The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B – an Interpretation

Richard Bauckham,

Preamble: I should first explain that in the autumn of 2011 I took part in a lengthy email correspondence about this inscription with James Tabor, Greg Snyder and Jim Charlesworth. It was a profitable conversation in which we made real progress in both reading and interpreting the inscription, though we certainly did not reach full agreement, especially on the interpretation. (Tabor’s references to me in footnotes to his article, ‘A Preliminary Report …,’ recently published on the internet, reflect that conversation.) We were all bound by a non-disclosure agreement until last week, when the material was made public. At that time Greg Snyder and I had not seen the so-called ‘Jonah’ image and we did not discuss it until much more recently and then much more briefly. Our efforts were focused intensively on the inscription, for which we had the benefit of a number of photos, not only those that have now been published in the book (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012) and on the internet. My own interpretation of the inscription developed through that conversation, but I have modified it very recently (so that some of my argument in what follows is not already known to Tabor, Snyder and Charlesworth).

Reading the inscription
The inscription is actually very clear, especially when several photos of it are consulted. I think it is true that Tabor, Snyder and myself, having explored various possible readings of some characters, agree that the very probably correct reading is

The iota at the beginning of line 2, unlike the other two iotas, is written with a horizontal line at the top and another at the bottom of the vertical stroke. Christopher Rollston (‘Reflections of an Epigrapher…’, published on this blog, p. 6) asserts that this letter ‘is simply not an iota,’ since ‘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.’ Rollston is an epigrapher. I am not, but I venture to say he is being far too dogmatic. Among ossuary inscriptions, there is an iota with very distinct top and bottom horizontals in the name ΑΠΦΙΑΣ (Rahmani no. 84 = CIIP 456) and another in ΝΙΓΕΡ (Rahmani no. 565 = CIIP 28). (The iota in Rahmani no. 330 = CIIP 389 has a top horizontal, but not a bottom.) The first of these examples (Rahmani no. 84 = CIIP 456) is instructive, because not just the iota but also other characters with free ends (ΠΦΑΗΝ) have the same feature, which can also be seen in some other ossuary inscriptions that do not include an iota (Rahmani no. 789 [not in CIIP]; CIIP 561; cf. the Latin inscription in Rahmani no. 202 = CIIP 40). These writers are clearly imitating the ornamental style of monumental script that was common from the mid-third century BCE onwards and still used but in the decline in the early Roman period (Woodhead 1959: 64). This style is described, with several good illustrations, by Guarducci (1967: 372-376). The finishing strokes attached to the free ends of characters are known as apices or serifs. The letter at the beginning of the second line of our inscription is clearly an iota with apices. It is not likely to be a zeta, since this way of writing a zeta, with a vertical upright, seems to be an earlier usage, no longer found in this period. The letter is certainly not, as Rollston claims is ‘most readily understood’, a tau, since the top and bottom horizontals are of equal length and equally clearly written.

It does need to be explained why, in our inscription, only this letter is adorned with apices. The most likely reason seems to be that it is the first letter of the divine Name, which the writer wished to mark out as special. It is his equivalent of the various other ways of distinguishing the divine Name when it was written in Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts or elsewhere (such as the common practice among Qumran scribes of writing the Name in paleo-Hebrew characters) (all such practices are described in Tov 2004:218-246). Contrary to assertions made in the ‘Jesus Discovery’ film, it was not ‘heretical’ for Jews to write the divine Name, but there was a general taboo against pronouncing it. It was therefore desirable to mark it out in writing so that a reader would be alerted and not inadvertently pronounce it. This is surely the main function of the elaborated form of the initial iota in our inscription, but it may also serve a further function. This Greek transliteration of the Name is unique (and will be further discussed below). In preference to the more common Greek transcription ΙΑΩ, the writer has used a form that represents all four Hebrew letters. We might have expected ΙΑΥΟ, but he may well have used iota for the Hebrew waw because the simple iota looks exactly like a Hebrew waw. The initial iota, which represents the Hebrew yod, is distinguished from the other by its ornamental form. Since the writer of our inscription would not have expected his form of the Name to be actually pronounced, it was more important to him to represent the four Hebrew letters than it was to provide a Greek form that would sound like the way the Tetragrammaton was pronounced, when it was (at least by the high priest on the Day of Atonement). Thus he could well have placed an iota in third place because it looks like a waw, rather than because it would sound like it.

The Greek word ΔΙΟΣ could be read in two different ways. It could be Διός, the genitive of Zeus, or it could be the adjective δῖος. When I first worked on this inscription I could not see how to make sense of the first of these options and so focused on the second. (Incidentally, Tabor and Jacobovici took up my suggestion that ΔΙΟΣ is the adjective δῖος: Rollston, p. 4, is mistaken in saying they understand it as ‘God’.) In Homer δῖος can mean ‘godlike’, but has no particular relationship to Zeus (though it has in the Greek tragedians). It is frequent in Homer and would be well known to anyone with a Greek education, but it was a poetic word. Hence it is not used in LXX or NT or any early Jewish literature or epigraphy, with the exception of the Sibylline Oracles (3:78, 83, 143, 180; 5:158, 294) and a fragment of the Jewish Greek poet Theodotus (apud Eusebius, Praep Evang. 9.22.3), where its use is directly copied from Homer. In these cases it applies to sea, earth and remarkable people, never to God. Homer often uses δῖα of goddesses (Dee 2001:117) but never uses δῖος of male gods. Otherwise it is frequently an epithet for heroes and for many other things, such as cities and aspects of nature (Cunliffe 1924:96), somewhat resembling the popular usage of ‘divine’ in modern English. If it is used in our inscription as an epithet of IAIO, it could have a rather vague sense, such as ‘wondrous.’ But the basic meaning of the word is ‘bright’ (like the gods of the sky) and so it is possible that the author of the inscription used it as a poetic Greek equivalent of ‘glory’ as an attribute of the biblical God. It would then go well with the third word of the inscription (ΥΨΩ), which I shall show refers to ‘exalting’ God (which, in biblical terminology, is synonymous with ‘glorifying’ him).

The phrase ΔΙΟΣ ΙΑΙΟ, read as δῖος IAIO, could be either nominative or vocative. (An adjective with an indeclinable noun usually remains in the nominative when the phrase is used with vocative sense.) So if ΥΨΩ means ‘I exalt’ (see below), the first three lines of the inscription would mean either ‘I, glorious IAIO, exalt’ or ‘O glorious IAIO, I exalt (you).’ It would be rather surprising if the inscription, which is not a scriptural quotation, were a divine utterance, but the second possibility, taking δῖος IAIO as vocative, makes excellent sense. I was quite satisfied with this interpretation of the inscription until I recently became aware of a way in which the first two lines would make good sense if the first word were read as Διός, the genitive of Zeus.

In the Greek world it was common for altars and other objects, such as sacred ὅροι (stones marking the boundary of a sacred territory), that were dedicated to Zeus, to bear the short inscription ΔΙΟΣ + the traditional epithet by which Zeus was known in that place. Guardicci reproduces the inscription on an altar in Thassos that reads ΔΙΟΣ ΚΕΡΑΥΝΙΟΥ: ‘Of Zeus Keraunios’ (1967: 385), and similar inscriptions on three ὅροι, dedicated to Zeus Aglaios, Zeus Elasteros and Zeus Alasteros Patroios (1978: 49, 54, 55-56). A quick search of the Greek inscriptions that are searchable on the website of the Packard Humanities Institute ( shows that such inscriptions are common. Dedications to other gods are also made in the same style – with the simple genitive of the name.

It would seem that the writer of our inscription has copied this pagan style and that the first two lines mean: ‘Belonging to Zeus IAIO.’ The Tetragrammaton takes the place of an attribute of Zeus. This is remarkable. Jews of the late Second Temple period generally avoided identifying their God with any of the gods worshiped by pagans. This avoidance of theocrasy was especially strongly maintained because of the memory of the crisis under Antiochus Epiphanes, when the Jewish Hellenizers, opposed by the Maccabees, identified the Jewish God YHWH with Zeus Olympios or the supreme Semitic god ‘the Lord of Heaven’ (Ba‘al Shamem) and came to regarded as apostates. But pagan writers did make such identifications (Hengel 1973:262-264) and some Jewish writers in the western diaspora were prepared to allow that pagans worshipped the one true God under the name of Zeus (Aristobulus, apud Eusebius, Praep Evang. 13.12.7-8; Aristeas 16; Josephus, Ant. 12.22; cf. Hengel 1973:264-266). As far as I know, our inscription is the only extant example of an identification of YHWH with Zeus in a Palestinian Jewish context after the Maccabean period.

