Monthly Archives: March 2012

The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B (1981): Summary and Restatement

17 March 2012

There has been some substantial discussion about the four-line inscription, its readings and its renderings. The purpose of this post is to delineate the history of published proposals, summarizing salient points. Most of my posts on this find have been posted on the Official Blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research. For this reason, and because of subsequent discussion, I am now posting this summation here.

On February 28, 2012, James Tabor’s reading and translation of the four-line inscription was released. Namely, he and Simcha Jacobovici read it as follows: “DIOS IAIO UPSŌ AGB.” They translated their readings as “Divine Jehovah Lift up! Lift up!” They believe “Talpiyot Tomb B” to be a Christian tomb (in fact, they state that it is arguably the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea himself, although there is no ancient epigraphic evidence to suggest this) and they suggest that this four-line inscription is to be understood as reflective of an early Christian confession of a belief in the resurrection (and they have also argued that some of the ornamentation on a different ossuary from the same tomb is distinctively Christian, something that has been widely criticized as well). Also rather striking (and quite difficult to sustain), Tabor and Jacobovici have argued that the graphemes AGB (line 4) should be understood as the Greek transliteration of an H-stem verbal root gbh, although they had also mentioned (and dismissed) a suggestion of Richard Bauckham that it be considered a Semitic personal name transliterated into Greek graphemes, namely, “Agabus” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 90-94; Tabor 2012, 18, no 42).

On February 28, 2012, around 1:00 p.m., a statement of mine was posted on the blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research in which I discussed various aspects of Talpiyot Tombs A and B (Rollston 2012a). Among other things, I stated that: “Regarding the reading of line two, I wish to emphasize that I do not consider the reading “Yahweh” (i.e., the Greek form of it) to be convincing at all. Simply put, this reading is wrong. To be sure, the tetragrammaton is attested in ancient Greek (with various spellings) and Iaio can be considered a viable Greek spelling of the tetragrammaton. However, the problem is that the first grapheme of line two is not an iota (and, at the very least, this grapheme would be necessary for reading the tetragrammaton in this line). Of course, Tabor and Jacobovici believe that the first grapheme of this line is an iota, and they are obviously assuming that this grapheme consists of a distinct and deeply incised top horizontal, a bottom horizontal, and a long vertical connector. There is, however, a palaeographic problem with this reading. Here is the reason: for the Greek script(s) of the Late Second Temple period, the morphology of iota is quite consistently a vertical stroke (sometimes with modest curvature), but without distinct top or bottom horizontals. This is the case for Greek texts on soft media (e.g., papyri) and on hard media (e.g., stone). The panoramic Greek script charts of the great Princeton palaeographer Bruce Metzger are reflective of this (e.g., Metzger 1981, 23, figure 2). For further demonstration of this aspect of the morphology of this grapheme, readers might also wish to consult photos of the Greek textual material from this chronological horizon on soft media (e.g., the Greek papyri from the Bar Kokhba Cave of Letters; See Lewis 1989, passim ) and on hard media (e.g., Jerusalem Ossuary inscriptions; see CIIP 1. #64, 65, #98, #134, #189, 199, etc.). I would suggest that the convergence of the cumulative evidence demonstrates in a cogent manner that the first grapheme is simply not an iota. In reality, this grapheme is most readily understood as a tau (i.e., a top horizontal and a vertical) or (alternatively) a zeta. However, it is certainly not an iota. Of course, since there is no iota here, there is no tetragrammaton” (Rollston 2012a).

I did not provide all of my readings at that time, nor did I go into further detail about the palaeography, as my statement on February 28 was certainly not intended to be an editio princeps of that inscription. However, I did state in that initial article that I was “most comfortable with reading the last two graphemes of line one and the first two graphemes of line two as ‘osta,” that is, ‘bones,” a word that certainly does occur in a number of ossuary inscriptions and burial texts. Further, if one were to wish to read hupsō, I would then be inclined to understand this inscription to be stating that the bones of the deceased are not to be removed, that is, ‘lifted up’ from the ossuary” (Rollston 2012a).

