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The Ossuary of Mariam Daughter of Yeshua’ in Context: Limning the Broad Tableau of the Epigraphic and Literary Data

By Christopher A. Rollston

Introduction. The recent publication of the “Mariam Daughter of Yeshua” Ossuary (Zissu and Goren 2011) has justifiably garnered substantial attention. The authors are to be congratulated for producing a very strong, detailed, useful editio princeps of this ossuary and its inscription. The ossuary is without a secure provenance, but I do not doubt that it is authentic. At this juncture, it is my intent to summarize in a fairly methodical fashion some of the ways in which this new ossuary inscription dovetails with, and augments, our knowledge. My comments are particularly philological and historical in nature.


A. JOSEPHUS. At various points, the Jewish Historian Josephus (ca. 37 C.E. – 100 C.E.) discusses the priesthood of the late Second Temple Period, and at a particular point in his historical synopsis:

(1) Josephus notes that a certain: “Iōsēpos ho Kaiafas “ (Joseph Caiaphas, high priest from ca. 18-36 CE) became a high priest during a time of tumult (note, for example, the short duration of various high priests prior to that of Joseph Caiaphas). Here is the full context of the reference: “Valerius Gratus succeeded Annius Rufus as procurator over the Jews. Gratus deposed Ananus [ca. 6-14 C.E.) from his sacred office, and proclaimed Ishmael the son of Phabi as high priest [ca. 15-16 CE]. Not long afterwards, he removed him also and appointed in his place Eleazar [ca. 16-17 CE] the son of the high priest Ananus. A year later he deposed him also and entrusted the office of high priest to Simon the son of Camith [ca. 17-18 CE]. This last-mentioned held this position for not more than a year and was succeeded by Joseph, the one (who was called) Caiaphas (Greek: Iōsēpos ho Kaiafas , that is, personal name, article, then “Caiaphas”) [18-36 CE]. After these acts, Gratus retired to Rome, having stayed eleven years in Judea. It was Pontius Pilate who came as his successor” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities XVIII,33-35).

(2) Later, Josephus states that Vitellius (governor of Syria) traveled to Judea and went to Jerusalem in particular. Among the things that Vitellius did was this: “he removed from his sacred office the high priest Joseph Caiaphas and appointed in his stead Jonathan, the son of Ananus [Greek New Testament: Annas] the high priest. Then he set out on the journey back to Antioch” (Joseph, Jewish Antiquities, XVIII, 95-97).

(3) Significantly, of Ananus [Annas], Josephus states that “the Elder Ananus was extremely fortunate. For he had five sons, all of whom, after he himself had previously enjoyed the office for a very long period, became high priests of God—a thing that had never happened to any other of our high priests” (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XX, 198).

Historical Notes: These citations reveal that Joseph Caiaphas was the name of a high priest, of course (on the presence of “son” on Ossuary 461, see below). Moreover, the names of several of his predecessors are given and among them is Ananus. This figure of Josephus (Ananus) is known in the Greek New Testament as “Annas” (see Luke 3:2; John 18:13, 24; Acts 4:6). In addition, within these texts it is stated that five of his sons functioned as priests and two of them are mentioned in the pericopes cited here, namely, Eleazar (16-17 CE) and Jonathan (36-37 CE). See also below). The remaining sons are: Theophilus (37-41 CE), Matthias (42-43 CE), and Ananus II (62 CE; on Theophilus, see also Rahmani 1994, 259 [no 871], for reference to an ossuary inscription that includes the words “Theophilus the high priest”). The reference to “the Elder Ananus” is a reflection of the fact that the high priest Ananus (high priest from ca. 6-14 CE) had a son named Ananus (as noted above) who also became a high priest, namely, Ananus ben Ananus, that is, Ananus II (62 CE).

B. GREEK NEW TESTAMENT. The Greek New Testament refers on several occasions to Caiaphas (namely, Matt 26:3, 57; Luke 3:2; John 11:49; 18:13, 14, 24, 28; Acts 4:6). Among the most important for this article are these references:

(1) The context of this narrative is the beginning of the prophetic work of the figure known as John the Baptist (i.e., arguably sometime in the mid to late 20s CE). “During the high priest(hood) of Anna and Kaiafa (Caiaphas; some Greek mss of this verse have Kaifa, including Codex C and Codex D) the word of the Lord came upon John the son of Zechariah in the desert” (Luke 3:2).

