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Posted in: Archaeology and Bible, Archaeology and Media, Archaeology in the News, Epigraphy
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Christopher A. Rollston, Toyozo Nakarai Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Emmanuel Christian Seminary


The publication of a four-line Greek inscription from a tomb in East Talpiyot (Jerusalem) has generated substantial interest, especially because of the dramatic claims surrounding it (Tabor and Jacobovici 2012).  James Tabor has argued that this inscription reads as follows: “DIOS IAIO UPSŌ AGB.”  He translates it as “Divine Jehovah Lift up, Lift up.” He believes this to be a Christian tomb (in fact, he states that it is arguably that of Joseph of Arimathea) and that this inscription is to be understood as reflective of an early Christian confession of a belief in the resurrection (and he has also argued that some of the ornamentation on a different ossuary from the same tomb is distinctively Christian).  (more…)

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    • Jim
    • March 15, 2012

    impressively careful and exceedingly persuasive.

  1. Reply

    I should note, of course, that if it is the subjunctive, we should expect "me" (mu eta)….although ou me does occur. So, the indicative is probably the easier reading.

  2. Reply

    Thank you,. Chris, for a stimulating piece. This is a fairly immediate response.

    I want just to clarify something about my own argument:

    I didn’t claim that the inscription distinguishes the Name by means of the specific practices used at Qumran, only that the form of the initial iota can be understood as another practice with the same purpose. We have very little evidence, outside the DSS, of ways that scribes distinguished the Tetragrammaton as a special word, though a few early LXX MSS are some help. I don’t see why we should not be open to finding other practices besides those used in DSS, especially as even in DSS there are some unique or very rare practices as well as the more common ones. (For example, the third practice you cite from Tov, placing a dicolon before the Name, is used in only one Qumran manuscript. Moreover, unlike the writing in paleo-Hebrew characters, it does not do something special with the four letters, but warns the reader not to read on as usual. This is what I proposed the iota with apices does in our inscription.) As far as I know we have no Christian MSS where the Tetragrammaton is written, so that doesn’t help one way or the other, and in any case I don’t think this inscription is Christian.

    On the reading of the letters, I will wait for discussion by those with better eyes and more experience. I have never claimed to be an epigrapher.

    I do want to take up the question of what the words mean, because I would be much readier to accept your reading of the letters if your interpretation produced something making more sense.

    I note you have to postulate a use of DE to mean "Here". You cite no parallels for this abbreviation (as I suppose one would have to call it). Reading OSTA as the plural of OSTEON seems to me not implausible, but your need to add the epsilon to this word (OSTAE) rather spoils the appeal of this reading. (Incidentally, if that letter is an epsilon, IAEO comes well within the range of attested Greek variants of the Tetragrammaton.) Finding a reference to 'bones' on an ossuary is, as you say. 'compelling', but James Tabor is equally convinced that on an ossuary HUPSO must surely refer to raising up from death.

    But I want to focus on your interpretation of the last letter of line 2 through line 3. I am delighted you find my interpretation of the last line as the name Hagab convincing, especially as this is the point that Tabor and Snyder, when I first proposed it, did not find convincing.

    Suppose we take PSO to mean 'touch,' as you propose. I assume you are connecting this with cultic defilement from touching a corpse. (I don't think the Greek could plausibly mean 'touch' in there sense of picking up the bones to remove them.) If the speaker in the inscription is the person who wrote it, then he/she is probably the person who put the bones in the ossuary, in which case he/she has touched them. Even if not, someone would get corpse impurity just from being in the tomb. They didn't need to touch the bones in the ossuary to get it. So what is the point of saying "Here are the bones: I touch them not"? or even 'May I not touch them.' It's not as though, once the bones are in the ossuary, there is any temptation to touch them, which the speaker hopes to resist. Sometimes, of course, the bones of a second person were added to an ossuary, but in this case, if it required touching the bones of the person already in the ossuary, this was a pious duty that was not to be avoided (and since touching the bones of second person would be unavoidable, why avoid touching those of the first?) However one turns it around, I find this a very odd thing to say.

    The intransitive sense "crumble" is more promising (though I note that L & S give only one example of this usage, from Sophocles.) But what exactly would either 'I, Agabus, crumble not away' or 'may I not crumble away' mean? Does he (in the latter case) wish that his bones do not crumble away before the day of resurrection? That's the best I can make of it.

    With regard to whether the writer of the inscription or the deceased is speaking, it seems to me it would be unusual for the writer to name himself but not the deceased.

