For Ancient Jews, Graffiti Could Be an Expression of Religious Devotion

June 12, 2019 | Jillian Stinchcomb
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Reviewing a recent book about graffiti that appear to have been written by Jews in the Hellenistic and Roman Near East, Jillian Stinchcomb writes:

“Good luck with your resurrection!” So a passerby wrote in the grave complex at [the ancient Galilean town of] Beit She’arim, in fairly messy—although still legible—Greek in the ceiling and entryway wall of a catacomb. This somewhat cheeky greeting is one among many charming, intimate moments Karen Stern catalogues in her 2018 monograph, Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity. . . .

Stern . . . contrasts the modern expectation that graffiti are inherently illicit with evidence from the ancient world that suggests graffiti were often anticipated and unexceptional, albeit lacking official sanction. . . . Jewish graffiti follow certain patterns, particularly clustering around doorways, as seen in the evidence from the synagogue from Dura Europos [in what is now Syria, which dates back at least to the 3rd century CE, and is one of the oldest ever discovered]. Stern argues that this type of graffiti should be seen as a visual and physical form of prayer, which was performed not only in synagogues but in and near outdoor, non-Jewish sanctuaries, showing heterogeneity in the worship practices of Jewish populations. . . .

Stern [also] argues that the evidence shows “some ancient Jews and their neighbors commonly . . . visited and elaborated [upon] the interiors of cemeteries after they had completed activities of burial and interment.” [Additionally, the book] looks at Jewish graffiti in public spaces, such as the theater or a marketplace, which show everyday Jews interacting with and moving through a Christian or pagan world.

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