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 [155]).  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

(Tabor and Jacobovici 2012: 91)

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).

Talpiyot Inscription 1. Click to Enlarge

Talpiyot Inscription 2. Click to Enlarge












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.


Bauckham, R.
2012       “The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B—An Interpretation.”  ASOR Blog 8 March 2012.

Cotton, H., et al.
2010       Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae: volume I, Jerusalem, Part 1, 1-704.  Berlin: DeGruyter.

Frey, P. J-B.
1975       Corpus of Jewish Inscriptions: Jewish Inscriptions from the Third Century B.C. to the    Seventh Century A.D., Volume I, Europe.  New York: Ktav Publishers.

Hurtado, L. W.
2006       The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins.  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Liddell, H. G. and Scott, R.
1996       A Greek-English Lexicon.  Oxford: Clarendon Press.

1882       A Greek-English Lexicon.  New York: American Book Company.

McLean, B. H.
2002       An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods from Alexander the great down to the reign of Constantine (323 B.C. – A.D. 337).  Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press.

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

Rollston, C. A.
2012         “Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.”   ASOR Blog 28 February 2012.

Schwabe, M. and Lifschitz, B.
1974.       Beth She‘arim: Volume II, the Greek Inscriptions.  Jerusalem: Israel Exploration society and the Institute of Archaeology of Hebrew University.

Tabor, J. D.
2012.      “A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem.”  Bible and Interpretation Blog February 2012.

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

Tov, E.
2001       “Scribal Features of Early Witnesses of Greek Scripture.”  Pp. 125-148 in The Old Greek     Psalter: Studies in Honour of Albert Pietersma, eds. R. James, V. Hiebert, et al.  Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

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


  1. I should note, of course, that if it is the subjunctive, we should expect “me” (mu eta)….although ou me does occur. So, the indicative is probably the easier reading.

  2. Thank you,. Chris, for a stimulating piece. This is a fairly immediate response.

    I want just to clarify something about my own argument:
    I didn’t claim that the inscription distinguishes the Name by means of the specific practices used at Qumran, only that the form of the initial iota can be understood as another practice with the same purpose. We have very little evidence, outside the DSS, of ways that scribes distinguished the Tetragrammaton as a special word, though a few early LXX MSS are some help. I don’t see why we should not be open to finding other practices besides those used in DSS, especially as even in DSS there are some unique or very rare practices as well as the more common ones. (For example, the third practice you cite from Tov, placing a dicolon before the Name, is used in only one Qumran manuscript. Moreover, unlike the writing in paleo-Hebrew characters, it does not do something special with the four letters, but warns the reader not to read on as usual. This is what I proposed the iota with apices does in our inscription.) As far as I know we have no Christian MSS where the Tetragrammaton is written, so that doesn’t help one way or the other, and in any case I don’t think this inscription is Christian.

    On the reading of the letters, I will wait for discussion by those with better eyes and more experience. I have never claimed to be an epigrapher.

    I do want to take up the question of what the words mean, because I would be much readier to accept your reading of the letters if your interpretation produced something making more sense.

    I note you have to postulate a use of DE to mean “Here”. You cite no parallels for this abbreviation (as I suppose one would have to call it). Reading OSTA as the plural of OSTEON seems to me not implausible, but your need to add the epsilon to this word (OSTAE) rather spoils the appeal of this reading. (Incidentally, if that letter is an epsilon, IAEO comes well within the range of attested Greek variants of the Tetragrammaton.) Finding a reference to ‘bones’ on an ossuary is, as you say. ‘compelling’, but James Tabor is equally convinced that on an ossuary HUPSO must surely refer to raising up from death.

    But I want to focus on your interpretation of the last letter of line 2 through line 3. I am delighted you find my interpretation of the last line as the name Hagab convincing, especially as this is the point that Tabor and Snyder, when I first proposed it, did not find convincing.

    Suppose we take PSO to mean ‘touch,’ as you propose. I assume you are connecting this with cultic defilement from touching a corpse. (I don’t think the Greek could plausibly mean ‘touch’ in there sense of picking up the bones to remove them.) If the speaker in the inscription is the person who wrote it, then he/she is probably the person who put the bones in the ossuary, in which case he/she has touched them. Even if not, someone would get corpse impurity just from being in the tomb. They didn’t need to touch the bones in the ossuary to get it. So what is the point of saying “Here are the bones: I touch them not”? or even ‘May I not touch them.’ It’s not as though, once the bones are in the ossuary, there is any temptation to touch them, which the speaker hopes to resist. Sometimes, of course, the bones of a second person were added to an ossuary, but in this case, if it required touching the bones of the person already in the ossuary, this was a pious duty that was not to be avoided (and since touching the bones of second person would be unavoidable, why avoid touching those of the first?) However one turns it around, I find this a very odd thing to say.

