Biblical Citations in Greek, Jewish, and Christian Inscriptions of the Graeco-Roman World*

By Ekaterini G. Tsalampouni
Lecturer on the New Testament
Faculty of Theology
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, GR
March 2012

The existence of a group of inscriptions, both Jewish and Christian, dating from the last pre-Christian centuries and up to Late Antiquity, which quote verbally, paraphrase, or allude to passages from the Scriptures, has been known since the end of the 19th century when the first studies on them appeared.1 However and despite their unique character, these inscriptions have not attracted the desirable attention of biblical scholars yet. Apart from the initial short articles on the subject, in the years that followed, the epigraphic citations of scriptural passages have mostly been treated sporadically by editors of various corpora of inscriptions or have been briefly discussed within broader contexts. The scholarly attention has been attracted primarily by the Christian inscriptions, which were much more numerous.2 In the 1980’s and 1990’s the interest in these inscriptions was revived.3 In the same period, the edition of Jewish inscriptions from the Western part of Europe, from Egypt, from Cyrenaica, from Beth She’arim and the systematic of the inscriptions from Asia Minor gave access to a number of Jewish inscriptions and rekindled the interest in the Jewish Diaspora of the Hellenistic and Roman times. Some of these studies also devoted brief sections to the biblical citations in Jewish inscriptions.4 What is, however, missing is a systematic presentation of all Jewish inscriptions that make use of biblical citations and a comparison of them with the evidence gathered from the Christian epigraphic texts with biblical citations, a need that has already been pointed out by some scholars.5 The purpose of this short contribution, therefore, is twofold: a) to provide a brief presentation of the geographical and chronological diffusion of the epigraphic texts bearing biblical quotations as well as their contexts and of the biblical texts preferred on them, and b) to compare the Jewish and Christian epigraphic evidence and place it within its broader socio-historical and religious context.

The survey is based, on the one hand, on the recent publications of the Jewish inscriptions from the Eastern part of the Roman Empire along with the previous critical editions of Jewish inscriptions from the Western part of the Roman world and from Egypt6 and, on the other, on Antonio E. Felle’s excellent Italian edition of the corpus of Christian inscriptions with biblical citations in 2006.7 These epigraphic corpora are supplemented by the most recent inscriptions published in Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum and Bulletin Épigraphique each year.

Some methodological considerations

  1. For practical reasons only the Greek inscriptions – Jewish and Christian – of the Eastern part of the Roman Empire will be discussed in this paper; they are much more numerous than those of the Western part and, therefore, offer a quite satisfying sample for our discussion. A further reason for not examining the evidence of both parts of the Roman Empire together is the fact that the socio-historical circumstances in which the Jewish and Christian communities in the Western and Eastern part of the Empire lived and developed were quite different, a fact that makes the separate treatment of the epigraphic evidence methodologically necessary. The earliest chronological limit for this study is fixed in the 2nd century BCE, when the first biblical citations appear in Jewish epigraphic texts, and the latest in the 6th c. CE, when the end of the rather arbitrarily coined period of “Late Antiquity” is usually placed. The 6th century has been chosen for another reason, too; the number of Jewish inscriptions declined considerably after this century and Jewish epigraphic texts reappeared later in the 9th and 10th centuries written now in Hebrew.8
  2. All types of monuments, i.e., architectural parts from various kinds of edifices, mosaics, personal and liturgical objects, jewelry and funerary monuments were taken into consideration. However, the magical texts were excluded because they are a category on their own and should be discussed separately.
  3. The criteria that should be applied when determining the possible Jewish or Christian origin of an inscription have been an issue of scholarly debate over the past years. Larry H. Kant offered a list of such criteria regarding Jewish epigraphic texts acknowledging at the same time that “this way of determining Jewishness, however, by no means, points to a perfectly clear boundary between Jews and non-Jews in the ancient Mediterranean.”9 The criteria applied in the present discussion are those suggested by scholars like Pieter W. van der Horst or Alice J. Bij de Vaate or J.W. van Henten.10 However, including or excluding an inscription can be a very complicated procedure since one has to face two dangers: on the one hand, a rigorous application of the above principles, which could lead to a minimalistic evaluation of the evidence and to a possible exclusion of valuable material, and on the other hand, a methodological slackness that could lead to a rather maximalistic inclusion of material that actually does not belong here. Since the golden mean is rather an ideal goal than an objective achievement, one should also leave some room for doubt and speculation and regard the identification of some of the texts that are discussed here as probable and not certain.
  4. A still unsolved problem among scholars is that of the precise definition of the terms that refer to various types of scriptural citations or references. This ambiguity is due to the quite different conception of citation in ancient cultures, which were more orally oriented than our own and applied different standards when borrowing from other sources. In the present discussion inscriptions that include verbatim quotations, paraphrases, or allusions are taken into consideration, whereas echoes and texts that contain simple words or phrases whose biblical provenance is not secure or whose proverbial use makes their direct citing from the original biblical text rather improbable were not taken into account. Texts that seem to be citations of the liturgical versions of some biblical passages were also excluded; although they give evidence of the influence of many biblical passages on the formulation of the liturgical texts, their direct dependence on the Scripture is doubtful.

