Chapters in the History of Modern Forgery: Professors Leopold Messerschmidt and Charles Torrey on a Hebrew Inscription

2 November 2013

This post is a draft of a selection from my (forthcoming) volume entitled, Forging History in the Biblical World: Textual Forgeries from the Ancient and Modern Middle East, Medieval Europe and the New World


Professor Leopold Messerschmidt authored an article for Berlin’s Orientalistische Litteratur-Zeitung, a particularly prestigious German journal. The year was 1903. The article was about an inscribed piece of clay, about two inches in diameter, and round. The script of the inscription was written in ancient Hebrew, but poorly formed. Messerschmidt, however, could read it. He was a distinguished Semitist, well-known for his work in Assyriology, and with important contributions to the field of Hittite as well. The inscription was owned by Paul Mauersberger. He had purchased the inscription near a Jerusalem train, reportedly for a mere trifle. Quite understandably, he had brought the inscription to Leopold Messerschmidt because he wished for someone to read it.

The preceding decades had witnessed the production of hundreds of forged inscriptions, most from the antiquities market, but scores had actually been salted in archaeological tells. Shapira’s “Moabite Forgeries” were among the most notorious, but there were countless additional forgeries during the final decades of the 19th century. Therefore, caution was the modus operandi for most scholars, especially for those working on inscriptions in the languages such as Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic, as well as for those working in Greek and Latin. Vigilance was mandatory. Messerschmidt had some concerns about the authenticity of this inscription, but he reasoned that it might just be ancient. He entitled his article “Fälschung?” (Messerschmidt 1903).

Because Messerschmidt was not a Hebraist, he contacted one of the most esteemed and prolific scholars of Northwest Semitic at the time, Mark Lidzbarski (1868-1928). Although still quite a young scholar, Lidzbarski had published the most authoritative collection of Northwest Semitic inscriptions, Handbuch der Nordsemitischen Epigraphik (1898), completed during his time in Kiel and still a useful compendium today. Lidzbarski had been born into an Hasidic Jewish family. His given name was Abraham Mordechai Lidzbarski, but he had converted to Christianity and so changed his given name. Lidzbarski’s verdict on Messerschmidt’s inscription was quite decisive: “Das Plättchen is nach meiner Ansicht sicher eine Fälschung,” a forgery modeled on the coinage of Hasmonean King John Hyrcannus (r. 134-104 BCE).

Although the inscription was brief, just five or six words on four short lines, Lidzbarski noted both palaeographic and orthographic problems. In fact, on this inscription the name “Yohanan” and “Jews” were both misspelled. Letters were grossly malformed. But Messerschmidt was not convinced that it was a forgery. After all, he wondered “why, if it were a forgery, would someone ever attempt to forge a coin out of clay?” And he also noted that this inscription was bought for a trifle. And in addition, its previous owner, the poor workman from whom Mauersberger purchased it, was not actually attempting to sell it. It was Mauersberger who initiated the sale. Do not these things, Messerschmidt asked, “gegen eine Fälschung zu sprechen?” That is, “Do these things not speak against it being a forgery” (Messerschmidt 1903, 241).

But even F.E. Peiser, the editor of the journal Orientalistische Litteratur-Zeitung in which Messerschmidt’s article appeared, appended a footnote at the bottom of the page on which Messerschmidt’s article concludes. Peiser succinctly and decisively states that “This clay disk is a part of a forger’s apparatus” basically, a modern mold which had been formed to produce forged metal coins. Messerschmidt, however, was not at all certain that Lidzbarski and Peiser were correct. Presumably his concern was that he did not wish to declare prematurely an important ancient inscription to be a modern forgery. In certain ways, some might reasonably suggest that his caution is commendable.

Charles C. Torrey of Yale University, however, was astounded that Messerschmidt might even attempt to consider this inscription ancient. Writing in the lofty Journal of the American Oriental Society, Torrey entitled his article “On a Palestinian ‘Forgery’” (Torrey 1903). He began his article with these words: “It is a disk of baked clay, about two inches in diameter, reproducing very clumsily and on a much enlarged scale a well-known coin of John Hyrcannus. Nothing more be said, of course, as to the value of this ‘antique’; it does not even deserve to be taken so seriously as would be implied in giving it the name ‘forgery.’”

Torrey then continues, however, writing that “The fact is, this is one of a class of objects not infrequently hawked about the streets of Jerusalem by certain vagabonds of a familiar type—half beggar, half rascal. The things are made by pressing clay into forms which some idler has amused himself by fashioning. The conditions which produce such works of art as this are a little spare time, a sense of humor, and the remote possibility of gulling some brother rascal, or perhaps even a tourist. It would take perhaps an hour to whittle out of wood such a form as the one from which this ‘coin’ was made. I have frequently been offered just such discs in Jerusalem, the would-be vender always accompanying his offer with a broad grin. One of these objects now in my possession (a clay disc, about two inches in diameter, pressed from a form) bears a representation of Eve and a serpent, with a few meaningless letters appended. Apparently there was never a thought of getting more than a few paras each for these ‘inscriptions.’ It is not surprising, then, that the native workman mentioned in this case did not show any great eagerness to turn his property into money.” Then Torrey concludes his article with this sentence, “As for this worthless Palestinian trinket, it is certainly a misuse of language to call it a ‘forgery’” (Torrey 1903, 209-210).

It would be permissible to suggest that Torrey’s retort is harsh. Indeed it is. But I suppose that it would also be permissible to suggest that Messerschmidt should have listened to Lidzbarski’s reasoned and detailed demonstration (all provided in a letter from Lidzbarski to Messerschmidt) that this inscription is a forgery of particularly modest quality. Messerschmidt, however, persisted. Often in the long history of forgery, Messerschmidt would have found good company.

Christopher A. Rollston
National Endowment for the Humanities Research Scholar
Albright Institute of Archaeological Research

From Washington to Jerusalem: Personal Reflections on a Year to Remember

30 August 2013
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About one year ago, on 31 August 2012, the Huffington Post published an article of mine. The topic was the marginalization of women in the Bible. Little did I know then that the article would alter the course of my life. The article was the standard fare, heavily anchored in the actual content of the Hebrew Bible, with some reference to the Greek New Testament as well. And within the article, I was careful to note that there were some voices in the text of the Bible that attempted to push back against patriarchy. And I also noted that patriarchy was the norm not only in the Bible, but also within the ancient Near Eastern world in general. The Bible, therefore, was largely reflecting a predominant worldview of ancient times. The article concluded by affirming that the marginalization of women was a tragically common viewpoint and practice in the ancient world and that this viewpoint and practice is not something that should be perpetuated in the modern world. That is, the recognition of the importance of gender equality is a must. It’s probably important for me to mention, in the interest of full disclosure, that the subject of gender equality is not simply an academic tenet of mine. It’s personal. I have three daughters. I would like to believe that if I had three sons, I would feel just as strongly about gender equality. I think that I would and I hope that I would. But I must admit that when I think about this subject, the first thing that comes to my mind are my three marvelous daughters, no longer little girls, but confident and educated and broad-minded young women. Gender equality is part of their bone and marrow. And it is part of mine.

The weeks prior to the appearance of my Huffington Post article had been difficult. My mother had not been feeling well during the early summer of 2012 and tests revealed that she had cancer. The physicians could not localize it. Our entire family was very concerned, as are all families when heart-wrenching news like this comes down the pike. And it was so startling. My mother had always been one of the healthiest people I know, so strong, so active, so vibrant. During my youth, she had always worked the night shift at the local hospital, tending to patients day in and day out, month in and month out. And each morning, as she returned home from the hospital, she would often stay up, rather than attempting to sleep, preferring to continue to work throughout the day. Then, after dinner in the evening, she would sleep for a few hours and then return to the hospital each night to work with patients. She did this year after year. And my father modeled the same sort of hard work and kindness to all. And so when my brother phoned to tell me that our mother had cancer it seemed surreal, entirely impossible. Not mom. And at the same time, in terms of bad news, the financial situation at Emmanuel had continued to worsen during the weeks of the summer of 2012, with the faculty being notified by email that the situation was very serious. Not a few faculty members believed that the institution might not survive. I didn’t communicate much about Emmanuel’s financial woes to our daughters, believing that the news about their grandmother was enough. And I continued my normal schedule during the summer, doing some editorial work for Maarav, writing some, and delivering papers at the University of Michigan and at Brigham Young University.

On Labor Day weekend of 2012, we traveled to Michigan. My mother’s physician had scheduled exploratory surgery for mid-September. I wanted to see my mother. We walked the Mackinac Bridge on Labor Day, as we have often done and then drove to my parents’ home. The Huffington Post article had just appeared a few days prior to this. My mother and father were pleased with the article and they were proud of me. But they had noticed that Emmanuel’s Church Historian had been castigating me on facebook for the article. They were worried about this. I told them that I would not respond to him and that they should not worry about this. But I could see that they were. Although neither of my parents had the opportunity to go to college, they have tried to read most everything I have written. This has always meant so much to me, knowing that they were interested and supportive. And I was raised in a home in which religious dogmatism was absent. My parents are Christian, as am I, but narrowness about religion was not part of their world, nor mine. They have always focused most heavily on living kindly and justly. They have been great models. Needless to say, they had a hard time understanding the Church Historian’s desire to criticize the content of the article or the venue. Well, after a few hours, we said our goodbyes on the afternoon of Labor Day, and drove back home to Tennessee, arriving early the next morning. There was much on my mind. But I have always loved to teach and so I was still looking forward to getting back into the classroom for the Fall 2012 semester at Emmanuel.

A few days later, my phone rang. I couldn’t take the call at that moment. He left a message. It was someone I didn’t know. He said that he had found a German Shorthair and my name and number were on the collar. He’s been hit by a car, the young man said. It’s pretty bad. My heart sunk. Having grown up in rural Michigan, I have always loved dogs. And I had bred a litter of pups some two years earlier, and Tristan, the young German Shorthair, was mine. And I had trained him, and he drank from my bowl and slept in my bed. He was such a winsome and wonderful dog and he had carved a niche into my heart like no other dog had. After he was trained, I gave him to one of our daughters and she loved him as much as is humanly possible. He had been with her the whole time she was going through her master’s in Occupational Therapy. There was just something about that dog, his smile, his mannerisms. But Tristan was lighting fast…I should have named him Blitz…and in a heartbeat, he had gotten into the road. We rushed him to the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital. He was in very bad shape, but it looked like he would pull through the surgery, never quite the same, but still, he was going to make it, the Vet said. We were relieved. The days were long.

A couple days later, Emmanuel’s president sent me an e-mail. The first line of the e-mail said “Dr. Rollston, You may be aware that there have been some serious concerns expressed as a result of your Huffington Post blog.” He requested a meeting on September 19, with Emmanuel’s Dean and Emmanuel’s New Testament Professor present. I replied by indicating that I would be able to meet and I also requested that he put any concerns in writing. I was aware, of course, that Emmanuel’s Church Historian was very disturbed by the content of the article. The Church Historian’s father had been a famous trustee at Emmanuel and so I took the e-mail from Emmanuel’s President rather seriously. But I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. A few years earlier, I had been criticized for a public lecture of mine at Emmanuel. Among other things mentioned as a criticism was the fact that I had stated in the lecture that the canonical gospels were anonymous. “Beauford Bryant” (a long-time Professor of New Testament at Emmanuel), one of the attendees declared “would roll over in his grave if he had heard someone from Emmanuel say that.” I had also suggested in the lecture, to the students who would soon be ministers and educators, that we have a religious obligation “to speak truth to power,” to be salt and light in the world. And I was critiqued for this as well, as the critic stated that I had drawn the term “speaking truth to power” from the Carey Campaign and that I was being political. Truth be told, Beauford Bryant was my teacher of New Testament and in his classes he also affirmed the anonymity of the canonical gospels. And the term “speak truth to power” was an expression I knew from the civil rights battles of the 1960s. I still have the e-mails with these sorts of criticisms, which I was given by those in power at Emmanuel, several days after the lecture. But this time, things were different, as the criticisms were coming especially from a fellow faculty member, the Church Historian, and in a very public way, social media. I was apprehensive, concerned.

On September 19th, the meeting occurred. Emmanuel’s President read me a written statement. It all seemed so formal, which is the way I think it was intended. Within his statement, the President indicated that some students had told him that my critical Introduction to the Old Testament course had created faith crises for them. My approach to courses has always been a “Bible in Context” sort of approach, and I have always used historical-critical approaches to the text, just as they had been used when I took the critical Introduction to the Old Testament under Robert Owens (during my time as an Emmanuel student). I have always believed that a sympathetic but honest approach to the Bible is best. It is the way that I had taught for a decade at Emmanuel. But as the President was reading his statement, I sensed that times had changed. And he also stated in his written statement that Emmanuel had (and this is a direct quote) “some potentially significant donors (one of whom is capable of regular gifts in the 6-figure range) who refuse to support Emmanuel because they regard your influence as detrimental to students….they will not support the school so long as you are teaching here.” Just a few weeks before this, Emmanuel’s (then) Dean had written a letter of recommendation for me for a fellowship. Within his letter he had written (and this is a direct quote), “As the Dean I am privy to the evaluations that students submit for their courses. Dr. Rollston regularly scores in the high to highest percentile in our curriculum. One of his courses is Old Testament Introduction, which is the first class that many students enroll in. As such, the class is usually our largest. Students report that this class changed their ways of thinking and dealing with the biblical text.” Within that letter, the Dean had also written that “Emmanuel is a small seminary, probably not widely known in higher education. Dr. Rollston has done more to build our reputation among other schools than any professor we have had for a number of years.” But none of this mattered now. The President continued reading his statement, he focused in heavily on my Huffington Post article. He reprimanded me for the content of the article and for writing it on a “secular website,” the Huffington Post. After finishing the reading of his statement, the President said: “You are going to have to resign or be fired.” I was quite taken aback. I did not see that coming. The President then said that on Friday (i.e., just two days later), the “Area Chairs” (Emmanuel’s faculty council) would meet to decide my fate, but the President made it clear that, regardless of the decision of the Area Chairs, he was moving forward with my termination. I had gone into that meeting with the thought that I would be told not to write for the Huffington Post again. I walked to my office quite stunned and saddened, not really knowing what to think. Emmanuel had no statement of faith which faculty were required to sign. And Emmanuel’s faculty handbook contained a strong statement on Academic Freedom, pulled verbatim from the American Association of University Professors. But, at the end of the day, none of that seemed to matter at all.

A few hours later that same day, my daughter phoned me, crying. The University of Tennessee had phoned her. Tristan, the German Shorthair, had taken a turn for the worst. We needed to go there. Before leaving for the University of Tennessee Veterinary Hospital, I went to our neighbor’s house to tell them that Tristan’s situation very bad. They have always been like family to us and I wanted them to know, so that they could phone our daughter. While in their foyer, I broke down into tears. I told them everything…about my mother’s cancer and her upcoming exploratory surgery and about the meeting that morning with Emmanuel’s President. They were tremendous, kind, supportive, as always. I left their home and drove to the University of Tennessee. We were able to see Tristan, but it was clear that the infection had begun to take over. It could not be controlled. They told us that he would need to be put to sleep. During the course of the next few hours, we said our tearful goodbyes to this precious German Shorthaired Pointer, and held him as life ebbed from his broken body. The drive home was the most somber and difficult of my life. Tristan was truly a member of the family and he was so young and now he was gone. Although I have always tried to be very open with my daughters, I did not have the heart to tell them about the meeting that morning with Emmanuel’s President. I wanted to spare them that news for as long as I could. After all, our oldest daughter was to be married in just three months, our middle daughter had just lost her beloved Tristan, and our youngest daughter was in her first semester of medical school…and on top of this, their grandmother had cancer, and was slated for exploratory surgery the next day to see if it could be localized. The surgery occurred. It was a Thursday. I was teaching an evening class at Emmanuel, Wisdom Literature. That evening, as I began to lecture, I had told the class that my mother was having surgery and that if my brother phoned me, I would need to take the call. He did phone. I took the call in the hallway. “Chris, they found the cancer. It is stage four.”