On March 8th, 2012, Richard Bauckham (who had been working with James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici) responded with an article on the blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Bauckham stated that he believed “the inscription is actually very clear.” He also went on to indicate that he accepted all of Tabor’s readings (i.e., the Greek graphemes Tabor believes are present), but he translated the inscription as follows: “Belonging to Zeus IAIO. I, Hagab, exalt (him/you).” In addition, he states that “It is the only ossuary inscription to mention God in any way, let alone to use the divine name.” He also states that “as far as I know, our inscription is the only extant example of an identification of Yahweh with Zeus in a Palestinian Jewish context after the Maccabean period” (Bauckham 2012). Bauckham also quoted my statement that the first grapheme of line two is definitely not an iota and then said of himself that although he “is not an epigrapher” (these are his words, not mine), he would “venture to say that he [Rollston] is being far too dogmatic.” He then went on to refer to a few examples of iota and said they had “very distinct top and bottom horizontals.” However, it is significant that he goes on to use the term “serifs” (i.e., “apices”) for these strokes. Indeed, (in the examples he cites from CIIP) they are serifs, that is, lightly incised strokes, not full-blown deeply incised strokes. That is, they are not something that an epigrapher would normally consider to be good parallels for the full blown, deeply incised stroke that is at the top of the grapheme in question (i.e., the first grapheme of line two of the Talpiyot inscription). There was another problem as well, however, and Bauckham sensed it: “It does need to be explained why, in our inscription, only this letter is adorned with apices” (i.e., serifs). He’s certainly correct in deducing a serious problem with his view. Namely, the only grapheme in this four-line inscription from Talpiyot with serifs (i.e., what he understands to be serifs) is his and Tabor’s iota at the beginning of line two! After all, in the Greek epigraphic corpus from this period and horizon, when serifs are present, they are normally present on multiple graphemes (see the images I posted on the ASOR web site, Rollston 2012b). Here is Bauckham’s way of accounting for it: “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 then goes on to state that “It is his equivalent of the various other ways of distinguishing the divine Name when it was written in Hebrew or Greek biblical manuscripts or elsewhere (such as the common practice among Qumran scribes of writing the Name in paleo-Hebrew chaacters” (Bauckham 2012).

On March 15, 2012, in response to a number of requests, I wrote an article with my readings and some proposed translations (Rollston 2012b), as well as a detailed discussion of palaeographic matters Bauckham had posted about, especially the iota (and thus the tetrgrammaton) in line two of the Talpiyot inscription. Here is the essence of my epigraphic reply: “(1) I would note, however, that these inscriptions [the very ones to which Bauckham had referred] have serifs on multiple graphemes and 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: (A) All four graphemes of the tetragrammaton are written in Paleo-Hebrew characters in texts which are written in the square script; (B) Four dots in texts written in the square script; (C) A dicolon (:), followed by a space, placed before the Tetragrammaton (written in the square script); (D) 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).

In addition to discussing these epigraphic factors, I provided all of my readings then (Rollston 2012b, i.e., March 15), using some of the photographs National Geographic provided me with in May 2011 and those published on the web (NB: I had served as the Epigraphic Consultant for National Geographic on this find for several months). Namely, I reiterated my reading of tau for the first grapheme of line two. Here are my words and I would draw the reader’s attention again to the images in my article, which are posted on ASOR’s Official Blog (Rollston 2012b): “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.”

Then I said: “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.”

I should mention in this connection that within that article of March 15, I discussed in some detail the sorts of statements that we find in Jewish burial contexts from the Late Second Temple and Early Post-Biblical chronological period. Of course, suffice it to say that words such as “bones” and “ossuary” are well attested.