If this reading of the first two lines of the inscription is correct, the question arises—what is said to belong to Zeus IAIO? Is the writer treating the ossuary itself a sacred object belonging to God? To answer this question we must consider the position of the inscription on the ossuary.

The location of the inscription
The actual position of the inscription within the decorative design of that side of the ossuary is not clear from the photographs and not mentioned in Tabor’s article (or in Tabor and Jacobovici 2012). I became aware of it only from the photograph of the museum reproduction of the ossuary that Tabor provided at the end of his article on this blog (‘A Reply from Prof. Tabor…’; also on his own blog ). But it is highly significant. The inscription is placed in precisely the center of the design. To my knowledge this is true of no other ossuary inscription.

The general design is, of course, of a very common type. Like most ossuaries, there are two ‘metopes’, divided by a ‘tryglyph’ (to use the terms Rahmani borrows from classical architecture). As very often, the metopes contain rosettes and are bounded by decorated borders. The rosettes are of the simplest kind: six-petalled. The zig-zag borders are common, though the double borders along the top and the two sides are less so. It is the tryglyph that is of particular interest. Usually this is a decorative strip, as thin as the borders or thicker, sometimes much thicker and quite decorative (e.g. Rahmani Plates 35, 59, 63, 108, 446, 451, 601, 817F). Normally these leave no room for an inscription in the center of the design. Nor do those ossuaries of this type where the tryglyph is replaced by an image: of a plant, a door, an amphora, or a pillar (e.g. Rahmani Plates 6, 27, 45, 78, 110, 113, 120, 717, 718F). Occasionally, when the tryglyph consists of two vertical borders with a space between, there is room for a central inscription (e.g. Rahmani Plates 2, 9, 24, 67, 576, 591, 767), though I have not seen a case where an inscription has actually been written in such a space. Our ossuary not only has room for an inscription in the center; it provides this space within a form of tryglyph or tryglyph-replacement that is unique among the many ossuaries of which Rahmani provides photographs. It is a zigzag border shaped to resemble an arch. It is instructive to compare this with the ossuary whose design, among Rahmani’s photographs, is most like our ossuary: Rahmani 22. This has zigzag borders (though not exactly like our ossuary’s) and, like our ossuary it has double borders at the two sides and along the top, but not at the bottom. It is surely the standard design of which the design on our ossuary is a variation. In the center it has two vertical strips, exactly like the borders, with a narrow space between them. The two strips join the top and bottom borders. Where our ossuary differs is that the two strips are joined to the bottom border but do not reach the top. Instead, they curve inwards to form an arch, in the upper part of which is the inscription. It certainly looks possible that the owner of the ossuary (bought for the burial of a family member’s bones) chose or even commissioned this unusual variation on a standard design. It is important to stress that the inscription is not squeezed into a space unsuitable for it. Its four short words, arranged in four lines, fit perfectly. We can, at the very least, conclude that this ossuary design was chosen by the owner because it had space for an inscription to be placed at the very center of the design, and we can surmise that this intentionality in the placing of the inscription within a suitable design is connected with the content of the inscription, which is quite unlike any other ossuary inscription known to us. Apart from anything else, it is the only ossuary inscription to mention God in any way, let alone to use the divine Name.

But what of the truly unique feature of the design: the arch shape? Those familiar with the iconography of late Second Temple Judaism may recall an ‘arch’ of exactly the same shape - on the coins of Bar Kokhba. To be precise, the relevant design is on the obverse of the Bar Kokhba tetradrachms. (Coins of this type have been widely reproduced. There is a good example at It depicts a tetrastyle portico. Through the space between the two inner columns is seen the object that has the same shape as the ‘arch’ on our ossuary. The old debate as to whether the building is the temple or a synagogue and whether the object is the ark of the covenant or a torah shrine may be regarded as settled (Mildenberg 1984:33-45; cf. also Muehsam 1966:7-14). The portico is that of the sanctuary building of the Jerusalem temple, through which the spectator is given a view into the Holy of Holies where the ark stands. The image expresses the Bar Kokhba revolt’s aim of rebuilding the temple. Since there was no ark in the Second Temple, it is not even a memory of Herod’s Temple, but presumably an ideal image, plausibly how Solomon’s Temple was imagined to have been.

The ark of the covenant is depicted as a chest with a semicircular lid, seen from one of its narrow sides. The two decorative vertical lines that form its sides are joined, a short way above the ground, by a plain horizontal line, which indicates that below that line the vertical lines represent the legs of the chest. About halfway up the two vertical lines two knobs evidently represent the two staves that were used to carry the ark or perhaps the places where they were affixed to the ark. A little below the arched top of the structure another line, this one ornamented, runs horizontally between the two vertical sides, presumably representing the top of the chest below its lid. On some of the coins the chest is rather wider than on others. The narrower depictions match the proportions of the ‘arch’ on our ossuary rather well. On the museum reproduction of our ossuary there are two plain horizontal lines at about the same level as the single line that marks the bottom of the chest on the coins. Since I am judging only from a small photo of a reproduction made from photographs of the actual ossuary, I cannot be sure whether these lines are intentionally drawn or accidental scratches, but they look like the former. Above these lines are two short lines protruding inwards from each side of the ‘chest’ (if we can now call it that). If these are intentionally drawn they could represent the staves or the places where they fitted. (These lines, I surmise, would not be part of the professionally produced design, but added by the person who wrote the inscription.) Finally, one might compare the four pillars of the Temple portico on the coins with the double borders on the right and left sides of the design on the ossuary. But not all these details need to be correct for it to be a reasonable guess that the ‘arch’ in the center of this design is a very stylized representation of the ark of the covenant. We should recall that many of the images that replace the tryglyph on other ossuaries are very stylized. (It may also be worth mentioning that some of these have in the past been supposed to allude to aspects of the temple [Rahmani 1994:26]. Such interpretations are out of favor, but I wonder if there may not be something to be said for taking the very splendid amphorae that appear on some ossuaries to represent the famed temple vessels, which certainly appear on Bar Kokhba coins. But this is no part of my argument about our ossuary.)

What makes the interpretation of the ‘arch’ as a representation of the ark so attractive is that the inscription would then be located on the ark. What belongs to ‘Zeus IAIO’ is then the ark, which of all biblical objects could be most appropriately described as ‘belonging to God.’ It is sometimes called ‘the ark of YHWH’ (Josh 4:11; 6:12; 1 Sam 4:6; 6:1; 2 Sam 6:9) and, placed in the holy of holies, it was his earthly throne. The temple was ‘the temple of YHWH’ because the ark was his. Both the central position and the unique content of this inscription are thus explained. If the divine Name were to be written anywhere on an ossuary, this is where it should be.

Magical use of the Tetragrammaton?
Greg Snyder (in email correspondence) has suggested that our inscription may be a magical formula. There may be examples of magical formulae on ossuaries, presumably with an apotropaic purpose (this is perhaps the significance of the cryptic letters on Rahmani nos. 319, 322). The Tetragrammaton was used in magic (McDonough 1999:93-97; Bohak 2008:117-119, 277, 305-307), along with an enormous range of other divine names culled from all religious traditions, and various divine names are often strung together in short or long combinations. ‘Zeus IAIO’ would not be an unusual invocation in magic (cf. e.g. PGM 105.6 [Betz 1986:310]: ‘O Zeus-Iao-Zen-Helios’). Moreover, although in Greek the form ΙΑΩ is most often used, the magical papyri also employ a wide variety of forms of the Tetragrammaton, many of them four-letter forms.

Snyder points out that, on ‘certain lamps and amulets, we find the phrase, “Arise, O Lord!”, based on Numbers 10:35: “Arise, O LORD, let your enemies be scattered!”’ (He refers to Naveh 1988:38.) Since this text in Numbers is connected with the ark of the covenant (being carried into battle), this is an attractive possibility, in view of my argument above for a representation of the ark as the location of the inscription on the ossuary. Furthermore, if the third line of the inscription (ΥΨΩ) could be interpreted as ‘Rise up!’ (Num 10:35 LXX has: ἐξεγέρθητι), we should have an apparently very close fit (though I shall argue below that this is not a possible translation of ΥΨΩ).