    The intransitive sense “crumble” is more promising (though I note that L & S give only one example of this usage, from Sophocles.) But what exactly would either ‘I, Agabus, crumble not away’ or ‘may I not crumble away’ mean? Does he (in the latter case) wish that his bones do not crumble away before the day of resurrection? That’s the best I can make of it.

    With regard to whether the writer of the inscription or the deceased is speaking, it seems to me it would be unusual for the writer to name himself but not the deceased.

    Well, there’s lots to discuss. If your readings of the letters are correct, then I certainly hope someone else can come up with a more intelligible interpretation of them.

  3. Chris,
    The hardest sell to me is to read the second grapheme as an epsilon. If we read the first two graphemes as delta iota, we have “di (with alpha elided because of the following omicron) osta,” (“on account of bones”). Hence, the whole inscription: “On account of [the] bones, I, Agabus, do not touch.”

    Bob Hull

  4. Thank you, Richard, for your comments, as well as the reference to my piece as stimulating. I am grateful. And, as you know, I very much appreciated your piece as well. Moreover, I like the tenor of your piece and my hope was that you would also like the tenor of my piece (and I sense that you did…and I’m grateful for that as well).

    Yes, as for the first letter of line two, I understand that you weren’t suggesting a precise parallel with Qumran…but I was just pointing out that the parallel seemed quite strained, as there is no parallel for your suggestion, not even at Qumran. But, of course, my main point was that first letter of line two is a perfectly fine tau, not an iota. I think the photos that accompany the article make that clear.

    As for the reading ostae…as I mentioned, there are many, many orthographic variants, corrections, orthographic erros and even dialectical variants in the corpus of funerary inscriptions (and not a few corrections) in the corpus of ossuaries…so I don’t find ostae to be an insurmountable problem…especially when one factors in the fairly low caliber of this inscription (in terms of script execution, placement, etc.).

    As for the intransitive sense…and the meaning “crumble,” you will have noticed that one of the funerary inscriptions I cite (from Bet She’arim) actually reads as follows: “…this tomb contains the dwindling remains of noble Karteria…” The Greek word used here is a form of phthio (phi-theta-iota-omaga), meaning dwindle, decay, etc. In short, the semantic sense is quite the same, as the possibility that I suggest here.

    As for the person…the writer seems to be speaking in the Uzziah Plaque, etc. (although in this case, as CIIP notes, we do not have the name). In short…there are arguably decent parallels for the first person used for the writer, name present or not. In any case, I provided two basic options in this regard, with the writer speaking in the first person being just one of the options I mention.

    As for de…again, my reason for thinking this is that forms of enthade (with a large number of variant orthographies) are attested, especially at the beginning of a burial inscription.

    As for touching bones…I’d be happy for a Talmudic scholar to weigh in. Suffice it to say that “touching” bones was always something that was a concern. In fact, yes, you are correct…I think that your suggestion of a potential cultic connection for Agabus might be quite useful in that regard…as the regulations for ritual impurity were much more stringent with regard to this issue for those that were of priestly or levitical lineage. In short, I think you’re on to something there with regard to this…although my suspicion is that Agabus was not necessarily a name confined to usage as that of someone of priestly descent, vocation. In any case, not touching bones is something that gets a fair amount of discussion in Second Temple and Post-Biblical texts..

    With all best wishes,

    Chris Rollston

  5. Thanks, Bob. That also sounds plausible to me…and although reading an epsilon after the delta is probably easier, the stratches on that part of the ossuary are such that an iota will certainly work as well. Thanks for posting this comment.

    With all best wishes,


  6. Chris, I did think your piece well presented and argued. It’s actually very good that you set out some options, as (you will remember) I also did, rather than deciding absolutely for one when the evidence is not that strong.

    What I meant about the person speaking in the inscription was not that I have a problem with the writer being the person speaking (I rather think there are some other examples of that too). What seemed to me rather unlikely is that the writer should name himself but not name the deceased. Usually inscriptions, if they do anything, at least name the deceased. It seems rather inappropriate for a writer not to do this, but to name himself!

    Priests were forbidden to contract corpse impurity except in the case of their nearest blood relatives (not even their wives) (Lev 21:2-4). This means they could not attend funerals or enter tombs unless it was a close blood relative who was being buried. I assume, in the case of secondary burial, they would be allowed to transfer the bones of a blood-relative to the ossuary.

    We don’t know the rules for Levites (not even, I think, from rabbinic literature), but for everyone else it wasn’t wrong to contract impurity (it would happen unavoidably quite often) and burying the dead was a positive duty. They just had to get purified afterwards. Now, in late Second Temple times, some people were more concerned to avoid getting impurity than Torah explicitly required them to be. So they might take more care than most people not to get near corpses.

