This brief article focuses on her-story as opposed to the traditional his-tory, the thousands of years of recopying and retelling the stories from the male viewpoint. And that these assumptions are based on no original sources, such as the ancient Roman Jewish female epitaphs inscribed in ancient Greek with symbols of authority, just opinion and self preservation of a patriarchal dominated society. Perhaps they got it wrong!
The nuances discovered on Roman Jewish epitaphs found in some current museum displays and others that remain in storage today are overlooked. Jewish women scholars of the Torah are the most suitable persons to analyze these sacred epitaphs because they can provide insights into Roman Jewess history that others will less easily be able to provide.
The conservation of Roman Jewish stone epitaphs, in particular to those dedicated to women inscribed in ancient Greek with leadership roles is a subject of great magnitude. My original thesis1 is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to their conservation. Rather my papers (research) demonstrate how to select distinct nuances, gathered through my continuous research, yield a different way of reading, understanding, and interpreting these sacred tombstones, which is a particularly praiseworthy undertaking not to be (ignored) overlooked. The historic preservationist has the duty to draw international attention and awareness to Torah scholars, in particular to Jewish female scholars of the Torah, to insist on their conservation of these stone epitaphs, re-documenting and re-photographing, in their original place in storage, the information already established as existing in these inscriptions. In spite of enormous costs, international travel, incurring hours of painstaking labor, this undertaking is imperative. Otherwise, these, stone epitaphs inscribed in ancient Greek dedicated to Jewish women with leadership roles in ancient Rome remain silent.
Jewish Lapidary in the Vatican Museums (usually closed to the public)
Female leaders in synagogues with functional titles of leadership, such as priestess and elder are found in the Jewish lapidary in the Vatican Museums. Some male academics find it impossible to consider that women performed these functions except in an honorific role, because of the circular argument that women did not functionally perform any type of religious leadership or cultural position within society. Professor Bernadette J. Brooten’s research in the early 1980’s refutes this. Her path-breaking work seems not to have moved the field, as evidenced by the lack of subsequent investigation by Brooten and her peers. For instance, one of Professor Brooten’s important discoveries is on permanent display in the Jewish Lapidary in the Vatican Museums.
Evidence for women as priestesses
According to Professor J. Brooten’s research there exists three ancient Jewish inscriptions in which a woman bears the title hiereia/hierissa (priestess). One is in Rome on current display in the Jewish Lapidary in the Vatican Museums.
Monteverde catacomb: (3rd or 4th century C.E. Greek). White marble plaque, broken on the right, where the edge of the right-hand door of the Aron Hakodesh (Torah ark) is missing. The design of the menorah has almost a circular branch, and there are five shelves in the Aron Hakodesh but no scrolls.
Inscribed in red letters, the Ancient Greek text reads:
Here lies Gaudentia, priest, (aged) 24. In peace her sleep.
But what is extremely important is that the meme of an open Aron Hakodesh is very rare on an epitaph, and the Torah Ark has to be considered one of the most important images to a Jew. Clearly, this suggests evidence of a woman leader in authority. This symbol suggests authority, even more so that the Aron Hakodesh is explicitly depicted open.
So here we have a Roman stone epitaph inscribed in ancient Greek dedicated to a Jewish woman declared a priest and the icon of an open Aron Hakodesh is inscribed on her tombstone, which seems to imply this woman opened up the Torah regularly. Or perhaps that she served as an intermediary to God and/or Torah. Why is no one further investigating this icon? The Jewish sects of Rome had a few repetitive icons, the most consistent one being menorahs, which makes this rare epitaph an extremely significant finding.
Evidence for women as elders
Professor Bernadette J. Brootens discovered seven ancient Greek epitaphs, which bear the title “elder” (presbytera/presbyteresa=presbyterissa and presbytns=presbytis). One is in Rome on current display in the Jewish Lapidary in the Vatican Museums.
Monteverde catacomb: (1st century B.C.E., Greek) marble plaque, broken in two pieces. Inscribed in red paint, the ancient Greek text reads:
Here lies Sara Ura, Elder.