I cancelled the remainder of the class, pulled myself together and began to drive home. I have never been more discouraged, more demoralized, on so many levels, as I was at that time. As I was driving home, my phone rang. By this point, I was almost afraid to answer the phone, fearing that some more bad news was coming. I pulled off on the side of the road. On the phone was Heather Parker. She was at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, writing her dissertation. She had been a student of mine at Emmanuel. She knew that the Area Chairs would be meeting the following day to discuss the President’s ultimatum and my fate. She said, “Where can we meet you?” I replied “What? I can’t really hear you because of the road noise.” She said again, “Where can we meet you?” I said, “I’m afraid I can’t hear you very well. It sounded like you said ‘where can we meet you?’” She said, “I did say that.” Adam and I are driving into Johnson City from Baltimore and we’re almost to your house. Can we meet you there?” I was stunned. Adam Bean was also an Emmanuel alum and was at Johns Hopkins as well. Unbeknownst to me, Heather and Adam had been sitting in the Eisenhower Library at Johns Hopkins that morning and they were concerned about me. My research assistant at the time, Jack Weinbender had told Adam about the situation at Emmanuel and Heather and Adam wanted to be with me on Friday, when the Area Chairs met. So they had driven from Maryland to Tennessee to camp out in my office on Friday. Heather said, “It’s not just us. Adrienne Armes is coming over from Duke and will be here late tonight. She will be at your office tomorrow morning as well.” I don’t remember much about what we conversed about that Thursday evening at my house, but I remember that their presence was terribly consoling.

The next morning , camped out in my office were Adam, Heather, Adrienne, and my research assistant Jack. The coffee was brewing and someone had brought donuts as well. I know a lot about the events that occurred that morning in the meeting of the Area Chairs. Jason Bembry was representing the Old Testament Area (I had been the Area Chair of Old Testament for a number of years, but when Jason was promoted to full professor, he and I decided that it would be nice for him to be the Area Chair for the next term of two or three years) and he made a passionate defense of me and he was supported strongly by Samuel Kip Elolia, a senior theologian and the Area Chair for Theology at Emmanuel. Emmanuel’s Church Historian led the charge, but Jason and Kip stood firmly. Although not part of that meeting, Miriam Perkins strongly supported me as well. In fact, these three stood firmly with me through it all, even now, though everything is “water under the bridge” at this point.

As news of everything rippled through Emmanuel and Johns Hopkins, I phoned my beloved Doktorvater, Kyle McCarter. Kyle has always fulfilled the meaning of that beautiful German term….I could never ask for more from a teacher and friend. But Kyle was convinced that it was important for me to get a lawyer. Other senior scholars in the field echoed those same sentiments. Up to that point, I had never actually had a lawyer in my life. During the coming weeks, the painful saga continued. But I continued to teach my classes, putting everything I had into them, just as I had always done. And I attended and presented at the annual meetings of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the Society of Biblical Literature in November 2012. During the entire fall semester, and beyond, Emmanuel students and alums rallied around me. Ned Greene, an Emmanuel alum came and camped out in my office during his fall break at the University of Wisconsin, where he is a doctoral student now. Emmanuel alumnus Josh Covey came and spent three weeks at our house in order to help me renovate the kitchen entirely, new cupboards, new counter, new ceramic tile, new plumbing. And Jason Bembry rewired the kitchen. I felt that the house needed to be ready to go on the market. And former Emmanuel student Thom Stark wrote a methodologically sophisticated, cogent, and spirited defense of my Huffington Post article, and still other Emmanuel alums started a letter-writing campaign, with the hopes of swaying the Emmanuel Administration. And colleagues in the field sent letters to Emmanuel’s President and Dean, asking them to reverse course. And an army of bloggers took to the web to defend me, with the brilliant and indefatigable Robert Cargill leading the way. Kent Richards, the former Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature, provided wise counsel and encouragement. And Andrew Vaughn, the Executive Director of the American Schools of Oriental Research, wrote a letter of support for me to Emmanuel’s President and Dean. The American Association of University Professors wrote a letter to Emmanuel’s Dean and President, stating that my Huffington Post article was protected speech. And “Inside Higher Education” did an expose of Emmanuel’s actions. But the handwriting was on the wall. There was no way for me to stay, tenured though I was. My goal through it all ultimately became survival. Each day, I would tell myself that I just needed to put one foot in front of the other and to teach my courses. My research and writing basically ceased. The stress of it all was enormous.

The only thing that sustained me was the many kind and generous letters from students, former students, and colleagues around the world. To this day, I still re-read some of those letters and notes. And there were other positive developments. I think that it was sometime in October that Eric Cline contacted me. Eric and I have known each other for almost twenty years now. Eric said, “Chris, I’m going to try to get you a Visiting Professorship for the spring semester, if you are interested.” I said, “I am very interested. If you can put that together, I will happily accept.” By this point, I could see that my days at Emmanuel were very numbered. And Eric has always been a miracle worker and because of his influence and actions, George Washington University offered me a Visiting Professorship for the Spring 2013. Not long after Eric’s initial contact, Oded Lipschits contacted me to say that he thought Tel Aviv University could put together a Visiting Professorship for the Spring 2013 as well. He noted that I had much support at the University. Because Eric had contacted me first, I ended up accepting the offer from George Washington, my resignation from Emmanuel being final on December 31, 2012. To this day, and forever, I shall be grateful to Tel Aviv University and to George Washington University. I could never ask for better friends. The day that I announced publically that I would be teaching at George Washington for the Spring 2013 semester, Matthew and Sarah Wilson contacted me and said that they would like for me to stay in their guest room for the semester, such a generous act by two dear friends formerly from Emmanuel. During the spring semester at George Washington, I taught two courses, “Dead Sea Scrolls” and “Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East.” It was a blissful and restorative period, with the students, faculty, and staff at George Washington being simply marvelous to work with. For that semester, I shall always be so very thankful. Thankful beyond words. And as the academic year concluded, I traveled to Jerusalem and presented a paper at the Institute for Advanced Studies of Hebrew University, making some new friends and meeting up with some old friends. Upon my return from Jerusalem, our family traveled to northern Michigan, as the Yencich Family offered the use of their cabin on a lake for a week, arranged in large part by Danny Yencich, a wonderful, bright, and generous Emmanuel alumnus…who has now moved on to do a doctorate at the University of Denver and Illiff. So, as the semester concluded, I had, and have, a deep sense of gratitude. The many acts of kindness of so very many…it was all quite overwhelming.

And during the Spring 2013 semester, I was notified that I had been selected for a National Endowment for the Humanities Research Fellowship at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. I am so grateful for this opportunity. As I write this, I am preparing to leave tomorrow morning. During my time there I will be conducting research for a monograph on the subject of “Royal Assassination in the Ancient Near East,” focusing on Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Hittites, and the Hebrew Bible. I have long wanted to be able to spend a substantial block of time at the Albright and so I am very much looking forward to being there, from September through January. I am also finalizing a book manuscript on the history of textual forgeries from antiquity through the present, a continuation of a subject I have been working on for some time. The preliminary title is “Forging History.” And a volume I am editing entitled “Enemies and Friends of the State: Ancient Prophecy in Context” (Eisenbrauns) will soon be going to the publisher. And, of course, my work with Maarav continues as well.

So, as I attempt to be philosophical about this past year, I suppose that I am still fortunate. Our oldest daughter walked down the aisle in December 2012, with her mother, my wife, at her side (rather than me walking her down the aisle…this was my daughter’s idea, quite fitting at so many levels) and I performed the wedding. She is an ESL Teacher in an Elementary Ed School in Nashville. We are so proud of her. Our youngest daughter is now in her second year of medical school, having survived the first year so very nicely. She will be a fine physician. Of this I am certain. And not long ago, our middle daughter found a marvelous Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a source of joy and laughter for all. This daughter is now a full-fledged Occupational Therapist in North Carolina. I am so happy for her. And, although my mother shall never again walk without assistance, her jovial attitude and passion for life continue to be her hallmarks. At this juncture, I am not entirely certain about the distant future or the place at which I will teach for the long term, but I am content, at peace. And I am in preliminary conversation with some fine institutions, so there may be reason for at least some optimism. And at this very moment, I look forward to traveling to, and living for a time in, a city which has long been dear to me. This year in Jerusalem. Yes, this year in Jerusalem.

The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’

11 July 2013

The Decipherment of the New ‘Incised Jerusalem Pithos’


Christopher Rollston


During recent excavations in Jerusalem, Eilat Mazar of Hebrew University discovered a large pithos with incised linear alphabetic Northwest Semitic letters. According to press reports, the discovery will be published “in a paper by Dr. Mazar, Prof. Shmuel Ahituv of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and Dr. David Ben-Shlomo of the Hebrew University, following their extensive research on the artifact. Prof. Ahituv studied the inscription and Dr. Ben-Shlomo studied the composition of the ceramic materials. The paper, “An Inscribed Pithos From the Ophel,” appears in the Israel Exploration Journal 63/1 (2013).”

“According to Prof. Ahituv, the inscription is not complete and probably wound around the jar’s shoulder, while the remaining portion is just the end of the inscription and one letter from the beginning. The inscription is engraved in a proto-Canaanite / early Canaanite script of the eleventh-to-tenth centuries BCE, which pre-dates the Israelite rule and the prevalence of Hebrew script.”

“Reading from left to right, the text contains a combination of letters approximately 2.5 cm tall, which translate to m, q, p, h, n, (possibly) l, and n. Since this combination of letters has no meaning in known west-Semitic languages, the inscription’s meaning is unknown.”

“The archaeologists suspect the inscription specifies the jar’s contents or the name of its owner. Because the inscription is not in Hebrew, it is likely to have been written by one of the non-Israeli residents of Jerusalem, perhaps Jebusites, who were part of the city population in the time of Kings David and Solomon.”
End of Citation of Press Reports


A. Palaeographic Assessment.

The script of this inscription has been accurately described by my friend Shmuel Ahituv as “Proto-Canaanite.” Sometimes this script is referred to as Proto-Sinaitic (because of the prominence of the Serabit el-Hadm Inscriptions) and sometimes this script is referred to as Early Alphabetic. I prefer the term Early Alphabetic, following my teacher, P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. In any case, suffice it to say that I am in complete agreement with Ahituv.

Some scholars have stated in blogs that this inscription is perhaps written in the Phoenician script, not the Early Alphabetic Script. Technically speaking, however, the term “Phoenician” would be problematic for the script of this Incised Jerusalem Pithos. Note the following: (1) The Early Alphabetic Script could be written sinistrograde (right-to-left), dextrograde (left-to-right), boustrophedon (i.e., consecutive lines written from left-to-right then right-to-left, etc.), and in columns (i.e., vertically); (2) The stance of the letters in Early Alphabetic writing was not fixed. That is, the letters could “face” different ways and the letters could be written with dramatically different degrees of rotation, even within the same inscription; (3) Within the Early Alphabetic script, the number of consonsantal graphemes (“letters”) could be, and often was, higher than twenty-two graphemes.

However, during the terminal horizons of the second millennium several developments occurred in linear alphabetic Northwest Semitic. Namely, (4) the direction of writing became fixed: it was consistently sinistrograde (right-to-left); (5) The stance of the letters became more stabilized and standardized, with trained scribes normally “facing” the letters in the same direction, and without dramatic variations in the degrees of rotation; (6) the number of consonantal graphemes was reduced to twenty-two. For many decades, the established convention within the field of palaeography has been to refer to this script (reflecting these three changes), at this time period, as Phoenician. Joseph Naveh’s statement continues to reflect the consensus of the field, namely, the transition from Early Alphabetic to Phoenician “took place in the mid-eleventh century B.C. (Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet, Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1987, 42; Rollston, Writing and Literacy in the World of Ancient Israel: Epigraphic Evidence from the Iron Age, Atlanta: SBL, 2010, 19).

Significantly, (1) the script of this new “Iron Age Incised Jerusalem Pithos” reflects the (varied) stance of letters in the Early Alphabetic script (e.g., the stance of nun is precisely the reverse of the normal stance in the Phoenician alphabet and its congeners in the National Scripts from later periods). (2) Moreover, this inscription is decipherable and it is written dextrograde, that is, from left-to-right. As noted, Phoenician was consistently written sinistrograde. Thus, there is is sufficient evidence to state that the script of this inscription should be classified as Early Alphabetic (i.e., “Proto-Canaanite”), not Phoenician. In short, Ahituv’s classification is certainly correct.

In terms of the palaeographic date for this inscription, I would be most comfortable with the 11th century BCE, rather than the 10th century BCE. The primary reasons for this dating are (1) the direction of writing (dextrograde); and (2) the fact that the five strokes of mem are of approximate equal length (the fifth stroke is elongated already in Ahirman, but note Azarba‘al, which is slightly earlier than Ahiram). I wish there were more letters in this inscription, but there are not. In any case, based on the palaeographic evidence at hand, a date in the 11th century seems to me to be reasonable. For detailed discussion of the script of this period, see McCarter, The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and the Early Phoenician Scripts, Missoula, Scholars Press, HSM 9, 29-63; Rollston, “The Dating of the Early Royal Byblian Phoenician Inscriptions,” Maarav 15 (2008): 57-93 and the bibliography cited in these two sources. In other words, I date this inscription prior to the rise of David and Solomon. Thus, again, I find myself in happy agreement with Professor Ahituv.

B. Readings

Inscriptions in Early Alphabetic are often (as noted) written in dextrograde and I would contend that this new Incised Jerusalem Pithos is written in this fashion, that is, from left-to-right. Here are my readings: mem, qop, lamed, het, nun, [re]sh, sh[in]. My readings, therefore, differ to some degree, with those of the authors of the editio princeps. Also, I would emphasize additional matters of ductus, namely, the horizontals of the het were made after the verticals (evidenced by the pattern which I term “damming”).

For the morphology and stance of the letters, I would draw the reader’s attention especially to W.F. Albright’s chart of Early Alphabetic in his volume entitled The Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions and Their Decipherment, HTS 22, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1966. This chart is conveniently reproduced in Joseph Naveh’s Early History of the Alphabet, 25. In addition, very useful is the chart in an article by Frank Moore Cross entitled “Newly Found Inscriptions in Old Canaanite and Early Phoenician Scripts, BASOR 238 (1980): 1-20, conveniently reproduced in the collection by Cross entitled “Leaves from an Epigrapher’s Notebook: Collected Papers in Hebrew and West Semitic Palaeography and Epigraphy, HSS 51, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2003, 213-230. See also the drawing of the (alphabetic) Tell Fekhariyeh inscription in Ali Abou-Assaf, Pierre Bordreuil, and Alan R. Millard, La Statue de Tell Fekherye et son inscription bilingue assyro-arameenne, Paris, Editions Recherche sur les civilizations, 1982.

