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

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Richard Bauckham,

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).

Reading the inscription
The inscription is actually very clear, especially when several photos of it are consulted. I think it is true that Tabor, Snyder and myself, having explored various possible readings of some characters, agree that the very probably correct reading is

The iota at the beginning of line 2, unlike the other two iotas, is written with a horizontal line at the top and another at the bottom of the vertical stroke. Christopher Rollston (‘Reflections of an Epigrapher…’, published on this blog, p. 6) asserts that this letter ‘is simply not an iota,’ since ‘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.’ Rollston is an epigrapher. I am not, but I venture to say he is being far too dogmatic. Among ossuary inscriptions, there is an iota with very distinct top and bottom horizontals in the name ΑΠΦΙΑΣ (Rahmani no. 84 = CIIP 456) and another in ΝΙΓΕΡ (Rahmani no. 565 = CIIP 28). (The iota in Rahmani no. 330 = CIIP 389 has a top horizontal, but not a bottom.) The first of these examples (Rahmani no. 84 = CIIP 456) is instructive, because not just the iota but also other characters with free ends (ΠΦΑΗΝ) have the same feature, which can also be seen in some other ossuary inscriptions that do not include an iota (Rahmani no. 789 [not in CIIP]; CIIP 561; cf. the Latin inscription in Rahmani no. 202 = CIIP 40). These writers are clearly imitating the ornamental style of monumental script that was common from the mid-third century BCE onwards and still used but in the decline in the early Roman period (Woodhead 1959: 64). This style is described, with several good illustrations, by Guarducci (1967: 372-376). The finishing strokes attached to the free ends of characters are known as apices or serifs. The letter at the beginning of the second line of our inscription is clearly an iota with apices. It is not likely to be a zeta, since this way of writing a zeta, with a vertical upright, seems to be an earlier usage, no longer found in this period. The letter is certainly not, as Rollston claims is ‘most readily understood’, a tau, since the top and bottom horizontals are of equal length and equally clearly written.

It does need to be explained why, in our inscription, only this letter is adorned with apices. 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. 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 characters) (all such practices are described in Tov 2004:218-246). Contrary to assertions made in the ‘Jesus Discovery’ film, it was not ‘heretical’ for Jews to write the divine Name, but there was a general taboo against pronouncing it. It was therefore desirable to mark it out in writing so that a reader would be alerted and not inadvertently pronounce it. This is surely the main function of the elaborated form of the initial iota in our inscription, but it may also serve a further function. This Greek transliteration of the Name is unique (and will be further discussed below). In preference to the more common Greek transcription ΙΑΩ, the writer has used a form that represents all four Hebrew letters. We might have expected ΙΑΥΟ, but he may well have used iota for the Hebrew waw because the simple iota looks exactly like a Hebrew waw. The initial iota, which represents the Hebrew yod, is distinguished from the other by its ornamental form. Since the writer of our inscription would not have expected his form of the Name to be actually pronounced, it was more important to him to represent the four Hebrew letters than it was to provide a Greek form that would sound like the way the Tetragrammaton was pronounced, when it was (at least by the high priest on the Day of Atonement). Thus he could well have placed an iota in third place because it looks like a waw, rather than because it would sound like it.

