About 1,800 years ago, a convert to Judaism named Yaakov died and was interred in a cave at Beit She’arim, with a hex designed to deter grave robbers that looks like it was scrawled on the limestone slab in blood.
It wasn’t. It was scribbled in uneven Greek writing in scarlet paint. We know he was a convert to Judaism because the full reference to the deceased is “Yaakov HaGer” – Jacob the Proselyte. We may also surmise that he died at age 60.
Beit She’arim was a Jewish town in the Lower Galilee during the Roman period, which arose in the late first century C.E. Following Jerusalem’s total destruction in 70 C.E., the town became a center of Jewish culture and learning: the Sanhedrin Jewish council moved there. Among the deceased buried in the town’s necropolis were Jewish sages, including the famed Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor and editor of the Mishnah in the second century.
Though the Beit She’arim necropolis had been studied quite extensively, the catacomb in which Yaakov HaGer had been buried had been unknown until last year, when it was found by serendipity. It turned out to be part of a complex of interconnected burial caves, archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority and University of Haifa revealed on Wednesday.
Inside the innermost chamber, the researchers discovered not one but two inscriptions written in Greek, in red paint. The two were deciphered by Jonathan Price, professor of ancient history at Tel Aviv University.
The small inscription painted in red on a limestone wall near the burial lodge simply says “Judah” and refers to the owner of the tomb, the researchers posit.
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It is the bigger of the inscriptions that intrigues. Done in eerie red paint, the eight lines on a stone slab that was left leaning against the opening of the burial alcove say: “Jacob the Proselyte vows to curse anybody who would open this grave, so nobody will open it. He was 60.”
That last bit about his age seems to be in a different script, the University of Haifa reports. The researchers think it may have been written by someone else following his demise.
Yaakov the Proselyte? Who? The period was one of upheaval in Palestine (though when is it not?), and people were desperately seeking religious meaning, Prof. Price explains. “He must have changed his name,” he says. “Most women converts to Judaism took the name Sarah, but there was no single name for men.” Hence HaGer – the stranger, the alien, the newcomer to Judaism. The convert.
What he converted from, and how devout the deceased Yaakov had been in his new faith, are hard to know. He could theoretically have been an early Christian, or belonged to one of the “pagan” cults – such as the cults of Isis or Mithra, and so on – that thrived in the Late Roman period, Price says. Jerusalem, for instance, is littered with remnants from the burials of converts to Judaism during the second and third centuries.
Some converts to Judaism were serious and went the whole hog. Some converts did embrace Torah and adore the One True God, but quailed at circumcision and were known as “God fearers,” he adds. (Come the fourth century, Rome would outlaw conversion from Christianity to Judaism, though “pagans” could do as they pleased, the professor adds.)
Jacob’s hex was the first inscription archaeologists have found in Beit She’arim for 65 years, the researchers say.
Why was it in Greek? Because that was the language commonly spoken at the time in Roman-period Palestine, and would remain so for centuries. After the excavation of the Beit She’arim cemetery began 80 years ago, archaeologists found several inscriptions telling of the Jews buried there, in various languages but mostly Greek. That doesn’t mean it was literate Greek, but still.
“The inscription is from the Late Roman or Early Byzantine period, when Christianity was strengthened. And yet we find evidence that there are still people who choose to join the Jewish people,” said Prof. Adi Erlich of the Zinman Institute of Archeology at the University of Haifa, who heads the excavations at Beit She’arim.
Beit She’arim would thrive until the Jews rebelled again in the year 351, this time against the caesar of the east i.e., Constantius Gallus, son-in-law of the Christianized emperor Constantine. Yet again, the issue at stake was religious oppression – this time by elements of early Christianity. And yet again, the Jews lost to the might of Rome.
Beit She’arim was not leveled, but it declined and in the early Islamic period, the seventh century, it was finally abandoned and never would rise again.