Perhaps most important is the fact that the letter which the authors of the editio princeps read as a peh, I read as a lamed. I would draw attention in particular to the forms of lamed in Albright’s chart. In addition, I would draw the reader’s attention to the form of lamed in Tell Fakhariyeh. The form in this new Incised Jerusalem Pithos is very similar to that of Tell Fekhariyeh, but facing in the opposite direction. This is quite understandable, as Fakhariyeh is written sinistrograde and the Jerusalem Incised Pithos is written dextrograde. That is, in both cases the “hook” of the letter is facing in the direction of writing. Notice, of course, that the nun is written in the same fashion (i.e., “facing” in the opposite direction from that which we would expect from the later, standardized Phoenician script). I can understand the reasons for the desire on the part of the authors of the editio princeps to wish to read a peh (or even a gimel), but reading a lamed here is much preferable, from my perspective, especially since this reading yields a good lexeme, that is, a comprehensible reading…and in addition, it is palaeographically permissible and reasonable (some have attempted to read this letter as a sade and do not find that reading cogent). I am happy to note that shortly after I mentioned that I differed with the authors of the editio princeps with regard to some of the readings, my dear friend Anat Mendel mentioned (independently) that she felt this letter could be read as a lamed. Because I believe Mendel has a very good “eye for form” (to use the term Frank Cross coined for palaeographers), I take this as a good sign that the readings herein proposed is reasonable.

C. Translation

The root present in this inscription is qop,lamed,het, that is the word “pot,” or “cauldron” (cf. 1 Sam 2:14; Micah 3:3, with this noun attested in the Bible with the feminine marker tav of Hebrew). I must admit that “pot” is not the most sensational of readings, but I do believe it to be the correct reading. Significantly, Thomas Lambdin discussed this word in some detail in “Egyptian Loan Words in the Old Testament,” JAOS 73 (1953): 149, noting that it was attested in Egyptian “since the Old Kingdom.” Someone might counter that it would not make sense to have the word “pot” written on a pot, as it would be a tautology, of sorts. However, I would note (for example) that the word “nbl” (“pot,” “vessel”) is very well attested in the Reisner Samaria Ostraca (e.g., prior to the reference to the commodity, such as “wine” or “olive oil”). As for the mem which precedes the qop, lamed, het on the Incised Jerusalem Pithos, I would propose that this could be part of the formation of this noun (as many nouns are formed with a prefixed mem, of course) or I suppose that it could be the preposition min with an assimilated nun. I have a slight preference for the former, I suppose. The nun that follows the two-bar het could conceivably be a plural marker (as in certain dialects of Northwest Semitic), but because of the context, I prefer to consider this noun to be singular, “pot,” rather than “pots,” and thus I consider the nun to be the first letter of the next word, perhaps followed by a resh (thus yielding, “Ner”). Of course, Ner is an attested personal name (cf. even 1 Sam 14:50, Abner son of Ner, the commander of Saul’s army, although I would certainly not propose an identification of these biblical and epigraphic figures on the basis of the evidence at hand, especially since the reading “Ner” is not certain), and so in this case (if this reading and rendering are accepted), this portion of this inscription would read “Pot belonging to Ner” (nb: someone might propose that there was a dalet in the lacuna after the proposed resh, thus, the inscription would refer to a “pot of nard.” I do not find that impossible, although someone might counter that a pithos would be a rather large amount of this precious commodity). There is a preserved portion of a letter at the far right side of this potsherd. Someone could propose that it should be read as a nun. I do not think so, however. Rather, I would propose that it is probably a shin, turned on its side, as it were, something which is common enough in Early Alphabetic.


This inscription is written in the Early Alphabetic script. The inscription is written dextrograde. I am most comfortable with a date in the 11th century BCE. The extant lexeme on this inscribed pithos is arguably the word “pot.” The word “pot” may have been followed by a personal name, such as “Ner” or (perhaps) a commodity such as “nard.” I prefer the assumption that it is a personal name. In terms of the language of this inscription, the language is certainly Northwest Semitic, and I would suggest that it is methodologically safest to posit that the language is Canaanite (as the script is Early Alphabetic, that is, Proto-Canaanite). However, I think that someone could propose that the language is Phoenician. In fact, I also believe that it is linguistically possible (but perhaps slightly more difficult) to argue that the language is Old Hebrew. Ultimately, however, as is often the case, there is no diagnostic element present which allows us to draw a firm conclusion. For this reason, the matter of the precise dialect of Northwest Semitic must be left open for this inscription, but my belief is that “Canaanite” is the best way to refer to the language of this incised pithos.

Finally, I should like to conclude by stating that I believe this is a nice inscription, important in various ways. Of course, I personally would be very disinclined to “build a kingdom upon this potsherd.” But I would wish to state that this is an inscription that fits nicely into, and augments, the totality of our epigraphic evidence for the early Iron Age, and I congratulate Eilat Mazar on this find and I congratulate Shmuel Ahituv and David Ben-Shlomo and Eilat Mazar on its publication in the pages of Israel Exploration Journal.


ADDENDUM I: Gershon Galil has indicated to me that he reads this inscription as sinistrograde, yielding, of course, the “portion,” “part” root. This is a plausible reading, but because reading this inscription as dextrograde accounts so nicely for the direction of both the lamed and the nun (i.e., the way which these letters are facing), and because the word “pot” followed by a personal name or a commodity works so nicely, I continue to prefer to read this inscription in this fashion. I thank Gerson Galil for bringing his reading to my attention. Sincerely, Chris Rollston


Addendum II, Sunday, July 14.

Quick notes, replying to some queries and comments.

(1) The reason for my preference for the 11th century is the fact that the script is Early Alphabetic, not Phoenician. The Phoenician script, as we know it, was developed in the 11th century, and from that point on, that script (i.e., Phoenician script) spread rapidly and it became the MutterSchrift of the subsequent (daughter) national scripts: Old Hebrew and Aramaic. It is not impossible that there were two parallel script traditions and that the Early Alphabetic script and the Phoenician script lived side-by-side for some time. At this point, however, the evidence need not be understood in this way. I suspect that there were pockets where conversion from Early Alphabetic to the Phoenician script took longer. (2) The fact that the find may have been, or was, a 10th century context does not preclude the possibility that the pot itself was from the 11th century. Usage periods can be longer than we might presuppose, even for pots. (3) Furthermore, I think that even if a pottery form is well attested in a particular horizon, there can be, and often are precursors to it. Within the field of palaeography we call these harbinger forms. The same thing can happen with pots..that is, a form that is predominant in one period can have very similar, or even identical ancestors in a preceding horizon. (4) As for the notion of heirloom pots…I did not indicate that this is the way that I personally felt. Rather I stated that it was possible. From my perspective, possible and probable are two very different things. (5) Finally, with regard to the 11th century vs the 10th century….we’re talking about a few decades. That’s it. I don’t think that pottery typology (and the bases for it) or palaeographic typology (or the bases for it) are so precise (in terms of absolute dates) that there is much to argue about here. We’re talking about a few decades. That’s it. (6) Final comment….someone queried about whether or not I knew the Serabit script well (an amusing comment to say the least). Suffice it to say, that, yes, I have known it well for a very long time now.

With all best wishes,



9 April 2013


Christopher A. Rollston
Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures
George Washington University
Washington, D.C.


One of the most auspicious developments in “forgery detection” during recent years has been the development and usage of laboratory methods to attempt to determine deauthenticity. Most welcome, therefore, is the recent report (e.g., the article by Stephanie Pappas on the Huffington Post) which discusses the laboratory tests on the Gospel of Judas. It seems to me that this is very useful and I think that these results bode well for that particular document (especially because National Geographic’s “Standards and Practices” people are among the very best, and they clearly maintained strict protocols with regard to the laboratory analyses of the Gospel of Judas). Moreover, it has also been reported that the “Jesus Wife Papyrus” has been sent off for laboratory tests. I applaud this as well (I should hasten to add, as discussed below, that it would be particularly useful if the actual lab reports, rather than just the results, would be published as well. For example, it would be very useful to see the graphs generated by the spectroscopy).

I would also wish to emphasize at this time, though, that laboratory reports also require an interpreter. Those of us in the humanities sometimes seem to forget this (at least in practice). Here are a few scenarios, most of which are now attested in the laboratory analysis of actual epigraphic objects from the antiquities market (see section II below). Scenario 1: an epigraphic object is sent for analysis and the laboratory finds modern contaminants under the patina. At that point, the hard scientist has to make a decision. She or he could suggest that the piece is a modern forgery. This is entirely rational and I think quite convincing in most cases. However, it would be possible for him or her to propose that the modern contaminants under the patina could be the result of storage and handling practices (and thus they might suggest that the piece is actually ancient). In other words, the hard scientist must make a decision about the best way to understand the laboratory results. Scenario 2: Or again, let us say that someone has a potsherd from the antiquities market with an ink inscription on it and they send it off to a laboratory for thermoluminescence testing. The results for the thermoluminescence test would probably suggest that the pottery was indeed fired in antiquity. The hard scientist might conclude that this inscription is indeed ancient, based on the results of the thermoluminescence testing. However, this could be wrong. After all, a savvy forger would surely use an ancient potsherd and then forge an inscription on it, in a script and language that corresponds very nicely with the region and time period from which the potsherd came. That is, just because the potsherd is ancient doesn’t mean that the inscription is ancient. Scenario 3: Similarly, someone might send a piece of papyrus off for Accelerator Mass Spectrometry testing (an advanced form of carbon dating) in order to determine if the writing on it is ancient. The AMS test might very well indicate that the papyrus is ancient. However, it would not be prudent for a hard scientist automatically to conclude that the text was authentic, as ancient papyrus is something that can be purchased on the antiquities market and a modern forger worth his or her salt would be wise enough to use that as the medium. Scenario 4: Someone might propose that analyzing the ink should be considered decisive. This is difficult, as finding enough carbon in ink is very difficult (i.e., even for an AMS test, which requires less Carbon 14). But someone might suggest that spectroscopic analysis of the ink could be used, so as to determine the chemical composition of the ink. I believe that this could be useful, at least at times. But I would also hasten to add that enough is known now about the production of ink in antiquity (and the chemical makeup of many inks) that a savvy forger could also find some ancient carbonized remains (e.g., a piece of carbonized timber found on an excavation) and use that as the basis for the production of ink that appears ancient indeed, employing also data known about the rest of the chemicals often found in actual ancient inks (e.g., the right amount of iron, etc.).

For these sorts of reasons, I believe that caution should be the modus operandi. Of course, it is often suggested that forgers are not really that gifted, that savvy, and it is also suggested at times that no one who actually had such knowledge and talent would ever produce modern forgeries (i.e., someone that smart would not do it because of ethical reservations about such activities). Actually, I am convinced that the best modern forgers have formidable intellects and abilities and I think that the recent past demonstrates this rather convincingly, as some modern forgers have fooled some very gifted scholars. Moreover, I find it to be sweet that someone would assume that no one capable of producing really good modern forgeries would do so, but I am not convinced that brains and ethics necessarily always go hand in hand. Thus, I continue to be convinced that the future will see epigraphic forgeries that are absolutely undetectable. Indeed, I have already seen some inscriptions (and analyzed them microscopically) that are virtually perfect, from the script and language to the medium and the patina. I suspect that this will only increase in the coming years.

In addition, I must also admit that I think the field of epigraphy should be very careful about determining the credentials for the laboratory and the hard scientists. Not all labs are equal and not all hard scientists are equal. And there is always an interpretive component. Furthermore, I think that it should go without saying that those with a vested interest in the results should have no part in the sending of pieces to laboratories.

The remainder of this blog post focuses on protocols for laboratory testing as well as a discussion of some laboratory tests which have been performed on epigraphic objects during recent years, including some of the problems with some of these tests. Most of the discussion that follows first appeared in print in an article of mine published a decade ago in the journal Maarav (2003) [footnote 1]. In any case, the focus will be on (1) useful protocols for laboratory testing, (2) followed by concrete discussion of lab testing, based on published lab reports (and some of the problems with these). The hope of all this is that the field can continue to become more and more conscious of the need for the employment of strict protocols for laboratory testing and the importance of understanding the interpretive component that is part of laboratory analysis.


Owners, agents of owners, buyers, agents of buyers, dealers of antiquity, and epigraphists are often interested in having laboratory tests performed on non-provenanced epigraphic objects. In addition, these groups are often required to assess the results and significance of laboratory tests. For methodological reasons, I would argue that certain protocols should be adhered to so that the laboratory tests can actually function as valuable tools.

(1) First, laboratories must be demonstrably legitimate institutions, with the capability of performing the appropriate laboratory tests, and with credentialed individuals performing the tests. Because most epigraphists are not au courante with regard to the best scientific laboratories, there is the potential for substandard laboratories to “authenticate” objects without sufficient scientific bases, and for epigraphists to “accept” such results as authoritative. Furthermore, laboratories that have “authenticated” forged objects (e.g., because of incompetence or collusion) are not to be considered the most reliable and authoritative for future tests [footnote 2].

(2) Second, it is prudent for multiple laboratories, performing the same basic tests, on the same objects, to be used; moreover, it is also imperative that said labs do not communicate together regarding the objects. It is preferable for at least two labs to be used, but cases of conflicting results will necessitate the use of additional labs [footnote 3].

(3) It is of fundamental importance that the laboratory tests be double blind. That is, those requesting the test should not know the names of the laboratories or scientists performing the laboratory tests, and the laboratories should not know the names of the owners, potential buyers, dealers, or (ideally) even the name(s) of the epigraphist(s) studying the epigraphs. Laboratory tests that are not double blind are of minimal value, or perhaps of no value at all, because violation of this protocol ultimately compromises the process, either in theory, or in fact [footnote 4].

(4) Generally, no information about the epigraphic object’s potential or probable antiquity (and thus authenticity) should be given. The reason for this is simply that the scientist performing the laboratory tests, if he or she knows the expected or desired results of the test, can factor in various data in particular ways in order to achieve the expected or desired result [footnote 5].

(5) The full report of all tests should be made available in complete form in the formal publication of the inscription. Laboratory tests that violate these protocols, rigorous though the lab tests may appear, are to be considered of modest value, or of no value at all [footnote 6].

(6) With high profile epigraphs or corpora of epigraphs, when it is readily apparent that there are problems with the laboratory tests performed previously, museums, departments of antiquity, and universities will sometimes need to intervene and appoint disinterested specialists to analyze said epigraphs or corpora. Of course, in circumstances such as this it will not be possible for the tests to be double-blind. Nonetheless, it is expected that a full publication of these lab results will be satisfactory [footnote 7].


Laboratory tests can be of substantial usefulness in “deauthenticating” epigraphic objects [footnote 8]. Because laboratory tests have been widely used in recent years, and because “laboratory authentication” is often considered definitive, the usefulness of laboratory tests, especially the necessary protocols for laboratory tests and the necessary caveats regarding their decisiveness, merits discussion. For the sake of clarity, various specific laboratory analyses will be discussed; however, it should be noted that this discussion is not exhaustive, but rather illustrative. Finally, although I have attempted to make this discussion accessible, it is inevitable that some specialized vocabulary will be used [footnote 9].


The “Moussaieff Ostraca” have been subjected to certain laboratory tests [footnote 10]. The McCrone affirmed that the soil on the ostraca was Middle Eastern and that the chemical composition of the ink was very similar to that of some of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This data is, of course, of limited usefulness, as carbon based ink is not difficult to produce, and the presence of Middle Eastern soil on an object ultimately proves absolutely nothing about the antiquity of an object [footnote 11].

