Monthly Archives: September 2009

The ‘Saul’ Seal

5 September 2009

Concerning the Bone Seal (from Jerusalem) inscribed with the name Shaul. The seal was found in the “Walls around Jerusalem National Park.”

Basic Data:

(1) The seal is written in mirror image (the norm for seals). (2) The script is definitively Old Hebrew. (3) The seal consists of two registers. This is fairly typical for Old Hebrew seals. (4) First inscribed register: The personal name “Shaul” is preceded by the prepositional lamed, as is the norm for seals. (5) The second half of the first inscribed register is broken. (6) The second register is preserved rather nicely, with the first letter of that line being a resh. (7) Arguably, the resh is the final letter of the patronymic (in such a case, letters such as ayin and zayin [yielding azaryahu] or gimel and mem [yielding 'mryahu] could then be restored at the end of the first register). Restorations are precarious things, therefore, I personally would not wish to posit a particular restoration as being probable. (8) The yahu theophoric of this seal’s second register is, of course, reflective of the norm for Judean Old Hebrew personal names (contrast the yaw theophoric for many Northern Israelite personal names attested in the Reisner Samaria Ostraca, for example).


Dating seals is difficult, because the script of seals tends to be more conservative than the script of ostraca. For this reason, the plus or minus for seals must be greater than for ostraca. However, for well-preserved seals, with a constellation of diagnostic letters all pointing toward the same chronological horizon, typological dating can be done with substantial reliability by a trained palaeographer. With such caveats in mind, here are some palaeographic reflections: (1) The lamed is a fine Old Hebrew lamed. The morphology of this lamed is very well-attested in the 8th century Old Hebrew epigraphic corpus (note the nice hook). Obviously, there are some 7th and early 6th century-seals with hooked lameds, so I wouldn’t want to push this feature that hard. (2) The shin is also a fine exemplar and falls nicely into the script typology of the 8th century as well (note especially the high junctions of the internal strokes…this is very important because even in seals the junctions of the internal strokes “drop” through time…note, for example, the lower junctions of the seals from Arad VI-VII). (3) The alep is also vintage 8th century (note the length of the vertical stroke intersecting the horizontal strokes). However, long verticals persist in Old Hebrew seals into the 7th and 6th centuries, therefore, I would not want to push this feature of the script all that hard. (4) the resh fits nicely into the 8th century typology as well (especially because of the relative length of the vertical stroke), but I would not want to put too much emphasis on the morphology and stance of the resh. (5) The yod is very important for the purposes of dating Old Hebrew epigraphs of various sorts (e.g., ostraca, stone inscriptions, seals). Note that the yod of this seal preserves the classical form of the Old Hebrew yod. However, of greatest import is the presence of the tick on the bottom horizontal of the yod. This feature is a rather ephemeral feature of the Old Hebrew script, attested in the Reisner Samaria Ostraca (early 8th century), Royal Steward Stone Inscription (late 8th century), Gibeon Inscribed Jar Handles (late 8th century or very early 7th century…pace Cross, who originally dated them later). I have discussed this diagnostic feature of yod in various publications, some of which have appeared and some of which are forthcoming. (6) The fact that the top horizontal of he does not have even a modest “overlap” might be of some import (as an early feature), but I wouldn’t want to push this feature very hard (as seals from the late 7th and early 6th centuries often don’t have much of an overlap…contrast, of course, the script of Old Hebrew ostraca). (7) The morphology of the waw in this seal is more characteristic of seals of the 8th century, rather than of later periods (e.g., late 7th or early 6th centuries). Therefore, I would be inclined to date this waw to the 8th century, rather than later.

Summary: There are no “late” features of the script of this seal that would suggest a date in the mid to late 7th or early 6th centuries BCE. Rather the palaeographic features of this seal all line up nicely with the Old Hebrew script of the 8th century. Moreover, I would be most inclined to date it earlier in the 8th century, rather than later.

On the Time Magazine Essene Story

5 September 2009

This is a response to this essay in Time Magazine.

Here are some sober reflections on this story.

(1) It is absolutely not the case that Elior’s views have “shaken the bedrock of biblical scholarship.” This (i.e, “shaken the bedrock…”) is, however, a fine illustration of the sorts of lines that are used in the popular media to generate some interest for sensationalistic and tenuous (at best) “scholarship.” Rule #1: Caveat Eruditus.

Further Background:

(2) Normal Golb of the University of Chicago has long claimed the Qumran Scrolls had nothing to do with Khirbet Qumran, but rather, he argues, they just happened to be deposited (prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) in 11 caves that just happened to be near the Khirbet. Although Golb is certainly a serious scholar, for reasons often enumerated, Golb has found few followers. See Vanderkam’s intro (Eerdmans) for discussion.

(3) Lawrence Schiffman has argued that, at least some of the scrolls (e.g., 4QMMT) have “beliefs” that are most readily understood as Sadducean (Zadokite). For brief analysis of Schiffman’s very important contributions to the field, see again Vanderkam’s intro.

(4) My sense is that Elior has, to some degree, misused some of Golb’s and some of Schiffman’s data…and *she* has gone in very different, and very tenuous, directions….even arguing that there never were Essenes and so the scrolls definitely were not produced by them. This is a very problematic position and she will absolutely not find serious scrolls scholars following her in her positions.

(5) Finally, I should state that for the connections between the Essenes and the Scrolls (including various statements within multiple authors from the turn of the era…about everything from geographic location and distribution of Essenes, to the beliefs of the Essenes, ect.), see the still-valuable monograph on the scrolls by Frank Moore Cross.

(6) In short, there is nothing earth shattering about Elior’s views…and there is, alas, nothing of real substance in them. This too will pass (and I believe it will do so very rapidly).

This is my link

Modern Epigraphic Forgeries

5 September 2009

The Crisis of Modern Epigraphic Forgeries and the Antiquities Market: A Palaeographer Reflects on the Problem and Proposes Protocols for the Field [1]

Synopsis of The Problem

The number of Northwest Semitic inscriptions appearing on the antiquities market continues unabated. Some of these epigraphic objects are genuine (i.e., ancient) inscriptions, but have appeared on the market as a result of illicit excavations. [2] Some of these epigraphic objects, however, are modern forgeries.
It should be safe to presume that because of the presence of modern forgeries on the antiquities market, vigilance and caution would be the modus operandi of specialists (and non-specialists) within the field. Sometimes, however, credulousness has actually been regnant of late. This suspension of critical judgment has precipitated at least two crises: (1) The dataset of ancient Northwest Semitic has been corrupted with modern forgeries, and (2) the general public has become suspicious about the capacity of the field to produce and convey reliable information.

The purpose of this article is to discuss various aspects of the forgery crisis, including some of the assumptions that foster it, and to propose various protocols for the field so as to protect the dataset of Northwest Semitic.

