The graffito is carved on the north wall of the cave. The text is spread over five lines. Di Segni distinguishes three different styles of lettering (which does not exclude the possibility that this is a single inscription).
A: Letter height 0.02-0.04 m; W. c. 0.205 m.
ὁ θεός or [Κύριε (?)] ὁ θεός
B: Letter height 0.04-0.08 m; W. 0.335 m (line 1). Letter height 0.03-0.04 m; W. 0.233 m (line 2). Deep carving.
̣βοήθι Μερ[- - -]
C: Letter height 0.06 m; W. unspecified. Shallow carving.
[- - -]ἀρχ̣ιε[π(ίσκοπον) - -] (?)
Di Segni's hypothetical restoration:
ὁ θεὸς [τοῦ ἁγίου]| Ἰουλιανοῦ | βοήθι Μερ|[κούριον (?)] ἀρχιε[π(ίσκοπον) (?)]
'O God of [Saint] Ioulianos, help Mer[kourios], archbishop (?)!'
Text: CIIP 1/2, no. 842/27.
Saint NameIoulianos, martyr in Egypt, ob. 250/251 : S00155
Julian, martyr in Cilicia, ob. c. 303-311 : S00305
Julian, martyr in Emesa, ob. 283 : S01259
Julian, martyr of Vienne or Brioude (Gaul), ob. late 3rd/early 4th c. : S00035
Saint Name in SourceἸουλιανός
Image Caption 1Part A and C. From: CIIP 1/2, 182.
Image Caption 2Part C. From: CIIP 1/2, 183.
Image Caption 3Drawing of Part A. From: CIIP 1/2, 183.
Image Caption 4Drawing of Part B. From: CIIP 1/2, 183.
Image Caption 5Drawing of Part C. From: CIIP 1/2, 183.
Type of EvidenceInscriptions - Graffiti
Evidence not before500
Evidence not after600
Activity not before500
Activity not after600
Place of Evidence - RegionPalestine with Sinai
Palestine with Sinai
Place of Evidence - City, village, etcJerusalem
Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)Jerusalem
Cult activities - PlacesHoly cave
Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and CustomsPrayer/supplication/invocation
Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and NarrativesEcclesiastics - bishops
SourceThe so-called cave of the Sisters of Mercy lies within the boundaries of the estate of the modern Convent of the Sisters of Mercy of S. Vincenzo da Paola, c. 400 m from the presumed Tomb of Lazarus.
The cave was first surveyed in the spring of 1950 and the first detailed report was published in 1951 in La Revue biblique by Pierre Benoît and Marie-Émile Boismard. The site was later discussed by Bellarmino Bagatti (1953) and Sylvester Saller (1957, based on the results of his excavation in Bethany, conducted between 1949 and 1953). Recently the cave was revisited by Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, during their surveys of Jerusalem and its surroundings in the 2000s. The second part of the first volume of the Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae (2012) contains a collection of sixty-seven Greek graffiti read anew and re-published with fine photographs by Leah Di Segni and one Christian-Palestinian-Aramaic graffito published by Robert Hoyland. Di Segni gives a short account of the history of research on the site.
The interior of the cave is shaped as an oval (W. c. 5.40 m x L. c. 4 m; H. c. 2.20-3.00 m) and is accessible from the west through a corridor with stairs, supported by a pillar. The staircase appears to have been refurbished at least once. The cave is believed to be an adapted cistern rather than a natural grotto. Another interpretation is that it was used as a bath/mikveh in the Second Temple period (550 BC - AD 70).
After its initial period of use, the walls of the cave were plastered with lime and ash which became the surface for the older layer of graffiti. On the east wall that layer was later covered with limewash and decorated with drawings in red paint and red dipinti (painted inscriptions).
It seems that the cave was a pilgrimage destination, as the names contained in the graffiti are not characteristic of the area of Jerusalem. It is, however, not clear whether it was an important widely-renowned centre, or whether pilgrims just took the opportunity to visit the site while they were primarily heading to, or returning from, nearby Jerusalem. Benoît and Boismard argue that the cave served as an active shrine from the 4th to the 7th c., and that most of the graffiti are of 5th/6th c. date, while several possibly date to the 4th c. (among them several Constantinian chrisma are believed to be 4th c. carvings).
It is not clear which saint or biblical event could have been commemorated at the site. As stated above, the site lies close to the presumed tomb of Lazarus, but Benoît and Boismard hesitated to see any link between the two places. They dismissed the possibility that our cave (which was a former cistern or bath) was identified by early Christians as the place where Lazarus washed after his resurrection according to a story first recounted by Bernardus the Monk in AD 870. In their opinion a Byzantine bath, situated c. 10 m from the tomb of Lazarus is more likely to be the place; but Di Segni is a little skeptical about that identification. Bellarmino Bagatti suggested that our cave was believed to have been the site of a Last Supper, as a mid-6th c. tradition said that Jesus actually had three suppers before his Passion, one of them in Bethany. Drawing on Bagatti's theory, Emmanuele Testa argued that the cave was a meeting point of the 1st-3rd c. Judaeo-Christians who celebrated there the Last Supper of Jesus. Although Testa's hypothesis is completely unsound and runs counter to the pottery finds from the site, it was accepted by a number of recognised scholars and Di Segni rightly devotes a paragraph to rejecting it.
