Thursday, December 17, 2015

Inscribed tablet found near Sea of Galilee

EPIGRAPHY: Discovery suggests Jews lived in Galilee 1,500 years ago. An ancient tablet featuring Hebrew letters has been excavated and is the best proof yet of a former Jewish town at the site (Itay Blumenthal, YNet News).
An archeological discovery near the Sea of Galilee may prove the presence of a Jewish settlement at the site 1,500 years ago.

The existence of an ancient settlement in the northeast Sea of Galilee became known to researchers by the early 1960s, when fragments of a large pier from the Byzantine period were found underwater. Researchers from Haifa University returned to the site last week following a drop in the water level and found a 1,500-year-old marble tablet bearing Hebrew letters – potential evidence for an ancient Jewish presence.

"This discovery bolsters the belief, which was until now considered folklore, that this is the settlement of Kursi, which Jesus visited and where he performed 'the Miracle of the Swine,'" said Professor Michal Artzy, who directed excavations at the site.

The compound in which the rare artifact was found has in recent years yielded evidence of a Christian city from the fifth century AD.

Two words have been identified on the tablet, which measures 150 by 70 centimeters: "amen" and "marmaria", a word that suggests a connection to the Virgin Mary.

This is a very important discovery for the history of Judaism in the Galilee in late antiquity. The potential connection with a site associated with a story about Jesus is also interesting, although let's keep in mind that the story is set several hundred years earlier than this inscription.

The last quoted sentence sounds a bit dubious to me. The word "marmaria" looks an awful lot like a word known from the Targumim (מרמירא) which is just a transliteration of the Greek word for "marble" (μάρμαρος). The specific spelling of the word in the inscription in Hebrew letters is not given, so I can't be certain, but, given that the object is a marble plaque, that interpretation sounds far more likely to me than any connection with Mary.

And on the subject of the language of the inscription, this report is careful to specify that it is written in "Hebrew letters" and not to claim that it is written in the Hebrew language. Other reports are less cautious, for example: 1,500 Year Old Hebrew Inscription Discovered on East Coast of Sea of Galilee (The Jewish Press); Israeli archaeologists find Hebrew inscriptions on ancient slab of marble near Lake Kinneret (Jerusalem Post). Caution is warranted because, from what I can see of the published photo, it looks to me as though it could well be written in Aramaic. The word "amen," of course, is used in both Hebrew and Aramaic. That word for "marble" above is found in the Aramaic Targumim (see Jastrow, 844b). And on the photo on line 1, I see what could be יקר or יקרה, which means "glory" or "honor" in Aramaic (but it also appears more rarely in Hebrew meaning "precious" or "valuable"). On line 4, I see אתרה, which means "the place" or "the synagogue" in Aramaic and סייע, which is a root in both Aramaic and Hebrew meaning "to aid or support." On line 5, I see the word יברך, which could be "he shall bless" in either Hebrew and Aramaic. I don't have any more time to puzzle out the inscription, but what I see is adding up to Aramaic more than Hebrew.

Cross-file under "Aramaic Watch?"

UPDATE: I see from the original Hebrew version of this article that the word "marmaria" is spelled מרמריה. [I'm revising an earlier comment here, since after a closer look, I see that the spelling is very similar (and there is even some variation of the spelling in the Targumim), but it is not quite the same. I still think the word in the inscription is far more likely to mean "marble" than to have anything to do with the Virgin Mary.]