In Roman times, Aphrodisias in the southwest of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) was the city of Aphrodite, goddess of love. It was also a city of marble, abundantly available in excellent quality from nearby quarries. The monumental marble gate of the sanctuary of Aphrodite (the tetrapylon) has now been magnificently restored. Beyond are the meager remains of the goddess’s temple.
Sometime after the city became largely Christian in the late fifth century C.E., the temple of Aphrodite was transformed into 034a Christian basilica. By the seventh century, the name of the city had become an embarrassment and it was changed to Stavropolis (“City of the Cross”). In the Byzantine period, Stavropolis was the seat of the bishop of Caria.
In addition to the ruins of the temple of Aphrodite, the city boasts one of the best-preserved stadiums in antiquity, an impressive theater and a building complex dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperors (the Sebasteion).
The modern visitor to Aphrodisias (it is once again called by its Roman name) admires the buildings, their splendid decoration and the many free-standing sculptures that once adorned the city’s public spaces. Thanks to its high-quality marble quarries, Aphrodisias was one of the most important centers of sculpture in the Roman East. A large part of the population was connected with this trade, and many worked as quarrymen, masons and sculptors. They used the implements of their work not only to make the statues and reliefs for which Aphrodisias is famous, but also to engrave texts and images on the walls and columns of public buildings. Perhaps that explains why so many graffiti (informal inscriptions or drawings carved on public walls and monuments) survive at Aphrodisias—indeed, more graffiti are found here than at almost any other contemporaneous site.
In the fluting of one of the less-impressive columns of the Sebasteion, for example, you will see the partly erased drawing of a seven-branched candelabra (menorah) flanked by a palm branch (lulav) and ram’s horns (shofar), a common trio of Jewish iconography. On another column of the Sebasteion is a Hanukkah menorah with nine candles instead of seven.a
Graffiti are notoriously difficult to date, but it is reasonable to assume that these drawings were made sometime in late antiquity (mid-fourth–sixth centuries C.E.), when the Sebasteion was no longer used for the cult of the emperor. At that time, the rooms (tabernae) in the Sebasteion’s two porticoes were transformed into shops for tradesmen. The Jewish symbols must have marked shops belonging to Jews. At the entrance to another one of these shops is a reused marble plaque with the faint remains of two menorot, one flanked by what appear to be a lulav (palm branch) and etrog (a lemon-like fruit), both of which are used on the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
Two menorot have also been preserved on columns of the west portico of the South Market, which was restored in the late fifth century C.E., and a drawing of menorot accompanied by a short prayer was found among the ruins of the city’s theater. A piece of a broken clay oil lamp found in the North Market preserves a part of a menorah that once decorated the lamp. Another menorah was engraved on the shoulder of a jar that was probably used in a Jewish home to store agricultural products.
Another unusual bit of evidence of the presence of a Jewish community in Aphrodisias comes from the theater-like room in the Roman town hall (bouleuterion) that was used for entertainment in late antiquity. From inscriptions found in the theater, we know that one section of seats was reserved for the Hebraioi and their elders (palaioi).
Like the Jews, the city’s Christians were also carving graffiti on the walls of public buildings—but crosses instead of menorot.
We must add to this mixture the persistence of ancient pagan religion and its more recent adaptations by philosophers such as Asklepiodotos of Alexandria who promoted an intellectual version of polytheistic Hellenic religion. In an honorary 036epigram for Pytheas, a prominent political figure, its author provocatively reminds his fellow citizens that his fatherland was still the city of Aphrodite.
Most of the scholarly discussion of religious conditions in Aphrodisias has focused on the conflict between Christians and pagans, or among different Christian groups that tried to impose their orthodoxy with political support from Constantinople. In fact, the situation was far more complex and cannot be fully understood without taking into consideration the Jewish communities.
I believe the Jews of Aphrodisias have hardly played any part in discussions of the city’s religious conflicts and ambiguities in late antiquity because the most important piece of evidence regarding the Jewish community has been erroneously dated by most scholars to a much earlier period.
I speak of a remarkable artifact—a tall, nearly 037rectangular marble block now kept in the garden of the Aphrodisias excavation house. It is more than 9 feet high and measures 1.5 feet on each side (see photo). It is engraved on two adjacent sides with a quite extraordinary inscription—a list of at least 120 donors, apparently to the city’s synagogue. The donor list includes the names of both born Jews and recent converts to Judaism (proselytes), as well as unconverted members of the synagogue community (theosebeis, or “Godfearers”).
The marble block was excavated in 1976 during construction work for the Aphrodisias museum. The text of the inscription was published in 1987 with an excellent commentary by Joyce Reynolds and Robert Tannenbaum.1 After discussing the various options, Reynolds and Tannenbaum opted for a date around 200 C.E. (in the Severan period), but without excluding other possibilities (fourth or fifth century). They recognized the position they favored “is not, unfortunately, susceptible of proof. It may be wrong; but it seems to us likely.” This quite explicit caveat has been overlooked by most scholars who have discussed the text in connection with the history of Judaism. Until recently, with few exceptions,2 the attribution of the text to the early third century has become canonical, excluding this very important document from discussions of the Jewish population of late antiquity.
