Monday, September 20, 2010

Seven First Century Ossuaries Discovered in Jerusalem

Israel Antiquities Authority is reporting the discovery of seven ossuaries in Jerusalem. They were found in a rock-hewn burial cave in the Qiryat Shemuel neighborhood of Jerusalem. The cave plan and the style of the ossuaries suggest to archaeologists that the complex and its contents should be dated to the first century, close to 70 CE.

Of particular interest is a well-preserved inscription on the side of one of the bone boxes. It is in legible Hebrew and the letters show residue of a blue dye.

The inscription has been translated as a warning to grave robbers. It says "Cursed is the one who casts me from my place." Apparently the warning was unheeded or the grave robbers could not read it since the contents of the ossuaries had been spilled out and some were smashed.

This leads to a question. Since we often assume that most people in the first century could not read, what would be the point of inscribing a curse that could not be read by potential thieves? A similar inscription comes from tombs that date from the first temple period. One of the tombs was discovered in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem in 1874 and then uncovered again in 1968. The tomb is commonly associated with Shebna the steward and treasurer of King Hezekiah (Isaiah 22:16). The Hebrew inscription on this tomb reads:

Again, if people could not read, why this warning? I am assuming that those who are most given to robbing tombs are not among the aristocratic elite who would more likely be able to read. So if this is correct, why place a warning on the tomb to would be thieves? To go so far as to even tell them that there is no gold or silver so "don't bother." I realize that in order for a curse to work it did not have to be read/understood by they person that was cursed. But this does not explain why someone would have declared that there is "no gold and silver" in this tomb. Apparently some thieves had enough of a vocabulary to know the words for "gold" and "silver."

Perhaps our understanding of a population's reading level has been influenced by our own modern levels of literacy. We expect everyone to have the same level of functionality as we do. But that seems to be what we overlook. All of the inscriptions that we have from the ancient world suggests that a lot of reading occurred and probably not just by a small select group of elites. There must have been a functional level of literacy that at least kept thieves from robbing graves if they didn't want to get cursed.

I would be curious to hear from anyone on this topic. I am by know means an expert on literacy in the ancient world, but I have yet to be convinced that illiteracy was a rampant as we sometimes suggest.


  1. Your point/question fascinates me as I too have never assumed the general population was literate. At least literate as we think of it.

    However, would there be a greater chance of the Jewish culture being "more literate" than most due to their commitment to the Torah and the synagogue system?

  2. Great topic, John! My guess would be that, as also in the case of amulets, written curses were thought to have a special efficacy, even (perhaps especially) from the perspective of this who couldn't read them. And so it would have been worth paying someone to inscribe a protecting curse on an ossuary or tomb. If you couldn't read what you were paying for, you were open to being ripped off, and we have some magic bowls which are inscribed with letters, but not words, which probably should have been inscribed with "caveat emptor". :-)

    But your broader question is a good one, and I think the tendency to say "x percent were fully literate" often overlooks the possibility ghat a significant proportion may have been partially or even functionally literate. Alas, I don't think we have any way to know what those proportions were in antiquity with any precision...

  3. Grant and James,

    I wonder if the problem is two-fold. First, we look at literacy in the first century through the lens of the dark ages during which much of the population was illiterate and not much was being produced. (I wonder if the lack of literature in a given age is indicative of the literacy level?) We then assume that illiteracy in the middle ages means the same thing in the first century.

    The second problem may be the fact that we live in a post Gutenberg age. Books and literacy are an enduring legacy of the Renaissance and Reformation. Do we look at the first century telelogicaly? Meaning, just because the did not read at the level we do therefore they are illiterate.

  4. This is quite interesting. I would raise a question regarding the article. No offense to the IAA, but is the inscription really in Hebrew? According the the IAA article, the first line has Aramaic "bar" and two names that seem pretty Greek-ish.

    Therefore, if the second line of the inscription is really Hebrew, then it is that much more fascinating...generally speaking, no one was speaking Hebrew in the first century. So why write in Hebrew if most Judeans are speaking Aramaic? (I know the two languages can be close, but I still think it is interesting).

  5. Good point, I had not thought about the fact that it started with "bar". I must admit that I am not convinced that Hebrew was not being spoken. I think we need to reevaluate that. With so many manuscripts and inscriptions written in Hebrew there must have been some level of usage beyond the synagogue.

    The Greek name is not a problem since many people used Greek names.

    Perhaps this inscription witnesses to what happens in a trilingual society. Sort of like Spanglish.

  6. Anything interesting line of questioning from this find could also be how much superstition and and "curse culture" had infiltrated the Jewish culture at this point.

  7. Grant,

    Yes, that is a good question. Since the first temple tomb that I mention above also has a curse I suspect that they were a normal part of society.