Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici

Professor Christopher A. Rollston ( Professor of Semitic Studies, Emmanuel Christian Seminary


Here are the basic claims of James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici: “Talpiyot Tomb B contained several ossuaries, or bone boxes, two of which were carved with an iconic image and a Greek inscription.  Taken together, the image and the inscription constitute the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus’ resurrection.”  They go on and state that these ossuaries “also provide the first evidence in Jerusalem of the people who would later be called ‘Christians.’  In fact, it is possible, maybe even likely, that whoever was buried in this tomb knew Jesus and heard him preach.”

In addition, Tabor and Jacobovici claim that because “Talpiyot Tomb B” is within around two hundred feet of “Talpiyot Tomb A” (the tomb Tabor and Jacobovici have also dubbed the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’), “the new discovery [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb B] increases the likelihood that the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ is, indeed, the real tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Tabor and Jacobovici also believe that “Jesus of Nazareth was married and had a son named Judah,” something which they have been proposing for several years now.  Tabor and Jacobovici also assume that “both tombs appear to have been part of the property of a wealthy individual possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to the gospels, buried Jesus.”

At this juncture, I shall turn to a fairly detailed discussion of both tombs and the contents thereof.  Anticipating my conclusions, I am confident that most scholars will not consider the grand claims of Tabor and Jacobovici to be cogent.  The reason is quite elementary: the conclusions they draw do not follow from the extant evidence.


This tomb was discovered in 1980 by Yosef Gath during a salvage excavation at a site in the neighborhood of East Talpiot, Jerusalem.  It contained ten ossuaries, six of them inscribed.  These were subsequently published in Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Inscriptions (1994, nos 701-709).  The personal names on the ossuaries of this tomb are as follows:  (1) Mariamē  kai Mara (Mariam and Mara).[2]  (2) Yhwdh br Yšw‘ (Yehudah bar Yeshua‘).  (3)  Mtyh (Mattiyah).  (4) Yšw‘ br Yhwsp (Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep).  (5) Ywsh (Yoseh).  (6) Mryh (Maryah).  The names Yehosep, Yoseh, Yeshua‘, Yehudah, Mattiyah, Maryah, Maryam, Mariamne, Mara and Martha (or the variants thereof) all have multiple attestations in the multilingual corpus of ossuaries and some are very common (Rahmani 1994, 292-297; Ilan 2002).  In fact, even the name and patronymic “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique in the epigraphic corpus.  After all, some eighty years ago, Sukenik published an ossuary inscribed “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) and the names Yeshua‘ and Yehosep (“Jesus” and “Joseph”) are predominant in the family of Babatha’s first husband. In fact, the father of Babatha’s first husband was named Yeshua‘ and his father was named “Yehosep,” so this is yet another “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”; see Sukenik 1931; Lewis 1989, 35-40; cf. Yadin 1971, 233-234; Kraeling 1946, 18-19).  Thus, even with the small corpus of epigraphic attestations of personal names, the Talpiyot Tomb A occurrence of “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique!

It is true that filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, along with scholars Charles Pellegrino, James Tabor, and Andrew Feuerverger attempted to argue that this was the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  Yet, the epigraphic evidence (such as personal names) does not support their contention. Their claims are also not supported by DNA evidence or statistical evidence.  They tried to make their case several years ago (Jacobovici and Pellegrino 2007; Tabor 2006; Feuerverger 2007), but the vast majority of scholars remained unconvinced.  Indeed, a cross-section of scholars (including Eric Meyers, Shimon Gibson, Jodi Magness, Sandra Scham, and I) wrote articles in the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology 69 (published by the American Schools of Oriental Research) arguing that the cumulative evidence did not support the view that this Talpiyot tomb was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth or his family.

In addition, I should also emphasize that Tabor and Jacobovici’s desire to state that the Ya‘akov Ossuary (often called the “James Ossuary” by those who wish to say this ossuary is Christian) came from Talpiyot Tomb A is absolutely groundless (and I would also note in this connection that the patina of stone ossuaries from the same quarry which were housed in the same basic environment in a Jerusalem tomb will, of course, share certain many chemical features…so even patina evidence is of no great value.  I will be happy to talk more about this later, should the need arise).

It is important to remember this dictum: Dramatic claims require dramatic evidence. Ultimately the strong consensus of scholars working in the fields of ancient epigraphy, archaeology, and ancient religion was then, and is now, that Talpiyot Tomb A is not that of the family of Jesus of Nazareth.  That is, the dramatic claims of Tabor and Jacobovici could not be embraced previously because the evidence was not there.  I am happy to resurrect this discussion (in future blog posts), but the claims of Tabor and Jadobovici for this tomb are no more convincing now than they were then.

It is perhaps important to say a few words about DNA evidence again (much as was discussed by several of us in the 2006 issue of Near Eastern Archaeology).   (1) Multiple people were often buried in a single ossuary in antiquity and so attempting to determine which bones belonged to which named person is very difficult, even if the ossuaries have multiple names listed.  (2) Many ossuaries did not have personal names inscribed on them, and those that did have names inscribed often did not have inscribed all of the names of all of the people whose bones were deposited in the ossuaries.  (3) In addition, one cannot assume that there was not some contamination of the data in antiquity (e.g., via robbery, etc.) or during the modern excavation, cleaning, and redeposition processes.  (4) Thus, collecting bone fragments from an ossuary and then doing DNA analyses is not as revelatory as a non-specialist might assume a priori.


During course of construction work in Jerusalem during the spring of 1981, a tomb with nine kokhim (“burial shafts”) was discovered.  There were a total of eight ossuaries in this tomb (originally distributed in four of the kokhim, that is, “carved chambers”), one of which was removed in 1981 (one belonging to a small child or infant).  It was noticed then (in 1981) that there were some Greek inscriptions on (at least) two of the ossuaries, but the tomb was not excavated and documented thoroughly because of various exigencies, including religious sensitivities.  Ultimately, modern buildings were soon erected at this site.  However, rather than destroying this tomb, the modern buildings were built above the tomb.

During the course of a few days in 2010, James Tabor, Rami Arav, and Simcha Jacobovici (now the primary researchers for this tomb) were able to send a robotic camera into this tomb (through the basement floor of the building which had been built on top of the tomb) and to photograph the tomb itself, the ossuaries in it, and some inscriptional remains.  One of these inscriptions, consisting of four very brief lines, has garnered substantial attention, as has some of the ornamentation (which Tabor and Jacobovici refer to as “iconography,” a term that conjures up in the minds of many readers something which is quite “Christian”) on one of the other ossuaries.  Indeed, Tabor and Jacobovici have claimed that this four-line inscription on one ossuary, and the ornamentation on another, can be understood as referring to a belief in some sort of resurrection and that this inscription and ornamentation are, therefore, Christian.  They have also noted that another one of the ossuaries in Talpiyot Tomb B has the word “Mara” on it, an Aramaic word normally meaning “sir,” or “master” or even “husband” (although it is written in Greek letters in this tomb, as is often the case in epigraphic materials from this region).  Frankly, I would find it very interesting if this were a Jewish-Christian tomb, but the evidence simply does not support this view.  At this juncture, my focus will turn to historical and epigraphic consideration of the salient aspects of the finds in Talpiyot Tomb B.


                There is often a great deal of misunderstanding about this subject generally.  That is, people who do not work in ancient history or ancient religion often assume that a belief in a resurrection was some sort of distinctively Christian belief.  That, however, is a misconception.  The fact of the matter is that within various segments of Late Second Temple Judaism, the notion of a resurrection was warmly embraced.  The locus classicus in the Hebrew Bible is arguably the following text from the mid-2nd century BCE: “Many of those sleeping in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting peril” (Dan 12:2).  Within the Old Testament Apocrypha, the notion of a resurrection is embraced at times as well, with the narrative about the martyrdom of “the mother and her seven sons” being a fine exemplar of this.  Thus, according to the narrative, one of the sons said during the torture that preceded his death: “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc 7:9).  Similarly, the mother herself says within the narrative, as an exhortation to her martyred sons: “the Creator of the world…will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again” (2 Macc 7:23).  2 Maccabees arguably hails from the first half of the 1st century BCE.   Regarding the dead, the Wisdom of Solomon also affirms that the dead “seemed to have died,” but “they are at peace,” and “their hope is full of immortality,” and they will ultimately “shine forth” and “will govern nations and ruler over peoples” (Wisdom 3:2-8 passim, with the Greek future tense being used here).  The Wisdom of Solomon arguably hails from the second half of the 1st century BCE.  Significantly, all of these texts antedate the rise of Christianity and they all affirm a belief in a resurrection.  In short, many Jews believed in a resurrection long before Christianity came along.  To be sure, a belief in a resurrection was not universally accepted by Jews in the Second Temple period.  Some Jews did not believe in a resurrection.  For example, the traditionalist Ben Sira rejected the notion of eternal bliss for the righteous and eternal punishment for the wicked.  Thus, he wrote: “Who in the netherworld can glorify the Most High, in place of the living who offer their praise?  No more can the dead give praise than those who have never lived; they glorify the Lord who are alive and well” (Sir 17:27-28).  In sum, although not all Jews of the Late Second Temple period accepted the notion of a resurrection, there are texts from this period that demonstrate that a fair number did.