This inscription is evidence for Jewish women elders in ancient Rome; in addition, this stone epitaph gives no indication that this woman was a wife of an elder, for no husband is mentioned. It is most likely that Jewish women elders were members of a council of elders. Professor Brooten believes this council of elders may have had some oversight of synagogue finances because 399 elders annually collected money in the synagogues in antiquity to be sent to the patriarchs. It should be considered that women elders were also involved in these financial matters as their male counterparts, there is no evidence proving women were not full members of a judicial council. Furthermore, this proves how limited our knowledge of stone epitaphs inscribed in ancient Greek dedicated to Jewish women in ancient Rome is.
National Naples Archaeological Museum storage repository, a Jewess named Besula
Gray stone plaque, Monteverde catacombs (3rd-4th century C.E., Greek). Decorated with menorahs on the right and on the left, and an open Aron Hakodesh (Torah ark) showing eight scrolls. The ancient Greek text reads:
Place of Besula. She departed (this life) aged 25.
The name Besula also occurs in both the masculine and feminine corpus of Jewish Inscriptions. Jewish scholars suggest that the name Besula is female.
An illustration of this particular epitaph with its description and no other pertinent information can be found by authors Carlo Giorgio and Isidoro Kahn2, and from the codices (to my knowledge) to dispute this.
Based on Professor Brooten’s research proving that women did serve as leaders in the ancient synagogue in their communities clearly demonstrates that much more research needs to be investigated about Besula. But what is overlooked completely, and constitutes my contribution to the discussion, is that once again and open Aron Hakodesh, for eight scrolls are inscribed in a very particular order. What we see are five scrolls, as depicted by round circles within the Aron Hakodesh in the center, which must represent the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible; Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy). However, there are two more scrolls depicted above the five Pentateuch scrolls and one singular scroll depicted below the five in the middle. What do these images communicate? Not only is Besula important enough to have an open Aron Hakodesh inscribed on her tombstone, but it also appears it was extremely important to depict eight canonical scrolls (books) that Jews studied. Why an extra 2+1 scrolls? And why has this extremely important epitaph been ignored and continues to remain on the floor in museum storage?
Once again, an open Aron Hakodesh with eight visible scrolls, two menorahs and inscribed in ancient Greek depicted on a Jewish female epitaph!
National Naples Archaeological Museum
Gray marble plaque: Monteverde catacomb (3rd to 4th century C.E., Greek). This epitaph is characterized by the depiction of an open Aron Hakodesh where there are six scrolls laid out horizontally and flanked by two 5-branched menorahs, and it reads in ancient Greek font the female name “Eulogia” or possibly the word “blessing”.
Scholars to this day continue to debate on the significance of the name “Eulogia”. According to Dr. Harry J. Leon (The Jews of Ancient Rome, 1960), the epitaph reads:
Here lies Eulogia. In peace her sleep.
He suggests it is a feminine name Eulogia because the name Eulogia appears in two other epitaphs in which Eulogia is female. There exists another epitaph in the Jewish Lapidary in the Vatican museums in which the name Eulogia is female. It reads in Ancient Greek, “Here lies Eulogia. In peace her sleep.” If it is confirmed to be a female name Eulogia then this is another extremely important epitaph that needs further investigation by Jewish women scholars of the Torah well versed in Ancient Greek who can bring forth a:
דבר אחר (davar akher – another view-another perspective/opinion).
Today in Rome, Micaela Pavoncello, founder of Jewish Roma and her team of historian-guides from the Jewish community of Rome guide visitors to the Jewish catacombs explain in great detail the stone epitaph (facsimile) collection in the Jewish Museum of Rome. They educate and share their personal insights and interpretations from a female Roman Jewish perspective which are not Ashkenazi nor Sephardic.
It is indeed a significant and substantive means of devoting well-deserved scholarship to revive Ancient Greek, historic preservation, Torah as well as a long-awaited קול אישה (Kol Isha – woman’s voice) to the Jewesses of Ancient Rome.
1 A Mitzvah in Historic Preservation: The Need for Conservation of Roman Jewish Stone Epitaphs (2015–2017), and my revision (non-published, 2018), A Mitzvah in Historic Preservation: The Need for Conservation of Stone Epitaphs Dedicated to Jewish Women of Ancient Rome.
2 Testimoniale Ebraiche: a Pompei, Ercolano e nella città Campania Felix, (Bardi Editore, Roma, 2001)