Christopher A. Rollston, Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Emmanuel Christian Seminary
The publication of a four-line Greek inscription from a tomb in East Talpiyot (Jerusalem) has generated substantial interest, especially because of the dramatic claims surrounding it (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012). James Tabor has argued that this inscription reads as follows: “DIOS IAIO UPSŌ AGB.” He translates it as “Divine Jehovah Lift up, Lift up.” He believes this to be a Christian tomb (in fact, he states that it is arguably that of Joseph of Arimathea) and that this inscription is to be understood as reflective of an early Christian confession of a belief in the resurrection (and he has also argued that some of the ornamentation on a different ossuary from the same tomb is distinctively Christian). Richard Bauckham accepts all of Tabor’s readings (i.e., the Greek graphemes Tabor believes are present), but he translates the inscription as follows: “Belonging to Zeus IAIO. I, Hagab, exalt (him/you).” It is of some consequence, however, that Bauckham goes on to state “I do not think the inscription has anything to do with Jesus of 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” (Bauckham 2012).
As a point of departure, I would note that the corpus of Jewish Funerary inscriptions from the Late Second Temple and Early Post-Biblical Period is broad and diverse in terms of content, and in terms of caliber and quality. That is, some of these funerary inscriptions are quite impressive, produced by highly trained scribes and stonemasons, but many of them (particularly those on ossuaries) are of modest quality, with substantial variations sometimes present in terms of formatting (e.g., spacing, size, relative heights), stance, morphology, and ductus. In addition, it should also be mentioned that in the corpus of ossuary inscriptions orthographic variants, orthographic errors, and orthographic corrections are well attested. All of these sorts of variations fall within certain parameters, but suffice it to say that there are strong differences between monumental inscriptions and literary texts on the one hand and funerary inscriptions (especially ossuaries) on the other hand. McLean’s statements about Greek funerary inscriptions from the Hellenistic and Roman periods are apropos in this connection: “In contrast to monumental inscriptions, most funerary inscriptions were produced in the peripheral workshops by artisans who often lacked the same degree of skill and education as the artisans responsible for public inscriptions” (McLean 2002). For readers that are most accustomed to reading edited Greek texts, I should also like to mention that ancient Greek inscriptions were written in scriptio continua and I would also like to emphasize that it was very, very common for words to begin on one line and be concluded on the next line. Prior to entering into an epigraphic and philological discussion of the Talpiyot ossuary inscription in particular, I believe it would be useful to discuss some of the dominant motifs and emphases of burial inscriptions as background.
I. Setting the Stage: Late Second Temple and Post-Biblical Jewish Burial Inscriptions in Broad Context
Most of the Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic tomb inscriptions from Judean contexts of the Late Second Temple Period are verbally parsimonious. Thus, the most common type of ossuary inscription is simply that of a name, sometimes accompanied by a reference to some aspect of relational status (e.g., “son of,” or “wife of,” or “daughter of,” or even “mother of”). Fairly often the word “peace” (in Hebrew, Greek, or both) will be present as well (as a consolation of sorts). On occasion there will be reference to something such as the place of origin (e.g., for someone buried in a city which is different from their city of origin), or a statement about the profession of the deceased. Nevertheless, some Jewish tomb inscriptions (including ossuary inscriptions) from places such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, Beth-She’arim do contain some additional data. For example, there are some Jewish tomb inscriptions from this chronological horizon that include brief statements that can be classified as “grief statements,” “longer statements of consolation,” “warnings about improper contact with entombed remains,” “statements revealing assumptions about ultimate fate” (e.g., belief or non-belief in an afterlife), and on (rare) occasion some reference to the cause of death. Because it might not be intuitive, it should be noted that some of these funerary statements are direct address, that is, statements made to the deceased. Moreover, some of these burial inscriptions use the first person, with the deceased actually speaking, as it were. Finally, I should like to mention that although I have confined most of the evidence I used to the southern Levant, I cite some texts from the diaspora.
