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The Talpiyot (Jerusalem) Tombs: Some Sober Methodological Reflections on the Epigraphic Materials

This paper is the second in a series of presentations adapted from the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research, March 16, 2013 on The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).

See Also: The Tombs at Talpiot: Overview of "The Jesus Discovery"

The Jesus Discovery? A Skeptic’s Perspective

By Christopher A. Rollston
Visiting Professor of Northwest Semitic Languages and Literatures
George Washington University
April 2013

To read this article in its entirety, we have presented it here in PDF format.

Comments (11)

We appreciate Chris Rollston's comments concerning the personal names on the ossuaries of Talpiot Tomb A. However, we believe there needs to be some clarifications on some of his remarks.
Rollston suggests "even with the fairly small corpus of epigraphic attestations of personal names the Talpiyot Tomb 1980 occurrence of “Yeshua bar Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique."
Our responses to this statement are: Small compared to what; small for what purpose? We believe Rollston has vastly underestimated the value of the corpus of names uncovered in Ilan and the Corpus inscriptionum iudaeae/Palestinae (CIIP). The CIIP covers ossuaries discovered in "900 caves" includes "more than 2000 ossuaries (some estimate more than 3000)" in its documentation. Moreover, this volume includes over 600 inscribed ossuaries, more than doubling the amount contained in Rahmani's revered volume on ossuaries (Catalog of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, Israeli Antiquities Authority, Jerusalem, 1994). Ilan's work contains over 2820+ names in all written sources for the Greco-Roman period in Palestine, 330BCE to 200CE.
This is large enough sample for us to specify the name frequency of common names, such as Joseph, Jesus, Judah, and Mary, with accuracy. For example we can say that the frequency of the name Joseph in the general population is 8.6% plus or minus 1.4% at the 99% confidence level. The sample is large enough to place an upper bound on the frequency of more rare names, such as Yoseh, as located at Talpiot. The purpose for this data, and using the word “small” in the phrase “fairly small corpus” is inaccurate in the context of understanding the issue regarding the Talpiot inscription and name frequencies.
Rollston claims there are three occurrences of Yeshua/Jesus linked with Yehosep/Joseph and this does not make the Talpiot inscription "unique." As Rollston's points out “Yeshua bar Yehosep” does not appear in the Babatha documents dated to the second century CE. However, there is a Yeshua and a Yoseph in the documents and they are according, to Yigal Yadin, father and son. We would never contest that there was another Joshua son of Joseph during the 2nd century CE, but how this effects the interpretation of the Talpiot inscription is unclear. This certainly does not support a claim that the combination of Jesus and Joseph should be common, as a host of scholars have maintained, incorrectly, with certitude throughout this controversy.
We believe that the Babatha documents add very little to the discussion of the ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yehosep” located in Talpiot. There is, however, another "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuary discovered in 1931 trumpeted by many scholars as evidence for dismissing the importance of the Talpiot Tomb inscription.
"This ossuary was found by Sukenik in the basement of the Department of Antiquities of Palestine." (Cotton, Hannah, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae / Palestinae, Volume 1 : Jerusalem, Part 1, p 561.). It has no context! We have no idea of its origin. Out of the 600+ inscribed ossuaries uncovered in the Jerusalem area, there is only one provenanced ossuary inscribed Yeshua bar Yehosep and it comes from Talpiot. The Sukenik ossuary has no context and provides tepid evidence for the claim that linking Jesus and Joseph should be considered typical or common for this period in Palestine. Fairness and impartiality lead us to the fact that there is no equivalency to an ossuary of unknown provenance located in the basement of the Rockefeller, to the ossuary at Talpiot. The Sukenik ossuary could have come from an antiquities dealer, a looter, or from a Tel Aviv apartment. We have strong suspicions that the Sukenik ossuary was not discovered in a tomb where there were four inscribed names of Jesus' family members out of six inscribed ossuaries. Let's be clear on this. There is only one provenanced ossuary inscribed Yeshua bar Yehosep from the first century. At this stage in the discussion on the Talpiot Tomb, we maintain that the Yeshua bar Yehosep ossuary is extremely rare, not a common occurrence, and the Sukenik ossuary is not in the same category.
#1 - K. Kilty and M. Elliott - 04/25/2013 - 13:18

Thanks for the comments, Drs. Elliott and Kilty.

