It’s amazing how collective amnesia works. In 1980, a tomb was found in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem. In the tomb, there was a cluster of names, inscribed on ossuaries/bone boxes, that relate to Jesus and his family. These include: “Jesus, son of Joseph”, “Maria”, “Matthew”, “Yose/Joses”, “Judah, son of Jesus” and a Greek version of Mary, “Mariamene”. I believe and I have argued that this tomb is the Jesus Family Tomb. Professor James Tabor agrees. Together, we co-wrote a book elaborating on this thesis. We are not alone. Recently, Professor James Charlesworth published essays on the subject by 28 of the world’s top scholars. Of the 28, 2 were non-committal, 14 were against the idea that the Talpiot tomb could belong to Jesus of Nazareth and his family, and 12 said that it’s entirely “possible”. This is remarkable. Put differently, as of a few months ago, 12 internationally acclaimed scholars stated that the Talpiot tomb may very well be Jesus’ last resting place. Why has no one noticed?
In 1981, a second tomb was found in Talpiot. It is adjacent to the Jesus Family Tomb. It was never excavated and it is still sealed below an apartment building. In 2010, using a robotic arm, we retrieved dramatic images of the 2000 year old ossuaries still buried in the tomb (For the film see “Resurrection Tomb: The Jesus Discovery” and for the blog see “The Jesus Discovery“). One image showed a picture carved into the side of one of the ossuaries. The picture depicts the prophet Jonah being spat out of a fish. In the fish’s head, the Hebrew name “Yonah”/Jonah is clearly visible.
The “Sign of Jonah” is one of the earliest Christian images. Many argue that it predates the cross. In the Christian catacombs of Rome, it is the most prevalent Biblical image of all. For early Christians, it represented Jesus’ resurrection i.e., as Jonah survived the belly of the fish so, too, Jesus survived the belly of the tomb. In fact, Jesus himself refers to the “Sign of Jonah” as the only “Sign” that he’s willing to give his followers (Matthew 12:38 and Luke 11:30). When we made the Jonah discovery in the tomb adjacent to the “Jesus, son of Joseph” inscription, Christian naysayers argued that there was no Jonah image where we saw one. What we thought was a fish, they said, was actually a vase. As for the “Yonah” inscription, the naysayers argued that it was just a bunch of meaningless scratches. Why the amnesia and why the negativity?
Our critics understood that if the earliest sign of Christianity was found a few meters from the tomb of a man called “Jesus, son of Joseph”, then the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth has been found and identified. You would no longer be able to argue that the “Jesus, son of Joseph” buried in Talpiot is a different Jesus from the one we know from the gospels, if next to him are people buried with the “Sign of Jonah” on their coffins. It’s as simple as that. Nonetheless, the naysayers were successful in clouding the issue. In the public’s mind, the fish morphed into a vase, the Jonah inscription morphed into a bunch of meaningless scratches and the Jesus Family Tomb came to be regarded as the resting place of a different Jesus from the one that we know from history.
But unfortunately for the sleeper agents of Christian theology, there is more in the so-called Talpiot “Patio Tomb” than just an image of Jonah. There is also an amazing inscription. This inscription is the earliest statement of resurrection faith ever found in Jerusalem archaeology. It’s the only statement of faith ever found on an ossuary. And yet the inscription has been totally ignored. Why? As it goes with Jonah, so it goes with the inscription. If this inscription says what it seems to say, then the man buried next door to the inscription is Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, Professor/Father Émile Puech of the École Biblique Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem, one of the world’s most famous epigraphers and a translator of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has weighed in. His reading of the inscription is dramatic support for the Talpiot tomb thesis. That’s not to say that Professor Puech believes that Jesus is buried in Talpiot. He doesn’t. As a priest, he believes that Jesus rose physically to heaven. Having said this, physical ascensions aside, Professor Puech’s reading of the inscription supports the thesis that the inscription speaks of resurrection. And if it speaks of resurrection, then the “Jesus is buried in Talpiot” thesis is dramatically strengthened.
Until now, there’s been a deadlock as to how to read the inscription. In the one camp, you have Professors James Charlesworth of the Princeton Theological Seminary and Professor James Tabor, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. In the other camp, you have Dr. Chris Rollston, presently of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. So here is what they are fighting about:
The Greek inscription consists of 4 lines. Initially, Professor Charlesworth read the first word as “DIOS” i.e., “God”; the second word as “IAIO” i.e., the Tetragrammaton, the divine name of God usually mispronounced as “Jehovah”; the third word as “UPSO” i.e., “to raise up”; and the fourth word as “APO” i.e., the realm of death. But when we got better pictures of the inscription it was clear that the last word was not “APO” but “AGB”, Hebrew for “raise up”. Meaning, the inscription seems to be interlinear: God in Greek/God in Hebrew/“raise up” in Greek/“raise up” in Hebrew, all rendered in Greek letters. Read in this way, this is a powerful statement for belief in the resurrection of the dead. This reading also matches a Hebrew inscription on the side of an ossuary found in 1945 by the legendary Professor Eleazar Sukenik, the scholar who identified the Dead Sea Scrolls. That ossuary, found not far from Talpiot, has four charcoal crosses on its sides and the words “Iesous Aloth” i.e., “Jesus, rise up”, or “Jesus, raise up”. Meaning, we now have three words – UPSO, AGBA and ALOTH – that all say the same thing: “raise up”. But when the new inscription was deciphered, no one cheered. After all, the stakes are high. If the inscription is a statement of resurrection faith, then the man buried 100 meters away must be the Jesus of Christian faith.