Mikrofokus Oy Lab focused its analysis on a white patina covering the surface of the ostraca. Using a SEM-EDS (i.e., a scanning electron microscope equipped with an EDS), the McCrone lab had determined that there was a micrometeorite or pyrophoric igniter powder (e.g., from a cigarette lighter) contaminating a sample. Moreover, Mikrofokus Oy affirmed the presence of “spherical particles found which seem to be inside the lower layer of the white material” (i.e., under the patina). The lab then noted that the particles were composed of silicon, and that they were identical in form, size, and chemical composition to those commonly found among flyash particles in industrial environments. Mikrofokus Oy suggested that these were indeed modern contaminants, but ultimately proposed that such particles need not mean that the ostraca were forgeries, even though they were found under the patina. Variable handling and storage practices were assumed to be the cause of this anomaly. Moreover, because producing such a patina today would require a special environment, access to calcite crystals of the right size, specialized knowledge, and a long time, (e.g., “years”), the lab concluded that the patina on the ostraca was a natural precipitation product, and that “what is under the white material must then be genuine.” Note that the Mikrofokus Oy lab, however, was able to duplicate the patina on the ostraca quite closely, using sodium silicate, calcium carbonate, and water.

Obviously, Mikrofokus Oy’s interpretation is a possible interpretation of the data generated by their SEM-EDS test, but it is my opinion that this test does not actually generate much confidence. That is, a number of their interpretations of these test results are potentially troubling. For example, the modern contaminants under the patina could justifiably be understood as being there because the patina was produced during the modern period. Indeed, this is perfectly plausible. Also, the Mikrofokus Oy laboratory assumes that the patina is probably not modern because few people have the appropriate chemicals and the ability to produce such a patina. However, within their own report, Mikrofokus Oy stated that they were able to produce a similar patina, within a very short period. The position of Mikrofokus Oy seems to be that if the patina is not easy to reproduce, then it is safe to assume that it was not done in this case on these ostraca. This is not, however, a necessary conclusion, and I would argue that it is not even necessarily a logical conclusion. In short, it is my opinion that although these tests do not necessarily demonstrate that the Moussaieff Ostraca must be disqualified (i.e., considered forgeries), neither is it possible to state in any way that these tests are non-problematic, and authenticate the ostraca.

The Geological Survey of Israel performed SEM-EDS analyses on the patina of the “Ya‘akov Ossuary” [footnote 12] The results showed that the patina is composed mainly of CaC03 (93%) and contains Si – 5.0%; A1 – 0.7%; Fe – 0.3%; P – 0.4%; and Mg – 0.2%. The report notes that there are no modern elements (such as modern pigments), and the patina adheres firmly to the stone. Again, this is valuable information, but it is imperative that one not conclude or assume, on the basis of this evidence, that this entire inscription is ancient. Rather, this test simply demonstrates that this object need not be disqualified on the basis of the chemical composition of the patina. It certainly does not authenticate the patina. Indeed, the report implicitly concedes this point with the words: “no evidence that might detract from the authenticity of the patina and the inscription was found.” This is an important and honest assessment; however, it must be noted that the absence of certain anomalies in the chemical composition of a patina is not the same as a demonstration of the antiquity of a patina [footnote 13].

The Geological Survey of Israel’s official report for the Jehoash Inscription is much more detailed than the one published (initially) for the ossuary, but this official report is replete with some problems, alas [footnote 14]. For example, (1) the report assumes that if the patina on the medium (in this case, stone) essentially “matches” that which is in the grooves of the inscription, the inscription must be ancient. This is problematic, as it is possible to argue that a modern forger had carefully chosen a stone, cleaned it with non-treated water (e.g., water from a pure spring), incised it, and then the stone was buried and a patina “cultivated,” either passively (just letting it develop naturally with the compounds in the soil and rainfall) or actively (i.e., “watering” the soil at times, and adding some “safe” compounds, such as lime, iron, etc.) that might assist in the development of the patina. The result would be a patina on the surface of the rock that reflected a chemical composition that was similar to that of the inscribed area. Of course, Goren has now demonstrated conclusively that the precise patina described by the Geological Survey of Israel could be produced quite readily in a lab [footnote 15]. (2) The Geological Survey of Israel put enormous credence in the fact that within the patina were organic materials that could be dated (on the basis of 14C) to antiquity. Again, this is an interpretation, but because ancient organic materials are readily available on the market (as well as to those associated with excavations), this cannot be considered the interpretation. A clever forger is certainly capable of attempting to dupe a lab technician by augmenting a fabricated patina with some organic material. Moreover, with regard to the Jehoash Inscription in particular, this is now the most convincing interpretation [footnote 16].

During the past fifty years, of course, Carbon 14 tests have indeed been very helpful in assessing the antiquity of organic material at times. For example, Carbon 14 tests (AMS) were performed on various Dead Sea Scrolls, and the results were decisive, demonstrating the antiquity of the scrolls and providing a control on palaeographic analysis [footnote 17]. Moreover, several decades ago, Carbon 14 tests were performed on the “Hebron Documents” and the tests yielded a modern date, a date that has stood, pace Mendenhall [footnote 18]. Nevertheless, several caveats must be kept in mind even with Carbon 14. (1) Variable handling and storage conditions can have an impact on laboratory tests such as Carbon 14. (2) A Carbon 14 test of organic material (e.g., leather, papyrus) does not necessarily demonstrate the antiquity of the inscription, as pieces of ancient leather and papyrus are sometimes found without visible writing, and can be readily used by a modern forger as the “medium” (i.e., material) for a forgery.


Thermoluminescence testing is a potentially important means of determining the age of an object that has suffered in some sort of a conflagration. In essence, very high temperatures reset the thermoluminescence “clock.” Hence, fired ceramics (and “burned” bullae) can be subjected to a thermoluminescence test, and an approximate date of firing can be determined. Thermoluminescence testing on non-provenanced objects, however, is generally not nearly as precise as radiocarbon dating, because there are numerous (quite imprecise) variables to calculate. For example, the chemical content of the soil in which an object has been deposited, the proximity of rocks, and even the types of rocks, all impact the thermoluminescence signal. Therefore, non-provenanced objects, and even provenanced objects not accompanied by samples of the soil surrounding the objects, yield only very approximate dates, with a plus or minus of centuries.

Thermoluminescence texts were recently performed on Hebrew bullae that had ostensibly been fired in some sort of conflagration. Namely, during January 1997, a thermoluminescence test on a bulla was performed by Doreen Stoneham at the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art in Oxford. The report is important for a number of reasons. For example, it states that the sample was obtained in “powdered form on 8 January 1997” by Doreen Stoneham, and that it was “presumed” to have been taken from a “small fragment of terracotta.” Stoneham concludes that “using standard methods and techniques it is estimated that the material of the sample was “last fired between 1100 and 1800 years ago” and that this is consistent with the “suggested period of manufacture of the object concerned.” The report concludes by noting that the “result is given in good faith; however the laboratory takes no responsibility for financial loss incurred through an erroneous report being given,” that is, with a certain amount of customary legalese [footnote 19]. Obviously, this thermoluminescence test suggests that the “powder” analyzed was ancient [footnote 20].

Ralf Kotalla of the Ralf Kotalla “Laboratory” (the quotation marks are part of the official document’s report) performed a thermoluminescence test on an Iron Age bulla as well. Kotalla’s report states that the bulla was “2700 years old +/- 20% of the overall age,” and even notes that it originated in the “Orient.” In addition, Kotalla notes that the “assumed age on the basis of stylistic characteristics [is] appr. 2700 years” [footnote 21]. These thermoluminescence test results are especially interesting, because Kotalla was told the precise date of this bulla (i.e., based on the script it dates to ca. 700 BCE). For this reason, he was able to factor in numerous variables and produce a date that corresponded perfectly with the desired result. Stoneham’s test yielded an honest result, but Kotalla’s reflects severe bias. Note that I am not necessarily questioning the antiquity of these bullae. Indeed, for “fired” bullae, a thermoluminescence test is potentially helpful [footnote 22].


Spectrographic analyses can be very useful as well, for example, in determining the composition of a metal. Two inscribed arrowheads were analyzed at Conservation Laboratory of the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. several years ago. Based on the script, the arrowheads appeared to derive from the Late Bronze Age. The precise results of the spectrographic analyses were as follows: Arrowhead 1: CU 78.925%; ZN – ; PB 7.166%; FE 1.878%; SN 11.940%; and AS 0.091%. Arrowhead 2: CU 73.731%; ZN 0.035%; PB 5.055%; FE 0.981%; SN 20.198%; and AS – ; The absence of zinc in the first arrowhead and the minimal amount in the second arrowhead is important, since copper alloyed with zinc (brass) is rarely found in ancient artifacts. However, McCarter has astutely noted that the “antiquity of the arrowhead is no guarantee of the antiquity of the inscription,” and he states further that “there is now reason to believe that forged arrowheads have begun to appear on the antiquities market” [footnote 23]. The Freer also subjected these arrowheads to microscopic examination as well, and this revealed that the corrosion on the surface of the blades is also present in the incised grooves of their inscriptions. It has been argued that this “mitigates strongly against the possibility that either inscription is modern” [footnote 24]. I concur that this information is helpful, and I am not questioning the antiquity of the inscriptions on these arrowheads. Nonetheless, I would note that creating a corrosion on the surface of a metal object (either before or after cleaning the object) is not difficult for the right person, with access to the right chemicals [footnote 25].

Ultimately, because some forgers are quite savvy about laboratory tests (and because lab scientists have sometimes failed to consider the skills of forgers and their associates), such tests are often helpful, but cannot normally be considered decisive in determining authenticity. Obviously, laboratory tests can disqualify an inscription, but this is not the same as authentication.


At this juncture, I should also like to note another type of problematic data that is used to argue for the antiquity of an inscription, namely, that of the tools employed to produce it. For example, regarding the Ya‘akov Ossuary, it was noted that there were “no signs of the use of a modern tool or instrument found” [footnote 26]. Again, this is useful information, but it could never be considered decisive. A shrewd forger could certainly have used an ancient tool, ancient worked metal, or modern bronze or iron consisting of the same composition as ancient tools, so as to have produced the entire inscription, or a portion thereof. Methodologically, it is simply not sage to assume that a modern forger would not take such precautions. Indeed, I would argue that a good modern forger would definitely take such precautions, for modest precautions yield large dividends.

In sum, the use of laboratory tests for inscriptions from the market is auspicious, but the labs conducting the tests must be vetted, protocols for the testing must be put in place in every case, and the results of the laboratory tests must be fully published so that they can be scrutinized as well. In short, there is much to be hopeful about, but methodological doubt must be maintained as well.

[footnote 1]. Rollston, “Non-Provenanced Epigraphs I: Pillaged Antiquities, Northwest Semitic Forgeries, and Protocols for Laboratory Tests.” MAARAV 10 (2003): 135-193.

[footnote 2]. P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. has suggested (personal communication) that it could be very useful to submit three epigraphs to the labs: the epigraph of interest, another that is definitely a fake, and a third that is definitely ancient. That is, he is suggesting the use of “control groups,” as it were.

[footnote 3]. Note, for example, that excavators routinely send samples of organic materials to multiple (often two) labs. The point is that using multiple labs can function as a “control” of sorts.

[footnote 4]. The point here is that recently owners, dealers, or agents thereof, have been taking objects to the lab of their choice, verbalizing expected results, and paying for the tests. This is hardly the ideal.

[footnote 5]. With regard to this issue, note the problems with the thermoluminescence tests discussed earlier.

[footnote 6]. Note that the initial report on the Ya‘akov Ossuary published by the Geological Survey of Israel did not contain much of the raw data or summaries that are to be expected of a SEM-EDS analysis. See A. Rosenfeld and S. Ilani, “SEM-EDS Analyses of Patina,” 29.

[footnote 7]. In my opinion, the IAA should be applauded for doing precisely this during 2003 (for the Ya‘akov Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription).

[footnote 8] The (2003) report from the commission convened by the IAA to do laboratory analyses of the Ya‘akov Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription demonstrates this point. Needless to say, I am not convinced by those who have criticized the conclusions of the IAA committee. Indeed, some of the attempted “rebuttals of the report,” read like apologias. In any case, for a brief, but cautious and sound discussion of laboratory testing, see also N. S. Fox, In the Service of the King, 30-31.

[footnote 9]. For a cursory review of the methods discussed here, see W. Ashmore and R. J. Sharer, Discovering our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology, 3rd ed (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000), esp. 159-168. For analysis using a scanning electron microscope, see also my discussion: C.A. Rollston, “Laboratory Analysis of the Moussaeff Ostraca using the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) with an Energy Dispersive X-Ray Microanalyzer (EDS),” 8.

[footnote 10]. For a summary of the lab reports, see C.A. Rollston, “Laboratory Analysis of the Moussaïeff Ostraca using the Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) with an Energy Dispersive X-Ray Microanalyzer (EDS),” 8-9.

[footnote 11]. Regarding the composition of the ink of ancient inscriptions, see A. Lewis, “Report on the Lachish Letters with Remarks upon the Use of Iron Inks in Antiquity,” in The Lachish Letters, ed. H. Torczyner (Tur-Sinai), 138-193. Of course, carbon (of various sorts) is often found on excavations. The production of carbon ink that appears ancient (e.g., on a 14C test) should not be problematic in the modern period.

[footnote 12]. A Rosenfeld and S. Ilani, “SEM-EDS Analyses of Patina Samples,” BARev 28 (Nov/Dec 2002): 29.

[footnote 13]. Note that there are various other problems with this report as well. For example, the report states that the gray patina found on the surface of the ossuary was “found also within some of the letters, although the inscription was cleaned and the patina is therefore absent from several letters.” However, there is no statement of precisely which letters had this patina and which lacked it (an important issue for various reasons, but especially because of the suggestion that the second half of the inscription was from a later hand). Of course, forgers can use the issue of “cleaning” to their advantage, in various ways.

[footnote 14]. S. Ilani, A. Rosenfeld, and M. Dvorachek, “A Stone Tablet with an Ancient Hebrew Inscription Attributed to Yehoash, King of Judea: Archaeometry and Epigraphy,” GSI Current Research 13 (2003): 109-13.

[footnote 15]. Y. Goren, “An Alternative Interpretation of the Stone Tablet.”

[footnote 16]. Goren proposed this in his article “An Alternative Interpretation of the Stone Tablet,” 7. E. Boaretto’s final report for the IAA also states that the carbon material in the patina of the Jehoash Inscription does not indicate authenticity.

[footnote 17]. See G. Doudna, “Dating the Scrolls on the Basis of Radiocarbon Analysis,” in The Dead Sea Scrolls after Fifty Years, ed. P.W. Flint and J. C. VanderKam (Leiden: Brill, 1998), vol. 1: 430-471.

[footnote 18]. G.E. Mendenhall, “Philistine Documents,” 99.

[footnote 19]. This report is printed in the editio princeps of various non-provenanced inscriptions, namely: R. Deutsch, Messages from the Past: Hebrew Bullae from the Time of Isaiah through the Destruction of the First Temple: Shlomo Moussaieff Collection and an Up to Date Corpus (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 1997), 169. Recently, R. Deutsch also edited a Festschrift in honor of S. Moussaieff, a collector of antiquities, and published a number of additional bullae. See Shlomo: Studies in Epigraphy, Iconography, History, and Archaeology in Honor of Shlomo Moussaieff (Tel Aviv: Archaeological Center Publications, 2003).

[footnote 20]. The date yielded by this test are very broad, and considerably later than might have been expected for an Iron Age bulla. Among the reasons for this are (1) the large number of variables that must be calculated, but cannot be done with precision without data regarding the context in which it was ostensibly found; (2) the theoretical possibility that it suffered a conflagration centuries after its date of manufacture; (3) the theoretical possibility that it has been exposed to some sort of irradiation.

