Photo Credit: Yevgeny Ostrovsky / Israel Antiquities Authority
Inscription on stone found at Beit She’arim warns thieves about the curse of Jacob the convert.

An inscription from about 1,800 years ago that was recently uncovered in a burial cave in Beit Shearim, northern Israel, reveals the name of the deceased and his identity: “Yaakov the Convert.”

The full inscription and the story of its discovery were presented at a joint conference of the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority on Wednesday only days ahead of the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates Ruth the Moabite, the classic convert to Judaism.


“The inscription is from the Late Roman or Early Byzantine period, in which Christianity was becoming powerful, and yet we find evidence that there were still gentiles who chose to join the Jewish people,” said Prof. Adi Erlich of the Zinman Institute of Archeology and the School of Archeology at the University of Haifa, who leads the excavations at Beit Shearim.

Burial caves in ancient Beit She’arim. / Anat Hermony/FLASH90

Beit Shearim in the Lower Galilee was a central Jewish settlement during the Mishnah and Talmud periods (second to fifth centuries CE). The most famous part of the settlement is its cemetery, the burial place of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi who completed the writing of the Mishnah. The place is now a national park, and the cemetery was recognized as a World Heritage Site several years ago. It was excavated some eighty years ago and features many inscriptions that speak about the Jews who were buried there in several languages, most frequently in Greek, which was then the international language of the Mediterranean basin.

About a year ago, Jonathan Orlin, head of conservation in the north at the Nature and Parks Authority, accidentally discovered a new burial cave that had not been known until then. The cave led to additional caves that were connected by gaps that had been breached in the walls in ancient times.

Two inscriptions in Greek were discovered in the innermost room which had been in complete darkness. They were deciphered by Prof. Price. In the smaller inscription, painted in red on the wall near a burial lodge, the name “Judah” was written, denoting the owner of the tomb.

The larger inscription, written in red on a stone slab lying in a cave and leaning against the opening of the same alcove, included 8 lines with the words: “Yaakov the Convert adjures those who will open this tomb that no one must open it. 60 years old.”

The final three words were written in a different script and therefore the researchers believe it may have been written by a relative, after his death.

According to the researchers, this is not only the first inscription revealed in Beit Shearim in the last 65 years, but it is also the first that explicitly mentions that the deceased is a convert. They added that inscriptions attesting to the converts are not common, and of those revealed in the past, most were from the Second Temple period or the Early Roman period––when Judaism was the dominant identity in Judea.

“The present find is one of the few mentioning a convert from the late Roman period,” the researchers said.


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