    Given that concern, however, and even supposing this tomb belonged to a priestly family - once you’ve got corpse impurity you can’t get it any worse! In most tombs there would be corpses not yet decayed sufficiently to transfer to ossuaries, so you’d get impure just by being in a tomb. Whether you then touch bones is then irrelevant. Or supposing there were no human remains not already in ossuaries, why on earth should anyone want to open an ossuary and touch the bones? It seems so unlikely that to declare on the ossuary that you’re not going to do it or wish that you won’t is surely bizarre.

    I did think, with regard to the crumbling possibility, that, without a negative - ‘I, Agabus, am crumbling’ - this might be plausible. It would be one of those ‘resigned to death being the end’ sort of epitaphs. In the case you quote from Bet She’arim, is it an ossuary, or is it a tomb in which the whole corpse, not just bones, was put?

    Actually I think for psao, we need more data on the use of the word. Someone needs to do a TLG search.

  7. I’ve only just read Bob’s suggestion. If that would mean ‘not touch the ossuary,’ then remember that stone doesn’t convey impurity. You can’t get impurity from the bones without opening the ossuary.

  8. Bob, I’ve only just read your suggestion. If that would mean ‘not touch the ossuary,’ then remember that stone doesn’t convey impurity. You can’t get impurity from the bones without opening the ossuary.

  9. Thanks for adding your name and affiliation here Chris. When I first saw it unattributed I thought it had somehow been delivered from on High :-) .

    Seriously, I have been waiting for your take on this for a long time and it is most welcome. I look forward to getting into a productive discussion with you, Richard, and others who might join in. I am trying to get some of our other epigraphers to jump in here, we consulted with three or four more who are not accustomed to the blogging climate and have so far chosen to watch from the sidelines, but each has something really good to offer. As you know, I don’t agree with aspects of your transcription here, and like Richard I find several things strained in your final reading but it looks like we all have our differences here and that is all to the good. I am sure you must have puzzled like I have over the famous Aramaic epigram disputed by Naveh and Cross, see below, and as you would guess, right, I favor Cross! (Cotton # 93; Rahmani # 455). Rahmani only lists Nos. 142, 259, 559 (Greek) and Nos. 26 and 455 in Aramaic as possible “epitaphs” but I have found quite a few more in Cotton, et al. CIIP and have benefited greatly from Jonathan Price’s notes on the Greek ones:

    ? (259) I adjure: let no one take away (of) Tertian

    #93. Aramaic: No one has abolished his entering (next world? Naveh), not even Elazar and Shapira
    Or, No man can go up (from the grave? Cross)…
    Botanical Gardens, Mt Scopus
    Israel Museum, IAA 1971-435 (Rahmani 455)

    #359: Our parents: Do not ever open
    #375: Our father Dositheos—not to be opened
    #385: Rufus Whoever moves away has violated his oath #439: This is the loculus of…Alas! (or Woe!)
    #451: Mariam wife of Mathia: whoever moves these, blindness strike
    #458. ostophagos: OSTOFAGOS OSTOFAGOS ostophagos written twice on fragment
    Kidron Valley (near Beth Sahur el-Atiqa) Rockefeller Museum, IAA 1936-2180
    #460: Bones of our fathers: not to open on them
    #466: Anyone who derives benefit from it—qorban!
    #604: Not to open
    #605: Closed, to change and bury any other man with him in this ossuary, closed

    What impressed me about our inscription was how utterly different it is from all of these. I still hold that view and I hope we can explore it fully. I appreciate very much, given some of the alternatives expressed here on the ASORblog and elsewhere, the ways in which you always support responsible and respectful academic exchanges.

  10. Hello, Richard,

    From my perspective, with such a brief epigraphic text, determining precisely the operative historical and contextual variables is most difficult. Perhaps, for example, the stone mason or family member who etched the inscription in the ossuary did so prior to the deposition of the bones in the ossuary, or even prior to the ossuary being put in the tomb…this could, of course, be the case (i.e., someone else could have moved the ossuary into the tomb and placed the dissarticulated remains of the deceased in the ossuary). In other words, various scenarios are plausible and readily account for the sorts of concerns you mention.

    As for your desire that the deceased be named, rather than the person making the inscription. As I said, one option that is very viable is: “Here (are) the bones. I touch (them) not, O Agabus” (with Agabus being the deceased person).

    As for Psa-o and Psau-o….you’ll note the semantic overlap of these words (and several additional verbs), as mentioned also in Liddell and Scott…so that broadens the net one casts quite a bit (e.g., in TLG search).

    As for the toucing of bones stated as a cause of impurity, according to ancient sourcees, I talked to Talmudic scholar Steven Fine about this before completing my post and his response was this: “Absolutely, all over the place, especially for kohanim. Touching bones is the mother of all טומות (temuot).” That said, I’d very much like to see a Talmudic scholar (such as Professor Fine) discuss this issue on this blog (obviously, there are various secondary sources about this that have been published through the years…but it would be very nice to see something on this blog). For these sorts of reasons, I consider Bob Hull’s comment to be quite useful as well.