I went on to note that in terms of readings, I would posit the following: DE OSTAE OU PSŌ AGB . Understanding the verbal to be psaō, I stated that “I would posit that it is reasonable to render this inscription: “Here are bones. I touch (them) not. Agabus. “ As such “Agabus” could be 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.” That is, purity issues or general taboos about contact with bones could be in play, as Talmudicist Steven Fine has suggested to me privately. I should mention also in this connection (as I did in one of my comments on the ASOR blog for this article, namely, one made March 15, 5:41 p.m.) that it is important to remember that (although some ossuaries were inscribed in the tomb, before or after disarticulated remains were placed in the ossuary) ossuaries could also be inscribed (A) at a workshop at the time of manufacture, (B) or after the time of manufacture but prior to the placement of the ossuary in the tomb, (c) or after the placement in the tomb but prior to the placement of bones in the ossuary. Thus, one could readily envision the inscription being placed on this ossuary (at some point) prior to the deposition of the bones, and this could be the semantic framework for the inscription, that is, prior to the deposition of the bones, the stone mason wrote: “I do not touch the bones.” Obviously, we cannot answer this with certitude, but it is a plausible option as a Sitz im Leben for this inscription. In any case, I also suggested (in Rollston 2012b) that the intransitive meaning is also viable. Thus, something such as “Here are (my) bones. I, Agabus, crumble not away.”

At that time, and now still, I also consider it possible to read the verb upsoō here (as I mentioned also in Rollston 2012a). In this case, it would read something along these lines: “Here are the bones. I lift not (the bones/ossuary), O Agabus,” or “Here are the bones. I, Agabus, lift (the bones/ossuary) not. I should note in this connection that I consider the proposal suggested by Bauckham (but rejected by Tabor), namely, the presence of the personal name “Agabus” (in line four of the Talpiyot inscription) to be satisfying (Tabor 2012, 16, no 42). In any case, the point is that the content of this inscription falls within the traditional sorts of statements that occur in Late Second Temple and Early Post-Biblical tomb contexts….it’s all about bones.

After reading my post, Robert Hull, a colleague of mine, suggested to me that rather than reading a form of ōde at the beginning of this inscription (as I did), he would prefer to read di, that is, a standard shortened form of the preposition dia. I suggested to him that the second grapheme of this inscription was abraded enough that I believed an iota to be a plausible reading for line one, grapheme two, that is, the short form of the preposition was something I considered viable. At my suggestion, he posted his proposal on ASOR’s blog as a comment to my article. Using his understanding of di, the rest of my readings, and one of my proposed possible renderings of the verb psaō, Hull proposed the following: “On account of [the] bones, I, Agabus, do not touch.” At that juncture, Bauckham, using my proposal of an intransitive meaning for psaō and all of my readings (but with Hull’s suggestion of di for dia), suggested (in the comment section of my March 15 ASOR blog post) the following: “Because of (these) bones, I, Hagab, am not crumbling away (disappearing).” He stated further in that comment that “this actuall 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.” Nnote that Bauckham has emphasized multiple times in his comments on Rollston 2012b [that is, on the ASOR blog], that he believes issues of purity and impurity simply do not play a part in this inscription, while I continue to believe that issues of purity-impurity, or general taboos, could be operative, as Talmudic scholar Steven Fine has suggested.

Obviously, I am pleased with, and comfortable with, these suggested translations of my readings and understandings of the inscription. And, of course, I’m certainly comfortable with Hull’s understanding of a short form of di in line one. To be sure, though, I would not be surprised to find entha somewhere on this ossuary (which would then be joined with my initial reading of de at the beginning of line one, thus forming the very commonly attested beginning of funerary inscriptions, namely, enthade “here”). After all, on ossuaries, words, or portions thereof, sometimes begin on one part of an ossuary and then continue on a different part of the ossuary.

In short, in terms of readings for this very brief inscription (just fourteen graphemes!), I continue to contend for the following reading: DE OSTAE OU PSŌ AGB, while also considering viable: DI OSTAE OU PSŌ. In terms of the verb, it could be understood (as I suggested on March 15, Rollston 2012b) as psaō, with either the transitive or intransitive meanings I mentioned then (i.e., “I touch not,” or “I crumble not away”/”I disappear not”). Conversely, because we do see the shortened form of the negative attested epigraphically in Greek (i.e., o for ou; perhaps also compare the phenomenon of crasis in Greek), it is also viable to suggest (as I did in Rollston 2012a, that is, February 28) that the verb preceded by the negative is indeed upsoō (i.e., “lift,” “raise up,” “exalt”), especially since a number of ossuary inscriptions refer to the movement or non-movement of ossuaries or bones (see Rollston 2012b for these references). Of course, in the latter case something such as this is tenable: “Because of the bones, I lift not (the ossuary), O Agabus,” or “Because of the bones, I Agagus, lift not (the ossuary),” with the ossuary being understood, as it is the thing being written upon. Of course, something such as “Here are the bones, I lift not (the ossuary/bones), O Agabus,” or “Here are the bones, I Agabus lift (the ossuary/bones) not” are also plausible. In sum, I consider this inscription to be about bones, and it is also clear that the tetragrammaton is simply not used in this inscription.