The question of chronology has important historical implications. If it dates to about 200, to the period of the Severan emperors, then it must be understood in the context of that time, the time when the first great treatise on Jewish law, the Mishnah, was created, and when Aphrodisias was a typical Hellenistic city of the Roman East. If it dates to late antiquity (mid-fourth–sixth centuries C.E.), it must be understood in an entirely different context. Then the context is the religious interaction among Christians, Hellenists and Jews after the establishment of imperial Christianity. Unfortunately, this has hardly been addressed in discussions of the inscription.
I believe the arguments for a later date are compelling. The evidence is sometimes technical, however, so I have relegated the details to an endnote.3 Many of the names in the inscription, for example, were common only in late antiquity.
This inscription is the longest Jewish inscription written in the Greek language ever found in the Jewish diaspora. In the initial publication, the text was assumed to be one inscription, but, as we shall see, it is really two inscriptions. Both texts, however, record the names, as previously noted, not only of Jews (including proselytes), but also of theosebeis, so-called Godfearers, or sympathizers to Judaism. This indicates that a very significant part of the population regularly attended the synagogue and practiced Jewish rituals.
The rectangular marble block is inscribed on two adjacent faces. The two faces are slightly different in size, however; one is about half an inch wider than the other. We will call the wider one Face I and the narrower one Face II. Of the other two faces, one is carefully smoothed (like Face I and Face II), but the other is not. The rough, uninscribed side was apparently the back of the stone, originally intended to remain unseen, probably placed against a wall. The size and shape of the block strongly suggests its original function as a doorjamb. Perhaps it stood at the entrance to the city’s synagogue.
The text on Face II bears a heading, but there is no trace of a heading on Face I. This might suggest a single text beginning on Face II and proceeding to Face I. But, indeed, that is not the case. Since the top of the block has been broken off, it is possible that a separate heading could have been written on the lost part of Face I (possibly on a molding).
A clear difference in the writing distinguishes the inscription of Face I from Face II. The writing 039on Face I has a clean and neat appearance, as one expects for the front of a monument. The engraver started writing at the very top of the block, carefully engraving letters with standard, uniform letter heights within set guidelines. This face also has a drafted margin down both sides (see photos).
There are no such guidelines for the engraver on Face II. The letter heights vary. In a few cases the text goes beyond the right-hand margin. The first line, certainly written together with the rest of the text, is carved along a slightly oblique orientation. Another difference: The inscription on Face II starts about 5 inches from the top.
The clear difference between the two faces is very easy to explain: Face I was written first, while the stone was still lying on the ground. This made it easy for the engraver to draw the guidelines and to start inscribing the text at the very top of the block, as he could bend over the stone and did not have to climb a ladder to reach the top. Sometime later, after the block had been set up, another engraver inscribed the second text on Face II. His work was impeded by the height of the block and by the fact that it was standing. This explains why he had to start his inscription at a lower level, why his lines are not horizontal and why the script gives the impression that less care was given to the carving. The engraver of Face II was not less experienced, paid worse or simply idle; he was working under unfavorable conditions.
Although the second inscription is later, it is impossible to say how much later. Both date within late antiquity (c. 350–500 C.E.), and we can definitely rule out a date around 200 C.E.4
Let us now turn to the inscription itself. Face II begins with an invocation:
May God help the patelládes (or the patellâs, or the pátella).
Unfortunately the last part of the last word is not preserved. Pátella usually means a dish or a plate and patellâs designates the profession of the “fast food sellers.” These general meanings can be 040reconciled with different explanations—perhaps the term refers to a professional association of cooks, cook-shop customers or a soup kitchen for the poor. It may also have a funerary character or refer to a synagogue banquet hall initiated by a burial society. The huge block was found within the city wall, between the Sebasteion and one of the gates that lead outside of the city to the cemeteries. The text clearly has a funerary context. The most plausible suggestion is that we are dealing with a burial society associated with the synagogue.
The text continues:
Below are listed the members of the association (dekania) of those who are “fond of learning” (philomatheis), also known as those who continually praise God [or, who continually invoke God’s blessing] (paneulog[ountes]), who erected this memorial, at their personal expense, for the liberation of the people (plethos) from grief.
The association (dekania), whose members initiated the donation, was certainly Jewish. The philomatheis (“fond of learning”) were students of the Torah.
The text also identifies the specific titles of various officials in the Jewish community: prostates, the president of the community; archon, a member of the board; archidekanos, president of an association; and psalmologos, a psalm singer.
Face I lists more than 55 Jews and 52 Godfearers. Face II lists 14 men with predominantly Hebrew names (including three proselytes) and two Godfearers.
Many of the donors on Face I are also identified by their professions. Occupations mentioned in the text include greengrocer, fuller, bronzesmith, goldsmith and carpenter.