[footnote 21]. For the report, see R. Deutsch, Messages from the Past, 168.

[footnote 22]. I should like to propose that epigraphists and laboratories should anticipate that some forgers may attempt to carve bullae (in relief) from ceramics fired in antiquity, and then to patinate the “epigraph.” Of course, it should be noted that for ostraca, thermoluminescence tests are useless (i.e., a test performed on a fired potsherd) as a forger will find ample sherds in the Middle East upon which to pen his or her logia.

[footnote 23]. P. K. McCarter, Jr., “Two Bronze Arrowheads with Archaic Alphabetic Inscriptions,” in Eretz-Israel 26: Frank Moore Cross Volume, ed. B.A. Levine, et al., (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1999), 126-127.

[footnote 24]. P. K. McCarter, Jr., “Two Bronze Arrowheads,” 127.

[footnote 25]. That is, a forger could take a “blank” ancient bronze arrowhead, prepare the surface, forge an inscription, and then create a corrosion (or some type of patina). David A. Scott, senior scientist at the Getty Conservation Institute, has stated (personal communication) that in this case, “the patina under the inscription would be different than the patina over the rest of the surface.” That is, Scott argues that it would be detectable. However, he affirms that the arrowhead “would have to be cut” (and then it should be possible “to tell by metallography that the inscription was added and not original to the object).” If the arrowhead was not cut, Scott suggests that “it should still be possible” to make determinations regarding the differences in the patinas (and thus the antiquity of the inscription itself), but he stated that one would then “have trouble describing the process easily.” For more data about these subjects, see “D.A. Scott, Copper and Bronze in Art: Corrosion, Colorants, Conservation (Getty Conservation Institute, 2002). Ultimately, the point is that even a corrosion should not automatically be assumed to be indicative of antiquity. Certain types of corrosions can be created; therefore, sophisticated laboratory tests (sometimes destructive) are needed to determine the depth and nature of the corrosion in order to assess the antiquity of the inscription.

[footnote 26]. A. Rosenfeld and S. Ilani, “SEM-EDS Analyses of Patina Samples,” BARev 28 (Nov/Dec 2002): 29.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Destruction of Jerusalem, The Cyrus Cylinder, and the Building of the Second Temple

27 March 2013

Nebuchadnezzar’s Destruction of Jerusalem, The Cyrus Cylinder, the Building of the Second Temple:
A Brief Historical Synopsis of Salient Elements

Christopher A. Rollston, Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures,
George Washington University

Cyrus the Great of Persia is called “Meshiah” (that is, “Anointed One,” “Messiah”) in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 45:1 and Yahweh’s “Shepherd” in Isaiah 44:28. This sort of grandiose language may seem striking to some. It should, as it is striking. But the backstory provides the basic rationale for this lofty verbiage. Namely, several decades before Second Isaiah referred to Cyrus as “Meshiah“ and “Shepherd,” Judah had suffered mightily at the hands of the Babylonians. It all began in ca. 597 BCE. The gold and silver of the Jerusalem Temple and Royal Palace had been plundered, but both buildings still stood. King Nebuchadnezzar the Great of Babylon was marching victoriously back to Babylon, not only with these precious metals but also with several thousand Judean prisoners of war. Among them were King Jehoiachin and much of the Judean royal family (2 Kings 24). Things were bad, but they would get worse, as Nebuchadnezzar would return to Jerusalem some ten years later to avenge and to destroy. Nebuchadnezzar’s rationale was this: Zedekiah had become king of Judah after Jehoiachin was exiled but he had not been the loyal vassal for whom Nebuchadnezzar had hoped. Nebuchadnezzar was angry, he came to Jerusalem and besieged it for some eighteen to twenty months, beginning around 587 BCE (2 Kings 25).

Conditions inside Jerusalem soon became desperate. The book of Kings laconically states that during the terminal portion of the siege “the famine became so severe that there was no food for the people” (2 Kings 25:3). But the poet of Lamentations limns the picture more poignantly, “the hands of compassionate women had boiled their children, they became food for them” (Lam 4:10). Desperation reigned. Then things deteriorated further. The walls were breached and the Temple and Palace were burned to the ground, along with all the houses of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:9). And brutality of a different sort began as hand-to-hand combat concluded: “women in Zion were raped, virgins (raped) in the cities of Judah” and “princes were hung by their hands” (Lam 5:11, 12). Words could not adequately describe the horror.

Zedekiah had abandoned Jerusalem shortly before its fall. But he and his young sons were captured near Jericho, deserted by the armed Judean soldiers who had pledged to protect them. Nebuchadnezzar decreed that Zedekiah and his sons be brought forward. They were, and then Zedekiah’s young sons were brutally slaughtered before their loving father’s eyes. At that point, a Babylonian soldier gouged out the Judean king’s eyes, his last visual memory now a haunting one. Zedekiah was led away in chains to Babylon (2 Kings 25:7). The year was 586 BCE. This was the nadir of nadirs. From the hill of Zion profound sorrow and anger flowed. Raw human emotion is reflected in the words of a Psalmist: “O daughter of Babylon, you destroyer. Happy are the ones who seize your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:8-9). Nebuchadnezzar’s campaigns against Judah had brought bloodshed, starvation, and destruction. Judah remembered Nebuchadnezzar as a brutal conqueror, and this he was.

But history is made of reversals and the tables were soon turned. East of the Tigris River, Cyrus the Great had begun to reign in Persia (around 559 BCE), and he soon began to weld together a full-fledged empire, defeating the Kingdom of the Medes and the Kingdom of Lydia. King Nabonidus (r. 556-539 BCE) was on the throne of Babylon, as one of the successors of Nebuchadnezzar the Great. But he would be Babylon’s last king. He had already spent around a decade of his reign at Tayma, an oasis in the Arabian Desert. There is actually an allusion to this tradition in an Aramaic Dead Sea Scroll called “The Prayer of Nabonidus.” In any case, based on the Mesopotamian texts at our disposal, there seem to have been some rumblings against Nabonidus even during his decade at the oasis, especially within the Babylonian priesthood. After all, he was said to have been most devoted to the Moon God Sîn rather than Marduk, the head of the Babylonian pantheon. Nabonidus was an apostate, or so it seemed to some. He returned from the oasis, disaster now looming across the Tigris River. Then Cyrus began to march, and the prize he wanted most was the kingdom of Nabonidus.

The ancient historical sources are not all in agreement about the battles that were fought between the Babylonians and the Persians. Cyrus himself boasts that he entered Babylon without a battle, hailed (he says) as a liberator even by the Babylonians themselves. But the full story was certainly bloodier, and the Babylonian supporters of Cyrus fewer (Herodotus suggests as much). Nevertheless, Cyrus gained his prize, Babylon was his in 539 BCE. The Persian Empire Period had begun. Babylon had fallen. The Judeans who had felt the brunt of Babylon’s war machine fifty years earlier probably shed few tears at this news.

But there is more. Cyrus not only brought the Babylonian Empire to its knees, he also decreed (according to the book of Ezra) that the exiled Judeans in his realm be permitted to return to Judah and to rebuild the Temple. According to the book of Ezra, he also allowed the exiles to take with them (some of) the sacred vessels which had been pillaged from the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar. And the book of Ezra states that there was an edict of Cyrus that said: “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he commissioned me to build for him the Temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (Ezra 1 and 6). In due time, work on the Second Temple would begin, and it would be completed by around 516 BCE, during the reign of Darius the Great of Persia (r. 522-486 BCE). It is within this context that the words of Isaiah 44 and 45 are best understood. Cyrus of Persia had destroyed the (Babylonian) destroyers of Jerusalem, freed the Judean Exiles, and decreed that the Jerusalem Temple be rebuilt. I suspect that Second Isaiah was not alone in his jubilation about Cyrus.

Cyrus was certainly famous in antiquity (and in the modern period) for his benevolence, even among the Greeks, due in part to Xenophon’s lengthy work entitled “Cyropaidia” (literally, the ‘Education of Cyrus’). But during excavations in Babylon in 1879, the now famous “Cyrus Cylinder” was found, galvanizing further the reputation of Cyrus. Certain salient facts about this cuneiform text are worth mentioning at the outset: (a) In terms of size, it is quite small, about ten inches by four inches, and cylindrical in shape. (b) In terms of language, although Cyrus was a Persian, the Cyrus Cylinder is written in the Akkadian language (i.e., not in Persian, the native language of Cyrus). Of course, this makes sense, as the target audience for this inscription was Babylonian, not Persian. (c) In terms of the amount of textual content, the Cylinder is relatively short, just a few hundred words long, preserved in some forty to fifty lines of cuneiform text. (d) In terms of date, it arguably hails from the very first years of the reign of Cyrus. (e) In terms of archaeological context, it was found as a “foundation deposit” in an ancient Babylonian building.

The content of this text is priceless, and it is laced with some very savvy royal apologia. It is most impressive. Here is a synopsis of the content of the Cyrus Cylinder, using the translations of Irving Finkel of the British Museum. The text begins with a narrative in the third person (rather than the first person, that is, “he” not “I”) which condemns the Babylonian King Nabonidus (whom Cyrus had just vanquished, of course), along with statements impugning Nabonidus for not being a pious worshipper of Marduk. The Cyrus Cylinder says that because of Marduk’s anger for Nabonidus, He (Marduk) raised up Cyrus the Persian, “an upright king,” taking him “by the hand” and ordering him (Cyrus) to go to Babylon and remove Nabonidus from power. Moreover, Marduk was “like a friend and a companion” to Cyrus. Then, at line 20 of the Cyrus Cylinder, the grammatical first person begins to be used. “I am Cyrus, king of the world!” Cyrus himself then declares that he is the king “whom Divine Marduk and Divine Nabu love.” He also states that upon his arrival in Babylon, the Babylonian people welcomed him with joy as he entered. He affirms that they viewed him as a liberator. After he became nicely ensconced in Babylon, Cyrus states that many kings from various regions “brought me weighty tribute” and “kissed my feet.” In return, he decrees that the people from various regions that had come under his dominion (especially because he had just vanquished Babylon) should be allowed to return to their homelands and to rebuild their temples. In addition, he requests the following: “May all the Gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Marduk and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds.” Finally, he also affirms that he has “enabled all the lands to live in peace.” The Cyrus Cylinder is a stunning archaeological artifact.

We do not know much at all about the personal religion of Cyrus the Great, but it is most reasonable to contend that he worshipped some of the Persian Gods, perhaps especially the God Ahuramazda. This was, after all, the case for several of the Persian kings who succeeded Cyrus. Therefore, it is all the more interesting that that Cyrus declares in the Cyrus Cylinder (written for a Babylonian audience) that he vanquished Babylon because the Babylonian God Marduk told him to do so! Of course, kings in the ancient Near East normally declared that they had divine patronage, but normally of their own Gods. In this case, however, Cyrus declares that the Babylonian God Marduk transferred His support from the Babylonian King Nabonidus and gave it to the Persian King Cyrus. Moreover, it is important to remember in this connection that the book of Ezra states that Cyrus had said something similar to the Judeans, namely, “Yahweh, the God of Heaven, has given me (Cyrus) all the kingdoms of the earth, and he commissioned me to build for him the temple in Jerusalem, which is in Judah” (see Ezra 1 and 6). That is, according to these texts, Cyrus told the Babylonians that the Babylonian God Marduk told him to do what he did, and Cyrus told the Judeans that the Judean God Yahweh told him to do what he did. And I think that it is entirely reasonable to suppose that Cyrus told the Persian people that the Persian God Ahurzmazda told him to do what he did. I should note in this connection that this sort of brilliant royal apologia is not confined to Cyrus. After all, during King Sennacherib of Assyria’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BCE, the Assyrian Rab Shakeh uses (at least according to 2 Kings 18:25) the same sort of rhetoric, arguing that it was Yahweh the God of Judah who summoned him (Sennacherib) to attack Judah. And the Neo-Assyrian Kings Esarhaddon and Ashurbanipal used similar rhetoric as well.

Of course, much has been made, especially during the past few decades, of the religious and political tolerance and generous diplomacy of Cyrus the Great. In fact, the Cyrus Cylinder itself has been referred to at times as an “Icon of Freedom” and even as “The First Bill of Human Rights,” oft repeated slogans as it is now in the midst of museum travels in the United States. Some thirty years ago, however, Amelie Kuhrt argued quite cogently that these sorts of appellatives might just be too grandiose. And most scholars within the field have concurred with Kuhrt’s corrective (demonstated again very nicely by Jacob Wright’s fine article on the Huffington Post several months ago). After all, the text of the Cyrus Cylinder is rather brief and much of the language contained in it can be found in earlier ancient Near Eastern Royal Inscriptions. And there is no grand affirmation of human rights within the Cyrus Cylinder, per se. And although Cyrus allowed the various people-groups (e.g., those who had been captured and exiled by the Babylonians) to return to their homelands, these people would certainly remain under Persian hegemony, and fealty to Persia would be demanded (including tribute). In short, there were some strings attached, big strings.

But I should also wish to emphasize that, at least for me, I remain very impressed with the words and actions of Cyrus. After all, not all conquerors in the ancient Near East were so kind to the conquered as Cyrus arguably was. Nebuchadnezzar’s treatment of the Judeans is an obvious demonstration of that. And I must also affirm that the basic deference of Cyrus to the religious sensibilities of the conquered is most admirable. True, Cyrus was not the only suzerain to be tolerant of the religious practices of a vassal (for discussion, see especially Beaulieu). But I would counter that not all suzerains were so tolerant, thus, I consider this to be a benevolent act. Someone might retort that his actions were more “savvy diplomacy” than “religious tolerance.” Perhaps so, but I admire his actions still. And, of course, it is both striking and important that a Judean writer of the late 6th century understood the actions of Cyrus to be good and noble, so much so as to cause him to refer to Cyrus as Yahweh’s “Shepherd” and his “Meshiah.” I take this as pretty good evidence (because it is close to being contemporary with the actual decree of Cyrus) that Cyrus was viewed by many in antiquity as a benevolent monarch, with regard to both politics and religion.

Some final musings: Within the contemporary world, people often attempt to mine ancient texts for models, virtues to be embraced or vices to be shunned. This can certainly be a useful thing, but it can also be a precarious venture, as it is all too easy to read too much into these ancient texts. But in days such as ours, full of many political and religious tensions across much of the globe, I must admit that some of the words and deeds of Cyrus resonate with me. I think something can be learned from these words. They deserve to be studied as important diplomatic and religious statements, as potent words from some two and a half millennia ago that were moving, at least in part, in good directions. And as for me, I’m happy to see movement in the direction of more tolerance, regardless of the ancient or modern texts in which it can be found, and regardless of whether the form is fledgling or fully developed.

Review of Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, Volume II: Caesarea and the Middle Coast, 1121-2160

21 January 2013

Review of Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, Volume II: Caesarea and the Middle Coast, 1121-2160, edited by W. Ameling, H. M. Cotton, W. Eck, B. Isaac, A. Kushnir-Stein, H Misgav, J. Prince, and A Yardeni. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011.

