The Name Yoseh on the Talpiot Tomb Ossuary

I want to initiate a series of posts on the names on the six inscribed ossuaries found in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb. There has been quite a bit of discussion of these on the Web, and more recently in print, and I hope I can offer some helpful discussion on a number of issues that have been raised. I have found the work of Stephen and Claire Pfann to be particularly helpful and provocative, though as readers will see below, and in subsequent posts, their conclusions and my own are quite different. Clearly, any case made for this tomb being that of Jesus of Nazareth, in the end, will turn on these inscribed names, how they are to be read or deciphered, and what possible correspondence they might have to the named family of Jesus as known to us in various textual sources.

Ossuary 80.504 in the State of Israel collection (no. 705 in the Rahmani Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries) is a case in point. It is a plain or undecorated ossuary with the following clear Hebrew/Aramaic inscription, namely the letters Yod, Vav, Samech, and Heh:


It is properly read or pronounced in English as Yoseh. It is a shortened form of the full name Joseph/Yehosef, the most common male Jewish name in the period. Although a few scholars have suggested the pronunciation Yosah, this is incorrect for the simple reason that no Hebrew or Greek name Yosah ever existed. Yoseh is built from the Greek form Iose (Ιωσε/Ιωση) and is always found with the Greek letters eta or epsilon, but never with an alpha, which would be necessary to form a pronunciation ending in an “a” sound.

In the time of Jesus, that is, in 2nd Temple times, before the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, this nickname Yoseh is extremely rare in either Hebrew or Greek. As far as Hebrew goes, it is found only here, in the Talpiot tomb, on an ossuary, and one other time in a slightly different, but equivalent spelling (Yod, Samech, Hey), on an ossuary from Mt. Scopus. It is also found once on a tomb inscription from the period (Jason’s Tomb), and once in a papyrus from Wadi Muraba’at (pre-135 CE). In Greek, its equivalent forms (Ιωσε/Ιωση/Ιωσης), which are usually translated Yose/Jose or Joses/Joses in English, occur on only five ossuaries. In contrast, the full JosephChart.jpgname Joseph/Yehosef is found on 32 ossuaries and many dozens of literary references in the period. The table to the left is based on the exhaustive work of Tal Ilan (Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity) from Palestinian sources over a particulary broad chronological range of 330 BCE to 200CE. It shows all the variations of the name Joseph in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin from ossuary as well as other sources with the forms of Yose separated out at the bottom. The tag F refers to a fictitious name, the rest are presumed to be real individuals.

This nickname Jose/Joses in Greek is found in Mark 6:3 as the nickname for Jesus’ brother Joseph. There are two further references at the end of Mark that I also take to be that same brother (Mark 15:40, 47, see my arguments in The Jesus Dynasty, chap. 4). Luke removes the names of Jesus brothers from his gospel entirely, while Matthew offers the full name “Joseph” in his parallel to Mark (Matthew 13:55; 27:56). However, it is worth noting that in some manuscripts of Matthew the shortened nickname, Jose/Joses remains, whether as a correction based on Mark or just part of an alternative textual tradition.

In later texts, from the 2nd and 3rd century CE onward, the name Yoseh/Yose in Hebrew does become quite common. It is found in some synagogue inscriptions in Galilee but particularly in rabbinic sources. A comparison of various manuscripts of the Mishnah shows that the form of the name in Hebrew Yosey (Yod, Vav, Samech, Yod) and Yoseh are equivalent, and were pronounced the same–thus we get the English Yose in most translations of these rabbinic sources. The Kaufmann manuscript of the Mishnah (used by Accordance software), which is the best and most reliable, regularly has the form Yoseh where other versions have Yosey, but the vocalization (Nikud) in the manuscript marks both forms with a double-dot or “e” sound, showing one is an alternative spelling of the other, but the pronunciation is the same. At one time I had incorrectly concluded that while the name Yoseh was rare, the nickname Yosi, as it is pronounced in Israel today, was quite common in 2nd Temple times. This is wrong. Yoseh and Yosey are different spelling of the same name, pronounced the same. The spelling ending in the letter Yod never occurs on a single ossuary and is a product of a later literary spelling that became common in some rabbinic manuscripts. This accounts for Tal Ilan’s tally of 29 examples of Yosey–in Kaufmann all of these become Yoseh–spelled with a Heh at the end rather than a Yod.

What we can conclude about this nickname Yose, found on the Talpiot ossuary and in Greek for Jesus’ brother Joseph in Mark, is that it was really quite rare in 2nd Temple times, in Hebrew or in Greek. Even when it does become more common in much later 3rd century CE sources, such as the Mishnah, the sages with this nickname are almost always mid-late 2nd century CE and beyond. Two exceptions, of course, are the first of the famous “pairs,” namely Yoseh son of Yoezer and Yoseh son of Yochanan (mAbot 1:4; mChagiga 2:2), who lived in the 2nd century BCE! The rest of the Mishnaic Yosehs, such as Yoseh of Galilee, Yoseh son of HaOtef of Efrat, Yoseh son of Meshulam, and Yoseh son of R. Yehuda, are late 2nd to early 3rd century CE figures. Since we have good inscriptional and manuscript evidence for the rareness of this nickname in the time of Jesus, that is before the Destruction, it would be very bad method to project back into the late 1st century CE a usage that only can be verified as “common” in texts dating from the 3rd century CE.

Of course this alone does not prove that the Yoseh in the Talpiot tomb is the brother of Jesus. But the data does indeed argue that as a rare nickname, known only on a handful of ossuaries and from two inscriptions of the period, found in a tomb with a “Jesus son of Joseph,” Yoseh is quite striking. And that Mark knows this as the unique and rare nickname of Jesus’ brother Joseph, is surely significant evidence. The occurrence of this nickname can then be combined with the historical data we know about Jesus’ “missing” brother Joseph–since we have not a single reference to him beyond the Gospels, and he does not take over leadership of the Nazarene community after the death of James in 62 CE, though he was 2nd after James by birth. I argue this point more fully in the forthcoming issue of Near Eastern Archaeology in which I suggest a different method be used for evaluating the hypothetical prosopography of the Talpiot tomb names. I think it is quite important, rather than suggesting all sorts of “possible” folk that this Yoseh might be, to recognize that the one Yoseh we know anything about in the family of Jesus, and one of the few males in the period who bore this nickname, was none other than Jesus’ 2nd brother Joseph.

Much of the statistical work on the Talpiot cluster of names has been done using the nickname Yoseh as if it was the equivalent to the much more common name Joseph/Yehosef (8.6% of male names), which it plainly is not. All the rhetoric about “these are the most common names of the period,” begins to have much less force if this is taken into account. I know of two new statistical studies that have factored in this nickname as it occurs in the 2nd Temple period, and the results are startlingly different. One is a paper authored by Profs. Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliot, that will be posted on their college Web site later this week. I will publish the link when it is up. The other is the formal paper presented by Prof. Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto, in a fully peer-reviewed session of the Joint Statistical Meeting in Salt Lake City in July, and now being prepared for publication. My sense is that the discussion of the names in the Talpiot tomb is going to take a significant shift when these and other factors come to full play in our ongoing discussions.