A major problem with such an approach, however, is that an invocation to ‘Zeus IAIO’ would not use the genitive Διός, while the poetic adjective δῖος is unlikely in magic and would, in any case, not constitute a combination of divine names, which is what would make a magical reading of these lines of the inscription really plausible. In spite of Snyder’s appeal to a sub-literary use of Greek in such cases, it does not seem to me likely that anyone who knew Greek at all would use Διός as a nominative or vocative form of Zeus. But the recognition that Διός + an epithet of Zeus is a standard formula used to label sacred objects as belonging to the god (see above) makes excellent sense of the first two lines of our inscription and obviates the need to try to read them as an address to or invocation of the deity.

The specific form of the divine Name on our inscription (IAIO) does not necessarily reflect magical use. My own scanning of the Greek magical papyri (in Betz 1986; the Greek texts are mostly in Preisendanz 1973, but in Betz there are also translations of 48 texts published later than Preisendanz’s collection) yields 25 four-letter forms of the Tetragrammaton. Put more accurately, these are forms of four-letter divine names that start with iota and include only vowels. One cannot be sure that all of these are actually forms of the Tetragrammaton, since the magical papyri play with all kinds of variations of names composed only of vowels. There are many such that start with vowels other than iota and they are of any length up to seven letters. Here is the list of 25 forms in order of frequency:
ΙΑΕΩ (8)
ΙΕΟΥ (8)
ΙΑΙΑ (3)
ΙΟΥΩ (3)
ΙΗΕΑ (2)
ΙΩΑΙ (2)
Most of these forms are very probably ad hoc variations, not established forms. So it is probably not very significant that the form in our inscription (ΙΑΙO) does not appear (though ΙΑΙΩ is close). (Note also ΙΑΙΟΩ, found in a magical inscription from Carthage [Jordan 1996: I owe this reference to James Tabor].) IAIO could easily have been one such variation, though among them final Ω is much more usual than final O (cf. the standard Greek form IAΩ).

So we cannot conclude very much from this evidence of varied four-letter forms of the Name in magical sources. Our inscription’s form IAIO could be such a variant, but it could also be a more deliberate attempt to represent the Hebrew letters in a four-letter Greek form. It could be our writer’s invention or an established usage in some Jewish circles that does not appear elsewhere in our sources. It does seem to represent a different tradition about the pronunciation of the Name from that reflected by the form ΙΑΟΥΕ (attested by Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 5.6.34), a tradition that probably also lies behind the common Greek form IAΩ, but, as we have already noticed, the writer is probably more concerned to represent the four Hebrew letters in Greek than to preserve the way they were pronounced in a Greek form.

The third word in the inscription is the one about which there should be least controversy. It is the 1st person singular present indicative active (ὑψῶ) of the verb ὑψόω, meaning ‘I lift up’ or ‘I exalt.’ But James Tabor (‘A Preliminary Report…’ p. 17) proposes seeing it as an abbreviation either for ΥΨΩΣΕΙ (3rd masculine singular future indicative active: ‘he will raise up’) or ΥΨΩΣΟΝ (2nd masculine singular aorist imperative active: ‘Raise up!’), and prefers the latter. He comments: ‘Given the cramped space the omega ending would be enough to carry the meaning in this context.’ How it could be enough to do so, when he himself allows two possible completions of the abbreviation, is very hard to see. Actually, of course, if ΥΨΩ is an abbreviation, then there are more forms of the verb it could represent, not just the two he selects because they come closest to the meaning he wishes to find in the inscription (something about God raising someone from death). As an abbreviation, ΥΨΩ would be radically ambiguous. (Why not, for example, ΥΨΩΘΗΣΟΜΑΙ, ‘I shall be raised,’ or ΥΨΩΘΗΤΙ, ‘Rise up!’?) Moreover, since ΥΨΩ is a word complete in itself, it provides the reader with no indication that it should be seen as an abbreviation. It also has, as we shall see, a good contextual meaning as it stands.

If it were an abbreviation, it would be a kind of abbreviation for which it is not easy to find good parallels in Greek inscriptions, where abbreviations are quite sparingly used and limited to cases where the ‘meaning is clear, either because the word is well known or because it can easily be completed from the context’ (Avi-Yonah 1964:9). Most abbreviations are conventional, readily comprehensible to those familiar with the convention. They are usually of names or titles or terms that regularly recur in specific, topical contexts (political, administrative, religious, funerary and so forth) (Avi-Yonah 1964:10-12). Verbs are rather infrequently abbreviated. Abbreviation of a verb by suspension (omitting the last letter or letters) would usually create considerable ambiguity because the concluding letters convey so much meaning. In Avi-Yonah’s large catalogue of abbreviations in Greek inscriptions (1964:45-118) there are examples of verbs abbreviated by suspension, but they are comparatively few. One can probably surmise that they were unambiguous in their context, which is why modern scholars can be sure which forms they abbreviate. That the writer of our inscription was driven to a very ambiguous and unconventional abbreviation because his space was cramped is implausible. He could easily have given this word two lines.

In the context provided by the first two lines of the inscription it is not at all difficult to give ΥΨΩ the meaning ‘I exalt.’ In the Greek Bible the verb is quite often used in the sense of giving praise to God (synonymously with δοξάζω), and it is especially notable that it is sometimes the Name of YHWH that is ‘exalted’ (LXX Ps 33:4[34:3]; 148:13; Isa 12:4; Jdth 16:2; Tob 12:6 A). According to Psalm 148:13, ‘his name alone is exalted.’ It is very appropriate that, after writing the Tetragrammaton, our writer should have added ‘I exalt’ with ‘him’, ‘you’ or even ‘your Name’ understood. If his inscription is written on a representation of the ark, the earthly throne of YHWH, that he should ‘exalt’ YHWH is also highly appropriate. We need not labour to introduce other uses of ὑψόω into this context.

The last line of the inscription is much the most difficult to explain. Plainly it is not a Greek word or even plausibly an abbreviation of a Greek word. It might be some kind of encrypted word. But there is one other possibility: that it is a transliteration of a Hebrew or Aramaic word. I shall explain two ways in which this could be the case, of which I prefer the second.

Following a suggestion made to him by Noam Kusar and Simcha Jacobovici, James Tabor (‘A Preliminary Report,’ p. 19) suggests a word from the Hebrew root גבה, which in the Hiphil means ‘to lift up.’ The Hiphil of גבה is sometimes translated by ὑψόω in LXX, sometimes with God as subject (17:24; though this is not the case in Ezek 21:31[26], cited by Tabor). It is this synonymity of ὑψόω and the Hiphil of גבה that makes the proposal that the last line of the inscription is a transliteration of some form of the latter attractive. Just as the first two lines of the inscription correspond as Greek and transliterated Hebrew, so would the third and fourth lines. However, for ΑΓΒ to be plausibly such a transliteration, only the imperative of the Hiphil of גבה will serve, because only it has an ‘a’ vowel in the first syllable, and only the second person masculine singular of the Hiphil imperative is short enough to serve. The proposal, then, is that ΑΓΒ represents hagbēh, ‘Raise up!” A better Greek transliteration would be ΑΓΒΗ, but perhaps ΑΓΒ can be accepted in this role. For Tabor, who takes the third line of the inscription to be an abbreviation of ΥΨΩΣΟΝ, ‘Raise up!’, the last line is therefore a precise Hebrew equivalent of the Greek third line. I have argued that ΥΨΩ should not be read as an abbreviation, but there is a way in which we could understand ΥΨΩ as ‘I exalt’ and ΑΓΒ as ‘Raise up!’ The writer could be employing a clever play on the meaning of the two verbs, thus:
‘I exalt’ (you), (i.e. I praise you, IAIO)
‘Exalt’ (me)! (i.e. I pray you, IAIO, to raise me up from death).
On this reading the writer proposes a kind of quid pro quo: I am exalting you, so you should exalt me.