The Greek word ΔΙΟΣ could be read in two different ways. It could be Διός, the genitive of Zeus, or it could be the adjective δῖος. When I first worked on this inscription I could not see how to make sense of the first of these options and so focused on the second. (Incidentally, Tabor and Jacobovici took up my suggestion that ΔΙΟΣ is the adjective δῖος: Rollston, p. 4, is mistaken in saying they understand it as ‘God’.) In Homer δῖος can mean ‘godlike’, but has no particular relationship to Zeus (though it has in the Greek tragedians). It is frequent in Homer and would be well known to anyone with a Greek education, but it was a poetic word. Hence it is not used in LXX or NT or any early Jewish literature or epigraphy, with the exception of the Sibylline Oracles (3:78, 83, 143, 180; 5:158, 294) and a fragment of the Jewish Greek poet Theodotus (apud Eusebius, Praep Evang. 9.22.3), where its use is directly copied from Homer. In these cases it applies to sea, earth and remarkable people, never to God. Homer often uses δῖα of goddesses (Dee 2001:117) but never uses δῖος of male gods. Otherwise it is frequently an epithet for heroes and for many other things, such as cities and aspects of nature (Cunliffe 1924:96), somewhat resembling the popular usage of ‘divine’ in modern English. If it is used in our inscription as an epithet of IAIO, it could have a rather vague sense, such as ‘wondrous.’ But the basic meaning of the word is ‘bright’ (like the gods of the sky) and so it is possible that the author of the inscription used it as a poetic Greek equivalent of ‘glory’ as an attribute of the biblical God. It would then go well with the third word of the inscription (ΥΨΩ), which I shall show refers to ‘exalting’ God (which, in biblical terminology, is synonymous with ‘glorifying’ him).

The phrase ΔΙΟΣ ΙΑΙΟ, read as δῖος IAIO, could be either nominative or vocative. (An adjective with an indeclinable noun usually remains in the nominative when the phrase is used with vocative sense.) So if ΥΨΩ means ‘I exalt’ (see below), the first three lines of the inscription would mean either ‘I, glorious IAIO, exalt’ or ‘O glorious IAIO, I exalt (you).’ It would be rather surprising if the inscription, which is not a scriptural quotation, were a divine utterance, but the second possibility, taking δῖος IAIO as vocative, makes excellent sense. I was quite satisfied with this interpretation of the inscription until I recently became aware of a way in which the first two lines would make good sense if the first word were read as Διός, the genitive of Zeus.

In the Greek world it was common for altars and other objects, such as sacred ὅροι (stones marking the boundary of a sacred territory), that were dedicated to Zeus, to bear the short inscription ΔΙΟΣ + the traditional epithet by which Zeus was known in that place. Guardicci reproduces the inscription on an altar in Thassos that reads ΔΙΟΣ ΚΕΡΑΥΝΙΟΥ: ‘Of Zeus Keraunios’ (1967: 385), and similar inscriptions on three ὅροι, dedicated to Zeus Aglaios, Zeus Elasteros and Zeus Alasteros Patroios (1978: 49, 54, 55-56). A quick search of the Greek inscriptions that are searchable on the website of the Packard Humanities Institute ( shows that such inscriptions are common. Dedications to other gods are also made in the same style – with the simple genitive of the name.

It would seem that the writer of our inscription has copied this pagan style and that the first two lines mean: ‘Belonging to Zeus IAIO.’ The Tetragrammaton takes the place of an attribute of Zeus. This is remarkable. Jews of the late Second Temple period generally avoided identifying their God with any of the gods worshiped by pagans. This avoidance of theocrasy was especially strongly maintained because of the memory of the crisis under Antiochus Epiphanes, when the Jewish Hellenizers, opposed by the Maccabees, identified the Jewish God YHWH with Zeus Olympios or the supreme Semitic god ‘the Lord of Heaven’ (Ba‘al Shamem) and came to regarded as apostates. But pagan writers did make such identifications (Hengel 1973:262-264) and some Jewish writers in the western diaspora were prepared to allow that pagans worshipped the one true God under the name of Zeus (Aristobulus, apud Eusebius, Praep Evang. 13.12.7-8; Aristeas 16; Josephus, Ant. 12.22; cf. Hengel 1973:264-266). As far as I know, our inscription is the only extant example of an identification of YHWH with Zeus in a Palestinian Jewish context after the Maccabean period.

If this reading of the first two lines of the inscription is correct, the question arises—what is said to belong to Zeus IAIO? Is the writer treating the ossuary itself a sacred object belonging to God? To answer this question we must consider the position of the inscription on the ossuary.

The location of the inscription
The actual position of the inscription within the decorative design of that side of the ossuary is not clear from the photographs and not mentioned in Tabor’s article (or in Tabor and Jacobovici 2012). I became aware of it only from the photograph of the museum reproduction of the ossuary that Tabor provided at the end of his article on this blog (‘A Reply from Prof. Tabor…’; also on his own blog ). But it is highly significant. The inscription is placed in precisely the center of the design. To my knowledge this is true of no other ossuary inscription.

