Early Jewish Writings Reveal History of Jerusalem

Scholars publish Theodotus inscription and hundreds of other early Jerusalem texts

The famous Theodotus inscription, which commemorates the building of a first-century B.C.E. synagogue, is one of hundreds of early Jewish writings now being published that document the ancient history of Jerusalem.

During the nearly 200 years of modern exploration in the Holy Land, thousands of inscriptions in different ancient languages have been found on stone, mosaic, ceramic, metal and painted cave walls. Many of these inscriptions have already been carefully published, but many others have been published poorly or not at all.

Several years ago, a team of scholars, compelled by the need to preserve this invaluable historical resource, founded the Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae (CIIP), a multi-lingual, scientific edition of all epigraphic texts found in modern Israel dating from the fourth century B.C.E. to the seventh century C.E. The first three volumes, containing 2,160 inscriptions from Jerusalem and the northern coast of Israel, have alread been published, and more is on the way.

The first volume includes many well-known early Jewish writings from Second Temple Jerusalem, including the famous Theodotus inscription. The Theodotus inscription is a splendidly preserved dedication by a certain priest and synagogue president named Theodotus, found just south of the Temple Mount. The Theodotus inscription states that he “built the synagogue for the reading of the Law and teaching of the commandments, and the guest-house and (other) rooms and water installations(?) for the lodging of those who are in need of it from abroad.” The Theodotus inscription is a unique dedication, but its very existence indicates that there were more like it that haven’t survived.  

Want more on the history of Jerusalem? The DVD The Archaeology of Jerusalem: From David to Jesus tells the story of Jerusalem’s great archaeological finds over the ages. Take a fascinating journey with Hershel Shanks to see the city’s legendary sites, architecture, artifacts and inscriptions in vivid color.

The largest group of surviving early Jewish writings from pre-Destruction Jerusalem comes from the more than 600 inscribed ossuaries found in hundreds of burial caves around the city. These writings often consist of no more than a name, but even these short inscriptions yield valuable information about the history of Jerusalem. First, they preserve the memory of hundreds of people who would otherwise have been lost to the oblivion of history. Second, the number of ossuary inscriptions is large enough to suggest meaningful patterns in the social history of Jerusalem in the first centuries B.C.E. and C.E.

Not surprisingly, early Jewish writings come to an abrupt end in the first century C.E. The epigraphic record of Jerusalem markedly shifts at this point: The Roman army and administration, as well as a growing Christian population, were now the primary group documenting themselves through inscriptions. Their epigraphic remains include epitaphs, dedications to Roman emperors and officers, dedications in pagan temples and votive objects, and of course, from the fourth century on (when the city was predominantly Christian), many different types of church inscriptions. These texts, too, contain information not preserved in any other written source, and are thus essential for writing the political, social and religious history of Jerusalem.

To learn more about the Theodotus inscription and other early Jewish writings from Jerusalem, read Jonathan J. Price, Archaeological Views, “Jerusalem in Her Own Words,” Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2013.

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  • black says

    Hello, I have something important to tell you, I have a cup Jewish archaeological, I got it from someone who works in the field of exploration in Kufa in Iraq, and this cup contains some Hebrew inscriptions, and that older than 1400 years, and now I would like to sell these Cup

  • Tim says

    The ossuaries began from the Zoroastrians of Persia about 3,000 years ago. It was during the time of the Second Temple that they were used by the Jews, for placing bones in. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem are just filled with them. Which shows how Jewish burial practices changed throughout the ages. Today, burial takes place in a decomposing box, so the body can decompose in the earth. A far cry from the Zoroastrian influenced burial done during the times of the Second Temple.

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