On the morning of October 18, 1946, workers who were digging the foundation for a new library in Jerusalem burst into an ancient cistern. They were astonished to find inscribed in Greek letters on the far wall:












Experts in first-century inscriptions convened and soon revealed their findings: NIC = night, darkness; ODE = song, praise; MUS = more, mouse. These yielded alternative readings: “more night music” or “in praise of night”; or “the desired night song”; or even “dark[deep]song of the mousefolk”. The last, puzzling until it was discovered from contemporary records that the “mousefolk” comprised a group of scholars and teachers.

Exiled from the political and religious center of Rome, they gathered surreptitiously by night to exchange views. They occupied the crannies of one of the Empire’s greatest cities, collecting crumbs of fact and burrowing under its ideological foundations, their nests meticulously constructed from dangerous texts. They may have met in this very cistern which could well have been abandoned in their own time.

There were, of course, many fanciful interpretations of the inscription. The gematrialogists, quick to point out its symmetry, indulged in the most far-fetched. Yet the sums of the letters proved contradictory, adding up in all directions of the wind to the null set, silence.

More prosaic, most scholars believed that the name “Nicodemus” was a variant on Naqdemon ben Gorion of the Talmud, known as Son of the Sparrow. An influential minority conjectured, however, that it derived from Nicomachus, Aristotle's father. Bolstering this interpretation was a fragment of a poem found in the same cistern:

      You use the lens of night
         Nico to study the stars.
      You use the lens of night
         To bring the cheek of the
         Against ours, its huge light
         To find that unknown address.
      You use the lens of night
           … silence.