Furthermore, the Jewish historian Josephus (lived ca. 37-100 CE) also discusses the subject of the perishability and imperishability of the soul, with regard to some of the major strands of Judaism during the first century of the Common Era.  Regarding the Pharisees, therefore, he states that they believe “every soul is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.”  Conversely, regarding the Sadducees he states that “as for the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards; they will have none of them.”  Regarding the Essenes, Josephus states that they believe “the body is corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent, but that the soul is immortal and imperishable…sharing the belief of the sons of Greece, they maintain that for virtuous souls there is reserved an abode beyond the ocean, a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat, but is refreshed by the ever gentle breath of the west wind coming in from ocean, while they relegate base souls to a murky and tempestuous dungeon, big with never-ending punishments” (Josephus, Jewish War, II, 11-14; for more discussion, see Nickelsburg 1972, 164-169).  Of course, pericopes within the Greek New Testament regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees dovetail nicely with Josephus.  The locus classicus for the New Testament is arguably contained within the book of Acts: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Acts 23:8; cf. also Matt 22:23).

Naturally, scholars and students of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, the Greek New Testament, and Early Christianity have for a very long time dealt with these ancient assumptions about the afterlife.  Moreover, based on the convergence of the evidence (such as the texts cited above), the consensus of the field has long been that some Jews within the Late Second Temple period embraced a belief in a resurrection and some did not (e.g., DiLella 1966; Collins 1998; Ehrman 1999).  To be sure, Christianity (originally a sect of Judaism, with strong apocalyptic tendencies) did embrace a notion of a resurrection, and this is very clear from the documents of the Greek New Testament.  But the fact remains that many Jews of the late Second Temple Period believed in a resurrection, not just Jewish Christians.   Thus, even if the inscription or ornamental motifs of this tomb provided evidence for a belief in a resurrection, one cannot assume that this must have been a Christian (i.e., Jewish Christian) tomb.  Many, many non-Christian Jews (if not most) accepted the idea of a resurrection.


                The presence of ornamental designs on an ossuary is standard.  Rosettes are among the most common ornamental motifs, but the repertoire is quite broad.  Rahmani has discussed them in great detail.  He mentions that, in addition to rosettes, the attested ornamental motifs include things such as depictions of tomb facades, columned porches, lattice gates, nephesh towers, amphorae, menorahs, grapes and grapevines, palm trees, and even a putative fish (Rahmani 1994, 28-52).  Of course, the fact that ossuaries would have such rich ornamental diversity should come as no surprise, as Late Second Temple period tombs themselves would sometimes be decorated rather nicely as well (see Berlin 2002, 138-148).  The following pericope from Maccabees is also apropos in this connection: “Simon sent and took the bones of his brother Jonathan, and buried him in Modein, the city of his ancestors…and Simon built a monument over the tomb of his father and his brothers…he also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers.  For the pyramids he devised an elaborate setting, erecting about them great columns, and on the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor he carved ships…” (1 Macc 13:25-29).

Predictably, therefore, there are ornamental motifs on the ossuaries in Talpiyot Tomb B.  One ornamental motif in particular has attracted the attention of Tabor and Jacobovici.  Namely, Tabor and Jacobovici have contended that one ornamental motif is to be understood as a fish.  But they did not stop there.  Rather, they have argued that this ornamental motif is not just any fish, they have actually argued that it is the dag gadol (the “big fish”) of the book of Jonah (Jonah 1:17)!  But they went still further, as they speculated that the etchings at one end of the motif are a graphic depiction of Jonah himself, as he is being spewed from the mouth of the big fish!  In addition, they have also contended that this symbol should be understood here as the earliest reference to “Jonah as a symbol of the Christian resurrection,” citing the following text from the Greek New Testament: “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so also shall the son of man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matt 12:40), as well as later Christian usage of the Jonah motif.

First and foremost, I must emphasize that I am confident the engraving  is simply a standard “nephesh tower motif,” an ornamental motif that is fairly widely attested on the corpus of ossuaries.  In fact, in Rahmani’s discussion of the ornamental motifs of ossuaries, the first ornamental motif he mentions is that which has the appearance of a tomb façade or nephesh tower (Rahmani 1994, 28).  Moreover, at least in terms of general design, Rahmani’s first exemplar is quite similar to that of Talpiyot Tomb B (see the detailed, illustrated comment of Eric Meyers in his blog post on this web site).  By the way, the features of  this ossuary’s ornamentation that Jacobovici and Tabor contend are the “fins of a fish,” are actually a standard feature of a roof, namely, the eaves (which, of course, are important for directing the water away from a building).  Note also that eaves are visible in multiple of Rahmani’s drawings of ossuary ornamentation.  In short, this is not a fish.  It is a nephesh tower or tomb façade.

Second, I would note that there is absolutely no epigraphic material that has been found in this tomb that would suggest that this engraved structure should be understood as a fish.  But, for the sake of argument, let us assume that it is a fish.  Even then, it would most naturally be understood as simply a reflection of a nautical motif in a tomb (not dissimilar to that reflected in the Maccabees reference cited above).  Similarly, it could be considered to be a reflection of the profession of the owner of the ossuary (e.g., a fishmonger).  Perhaps of some significance in this connection, Rahmani has indeed suggested that the ornamentation on ossuaries can sometimes functions in just this manner, that is, as a means of symbolizing the profession of the deceased (Rahmani 1994, 20; and this is precisely what Rahmani proposed for ossuary number 348, page 156).  In short, the ornamentation on the inscribed ossuary is difficult to press into service as some sort of definitive marker of this tomb as “Christian.”  The most convincing interpretation is that it is a tomb façade or a nephesh tower.  This is not a very sensational interpretation, but it is the most reasonable construct of the totality of the evidence.


Tabor and Jacobovici have suggested that the word “God” is in the first line of this inscription (spelled deos), that the Hebrew divine name “Yahweh” (transliterated into Greek letters) is in the second line of this inscription, and that the third line of the inscription has a verb for “resurrect” or “lift up” (but they have an obvious preference for the “resurrect” meaning, which is at most a secondary or tertiary meaning for this Greek word, as discussed below).  Together, lines one, two, and three have been said to read basically as “God, Yahweh has lifted up” or “Divine Yahweh has resurrected.”  Furthermore, because of this reading and because of their understanding of the tomb façade as “Jonah and the Whale,” Tabor and Jacobovici have argued that this tomb is indeed Early Christian and that it should be considered the earliest archaeological evidence for a belief in the resurrection among Christians of the first century of the Common Era.  These are dramatic claims.  Here are some of my detailed epigraphic and philological comments about the inscription.