Christopher Rollston



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

2010 Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae: volume I, Jerusalem, Part 1, 1-704. H. Cotton, L. Di Segni, W. Eck, B.
Isaac, A. Kushnir-Stein, H. Misgav, J. Price, I. Roll, and A. Yardeni, eds. Berlin: DeGruyter.

Lewis, N.
1989 The Documents from the Bar Kokhba Period in the Cave of Letters: Greek Papyri. Judean
Desert Studies. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Studies.

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

Rollston, C. A.
2012a “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
February 2012.

Rollston, C.A.
2012b “The Four-Line Greek Inscription from a Talpiyot Tomb: Epigraphic Notes and Historical
Discussions.” ASOR Blog March 2012.

Tabor, J. D.
2012 “A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiyot,
Jerusalem.” Bible and Interpretation web site. Posted February 28, 2012.

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


17 March 2012


There is often a great deal of misunderstanding about this subject generally. That is, people who do not work in ancient history or ancient religion often assume that a belief in a resurrection was some sort of distinctively Christian belief. That, however, is a serious misconception. The fact of the matter is that within various segments of Late Second Temple Judaism, as well as within Early Post-Biblical Judaism, the notion of a resurrection was warmly embraced by many. The locus classicus in the Hebrew Bible is arguably the following text from the mid-2nd century BCE: “Many of those sleeping in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting peril” (Dan 12:2; notice here that the correlative of “damnation” or “hell” is also present in some fashion, of course). Within the Old Testament Apocrypha, the notion of a resurrection is embraced at times as well, with the narrative about the martyrdom of “the mother and her seven sons” being a fine exemplar of this. Thus, according to the narrative, one of the sons said during the torture that preceded his death: “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc 7:9). Similarly, the mother herself says within the narrative, as an exhortation to her martyred sons: “the Creator of the world…will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again” (2 Macc 7:23). 2 Maccabees arguably hails from the first half of the 1st century BCE. Regarding the dead, the Wisdom of Solomon also affirms that the dead “seemed to have died,” but “they are at peace,” and “their hope is full of immortality,” and they will ultimately “shine forth” and “will govern nations and ruler over peoples” (Wisdom 3:2-8 passim, with the Greek future tense being used here). The Wisdom of Solomon arguably hails from the second half of the 1st century BCE. Significantly, all of these texts antedate the rise of Christianity and they all affirm a belief in a resurrection. In short, many Jewish people believed in a resurrection long before Christianity came along. To be sure, a belief in a resurrection was not universally accepted by all Jewish people in the Second Temple period. Some Jewish people did not believe in a resurrection. For example, the traditionalist Ben Sira rejected the notion of eternal bliss for the righteous and eternal punishment for the wicked. Thus, he wrote: “Who in the netherworld can glorify the Most High, in place of the living who offer their praise? No more can the dead give praise than those who have never lived; they glorify the Lord who are alive and well” (Sir 17:27-28). In sum, although not all Jewish people of the Late Second Temple period accepted the notion of a resurrection, there are texts from this period that demonstrate that a fair number did.

