Archéologie Biblique : The Shema‘ Yisrael

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The Shema‘ Yisrael from Deuteronomy 6:4 (“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”) is Judaism’s holiest confession.

Today, we understand the passage as a monotheistic declaration. However, in the Second Temple period, the Shema‘Yisrael text in Deuteronomy would have been read “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” The Shema‘ Yisrael was originally a monolatric statement; it stated that Israel had an exclusive relationship with its God, but it did not deny the existence of other national deities for other people.

When did Deuteronomy’s Shema‘ Yisrael become a monotheistic statement? When did Jews begin to recognize their deity as the only deity existing in the universe? In the May/June 2013 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Armin Lange and Esther Eshel discuss the discovery of a Jewish amulet near the city of Carnuntum that “marks an early pinnacle of this monotheistic interpretation of the Shema‘ Yisrael in Deuteronomy 6:4.”

The Jewish amulet was discovered in a third-century C.E. child’s grave near the Roman frontier city Carnuntum (close to modern Halbturn, Austria). The amulet is formed out of a silver capsule and small gold leaf, inscribed with a Hebrew Shema‘ Yisrael written in Greek letters. Lange and Eshel state that “the Jewish amulet reads the last clause of the Shema‘ Yisrael as ΑΔΩΝ Α ‘the Lord is 1.’ That is, it replaces the Hebrew word אחד, which meant originally ‘alone,’ with ‘one’ (a Greek A). The letter in ancient Greek represents the numeral 1.”

What is an early monotheistic Shema‘ Yisrael doing near Carnuntum? Lange and Eshel illustrate that Carnuntum had a well-integrated Jewish population that stated their religion openly. The Jewish population would have known how to recite the Shema‘ Yisrael, but most likely did not know how to write in Hebrew.

Lange and Eshel conclude that: To our knowledge, the Halbturn amulet is the first text that renders the Hebrew word ehad (אחד) with the number “1.” This numerical representation of the final word of the Shema‘ leaves no doubt about how the Jewish craftsman who made the Halbturn amulet understood the Shema‘ Yisrael —as a monotheistic statement! Only the Lord is God; there is no other God. Though the Jews of Carnuntum were open to the multi-religious culture of their city, this openness clearly had defined limits. For them, no other god existed but the Lord.

If you want to know more : Armin Lange and Esther Eshel’s full article “The Lord Is One”: How Its Meaning Changed explores the Jewish amulet and its Shema‘Yisrael inscription in light of ancient Jewish magic, the evolution of monotheism and the local Jewish population.

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