On the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot) that will be marked on Sunday (and on Monday in the Diaspora), the Book of Ruth in read in synagogues around the world. The book tells the story of Ruth the Moabite after the death of her husband and how she adhered to Judaism: “Your people are my people, and your God is divine.” She thus is considered the most famous convert from this period and whose descendants include King David.
Since then and up to modern times, there have been numerous proselytes who became Jewish, even though Judaism does not seek out – and even discourages – converts because it is a religion that entails a great commitment to stringent observance.
During Roman Empire (27 BCE to 476 CE), a Jewish diaspora had migrated to Rome and to the territories of Roman Europe from the land of Israel, Anatolia, Babylon and Alexandria in response to economic hardship and incessant warfare over the land of Israel between the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires from the 4th to the 1st centuries BCE.
However, the Late Roman period was a time when Judaism was still the dominant identity in Judea. Now an archaeological team has discovered an inscription in a cave in Beit She’arim in the Lower Galillee in which a person named Yaakov (Jacob) declares he is a convert to Judaism. It is the first inscription from this period in which it is explicitly mentioned that the buried is a convert to Judaism.
The place is now a national park, and the cemetery has even been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site several years ago. In the cemetery, which was first excavated about 80 years ago, many inscriptions in various languages, especially in Greek (then an accepted spoken language) were discovered that tell of the Jews who were buried there.
Inscriptions attesting to proselytes are not common, and of those that have been uncovered in the past, most from the Second Temple period or the Early Roman period – a time when Judaism was the dominant identity in Judea. The present find is one of the few in which a convert from the Late Roman period is cited.
In the small inscription painted in red on the wall near the burial niche, the name “Yehuda” (Judah) was written, and he was 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 eight lines with the words: “Yaakov Ha’Ger [Jacob, the Proselyte] vows to curse anybody who would open this grave, so nobody will open it. 60 years old.” The number 60 was written in a different script, therefore the researchers believe that it may have been written by his relatives after his death.
The full text and the story of its discovery were presented at the Northern Conference, held jointly on June 1, 2022 by the University of Haifa and the University of Haifa and the northern region of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
In preparation for the Northern Conference, which was organized by the University of Haifa and the IAA’s northern region, Prof. Erlich and Prof. Jonathan Price of Tel Aviv University (TAU) presented pictures of an inscription recently found in a new burial cave in Beit She’arim that identifies one of the people buried in the cave.
About a year ago, Yonatan Orlin, head of conservation in the northern district of Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority, serendipitously discovered a new burial cave that had not been known until then. This cave led to additional caves that were connected by sections that had been breached in the walls in ancient times. Two inscriptions in Greek were discovered in the innermost room and in complete darkness. The inscriptions were deciphered by Price.
“The inscription is from the Late Roman or Early Byzantine period, in which Christianity was strengthened. And here we find evidence that there are still people who choose to join the Jewish people,” said Prof. Adi Erlich of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology and the University of Haifa’s School of Archaeology who heads the excavations at Beit She’arim.
“The inscription teaches us important information about life in the Galilee of that period when it was the center of Jewish settlement after the destruction of Judah in the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE. Despite the decline of Judea and after a number of failed Jewish revolts and the spread of Christianity and the Empire, we see that there are still people who choose to join the Jewish religion and express their pride in it,” said the researchers.
Beit She’arim – a Roman-era Jewish village from First Century BCE until the Third Century CE Beit She’arim in the Lower Galilee that was a central Jewish settlement during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods. At one time, it was the seat of the Sanhedrin, an assembly of either 23 or 71 elders after the destruction of the Second Temple that was appointed to sit as a tribunal in every city in the ancient Land of Israel.
The settlement became well known mostly for the cemetery where Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishna – the first major written collection of the Jewish oral traditions which is known as the Oral Torah – was buried, as well as many Jews from the Land of Israel and the Diaspora who sought to reach their final rest there.
According to the researchers, this is not only the first inscription revealed in Beit She’arim in the last 65 years; it is also the first in which it is explicitly mentioned that the buried is a convert to Judaism. They added that inscriptions attesting to proselytes are not common, and of those that have been uncovered in the past, most from the Second Temple period or the Early Roman period – a time when Judaism was the dominant identity in Judea. “The present find is one of the few in which a convert from the Late Roman period is cited.”
The inscription was handed over to the IAI and is kept there under appropriate conditions of preservation. According to IAI director Eli Escosido, “The inscription is a very important archaeological find, which must be presented to the public along with all the Beit She’arim finds. The IAI is working together with the Nature and Parks Authority that manages the site towards presenting the inscription to the park’s visitors.”