The general design is, of course, of a very common type. Like most ossuaries, there are two ‘metopes’, divided by a ‘tryglyph’ (to use the terms Rahmani borrows from classical architecture). As very often, the metopes contain rosettes and are bounded by decorated borders. The rosettes are of the simplest kind: six-petalled. The zig-zag borders are common, though the double borders along the top and the two sides are less so. It is the tryglyph that is of particular interest. Usually this is a decorative strip, as thin as the borders or thicker, sometimes much thicker and quite decorative (e.g. Rahmani Plates 35, 59, 63, 108, 446, 451, 601, 817F). Normally these leave no room for an inscription in the center of the design. Nor do those ossuaries of this type where the tryglyph is replaced by an image: of a plant, a door, an amphora, or a pillar (e.g. Rahmani Plates 6, 27, 45, 78, 110, 113, 120, 717, 718F). Occasionally, when the tryglyph consists of two vertical borders with a space between, there is room for a central inscription (e.g. Rahmani Plates 2, 9, 24, 67, 576, 591, 767), though I have not seen a case where an inscription has actually been written in such a space. Our ossuary not only has room for an inscription in the center; it provides this space within a form of tryglyph or tryglyph-replacement that is unique among the many ossuaries of which Rahmani provides photographs. It is a zigzag border shaped to resemble an arch. It is instructive to compare this with the ossuary whose design, among Rahmani’s photographs, is most like our ossuary: Rahmani 22. This has zigzag borders (though not exactly like our ossuary’s) and, like our ossuary it has double borders at the two sides and along the top, but not at the bottom. It is surely the standard design of which the design on our ossuary is a variation. In the center it has two vertical strips, exactly like the borders, with a narrow space between them. The two strips join the top and bottom borders. Where our ossuary differs is that the two strips are joined to the bottom border but do not reach the top. Instead, they curve inwards to form an arch, in the upper part of which is the inscription. It certainly looks possible that the owner of the ossuary (bought for the burial of a family member’s bones) chose or even commissioned this unusual variation on a standard design. It is important to stress that the inscription is not squeezed into a space unsuitable for it. Its four short words, arranged in four lines, fit perfectly. We can, at the very least, conclude that this ossuary design was chosen by the owner because it had space for an inscription to be placed at the very center of the design, and we can surmise that this intentionality in the placing of the inscription within a suitable design is connected with the content of the inscription, which is quite unlike any other ossuary inscription known to us. Apart from anything else, it is the only ossuary inscription to mention God in any way, let alone to use the divine Name.

But what of the truly unique feature of the design: the arch shape? Those familiar with the iconography of late Second Temple Judaism may recall an ‘arch’ of exactly the same shape – on the coins of Bar Kokhba. To be precise, the relevant design is on the obverse of the Bar Kokhba tetradrachms. (Coins of this type have been widely reproduced. There is a good example at It depicts a tetrastyle portico. Through the space between the two inner columns is seen the object that has the same shape as the ‘arch’ on our ossuary. The old debate as to whether the building is the temple or a synagogue and whether the object is the ark of the covenant or a torah shrine may be regarded as settled (Mildenberg 1984:33-45; cf. also Muehsam 1966:7-14). The portico is that of the sanctuary building of the Jerusalem temple, through which the spectator is given a view into the Holy of Holies where the ark stands. The image expresses the Bar Kokhba revolt’s aim of rebuilding the temple. Since there was no ark in the Second Temple, it is not even a memory of Herod’s Temple, but presumably an ideal image, plausibly how Solomon’s Temple was imagined to have been.