The Forger’s Toolbox: Available Resources

The field has sometimes had the a priori assumption that modern forgers cannot produce “good forgeries,” that is, forgeries that “appear ancient.” However, I would argue that forgers have all of the resources necessary to produce superb forgeries that “pass all the tests,” or at least pass them to the satisfaction of many. To elucidate this point, it is useful to list some of the primary and secondary sources that would be most useful for a forger with a knowledge of biblical Hebrew attempting to produce an inscription written in Iron Age Hebrew script and language (i.e., Old Hebrew):

(a) a standard dictionary of biblical Hebrew, Hoftijzer and Jongeling’s Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions, and Davies Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions; [3]

(b) Cross and Freedman’s Early Hebrew Orthography; [4]

(c) Waltke and O’Connor’s Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax; [5]

(d) Birnbaum’s The Hebrew Scripts, Naveh’s Early History of the Alphabet, and Cross’s seminal articles on the Iron Age Hebrew script in BASOR;[6]

(e) Donner and Röllig’s Kanaanïsche und aramïsche Inschriften;[7]

(f) Freedman’s Anchor Bible Dictionary; [8]

(g) Pardee’s Ancient Hebrew Letters;[9]

(h) and Avigad and Sass’s Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals. [10]

Using such sources, a deft modern forger has the essentials regarding script, orthography, vocabulary, syntax, language, and culture to produce a fine Old Hebrew forgery. All of these sources are widely considered standard in the field and are readily available; therefore, knowledge of, and access to, the proper resources is not an issue (and such sources are available for all the Northwest Semitic languages, not just Hebrew). Forgers also now have available software programs (e.g., Adobe Photoshop) that can be used to facilitate accurate “script production.”

Some of the remaining requirements would be adequate time; some knowledge of, or expertise in, chemistry or ancient metallurgy (or an associate with such expertise); access to various materials such as potsherds, ancient metals, stone of Levantine quarry, small pieces of ancient papyrus or vellum, some carbonized remains (for the production of “ancient” ink), and sufficient finances. None of these necessities is problematic.

Because non-provenanced epigraphs often sell for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars, funding is not a major issue; that is, the sale of one forgery could fund the production of several additional forgeries. Moreover, ancient materials of various sorts are readily available to those participating in, or associated with, excavations or those dealing with the market. In addition, the chemical composition of ancient patinas can be replicated. [11]

Specialists and non-specialists in epigraphy and biblical studies must come to terms with the fact that the production of a good forgery in the contemporary period is not facile, but neither is it now as difficult as specialists and non-specialists within the guild would have affirmed in the past. Forgers have all the tools needed to produce a rather impeccable forgery. Fortunately, of course, forgers often make mistakes (and these can be detected), but it is imprudent to assume that this is always the case. The point is that forgers have ample “means.”

Motivations of Forgers

Some have suggested or assumed that the primary motive for forgers is economic, but I am confident that a variety of motivations can with certainty be posited for the production of forgeries. Of course, venality is certainly a component present in the production and sale of forgeries. Non-provenanced inscriptions routinely sell for four, five, and even six figures. Some recent non-provenanced inscriptions have been valued at seven figures.

Some forgeries are arguably the result of sour grapes (e.g., a student purged from a Northwest Semitic epigraphy program) or professional rivalry, with the forger hoping to “dupe” the “offender.” Naturally, a forgery can sometimes be a prank. For example, the forger of the Hebron Documents was probably a prankster or a dolt, or both. Moreover, there is a certain amount of prestige associated with being the person who “collects,” “vets,” or “finds” a significant “ancient epigraph” from the market. Indeed, the public and even scholars within the field can sometimes lionize such people because of “sensational” non-provenanced epigraphs. For this reason, it is my position that forgers may sometimes produce inscriptions so as to be lauded as the one who “found,” “vetted,” or “owns” a sensational epigraph.[12]

Religion and politics are also strong motives for the production of a forgery. For example, there was arguably a strong religious motivation for the production of the Shapira Fragments and the initial aura surrounding them. [13] The fact that the Jehoash Inscription was reported to have been found in the region of the Temple Mount has political and religious overtones. Ultimately, forgers are probably motivated by a combination of such factors, and, of course, with each success, hubris is fostered. The main point is that forgers have substantial “motive.” [14]

Fabrications of Forgers: Selected Modern Forgeries

We should note that forgeries of Northwest Semitic inscriptions have been produced for more than a century. For example, during the late nineteenth century, a Phoenician inscription surfaced purporting to be an account of Sidonians from the region of biblical Ezion-geber, who circled the “land belonging to Ham” (i.e., Africa) during the reign of King Hirom (r. 552-532 B.C.E.), but were blown far off course to a “distant shore.” This inscription was reported to have been found at a place called Pauso Alto near the Paraíba River in Brazil. Although many were jubilant about the inscription’s contents, Lidzbarski declared it a definite forgery, and the inscription was forgotten. [15] Gordon, however, published an article in the late 1960s discussing this inscription, and argued that it was definitely genuine.[16] Cross was not convinced and demonstrated decisively that it was a forgery, based on the fundamental problems with the script, orthography, and lexicon. [17]

During December of 1970, non-provenanced documents reported to have been found in the region of Hebron were announced. Brownlee and Mendenhall considered them ancient, presented them at the 1971 Society of Biblical Literature meeting, and argued that they were “Philistine.”[18] Although Cross declared that the documents were forgeries, noting parallels between the Siloam Tunnel Inscription and the “Hebron Documents,” Mendenhall persisted in affirming the authenticity of the “Hebron Documents.”

During the early 1980s, Naveh did a detailed analysis of one of the “Hebron Documents,” demonstrating at length that it was a modern forgery. In fact, he demonstrated that the forger had in essence simply copied large portions of the Siloam Tunnel Inscription, but had done so (essentially) from left to right, that is “backwards.” [19]

During the late 1990s, Naveh and Eph’al argued that the contents of the non-provenanced “Moussaieff Ostraca” were suspicious, but did not state definitively that they were modern forgeries.[20] I subjected these Moussaieff Ostraca to extensive palaeographic analysis, and the results demonstrated that the script of these ostraca reflected numerous features that deviated in fundamental ways from all provenanced Old Hebrew inscriptions, with some tell-tale features revealing the forger’s mistakes with the script. I concluded that these two ostraca were definitive modern forgeries and the results of my research were presented at annual meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature in 2001 and 2002, with the formal publication appearing in 2003. [21]

During early 2003, the “Jehoash Inscription” surfaced, allegedly having been found in the region of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and purchased on the antiquities market. Although the first line is not extant, it is readily apparent that the inscription purports to have been commissioned by the late ninth century Judean King Jehoash (Joash). Naveh, McCarter, Cross, and I analyzed this inscription independently and concluded that it was a definite modern forgery. Some scholars, however, concluded that it might indeed be authentic. [22]

Cross published a detailed analysis of the Jehoash inscription, noting some of the severe problems with its orthography and contents, and Eph’al wrote a brief but compelling article detailing the striking similarities between the Jehoash Inscription and the material in Kings and Chronicles about the reforms of Jehoash. [23] Moreover, I marshaled palaeographic evidence against it, demonstrating that the script was a “script mélange” with some letters being Phoenician, some Old Hebrew, and some Aramaic. The conclusion was readily apparent: it is a definitive modern forgery.