This epigraphic series (of volumes) will definitely be one the most important of the twenty-first century, certain to be used profitably and cited for decades to come. The entire corpus is slated to consist of nine volumes, organized according to major geographic divisions and major historical periods in ancient Judaea-Palestine. The chronological periods that constitute the focus of these volumes are the late fourth century BCE (i.e., beginning with the rise of Alexander the Great) to the early seventh century CE (i.e., to the rise of the Prophet Muhammad). The languages included in this series are Greek and Latin as well as Hebrew, Phoenician, the various Aramaic dialects (e.g., Jewish Aramaic, Samaritan, Nabataean, Northern Syriac and Southern Syriac), Thamudic, Safaitic, Armenian, and Georgian. It is also important to note in this connection that Early Arabic inscriptions are in the process of being collected and edited by Moshe Sharon for the Corpus Inscriptionum Arabicarum Palaestinae (and so they are not included in CIIP). The basic geographic parameters for the nine volumes are as follows: Jerusalem (and its surroundings); the Middle Coastline (including especially Caesarea and its surroundings), the Southern Coastline; the Northern Coastline (including especially the Galilee, along with Acco); the Golan Heights; Samaria; Judaea (without Jerusalem); Idumaea; the Negev; a final volume focusing on milestones from the entire territory. Parts of modern Syria and Jordan which were at different times part of the administrative unit which included Iudaea/Palaestina (i.e., Batanea, Aurantis and the Peraea) are not included in this series since they belong to territories covered by the Inscriptions Grecques et Latines de la Syrie or de la Jordanie, respectively. CIIP I. Part 1 (focusing on Jerusalem) was published in 2010 and contains inscriptions numbered 1-704. CIIP I. Part 2 (focusing on Jerusalem) was published in 2012 and contains inscriptions numbered 705-1120 (this volume, that is, CIIP I. Part 2, will be reviewed separately). That is, volume one consists of two parts, each published as a discreet volume, but classified as “volume one” (because all of the inscriptions hail from Jerusalem and its environs).

The volume herein reviewed is CIIP II, and contains inscriptions numbered 1121-2160. The lion’s share of the inscriptions in this volume come from Caesarea and its environs (inscriptions 1128-2107), while some of them (namely, inscriptions 1121-1127) )come from Apollonia-Arsuf (located on a sandstone ridge in the north-west section of the modern town of Herzliya, some seventeen kilometers north of Jaffa and thirty-four kilometers south of Caesarea), some of them (namely, inscriptions 2108-2114) come from Castra Samaritanorum (Khirbet Qastra, a site that is about three kilometers south-east of Sycamina and extends across several terraces on the lower slopes of Mount Carmel), some of them (namely, 2115-2145) come from Dor (near the modern site of Tantura, on a headland off the coast between Mount Carmel and Caesarea, more than eleven kilometers south of Tel Megadim and more than nine kilometers south of ‘Atlit), some of them (namely, inscriptions 2147-2160) come from Sycamina (= Shikmona = Tell es-Samaq, a settlement about one kilometer south of the promontory of Mount Carmel) and one inscription (inscription number 2146, called the “Seal of Georgius”) was found at Mikhmoret ( a site located on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea around eight kilometers north of Netanya and around eleven kilometers south of Caesarea).

For the site of Caesarea, there are subdivisions, something that is quite useful because so many inscriptions hail from this site. The major categories of inscriptions are: (A) Res Sacrae (Pagan Inscriptions, Synagogue Inscriptions, Christian inscriptions); (B) Imperial Documents, (C) Emperors; (D) Imperial Officials and the Two Praetoria (Governors and Senators, Praetorium of the Governor; Equestrian Officials; Praetorium of the Procurator and the Late Antique Governor); (E) Bathhouse; (F) Military People; (G); Decuriones and Inscriptions of the Colonia Caesariensis; (H) Varia; (I) Funerary Inscriptions; (K) Instrumentum Domesticum (Defixiones; Amulets and Rings, Weights, Lead Seals, Ostraca, Dipinti, and Graffiti); (L) Fragments, both Latin and Greek; (M) Vicinity of Caesarea (Binyamina, Crocodilopolis, Hadera; Kefar Shuni, Ramat , Hanadiv).

The standard entry for each inscription consists of the following sorts of data: a descriptive title and approximate date (e.g., “Corinthian capital with Greek monograms, 5- 6 century CE,” or “List of the twenty-four priests courses in Hebrew, 4-5 century CE”), reference to the find spot, a black and white photograph, readings (and for the Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions a transliteration as well), a hand-drawing, a translation, a brief but detailed commentary, and rather copious reference to the most relevant secondary literature. It is important to note that within this volume, there are a fair number of inscriptions never before published. Also, some of the inscriptions that are included in this volume are now lost, but normally there were photos available of even these inscriptions and so these inscriptions are included in this volume, along with an accompanying photo (see p. vii). This fine volume also contains some really good discussions of things such as demographics (e.g., Jewish presence, Christian presence, Samaritan presence), discussions of roads, discussions of ancient territorial divisions. For sites that have been excavated, there is consistently a brief but very useful discussion of the history of excavation. Of particular importance is the fact that this volume contains an “Index of Personal Names” for Volume One (both parts) and Volume Two.

Readers will notice that the dates that are given for inscriptions are often fairly broad (e.g., “3rd-6th century CE”; or “4th-7th century CE”). This is, of course, a result of the fact that few inscriptions contain (or preserve) date formulae, many do not come from a primary archaeological context, and there are often not sufficient palaeographic benchmarks (diagnostics) within these inscriptions. I should note that most of these inscriptions were (re)collated during the process of the research for this volume (i.e., the person writing the article actually personally collated the inscription, rather than attempting to rely on existing photographs or hand-copies) and the date of the collation (called “autopsy” in this volume) is given within the entry for each inscription that was collated. Methodologically, this is such an important step forward.

Ultimately, I consider this volume to be absolutely superb (there are some minor problems with stylistic consistency, but with a volume of this size, with so many contributors, this is entirely understandable). I recommend the volume very highly and without reservation. Indeed, from my perspective, I would suggest that no scholar can afford to ignore this volume. It is a peerless addition to the resources available for the ancient epigraphic realia.

Christopher Rollston, Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures, George Washington University.

Visiting Professorship at George Washington University

27 December 2012

I am very pleased to state that I have accepted a Visiting Professorship at George Washington University for the spring semester of 2013. I am very grateful to a number of people for orchestrating this, especially Dr. Eric Cline, Chair of the Department and Classics and Semitics at George Washington University. With regard to courses for the spring semester, I am delighted to note that I will be teaching a course entitled “Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East” and a course entitled “Dead Sea Scrolls.” During my post-doctoral appointments at Johns Hopkins University (1999-2001), I taught a number of undergraduate courses and found it very enjoyable; thus, I am very much looking forward to teaching these undergraduate courses at George Washington University. During my time at George Washington University, I will also be completing my monograph (tentatively) entitled “Forging History: A History of Epigraphic Forgeries from Antiquity to the Modern Period,” as well as several Festschrift articles. In short, I am very much looking forward to the coming months.

Most sincerely,

Chris Rollston

A Note of Thanks to Colleagues

27 December 2012

After much reflection, I have voluntarily resigned from Emmanuel Christian Seminary, having come to an amicable resolution with Emmanuel. For all of the support and encouragement I have received from many colleagues throughout the world, from several marvelous colleagues at Emmanuel, from many former students, and from many current students, I am so very grateful. Indeed, all of the support has been consoling, gratifying, and humbling. I wish that I would have been able to reply individually to all who sent notes of encouragement and support to me, but this was not possible. So please allow me to say here, from the bottom of my heart, thank you so very much. I am more grateful than words can express. At this juncture, it is most useful for me to be able to move on with my life, career, research, and writing. I look forward to finding a new and permanent academic home and I happily welcome assistance in that regard. As I depart, I also wish to verbalize my hope that Emmanuel will flourish in the future, as it has in the past.


Christopher Rollston”

John the Baptist and the Reliquary of ‘Sveti Ivan’ : Methodological Reflections

15 June 2012

This article is a slightly revised (June 2012) version of a post published here in August 2010, at the time of the initial press release. Fortunately, the most recent press reports (June 2012) are more circumspect and cautious than those of two years ago. Furthermore, please allow me to emphasize here that these excavations are useful and impressive, with some significant archaeological material culture having been excavated. Nevertheless, the conclusion must still be that there is no good evidence to suggest that these bones are probably those of John the Baptist.


I. Summary of the Salient Details of the ‘Sveti Ivan’ Excavation and the Claims regarding the Reliquary

A portion of a small island known as ‘Sveti Ivan’ (a Bulgarian term that means “Saint John”) has been the site of excavations for a number of years. This island is located in the Black Sea, about a kilometer from the Bulgarian town of Sozopol, one of the oldest on Bulgaria’s southern coast. Kazimir Popkonstantinov is the director of the excavations on Sveti Ivan. Aerial images reveal that there are (at least) two prominent sets of monumental archaeological remains on the island. These have been affirmed to be the remains of: (1) a church of ca. the 6th century CE; (2) and a monastery (and church) of ca. the 13th and 14th centuries CE.

Under the ruins of the 6th century church are the remains of an older basilica, and these older remains have been dated to ca. the 5th century CE. It was in the ruins of this older basilica that a reliquary was found. (1) The reliquary’s measurements are ca. 20.5 cm. x 12.5. cm. x. 14.5 cm. The reliquary is reported to have been made of alabaster. Within this reliquary were found bone fragments (six human bones and three animals bones), and the human bones included portions of a skull, a hand, a tooth, a rib, and an arm bone. (2) Near the reliquary was a small sandstone box measuring ca. 4 cm. x 6 cm. On this small sandstone box is a Greek inscription that reportedly says “May God save you, servant Thomas. To Saint John, June 24.”

Popkonstantinov had stated (in 2010) that the inscription is the “key” to the interpretation of the finds. That is, based on this inscription, he has stated that the remains found in the alabaster reliquary may very well be those of John the Baptist, a figure of the Greek New Testament.

II. Summary of the Salient Features of the Greek New Testament’s Statements regarding John the Baptist

Although New Testament scholarship has cogently argued for more than a century that the New Testament documents are not historical in all of their details, it has been argued convincingly that certain things can be known about John the Baptist with a high degree of historical certainty. Namely, (1) He was a Jewish Apocalypticist of the 1st century CE; (2) He was connected in some fashion with a movement surrounding Jesus of Nazareth; (3) John the Baptist was imprisoned in the Galilee by Herod Antipas (note: Herod was the Tetrarch of Galilee and Perea from ca. 4 BCE to ca. 39 CE). (4) John was martyred by Herod Antipas, arguably some time between 26 CE and 30 CE. (5) John had followers (referred to in Greek as mathetai) and these followers buried John the Baptist after he was killed, arguably (according to the Marcan tradition), in a tomb (for these details, see Mark 6:14-29; Matt 14:1-12; Luke 9:7-9; for the birth narratives of John the Baptist, see Luke 1; for his apocalyptic message, see Mark 1:2-8; Matt 3:1-12; Luke 3:1-20). (6) Josephus has some material about John, but this material does not alter the details about John the Baptist that I have noted here.

III. A Critique of Popkonstantinov’s (2010) Arguments, and any similar arguments made now in 2012

1. John the Baptist was buried in a tomb in Palestine, arguably in the Galilee (where he died). (2) John the Baptist died during the early 1st century CE. Therefore, without some compelling evidence for the moving of the body (or portions thereof) of John the Baptist (centuries later!) from the place of burial in Palestine, it is not cogent or prudent to propose that the remains found on a small island in the Black Sea, in the archaeological ruins of a basilica of the 5th century CE, are those of a Palestinian Jews named John the Baptist who lived, died, and was buried in the 1st century CE, in Palestine.

3. To be sure, Popkonstantinov has argued (2010) that the inscription on the sandstone box near the reliquary is the “key” to his interpretation. However, this is not particularly convincing. After all, the inscription certainly does *not* state that “these are the remains of John the Baptist.” 4. The date of June 24th is one of the feast days for John the Baptist (e.g., within Orthodox Christianity), but this cannot be construed as evidence that the bones themselves are actually those of John (indeed, the date of the founding of this church would argue against this, as the church was founded centuries after the death and burial of John the Baptist). 5. Furthermore, the inscription is not on the reliquary (where the bones were found), but rather, they are on a sandstone box that was found *near* the reliquary. One might propose that the bones are those of a certain man named “Thomas,” but even this is not necessarily the case, for a number of reasons (not the least of which is the fact that the reliquary and sandstone box need not have belonged to the same person or been deposited at precisely the same time in the basilica).

6. Mostly, the inscription strikes me as a plea of a pious believer from the island of Sveti Ivan to a famed patron saint, namely, a plea to John the Baptist. That’s it. That’s the way I would interpret the totality of the evidence.

7. Note that Popkonstantinov had stated (2010) that he knew of no DNA database for the relatives of John the Baptist. This is correct…there is certainly *not* such a database of DNA data for the relatives of John the Baptist. 8. Of course, carbon tests have recently been done on three of the human bone fragments, and these are ostensibly helpful in establishing the basic chronological horizon for the interred remains (assuming they have not been handled so much that carbon dating will be very difficult or almost impossible), but even these sort of data can do no more than suggest that these bones came from the same basic chronological horizon as John the Baptist. That’s a far cry from demonstrating that these are the actual bones of John the Baptist.

Ultimately, I would contend that for someone to suggest that these bones could be those of John the Baptist, a figure of 1st century CE Palestine, is tenuous in the extreme. In this connection I should note that Popkonstantinov (knowing that his understanding of the evidence is strained to the breaking point) was quoted as saying (in 2010): “Here, I believe, the science stops. Since we cannot prove the attribution of any of the relics with scientific methods, we have to be tolerant of those who want to believe that they are” (Popkonstantinov). I would gently suggest, though, that archaeological and literary analyses are about evidence, not about authority, faith, or piety. Thus, with all due respect, it is necessary to state that Popkonstantinov’s conclusions do not follow from the evidence.

IV. For the Sake of Argument, Here are the Sort of Data that would be Needed for Popkonstantinov’s Case.

1. A reliable ancient tradition, preferably from the late(r) 1st century or very early 2nd century CE, stating that the bones of John the Baptist had been moved to an island in the Black Sea; 2. An inscription on the burial box that stated something like “The bones of John the Baptist” (i.e., name and title…something such as “John” would not be sufficient); 3. A palaeographic date for the inscription itself that was late 1st century or very early 2nd century (after all, arguably no one in later centuries would be able to locate precisely the burial site of John the Baptist in Palestine and it may be that even in the late 1st century no one would have been able to have done so!). (4) Carbon 14 dating of the bones that yielded a 1st century CE date. We now have a carbon date which is helpful, but without the other data just outlined above (numbers 1-3), the carbon dates cannot be considered particularly useful in identifying the remains, even if they do come from the same basic chronological horizon. 5. Thus, in light of the general dearth of necessary data, it is necessary to conclude that these bones are not those of John the Baptist himself.


Christopher Rollston

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

12 April 2012


Alas, Tabor and Jacobovici’s monograph is replete with a superabundance of problems. Within this review, I will confine my discussion just to (some of) the major problems. Nevertheless, this review is quite long, something demanded by the problematic content of the volume itself. For this reason, readers may wish to scan for highlighted headings within the review so as to find the areas of critique in which they have the most interest. I should like to mention that much of the content of this review was first presented on the Official Blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research. Finally, I should like to emphasize that although I have attempted to document the secondary references quite well, it was not feasible to refer to all of the contributions that all scholars have made. Nevertheless, I have attempted to refer to as many of the primary contributors as possible.