The ark of the covenant is depicted as a chest with a semicircular lid, seen from one of its narrow sides. The two decorative vertical lines that form its sides are joined, a short way above the ground, by a plain horizontal line, which indicates that below that line the vertical lines represent the legs of the chest. About halfway up the two vertical lines two knobs evidently represent the two staves that were used to carry the ark or perhaps the places where they were affixed to the ark. A little below the arched top of the structure another line, this one ornamented, runs horizontally between the two vertical sides, presumably representing the top of the chest below its lid. On some of the coins the chest is rather wider than on others. The narrower depictions match the proportions of the ‘arch’ on our ossuary rather well. On the museum reproduction of our ossuary there are two plain horizontal lines at about the same level as the single line that marks the bottom of the chest on the coins. Since I am judging only from a small photo of a reproduction made from photographs of the actual ossuary, I cannot be sure whether these lines are intentionally drawn or accidental scratches, but they look like the former. Above these lines are two short lines protruding inwards from each side of the ‘chest’ (if we can now call it that). If these are intentionally drawn they could represent the staves or the places where they fitted. (These lines, I surmise, would not be part of the professionally produced design, but added by the person who wrote the inscription.) Finally, one might compare the four pillars of the Temple portico on the coins with the double borders on the right and left sides of the design on the ossuary. But not all these details need to be correct for it to be a reasonable guess that the ‘arch’ in the center of this design is a very stylized representation of the ark of the covenant. We should recall that many of the images that replace the tryglyph on other ossuaries are very stylized. (It may also be worth mentioning that some of these have in the past been supposed to allude to aspects of the temple [Rahmani 1994:26]. Such interpretations are out of favor, but I wonder if there may not be something to be said for taking the very splendid amphorae that appear on some ossuaries to represent the famed temple vessels, which certainly appear on Bar Kokhba coins. But this is no part of my argument about our ossuary.)

What makes the interpretation of the ‘arch’ as a representation of the ark so attractive is that the inscription would then be located on the ark. What belongs to ‘Zeus IAIO’ is then the ark, which of all biblical objects could be most appropriately described as ‘belonging to God.’ It is sometimes called ‘the ark of YHWH’ (Josh 4:11; 6:12; 1 Sam 4:6; 6:1; 2 Sam 6:9) and, placed in the holy of holies, it was his earthly throne. The temple was ‘the temple of YHWH’ because the ark was his. Both the central position and the unique content of this inscription are thus explained. If the divine Name were to be written anywhere on an ossuary, this is where it should be.

Magical use of the Tetragrammaton?
Greg Snyder (in email correspondence) has suggested that our inscription may be a magical formula. There may be examples of magical formulae on ossuaries, presumably with an apotropaic purpose (this is perhaps the significance of the cryptic letters on Rahmani nos. 319, 322). The Tetragrammaton was used in magic (McDonough 1999:93-97; Bohak 2008:117-119, 277, 305-307), along with an enormous range of other divine names culled from all religious traditions, and various divine names are often strung together in short or long combinations. ‘Zeus IAIO’ would not be an unusual invocation in magic (cf. e.g. PGM 105.6 [Betz 1986:310]: ‘O Zeus-Iao-Zen-Helios’). Moreover, although in Greek the form ΙΑΩ is most often used, the magical papyri also employ a wide variety of forms of the Tetragrammaton, many of them four-letter forms.

Snyder points out that, on ‘certain lamps and amulets, we find the phrase, “Arise, O Lord!”, based on Numbers 10:35: “Arise, O LORD, let your enemies be scattered!”’ (He refers to Naveh 1988:38.) Since this text in Numbers is connected with the ark of the covenant (being carried into battle), this is an attractive possibility, in view of my argument above for a representation of the ark as the location of the inscription on the ossuary. Furthermore, if the third line of the inscription (ΥΨΩ) could be interpreted as ‘Rise up!’ (Num 10:35 LXX has: ἐξεγέρθητι), we should have an apparently very close fit (though I shall argue below that this is not a possible translation of ΥΨΩ).

A major problem with such an approach, however, is that an invocation to ‘Zeus IAIO’ would not use the genitive Διός, while the poetic adjective δῖος is unlikely in magic and would, in any case, not constitute a combination of divine names, which is what would make a magical reading of these lines of the inscription really plausible. In spite of Snyder’s appeal to a sub-literary use of Greek in such cases, it does not seem to me likely that anyone who knew Greek at all would use Διός as a nominative or vocative form of Zeus. But the recognition that Διός + an epithet of Zeus is a standard formula used to label sacred objects as belonging to the god (see above) makes excellent sense of the first two lines of our inscription and obviates the need to try to read them as an address to or invocation of the deity.