The epigraphic evidence

The application of the above criteria led to the compilation of a corpus containing 506 inscriptions: 16 Jewish and 490 Christian. This apparent disproportion between the two groups is not so great when these inscriptions are compared with the total of Jewish or Christian inscriptions from the eastern part of the Graeco-Roman world; both groups of inscriptions cover about 1% to 2% of the total of the Jewish or Christian documentation. Two major problems should be taken into consideration: a) we do not have the complete corpus of the inscriptions since many have been lost or are to be found in the future, and b) the sample is not representative for the entire community since the poorest strata of the population, which was also the most numerous, did not probably leave any epigraphic traces. Despite these two restrictions, it should be observed that the low percentage does not seem to be accidental but indicates that the phenomenon of the epigraphic biblical citations was not a widely accepted trend. The majority of Jews and Christians were rather hesitant to write their holy texts on perishable materials.

The geographical diffusion of these texts also betrays that the practice of using citations in epigraphic texts was intense in particular areas, a phenomenon that was probably due to local traditions. The greatest concentration of Christian citations of the Bible is found in monuments from areas with a long Christian tradition like Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, followed by Asia (including the Aegean islands), the Balkan and Pontus, whereas in Scythia the smaller sample is attested. The Jewish inscriptions paint a quite similar picture: the majority of the evidence comes from Asia and the Aegean islands, an area where a great number of Jewish Diaspora communities had flourished from the Hellenistic times until Late Antiquity, while from the Balkans come two inscriptions, one from Phoenicia and one each from Crete and Palestine.

Regarding the chronological diffusion of the monuments both groups of inscriptions – Jewish and Christian – display the same pattern. The majority of the datable monuments can be placed in the 3rd and 4th century. The inscriptions before the Severan era show a tendency to assimilate to those of the common praxis, whereas from the second half of the 3 rd century AD onwards there is a general tendency of self-identification of individuals and groups that conforms to the general epigraphic trend, too.

Another interesting aspect, and a point of dissimilarity between the two groups, is the question of the monuments that bore such citations. While most of the Christian texts are found on architectural parts of various edifices (cult, private, or even public), the majority of the Jewish inscriptions belong to funerary contexts. Since the inscriptions of some synagogues from the Diaspora are now at our disposal (e.g., Sardis, Delos, etc.), and in only two cases do we have (from Caesarea in Palestine and probably from Nicaea in Bithynia) a text quoting a scriptural passage which suggests that the Jews in the Diaspora avoided inscribing such texts on their buildings. It should be noted, though, that the funerary use of various biblical passages is a common practice among the Christians, too: about one- sixth of the inscriptions – among them the oldest ones – belong to funerary contexts. Unlike Jews, Christians inscribed their favorite scriptural passages not only on funerary mon, and on their personal objects and jewels. In both Jewish and Christian monuments, the function of these texts was not ornamental; they rather offered protection, instruction, or authority.

Jews and Christians did not prefer the same texts in their inscriptions. This is also a significant point of differentiation between them. Although the Christian inscriptions show a clear preference for passages from the Old Testament (about 359 out of 490 contain Old Testament citations), this is a phenomenon that is consistent with the general Christian attitude towards the Old Testament; the variety of the passages used by them is significant. Μore than two-thirds of these citations come from the Psalms, a favorite book among the Christians that occupied a prominent place within the early Christian liturgies. The book of Isaiah and especially the passage 6:3, the so-called “Trisagion” hymn, that was integrated in the Christian liturgy and played an important role in the theological debates of the Ancient Church, is the second Old Testament book that is often quoted in Christian inscriptions. The book of Isaiah does not seem to have been popular among Jews when quoting in their inscriptions; it appears only once. The Jewish quotations from the Psalms are more frequent (4 times); in two cases – Ps 90:1 and 45:8 – the same passage is used by both Jews and Christians, although in most cases in a quite different context. The book that is most often used is Deuteronomy (5 times) – especially the curses that are contained in chapters 27-28 – and always in a funerary context. On the other hand, Deuteronomy, as well as the other books of the Pentateuch, is very thinly attested in the Christian inscriptions. Proverbs 10:7 also seems to have been a text that Jews often used on their funerary monuments. Most of these inscriptions come from the western part of the Graeco-Roman world (CIJ 86. 201.370. 625. 629. 661); however, the fact that there is also one case attested in the eastern part (cf. also the Hebrew inscription from Jaffa quoting the same text, CIJ 892), which is dated in the same period as those from the western, leads to the conclusion that this text was commonly used by Jews in funerary contexts perhaps because this text was recited in the funerary liturgy of the Jewish Diaspora. A probable liturgical use of Ps 135:25 is also assumed in the case of the inscription found in Nikaia.11

