Epigraphic sources constitute a major contribution to what is known of the historical development of a local or regional church, its specific organization, and its beliefs. Inscriptions from the early centuries of Christianity have been discovered by the thousands and continue to be recovered and published. Only the character and contents of church inscriptions written in Greek, the language most commonly used by Christians in Byzantine lands, are considered here. Relevant epigraphy exists in other languages, such as Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and Coptic. [See Syriac; Armenian; Coptic.]
Although methodical studies on church epigraphy exist, there is no general corpus. However, besides those appearing in the Corpus Inscriptionum Graecarum (4 vols., Berlin, 1828–1877), inscriptions are published as they are discovered in the region: in Syria (Jalabert and Mouterde, 1929–1959; Moab (Canova, 1954); the Negev desert (Alt, 1921; Negev, 1981); Jordan (Gatier, 1986; Piccirillo, 1993); Israel (Meimaris, 1986); Madaba (Piccirillo, 1989); and others. Monographs may concentrate on a particular subject, such as magical formulas on the lintels of Christian homes in Syria (see William K. Prentice, American Journal of Archaeogy 10 : 137–150) or on a heretical expression typical of Asia Minor (Gibson, 1978). Inscriptions are found in all areas of religious buildings, but especially on the floors of churches and chapels, on liturgic furniture, on column capitals, and on chancel screens; tombstones; lintels of private houses; and objects of daily use. They may also differ from one another in style and content. In general, however, they tend to be formulaic and do not deviate from the tradition.
The immediate aim of the dedicatory inscription is to keep a public record of the names and titles of those who contributed in one way or another to the construction, embellishement, or renewal of a religious place or a part of it. This material is of reliable historical value, as much as it records also some information about an inscription's date and circumstances. By way of example, recent excavations of churches in Israel have yielded information about Byzantine emperors as promoters of church construction, such as Justinian I in Jerusalem, or merely as dating references, such as Mauritius Tiberius in Kursi and Tiberius Constantinus in Neṣṣana. References to donors of rank, such as an ex-assessor of the city of Emesa/Homs in such a remote place as Neṣṣana in the Negev (Meimaris, 1986, p. 227), are significant because they reflect the degree of involvement of secular authorities in church life. The names of numerous donors (lit., “fruit bearers” in Greek), however, remain anonymous, even though they are usually the relatives of the person “for whose salvation” a building or some small part of it had been offered.
The main contribution of dedicatory inscriptions is in the field of church organization, as by their nature they refer to local clergy, recording their full titles and epithets, from the highest dignitaries to the lowest ecclesiastical orders. Meimaris's monograph on the church of Palestine lists the following titles: patriarch, metropolitan, archbishop, bishop, country bishop (chorepiscopus), archpresbyter (only two cases), presbyter, assistant presbyter, archdeacon, deacon, deaconess, subdeacon, lector, doorkeeper, periodeutes, oeconomus, and paramonarius (Meimaris, 1986, pp. 165–226).
Epigraphic references to church officials, who often otherwise would not be known to have existed, thus essentially help in the drawing up of the episcopal lists of a given diocese in periods for which no literary proofs exist. A case in point is the Madaba region in Transjordan, where a number of recently discovered inscriptions unexpectedly attest to the vitality and organization of that diocese during the ῾Abbasid period (Piccirillo, 1989, pp. 322–324). An interesting feature of the dedicatory inscriptions appearing on mosaic floors is the occasional reference to the people who worked on the mosaic, suggesting art schools or mosaic workshops. The mosaists appear to add their own names to the list of dignataries and donors, almost as a prayer: “In the time of…this mosaic was completed…for the (eternal) rest of Basilides and the salvation of Elias son of Elias the mosaist.” Other inscriptions start by mentioning the artisan: “This is the work of mosaists Nahum, Cyriakos, and Thomas.…”
Mortuary epigraphy is an indispensable complement to the historic relevance of dedications. Inscriptions are found on funerary stelae in open cemeteries as well as on the floors of churches. Tomb slabs are often seen in the nave, aisles, presbytery, diaconicum, annexed chapels, and baptisteries. Not all of these tombs have identifying inscriptions, but those that do attest to the presence of clergy, monks, and lay people—men and women—probably of a certain position and particularly related to that specific church or to its patron saint. [See Burial Techniques; Churches; Baptisteries.]