The specific form of the divine Name on our inscription (IAIO) does not necessarily reflect magical use. My own scanning of the Greek magical papyri (in Betz 1986; the Greek texts are mostly in Preisendanz 1973, but in Betz there are also translations of 48 texts published later than Preisendanz’s collection) yields 25 four-letter forms of the Tetragrammaton. Put more accurately, these are forms of four-letter divine names that start with iota and include only vowels. One cannot be sure that all of these are actually forms of the Tetragrammaton, since the magical papyri play with all kinds of variations of names composed only of vowels. There are many such that start with vowels other than iota and they are of any length up to seven letters. Here is the list of 25 forms in order of frequency:
ΙΑΕΩ (8)
ΙΕΟΥ (8)
ΙΑΙΑ (3)
ΙΟΥΩ (3)
ΙΗΕΑ (2)
ΙΩΑΙ (2)
Most of these forms are very probably ad hoc variations, not established forms. So it is probably not very significant that the form in our inscription (ΙΑΙO) does not appear (though ΙΑΙΩ is close). (Note also ΙΑΙΟΩ, found in a magical inscription from Carthage [Jordan 1996: I owe this reference to James Tabor].) IAIO could easily have been one such variation, though among them final Ω is much more usual than final O (cf. the standard Greek form IAΩ).

So we cannot conclude very much from this evidence of varied four-letter forms of the Name in magical sources. Our inscription’s form IAIO could be such a variant, but it could also be a more deliberate attempt to represent the Hebrew letters in a four-letter Greek form. It could be our writer’s invention or an established usage in some Jewish circles that does not appear elsewhere in our sources. It does seem to represent a different tradition about the pronunciation of the Name from that reflected by the form ΙΑΟΥΕ (attested by Clement of Alexandria, Strom. 5.6.34), a tradition that probably also lies behind the common Greek form IAΩ, but, as we have already noticed, the writer is probably more concerned to represent the four Hebrew letters in Greek than to preserve the way they were pronounced in a Greek form.

The third word in the inscription is the one about which there should be least controversy. It is the 1st person singular present indicative active (ὑψῶ) of the verb ὑψόω, meaning ‘I lift up’ or ‘I exalt.’ But James Tabor (‘A Preliminary Report…’ p. 17) proposes seeing it as an abbreviation either for ΥΨΩΣΕΙ (3rd masculine singular future indicative active: ‘he will raise up’) or ΥΨΩΣΟΝ (2nd masculine singular aorist imperative active: ‘Raise up!’), and prefers the latter. He comments: ‘Given the cramped space the omega ending would be enough to carry the meaning in this context.’ How it could be enough to do so, when he himself allows two possible completions of the abbreviation, is very hard to see. Actually, of course, if ΥΨΩ is an abbreviation, then there are more forms of the verb it could represent, not just the two he selects because they come closest to the meaning he wishes to find in the inscription (something about God raising someone from death). As an abbreviation, ΥΨΩ would be radically ambiguous. (Why not, for example, ΥΨΩΘΗΣΟΜΑΙ, ‘I shall be raised,’ or ΥΨΩΘΗΤΙ, ‘Rise up!’?) Moreover, since ΥΨΩ is a word complete in itself, it provides the reader with no indication that it should be seen as an abbreviation. It also has, as we shall see, a good contextual meaning as it stands.

