Professor James H. Charlesworth on the Jonah Image and Talpiot Tombs

Professor James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary has officially weighed in with comments and analysis on various aspects of the new discoveries in the Talpiot “patio” tomb with particular attention to the Jonah image and the Hebrew inscription of the name YONAH that appears to be written across the mouth of the fish. His revised article is now posted as a PDF at the web site Bible & Interpretation here.

Prof. Charlesworth and I respectfully disagree on the identification of the nearby “garden” tomb as most likely that of Jesus of Nazareth and his intimate family but we are both convinced that the Talpiot tombs as a whole most likely relate to the earliest followers of Jesus and their faith in Jesus’ resurrection (see my post on why people are confused on the early Christian view of resurrection here).

Untouched Photo from HiDef Camera

So far as the YONAH inscription goes I find Prof. Charlesworth’s interpretation quite persuasive. I think what some who disagree have missed is the highly informal nature of fully half of ossuary inscriptions from this period, as anyone looking through Rahmani’s Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, or the more complete and updated Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palesaestinae, eds. Cotton, et al. realizes. Many graffito-style inscriptions, whether in Greek or in Hebrew/Aramaic, exhibit letter forms that are highly irregular with no linear baseline in contrast to the formal hands we find in professional inscriptions or on handwritten materials of the period.  Often only a trained eye can decipher what the writer intended, see, for example, Rahmani’s nos. 17, 53, 68, 95, 108, 150, 151, 571 for just a few examples, and some can not be read at all, e.g. Rahmani no. 130. In contrast, this YONAH inscription is incredibly clear and can be easily read at a glance, with a minimum of ambiguity, as Charlesworth discusses below. Also, as Charlesworth points out, those who read these markings as intentional Hebrew letters do not claim that all the marks in the mouth of the fish are part of the letters, some are related to the fish itself (i.e., the straight line of the mouth), whereas others seem to form the eye of the fish as well as the arms and legs of a stick-like figure, attached to the large head. What does seem to be the case is that all of the inscribed markings (not the scratches or imperfections in the stone) are intentional.

It is also not the case that someone who is considered “important” is given a more formally inscribed name, as we have learned from the “Joseph son of Caiaphus” ossuary inscription (CIIP no. 461). For that reason I have to disagree with Prof. Charlesworth who argues that the inscription “Jesus son of Joseph” in the nearby tomb can not be that of Jesus of Nazareth as the ossuary is too plain and the inscription too graffiti-like.

Here is Prof. Charlesworth formal and technical analysis of the YONAH inscription with his notes included:

The first etching on the left has the unmistakable form of a he. The letter is written in three strokes. First, the person drew the horizontal line (the “roof”), and then added the leg to the right and then a shorter, slanted leg to the left. The left leg is well within the end stoke of the horizontal roof. The form of the he is typical of pre-70 scripts well known from Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts; examples are plentiful, see e.g. 4QDanb that dates between 20 and 50 CE. The he is similar to many inscriptions on ossuaries.11 Hebrew he represents the English “H.” Anyone who has worked on early manuscripts or pre-70 lapidary scripts should immediately see the he.

The meaning of the mark to the right of the he is not prima facie obvious. It is one connected stroke as the following image presented here shows (below). Conceivably, it can be a lamed [= L], but the upper portion of the stroke is too slanted to the left and the lower one appears too long (but the lamed appears in various ways prior to 70 CE). The one continuous stroke reminds me of a nun; one should be able to discern the turn to the left at the bottom of the stroke. The form is far from clear because the upper portion seems too long; but a lapidary nun is not to be confused with the Herodian Formal Book Hand inscribed upon lined leather. For example, in Ossuary 571 in Rahmani, the nun has a very long bottom stroke and it intrudes underneath two following letters. Perhaps this was caused by the need to inscribe stone with a chisel and the absence of a scribal horizontal line to guide the inscriber for hanging the Hebrew letters. Plus a stick figure and the alleged “mouth of a fish” may be intruding within or causing the elongated nun. The form of this nun is somewhat similar to the forms in hundreds of Dead Sea Scroll manuscripts; for example, it appears in 4QDeutj that dates from about 50 CE (also, in contrast, the Deut ms. represents the Formal Book Hand on leather). The nun becomes more likely when one studies that letter on ossuaries.12 Hebrew nun represents the English “N.”