Furthermore, the Jewish historian Josephus (lived ca. 37-100 CE) also discusses the subject of the perishability and imperishability of the soul, with regard to some of the major strands of Judaism during the first century of the Common Era. Regarding the Pharisees, therefore, he states that they believe “every soul is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.” Conversely, regarding the Sadducees he states that “as for the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards; they will have none of them.” Regarding the Essenes, Josephus states that they believe “the body is corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent, but that the soul is immortal and imperishable…sharing the belief of the sons of Greece, they maintain that for virtuous souls there is reserved an abode beyond the ocean, a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat, but is refreshed by the ever gentle breath of the west wind coming in from ocean, while they relegate base souls to a murky and tempestuous dungeon, big with never-ending punishments” (Josephus, Jewish War, II, 11-14; for more discussion, see Nickelsburg 1972, 164-169). Of course, pericopes within the Greek New Testament regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees dovetail nicely with Josephus. The locus classicus for the New Testament is arguably contained within the book of Acts: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Acts 23:8; cf. also Matt 22:23). Of course, within Early Christianity, the notion of a resurrection (and the presumed correlative, “hell”, is also attested in some form in Daniel 12:2) predominates, as the soil from which Christianity especially hails is that of apocalyptic Late Second Temple Judaism (Ehrman 1999). Pericopes within the Greek New Testament such as “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (Luke 16:19-31) and “The New Heaven and New Earth” (Rev 21) reflect this, of course. Moreover, the belief in a resurrection persists in subsequent chronological horizons of Early Christianity as well (e.g., see Ferguson 1999, 16,23, 26, 65-78).

In short, based on evidence from literary texts associated with Late Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity, scholars of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, the Greek New Testament, and Early Christianity have for a very long time dealt with these ancient assumptions about the afterlife; therefore, the consensus of the field has long been that some Jewish people within the Late Second Temple period embraced a belief in a resurrection and some did not (e.g., DiLella 1966; Collins 1998; Ehrman 1999). Of course, Christianity too (originally a sect of Judaism, with strong apocalyptic tendencies) did embrace a notion of a resurrection, and this is very clear from the documents of the Greek New Testament. But the fact remains that many Jewish people of the late Second Temple Period believed in a resurrection, not just Jewish Christians, and the fact remains that a belief in the resurrection is attested within Judaism prior to the rise of Christianity. This is just a historical fact.

Significantly, for Late Second Temple Judaism and Post-Biblical Judaism, epigraphic evidence also demonstrates that some Jewish people believed in a resurrection and some did not. For example, 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” (CIIP 1. #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” (CIIP 1. #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]). In sum, some epigraphic texts from ancient Judaism presuppose a belief in a resurrection and some do not.

Thus, in the final analysis, the cumulative evidence is decisive: There is nothing distinctively “Christian” about a belief in a resurrection. Rather, some segments of Late Second Temple and Early Post-Biblical Judaism believed in a resurrection and some segments did not. Christianity, as an heir to apocalyptic branches of Judaism, was quite consistent in always affirming a belief in a resurrection, but the fact remains that belief in a resurrection is well attested prior to the rise of Christianity, and this belief also persists in certain segments of Judaism after the rise of Christianity.

Christopher Rollston

2010 Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae: volume I, Jerusalem, Part 1, 1-704. H. Cotton, L. Di Segni, W. Eck, B. Isaac, A. Kushnir-Stein, H. Misgav, J. Price, I. Roll, and A. Yardeni, eds. Berlin: DeGruyter.

Collins, J. J.
1998 The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to Jewish Apocalyptic Literature, 2nd ed.
Biblical Resource Series. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Di Lella, A. A.
1966 “Conservative and Progressive Theology: Sirach and Wisdom.” CBQ 28: 139-154.

Ehrman, Bart
1999 Jesus: Apocalpytic Prophet of the new Millennium. New York: Oxford.

Ferguson, E.
1999 Early Christians Speak: Faith and Life in the First Three Centuries. 3rd edition. Abilene:
Abilene Christian University Press.

Nickelsburg, G. W.E., Jr.
1972 Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism. Harvard
Theological Studies 26. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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.


15 March 2012

Various motivations can be deduced (with some certitude) for the production of forgeries. (1) 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. (2) 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.” (3) Naturally, sometimes a forgery can be a prank. For example, the forger of the Hebron Documents was probably a prankster (or a dolt, or both). (4) 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, often suspending critical mental faculties (and thus assessments of antiquity) because of “sensational” non-provenanced epigraphs. (5) 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). 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 arguably motivated by a combination of such factors, and, of course, with each success, hubris is fostered.