The second suggestion, which I prefer, is to read ΑΓΒ as a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Hagab (חגב), which occurs in Ezra 2:45 and the parallel Neh 7:48 (both have the long form חגבה), and Ezra 2:46 (which has the short form הגב), as well as on two ostraca and two seals from the First Temple period (all חגב) (Clines 1996:158). (LXX renders the name as Αγαβα [2 Esd 2:45; 17:48; 1 Esd 5:30] and Αγαβ [2 Esd 2:46].) This was doubtless the Hebrew name of the early Christian prophet Agabus (Acts 11:28: Ἅγαβος). This last example shows that the name was still in use in the late Second Temple period, but in any case there are many examples of names that occur in the Hebrew Bible and then just once in our evidence for the late Second Temple period (Ilan 2002). The Palestinian Jewish onomasticon of that period consisted of a relatively small number of very common names and a very large number of very rare names. So the rarity of attestation of Hagab is no obstacle at all to recognizing it as the name of the person buried in our ostracon.

It may be objected that a Greek transliteration of חגב should be ΑΓAΒ (as in LXX). However, we should remember how this writer has transliterated the four Hebrew letters of YHWH as the four Greek letters IAIO in line 2. By analogy, we may suppose that he has transliterated the Hebrew name of the deceased in such a way as to represent its three Hebrew letters by three Greek letters. Ossuary inscriptions would only normally be seen by members of the family visiting the family tomb, and if this man’s name were Hagab they would readily recognize it in ΑΓΒ. Indeed, it may have been the family name, as we shall now see.

The name in Hebrew means ‘grasshopper’ or ‘locust’. This is the sort of name that often originated as a nickname and became a family name. In Ezra and Nehemiah the name Hagab/Hagabah (there is doubtless a case of dittography in Ezra 2:45-46) is that of a family of Netinim (temple servants) who returned from the Babylonian exile (cf. Ezra 8:20). That it was still a family name in the late Second Temple period is suggested by the ossuary of Julia Troxallis (the inscription reads: ΙΟΥΛΙΑΤΡΩΞΑΛΛΙΣ), whose second name means ‘grasshopper’ in Greek. The ossuary (Rahmani no. 498 = CIIP 555) is unfortunately unprovenanced, but she could have belonged to the same family as the people buried in the ‘Patio’ tomb but have been buried herself in the tomb of her husband’s family. Rahmani (189) and Hachlili (2005: 225-226) already speculated that she may have belonged to the family of Netinim mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah. At any rate, she may well provide further evidence that the name Hagab was current in the late Second Temple period, though the possibility that ‘Grasshopper’ was merely her personal nickname cannot be ruled out.

That ΑΓΒ should be the name of the deceased person in the ossuary fits well with both the content of the inscription and the fact that it is an ossuary inscription. After ‘I exalt’ (God) it is natural that the implied speaker (I take it that the actual writer of the inscription intends the speaker to be the deceased person in the ossuary) should give his name: ‘I, Hagab, exalt you (Zeus IAIO).’ He names both God and himself. Moreover, ossuary inscriptions usually name the deceased person(s) in the ossuary. Although our ossuary inscription is very remarkably different from all other ossuary inscriptions, it is fitting that it should among other things also fulfil the function of most ossuary inscriptions: to name the deceased. As a final speculation about the deceased (on which I lay no weight) might it be that he belonged to the Hagab family of Netinim (temple servants) and that it is this connexion with the temple that is celebrated by the represention of the ark and the placing of the inscription on it?

The composition of the inscription

Finally, it is worth noticing the artful composition of the inscription. Its four lines have this structure:
Greek (4 letters) – Greek name - divine
Transliterated Hebrew (4 letters) – Hebrew name – divine
Greek (3 letters) – human praise of God
Transliterated Hebrew (3 letters) – Hebrew name – human.
The two ‘divine’ lines each have four letters, corresponding to the four letters of the Hebrew divine Name, while the two ‘human’ lines each have three letters, corresponding not only to the three letters of the Hebrew human name Hagab, but also to the three letters of the Hebrew word for ‘human’: אדם. This artful composition is quite unlike the carelessly scribbled notes that most ossuary inscriptions are, and corresponds to the remarkable difference in content between this and most other ossuary inscriptions.

I propose the translation:
Belonging to Zeus IAIO.
I, Hagab, exalt (him/you).

I do not think the inscription has anything to do with Jesus or early Christianity, but I do think it is one of the most interesting of ossuary inscriptions and that it has a contribution to make to our understanding of early Judaism.


Avi-Yonah 1964. M. Avi-Yonah. ‘Abbreviations in Greek Inscriptions (The Near East, 200 B.C. – A.D. 1100).’ Pp. 1-130 in Al. N. Oikonomides, Abbreviations in Greek Inscriptions: Papyri, Manuscripts and Early Printed Books. Chicago: Ares.

Betz 1986. Hans Dieter Betz (ed.). The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bohak 2008. Gideon Bohak. Ancient Jewish Magic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clines 1996. David A. J. Clines (ed.). The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. Vol. 3. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

Cunliffe 1924. Richard John Cunliffe. A Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect. Glasgow: Blackie.

Dee 2001. James H. Dee.  Epitheta Deorum apud Homerum: The Epithetic Phrases for the Homeric Gods: A Repertory of the Descriptive Expressions for the Divinities of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Hildersheim: Olms-Weidmann.

Guarducci 1967. Margherita Guarducci. Epigrafia Greca. Vol. 1: Caratteri e Storia della Disciplina; La Scrittura Greca dalle Origini all’Età Imperiale. Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato.

Guarducci 1978. Margherita Guarducci. Epigrafia Greca. Vol. 4: Epigrafi Sacre Pagane e Cristiane. Rome: Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato.

Hachlili 2005. Rachel Hachlili. Jewish Funerary Customs, Practices and Rites in the Second Temple Period. JSJSup 94. Leiden: Brill.

Hengel 1973. Martin Hengel. Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in their Encounter in Palestine in the Early Hellenistic Period. Tr. John Bowden. 2 vols. London: SCM Press.

Jordan 1996. David R. Jordan. ‘Notes from Carthage.’ ZPE 111 (1996) 115-123.

McDonough 1999. Sean M. McDonough. YHWH at Patmos. WUNT 2/107. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck.

Mildenberg 1984. Leo Mildenberg. The Coinage of the Bar Kokhba War. Aarau: Sauereländer.

Muehsam 1966. Alice Muehsam. Coin and Temple: A Study of the Architectural Representation on Ancient Jewish Coins. Near Eastern Researches 1. Leeds: Leeds University Oriental Society.

Naveh 1988. ‘Lamp Inscriptions and Inverted Writing.’ IEJ 38 (1988) 36-43.

Preisendanz 1973. Karl Preisendanz. Papyri Graecae Magicae: Die Griechischen Zauberpapyri.  2 vols. 2nd, revised ed. Stuttgart: Teubner, 1973.

Rahmani 1994. L. Y. Rahmani. A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority/Israel Academy of Science and Humanities.

Rollston 2012. Christopher A. Rollston. ‘Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.’

Tabor 2012A. James D. Tabor. ‘A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem.’

Tabor 2012B. James D. Tabor. ‘A Reply from Prof. Tabor – A Jonah Fish Image or a Tower Tomb Monument?’

Tabor and Jacobovici 2012. James D. Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici. The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Tov 2004. Emanuel Tov. Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert. STDJ 54. Leiden: Brill.

Woodhead 1957. A. D. Woodhead. The Study of Greek Inscriptions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

35 thoughts on “The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B – an Interpretation

  1. Thank you, Richard, for a meticulous, brilliant, and convincing essay. There just simply is NO reason to think this ‘discovery’ has any connection at all to Jesus. There’s not a shred of evidence supporting the case that it is.

  2. Fantastic contribution Richard. I have enjoyed so much our dialogue. I have anxiously awaited your final analysis being posted since you sent it to me a few days ago. Now maybe we can switch from the image to thus fascinating inscription for a bit. More later.

  3. I see there’s an unfortunate typo in the Conclusion, where IOAI should, of course, be IAIO. I guess I’d been too immersed in all those variations in the magical papyri.

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  6. Richard, I think most will figure out the typo and maybe the editors can correct it for you. Reading PGM can make anyone’s brain scramble. I want to say again how much I have enjoyed and appreciated our exchange over these past few months, with Greg Snyder and James Charlesworth. It has been one of the most fascinating interchanges I have had in my career. I just looked-I think I count 222 e-mails we have written back and forth on this inscription. You and I could not disagree more on so many things in our field of Christian origins, and even on our conclusions regarding these recent finds, but I have gained immensely from your input and the others and I hope you have from mine as well.