Regarding the reading of line two, I must  emphasize that I do not consider the reading “Yahweh” (i.e., the Greek form of it) to be convincing at all.  Simply put, this reading is wrong.  To be sure, the tetragrammaton is attested in ancient Greek (with various spellings) and Iaeo can be considered a viable Greek spelling of the tetragrammaton.  However, the problem is that the first letter of line two is not an iota (and, at the very least, this letter would be necessary for reading the tetragrammaton in this line)!  Of course, Tabor and Jacobovici argue that the first letter of this line is an iota, and they are obviously assuming that this letter consists of a top horizontal, a bottom horizontal, and a long vertical connector.  There is, however, a palaeographic problem with this reading.  Here is the reason: for the Greek script(s) of the Late Second Temple period, the morphology of iota is quite consistently a vertical stroke (sometimes with modest curvature), but without distinct top or bottom horizontals.  This is the case for Greek texts on soft media (e.g., papyri) and on hard media (e.g., stone).  The panoramic Greek script charts of the great Princeton Theological Seminary palaeographer Bruce Metzger are reflective of this (e.g., Metzger  1981, 23, figure 2).  For further demonstration of this aspect of the morphology of this letter, readers might also consult photos of the Greek textual material from this chronological horizon on soft media (e.g., the Greek papyri from the Bar Kokhba Cave of Letters; See Lewis 1989, passim) and on hard media (e.g., Jerusalem Ossuary inscriptions; see Cotton, et al., 2010, passim, including #64, 65, #98, #134, #189, 199, etc.).  Again, I must stress that the convergence of the cumulative evidence demonstrates in a cogent manner that the first letter is simply not an iota.  In reality, this letter is most readily understood as a tau (i.e., a top horizontal and a vertical) or (alternatively) a zeta.  However, it is certainly not an iotaOf course, since there is no iota in this line , there is no tetragrammaton here.

Regarding the suggestion that the noun “God” (they are reading deos ) might occur in the first line of this inscription, several things should be noted.  At first blush, this might seem quite convincing.   Yet, a difficulty with this reading (and there are several difficulties), is the fact that this inscription is Greek and so it is the Greek word for “God” that would be most natural, namely, theos (rather than the Latin word deus).  Someone might contend that it is indeed the Latin word deus (with an orthographic variant, namely, an omicron instead of an upsilon), but as a Latin theophoric element in a personal name written in Greek script.  Obviously, this would be a more satisfying proposal.  However, my main point here is that I am quite disinclined to believe that the line one should be construed as simply the common noun “God.”[3]

The word hupsō is the reading which Tabor and Jacobovici consider to be the most convincing for line three of the inscription.  They consider this verb to be understood as referring to “resurrection.”  The psi and omega are both very clear and I so I read these letters this way as well.  I consider upsilon to be a plausible reading for the first letter, but because of the number of scratches on the stone in the region of this letter, I do not consider its reading to be as certain as are the readings of psi and omega.  Tabor and Jacobovici contend that this line contains a verb and they believe that the entirety of the verb is contained on this line.  Of course, often within the corpus of ossuaries (and inscriptions generally) words will begin on one line and end on the next line.  I am not entirely convinced that this is not the case with this line of this inscription.  That is, I am not convinced that the letters on line three constitute an entire word.  But for the sake of argument, I will not contest the reading at this point, but rather I will contend that the semantic range for this word is fairly broad.  It is certainly not confined to the notion of a resurrection.

Here is a synopsis of the semantic range for the word hupsoō, as detailed in some of the most authoritative lexical works on ancient Greek.  The standard lexicon of the Greek New Testament and Early Christian Literature (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker 2000, 1045) lists two primary meanings for this word, namely, (1) “to lift up spatially, lift up, raise high” someone or something (e.g., Moses lifting up the serpent, Jesus of Nazareth lifted up on the cross, etc.); (2) and “to cause enhancement in honor, fame, position, power, or future, exalt” (e.g., God exalting the people in Egypt, someone exalting oneself, considering oneself better, etc.).  The standard lexicon of Classical Greek (Liddell and Scott 1996, 1910) lists two basic meanings, namely, (1) literally “to lift high, raise up” (2) and metaphorically “to elevate, exalt, represent in a grand manner, and (in the passive) to attain exaltation.”[4]  The standard lexicon of Early Christian Greek (Lampe 1961, 1468-1469) contains definitions that suggest the same basic semantic domains as these.  The entry in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Friedrich 1972, 602-620) is particularly detailed, focusing on the verbal, nominal, and adjectival forms of this root.  Within this article, it is noted that hupsoō is used in the Septuagint as a translation for the Hebrew words rwm, nś’, and gbh, words with a basic semantic domain that revolves around the meanings “raise, lift up, exalt.”  Also noted in this TDOT article is the fact that the Hebrew term rwm can have (at least in the Late Second Temple period) eschatological meanings and thus may mean (at times) “awakening or resurrection.” Moreover, similar ranges of meaning are considered plausible in some New Testament texts (Friedrich 1972, 607-609).  Based on the totality of the data of the standard Greek lexica, therefore, I would argue that “resurrection” is something that could be part of the semantic range of the word hupsoō, but it certainly cannot be considered to be the dominant meaning of this word.  For this reason, it is readily apparent that it cannot be readily assumed that the word in line three of the ossuary inscription must refer to a resurrection of some sort, as this is obviously not the only viable option.  Finally, I must emphasize that (if one assumes the correct reading to be the verb hupsoō) this verb would most naturally be understood as a first person (“I lift up”), not a third person (“Yahweh lifts up,” or the like).  For these sorts of reasons, I do not consider the rendering of Tabor and Jacobovici (with their assumption that the Greek form of Yahweh is present on line two, that this proper noun is the subject of the verb on line three, and that the word should be understood as referring to a “resurrection”) to be convincing.[5]


                Tabor and Jacobovici have noted that the word “Mara” is inscribed in Greek letters (though the word is Aramaic, of course) on one of the other ossuaries of Talpiyot Tomb B.  The word mr’ (Mara’) is an Aramaic, masculine, singular noun meaning “sir,” “master,” “lord.”  It is well attested (as a masculine noun) in the Aramaic corpus of Northwest Semitic inscriptions (Hoftijzer and Jongeling 1995, 682-689), and also in the Aramaic of the Hebrew Bible (see Dan 2:47; 4:16, 21; 5:23; Koehler and Baumgartner 2000, 1921-1922).  Moreover, it also occurs in Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic.  The feminine form of this Aramaic word is Martha’, as Jastrow also notes (see Jastrow 1950, 834-835, s.v., Mar IV).

Through time, this common noun came to be used at times as a personal name.  Regarding its usage as a personal name, it has been posited that Mara is sometimes a shortened version of the word Martha’, and thus can sometimes be a means of referring to a woman.  Thus, Tal Ilan states about the name Mr’ (also spelled Mrh during the Second Temple period, and in Greek it is normally spelled Mara) that “this is one of the rare cases of a name serving for both males and females” (Tal Ilan 2002, 392; cf. also 423-424).  The point that I would emphasize is this: although the name Mara’ might sometimes be used as a shortened form of the name Martha’, the fact remains that it is not prudent to assume that Mara is always a feminine name (i.e., a shortened form of Martha’).  After all, the form Mr’ is most readily understood as an Aramaic masculine (see Rahmani 1994, 197-198 [#561] for a nice example of the plural form of this word for two men).  In short, the philological evidence demonstrates that Mara is most naturally masculine, but can be understood as a short form of the feminine personal name Martha at times.  Thus, any case built on the assumption that Mara is definitively feminine must be considered a tenuous case.


Tabor and Jacobovici have argued that these two tombs are definitely connected in some fashion (indeed, their terms “Talpiyot A” and “Talpiyot B” are intended to suggest just this, even though there are additional tombs in this part of East Talpiyot).  They begin by mentioning that these two tombs are around two hundred feet apart and then they state that “the new discovery [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb B] increases the likelihood that the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb A] is, indeed, the real tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Tabor and Jacobovici further conclude that “both tombs appear to have been part of the property of a wealthy individual possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to the gospels, buried Jesus.”

I would simply make a number of notations regarding these conclusions.  (1) The word “Mara” occurs in both of these tombs, but that cannot be considered of real consequence.  After all, this is a common Aramaic name or term, and is used most naturally of a man (although rarely it can be used of a woman).  Thus, the use of this term in both of these tombs certainly cannot be construed as evidence of some sort of connection between the two.  This term is too common to be considered some sort of “missing link.”  (2) Along those lines, I must emphasize that there is no other epigraphic evidence (i.e., not the use of Mara and not any other evidence) that could be used to suggest some sort of connection between these two tombs.  (3) There is no epigraphic evidence in Talpiyot Tomb B to suggest that this tomb ever belonged to someone named “Joseph of Arimathea,” so it is irresponsible to suggest this, especially since the name Joseph is not even attested in Talpiyot Tomb B.  (4) The name “Joseph” occurs in Talpiyot Tomb A, but this is a very common personal name (attested scores and scores of times in the epigraphic record). Most importantly, there is no “of Arimathea” attested in either Talpiyot Tomb A or B).  For someone to suggest that these tombs must have belonged to “Joseph of Arimathea” the word(s) “of Arimathea” would have to be etched into a wall or an ossuary.  Yet, “of Arimathea” is not found in these tombs.  (5) There is no distinctive ornamental evidence that can link these two tombs.  (6) The distance of two hundred feet is not a small distance.  I thus am disinclined to suggest that tombs that are within two hundred feet of each other must contain the bones of people who are related.