Finally, I should like to note that those who suggest that “knowledgeable people” would not engage in the production or vetting of a forgery are being rather naïve. The fact of the matter is that even gifted scholars have been implicated for the production of forgeries. For example, Metzger has stated that former Princeton classicist Coleman-Norton (Metzger’s Doktorvater) concocted an apocryphal story about finding a manuscript of a Greek translation of the Latin Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum (in the North African town of Fedhala), and then published a detailed article about his sensational “find.” That is, to assume that bright, well-trained people are always characterized by professional ethics is belied by “epigraphic history.”

This post is a selection from my article in Maarav 10 (2003): 135-193…and from pages 191-193 in particular.

The Israeli Forgery Trial: The Verdict is Given

14 March 2012

Epigraphic forgeries have been produced for more than two millennia, and they continue to be produced. Among the most famous from the Middle Ages is the The Donation of Constantine, a document that was hailed as ancient and important…until Lorenza Valla demonstrated (1407-1457 CE) the damning philological and historical evidence against its authenticity. Similarly, an inscription referred to as the “Brazilian Phoenician Inscription” was forged during the late 1800s and purported to be an account of Sidonians landing in Brazil. M. Lidzbarski declared it to be a forgery (in 1898), but Cyrus Gordon revived this inscriptional debate and argued (in 1968) that it was indeed an ancient Phoenician inscription. Galvanized by Gordon’s declarations, Frank Cross demonstrated (in 1968) very nicely that this inscription was forged in the modern period.

Similarly, in 1971 G. Mendenhall argued that some inscriptions from the antiquities market, inscriptions dubbed “The Hebron Philistine Documents” were ancient, and he subsequently stated that progress was being made in decipherment of these ancient documents. Frank Cross, however, stated in an annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature that year that these documents were modern forgeries. But Mendenhall chided Cross (without naming him in print) and stated that those who said these documents were modern forgeries simply “do not want to be confused with new facts” and “have already made up their minds about what the ancient world was supposed to produce.” Mendenhall went on to state that “the only scholars who are convinced of their authenticity are those who have worked seriously with the original documents, including the extremely productive computer analysis.” He also said (in 1970 and 1971) that “it is very difficult to believe that scholars capable of putting such an enormous range of information into these documents would also be capable of such irresponsible misuse of learning.” Because these sorts of statements persisted, Joseph Naveh wrote an article entitled “Some Recently forged Inscriptions” in the Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research (1982) and demonstrated that these Hebron inscriptions were modern forgeries, and of a particuarly poor sort, as they were basically the Siloam Tunnel Inscritpion written backwards!

Mendenhall’s statement suggesting basically that “no one who has such knowledge would ever do something such as this” is oft cited by many people in different contexts (but mostly it is cited by those who wish to state that this or that modern forgery must be ancient because no person capable of producing a forgery would do so). Of course, (sadly) Mendenhall was too sanguine with regard to his assumptions about human nature and human motives. This is demonstrated most convincingly by the fact that Princeton University Professor P. R. Coleman-Norton published an article in Catholic Biblical Quarterly (in 1950) about finding a manuscript which was a Greek translation of the Latin Opus Imperfectum in Matthaeum, a manuscript he said he came across in the North African town of Fedhala. In his autobiography entitled Reminiscences of an Octogenarian Princeton Theological Seminary professor Bruce Metzger demonstrated that this “ancient manuscript” Coleman-Norton had said he found was non-existent, and that the entire thing was a Witz, as even the title of the editio princeps demonstrated (it was entitled “An Amusing Agraphon”). In short, very capable scholars are also capable of producing forgeries, and of this there can be no doubt. Of course, even the best forgeres make mistakes…and trained palaeographers can discern these, and this also has long been the case (although some scholars are more capable than others at this, as history also demonstrates).