    Most importantly, I suspect that you’ve had time to look at the images I’ve posted here…it’s very clear that this is not an iota…and so that reading is simply gone. I suspect that James Tabor may protest its loss, though, of course.

    Best regards,

    Christopher Rollston

  11. Of course, I’m not denying that bones are a major source of impurity. I’m trying to make sense of a declaration on an ossuary that the writer is not touching bones. What must be stressed is that, if you were a relative of the deceased, touching the bones would not be avoided. Burying a relative is a positive duty, even for a priest in the case of a close blood relative. To say that one was avoiding burying (i.e. touching the bones for the purpose of putting them in the ossuary) a relative would be grossly insulting. In these circumstances getting impure is not wrong. Like many occasions of getting impurity, it just means one has to purify oneself afterwards.
    What we need to know from someone like Steven Fine is not that touching bones is a major source of impurity. That’s elementary. We need such a person to provide a plausible reason for this inscription.
    It’s also elementary that stone doesn’t transmit impurity. So what would Bob Hull’s version be saying: On account of the bones, I do not touch - what?
    “On account of the bones, I do not touch the bones” ?!
    “On account of the bones, I do not touch the ossuary” - makes no sense in terms of purity rules.
    What else is possible?
    Sorry, but one has to think about the way purity rules actually worked. Just saying the inscription makes some kind of sense because bones are a source of impurity won’t do.
    Actually, when I was wondering how you could read the rest of lines 1-2 if you read osta in the middle (that was the bit you divulged in advance), the only thing I could think of was di’osta (Bob’s suggestion) - ‘on account of bones’ - but couldn’t get any further.

    I’m not convinced that the first word of line 2 is not an iota. But I really wish some other epigraphers would join this discussion. As I commented on your blog yesterday, a variety of scholars have joined in the discussion of the “fish” - and the results seem to me to have been very useful. But so far almost all discussion of the inscription has been just you, me and James Tabor. Epigraphers out there - please join in.

  12. One more point which is not decisive, but worth considering. A much more obvious word for touching bones, if impurity is the issue, is aptomai, which LXX uses throughout Leviticus and Numbers for touch sources of impurity.

  13. Hello, James,

    As for my name on the article…I included name and affiliation at the conclusion of the article, but, at your request, we have added it at the beginning as well…a form of inclusio now, I suppose.

    As for your reference to Cross and Naveh…I enjoyed that…thank you…both of them have been (as I believe you know) so kind to and affirming of me through the years…such grand scholars and people, of course (one of blessed memory, sadly). Indeed, through the years, no one has said kinder things to me about my epigraphic work than these two.

    As for the texts you cite…yes, I know them and cited all, or virtually all, of them in my initial post here today, of course. As you know…many references to bones, something which you and I would both say is reasonably common for a funerary context, ossuary inscription. So I think of this inscription as falling within the same contours as many of these other ones…but I like the inscription…it’s certainly a good find, even if I feel it falls within the standard framework of funerary texts.


    Richard, yes, as you will recall, I actually mentioned the proviso about relatives in my initial post. So we’re in agreement here.

    As for haptomai…yes, much more common generally…but this inscription is particularly parsimonious with regard to letters…which I consider to be quite intentional.

    As for impurity, yes, I agree, it is elementary.

    As for the first letter not being an iota…the images make this clear enough…

    And so, with regard to Talpiyot A, I would note that Mary Magdalene “left the room” with Stephen Pfann’s corrected reading (published in _Near Eastern Archaeology_ 2006), and with regard to Talpiyot B’s four line inscription “HaShem” has left the room, and with regard to Talpiyot Tomb B itself, Joseph of Arimathea has left the room (pace Jacobovici and Tabor’s arguments in the book…there’s just nothing ancient to connect this tomb to him).

    At the end of the day, this is a nice tomb, but this brief inscription…just 14 letters long…cannot carry the freight it has been saddled with. Much is yet to be written about it, I suppose, but the tetragrammaton is just not there…and so the edifice has fallen.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

  14. Well Chris, lots to discuss here and I look forward to it, now and at SBL and ASOR. I would say thought that the rumors of the exits you speak of might be greatly exaggerated, to badly paraphrase Samuel Clemens…or at least, if they have left “the room,” they might be still congregating in the hall outside. I was told years ago by Michael Stone-ask Leah Di Segni-whatever she says, people will respect, on the Maraimene inscription. Forgive me but I have to rate her over Pfann, and what he, Jonathan Price, and others seem to have neglected is the parallel Mariamene cited by Rahmani, faintly under the lid of the ossuary, spelled the same with a Nu, when it can not possible be a kappa, but in the identical style (see my NEA article). I examined it last March directly. As for the IAIO it seems much depends on your T, which I think should not have the footer, which it does. I thought we gave you enough photos to make that clear. It was certainly clear to me, Greg Snyder, and just about everyone else we shared the photos with. A zeta maybe, but not a tau. Anyway, I will get back to this and in the meantime leave old JofA outside since any involvement on his part, other than burying Jesus according to all our sources, and I assume you accept that as at least probably historical, would have to depend on quite a few other factors. More soon but not tonight…