    Well, there's lots to discuss. If your readings of the letters are correct, then I certainly hope someone else can come up with a more intelligible interpretation of them.

    • Robert Hull
    • March 15, 2012


    The hardest sell to me is to read the second grapheme as an epsilon. If we read the first two graphemes as delta iota, we have "di (with alpha elided because of the following omicron) osta," ("on account of bones"). Hence, the whole inscription: "On account of [the] bones, I, Agabus, do not touch."

    Bob Hull

  3. Reply

    Thank you, Richard, for your comments, as well as the reference to my piece as stimulating. I am grateful. And, as you know, I very much appreciated your piece as well. Moreover, I like the tenor of your piece and my hope was that you would also like the tenor of my piece (and I sense that you did…and I'm grateful for that as well).

    Yes, as for the first letter of line two, I understand that you weren't suggesting a precise parallel with Qumran…but I was just pointing out that the parallel seemed quite strained, as there is no parallel for your suggestion, not even at Qumran. But, of course, my main point was that first letter of line two is a perfectly fine tau, not an iota. I think the photos that accompany the article make that clear.

    As for the reading ostae…as I mentioned, there are many, many orthographic variants, corrections, orthographic erros and even dialectical variants in the corpus of funerary inscriptions (and not a few corrections) in the corpus of ossuaries…so I don't find ostae to be an insurmountable problem…especially when one factors in the fairly low caliber of this inscription (in terms of script execution, placement, etc.).

    As for the intransitive sense…and the meaning "crumble," you will have noticed that one of the funerary inscriptions I cite (from Bet She'arim) actually reads as follows: "…this tomb contains the dwindling remains of noble Karteria…" The Greek word used here is a form of phthio (phi-theta-iota-omaga), meaning dwindle, decay, etc. In short, the semantic sense is quite the same, as the possibility that I suggest here.

    As for the person…the writer seems to be speaking in the Uzziah Plaque, etc. (although in this case, as CIIP notes, we do not have the name). In short…there are arguably decent parallels for the first person used for the writer, name present or not. In any case, I provided two basic options in this regard, with the writer speaking in the first person being just one of the options I mention.

    As for de…again, my reason for thinking this is that forms of enthade (with a large number of variant orthographies) are attested, especially at the beginning of a burial inscription.

    As for touching bones…I'd be happy for a Talmudic scholar to weigh in. Suffice it to say that "touching" bones was always something that was a concern. In fact, yes, you are correct…I think that your suggestion of a potential cultic connection for Agabus might be quite useful in that regard…as the regulations for ritual impurity were much more stringent with regard to this issue for those that were of priestly or levitical lineage. In short, I think you're on to something there with regard to this…although my suspicion is that Agabus was not necessarily a name confined to usage as that of someone of priestly descent, vocation. In any case, not touching bones is something that gets a fair amount of discussion in Second Temple and Post-Biblical texts..

    With all best wishes,

    Chris Rollston

  4. Reply

    Thanks, Bob. That also sounds plausible to me…and although reading an epsilon after the delta is probably easier, the stratches on that part of the ossuary are such that an iota will certainly work as well. Thanks for posting this comment.

    With all best wishes,


  5. Reply

    Chris, I did think your piece well presented and argued. It's actually very good that you set out some options, as (you will remember) I also did, rather than deciding absolutely for one when the evidence is not that strong.

    What I meant about the person speaking in the inscription was not that I have a problem with the writer being the person speaking (I rather think there are some other examples of that too). What seemed to me rather unlikely is that the writer should name himself but not name the deceased. Usually inscriptions, if they do anything, at least name the deceased. It seems rather inappropriate for a writer not to do this, but to name himself!

    Priests were forbidden to contract corpse impurity except in the case of their nearest blood relatives (not even their wives) (Lev 21:2-4). This means they could not attend funerals or enter tombs unless it was a close blood relative who was being buried. I assume, in the case of secondary burial, they would be allowed to transfer the bones of a blood-relative to the ossuary.

    We don't know the rules for Levites (not even, I think, from rabbinic literature), but for everyone else it wasn't wrong to contract impurity (it would happen unavoidably quite often) and burying the dead was a positive duty. They just had to get purified afterwards. Now, in late Second Temple times, some people were more concerned to avoid getting impurity than Torah explicitly required them to be. So they might take more care than most people not to get near corpses.

