27 February 2012

This article (below) was first published in the academic journal, Near Eastern Archaeology 69 (2006): 125-129. Here is the URL for that article: Inscribed Ossuaries: Personal Names, Statistics, and Laboratory Tests

This (2006) article is methodological in nature and attempted to put the tomb which Tabor and Jacobovici dubbed (in 2006/07) the “Jesus Family Tomb” in its broader context, hence, I first discussed the nature of prosopographic analysis (i.e., attempts to discern familial relationships between ancient peoples, and then the attempt to connect those with people known from ancient literary sources) and then I turned in earnest to the Talpiyot Tomb.

Beginning of 2006 NEA Article

I. The Study of Names and Identifies: Standard Methods and Models

The term “prosopography” derives from two Greek words: prosôpon “face” and “grafê” “writing.” After being coined, this word could be used (e.g., during the Renaissance) of an attempt to pen a physical description of someone. Within various fields of more recent scholarship, prosopography became a technical term for attempts to reconstruct and describe data revolving around the subjects of genealogy, onomastics, and demographics (Stone 1971; Carney 1973). Within the field of prosopography of antiquity, there is often a predominant focus on the status, vocations, and kinship of elites, because a substantial portion of the epigraphic data derived from elite circles (Radner 1998; Radner 1999). For certain fields of ancient prosopography (e.g., biblical studies), analyses will also include attempts to argue for (or against) the identification of a person attested in a literary corpus with someone attested in the epigraphic corpus (e.g., Avigad 1987; Mykytiuk 2004; cf. Zadok 1989). Although certitude is the desideratum, it is often difficult to achieve. Before turning to the Talpiyot tomb in particular, some discussion of the standard methods would be instructive.

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. Patronymics and matronymics (“son of” or “daughter of”) are a most fundamental component for prosopographic analyses. For the ancients, this was a means of differentiating (to some degree) people with the same name; patronymics are very common in the epigraphic corpus. For example, the Samaria Papyri refer to a slave named “Yehohanan bar She’ilah” (Gropp 2001, 35, no 1). Within the corpus of Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions from Masada, there is reference to “Shimeon bar Yehosep” and “Shimeon ben Yo‘ezer (Yadin and Naveh 1989, 40, nos 463, 466). Matronymics also occur, though. For example, a Jerusalem ossuary is inscribed in Greek “Alexas Mara, mother of Judas Simon, her son” (Rahmani 1994, 258, no 868).” However, because complementary data are not present, nothing more substantive can be said about any of these people and they cannot be identified with anyone in the literary corpus.

Nevertheless, sometimes there are 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. For example, during 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 BCE. Bulla 2 reads: “Belonging to Gemaryahu ben Shaphan.” Shiloh posited that the Gemaryahu of this bulla is to be identified with “the scribe Gemaryahu son of Shaphan” who is mentioned in Jeremiah 36:10 (Shiloh 1986). However, within the editio princeps of this corpus, Shoham reiterated Shiloh’s declaration, but 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 bulla and the person mentioned in the Bible” (Shoham 2000, 33). Similarly, the Babatha Archive (from the chronological horizon preceding the Second Jewish Revolt of 132-135 CE) refers to a certain elite woman named “Julia Crispina” (Lewis 1989, nos. 20, 24). An Egyptian document refers to a propertied woman of the same horizon and Levantine activities (Yadin 1971, 247-248). Ilan has marshaled a substantial amount of evidence and argued that they can probably be identified, but she remains cautious (Ilan 1992, 361-381). During the early history of the field, such methodological caution was not the norm. However, it soon became evident that there had been some misidentifications. For example, 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 (Albright 1932, 77-106). 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 not to be associated with the same chronological horizon as the Judean monarch. Albright’s identification seemed rational, but it had been wrong.

Although quite rare, there are occasions when someone attested in the epigraphic record can be identified, with enormous certitude, with someone known from literature. This requires substantial corroborating evidence. For example, the Moabite Stone was commissioned by “Mesha King of Moab.” In this inscription, there is also reference to the Moabite site of Dhibon and 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” (cf. Dearman 1989). Because of the correspondences of the personal names, the title king of Moab, and the basic harmony of the historical data, it is convincing to argue that the Mesha of the Moabite Stone is the Mesha named in the Hebrew Bible (2 Kgs 3:4-5). Similarly, there are a number of literary sources that refer to the leader of the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE) as a certain Simon “Bar Kokhba” (Dio Cassius; Eusebius). Within Mishnah and Talmud, he is sometimes referred to as “Bar Koziba” (Yadin 1971, 255-259). For some time, scholars have stated that Simon’s patronymic “Bar Kokhba” (“son of the star”) was a messianic appellation rather than an actual patronymic. Of course, the Mishnah and Talmud’s “Bar Koziba” (“son of the lie”) was understood to be a pejorative. With the publication of the Bar Kokhba Letters, the actual patronymic of Simon became known: “Bar Kosiba” (Yadin, et al. 2002). Ultimately, because of the convergence of the name, the chronological horizon, and historical context, it can be stated confidently that the figure of literature and the epigraphic figure can be identified.