Naturally, with regard to some of the inscriptions that were part of this trial, it is important to remember that Joseph Naveh argued in print (in an article in Israel Exploration Journal) that the “Two Moussaieff Ostraca” were probable forgeries (in 1998). After collating most of the provenanced Old Hebrew inscriptions in the late 1990s and then looking carefully at the Moussaieff Ostraca, I began to argue (publicly, beginning in March 1999) that these two Moussaieff Ostraca were definitive modern forgeries. Of course, during the 2001 and 2002 the “Jehosash Inscription” surfaced. Joseph Naveh considered it a modern forgery (he told me this in an e-mail, in response to my e-mail to him in which I mentioned the numerous palaeographic problems I saw in this inscription which were demonstrative of its status as a modern forgery…and Naveh told me he felt the same way). Frank Cross also told me in an e-mail (in response to my e-mail to him, listing the palaeographic problems with the Jehoash Inscription) that he too believed the Jehoash Inscription to be a modern forgery and he too soon wrote an article for Israel Exploration Journal arguing that the Jehoash Inscription was indeed a modern forgery. At the same time, I was in the process of completing a long article on epigraphic forgeries for Maarav (published in 2003…and now available on, which included a long palaeographic discussion of the problems with the Moussaieff Ostraca and so I augmented that article with my observations about the palaeographic problems with the Jehoash Inscription. Frank Cross subsequently told me in an e-mail (which he sent in response to a penultimate draft of my long Maarav article on forgeries, an e-mail I still have) that he had become convinced that these Moussaieff Ostraca were indeed modern forgeries as well (he had previously been quoted in print as saying they were genuine). In fact, Cross went even further and stated in an open letter that he also considered the Ivory Pomegranate to be a modern forgery as well. Yuval Goren of Tel Aviv University became involved during this time as the primary scholar who used hard science analyses on these inscriptions (and many others), and his conclusions were that these inscriptions were indeed modern forgeries. There were dissenting voices, but not many.

Of course, the discussion in Israel soon focused on those that were believed to have forged some of these inscriptions. Based on various lines of evidence, there was a decision to attempt to prosecute those believed to be responsible for at least some of the most recent modern forgeries. For a nice summary of the objects that were part of the trial, discussion of the problems with the antiquities market, and with forgeries in general, readers might wish to consult the articles in Near Eastern Archaeology 68 (2005). As part of that trial, I was brought to Israel to testify a few years ago and did so…beginning one morning at around nine in the morning and finishing shortly before eleven p.m. It was a long, but productive day. I found the prosecutors, Dan Bahat and Adi Damti, to be gifted, devoted prosecutors. Moreover, Judge Aharon Farkash is a very fine judge, learned, wise. The problem is that he did not believe there was enough evidence “to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” Significantly, however, speaking about the Ya’akov Ossuary (“James Ossuary”) in particular, Judge Farkash also stated (quite reasonably) that this “is not to say that the inscription on the ossuary is true and authentic and was written two thousand years ago.” Also, Prosecutor Dan Bahat has stated that the case had been “complicated by the refusal of a key witness, who was suspected of helping to forge many of the items, to come from Egypt to testify.” Bahat also stated that “What we have tried to do here is to set an international precedent.” Further elaborating, he said, “this is the first time someone has brought the issue of antiquiteis forgery before a court.”

At the end of the day, regardless of the guilt or innocent of those individuals charged and tried for forging inscriptions in this case, the fact remains that forgeries have been produced for more than two millennia and I do not forsee this changing. Indeed, it never will…after all, the motives for forgeries are numerous, from venality, to sour grapes, to a Witz, and from antiquity to the modern period even extend to realms of motivation in the realms of the political and religious.. I have an article coming out in a Brown University Symposium volume on the history of forgeries…and I have an academic monograph on this subject that will be sent off to a publisher this coming summer….so the saga continues…

James Tabor’s Iota: A Palaeographic Problem for his Inscriptional Reading

8 March 2012

Tabor's Drawing of Four-Line Inscription

James Tabor has argued that the four-line Greek inscription from the tomb which he and Simcha Jacobovici have dubbed “Talpiyot Tomb B” should be read as follows: (1) DIOS; (2) IAIO; (3) UPSW; (4) AGB. He renders it “Divine Jehovah Lift, Lift Up.” Richard Bauckham (on the ASOR blog) has followed Tabor’s readings (i.e., the Greek letters Tabor believes to be there), although Bauckham prefers to translate it “Belonging to Zeus IAIO. I, Hagab, exalt (him/you).” There is much that I like about Bauckham’s discussion in general, and I am very pleased by his basic conclusions.