The slightly curved scratch to the right of the nun is inelegant and some imagination is required (and speculation is frequently the case when studying lapidary scripts).13 It seems somewhat similar to the zain in 4QNumb that dates from the early first century CE. Most likely the form represents a waw. The top of this “letter” may have a “loop” as in the “Loop Mode” of the Herodian Ossuary Script.14 The form appears similar to the right-curved waw in Murabba‘ât 18 that has been dated to 55 or 56 CE. The curved backward waw of COJO no 38 is similar.15 This Hebrew letter equals the English “W,” “U,” or “O.”

On first viewing, the next stroke to the right looks like a zain. The top slants downward past the horizontal stroke. On examination, one can clearly see an upper loop to the left of the vertical stroke. The letter may well be yod as in the “Loop Mode” form, 16 but the extension to the upper right is problematic. Perhaps the inscriber meant to denote a yod. Similar forms with a looped yod appear in COJO, 82, 380, 411, 414, 421, 430 [bis], 435, 559, 603, 705, and 706. This Hebrew letter represents the English “Y,” “I,” or “J.”

Thus from left to right, which is the direction English is read today, we may discern: HNOJ. Since Hebrew is written right to left, we may recognize: JONH. The “a” vowel did not appear in Hebrew manuscripts until after the seventh century CE. Most likely, therefore, we may comprehend the inscription: “JONAH.”

The following image is not altered or enhanced. Notice that the nun is connected and appears to be one angular stroke. Obviously, I never intimated that all the lines in “the head of the fish” are letters; anyone who imagined that I did make such a claim or that I ignored some lines simply was dependent on a journalist’s summary of my comments.17

I am open to the suggestion that the “artist” intended an oblate circle to symbolize an eye of the fish and the long as a closed mouth; conceivably he also seemed to depict a stick-figured Jonah (which I will discuss later).

Finally, no assurance is provided for any reading. I am bothered by the mixing of scripts. The inscriber began with the looped lapidary script and then continued with forms known from leather manuscripts. Had he been trained as a scribe? Did he begin with the well-known lapidary script and shifted to forms with which he was more familiar? The lack of precision in this inscription is due perhaps to the need to chisel on stone. Were the forms twisted by the shape of the circular mouth of the alleged fish? Did the inscriber wish to meld the inscription with a stick figure within the mouth? The Hebrew letters, the imagined image of the stick figure, and the drawing seem to me to be the same depth and style.

This reading represents my present speculation and on-going research. I and all others need to see the ossuary or at least an image that is not possibly distorted by a flexible camera. I offer my reading for other epigraphers to discuss. As with many inscriptions, my reading can neither be proved nor disproved.

I am pleased to learn that one of the finest epigraphers in Israel, Robert Deutsch, has no doubt that the inscription clearly reads “YONAH.” Deutsch sent me this question: “What are statistically the chances for a so- called decoration to look like these four letters?” He answered: “One in over 1 billion.” I have been informed that Professor Haggai Misgav says definitely there are letters, but he prefers maybe zayin and lamed, thus “ZILA” or “ZEILA.”


10 Hebrew letters on ossuaries are notoriously difficult to discern and can be idiosyncratic. For examples, in COJO the aleph has no left foot, in 483 the aleph has two left slanted vertical strokes, and in 803, the aleph looks like an inverted ‘ayin. In 559 the shin has only two arms. In 571 the “Bar Naum” becomes possible if we allow the final mem to be two disconnected strokes.
11 For examples, see COJO, 8, 16, 107, 222, 414 and 730.
12 For examples, see COJO, 12, 68, 107, 270 and esp. 76 and 571.
13 Notice the odd nun in COJO no. 465, it has a long horizontal base that extends way past the next consonant, supplying “Kynoros.” “Aninas” in no. 475 is really “Aniinias.”
14 See the example in A.Yardeni, The Book of Hebrew Script (Jerusalem: Carta,) 1997, pp. 178-79.
15 I am also impressed that this waw looks like the zain on ossuaries 74, 75, 82 and 88.
16 See Yardeni, The Book of Hebrew Script, pp. 178-79.
17 My reading was announced in the Globe and Mail on April 11, 2012. Graffiti on ossuaries are often just scratches; some cannot be deciphered (Rahmani, COJO, 83, 89, 130). Some inscriptions are curved as in Ossuary Six. Some graffiti are extremely sloppy (e.g., COJO, 191, 582, 610, 651, 682, 694, 718, 773). As I have said before, in 704 (the famous ossuary from East Talpiot), the name “Yeshua, son of Yehosef” is a guess. Debates are focused on the meaning of some inscriptions (e.g., see COJO, 15 and the suggestions of Mayer, Sukenik, Rahmani, Savignac, and Klein). Do the markings on Ossuary 33 in COJO have meanings?