A Response to Chris Rollston’s Reading of the Ossuary from Talpiot Tomb B

By: H. Gregory Snyder, Professor of Religion, Davidson College

Back in October, James Tabor invited me to join in a conversation that was underway between himself, Richard Bauckham, and Jim Charlesworth. Tabor submitted eleven photos of the ossuary bearing the four-line inscription for our inspection, and all of us engaged in a lengthy debate about possible readings.

For the record, Bauckham and I were not given the so-called Jonah image until later, when the people at the Discovery Channel forwarded an advance copy of the film for our scholarly comment. At that time, I expressed the opinion that the figure on that ossuary represents an amphora or a vessel of some kind, however non-standard, and cannot be taken as an image of Jonah, and nothing has occurred to dissuade me from that judgment. I say this to make it clear that in nearly all matters of consequence, I do not share the conclusions presented in the book or the film. But James Tabor has been forthcoming and above-board in all our exchanges, and we have enjoyed a productive conversation.

I regard Chris Rollston’s remarks about the tau/iota as a serious challenge. This is precisely the kind of exchange we need to test our readings.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the pictures one looks at are making all the difference. Some of the lines on the inscription are incised in such a way that they are more or less evident, depending on the angle of view. For example, in this picture, taken from a high angle, the bottom stroke on the “iota” in the first letter in line 2 seems clear.

Click to Enlarge

In spite of Rollstons’ obvious expertise and in spite of his assurances as to what is possible or not possible where letter forms are concerned I cannot help but see a stroke on the bottom of the “tau” (or “iota”) in this picture (this photo and those that follow are from Associate Producers, Ltd.). There are indeed scuff marks of various kinds on the box. It is true that the top bar is incised more deeply than the stroke on the bottom, but it just seems to me there’s a stroke there, not just a scuff. Others may disagree.

The epsilon, proposed by Rollston, is also an interesting case. In this photograph, shot from a high angle, the descending stroke of what I (and Bauckham, and Tabor, and Charlesworth) had taken to be an iota is relatively evident:


Click to Enlarge

I don’t recall Bauckham or myself having considered an epsilon as plausible, given the photos that Tabor forwarded to us. The brown horizontal bar looked to me like a flaw in the stone. There is, I readily admit, sufficient room for the horizontal strokes of an epsilon between the (putative) second iota in the line and the following omicron, but from this angle, they are invisible.

However, based on the photo Rollston has posted a few days ago, entitled “Talpiyot Inscription 1,” which I reproduce here for ease of comparison, an epsilon may in fact be a possibility:

Talpiyot Inscription. Click to Enlarge

Rollston’s proposal leads me to re-examine my photos, and it does now seem to me that in photos shot from a low angle, looking “up” at the inscription, it may be possible to discern a cut in the stone, just underneath the brown discoloration. Here is the picture I have, which seems very close if not identical to the one Rollston produces, with a slightly different color balance.

Click to Enlarge

There may even be faint traces of a center stroke; I cannot, however, see a top horizontal stroke, and so I must demur from Rollston’s opinion that it is a “very clear epsilon.” I submit that while it is not impossible, it is not very clear either, and any reading based on an epsilon must remain tentative.

I do not at this moment have the bibliographical resources at hand to give a full account of an alternative interpretation to the one proposed by Bauckham or by Rollston. I will say only  that whenever variations of the Tetragrammaton are encountered, particularly in conjunction with other “divinity language” such as DIOS, a magical/apotropaic imprecation may well be at issue. I hope to return to this possibility in future posts. For now, I wish to make two main points, with which I conclude

1) Our chances of getting the reading correct increase as we take more photos from different angles into consideration, and

2) Pace Rollston’s position, I would argue that the initial iota in line two, however anomalous in its form, is not ruled out, nor is the “epsilon” in that same line, to be regarded as firmly established.


15 thoughts on “A Response to Chris Rollston’s Reading of the Ossuary from Talpiot Tomb B

  1. Thanks for the post, Gregory. I would simply draw the reader’s attention to all of the photos I published in my previous palaeographic post on this blog site (it’s nice of you to include one of them, but the others help with regard to this issue as well). I should also like to mention that Bauckham also now reads a tau, not an iota, as the first letter of line two.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

  2. So, in terms of substance, though you disagree with Rollston’s reading of a couple of letters, you view Tabor’s take on the inscription, and the issue as a whole, as unsupportable. Correct?