This uniform use of some passages in particular contexts is not an exclusive trend of Jews in Diaspora, though. The Christian monuments confirm that the same practice was well known among the Christians, as well. For example Ps 120:8 (“God bless your coming in and going out”) is usually found on lintels and doorposts of churches, private houses, and castles, while Ps 117:20 is found mainly on cult monuments from Syria and Palestine. Ps 28:3 (“The voice of the Lord is upon the waters”) is usually attested in buildings and objects that are related to water (e.g., cisterns, vases, jugs, etc.) and Ps 45:8 on various public and private buildings.

This application of particular passages in specific contexts brings into the discussion the issue of interpretation and of the Jewish and Christian reception history of biblical texts, a question that is however beyond the scope of the present contribution. It should only be observed that most of the inscriptions containing biblical citations are, in spite of their brevity and the singularity of their nature, excellent examples of Jewish and Christian reworking of the Scripture and application of them in new situations. In this respect, the citation of Biblical texts in epigraphic texts could be regarded as an example of ancient intertextuality. This practice of reworking material already found in previous documents is well known in ancient composition. The three criteria that are usually employed in judging whether a text depends on another, i.e., a) external plausibility, b) significant similarities beyond the range of coincidence, and c) intelligible differences, could also be applied to Jewish and Christian inscriptions quoting the Bible. Their dependence on biblical passages is plausible since the Scriptures played a prominent role in Jewish and Christian communities. The use of motifs, vocabulary, and ideas from the biblical text is also evident. The new text differs from the reference text or texts regarding genre, content, function, and theological message.

These inscriptions are also instances of ancient textuality. It is generally accepted that there is a relationship between identity and textuality. Texts in the Mediterranean always have constructed a sense of “who we are” and this seems to have been the case with many of the epigraphic documents under discussion. The chronological diffusion of the Jewish and Christian inscriptions and their typology attest that Jews and Christians also followed the “epigraphic habit” and adopted the epigraphic culture of their pagan environment. This tendency of assimilating with the prevalent culture of their environment is also made evident by the fact that it is often very difficult to decide about the Jewish or Christian provenance of an epigraphic monument or differentiate it from those of the pagan environment. This is not coincidental, but it should rather be related to the dialectic nature of “identity” in the sociological sense of the term and the way a minority group usually behaves. “Identity” is usually understood as a dialectic relation between the subjective and the objective, between self understanding and the opinion of the environment. It seems that some of the inscriptions containing biblical passages could be explained using these models, thus providing paradigms of religious demarcation. The persons that had these monuments erected seem to have adopted the common type of monuments and expression used in the gentile environment (esp. in the case of funerary monuments), while at the same time they used a text of their Holy Scriptures to declare their religious identity.

What happens however when two groups use the same significants –in this case the Bible – to notify their identity? The preceding discussion of the biblical passages used by Jews and Christians has shown that in this case different texts were preferred. A Jewish inscription from Thessalonica seems to offer an alternative answer to this question (IJO 1: Mac 13). It is a citation of Ps 45:8 (“The Lord of hosts is with us”) carved together with the depiction of a menorah on the walls of a presumably Jewish tomb in the eastern necropolis of the city. Together with the tomb next to it they are the only Jewish monuments in a cluster of tombs that seem, but it is often used by them in funerary contexts. Nevertheless, they prefer the New Testament version of it (Mt 1:23) where the verse of the Psalm is used as an explanation of the name Emmanuel and is related to the person of Jesus (e.g., SEG 35:650).

The last example of a biblical citation bears evidence of the Bible being used by someone who is actually acting in the in-between space, by a pagan sympathizer. It is a funerary monument from Chalkis dated in the 2nd c. AD (IG XII, 9, nr. 1179). A certain Amphicles erected a monument for his son, and in order to protect it from the tomb violators, he recited, among a number of other curses, some that can be found in Deuteronomy (28:22, 29). In this case, the biblical threats are evoked in a way similar to that on the aforementioned Jewish monuments from Phrygia functioning at the same time as a means of declaring Amphicles’s sympathy or attraction to the religion of his Jewish neighbors.