I also noted that there are some striking parallels between the Moussaieff Ostraca and the Jehoash Inscription:

(1)Moussaieff Ostracon 1 and the Jehoash Inscription both refer to donations to the temple of Yahweh, under the auspices of the monarchy.

(2) Moussaieff Ostracon 1 and the Jehoash Inscription both arguably refer to the same monarch (Jehoash of Judah).

(3) The Moussaieff Ostraca and the Jehoash Inscription both share certain palaeographic “anomalies”: (e.g., with the Old Hebrew letters šin and samek).

(4) Cumulatively, these are striking connections; therefore, in my opinion, there is a distinct possibility that the same forger produced the Moussaieff Ostraca and the Jehoash Inscription.[24] Thus, history demonstrates that forgers have seized the “opportunity” at times. Moreover, there is every reason to assume that this will continue to be the case.[25]

The Epigrapher’s Toolbox I: Knowledge of the Methods and Mistakes of Forgers

Several methodological points regarding forgeries and forgery detection can be articulated at this juncture. Modern forgeries are often reported to have come from specific locations to increase the credibility of the objects’ authenticity (e.g., Hebron Documents, Jehoash Inscription, Brazilian Phoenician Inscription).[26] Therefore, epigraphers must not consider information about purported sites of discovery for non-provenanced inscriptions to be useful, in and of itself, for making determinations regarding authenticity.
For a number of reasons, modern forgers have traditionally relied heavily upon provenanced epigraphic and biblical materials. Sometimes this information is damning (“Hebron Documents”), but sometimes (“Moussaieff Ostraca”) this information is more suggestive or even of no absolutely necessary consequence. Also of significance in this connection is the fact that although forgers have been predisposed intentionally to use attested words and phrases, they are sometimes ignorant of the semantic evolution of these words (Jehoash Inscription).

Forgers often produce inscriptions with sensational contents (e.g., Moussaieff Ostraca, Jehoash Inscription, Ivory Pomegranate), perhaps because these create enormous interest (and irrational exuberance) and yield high selling prices. Forgers are beginning to produce patinas that appear ancient (Jehoash Inscription, Moussaieff Ostraca). This fact, combined with the fact that some lab testing of epigraphic materials has reflected incompetence and collusion, has created problems. The point is that even lab tests must be scrutinized, and protocols for lab testing must be put in place. [27]

Modern forgers often commit serious palaeographic and orthographic errors (e.g., Phoenician Inscription from Brazil, Moussaieff Ostraca, Jehoash Inscription). Palaeographic and orthographic anomalies and anachronisms are of fundamental importance, and in my opinion egregious violations of attested ancient orthography and palaeography provide sufficient basis for complete rejection of a non-provenanced epigraph. Red flags should be noted, and not easily dismissed, even with the”sample size” argument. [28] The end result is that the field of epigraphy should be capable of eradicating many, but not all forgeries from the dataset.

The Epigrapher’s Toolbox II: Protocols for Treatments of Non-Provenanced Inscriptions

Some specialists might suggest that non-provenanced epigraphs should be eliminated in toto from the Northwest Semitic dataset. I would suggest that such materials can sometimes be used, but (1) they must normally be subjected to the most rigorous epigraphic and laboratory analyses in order to determine with substantial reliability that they are ancient, and (2) they should be separated from the provenanced corpus and also flagged as non-provenanced.

Non-Provenanced Epigraphs in Handbooks and Collections: The Principle of Separation

First and foremost, it is readily apparent that those discussing a specific non-provenanced epigraph should articulate the fact that the source of such an epigraph was not a controlled archaeological excavation. In the past, scholars have sometimes been remiss in this regard. [29] This practice is particularly problematic because readers might reasonably conclude that such inscriptions are definitively provenanced and ancient. Ultimately, I would suggest that those discussing an epigraph should clearly refer to the “circumstances of discovery and recent history” in a precise manner so as to avoid causing readers to make erroneous conclusions about the actual or putative origins.

For some time, there has been a tradition of including non-provenanced epigraphs side-by-side with provenanced materials. For example, the fine collection of Northwest Semitic seals, bullae, and jar sealings published by Avigad and Sass contains numerous divisions (e.g., “Hebrew Seals,” “Hebrew Bullae and other Sealings,” “Hebrew Jar-Handle Impressions,” “Phoenician Seals,” “Aramaic Seals,” etc.); however, provenanced and non-provenanced epigraphs are not separated. [30]

Lindenberger’s superb collection of Northwest Semitic epistolary epigraphs also fails to separate provenanced and non-provenanced epigraphs.[31] Not separating provenanced and non-provenanced materials was a convenient, utilitarian practice in the past, but I would posit that combining the data in this fashion is problematic: it implicitly and erroneously suggests to many readers that the data from non-provenanced materials and provenanced materials are on a par. Therefore, I would argue that at this juncture, for methodological reasons, provenanced and non-provenanced epigraphs should be separated, placed in distinct sections of handbooks and collections, and be given descriptive labels such as “Provenanced Epigraphs” and “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs.” In short, the field must become very intentional about presentation in handbooks and collections.

The Principle of “Flagging”

Within certain types of works (e.g., lexica), it may not be practical to present the provenanced and non-provenanced materials separately (i.e., with completely separate entries of some sort for the provenanced and non-provenanced evidence). Therefore, I would suggest that non-provenanced epigraphs cited in the entry be marked or flagged in some fashion so as to signify their status as non-provenanced. This system will allow the reader to understand immediately that this non-provenanced epigraphic data may need to be weighted differently (i.e., it is not necessarily of the most pristine sort).
Several potential methods of marking are possible. For example, the reference could be preceded (or followed) by the mathematical symbol Ø, signifying in this case the absence of provenance. Hence, “ØMoussaieff Ostracon 1″ would convey to the reader that this particular ostracon is non-provenanced, as would something such as “[non-prov]Moussaieff Ostracon 1.” The section on sigla or abbreviations within the volume or article could be used to communicate the author’s system of flagging. [32]

The Principle of Relegation

It is readily apparent that epigraphic materials without secure provenance and without certain antiquity are normally compromised, problematic, and precarious bases for reconstructing the past. Nevertheless, scholars sometimes do continue to base certain conclusions about various aspects of antiquity on non-provenanced materials. For example, Heltzer authored a recent article about property rights of women in ancient Israel, but his article is based predominantly on non-provenanced epigraphic materials, and one of the epigraphs he mines heavily for ancient data is actually a modern forgery. [33] Because the potential for forgery is consistently present, scholars must begin to relegate non-provenanced data to a secondary or tertiary position at the very least and must be disinclined to base conclusions regarding history, religion, language, epigraphy, etc., upon such data. The result will be more accurate constructs of antiquity.

