Reading a first-century Greek synagogue inscription from Jerusalem ...

I was very glad to receive in the mail recently my life-size replica of the Theodotos inscription that I got from the IBSS Gift Shop (BibleandScience.com/shop/). If you are at all interested in replicas of artifacts from the ancient world, they have a lot of really cool products. For those interested in Greek in particular, I highly recommend replicas of ancient Greek inscriptions, Roman wax tablets, models of ancient Jerusalem, ancient coin replica sets, and more! I wish I could buy out the whole store. It's really cool and I recommend a visit.

Reading the Inscription

Since I just got this new inscription replica, I thought it would be great to read through the whole thing with you all, providing historical, cultural, and linguistic commentary where appropriate. You can watch the video above and read through the whole inscription together with me. Below, I include a transcription of the inscription, my translation, and some helpful grammatical/study notes.


θεοδοτος ουεττηνου ιερευσ και

αρχισυναγωγοσ υιοσ αρχισυναγω

γ[ο]υ υιωνοσ αρχισυν[α]γωγου ωκο

δομησε την συναγωγ[η]ν εισ αναγνω

σ[ι]ν νομου και εισ [δ]ιδαχην εντολων και

τ[ο]ν ξενωνα κα[ι τα]δωματα και τα χρη

σ[τ]ηρια των υδατων εισ καταλυμα τοι

σ [χ]ρηζουσιν απο τησ ξε[ν]ησ ην εθεμε

λ[ι]ωσαν οι πατερεσ α[υ]του και οι πρε

σ[β]υτεροι και σιμων[ι]δησ


'Theodotos, son of Vettēnus, priest and

head of a synagogue, son of a head of a synagogue,

grandson of a head of a synagogue, built

the synagogue for the reading

of the law (Torah) and for the teaching of the commandments and

the guesthouse and the adjoining rooms and the

water installations as a lodging for those in need (who come) from abroad

(the synagogue) which his fathers and the elders and Simonides founded.

Vocabulary and Grammar Notes

θεόδοτος 'Theodotos': Greek name from roots θεός 'God' and δότος 'given', possibly a Greek secondary name of a Jewish man with a name like 'Elnatan' (meaning: 'God gives').

ουεττηνος 'Vettēnus': The form ουεττηνου in the inscription is the genitive form of ουεττηνος for Latin Vettēnus. Note ου for word-initial Latin v, which was pronounced as [w] in ancient times.

ἱερεύς 'priest'

ἀρχισυνάγωγος 'head of synagogue': A title that can either apply to someone formally involved in the leadership of the synagogue or be bestowed honorifically upon someone who gave a large gift to the synagogue, was highly esteemed for other reasons in connection with the synagogue, etc.

υἱωνός 'grandson'

οἰκοδομεῖν/οἰκοδομῆσαι 'to build': This verb means to build. In the past tense, the initial οἰ- is lengthened to an ᾠ- with iota subscriptum (in modern print). In the Hellenistic period, scribes would have written the iota on the line as ωι-, but in the Roman period it is written without any iota at all as ω-.

εἰς + ACC: The preposition εἰς 'to' + ACCUSATIVE can be used for direction (i.e., 'to'), but it can also be used more abstractly with the meaning of 'for/unto/for the purpose of'.

ἀνάγνωσις 'reading'

νόμος 'law': The form νόμου in the inscription is the genitive form of νόμος 'law', which in this context probably refers to the Hebrew Torah.

διδαχή 'teaching'

ἐντολή 'commandment'

ξενών 'guest chamber/house': From the stem ξένος 'foreign(er)', the word ξενών means guest chamber or guest house.

δῶμα 'house/room': The word δῶμα more often means house, but in this context it probably means adjacent rooms or something like that.

χρηστήριον 'installation': In Classical Greek, χρηστήριον was a noun that meant 'oracle'. The adjective χρηστήριος, however, while it could be used with the meaning 'oracular' or 'prophetic', could also be used (as reflecting the root χρῆσθαι 'to use') to mean 'useful'. For example, χρηστήρια σκεύη means 'useful vessels'. It appears, however, that this use was then extended so that a form like χρηστήριον or χρηστήρια by itself could mean useful vessel or something like that (see LSJ). The use of τὰ χρηστήρια in our inscription probably reflects an extension of that usage, so that τὰ χρηστήρια τῶν ὑδάτων means something like 'the installations of the waters' or, more idiomatically, the water installations.

ὕδωρ 'water'

κατάλυμα 'inn/lodging': This word is also used in the Gospels both to refer to where Mary and Joseph could not find a room and to refer to the room which Jesus's disciples prepared for Passover.

χρῄζειν/χρῇσαι 'to want/lack': This verb means 'to want' or 'to lack'. The form τοῖς χρῄζουσιν is the dative plural masculine participle, i.e., 'to/for those who want/lack'. The verb normally comes with the GENITIVE for the thing wanted/lacked, but in this context it is omitted and thus implied, i.e., τοῖς χρῄζουσιν καταλύματος 'to/for those who have need of a lodging'.

ξένη 'abroad': This is a feminine singular adjective of ξένος, presumably short for something like ξένη γῆ 'foreign land'.

ἣν 'which/that': The form ἣν is the feminine accusative singular relative particle, going back all the way to τὴν συναγωγήν.

θεμελιοῦν/θεμελιῶσαι 'to found/establish': This verb means 'to found' or 'to establish'. It can be used literally with respect to the physical laying of the foundation of a building, or more metaphorically. In this case, it is interesting because Theodotos is credited with 'building' the synagogue (οἰκοδομεῖν/οἰκοδομῆσαι), but the fathers, elders, and Simonides are credited with 'establishing/founding' the synagogue. Scholars have suggested that this means that Theodotos is responsible for literally/physically building the synagogue in Jerusalem, but the fathers, elders, and Simonides were responsible for founding/establishing the synagogue community that was transplanted to Jerusalem (see more about this in the video and in the bibliography below).

πρεσβύτερος 'elder'


CIIP 9 in ...

Cotton, Hannah M., Leah Di Segni, Werner Eck, Benjamin Isaac, Alla Kushnir-Stein, Haggai Misgav, Jonathan Price, Israel Roll, and Ada Yardeni, eds. 2010. Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae: Volume I: Jerusalem: Part 1: 1–704. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Liddell, Scott, Jones Ancient Greek Lexicon (LSJ)

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