(1) As for my statement about the fact that we have a fairly small corpus of epigraphic attestations of personal names, and your criticism of that statement, I would simply note that the personal names and patronymics attested in the epigraphic record is a fraction of the totality of personal names that existed in antiquity in ancient Judea. As for your reference to some of the major reference works....yes, I have often cited Rahmani's work in my own research and have published reviews of multiple volumes of Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, and I have collated and fair number of the ossuaries in the collection of the state of Israel, thus I know these materials well.

(2) As for "Yeshua (or the variants thereof) son of Yehosep (or the variants thereof)," my point is simply that we have multiple attestations in the epigraphic corpus of Roman Period Jewish Inscriptions from Judea of people named Yeshua son of Yehosep. (A) Moreover, there is no question about the authenticity of the ossuary with this name and patronymic which was published originally by Sukenik (CIIP #547); therefore, it is an actual historical attestation of someone with this name and patronynmic. Thus, even though its precise provenance is not known with certainty (I think Jerusalem is the most likely, as would most epigraphers, I suppose), it is nevertheless an epigraphic attestation of someone with that name and patronymic. (B) As for the Babatha I noted, someone named Yeshua son of Yehosep is attested in this archive as well. And this archive is a Roman Period Jewish archive in Judea. In short, there is no compelling reason to separate it out just because it is Second Century CE rather than first century CE or first century BCE. It is Roman Period Judea....just as the Talpiyot Tombs are Roman Period Judea.

In sum, there are multiple epigrapher references in this chronological horizon (i.e., Roman Period Judea) to Yeshua son of Yehosep, thus, the Talpiyot reference is not unique. Most epigraphers and historians would concur with this assessment.

(3) In conclusion, we certainly have *nothing* approximating a full census list of the personal names and patronymics for Roman Period Judea, but even within the rather limited corpus that we do have (a fraction of the totality of people from this region in this period), we have multiple attestations of someone with the name Yeshua' with a father named Yehosep. I think that this point is both interesting and important and I think that most epigraphers and historians would concur. I understand that you do not concur. That's fine. Such is the nature of life and scholarship.

With all best wishes and kind regards,

Dr. Christopher Rollston
#2 - Christopher Rollston - 04/26/2013 - 09:04

Dear Prof. Rollston,
"(quote) This tomb contained ten ossuaries, six of them inscribed. These were subsequently published in Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Inscriptions (1994, nos 701-709)."
Gath did actually discover and extracted 10 ossuaries from the tomb. Yet the figures "nos 701-709" make only 9 ossuaries. No doubt, one ossuary was missing when Rahmani catalogued the Talpiot Tomb a (TTa) ossuaries. The missing ossuary was always important to the evaluation of the TTa as whether or not it was Jesus' (and members of his family) last resting place. For more than two years now, we have lab reports that connect another ossuary, "Yaaqov bar Josef, the brother of Jesus", to the TTa. The meaning is: an entire family in one tomb, as relevant Jewish burial custom dictates. "Entire" – not including Josef, the father, who was probably buried in the Galilee before Jesus' last journey to Jerusalem.
One may ignore the 10th ossuary and its importance. Many do. One may also ignore the fact that "nos 701-709" makes only 9 ossuaries instead of 10. I do not ignore both, just like some other don't. Facts are facts, especially when lab reports support and\or reveal them. I don't find any reason to ignore them.
The Sukenick ossuary Jesus son of Josef; when we study and compare ossuaries, no detail is "not important". The TTa ossuary reads "Yeshua bar Yehosef"; True, the "bar" means "son of". Yet the "bar" is, undoubtedly, Aramaic. Sukenick's ossuary reads "Yeshua ben Yehosef". The "ben" is Hebrew for "son", not Aramaic. Both these inscription are very close in meaning, indeed. But the language used matters. Of course, when both names are translated and transliterated to modern English – they look the same. But they were not back then, when Jews inscribed them.
Three names, which are not identical, cannot be counted as one and the same, surely not (quote)" multiple attestations of someone with the name Yeshua' with a father named Yehosep", as Rollston claims.
Rollston claims (quote) " In sum, there are multiple epigrapher references in this chronological horizon (i.e., Roman Period Judea) to Yeshua son of Yehosep, thus, the Talpiyot reference is not unique. Most epigraphers and historians would concur with this assessment." Roman period Judea covers, in chronological terms, a period of . . . how many years, actually? Does Rollston mean "Judea proper", that is Jerusalem and its vicinity? The entire province was named "Judea" until the end of the Bar Cochva revolt, that is: 63 BCE to 135 CE. Yet Jesus was of Galilean origin, and was probably named according to Galilean dialect. We don't know, and unfortunately we cannot know, who was Sukenick's Yehoshua ben Yehosef, where he was born, according to what dialect his parents named him, etc.
And, as usual, the entire connection to Jewish burial law and custom is missing.
#3 - Eldad Keynan - 04/27/2013 - 08:17