    Given that concern, however, and even supposing this tomb belonged to a priestly family – once you've got corpse impurity you can't get it any worse! In most tombs there would be corpses not yet decayed sufficiently to transfer to ossuaries, so you'd get impure just by being in a tomb. Whether you then touch bones is then irrelevant. Or supposing there were no human remains not already in ossuaries, why on earth should anyone want to open an ossuary and touch the bones? It seems so unlikely that to declare on the ossuary that you're not going to do it or wish that you won't is surely bizarre.

    I did think, with regard to the crumbling possibility, that, without a negative – 'I, Agabus, am crumbling' – this might be plausible. It would be one of those 'resigned to death being the end' sort of epitaphs. In the case you quote from Bet She'arim, is it an ossuary, or is it a tomb in which the whole corpse, not just bones, was put?

    Actually I think for psao, we need more data on the use of the word. Someone needs to do a TLG search.

  6. Reply

    I've only just read Bob's suggestion. If that would mean 'not touch the ossuary,' then remember that stone doesn't convey impurity. You can't get impurity from the bones without opening the ossuary.

  7. Reply

    Bob, I've only just read your suggestion. If that would mean 'not touch the ossuary,' then remember that stone doesn't convey impurity. You can't get impurity from the bones without opening the ossuary.

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  8. Reply

    Thanks for adding your name and affiliation here Chris. When I first saw it unattributed I thought it had somehow been delivered from on High :-).

    Seriously, I have been waiting for your take on this for a long time and it is most welcome. I look forward to getting into a productive discussion with you, Richard, and others who might join in. I am trying to get some of our other epigraphers to jump in here, we consulted with three or four more who are not accustomed to the blogging climate and have so far chosen to watch from the sidelines, but each has something really good to offer. As you know, I don't agree with aspects of your transcription here, and like Richard I find several things strained in your final reading but it looks like we all have our differences here and that is all to the good. I am sure you must have puzzled like I have over the famous Aramaic epigram disputed by Naveh and Cross, see below, and as you would guess, right, I favor Cross! (Cotton # 93; Rahmani # 455). Rahmani only lists Nos. 142, 259, 559 (Greek) and Nos. 26 and 455 in Aramaic as possible "epitaphs" but I have found quite a few more in Cotton, et al. CIIP and have benefited greatly from Jonathan Price's notes on the Greek ones:

    ? (259) I adjure: let no one take away (of) Tertian

    #93. Aramaic: No one has abolished his entering (next world? Naveh), not even Elazar and Shapira

    Or, No man can go up (from the grave? Cross)…

    Botanical Gardens, Mt Scopus

    Israel Museum, IAA 1971-435 (Rahmani 455)

    #359: Our parents: Do not ever open

    #375: Our father Dositheos—not to be opened

    #385: Rufus Whoever moves away has violated his oath #439: This is the loculus of…Alas! (or Woe!)

    #451: Mariam wife of Mathia: whoever moves these, blindness strike

    #458. ostophagos: OSTOFAGOS OSTOFAGOS ostophagos written twice on fragment

    Kidron Valley (near Beth Sahur el-Atiqa) Rockefeller Museum, IAA 1936-2180

    #460: Bones of our fathers: not to open on them

    #466: Anyone who derives benefit from it—qorban!

    #604: Not to open

    #605: Closed, to change and bury any other man with him in this ossuary, closed

    What impressed me about our inscription was how utterly different it is from all of these. I still hold that view and I hope we can explore it fully. I appreciate very much, given some of the alternatives expressed here on the ASORblog and elsewhere, the ways in which you always support responsible and respectful academic exchanges.

  9. Reply

    Hello, Richard,

    From my perspective, with such a brief epigraphic text, determining precisely the operative historical and contextual variables is most difficult. Perhaps, for example, the stone mason or family member who etched the inscription in the ossuary did so prior to the deposition of the bones in the ossuary, or even prior to the ossuary being put in the tomb…this could, of course, be the case (i.e., someone else could have moved the ossuary into the tomb and placed the dissarticulated remains of the deceased in the ossuary). In other words, various scenarios are plausible and readily account for the sorts of concerns you mention.

    As for your desire that the deceased be named, rather than the person making the inscription. As I said, one option that is very viable is: "Here (are) the bones. I touch (them) not, O Agabus" (with Agabus being the deceased person).

    As for Psa-o and Psau-o….you'll note the semantic overlap of these words (and several additional verbs), as mentioned also in Liddell and Scott…so that broadens the net one casts quite a bit (e.g., in TLG search).