Sometimes within burial inscriptions (including those of ossuaries) there are references to the ossuary itself, the preparation of the body, the bones in the ossuary, and sometimes these references are accompanied by verbiage discussing the proper comportment vis à vis the bones, and curses upon those that might open the ossuary or move the bones. For example, one Jerusalem ossuary with a Greek inscription simply says “ossuary. ossuary” (with the Greek word being used here being ostophagos, literally meaning “bone eater”; Cotton, et al, 2010, 477 [#458]). The famed ossuary of Nicanor also contains a reference to bones, namely, “The ossuary (Greek: ostatōn) of Nicanor of Alexandria, who made the gates. Nicanor the Alexandrian” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 140 [#98]). Similarly, an ossuary from Beth She’arim with a Greek inscription reads as follows: “This ossuary is one of the lowest placed of the bone boxes (ostōn). And it is a good thing that it has (now) been placed higher, as it is of my Uncle Papos, who brought us up” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 116-119 [#131]). An inscription from the area of the Beth She’arim Synagogue reads: “Rabbi Samuel who arranges (the limbs of the dead) and of Judah who lays out the corpse” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 189-190 [#202]). Here is an ossuary inscription which refers to an ossuary, and to the cause of death: “Ossuary of Shalom, daughter of Sha’ul, who died while giving birth to (her) daughter, Shalom” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 72 [#25]).
Prohibitions regarding certain activities vis à vis the bones are quite common (note the predominant use of the negative in these, of course). A very fine Aramaic inscription from Jerusalem contains a reference to bones and a prohibition regarding the opening of the ossuary: “This loculus was made for the bones of our fathers; (its) length (is) two cubits—and not to open (=it should not be opened) on them” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 480 [#460]). Similarly, an Aramaic inscription on a Jerusalem ossuary reads as follows: “Our parents (are here): Do not ever open” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 379 [#359]). And again on a different Aramaic ossuary from Jerusalem: “Father Dositheos. Our father Dositheos—and not to be opened!” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 397 [#375]). Similarly, a Greek inscription at Beth She’arim reads as follows: “I, Hesychios, lie here with my wife. May anyone who dares to open (the grave) above us not have a portion in the eternal life” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 112-114 [#129]). Or again from Beth She’arim: “Nobody shall open, in accordance with the divine and secular law” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 123 [#134]). Several ossuary inscriptions refer to the contents of the ossuary as “qorban” For example, one Jerusalem ossuary has” Whatever benefit a man may derive from this ossuary (is a) qorban (sacrificial offering) to God from him who is in it” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 308 [#287]; cf also 489 [#466]; and 544-545 [#528]).
Regarding the movement of bones, a Jerusalem ossuary contains the following Greek inscription: “Of Rufus. Whoever moves [him] away [from the ossuary] has violated his oath” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 405-406 [#385]). Similarly, a Jerusalem ossuary contains the personal name Mariamē wife of Matthias” in Greek and Hebrew and then the following Greek inscription: “Whoever moves these “bones, blindness will strike him” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 469-470 [#451]). And again, a Jerusalem ossuary with a Greek inscription reads: “I adjure that no one take away/lift out Tertia (from the ossuary)” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 527 [#507]). The Uzziah Plaque contains an Aramaic inscription which can be read: “Here I brought the bones of Uzziah, King of Judah; and not to open!” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 603-604 [#602]). Along the same lines, another Greek inscription from Beth She’arim reads: “Anyone who changes this lady’s place (i.e., the woman buried in this grave), He who promised to resurrect the dead will Himself judge (him)” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 139-140 [#162]). Obviously, under certain circumstances bones could be transported to a different burial spot. Thus, there is an Aramaic inscription with reference to the transportation of bones. Namely, “Yosef son of El‘asa Artaka brought the bones of ‘mk his mother to Jerusalem” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 256 [#225]). And again, “The bones of those who emigrated…” This inscription could also be rendered, however, “of those who expatriated (their) bones” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 458-459 [#440]).
Of course, part of the framework for (some of) these epigraphic references to bones revolves around the necessary respect for the dead, but concern for ritual purity was certainly part of the equation at times as well. Indeed, even within the Hebrew Bible statements such as these are attested: “This will be a perpetual statue for the Israelites and those sojourning among them. Those who touch the dead body of any human being shall be unclean for seven days….All who touch a corpse, the body of a human being who has died, and do not purity themselves, defile the tabernacle of Yahweh; such persons shall be cut off from Israel” (Num. 19: 11-13 passim; cf. Num 5:1-4; 31:19). Naturally, the Hebrew Bible contains provisions for close relatives of the deceased (e.g., Lev 21:1-4), but the point remains that both respect and ritual purity were quite paramount.
