Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Did anyone know what these Inscriptions represented? When I was first on the site of ancient Laodicea (Lycus Valley) in August 2002, I did not notice this column or the inscription. It is possible that it had not yet been unearthed, but it is also possible that I just missed it, as I recall my personal tour guide and I being chased off of the site by the archaeologist. The archaeological team was involved in the dig that August and did not want any visitors, no matter how much I pleaded my case. I then returned with students in January 2006 and found this column lying on the ground at the eastern end of the main road of the ancient city. This is when I took these photos:

Cross and Menorah Inscription on column from Laodicea (Image 1), January 2006 (photograph by John W. Martens)
Cross and Menorah Inscription on column (Image 2) from Laodicea, January 2006 (photograph by John W. Martens)
I am not an archaeologist, so I did not know how to "read" inscriptions as more than an interested amateur. In terms of the symbols, I thought that I could puzzle out a few of them, but in terms of the actual date that the inscriptions were made, I had no idea how to interpret these columns, either on the basis of artistic style, the sort of columnar style, the stone used, or, of course, the scientific methods used to date stone inscriptions. For all I knew, these columns came from the medieval period, or had been inscribed even more recently. Yet, I had wondered about it for years, and the column was still lying on the ground when I was back in January 2010: could this be a sign of Jewish-Christian life together?

Even to my untrained eye, and those of my students and colleagues, it was clear that the bottom inscription was of a Menorah. While perhaps not as straightforward an identification, the inscription on the right of the Menorah in Image 1 seems to be that of a shofar, or ram's horn. In Image 2 it stands out even more as a shofar. On the left of the Menorah in Image 1, we debated as to what it might be. It appears that a sheaf of wheat is inscribed, though it could also have been a lulav, or palm frond, commonly waved during Sukkot today.

It is obvious what emerged from the Menorah, however, and the deeper carving, seen in both Image 1 and Image 2, suggested to my amateur eye that the carved "ball" and the cross were added at a later point, as did the seemingly more professional carving. Was this a sign that Christians had taken over a synagogue?

I certainly did not know any of this with certainty, however, and did not know when the carving, either of the Menorah or the Cross, might have taken place or whether they were done sequentially or at the same time. Now, however, a new book has appeared through Brill in 2012, New Perspectives on Jewish Christian Relations: In Honor of David Berger, with an essay by Steven Fine, an archaeologist from Yeshiva University, The Menorah and the Cross: Historiographical Reflections On A Recent Discovery from Laodicea on the Lycus.

The article supports the basic reading of the inscription which I and my students had mused upon, and especially cemented the identification of the branch on the left of the Menorah (Image 1) as a lulav (31-33). More significantly, the inscription is read by a professional and expert, who explains the nature of the carving. While Fine does not date the inscription, as far as I can determine, he says it is in a pile of rubble which dates to a 494 A.D./C.E. earthquake (31). He later suggests that perhaps the inscription of the cross is to be dated to around the time of the Council of Laodicea (363-364 A.D./C.E.) (50).

Yet, there is even more significance to his paper than the identification of the carving and its possible date and that is the claim that this image shows the "Christianization" of the Roman Empire and the destruction and assimilation of pagan and Jewish sacred spaces (34-35). Fine does not see this carving as indicative of "Judeo-Christianity" or a sign of  positive Jewish and Christian relationships in Laodicea, as does the excavator of the site Simsek (43-44), but of the domination of Judaism by Christianity in the later Empire. Perhaps Christians took over a Jewish space, such as a synagogue, and then carved the cross over the menorah as a sign of supersessionism. It is the only example, Fine suggests, of a cross carved over a Menorah, but examples of crosses carved over pagan symbols are more numerous.

His proposal is rather sobering and he adduces other evidence which points to Christians taking over pagan and Jewish sites. This is probably, unfortunately, the best reading of the evidence. But if the column and inscription could be dated to an earlier time, could it be evidence of a "Jewish-Christian" worship site? Is it possible to read this evidence in another way? Could it be evidence of Christianity "emerging" from Judaism? Or is it a true sign of Christians beginning to displace Jews already in the ancient city of Laodicea?

UPDATE: A student from the 2010 Greece and Turkey course, Nicole Pilarski, posted a photograph of the Cross and Menorah column on Facebook this afternoon. This is her photo from January 2010, which I am happy to reproduce here with her permission:

Cross and Menorah Inscription on Column (Image 3) from Laodicea, January 2010 (Photograph by Nicole Pilarski)
She noted that the image (Image 3) seems more faded than my photographs from 2006 (Images 1 and 2), and though that could be partly due to bad lighting or camera resolution, it could also be due to the fact that this looks like a close-up of the image. The worst case scenario would be that the fading is due to the column lying outside on the ground, open to the elements. Fine states that this is where the column remains (50) (see Image 4).

The final photograph, also taken by Nicole Pilarski, shows the location of the column piece on the ground on site in Laodicea (Image 4). Our tour guide, Gokhan Baydur is pointing out the inscription to Peter Gavrilyuk, the son of Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk.

Cross and Menorah column on ground in Laodicea (Image 4) from Laodicea, January 2010 (Photograph by Nicole Pilarski) 
 John W. Martens

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