Home » Archaeology, Epigraphy » The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B (1981): Summary and Restatement

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

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. http://asorblog.org/?p=1848.

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. http://asorblog.org/?p=1642.

Rollston, C.A.
2012b “The Four-Line Greek Inscription from a Talpiyot Tomb: Epigraphic Notes and Historical
Discussions.” ASOR Blog March 2012. http://asorblog.org/?p=1989.

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.

Archaeology, Epigraphy

18 Comments to “The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B (1981): Summary and Restatement”

  1. Is the inscription complete? I’m wondering about reading the omicron as the definite article, acting similarly to the relative pronoun. This would give a reading “Here are bones. The one who lifts Agabus . . .” If it is complete, could it read, “Here are bones. The one who lifts (i.e. places) them (is) Agabus”?

  2. Frankly, this is a very one-sided account of the discussion, and I would suggest that readers look at the comments to your piece on the ASOR blog, particularly at the arguments I present against the plausibility of any reference to touching bones. I am not an epigraphist, but what I do know about are late Second Temple Jewish names and late Second Temple purity rules. I stand corrected on reading of the iota/tau (it is a tau, as is clear on better photos than I was able to see originally), and I’m very happy to profit from your expertise as an epigrapher. In turn, I think you might acknowledge that I know more about purity rules and that, pending better arguments being forthcoming, the case for ‘touching’ the bones as the point of the inscription is not plausible. You might also mention that I had already thought of the possibility of reading di’osta at the beginning of the inscription, before Bob Hull independently posted the suggestion.

  3. Thanks for this nice summary of the current discussion Chris. This is very helpful. I will weigh in at some point but want to allow Greg Snyder and a few others we consulted to offer their own input first since I have already published my views. It is troubling though that the photos we provided (these came from me not NatGeo, maybe through them but you asked for more and I sent them to Paul) have led you to evaluate things differently from what I and others see. Can you let me know how many photos you have and maybe I can send some more. As you say, the light and angle can make a huge difference. We also have several takes now from GE that try to separate the scratches from the deeper engravings. I think the iota–or zeta if you prefer, is clear. Did you consider a zeta, i.e., the fish idea (Pliny reference in L&S) I have mentioned? Zaio[s}, or if your eta is right, which I don’t see at present, another form thereof? Art Droge had suggested this initially to us.

  4. It is not accurate that I “had been working with James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici.” I have had no contact whatever with Simcha. As I explained in my post, I took part in an extensive email correspondence about the inscription (only about the inscription; I had not seen the “fish” image) with James Tabor, Greg Snyder and Jim Charlesworth. We simply explored all sorts of possibilities for reading and interpreting the inscription, and eventually we largely agreed on the reading (Charlesworth, I think, was not entirely happy with line 4) while differing widely on translation and interpretation. Greg has now written a piece on the readings that I hope will appear on the ASOR website.
    I might also note that my article on the ASSOR Blog was not really a response to Rollston 2012a. I responded to your argument about the first letter of line 2 in a couple of paragraphs, but most of the article was a very full study of the inscription as a whole, including a full statement of the case for reading line 4 as Hagab.

  5. Richard,

    Thanks for the note. (1) I’ve summarized everything since February 28th in chronological order…I think that this is the best way to approach it. I would be delighted for readers here to go to the ASOR blog and read ALL of the comments, and perhaps also to note the tenor of some of those comments. (2) I’m glad that you’re willing to concede the fact that it is a tau. I’m sorry that you weren’t originally given photos that made it clear. As for the photos, I was given….basically, I was given (by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici) one glossy photo and then photocopies of several other glossy photos. After carefully analyzing those photocopies, I requested glossy prints of those that were the best. It’s basically the way that I always approach this sort of thing. (3) As for touching and impurity…I certainly understand your position. As for me, though, I continue to keep the purity-taboo understanding on the table. Among other scenarios, as I mentioned, one could envision “not touching” as a statement placed on the ossuary before it was deposited in the tomb, etc. In any case, for these sorts of reasons, I want to keep this rendering on the table. I understand that you don’t and I have now added a sentence in this blog post here which references your rejection of any sort of purity-taboo understanding of the inscription. In short, as you wish… (4) As for /di/ and Robert Hull. Bob mentioned that to me first in conversation and then also (at my behest, he put it on the ASOR blog…and he was the first to do so. That is, I just reported things chronologically. It’s nice that you also thought of this, but Bob was the first to note it in a public venue. Frankly, as for “On account of the bones, I Agabus perish not,” I had mentioned that rendering to Jared Poznich, my research assistant, the evening before your posting it on the ASOR blog…but you posted it first on the blog, so I didn’t mention anywhere in my summary my previous conversation with my research assistant…as you mentioned it in print first…and that was just fine with me. Thanks again for your note. I wish you well.