Sometimes the assumption is that death is the fate of all and cannot be avoided, but some ossuary inscriptions presuppose some sort of existence in the afterlife. An inscription in a corridor of the Jewish catacombs of Beth She’arim reads as follows: “Best wishes in the Resurrection!” (Greek: “anastasis”; Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 180 [#194]). Moreover, one ossuary from Jerusalem has the following: “No one has abolished/cancelled his entering, not even El‘azar and Shapira” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 136 [#93]). Similarly, a Jerusalem ossuary has the following Greek inscription: “Cheer up and feast, you brothers who are living, and drink together! No one is immortal” (Cotton, et al, 2010, 419-420 [#395]). Similarly, an inscription in a mausoleum adjacent to catacomb eleven at Beth She’arim has the following inscription: “I, the son of Leontios, lie dead, Justus, the son of Sappho, who, having plucked the fruit of all wisdom, left the light, my poor parents in endless mourning, and my brothers too, alas, in my Beth She‘arim, And having gone to Hades, I Justus, lie here with many of my own kindred, since mighty Fate so willed. Be of good courage, Justus, no one is immortal” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 97 [#127]). Similarly, an inscription from Beth She’arim reads: “Be of good courage, Simon; no one is immortal” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 35-36 [#59]). Or again from Beth She’arim: “Be of good courage, lady Calliope from Byblos; no one is immortal” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 124-125 [#136]). From a Greek inscription from Beth She’arim: “May your portion be good, my lord father and lady mother, and may your souls be bound in immortal life” (Greek: athanatou biou; Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 114-116 [#130]). Among the longest of this sort of inscription from Beth She’arim is the following: “this tomb contains the dwindling remains of noble Karteria, preserving forever her illustrious memory. Zenobia brought her here for burial, fulfilling thus her mother’s behest. For you, most blessed of women, your offspring, whom you bore from your gentle womb, your pious daughter, for she always does actions praiseworthy in the eyes of mortals, erected this monument so that even after the end of life’s term, may you both enjoy again indestructible riches” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 157-167 [#183]). Similarly, an inscription from Beth She’arim says: “May your lot be good, Hannah” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 2-3 [#2]). Or again, one of the Beth She’arim inscriptions contains the following statement: “Julianus Gemellus, may your share be good” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 8 [#13]). And again, “Sarah, mother of Yosi, have courage” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 16 [#22]). Likewise, an ossuary from Beth She’arim has the word “peace” in Greek and Hebrew and in its entirety it reads as follows: “Shalom, little Yosi, Shalom” (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 19 [#28]). Notice here also that the name Yosi is used, a nicely attested short form of the name Joseph (and thus not used only for the brother of Jesus of Nazareth). Important to highlight is the fact that some of these Jewish inscriptions presuppose a belief in a resurrection and some do not. As I have discussed in a previous post here (Rollston 2012) many Late Second Temple Jews believed in some sort of resurrection and many did not. That is, there is nothing distinctively “Christian” about a belief in a resurrection.
I should also like to mention that statements meaning “here,” such as enthade and ōde, and even ede, occur in funerary contexts, often in association with a reference to the fact that the corpse is lying “here” (many of these are later, but a fair number are fairly early). For example, within Frey’s corpus of ancient Jewish Burial Inscriptions, the most consistent element present is arguably enthade, that is, “here,” normally followed by a form of keimai (Frey 1975), short forms such as entha are also attested (Frey 1975, 233 [#296]), and the variant spelling anthade occurs as well (Frey 1975, 303 [#391]). Moreover, ōde is also attested on a number of occasions in Frey’s corpus (e.g., Frey 1975, 83 [#120]; 90 [#129]; 118 [#167]; 278-279 [#357]). Within the funerary corpus of inscriptions from Beth She’arim ōde is attested on a number of occasions (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 9 [#15]; 22 [#35]; 23 [#37]; 24 [#40]; 26 [#43]; 149 [#176]; 152 [#179]), and an orthographic variant ede also occurs (Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 111 [#128]) as well. Of course, enthade also occurs multiple times at Beth She’arim (e.g., Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 36-37 [#60]; 131 [#147]; 135 [#153]) and the short form entha occurs as well (e.g., Schwabe and Lifschitz 1974, 135 ). Occurrences are also attested in the corpus of burial inscriptions from the region of Caesarea (e.g., Ameling 2011, 10 [#1124]). With this background in mind, I shall turn to a consideration of the four-line Talpiyot Inscription.
