Ancient Greek Inscription, Dating to 178 B.C.E., Goes on Display at Israel Museum

A recently deciphered ancient Greek stele (inscribed stone slab) is currently on display at the Israel Museum. The stele was produced in 178 B.C.E. in Israel at a time when the region was ruled by the Hellenistic Seleucid empire.

The inscription depicts events that preceded the Hasmonean rebellion. It mentions King Seleucus IV, who occupied the throne before Antiochus IV, the target of the Maccabean revolt, and the king's chief minister Heliodorus, who sparked the first open conflict between Greeks and Jews by attempting to seize funds from the Second Temple.

Researchers are unsure where exactly the inscription was discovered, and examinations commissioned by the museum failed to uncover any signs the inscription was inauthentic. The stele was deciphered by two leading ancient inscription researchers: Hannah Cotton-Paltiel of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Professor Michael Woerrle of the German Archaeological Institute in Munich. American-Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who acquired the stele a few months ago, gave the stele to the museum on an extended loan.

The inscription appears on the uppermost part of a stone column engraved with three letters. To date, this is the second stele from this period to be found in the region. The inscription describes King Seleucus IV's appointment of senior Greek clerk Olympiodorus to oversee sanctuaries in Israel and surrounding areas. In the first letter, King Seleucus IV informs his deputy Heliodorus of the appointment and the second and third announces more minor appointments.

"The Seleucids had a highly organized bureaucracy," explains David Mevorah, curator of archaeology at the Israel Museum. "They took pains to publicize all correspondence pertaining to appointments of senior clerks on columns placed in sites under the jurisdiction of those same clerks."

Mevorah says the column bearing the inscription would have been situated in one of the sanctuaries located in Olympiodorus' jurisdiction in Israel - sanctuaries which included the Second Temple in Jerusalem.

However, Mevorah says the column could not have been located in the Second Temple. He says stele is mainly significant for understanding the historical appointments process.

"One might view the appointment as a turning point in Hellenistic-Seleucid involvement in local sanctuaries and even Jewish ritual, and deteriorating relations between them [Greeks and Jews]."

King Seleucus IV was assassinated in 175 B.C.E., three years after the appointment described in the stele. He was replaced by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the "Shining One" in Greek), who ruled during the Maccabean revolt. The first instance of open tension between both sides took place when Heliodorus entered the Temple and attempted to confiscate money. He was expelled in disgrace. The Maccabean rebellion actually began in 167 B.C.E. in response to grave, religious edicts imposed by Antiochus IV.

Another historical discovery is concurrently on display at the new Masada Museum, which opened last Thursday: A piece of a scroll that includes the text of Psalm 150, which survived almost in its entirety.

The text is identical to the current traditional version of the psalm. The empty space on the inscription indicates this was the last chapter of the 90th Scroll, in accordance with Massorah, the textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible. However, this negates the Greek Septuagint translation and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which contain an additional psalm: Psalm 151.