The Principle of Categorization

Although several caveats and provisos must be present, I would suggest that specialists begin to be more intentional about categorizing non-provenanced inscriptions: although it is not pragmatic to ignore non-provenanced inscriptions, neither is it prudent to assume that all non-provenanced inscriptions are of equal status in terms of possible authenticity.

I would propose the following categories of assessment regarding the antiquity or modernity of an inscription:

1. Modern Forgery
2. Probable Modern Forgery
3. Possible Modern Forgery
4. Probable Ancient

Ancient Inscriptions that reflect no real aberrations (in terms of script, orthography, etc.), and for which it is certain that laboratory anomalies are absent, can be considered probable ancient or ancient inscriptions. Inscriptions that reflect serious or egregious problems or deviations from the provenanced corpus are to be considered modern forgeries or probable modern forgeries.

Of course, palaeographers will sometimes differ about the authenticity of an inscription. Regarding this issue, I would note the following: (1) Substantial disagreement of palaeographers in print is not nearly as common as is agreement.

(2) Genuine disagreement in print, when it does occur, can often be attributed to the high quality of a forgery or a genuine inscription with modest aberrations; moreover, it can also be due to the relative competency of a palaeographer with the relevant script series.

(3) Palaeographers are sometimes misled by problematic or erroneous laboratory tests, causing a palaeographer to assume the inscription is genuine and then to account for the anomalies with tenuous or strained arguments.

(4) Sometimes a sensational epigraph will cause such exuberance that critical judgment becomes impaired and declarations of authenticity are made on the basis of tenuous evidence. In any case, the views of specialists should be cited, and an assessment of the possible or probable antiquity should be made. [34]
In sum, modern forgeries have been produced for some time. Forgers have means, motive, and opportunity; however, epigraphers and palaeographers also have a substantial counter-arsenal. At this juncture, methodological doubt and rigorous protocols are desiderata. Caveat Eruditus.


1. This article is a much-condensed version of the following detailed articles: Christopher A. Rollston, “Non- Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests,” Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193; Christopher A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs II: The Status of Non-Provenanced Epigraphs within the Broader Corpus of Northwest Semitic,” Maarav 11 (2004) 57-79. I am grateful to my research assistants, Heather Dana Davis Parker and Alan Dyson, for their conscientious work.

2. Although it is readily apparent that ancient (i.e., “genuine”) non-provenanced inscriptions often contain valuable data, significant amounts of data are eradicated because of the absence of secure contexts (i.e., provenance, stratum, locus, etc.). For example, discussions of the history, administrative apparatus, and personnel at specific sites require precise data about provenance. Moreover, the fields of dialect geography and palaeography also require reliable data about provenance. The point is that it is indubitable that non-provenanced epigraphs are (with rare exceptions) compromised, and of diminished significance. For a lengthy analysis of the limitations of non-provenanced inscriptions and the superiority of provenanced inscriptions, see Christopher A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Inscriptions II.”, (59-70)

3. J. Hoftijzer and K. Jongeling, Dictionary of the North-West Semitic Inscriptions (Leiden: Brill, 1995). G. I. Davies, Ancient Hebrew Inscriptions: Corpus and Concordance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

4. F. M. Cross, Jr., and D. N. Freedman, Early Hebrew Orthography: A Study of the Epigraphic Evidence, AOS 35 (New Haven: AOS, 1952).

5. B. K. Waltke and M. O’ Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990). For epigraphic Hebrew, see especially S. L. Gogel, A Grammar of Epigraphic Hebrew, SBLRBS 23 (Atlanta: Scholars, 1998).

6. S. Birnbaum, The Hebrew Scripts: Vol 1-2 (London: 1954-1971); J. Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography, 2d ed. (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1987); Cross’s articles have been republished by Cross in a volume entitled Leaves From an Epigrapher’s Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy, HSS 51 (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003), 114-128. For the Old Hebrew script, see also Christopher A. Rollston, “The Script of Hebrew Ostraca of the Iron Age: Eighth – Sixth Centuries B.C.E.” (Ph.D. diss., Johns Hopkins University, 1999). This volume will be published in a revised and augmented form as The Art of the Scribe in Israel and Judah: The Script of Ancient Hebrew Ostraca.

7. H. Donner and W. Röllig, Kanaanïsche und aramïsche Inschriften, 5th ed. (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2002).

8. D. N. Freedman, The Anchor Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992).

9. D. Pardee, Handbook of Ancient Hebrew Letters, SBLRBS 15 (Chico: Scholars, 1982).

10. N. Avigad, with revisions by B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1997).

11. This is something that I have argued for some time, but Goren, an archaeologist who uses various geological methods, recently demonstrated this conclusively. See Y. Goren’s, “An Alternative Interpretation of the Stone Tablet with Ancient Hebrew Inscription Attributed to Jehoash King of Judah,”

12. Moses Wilhelm Shapira was of course a Jerusalem antiquities dealer, but he also fancied himself a “scholar” and “archaeologist.” He gained much prominence during the late nineteenth century because of his “finds,” and this resulted in his elevation in various social circles. Naturally, however, with the exposure of the “Moabite Potteries” (often with inscriptions) and the “Shapira Fragments” as forgeries, his status plummeted, and he ultimately committed suicide. It is my opinion that Shapira himself forged the “Shapira Fragments.”

13. On this point, see P. K. McCarter, “Shapira Fragments,” BAR 23 (May/June, 1997): 40.

14. For discussion of, and bibliographic references for, the forgeries referred to in this paragraph, see especially, Christopher A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I,” passim.

15. For an early analysis, see K. Schlottmann, “Die sogenannte Inschrift von Parahyba,” ZDMG 28 (1874): 481-487, with the plate published on page 481 (and reproduced in my article). For Lidabarski’s assessment, see M. Lidzbarski, Handbuch der Nordsemitischen Epigraphik (Weimar: Verlag von Emil Felber, 1898), 132.

16. C. H. Gordon, “The Authenticity of the Phoenician Text from Parahyba,” Orientalia 37 (1968): 75-80.

17. F. M. Cross, “The Phoenician Inscription from Brazil: A Nineteenth-Century Forgery,” Orientalia NS 37 (1968): 437-460. This article was republished in Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook, 238-249.

18. See W. H. Brownlee and G. E. Mendenhall, “An Announcement Published by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and the Archaeologists Dr. William H. Brownlee and Dr. George E. Mendenhall regarding the Decipherment of Carian Leather Manuscripts,” ADAJ 15 (1970): 39-40; G. E. Mendenhall, “The ‘Philistine’ Documents from the Hebron Area: A Supplementary Note,” ADAJ 16 (1971): 99.