(2) These texts (below) hail from a judicial context, namely, putative events immediately prior to the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the courtyard of the high priest being called Kaiafa (Caiapha; some Greek mss of this verse have Kaifa; Matt 26:3, similar variant spelling in vs. 57). (3) “But one of them, Kaiafas (Caiaphas; some Greek mss of this verse have Kaifas), being that year the high priest…” (John 11:49 “that year” is arguably a way of referring to the time frame of the trial and not, therefore, some sort of suggestion that he was only the high priest for a year). (4) “And they brought him to Annas first; he was the father-in-law of Kaiafa (Caiaphas; some Greek mss of this verse have Kaifa) who was the high priest that year” (John 18:13).

(5) The setting for this text is judicial as well, but the historical context is after the crucifixion, during the early history of the then fledgling Jewish sect known as Christianity. “And Annas the high priest and Kaiafas (Caiaphas; some Greek mss of this verse have Kaifas) and John and Alexander and as many as were out of the lineage of the high priesthood were standing there…” (Acts 4:6).

Historical Notes. As noted, the Ananas of Josephus is the same as the Annas of the Canonical Gospels. Moreover, the “John” mentioned in Acts 4:6 is arguably the Jonathan [ca. 36-37 CE] mentioned by Josephus as the son of Ananus, and the successor of Caiaphas. Also, it is not impossible that the Alexander mentioned in Acts 4:6 is the figure known in Josephus by the Hebrew name Eleazar son of Ananus[ca. 16-17 CE]. Note that the phenomenon of “double-names” is well attested for Jewish figures of the First and Second Temple Periods, in biblical and epigraphic sources. However, they may indeed be two different people. The fact that Caiaphas is said to be the son-in-law of Annas is a significant historical detail. I consider it reliable. Obviously, therefore, the details about Ananas (Annas) that are known from Josephus and the New Testament converge at a number of levels, and also are complementary in some respects. Note also in this connection the orthographic variation with regard to the spelling of Caiaphas: namely, Kaiapha and Kaipha. Note in this connection the variation in spelling in the epigraphic form of this name, detailed below. On the presence or absence of a final sigma (etc.) on Semitic personal names written in Greek, see the discussion below (IIA, Philological Note #2).


A. THE CAIAPHAS BURIAL CAVE. Twelve ossuaries (or portions thereof) were discovered in 1990 in a tomb in southern Jerusalem (See Greenhut 1992; Reich 1992; Zias 1992; Cotton, et al., 2010, 481-488 [numbers 461-465]. There were a total of four loculi (or kokhim) in this tomb, three along one wall and one along another wall. Six of the ossuaries still contained bones (note: the tomb had been robbed at some point prior to excavation). Two of the ossuaries were still in situ. One of the ossuaries contained a coin from the sixth year of Agrippa I (ca. 42-43 CE). It is the inscribed ossuaries that are of interest for this article (note that the numbers used in this article are those of Cotton, et al. Predominant focus will be numbers 461, 463, and 462, in that order).

Ossuary 461. The ossuary is lavishly decorated, reflecting affluence, and probably opulence. There are two Aramaic inscriptions on this ossuary, inscribed in a very cursive hand. The first inscription is written on two lines and the second on a single line. I shall refer to them as 461-A and 461-B.

461-A: line 1. Yhwsp br (Yehoseph bar = Yehosep son of)

461-A line 2. Qyp’ (Qaiyapha’; note that I consider yod to be the correct reading, not waw).
461-B: Yhwsp br Qp’ (Yehosep bar Qaipha’)

Ossuary 463. There is one inscription. The name is arguably Aramaic (see below), written in a cursive hand.

Qp’ (Qaipha’)

Ossuary 462. There is one inscription, written on two lines. I shall refer to these lines as 462-A and 462-B. The inscription is written in a highly cursive hand. This inscription is arguably Aramaic (see below).