It is clear that people of very diverse social strata, from humble workers to members of the council, were attracted to Judaism.
Most of the donors on both faces have Biblical names—Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Judah, Samuel—clearly indicating their Jewish identity. Other names are Greek translations of Hebrew names: Heortasios corresponds to Haggai, Theodotos to Jonathan and Nathaniel, Theophilos to Eldad. Still others had rare names related to religious or moral values, such as love of God, good behavior and willingness to offer consolation. More than half of the Jews had adopted names with a religious message. They used their names as a means of identity and separation (see sidebar).
What does this inscription tell us about the Jewish community of Aphrodisias in late antiquity? 043Jews were apparently prominent citizens as well as craftsmen. They used Biblical names. Proselytes were proud of their Judaism and made contributions to the synagogue, thus proving that despite the measures of the imperial administration, proselytism continued into the fourth and early fifth centuries. Jews who converted were not fearful of identifying themselves as proselytes. This was also true of the theosebeis, Godfearers.
The term theosebeis is found as early as the Septuagint translation of the Psalms (115:11, 13, 118:2–4, 135:20). Similar terms, “those who fear God” and “those who venerate God,” are found in the New Testament (Luke 7:1–10; Acts 10:22, 28, 13:16, 26), referring to gentiles who were attracted to Judaism. The Godfearers in the Aphrodisias inscription reflect the continuation of religious competition and exchange into late antiquity. The theosebeis are usually identified as a group of sympathizers of Judaism, who attended the synagogue without being fully converted. It has been suggested that they were worshipers of Theos Hypsistos (“the Highest God”) and should be associated with a group that the literary sources call “those who venerate the God” (sebomenoi ton theon).5 Whether all references to theosebeis in the literary sources and inscriptions denote a single group is arguable. But the references do evidence an extremely important religious phenomenon in late antiquity: the crossing of religious boundaries. Individuals were interested in the religious beliefs and rituals of others; they debated the faith of others; and sometimes they converted to the religion of others, as the proselytes’ names show.
It was a time of great religious diversity. From 311 C.E., Christianity was “tolerated” in the Roman Empire. Within a few years it became the religion of the emperors and received their support, although Christians were divided by dogmatic conflicts. Like the Jews, Christians also expressed their religious devotion in their names. Indeed, the majority of the names of Christians in Aphrodisias in this period reveal their religious identity. They adopted names of apostles, evangelists and angels, 044for example, Ioannes, Loukas, Michael, Petros, Stephanos, as well as names related to the Lord (Kyriakos). Some of their names reference Christian religious values or cultic peculiarities, such as Iordanes (an allusion to baptism), Athanasios (a reference to the immortality of the soul), Anastasios (an expression of the hope of resurrection) and Eustathios and Eudoxia, references to the firm and correct faith.
Among early Christians we also find representatives of all social strata. The Christianization of the “city of Aphrodite,” however, was a slow process. The resistance of the last polytheists remained strong until the early sixth century. The pagan philosopher Asklepiodotos of Alexandria came to Aphrodisias around 450 C.E. and found a flourishing group of polytheists.6 A large house near the city’s Sebasteion is decorated with images of the intellectuals of classical antiquity and their disciples; among them are the images of the pagan “holy men” Pythagoras and Apollonios of Tyana. Asklepiodotos is said to have composed hymns and to have performed miracles—all this in a period in which pagan rituals were punishable by death.
As late as 482 C.E., pagans were performing sacrifices and expecting the restoration of the old cults.7 It seems that several members of the elites, including local governors, were still devoted to the old religion.
The Jews did not live in isolation in Aphrodisias. Their religious symbols were engraved in the most prominent places. Their representatives had reserved seats in the town hall. Several members of the council identified themselves as “Godfearers” and joined the Jews in the donation that is recorded in the earlier face of the impressive donors’ inscription. And some gentiles became proselytes.
If the early Christian fathers, like John Chrysostom and Ephraim the Syrian, never tired of warning their Christian flock not to attend the synagogue, it is because many Christians did. Some of the men listed in the donors’ inscription at Aphrodisias may in fact be members of Christian families. A theosebes on Face I has the characteristic Christian name Gregorios, which alludes to the duty of the Christian to be alert and watchful (gregorein) with regard to sins. The father of a proselyte on Face II bears the name Eusebios, more often used by Christians than any other group.
Perhaps the most valuable aspect of the Aphrodisias donors’ inscription is its evidence of the religious ambiguities of late antiquity.
In Roman times, Aphrodisias in the southwest of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) was the city of Aphrodite, goddess of love. It was also a city of marble, abundantly available in excellent quality from nearby quarries. The monumental marble gate of the sanctuary of Aphrodite (the tetrapylon) has now been magnificently restored. Beyond are the meager remains of the goddess’s temple. Sometime after the city became largely Christian in the late fifth century C.E., the temple of Aphrodite was transformed into 034a Christian basilica. By the seventh century, the name of the city had become an embarrassment and it was […]