                Tabor and Jacobovici contend that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdale and that they had a son named Yehudah.  They think the evidence from these tombs proves all of this and they also suggest that some hints of this can be found in the New Testament and Early Christian literature.  Bart Ehrman, a premiere scholar of the Greek New Testament and Early Christianity, has stated that the question people most ask him is this: “Were Mary Magdalene and Jesus of Nazareth married?”  Here is Ehrman’s answer: “It is not true…that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained Gospels that discussed Mary and Jesus.”  “Nor is it true that the marriage of Mary and Jesus is repeatedly discussed in the Gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament.  In fact, it is never discussed at all—never even mentioned, not even once.”  He goes on and notes that “It is not true that the Gospel of Philip calls Mary Jesus’ spouse.”  Then he queries: “What does the historical evidence tell us about Mary and Jesus?….it tells us nothing at all—certainly nothing to indicate that Jesus and Mary had a sexual relationship of any kind” (Ehrman 2006, 248).  Ehrman’s historical analysis is dead on.  I completely concur with him.


                Much can, and no doubt will, be said about this find.  The following are my reflections on the find and the investigative process:.

(1)    The technology that was used to explore this tomb is stunning and auspicious.  Certainly the applications for it will be both broad and deep.  Tabor and Jacobovici are to be congratulated for leading in the development and employment of these robotic and photographic technologies, and it is hoped that these technologies can be refined even more during the coming months and years.

(2)    The epigraphic finds from these tombs are important, but they are not earth shattering nor do they provide dramatic, new evidence for understanding Jesus or Christianity. They were likely made public during lent to take advantage of the public’s interest in Jesus around the Easter season, but the finds do not us with anything new.

(3)    There is no necessary connection between these two tombs and there is no convincing evidence that some famous figure of history (not Jesus of Nazareth, not Joseph of Arimathea, not Mary Magdalene, etc.) was buried in these tombs.

(4)    I doubt that the inscription in Talpiyot Tomb B refers to a resurrection, but in any case, many Jews during the Second Temple Period believed in the resurrection, long before the rise of Christianity.

(5)    I am certain that the tetragrammaton (i.e., “Yahweh”) is not present in the four-line inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B.

(6)    The ornamentation on the ossuary in Talpiyot Tomb B which Tabor and Jacobovici wish to consider Jonah and the Whale is actually simply a nephesh tower or tomb façade, just as Eric Meyers has argued.

(7)    It is not prudent to assume that the word Mara is definitely feminine.  It could just as readily be masculine (and, in this time period, it could be used as a way of referring to the husband, or patriarch of the family).

Ultimately, therefore, I would suggest that this is a fairly standard, mundane Jerusalem tomb of the Late Second Temple period.  Its contents are important and interesting, but there is nothing that is particularly sensational or unique.  I wish that it were different.  After all, it would be quite fascinating to find a tomb that could be said to be “Christian” and to hail from the very century that Christianity arose.  Moreover, it would be particularly interesting to find a tomb that could be associated with Jesus of Nazareth and his family.  But, alas, the evidence does not suggest this.  A basic methodological stricture is this: dramatic claims require dramatic and decisive evidence.  Stringing together a series of “maybe this” or “perhaps this” or “could it be” will sell books, but it will not convince careful historians nor will it change the facts.  Careful historians and students want evidence and reasonable conclusions.  Tabor and Jacobovici (much as I like these two people on a personal level) simply do not provide the goods.  They have stretched the evidence far beyond the breaking point in their attempt to make sensational claims.


Bauer, W., Arndt, W.F., Gingrich, FW., Danker, F.W.
2000       A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed.  Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Berlin, A. M.
2002       Power and its Afterlife: Tombs in Hellenistic PalestineNEA 65: 138-148.

Collins, J. J.
1998       The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed.
Biblical Resource Series.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Cotton, H. M., et al.
2010       Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, Volume I: Jerusalem, Part 1:1-704.  Berlin:
De Gruyter.

Di Lella, A. A.
1966       “Conservative and Progressive Theology: Sirach and Wisdom.”  CBQ 28: 139-154.

Ehrman, B. D.
1999       Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of a New Millennium.  New York: Oxford Press.

2006       Peter, Paul, and Mary Magdalene: The Followers of Jesus in History and Legend.  New York:

Feuerverger, A.
2007       “Open Letter to Statistical Colleagues on the Tomb Computation.”  Online:

Friedrich, G.
1972       Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Volume 8.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Gibson. S.
2006       “Is the Talpiot Tomb Really the Family Tomb of Jesus?”  NEA 69: 118-124.

Hoftijzer, J. and Jongeling, K.
1995       Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions.  Leiden: Brill.

Ilan, Tal.
2002       Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity.  Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Jacobovici, S. and Pellegrino, C.
2007       The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History.  New York: Harper Collins.

Jastrow, M.
1950       A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalami, and the Midrashic Literature.  New York: Pardes Publishing House.

Koehler, L. and Baumgartner, W.
1994-2000            The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.  Leiden: Brill.

Kraeling., Carl H.
1946       “Christian Burial Urns.” Biblical Archaeologist 9: 16-20.

Lampe, G. W. H.
1961       A Patristic Greek Lexicon.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Lewis, N.
1989       The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Greek Papyri.  Judean
Desert Studies. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Studies.

Liddell, H. G. and Scott, R.
1993       A Greek-English Lexicon, rev. and augmented ed.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Meyers, E. M.
2006       “The Jesus Tomb Controversy: An Overview.”  NEA 69: 116-118.

Metzger, B. M.
1981       Manuscripts of the Greek Bible: An Introduction to Greek Palaeography.  New York: Oxford
University Press.

Nickelsburg, G. W.E., Jr.
1972       Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism.  Harvard Theological
Studies 26.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Oikonomides, Al. N.
1974       Abbreviations in Greek Inscriptions: Papyri Manuscripts and Early Printed Books.  Chicago:
Ares Publishers.

Pfann, S. J.
2006       “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room: A Suggested New Reading of Ossuary CJO 701.”
NEA 69: 130-131.

Rahmani, L. Y.
1994.     A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority.

Rollston, C.A.
2006       “Inscribed Ossuaries: Personal Names, Statistics, and Laboratory Tests.”  NEA 69: 125-129.

Scham, S.
2006       “Trial by Statistics.”  NEA 69: 124-125.

Sukenik, E.L.
1931       “Nochmals: Die Ossuarien in Palästina.”  Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 75: 462-463.

Tabor, J. D.
2006       “Testing a Hypothesis.”  NEA 69: 132-136.

Tabor, J.D. and Jacobovici, S.
2012       The Jesus Discovery: The new Archaeological find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity. Simon and Schuster, 2012.

Yadin, Y.
1971       Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Second Jewish Revolt against Rome.  New York: Random House.

[1] The book is entitled: The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity (Simon and Schuster, 2012).

[2]  For these names, I am reading with Rahmani, but in place of his Mariamēnou Mara, I accept Pfann’s reading (2006), namely, Mariamē  kai Mara.  I should also note in this connection that the word Mara is most readily understood as masculine.

[3] It is easier to say what a difficult inscription does not say than it is to state what it does say.  But I should mention here that I am most comfortable with reading the last two letters of line one and the first two letters of line two as “osta,” that is, “bones,” a word that certainly does occur in a number of ossuary inscriptions and burial texts.  Further, if one were to wish to read hupsō, I would then be inclined to understand this inscription to be stating that the bones of the deceased are not to be removed, that is, “lifted up” from the ossuary.

[4] I should note in this connection that Hupsō is also a name for Hypsipyle in the fragments of Aeschylus (Liddell and Scott 1996, 1910).

[5] Someone might broach the subject of abbreviations in this connection and I believe that this is justified.  For a very fine, and still authoritative, discussion of abbreviations in Greek, see the volume by Oikonomides (1974).

43 thoughts on “Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici

  1. Pingback: Roundup of Biblioblogger Comments on the New Jacobovici Claims « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  2. And that puts the final nail in the coffin of the ‘Jesus Discovery’. Your case is unassailable and should be viewed as the final word on the subject.

