This inscription is one of the many texts discovered in the synagogue of Sardis (Asia Minor). It is principally selected for our collection because it records the donation of a menorah (or “7-lampwick” = ἑπταμύνξιον) by a god-fearer (θεοσεβής/theosebês). The brief message will also allow us to explore the interaction of the Jewish population with the context of this Greek city in Late Antiquity.
The Jews of Sardis are one of the better-attested communities in the Diaspora. Traditionally, the origin of the group is attributed to the colonists that the king Antioch III sent from Babylon to Lydia and Phrygia as recorded by a letter dispatched to Zeugis, the Seleukid representative in Sardis (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XII.147-153). In the 1st century BCE and already under Roman rule, Flavius Josephus also records two decrees in which the Jews are reported “to have an association from the earliest times in accordance with their native laws and a place for their own” (Jewish Antiquities XIV.235) in addition to other privileges (Jewish Antiquities XIV.259-261). This special status would have been confirmed by Augustus who ordered the proconsul of Asia not to forbid the Sardian Jews from assembling together and sending money to Jerusalem (Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVI.171). Our sources for the early imperial period are virtually non-existent (see Trebilco, Jewish Communities, p. 38-39), and the only secure indication of a Jewish community comes from an inscription listing several urban landmarks of the city, including a synagogue, which has been securely dated to the early 3rd century CE (I.Sardis 17 =IJO II.53; see Herrmann, “Inschriften von Sardeis,” p. 257-263). Beyond these ancient testimonies, our knowledge of the Jews of Sardis greatly advanced in the mid-20th century when the excavators of the site discovered a new grand structure that could be identified as a synagogue (see Mitten, The Ancient Synagogue of Sardis). The archaeological works yielded new inscriptions and mosaics from an early stage (see Robert, “Nouvelles inscriptions,” p. 37-58), and allowed the researchers to determine that the synagogue was the result of several construction phases (see Seager and Kraabel, “The Synagogue”). The building is flanked by the city’s main palaestra and it consists of a colonnaded entrance court and a long assembly hall. Even if the magnificent gymnasium-bathhouse is known to be fully functioning and completed by the 3rd century CE (SEG 36.1094; see Yegül, The Bath-gymnasium, p. 9-16), the chronology of the synagogue is much more complex and debated. Most of the aforementioned phases were dated to the 4th century CE on the basis of coin finds beneath the floors of the halls. This chronology has recently been challenged due to the presence of coinage up to the 6th century CE (see Magness, “The Date”). Considering that the building certainly had several construction phases – as mentioned above – I do not consider the arguments for the late dating of the entire complex authoritative enough. This shall be shown by the abundant epigraphic evidence found at the site, written mostly in Greek (see Kroll, “The Greek Inscriptions), but also some in Hebrew (Cross, "The Hebrew inscriptions”). Indeed, the word for renovation (ἀνανέωσις/ananeôsis) is recorded in this material (IJO II.119).
The inscriptions are mostly concerned with the donations that financed the fine decorations of the synagogue. In addition to the mosaics which were common in other Late Antique synagogues of the Mediterranean (see Hachlili, Ancient Jewish Art, p. 198-236), the walls were also cladded in marble including those of the Torah shrine, referred to as νομοφυλάκιον/nomophylakion (IJO II.129). The menorahwas an even distincter object of Judaism in Diaspora communities (see Hachlili, The Menorah) and several remains of the symbol were found during the archaeological excavations (Seager, Kraabel, “The Synagogue,” p. 171). The inscription of Aurelius Hermogenes must be understood in the same context of embellishing the synagogue through individual contributions. The expression that this man from Sardis (Σαρδιανός/Sardianos) uses for the dedication of his vow (εὐξάμενος/euxamenos) is slightly abbreviated. The formula alluding to the intervention of providence (πρόνοια/pronoia) was generally completed by a reference to the gifts (δόματα/domata) attributed to the divine force (e.g. IJO II.82-84). God is not directly addressed and this absence might be related to the condition of god-fearer (θεοσεβής/theosebês) bestowed upon Aurelius Hermogenes. Our knowledge of this group of gentile sympathisers of Judaism was substantially improved after the discovery of an illuminating inscription from Aphrodisias. This subscription list shows that god-fearers, while participating in the activities of the Jewish community of the Carian city and contributing to its charitable association, still retained distinctive features. For example, they mostly kept Greek/native names instead of the Semitic ones preferred by the Jews and the proselytes. The god-fearers also appeared as members of the city-council (βουλευταί/bouleutai), but not the other members of the decany. In Sardis, city-councillors are also attested and they mostly followed the formula attributing their donations to providence (IJO II.72, 77, 78). As for the names, Aurelius Hermogenes showed nomenclature typical of the Greek East after the Constitutio Antoniniana. His Roman citizenship was still worth stating and many other Aurelii are recorded making donations for the synagogue (IJO II.67-70, 78, 91-93, 133, 136, 138). This aspect argues against a dating after the 4th century when single names were generally preferred as illustrated by the inscription from Aphrodisias. Indeed, the use of biblical onomastic – more common in Late Antiquity (see Williams, Margaret, “Semitic Name-Use”) – is only scarcely attested in Sardis (e.g. IJO II.63). In this last inscription, a certain Samoes is said to be priest (ἱερεύς/hiereus) and “teacher of wisdom” (σοφοδιδασκάλος/sophodidaskalos). The Jewish association of Aphrodisias also considered themselves “learned-men” (φιλομαθεῖς/philomatheis), so significant similarities existed between both Diaspora communities in Asia Minor despite the onomastic differences. For example, gold-smiths (χρυσοχόοι/chrysochooi) are attested both among the Aphrodisian members of the decany and the synagogue donors in Lydia. The one from Sardis is called Aurelius Hermogenes, a city-councillor, but his identification with our homonymous benefactor cannot be certain given the common occurrence of the name in Greek contexts.
To sum up, this inscription illustrates a god-fearer maintaining his gentile nomenclature but contributing to the embellishment of the place where the long-lived Jewish community of Sardis convened. This combination of collaboration and distinction was also present in Aphrodisias and can be also be found in Philadelphia – also in Lydia – where the theosebês Hermophilos offered funds for the “very sacred synagogue of the Hebrews” (IJO II.49). In Miletus, even a seat in the theatre was dedicated to the Jews together with the god-fearers (IJO II.37). Responding to the gifts of providence, Aurelius Hermogenes provided a menorah as a vow and the epigraphic visibility of such actions in Late Antiquity – either in the 4th or the 6th centuries CE – sheds light on a high degree of interaction in the Diaspora which is not very well attested during the previous Roman imperial period.