The Virtues of the Saints

When Harris Colt (a relative of Samuel Colt, inventor of the revolver pistol) surveyed Shivta, also known as Sobata, in the years 1933-1935, he uncovered an inscription without parallel. Although Colt’s survey notes were never published and they were ultimately lost in a fire, Avraham Negev published the first edition of the inscription, which corresponds to IIP identifier shiv0013. The inscription seems to have been lost, so he depended entirely upon Colt’s notes. Although it was found near the west gate of the city, the object onto which it was inscribed, the material from which it was made, and any other information is lost to time. The fragmentary inscription recounts the virtues of various early saints.



Ἐλπίδαν Ἰακώβ

Πραύτοτα Μουσῆν

Δόξαν Δαουίδ

Σοφία<ν> Σολομῶν

Ὑπομονὴν Ἰώβ


…; [In faith like Abraham]; in friendship like Isaac; in hope like Jacob; in humility like Moses; in glory like David; in wisdom like Solomon; in endurance like Job.

Negev was unable to find any meaningful parallel to this inscription, but speculated that the first line might list a given person (e.g., saint, martyr) who exhibited the qualities of all these figures. Though these figures are held in high esteem among Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike, its location in Shivta during the Byzantine period confidently establishes its Christian character.

The virtues assigned to each of the patriarchs can be peculiar at times. Although the first two lines have been lost, there can be little doubt that the list began with Abraham’s virtue of faith. The book of Genesis establishes this as one of his character traits (Gen 15:6) and both the apostle Paul (Rom 4:9; Gal 3:6-7) and the epistle of James reflect on this characterization extensively (2:21-23). This is not to mention other writings that regard him as a paragon of faith: Philo of Alexandria attests that “the holy scriptures bear witness to the faith of Abraham in the living God” (Abrah. 270; cf. 273) and numerous Church Fathers made similar claims (e.g., Augustine Tract. Ev. Jo. 108). Although no individual letter of that line survives, all commentators are confident that the list began with Abraham’s faith.

Similarly straightforward is Solomon’s virtue of wisdom, for which he is renowned in the book of 1 Kings (5:9), as well as other books of the Hebrew Bible (Prov 1:2) and also the New Testament (Matt 12:42; Luke 11:31). Josephus likewise extols his wisdom: “easily comprehending in his mind the meaning of the curious questions she propounded to him, he resolved them sooner than any body could have expected” (A.J. 8.168), as do the Church Fathers.

Job, although a rather unusual choice, is known for his endurance through his sufferings; the epistle of James says, “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about” (5:11). These men are so heavily associated with those virtues that they were often regarded as the definitive exemplar of that specific value.

That said, some of the other values are peculiar, or, at least, less obvious. Jacob is nowhere else associated with “hope” and David is nowhere associated with “glory,” for instance. To be sure, the book of Numbers (12:3) associates Moses with humility (עניו), a virtue that the Talmud commonly recounts (e.g., Ber. 54b; Yom. 76a; Ned. 38a). That said, the word’s Greek translation is nowhere found in association with Moses in either Jewish or other Christian writings.

Perhaps most perplexing is the mystery of Isaac’s virtue. Negev found no satisfactory solution to the few letters that Colt deciphered, noting that the only virtue consistently ascribed to Isaac is bearing the Lord’s promise (Gen 21:1-2; Rom 9:7-10; Gal 4:28), though Philo also grants Isaac the trait of “joy” (Abrah. 201). Pau Figueras later asserted without argument that Isaac’s virtue may have been “friendship” (φιλίαν). Figueras presumably related to Isaac’s friendship with Abimelech (Gen 26:1-33) – Josephus comments on their friendship, a friendship that had also included Isaac’s father Abraham (A.J. 1.259, 1.263-264); depending on how one reads it, Jubilees may do so as well (24.25-26). Though not definitive, Figueras provides a reasonable conjecture.

Much mystery shrouds this inscription, as it has been lost, Colt’s notes concerning it have been lost, and the inscription itself is fragmentary. All knowledge of the inscription comes from the fragmentary summary of Colt’s notes in the possession of Department of Antiquities and Museums in Jerusalem. Though the inscription may one day be rediscovered, the prospect remains unlikely.


Figueras, Pau. “Découvertes récentes d’épigraphie chrétienne en Israël,” pages 1771-1785 in Noel Duval, Actes du XIe Congrès international d’archéologie chrétienne: Lyon, Vienne, Grenoble, Genève et Aoste (21-28 Septembre 1986). Rome: Ecole française de Rome, 1989.

Negev, Avraham. The Greek Inscriptions from the Negev. Studium Biblicum Franciscanarum: Collectio Minor 25. Jerusalem: Franciscan Printing Press, 1981.

Nowakowski, Paweł. Cult of Saints, E04171. University of Oxford, 2017.

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