A New Proposal for the Talpiot Greek Inscription
by James Tabor
This post is a wee bit technical, especially for those who have no knowledge of Greek, but it is nonetheless important and I think readers who are interested will be able to work their way through without a problem. As most of my readers know we discovered a four-line Greek inscription in the sealed Talpiot “patio” tomb in May, 2010 by using robotic camera probe. The translation of this intriguing inscription has been the subject of much discussion the past few months. It is written on the face of a decorated ossuary or “bone box” in a tomb that dates to the 1st century CE. I remains thoroughly convinced that we have in this inscription an unprecedented reference to faith in God raising the dead. Taken but in a wider context, including the contents of this tomb and the “Jesus tomb” adjacent thereto, I connect this affirmation to faith in Jesus’ resurrection and his being “lifted up” to heaven. This is the case we argue exhaustively in The Jesus Discovery and in my more technical paper at bibleinterp.com.
We connected the inscription to the story of Jonah and his cry from the belly of the great fish that early Christians interpreted as symbolically representing Jesus being raised up from death (Jonah 2:6; Matthew 12:40). We translated the inscription as: O Divine IAIO [Yahweh], Raise up! Raise up! or perhaps, I, Divine IAIO [Yahweh], raise up! Raise up! We found the symmetry of the inscription quite impressive: four lines made up of four words, alternating in Greek, Hebrew, Greek, and Hebrew.
If we are correct this would be not only our earliest “Christian” inscription, but the earliest testimony to faith in resurrection of the dead from Jesus’ followers–predating even our gospels.
Richard Bauckham, Greg Snyder, James Charlesworth and I have been happily discussing this text via e-mail since last September, and in comments on various blogs on the internet. Bauckham has just published his third attempt at reading the fascinating four-line Greek inscription. Here is a bit of background.
Bauckham’s original counter analysis was published on the ASOR blog March 8, 2012, which you can find here, read the inscription possibly as: I, Hagab, exalt (you) Zeus IAIO, but more probably, in his view: Belonging to Zeus IAIO/I, Hagab, exalt (him/you). IAIO he took to be a Greek transliteration of the divine Name YHVH/Yehovah.
Bauckham took the rather enigmatic final three letters of the inscription: A G B as the post-Exilic name Hagab/Hagabah, or “Locust,” ( Ezra 2:45-46) but written in Greek letters, and thus equivalent to the New Testament name of the early Christian prophet Agabus (Acts 11:28: Ἅγαβος).
Subsequently, Chris Rollston, who had accepted Bauckham’s Hagab reading as a proper name, published his own take on the ASOR blog here, rejecting any reference to IAIO/YHVH, and proposing instead the translations: Here are bones. I touch them not, O Agabus, or, Here are (my) bones. I, Agabus, crumble not away, and several possible grammatical variations.. His reading depended on taking the first letter of line two as a Tau rather than an Iota, which we have continued to disagree about. Greg Snyder, in response, continued to read the inscription as some kind of magical incantation invoking Zeus-IAIO but had not settled on a translation of the whole.
Bauckham’s second contribution, published on Larry Hurtado’s blog here, reviewed all the proposals to date, accepted Rollston’s reading of “Here are bones” rather than “Zeus IAIO” and added: On account of (the) bones, alas, I Hagab, am crumbling away, but noted that this really does not make much sense.
Most recently Bauckham has a radical new interpretation just published at Mark Goodacre’s blog here, in which he proposes the inscription is two, or possibly even three, rather obscure names: Δυ(ο)σταιου Ψω/αγβ, or of Dostai Psw/agb, taking the latter term either some form of an Egyptian name that uses the Egyptian god Shu (and possibly the god Geb) or simply the names of three individuals: Dostai, Psw, and Hagab, going back to his original proposal for the final three letters.
The various attempts to translate this inscription are a bit complex but in the end, once you understand the basic issues over which there are disagreements, I believe there is an elegantly simple solution that I find to be the most compelling. I remain convinced of the basic elements of our initial transliteration and readings and I will argue the same in an expanded way in a paper this November at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Chicago. I look forward to the discussion.
- Here are bones. I touch (them) not. Agabus; Here are bones: I, Agabus, touch (them) not; Here are bones: May I not touch (them), O Agabus; Here are bones: May I, Agabus, not touch (them); and Here are (my) bones, may I not crumble away [↩]