Considering the Names in the Talpiot Tombs: Looking at All the Evidence

Most scholars who work in the field of late 2nd Temple Judaism, including those who deal with the emerging Jesus movement, are quite familiar with the masterful work by L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel (Jerusalem: The Israel Antiquities Authority, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994). Many of us have copies in our personal libraries. Rahmani’s work lists the 897 ossuaries that were in the Israel State collection up to August, 1989, whether plain or decorated, including the 227 that are inscribed. There are photos, some color but mostly B&W of all the decorated ones and a few of the plain ones. Since the vast majority of these ossuaries are from Jerusalem and its environs, dating approximately from 20 BCE to 70CE, this work is indispensable to anyone working in this field–including those interested in Christian Origins. Unfortunately, Rahmani is now 23 years out of date and there are hundreds of additional ossuaries in the Israel State collection plus many more hundreds that are in other collections, both public and private (see the works of Figueras, Bagatti, Testa, et al.)

So far as the ossuaries themselves go Rahmani is the best we have, but in terms of inscriptions there is a recent companion work that has become essential for all of us, namely, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, with editors Hannah M. Cotton, Leah Di Segni, Werner Eck, Benjamin Isaac, Alis Kushnir-Stein, Haggai Misgav, Jonathan Price, Israel Roll and Ada Yardeni, Vol. 1: Part 1:1-704 (De Gruyter, Götingen, 2010). The work is abbreviated CIIP. It includes 704 inscriptions, 600+ of which are from ossuaries, which has tripled the evidence one had available in 1989 via Rahmani for inscribed ossuaries. This also shows us that Rahmani’s ratio of inscribed to uninscribed (897/227), as represented in the Israel State collection is low compared to CIIP with approximately 2000 “known” ossuaries, 600+ of which are inscribed. These come from an estimated 900 burial caves, see Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 8 (Leuven-Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2007), another essential work for those interested in Jerusalem in the late 2nd Temple period. I should point out, for those interested in further reading, that we discuss all of these materials, with additional sources, in our book, The Jesus Discovery.

Last year I spent over two months going carefully through CIIP, reading every one of the 704 inscriptions. As I went I assembled detailed notes, correlated when possible with Rahmani, of all the names that are relevant to those found in the Talpiot tombs, namely Yeshua, Yehosef/Yose, Yehuda, Mariamene/Mariam Maria/Marya, Mara, and Matya. I also made three trips to Israel and Simcha and I examined and filmed all the relevant ossuary inscriptions stored at the Bet Shemesh warehouse, in the basement of the Rockefeller, in the basement of the Israel Museum, and several private collections (Franciscans, etc.), You can download a copy of my notes here: CIIPNotes6-13-2011. If you pass this along please give credit and you can link to the document here:

I think both specialists and non-specialists might find this material of great interest, particularly those who have limited their work to the inscriptions in Rahmani, thus missing about 400 of the available ossuary inscriptions. I am pleased to share it with everyone.

It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane, It’s . . . It’s Anything but a Fish

Since the publication of The Jesus Discovery a month ago there has been quite a bit of discussion among academic colleagues who inhabit the “blogging” world as to how to interpret the ossuary image in the Talpiot “patio” tomb that we have identified as “Jonah and the big fish.” Suggestions have ranged from it’s a funerary moment or pillar (nephesh in Hebrew), to a perfume flask, to an amphora or some kind of vase, and opinions seems to have shifted among those expressing them just over the course of these weeks. I haven’t heard anyone support the “tower” idea in several weeks now although the first six academics who commented publicly on our book the day it came out all took the “tower” position and four of them have been completely silent since–so I have no idea if they have changed their minds or not. One got the distinct impression that whatever this image might be it had to be anything but a fish, and certainly not a Jonah image, even if one was not sure what it was.