The style and formulas of Christian funerary inscriptions may vary from one region to another, but they are always important inasmuch as they include historical data about the members of a specific community, its hierarchy, and its religious culture. Anthropomorphic funerary stelae found at Khueinat in North Sinai, although Christian in intention (they display crosses), include such pagan formulae as “Be courageous.…Nobody is immortal!” In other regions they consist of a nicely planned text including the full names and titles of the deceased and the exact date of the death and/or the burial. An epitaph from Oboda/Avdat gives even the exact hours of the death and burial, as well as the day, according to the two calendars, for better clarity (Negev, 1981, p. 33). So much precision is an exception, but it exemplifies the kind of historic contribution of such records.
The name of the deceased in many cases may reveal ethnic origin (e.g., Arab). The frequency of certain Christian and biblical names helps in developing demographic and church statistics (e.g., the number and kind of clergy serving in a specific church) and in comparisons of the distinctive features of certain communities in different periods, such as before and after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century. Unfortunately, this cannot be done for most regions. Where, however, later building activity has not disturbed a site, such as in the cemeteries in the Moab region in Transjordan (Canova, 1954) and the Negev towns (Alt, 1921; Negev, 1981), interesting results can be achieved. For example, statistics are available for the monastic element in towns of regions for which no literary records are available.
Monastic functions as well as honorary titles and epitaphs have been gathered from the funerary epigraphy in Palestine: superior (hegumenos), archimandrite, mother superior (hegumene), abbas, our father, monk (monachos, monazon), nun (monacha), recluse, old man (geron), cell dweller (kelliotes, only in inscriptions from Deir Koziba in Wadi Qelt, probably recent), brother, and sister. [See Monasteries.] A deaconess is described as “Christ's servant and bride” (Meimaris, 1986, p. 51), an expression certainly meaning “consecrated virgin,” rather than the epithet parthenos, “virgin,” sometimes also occurring on tomb inscriptions. Actually, one of the most important contributions of such inscriptions concerns women's roles, responsibilities, and general involvement in the life of the Christian communities in the East. The title of deaconess, often occurring in inscriptions, has not existed in the church since the Middle Ages. The deaconess was ordained by a bishop to perform full ecclesiastical functions among women. In the sixth century, the mother superior (hegumene) of a monastery, who could also be a deaconess, became totally independent from an appointed father superior, as had been the norm (Meimaris, 1986, p. 240). Hundreds of names in inscriptions refer either to women considered deserving of burial inside the church premises, or to prominent women donors, benefactors, and even founders of churches and monasteries. A case in point is the reference to Lady Maria in a monastery at Scythopolis (Beth-Shean), and the names of two women represented as offering gifts in the mosaic inscription of a monastery church at Kissufim near Gaza (Tsafrir, 1993, p. 280).
Both dedicatory and funerary inscriptions expressed religious beliefs and theological credos. They were an appropriate means to proclaim faith and apologetics. There are also, however, thousands of purely devotional epigraphs in the form of spontaneous invocations and short personal prayers in graffito, rather than in inscriptions, that recount popular faith and devotion. On the walls of shrines, martyria, and monastic cells, pilgrims and monks wrote or carved personal prayers and invocations addressing the local patron saints, otherwise unknown, that help to identify certain sites. Short invocations such as “Oh Lord, help!” are frequently found on religious structures along pilgrim routes, such as those leading to Sinai, sometimes accompanied by the name of the patron saint of the place and/or the name of the writer.
Archaeological and epigraphic evidence for the presence of the early Jewish Christians, their veneration of the holy places, and their theology, has been claimed by some scholars (see, in particular, Emmanuele Testa, Il simbolismo dei giudeo-cristiani, Jerusalem, 1962), but there is so far no consensus of scholarly opinion, as the risk inherent in misdating and interpreting devotional graffiti is great. On the other hand, recent epigraphic support for the presence of Jewish Christian groups in ancient villages in the Golan is claimed by Claudine Dauphin (“Encore des Judéo-Chrétiens au Golan?,” in Early in Christianity in Context: Monuments and Documents. Essays in Honour of Father E. Testa, edited by F. Manns and E. Alliata, pp. 69–84, Jerusalem, 1993).