19. J. Naveh, “Some Recently Forged Inscriptions,” BASOR 247 (1982): 53-58.

20. I. Eph’al and J. Naveh, “Remarks on the Recently Published Moussaieff Ostraca,” IEJ 48 (1998): 269-273. For the original publication of these ostraca, see P. Bordreuil, F. Israel, and D. Pardee, “Deux Ostraca paléo-hébreux de la collection Sh. Moussaïeff,” Semitica 46 (1996): 49-76; Bordreuil, Israel, and Pardee, “King’s Command and Widow’s Plea: Two New Hebrew Ostraca of the Biblical Period,” NEA 61 (1998): 2-13. Cf. D. Pardee, “Hebrew Letters,” in The Context of Scripture III: Archival Documents from the Biblical World, ed. W. W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr. (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 86.

21. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I,” 158-173.

22. H. Shanks, “King Jehoash Inscription Captivates the Archaeological World,” BARev 29 (March/April 2003): 22-23.

23. F. M. Cross, “Notes on the Forged Plaque Recording Repairs to the Temple,” IEJ 53 (2003): 119-123. I. Eph’al, “The ‘Jehoash Inscription’: A Forgery,” IEJ 53 (2003): 126.

24. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I,” 175-180.

25. It should be noted that at this juncture, the Israeli Special Commission has analyzed various inscriptions, including the Moussaieff Ostraca, the Jehoash Inscription, and the Ivory Pomegranate (inscriptions that I argued some time ago were forgeries) and concluded that they are indeed all modern forgeries.

26. It should also be remembered that the Shapira Scrolls were reported to have been found in the region of the Wadi Arnon in Jordan. For a fine analysis of the Shapira Scrolls, see N. A. Silberman, Digging for God and Country: Exploration, Archaeology, and the Secret Struggle for the Holy Land: 1799-1917 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982), 131-146. See also, F. Reiner, “Tracking the Shapira Case: A Biblical Scandal Revisited,” BAR 23 (May/June 1997): 32-41; 66-67.

27. See Christopher A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I,” 182-191.

28. For discussion of the assessment of anomalies and the sample size argument, see Christopher A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I,” 180-182.

29. For example, in a recent reference work of superb caliber, there is a brief synopsis of the Ivory Pomegranate, reference to the readings, and a “palaeographic” date; however, there is no clear statement about the fact that this epigraph is non-provenanced. Furthermore, the title of the entry clearly suggests that the provenance was Jerusalem. See, namely, K. L. Younger, Jr., “The Jerusalem Pomegranate,” in The Context of Scripture: Volume II, Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, ed. W.W. Hallo and K. L. Younger, Jr., (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 173. Based on various factors, especially palaeographic issues, Frank M. Cross has considered the Ivory Pomegranate to be a probable forgery for some time, as have I. See Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I,” 182, n. 115.

30. N. Avigad and B. Sass, Corpus of West Semitic Stamp Seals (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1997). However, it is imperative to note that the discussion of each epigraph in this volume contains sufficient data to allow the user to determine whether or not the epigraph is provenanced. Furthermore, this volume also contains a list (p. 548) of the provenanced epigraphs published in the corpus as well as a discussion of those epigraphs considered probable forgeries (pp. 453-460).

31. J. M. Lindenberger, Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters, 2nd edition, WAW 14 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003). Note, for example, that the Moussaieff Ostraca are treated together with the Yavneh-Yam Ostracon (pp. 109-112). However, it is again important to state that Lindenberger is careful to affirm that the Moussaieff Ostraca are non-provenanced and that some epigraphers consider them to be modern forgeries.

32. Obviously, for large corpora of non-provenanced materials, it might be more practical just to discuss the issue on an ad hoc basis in the prologue of the volume (e.g., lexicon), rather than appending a siglum to each separate entry throughout the volume.

33. M. Heltzer, “About the Property Rights of Women in Ancient Israel,” in Shlomo: Studies in Epigraphy, Iconography, History and Archaeology in Honor of Shlomo Moussaieff (ed. R. Deutsch; Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2003), 133-138. For his broader discussion of “women” in the epigraphic corpus, see M. Heltzer, “The Women in the Hebrew Epigraphy of Biblical Times,” Revue Internationale des Droits de l’Antiquité 43 (1996): 11-35. Nevertheless, even with this article, many of his conclusions are based on non-provenanced data, placing this material on a par with the provenanced data. The forgery that I refer to above is Moussaieff Ostracon 2. See C. A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I,” 145-146; 158-173 for a discussion of the numerous palaeographic problems and aberrations with this ostracon. See pages 183-184 of my article for a discussion of the serious problems with the laboratory tests performed.

34. It is significant that J. M. Lindenberger is careful to make such a notation. See his Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters, 111-112.

Citation: Christopher A. Rollston, ” The Crisis of Modern Epigraphic Forgeries and the Antiquities Market: A Palaeographer Reflects on the Problem and Proposes Protocols for the Field [1],” SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2005]. Online:

The Jesus Family Tomb

5 September 2009

Prosopography and the Talpiyot Yeshua Family Tomb: Pensées of a Palaeographer

I. Foundational Considerations
The field of prosopography is broad, but it can be described as a field that attempts to reconstruct and describe data revolving around the subjects of genealogy, onomastics, and demographics.[1] Within the field of prosopography of antiquity, there is often a predominant focus on the status, vocations, and consanguinity of elites (because a substantial portion of the epigraphic data derived from elite circles and activities). For certain fields of ancient prosopography (e.g., Northwest Semitic epigraphy), prosopographic analyses will also include attempts to argue for (or against) the identification of a person attested in a literary corpus (e.g., the Hebrew Bible) with someone attested in the epigraphic corpus. Although certitude is the desideratum in the field of prosopography, it is often difficult to achieve, based on extant data.

The most reliable prosopographies are those based on a convergence of epigraphic, archaeological, and (when available) literary data. However, certain minimal controls are mandatory for such analyses to be convincing or even tenable. The patronymic (“son of” of “daughter of”) is a most fundamental component for prosopographic analyses. For the ancients, this was a means of differentiating (to some degree) people with the same name; therefore, patronymics are very common in the epigraphic corpus. For modern prosopographic analyses, such data are critical.

Sometimes there will be a personal name and a patronymic in an epigraphic source, but without further (or more substantive) reference in the epigraphic corpus and also without a potential reference in a literary source. For example, the Aramaic Samaria Papyri refer to a slave named Yehohanan bar She’ilah.[2] Within the corpus of Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions from Masada, there is reference to a certain Shimeon bar Yehosep and a certain Shimeon ben Yo’ezer.[3] A Jerusalem ossuary is inscribed with the following Greek inscription: “Alexas Mara, mother of Judas Simon, her son.”[4] However, because complementary data are not present, nothing more can be said about any of these personal names. This is the case for many of the personal names in the epigraphic corpus.

