Jews living in the Greco-Roman Diaspora in the period known as late antiquity
(second/third centuries until the fall of the Empire in the fifth century) had
experiences that differed considerably from those in the Land of Israel. This
held true for women as well as men. As it turns out, the evidence available
about women is distinctive and, at times, quite difficult to
One Greek inscription in particular has long attracted the
attention of scholars in the field. This inscription is from Smyrna (modern-day
Izmir), located in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), and was commissioned in the
second or third century by a woman named Rufina.
While the name Rufina is
Latin, the dedicator immediately identified herself by the Greek term Ioudaia.
This term is unusual in inscriptions otherwise thought to be Jewish, and
suggests that it was important for Rufina. It may even suggest that she wasn’t
born Jewish, but converted at some point in her life. The second detail recorded
was that she was the archisynagogos, the head (or possibly the president) of the
Bernadette Brooten discussed this woman, as well as others, in
her path-breaking book, Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue (1982). Ross S.
Kraemer has also translated and included this inscription (most recently in
Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook, 2004) and has
attempted to reconstruct the life of Rufina on the basis of four sentences that
appeared on the marble plaque. (See the fascinating article in Jewish Women in
Historical Perspective, Judith Baskin, ed., 2nd ed., 1998.) In order to pay for
such a substantial inscription, Rufina had to have had some wealth of her own;
after all, she owned the burial site. Because the tomb was for “her freed slaves
and the slaves raised in her household,” it is possible that she was head of her
household. One can only conjecture as to how her wealth was accumulated. Other
inscriptions reveal additional Jewish women who were independent and active in
the public realm.
Note that there is no evidence regarding the presence
of rabbis in these communities; at this time, there are Greek terms to designate
teacher, such as sophodidaskalos (teacher of wisdom) or nomodidaskalos (teacher
of law), but the developments in the Land of Israel are not reflected in the
Greco-Roman Diaspora of late antiquity.
Some women possibly attended
synagogue services and appear to have been active members, donors and leaders.
The titles they received do not seem to be derived from their fathers or
husbands, but then again, it is not entirely clear what exactly constituted a
synagogue in second- or third-century Smyrna.
The continuation of the
inscription is also revealing. Rufina paid to include the fact that this burial
place was hers, and that no one should dare to use it for other burials. She
listed a double fine for all transgressors, who, if caught, would have to pay
the “sacred treasury” as well as the Jewish community (possibly a legal
It was also stated that the public archives had a copy. While it
was not unusual to pay the local treasury or the community, this extra double
insurance policy was less common. Kraemer explains that this is an indication
that she was connected in some way to the non-Jewish community.
no men are mentioned in this inscription. No one knows if Rufina was single or
married, a widow, a mother or a grandmother. At the same time, she seems to be
free of male control, making her own decisions, using her own finances, owning
her own slaves, negotiating her own arrangements both for the burial place as
well as for the protection she was offering those buried there. It is
fascinating to see how much (or little) can be learned on the basis of four
sentences commissioned by an elite woman from second- or third-century
The writer is a professor of Jewish history and the dean at the
Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the journal
Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental
Jewry and on Jewish women.