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The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B – an Interpretation - The ASOR Blog

The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B – an Interpretation

Posted in: Archaeology and Bible, Archaeology and Media, Archaeology in the News
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Richard Bauckham, www.richardbauckham.co.uk

Preamble: I should first explain that in the autumn of 2011 I took part in a lengthy email correspondence about this inscription with James Tabor, Greg Snyder and Jim Charlesworth. It was a profitable conversation in which we made real progress in both reading and interpreting the inscription, though we certainly did not reach full agreement, especially on the interpretation. (Tabor’s references to me in footnotes to his article, ‘A Preliminary Report …,’ recently published on the internet, reflect that conversation.) We were all bound by a non-disclosure agreement until last week, when the material was made public. At that time Greg Snyder and I had not seen the so-called ‘Jonah’ image and we did not discuss it until much more recently and then much more briefly. Our efforts were focused intensively on the inscription, for which we had the benefit of a number of photos, not only those that have now been published in the book (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012) and on the internet. My own interpretation of the inscription developed through that conversation, but I have modified it very recently (so that some of my argument in what follows is not already known to Tabor, Snyder and Charlesworth).


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36 Comments for : The Four-Line Ossuary Inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B – an Interpretation
    • Jim
    • March 8, 2012

    Thank you, Richard, for a meticulous, brilliant, and convincing essay. There just simply is NO reason to think this 'discovery' has any connection at all to Jesus. There's not a shred of evidence supporting the case that it is.

  1. Reply

    Fantastic contribution Richard. I have enjoyed so much our dialogue. I have anxiously awaited your final analysis being posted since you sent it to me a few days ago. Now maybe we can switch from the image to thus fascinating inscription for a bit. More later.

  2. Reply

    I see there's an unfortunate typo in the Conclusion, where IOAI should, of course, be IAIO. I guess I'd been too immersed in all those variations in the magical papyri.

  3. Reply

    Richard, I think most will figure out the typo and maybe the editors can correct it for you. Reading PGM can make anyone's brain scramble. I want to say again how much I have enjoyed and appreciated our exchange over these past few months, with Greg Snyder and James Charlesworth. It has been one of the most fascinating interchanges I have had in my career. I just looked–I think I count 222 e-mails we have written back and forth on this inscription. You and I could not disagree more on so many things in our field of Christian origins, and even on our conclusions regarding these recent finds, but I have gained immensely from your input and the others and I hope you have from mine as well.

    There is a lot to say here and since I have had your paper for several days ahead of this posting I will be brief here with a few comments and overall observations. You are right–in the end, as you wrote things up, more possibilities have come out, all very stimulating.

    First, I am glad we agree completely on the transcription of the Greek letters since we struggled so hard with that going through all our photos back and forth. At least that gives us a solid base on which to work. We also agree on four discrete words, one for each line. That two is most helpful in considering how to translate. We did not arrive at this easily and folks should know that we all considered many other possibilities, including words running from line to line, other letter possibilities and so forth. And we also agree there is a "bilingual" aspect to the inscription, i.e., representing Hebrew in Greek letters, and balancing back and forth form Greek to Hebrew, Greek to Hebrew. I find that very compelling.

    Your comments on the space/location of the inscription is something we had not considered–any of us, and I find your points most convincing. The implications are fascinating. This is no random scrawl, no "don't move these bones" graffiti, but someone wants to say/declare something here–a phenomenon found on no other ossuary of our 650 inscribed (Cotton, CIIP). That is really something to contemplate. Whatever it says it was important to the writer, not casual.

    Your new suggestion regarding DIOS is quite intriguing. If you are correct, as you say, this truly would be a first, and unprecedented in this period and context. I am still strongly convinced that the adjective is a better choice in that these kinds of dedications (using the genitive of a deity) are typical of dedicatory pillars, altars, etc. as with our many examples of theos hupistos (in the dative). We have lots of genitives with names on ossuaries as you know, but the meaning is simple–"[this is the ossuary] of XXXX. I think it is unlikely that the genitive would be used of the ossuary–or its contents–i.e, belonging to Zeus. I will continue to think about this one and you have my wheels turning. I would also wonder what sort of family/clan/individual this might represent–since it is so unprecedented? In other words, the more simple explanation might be the best, even if the genitive of Zeus is possible–i.e., the Divine/Wondrous YHVH…It seems very nature and compelling to me.