Nevertheless, sometimes complementary and converging data are present in the epigraphic corpus. For example, during Yohanan Aharoni’s excavations at Arad, several Old Hebrew seals were discovered in Arad VI-VII with the personal name ‘Elyashib and the patronymic ben ‘Ishyahu. A number of Old Hebrew ostraca were also discovered in Arad VI-VII, and some of these ostraca also refer to a certain ‘Elyashib.” Based on the archaeological context of the seals and ostraca, it can be argued with substantial certitude that the ‘Elyashib of the ostraca is the same person as the ‘Elyashib ben ‘Ishyahu of the Old Hebrew seals. Moreover, based on the convergence of the Old Hebrew epigraphic data from the seals and the ostraca, it can be stated that ‘Elyashib ben ‘Ishyahu was a senior military commander at the Arad VI-VII fortress, with a multitude of described responsibilities and activities.[5] This sort of data is the essence of prosopographic analysis.

Sometimes, there is sufficient data to posit that a figure attested in the epigraphic corpus and a figure attested in a literary corpus are probably the same. This can be very useful for prosopographic analysis, although certitude is often evasive. For example, during Yigal Shiloh’s excavations at the City of David, a number of bullae were discovered in stratum X, a stratum that was destroyed by the Babylonians in ca. 587 B.C.E. Bulla 2 reads: “Belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan.” Shiloh posited that the Gemaryahu of this bulla is to be identified with “Gemaryahu son of Shaphan the scribe” who is mentioned in a biblical text (Jer 36:10 et passim), a figure during the reign of Jehoiakim (r. 609-598 B.C.E.).[6] Within the editio princeps of this corpus of bullae, Yair Shoham reiterated Shiloh’s basic affirmation, but also noted a caveat: “It should be borne in mind, however, that the names found on the bullae were popular in ancient times and it is equally possible that there is no connection between the names found on the bullae and the person mentioned in the Bible.”[7]

During the early history of the field, methodological caution such as this was not the norm. However, it soon became evident that there had been some misidentifications. For example, W. F. Albright had argued that the stamped jar handles he found at Tell Beit Mirsim inscribed “Belonging to Eliakim, the steward of Yokan” were to be associated with King Jehoiachin.[8] After all, the title “steward” was one that could be associated with the throne, and “Yokan” was arguably a variant of the throne name Jehoiachin. Ultimately, however, it became apparent that the Eliakim jar handles were to be associated with the late-eighth century or the very early-seventh century; therefore, it was not tenable to argue that these were to be associated with Jehoiachin (r. 598/7 B.C.E.). Albright’s identification seemed rational, but it was wrong.

Sometimes ancient inscriptions will contain a personal name and complementary data. Data such as this would have been useful in antiquity for a number of reasons. For example, use of a title could convey the vocation (and status) of a person. Thus, a seal from Mispah refers to “Ya’azanyahu servant of the king.”[9] A bulla from the City of David contains reference to “[Tobshillem] son of Zakar, the physician.”[10] From the Aramaic Persepolis corpus, there are references to the vocation of treasurer. For example, Text 1 refers to “Data-Mithra the treasurer.”[11] Within the corpus of Ammonite inscriptions, a magnificent seal refers to “Palatiy ben ma’ash, the recorder.”[12]

Sometimes within the epigraphic corpus, there will be a personal name, a patronymic, and a title. Thus, a beautiful ossuary from Mount Scopus is inscribed with the words “Yehosep, son of Hananya, the scribe.”[13] This sort of data can be very useful for a modern scholar attempting to do prosopography.

Although quite rare, there are occasions when someone attested in the epigraphic record can be identified, with enormous (or even complete) certitude, with someone known from literature. Normally, this requires substantial and detailed corroborating evidence. For example, the Moabite Stone contains reference to Mesha King of Moab. Within it, there is reference to the Moabite site of Dhibon and also to the fact that Moab was under the hegemony of Israel during the reign of Omri of Israel. Then, Mesha states that he was able to secure Moab‘s independence during the reign of Omri’s “son.”[14] Because of the correspondences of the personal names, the title king of Moab, and the general chronological harmony, it is convincing to argue that the Mesha of the Moabite Stone is the Mesha named in the Hebrew Bible (e.g., 2 Kgs 3:4-5). Ultimately, it is the convergence of precise, rather unequivocal, data that is required for assumptions about such identifications.

Significantly, during the latter part of his career, Nahman Avigad began to argue for more rigorous methodologies for attempts to affirm that a personal name attested in the epigraphic corpus refers to a figure attested in the Hebrew Bible (during the earlier part of his career, he had made some misidentifications). To be precise, he states that the name and the patronymic must be the same in the epigraphic corpus and the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, he affirms that both must hail from the same chronological horizon (i.e., the archaeological context for the inscription and the putative historical context for the biblical personage must be the same). Finally, he affirms that the presence of a distinctive title in the epigraphic and biblical corpus fortifies the identification. Nevertheless, Avigad was not satisfied even with this, for he also stated that because of the preponderance of certain names, the presence of the same personal name and patronymic cannot be understood as demonstrative of the certainty of an identification.[15]

II. The Talpiyot Tomb
Yosef Gat conducted a salvage excavation at a tomb in the
Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiyot in 1980. The tomb has been described in some detail.[16] Within the tomb complex, ten ossuaries were found. Six of the ossuaries were inscribed.[17] Four of the ossuaries were not inscribed. One of the four ossuaries, plain and without an inscription, was quite damaged.[18] Based on the totality of finds in the tomb, Amos Kloner states that the tomb can be dated “from the end of the first century B.C.E. or the beginning of the first century C.E., until approximately 70 C.E.” Furthermore, he states that it can be estimated that the bones of a total of thirty-five people were recovered from the tomb: seventeen people were found in the ossuaries, and the bones of a total of eighteen people were found outside the ossuaries.[19] The inscriptions are as follows: (1) Mariamenou {e} Mara (Mariamne).[20] (2) Yhwdh br Yshw’ (Yehudah bar Yeshua’). (3) Mtyh (Mattiyah). This can be considered a variant of the name Mttyhw (Matthew). Note also the inscription Mt{y}h that is on the interior of the ossuary. (4) Yshw’ br Yhwsp (Yeshua bar Yosep).[21] (5) Ywsh (Yoseh). (6) Mryh (Maryah).For the purposes of prosopography, it is mandatory to note that the personal names Yosep, Yeshua’, Yehudah, Mattiyah, Maryah, and Miriamne all have multiple attestations in the multilingual corpus of ossuaries.[22] Moreover, for most of these names, Tal Ilan has noted that they are very common.[23] Furthermore, it should also be emphasized that we have a partial dataset. That is, sample size is always an issue for the field of epigraphy, and the ossuary inscriptions are no exception.