    There is a lot to say here and since I have had your paper for several days ahead of this posting I will be brief here with a few comments and overall observations. You are right-in the end, as you wrote things up, more possibilities have come out, all very stimulating.

    First, I am glad we agree completely on the transcription of the Greek letters since we struggled so hard with that going through all our photos back and forth. At least that gives us a solid base on which to work. We also agree on four discrete words, one for each line. That two is most helpful in considering how to translate. We did not arrive at this easily and folks should know that we all considered many other possibilities, including words running from line to line, other letter possibilities and so forth. And we also agree there is a “bilingual” aspect to the inscription, i.e., representing Hebrew in Greek letters, and balancing back and forth form Greek to Hebrew, Greek to Hebrew. I find that very compelling.

    Your comments on the space/location of the inscription is something we had not considered-any of us, and I find your points most convincing. The implications are fascinating. This is no random scrawl, no “don’t move these bones” graffiti, but someone wants to say/declare something here-a phenomenon found on no other ossuary of our 650 inscribed (Cotton, CIIP). That is really something to contemplate. Whatever it says it was important to the writer, not casual.

    Your new suggestion regarding DIOS is quite intriguing. If you are correct, as you say, this truly would be a first, and unprecedented in this period and context. I am still strongly convinced that the adjective is a better choice in that these kinds of dedications (using the genitive of a deity) are typical of dedicatory pillars, altars, etc. as with our many examples of theos hupistos (in the dative). We have lots of genitives with names on ossuaries as you know, but the meaning is simple-”[this is the ossuary] of XXXX. I think it is unlikely that the genitive would be used of the ossuary-or its contents-i.e, belonging to Zeus. I will continue to think about this one and you have my wheels turning. I would also wonder what sort of family/clan/individual this might represent-since it is so unprecedented? In other words, the more simple explanation might be the best, even if the genitive of Zeus is possible-i.e., the Divine/Wondrous YHVH…It seems very nature and compelling to me.

    We have had extensive discussions of AGB and your leaning toward the name Hagav, rare as it is in this period (Agabus has its own intrigue of course!). What really attracted me toward the transliteration possibility is that we would then have DIOS IAOS (Greek. Hebrew) HUPSW HAGBA (Greek, Hebrew). It seems appealing and balanced. So either we take HUPSW as a 1ps, or we understand it as a shortened form of the imperative, with the omega-but then interpreted by the next word-Hagba-lift up! (Hiphil Imperative). I lean toward the latter as you know, but it surely could be statement of praise to God/YHVH and a plea to “raise up.”

    You are right, there is nothing explicitly Christian in any of these translations, but if it has anything to do with calling upon God to “raise up,” which I think it does, it stands, as does the use of IAIO in this funerary context, as totally unique. We have nothing else like this-either your favored translation or mine, on ANY ossuary inscription in the entire corpus known to us. We of course see its wider context as the Jonah image and the nearby tomb-and those contextual possibilities serve to inform our thesis.

    Enough for now. Thanks again Richard. I look forward to others posting their own readings as I think Chris Rollston has been working on this since last May and from his summary post has a completely different take on things. In my paper I tried my best to represent all the possibilities our colleagues had suggested, our little group and others, but you have added to the pot here and I thank you. Anxious to hear more. Best, James

  7. Kudos and gratitude from a simple layman for this thorough analysis! But the concluding remark seems to come out of the blue, especially as so much said before is redolent of the magical Jewish-Hellenic syncretism Christianity (or, probably originally, “Chrestianity”) arose from. I’ve often noted that the Christian God descends at least as directly from Zeus as Yahweh, and here we have what looks like a straightforward equation between them. The name “Hagab” meaning “grasshopper” I find suggestive of Natzraya (in one of its forms - I forget exactly), meaning “cricket”, not to mention the traditional diet of John the Baptist, which might have symbolised his dependence on his followers.

  8. Richard, on the possibility of the abbreviated form of the verb hupsw (hupsw[son] in this context I was thinking of the shortened forms of hupistos that we find in abundance (Stephen Mitchell, “The Cult of Theos Hypsistos 1999) with no indication of suspension but context. In that case the Hiphil of GBH would provide the parallel. I was also impressed with the use of upsow in some of our earliest Christological contexts for heavenly exaltation-not that it could not be used in other ways, like “lift up” that bed, or cup, but here, with IAIO, perhaps more likely a plea or cry-and in the context of a tomb-that was the key to me. BTW, Mitchell suggested to me that the last letter was a clumsy omega-thus “to the holy,” AGIW, which as you know I covered in my paper. I really trust his good eye but since the letter seems flattened in the end we all went for a beta. In that case we would have “I Divine YHVH am lifting up to the holy (place),” which is quite intriguing-cf. 1 Clem 5:7, 4Q431 f2:8 etc.

  9. A most illuminating and persuasive essay, Dr Bauckham.

    Your chosen linked example of a Bar Kokhba tetradrachm is in fact a modern fake, and in at least one respect the fake coin does not match your description: the horizontal line, representing the bottom of the ark, is absent.

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  11. Clyde, thank you very much. Now that I look at it again I can see exactly what you mean. I wrote with photos in books in front of me, and then just looked for an example on the Web I could put a link too. I’ll look again for an authentic example.

    Gavin, I just disagree with you entirely on Christian origins.

    James, thanks. I’ll respond to your points about abbreviations. The last letter of line 4 is very like betas we looked at on other ossuary inscriptions. It would take me a while to find them again, but we all three found them convincing parallels.

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  13. James, I have read through Stephen Mitchell’s collection of 293 Theos Hypsistos inscriptions. I find only two cases where hypsistos is abbreviated. No 71 has: thewi hypsist(wi). Here it is obvious that the word must be completed in this way, because it qualifies thewi, but also because hypsist is not a word and so cannot be understood otherwise than as an abbreviation by suspension.

    The other case is 281, where Mitchell has: heis theos hu(psistos?) th(eos?) …, and adds that the readings are uncertain. But if it is correct that the two single letters upsilon and theta here stand for the phrase hypsistos theos, that doesn’t have much relevance for our inscription. Presumably it is possible because theos hypsistos was such a well-known phrase.

    I wonder if you have been misled by cases where Mitchell puts the final letters of the word in square brackets. I take it these are cases where the text is damaged and not readable, rather than cases where the inscription used an abbreviation.

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  16. James, taking up an earlier point you made, about whether ‘belonging to Zeus IAIO’ would make sense on an ossuary, I think it would be odd if it referred to the ossuary itself, which is scarcely a sacred object. So I think that interpretation has to be taken along with my suggestion that the arch shape represents the Ark. Then it is the Ark that belongs to Zeus IAIO - which is very appropriate.

  17. James, I am taking up an earlier point you made, about whether ‘belonging to Zeus IAIO’ would make sense on an ossuary, I think it would be odd if it referred to the ossuary itself, which is scarcely a sacred object. So I think that interpretation has to be taken along with my suggestion that the arch shape represents the Ark. Then it is the Ark that belongs to Zeus IAIO - which is very appropriate.

  18. Richard, thanks for your input here. Abbreviation is a non-technical word, a better term would be “suspension” since formal and known abbreviations are well known and quite something else. I am not sure of Mitchell’s bracket apparatus but I will take a look but my impression was there are a number of “suspended” forms. I have relied more on B. H. McClean, An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy, who comments: “Abbreviation by contraction is rare in Greek inscriptions prior to the fourth century A.D. Most Greek abbreviations are made by suspension or truncation, that is the suspending or omitting of letters from the end of a word.” Also M Avi-Yonah, Abbreviations in Greek Inscriptions (1940). For example, the single letter upsilon can stand for uios, uiothesia, upateis, and upistos, wkodomethe can be okod, etc. If this be the case the final word, AGB/Hagbah, would make clear the former.

