Jewish epitaphs from the Greco-Roman world are only short texts, consisting
of the name of the deceased to which additions such as age, occupation,
laudatory epithets, and greetings or a wish to the departed may have
been placed. There are, however, inscriptions which stand out from this
pattern. Remarkable are some which consists of several letters of the
alphabet in successive order, or of the complete alphabet. Although
these inscriptions were discovered on graves, they seem to have nothing
in common with what is regularly considered to be an epitaph. No personal
name is included, so obviously they were not meant to commemorate a
deceased. So what did they mean? Why should one write down the alphabet
on a grave?
now three alphabet-inscriptions from Jewish graves have been published.
One of them was found in Jericho and is dated in the first cent. CE,
ante 68. The inscription consists of the first eight or nine letters
of the Greek alphabet, and is written in charcoal on the inside of the
lid of an ossuary, a bone-receptacle. The second alphabet-inscription
comes from the ancient Jewish burial place of Beth She'arim in the Galilee.
This cemetery consists of several catacombs where several halls of burial
chambers are connected by passages. The inscription of which we speak
here consisting of the first nine letters
of the Greek alphabet -- was found carved on the arch of a passage between
two burial chambers. The third and last of the published alphabet-inscriptions
from Jewish graves is Khirbet Eitun in the southern coast plain of Judea,
where, on the wall of the passage between two burial chambers, the complete
Hebrew alphabet is engraved in one row. In addition to these three published
alphabet-inscriptions there are several unpublished ones in Hebrew script.
from Jewish graves are by no means unique. The phenomenon of writing
down the alphabet is not restricted to burial places, nor to Jewish
practice. From pre-Hellenistic until far after Roman times, we know
of dozens of alphabet-inscriptions for the most part non-Jewish
in a variety of scripts and on a variety of objects. It has been
proposed that inscriptions on ostraca, for example, were writing exercises
carried out by schoolchildren; for inscriptions on stone, seals, etc.
mason's apprentices are held responsible. While these explanations may
be plausible for many of the inscriptions, it cannot explain the writing
on Jewish gravestones. A grave is an odd place in which to do one's
other possible explanation is that the alphabet-inscriptions have a
magical meaning. Scholars M. Schwabe and B. Lifshitz maintain that the
alphabet-inscription from Beth-She'arim is "intended as a spell
against the evil spirits, liable to disturb the peaceful repose of the
R. Hachlil too assumes the inscriptions have a magical significance.
These scholars base their assumptions on a study of a papyrus found
in an ancient Egyptian grave, in which A. Dietrich determined that its
alphabet-inscription served as a magical protection to the deceased,
against (most likely) evil demons who threaten the voyage of the soul
to the hereafter.
addition to the Dietrich's Leyden Magical Papyrus, there are other magical
texts (written in Greek; from medieval codices, although it is supposed
they are much older) which show even more clearly the magical significance
of the alphabet. For example, the following magical recipe advises the
soldier what he is to do to stay unharmed on the battlefield: "If
you want to stay unharmed on the battlefield: fast three days, then
write your name, your father's and your mother's name and the alphabet
with the blood of an unblemished white dove and of a calf on an [lit.]
unborn piece of paper and carry it with you when you go to war, being
chaste; no harm will befall you." Recipes to ward off an enemy
include similar recipes to write the alphabet on a virginal paper.
writing of the alphabet served other purposes as well. It was recommended
for becoming rich and for achieving success in business. The objective
of these recipes could be attained, in combination with other magical
practices, by merely writing down the alphabet. In this context we should
mention as well amulets inscribed with successive letters of the Greek
alphabet, and used for their magical powers. It is clear from these
instances that the ancient world placed a magical value on the use of
question remains whether Jews shared this view with regard to the alphabet-inscriptions
on Jewish graves. During the last decade there is a growing awareness
that, on the one hand, Judaism in the Greco-Roman period was not an
"orthodox" self-contained monolith, and that, on the other
hand, the borderline between religion and magic was a faint one. G.
Luck states that "one cannot really understand the world of the
ancient Greeks and Romans without some knowledge of what is today called
folklore' what used to be called in a derogatory sense,
superstition' ... Magic and witchcraft, the fear of demons and
ghosts, the wish to manipulate invisible powers all were very
much a part of life in the ancient world."
The Jews were part of this ancient world. Archaeological proof for the
spread of magic within Judaism has been found in some ancient Palestinian
synagogues, where amulets have been discovered, in certain cases in
the immediate vicinity of the Torah shrine.
the alphabet, we have some evidence that Jews, too, considered the alphabet
to possess magical power. In The Testament of Solomon, a writing from
the 1st century CE, the appearance of demons before King Solomon is
described. The demons make themselves known by mentioning their name,
their ominous activities and how these might be avoided. One of the
demons introduces himself as follows: "I am called Rhyx Autoth.
I cause jealousies and squabbles between those who love each other.
But the alphabet, written down, thwarts me."
have seen in the ancient recipes that the alphabet is used to ward off
evil and enemies, and to obtain some good. In The Testament of Solomon,
the alphabet is used for protection against evil (persons and demons).
Exactly what objective the authors of alphabets on Jewish graves had
in mind is more difficult to determine. Considering that the inscriptions
do not relate directly to the deceased, it is unlikely the alphabets
were written to bring prosperity or luck to the departed. Probably they
were intended as a means of protections against any disturbance to the
grave, whether by persons or demons. It is clear from other epitaphs
on Jewish Palestinian graves, that desecration of a grave was treated
as a serious danger; on a Beth She'arim grave it is inscribed, for example:
"may anyone who dares to open the grave upon us not have a portion
in the eternal life." The alphabet may have fulfilled a similar
function as these curses. As belief in the presence of demons, particularly
in such places as doorsteps, crossings and cemeteries, was widespread
among Jews as it was among their non-Jewish contemporaries, it is equally
likely that the alphabet was meant to ward off evil spirits.
Beth She'arim II, 46-47 [back]
 "The Goliah Family," Basor 235 [1979-
4], and "Did the Alphabet have a Magical Meaning in the First
Century CE?" Cathedra 31 (1984). [back]
 Arcana Mundi, Magic and the Occult in the
Greek and Roman Worlds, A Collection of Ancient Texts, transl.,
annotated and introduced by Georg Luck (Baltimore and London, 1985).
 J. Naveh, "Lamp Inscriptions", IEJ
38 (1988); J. Naveh and S. Shaked, Amulets and Magic Bowls
Aramaic Incantations of Late Antiquity
(Jerusalem, 1985, 1987). [back]
in abridged form from Studies in Early Jewish Epigraphy (1994)
with the permission of the publisher and the author.
Bij de Vaate (Utrecht, Amsterdam) has written several articles on
Jewish inscriptions from the Greek-Roman period. She is presently
working for the Dutch Bible Society on an new Dutch Bible translation
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