    As for the toucing of bones stated as a cause of impurity, according to ancient sourcees, I talked to Talmudic scholar Steven Fine about this before completing my post and his response was this: "Absolutely, all over the place, especially for kohanim. Touching bones is the mother of all טומות (temuot)." That said, I'd very much like to see a Talmudic scholar (such as Professor Fine) discuss this issue on this blog (obviously, there are various secondary sources about this that have been published through the years…but it would be very nice to see something on this blog). For these sorts of reasons, I consider Bob Hull's comment to be quite useful as well.

    Most importantly, I suspect that you've had time to look at the images I've posted here…it's very clear that this is not an iota…and so that reading is simply gone. I suspect that James Tabor may protest its loss, though, of course.

    Best regards,

    Christopher Rollston

  10. Reply

    Of course, I'm not denying that bones are a major source of impurity. I'm trying to make sense of a declaration on an ossuary that the writer is not touching bones. What must be stressed is that, if you were a relative of the deceased, touching the bones would not be avoided. Burying a relative is a positive duty, even for a priest in the case of a close blood relative. To say that one was avoiding burying (i.e. touching the bones for the purpose of putting them in the ossuary) a relative would be grossly insulting. In these circumstances getting impure is not wrong. Like many occasions of getting impurity, it just means one has to purify oneself afterwards.

    What we need to know from someone like Steven Fine is not that touching bones is a major source of impurity. That's elementary. We need such a person to provide a plausible reason for this inscription.

    It's also elementary that stone doesn't transmit impurity. So what would Bob Hull's version be saying: On account of the bones, I do not touch – what?

    "On account of the bones, I do not touch the bones" ?!

    "On account of the bones, I do not touch the ossuary" – makes no sense in terms of purity rules.

    What else is possible?

    Sorry, but one has to think about the way purity rules actually worked. Just saying the inscription makes some kind of sense because bones are a source of impurity won't do.

    Actually, when I was wondering how you could read the rest of lines 1-2 if you read osta in the middle (that was the bit you divulged in advance), the only thing I could think of was di'osta (Bob's suggestion) – 'on account of bones' – but couldn't get any further.

    I'm not convinced that the first word of line 2 is not an iota. But I really wish some other epigraphers would join this discussion. As I commented on your blog yesterday, a variety of scholars have joined in the discussion of the "fish" – and the results seem to me to have been very useful. But so far almost all discussion of the inscription has been just you, me and James Tabor. Epigraphers out there – please join in.

  11. Reply

    One more point which is not decisive, but worth considering. A much more obvious word for touching bones, if impurity is the issue, is aptomai, which LXX uses throughout Leviticus and Numbers for touch sources of impurity.

  12. Reply

    Hello, James,

    As for my name on the article…I included name and affiliation at the conclusion of the article, but, at your request, we have added it at the beginning as well…a form of inclusio now, I suppose.

    As for your reference to Cross and Naveh…I enjoyed that…thank you…both of them have been (as I believe you know) so kind to and affirming of me through the years…such grand scholars and people, of course (one of blessed memory, sadly). Indeed, through the years, no one has said kinder things to me about my epigraphic work than these two.

    As for the texts you cite…yes, I know them and cited all, or virtually all, of them in my initial post here today, of course. As you know…many references to bones, something which you and I would both say is reasonably common for a funerary context, ossuary inscription. So I think of this inscription as falling within the same contours as many of these other ones…but I like the inscription…it's certainly a good find, even if I feel it falls within the standard framework of funerary texts.


    Richard, yes, as you will recall, I actually mentioned the proviso about relatives in my initial post. So we're in agreement here.

    As for haptomai…yes, much more common generally…but this inscription is particularly parsimonious with regard to letters…which I consider to be quite intentional.

    As for impurity, yes, I agree, it is elementary.

    As for the first letter not being an iota…the images make this clear enough…

    And so, with regard to Talpiyot A, I would note that Mary Magdalene "left the room" with Stephen Pfann's corrected reading (published in _Near Eastern Archaeology_ 2006), and with regard to Talpiyot B's four line inscription "HaShem" has left the room, and with regard to Talpiyot Tomb B itself, Joseph of Arimathea has left the room (pace Jacobovici and Tabor's arguments in the book…there's just nothing ancient to connect this tomb to him).

    At the end of the day, this is a nice tomb, but this brief inscription…just 14 letters long…cannot carry the freight it has been saddled with. Much is yet to be written about it, I suppose, but the tetragrammaton is just not there…and so the edifice has fallen.

