Friday, August 25, 2017

The Jordanian lead codices: (3) The Abgar-Selaman epitaph

THIS IS MY THIRD POST commenting on Samuel Zinnner's comprehensive report on the Jordanian Lead Codices: Son of the Star: Bar Kokhba and the Jordanian lead books, which has been published online by the Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books.

You can find the first post, which deals with the materials tests on the codices, here.
The second post, on the inscriptions on the codices, is here.
The fourth post, with concluding remarks, is here.
For previous posts on the codices, start here and follow the links.

This post is on the quotation in some of the codices of a line from the Abgar-Selaman inscription.

Regular readers may recall that this is a Nabatean-Greek epitaph from the early second century CE, found in Madaba, Jordan. Dr. Zinner’s discussion of it is on pp. 465-501, although it comes up here and there throughout the report. The inscription has been in a Jordanian museum since the 1950s. I do not know anything more about the history of its discovery and handling before it was put in the museum.

You can read Dr. Zinner's translation of the whole inscription on p. 466. The epitaph is for one Selaman (Shalman), the deceased in the grave. His father, Abgar, set up the gravestone and had the epitaph inscribed on it. A number of the codices, both of lead and of copper, quote a single line from the Greek section of the epitaph. Part of the line is repeated in mirror writing. The line could be interpreted as something like, “O griefless one, hail, Abgar, (who is) also Eision!” This works grammatically, but is complete nonsense in relation to the inscription. The “griefless one, hail!” is addressed to the deceased, Selaman. The name Abgar begins a new sentence that tells us that Abgar put up the monument in a certain year.

There are perhaps some other references or allusions to the epitaph in the codices, but this is the important one.

I need not repeat the details of the story of how in 2010-11 Peter Thonemann, a Classicist at Oxford, noticed the nonsensical use of the Abgar inscription in one of the copper codices and he concluded that this codex was a fake. I concurred on this at the time and I still agree. But Dr. Zinner has advanced a number of arguments for the possibility that the use of the epitaph in the lead and copper codices happened in antiquity. I will address his points here.

First, he says the following:
Countless ancient Nabataean grave monuments were excavated and went on display in modern times. This makes it statistically not implausible to suggest the possibility that already in ancient times an Abgar family member who had supported the Bar Kokhba revolt may have been responsible for the metal books’ citation from the Abgar-Selaman stele, and that the stele was then excavated and put on display in the modern era. (p. 470)
Sometime go and visit a very old cemetery. Look at the condition of the older gravestone inscriptions — say, 150-200 years old and more. Then imagine their state after nineteen hundred years.

(This stone from the St. Andrews Cathedral churchyard is comparable in size to the Abgar-Selaman monument. Its date is 1867. Click on the image for a larger version. Many of the epitaphs on the ones this size in the churchyard are already entirely obliterated.)

The desert climate is not kind to stone. Imagine the gritty, abrasive winds and the extreme range of temperatures, from baking hot to icy cold. How many countless more Natabean gravestone inscriptions perished from the harsh desert climate in the last two millennia? How many more still lie buried in the sand?

The Abgar-Selagman epitaph is badly abraded and in places only just readable. Isn’t it lucky that it just happened barely to survive to our day so that we could identify the mysterious quotation in the codices? This is a level of luck that I find hard to believe.

Second, Dr Zinner offers some guesses about why the epitaph might have been quoted in the codices in antiquity. He sums these up on p. 480. I am not sure he mentions all the possibilities he suggests throughout the whole report, but this is at least most of them.
Might it be that Abgar and his monument for his son Selaman could have been remembered about a century after its erection on account of some aspect of Nabataean grave cults? May the lead books’ Abgar inscription represent some sort of ritual fragmentary citation from a tomb monument as part of some kind of incantation or prayer pertaining to Nabataean (or other) cults of the dead? Did an Abgar family member from Madaba relocate to the north and use the Abgar monument epitaph snippet as a ritual reminder of his/her origins? Could this family member have been Abgar himself, who may have participated in the Bar Kokhba Revolt, distinguishing himself locally thereby? Could such participation in the revolt have had something to do with such a relocation?549
Note 549 reads:
Even though the Madaba Abgar would have been unrelated Abgar VII, could the Jordanian lead books’ interest in the name Abgar conceivably have had something to do with the fame of the Syrian Abgar dynasty, especially since Abgar VII had joined an anti- Roman rebellion in the time of Trajan, shortly before the Bar Kokhba revolt under Trajan’s successor Hadrian?
These are very specific questions, not just about Natabean rituals, but about the actions and movements of particular individuals. The existence of this "aspect" of Nabatean funerary rites and the actions of these people (and even the existence of some of the people) is entirely conjectural. The answer to any of these questions could be yes — it is very hard to prove a negative for such things — but the questions are just speculations. You can argue for pretty much anything this way.