  3. Chris,

    As I wrote you, Greg, Richard and others whom we consulted on this inscription I am putting together the packet of 20 of the best photos we have, all untouched, taken from various angles, with different lighting, so that we can all be on the same page(s) on this. I think you have most of these, as I gave them to NatGeo last May to distribute to you all but just so everyone has the same thing and others can join in we will make these available and also upload them on thejesusdiscovery.org web site. Unless there is agreement on the letters, clearly we are not in much of a position to discuss the translation. Richard has not told us that he now reads a “tau” in his e-mails yesterday between us but only that he is considering it, but we can sort that out when he gets back on-line. I think he told us he is traveling right now. I think as a group we have considered every possible reading, especially lines 1 and 2, but in looking at all the photos I think I can say with some confidence there is no epsilon and the form of the “iota” has a foot that is not a scratch-which might make it a zeta but it is definitely not a tau.

  4. James,

    Thanks for the note. The more photos the merrier, of course, but as I mentioned, the photos I have and posted in my initial palaeographic discussion, make it entirely clear that this is not an iota….it’s a very fine tau, accompanied by some pitting and scratches (of which there are a fair number on this ossuary inscription). But this is the sort of thing that epigraphers see all the time. As for Richard’s acceptance of my reading of a tau, he has actually posted a comment on my web site in which he specifically states that he accepts a tau…so this is my basis for mentioning it here. I am quite sure, as I have mentioned in a forthcoming post, that you will not be willing to concede that this is a tau. That’s fine…I understand such exigencies. But I’m confident that reading a tau is the reading that will stand. As for me, I’m moving along to areas of the epigraphic realia for these tombs which merit some more attention.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

  5. Chris, I have no objection whatsoever to Tau’s on this or any inscription so for you to say you are quite sure I will not “concede” this is troubling to me, as is your reference to “exigencies.” It seems to me your are implying a kind of special pleading or even disingenuousness here. Believe me, I want it to be what it is and I have worked on this for nearly two years now. I think you are mistaken on the photos and we might have to sit down side by side to resolve it but I think with both your tau and even more so with your epsilon proposal, things are not as clear as you imply here. The photos you have posted, which I just looked at again do not at all show what you indicate. The foot on the iota/zeta is clearly not a random scratch. I sent you this morning a representative set of all the photos, and I think you likely have most of them already, but they are pretty consistent and clear on both of these disputed letters. If you view them in negative the forms of the letters are even more obvious, as the lights become darks and superficial scratches are clearly distinguished from the lines of the letters that are engraved.

  6. I wanted to let folks know that we have permission from Discovery, and Associated Producers, who funded the project and own the rights, to release to the public and our colleagues a packet of 17photos of the four-line Greek inscription. These are the same photos that our consultants, Chris Rollston included, have had for quite a few months. It is not really a matter of “the more the merrier,” but rather the basic reality of our exploration and what it produced, namely about 40 still photos total, plus raw footage. Many of these are redundant but the 13 we are releasing, plus 4 with negative light, represent everything available in terms of angles, lighting, contrasts, etc. In order to get the entire picture, with all the 14 characters, the scratches, and so forth, one needs all of them. These photos are untouched, unedited, and not enhanced in any way. I think these will go a long way in terms of putting folks on the same page so far as discerning these letters. Chris has referred to several of these as of high epigraphic quality, so given the challenge of our endeavor we are quite pleased with the results. Our web person is on vacation this week but if he gets near a high speed connection they should be up soon. I will post something on my blog when they are available. I look forward to a good and stimulating discussion from lots of other folks out there, perhaps with experience in reading such inscriptions.

  7. All of the photos of the four-line Greek inscription made available to our consultants are now uploaded on the web site http://thejesusdiscovery.org, 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.