  15. Hello, James,

    Thanks for the note….and I like your good nature, good humor in all of this, that is, the Mark Twain reference is very nice (Twain is part of the triology of my favorite authors, with the others being Voltaire and Kafka)…

    As for Stephen Pfann…I think most have accepted his reading…he’s really very good. And as for Jonathan Price…I consider him to be among the very, very best. He leaves no stone unturned. I marvel at his productivity levels. As for photos…I’m always happy to have more sent my way. As for the tau…that reading will stand the test of time…there’s no bottom horizontal there…just a pit and scratches.

    Also, on a different, and very affirming note, I want to thank you for the autographed copy of the book and the nice inscription in it. I am grateful for it. I don’t remember if I sent you a copy of my _Writing and Literacy in Ancient Israel_, but please let me know. If I haven’t done so, I’ll happily put an autographed copy of it in the mail for you.

    With all best wishes,


  16. Well, Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea were never in my room. Actually, I think ‘touching bones’ is on its way out through the door, escorted by purity rules.
    Here are my further thoughts on the letters, as a non-expert. I think my original reading was based largely on photograph 3 (of the photos on the inscription now on the Jesus Discovery website). I can’t recall if I saw 1 and 2 before now.
    The whole surface is covered with scratches and blemishes. It may be salutary to note that, while the 2nd letter of line 2 has to be an alpha (we all agree), its lefthand side is visible on none of the photos. Similarly, if the second letter of line 1 is an epsilon, it has no lefthand side on any of the photos, and it’s hard to see more than two horizontals that could be more than scratches. Reading it as an iota depends on the vertical line visible on photos 2 and 3, which is plainly to the right of the horizontals. Since you entertained Bob Hull’s suggestion, you evidently have doubts about this letter, Chris.
    The third letter on line 2: What would be the bottom horizontal of an epsilon is a mark that appears anomalous on all the photos. Is it an especially deep incision? Or not part of a letter at all? A pit in the stone? (That, I believe, is why Tabor, Snyder and I thought this an iota, as you did, Chris, when you made the point about it being different from the first letter of this line.) Other horizontals are hard to see and do not look different from many scratches elsewhere on the surface.
    The first letter of line 2: To me it still looks as though there is a bottom horizontal, which is clear to the right of the vertical stroke though it runs into a blemish in the stone (or did the inscriber make a mess of this incision?) to the left.

  17. I should like to mention a rendering that I have long considered, and believe to be plausible as well, is this, namely, “Here are the bones. I lift (them) them) not, O Agabus” (or the like). That is, lift in the sense of “lift up, remove.”

    Note that one of the things that is attested epigraphically is the negative “ou” written simply as “o.”

    Of course, that would mean that the verb could be construed as ups-o…and in this case would mean something along the lines of “lift up,” “move,” etc. Within the epigraphic materials I cited in the initial post, are, of course, references to lifting up the bones, removing the bones, etc. (naturally, someone might propose that, in this case, the upsilon was doing double-duty).

    Chris Rollston

  18. Richard,

    I’m glad to see that you’re willing to talk about readings. This is the core, foundational issue (and I’m also glad that you’re willing to state that “the whole surface is covered with scratches and blemishes”…it is, and so an eye for form, to use Frank Cross’s term, is essential). (1) As for the first letter of line two…I understand your desire to retain it as an iota, but it’s just not epigraphically possible…the photos I put up make this clear. The tetragrammaton is simply not in this inscription and that is the one part of this discussion that is crystal clear. (2) And, in addition, it should be clear that your attempting to call the top horizontal of the first letter of line two a serif is terribly problematic…it’s a full blown, deeply incised horizontal, quite different from even the serifs you mentioned in your initial post…again, this fact is very clear in the photos that I put up, circled in red. (3) As for the third letter of line two, again, the photos make it clear that this is a very nice epsilon. I see the vertical stroke and all three horizontals quite nicely and I circled it in the image I posted above…it’s a very fine epsilon. (4) As for the left oblique of the alpha, although abraded, the traces are there as well, visible in a couple of the photos I have. (5) As for me making the point about the differences between the first and third letters of line two…yes, and my point was not that I read an iota for the third letter of line two, but rather, that even the reading you and Tabor were positing was not consistent…based on the line drawing James himself provided. There is a difference between embracing a reading and pointing out the internal problem with the readings someone else is proposing. I was doing the latter. I’ve never thought that this letter was anything but an epsilon. (6) As for line one, letter two, the scratches, abrading make that form difficult. I highlighed the form in my first post, circling it in red. I’m willing to say that this may be an iota, but the traces look mostly like an epsilon to me. Of course, reading an epsilon would erode the cogency of your attempt to read Zeus here. But because there is a fair amount of interference with regard to this letter, I’m not coming down hard on it…nor did I come down hard on this letter even in my initial post…an epsilon or an iota are both plausible, it seems to me, although I see traces that are most consistent with an epsilon. (7) As for purity, impurity, time will tell. (8) You’ll have noticed that I mentioned just recently an alternative rendering that I’ve considered for some time, but did not include in the original post…with a retention of the hupso-o. In any case, I’m glad to see that you’re talking about readings…this is the foundational component of all epigraphic analyses, of course.