    Christopher Rollston

  6. Richard,

    As for your objection to my reference to the fact that you were working with James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici…(1) well, this is their project, with James Tabor being one of the two IAA permit holders. (2) And the photos that you were given were either directly or indirectly from them…(3) and you yourself stated in your initial post that “in the autumn of 2011 I [Richard Bauckham] took part in a lengthy email correspondence about this inscription with james Tabor, Greg Snyder and Jim Charlesworth. It was a profitable conversation in which we made real progress in both reading and interpreting the inscription, though we certainly didn’t reach full agreement…We were all bound by a non-disclosure agreemtn until last week, when the material was made public.” Together, this contstitutes “working with,” in some fashion, of course. (4) Please note that I did not say “working for,” but rather “working with.” (5) Indeed, I myself had been working with them as well, as part of my status as an epigraphic consultant for National Geographic. In short, you and I were both, at different times, working with those people primarily responsible for this project. Of course, when this “project” moved from the National Geographic to Discovery (i.e., Discovery bought the rights from National Geographic), I did not make the move…the primary reason for this being quite clearly (at least to me) that I read this inscription differently from them (i.e., I rejected reading the tetragrammaton and I posited that “bones” was the preferable reading…so they moved along to those that might be more amenable to their reading of the tetgragrammaton here. That’s all fine…I’ve seen these sorts of things happen in the past (I think of Ebla, for example, kind of the reverse of things with this Talpiyot tomb…but similar in some ways).

    All best wishes,


  7. James,

    Thanks for the note. As for the photos…well, the way epigraphers work is that we look (when using photos) for the photos that light up the incised remains nicely (and I would mention that the palaeographic issues are quite different for ink on papyrus or ink on vellum). And a few of the photos I received from National Geographic were quite perfect epigraphic photos…the letter-forms were lit up very nicely (particularly the second line). This (good photos) is always very important for incised inscriptions. In short, I have epigraphically significant photos…they light the letter-forms nicely. Obviously, as I have mentioned, the wrong photos can eliminate strokes and stroke-segments, etc., and even create optical illusions…but I’ve been working in the field of epigraphy for a long time…I’ve collated many hundreds of inscriptions personally (including many, many incised ones) and I’ve used a few thousand photographs of inscriptions through the years…and so I suppose that I’ve become fairly adept at judging good photos and, frankly, the ones National Geographic gave me (and two or three of those in particular) were very fine epigraphically significant photographs. I’m glad that you had them sent my way. As for readings…you’ll notice that Richard Bauckham also now reads a tau at the beginning of line two, etc. It’s really a very clear issue, and Richard is a first-rate scholar and when he saw the good photographic evidence, he rapidly stated that it was a tau. In short, there’s no reason for you to be troubled…be glad…as the photos National Geographic provided me with were stellar and allowed me (and now others, etc.) to recongize the correct reading…much as I mentioned many, many months ago to you (i.e., the reading of tau).

    With all best wishes,


  8. OK, just so that readers of this blog are aware of the arguments, let me summarise why the ‘not touching bones’ interpretation of the inscription is very unlikely. (1) From touching bones you get corpse-impurity, which is the most serious sort of corpse impurity (you need the ashes of the red heifer to get rid of it). (2) But, once the bones are in the ossuary, you can’t get corpse impurity from touching the ossuary, because stone does not transmit impurity. (3) So the only touching of bones that could be in question would be before the bones were out in the ossuary, in the act of putting them in, or by subsequently opening the ossuary. (3) The person or persons responsible for the burial (close relatives) would of course get corpse impurity in the natural course of fulfilling a religious duty (burying the dead). They would not try to avoid doing so, and indeed to avoid doing so and to say that would be an insult to the deceased. This is equally true even if the person were a priest. (4) So can we imagine someone else (e.g. the stonemason) who might have touched the bones before they were put in the ossuary but didn’t. Well the transfer of the bones to the ossuary would take place in the tomb, where the body had been decomposing. Anyone in the tomb would likely get corpse impurity anyway, from any corpse or bones not yet put in ossuaries (you didn’t need to touch to get it, and in a cave the impurity bounces around so you really can’t avoid it). Once you’ve got corpse impurity you can’t get it worse. Anyway, why should someone not directly involved in putting the bones in the ossuary make a point of making this rather formal declaration that they have not touched the bones in the ossuary? (5) Does the writer of the inscription means he intends not to touch the bones in future by opening the ossuary. The ossuary only needed to opened to deposit the bones of another person, since ossuaries were sometimes shared. The person doing that would be performing the duty of burying the second person and/or would get corpse impurity anyway, as under (4). (6) Lastly, the ossuary might have been transferred from elsewhere. So perhaps someone who carried it (not the relative responsible for burial) is saying he was very careful not to open or spill the ossuary and thus touch the bones. Would this really be sufficient reason for taking the trouble to write this? I doubt most people would, in such circumstances, make much fuss about this. Everyone gets corpse impurity from time to time, it’s not wrong to do so, and just meant you had to get rid of it. It’s different for a priest, but a priest would just avoid getting involved in such processes unless the deceased were a close relative and he were therefore responsible for the burial (in which he case he certainly would touch the bones). So, try as I might, I cannot envisage a plausible occasion for an inscription on an ossuary declaring that the writer has not or will not touch the bones. And Chris has produced no parallel.