III. The Four-Line Greek Inscription from Talpiyot: Epigraphic Discussion, Readings, Translation
As noted, Tabor and Bauckham read line two as follows: IAIO and consider this to be a Greek spelling of the divine name Yahweh. Palaeographers, however, would note a rather serious problem with this assumption, namely, the dramatic difference in the morphology of the two graphemes they read as iota (see Tabor’s own drawing, Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 91). That is, they read an iota at the beginning of line two, but one with very long horizontal crossbars. However, the next grapheme they read as an iota is a straight vertical (with no horizontals), that is, the standard form of iota in this period and chronological horizon. To be sure, palaeographic variation in grapheme-morphology on ossuary inscriptions (even with the same hand) is certainly attested (especially when, as in this case, the hand is not a highly trained one), but this great of morphological variation for this grapheme is not attested in the epigraphic corpus from this region during this chronological horizon. That is, the sort of dramatic morphological variation which Tabor and Bauckham are assuming to be present for this grapheme, on a single inscription written by the same hand, is without parallel. Perusal of the corpus of Greek inscriptions for this period and region demonstrates the validity of the point.
Bauckham, however, has responded by noting that one does sometimes find an iota with serifs (apices). For examples, he refers to CIIP #456 (Cotton, et al., 2010, 475-476), CIIP #389 (Cotton et al., 2010, 411-412), and CIIP 28 (Cotton et al., 2010, 74-75). (1) I would note, however, that these inscriptions have serifs on multiple graphemes and not just one, as the Talpiyot inscription allegedly does. (2) Furthermore, I would note that on most inscriptions with serifs, the serifs are not nearly as deeply incised as is (for example) the top horizontal of the Talpiyot grapheme Tabor and Bauckham consider to be an iota with a serifs. That is, the top horizontal of that grapheme does not have the appearance of a serif, but rather a full blown, deeply incised stroke. Bauckham senses the first problem and states that “it does need to be explained why, in our inscription, only this letter is adorned with apices [i.e., serifs].” He then states that “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.” He goes on to suggest that this is similar to the way the divine name is treated in some Hebrew and Greek biblical manuscripts. He refers in particular to Qumran practice (Bauckham 2012). However, I would note that the practice at Qumran is quite dissimilar. At Qumran, Emanuel Tov states that “divine names were written in a special way in many Hebrew Qumran texts” and then he provides the following synopsis: (1) All four graphemes of the tetragrammaton are written in Paleo-Hebrew characters in texts which are written in the square script; (2) Four dots in texts written in the square script; (3) A dicolon (:), followed by a space, placed before the Tetragrammaton (written in the square script); (4) the use of a different color of ink, in the case of 11Q22 (Tov 2004, 219-220, et passim; see also Tov 2001). In other words, there are no cases of the initial grapheme formed in a distinct way, but the remaining graphemes of the Tetragrammaton written in the standard (i.e., non-paleo-Hebrew) script. It is worth noting in this connection that Larry Hurtado has done a great deal of work on the Nomina Sacra in early Christian Greek manuscripts, but even in these manuscripts, there is nothing that parallels the sort of thing that Bauckham is proposing here (Hurtado 2006, 95-134; see also Metzger 1981, 36-37).