    All best wishes,

    Chris Rollston

  19. Chris, if we accept your readings of line 2, but read iota second in line 1, then I could make this sense of it -

    Because of (these) bones, I, Hagab, am not crumbling away (disappearing).

    This actually makes good sense in terms of a Jewish understanding of resurrection, which depended on the bones as the continuity between the body in the present life and the body in resurrection. The rest of the body decays, but the bones survive to be resurrected.

    I find this quite appealing also because it makes a significant enough statement to deserve its position in the exact centre of the decorated side of the ossuary (something which I pointed out in my own post as, to my knowledge, unique among ossuary inscriptions, but which has not been taken up in this discussion).

    If correct, it would be interesting as an ossuary inscription that actually makes a connexion between belief in resurrection and the practice of secondary burial.

    I had (before your post about hupso, which I’ve only just read, been thinking about combining osta with hupso somehow, in terms of lifting up bones. It would be easier if it weren’t negative: ‘I am uplifting (your) bones, Hagab’ - i.e. removing them from open place to another, or transferring them into the ossuary.

  20. I note a typo in that last sentence: ‘one place’ not ‘open place’. I wish my computer did not turn my errors into what it thinks I should have said (I probably typed oen).

  21. Chris,
    Thanks for your kinds words. No I don’t think I have that book. May I ask you for one clarification here. I was not citing that string of epitaphs above, some of which you obviously cite in your article, to point them out to you-since you cite them-but to make the point that in this period and place, i.e., Jersusalem in the Herodian/very late 2nd Temple period, this is what we have and nothing more, and in terms of statements of “belief” or afterlife or resurrection, there are none-unless it might be the difficult Cotton #93 as debated by your esteemed teachers. As you know, Rahmani, Price, and others comment on this, not in terms of abundance but sparsity and the surprising lack of such expressions of consolation or afterlife hope. You quote any number of others from Galilee, post-70 CE period. I am not saying there can be no continuity of culture and practice but is it not the case that no such expressions seem to exist in Jerusalem in the earlier period, however one might explain that lack. Thus I as confused by your reference to “this chronological horizon.”

    Chris, I want to thank you again for your reading. I am neither an epigrapher nor the son thereof but I have had a bit of Greek-you know that Church of Christ Abilene/Pepperdine training well-so I do want to offer you some input when I can have time to digest the case you present here and I look forward to future conversations face to face. I am particularly pleased you have taken AGB as a Greek attempt to represent an Aramaic form (Hagav or Hagbah), as I think that is another feature of this inscription that makes it quite unique for this period, similar to some of the bilingual examples that Boaz Zissu and Karen Stern have published, plus the graffiti at Pompei that seem to be from Jews. I am trying to think but I can’t remember anything like this in Cotton, not an Aramaic name in Greek, that is common, but an attempt to write the Aramaic/Hebrew by using Greek transliteration. Do you know the grave amulet (gold lamella) discovered in Halbturn, Austria: ΣΥΜΑ ΙΣΤΡΑΗΛ ΑΔΩNΕ ΕΛΩΗ ΑΔΩN Α. Fascinating forms here, and it seems the writer is creating not reflecting convention.

  22. Hello, Richard,

    Thanks for the note. Along those lines, I just suggested to some friends, and mention here now, this: “Because of the bones, I, Agabus, lift not (the ossuary), or, of course, “Because of the bones, I lift not (the ossuary), O Agabus.” The ossuary being understood as it was the thing being written upon. And, of course, the concern about moving bones or ossuaries, which are verbalized in some of the inscriptions I mentioned in the initial post. Conversely, as for your suggestion…vyes, I could certainly live with that too. And, please allow me to say, all of this makes me think again (as I thought when I read your first post) that it would have made so much sense to bring you and me together months ago. It could have happened…it should have happend. Fortunately, ASOR’s blog has faciliated the discussion, a symbiotic dialectic, I believe.