    We have had extensive discussions of AGB and your leaning toward the name Hagav, rare as it is in this period (Agabus has its own intrigue of course!). What really attracted me toward the transliteration possibility is that we would then have DIOS IAOS (Greek. Hebrew) HUPSW HAGBA (Greek, Hebrew). It seems appealing and balanced. So either we take HUPSW as a 1ps, or we understand it as a shortened form of the imperative, with the omega–but then interpreted by the next word–Hagba–lift up! (Hiphil Imperative). I lean toward the latter as you know, but it surely could be statement of praise to God/YHVH and a plea to "raise up."

    You are right, there is nothing explicitly Christian in any of these translations, but if it has anything to do with calling upon God to "raise up," which I think it does, it stands, as does the use of IAIO in this funerary context, as totally unique. We have nothing else like this–either your favored translation or mine, on ANY ossuary inscription in the entire corpus known to us. We of course see its wider context as the Jonah image and the nearby tomb–and those contextual possibilities serve to inform our thesis.

    Enough for now. Thanks again Richard. I look forward to others posting their own readings as I think Chris Rollston has been working on this since last May and from his summary post has a completely different take on things. In my paper I tried my best to represent all the possibilities our colleagues had suggested, our little group and others, but you have added to the pot here and I thank you. Anxious to hear more. Best, James

    • Gavin Lyall
    • March 8, 2012

    Kudos and gratitude from a simple layman for this thorough analysis! But the concluding remark seems to come out of the blue, especially as so much said before is redolent of the magical Jewish-Hellenic syncretism Christianity (or, probably originally, "Chrestianity") arose from. I've often noted that the Christian God descends at least as directly from Zeus as Yahweh, and here we have what looks like a straightforward equation between them. The name "Hagab" meaning "grasshopper" I find suggestive of Natzraya (in one of its forms – I forget exactly), meaning "cricket", not to mention the traditional diet of John the Baptist, which might have symbolised his dependence on his followers.

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  6. Reply

    Richard, on the possibility of the abbreviated form of the verb hupsw (hupsw[son] in this context I was thinking of the shortened forms of hupistos that we find in abundance (Stephen Mitchell, “The Cult of Theos Hypsistos 1999) with no indication of suspension but context. In that case the Hiphil of GBH would provide the parallel. I was also impressed with the use of upsow in some of our earliest Christological contexts for heavenly exaltation–not that it could not be used in other ways, like "lift up" that bed, or cup, but here, with IAIO, perhaps more likely a plea or cry–and in the context of a tomb–that was the key to me. BTW, Mitchell suggested to me that the last letter was a clumsy omega–thus "to the holy," AGIW, which as you know I covered in my paper. I really trust his good eye but since the letter seems flattened in the end we all went for a beta. In that case we would have "I Divine YHVH am lifting up to the holy (place)," which is quite intriguing–cf. 1 Clem 5:7, 4Q431 f2:8 etc.

    • Clyde Adams III
    • March 9, 2012

    A most illuminating and persuasive essay, Dr Bauckham.

    Your chosen linked example of a Bar Kokhba tetradrachm is in fact a modern fake, and in at least one respect the fake coin does not match your description: the horizontal line, representing the bottom of the ark, is absent.

  7. Reply

    Clyde, thank you very much. Now that I look at it again I can see exactly what you mean. I wrote with photos in books in front of me, and then just looked for an example on the Web I could put a link too. I'll look again for an authentic example.

    Gavin, I just disagree with you entirely on Christian origins.

    James, thanks. I'll respond to your points about abbreviations. The last letter of line 4 is very like betas we looked at on other ossuary inscriptions. It would take me a while to find them again, but we all three found them convincing parallels.

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  10. Reply

    James, I have read through Stephen Mitchell's collection of 293 Theos Hypsistos inscriptions. I find only two cases where hypsistos is abbreviated. No 71 has: thewi hypsist(wi). Here it is obvious that the word must be completed in this way, because it qualifies thewi, but also because hypsist is not a word and so cannot be understood otherwise than as an abbreviation by suspension.

    The other case is 281, where Mitchell has: heis theos hu(psistos?) th(eos?) …, and adds that the readings are uncertain. But if it is correct that the two single letters upsilon and theta here stand for the phrase hypsistos theos, that doesn't have much relevance for our inscription. Presumably it is possible because theos hypsistos was such a well-known phrase.

    I wonder if you have been misled by cases where Mitchell puts the final letters of the word in square brackets. I take it these are cases where the text is damaged and not readable, rather than cases where the inscription used an abbreviation.

