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Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity

Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity

By Karen B. Stern. Princeton: Princeton University Press 2018. Pp. xxiii + 283. $35. ISBN 978-0-691-16133-4 (cloth).

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This latest book by Stern tackles the issue of Jewish graffiti in antiquity. As she rightfully claims, graffiti have not received the attention they deserve in our pursuit of understanding the ancient world. There has been a growing interest in this area in the last decade, but none of the recent publications on the subject has considered Jewish graffiti in depth. The current book starts to fill this lacuna, while highlighting the great need for the examination of graffiti and the great benefits that it can provide. As Stern elegantly explains, graffiti offer a window into the day-to-day life of ordinary people, while most other textual evidence focuses solely on the upper classes and on grand and unique events (xv). This is why, for many aspects of archaeology and history, graffiti are a valuable and indispensable source of information. This book offers a glimpse into Stern’s anticipated project of creating a huge database that will encompass the known Jewish graffiti.

The current book is composed of an introduction and four chapters. I discuss each of them in turn, and then the book as a whole. The introduction, titled “Graffiti, Ancient and Modern,” comprises about one-fifth of the entire book; its main purposes being to explain what graffiti are, what Jewish graffiti means, what Stern plans to do in each part of the book, and what the limitations of the data are. These goals and debates are important and relevant, yet this part of the book is repetitive and could have been shortened.

The first chapter, “Carving Graffiti as Devotion,” deals with the use of graffiti by Jews as an expression of their devotion to God. This chapter is a great improvement over the introduction as it is much more focused. The author begins with examples of Christian parallels in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before returning to Jewish cases. Then, Stern examines the synagogue in Dura-Europos (Syria), the sanctuary of Paneion in El-Kanis (Egypt), and Elijah’s Cave on Mount Carmel (Israel). The case studies and the debates surrounding them offer explanations for some of the Jewish graffiti practices, while the author also shows that some of these graffiti were very similar to, and influenced by, pagan practices.

“Mortuary Graffiti in the Roman East” (ch. 2) is the longest chapter in the book. It presents and discusses graffiti from Beth She’arim in Israel, the largest Jewish necropolis belonging to the Roman period. Most importantly, some of these graffiti are being published for the first time, though, unfortunately, those are mentioned only briefly while graffiti that had been previously published often receive more extensive analysis in the book. Therefore, a further publication on this subject is needed and would hopefully be included as part of Stern’s future work. The chapter is full of pictures of the graffiti as they appear at the archaeological site, enabling us to see the current condition of many of them. Indeed, this assemblage of visual and textual information is of great benefit to the reader, and these in situ pictures are definitely the hallmark of the entire book. Each picture provides additional information about the graffito, such as its preservation and its context both in relation to the location where it was drawn and in comparison to other graffiti on the same wall. A small caveat, however: there are no images of some of the graffiti from the moment they were discovered, thus it is difficult to ascertain how much they have eroded since that time.

One problem with this chapter is that Stern does not mention the dating of individual rooms in the cave systems of the necropolis, which was in use for many centuries, and the graffiti in them. This limits the opportunity to understand the material or to see changes and developments in style. The dating of some of the graffiti can be better understood by using Benjamin Mazar’s original excavation report (Beth Sheʿarim: Report on the Excavations During 1936–1940, vol. 1, Catacombs 1–4, Massada Press 1973).

In chapter 3, “Making One’s Mark in a Pagan and Christian World,” Stern uses graffiti from Miletos and Aphrodisias to show that in some cities Jews were fully assimilated and participated in most, if not all, cultural, municipal, and economic spheres. For example, we can find evidence of their participation as fans of the blue faction, one of four factions named after colors, which sponsored various events in the theater, the hippodrome, and other public buildings.

Chapter 4, “Rethinking Modern Graffiti Through Ancient,” is not a conventional conclusion but an attempt to show the connections between ancient and modern graffiti and how we can better understand one of the two phenomena by using the other. This chapter does not fulfil its title’s promise, as I do not find that the book shows how modern graffiti help us to better understand the ancient ones, or vice versa. This is because most of the notions and conclusions are intuitive and do not firmly rely on what was found in a different period. For example, the reason why a specific graffito in 21st-century Jerusalem was not erased by the municipality is not necessarily an indication that ancient and modern people had similar attitudes toward graffiti. In fact, in most places in the modern world graffiti are viewed as vandalism and thus a crime, and moreover are frequently used as a form of rebellious action or avant-garde art. On the other hand, Stern shows that in the ancient world graffiti were significantly more widespread, widely used, and widely accepted by society.

Despite these criticisms, this book achieves its goals and proves that looking at graffiti in order to better understand ancient Jews and Judaism is essential and that much can be learned by examining them. As a whole, the book is a worthy and important addition to the almost nonexistent library dealing with Jewish graffiti. It provides a thoughtful demonstration of how nonelite evidence improves our understanding in a discipline that has based its assessment of the past largely on elite written sources. Stern does this successfully by observing patterns in the graffiti. The graffiti provide us with a precious insight into the everyday lives of ordinary Jews, which suggests that a majority of them were Hellenistic Jews and not part of the Pharisaic-Rabbinic sect. For example, the rabbis were mostly against participating in and watching performances in the theater, arena, and hippodrome. However, we know of many graffiti that show Jews going to these places to watch the spectacles. As such, graffiti can introduce us to aspects of Jewish life that we would not otherwise have known. Moreover, the extensiveness of Jewish graffiti across the Roman empire sometimes provides evidence of Jews in places where there is no other evidence to prove their existence and involvement. The book leaves us with great expectations for Stern’s forthcoming project of creating a database of Jewish graffiti.

Haggai Olshanetsky
Bar-Ilan University
Ramat Gan, Israel

Book Review of Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and the Forgotten Jews of Antiquity, by Karen B. Stern
Reviewed by Haggai Olshanetsky
American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 125, No. 4 (October 2021)
Published online at
DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1254.Olshanetsky

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