BAR 36:03, May/Jun 2010
Volunteers Find Missing Pieces to Looted Inscription
In the November/December 2008 issue of BAR, we reported on an inscribed limestone stela that had been purchased on the antiquities market by Judy and Michael Steinhardt and is on permanent loan to the Israel Museum.a The incomplete stela, broken off at the bottom, was studied and published by Hannah M. Cotton and Michael Wörrle.1 They determined that the inscription dated to 178 B.C.E. and had three parts: two letters written by lower administrative officials, followed by a letter from King Seleucus IV to his senior advisor Heliodoros (providing historical context for the royal official Heliodoros named in a miraculous story in 2 Maccabees 3). The latter is in fact a dossier, an order or decree from the king (written in letter form) meant to be displayed in a public place. In it the king discusses the proper care of temples in his provinces and satrapies, specifically Coele-Syria and Phoenicia, which included Judea. He notes that there is no one to oversee the temples in these regions and names one Olympiodoros—but here the text tantalizingly breaks off. The rest of the inscription was missing, so we could learn nothing more about this Olympiodoros.
Examination of the stela and its inscription by experts secured its authenticity, but its provenance remained unknown.
In 2005 and 2006, participants of Dig-for-a-Day at Maresha (see story) excavated three fragments of a large stone inscription. These were recently published by Dov Gera of Ben-Gurion University.2 Two of the three fragments clearly fit together, and Gera established that the third is also from the same inscription. The text of these Maresha fragments spoke of an unnamed official who had proven himself a worthy servant of the king, had been appointed chamberlain and made a “First Friend” of the king, so he was a member of the royal court. He was described as devoted to the gods and the care of their temples.
It turned out that, after comparing the restored width of the various fragments and the text along the breaks, the two joined Maresha fragments fit perfectly at the bottom of the Heliodoros stela. The pieces were put together at the Israel Museum to confirm that they were all originally from the same stela (see photos). Some pieces are still missing from the bottom, and the third Maresha fragment should presumably be reconstructed somewhere at the bottom of the stela.
It is now clear that the mysterious Olympiodoros is the unnamed official described in the fragments discovered by the Dig-for-a-Day participants. The joining of the fragments not only provides a provenance for the upper portion of the stela, but it also gives us a better understanding of both the earlier text and the later fragments.
It is clear that Seleucus IV wanted to be involved in cultic and temple affairs throughout his kingdom: “[O]bserving at the same time that nothing can partake of due good fortune without the favour of the gods, [we] have prescribed ... that the established sanctuaries throughout the other satrapies be provided with the ancestral honours with the proper service.” To ensure this, he wanted to put someone in charge of these affairs in Coele-Syria and Phoenicia. According to Professor Gera, Seleucus therefore appoints Olympiodoros as high priest of those territories to oversee the temples and cultic activities. The listing on the Maresha fragments of his accomplishments and devotion to the gods were included on this public document to demonstrate his qualification and suitability for such an office to the general populace.
This would not have sat well with the Jewish priests, however. They believed that the role of high priest was one ordained by God and passed down from Aaron to his descendants. And Seleucus’s appointment of Olympiodoros was surely not motivated by simple piety. The king wanted a hand in the affairs of these provincial temples, and it is likely that he hoped to use their resources to fulfill his own financial obligations to Rome. Part of Olympiodoros’s role as high priest, then, would be to collect money from the temples for official use.
All this lends further credibility to the historical context of 2 Maccabees 3, in which Heliodoros attempts to confiscate valuables from the Jerusalem Temple’s treasury before, according to the story, being stopped and beaten by heavenly visitors. Professor Gera believes that it is more likely to have been the king’s appointed high priest, Olympiodoros, who would have attempted to collect money from the Jerusalem Temple, but the author of 2 Maccabees may have changed it to the better-known senior advisor Heliodoros. A decade later, the interference of Seleucus IV’s successor Antiochus IV Epiphanes in these cultic affairs and his desecration of the Temple led to the Maccabean revolt, whose victory is celebrated at the festival of Hanukkah (2 Maccabees 6–10).
Thus the new Maresha fragments give us the real substance of the letter about Olympiodoros, who was only a name on the earlier stela. But without the stela from the antiquities market, we wouldn’t know the names and details to associate this text to a specific time and situation. The large stela was most likely looted from the Maresha cave by a robber who either missed or broke the smaller fragments in the process. These pieces have now been reunited, and perhaps a future Dig-for-a-Day participant will uncover still more of the missing inscription fragments.