There is, however, a more elegant solution. The grapheme is actually perfectly fine tau. This is quite clear in the glossy photographs National Geographic gave me. I would ask the reader to look carefully at the image labeled Talpiyot 1, the second line, the first grapheme. At the bottom of the vertical of this grapheme is a pit in the stone (right next to the left oblique stroke of the alpha). I would ask the reader also to look at a different photograph, with a different light angle, namely, the image labeled Talpiyot 2. It is clear from this image that there is no horizontal stroke on the left side. Rather, there is a downward scratch (in fact, it may be that the person inscribing this ossuary made this mark when he was forming the upper part of the head of the upsilon, although it could have happened at almost any time). In any case, the point is that the “marks” Tabor and Bauckham considered the bottom horizontal of an iota are just pitting and scratches. Frankly, this sort of thing is very common in the field of epigraphy. The end result, of course, is that a recognition of the pitting and scratching yields a perfect tau. I should also make an additional notation regarding this line, namely, the grapheme Tabor and Bauckham consider to be the second iota. I draw the reader’s attention again to the image labeled Talpiyot 1, the second line and the third grapheme. It is a very clear epsilon, not an iota. At this juncture, I also draw the reader’s attention to line one of the image labeled Talpiyot 1. Although the stance of this grapheme is leaning slightly, I believe the traces can be most readily understood as an epsilon.
Astute readers will have noticed, at this juncture, that the word osta “bones” can now be read (the last two graphemes of line one and the first two graphemes of line two). The normal spelling of this word in the plural is ostea, although the spelling osta is also well attested in the Greek corpus. In this case we have, I believe, either a dialectical variant in the pronunciation of this word (causing it to be spelled ostae, rather than ostea), an actual orthographic variant, or a simple orthographic error (all three of these things occurs in the corpus of ancient funerary inscriptions). In any case, reading “bones” in a funerary context is quite compelling. Moreover, the final grapheme of line two is an omicron and the first grapheme of the following line (line three) is an upsilon. This is, I believe, simply the negative, a lexeme that occurs rather frequently in tomb contexts when there are references to bones and ossuaries. The psi and omega I consider to be the contract verb psaō, a verb that can mean “to touch,” “to rub,” “to wipe” (in the transitive) and “to crumble away,” “to vanish,” “to disappear” (in the intransitive). The standard lexicon of Classical Greek notes the fact that there is lexical overlap between (among other words) psaō and psauō (Liddell and Scott, 1996, 2018-2019; see also Liddell and Scott 1882, 1752-1753). Finally, I would mention that for the first two graphemes of line one, I am reading a delta-epsilon combination. Although I have considered various understandings of this, because of the tomb context, and the presence of “here” in Greek burial inscriptions (i.e., ōde, enthade, anthade, and ede) it may be that this is simply a form of that standard means of initiating a tomb inscription, thus, “here are the bones”). As for reading the final line as a personal name, I believe Bauckham’s proposal (Bauckham 2012) to be satisfying, that is, a Greek form of a Semitic personal name, that is, “Agabus.” I read the entire inscription as follows: DE OSTAE OU PSŌ AGB . That is, I would posit that it is reasonable to render this inscription: “Here are bones. I touch (them) not. Agabus.” It is possible that “Agabus” is the name of the deceased, and thus this could be translated “Here are bones. I touch them not, O Agabus.” Conversely, it could also be that the first person singular is used here of the man who asserts that he does not touch bones. Thus, this could then be translated quite nicely as “Here are bones: I, Agabus, touch (them) not.” The intransitive meaning is also viable. Thus, something such as “Here are (my) bones. I, Agabus, crumble not away.” Of course, because the subjunctive case (in addition to the indicative) would have the same form for the finite verb in this inscription (i.e., an omega ending either way), and may even be preferable, this inscription can be read: “Here are bones: May I not touch (them), O Agabus.” Of course, the following way, is also possible: “Here are bones: May I, Agabus, not touch (them). And finally, “Here are (my) bones, may I not crumble away” also remains viable. In any case, I would suggest that this is a nice inscription, but that it falls within the traditional sorts of statements that occur in Late Second Temple and Early Post-Biblical tomb contexts.
Christopher A. Rollston, Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Emmanuel Christian Seminary.
- I am grateful to my research assistants Jared Poznich and Jack Weinbender for assisting me with this manuscript. I am grateful to Robert Hull and Jason Bembry, colleagues here with whom I have discussed this find during the past two weeks. Moreover, I also wish to thank Jim West for his constant good humor and alacrity in all of our common academic ventures.
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