    All best wishes,

    Christopher Rollston

  13. Reply

    Well Chris, lots to discuss here and I look forward to it, now and at SBL and ASOR. I would say thought that the rumors of the exits you speak of might be greatly exaggerated, to badly paraphrase Samuel Clemens…or at least, if they have left "the room," they might be still congregating in the hall outside. I was told years ago by Michael Stone–ask Leah Di Segni–whatever she says, people will respect, on the Maraimene inscription. Forgive me but I have to rate her over Pfann, and what he, Jonathan Price, and others seem to have neglected is the parallel Mariamene cited by Rahmani, faintly under the lid of the ossuary, spelled the same with a Nu, when it can not possible be a kappa, but in the identical style (see my NEA article). I examined it last March directly. As for the IAIO it seems much depends on your T, which I think should not have the footer, which it does. I thought we gave you enough photos to make that clear. It was certainly clear to me, Greg Snyder, and just about everyone else we shared the photos with. A zeta maybe, but not a tau. Anyway, I will get back to this and in the meantime leave old JofA outside since any involvement on his part, other than burying Jesus according to all our sources, and I assume you accept that as at least probably historical, would have to depend on quite a few other factors. More soon but not tonight…

  14. Reply

    Hello, James,

    Thanks for the note….and I like your good nature, good humor in all of this, that is, the Mark Twain reference is very nice (Twain is part of the triology of my favorite authors, with the others being Voltaire and Kafka)…

    As for Stephen Pfann…I think most have accepted his reading…he's really very good. And as for Jonathan Price…I consider him to be among the very, very best. He leaves no stone unturned. I marvel at his productivity levels. As for photos…I'm always happy to have more sent my way. As for the tau…that reading will stand the test of time…there's no bottom horizontal there…just a pit and scratches.

    Also, on a different, and very affirming note, I want to thank you for the autographed copy of the book and the nice inscription in it. I am grateful for it. I don't remember if I sent you a copy of my _Writing and Literacy in Ancient Israel_, but please let me know. If I haven't done so, I'll happily put an autographed copy of it in the mail for you.

    With all best wishes,


  15. Reply

    Well, Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea were never in my room. Actually, I think 'touching bones' is on its way out through the door, escorted by purity rules.

    Here are my further thoughts on the letters, as a non-expert. I think my original reading was based largely on photograph 3 (of the photos on the inscription now on the Jesus Discovery website). I can't recall if I saw 1 and 2 before now.

    The whole surface is covered with scratches and blemishes. It may be salutary to note that, while the 2nd letter of line 2 has to be an alpha (we all agree), its lefthand side is visible on none of the photos. Similarly, if the second letter of line 1 is an epsilon, it has no lefthand side on any of the photos, and it's hard to see more than two horizontals that could be more than scratches. Reading it as an iota depends on the vertical line visible on photos 2 and 3, which is plainly to the right of the horizontals. Since you entertained Bob Hull's suggestion, you evidently have doubts about this letter, Chris.

    The third letter on line 2: What would be the bottom horizontal of an epsilon is a mark that appears anomalous on all the photos. Is it an especially deep incision? Or not part of a letter at all? A pit in the stone? (That, I believe, is why Tabor, Snyder and I thought this an iota, as you did, Chris, when you made the point about it being different from the first letter of this line.) Other horizontals are hard to see and do not look different from many scratches elsewhere on the surface.

    The first letter of line 2: To me it still looks as though there is a bottom horizontal, which is clear to the right of the vertical stroke though it runs into a blemish in the stone (or did the inscriber make a mess of this incision?) to the left.

  16. Reply

    I should like to mention a rendering that I have long considered, and believe to be plausible as well, is this, namely, "Here are the bones. I lift (them) them) not, O Agabus" (or the like). That is, lift in the sense of "lift up, remove."

    Note that one of the things that is attested epigraphically is the negative "ou" written simply as "o."

    Of course, that would mean that the verb could be construed as ups-o…and in this case would mean something along the lines of "lift up," "move," etc. Within the epigraphic materials I cited in the initial post, are, of course, references to lifting up the bones, removing the bones, etc. (naturally, someone might propose that, in this case, the upsilon was doing double-duty).