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  4. Prof. Rollston,

    From the photos published on the web so far, I cannot make out if there is another character after the omicron in TAEO/ZAEO. I don’t have ready access to many of the publication(s) you list, including Oikonomides. Is alpha gamma beta an abbreviation?



  5. Thanks Chris for your response here. We have much to discuss but I look forward to doing it face to face. I particularly look forward to your interpretation of the inscription as a whole. I guess I am very surprised at your characterization of this inscription and the “fish” (sic) image as a totally mundane tomb as that was surely not your reaction in D.C. when we spent a day discussing it with our colleagues. I am not aware of any epitaphs of this type on ossuaries-whatever it says-so that seems to make it less than typical and mundane as we all agreed at that meeting. As for the nephesh interpretation, I find that wholly unconvincing and I assure you I have considered it carefully since it was suggested by one of our colleagues at our consultation. But enough comments for one day on this ASOR blog. I am tempted to jump into the epigraphy questions you raise (e.g., the zeta possibility is obvious and you know of course that zaios is a “fish” in Pliny!), as I think you are overlooking a number of things but will try for another medium plus look forward to discussing when we see one another next. Most of all I look forward to your translation of this interesting inscription, since you find mine so incorrect. P.S. As “non-specialist” as it is, I hope you will read the book, as I think you might find the cumulative evidence is balanced and well presented, not as you have characterized it here…but hey, I am the author, so what do I know.

  6. Great article; many thanks for taking the time to spell out the issues with such clarity (and thanks too to James Tabor for publishing his piece on Bible and Interpretation — it’s a great help to have the issues from the horse’s (fish’s?!) mouth). Minor point: the footnotes are not formatted to anchor / link within the online version of the document — it looks like they are referring to a previous off-line draft of the piece.

  7. Thanks for the kind note, Mark…I am very grateful. Also, thanks for the notation about the footnotes…alas, we’ll need to try to get that fixed, as I do provide a reference in a footnote to my suggestion that the word “osta” (“bones”)is probably present in this inscription (as you know that spelling for the plural is sufficiently attested, as in Diodorus Siculus and Epictetus, etc.), namely, the last two letters of line one and the first two letters of line two. That is, I think this inscription revolves around the treatment of bones…more on that later, I suppose.

    My thanks to you also for the note, James. I’m always happy to converse with you about this. As you know, I find the technology you used to be fascinating, auspicious. As for the tomb…it’s certainly a nice tomb (Talpiyot B) and I do not intend to imply something different, but the epigraphic data and ornamental motif(s) strike me as pretty normal, rather than unique or sensational (I use mundane in its etymological sense). As for the nephesh tower…I consider this to be the most cogent understanding of it (I too thought a lot about it after returning from DC…).

    Well, I’m sure we’ll have many chances to discuss such things and I shall look forward to it. As I mentioned in the blog post…and I was very sincere about this…I find you to be a wonderful person, and a gifted intellect (I mentioned this to a reporter today as well…hopefully that too will appear in print). You and I just differ about the conclusions that can be drawn from this find…but we’ve both known this for some time…such is the nature of the scholarly dialectic, of course. The first day or two of these sorts of things is always full of a lot of dust, but the dust clouds will clear and a consensus will develop…and I look forward to doing a post-mortem about it then as well.

    With all my best wishes to you both,


  8. Pingback: Tabor and Jacobovici’s New Volume: Epigraphic Reflections on it - Archaeology Epigraphy - - Rollston Epigraphy

  9. If the inscription has not yet been satisfactorily deciphered-as seems to be the case (note James’ words “whatever it says,” above)-then it seems premature to make significant claims about it.

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  11. Thanks Chris. We offer in my paper multiple possibilities on the inscription. I think you are wrong about the iota/zeta/tau…I look forward to your transliteration and translation. I don’t follow how this could be mundane or ordinary. What would be a parallel on any ossuary of the period? I know of eight “epitaphs” about “don’t move the bones.” Nothing like this…

    Surprised you are going for the nephesh idea…so the image would be up-side-down? With little fish swimming around it…Quite a few art historians, which I am not and you are not, have agreed it is a fish, but yes, in time this will get sorted out. I hope you got the copy of the book I had sent to you.

    Let’s discuss soon. You are overdue for a trip to Charlotte.

  12. Hello, James,

    Thanks for the note. As for the absence of the iota…the morphology of that letter is nicely documented on lots of different media from this period, so I’m confident that the first letter of line two is not an iota. As for ordinary or mundane…well…as you know, I’m a pretty sober fellow about such things…e.g., I’m about to present and soon publish on a new Moabite inscription…9th century…many will find it sensational…I think it’s nice…but not earth shattering…perhaps I’ve collated so much that I’m inured! :) .

    As for art historians…indeed, I am not…but Robin Jensen is, of course, and she’s now articulating her position on this find. Well, I’ll sign off for now.

    With all best wishes,


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  17. We are not qualified to comment on any of the new claims; however, we do take exception to some of Rollston’s claims made in “Old News: Talpiyot Tomb A”.

    Here Rollston claims that “The names Yehosep, Yoseh, Yeshua‘, Yehudah, Mattiyah, Maryah, Maryam, Mariamne, Mara and Martha (or the variants thereof) all have multiple attestations in the multilingual corpus of ossuaries and some are very common (Rahmani 1994, 292-297; Ilan 2002). In fact, even the name and patronymic “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique in the epigraphic corpus. After all, some eighty years ago, Sukenik published an ossuary inscribed “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) and the names Yeshua‘ and Yehosep (“Jesus” and “Joseph”) are predominant in the family of Babatha’s first husband. In fact, the father of Babatha’s first husband was named Yeshua‘ and his father was named “Yehosep,” so this is yet another “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”; see Sukenik 1931; Lewis 1989, 35-40; cf. Yadin 1971, 233-234; Kraeling 1946, 18-19). Thus, even with the small corpus of epigraphic attestations of personal names, the Talpiyot Tomb A occurrence of “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique!”

    If we take the word unique to mean literally a single occurrence, then yes, the combination “Jesus son of Joseph” is not unique. But “not unique” does not mean so common that the combination is without interest. In arguing for non-uniqueness as the equivalent of “common and not interesting”, Rollston points to the only other documented occurrence of the combination of Yeshua/Jesus and Yehoseph/Joseph on an ossuary. When we use Ilan’s compilation to expand inquiry on this question, a compilation that includes 231 examples of the name Joseph, we find only one more example; Joseph, Joshua’s brother. The combination of these two names occurs with a frequency that is consistent with drawing two names independently and randomly from the distribution of names in First Century Palestine, which also leads one to believe the combination is not common in any sense of the word.

    Moreover, focusing on “Jesus son of Joseph” ignores that the collection of inscriptions also includes “Yoseh” and “Mary”. To decide what the observation of additional known names from the family of Jesus might mean, we have reasoned as follows:

    If we assume that the Jerusalem area does contain a tomb of the Jesus Family, and considering that the inverse of the number of such tombs represents a neutral probability that the Talpiyot Tomb A is that of the Jesus Family, then we and other investigators place this a priori probability at about one in a thousand-a probability low enough to render most tombs as being uninteresting to the search for the Jesus Family Tomb. However, we view the combination of names as evidence about the family in the tomb. Likelihood ratio is a measure of power of evidence and the likelihood ratio of this name combination, relative to random occurrence in the population, is about 30, if one assumes that “Yoseh” is as common as the name “Joseph”, or rises to 470 if one considers “Yoseh” as a rare name in its own right. Even a likelihood ratio of 30 is significant, but a ratio of 470 is very powerful evidence of rareness of such a combination of names, and evidence in favor of being able to identify the specific family in this tomb.

    Frankly, we do not expect to see such a combination of names in any other tomb, found or remaining to be found; a conservative estimate would be that one might see one other such combination of names in one-thousand tombs. If there truly is a Jesus Family Tomb, Talpiyot A is likely the best candidate. Of course this evidence may all be a coincidence, but Jacobovici and Tabor ought to be commended for bringing such an unusual find into public view, and for persevering to look for additional evidence by such extraordinary means.

