An upright block of stone with or without an inscription, erected to commemorate an important person or event or to function as a sacred object. As a commemorative gravestone or sacred object, the more precise terms "pillar" and the Hebrew maṣṣēbâ (plural maṣṣēbôt ) are apt to be used by the archeologist, with the word "stele" reserved for the stone slab, essentially secular in character, that is inscribed with records of victories, alliances, treaties, laws, or decrees. However, the Greek word στήλη, from which the English word is derived, was used for all these meanings.
All ancient peoples of the Near East erected steles. They are found from Mesopotamia to Egypt. One of the best-known steles is the one that is inscribed with the code of laws of hammurabi (Hammurapi), in the Louvre Museum, Paris. The Egyptians were particularly fond of steles and at times went to great lengths to produce them, as is evidenced in the famous Egyptian obelisks, which are essentially steles or more technically maṣṣēbôt.
The Israelites erected memorial gravestones (Gn 35.20; 2 Sm 18.18), and frequent mention was made of sacred maṣṣēbôt that caused no end of concern for the religion of Yahweh. As yet, however, no commemorative stele, strictly so-called, of Israelite origin has been unearthed. Nevertheless, several steles have been found that have had profound effect on the understanding of the general background of the biblical period and in some cases of the biblical text itself. The importance of steles is easily appreciated because of the contribution the inscriptions have made to the fields of history, linguistics, and religion.
Important steles that have had a direct bearing on the understanding of the Bible are the following: of Egyptian origin—the stele of Mer-ne-Ptah, four royal stelae from the Egyptian garrison town of Beth-San, the stele of sesac i found at mageddo, and a stele of Thutmose III or Amenhotep found at Chenereth in Galilee; of Canaanite origin—the mesha inscription, known also as the Moabite stone, and the stele of Balu’ah; of Mesopotamian origin—the stele of Hammurabi and the Black Obelisk of Salmanasar III.
Bibliography: Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, translated and adapted by l. hartman (New York, 1963) 2322–24, with bibliog. on the individual historical steles. j. scharbert, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65); suppl., Das Zweite-Vatikanische Konzil: Dokumente und kommentare, ed. h. s. brechter et al., pt. 1 (1966) 9:1035. k. galling, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 7 v. (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 6:352–353. k. galling, Biblisches Reallexicon (Tübingen) 500–503.
[t. h. weber]
stele (stē´lē), slab of stone or terra-cotta, usually oblong, set up in a vertical position, for votive or memorial purposes. Upon the slabs were carved inscriptions accompanied by ornamental designs or reliefs of particular significance. Stelae were often used as commemorative stones in ancient Egypt and as boundary markers in Mesopotamia. The marble funerary stelae of Greece, especially of Athens, are among the most beautiful monuments of classical art. Likenesses of the dead were sculptured in relief and painted upon them. Stelae of great age are found in China and among the ruins of the Mayan culture in Mexico and Central America.