Although the biblical citations in Greek, Jewish, and Christian inscriptions are a rather marginal practice within the Jewish and Christian epigraphy, they offer valuable insights into the “Sitz im Leben” of Jewish and Christian communities and their interaction in Graeco-Roman and Late Antiquity. They remain expressions of personal piety and community self-affirmation, monuments of the way ancient Jewish and Christian communities understood and adapted their scriptures in their personal and communal lives.


*The present contribution is a shorter version of a paper published in Don Wiebe – Panayotis Pachis (eds.), Chasing Down Religion: In the Sights of History and the Cognitive Sciences. Essays in Honour of Luther H. Martin, Barbounakis Publications, Thessaloniki 2010, pp. 459-478.

1 E. Böhl, “Alte christliche Inschriften nach dem Text der Septuaginta,” Theologische Studien und Kritiken, 54 (1881): 692-713; E. Nestle, “Die alten christlichen Inschriften nach dem Text der Septuaginta,” Theologische Studien und Kritiken 56 (1883): 153-154; A. Deissmann, “Verkannte Bibelzitate in syrischen und mesopotamischen Inschriften,” Philologus 64 (N.F. 18) (1905): 475-478.

2 E.g., J. Gensichen, De Scripturae Sacrae vestigiis in inscriptionibus latinis christianis, Greifswald 1910; L. Jalabert, “Citations bibliques dans l’ epigraphie grecque,” in DACL V.1, Paris 1914, 1731-1756; H. Leclercq, “Citations bibliques dans l’ épigraphie latine,” in: DACL V.1, Paris 1914,1756-1780.

3 L. Malunowicz, “Citations bibliques dans l’ épigraphie grecque,” in E.A. Livingstone (ed.), Studia Evangelica VII, Berlin 1982, pp. 333-337; D. Feissel, “La Bible dans les inscriptions grecques,” in: C. Mondésert (ed.), Le monde grec ancient et la Bible, Bible 1984, pp. 223-231; Ch. Pietri, “La Bible dans l’ épigraphie de l’ Occident latin,” in J. Fontaine and Ch. Pietri (eds.), Le monde latin antique et la Bible, Paris 1985, pp. 189-205; D. Mazzoleni, “Patristica ed epigrafia,” in A. Quacquarelli (ed.), ,i>Complementi interdisciplinary di patrologia, Roma 1989, pp. 319-365; L. Boffo, Iscrizioni greche e latine per lo studio della Bibbia, Brescia 1996.

4 See, for example, P.W. van der Horst, Ancient Jewish Epitaphs; An Introductory Survey of a Millenium of Jewish Funerary Epigraphy (300 BCE – 700 CE), Kampen 1991, pp. 37-39.

5 S. Fine, and L.V. Rutgers, “New Light on Judaism in Asia Minor During Late Antiquity: Two Recently Identified Inscribed Menorahs,’ JSQ 3 (1996): 1-23, esp. 22-23.

6 D. Noy, A. Panayotov and H. Bloedhorn (eds.), Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, vol. 1: Eastern Europe, TÜbingen 2004; W. Ameling, (ed.), Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, vol. 2: Kleinasien, TÜbingen 2004; D. Noy and H. Bloedhorn (eds.), Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, vol. 3: Syria and Cyprus, TÜbingen 2004; D. Noy, (ed.). Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, vol.1: Italy (excluding the City of Rome), Spain and Gaul, Cambridge 1993; D. Noy, (ed.), Jewish Inscriptions of Western Europe, vol. 2: The City of Rome, Cambridge 1995; W. Horbury, and D. Noy (eds.), Jewish Inscriptions of Graeco-Roman Egypt; with an Index of the Jewish Inscriptions of Egypt and Cyrenaica, Cambridge 1992.

7 A.E. Felle, Biblia epigraphica. La sacra scrittura nella documentazione epigrafica dell’ orbis christianus antiquus (III-VIII secolo), Bari 2006.

8 W. Ameling, ’Die jÜdische Diaspora Kleinasiens und der ‘epigraphic habit,’” in J. Frey, D. Schwartz, and Gripentrog (eds.), Jewish Identity in the Greco-Roman World / JÜdische Identität in der griechisch-römischen Welt, Leiden & Boston 2007, pp. 253-282, esp. 279-280.

9 L.H. Kant, “Jewish Inscriptions in Greek and Latin,” ANRW II (1987), 20.2, pp. 671-813, and here p. 683.

10 P.W. van der Horst, Ancient Jewish Epitaphs, pp. 16-18; Alice J. Bij de Vaate and J.W. van Henten, “Jewish or Non-Jewish? Some Remarks on the Identification of Jewish Inscriptions from Asia Minor,” BO 53 (1996): 16-28.

11 W. Ameling, (ed.), Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis, vol. 2, pp. 322-324; S. Fine, and L.V. Rutgers, “New Light on Judaism in Asia Minor,” p. 10.

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