Writing on the Wall

Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity

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Karen Stern
  • Princeton, NJ: 
    Princeton University Press
    , June
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Few of us have paid much attention to the scribbles and scratches on the walls of caves and temples, synagogues, churches, and marketplaces of late antiquity. Most focus on the large and beautiful, the clearly written and monumental, putting to the side the ugly, course and rubbed. Print publication programs often made this material inconvenient to find, separating artifacts from inscriptions, and placing graffiti in the back. Enter Karen Stern, a specialist in classics and epigraphy, whose earlier work focused on inscriptions and other archaeological evidence of Jews in North Africa. In Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity, Stern set out to collect the evidence of graffiti that relate to Jews and Judaism across the Roman empire—mining century-old publications and archives for evidence, returning to distant archaeological sites and fastidiously climbing into deep caves in search of the scribbles on the walls.

Stern allows us a glimpse into an impressive corpus, an underutilized (if not totally “forgotten” as her title suggests) body of sources that represent the lives and practices of local Jews during the period that we like to call “late antiquity.” Stern focuses upon three types of sources. In a chapter called “Carving Graffiti in Devotion,” she begins with the well published graffiti of the Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria before turning to graffiti from Jewish necropoleis in Palestine, most notably Beit She’arim, in “Mortuary Graffiti in the Roman East.” Stern then turns to “Making One’s Mark in a Pagan and Christian World,” focusing on Jewish graffiti in public spaces of Asia Minor, especially Aphrodisias. Stern brings to bear recent work on the “visual culture” of religious space, ritual, and performance studies in a most elegant manner, introducing the first two chapters with a contemporary example that serves as a heuristic organizing lens. Therefore, graffiti at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre introduce Stern’s discussion of Dura and the tomb of a famous “Voodoo queen” in New Orleans introduces Beit She’arim. This turn to the contemporary serves to sensitize the modern reader to the ancient possibilities—and is quite effective. Stern carefully describes the exact position of each graffito, and suggests ways that these inscriptions and images have functioned as part of the constantly changing visual experience of each site. The result is much more than just a significant corpus. It is a rich and full description of real people who frequented such places, literally leaving their marks. In the fourth and final chapter, Stern turns her ancient microscope back onto the modern in an intriguing reflection, “Rethinking Modern Graffiti through Ancient.” The chapter opens with a depiction of the “Third Temple” in modern Jerusalem, which serves as a touchstone to summarize and thus conclude the entire volume. Writing on the Wall is beautifully produced with ample and extremely well chosen illustrations, making this book a pleasure to read.

Stern’s search for “forgotten Jews,” those “outside the rabbinic orbit” (175), is the most recent development of a century-old project to uncover the lives of Jews beyond the rabbis and their closest followers. It was initiated by Hungarian Jewish scholar Ludwig Lalos Yehudah Blau (d. 1936) who called for the search for “Jewish archaeology,” publishing the first programmatic essays that set off the project. In “Early Christian Epigraphy from the Jewish Point of View” (Blau, Lalos, “Early Christian Epigraphy From the Jewish Point of View,Hebrew Union College Annual, 1924) and “Christian Archaeology from a Jewish Point of View” (HUCA, 3, 1926) Blau painted the contours of the search, which was carried further by Erwin R. Goodenough, Morton Smith, some of Smith’s students, and a broad range of mostly Israeli archaeologists and historians. As Blau put it (with some overstatement), “[w]e know from the Talmud everything about the lives of the literates. What we wouldn’t give if we knew about the am ha’aretz, the peasant, the simple man: his clothes, the food he ate, his faith and beliefs” (I. Benoschofsky, “The Second Era,” The Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest 1877-1977: A Centennial Volume, ed. M. Carmilly-Weinberger [New York, 1986], 76).

The binary creation of “literary Jews” and “archaeological Jews” as distinct groups goes back at least to Goodenough, and finds contemporary expression in the work of Smith’s students Shaye J.D. Cohen, Seth Schwartz, and Hayim Lapin—whose historiography provides the groundwork for Stern’s study. Numerous scholars, including myself, have argued vigorously against this rather stark division. Similarly, Stern accepts Jodi Magness’s late dating of the Sardis synagogue, without problematizing it (the Sardis team has rechecked its sources, and does not support Magness’s proposal, as will be detailed in the soon to be published final report). Stern’s projection of a somewhat happy late antiquity, where Jews publicly placed their symbols and inscriptions in the public realm is mitigated by sources that she does not cite, most noticeably a column drum from Laodicea in Asia Minor depicting a menorah, a large cross smashed over it.

Stern’s work might have been deepened by engaging more fully with Rabbinic literature. Assuredly elite, this huge corpus is far broader and evocative than is sometimes acknowledged. Our understanding of nearly every epigraphic source discussed by Stern may be deepened through comparison with literary parallels preserved in the legal, homiletical, and liturgical corpora of the late antique Rabbis. For example, graffiti on the walls of the Dura Europos synagogue find resonance in a range of Midrashic and Targumic sources. Similarly, the presence of Jewish fans of the Blues team in the hippodrome of Tyre (162), fits comfortably with rabbinic sources on Jewish participation in Roman sporting events, as well as depictions of the Blues and the Reds clashing in the great hippodrome of Solomon as depicted in a byzantine-era midrash. As Stern is aware, such “regional sources” as the writings of Rabbis and church fathers often reflect larger trends, rooted in the distinctly local. The separation of archaeology from text is useful for heuristic purposes, but eventually these distinct sources are enriched when brought together. There is so much left to do, a fact that Stern celebrates.

Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity adds much to our understanding of the marvelous complexity of ancient Judaism, with real implications for the study of graffiti beyond Jewish contexts. The significance of Stern’s work will be “written on the wall” for years to come— and will not soon be “forgotten.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Fine is the Churgin Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Center for Israel Studies at Yeshiva University.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Karen B. Stern is Assistant Professor of History at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. She is the author of Inscribing Devotion and Death: Archaeological Evidence for Jewish Populations of North Africa.


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