An Ancient Greek Inscription Paints a Portrait of One of the Forgotten Jewish Communities of Asia Minor

July 6, 2020 | Carl Rusmussen
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In the early centuries of the Common Era, there were Greek-speaking Jewish communities scattered across the western and southern areas of what is now Turkey. They left few records behind them, and are now known primarily from references in the New Testament. But discovery of a marble block with a Greek inscription—likely once part of a synagogue—in the ancient city of Aphrodisias in western Anatolia offers rare contemporary evidence of one such community. Carl Rusmussen writes:

The marble block [bears] a list of over 120 donors to a synagogue and is composed of three categories of names. . . . First come men who have distinctly Biblical names or names favored by Jews, such as Benjamin, Judas, Joseph, Jacob, Samuel, Zachary, and names such as Amantios (loving), Eusabatios (the good Sabbath).

The second portion of the list is headed with the word theosebeis (“God-fearers”) who are Gentiles who have chosen a strong affiliation with Judaism but who are not themselves Jews. They have traditional Greco-Roman names such as Alexandros or Eutychos.

Several members of the local city council head the list of God-fearers, and ten of the Jews and seventeen of the God-fearers list their professions. They are all tradesmen who range from food-providers to painters to leatherworkers to sculptors and builders. The pillar probably stood outside the local synagogue and is a striking testimony to the proud place of the Jewish community in the city.

The third category of donors comprises proselytes, i.e., recent converts to Judaism.

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