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  12. Reply

    James, taking up an earlier point you made, about whether 'belonging to Zeus IAIO' would make sense on an ossuary, I think it would be odd if it referred to the ossuary itself, which is scarcely a sacred object. So I think that interpretation has to be taken along with my suggestion that the arch shape represents the Ark. Then it is the Ark that belongs to Zeus IAIO – which is very appropriate.

  13. Reply

    James, I am taking up an earlier point you made, about whether 'belonging to Zeus IAIO' would make sense on an ossuary, I think it would be odd if it referred to the ossuary itself, which is scarcely a sacred object. So I think that interpretation has to be taken along with my suggestion that the arch shape represents the Ark. Then it is the Ark that belongs to Zeus IAIO – which is very appropriate.

  14. Reply

    Richard, thanks for your input here. Abbreviation is a non-technical word, a better term would be "suspension" since formal and known abbreviations are well known and quite something else. I am not sure of Mitchell's bracket apparatus but I will take a look but my impression was there are a number of "suspended" forms. I have relied more on B. H. McClean, An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy, who comments: "Abbreviation by contraction is rare in Greek inscriptions prior to the fourth century A.D. Most Greek abbreviations are made by suspension or truncation, that is the suspending or omitting of letters from the end of a word." Also M Avi-Yonah, Abbreviations in Greek Inscriptions (1940). For example, the single letter upsilon can stand for uios, uiothesia, upateis, and upistos, wkodomethe can be okod, etc. If this be the case the final word, AGB/Hagbah, would make clear the former.

    That said, even taking the 1ps press. indic. act. as it is written I think it far more likely the alternative translation is correct. In this funerary context, and on an ossuary, rather than having a guy named Locust (rare name, though I do like the idea that we only know of one such guy–the Nazarene prophet from Jerusalem mentioned twice in Acts!) praising Zeus YHVH, to whom the "ark of the covenant" belongs–represented by an arch seems to me really strained. After all, of the hundreds of dedicatory inscriptions they seem to always refer to the altar, monument, or whatever they are written on. It seems much more compelling, reading the verb as a simple 1ps, that we simply have I raise up the Divine YHVH, so raise up (me)!. The play on words is nice, the reading is simple, and it seems to fit a funerary context. The parallel with Psalm 30:1 [30:2 in Hebrew; 29:2 LXX) seems to me very strong as we have discussed–"I raise you up O YHVH, for you have raised me up…you brought up my soul from Sheol," etc. It is not explicitly Christian, of course, but would be a plea for resurrection–something we do not have on any other ossuary from this period–and as you know epitaphs themselves are rare (I list them all in my article and the notes in the book and as I recall some of them "suspend" endings, but let me check that again)–but not a single one of this type with a plea or affirmation of resurrection faith. That makes this tomb really stand out–and we think, with the Jonah image on the other ossuary, this particular Jewish clan is affirming something beyond what we have found anywhere else. One final point. While it is true Jews could write the YHVH name of God, to put it on an ossuary, in a tomb, a place of tuma, is surely reflecting something sectarian, magical, and what should we say, beyond the "normative." I think our mouths should all be dropping at this inscription, if the way we are reading the letters are correct, as truly we have something here quite extraordinary and unprecedented.

  15. Reply

    Do we have a plea or prayer for resurrection from any other source at all? Jews and Christians both seem to simply expect resurrection. They don't pray for it, as far as I can remember, but I could be wrong.

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  17. Reply

    James, on your point about corpse impurity, I guess it must be relevant that stone does not convey impurity. (Was that why stone ossuaries were used?)

    • Gavin Lyall
    • March 11, 2012

    Well, thanks for responding, anyway. That was kinda funny. Yeah, "Zeus Yahweh" must sound either provocative or irrelevant to most folks in the context of early "Christianity" (which term can't be applicable to Yeshua's immediate followers if you don't allow their Hellenism). But which god does "Heavenly Father" best describe? Which god impregnated virgins? Never mind that the word for "God" in most Christian languages is some variant of "Zeus" (Deus, Theos, etc.). The possible Hagab-Nazarene-Johannine association is just "food" for thought.

    • John Moles
    • March 11, 2012

    I have no views about this object or its inscription. But – on the principle that everyone is entitled to access to arguments that support their case (whatever the correctness of that case) – one could say: (a) 'Iao', as translation/transliteration of 'Yahweh', a healing god, evokes 'iaomai' ('heal'); (b) there is a strong punning association between 'iaomai' and 'Iesous' in the Gospels and Acts, an association which must have predated those texts and which must have been important in the 'construction' of 'Iesous' the healer; (c)the ultimate 'healing' is 'resurrection' (the connexion is clear in the Gospels and Acts). So one could try to Christianise the inscription, independently of larger contexts. (I certainly do not imply that I personally would.)