I take it that no persuasive explanation for the bizarre use of the inscription by the codices commends itself to Dr. Zinner. I cannot think of one either.

So now we have the remarkably unlikely preservation the epitaph to the present, with the codices quoting the epitaph in a random, unfathomable way. This looks like clumsy modern work to me. What do you think?

Third, Dr Zinner shows that Dr. Thonemann was incorrect to make an issue of the Greek letter Alpha not having a crossbar on the copper codex. I accept this point. It is not very important.

Fourth, other grave inscriptions sometimes give the names of the deceased in mirror writing. Dr. Zinner sees this as a parallel to the mirror writing in the quoted Abgar-Selaman line on the codices, which does not involve a name.

Well, maybe. The codices also use mirror writing in various ways in their Hebrew inscriptions, so it is not surprising to see it here. As with the Hebrew texts, it gives an air of mystery without providing any actual information. The use of the mirror writing is not the same as in the grave inscriptions, as Dr. Zinner acknowledges.

Fourth, some late-Hellenistic gold leaf amulets use a phrase that is also found on grave epitaphs: “Take courage, NN, nobody’s immortal.” Dr. Zinner sees this as a parallel to the use of the Abgar-Selaman inscription.

The parallel is very weak. The “funerary adage” on the gold amulets is a proverbial expression. It is a coherent text in itself that makes sense in context on both the epitaphs and the amulets and has the same meaning in both. The quote of the Abgar-Selaman inscription is from a once-off, unique text that is quoted in a way that is nonsensical from the perspective of the original inscription and baffling on the codex. It corresponds exactly to one line of the inscription, as though someone copied a line at random without regard to its content. Abgar is not even the entombed deceased.

It is very hard to escape the conclusion that this is a clumsy attempt to vary the monotonous text extracted from the coins with a random line from another ancient inscription that happened to be handy.

Fifth, Dr. Zinner draws some parallels between the quotation of the Abgar-Selaman inscription and another Jewish epitaph which refers to the “One God” (heis theos) in an apparently apotropaic context. He thinks that the arrangement and content of the Hebrew and Greek letters of the codex inscription encrypt allusions to the Jewish Shema prayer and imply that the first three letters of the last name in the quoted line (“eis” from “Eision”) is a covert allusion to its reference to the One God. I find all this very speculative. The supposed decryption certainly involves a dizzying amount of dot-connecting. See pp. 493-501 of the report and see what you think.

These pages in the report cover other material, but I think I have addressed his main points regarding the quotation of the Abgar-Seliman inscription in the codices. If the quotation was made in antiquity we must believe that, by an extraordinary piece of luck, both the codices and the inscription survived nearly two millennia, and both were rediscovered so we could notice their relationship. Moreover, this lucky survival confronts us with a bizarre quotation that makes no sense according to the original inscription, while any reason for its use in the codices is a matter of conjecture.

It doesn’t add up. Again: it looks like someone in the modern period, or at least at a time much closer to the present, made clumsy use of the inscription to give variety to the clumsy use of the coin inscriptions and iconography. At least that’s how it looks to me.

My next post will offer some concluding reflections on the report and on what we are to make of the codices.

Cross-file under Fake Metal Codices Watch. I acknowledge that various elements of the current discussion may point to some of the codices being something other than fake, but I remain to be convinced. See my coming post for more. In any case, I continue to include this cross-file rubric so that readers can search it to find all my posts on the subject.

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