Palaeographers, however, would note a rather serious problem for Tabor and Bauckham’s reading of line two…namely, the dramatic difference in the morphology of the iota, as a viewing of Tabor’s own drawings (p. 91, _The Jesus Discovery_) demonstrates. Thus, Tabor and Bauckham read an iota at the beginning of line two, but one with very long horizontal crossbars (a palaeographic problem I shall soon discuss in a long palaeographic and philological post here, replete with all of my readings and a full translation). However, the next grapheme they read as an iota is a straight vertical (with no horizontals). Variation in the same hand on ossuary inscriptions is certainly attested, but this great of morphological variation for this grapheme is not attested in the epigraphic corpus from this region during this chronological horizon. This is, of course, a serious problem for their reading of this ossuary inscription. Suffice it to say that I remain convinced that this inscription does not mention Yahweh, but it does mention “bones” (i.e., Greek “osta“).

Christopher Rollston

Joseph of Arimathea and Talpiyot Tomb B? An Absence of Reasonable Evidence for a Connection

5 March 2012

James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici have posited that Talpiyot Tomb B is a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea (i.e., the “Joseph of Arimathea” mentioned in the canonical gospels), and that this tomb also contains the actual ossuary of Joseph of Arimathea himself. Here are some citations of Tabor and Jacobovici’s views: Talpiyot Tombs A and B “are most likely located on the rural estate of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who according to all four New Testament gospels took official charge of Jesus’ burial” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 2). But he is framed as wealthy and so they believe they have to account for the modest nature of this ossuary, thus, they suggest that there may have been “something about his faith or piety as part of the Jesus movement” that led him to “prefer such a modest bone box” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 89). Then they conclude that “it is not hard or even overly speculative for us to posit that the Talpiyot Tombs are a tiny but amazing glimpse into the life of Joseph of Arimathea” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 128).

The ossuary in Talpiyot Tomb B which they consider to be that of Joseph of Arimathea is one they also refer to as a “humble ossuary” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 89). Along the same lines, they query: “might Joseph of Arimathea have chosen a…modest ossuary for himself and his most immediate family—but one that boldly proclaimed their faith even in the midst of opposition and conflict?” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 90). It should be noted that the reason they refer to this ossuary as “boldly proclaiming their faith” is because the ossuary they believe to be that of “Joseph of Arimathea” is the one with the ornamentation they understand to be “Jonah and the Big Fish.” Of course, most scholars consider this ornamentation to be a nephesh tower or an unguentarium, not “Jonah and the Big Fish.”

In any case, the main point that I would emphasize at this time is this: The known inscriptions in Talpiyot Tomb B are (1) a four line inscription which has no reference to someone named “Joseph,” and certainly no reference to someone named “Joseph of Arimathea,” and (2) an inscription consisting of a single word, namely, “Mara” which they consider to be a reference to a woman, not a man (Tabor and Jacobovici, 127). They suggest that there is “circumstantial evidence,” namely, they suggest that “Arimathea” means “high” and Talpiyot is a “high” place. Of course, I would suggest that just being a “high” place is pretty circumstantial evidence indeed! Moreover, I would note that “Arimathea” is called a polis (Luke 23:51), that is, a “city,” rather than just a “high” place. Thus, I would suggest that most scholars will not consider the evidence to which Tabor and Jacobovici refer to be considered sufficient for their claim.

I would propose that for a historian to make a credible argument that this is the land, tomb, and ossuary of Joseph of Arimathea there must be solid evidence, such as the name “Joseph of Arimathea” inscribed on the ossuary. But, since these words are not there, it is really not convincing to posit that this is the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Tabor and Jacobovici may believe that it is not “hard or overly speculative” to say that this is the land, tomb, and ossuary of Joseph of Arimathea, but I think most epigraphers, prosopographers, and historians would find it to be quite speculative.


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