Sometimes ancient inscriptions will contain a personal name and a title. Data such as these would have been useful in antiquity for a number of reasons. A bulla from the City of David contains reference to “[Tobšillem] son of Zakar, the physician” (Shoham 2000, 35 [no 6]). From the Aramaic Persepolis corpus, there is reference to “Data-Mithra the treasurer” (Bowman 1970, 71-74 [no. 1]). Within the corpus of Ammonite inscriptions, a magnificent seal refers to “Palatya ben Ma’aš, the recorder (Taleb 1985, 21-29). A beautiful ossuary from Mount Scopus is inscribed with the words “Yehosep, son of Ìananya, the scribe” (Rahmani 1994, 262 [no. 893]). Of course, these sort of data can be very useful for a modern scholar attempting to do prosopography and sometimes such data can be the basis for a probable identification. For example, literary sources referred to “Gallio” as a “Proconsul of Achaia” (e.g., Tacitus; Pliny; Acts 18:12). During the twentieth century, some nine fragments of a Greek inscription from Delphi referring to “Proconsul Gallio” were published. Based on a convergence of data (including the personal name, title), it has been argued convincingly that the Gallio of the literary sources and the Gallio of the Delphic Inscription can be identified (Hemer 1980, 3-18). Similarly, the Mishnah refers to a Temple gate that was known as the “Gate of Nicanor,” with Nicanor as someone hailing from Alexandria. During the early twentieth century, an ossuary was discovered in Jerusalem, inscribed in Greek “the “Ossuary of Nicanor the Alexandrian, who made the doors” and then in Semitic script: “Nikanor Alexa” (Finegan 1992, 357-359; cf. Kane 1978 279-282). It is cogent to argue that this ossuary is the ossuary of the maker of the “Gate of Nicanor” mentioned in the Mishnah (Ilan 1992, 367). Of course, sometimes even with a title, the most that can be affirmed is that an identification is probable, not certain. For example, an Iron Age Old Hebrew seal from Mispah refers to “Ya’azanyahu servant of the king” and the book of Jeremiah refers to a prominent figure in the court of the Judean King Zedekiah named “Ya’azanyahu son of the Maacathite” (Badè 1933, 150-156; cf. 2 Kgs 25:23; Jer 40:8 and orthography). Although this identification is reasonable, it is not certain.

Significantly, Avigad argued for more rigorous methodologies for attempts to affirm that a personal name attested in the epigraphic corpus and a figure attested in the Hebrew Bible can be identified. Namely, 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 fortify 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 (Avigad 1987, 235-237).

II. The Talpiyot Tomb.

Yosef Gat conducted a salvage excavation at a tomb in the Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiyot, Jerusalem in 1980. The tomb has been described in some detail (Kloner 1996, 15-22). Within the tomb complex, ten ossuaries were found. Six of the ossuaries were inscribed (Rahmani 1994, 222-224 [nos 701-709]). Four of the ossuaries were not. One of the four ossuaries, plain and without an inscription, was quite damaged (Rahmani 1994, 222 [comment 1]; cf. 94 [no 70]). Based on the totality of finds in the tomb, Kloner states that the tomb can be dated to the late Second Temple period. Furthermore, he estimated that the bones of around thirty-five people were interred there (Kloner 1996, 21-22). Rahmani read the personal names on the ossuaries as follows: (1) Mariamênou {ê} Mara (Mariamne who is also called Mara). (2) Yhwdh br Yšw‘ (Yehudah bar Yeshua‘). (3) Mtyh (Mattiyah). (4) Yšw‘ br Yhwsp (Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep). (5) Ywsh (Yoseh). (6) Mryh (Maryah). Pfann (2007) has now argued that the reading Mariamênou {ê} Mara is erroneous and has proposed Mariame kai Mara (i.e., Miriam and Mara).

The names Yehosep, Yoseh, Yeshua‘, Yehudah, Mattiyah, Maryah, Miriam(n)e, Miryam, and Martha (or the variants thereof) all have multiple attestations in the multilingual corpus of ossuaries and some are very common (Rahmani 1994, 292-297; Ilan 2002). Note that Sukenik even published an ossuary inscribed “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”) and that the names Yeshua‘ and Yehosep are predominant in the family of Babatha’s first husband was named Yeshua’ and her first husband’s father was named “Yeshua’ son of Yehosep” (i..e., “Jesus son of Joseph”; Sukenik 1931; Lewis 1989, 35-40; cf. Yadin 1971, 233-234; Kraeling 1946, 18-19). That is, even with the small corpus of epigraphic attestations of personal names, the Talpiyot tomb occurrence of “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” is not unique.