Other interesting graffiti include a fourth-century ship drawn in charcoal accompanied by the Latin words “Domine ivimus” (cf. Ps. 122:1) on a wall in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem (Figueras, 1989, p. 1780). There are several instances of the acrostic ICHTHYS, known in inscriptions and graffiti since the late second century CE in Asia Minor and at Dura-Europos on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. [See Jerusalem; Dura-Europos.] From the Holy Land shrines, as well as from known martyr's tombs, such as St. Menas in Egypt, ancient pilgrims took home as eulogiae, or “blessed souvenirs,” oil lamps and water or oil in small pottery, glass, or silver bottles decorated with designs and inscriptions referring to the holy place of origin. Even a piece of the rock of Golgotha was identified by inscription (Bellarmino Bagatti, The Church from the Gentiles in Palestine, Jerusalem, 1971, p. 232, fig. 130).
Implicit references to the Old and the New Testaments are numerous in all kinds of inscriptions, though their textual importance is relative (Gabba, 1958). References to the House of the Lord and its holiness (Ps. 63:5; Meimaris, 1986, p. 31) and to the Gate of the Lord, where the “righteous will enter” (Ps. 117:19–20), are found in churches. Biblical saints, and particularly the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are mentioned, either as examples of virtue or of God's fulfilled promises. One tombstone recounts that the deceased has “completed his race in the Lord” (2 Tm. 4:7) and another that a deaconess is simply called the second Phoebe (Rom. 16:1; Meimaris, 1986, p. 177).
The fragmentary mosaic known as the Madaba map, although replete with biblical references, is of greater value as a sixth-century geographic document for Palestine, with no fewer than 157 extant toponyms (Piccirillo, 1989, pp. 82–86). On another church floor, at Umm er-Rasas in Jordan, Palestinian, Arabian, and Egyptian cities are illustrated and labeled. Although its geographic value is questionable, it is a witness to the life and organization of the local community In 785 CE, a late date (Piccirillo, 1989, pp. 292–301).
- Alt, Albrecht. Die griechischen Inschriften der Palaestina Tertia westlich der῾Araba. Berlin and Leipzig, 1921. .
- Canova, Reginetta. Iscrizioni e monumenti protocristiani del paese de Moab. The Vatican, 1954. .
- Figueras, Pau. “Découvertes récentes d'épigraphie chrétienne en Israël.” In Actes du XIe congrès international d'archéologie chrétienne, Lyon, Vienne, Grenoble, Genève et Aoste, 21–28 septembre 1986, edited by Noel Duval et al., pp. 1771–1785. Rome, 1989. .
- Gabba, Emilio. Iscrizioni greche latine per lo studio della Bibbia. Turin, 1958. The author endeavors to make the best use of ancient epigraphy to study the Bible; should be complemented by Denis Feissal, “La Bible dans les inscriptions grecques,” in Bible de tous les temps, vol. 1, Le monde grec ancien et al Bible, pp. 223–231 (Paris, 1984).
- Gatier, Pierre-Louis. Inscriptions de la Jordanie, vol. 2, Région centrale (Amman, Hesban, Madaba, Ma῾in, Dhiban). Paris, 1986. .
- Gibson, Elsa. The “Christians for Christians” Inscriptions at Phyrgia. Missoula, 1978. .
- Grégoire, Henri. Recueil des inscriptions grecques chrétiennes d'Asie Mineure. Paris, 1922. .
- Jalabert, Louis, and René Mouterde. Inscriptions grecques et latines de la Syrie. 5 vols. Paris, 1929–1959. .
- Lefèbvre, Gustave. Recueil des inscriptions grecques chrétiennes d'Égypte. Cairo, 1907. .
- Meimaris, Yiannis E. Sacred Names, Saints, Martyrs, and Church Officials in the Greek Inscriptions and Papyri Pertaining to the Christian Church of Palestine. Athens, 1986. .
- Negev, Avraham. The Greek Inscriptions from the Negev. Jerusalem, 1981. .
- Piccirillo, Michele. Chiese e mosaici di Madaba. Jerusalem, 1989. .
- Piccirillo, Michele. The Mosaics of Jordan. Amman, 1993. .
- Tsafrir, Yoram, ed. Ancient Churches Revealed. Jerusalem, 1993. .
The periodical publication Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum updates epigraphy in general and epigraphy for the ancient Near East in particular. All texts appearing in scholarly publications are being republished and partly commented there by an excellent group of specialists.