If it were an abbreviation, it would be a kind of abbreviation for which it is not easy to find good parallels in Greek inscriptions, where abbreviations are quite sparingly used and limited to cases where the ‘meaning is clear, either because the word is well known or because it can easily be completed from the context’ (Avi-Yonah 1964:9). Most abbreviations are conventional, readily comprehensible to those familiar with the convention. They are usually of names or titles or terms that regularly recur in specific, topical contexts (political, administrative, religious, funerary and so forth) (Avi-Yonah 1964:10-12). Verbs are rather infrequently abbreviated. Abbreviation of a verb by suspension (omitting the last letter or letters) would usually create considerable ambiguity because the concluding letters convey so much meaning. In Avi-Yonah’s large catalogue of abbreviations in Greek inscriptions (1964:45-118) there are examples of verbs abbreviated by suspension, but they are comparatively few. One can probably surmise that they were unambiguous in their context, which is why modern scholars can be sure which forms they abbreviate. That the writer of our inscription was driven to a very ambiguous and unconventional abbreviation because his space was cramped is implausible. He could easily have given this word two lines.

In the context provided by the first two lines of the inscription it is not at all difficult to give ΥΨΩ the meaning ‘I exalt.’ In the Greek Bible the verb is quite often used in the sense of giving praise to God (synonymously with δοξάζω), and it is especially notable that it is sometimes the Name of YHWH that is ‘exalted’ (LXX Ps 33:4[34:3]; 148:13; Isa 12:4; Jdth 16:2; Tob 12:6 A). According to Psalm 148:13, ‘his name alone is exalted.’ It is very appropriate that, after writing the Tetragrammaton, our writer should have added ‘I exalt’ with ‘him’, ‘you’ or even ‘your Name’ understood. If his inscription is written on a representation of the ark, the earthly throne of YHWH, that he should ‘exalt’ YHWH is also highly appropriate. We need not labour to introduce other uses of ὑψόω into this context.

The last line of the inscription is much the most difficult to explain. Plainly it is not a Greek word or even plausibly an abbreviation of a Greek word. It might be some kind of encrypted word. But there is one other possibility: that it is a transliteration of a Hebrew or Aramaic word. I shall explain two ways in which this could be the case, of which I prefer the second.

Following a suggestion made to him by Noam Kusar and Simcha Jacobovici, James Tabor (‘A Preliminary Report,’ p. 19) suggests a word from the Hebrew root גבה, which in the Hiphil means ‘to lift up.’ The Hiphil of גבה is sometimes translated by ὑψόω in LXX, sometimes with God as subject (17:24; though this is not the case in Ezek 21:31[26], cited by Tabor). It is this synonymity of ὑψόω and the Hiphil of גבה that makes the proposal that the last line of the inscription is a transliteration of some form of the latter attractive. Just as the first two lines of the inscription correspond as Greek and transliterated Hebrew, so would the third and fourth lines. However, for ΑΓΒ to be plausibly such a transliteration, only the imperative of the Hiphil of גבה will serve, because only it has an ‘a’ vowel in the first syllable, and only the second person masculine singular of the Hiphil imperative is short enough to serve. The proposal, then, is that ΑΓΒ represents hagbēh, ‘Raise up!” A better Greek transliteration would be ΑΓΒΗ, but perhaps ΑΓΒ can be accepted in this role. For Tabor, who takes the third line of the inscription to be an abbreviation of ΥΨΩΣΟΝ, ‘Raise up!’, the last line is therefore a precise Hebrew equivalent of the Greek third line. I have argued that ΥΨΩ should not be read as an abbreviation, but there is a way in which we could understand ΥΨΩ as ‘I exalt’ and ΑΓΒ as ‘Raise up!’ The writer could be employing a clever play on the meaning of the two verbs, thus:
‘I exalt’ (you), (i.e. I praise you, IAIO)
‘Exalt’ (me)! (i.e. I pray you, IAIO, to raise me up from death).
On this reading the writer proposes a kind of quid pro quo: I am exalting you, so you should exalt me.

The second suggestion, which I prefer, is to read ΑΓΒ as a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Hagab (חגב), which occurs in Ezra 2:45 and the parallel Neh 7:48 (both have the long form חגבה), and Ezra 2:46 (which has the short form הגב), as well as on two ostraca and two seals from the First Temple period (all חגב) (Clines 1996:158). (LXX renders the name as Αγαβα [2 Esd 2:45; 17:48; 1 Esd 5:30] and Αγαβ [2 Esd 2:46].) This was doubtless the Hebrew name of the early Christian prophet Agabus (Acts 11:28: Ἅγαβος). This last example shows that the name was still in use in the late Second Temple period, but in any case there are many examples of names that occur in the Hebrew Bible and then just once in our evidence for the late Second Temple period (Ilan 2002). The Palestinian Jewish onomasticon of that period consisted of a relatively small number of very common names and a very large number of very rare names. So the rarity of attestation of Hagab is no obstacle at all to recognizing it as the name of the person buried in our ostracon.