Nevertheless, some scholars have argued that the ossuaries and remains of the Talpiyot tomb can be identified with Jesus of Nazareth and his family. To be precise, it has been argued that the ossuary of Yeshua’ bar Yosep is that of Jesus of Nazareth, the ossuary inscribed Maryah is that of the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, the ossuary inscribed Mariamne is that of the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels, the ossuary inscribed Yoseh is that of Jesus’ brother Joseph, that of Yehudah bar Yeshua’ is that of a son born to Jesus and Mary Magdalene, and the ossuary inscribed Mattiyah is also that of a relative of Jesus of Nazareth. It is also affirmed that the persons buried in the ossuary inscribed Yeshua’ bar Yosep and that inscribed Mariamne {e) Mara were married. Finally, it is even argued that the ossuary with the inscription Ya’akov bar Yosep ‘ahui d Yeshua’ (i.e., the “James Ossuary”) was stolen from the Talpiyot tomb decades ago (and those who argue this implicitly assume that the entire inscription is ancient). It should be emphasized, however, that the origin and chain of custody for the Ya’akov Ossuary are not known and that it is not possible to reconstruct it with any certitude (nor is it even possible to establish the authenticity of the entire inscription). Therefore, any attempt to use it as corroborating evidence is most precarious indeed.[24]

Note, however, that for these six inscribed ossuaries from the Talpiyot Tomb, there are just two personal names with patronymics: (1) Yehuda bar Yeshua’ and (2) Yeshua’ bar Yosep. This is a pivotal issue because without patronymics it is not possible for someone in the modern period to ascertain the precise kinship relationships of antiquity. To be sure, such tombs were “family tombs,” but to assume that such a tomb represents some sort of nuclear family and to assume that one can discern the nature of the relationships within that family without empirical evidence is problematic. For example, the assumption of these scholars is that the Yoseh of the Yoseh Ossuary was the son of Yosep. However, there is no patronymic on this inscription and so to assume that Yoseh was the son of Yosep (and thus the brother of Jesus) is problematic. That is, Yoseh could be the son of Mattiyah, or the son of Yehudah, or the son of Yeshua’. Perhaps, he was the father of Maryah, or the father of Miriamne, or Mattiyah. Maybe he is the uncle of one of these. Perhaps, Yoseh was the son or father or brother or uncle of someone who was buried in one of the ossuaries that does not contain an inscription. It is possible to suggest that he was a cousin of someone in the tomb. Not all of these are mutually exclusive, but ultimately, because there is neither patronymic, statement of relationship (e.g., brother), or title, any suggestion about the relationship of Yoseh to those interred here remains conjecture and speculation.

Similarly, for Maryah, the assumption of those propounding that this is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is that this woman is the mother of Yeshua’ bar Yosep. However, it is tenable to suggest that she was the wife of Yehudah, or the wife of Yoseh, or the wife of Mattiyah, or the wife of Yeshua’. She might have been the benevolent and kind aunt of someone buried in the tomb. She might have been the cousin of someone buried in the tomb. Sometimes we have complementary data. For example, an ossuary from the Kidron Valley is inscribed with the words: “Shalom, wife of Yehudah.”[25] However, for Maryah we simply do not have such data; thus, to assume that a modern scholar can discern and make an affirmation about the nature of some relationship is risible.

Of course, it has also been suggested that the Mariamne ossuary inscription is to be identified with the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels. The problem is that Mariamne is hardly a unique name; moreover, the ossuary inscription does not contain the word “Magdalene.” Sometimes, we do have data about the region from which the deceased hailed. For example, an ossuary from the Kidron Valley contains a Greek inscription with the words, “Sara (daughter of) Simon of Ptolemais.”[26] However, the Mariamne ossuary does not contain such a reference (i.e., no “Magdala”). Therefore, for someone to assume that the Mariamne of the ossuary must be the Mary Magdalene of the Gospels is without justification. Again, she could be the wife of Mattiyah, Yoseh, Yehudah, or Yeshua’. She could be the sister of any person in the tomb. She could also be the aunt of any person in the tomb.[27] In fact, she could even be the sister of Yeshua’ (the DNA just ruled out their having the same mother, but it did not rule out their having the same father but different mothers). Again, not all of these are mutually exclusive, but the point is that to assume that one can state the nature of the relationship of the Mariamne of the ossuary to the Yeshua’ Ossuary is not acceptable.

Of course, there has been some appeal to both statistics and patinas. This too is problematic. Regarding the statistics, Andrey Feuerverger has posted an open letter describing his basic premises and assumptions. For example, “we assume that ‘Mariamenou e Mara’ is a singularly highly appropriate appellation for Mary Magdalene.” He then continues and states, “Note that this assumption is contentious and furthermore that this assumption drives the outcome of the computations substantially.” Moreover, Feuerverger also states that “We assume that Yose/Yosa is a highly appropriate appellation for the brother of Jesus who is referred to as Joses in Mark 6:3 of the NT.” He then continues that “It is assumed that Yose/Yosa is not the same person as the father Yosef who is referred to on the ossuary of Yeshua.”

I am confident that statisticians will be critiquing Feuerverger’s data in some detail, but I would simply note that “assuming” things such as the fact that “Mariamenne e Mara” is a highly appropriate appellation for Mary Magdalene is problematic. Similarly, to assume that “Yoseh” is a highly appropriate appellation for the brother of Jesus would also seem to be a problem. That is, I would concur that this could be an acceptable manner for an ossuary inscription to refer to him, but to suggest that it is “highly appropriate” and then factor that into the assessment is most presumptive and methodologically problematic.

Actually, the fact of the matter is that the Yosep of the patronymic and the Yoseh of the ossuary could be the same person. After all, these ossuaries were inscribed at two different times and in neither case is there a patronymic for “Yosep” or “Yoseh.” “Yosep” is the more formal form, and “Yosi” is less formal (and more endearing). Without a patronymic, it is simply not sage to make any assumptions. Note that even Feuerverger concedes that his assumption about the identification of the Mariamne of the ossuary and Mary Magdalene “drives the outcome of the computations substantially.” This is a telling concession. Moreover, with regard to the DNA evidence, it simply cannot carry the freight that has been placed on it. That is, Jacobovici and Pellegrino assume that just because the mitochondrial DNA do not “match,” that Yeshua’ and Mariamne were married. Perhaps, however, they were brother-in-law and sister-in-law, perhaps they were paternal aunt and nephew, perhaps they were paternal cousins, perhaps they were father-in-law and daughter-in-law. Numerous options present themselves. Jacobovici and Pellegrino state that the DNA do not “negate [their] conclusion,” but this is much different from proving their conclusion. Furthermore, with regard to the analyses of the patinas on the Talpiyot ossuaries and those of the “Ya’akov Ossuary,” two things are readily apparent: (a) ossuaries made from the same basic Jerusalem limestone and stored in rock hewn tombs of the same city can have similar patinas, and (b) the control group must be much larger for decisive statements to be made about the differences between the patinas on ossuaries in Jerusalem tombs of the same chronological horizon (e.g., the Talpiyot tomb and the Ya’akov Ossuary).[28] That is, the laboratory tests performed are not sufficient to permit the positing of a complete nexus of relationships in the face of a dearth of the necessary prosopographic data, nor are they sufficient for suggesting that the Ya’akov Ossuary hailed from the Talpiyot tomb.