  18. Reply

    The Patio tomb and Early Judeo-Christianity

    Following J. Tabor's 'A Preliminary Report of a Robotic Camera Exploration of a Sealed 1st Century Tomb in East Talpiot, Jerusalem'. http://bibleinterp.com/PDFs/Tabor2.pdf = Tabor, tomb.

    The Patio Tomb (henceforth: PT) was not a regular, normal Jewish tomb. If so, was it the first Christian tomb? The description "Christian tomb" seems to be a generalization; yet it's not completely wrong. Who could the PT interments be? They didn't belong to any of the Jewish sects described by Josephus. Still, they were Jews. Since almost all of Jesus' first-generation-followers were Jews, we can use a well known definition: Judeo-Christians. The PT seems to be the first Judeo-Christian tomb we can identify with reasonable degree of certainty. "First" means "not the only one". Traces of Judeo-Christian burials are scattered across the Galilee, as I will show below; that is: the PT is a sort of prototype. In terms of Christian burials and tombs, the PT shows one prominent component: the major changes in the Jewish concepts of death and corpse defilement.

    The idea that the PT is not a normal, regular Jewish tomb is a good point to start with. Since Greek is common in Jewish funerary inscription from the time and area, the PT Greek inscriptions do not imply any ethnic identity. But creating or producing any form of figurative art was strictly forbidden by Jewish laws in the Second Temple Era (STE) and much later; in fact, R. Yokhanan of Tiberia removed this prohibition ca. mid 3rd century CE. This prohibition is well attested to by the common ornamentation in regular Jewish tombs: Rosettes and other geometrical forms. Thus, whether the form is a fish or any other non-geometrical form, it's the first evidence that the PT is not a normal, regular Jewish tomb.

    In page 30, we see the PT plan. In my opinion, the presence of four skeletons in four individual niches and the lack of specified spot or facility for preliminary burial are indicative. Moreover, both facts seem to be parts of one and the same phenomena. Many Galilean tombs lack a preliminary or a secondary burial spot or facility. In these cases, we might find spaces for preliminary burials, and larger spaces for secondary burials. The deceased's relatives used to collect the bones from the preliminary burial spots and put them in the larger, familial-common space (in Galilean tombs, this space is regularly in the back of the tomb). The point is that preliminary burial spaces are separated from the secondary burial spaces. In Judean and Jerusalemite tombs this separation is achieved by the presence of the preliminary burial shelf in the main space while the ossuaries are in the niches. There is no such separation in the PT. Indeed, rabbinic literature tells us of a pit meant for bones; the technical Hebrew term is מכתשת (machteshet). Reasonably, the bones pit could be a solution when a tomb owner could not afford for ossuaries. A Jew could inherit a tomb, but then he could become poorer; thus he was a tomb owner, but couldn't order an ossuary. However, there is no such pit in the PT.

    Normative Jews separated the bones from the rest of the tomb because of the Jewish concept of corpse defilement (Hebrew טומאת מת = tumat met). The PT niches clearly serve both stages: there are ossuaries in niches 1, 2, and 6, and individual skeletal remains in niches 3, 7, 8, and 9. In general, ossuaries were not only simple bones containers; according to the Jewish relevant concepts and laws, stone product do not receive defilement, nor they allow defilement to "break out" and contaminate the space in which they are. Bones should legally be collected in ossuaries a year after the death; thus the defilement bones might inflict is confined in an ossuary. The exposed skeletons in the PT niches are a strange phenomenon, especially since the PT accommodates ossuaries. One might claim that the exposed skeletons are the result of time shortage when these people died; one might even connect this to the turmoil that preceded the revolt or even the revolt its self (started in 66 CE). Yet in this case we will have to accept the idea that the skeletons belonged to Jews who died approximately at the same time. It's possible, but if so, this phenomenon would occur in other tombs in and around Jerusalem. Yet this idea doesn't explain the presence of the fish figure. Moreover: it cannot explain the presence of the explicit name of God, יהוה , in a tomb.

    This point seems to be a major problem; if the PT was Jewish, then the explicit name inscribed in it is a major break of Jewish law. God's name is the most sacred name in Judaism, while corpse defilement is the most severe defilement in Judaism. Until today, this contrast is the reason that Jews are not allowed to take a Torah book into a cemetery, nor are they allowed to put a corpse in a synagogue, in front of the Holy Box, while nothing separates both objects from each other.