    All best wishes,

    Chris Rollston

  23. A footnote for the readership….I want to give a personal word of thanks to Robert Hull, my colleague (who trained under B. Metzger at Princeton) who emphasized to me (first in conversation, and then here on this blog to the readership) that he believed di’ (the short form of dia) was worth considering very seriously. Bob’s comment obviously then became the source of some fertile discussion between Richard and me. And there are now two or three particularly viable renderings of my epigraphic readings on the table (but with an iota in line one, which I am comfortable with, as I have stated previously in response to Bob Hull’s comment). Of course, Richard noted (in a comment here to me) that he had thought that I would go with di’ when he first read about my proposal of “bones” as a rendering. Symbiosis at its best, all the way around.


    Chris Rollston

  24. Chris, I’m still bothered about the third letter of line 2.

    (1) What, as an epigrapher, do you say about what I called the ‘anomalous mark’? It is very black on some photos, very white on others, but quite different from any other mark on the photos. What is it? This seems to me important as to what one makes of that letter.
    (2) OSTA is well attested as a plural form of osteon, at least in literary sources (I note, for example, about a dozen in Josephus). But having to add E to it is awkward. A dialect pronunciation seems a bit desperate. There would be no problem with seeing a misspelling, but wouldn’t a misspelling usually give the right pronunciation? I keep trying to put either E or I with the following O or OU but can’t see any way of doing it. Maybe it’s just a muddle on the writer’s part, but he would appear to have planned the inscription with some care.

  25. Hello, Richard,

    Thanks for the note. I’m needing to finish the review of a ms for a journal editor today…a ms of ca. 100 pages…so I only have a couple minutes now. Basically, as for the third letter of line two…it’s the light angle of the camera that lights up the epsilon nicely (but only in some of the best photos). We’ve photographed a lot of incised inscriptions through the years and when the light angle is off, an entire letter can disappear, or certain strokes or stroke-segments can disappear. That’s what’s happening with regard to that epsilon. Of course, with ink inscriptions there are other problems, but not this problem. But with anything incised, this problem always crops up…so I always end up using multiple photos, light angles, to understand the full morphology of a letter. As for osta with an episolon in reversed position…yes, it’s not perfect…but, as you know, I suggested three possible ways of understanding it…and I think one of these works reasonably well. I suspect it’s just an error on his part, and I’ve toyed with the idea of him adding the e after the a as a correction (as you know, we get corrections sometimes in all texts, and there are some howlers in funerary texts). I must sign off for the day, though, or I’ll be enduring the justified ire of a journal editor whose patience have perhaps worn thin…

    All best wishes, and hurriedly,


  26. All of the photos of the four-line Greek inscription made available to our consultants are now uploaded on the web site, under photos and images. There are 17 total, including four in negative light. These are completely untouched, unedited, just as they came from the camera. If anyone wants to study them closely I suggest you print them out with a laser color printer, do not enlarge or blow up, as this distorts the pixels. In order to see clearly all the letters one must compare several photos as different angles and light show different features. Taking them all together all the letters become clear, including what we take to be a clear zeta/iota as the first letter of line 2 and a clear iota as the third letter, contra Rollston.

  27. Thank you, James, for posting additional photographs. Perhaps we could agree that some inscriptions (or available photographs of them) can sometimes be interpreted in more than one way by reasonable people; in other words, without complete certainty or consensus. (Similarly so with images.) I make this obvious observation because I suggest that from the JD book and from the Preliminary Report readers could get the (mistaken?) impression that the letters of the first three lines of the 4-line inscription were all agreed upon by all scholars consulted. If there was uncertainty about those letters, why then such bold claims (e.g. “The Resurrection Tomb that Reveals the Birth of Christianity”)?