Nevertheless, Pellegrino, Jacobovici, and Tabor have argued that the ossuaries of the Talpiyot tomb can be identified with Jesus of Nazareth and his family (Jacobovici and Pellegrino 2007; cf. Tabor 2006 and Tabor’s Jesus Dynasty Blog). To be precise, it has been argued that it is convincing to affirm that the ossuary of Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep is that of Jesus of Nazareth, the ossuary inscribed “Maryah” is that of the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, the ossuary inscribed “Mariam(n)e” is that of 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 Yehosep” and that inscribed “Mariam(n)e {ê) Mara” were married. Finally, it has even been argued that the ossuary with the inscription “Ya‘akov bar Yehosep ’ahui d Yeshua” (i.e., the “James Ossuary”) was stolen from the Talpiyot tomb decades ago (and it is assumed that the entire inscription is ancient).

However, the problems with this proposal are legion. Note 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 Yehosep.” Moreover, there are no matronymics. There are no references to marital status. There are no references to fraternal or sororal relationships. These are pivotal issues, because without such data it is not possible for someone in the modern period to ascertain the precise kinship relationships of antiquity. Such tombs were “family tombs,” but to assume that a tomb represents some sort of nuclear family and to assume that one can discern without empirical evidence the nature of the relationships within that family is problematic.

For example, regarding the Maryah Ossuary, there is no empirical reason to assume that she is the mother of Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep. She might have been the wife of Yehudah, or the wife of Yoseh, or the wife of Mattiyah, or the wife of Yeshua‘. Sometimes we have complementary information that makes an affirmation about marital status. For example, an ossuary from the Kidron Valley is inscribed with the words: “Shalom, wife of Yehudah” (Rahmani 1994, 81 [no. 24]). An ossuary from Jerusalem’s French Hill reads in both Semitic and Greek: “Miryam, wife of Mattiyah” (Rahmani, 1994, 197 [no. 559]). However, on the Maryah Ossuary, there is no reference to marital status. Maryah might even have been the daughter of one of the men in the tomb. Sometimes such data are present. For example, an ossuary from Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus is inscribed “Judith, daughter of Nadav” (Rahmani 1994, 201 [no. 572]). An ossuary from Ramat Eshkol, Jerusalem reads: “Ossuary of Shalom, daughter of Sha’ul, who failed to give birth. Peace, daughter!” (Rahmani 1994, 132 [226]). However, for the Maryah Ossuary, no such data are present; therefore, to assume that a modern scholar can discern and make an affirmation about the nature of some relationship is risible.

Similarly, the assumption that the Yoseh of the Yoseh Ossuary was brother of Yeshua‘ is problematic: the Yoseh Ossuary has no fratronymic. Sometimes ossuaries do rarely mention the name of a brother of the deceased. For example, an ossuary from Mount Scopus is inscribed “Shimi, son of ‘Asiya, brother of Ìanin” (Rahmani 1994, 200 [570]). However, there is neither fratronymic nor patronynmic on this ossuary; thus, it is not possible to make affirmations about paternity or fraternity. Ultimately, 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 Miram(n)e, or Mattiyah. Maybe he is the uncle of one of these (after all, because, there is rarely a reference to fraternal relationships, the potential is present for an “uncle” to be buried in a tomb). Perhaps Yoseh was the son or father or brother or uncle of someone who was buried in one of the uninscribed ossuaries. It is possible to suggest that he was a cousin of someone in the tomb. Furthermore, the Yehosep 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 “Yehosep” or “Yoseh.” Sometimes the same ossuary will have the long form and the short form of a name. For example, an ossuary from the western slope of Mount Scopus has “Asous” and “Asoubos,” the long form and the short form of the same name, arguably for the same person (Rahmani 1994, 164, [no. 383]). The possibilities detailed here are not all mutually exclusive, but ultimately, because there is neither patronymic, nor statement of fraternity, or title, any suggestion about the relationship of Yoseh to those interred there remains conjecture and speculation.

Of course, it has also been suggested that the Mariam(n)e ossuary inscription is to be identified with the Mary Magdalene of the gospels. The problem is that Mariam(n)e is hardly a unique name and, 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” (Rahmani 1994, 102 [no. 99]). However, the Mariam(n)e ossuary does not contain such a reference (i.e., no “Magdala”). Therefore, for someone to assume that the Mariam(n)e of the ossuary must be the Mary Magdalene of the gospels is without justification (cf. Fitzmyer 2007). She could be the wife of Mattiyah, Yoseh, Yehudah, or Yeshua‘ or she could be the sister of any person in the tomb (even of someone interred in an uninscribed ossuary). Again, not all of these are mutually exclusive, but the point is that to assume that one can state confidently the nature of the relationship of the Mariam(n)e of this ossuary to the Yeshua‘ of the Yeshua‘ Ossuary is rather naïve.