DiscussionDi Segni publishes a total number of sixty-seven Greek graffiti and dipinti from the cave. Among them, only one refers to a saint (except for no. 842/1 which mentions 'the God who resurrected Lazarus', but says nothing about any possible cult of that New Testament character). This is Di Segni's number 27 which we reproduce here.
The inscription consists of three parts in different script, but Di Segni says that is 'extremely tempting' to read all of them as a complete text, probably as an invocation of the God of Saint Ioulianos. In that case the name of Ioulianos should have been preceded by the epithet ἅγιος/'holy', while it is not, but it is possible that the epithet did appear at the end of line 1 and is now lost, or the author of the inscription did not use it (which is not unparalleled). Hence, Di Segni's hypothetical restoration reads as follows: 'O God of [Saint] Ioulianos, help Mer[kourios], archbishop (?)!'
As for the identity of this presumed Saint Ioulianos, Di Segni suggests several possibilities based on the literary sources. Cyril of Scythopolis mentions a church and a monastery of Saint *Ioulianos dedicated in 454/455 near the Mount of Olives (Vita Theogni 1, ed. Schwartz 241 EXXXXX, SXXXXX???; cf. Paul of Elusa, Vita Theogni 5 EXXXXXX); the Georgian version of the Lectionary of Jerusalem mentions the feast of a certain *Ioulianos in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on 27 May (E03164), and of a group of martyrs including one *Ioulianos, commemorated on 3 June in the 'building of Flavia' (E03184) (see also: Garitte 1958, 4 September, 5 October, 29 May: EXXXXX). Our Ioulianos used to be considered as the martyr venerated near the Mount of Olives, or *Julianus/Julian of Brioude, a martyr of Gaul, S00035, but Di Segni rejects the latter possibility as the cult of Julianus of Gaul is not attested in Palestine and he was commemorated on 28 August - a feast which does not appear in the calendars of Jerusalem. Yet another possibility is that we have here one of martyrs from remote cities, e.g. *Ioulianos of Cappadocia and Pamphilos, martyrs in Caesarea in Palestine (16 February, see SXXXXX and E00391), *Ioulianos, martyr of Emesa (2 February, see S01259), *Ioulianos, martyr of Amman (S01215), or *Ioulianos of Cilicia (21 June, S00305).
Anyway, it is impossible to identify the martyr (if a martyr is really invoked here) based on such a short graffito. Given the scarcity of invocations of saints in the cave it also seems unlikely that it was a place of his cult. It is more plausible that the graffito was carved by a visitor specifically devoted to him.
Dating: based on the shape of letters, Di Segni dates the graffito the 5th or 6th c.
Cotton, H.M., Di Segni, L., Eck, W., Isaac, B., Kushnir-Stein, A., Misgav, H., Price, J.J., Yardeni, A. and others (eds.), Corpus inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae: A Multi-Lingual Corpus of the Inscriptions from Alexander to Muhammad, vol. 1, part 2: Jerusalem, nos. 705-1120 (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), no. 824/27.
Cotton, H.M., Di Segni, L., Eck, W., Isaac, B., Kushnir-Stein, A., Misgav, H., Price, J.J., Yardeni, A. and others (eds.), Corpus inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae: A Multi-Lingual Corpus of the Inscriptions from Alexander to Muhammad, vol. 1, part 2: Jerusalem, nos. 705-1120 (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2012), 160-163.
Kloner, A., Zissu, B., The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period (Leuven - Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2007), 228, nos. 4-20.
Kloner, A., Survey of Jerusalem: the northeastern sector (Jerusalem: Rashut ha-ʿatiḳot, 2001), 142*(e), 184(h) no. 450 (in Hebrew).
Testa, E., "Le grotte dei misteri Giudeo-Cristiane", Liber Annuus 14 (1964), 128-131.
Saller, S., Excavations at Bethany (1949-1953) (Jerusalem: Franciscan Press, 1957).
Bagatti, B., "", Liber Annuus 3 (1953), 131, no. 38.
Benoît, P., Boismard, M.-É., "Un ancien sanctuaire chrétien à Béthanie", La Revue biblique 58 (1951), 200-251.
For the Georgian calendar of Jerusalem, see
Garitte, G. (ed.), Le calendrier palestino-géorgien du Sinaiticus 34 (Xe siècle) (Subsidia hagiographica, 30, Brussels: Société des Bollandistes, 1958).