Frankly, I have found these minimalizing reactions and suggestions to be quite surprising. It seemed to me to be a strange kind of resistance to the obvious for reasons not entirely clear to me. I consider the image of the fish spitting out a human stick-like figure to be self-evident. This was the unequivocal reaction of Rami Arav, our archaeologist with decades of experience, and me, as well as the rest of our team. Momentarily, we did indeed consider the possibilities that it might be the prow of a boat, a funerary monument or even an amphora, but we quickly dismissed those as the full image came into view. The two images above are untouched stills of what we first saw and full resolution versions can be downloaded at our main web site:

The discovery itself is captured live on film and the sequence with our initial reactions is unedited, as will be evident in the Discovery TV documentary that will air April 12 in the US and on Vision TV in Canada. When we brought in James Charlesworth the next day, without prompting him in any way, he also immediately identified the image as that of Jonah and the big fish. That was also the view of the majority of our academic consultants, including the three art historians we approached over the next few months. At the Israel Antiquities Authority, when we presented our finds, there was general agreement among the several highly experienced individuals that we consulted that whatever the image was it was unprecedented, very possibly a fish/Jonah image, and that it was surely unlike anything seen on any other ossuary. That, everyone seems to now agree upon, even those proposing some kind of vase or amphora. No one has proposed that anything on any ossuary so far that resembles even remotely our image–over all or in detail–particularly the “fins” and “tail” of the fish and the very well executed stick-figure with the mouth and eye of the fish showing clearly as I have discussed in previous posts. Those arguing for either a pillar or vase have simply ignored those deliberate markings as if they are some kind of stray scratches.

One thing that might help put things into perspective is to take any image of a pillar/monument or an amphora/vase, on any ornamented ossuary we know of and imagine if we had claimed one of these was a fish–but not just a fish, but an image of Jonah, with all its powerful early Christian symbolism and implications. For example, in my preliminary academic report on our findings I published these two very clear examples of a funerary pillar and an amphora image respectively:


The very idea is ludicrous as all of such images, even in all their variety, are immediately self-evidently not fish–much less Jonah images or any other animate creature. They are “objects” pure and simple. What we have in this tomb, and on this ossuary, is truly unique and unparalleled and none of the suggestions put forth, as I have covered in detail in previous blog posts, match in any detail our image. Most recently it has been suggested by those arguing the image is some kind of vase, that it actually has handles attached to what we identify as the fish’s tail. A closeup view of this area makes it clear that there is certainly no handle remotely resembling that of a vase or amphora but just a couple of stray lines, unconnected to the image, that the engraver might have even made by mistake:

It is also the case that the “handles” imagined on our other image that we take to be a deliberate half-fish, diving into the water, that others are argued is just a “half-vase” simple are not there. The “handle” that is supposedly on the left is at a right angle and not even attached, clearly a random mark, and the “handle” identified on the right looks curved and it is also unclear as to whether it is actually a part of the image or a random scratch. In addition there is supposed to be a third “handle” on the upper left lip of the “jar,” but it does not look at all like any kind of handle and there is nothing corresponding to it on the right side. But more important, who would draw half a vase on the end of an ossuary? There is plenty of room below the image and yet it is simply and strangely cut off.

When our academic consultants met in Washington, D.C. last May I happened to snap this photo of a local restaurant that I thought was quite apropos to how expressive a “half-fish” image might be. I only wished that the place had been named “Jonah and the Whale,” but the point nonetheless is clear:


Other Inscriptions in the Talpiot “Patio” Tomb

Our robotic camera exploration of the so-called “patio” tomb in East Talpiot, which is the focus of the first three chapters of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has yielded several fascinating discoveries, including, what we take to be our earliest image representing Jonah and the “big fish,” and a four-line Greek inscription affirming resurrection of the dead or ascent to heaven. We connect both with followers of Jesus. There are, however, a number of other inscriptions in the Talpiot tomb of interest and as of yet we are not sure what they might mean.

Ossuary 2, in niche 2 (see our map at the JesusDiscovery web site) has a very strange marking on the blank space above the rosette on the upper right side. At first glance it appears to be some kind of squiggly animal-like image, maybe with legs, tail, and a strange curve for a head. We considered this but in the end found it unlikely. Our best guess is that it is an attempt to represent in stylized Hebrew and Greek letters, the Divine Name YeHoVaH, that is YHVH, which in Greek then looks like PIPI, that is Pi/Iota/Pi/Iota.