Would it be fair to call the attempt to minimize the relevance of the Babatha Archive and the Sukenik ossuary special pleading?
#4 - Stephen Goranson - 04/28/2013 - 09:41

Goranson writes "Would it be fair to call the attempt to minimize the relevance of the Babatha Archive and the Sukenik ossuary special pleading?" Actually, no. We would argue that the attempt to maximize these examples is special pleading and not sound statistical analysis. Babatha archive does not contain this inscription. The term "multiple attestations" gives the impression that the Talpiot names, especially Jesus son of Joseph, are common and we should expect to find this inscription in any number of tombs. This is false. Out of the approximately 650 inscribe ossuaries located in Jerusalem, only two have been inscribed Jesus son of Joseph, and only one is provenanced. The Sukenik and Talpiot ossuaries equal .003% of the total number uncovered. Unfortunately, these kinds of comments on the Talpiot names demonstrate a lack of sophistication in their interpretation of name frequencies and the statistical probability. They do not move this debate in any helpful direction. Please provide a statistical model that interprets the names rather than just dismissing it.
#5 - K. Kilty and M. Elliott - 04/28/2013 - 13:52

Rollston suggests a meaning of the ossuary inscription "Jesus son of Joseph" cannot be revealed without a complete census of all ossuary inscriptions. This is an impossible demand. We will never have a complete census of such, nor could we ever know that we had accomplished a complete census even if one were possible to do. However, we can decide what the statistics of such a name says, especially in the context of the other names, even if this is not absolutely definitive and must be couched in probability. Statistics and probability are used in this manner to tackle difficult problems every day. To say it cannot be done in this context simply evades a difficult and perhaps inconvenient issue.

Not being an epigrapher myself, I appreciate what Eldad Keynan contributes to this thread.
#6 - K. Kilty - 04/28/2013 - 14:20

To my greatest astonishment I read Dr. Rollston’s piece on the Talpiot ossuaries. During his testimony under oath - in the Jerusalem District Court- he declared at least four times that the Second Temple period paleography is not his field of expertise.

Dr. Amnon Rosenfeld
Jerusalem, Israel.
#7 - Amnon Rosenfeld - 04/28/2013 - 19:58

An inscription "Son of Joseph" is evidence against, not for, identification as "Jesus" Jesus, of course, was *not* the son of Joseph (even though at least some of his siblings probably were). In the Gospels he is never referred to as Son of Joseph--he refers to himself, however, as son of "The Father" (Abba). There is also one figure in the Gospels (Mark) with that explicit patronym--a certain 'Jesus Bar Abbas."
#8 - Shane Mage - 04/30/2013 - 13:07

"In the Gospels he is never referred to as Son of Joseph". Luke 4.22? But that does raise the question of whether Jesus' family / disciples would themselves have referred to him in this way.
#9 - Mark Goodacre - 04/30/2013 - 22:00

Professor Rollston must be close friends with Professor Jodi Magness because they both profess the same misinformation and loose attitudes toward the facts. They both use the same tactics. I'm not going to waste my time with them. Others are doing much better than I, a mere layman, could ever do.

#10 - Martin - 05/01/2013 - 12:29

Shane up above said "An inscription "Son of Joseph" is evidence against, not for, identification as "Jesus" Jesus, of course, was *not* the son of Joseph (even though at least some of his siblings probably were). In the Gospels he is never referred to as Son of Joseph" There is at least one Old Syriac manuscript of Matthew 1:16 that calls Joseph the father of Jesus (Price; The Pre-Nicene New Testament; pg. 120)so I am not sure one can make the case that this isn't Jesus the Nazarene merely based on the fact that Jesus wasn't called son of Joseph in most surviving manuscripts of the canonical gospels.
#11 - Steven M Stiles - 07/16/2013 - 19:18

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