    Kevin Kilty
    Mark Elliott

  18. Kevin and Mark,

    (1) Yes, I am using the word “unique” in its standard sense, that is, “only one of its kind” (sui generis). I supposed that this was very clear. (2) Thus, as I said, even within the epigraphic corpus, the name and patronymic “Yeshua son of Yehosep” is not unique. I referred to the attestion on the ossuary and to the attestation in the Babatha Archive. (3) Also, the mere presence of the PN Maryah proves nothing in and of itself. That is, to attempt to draw some significant conclusion about her without further prosopographic identifiers is simply too tenuous of a venture. And the same thing applies to the rest of the names which are without furter identifiers (i.e., without reference to father, husband, son, daughter, etc., etc.). This is the way prosopography works. I understand your desire to attempt to use stats to bolster the case…but I see things quite differently…I prefer hard evidence, as I have noted in my NEA article several years ago and as I argue also in the forthcoming volume arising out of the Princeton Symposium in Jerusalem.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

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  21. Chris in the rush of things last Tuesday I only had time to skim this major piece of yours. Now that I have had time to read it I have much to say, but more than would be practical on this comment feature of the blog. I will prepare a response and post it either here or on my own blog, whatever you prefer. It should be done early next week. Needless to say I think you have a lot of things wrong here, i.e., your assertion about the form of the iota, the clear adjective DIOS, quite common in Greek, etc. I cover a lot of this in my paper which I know you had not read when you wrote this. So yes, we have a lot to discuss. On the “garden” tomb, likewise, you don’t seem to have kept up with some of the latest work but again, I will cover that in my article as well. Thanks so much for giving our work the attention you have. It is appreciated as ever and I am very glad to see you have moved away from you “nephesh” idea, as I was utterly amazed that you had taken that up in such a strong “bold print” way. All best, as ever, James

  22. I have had a chance to peruse the responses to our press conference and book launch (The Jesus Discovery, Simon & Schuster) for the first time. I am preparing a longer article, but in the meantime I just wanted to contextualize the discussion.

    I am not surprised by the quick and personal attacks by various scholars i.e., accusing us of “hijacking” archaeology, “sensationalism” etc. We’ve heard it all before and I guess some people can’t get off that track, including the accusation that we released our book to coincide with Easter - nevermind that it was released in February and Easter is in April. Frankly, what surprises me is how quickly the negative tone was diffused and how the discussion is veering towards scholarly debate instead of ad hominem slander. The reason I’m surprised is because, generally, there is an iron rule that applies to Jesus related archaeology: everyone is wrong, about everything, all the time. Some would like to portray the controversy over the “Jesus Family Tomb” in Talpiot as one between serious scholars and sensationalists such as myself. But let’s put this into a historical context.

    Prof. Tabor and I are not the first people to connect Jesus to Talpiot. In 1945, Eleazer Sukenik, who was the first to identify the Dead Sea Scrolls as being authentically from the Second Temple Period, discovered a tomb off Hebron Road in Talpiot, approximately 1,000 meters from the now famous “Jesus Family Tomb”. In the tomb, there were two ossuaries with the word “Jesus” inscribed on them in charcoal. According to Sukenik, one inscription read “Jesus Woe” and the other “Jesus Aloth”, which Sukenik interpreted as lamentations for the crucifixion of Jesus. Immediately, the scholarly and Christian community was up in arms. It turns out that Sukenik was wrong on both counts. The ossuaries were not referring to Jesus of Nazareth. Rather, there were two guys named Jesus buried right next to each other. And the first ossuary did not say “Woe”, it said “Ju” which was an unfinished version of “Judah”. Moreover, “Aloth” did not refer to lamentation but to “Aloe”. Maybe the person interred in the box was in the Aloe distribution business. As for why a scholar of Sukenik’s stature got it so wrong, just recently I heard a top scholar say in a room full of other scholars “Sukenik’s wife needed a refrigerator”. So I guess he just sensationalized for the purpose of making money.

    In 1973, Prof. Morton Smith – arguably the top New Testament scholar at the time – claimed to have found a previously unknown letter of Clement of Alexandria that quoted an unknown version of the Gospel of Mark. Smith had found the fragment years before and had worked on it for over a decade, making sure that he lined up top scholars prior to publication. But that did not help him. His career went down in flames and he was accused of forging the document. As recently as 2010, York University in Toronto sponsored a conference dedicated to the question of Smith’s possible forgery.

    Franciscan archaeologist, Bellarmino Bagatti, pointed to much “Judeo-Christian” archaeology in Jerusalem e.g., at the site of Dominus Flevit, but each assertion was met with universal disdain. Like Sukenik and Smith before him, Bagatti was wrong about everything all the time. Not only that, every reading of any inscription that can be linked to Jesus is retroactively changed once a connection with Jesus is established. So, for example, the ossuary that reads “Shimon bar Yonah” i.e., the disciple Peter’s name, sits neglected in the Franciscan museum at the second station on the Via Dolorosa. After I publicized its existence in a 2007 film, scholars began to debate whether, in fact, it says “bar Yonah” after all. In the 1970s Prof. Pau Figueras published an inscription on a small fragment on an ossuary in the IAA warehouse of unknown provenance. It has the name “Jesus” inside a fish complete with tail and mouth. He was immediately roundly attacked. It turns out the “Jesus” in this inscription is not Jesus of Nazareth but, rather, another Jesus buried in the ossuary. And the fish is not a fish, it’s not even a Nephesh tower or an amphora or even a perfume bottle, it’s merely a carelessly drawn circle. As for Prof. Figueras’ interpretation, well, in Levi-Rahmani’s words “….the inferences drawn by Figueras [are] excessive”.

    When it comes to crosses, the story is the same. No cross is a cross if it’s connected to Jesus. For example, one of Sukenik’s “Jesus” ossuaries had charcoal crosses on all four sides. As it turns out, these are not crosses. They are “mason’s marks”. Nevermind that masons work in stone, not charcoal. Nevermind that a mason’s mark on an ossuary is meant to line up a lid to a box and serves no purpose on all four sides. Sukenik didn’t know the rule. When it comes to Jesus, everyone is wrong about everything all the time.

    Which brings us to our latest discoveries and some of the over the top criticisms. In 2007, when we investigated the “Jesus Family Tomb” we were criticized for doing it in the context of a film and not a proper dig. This time, our investigation was under an excavation license issued by the IAA. We had not one but two sponsoring universities – UNC Charlotte and the University of Nebraska. There was an IAA archaeologist on site all the time. The license was jointly held by not one, but two scholars – Prof. James Tabor and veteran Israeli archaeologist Rami Arav. All under the sponsorship of Prof. Janet Levy, Chair of the Department of Anthropology at UNC Charlotte and Chair of the Archaeology division of the American Anthropological Association. Pretty solid I would say, but not good enough for some of the contributors to this site who continue to accuse us of “sensationalism” etc. Moving on, last time we were accused of not having a peer-review process. This time, Prof. Tabor published a peer-reviewed article on and at least 10 academics made formal reports on our findings prior to publication. We incorporated all of their suggestions in our book, upcoming film, website and press material. Not good enough. In fact, some of the very academics that were consulted have revised their opinions and are now attacking us on this site.

    The fact is that what we found is unprecedented whether you call our Jonah image a pillar, an amphora or a perfume bottle. In the words of Yuval Baruch, Jerusalem District Head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “there’s nothing else like it on an ossuary”. We also found a statement of faith. But even if you say it’s not about resurrection, but some kind of exaltation or testament to an ascension of some kind, there is simply nothing like it on any of the thousands of ossuaries catalogued so far. Again, those are the words of Yuval Baruch. It doesn’t help to say that many Jews believed in resurrection. They didn’t record their statements on their ossuaries. The statement is unique. Furthermore, the archaeological context is attested. Like it or not, these two tombs are linked and set apart from the rest of the Talpiot necropolis. That’s not my opinion, that’s the opinion of Dr. Natalie Messika, an expert in archaeological mapping often under contract with the IAA. As for the linkage to early followers of Jesus, the fact is that whoever made those pictures and wrote that inscription was sectarian and not normative. Jews did not – and do not – write the Tetragrammaton on a bone box filled with “tumah” or impurity. I know that there is an attempt to re-read the second line in the inscription, but the reading was confirmed repeatedly by major scholars, including Prof. Rollston who is now revising his opinion. It’s OK to change one’s mind. All I’m saying is that the vast majority of scholars see the ineffable name inscribed in the second line.