Here are the basic claims of Tabor and Jacobovici. “Talpiyot Tomb B” contained several ossuaries, or bone boxes, one of which had some interesting ornamentation, one of which had a four-line Greek inscription, and one of which had the Aramaic word “mara” written in Greek letters. Taken together, Tabor and Jacobovici argue that the ornamentation and the inscription constitute “the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus’ resurrection.” They go on and state that these ossuaries “also provide the first evidence in Jerusalem of the people who would later be called ‘Christians.’ In fact, it is possible, maybe even likely, that whoever was buried in this tomb knew Jesus and heard him preach.”

In addition, Tabor and Jacobovici claim that because “Talpiyot Tomb B” is within around two hundred feet from “Talpiyot Tomb A” (the tomb Tabor and Jacobovici have also dubbed the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’) “the new discovery [i.e., “Talpiyot Tomb B”] increases the likelihood that the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ is, indeed, the real tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.” Tabor and Jacobovici also believe that “Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son named Judah,” something which they have been proposing for several years now. Tabor and Jacobovici also assume that “both tombs appear to have been part of the property of a wealthy individual possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to the gospels, buried Jesus.”

At this juncture, I shall turn to a fairly detailed discussion of both tombs and the contents thereof. Suffice it to say that I am confident most scholars will not consider the grand claims of Tabor and Jacobovici (as enshrined in the title of the book) to be cogent. The reason is quite elementary: the conclusions they draw do not follow from the extant evidence.


This tomb was discovered in 1980 by Yosef Gath during a salvage excavation at a site in the neighborhood of East Talpiot, Jerusalem. I shall refer to it as Talpiyot Tomb 1980 because of the year of its discovery. It contained ten ossuaries, six of them inscribed. These were subsequently published in Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Inscriptions (1994, nos 701-709). The personal names on the ossuaries of this tomb are as follows: (1) Mariamē kai Mara (Mariam and Mara). (2) Yhwdh br Yšw‘ (Yehudah bar Yeshua‘). (3) Mtyh (Mattiyah). (4) Yšw‘ br Yhwsp (Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep). (5) Ywsh (Yoseh). (6) Mryh (Maryah). The names Yehosep, Yoseh, Yeshua‘, Yehudah, Mattiyah, Maryah, Maryam, Mariamne, Mara 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). In fact, even the name and patronymic “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique in the epigraphic corpus. After all, some eighty years ago, Sukenik published an ossuary inscribed “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) and the names Yeshua‘ and Yehosep (“Jesus” and “Joseph”) are predominant in the family of Babatha’s first husband. In fact, the father of Babatha’s first husband was named Yeshua‘ and his father was named “Yehosep,” so this is yet another “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”; see Sukenik 1931; Lewis 1989, 35-40; cf. Yadin 1971, 233-234; Kraeling 1946, 18-19). Thus, even with the small corpus of epigraphic attestations of personal names, the Talpiyot Tomb 1980 occurrence of “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) is not even unique.

It is certainly true that filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, along with Charles Pellegrino, James Tabor, and Andrew Feuerverger attempted to argue that this was the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth (Jacobovici and Pellegrino 2007; Tabor 2006; Feuerverger 2007). But the epigraphic evidence (such as personal names) from this tomb does not support their contention, neither does the DNA evidence, nor does the statistical evidence. Indeed, a cross-section of scholars (including Eric Meyers, Shimon Gibson, Jodi Magness, Sandra Scham, and I) wrote articles several years ago in the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology (published by the American Schools of Oriental Research) arguing that the cumulative evidence certainly did not support the view that this Talpiyot tomb was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth or his family.

In addition, I should also emphasize that Tabor and Jacobovici’s desire to state that the Ya‘akov Ossuary (often called the “James Ossuary,” especially by those who wish to say this ossuary was not tampered with epigraphically and that it is Christian) came from Talpiyot Tomb 1980 is speculative (and I would also note in this connection that the patina of stone ossuaries from the same quarry which were housed in the same basic environment in a Jerusalem tomb will, of course, share certain many chemical features…so even patina evidence is of no great value. I will be happy to talk more about this later, should the need arise).

It is important to remember this dictum: Dramatic claims require dramatic evidence. And ultimately the strong consensus of scholars working in the fields of ancient epigraphy, archaeology, and ancient religion was then, and is now, that Talpiyot Tomb 1980 is not that of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. That is, the dramatic claims of Tabor and Jacobovici could not be embraced previously (i.e., 2007) because the evidence simply was not there. I am happy to resurrect this discussion, but the claims of Tabor and Jadobovici for this tomb are no more convincing now than they were then.


During course of construction work in Jerusalem during the spring of 1981, a tomb with nine kokhim (“burial shafts”) was discovered. There were a total of eight ossuaries in this tomb (originally distributed in four of the kokhim, that is, “carved chambers”), one of which was removed in 1981 (one belonging to a small child or infant). It was noticed then (in 1981) that there were some Greek inscriptions on (at least) two of the ossuaries, but the tomb was not excavated and documented thoroughly because of various exigencies, including religious sensitivities. Ultimately, modern buildings were soon erected at this site. However, rather than destroying this tomb, the modern buildings were built above the tomb. Tabor and Jacobovici have dubbed this tomb “Talpiyot Tomb B,” but I shall refer to it as Talpiyot Tomb 1981, based on the year of its discovery.

During the course of a few days in 2010, James Tabor, Rami Arav, and Simcha Jacobovici (now the primary researchers for this tomb, which ) were able to send a robotic camera into this tomb (through the basement floor of the building which had been built on top of the tomb) and to photograph the tomb itself, the ossuaries in it, and some inscriptional remains. One of these inscriptions, consisting of four very brief lines, has garnered substantial attention, as has some of the ornamentation (which Tabor and Jacobovici refer to as “iconography,” a term that conjures up in the minds of many readers something which is quite “Christian”) on one of the other ossuaries. Indeed, Tabor and Jacobovici have claimed that this four-line inscription on one ossuary, and the ornamentation on another can be understood as referring to a belief in some sort of resurrection and that this inscription and ornamentation are, therefore, Christian. They have also noted that another of the ossuaries in Talpiyot Tomb 1981 has the word “mara” on it, an Aramaic word normally meaning “sir,” or “master” or even “husband” (although it is written in Greek letters in this tomb, as is often the case in epigraphic materials from this region). Frankly, I would find it very interesting if this were a Jewish-Christian tomb, but the evidence simply does not support this view. At this juncture, the focus will turn to historical and epigraphic consideration of the salient aspects of the finds in Talpiyot Tombs 1980 and 1981.


At this juncture, I shall turn to a discussion of the salient aspects of the evidence and a critique of the conclusions of Tabor and Jacobovici. I shall attempt to be as thorough as possible and to refer to some of the most relevant primary and secondary literature.


The Discovery Channel Documentary makes the assertion that the data from Talpiyot Tomb 1981 constitute the earliest attested reference to a resurrection (note the way that Tabor and Jacobovici read, translate and interpret the four-line Greek inscription, discussed below in section D). That is a sensational assertion and it is not accurate. The fact of the matter is that within various segments of Late Second Temple Judaism, the notion of a resurrection was warmly embraced, and many of these statements antedate the rise of Christianity. The locus classicus in the Hebrew Bible is arguably the following text from the mid-2nd century BCE: “Many of those sleeping in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting peril” (Dan 12:2). Within the Old Testament Apocrypha, the notion of a resurrection is embraced at times as well, with the narrative about the martyrdom of “the mother and her seven sons” being a fine exemplar of this. Thus, according to the narrative, one of the sons said during the torture that preceded his death: “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc 7:9). Similarly, the mother herself says within the narrative, as an exhortation to her martyred sons: “the Creator of the world…will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again” (2 Macc 7:23). 2 Maccabees arguably hails from the first half of the 1st century BCE. Regarding the dead, the Wisdom of Solomon also affirms that the dead “seemed to have died,” but “they are at peace,” and “their hope is full of immortality,” and they will ultimately “shine forth” and “will govern nations and ruler over peoples” (Wisdom 3:2-8 passim, with the Greek future tense being used here). The Wisdom of Solomon arguably hails from the second half of the 1st century BCE. Significantly, all of these texts antedate the rise of Christianity and they all affirm a belief in a resurrection. In short, many Jews believed in a resurrection long before Christianity came along. To be sure, a belief in a resurrection was not universally accepted by Jews in the Second Temple period. Some Jews did not believe in a resurrection. For example, the traditionalist Ben Sira rejected the notion of eternal bliss for the righteous and eternal punishment for the wicked. Thus, he wrote: “Who in the netherworld can glorify the Most High, in place of the living who offer their praise? No more can the dead give praise than those who have never lived; they glorify the Lord who are alive and well” (Sir 17:27-28). In sum, although not all Jews of the Late Second Temple period accepted the notion of a resurrection, there are texts from this period that demonstrate that a fair number did.

Furthermore, the Jewish historian Josephus (lived ca. 37-100 CE) also discusses the subject of the perishability and imperishability of the soul, with regard to some of the major strands of Judaism during the first century of the Common Era. Regarding the Pharisees, therefore, he states that they believe “every soul is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.” Conversely, regarding the Sadducees he states that “as for the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards; they will have none of them.” Regarding the Essenes, Josephus states that they believe “the body is corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent, but that the soul is immortal and imperishable…sharing the belief of the sons of Greece, they maintain that for virtuous souls there is reserved an abode beyond the ocean, a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat, but is refreshed by the ever gentle breath of the west wind coming in from ocean, while they relegate base souls to a murky and tempestuous dungeon, big with never-ending punishments” (Josephus, Jewish War, II, 11-14; for more discussion, see Nickelsburg 1972, 164-169). Of course, pericopes within the Greek New Testament regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees dovetail nicely with Josephus. The locus classicus for the New Testament is arguably contained within the book of Acts: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Acts 23:8; cf. also Matt 22:23).

Naturally, scholars of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, the Greek New Testament, and Early Christianity have for a very long time dealt with these ancient assumptions about the afterlife. Moreover, based on the convergence of the evidence (such as the texts cited above), the consensus of the field has long been that some Jews within the Late Second Temple period embraced a belief in a resurrection and some did not (e.g., DiLella 1966; Collins 1998; Ehrman 1999). To be sure, Christianity (originally a sect of Judaism, with strong apocalyptic tendencies) did embrace a notion of a resurrection, and this is very clear from the documents of the Greek New Testament. But the fact remains that many Jews of the late Second Temple Period believed in a resurrection, not just Jewish Christians. Thus, even if the inscription or ornamental motifs of this tomb provided evidence for a belief in a resurrection, one cannot assume that this must have been a Christian (i.e., Jewish-Christian) tomb. After all, many non-Christian Jews accepted the idea of a resurrection. Again, even if something in Talpiyot Tomb 1980 or Talpiyot Tomb 1981 could be construed as referring to a resurrection, it does not follows that this tomb must have been a “Christian” tomb.


Tabor and Jacobovici have posited that Talpiyot Tomb 1981 is a tomb belonging to Joseph of Arimathea (i.e., the “Joseph of Arimathea” mentioned in the canonical gospels), and that this tomb also contains the actual ossuary of Joseph of Arimathea himself. Here are some citations of Tabor and Jacobovici’s views: Talpiyot Tombs 1980 and 1981“are most likely located on the rural estate of Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin who according to all four New Testament gospels took official charge of Jesus’ burial” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 2). But he is framed as wealthy and so they believe they have to account for the modest nature of this ossuary, thus, they suggest that there may have been “something about his faith or piety as part of the Jesus movement” that led him to “prefer such a modest bone box” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 89). Then they conclude that “it is not hard or even overly speculative for us to posit that the Talpiyot Tombs are a tiny but amazing glimpse into the life of Joseph of Arimathea” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 128).

The ossuary in Talpiyot Tomb 1981 which they consider to be that of Joseph of Arimathea is one they also refer to as a “humble ossuary” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 89). Along the same lines, they query: “might Joseph of Arimathea have chosen a…modest ossuary for himself and his most immediate family—but one that boldly proclaimed their faith even in the midst of opposition and conflict?” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 90). It should be noted that the reason they refer to this ossuary as “boldly proclaiming their faith” is because the ossuary they believe to be that of “Joseph of Arimathea” is the one with the ornamentation they understand to be “Jonah and the Whale.” As will be discussed below, the consensus of scholarship is that this ornamentation is that of an amphora or some sort of architectural feature, not “Jonah and the Whale.” In any case, the main point is this: there is not a single inscription from Talpiyot Tomb 1980 or Talpiyot Tomb 1981 that suggests that these tombs are to be associated with Joseph of Arimathea. I would propose that for a historian to make a credible argument that this is the land, tomb, and ossuary of Joseph of Arimathea there must be solid evidence, such as the name “Joseph of Arimathea” inscribed on the ossuary. But, since these words are not there, it is really not convincing to posit that this is the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. Tabor and Jacobovici may believe that it is not “hard or overly speculative” to say that this is the land, tomb, and ossuary of Joseph of Arimathea, but I think most epigraphers, prosopographers, and historians would find it to be quite speculative.


Introduction to the Issue: The Aramaic word mara (written in the Greek script in these Talpiyot tombs, rather than in the Aramaic script) occurs on an ossuary in Talpiyot Tomb 1980, namely, in the phrase Mariamē kai Mara (i.e., Mariamē and Mara; see Rahmani 1994, # 701). Tabor and Jacobovici assume that the inscription on this ossuary should be understood as referring to one person and so they render it “Mariam called Mara” (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012, 28). They refer to Rahmani’s reading in the editio princeps of this inscription, namely, Mariamēnou Mara, which Rahmani translated “Mariamene, who is (also called) Mara.” Rahmani had originally stated that he believed this name was “in the genitive case” and was “a diminutive of Mariamēne” (Rahmani 1994, 222). Significantly, Stephen Pfann has published a most cogent correction of Rahmani’s reading, noting that there are two words and a very clear kai between them (which Rahmani had unfortunately initially misread). Hence, Pfann renders this ossuary inscription as “Mariame and Mara” (Pfann 2006). As I mentioned above, however, Rahmani has now accepted the corrected reading, that is, Mariame kai Mara. Tabor and Jacobovici do not, however, accept the corrected reading. In any case, in terms of additional occurrences of mara, Tabor and Jacobovici note that mara also occurs on an ossuary in Talpiyot Tomb 1981 (Tabor and Jacobovici, 67).

Here are the statements by Tabor and Jacobovici regarding the Aramaic word mara: “it is the feminine form of Mar, which in Aramac means ‘Lord’ or ‘Master’” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 46). Or again, “Mara is the feminine form of Mar in Aramaic, which means ‘Lord’ or ‘Master,’ as explained in the previous chapter” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 67). They state that “we are convinced that Mara is an honorific title, not a proper name.” They also state that “if you add the feminine ending to Mar you get Mara” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 115). The footnote accompanying that statement is: “The Aramaic name Marta (Martha) is derived from Mar/Mara. Some argued that Mara is just an alternative form of Martha but as we explain chapter 5, such is not the case” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 221). Again they state that “Mara, which comes from the Aramaic masculine Mar, is the absolute feminine, whereas Martha (Martha) is the emphatic feminine. They both come from the same masculine noun and mean the same thing, but Martha evolved into a name and is common (Tabor and Jacobovici, 227; cf also Tabor 2012, 13-14). Of course, it should be mentioned that they also contend that the ossuary with the words Mariame kai Mara (which they believe should be read Mariamēnou Mara) should be understood as the ossuary of Mary Magdalene and that the title Mara is a title that “can potentially refer to her place of leadership and authority in the emerging Christian movement” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 131; cf. 96). It is striking, of course, that the word “Magdala” does not occur in these Talpiyot inscriptions, a weakness of their argument that she is the referent in Talpiyot 1980 (i.e., Rahmani 1994, #701). In any case, as is apparent, these statements from Tabor and Jacobovici assume strongly that mara is a definitive feminine form. There is no discussion of the fact that mara is also a very fine masculine form of this Aramaic word (especially the determined state, but even in the absolute state).

