Tharsei, oudeis athanatos

Satellite image of the Dead Sea, present day. Jerusalem is just to the northwest.

There was an interesting article in Biblical Archaeology Review this month about some excavations of tombstones at Zoar. You remember Zoar from Genesis 14 (NKJV),

And the king of Sodom, the king of Gomorrah, the king of Admah, the king of Zeboiim, and the king of Bela (that is, Zoar) went out and joined together in battle in the Valley of Siddim against Chedorlaomer king of Elam, Tidal king of nations, Amraphel king of Shinar, and Arioch king of Ellasar—four kings against five.

But apparently Zoar, on the southeast edge of the Dead Sea, was a bustling settlement for a very long time, including for hundreds of years after Christ. The researchers cited in BAR examined Jewish and Christian tombstones deposited in the 4th-6th centuries AD. Most women, then, died between the ages of 15 and 24, probably from childbirth. Men lived a little longer, but not terribly so. A few people, probably those lucky enough not to get seriously sick, lived to ripe old ages – 108 is the oldest recorded.

A common final inscription on Christian tombstones was “tharsei, oudeis athanatos”, meaning, “be of good cheer, no one is immortal”. I thought it an interesting sentiment for a tombstone.

Found a couple other things of interest – first, the different ways people noted the date. The Jewish tombstones gave the date in two ways – first, by noting the number of years since the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem temple, and second by noting which year they were in in the Sabbatical cycle in which the fields had to lie fallow for one year in seven. The Christian tombstones noted how many years had elapsed since Trajan had established the province of Arabia. The day of the week of death was either given by the days planetary name (“day of the Moon” = “Monday”), or numerically (“second day of the Lord” = “Monday”).

The Christian tombstones contained crosses and fish, for obvious reasons, but also peacocks, apparently a symbol of immortality.

An abstract of the article is available online. Perhaps your academic library or whatnot will have access, if you’re interested.

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