    Had we found a cross, we would have been told that the cross is not a Christian symbol in the 1st century. The fact is we found a 1st century cross! Had we found nothing else, we would have been told that we should have found a fish, if we thought the tomb was linked to the early Jesus movement. But we found a fish! If that’s all we had found, we would have been told that we should have found a “Jonah”. We found a Jonah! But for some, the iron rule is the golden rule. When it comes to Jesus; everyone is wrong about everything all the time. So the cross is not a cross, the fish is not a fish, the Jonah is not a Jonah and now even the “Jehovah” inscription doesn’t say “Jehovah”.

    For the record, we spent 5 years and a lot of money and effort to excavate this tomb. Never before have the IAA and the Haredi activists agreed to work together on the excavation of a 1st century Jerusalem tomb. We built a robotic arm that has pushed the envelope of Jerusalem based archaeology. We had absolutely no guarantee that we would find anything, but we did. And now it’s time for a reasoned and scholarly debate. Many top scholars have weighed in stating that this is a very significant find including Prof. James Charlesworth and Prof. John Dominic Crossan. If “scholars” stop attacking each other personally, more will go on record. Furthermore, it’s time to review, in light of the new findings, the archaeology previously dismissed. Maybe everyone’s not wrong about everything all the time. Maybe we actually found something significant this time. And maybe significant archaeology has been hiding, for decades, in plain sight.

    Simcha Jacobovici, filmmaker
    Professor, Religious Studies, Huntington University

  23. James and Simcha,

    I certainly understand your desire to attempt to sustain your interpretation, and I understand that you have a book and a forthcoming Discovery Channel special to defend….but your framework is simply too strained. The data do not support your conclusions…and this is the dominant consensus of the field and this will continue to be the case. Dramatic claims require dramatic evidence and the data are simply not there.

    1) Indeed, to suggest that this ornament is a fish with Jonah being spit out is simply not convincing…a nephesh tower or (still better) an unguentarium is the interpretation that will stand the test of time…and even now this is apparent.

    (2) Yahweh is not in this inscription…as I told you months and months ago, it is not there and I think that in your heart of hearts you know this. Indeed, James, not so very long ago you told me that you too were leaning my way and were disinclined to read an iota at the beginning of line two and you mentioned that you were working with someone who specializes in personal names. But it seems you have moved back to reading an iota, and thus Yahweh. That’s fine, but I assure you that this reading will not stand. The inscription’s key word is arguably “bones” (last two letters of line one, and the first two letters of line two, and I mentioned this in at least an e-mail or two months ago to you). I’m afraid that this is not a very sensational reading of the text, but “bones” are indeed something that are mentioned in burial contexts such as this.

    (3)As for the stats that you often wish to refer to….this will never work. I am sure that you’ve seen Randy Ingermanson’s numbers: . In short, if you wishing for dueling statisticians, then this too is fine.

    (4) The main point, though, is that your attempt to suggest that these two tombs are those of Jesus of Nazareth, his wife Mary Magdalene, his son Yehudah, and their friend Joseph of Arimathea, and that there is a depiction of a Jonah being spit out of a fish’s mouth and that this is a reflection of some sort of Christian resurrection belief is simply far too strained…not based on evidence, but on a long string of “if,”, “if,” “if,” “if,” As for me, I prefer to focus on hard data and reasonable interpretations. And, of course, the reason for your full scale internet barrage on all who differ with you is because the academic community (with a crosssection of scholars) is not embracing your conclusions. You’re both nice people…on a personal level, I like you both…but this interpretation of yours will not stand…the evidence is simply not there.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

  24. Chris,

    Thanks for your comment. I do think your insinuation that we have a book and film to push so that our objectivity is out the window is really out of line. The book and film reflect the considered views we have come to, as summarized in my academic piece at, not the other way around. They are presentations not special pleading. I have presented my arguments for it being a Jonah image, in great detail (my blog and and neither a tower or a perfume flash. If you want to disagree fine, but you would need to present arguments, not merely assert “this is too strained,” “this is just not convincing,” as if this image even remotely resembles a tower-and an upside down one at that. I have seen no analysis of yours other than the assertion, first, it is undoubtedly a tower, and now, it is surely a perfume flask.

    On the inscription I look forward to your reading. I have not heard it yet so I can not really comment, other than your point that the first letter of line 2 can not be an iota-which is incorrect. We have consulted with several epigraphers and I can read Greek. Yes, we did indeed consider other options, especially a zeta, which is obvious, but it surely is not a tau. I never told you I had “given up” on IAIO, to the contrary have constantly considered all options and have settled on the variations presented in my paper. You seem to not recognize dios as a common adjective (“wondrous, divine”), which is in the nominative/vocative. Again, I think when you wrote your post you had not read my paper. Your reference to Randy’s work just shows you have not kept up Chris. This is all addressed in the papers up on It is not a matter of “dueling statisticians” but evaluating the state of things. Both Lutgen and Kilty & Elliot address Randy’s work thoroughly and I think Randy agrees. Strange, Chris, that you would call my responses a full scale internet barrage when I have merely responded professionally and as factually as possible to the posts that have been put here-which is, after all, on our work. If my words sound sharp here I apologize but I think this dismissive summary post of yours is not helpful in terms of anything substantive we have been discussing and it seemed to me we might be making some progress.

  25. Thanks for the note, James. As for the significance of these find in “Talpiyot Tombs A and B”, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. That’s fine…such is the nature of the scholarly dialectic. We’ll see where everything stands, in terms of the field’s take on things, in a few months, or a year or two. As for the term barrage…mostly that is just a reference to the fact that you are commenting everywhere, often (including on this ASOR site)…it seems a rather full scale defense. That’s fine too…I understand that as well, as I mentioned. So I wish you well, but I just can’t embrace your take on these to tombs. I would very much like to find things associated with first century Christianity…including the figures that you believe these finds relate to….but the evidence doesn’t demonstrate that. You may differ…again, as I said, that’s certainly fine…we’ll have to agree to disagree about this.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

  26. Hi Jim and Simcha,
    The collection of names in the Talpiot A Tomb, certainly ARE startling, however whenever I read about ‘Stuff’ like this, I’m always reminded of the Words of Jesus (Luke 17 and Matthew, I think) “Men will tell you, ‘There he is!’ or ‘Here he is!’ Do not go running off after them”..
    Applicable?? Maybe, maybe not! I am not a ‘Scholar’, however it does come to mind!
    Always around Easter time Too…Hmmm! But then again you and Sim simply abhor and eschew ‘Sensationalism’….Right?? (wink,wink)
    [...section deleted by ASOR editor...]

  27. Enough said Chris, and if you ever do care to let me know why you find my arguments regarding the fish vis-a-vis both tower and flask inadequate I am all ears-beyond just saying you are not convinced. As for the inscription, I await your reading as other than the word bones/osta (sic) I have no idea what you think it says. I have been puzzling over it for a year and consulting people like you far and wide and have offered my analysis and the range of readings we have come up with. Apparently you have another but you have never cared to share it with me though I have asked. What I have tried to do as best I can here, on my blog, and in direct response to my article on is clarify and respond to questions or misunderstandings. I am happy to leave you all to discuss things the rest of the month.

  28. Professor Rollston’s very in depth analysis of the “Jesus Discovery” so called, is both sound and wholey comprehensive as are his rebutals of said “claims.” He is also kind and long suffering in his replies to both Mr. Tabor and Mr. Jacobovici. I will be blunt. I am not convinced either, but for a simple reason, among others. On face, this newest exploitation masquerades as a serious and scholarly research project.Under tighter scrutiny the whole thing falls apart as Prof. Rollston and others examine the findings and articulately and eloquently address them, point by point. We know that Mr Tabor is a Religious Studies Chair at the UNC. and Mr. Jacobovici is a Film Maker. They say they are backed up by a “team” of academics and archeologists.No reason to doubt that. But what of Tabor and Jacobovici. Neither are archeologists or Scriptural scholars. A religious studies professor and a film maker with a team. And with all the dialogue and deciphering of letters and drawings on bone boxes, the motive is the same as it was a few years ago when these same two say they found the physical remains of Jesus and His family, to debunk the the New Testament account of the Physical Ressurection from the dead of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a belief which is Core to the faith of His followers for two thousand years. This is nothing new, however. In generation after generation, Jesus has had his detractors to His clain of Divinity. We saw this with the publication of the “Passover Plot” and other conspiricy theories concerning Jesus. Then, of more recent, “The Historical Jesus,” many thesis on the political and revolutionary Jesus and a host of other fanciful dealing with Jesus in the guises of academic revisionist history and pure fiction. Now, Dan Brown and others have Jesus being revived before his burial and secreted off to Scottland or France or wherever, with who else but Mary of Magdala and their unborn or recently born infant son. Hence, the Jesus Line and the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, the Illuminati and God only knows what else

