oracle probably had a Jewish author, it was preserved by Christian scribes during the Middle Ages. Rabbinic sages wrote in Hebrew and Aramaic, and they did not copy texts that were written in Greek.

Illustrative: Tourists gather at the Pompeii ancient site near the Villa of Mysteries on the occasion of its presentation to journalists in Pompeii, Italy, Friday, March 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

“Anything written in Greek by Jews was not preserved by Jews, but preserved by Christians. Christians preserved it because they saw history as useful,” Aitken explained. “The prediction of the destruction of cities would appeal to Christians [because it meant] that the evil people would die and the righteous would live.”

The grandson of the Jewish king who died in Pompeii

As to whether there was a Jewish community living in ancient Pompeii, archaeologists did not find any synagogues in the area — but at least one somewhat famous Jew perished in the eruption.

Ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus recorded that the grandson of the Judean King Herod Agrippa I, who was also named Agrippa, “perished at the conflagration of Mount Vesuvius” together with his wife. (The younger Agrippa was the son of the king’s daughter Drusilla and the Roman Procurator of Judea Antonius Felix.)

Interestingly, the Agrippa who died in the volcanic eruption was also the great-great-grandson of King Herod the Great, the king who actually built the Second Temple in Jerusalem — the same one that Rome destroyed in 70 AD and of which only the Western Wall remains today.

In this May 14, 2014 photo, plaster casts showing victims as they were overcome by the heat and toxic gases of the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which in A.D. 79 destroyed the ancient town of Pompeii, near modern-day Naples, Italy. The victims were found in an orchard that came to be known as the Garden of the Fugitives, a reference to the doomed locals’ attempts to flee disaster. An estimated 2.5 million people visit the ruins each year. (AP Photo/Michelle Locke)

Conflicting evidence

The authors of “The Jews in Pompeii” apparently did not read ancient texts, and instead based their conclusions about the Jews in Pompeii on archaeological evidence.

Much of this evidence seems unconvincing.

The face of a particular Pompeian statue appears Jewish because of its “extraordinarily elongated skull” and “the unkept condition of the beard and hair and the nose” the authors claim. A five-pointed star, scraped on the wall of a house in Pompeii, might have been a Jewish symbol, the Star of Solomon, they write. They also note that the name Vitalis might have belonged to a Jew named Chaim who translated his name to Latin (“Vita” means “Life” in Latin).

Ruins of ancient Pompeii in southern Italy. (Julie Masis/ Times of Israel)

The authors present another circumstantial argument — the Romans took slaves after defeating the Jewish Revolt in 70 CE, and some of these Jewish slaves might have ended up in Pompeii.

Today, scholars say that while it’s possible that Jews were living in Pompeii, there is no definitive proof. There is evidence that Jews were living in other parts of Italy, and Pompeii was a cosmopolitan city with residents from many far-flung places, said Aitken.

“We have Egyptians in Pompeii, so presumably Jews may have been there too,” he said.

Illustrative: An undated picture made available by the Pompeii Archeological site Press Office, bones recently discovered in Pompeii, near Naples, Italy. Italian and French archaeologist team, digging in the outskirts of Pompeii, have discovered four skeletons and gold coins in the ruins of an ancient shop. Pompeii archaeological site officials said Friday, June 24, 2016, the skeletons are those of young people, including an adolescent girl, who perished in the back of the shop when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79. (Pompeii Archeological Site Press Office via AP)

But Cohen was more dismissive. He said that no other book has ever been written about the Jews of Pompeii “because there is not that much to talk about.”

The tome is still on sale simply because “Jews have money, Jews go on tours, Jews buy books. Somebody thought this might be a good market,” Cohen said.

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