    Before we discuss this problem, another phenomenon is worthy of considering. Jesus' resurrection was not only a point in time, a miraculous event that marked the beginning of Christianity. The resurrection marked also Jesus' victory over death. This victory marks the eternal life indeed, but it marks another new concept: when death is defeated, there is no corpse defilement. Normative Jews accepted corpse defilement as the immediate result of death, and the complete opposite of the holiness of life. But what if one was Jesus' follower and believer? How could such a Jew "process" his master's death and resurrection? What implications both events could have on his life and concepts? The answer is: when death is defeated, there is no real death; and when there is no death, there is no corpse defilement. Instead of the normative Jewish concept of death as a negative, un-holly event, death became a positive event, the first step to achieve a fulfillment of a sacred promise in the minds of Jesus followers. Corpse defilement has disappeared when death has been defeated. A simple fact is that in Christianity, until today, death inflicts no defilement.

    When the most severe corpse defilement is gone, the PT questions are reasonably answered. First: the tomb owner did not order the builders to prepare or install a special space or any other facility for preliminary or secondary burial. All spaces are considered the same and might serve any purpose.

    As there is no corpse defilement, God's most sacred name might be inscribed in a tomb. True, Jews are not allowed to write or inscribe or even pronounce this sacred name under any circumstances. But here we don't have a regular Jew. So irregular, that he (or his relatives) broke another prohibition: figurative art. When corpse defilement is gone, leaving corpses exposed in niches for more than a year is not a legal problem. The fact that there are a few ossuaries in the PT is indicative: these irregular Jews did not abandon the practice of ossuaries all together; they have changed it: instead of collecting the bones a year after the death, like normative Jews, they laid the corpse in the niche and collected the bones only when they needed the niche for the next interment; then they used ossuaries. This suggested practice explains the "format" of human remains and ossuaries in the PT: three niches accommodate skeletons, while other three accommodate ossuaries. Still, the owners could lay more corpses in the other two niches, or conveniently collect the bones from one or more niches to allow for more corpses in case of need.

    After all, the PT shows the first occurrence of Christian burial. The owners were not Christians in modern terms; they were a part of the earliest Judeo-Christian movement, the earliest followers of Jesus. Highly likely, the owners of the PT, at least the older among them, saw Jesus alive.

    The unique components of the PT became a sort of prototype. The PT fish is not the only one. The fish below is inscribed in a Galilean tomb. From head (left end) to tail it's more than two feet long.

    The cross, inscribed in the PT (Tabor, tomb, p. 43), has a Galilean parallel as well

    This Galilean tomb might present the reason that Galilean ossuaries are so rare: ancient herds' owners used tombs to accommodate their live stock; to enlarge the space, the broke the walls between the niches. What we see here is the inner end of a former niche; the "leg" of the dross is somewhat diagonal. The reason is that whoever inscribed it was working horizontally on a floor of a very narrow space. During many years of herding, the ossuaries have gone. As we can see, the symbols inscribed in the PT are not unique. They occur in the same funerary circumstances in the Galilee, with some modifications.


    The PT does present the basic concept of death and its defeat which are, in turn, so fundamental in Christianity. It also tells us that as the earliest Judeo-Christians accepted Jesus a Messiah, they had to accept or develop and internalize major changes in the Jewish concept of life and death. This, in turn, led them to the next step: when death became a positive step in eternal life, it could not inflict defilement anymore. In these terms, the PT is indeed the first Christian tomb ever to be discovered. At least it is the first tomb in which we can see the foundations of the Christian concept of death. Thus we might also say that when Judeo-Christianity started, it differed from Judaism not only be accepting Jesus as a Messiah, but also by accepting the resulting changes in the concept of death and the practices of burial.

  19. Reply

    Eldad, thank you. A few points about 1st century Judaism. Most scholars would say that the idea of a 'normative Judaism' at this time is anachronistic and inappropriate. Moreover, most Jews did not belong to the four 'parties' described by Josephus – and I don't mean they didn't belong to other 'parties' or 'sects.' Doubtless there were other groups Josephus doesn't mention, but the key point is that most Jews did not belong to any particular party or group. So if there's something 'different' about this tomb it doesn't follow it's Jewish Christian.

    Since I don't think the image is a fish (I think it's an amphora) I don't need to take up your point about figurative art, though I do you think you make it far too tidy by simply supposing that Jewish practice in general was uniform till the 3rd century and then changed. But there is no evidence I know to suggest that early Jewish Christians thought any differently about figurative art than any other Jews, and I don't see why they should have done. If the image were a fish (I repeat I'm convinced it is not) and if this were a divergence from majority Jewish practice, then I see no reason to think the divergent group were Christians.