There have been some attempts to appeal to DNA evidence, but the fact of the matter is that the DNA evidence simply cannot carry the freight that has been placed on it. That is, Jacobovici and Pellegrino have stated that the laboratory was able to recover sufficient bone material from the Yeshua‘ Ossuary and the Miriam(n)e Ossuary for mitochondrial DNA analysis (but not enough for nuclear DNA analysis). Because the mitochondrial DNA did not “match,” they have assumed that Yeshua‘ and Mariam(n)e were married. Nevertheless, a number of potential relationships can be posited that would account for the DNA evidence. For example, perhaps, they were father-in-law and daughter-in-law, or perhaps they were brother-in-law and sister-in-law. In fact, they could have been brother and sister (with different mothers, but the same father). Of course, it could even be that Mariam(n)e and Yeshua‘ were paternal aunt and nephew. Numerous options present themselves. Jacobovici and Pellegrino state that the DNA do not “negate” [their] conclusion” (Jacobovici and Pellegrino 2007, 173), but this is much different from proving their conclusion. Of course, there is also no means of determining with certainty that the bones analyzed are those of the person whose name is inscribed on the ossuary!

Furthermore, with regard to the analyses of the patinas on the Talpiyot ossuaries and those of the Ya‘akov Ossuary, certain things should be stated. (1) The origin and chain of custody for the Ya‘akov Ossuary are not known and it is not possible to reconstruct it with any certitude (nor is it even possible to establish the authenticity of the entire inscription). (2) Several laboratories (including the GSI) have actually authenticated modern forgeries during recent years; therefore, the field of epigraphy should be very cautious about credulously accepting a laboratory analysis. There is, after all, a human component to laboratory tests as well. (3) There has been no indication that the laboratory tests were double-blind (a standard practice within the hard sciences). (4) Furthermore, I would suggest that (a) ossuaries made from the same basic Jerusalem limestone and stored in rock hewn tombs of the same city can have similar patinas and that (b) the control group must be very large for decisive statements to be made about the differences between the patinas on ossuaries in Jerusalem tombs of the same chronological horizon. Therefore, any attempt to use these patina analyses as corroborating evidence is most precarious indeed. Ultimately, it is readily apparent that the DNA 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 the patina tests sufficient for demonstrating that the Ya‘akov Ossuary hailed from the Talpiyot tomb.

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.” However, he concedes that “this assumption is contentious and furthermore that this assumption drives the outcome of the computations substantially.” Feuerverger also states 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.” However, I have noted that this assumption may be erroneous. In addition, he assumes that “the presence of Matya does not invalidate the find” and that “we also assume that the Yehuda son of Yeshua ossuary does not invalidate the find, but we ignore it in the computations.” He then goes on to concede that “this last assumption is contentious.” I would argue that Feuerverger’s decision not to factor in (as negative evidence) the presence of names such as Yehudah bar Yeshua‘ and Mattiyah is problematic. After all, there is no ancient evidence that Jesus of Nazareth fathered a child named Yehudah and the closest known relative of Jesus of Nazareth with the name Matthew was a great grandfather! It seems reasonable to suggest that Feuerverger’s decision to avoid including data that militated against his hypothesis is a critical flaw, as is his decision to weigh certain aspects of the limited evidence heavily. I am confident that statisticians will be critiquing Feuerverger’s data in some detail, but I would simply state that generating statistics on the basis of a constellation of problematic assumptions is bemusing.

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. There are no titles inscribed on the ossuaries and this is a fact. Also, there are no associated epigraphic materials in the tomb (e.g., a preserved epistle with some historical data). Based on the dearth of epigraphic 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.


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End of the 2006 NEA Article



  1. […] Rollston Epigraphy: The Tomb Dubbed the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’: Inscribed Ossuaries, Personal Names, Statistics, […]

  2. […] Rollston Epigraphy (Christopher Rollston’s blog) links to an article Rollston wrote some years ago on the statistics of the so-called family tomb: This (2006) article is methodological in nature and attempted to put the tomb which Tabor and Jacobovici dubbed (in 2006/07) the “Jesus Family Tomb” in its broader context, hence, I first discussed the nature of prosopographic analysis (i.e., attempts to discern familial relationships between ancient peoples, and then the attempt to connect those with people known from ancient literary sources) and then I turned in earnest to the Talpiyot Tomb. […]

  3. […] Christopher Rollston today posted a shorter treatment on his blog of his ASOR post from yesterday, and he reposted an earlier article of his on the first Talpiot tomb.Mike Heiser wonders why James Tabor still collaborates with Simcha Jacobovici. Heiser also posted […]

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