Biblical Archaeology Review 35:3, May/June 2009

Biblical Views: The Writing on the Wall

By Ben Witherington III

A fascinating session at last year’s annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) in Boston was dedicated to graffiti, especially early Christian graffiti in Izmir (ancient Smyrna), Turkey.

But what counts as graffiti? Does the word “graffito” imply something clandestine, something possibly illegal, like the defacing of a building by modern graffiti artists in major American cities?

Ancient graffiti were basically of two types: (1) advertisements for politicians or for various sorts of businesses—often for sex or for the sale of property; (2) religious comments, usually about and for minority or illegal religions or philosophies. We can also distinguish between graffiti that were meant to be timely and were therefore put up only in a semi-permanent way (e.g., painted on a wall) and graffiti that were meant to have a longer shelf life (inscribed into stucco, stone or brick).

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