  9. PS: Of course, someone might come up with a plausible occasion I have not considered, but until they do so I think the ‘touching bones’ interpretation must be considered very unlikely.

    In the above post, read ‘put’ for ‘out’ in line 6.

  10. Sorry to have to keep correcting my text, but this typo could badly mislead. In line 3 read: ‘the most serious sort of impurity’ (not ‘corpse impurity’)

  11. Hello, Richard,

    Thanks for the discussion. I’m thinking of texts such as this one…”Rabbi Eleazar b. R. Zadok did as R. Johanan b. Nuri said: “Thus spoke father at the time of his death: ‘my son, bur me at first in a fosse. In the course of time, collect my bones and put them in an ossuary, but do not touch them with your own hands.’ And thus did I attend him: Johanan entered, collected the bones, and spread a sheet over them, I then came in, rent my clothes for them, and sprinkled dry herbs over them. Just as he attended his father, I attended him,” Semahoth 12:9. I’m also thinking of other texts from Semahoth, such as 12:5, 13:1, etc. So, I could envision this inscription referring to the social taboo of not touching (gathering) the bones of a father…That is, I see this sort of thing as at least a plausible Sitz im Leben for the inscription…

    All best wishes,


  12. Thank you, Chris, for drawing attention to this interesting passage in tractate Semahot. My comments:
    (1) Let us be clear from the start that there is no issue of purity involved here. It was not because bones are a source of impurity that R. Eleazar avoided touching the bones of his father R. Zadok. This would make no sense in the context. As you say, the reference is to a ‘social taboo.’ Compare the following section of the chapter that says that ‘a man may shroud and gird the corpse of a man, but not that of a woman’ and vice versa. This is about modesty: not viewing the naked body of a person of the opposite sex, even when dead. Section 12 says that: ‘A man may enter the bathhouse with everyone except his father, his father-in-law, his stepfather, or his teacher who had taught him wisdom.’ Again, the point is that he should not see them naked. When R. Yohanan b. Nuri says, ‘A person may collect the bones of all dead except those of his father and mother’ (12:6), he must be supposing that this would somehow be improper, just as seeing them naked would be. It seems to me quite likely he is working with a kind of analogy: the body is to the bones as the clothes are to the body. To see the bones exposed is like seeing the body exposed.
    (2) That this taboo was not generally observed seems clear from m. Mo’ed Qat. 1:5: ‘R. Meir said: A man may gather together the bones of his father or his mother, since this is to him an occasion of rejoicing’ (see also the comments on this in the Talmuds). The context is a discussion of what one may do during the days between Passover and Tabernacles. Mourning would be inappropriate, but R. Meir argues that gathering the bones of a parent (for secondary burial in an ossuary) is not an occasion for mourning, but rather for rejoicing, and so it is permitted in this period. R. Yose disagrees, arguing that it is an occasion for mourning, and so not permitted at this time. The discussion PRESUPPOSES that it was normal practice for a son to gather his parents’ bones for ossilegium.
    (3) I think we can take it from Sem. 12 that the practice advocated by the very obscure R. Yohanan b. Nuri was rare. R. Eleazar b. Zadok is cited precisely because he was exceptional in following Yohanan’s opinion. They were 2nd generation Tanna, i.e. early 2nd century CE. So it looks as though the practice of a son avoiding touching the bones of a parent during ossilegium was a novel teaching of an early 2nd century rabbi, who thus extended other modesty taboos connected with burial, and that it didn’t catch on.

    It is not impossible that the person who wrote our inscription had qualms similar to those later voiced by R. Yohanan b. Nuri. This would make sense only if the inscription were to mean that he did not touch the bones. That he did not touch the ossuary (the interpretation you offered in an earlier comment on the ASOR Blog) could not make sense. It would have to be the bones themselves. If the inscription clearly said ‘I do not touch the bones’ then an anticipation of R. Yohanan b. Nuri’s opinion would be worth considering. Since it does not clearly say that, I think this is a remote possibility.

    • Thanks very much for the interesting discussion. If I may add something quite simple to what Richard Bauckham has already stated about the passage in Tractate Semahot i.e. that avoiding corpse impurity does not seem to be at issue in that text. It is my understanding that cloth is a material that transfers ritual impurity (cf. Leviticus 11:32-34). So, using a sheet to handle the bones of the deceased (“spread a sheet over them”) would not help someone avoid corpse impurity. Also, as Richard already noted, just being inside a tomb would render someone impure by means of overshadowing (cf. Numbers 19:12-14 and Tractate Ohalot). Cordially, John Fotopoulos

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