    That said, even taking the 1ps press. indic. act. as it is written I think it far more likely the alternative translation is correct. In this funerary context, and on an ossuary, rather than having a guy named Locust (rare name, though I do like the idea that we only know of one such guy-the Nazarene prophet from Jerusalem mentioned twice in Acts!) praising Zeus YHVH, to whom the “ark of the covenant” belongs-represented by an arch seems to me really strained. After all, of the hundreds of dedicatory inscriptions they seem to always refer to the altar, monument, or whatever they are written on. It seems much more compelling, reading the verb as a simple 1ps, that we simply have I raise up the Divine YHVH, so raise up (me)!. The play on words is nice, the reading is simple, and it seems to fit a funerary context. The parallel with Psalm 30:1 [30:2 in Hebrew; 29:2 LXX) seems to me very strong as we have discussed-”I raise you up O YHVH, for you have raised me up…you brought up my soul from Sheol,” etc. It is not explicitly Christian, of course, but would be a plea for resurrection-something we do not have on any other ossuary from this period-and as you know epitaphs themselves are rare (I list them all in my article and the notes in the book and as I recall some of them “suspend” endings, but let me check that again)-but not a single one of this type with a plea or affirmation of resurrection faith. That makes this tomb really stand out-and we think, with the Jonah image on the other ossuary, this particular Jewish clan is affirming something beyond what we have found anywhere else. One final point. While it is true Jews could write the YHVH name of God, to put it on an ossuary, in a tomb, a place of tuma, is surely reflecting something sectarian, magical, and what should we say, beyond the “normative.” I think our mouths should all be dropping at this inscription, if the way we are reading the letters are correct, as truly we have something here quite extraordinary and unprecedented.

  19. Do we have a plea or prayer for resurrection from any other source at all? Jews and Christians both seem to simply expect resurrection. They don’t pray for it, as far as I can remember, but I could be wrong.

  20. James, on your point about corpse impurity, I guess it must be relevant that stone does not convey impurity. (Was that why stone ossuaries were used?)

  21. Well, thanks for responding, anyway. That was kinda funny. Yeah, “Zeus Yahweh” must sound either provocative or irrelevant to most folks in the context of early “Christianity” (which term can’t be applicable to Yeshua’s immediate followers if you don’t allow their Hellenism). But which god does “Heavenly Father” best describe? Which god impregnated virgins? Never mind that the word for “God” in most Christian languages is some variant of “Zeus” (Deus, Theos, etc.). The possible Hagab-Nazarene-Johannine association is just “food” for thought.

  22. I have no views about this object or its inscription. But - on the principle that everyone is entitled to access to arguments that support their case (whatever the correctness of that case) - one could say: (a) ‘Iao’, as translation/transliteration of ‘Yahweh’, a healing god, evokes ‘iaomai’ (‘heal’); (b) there is a strong punning association between ‘iaomai’ and ‘Iesous’ in the Gospels and Acts, an association which must have predated those texts and which must have been important in the ‘construction’ of ‘Iesous’ the healer; (c)the ultimate ‘healing’ is ‘resurrection’ (the connexion is clear in the Gospels and Acts). So one could try to Christianise the inscription, independently of larger contexts. (I certainly do not imply that I personally would.)

  23. The Patio tomb and Early Judeo-Christianity
    Following J. Tabor’s ‘A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem’. = Tabor, tomb.
    The Patio Tomb (henceforth: PT) was not a regular, normal Jewish tomb. If so, was it the first Christian tomb? The description “Christian tomb” seems to be a generalization; yet it’s not completely wrong. Who could the PT interments be? They didn’t belong to any of the Jewish sects described by Josephus. Still, they were Jews. Since almost all of Jesus’ first-generation-followers were Jews, we can use a well known definition: Judeo-Christians. The PT seems to be the first Judeo-Christian tomb we can identify with reasonable degree of certainty. “First” means “not the only one”. Traces of Judeo-Christian burials are scattered across the Galilee, as I will show below; that is: the PT is a sort of prototype. In terms of Christian burials and tombs, the PT shows one prominent component: the major changes in the Jewish concepts of death and corpse defilement.
    The idea that the PT is not a normal, regular Jewish tomb is a good point to start with. Since Greek is common in Jewish funerary inscription from the time and area, the PT Greek inscriptions do not imply any ethnic identity. But creating or producing any form of figurative art was strictly forbidden by Jewish laws in the Second Temple Era (STE) and much later; in fact, R. Yokhanan of Tiberia removed this prohibition ca. mid 3rd century CE. This prohibition is well attested to by the common ornamentation in regular Jewish tombs: Rosettes and other geometrical forms. Thus, whether the form is a fish or any other non-geometrical form, it’s the first evidence that the PT is not a normal, regular Jewish tomb.
    In page 30, we see the PT plan. In my opinion, the presence of four skeletons in four individual niches and the lack of specified spot or facility for preliminary burial are indicative. Moreover, both facts seem to be parts of one and the same phenomena. Many Galilean tombs lack a preliminary or a secondary burial spot or facility. In these cases, we might find spaces for preliminary burials, and larger spaces for secondary burials. The deceased’s relatives used to collect the bones from the preliminary burial spots and put them in the larger, familial-common space (in Galilean tombs, this space is regularly in the back of the tomb). The point is that preliminary burial spaces are separated from the secondary burial spaces. In Judean and Jerusalemite tombs this separation is achieved by the presence of the preliminary burial shelf in the main space while the ossuaries are in the niches. There is no such separation in the PT. Indeed, rabbinic literature tells us of a pit meant for bones; the technical Hebrew term is מכתשת (machteshet). Reasonably, the bones pit could be a solution when a tomb owner could not afford for ossuaries. A Jew could inherit a tomb, but then he could become poorer; thus he was a tomb owner, but couldn’t order an ossuary. However, there is no such pit in the PT.
    Normative Jews separated the bones from the rest of the tomb because of the Jewish concept of corpse defilement (Hebrew טומאת מת = tumat met). The PT niches clearly serve both stages: there are ossuaries in niches 1, 2, and 6, and individual skeletal remains in niches 3, 7, 8, and 9. In general, ossuaries were not only simple bones containers; according to the Jewish relevant concepts and laws, stone product do not receive defilement, nor they allow defilement to “break out” and contaminate the space in which they are. Bones should legally be collected in ossuaries a year after the death; thus the defilement bones might inflict is confined in an ossuary. The exposed skeletons in the PT niches are a strange phenomenon, especially since the PT accommodates ossuaries. One might claim that the exposed skeletons are the result of time shortage when these people died; one might even connect this to the turmoil that preceded the revolt or even the revolt its self (started in 66 CE). Yet in this case we will have to accept the idea that the skeletons belonged to Jews who died approximately at the same time. It’s possible, but if so, this phenomenon would occur in other tombs in and around Jerusalem. Yet this idea doesn’t explain the presence of the fish figure. Moreover: it cannot explain the presence of the explicit name of God, יהוה , in a tomb.
    This point seems to be a major problem; if the PT was Jewish, then the explicit name inscribed in it is a major break of Jewish law. God’s name is the most sacred name in Judaism, while corpse defilement is the most severe defilement in Judaism. Until today, this contrast is the reason that Jews are not allowed to take a Torah book into a cemetery, nor are they allowed to put a corpse in a synagogue, in front of the Holy Box, while nothing separates both objects from each other.
    Before we discuss this problem, another phenomenon is worthy of considering. Jesus’ resurrection was not only a point in time, a miraculous event that marked the beginning of Christianity. The resurrection marked also Jesus’ victory over death. This victory marks the eternal life indeed, but it marks another new concept: when death is defeated, there is no corpse defilement. Normative Jews accepted corpse defilement as the immediate result of death, and the complete opposite of the holiness of life. But what if one was Jesus’ follower and believer? How could such a Jew “process” his master’s death and resurrection? What implications both events could have on his life and concepts? The answer is: when death is defeated, there is no real death; and when there is no death, there is no corpse defilement. Instead of the normative Jewish concept of death as a negative, un-holly event, death became a positive event, the first step to achieve a fulfillment of a sacred promise in the minds of Jesus followers. Corpse defilement has disappeared when death has been defeated. A simple fact is that in Christianity, until today, death inflicts no defilement.
    When the most severe corpse defilement is gone, the PT questions are reasonably answered. First: the tomb owner did not order the builders to prepare or install a special space or any other facility for preliminary or secondary burial. All spaces are considered the same and might serve any purpose.
    As there is no corpse defilement, God’s most sacred name might be inscribed in a tomb. True, Jews are not allowed to write or inscribe or even pronounce this sacred name under any circumstances. But here we don’t have a regular Jew. So irregular, that he (or his relatives) broke another prohibition: figurative art. When corpse defilement is gone, leaving corpses exposed in niches for more than a year is not a legal problem. The fact that there are a few ossuaries in the PT is indicative: these irregular Jews did not abandon the practice of ossuaries all together; they have changed it: instead of collecting the bones a year after the death, like normative Jews, they laid the corpse in the niche and collected the bones only when they needed the niche for the next interment; then they used ossuaries. This suggested practice explains the “format” of human remains and ossuaries in the PT: three niches accommodate skeletons, while other three accommodate ossuaries. Still, the owners could lay more corpses in the other two niches, or conveniently collect the bones from one or more niches to allow for more corpses in case of need.
    After all, the PT shows the first occurrence of Christian burial. The owners were not Christians in modern terms; they were a part of the earliest Judeo-Christian movement, the earliest followers of Jesus. Highly likely, the owners of the PT, at least the older among them, saw Jesus alive.
    The unique components of the PT became a sort of prototype. The PT fish is not the only one. The fish below is inscribed in a Galilean tomb. From head (left end) to tail it’s more than two feet long.

