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

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

Archaeology, Epigraphy

10 Comments to “James Tabor’s Iota: A Palaeographic Problem for his Inscriptional Reading”

  1. Thanks Chris, I look forward to your post. I am thinking though, if you think this can not be an iota and it has clearly the head and foot in our photos, would it not have to be a zeta, which we all considered, rather than a Tau? Is a Tau ever written with a foot/horizontal bar on the bottom? There is an obscure reference in Pliny to a species of fish, ZAIO[S]–which had me wondering for a bit, i.e. DIOS as “wondrous,” see Liddell Scott for references–but the sigma just is not there–unless it could be that strange squiggle on the right side that we have not been able to make much of.

  2. Whereas I’m not familiar with the work of Professor Bauckman one has to take with a grain of salt any epigraphic study done by the authors. For example, Tabor is one of the few living scholars today who still believe that the Los Lunas Paleo-Hebrew inscription in New Mexico dates back thousands of yrs before the discovery of the New World, by those sea faring Hebrews/Phonecians. In fact, I’m not even sure that the Mormons accept it as being authentic. In a recent article, based in part on the work of Tabor, Tabor now uses the Tel Dan inscription arguing for the authenticity of the Los Lunas engraving.
    I could go on, Hebrew ostraca misread, etc but the above should suffice.


  3. Dr. Jack Kilcrease

    So then how would the full inscription read according to your reconstruction?

  4. […] show signs of doctoring or manipulation that may be influencing the perception of what they depict.Christopher Rollston blogged about an alleged iota. Jim West got to hear him and others speak about this topic in person.April DeConick expresses the […]

  5. In my article I do offer an explanation of the fact that this iota is different. It marks out the divine Name,the way other ways of distinguishing the divine Name do in DSS and in LXX manuscripts

    Might also suggest that Joe Zias read my discussion on the ASOR Blog website, which is, incidentally, where all the really good scholarly material on this topic has been published. I’m not sure whether he is implying that I’m one of the “authors”. I am not! I do not think this tomb has anything at all to do with Jesus and the early Christians. I am just offering an interpretation of the inscription. It is the fullest discussion of the inscription so far published, and I would be delighted to get Joe Zias’s opinions on it.

  6. Richard, you and I are on the same page here along with the overwhelming majority of scholars, that these two tombs have nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus and the early Christians. Sorry if I gave the impression that you were involved as it was clear from your posting that you were not.


  7. Chris, looking forward to your osta reading. Do you know when you will put that up?

    Joe, since you have such strong opinions on this what would be your take on the translation? It sounds like it might be “anything Tabor says has to be wrong.” Have you even bothered to read my report at bibleinterp.com–it is technical but in English. If so you would see I consider ALL the views suggested to us by various epigraphers we consulted, including Chris, Richard, Leah DiSegni, and half a dozen others. It is an open discussion, and very cordial without personal aspersions and rancor. I notice you lurk here and there on the web, spreading personal slander, but you have never offered any academic analysis yourself, though you seem to have very settled views.

  8. Richard (and James),

    As you know, there are major differences between that which you are proposing for line two of the four-line Talpiyot Inscription and anything that is done at Qumran…note, for example, that ALL four letters of the tetragramatton are written in a totally different script, not just the modification of one letter (or there are four dots, or a dicolon, or, as in the case of one ms, there is a different color ink). So, what you are proposing is something quite different, something not attested at Qumran at all. Also, note that within Christian mss, nothing similar to what you are proposing is attested (see, for example, Hurtado). Alas, therefore, the problem remains…two fundamentally different iotas in the same line of the same inscription. Palaeographically, your position is a very difficult one to make.

    But the main point is that it is a fine tau…the things that you see as the bottom of the horizontal of your yod are actually the standard sorts of pitting and scratches that are present on many epigraphic texts…and they are present on this ossuary inscription as well…I hope that you were given good photos so that this is apparent in your photos as well…but it is apparent in those that I have, and on those that I have looked at in the press kit.

    In addition, there are a couple other places where I differ with you both with regard to readings.

    My piece on this inscription, with readings, images, etc., is completed and should go up within a day or two. It includes a long discussion of the sorts of things that we encounter (in terms of content and verbiage) in Late Second Temple and Early Post-Biblical funerary inscripitons.

    With all best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

  9. I’m very much looking forward to your piece, Chris, and hope it will solve everything once and for all!! I didn’t claim that the inscription distinguishes the Name by means of the specific practices used at Qumran, only that the form of the initial iota can be understood as another practice with the same purpose. We have very little evidence, outside the DSS, of ways that scribes distinguished the Tetragrammaton as a special word, though a few early LXX MSS are some help. I don’t see why we should not be open to finding other practices besides those used in DSS, especially as even in DSS there are some unique or very rare practices as well as the more common ones. As far as I know we have no Christian MSS where the Tetragrammaton is written, so that doesn’t help one way or the other, and in any case I don’t think this inscription is Christian.

  10. Looking again at the photos, it is of course true that there are scratches all over the place, but the line at the bottom of the first letter of line 2 still looks to me like part of the letter. I have never claimed to be an epigrapher. It would be really helpful if some other epigraphers could join in this discussion. The potential value of having discussion of this kind online, rather than waiting until articles get into print, lies in having a number of really competent scholars joining in. With regard to the “fish” (in my view, amphora) this has happened and the results are really useful. But so far the reading of the inscription has not been discussed beyond me, you and James Tabor. The best photos that exist are now, I think, online, and so anyone can have a go!

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