    Again, everything you say about Christians and corpse defilement is pure speculation. What evidence do we have for what they thought about it? The fact that later Christianity has no notion of corpse defilement is beside the point. That's because the whole concept of cultic purity was abandoned in Gentile Christianity. It doesn't tell us what Jewish Christians who still observed Torah did or thought about it. Since they attended the Temple, they must have got rid of their corpse impurity before entering the Temple.

    However, I am interested in the issue of writing the Name in a tomb. As you say, the stone box protects it from the impurity inside the box, but it would still be exposed to impurity from the unburied remains. But to say that this "is a major break of Jewish law" may once again be imposing a concept of normative Judaism. We don't actually have any such prohibition from the Second Temple period, so far as I know. The fact that we don't find the Name in other tombs could reflect no more than the fact this is a very unusual inscription in that it actually says something religious, rather than just recording names or warding off grave robbers. In other words, we don't know that it is not used in other tombs because this was prohibited. It could be merely there was no custom of making religious statements on ossuaries.

    You are absolutely right to draw attention to the issue and I'm still thinking about it. But it's a huge jump from the writing of the Name on an ossuary to – this must be a Christian tomb!

    • John
    • March 12, 2012

    The Tosefta has an interesting comment about early Jewish Christians and the use of the Divine name: “The books of the Evangelists and the books of the minim they do not save from a fire. But they are allowed to burn where they are, . . . they and the references to the Divine Name which are in them.”

    Even though there seems to be a lot of debate about the big fish aren't the little fish acrooss the top of the one ossuary pretty obvious? Is that in itself figurative art that would not typically be seen on a Jewish ossuary?

  20. Reply

    Footnote to my paper, not a reply to comments:

    In the light of the new photos now on the Jesus Discovery website, I'm now quite dubious that any of the horizontal lines below the inscription are intentional. The reproduction, on which I was relying (and I pointed out that this was hazardous), seems to have tidied them up rather a lot.

  21. Reply

    John, many thanks for alerting us to the Tosefta text (Shabb. 13:5). I had forgotten that it refers to "divine names." This does seem to refer to Hebrew writings in which the Tetragrammaton was written. If it is reliable, then it seems to confirm what we hear occasionally from the Fathers and especially Jerome about a Hebrew Gospel used by Jewish Christians. Sadly it has not survived. If Jewish Christians wrote the Divine Name in Gospels or other writings in Hebrew they were doing the same as other Jews. This would be especially the case if they regarded these writings as Scripture, and the rabbinic comments you quote (with the rest of the passage and with the somewhat different reference to these writings in Tosefta Yad 2:13) seem to assume that they are being treated as Scriptures, since the issue is whether one should treat them the way the Torah is treated. But even if they were not exactly Scripture, there are some non-scriptural texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls in which the Tetragrammaton is written, so the practice would not be specifically Christian.

    As far as I know there are no depictions of animals on ossuaries, but there are lots of depictions of vegetation (which was never prohibited), especially in stylised designs. The 'little fish' look to me as likely to be leaves as fish. The designs on this ossuary are quite crudely drawn.

  22. Reply


    You say: "Moreover, most Jews did not belong to the four ‘parties’ described by . . . but the key point is that most Jews did not belong to any particular party or group. So if there’s something ‘different’ about this tomb it doesn’t follow it’s Jewish Christian."

    I agree, of course; so, if most Jews did not belong to any particular party or group, can we say that this majority was the main stream? Or, rather, had more in common? This brings us to the next point: may we assume that the tombs of this large, not specifically identified body of Jews were similar? In other words: can you point at any other 1st century CE tomb with any figurative art inscribed in it, whether it's a fish, or an amphora?

    Do we agree that Jesus' earliest followers were mainly Jews? Do we agree that the prominent difference between them and other Jews was the fact that they accepted Jesus a Messiah? You say that "Judeo-Christian" is not the proper definition; so be it. I take it back; they weren't Judeo-Christians, but Jesus' earliest followers.

    You say: "Since I don’t think the image is a fish (I think it’s an amphora) I don’t need to take up your point about figurative art, though I do you think you make it far too tidy by simply supposing that Jewish practice in general was uniform till the 3rd century and then changed. But there is no evidence I know to suggest that early Jewish Christians thought any differently about figurative art than any other Jews, and I don’t see why they should have done. If the image were a fish (I repeat I’m convinced it is not) and if this were a divergence from majority Jewish practice, then I see no reason to think the divergent group were Christians."

