The work of epigraphy is fascinating. The word, epigraphy, comes from Greek. “Epi” is translated as “on” and “graphy” means “writing.” So, epigraphy is the study of ancient inscriptions or ancient writing on stones, walls, and, gates, etc. Epigraphy is fascinating due to the insight it gives an epigrapher to a studied time period. It assists a historian with more social-cultural material than just archeology can provide. For example, the graffiti found on the walls of Pompei supplies epigraphers with examples of humor, slander, and mischief. A writer of graffiti could extol a favorite gladiator or orator. The notion of magic also permeated ancient epigraphy. Curse tablets were popular means of cursing ones’ enemies for eternity. A curse table would be written generally on a piece of lead, then folded over and pierced with nails. It was then buried in the hope the recipient of the curse would experience never-ending suffering. The 200 BCE – 500 CE saw an upsurge in the creation of inscriptions in the Mediterranean. Over 500,000 inscriptions have been discovered, with more inscriptions being discovered as archeology continues to unearth these epigraphic treasures. Inscriptions were used for all kinds of purposes. An inscription could be used to commemorate a leading citizen of a community or serve as an ancient Post-It note to tell a friend to meet at the stadium. Other purposes for Greek epigraphs were publicly displayed laws, treaties, funeral inscriptions, boundary markers, and milestones.
A recent discovery in northern Israel illuminates another purpose of ancient inscriptions. In the northern town of et-Taiyiba, archaeologists Tzachi Lang and Kojan Haku, uncovered an inscription marking a 5th century CE Christian church. These two researchers were working with a group doing archeological salvage work ahead of a road-building construction crew. The inscribed stone had been repurposed as part of a wall of an elaborate Byzantine=era building. The inscription, dating from 1,500 years ago, reads, “Christ born of Mary. This work of the most God-fearing and pious bishop [Theodo]sius and the miserable Th[omas] was built from the foundation.”
The researchers say this stone was part of a 5th century CE church, used as a greeting to congregants. The phrase, “Christ born of Mary,” was a popular phrase in early Christianity used to ward off evil demons or the evil eye, as well. Originally, the stone possessed a carved crucifix on top of it. Either due to damage or destruction, the crucifix is no longer extant. After the building ceased to be used as a church, the inscribed stone was part of a doorway of a two-room building.
Concerning the two proper names mentioned in the inscription, scholars identify Theodosisus as a 5th century CE archbishop of Beit She’an. Theodosisus established the church, one of many he set up during his ministry. The location of the church in et-Taiyiba is near Mt. Tabor, the possible site of the transfiguration of Jesus in the New Testament. The other individual, “miserable Thomas,” is not known. Thomas was not really miserable. The term was used anciently to denote a person’s humility and piety before God. Beyond his humility, Thomas remains an unknown figure from the past. His mention on the inscription may indicate he was a financial patron in the construction of the church. The supposition is hypothetical, at best. The most important part of the discovery of the inscription is it is the earliest evidence of a Christian church in the Jezreel Valley. There is plenty of evidence of Christian churches in the area from the 6th century CE. This inscription, however, moves the existence of Christian churches in the area up by a hundred years.