1,700-year-old Burial Inscriptions Found at Northern Israel Site

The one in Greek is straightforward, the Aramaic ones are more obscure: Were Tiberians choosing burial in Zippori to be near 'Judah the Prince'?

One of the 1,700-year-old funerary inscriptions found in Zippori in the Galilee.
One of the 1,700-year-old funerary inscriptions found in Zippori in the Galilee. Miki Peleg/Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

Three 1,700-year-old funerary inscriptions, two in Aramaic and one in Greek, have been revealed at Zippori, northern Israel, after local residents found them and alerted the authorities.

The Greek inscription lists the name “Jose” – a version of Joseph. It was and remains very common for Jews to be named for the patriarch. (Zippori, a moshav in the Galilee, was also commonly known by its ancient Greek name, Sepphoris.)

The Aramaic inscriptions beg more elucidation. They mention “rabbis” buried in the western cemetery of Zippori, though their names have not yet been deciphered.

Lest we leap to premature conclusions, Dr. Motti Aviam of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology says that what ancient Zipporites meant by the title “rabbi” is not necessarily obvious. “Researchers are uncertain as to the meaning of the term ‘rabbi’ at the time when Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi resided in Zippori together with the Tannaim, and after him the Amoraim – the sages who studied in the city’s houses of learning,” he said.

That said, one of the Aramaic inscriptions refers to “the Tiberian,” making this the second known instance of a person from the (nearby) city of Tiberias being buried in the Zippori cemetery. “It is quite possible that Jews from various parts of Galilee were brought to Zippori to be buried in the wake of the important activity carried out there by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi,” Aviam says. (This “important activity” by Hanasi, 137-217 C.E. – who is also known as “Judah the Prince” and simply as “the Rabbi” – included redacting the Mishna.)

Alternatively, the deceased could have lived in Zippori but originated in Tiberias and wanted to be remembered for that, Aviam speculates.

The second Aramaic epitaph features the word le-olam (forever), a phrase known from funerary inscriptions in Beit She’arim and elsewhere, but not found at Zippori before. The reference is to the deceased’s burial place, which will remain his forever – nobody will take it from him, explains the Israel Antiquities Authority, adding that both Aramaic inscriptions end with the Hebrew blessing “Shalom.”

The funerary inscriptions were uncovered through a joint excavation by the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology and the IAA, which notes that 17 funerary inscriptions have been found in Zippori so far. Most of them are in Aramaic, which was the lingua franca of the Jews at the time. Most inscriptions from Tiberias were in Greek, the IAA adds.

One of the 1,700-year-old funerary inscriptions found in Zippori, northern Galilee.
Miki Peleg/Courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority

In December 2014, researchers found a roughly 1,800-year-old stone inscription from the tomb of a prominent Jewish family in Zippori, in the wall of a 19th-century Muslim mausoleum in the Upper Galilee. The stone had been repurposed from being part of a door lintel to part of a wall. According to the inscription, the tomb had belonged to “Samuel son of … and his wife … and his entire family.”

Zippori had been the most densely populated Jewish capital of the Galilee until being supplanted by the rise of Tiberias. It also bears hallmarks of the Roman occupation of the region, in the form of the city layout.

There is a moshav on the site today and the town is famous mainly for the magnificent mosaics, including ones found in the single ancient synagogue uncovered there.