Questions about the Heliodorus Stele

Editors, Bible and Interpretation

M.Elliott and P.V.M.Flesher

December 2009

We note that there have been some pertinent articles circulating in the media recently about the so-called Heliodorus Stele.1 The stele, which dates to 178 BCE and is missing its base, mentions Heliodorus, known to us from the Book of 2 Maccabees. It is concerned with events predating the Maccabean rebellion by approximately a decade. The rebellion, an uprising by the Jews against the Hellenistic monarch Antiochus IV, led to the founding of the Hasmonean kingdom and gave rise to the story of Hanukkah, when oil used during the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem miraculously lasted for eight days.

However, the stele, which was purchased on the antiquities market, was obviously looted — quite probably from an active archaeological site licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), as will be seen below — so we are asking why isn't there a hue and cry being made, rather than just nice stories published about its links to Hanukkah?  How and why did this important piece make its way into the hands of a private collector?

According to media reports we have read, the stele was purchased in early 2007 by Michael Steinhardt, a founding co-chairman of Birthright Israel, a laudable enterprise that brings young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel to strengthen their Jewish identity. Steinhardt and his wife Judy acquired the item from another “collector” and immediately lent it to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.2 Despite the fact that it is without a known context and was bought on the antiquities market, the Heliodorus Stele was officially published in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 159 (2007) by Hannah Cotton of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Michael Wörrle of the Commission for Ancient History and Epigraphy at the German Archaeological Institute in Munich, with a separate article in the same journal confirming its authenticity by Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University.

The stele made the news again this year because, upon its publication in ZPE, Dov Gera of Ben-Gurion University realized that three pieces of an inscription found by “Dig For A Day” volunteers excavating in 2005 and 2006 within Cave 57 at Tell Maresha in Beit Guvrin National Park are apparently from the missing base of the Heliodorus Stele.3 This matches exactly with Goren’s conclusion, reached independently more than a year earlier, that the stele was most likely found at the site of Tell Maresha in a closed cave where ritual burning activities took place.4 As a result, even though the stele itself comes from an unknown provenance (because it was purchased on the antiquities market), now that three other fragments found in a good archaeological context from the dig fit with it, the entire inscription has a probable context: Cave 57 in Beit Guvrin National Park, i.e. the environs of Tell Maresha, a Hellenistic site.

However, even if it is genuine and now has a context, again we must inquire why isn’t anyone asking how the largest part of the Heliodorus Stele made it onto the antiquities market in the first place, and apparently in just the past few years?  If three pieces found in 2005 and 2006 in a controlled excavation at Beit Guvrin match up with the much-larger piece bought on the antiquities market in 2007, how did the much-larger piece wind up for sale?  Was it stolen/looted from the dig site?  If so, at what point was it looted — before 2005 or after 2006? And if so, was the looting reported by the dig directors? Why isn’t anyone, even the dig directors or members of the IAA or the Parks Authority, publicizing the looting going on at the site? We wonder, are they? Imagine what would have happened if a fourth piece of the Tel Dan Stele had wound up on the antiquities market after the first three pieces were found in 1993 and 1994.  And, were the excavations in Cave 57 begun because those in charge noticed evidence of looting or could the looters have ransacked the cave because of the finds that were being made? All of the media reports to date have glossed over these questions/problems, stating simply that the Steinhardts bought the piece from another “collector.”

According to Goren’s ZPE article, however, it was not a “collector” that the item was purchased from, but rather an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem, who also brought the stele to the attention of the IAA. Indeed, in their ZPE article, Cotton and Wörrle thank “Gil and Lisa Chaya for inviting us to publish the stele.”5 Gil and Lisa Chaya are registered antiquities dealers in Jerusalem; Gil Chaya is reportedly a nephew of Shlomo Moussaieff, owner of perhaps the largest collection of biblical antiquities in the world.

We have heard from sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity, that Gil Chaya reportedly bought the stele, together with other finds, from someone who had purchased them from unnamed Palestinian workers. Initially, he thought it was a Byzantine inscription, because it was in Greek, but when he realized that it contained the name of Seleucus and was potentially very important, he decided to inform the anti-looting unit of the IAA. The IAA reportedly started investigating the origin of the stele and may have even managed to reach the looters, but further details are not known. In the meantime, they also invited Cotton and Goren to study the inscription and determine its authenticity. Cotton joined forces with Wörrle, a world-renowned expert in Seleucid dedicatory inscriptions, with the resulting articles being published in ZPE.

What is unknown at this time is the arrangement, if any, made between the IAA and Gil Chaya., We believe that these matters need to be clarified. Under current Israeli law, isn't it illegal for private collectors to have purchased an antiquity and for Chaya to have sold it?  Did the IAA allow Chaya to sell it to someone on the condition that the stone would remain in Israel and on permanent loan to one of the big public museums? Did private collectors buy the stele on behalf of the Israel Museum, after being requested to do so by the IAA or by the Museum itself? Is this an example like the Dead Sea Scrolls, where such an object cannot be ignored despite its illicit origins, with the precedent set when a New York benefactor stepped in to buy the four Dead Sea Scrolls that Yigael Yadin saw advertised for sale in the Wall Street Journal? These are perhaps embarrassing questions to be asking, but in light of the current trial of Oded Golan and the instance of the ivory pomegranate which wound up in the Israel Museum in much the same way, only to later be removed from display and described as a forgery by museum officials, it seems surprising that either the IAA or the Israel Museum would want to be involved in such a delicate situation again.

In short, we would argue that there are many questions which need to be answered about the Heliodorus Stele, above and beyond the inscription written upon it: when was it found; how was it found; if it were looted from Beit Guvrin, did the dig directors know when and how it was taken; did the IAA and the Parks Authority know that such looting was going on and, if so, what steps did they take to prevent further looting; how did Gil Chaya really come into possession of the stele; how did the Steinhardts find out about it and buy it; how much did they pay for it and was Chaya allowed to keep the money; why wasn't the sale stopped; why was the sale allowed in the first place; what role did the Israel Museum play in this; and why isn't the IAA (and the dig directors) questioning all this if the object has been shown through analysis to come from the same place on a licensed dig as three other similar objects? 

Perhaps we have missed something in the stories that will shed light on this situation and answer such questions. If not, perhaps further questions need to be asked at this point, so that the full story comes out, including the details of discovery. The answers are important, for both the archaeological community and the general public, as well as for further determining the authenticity of the stele and related fragments.


All sites last accessed 13 December 2009. The successful “Dig For A Day” program at Beit Guvrin is run by Archaeological Seminars under the direction of Ian Stern and Bernie Alpert.

4 Y. Goren, “Scientific Examination of a Seleucid Limestone Stele,” ZPE 159 (2007) 206-216. Examples of relevant quotes include: 1) “the micromorphological examination of the soil that was attached to it…indicates that it is an archaeological sediment, most probably from a cave environment” (p. 208); 2) “it may be concluded that the stele possibly originated from the site of Maresha in the Shephelah region of Israel” (p. 210); 3) “it is possible that the stele was found in one of these caves around Maresha” (p. 211); 4) “It might be possible that the stele was found in relation to some cultic debris containing the ashes of sacrificed fauna from a nearby altar. In Maresha, such an activity could have taken place in a cave” (p. 211).

5 Y. Goren, “Scientific Examination of a Seleucid Limestone Stele,” ZPE 159 (2007) 206; H. M. Cotton and M. Wörrle, “Seleukos IV to Heliodoros. A New Dossier of Royal Correspondence from Israel,” ZPE 159 (2007) 191.

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