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The Multi-lingual Synagogue Inscriptions in Syria and Iudaea/Palaestina

In contrast to other areas of the Mediterranean, the languages of the conquering Hellenistic and Roman empires in the Semitic-speaking East did not drive out the local languages as either spoken or written forms of communication. While Greek and to some extent Latin remained the exclusive languages of law and administration during the ca. 1000 years of Greek and Roman domination, numerous dialects of Semitic languages continued to be spoken and written in distinctive scripts throughout the region, especially Aramaic in its many dialects, Hebrew, the proto-Arabic languages Safaitic and Thammudic, and Persian. For example, in the entire region we find, alongside thousands of Greek inscriptions, ca. 5500 Nabataean texts, nearly 2900 in Palmyrene, 800-900 in Jewish Aramaic (not counting ostraca), 450 Hatran, many hundreds more in Samaritan, not to mention the over 20,000 Safaitic “graffiti. Among the most interesting bi- and tri-lingual inscriptions from the Roman Near East are those discovered in the Jewish synagogues in Iudaea/ Palaestina and Syria. Here we find, side-by-side, texts in the languages spoken by the Jews of the region — mostly Greek and Aramaic, but also Persian and Palmyrene — as well as a language which they didn’t speak but which had central liturgical significance — Hebrew. Most illuminatingly, texts in these different languages written by or addressing the same persons had different content and formulae. We can draw two different kinds of maps, from which different linguistic, cultural and epigraphic patterns emerge: 1) a language map, plotting frequency of occurrence of each language in synagogues in Syria and Iudaea/ Palaestina; and 2) a map or chart of formulae used in different places in the several languages. The first map reveals the unsurprising but important fact of the linguistic and epigraphical dichotomy between the polis and chora in both Iudaea/ Palaestina and Syria: Greek appears considerably less frequently in areas more remote from urban centers; this is particularly noticeable in the Beth She’an Valley and in the southern desert areas. The second map reveals remarkable patterns of language, content and modes of epigraphic expression: some things are stated only in Greek and not in Semitic languages, and vice versa; certain formulae “belong” to certain languages. Similarly, there is a striking correspondence between epigraphic formulae used in Jewish and in Christian and pagan texts in each region: there was no Jewish epigraphic idiom which transcended place, rather, epigraphic habits remained intensely local. Particularly interesting in this regard are the Aramaic and Hebrew “anonymous” donations, far removed from the dominant language and euergetistic ethic of Graeco-Roman culture.

The lecture will be illustrated by slides and discussion of representative examples from Dura Europus, Apamea, Tafas, Sepphoris, Tiberias, Ein Gedi, Na‘aran, Jericho, Sussiya, Eshtamoa, Ma‘on, Chorazin.

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