    The so called "amphora"; how many amphorae we know, the ornamentation of which are rhombus scales? How many amphorae we know that have an arched line, so similar to the actual fin line, so typical and common in the fish world? How many amphorae we know, the mouth of which is so much wider than the body?

    An amphora? A fish? Regarding the prohibition on figurative art, it makes no difference; both are figurative art, thus both are prohibited. I repeat my question: can you point at another tomb from the same time (or close), in which an amphora (if not a fish) is inscribed? The schematic "flowers" and other vegetarian parts, mainly in the form of Rosettes, were accepted exactly because they were schematic. The owner of this tomb broke the prohibition on figurative art – this is a fact. I see this as an exception. You don't see why this is a break, and why Judeo-Christians would think differently than other Jews. Well, at least we know they accepted Jesus a Messiah; I don't think it's a tiny, ignorable difference. This divergent group was not Christian; you're right. It was Judeo-Christian.

    You say: "It doesn’t tell us what Jewish Christians who still observed Torah did or thought about it". The early Judeo-Christians did observe Torah. With a slight change: the Torah never mentioned a messiah, the flesh-and-blood son of god. The basic concepts of Judaism, as they are in the Hebrew Bible, simply do not allow for such an idea. So accepting Jesus a messiah is not just a change; it's a major, decisive break. Still, one may underestimate this break. Moreover, even if we assume that early Judeo-Christians attended the temple, how can we be sure that "since they attended the Temple, they must have got rid of their corpse impurity before entering the Temple." It's a speculation, just like other speculation. They may have attended the Temple, but getting rid of corpse impurity before is a speculation.

    Regarding the Name in a tomb, you say: "We don’t actually have any such prohibition from the Second Temple period, so far as I know". With all due respect, even writing the Name on a house wall, or pronouncing it by a lay Jew, was prohibited. The Name is so holly, and corpses are so unholy, that no Jew would inscribe it in a tomb, or even think about doing so. Thus such an act doesn't have to be formally prohibited.

    "In other words, we don’t know that it is not used in other tombs because this was prohibited. I don't agree, of course (see my former paragraph). But your second sentence here is interesting. Suppose your right, and "It could be merely there was no custom of making religious statements on ossuaries". At last we agree! Commonly, there was no custom etc. This statement defines the patio tomb exactly as it is: not a common Jewish tomb. To understand it, we have to define the basic and thus the first "trait" that separated Judeo-Christianity from Judaism: Jesus, an everlasting Messiah, the one who won death. I believe that Jesus' death and resurrection are, conceptually, a single event; his early followers had the same ideas. One cannot accept the resurrection and keep his concepts of death and corpse defilement unchanged.

    The Patio Tomb finds define the tomb: an exception; I suggest an early Judeo-Christian tomb, and a prototype of (correction, sorry) the much earlier Christian burials.

    • John
    • March 12, 2012

    Just a thought for you experts to ponder. In looking at the inscription shape and translation it reminds me of the tablets of stone and one of the 10 commandments. Exodus 20:7 states according to Youngs Literal translation: "Thou dost not take up the name of Jehovah thy God for a vain thing, for Jehovah acquitteth not him who taketh up His name for a vain thing". Could this be the writer in essence saying I Hagab take up (or exalt) the glorious name Jehovah?

  23. Reply

    A good point, John. The commandment is correct. Now: can we be sure that Hagab is the correct translation and presents an individual name? It's very similar to the Hebrew word for grasshopper: חגב (Khagav). This word is sometimes used in the Hebrew Bible to demostrate the feeling of being almost nothing infront of God. Yet the problem remains: what Jew would dare to inscrib the Name, the holliest word in Hebrew and in Jewish culture, in a tomb – the most severe source of impurity?

  24. Reply

    Let's just get the point about figurative art right. There is a lot of vegetation on ossuaries, and some of it is quite realistic and recognisable, not schematic. There are also objects – amphorae (very clear amphorae which everyone agrees are amphorae or jugs), the Menorah, architectural structures. These are very clear illustrations. We have the Menorah depicted elsewhere in Second Temple Jewish graffiti and elsewhere. The Goliath tomb in Jericho has wall paintings of flowers. On the other hand, animals are very rare, though there are a few cases. For example, there is a stone table from once of houses excavated in the Jewish quarter of Jerusalem that has a fish depicted on its top – a very well depicted. So a fish on a Jewish ossuary is not inconceivable, but it seems to me the evidence suggests that Jews generally avoided depicting people or animals (the sorts of things Gentiles worshipped) but had no problem with objects like amphorae or plants.