    The cross, inscribed in the PT (Tabor, tomb, p. 43), has a Galilean parallel as well

    This Galilean tomb might present the reason that Galilean ossuaries are so rare: ancient herds’ owners used tombs to accommodate their live stock; to enlarge the space, the broke the walls between the niches. What we see here is the inner end of a former niche; the “leg” of the dross is somewhat diagonal. The reason is that whoever inscribed it was working horizontally on a floor of a very narrow space. During many years of herding, the ossuaries have gone. As we can see, the symbols inscribed in the PT are not unique. They occur in the same funerary circumstances in the Galilee, with some modifications.
    The PT does present the basic concept of death and its defeat which are, in turn, so fundamental in Christianity. It also tells us that as the earliest Judeo-Christians accepted Jesus a Messiah, they had to accept or develop and internalize major changes in the Jewish concept of life and death. This, in turn, led them to the next step: when death became a positive step in eternal life, it could not inflict defilement anymore. In these terms, the PT is indeed the first Christian tomb ever to be discovered. At least it is the first tomb in which we can see the foundations of the Christian concept of death. Thus we might also say that when Judeo-Christianity started, it differed from Judaism not only be accepting Jesus as a Messiah, but also by accepting the resulting changes in the concept of death and the practices of burial.

  24. Eldad, thank you. A few points about 1st century Judaism. Most scholars would say that the idea of a ‘normative Judaism’ at this time is anachronistic and inappropriate. Moreover, most Jews did not belong to the four ‘parties’ described by Josephus - and I don’t mean they didn’t belong to other ‘parties’ or ‘sects.’ Doubtless there were other groups Josephus doesn’t mention, but the key point is that most Jews did not belong to any particular party or group. So if there’s something ‘different’ about this tomb it doesn’t follow it’s Jewish Christian.
    Since I don’t think the image is a fish (I think it’s an amphora) I don’t need to take up your point about figurative art, though I do you think you make it far too tidy by simply supposing that Jewish practice in general was uniform till the 3rd century and then changed. But there is no evidence I know to suggest that early Jewish Christians thought any differently about figurative art than any other Jews, and I don’t see why they should have done. If the image were a fish (I repeat I’m convinced it is not) and if this were a divergence from majority Jewish practice, then I see no reason to think the divergent group were Christians.
    Again, everything you say about Christians and corpse defilement is pure speculation. What evidence do we have for what they thought about it? The fact that later Christianity has no notion of corpse defilement is beside the point. That’s because the whole concept of cultic purity was abandoned in Gentile Christianity. It doesn’t tell us what Jewish Christians who still observed Torah did or thought about it. Since they attended the Temple, they must have got rid of their corpse impurity before entering the Temple.
    However, I am interested in the issue of writing the Name in a tomb. As you say, the stone box protects it from the impurity inside the box, but it would still be exposed to impurity from the unburied remains. But to say that this “is a major break of Jewish law” may once again be imposing a concept of normative Judaism. We don’t actually have any such prohibition from the Second Temple period, so far as I know. The fact that we don’t find the Name in other tombs could reflect no more than the fact this is a very unusual inscription in that it actually says something religious, rather than just recording names or warding off grave robbers. In other words, we don’t know that it is not used in other tombs because this was prohibited. It could be merely there was no custom of making religious statements on ossuaries.
    You are absolutely right to draw attention to the issue and I’m still thinking about it. But it’s a huge jump from the writing of the Name on an ossuary to - this must be a Christian tomb!

  25. The Tosefta has an interesting comment about early Jewish Christians and the use of the Divine name: “The books of the Evangelists and the books of the minim they do not save from a fire. But they are allowed to burn where they are, . . . they and the references to the Divine Name which are in them.”

    Even though there seems to be a lot of debate about the big fish aren’t the little fish acrooss the top of the one ossuary pretty obvious? Is that in itself figurative art that would not typically be seen on a Jewish ossuary?

  26. Footnote to my paper, not a reply to comments:
    In the light of the new photos now on the Jesus Discovery website, I’m now quite dubious that any of the horizontal lines below the inscription are intentional. The reproduction, on which I was relying (and I pointed out that this was hazardous), seems to have tidied them up rather a lot.

  27. John, many thanks for alerting us to the Tosefta text (Shabb. 13:5). I had forgotten that it refers to “divine names.” This does seem to refer to Hebrew writings in which the Tetragrammaton was written. If it is reliable, then it seems to confirm what we hear occasionally from the Fathers and especially Jerome about a Hebrew Gospel used by Jewish Christians. Sadly it has not survived. If Jewish Christians wrote the Divine Name in Gospels or other writings in Hebrew they were doing the same as other Jews. This would be especially the case if they regarded these writings as Scripture, and the rabbinic comments you quote (with the rest of the passage and with the somewhat different reference to these writings in Tosefta Yad 2:13) seem to assume that they are being treated as Scriptures, since the issue is whether one should treat them the way the Torah is treated. But even if they were not exactly Scripture, there are some non-scriptural texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls in which the Tetragrammaton is written, so the practice would not be specifically Christian.
    As far as I know there are no depictions of animals on ossuaries, but there are lots of depictions of vegetation (which was never prohibited), especially in stylised designs. The ‘little fish’ look to me as likely to be leaves as fish. The designs on this ossuary are quite crudely drawn.

