Scholar translates 1700-year old Greek epitaph of a Jewish Egyptian woman

1700-year-greek-epitaph-jewish-egyptian_2Credit: Jaren Wilkey/BYU

A 1700-year old limestone epitaph slightly bigger than an iPad sheds light into the fusion of different religious entities prevalent in early 3rd century AD ancient Egypt. Salvaged from a collection of Greek and Coptic artifacts from University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library, this engraved object commemorates a woman named Helene. And while she is identified (in the epitaph itself) as a Jewish woman, Helene is also referred by a title that was usually associated with Christian women in this late-antiquity time period of Egypt, thus alluding to an inclusive societal scope.

The translation was made by BYU associate professor of ancient scripture Lincoln H. Blumell. The inscription reads like this –

In peace and blessing Ama Helene, a Jew, who loves the orphans, [died]. For about 60 years her path was one of mercy and blessing; on it she prospered.

The original Greek version is as follows –

ἐν εἰρήνῃ καὶ εὐλογίᾳ
Ἄμα Ἑλένη Ἰουδαία ἣ ἀ̣-
γαποῦσα τοὺς ὀρφανούς·
ὡς ἐτῶν ξ̅ ἔλεως καὶ εὐ-
λογία〈ς〉ἡ ὁδὸς· ἡ εὐπορευ-
θῇ ἐν αὐτῇ.

Now as one can comprehend from ‘Ἰουδαία’, Helene is without a doubt identified as a woman of Jewish faith. However at the same time she is referred to by the title of Ἄμα (‘Ama’), which was usually reserved for nuns and women of Christian faith during this particular epoch. Intriguingly enough, in early 2nd century AD (circa 115–117 AD), Egypt and Cyrenaica were the scenes of bloody revolts and uprisings led by ethnic Judeans against the Romans, thus resulting in the Kitos War. But a century later, the state of affairs seems to have returned to normalcy, given the cross-faith identifier used in this early 3rd century AD inscription.

In any case, beyond the scope of dual-faith, the epitaph is also unique in terms of how it ‘contradicts’ many of the norms of the period. For example, as opposed to the relatively short life expectancy of most Egyptian women of the time (at 25 years), Helene lived for around 60 years. Also in allusion to the virtues mentioned in the New Testament, providing care for the orphans was viewed as a noble pursuit. In other words, some religious ideals resulted in much needed social programs aimed towards the widows and the orphans. As Luise Poulton, managing curator of rare books at the library, said –

Dr. Blumell brought his own expertise and that of other faculty at BYU to identify an example of third-century philanthropy and charity, qualities we ask of ourselves and each other in a society and culture very different from Helene’s. This ancient inscription now testifies to good works and ‘faith working through love,’ as expressed by Paul in Galatians, then and now.


Credit: Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo

The study was originally published in the Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period.

Source: Brigham Young University

  • erisx

    Is it possible that this woman was an early Christian? I recall that early Christianity was a JEWISH sect; the moral compass of faith hope and charity was expressed within the religion quite early, as they were initially teachings of the leader of the sect, so perhaps Ama Helene (which is a Greek name, is it not?) was enacting the teachings of the early faith.

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