462-A. Mrym brt (Maryam birat = Maryam daughter of)
462-B. Šm‘wn (Shimon).

Philological, Epigraphic, and Historical Notes: (1) Greek Iōsēpos = Hebrew Yhwsp. (2) Moreover, the sigma (e.g., on Iōsēpos) attested on the end of the personal names in the Greek literary material is certainly not a problem, as it is simply the Greek case ending, which is routinely added onto Semitic (etc.) names (in legions of literary and epigraphic texts, not just these), obviously nominatives in particular (also of import: some foreign personal names in Greek are declined fully, some are not. Along those lines, and for illustrative purposes, I would note that the s of the personal name “Jesus” is simply the nominative case ending, and not really part of the name itself, per se…compare the genitive and accusative forms of that name, that is, Iēsou and Iēsoun respectively). (3) Greek kappa is often used to represent Hebrew and Aramaic qop. For example, “korban,” Aramaic Qrbn’, is represented in the Greek New Testament as korbanas (Matt 27:6). Similarly, Simon the Zealot is referred to as Simon the Kananaios (i.e., Simon the Kananean, that is, Simon the Zealot”) a spelling that is representing Aramaic Qn’n (Matt 10:4; cf Luke 6:15), obviously with the Greek kappa representing not the Semitic kap, but rather a Semitic qop. Ultimately, therefore, there is no orthographic problem that would preclude considering Greek Kaiafa to be a Greek transliteration of the Aramaic name Qyp’. (4) Significantly, the orthographic variation reflected in these ossuary inscriptions for the name Caiaphas, namely, Qyp’ and Qp’ (i.e., with or without yod) can be understood to be paralleled fairly nicely by the orthographic variants attested in the Greek New Testament, namely, Greek Kaiafa parallels Aramaic Qyp’ and Greek Kaifa parallels Aramaic Qp’. Obviously, Hebrew and Aramaic of this period do not represent vowels in anything approximating a precise fashion (the use of matres lectionis in this period is certainly helpful, but matres lectionis can hardly be said to clarify vocalization in some sort of definitive manner, but I do not consider the orthographic variant here to be inconsequential). In the case of the spellings Qyp’ and Qp’ (i.e., with or without the yod), I would simply note that one could understand the yod to be a mater lectionis or an actual consonant. Ultimately, this sort of thing could readily account for the two orthographies attested in the Greek New Testament. Also, on an ancillary note, suffice it to say that I believe it to be entirely tenable to contend that Yhwsp br Qyp’ and Yhwsp br Qp’ of Ossuary 461 refer to the same person. (5) Mariam (or Maryam) is the preferred vocalization, *not* Miriam. Basically, the Masoretic Text reflects a (fairly) late phonological shift, namely, as Waltke and O’Connor have noted (Waltke and O’Connor, 1990, 25), “an original short a in word-initial closed syllables” becomes i. Fortunately, the Septuagint preserves the original vocalization, thus, the sister of Moses is Mariam in the Septuagint (e.g., Exod 15:21), not Miriam. The same vocalization (i.e., with the vowel a in the first syllable) is still preserved in Arabic as well. Also, the same phenomenon is operative for the person name Sampson (e.g., Judg 14:1, with MT Šimšōn but LXX Sampsōn), of course. (6) The script of these inscriptions is a highly cursive script. It can be dated to the first century CE. (7) The two iron nails found in this tomb were probably used as instruments used for inscribing letters, although some other mundane function (e.g., scraping something, etc. ) is not impossible. (8) The presence of the words brt (rather than standard Hebrew bt) “daughter” and br (rather than standard Hebrew bn) “son” certainly argue strongly for Aramaic, moreover, I consider the ’alep of Caiaphas, that is, Qyp’ to be the determined form (i.e., with ’alep as the postpositive Aramaic article). Thus, the cumulative evidence reveals that this inscription is to be considered Aramaic, of course.