    The Jesus Tomb Discovery is just more of the same low budget non academic dribble sold to the public like DaVinci Code sensationalism in the name of very questionable science and psuedo scholarship. So every two or three years Simca and Jim will ressurect themselves from the caves of Talpiyot and suffer us more with their unfounded and goofy claims that Jesus was just like them. If they make enough sheckles from their book and TV Docu on Discovery, AGAIN, who knows, perhaps next Christmas, they’ll inform us that they’ve discovered that The Star Of Bethlehem was actually a UFO. “…..BECAUSE YOU HAVE SEEN, YOU BELIEVE. BLESSED ARE THEY WHO NOT HAVING SEEN, YET BELIEVE.” [...section deleted by ASOR editor... ]

  29. Professor Rollston, It is always a pleasure to read anything you put forth. Your position is entirely reasonable as it relates here to both the finds and conclusions of Tabor and Jacobovici. Your reasoned and measured approach will stand the test of time. On another note, it brought a little laughter when I read Professor John Crossan’s name.
    Simcha mentioned Professor Morton Smith, “arguably the top New Testament scholar at the time”. Do tell. Curiously, where is this “previously unknown letter of Clement of ALexandria that quoted an unknown version of the Gospel of Mark.”
    The winds of time bring truth.

  30. Professor Rollston, Might the translation of the second line be refering to the title used for God in the MT many times, the Most High God. Theos Hypsistos. (Θεος Υψιστος) in the dative possibly as Θεω Υψιστω?

  31. Simcha Jacobovici is an Orthodox Jew who wears a head covering. I find it incredible that so many of the comments keep pointing out his hat e.g., the one above that calls it a “head rag” and talks about how it must stink. What stinks are these personal Judeo-phobic comments. [Editorial note: Nicole, thank you for pointing out the inappropriate comment. It has been deleted from the original post. ASOR editorial team.]

  32. Kathryn, on the theos hypsistos possibility see my paper at where I discuss that and a number of other possibilities. Not sure which word you are reading as theos though…

  33. Finally, after much sensationalism from supposed experts, comes a reasonable analysis of some of the propositions made in the book, “The Jesus Discovery.”

    Finally, after much hasty and incorrect, knee-JERK generalizations of what the image is (Absalom’s Tomb (nephesh tower), medicine/perfume bottle, amphora, etc) and “mind/motive-reading” (“the authors are doing it for money at Easter time”), and the attempts to crucify the authors’ reputations, we have a fairly objective and competent basic analysis from which to begin a thoughtful discussion. Well done, Dr. Rollston (well, for the most part).

    One has to ask, “Why couldn’t this have been produced from the start, rather than the ugly tripe that spewed forth from unnamed reviewers?” Oh well; such is human nature.

    I believe there is some very interesting finds in both Talpiyot A and B. Why not take the high road and see if there is anything new there rather than taking the low road and continuing to produce ad hominem laced arguments that do not advance anything but hard feelings?

    “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”
    Mary Wortley Montagu

  34. Referring to Tabor’s paper and the illustration of the inscription, and considering the quality of the decorative motif, the inscription looks to me more like graffiti than like something original to the ossuary. Is this typical of the time period, that an inscription would be so irregular, even on an object with such a well reproduced decoration?

  35. And then just to add to the chaos, I’d mention that the plate of “discoveries from the Judean desert” shown here:

    … does show iotas with a bar at the bottom. Interesting that such a form would be evidenced from Judea! Still no traverse on these examples. Still, it suggests greater variation in form than is being credited here.

    The reference image next to it is of a greek text with paleohebrew characters interpolated for the tetragrammaton, no less.

  36. One must ask this question. If, indeed, these finds are of such incredably ground breaking proportions in the areas of Bible scholarship and archeological finds, why hasn’t the archeoligical community, in the tradition of the late Sir Leonard Wooley and others, world wide, weighed in on these history turning discoveries? Why haven’t many more academics inlisted their expertise and added their voices, pro or con to those of the already listed academics currently involved in this debate. I submit unashamedly and unequivically, because the claims are foundless and groundless and nothing more than pure speculation, for whatever motive. There has been no exhaustive scientific scrutiny by teams from the many disciplines as, let us say, in the examinations of the Shroud of Turin and other relics. I have heard of no carbon dating, extensive DNA and/or other forensic proceedures. I do, indeed suspect motives, non of which the least is pure sensationalism and an attempt to substantially undermine, if not destroy the Cornerstone of Christianity, namely the bodily Ressurection of Jesus Christ. Again, what I and many others find somewhat unsettling is the fact that these “discoveries” and others like them are always published at a time coinsiding with Christian High Holy Days and that, quite frankly, is what really stinks.

  37. Sou muito interessado na arqueologia bíblica direcionada na antiga cidade de Davi em Jerusalém; pelo que venho acompanhando com muito interesse os artigos publicados e traduzidos para o português. Gostaria de expor a minha opinião de um leigo sobre a matéria do ossuário que tem a ornamentação da gravura do “grande peixe de Jonas” ser procedente quanto a identificação do animal marinho gravado na estrutura do ossuário se tratar de uma grande ESPONJA MARINHA cuja característica padrão tem no corpo do referido peixe, não seria de barbatanas, e sim, orifícios(porus)no seu corpo esponjoso, direcionando a água com os nutrientes para o interior de sua estrutura concava em forma de um grande vaso. A gravura condiz com a sua interpretação estando correta da posição encrustada na pedra.Este gênero de animal marinho inferior dos mais primitivos multisselulares existente teve sua investigação apurada, sendo confundida com plantas aguáticas, só em 1765 quando se observou pela priera vez a corrente de águas interna é que se estabeleceu claramente a natureza animal das esponjas.Até 1857 restavam dúvidas sobre a sua classificação animal.Dentre as várias classes de esponjas que variam em tamanho de 1mm até 2 metros de diâmetro temos encontrado afinal o que se torna numa prova física gravada identificando a veracidade da narrativa de Jonas e a ressurreição anunciada no grande peixe. Aguardaremos as novas evidências arqueológicas.
    Obs.: Em 2007 escreví um livreto por conta própria falando sobre as minhas conclusões do porque seria a esponja marinha o grande peixe que teria engolido o profeta Jonas?
    Deus seja louvado!

  38. Christopher Rollston weighs in drawing from his playbook the ‘mother of all details” debate technique. This ‘all hat and no cattle’ approach bewilders and mesmerizes those attempting to interpret and summarize his views. And enhances the spirit of those pre-biased to except his premises without understanding that little to nothing has really been said.

    Repeatedly using the phrase “I’m convinced” of this or that is especially meaningless without adding something that is or will be ‘convincing.’ After all Mr. Rollston was “convinced” that the depiction on Talpiot Tomb B was an up side down Nephesh Tower only the other day. But is said to have since changed his mind.

    Many disagree with him concerning his ‘commonality of the names’ declaration as concerns Talpiot Tomb A. He tends to forget that commonality of names is not the only variable statisticians look at but also adjacently consider the (cluster) of those names together in one tomb.

    And lastly, if Christopher is so confident concerning his criticisms regarding the 4 line inscription from Talpiot Tomb B. And instead of rambling on with arguments that seem only to seep into areas of grey. Why doesn’t he just simply interpret it in his own opinion and with his own words?

  39. Pingback: The New Talpiot Tomb: An Observation on the Patio Tomb and Resurrection | Professor Obvious

  40. Pingback: PaleoBabble » Update on the Talpiot B Tomb Inscription

  41. Pingback: -Easter Attacks on Christianity in the Media | APOLOGETICA

  42. Pingback: A model for the Talpiot Tomb’s inscriptions? | Unsettled Christianity

  43. Anything based on a lie is a lie.The Holy blood Holy grail pretend that Jesus escaped death and married Mary Magdalene.Then the da vinci code pretend a secret marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the real blood of the grail is inside Mary based on the painting of the last supper by leonardo da vinci.Now some persons pretend finding Jesus tomb and bones and have already linked their discoveries to the above fake stories through similarity of names and DNA.The truth is that the real Holy blood of Jesus is on His forehead and not in the womb of Mary Magdalene.This is revealed in the real and true story the coin of the temple.Those who called themselves scholars should know the future place for liars and deceivers.

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