  8. Don’t worry. People often project their own consciences onto others, and that’s how I’d interpret “exigencies”, which have seemed to drive Rollston’s arguments since his original deep enthusiasm for the ludicrous “nefesh tower” theory, about which he wrote with the same stream of demonstratives, certainties and snideness. I’m no expert in the field, but I do like to combat unjustified snideness.

    The problem with his new theory, crowned though it may be by his royal title of EPIGRAPHER, holder of magical knowledge not approachable by mortals, is that it relies almost entirely on the idea that the lower crossmark of the tau/iota/zeta is not deeply incised. And yet, in the photos, none of the letters after the alpha can be seen as deeply incised. They all have the same flat aspect. To rely on this evidence, Rollston would have to treat the entire last two lines of the inscription as mere serifs, just not letters at all. He treats the lower mark on the tau/iota/zeta as a mere burr in the stone a linear patch of contrast that just happens to be the same length as the upper crossmark. This is more likely either a difference in the texture of the stone or an artifact of the lighting.

    And then of course, there’s his special pleading about ostae. Mere scholars must never rely on typos for their readings (Iaio is simply unattested anywhere), but if one is an EPIGRAPHER, then one can point to something as being definitively a word that is doesn’t happen to be spelled like, and thus, the typo is itself used to prove one’s case. (“They happen. I should know. I’m an EPIGRAPHER.”). Further, it’s clear to an EPIGRAPHER that skilled carvers make typos all the time, but they never slightly overcarve a “lightly incised stroke” so that it shows as “deeply incised stroke.”

    In short, Rollston may be correct about the inscription, as may his interlocutors, but for all his epigraphy, he comes off so partisan and so self-certain of things that are demonstrably not certain that it’s tough to know what to make of anything he writes. Is it real, or is it an overstatement of his case?

    I happen to find the fish theory pretty unlikely, and I can’t even fathom what to make of Tabor now calling the main letter in question a “clear iota/zeta”. If it’s not certain which it is, how can it be clear? But Tabor wears uncertainty on his shirt sleeve, while Rollston carries self-satisfied certainty into every argument like a medieval bludgeon. I know who I find more trustworthy.

  9. Ryan, what I mean by a “clear zeta/iota” is that the head and foot seem clear to me, and the bottom line is definitely not a scratch, in all the photos, so it is either a zeta, or, as I have taken it, an iota with serifs, as Bauckham and others have discussed. Are there other possibilities as you view the photos for this letter?

  10. I think this inscription will be engraved on my heart like Calais on Mary Tudor’s, so often have I stared at the photos of it. Looking again at all the photos James Tabor has made available, it is very clear to me that Greg Snyder is right about letter 3 in line 2. There just might be a line under the heavily discoloured mark. There is a sort of blob where the middle horizontal of an epsilon ought to be, but it is clearly not a line. There is absolutely no trace of a top horizontal on any of the photos. This letter has to be an iota. Chris Rollston’s reading of it as an epsilon seems to me now the weakest part of his case. It is a problem also for his interpretation of the inscription, since there shouldn’t be an E between OSTA and OU, and he has to postulate a misspelling. But an iota looks even more problematic after OSTA. Once again I lament that no other epigraphers have joined in this discussion.

  11. One could perhaps understand IOU as ‘Alas!’ and translate:

    On account of (my) bones, alas, I, Hagab, am crumbling away.

    But this doesn’t really make sense!

  12. This is very typical of most constructs about the Gospel narratives. It is made up of “from this we can”, “we can derive”, “it could be shown”, “it is possible”.

    Most of these “archeologists” take a probably mythical/woven set of writings and fit the “possible” definitions of what they find to support that which garners them support.

    It is interesting that most of the time they, neither confirm nor denounce, but simply keep the issue going for their gain.

    It is interesting that there is NO historical record for the jesus, outside of “christian” writings, to confirm his existence. Does no one find it odd that the greatest, most famous Jewish teacher in all of history doesn’t even have an honorable mention by any contemporary historian?

    I am sure that these findings could be derived from dozens of other tombs in the area.

    Just sayin.

  13. All the disagreement about artifact markings, their sounds and meanings, remind me why all Semitic research that does not involve the vast and much-studied Hebrew Bible is a tempest
    in a potsherd.

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>