    Chris Rollston

  17. Reply


    I'm glad to see that you're willing to talk about readings. This is the core, foundational issue (and I'm also glad that you're willing to state that "the whole surface is covered with scratches and blemishes"…it is, and so an eye for form, to use Frank Cross's term, is essential). (1) As for the first letter of line two…I understand your desire to retain it as an iota, but it's just not epigraphically possible…the photos I put up make this clear. The tetragrammaton is simply not in this inscription and that is the one part of this discussion that is crystal clear. (2) And, in addition, it should be clear that your attempting to call the top horizontal of the first letter of line two a serif is terribly problematic…it's a full blown, deeply incised horizontal, quite different from even the serifs you mentioned in your initial post…again, this fact is very clear in the photos that I put up, circled in red. (3) As for the third letter of line two, again, the photos make it clear that this is a very nice epsilon. I see the vertical stroke and all three horizontals quite nicely and I circled it in the image I posted above…it's a very fine epsilon. (4) As for the left oblique of the alpha, although abraded, the traces are there as well, visible in a couple of the photos I have. (5) As for me making the point about the differences between the first and third letters of line two…yes, and my point was not that I read an iota for the third letter of line two, but rather, that even the reading you and Tabor were positing was not consistent…based on the line drawing James himself provided. There is a difference between embracing a reading and pointing out the internal problem with the readings someone else is proposing. I was doing the latter. I've never thought that this letter was anything but an epsilon. (6) As for line one, letter two, the scratches, abrading make that form difficult. I highlighed the form in my first post, circling it in red. I'm willing to say that this may be an iota, but the traces look mostly like an epsilon to me. Of course, reading an epsilon would erode the cogency of your attempt to read Zeus here. But because there is a fair amount of interference with regard to this letter, I'm not coming down hard on it…nor did I come down hard on this letter even in my initial post…an epsilon or an iota are both plausible, it seems to me, although I see traces that are most consistent with an epsilon. (7) As for purity, impurity, time will tell. (8) You'll have noticed that I mentioned just recently an alternative rendering that I've considered for some time, but did not include in the original post…with a retention of the hupso-o. In any case, I'm glad to see that you're talking about readings…this is the foundational component of all epigraphic analyses, of course.

    All best wishes,

    Chris Rollston

  18. Reply

    Chris, if we accept your readings of line 2, but read iota second in line 1, then I could make this sense of it –

    Because of (these) bones, I, Hagab, am not crumbling away (disappearing).

    This actually makes good sense in terms of a Jewish understanding of resurrection, which depended on the bones as the continuity between the body in the present life and the body in resurrection. The rest of the body decays, but the bones survive to be resurrected.

    I find this quite appealing also because it makes a significant enough statement to deserve its position in the exact centre of the decorated side of the ossuary (something which I pointed out in my own post as, to my knowledge, unique among ossuary inscriptions, but which has not been taken up in this discussion).

    If correct, it would be interesting as an ossuary inscription that actually makes a connexion between belief in resurrection and the practice of secondary burial.

    I had (before your post about hupso, which I've only just read, been thinking about combining osta with hupso somehow, in terms of lifting up bones. It would be easier if it weren't negative: 'I am uplifting (your) bones, Hagab' – i.e. removing them from open place to another, or transferring them into the ossuary.

  19. Reply

    I note a typo in that last sentence: 'one place' not 'open place'. I wish my computer did not turn my errors into what it thinks I should have said (I probably typed oen).

  20. Reply


    Thanks for your kinds words. No I don't think I have that book. May I ask you for one clarification here. I was not citing that string of epitaphs above, some of which you obviously cite in your article, to point them out to you–since you cite them–but to make the point that in this period and place, i.e., Jersusalem in the Herodian/very late 2nd Temple period, this is what we have and nothing more, and in terms of statements of "belief" or afterlife or resurrection, there are none–unless it might be the difficult Cotton #93 as debated by your esteemed teachers. As you know, Rahmani, Price, and others comment on this, not in terms of abundance but sparsity and the surprising lack of such expressions of consolation or afterlife hope. You quote any number of others from Galilee, post-70 CE period. I am not saying there can be no continuity of culture and practice but is it not the case that no such expressions seem to exist in Jerusalem in the earlier period, however one might explain that lack. Thus I as confused by your reference to "this chronological horizon."