  28. Not everyone who reads this blog will also read Chris Rollston’s blog, and so it might be useful to repeat here the summary I posted on the latter of the arguments that, in my opinion, make the ‘not touching bones’ interpretation of the inscription is very unlikely. (1) From touching bones you get corpse-impurity, which is the most serious sort of corpse impurity (you need the ashes of the red heifer to get rid of it). (2) But, once the bones are in the ossuary, you can’t get corpse impurity from touching the ossuary, because stone does not transmit impurity. (3) So the only touching of bones that could be in question would be before the bones were out in the ossuary, in the act of putting them in, or by subsequently opening the ossuary. (3) The person or persons responsible for the burial (close relatives) would of course get corpse impurity in the natural course of fulfilling a religious duty (burying the dead). They would not try to avoid doing so, and indeed to avoid doing so and to say that would be an insult to the deceased. This is equally true even if the person were a priest. (4) So can we imagine someone else (e.g. the stonemason) who might have touched the bones before they were put in the ossuary but didn’t. Well the transfer of the bones to the ossuary would take place in the tomb, where the body had been decomposing. Anyone in the tomb would likely get corpse impurity anyway, from any corpse or bones not yet put in ossuaries (you didn’t need to touch to get it, and in a cave the impurity bounces around so you really can’t avoid it). Once you’ve got corpse impurity you can’t get it worse. Anyway, why should someone not directly involved in putting the bones in the ossuary make a point of making this rather formal declaration that they have not touched the bones in the ossuary? (5) Does the writer of the inscription means he intends not to touch the bones in future by opening the ossuary. The ossuary only needed to opened to deposit the bones of another person, since ossuaries were sometimes shared. The person doing that would be performing the duty of burying the second person and/or would get corpse impurity anyway, as under (4). (6) Lastly, the ossuary might have been transferred from elsewhere. So perhaps someone who carried it (not the relative responsible for burial) is saying he was very careful not to open or spill the ossuary and thus touch the bones. Would this really be sufficient reason for taking the trouble to write this? I doubt most people would, in such circumstances, make much fuss about this. Everyone gets corpse impurity from time to time, it’s not wrong to do so, and just meant you had to get rid of it. It’s different for a priest, but a priest would just avoid getting involved in such processes unless the deceased were a close relative and he were therefore responsible for the burial (in which he case he certainly would touch the bones). So, try as I might, I cannot envisage a plausible occasion for an inscription on an ossuary declaring that the writer has not or will not touch the bones. And Chris has produced no parallel.

    In response to this comment of mine, Chris then cited Semahot 12:9. I responded:
    Thank you, Chris, for drawing attention to this interesting passage in tractate Semahot. My comments:
    (1) Let us be clear from the start that there is no issue of purity involved here. It was not because bones are a source of impurity that R. Eleazar avoided touching the bones of his father R. Zadok. This would make no sense in the context. As you say, the reference is to a ‘social taboo.’ Compare the following section of the chapter that says that ‘a man may shroud and gird the corpse of a man, but not that of a woman’ and vice versa. This is about modesty: not viewing the naked body of a person of the opposite sex, even when dead. Section 12 says that: ‘A man may enter the bathhouse with everyone except his father, his father-in-law, his stepfather, or his teacher who had taught him wisdom.’ Again, the point is that he should not see them naked. When R. Yohanan b. Nuri says, ‘A person may collect the bones of all dead except those of his father and mother’ (12:6), he must be supposing that this would somehow be improper, just as seeing them naked would be. It seems to me quite likely he is working with a kind of analogy: the body is to the bones as the clothes are to the body. To see the bones exposed is like seeing the body exposed.
    (2) That this taboo was not generally observed seems clear from m. Mo’ed Qat. 1:5: ‘R. Meir said: A man may gather together the bones of his father or his mother, since this is to him an occasion of rejoicing’ (see also the comments on this in the Talmuds). The context is a discussion of what one may do during the days between Passover and Tabernacles. Mourning would be inappropriate, but R. Meir argues that gathering the bones of a parent (for secondary burial in an ossuary) is not an occasion for mourning, but rather for rejoicing, and so it is permitted in this period. R. Yose disagrees, arguing that it is an occasion for mourning, and so not permitted at this time. The discussion PRESUPPOSES that it was normal practice for a son to gather his parents’ bones for ossilegium.
    (3) I think we can take it from Sem. 12 that the practice advocated by the very obscure R. Yohanan b. Nuri was rare. R. Eleazar b. Zadok is cited precisely because he was exceptional in following Yohanan’s opinion. They were 2nd generation Tanna, i.e. early 2nd century CE. So it looks as though the practice of a son avoiding touching the bones of a parent during ossilegium was a novel teaching of an early 2nd century rabbi, who thus extended other modesty taboos connected with burial, and that it didn’t catch on.
    It is not impossible that the person who wrote our inscription had qualms similar to those later voiced by R. Yohanan b. Nuri. This would make sense only if the inscription were to mean that he did not touch the bones. That he did not touch the ossuary (the interpretation you offered in an earlier comment on the ASOR Blog) could not make sense. It would have to be the bones themselves. If the inscription clearly said ‘I do not touch the bones’ then an anticipation of R. Yohanan b. Nuri’s opinion would be worth considering. Since it does not clearly say that, I think this is a remote possibility.

  29. Stephen I think again you maybe did not read my preliminary report where we discuss the various possibilities, include the views of all our consultants, and then I offer my own readings. Obviously there are different views on both the letters and the translation, which is the value of the discussion. We did not have the benefit of Chris’s reading until he posted it here recently but all the other input we received was represented and considered in coming to our own views-and that continues to be the case. I will offer my response to Chris’s reading once he and Bauckham have completed their basic exchange and any one else who wants to jump in-including you. I will also be giving a paper on this at the SBL, so plenty of time to continue to discuss, and I think a special session at the regional ASOR meeting next Spring.

  30. Pingback: Live Blogging Through ‘The Resurrection Tomb’ « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

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

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