This ossuary is inscribed in a formal hand, arguably dating to the first century CE. The inscription is Aramaic. It can be read as follows: Mrym brt yšw‘ br Qyp’ khn m m‘zyh mbyt ‘mry

Mariam the daughter of Yeshua son of Qaiyapha, a priest of Ma‘aziah of the House of ‘Imri

(See the very useful note below from Ed Cook regarding the reading of a bet, not dalet before Ma’aziah). (Addendum: 15 July 2011: the editio princeps reads khnmm’zyh…so it turns out that it is not a kap as was initially suggested in press reports, nor is it a bet, but rather a mem. See now the blog post above, entitled “Priests or Priest…”)

Epigraphic, Philological and Historical Notes: (1) This text is, arguably, Aramaic. Note especially the Aramaic brt “daughter” and br “son.” (2) The script of this ossuary is the formal script, deeply and carefully incised. I consider it to be reflective of the first century CE. (3) The presence of the names Yeshua‘ and Mariam are not at all surprising, as they were very common names in this period. Furthermore, it should also be noted that in the Caiaphas Burial Cave the name Mariam is also attested, although because of the patronymic it is clear that they are not the same person. (4) Regarding the vocalization of Mariam (rather than Miriam), see the discussion under note five above. (5) There has been some reference to the possibility that the place name Khirbet Kufin (in the northern Hebron Hills) may be preserved in the name of the “Caiaphas” family (i.e., Kufin = Caiaphas). Although this is not impossible (and I do think that it merits further investigation), I am rather disinclined to think that this is the case. After all, the Arabic place name Kufin is normally said to begin with a kaf, not a qaf. Compare the personal name Caiaphas, which begins with a qop in Aramaic and Hebrew. The distinction between these two consonants is (largely) lost in modern Hebrew, but is very much retained in modern Arabic (basically, k is a velar voiceless stop, while q is a velar voiceless emphatic). Of course, Greek is not a Semitic language and so the fact that it often represents the q as a kappa is not a particularly relevant argument against my statements regarding the q and k in Aramaic (and Hebrew) and Arabic. (6) Having said this, I should note that I do think that the name “Caiaphas” preserves a place name. Rather than Kufin, however, I believe that one can make a tenable case that Qeiyafa (i.e., Khirbet Qeiyafa) is the place name preserved in “Caiaphas.” There are, of course, Second Temple Period occupational remains at Khirbet Qeiyafa. I am not stating this definitively at this time, but do wish to mention it at this time as something that is arguably quite viable. (7) The use of the term “priest” and the reference to the priestly course of Ma‘aziah (cf. Neh 10:9 [English 10:8]) are very interesting (as is also the reference to the house of ‘Imri). The fact that the word priest is used, and the fact that there is reference to a priestly course, undermines even further Horbury’s contention that ossuaries 461 and 463 from the Caiaphas Burial Cave do not refer to the high priest named Caiaphas (Horbury 1994). Pace Horbury, I do not consider Horbury’s evidence (neither his reading of a waw in the epigraphic attestation of the personal name, nor his use of the Rabbinic evidence, etc.) to be sufficient to make his case that the literary sources referring to Joseph Caiaphas and Ossuary 461 with its reference to Yhsp bar Qyp’ (he reads it as Qwp’, renders it “Qopha”) are ultimately referring to different people who simply have similar sounding names. Again, I consider “Caiaphas” (in the literary and epigraphic sources) to preserve a place name and I believe that the Joseph Caiaphas of the literary material and the Joseph bar Caiaphas of the epigraphic corpus to be the same person. (8) Someone might object to the fact that Josephus does not have the word “son.” True enough. However, the fact of the matter is that sometimes the word “son” (bn or br) can be omitted in ancient texts. That is, in certain contexts, the word “son” was not deemed essential. I believe Josephus, therefore, to be reflective of this practice (naturally, I would also suggest that there was an earlier figure known as “Caiaphas,” with the term “Caiaphas” preserving a place name and the term, Joseph Caiaphas, therefore, reflects the fact that he was the son of a man named Caiaphas). Of course, the practice of papponymy is certainly well attested in antiquity and so I cannot rule this phenomenon out as an impossibility in this case. However, the totality of the archaelogical, epigraphy, and literary evidence converges quite nicely and so I am comfortable affirming that Josephus and Ossuary 461 are referring to the same person (also, I think that it is probable, but not absolutely certain, that the Joseph Caiaphas of the Caiaphas Burial Cave and Caiaphas the Priest of the Mariam Ossuary are the same person, although they are at the very least certainly of the same family). (9) In this connection, as an ancillary note, I should like to mention that personal names plus geographic names (i.e., PN + GN) are quite common, including in Greek sources. For New Testament examples, Mary Magdalene (Greek: Mariam hē Magdalēnē [Matt 27:56],that is, personal name, article, geographic name) and Judas Iscariot (Ioudas ho Iskariōtēs) [Matt 10:4], that is, personal name, article, and arguably a geographic name). I am certainly not suggesting that this structure in Greek (or in Hebrew and Aramaic) can only be used of the combination of a personal name plus a geographic name; however, I am suggesting that it is a construction that can be used for the combination of a personal name and geographic name. (10) Some have argued that the Sadducees might have had objections to ossuary burial (and thus did not practice it). I find that to be a problematic position (and the archaeological and epigraphic evidence, combined with the evidence of the first century literary sources, combine to suggest that some Sadducees were comfortable with ossuary burial).

