The Remains of a Society: Understanding the People of Zoar

When analyzed, a single inscription can often provide valuable insights about both the person who sponsored or inscribed it and their society. However, historians always run the risk of being misled, especially when data are few and far between. A little voice in our head always asks that annoying question — what if this inscription is atypical? What if we’re drawing conclusions about large swaths of a population, using a piece of evidence that represents a single outcast who marched to the beat of his own drummer?

But sometimes, a large set of similar inscriptions can provide enough concentrated data that we become comfortable putting these nagging fears aside. Looking at trends and consistencies, we gain context for understanding a group of people and their place within a global community. Such is the case for a small city on the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea, historically known as Zoar or Zoara.

Some hundreds of inscribed Jewish and Christian tombstones from a cemetery in Zoar have been discovered, published, and analyzed. Specifically the Jewish epitaphs follow a fairly consistent formula: they mention the deceased’s name, describe the date in terms of the Jewish calendar day and month, mark the year since the destruction of the Second Temple (69/70 CE), and also include the Sabbatical year.1 They often conclude with religious phrases mentioning peace. These inscriptions may be easily identified as Jewish, because they are written in Aramaic using the square character set shared with Hebrew. Jews were the only people who could read and write Aramaic in this fashion.2

One of the most important aspects of these inscriptions is the dating formula they consistently use. Not only are death dates given using the Sabbatical year, but also using the number of years since the destruction of the Temple. This dual approach to dating has assured scholars that these dates are accurate, and also enables relevant analysis of the calendar system employed by the Jewish community in Zoar. In one example, Sacha Stern analyzed the tombstone dates in order to figure out whether or not the Jews in Zoar followed the Rabbinic festival calendar. In fact, Stern surmises that Jews in Zoar during the 3rd to 5th centuries largely ignored the authority of the Rabbis in Judaea, a conclusion which contradicts the impression of Rabbinic control previously gathered by historians limited to using Rabbinic sources.3 Other scholars have also used the collection of tombstones to study evolving conceptions of family in the Jewish Diaspora,4 as well as general perceptions of death and the afterlife.5 All of this analysis is made possible by the sheer volume of data we have, a situation which allows us to delineate which tombstones are representative of trends — a which are not.


Haggai, Misgav. “Two Jewish Tombstones from Zoar.” Israel Museum Studies in Archaeology 5 (2006): 35–46.

Fine, Steven, and Kalliope I. Kritikakou-Nikolaropoulou. “Tales from Tombstones.” The BAS Library, August 31, 2015.

Politis, K. D. “The Zoara Project,2002–2003.” Palestine Exploration Quarterly 136, no. 1 (April 1, 2004): 76–76. doi:10.1179/003103204225014247.

Stern, Sacha. Calendar and Community: A History of the Jewish Calendar, 2nd Century BCE to 10th Century CE. Clarendon Press, 2001.

Stern, Sacha, and Charles Burnett, eds. Time, Astronomy, and Calendars in the Jewish Tradition. Time, Astronomy, and Calendars, volume 3. Leiden ; Boston: Brill, 2014.

Wilfand, Yael. “Aramaic Tombstones from Zoar and Jewish Conceptions of the Afterlife.” Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Period 40, no. 4/5 (2009): 510–39.

  1. Fine and Kritikakou; also see the inscriptions ZOAR0001 and ZOAR0002 for examples of this formula. 
  2. Stern: 2001, 88. 
  3. Stern, 2001: 96, 146 
  4. See Haggai 
  5. See Wilfand 

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