Is the Talpiot Tomb “Jesus son of Joseph” Inscription Sloppy or Elegant?
by James Tabor
Since the six intriguing ossuary inscriptions in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb have been brought to the attention of the world (see the story here), I have often heard the assertion by both scholar and non-specialist alike that the “Jesus son of Joseph” inscription is written in a barely readable, sloppy, graffiti style, hardly worthy of anyone of importance. This observation, coupled with the fact that the ossuary itself is plain, without ornamentation, has been seen by some as an argument against this tomb having any association with Jesus of Nazareth. Surely Jesus’ early followers, believing him to be the Messiah who had been raised to the right hand of God, would have honored his earthly remains in a more respectful way.
Over the years I found myself buying into the idea that the “Jesus” inscription was careless and sloppy–even though I did not draw the conclusion that the style of the inscription nor its plainness was dishonorable. In 2007 I wrote:
It is extremely common to have “messy” graffiti-like inscriptions on ossuaries, even of persons of importance. The ossuary of the wealthy and influential high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus, Joseph son of Caiaphus, is quite difficult to read. Ossuary inscriptions are not intended to be on display, they are neither announcements nor proclamations. They function more as “tags” to identify the skeletal remains of a particular family member. Even if they are scribbled out, as long as they can be read by the intimate family they serve their function. “The Talpiot Tomb: Separating Fact from Fiction“
I have recently changed my mind.
In looking more closely at the inscription, which reads Yeshua bar Yehosef in Aramaic, which is Jesus son of Joseph in English, I have come to the view that it is in fact quite elegant, written with a flourish and a flair, without any suggestion of carelessness or sloppiness. I invite you to take another look, even if you do not read Hebrew or Aramaic. Here is a close up of the inscription itself:
At first glance, and certainly to the untrained eye, these various marks appear to be a confused conglomeration of scratches, pits, and perhaps some kind of indecipherable sloppy scrawl. But a closer look reveals that this is hardly the case. Here is a precise schematic drawing done of the inscription based on consultations with the eminent epigrapher Frank Moore Cross of Harvard Unversity. The Hebrew letters are identified and paired with their corresponding English equivalents. I want to thank Associated Producers, Ltd. of Toronto for making this available:
One should keep in mind that these ossuary inscriptions, when done by the family and not a professional engraver, are scratched into the soft limestone by hand with a nail or other blunt instrument, maybe even in the darkness of the tomb, so they do have a certain informal appearance. Nonetheless, the letters are all quite clear and well formed and they have a lovely and consistent style and slant, with the Ayin sweeping to the left with its extended tail, and the final letter, Peah, finishing off the name quite elegantly. One does find some sloppy inscriptions on ossuaries but this is not one of them. The faintness of the carving and the surrounding scratches and pits can give the initial impression that this inscription was carelessly done–but I am convinced that is decidedly not the case.
I also don’t buy the argument that the plainness of this ossuary suggests any sort of disrespect for the deceased. Of the six inscribed ossuaries in this tomb, three others are also plain–Mariah, Yose, and Matyah–which all appear to be done in the same elegant hand, and show chiseling marks that are quite similar. The only two of the inscribed ossuaries that are decorated are those of Mariamene Mara and Yehudah bar Yeshua–more on this in a subsequent post.
It is interesting to compare the Yeshua ossuary and the James ossuary side by side. Their similarities are quite visually striking, though the inscription on the James ossuary was likely done by a professional engraver. That the James ossuary is badly weathered makes it look a bit different in texture and color, but the shape, size, and style are close to identical.
- See my book, The Jesus Dynasty, published in 2006, and Simcha Jacobovici’s 2007 Discovery Channel film, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” as well as his book (co-authored with Charles Pellegrino), The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No one Wanted to Find. [↩]
- James Charlesworth has developed this argument extensively in his book, The Historical Jesus: An Essential Guide (Nashville: Abington Press, 2008), pp. 105ff. [↩]
- I am not implying in any way that Prof. Cross agrees with my conclusions here or my more general views on the Talpiot tomb, just that he was of great help in identifying the letters for the untrained eye [↩]