Respectfully submitted,

Dr. Christopher A. Rollston

*I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of Omar al-Ghul and also of Eran Arie with regard to various aspects of this article. Also, a number of my previous articles can be found on www.academia.edu . In addition, I am on facebook: search for Christopher Rollston…I often post articles on fb that revolve around the fields of archaeology, epigraphy, and anthropology in general.

Select Bibliography
Cotton, H., et al (eds). Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010.
Greenhut, Z. “The ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb in North Talpiyot.” ‘Atiqot 21 (1992): 63-71.
Horbury, W. “The ‘Caiaphas’ Ossuaries and Joseph Caiaphas.” PEQ 126 (1994): 32-48.
Rahmani, L. Y. A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries. Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994.
Reich, R. “Ossuary Inscriptions from the ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb.” ‘Atiqot 21 (1992): 72-77.
Waltke, B. K. and O’Connor, M. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns,
Zias, J. “Human Skeletal Remains from the ‘Caiaphas’ Tomb.” ‘Atiqot 21 (1992): 77-80.
Zissu, B. and Goren, Y. IEJ 61 (2011)


6 Comments to “The Ossuary of Mariam Daughter of Yeshua’ in Context: Limning the Broad Tableau of the Epigraphic and Literary Data”

  1. Hi Chris: As I noted on Bob Cargill’s blog, the reading within the ossuary is actually כהן במעזיה, “priest in (the course of) Maaziah.” It would be very unusual (although not impossible) to have an indefinite noun (כהן) in a genitive construction with a definite noun (דמעזיה). More normal for the meaning “a priest of Maaziah” would be למעזיה or במעזיה. The latter is what we have here. Overall an excellent treatment.

  2. Thanks for the note, Ed. I have just now added into the article proper a reference to your reading. I haven’t seen a good photo of the entire inscription yet, but hope to see one (or a selection of photos) soon. Thanks again for the reading and the kind words.

    All best wishes,







  4. Thanks for finally writing about >The Ossuary of Mariam
    Daughter of Yeshua

  5. Hello There. I discovered your weblog using msn.
    That is a really neatly written article. I’ll be sure to bookmark it and return to learn more of your helpful information. Thanks for the post. I’ll definitely return.

  6. Chris,

    Thanks for a great article. I only wish that I could print it from my computer.

    As for your suggestion that Khirbet Qeiyafa might be a geographical connection for the Caiaphas family name there are two things that stand out: 1) another ossuary was discovered near there, near the Valley of Elah, with an inscription that read: ‘Mariam daughter of Shimon, son of Caiaphas’, which would seem to indicate that Caiaphas had two sons, Jesus and Simon and that perhaps Caiaphas had a wife named Mariam, since both granddaughters were named Mariam; 2) the nickname or family name Caiaphas is possibly taken from the place name Qeiyafa since the Valley of Elah was where David killed Goliath with a kepha or stone. Qeiyafa may be in honor of that event, and Joseph Caiaphas may have come from there.

    Is there any way that I can get a printed copy of this article?


    David Mirsch

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