A Response to Chris Rollston’s Reading of the Ossuary from Talpiot Tomb B

Posted in: Archaeology and Bible, Archaeology and Media, Archaeology in the News, ASOR, Epigraphy
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By: H. Gregory Snyder, Professor of Religion, Davidson College

Back in October, James Tabor invited me to join in a conversation that was underway between himself, Richard Bauckham, and Jim Charlesworth. Tabor submitted eleven photos of the ossuary bearing the four-line inscription for our inspection, and all of us engaged in a lengthy debate about possible readings.

For the record, Bauckham and I were not given the so-called Jonah image until later, when the people at the Discovery Channel forwarded an advance copy of the film for our scholarly comment. At that time, I expressed the opinion that the figure on that ossuary represents an amphora or a vessel of some kind, however non-standard, and cannot be taken as an image of Jonah, and nothing has occurred to dissuade me from that judgment. I say this to make it clear that in nearly all matters of consequence, I do not share the conclusions presented in the book or the film. But James Tabor has been forthcoming and above-board in all our exchanges, and we have enjoyed a productive conversation.

I regard Chris Rollston’s remarks about the tau/iota as a serious challenge. This is precisely the kind of exchange we need to test our readings.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that the pictures one looks at are making all the difference. Some of the lines on the inscription are incised in such a way that they are more or less evident, depending on the angle of view. For example, in this picture, taken from a high angle, the bottom stroke on the “iota” in the first letter in line 2 seems clear.

Click to Enlarge

In spite of Rollstons’ obvious expertise and in spite of his assurances as to what is possible or not possible where letter forms are concerned I cannot help but see a stroke on the bottom of the “tau” (or “iota”) in this picture (this photo and those that follow are from Associate Producers, Ltd.). There are indeed scuff marks of various kinds on the box. It is true that the top bar is incised more deeply than the stroke on the bottom, but it just seems to me there’s a stroke there, not just a scuff. Others may disagree.

The epsilon, proposed by Rollston, is also an interesting case. In this photograph, shot from a high angle, the descending stroke of what I (and Bauckham, and Tabor, and Charlesworth) had taken to be an iota is relatively evident:


Click to Enlarge

I don’t recall Bauckham or myself having considered an epsilon as plausible, given the photos that Tabor forwarded to us. The brown horizontal bar looked to me like a flaw in the stone. There is, I readily admit, sufficient room for the horizontal strokes of an epsilon between the (putative) second iota in the line and the following omicron, but from this angle, they are invisible.

However, based on the photo Rollston has posted a few days ago, entitled “Talpiyot Inscription 1,” which I reproduce here for ease of comparison, an epsilon may in fact be a possibility:

Talpiyot Inscription. Click to Enlarge

Rollston’s proposal leads me to re-examine my photos, and it does now seem to me that in photos shot from a low angle, looking “up” at the inscription, it may be possible to discern a cut in the stone, just underneath the brown discoloration. Here is the picture I have, which seems very close if not identical to the one Rollston produces, with a slightly different color balance.

Click to Enlarge

There may even be faint traces of a center stroke; I cannot, however, see a top horizontal stroke, and so I must demur from Rollston’s opinion that it is a “very clear epsilon.” I submit that while it is not impossible, it is not very clear either, and any reading based on an epsilon must remain tentative.

I do not at this moment have the bibliographical resources at hand to give a full account of an alternative interpretation to the one proposed by Bauckham or by Rollston. I will say only  that whenever variations of the Tetragrammaton are encountered, particularly in conjunction with other “divinity language” such as DIOS, a magical/apotropaic imprecation may well be at issue. I hope to return to this possibility in future posts. For now, I wish to make two main points, with which I conclude

1) Our chances of getting the reading correct increase as we take more photos from different angles into consideration, and

2) Pace Rollston’s position, I would argue that the initial iota in line two, however anomalous in its form, is not ruled out, nor is the “epsilon” in that same line, to be regarded as firmly established.


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