    Chris, I want to thank you again for your reading. I am neither an epigrapher nor the son thereof but I have had a bit of Greek–you know that Church of Christ Abilene/Pepperdine training well–so I do want to offer you some input when I can have time to digest the case you present here and I look forward to future conversations face to face. I am particularly pleased you have taken AGB as a Greek attempt to represent an Aramaic form (Hagav or Hagbah), as I think that is another feature of this inscription that makes it quite unique for this period, similar to some of the bilingual examples that Boaz Zissu and Karen Stern have published, plus the graffiti at Pompei that seem to be from Jews. I am trying to think but I can't remember anything like this in Cotton, not an Aramaic name in Greek, that is common, but an attempt to write the Aramaic/Hebrew by using Greek transliteration. Do you know the grave amulet (gold lamella) discovered in Halbturn, Austria: ΣΥΜΑ ΙΣΤΡΑΗΛ ΑΔΩNΕ ΕΛΩΗ ΑΔΩN Α. Fascinating forms here, and it seems the writer is creating not reflecting convention.

  21. Reply

    Hello, Richard,

    Thanks for the note. Along those lines, I just suggested to some friends, and mention here now, this: "Because of the bones, I, Agabus, lift not (the ossuary), or, of course, "Because of the bones, I lift not (the ossuary), O Agabus." The ossuary being understood as it was the thing being written upon. And, of course, the concern about moving bones or ossuaries, which are verbalized in some of the inscriptions I mentioned in the initial post. Conversely, as for your suggestion…vyes, I could certainly live with that too. And, please allow me to say, all of this makes me think again (as I thought when I read your first post) that it would have made so much sense to bring you and me together months ago. It could have happened…it should have happend. Fortunately, ASOR's blog has faciliated the discussion, a symbiotic dialectic, I believe.

    All best wishes,

    Chris Rollston

  22. Reply

    A footnote for the readership….I want to give a personal word of thanks to Robert Hull, my colleague (who trained under B. Metzger at Princeton) who emphasized to me (first in conversation, and then here on this blog to the readership) that he believed di' (the short form of dia) was worth considering very seriously. Bob's comment obviously then became the source of some fertile discussion between Richard and me. And there are now two or three particularly viable renderings of my epigraphic readings on the table (but with an iota in line one, which I am comfortable with, as I have stated previously in response to Bob Hull's comment). Of course, Richard noted (in a comment here to me) that he had thought that I would go with di' when he first read about my proposal of "bones" as a rendering. Symbiosis at its best, all the way around.


    Chris Rollston

  23. Reply

    Chris, I'm still bothered about the third letter of line 2.

    (1) What, as an epigrapher, do you say about what I called the 'anomalous mark'? It is very black on some photos, very white on others, but quite different from any other mark on the photos. What is it? This seems to me important as to what one makes of that letter.

    (2) OSTA is well attested as a plural form of osteon, at least in literary sources (I note, for example, about a dozen in Josephus). But having to add E to it is awkward. A dialect pronunciation seems a bit desperate. There would be no problem with seeing a misspelling, but wouldn't a misspelling usually give the right pronunciation? I keep trying to put either E or I with the following O or OU but can't see any way of doing it. Maybe it's just a muddle on the writer's part, but he would appear to have planned the inscription with some care.

  24. Reply

    Hello, Richard,

    Thanks for the note. I'm needing to finish the review of a ms for a journal editor today…a ms of ca. 100 pages…so I only have a couple minutes now. Basically, as for the third letter of line two…it's the light angle of the camera that lights up the epsilon nicely (but only in some of the best photos). We've photographed a lot of incised inscriptions through the years and when the light angle is off, an entire letter can disappear, or certain strokes or stroke-segments can disappear. That's what's happening with regard to that epsilon. Of course, with ink inscriptions there are other problems, but not this problem. But with anything incised, this problem always crops up…so I always end up using multiple photos, light angles, to understand the full morphology of a letter. As for osta with an episolon in reversed position…yes, it's not perfect…but, as you know, I suggested three possible ways of understanding it…and I think one of these works reasonably well. I suspect it's just an error on his part, and I've toyed with the idea of him adding the e after the a as a correction (as you know, we get corrections sometimes in all texts, and there are some howlers in funerary texts). I must sign off for the day, though, or I'll be enduring the justified ire of a journal editor whose patience have perhaps worn thin…

    All best wishes, and hurriedly,


  25. Reply

    All of the photos of the four-line Greek inscription made available to our consultants are now uploaded on the web site http://thejesusdiscovery.org, under photos and images. There are 17 total, including four in negative light. These are completely untouched, unedited, just as they came from the camera. If anyone wants to study them closely I suggest you print them out with a laser color printer, do not enlarge or blow up, as this distorts the pixels. In order to see clearly all the letters one must compare several photos as different angles and light show different features. Taking them all together all the letters become clear, including what we take to be a clear zeta/iota as the first letter of line 2 and a clear iota as the third letter, contra Rollston.

  26. Reply

    Thank you, James, for posting additional photographs. Perhaps we could agree that some inscriptions (or available photographs of them) can sometimes be interpreted in more than one way by reasonable people; in other words, without complete certainty or consensus. (Similarly so with images.) I make this obvious observation because I suggest that from the JD book and from the Preliminary Report readers could get the (mistaken?) impression that the letters of the first three lines of the 4-line inscription were all agreed upon by all scholars consulted. If there was uncertainty about those letters, why then such bold claims (e.g. "The Resurrection Tomb that Reveals the Birth of Christianity")?

  27. Reply

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

    In response to this comment of mine, Chris then cited Semahot 12:9. I responded:

    Thank you, Chris, for drawing attention to this interesting passage in tractate Semahot. My comments:

    (1) Let us be clear from the start that there is no issue of purity involved here. It was not because bones are a source of impurity that R. Eleazar avoided touching the bones of his father R. Zadok. This would make no sense in the context. As you say, the reference is to a ‘social taboo.’ Compare the following section of the chapter that says that ‘a man may shroud and gird the corpse of a man, but not that of a woman’ and vice versa. This is about modesty: not viewing the naked body of a person of the opposite sex, even when dead. Section 12 says that: ‘A man may enter the bathhouse with everyone except his father, his father-in-law, his stepfather, or his teacher who had taught him wisdom.’ Again, the point is that he should not see them naked. When R. Yohanan b. Nuri says, ‘A person may collect the bones of all dead except those of his father and mother’ (12:6), he must be supposing that this would somehow be improper, just as seeing them naked would be. It seems to me quite likely he is working with a kind of analogy: the body is to the bones as the clothes are to the body. To see the bones exposed is like seeing the body exposed.

    (2) That this taboo was not generally observed seems clear from m. Mo’ed Qat. 1:5: ‘R. Meir said: A man may gather together the bones of his father or his mother, since this is to him an occasion of rejoicing’ (see also the comments on this in the Talmuds). The context is a discussion of what one may do during the days between Passover and Tabernacles. Mourning would be inappropriate, but R. Meir argues that gathering the bones of a parent (for secondary burial in an ossuary) is not an occasion for mourning, but rather for rejoicing, and so it is permitted in this period. R. Yose disagrees, arguing that it is an occasion for mourning, and so not permitted at this time. The discussion PRESUPPOSES that it was normal practice for a son to gather his parents’ bones for ossilegium.

    (3) I think we can take it from Sem. 12 that the practice advocated by the very obscure R. Yohanan b. Nuri was rare. R. Eleazar b. Zadok is cited precisely because he was exceptional in following Yohanan’s opinion. They were 2nd generation Tanna, i.e. early 2nd century CE. So it looks as though the practice of a son avoiding touching the bones of a parent during ossilegium was a novel teaching of an early 2nd century rabbi, who thus extended other modesty taboos connected with burial, and that it didn’t catch on.

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

  28. Reply

    Stephen I think again you maybe did not read my preliminary report where we discuss the various possibilities, include the views of all our consultants, and then I offer my own readings. Obviously there are different views on both the letters and the translation, which is the value of the discussion. We did not have the benefit of Chris's reading until he posted it here recently but all the other input we received was represented and considered in coming to our own views–and that continues to be the case. I will offer my response to Chris's reading once he and Bauckham have completed their basic exchange and any one else who wants to jump in–including you. I will also be giving a paper on this at the SBL, so plenty of time to continue to discuss, and I think a special session at the regional ASOR meeting next Spring.

  29. Pingback: Live Blogging Through ‘The Resurrection Tomb’ « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  30. Pingback: » A New Proposal for the Talpiot Greek Inscription TaborBlog

    • Mike Karoules
    • June 7, 2013

    To Scholars and senior "colleagues" of ASOR. I was just reading some of KCooney article from last year: "The Four Line Greek Inscriptions From a Talpiyot Tomb: Epigraphic Notes and Historical Discussions."

    From the Palestinian funerary inscriptions that Kcooney mentions I was wondering if you could email me and provide the dates of these inscriptions (not the discovery dates) but the dates (some or most of them) when the inscriptions were done (approximate date range please).

    Are the dates assingned to these inscriptions already documented?

    thank you.


    Mike Karoules

      • jennfitz
      • June 10, 2013

      Thanks for commenting, Mike. In the post above Chris cites all of his sources for the inscriptions beside each quote. We don't have the information about when they date from on hand, but if you're interested you can check out the sources he listed in the post.

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