Is this 1,700-year-old tablet the world’s oldest obituary?
A 1,700-year-old obituary, which is unlike anything researchers say they have seen before, has finally been translated.
The inscription, written in ancient Greek on a small limestone tablet reveals a woman’s name, her religion and what she was like as a person.
Lincoln H. Blumell who specializes in ancient scripture at Utah’s Brigham Young University translated the epitaph. Plucked from Egypt, the document had been sitting in the Rare Books Department at the University of Utah’s J Willard Marriott Library since it was donated in 1989.
It commemorates a woman named Helene who cared for and loved orphans.
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 document identifies the woman as Jewish, but strangely also uses a title reserved almost exclusively for Christians at the time. “Ama” was a word only used for nuns and other respected Christian women in late antique Egypt.
The reference to the woman’s faith is what makes this translation significant, Blumell said.
“I’ve looked at hundreds of ancient Jewish epitaphs and there is nothing quite like this. This is a beautiful remembrance and tribute to this woman,” Blumell said.
It also acknowledges her age, 60, at a time when Egyptian women had a life expectancy of 25.
For the past 27 years, the library where the epitaph was stored identified it as a coptic inscription that dated back to “the dawn of the use of the Greek alphabet, not earlier than the second century, but not later than the third.”
Blumell’s findings have been published in the Journal for the Study of Judaism in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman Period.