Thomas Lambdin’s famous dictum is that within the field we often “work with no data.” This is a hyperbole, but the fact remains that we do work with partial data, and sometimes the data we have are just plain opaque. With the Talpiyot tomb, there is a dearth of prosopographic data, and this is a fact. Based on the prosopographic evidence, it is simply not possible to make assumptions about the relationships of those buried therein, and it is certainly not tenable to suggest that the data are sufficient to posit that this is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, it should be stated that at this juncture there is nothing in the statistical or laboratory data that can sufficiently clarify the situation, and I doubt that there ever will be.[29]

Christopher A. Rollston, Emmanuel School of Religion, A Graduate Seminary

[1] Among the seminal studies are those of Lawrence Stone, “Prosopography,” Daedalus 100 (1971): 46-79; Thomas F. Carney, “Prosopography: Payoffs and Pitfalls,”
Phoenix 27 (1973): 156-79. Because of the massive amounts of epigraphic material in Mesopotamian cuneiform, there has been substantial work in the field of prosopography. For example, see Karen Radner, ed., The Prosopography of the Neo-Assyrian Empire: Volume 1, Part 1: A (Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1998); idem, The Prosopography of the Neo-Assyrian Empire: Voume 1, Part 2: B-G (Helsinki: Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project, 1999). See also the many fine contributions of R. Zadok, such as The Pre-Hellenistic Israelite Anthroponymy and Prosopography, OLA 28 (Leuven: Peeters, 1989). [2] Douglas M. Gropp, Wadi Daliyeh II: The Samaria Papyri from Wadi Daliyeh, DJD 28 (Oxford: Clarendon, 2001), 35 (no. 1).Masada I: The Aramaic and Hebrew Ostraca and Jar Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1989), 40.Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994), 258 (no. 868).Israel Museum, and Anson Rainey and Zeev Herzog of Tel Aviv University for allowing me to collate these materials.David,” in Eretz Israel 18 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1985), 73-87 [Hebrew]; idem, “A Group of Hebrew Bullae from the City of David,” IEJ 36 (1986): 16-18.David Excavations: Final Report VI, Qedem 41 (Jerusalem: Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2000), 33. I am grateful to the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israel Museum for allowing me to collate this corpus of bullae.Judah, with some Observations on Ezekiel,” JBL 51 (1932): 77-106.Persepolis, University of Chicago Oriental Institute Publications 91 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 71-74 (no. 1).Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society1987), 235-37 [Hebrew], English summary 79. Recently, Lawrence J. Mykytiuk has produced a thorough volume on the subject of prosopography of Iron Age Northwest Semitic inscriptions. Namely, see his Identifying Biblical Persons in Northwest Semitic Inscriptions of 1200-539 B.C.E.. SBLAB 12 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004).East Talpiyot, Jerusalem,” ‘Atiqot 29 (1996): 15-22.New York: Harper Collins, 2007), passim. For the DNA evidence, see especially 167-174; James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family and the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), especially 4, 25, 56, et passim. Although Tabor’s volume is more erudite and also nuances certain positions differently, it still suffers from the same sorts of erroneous methodologies and assumptions that are part of the volume by Jacobovici and Pellegrino.DNA evidence with me.

[3] Yigael Yadin and Joseph Naveh,

[4] L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of

[5] For the epigraphic materials from Arad, see Yohanan Aharoni, Arad Inscriptions (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1981), numbers 1-18, 24 (ostraca), 105-107 (seals). I am grateful to Director Hava Katz of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Chief Iron Age Curator Michal Dayagi Mendels of the

[6] Yigal Shiloh, “A Group of Hebrew Bullae from the City of

[7] Yair Shoham, “Hebrew Bullae,” in City of

[8] William F. Albright, “The Seal of Eliakim and the Latest Pre-Exilic History of

[9] W.F. Badè, “The Seal of Jaazaniah,” ZAW 51 (1933): 150-56.

[10] Yair Shoham, “Hebrew Bullae,” 35 (no 6).

[11] Raymond A. Bowman, Aramaic Ritual Texts from

[12] M. Abu Taleb, “The Seal of plty bn m’sh the mazkir,” ZDPV 101 (1985): 21-29. Note that some consider this seal to be Moabite. For the purposes of this paper, this is not a relevant point. I am grateful to the Department of Antiquities of Jordan and Director Fawwaz al-Khrayshah for permission to collate this seal.

[13] Rahmani, A Catalogue, 262 (no. 893).

[14] For the text of the Mesha Inscription, see especially Andrew Dearman (ed), Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab (Atlanta: Scholars, 1989).

[15] Nahman Avigad, “On the Identification of Persons Mentioned in Hebrew Epigraphic Sources,” in Eretz-Israel 19 (

[16] Amos Kloner, “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in

[17] Rahmani, A Catalogue, 222-224 (nos. 701-709).

[18] Rahmani, A Catalogue, 222 (comment 1). This plain, broken ossuary does not appear to have been retained, but note that it was plain, not inscribed.

[19] Kloner, “Tomb,” 21, 22.

[20] Note that this inscription is Greek; it is the sole Greek inscription discovered in this tomb. Rahmani suggests that there is a stroke between the two names that should be considered an êta. Based on similar constructions in the corpus, Rahmani also states that he believes the name Mara is a short form of the name Martha and that this is the case of a double name (Rahmani 1994, no. 701). Contra some, I am not at all convinced, on the basis of the epigraphic or literary evidence, that Mara should be understood as “Master” and then posited to be some sort of decisive reference to Mary Magdalene. In fact, I find such arguments to be weak and anachronistic.

[21] Note that Rahmani (1994, no 704) states that the first name is “difficult to read.” However, he believes that his reading of the personal-name Yeshua’ is corroborated by the inscription Yehudah bar Yeshua’.

[22] See the index in Rahmani, Catalogue, 292-297. Also, note especially that Yoseh is attested multiple times (Rahmani, Catalogue, 295), so any suggestion that this is a unique nickname in the gospels (Mark 6:3) is erroneous. [23] See especially, Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity (Mohr Siebeck, 2002), passim. Note that the variant spellings of Mariamne (Rahmani, The Catalogue, 296) are not an orthographic problem from the perspective of epigraphy.

[24] For the espousal of these views, see Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History (

[25] Rahmani, A Catalogue, 81 (no. 24).

[26] Rahmani, A Catalogue, 102 (no. 99).

[27] Note that she could even be the aunt of Yeshua’, on his father’s side.

[28] For a general discussion of some of the problems that have been part of laboratory tests of epigraphic objects, (including the Ya’akov [James] Ossuary) see Christopher A. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests,” Maarav 10 (2003): 182-91.

[29] That is, because of the numbers of burials in the tombs, the practice of interring the skeletal remains of multiple people in a single ossuary, and the possibility of contamination of laboratory data, the notion that decisive data can be produced seems to me to be most difficult. My thanks to Lindsay Hunter and Ryan Jackson for discussion of the

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Citation: Christopher A. Rollston, ” Prosopography and the Talpiyot Yeshua Family Tomb: Pensées of a Palaeographer,” SBL Forum , n.p. [cited March 2007]. Online: