Unraveling the story behind a 5th century Jewish tombstone
They figured out her first name, but not her father’s. They know where and when she died, but not her age or the cause of death. They could not tell whether she was married.
This is a detective story, but not the ripped-from-the-headlines kind. The woman died more than 1,600 years ago, in what is now Jordan. The detectives are a few students at Yeshiva University in Upper Manhattan and a professor who is sometimes called the Jewish Robert Langdon, referring to the fictional Harvard professor of iconology in the Dan Brown books and the movie “The Da Vinci Code.”
All they had to go on was the woman’s tombstone. And at first, they did not even have that, just photographs of it.
Here are the facts of the case:
In March 2012, the professor, Steven Fine, who is also the director of Yeshiva’s Center for Israel Studies, wrote an article for the magazine Biblical Archaeology Review about Jewish tombstones in the ancient city of Zoar, which most scholars say was on the Dead Sea. It was such an oasis, according to one account, that a sixth-century mapmaker drew a grove of palm trees as a symbol for it.
Dr. Fine soon heard from one of the magazine’s readers, the Rev. Carl Morgan of Woodland United Fellowship, a church in Woodland, Calif.
Pastor Morgan, who also has a doctorate in archaeology, emailed a tantalizing photograph: an image of a tombstone like the ones Dr. Fine had discussed in his article. Pastor Morgan said it was in the collection of the Woodland Museum of Biblical Archaeology, which occupies part of the church’s campus, about 20 miles from Sacramento. A private collector had given it to the museum, Pastor Morgan said.
“It had not been translated,” he recalled in a recent telephone interview. “I knew Dr. Fine could translate it.”
…From the beginning, the Yeshiva students were confident they could make sense of the Aramaic inscriptions; Talmudic Aramaic is virtually the same as the Aramaic on the tombstone. They also know Hebrew. Mr. Friedman said the first few words were straightforward, and Ellie Schwartz, a senior, recited them: “ ‘Here rests the soul of Sa’adah, daughter of something.’ We don’t know the ‘something.’ ”
Going by the format of other ancient tombstones, they felt certain the missing word was the name of the woman’s father and wondered if it was Phineas, but they said they could not be sure. “We have the P,” Dr. Fine said. “We thought there was an N, but we’re stuck because whatever it is, it’s been scratched away. You get to the point where ‘I can’t know’ may be the most learned answer you can give.”
If the father’s name was elusive, so was another basic fact about the woman, whose name means “divine help.”
“They don’t mention her age,” Mr. Friedman said. Dr. Fine said Christian tombstones from that area carried ages, but Jewish tombstones did not. That was simply the custom of the day, he said.
But the students could date the stone, based on the parallel dating systems inscribed on it. One referred to the Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. (That system was used by Jews in Greece until World War II, Dr. Fine said; the last place the system was used, he said, was Corfu, before the Nazis rounded up the Jews who lived there and sent them to Auschwitz.) The other system was based on the number seven. By comparing the two systems, they could say with certainty that she died 362 years after the destruction of the temple.
And then there were the symbols painted on the tombstone. Mr. Schwartz said the group assumed one was the Ten Commandments, because in the photographs from the museum, it looked like a tablet with writing on it. Dr. Fine knew better. “It’s an incense shovel,” he said — a symbol of ceremonies in a temple.
Yes, there were once Jews in Jordan. Not a single one today, though.