Most 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?

Until 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 In addition to these three published alphabet-inscriptions there are several unpublished ones in Hebrew script.

Alphabet-inscriptions 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 homework.

The 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 ceased."[1] R. Hachlil too assumes the inscriptions have a magical significance.[2] 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.

In 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.

The 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 the alphabet.

The 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."[3] 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.[4]

Concerning 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."

We 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.


[1] Beth She'arim II, 46-47 [back]
[2] "The Goliah Family," Basor 235 [1979- 4], and "Did the Alphabet have a Magical Meaning in the First Century CE?" Cathedra 31 (1984). [back]
[3] 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). [back]
[4] 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]
Reprinted in abridged form from Studies in Early Jewish Epigraphy (1994) with the permission of the publisher and the author.
Alice 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 (Greek-Dutch).

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