Here are the basic philological data, however. The word mr’ (Mara’) is an Aramaic, masculine, singular noun meaning “sir,” “master,” “lord.” It is well attested (as a masculine noun) in the Aramaic corpus of Northwest Semitic inscriptions, in both Old Aramaic and also in Imperial Aramaic (sometimes with the spelling mry). Note that in the case of the Old Aramaic occurrence in Tell Fakhariyeh (e.g., line eight) the Akkadian text of this Akkadian-Aramaic bilingual uses (the Sumerian logogram to indicate that the Akkadian word should be understood as) bēlum, obviously a masculine form, not a feminine. This word even occurs in Nabataean and Palmyrene (which are later dialects of Aramaic), with the masculine form spelled mr’. The feminine singular is attested in Imperial Aramaic as mr’t, and the feminine singular determined form occurs as mr’t’ (Hoftijzer and Jongeling 1995, 682-689). The masculine form of this word also occurs in the Aramaic of the Hebrew Bible, with the spellings mr’ and mry (see Dan 2:47; 4:16, 21; 5:23; Koehler and Baumgartner 2000, 1921-1922). Moreover, it also occurs in Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic with the spelling mr and mr’. The feminine form of this Aramaic word occurs in Jastrow as well and is martha’ (see Jastrow 1950, 834-835, s.v., Mar IV). It is often stated that (for some of the Late Second Temple occurrences) the word mara can sometimes be a shortened version of the word martha’, and thus can sometimes refer to a woman (either as a personal name, or as a title meaning ‘lordess’ or the like). Thus, Tal Ilan states about the name mr’ (also spelled mrh during the Second Temple period) that “this is one of the rare cases of a name serving for both males and females” (Tal Ilan 2002, 392; cf. also 423-424).

The point that I would emphasize is this: although the name mara (to use the Greek spelling) might sometimes be used as a shortened form of the name or title martha’, the fact remains that it is not methodologically permissible to assume that mara is always a feminine (i.e., a shortened form of martha’). After all, as discussed above, the form mr’ is most readily understood as an Aramaic masculine (cf. also Rahmani 1994, #561). Thus, any historical construct built on the assumption that mara is definitively feminine must be considered a tenuous case indeed. For this reason, I find it to be quite problematic that Tabor and Jacobovici assume that the occurrences of mara on these ossuaries must be feminine. The philological evidence demonstrates decisively that mara can readily be a masculine form and so this certainly merited a discussion byTabor and Jacobovici in these recent publications.

In short, it is plausible to contend that in Talpiyot Tomb 1981, the word mara refers to a man, not a woman. Also, with regard to Talpiyot Tomb 1980, I would suggest that it is entirely plausible to suggest that this is the ossuary of a woman and a man, that is, a woman named mariame and a man known as mara. Someone might suggest that the woman’s name would not come first in this culture. However, I would note that order of death could reasonably account for the ordering of the names. Moreover, we do sometimes find a woman’s name first in literary texts that refer to a woman and a man (e.g., Acts 18:18; 18:26; Romans 16:3; 2 Tim 4:19). In short, it is philologically and historically plausible to suggest (A) that the persons referred to as mara in these two Talpiyot tombs were men, not women; (B) and it is philologically and historically plausible to suggest that one was a man and one was a woman; (C) and it is also permissible to suggest that both were women. But it is imperative that we be candid about the fact that we actually do not know and so it is precarious to assume. The fact that Tabor and Jacobovici simply assumed that the term mara was feminine and even omitted the philological evidence for it as a masculine is particularly unfortunate, and probably quite telling. After all, they wished for this term to be considered feminine because it was important for the edifice they had erected.


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 site 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!” Again, they believe Talpiyot Tomb 1981 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) considering it to be a Semitic personal name transliterated into Greek graphemes, namely, “Agabus” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 90-94).

On February 28, 2012, around 1:00 p.m., a statement of mine was posted on the Official Blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research in which I discussed various aspects of Talpiyot Tombs 1980 and 1981 (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 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 2012a). 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 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 2012a).

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 with palaeographic matters Bauckham had decided to discuss, 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 2012a). 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.” I suggested 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 astutely suggested by Bauckham, namely, the presence of the personal name “Agabus” (in line four of the Talpiyot inscription) to be satisfying. 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 has also argued that he does not believe purity concerns should enter in to the discussion (i.e., he does not think them relevant). I have suggested that I think it is possible that purity or taboos might be part of the equation (i.e., as a possible rationale for the possible translation “I do not touch”).

Obviously, I am pleased with, and comfortable with, these suggested translations of my readings 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 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 move not (the ossuary), O Agabus,” or “Because of the bones, I Agagus, move 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 move not (the ossuary/bones), O Agabus,” or “Here are the bones, I Agabus move (the ossuary/bones) not” is 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. I should mention here that Bauckham has recently posted a nice summary of the discussion of the inscription (Bauckham 2012b) and it is clear that he is now very disinclined to read the tetragrammaton in this inscription.


Most recently, James Charlesworth has stated that he believes the name “Jonah” is incised in the Aramaic script on the “Amphora Ossuary” (i.e., the ossuary Tabor and Jacobovici have dubbed the “Jonah” Ossuary”). I have looked closely at the photographs of this ossuary, especially the place where Charlesworth believes he sees letters encrypted. I would contend that there are no letters here, but rather these are just incisings that are part of the amphora. That is, this ossuary has a great deal of incising work on it and the incising that Charlesworth considers to be letters are just horizontal and vertical incising marks that were part of the production of the design of the amphora (see Posner 2012 for a discussion). The name “Jonah” is simply not here. Moreover, James Davila and Antonio Lombatti have stated the same thing, that is, Jonah is not there.


The presence of ornamental designs on an ossuary is fairly standard. Rosettes are among the most common ornamental motifs, but the repertoire is really quite broad. Rahmani has discussed them in great detail. He mentions that, in addition to rosettes, the attested ornamental motifs include things such as depictions of tomb facades, columned porches, lattice gates, nephesh towers, amphorae, menorahs, grapes and grapevines, palm trees, and even a putative fish (Rahmani 1994, 28-52). Of course, the fact that ossuaries would have such rich ornamental diversity should come as no surprise, as Late Second Temple period tombs themselves would sometimes be decorated rather nicely as well (see Berlin 2002, 138-148). The following pericope from Maccabees is also apropos in this connection: “Simon sent and took the bones of his brother Jonathan, and buried him in Modein, the city of his ancestors…and Simon built a monument over the tomb of his father and his brothers…he also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers. For the pyramids he devised an elaborate setting, erecting about them great columns, and on the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor he carved ships…” (1 Macc 13:25-29).

Predictably, therefore, there are ornamental motifs on the ossuaries of Talpiyot Tomb 1981. One ornamental motif in particular has attracted the attention of Tabor and Jacobovici. Namely, Tabor and Jacobovici have contended that one ornamental motif is to be understood as Jonah and a fish. But they did not stop there. Rather, they have argued that this ornamental motif is not just any fish, they have actually argued that it is the dag gadol (the “big fish”) of the book of Jonah. But they went still further, as they speculated that the etchings at one end of the motif are a graphic depiction of Jonah himself, as he is being spewed from the mouth of the whale. In addition, they have also contended that this symbol should be understood here as the earliest reference to “Jonah as a symbol of the Christian resurrection,” citing the following text from the Greek New Testament: “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so also shall the son of man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matt 12:40), as well as later Christian usage of the Jonah motif (Tabor and Jacobovici 83-90, et passim).

There has been more discussion about the ornamentation than about any other aspect of Talpiyot Tomb 1981. Joan E. Taylor sent an article to Eric Meyers and me on February 28, 2012 and stated that she believed the ornamentation was simply that of an unguentarium, that is, an amphora used to hold burial unguents such as nard. Taylor’s article was posted on ASOR’s blog within two days (Taylor 2012). At the same time, Antonio Lombatti suggested the same thing independently, as did also Tom Vereena. Moreover, scholars such as Mark Goodacre and Robert Cargill have also argued strongly for the very same thing (i.e., that it is an amphora), and it seems to me that there can be no real doubt about the fact that the ornamentation on the side of the ossuary in question is that of an amphora, something Rahmani listed as among the attested types of ornamentation on ossuaries. Indeed, it seems reasonable to refer to this ossuary as the “Amphora Ossuary,” rather than the “Jonah Ossuary” (the latter being the dubbing of Tabor and Jacobovici). I should note in this connection that Steven Fine (early in March 2012) made a sustained case for considering the ornamentation to be a nephesh tower (Fine 2012), something that seemed at that time quite convincing. Finally, it should be mentioned that already in 1981, an article in the Hebrew newspaper DAVAR reported on Talpiyot 1981 and suggested that the ornamentation on this ossuary was an amphora (Meyers and Rollston 2012).


There is also a serious omission in Tabor and Jacobovici’s publications regarding the DNA. Prior to discussing the DNA evidence, certain things must be remembered: (1) Evidence from many Late Second Temple Jerusalem tombs demonstrates that multiple people were often buried in the same ossuary, and the names of all people whose bones are placed in ossuaries are often not all written on the ossuary. (2) Furthermore, the bones from the ossuaries of Talpiyot 1980 were not even “available to Amos Kloner [in 1996] for study since they had been transferred to the religious authorities for reburial, in accordance with an agreement that was made between the Israeli government and the religious authorities who objected to the storage of human bones within the Antiquities Authority’s storerooms” (Gibson 2006, 120); thus, they were certainly not available to Tabor and Jacobovici. (3) Of course, Tabor and Jacobovici were able to find some small bone fragments, but the problem is that it is not possible to know if the fragments Tabor and Jacobovici sent for analysis are those of someone whose name is on the ossuary! There are, therefore, some “missing links” in any attempt to do DNA analyses and there is no way to overcome these problems.

In any case, Tabor and Jacobovici had DNA tests done on the few bone fragments still present in the “Yeshua’ Ossuary” and the “Mariame kai Mara Ossuary” (i.e., after these ossuaries of Talpiyot Tomb 1980 had been cleaned and the bones reburied long ago). They have stated that it was not possible to recover Nuclear DNA, but it was possible to recover Mitochondrial DNA (Tabor and Jacobovici, 196-202). Here are the statements Tabor and Jacobovici have made: In the “Mariamene” ossuary “we found only tine bone chips.” Or again, “the bone chips we found contained no marrow.” And yet again, “There was no possibility of nuclear or gDNA with these samples due to their degradation.” Or again, “It is unfortunate that we were not able to conduct full DNA tests on all of the bones found in all the ossuaries from the Jesus tomb. Ideally that would have allowed one to construct a kind of provisional ‘family tree,’ at least in terms of the familial genetic relationships between those individuals buried therein. Since the bones themselves were never examined scientifically and no one is even sure what happened to them, that opportunity is forever lost” (Tabor and Jacobovici, 199-202).” Because the mitochondrial DNA from these two ossuaries did not match (i.e., that is, they did not have the same mother, or were not those of a son and mother), Tabor and Jacobovici believed that it was safe to conclude that the people whose bone fragments were removed from these two ossuaries might have been married (in fact, they believe that it is safe to assume that these bones are those of Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene, whom they propose was married to Jesus of Nazareth).

It should be emphasized that it is not methodologically prudent to assume that there was only one person buried in the “Yeshua’ Ossuary” and only one person buried in the “Mariame kai Mara Ossuary.” After all, multiple people were often buried in the same ossuary and when this occurs it is commonplace for all the names *not* to be listed. Moreover, with the “Mariame kai Mara Ossuary,” one can make a good case for the fact that the inscription itself refers to two people, not one. Furthermore, there is also something else that is of critical importance: from mitochondrial DNA, one cannot determine gender! Thus, the bones from the “Yeshua’ Ossuary” could readily be those of a woman and those of the “Mariame kai Mara Ossuary” could readily be those of a man! Obviously, this is a critically important aspect of the DNA evidence, but rather than mentioning this, Tabor and Jacobovici simply assume (and thereby lead their readers to assume) that the bone fragments from the “Yeshua’ Ossuary” are definitely those of a man, and they assumed that those from the “Mariame kai Mara Ossuary” are definitively those of a woman. Obviously, this serves the purposes of Tabor and Jacobovici very well, but it is hardly a conclusion that follows directly from the evidence. Ultimately, this “omission” of theirs demonstrates decisively that candor about the DNA evidence was not provided by Tabor and Jacobovici, and this is a most unfortunate omission.


Tabor and Jacobovici have argued that these two tombs are definitely connected in some fashion (indeed, their terms “Talpiyot A” and “Talpiyot B” seem to suggest just this, even though there are additional tombs in this part of East Talpiyot). They begin by mentioning that these two tombs are around two hundred feet apart and then they state that “the new discovery [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb 1981] increases the likelihood that the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb 1980] is, indeed, the real tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.” Tabor and Jacobovici further conclude that “both tombs appear to have been part of the property of a wealthy individual possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to the gospels, buried Jesus.” But I would note that there is no necessary connection between these two tombs. That is, ca. 200 feet is not a small distance. Moreover, I would emphasize that there is no epigraphic evidence to connect these two tombs, and there is no archaeological evidence to suggest a close connection either. In short, it is speculative to assume that these two tombs are to be connected.


Tabor and Jacobovici contend that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdale and that they had a son named Yehudah. They think the evidence from these tombs proves all of this and they also suggest that some hints of this can be found in the New Testament and Early Christian literature. Bart Ehrman, a premiere scholar of the Greek New Testament and Early Christianity, has stated that the question people most ask him is this: “Were Mary Magdalene and Jesus of Nazareth married?” Here is Ehrman’s answer: “It is not true…that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained Gospels that discussed Mary and Jesus.” “Nor is it true that the marriage of Mary and Jesus is repeatedly discussed in the Gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament. In fact, it is never discussed at all—never even mentioned, not even once.” He goes on and notes that “It is not true that the Gospel of Philip calls Mary Jesus’ spouse.” Then he queries: “What what does the historical evidence tell us about Mary and Jesus?….it tells us nothing at all—certainly nothing to indicate that Jesus and Mary had a sexual relationship of any kind” (Ehrman 2006, 248). Ehrman’s historical analysis is dead on. I completely concur with him.


In sum, the technology used on Talpiyot Tomb 1981 by Tabor and Jacobovici is interesting and it would have been nice to be able to focus on it. Moreover, it would have been nice to have had a sober discussion by Tabor and Jacobovici about the finds from Talpiyot Tombs 1980 and 1980; nevertheless, this did not occur. Ultimately, therefore, this volume is replete with a superabundance of problems. I have just discussed a few of them. Some of the additional problems have been dealth with by scholars such as James McGrath and Mark Goodacre, who have focused especially on Tabor and Jacobovici’s problematic use of New Testament texts (see the ASOR Blog for these posts as well). I fear that this volume will be used in the field of academics primarily as “a case study of flawed methodologies and flawed practices”. The reason for this is simply that there are so many tenuous assumptions, leaps of logic, and omissions of data. This is all really quite tragic. Fortunately, there has been a cadre of scholars working to correct the assertions and arguments of Tabor and Jacobovici and this has been most useful. Moreover, the American Schools of Oriental Research deserves a great deal of credit for providing a forum for much of the discussion.


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