    Acts 21:26 says that Paul purified himself before entering the Temple. It was like taking your shoes off to go into a mosque. Everyone did it.

    I repeat: however unusual this tomb may be, there is nothing about its unusual aspects that point to Jewish Christianity. You didn't have to be a Christian to come up with the idea of putting a religious statement on an ossuary. Why shouldn't anyone come up with that idea? Seeing tomb inscriptions in places outside Jerusalem might give one the idea.

  25. Reply


    The objects you count above – amphorae, menorah – all of them are on ossuaries? Or generally in Jewish tombs? The Goliath tomb is unique, indeed; a perfect example of an exception. Anumals – can you point at a Jewish tombossuary with animals? You say this phenomenon is rare; I agree. "Rare" is not regular. The stone table is not a tomb, and I suppose we may relate it to a Hellenised Jewish family, not to a pious, devoted Jewish family. One way or another – it's rare, and not connected to fynerary circumstances, which are our focus.

    As for purifying before entering the Temple: Jews had to purify themselves before entering the Temple as a rule, whether or not they touched corpses before. A jew must purify himself after sexual intercourse even if he has no intention to enter the Temple.

    You say: "You didn’t have to be a Christian to come up with the idea of putting a religious statement on an ossuary". Might be true; yet the fact is that we still don't have any other ossuary inscribed with religious statement.

    I know a few Galilean tombs with strange symbols inscribed on their walls; one has a horizontal; the other has a cross; yet another has another form of early cross. So you are right: all these places are out of Jerusalem. All of them also imply Jewish Christianity. Another Galilean tomb has a Menorah inscribed on a wall. Yet there is no specified space for long term bones storaging in this tomb. The Patio tomb shows a similar structure; bones are not supposed to remain in the preliminary burial spot, and usually niches did not meant for this purpose. I believe that this fact implies a major change in the Jewish concept of corpse defilement. You say: "That’s because the whole concept of cultic purity was abandoned in Gentile Christianity". I believe gentiles simply didn't share the same cultic concepts with Jews anyway, including the severe concept of corpse defilement. Thus I repeat: as a Jew, a follower of Jesus, one had to accept changes in his own concept of corpse defilement, or else the resurrection meant nothing. Since Jesus' death and resurrection were the initial breaking point, the essence that differed Jesus' followers from the rest of the Jews. A follower could not avoid this change. Implying thses changes by tomb inscriptions could be a safe way to express one's belief and devotion to the new way while not exposing one's self.

  26. Reply

    in my third paragraph I meant "horizontal fish"; sorry.

    another correction; I wrote "and usually niches did not meant for this purpose"; should be "usually niches are not meant for this purpose".

  27. Reply

    For example, Rahmani no. 815 has a menorah and also amphorae on three sides. Quite a lot of other amphora. Another menorah on 829. Rahmani thinks both these come from between 70 and 135, I'm not sure why.

    There's an altar on an ossuary thought to come from the tomb of one of the high priestly families. The only tomb/ossuary with animals I know of is the Goliath tomb wall painting, which has birds as well as plants. Of course, we're agreed that this is very rare, and it is a point against seeing a fish on our ossuary. But I think the evidence is accumulating almost by the day that it is an amphora, not a fish.

    Do you have access to Rahmani's catalogue? It has 895 plates of ossuaries. You can study all this stuff.

    Of course, you got rid of impurity whenever you got it, and you had to get rid of any sort before entering the temple. Paul is almost bound to have got corpse impurity from years of travelling in the diaspora, where it can't be removed, and everyone knew he'd come from the diaspora. He was a controversial visitor who drew a lot of attention. He couldn't have got away with entering the temple without getting rid of corpse impurity.

    You are simply saying what you think early Jewish Christians MUST have thought. This is not a very good guide to history. People often go on holding onto a belief that seems to us inconsistent with a new belief. But in any case, I do not see why the idea that Jesus had risen from death to new, immortal life should stop people thinking corpses were impure.

    Actually there are other tombs where bones have been found in the kokhim, but since almost all the tombs around Jerusalem have been disturbed in the past one can't really conclude anything from that. Grave robbers may have tipped them out of ossuaries they stole.

    That the Talpiot B tomb was abandoned before the skeletons could be transferred to ossuaries seems the easiest explanation of them.

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