Ossuary 4, also in niche 2, has a Greek inscription on the back end and unfortunately our camera probe could not get a clear shot of it in order to read it. What we do have is a 1981 B&W photo that enhanced seems to show a Greek name, we have proposed IONAS, IONES, or even IOULIA.

Enhanced Blow-up of Greek Inscription on Ossuary 4 Credit: Jerry Lutgen

Finally, there is a Greek inscription that has been scratched out at the bottom of ossuary 4, niche 2. We assume that the scratches, which are mostly horizontal and also are on other surfaces of the ossuary, were made when it was slid in and out of the niche in 1981. We think we can see a few letters, perhaps an A (alpha), a R (rho), a M (mu) and perhaps a T (tau). Maybe someone who knows how to use Photoshop and work with the layers and reduce or separate the scratches from the engraving of the letters.


Photos of the Four-line Greek Inscription from the Talpiot Tomb

All of the photos of the four-line Greek inscription made available to our consultants are now uploaded on the web site, 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. I realize for some of my readers these are technical matters but I will be posting here soon a full non-technical discussion of the current academic discussion on how to both transcribe and read this fascinating inscription. Of the 17 total the one photo that most clearly shows all 14 letters I have posted here:

Looking at the Jonah and the Fish Image: Top Down or Side View?

Credit: Dr. Carl Rassmussen, see

It occurs to me that in evaluating our Jonah/fish image on the recently discovered Talpiot tomb ossuary that many might be incorrectly thinking that one is looking down on a fish, as if from above, thus one would expect to see a pair of symmetric eyes, with the tail flat and symmetrical as in the rorqual whale. In such a case the mouth opening would not be visible, thus the impossible x-ray stick vision stick figure that would make no sense, as some have pointed out.

I am convinced we are looking at the fish from the side. The fins are flat and assymetrical from a side view, with only one eye at the top showing, and the clear straight line of the jaw with the figure/head coming out. Jerry Lutgen showed our image to a couple of marine biologists in Florida recently and they both immediately identified it as a fairly accurate drawing of a common fish, but from the side view, not the top down, position.

Pictured here is a much later but ever fascinating “Jonah/Christ” relief on what is possibly a tombstone now in the archaeological museum in Konya. Mark Wilson, in his book, Biblical Turkey (p. 169) thinks it might be a sarcophagus but it looks solid. It could well be a tomb marker, some kind of monument, or even an altar. It was found in Beysehir, ancient Mistea, in Turkey. Precise dating is unknown but one is tempted from its features to put it in the 3rd century CE. The top inscription speaks of the dedication in memory of “Mitheos and Paul” and the bottom seems to say “the Great Fish and Jonah.” Notice the “Christ” stick figure coming up out of the two fish below, into the shape of a cross/anchor. There is lots of other symbolism here. The  “Christ figure” as cross and stick image is on the cover of our book, as some maybe have noticed, but arising out of a Hebrew scroll that represents the story of Jonah.

In contrast, one might compare the so-called “Claudius fish,” also on an ossuary, which I am not convinced is a fish in the first place, (see my Preliminary report, p. 24, fig 26), where there are supposedly two eyes, on one each open “jaw,” and no tail, which makes no sense for a fish. Antonio Lambatti tells me that he has located some additional fish images on tombs and ossuaries outside the standard Israel State Collection and I look forward to his report on those though I am not clear as to what their date or provenance might be.

So far as fish images found in Jerusalem during this period we have the well executed example on the stone table that Avigad discovered in the Jewish Quarter.  The fish is shown from the side view, just as I am taking our Jonah ossuary image. Shimon Gibson has just written me this week of an additional fish image found in Broshi’s 1970s Mt Zion excavation on a stone vessel. He is sending me a photo that I will post here when I receive it.