  28. Richard,
    You say: “Moreover, most Jews did not belong to the four ‘parties’ described by . . . but the key point is that most Jews did not belong to any particular party or group. So if there’s something ‘different’ about this tomb it doesn’t follow it’s Jewish Christian.”
    I agree, of course; so, if most Jews did not belong to any particular party or group, can we say that this majority was the main stream? Or, rather, had more in common? This brings us to the next point: may we assume that the tombs of this large, not specifically identified body of Jews were similar? In other words: can you point at any other 1st century CE tomb with any figurative art inscribed in it, whether it’s a fish, or an amphora?
    Do we agree that Jesus’ earliest followers were mainly Jews? Do we agree that the prominent difference between them and other Jews was the fact that they accepted Jesus a Messiah? You say that “Judeo-Christian” is not the proper definition; so be it. I take it back; they weren’t Judeo-Christians, but Jesus’ earliest followers.
    You say: “Since I don’t think the image is a fish (I think it’s an amphora) I don’t need to take up your point about figurative art, though I do you think you make it far too tidy by simply supposing that Jewish practice in general was uniform till the 3rd century and then changed. But there is no evidence I know to suggest that early Jewish Christians thought any differently about figurative art than any other Jews, and I don’t see why they should have done. If the image were a fish (I repeat I’m convinced it is not) and if this were a divergence from majority Jewish practice, then I see no reason to think the divergent group were Christians.”
    The so called “amphora”; how many amphorae we know, the ornamentation of which are rhombus scales? How many amphorae we know that have an arched line, so similar to the actual fin line, so typical and common in the fish world? How many amphorae we know, the mouth of which is so much wider than the body?
    An amphora? A fish? Regarding the prohibition on figurative art, it makes no difference; both are figurative art, thus both are prohibited. I repeat my question: can you point at another tomb from the same time (or close), in which an amphora (if not a fish) is inscribed? The schematic “flowers” and other vegetarian parts, mainly in the form of Rosettes, were accepted exactly because they were schematic. The owner of this tomb broke the prohibition on figurative art – this is a fact. I see this as an exception. You don’t see why this is a break, and why Judeo-Christians would think differently than other Jews. Well, at least we know they accepted Jesus a Messiah; I don’t think it’s a tiny, ignorable difference. This divergent group was not Christian; you’re right. It was Judeo-Christian.
    You say: “It doesn’t tell us what Jewish Christians who still observed Torah did or thought about it”. The early Judeo-Christians did observe Torah. With a slight change: the Torah never mentioned a messiah, the flesh-and-blood son of god. The basic concepts of Judaism, as they are in the Hebrew Bible, simply do not allow for such an idea. So accepting Jesus a messiah is not just a change; it’s a major, decisive break. Still, one may underestimate this break. Moreover, even if we assume that early Judeo-Christians attended the temple, how can we be sure that “since they attended the Temple, they must have got rid of their corpse impurity before entering the Temple.” It’s a speculation, just like other speculation. They may have attended the Temple, but getting rid of corpse impurity before is a speculation.
    Regarding the Name in a tomb, you say: “We don’t actually have any such prohibition from the Second Temple period, so far as I know”. With all due respect, even writing the Name on a house wall, or pronouncing it by a lay Jew, was prohibited. The Name is so holly, and corpses are so unholy, that no Jew would inscribe it in a tomb, or even think about doing so. Thus such an act doesn’t have to be formally prohibited.
    “In other words, we don’t know that it is not used in other tombs because this was prohibited. I don’t agree, of course (see my former paragraph). But your second sentence here is interesting. Suppose your right, and “It could be merely there was no custom of making religious statements on ossuaries”. At last we agree! Commonly, there was no custom etc. This statement defines the patio tomb exactly as it is: not a common Jewish tomb. To understand it, we have to define the basic and thus the first “trait” that separated Judeo-Christianity from Judaism: Jesus, an everlasting Messiah, the one who won death. I believe that Jesus’ death and resurrection are, conceptually, a single event; his early followers had the same ideas. One cannot accept the resurrection and keep his concepts of death and corpse defilement unchanged.
    The Patio Tomb finds define the tomb: an exception; I suggest an early Judeo-Christian tomb, and a prototype of (correction, sorry) the much earlier Christian burials.

  29. Just a thought for you experts to ponder. In looking at the inscription shape and translation it reminds me of the tablets of stone and one of the 10 commandments. Exodus 20:7 states according to Youngs Literal translation: “Thou dost not take up the name of Jehovah thy God for a vain thing, for Jehovah acquitteth not him who taketh up His name for a vain thing”. Could this be the writer in essence saying I Hagab take up (or exalt) the glorious name Jehovah?

  30. A good point, John. The commandment is correct. Now: can we be sure that Hagab is the correct translation and presents an individual name? It’s very similar to the Hebrew word for grasshopper: חגב (Khagav). This word is sometimes used in the Hebrew Bible to demostrate the feeling of being almost nothing infront of God. Yet the problem remains: what Jew would dare to inscrib the Name, the holliest word in Hebrew and in Jewish culture, in a tomb - the most severe source of impurity?

  31. Let’s just get the point about figurative art right. There is a lot of vegetation on ossuaries, and some of it is quite realistic and recognisable, not schematic. There are also objects - amphorae (very clear amphorae which everyone agrees are amphorae or jugs), the Menorah, architectural structures. These are very clear illustrations. We have the Menorah depicted elsewhere in Second Temple Jewish graffiti and elsewhere. The Goliath tomb in Jericho has wall paintings of flowers. On the other hand, animals are very rare, though there are a few cases. For example, there is a stone table from once of houses excavated in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem that has a fish depicted on its top - a very well depicted. So a fish on a Jewish ossuary is not inconceivable, but it seems to me the evidence suggests that Jews generally avoided depicting people or animals (the sorts of things Gentiles worshipped) but had no problem with objects like amphorae or plants.

    Acts 21:26 says that Paul purified himself before entering the Temple. It was like taking your shoes off to go into a mosque. Everyone did it.
    I repeat: however unusual this tomb may be, there is nothing about its unusual aspects that point to Jewish Christianity. You didn’t have to be a Christian to come up with the idea of putting a religious statement on an ossuary. Why shouldn’t anyone come up with that idea? Seeing tomb inscriptions in places outside Jerusalem might give one the idea.

  32. Richard,
    The objects you count above - amphorae, menorah - all of them are on ossuaries? Or generally in Jewish tombs? The Goliath tomb is unique, indeed; a perfect example of an exception. Anumals - can you point at a Jewish tomb\ossuary with animals? You say this phenomenon is rare; I agree. “Rare” is not regular. The stone table is not a tomb, and I suppose we may relate it to a Hellenised Jewish family, not to a pious, devoted Jewish family. One way or another - it’s rare, and not connected to fynerary circumstances, which are our focus.
    As for purifying before entering the Temple: Jews had to purify themselves before entering the Temple as a rule, whether or not they touched corpses before. A jew must purify himself after sexual intercourse even if he has no intention to enter the Temple.
    You say: “You didn’t have to be a Christian to come up with the idea of putting a religious statement on an ossuary”. Might be true; yet the fact is that we still don’t have any other ossuary inscribed with religious statement.
    I know a few Galilean tombs with strange symbols inscribed on their walls; one has a horizontal; the other has a cross; yet another has another form of early cross. So you are right: all these places are out of Jerusalem. All of them also imply Jewish Christianity. Another Galilean tomb has a Menorah inscribed on a wall. Yet there is no specified space for long term bones storaging in this tomb. The Patio tomb shows a similar structure; bones are not supposed to remain in the preliminary burial spot, and usually niches did not meant for this purpose. I believe that this fact implies a major change in the Jewish concept of corpse defilement. You say: “That’s because the whole concept of cultic purity was abandoned in Gentile Christianity”. I believe gentiles simply didn’t share the same cultic concepts with Jews anyway, including the severe concept of corpse defilement. Thus I repeat: as a Jew, a follower of Jesus, one had to accept changes in his own concept of corpse defilement, or else the resurrection meant nothing. Since Jesus’ death and resurrection were the initial breaking point, the essence that differed Jesus’ followers from the rest of the Jews. A follower could not avoid this change. Implying thses changes by tomb inscriptions could be a safe way to express one’s belief and devotion to the new way while not exposing one’s self.

  33. in my third paragraph I meant “horizontal fish”; sorry.
    another correction; I wrote “and usually niches did not meant for this purpose”; should be “usually niches are not meant for this purpose”.

  34. For example, Rahmani no. 815 has a menorah and also amphorae on three sides. Quite a lot of other amphora. Another menorah on 829. Rahmani thinks both these come from between 70 and 135, I’m not sure why.
    There’s an altar on an ossuary thought to come from the tomb of one of the high priestly families. The only tomb/ossuary with animals I know of is the Goliath tomb wall painting, which has birds as well as plants. Of course, we’re agreed that this is very rare, and it is a point against seeing a fish on our ossuary. But I think the evidence is accumulating almost by the day that it is an amphora, not a fish.
    Do you have access to Rahmani’s catalogue? It has 895 plates of ossuaries. You can study all this stuff.
    Of course, you got rid of impurity whenever you got it, and you had to get rid of any sort before entering the temple. Paul is almost bound to have got corpse impurity from years of travelling in the diaspora, where it can’t be removed, and everyone knew he’d come from the diaspora. He was a controversial visitor who drew a lot of attention. He couldn’t have got away with entering the temple without getting rid of corpse impurity.
    You are simply saying what you think early Jewish Christians MUST have thought. This is not a very good guide to history. People often go on holding onto a belief that seems to us inconsistent with a new belief. But in any case, I do not see why the idea that Jesus had risen from death to new, immortal life should stop people thinking corpses were impure.
    Actually there are other tombs where bones have been found in the kokhim, but since almost all the tombs around Jerusalem have been disturbed in the past one can’t really conclude anything from that. Grave robbers may have tipped them out of ossuaries they stole.
    That the Talpiot B tomb was abandoned before the skeletons could be transferred to ossuaries seems the easiest explanation of them.

  35. Pingback: » A New Proposal for the Talpiot Greek Inscription TaborBlog

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