It may be objected that a Greek transliteration of חגב should be ΑΓAΒ (as in LXX). However, we should remember how this writer has transliterated the four Hebrew letters of YHWH as the four Greek letters IAIO in line 2. By analogy, we may suppose that he has transliterated the Hebrew name of the deceased in such a way as to represent its three Hebrew letters by three Greek letters. Ossuary inscriptions would only normally be seen by members of the family visiting the family tomb, and if this man’s name were Hagab they would readily recognize it in ΑΓΒ. Indeed, it may have been the family name, as we shall now see.

The name in Hebrew means ‘grasshopper’ or ‘locust’. This is the sort of name that often originated as a nickname and became a family name. In Ezra and Nehemiah the name Hagab/Hagabah (there is doubtless a case of dittography in Ezra 2:45-46) is that of a family of Netinim (temple servants) who returned from the Babylonian exile (cf. Ezra 8:20). That it was still a family name in the late Second Temple period is suggested by the ossuary of Julia Troxallis (the inscription reads: ΙΟΥΛΙΑΤΡΩΞΑΛΛΙΣ), whose second name means ‘grasshopper’ in Greek. The ossuary (Rahmani no. 498 = CIIP 555) is unfortunately unprovenanced, but she could have belonged to the same family as the people buried in the ‘Patio’ tomb but have been buried herself in the tomb of her husband’s family. Rahmani (189) and Hachlili (2005: 225-226) already speculated that she may have belonged to the family of Netinim mentioned in Ezra and Nehemiah. At any rate, she may well provide further evidence that the name Hagab was current in the late Second Temple period, though the possibility that ‘Grasshopper’ was merely her personal nickname cannot be ruled out.

That ΑΓΒ should be the name of the deceased person in the ossuary fits well with both the content of the inscription and the fact that it is an ossuary inscription. After ‘I exalt’ (God) it is natural that the implied speaker (I take it that the actual writer of the inscription intends the speaker to be the deceased person in the ossuary) should give his name: ‘I, Hagab, exalt you (Zeus IAIO).’ He names both God and himself. Moreover, ossuary inscriptions usually name the deceased person(s) in the ossuary. Although our ossuary inscription is very remarkably different from all other ossuary inscriptions, it is fitting that it should among other things also fulfil the function of most ossuary inscriptions: to name the deceased. As a final speculation about the deceased (on which I lay no weight) might it be that he belonged to the Hagab family of Netinim (temple servants) and that it is this connexion with the temple that is celebrated by the represention of the ark and the placing of the inscription on it?

The composition of the inscription

Finally, it is worth noticing the artful composition of the inscription. Its four lines have this structure:
Greek (4 letters) – Greek name – divine
Transliterated Hebrew (4 letters) – Hebrew name – divine
Greek (3 letters) – human praise of God
Transliterated Hebrew (3 letters) – Hebrew name – human.
The two ‘divine’ lines each have four letters, corresponding to the four letters of the Hebrew divine Name, while the two ‘human’ lines each have three letters, corresponding not only to the three letters of the Hebrew human name Hagab, but also to the three letters of the Hebrew word for ‘human’: אדם. This artful composition is quite unlike the carelessly scribbled notes that most ossuary inscriptions are, and corresponds to the remarkable difference in content between this and most other ossuary inscriptions.

I propose the translation:
Belonging to Zeus IAIO.
I, Hagab, exalt (him/you).

I do not think the inscription has anything to do with Jesus or early Christianity, but I do think it is one of the most interesting of ossuary inscriptions and that it has a contribution to make to our understanding of early Judaism.


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