The first to break ranks with this reading was Professor Richard Bauckham. Overwrought with the implications of this finding, Professor Bauckham basically changed his mind every other week about what the inscription really says: maybe it’s a series of names, he said, maybe it’s referring to a deceased named “Hagav”, maybe it doesn’t mean anything i.e., it’s just a mumbo-jumbo of letters signifying some kind of magical text. At the moment, no one agrees with Bauckham.
The more serious challenge to the reading by Professors Charlesworth and Tabor came from Dr. Rollston. Rollston focused on line 2 of the inscription. There you have a clear Greek “Iota” i.e., the letter “I” with a footer and header. Rollston says he can see the header, but not the footer. Had Rollston dismissed the header as well as the footer, we would still be dealing with the letter “I”. But Rollston got rid of the bottom line, and not the top. In this way, our “I” becomes his “T”. This may seem academic but the faith of a billion people may be riding on the outcome of the debate. By implication, the Charlesworth and Tabor reading supports the idea that Jesus of Nazareth is buried in Talpiot. Rollston wanted to punch a hole into their reading.
The problem with Rollston’s reading, however, is that the inscription makes absolutely no sense with a “T” at the front of the second line. So what Rollston did, as illustrated below, is create a series of words that break up the four plainly written words on the ossuary. In this creative way, Rollston reads: “through these bones”/“not”/“perish”/“Agabus”. If this is incomprehensible to you, don’t worry, it’s also incomprehensible to Dr. Rollston. So he converted the four words into: “Through these bones I, Agabus, will not perish”, or “Here are bones. I touch them not, O Agabus”, or “Here are (my) bones. I, Agabus, crumble not away”. Click here for Rollston’s paper.
Based on this reading, Rollston concluded that the inscription was not unusual. It is simply an ordinary funerary statement and has nothing to do with resurrection. But, clearly, Rollston’s conclusion is wrong, even if his reading is right. If on his coffin Mr. Agabus says that he will not perish, he’s talking about resurrection and life eternal. More than this, by changing the last word from “raise up” (“Hagba” in Hebrew), to a Greek personal name, “Agabus”, Rollston is unwittingly connecting the inscription to Jesus in even more dramatic fashion than Charlesworth and Tabor. How so?
The name “Agabus”, “Hagav” in Hebrew, is an extremely rare name. It first appears in the Book of Ezra (2:45-46). Ezra lived around 440 BCE. The next time we see this name is almost half a millennia later in the Book of Acts 11:28 and Acts 21:10-11. Here, Agabus is a Christian prophet from Jerusalem who predicts a famine. If Rollston is right in his reading of the name in line 4 of the inscription, then we may very well have the Agabus of the Book of Acts buried next to Jesus and his family. Put differently, if Rollston is adding a rare proper name, associated in the first century with Jesus and no one else, to the names already found in Talpiot, then the statistical probability that we are dealing with Jesus of Nazareth and most of his family has just gone up to near certainty. But the funny thing is that no one actually did the stats. Once Rollston challenged the original reading, scholars were content to say that the original reading was wrong. Rollston’s reading did not support the Talpiot thesis, so everyone could go back to sleep. Paul’s version of Christianity was safe.
With all this in mind, we went to Professor/Father Emile Puech and asked him: What does the inscription say? Does it say; “God, Jehovah, raise up, raise up”, or does it say; “Through these bones I will not perish, signed Agabus”. This is what Professor Puech had to say:
Clearly, Professor Puech does not agree with Dr. Rollston. He agrees with Professors Charlesworth and Tabor, but with a twist. Puech believes that the inscription reads: “God, Jehovah, raise up Agba”. Meaning, this is the most compelling reading yet, because it involves both resurrection and the rare name “Agba” or “Agabus”.
In any event Puech, like Charlesworth and Tabor, reads the second line of the inscription as the Tetragrammaton. Some might say that this is a strange Greek spelling for the name of the God of Israel. There are three simple answers to this objection. First, the spelling is rare, but not unheard of. For example, there is a “magical curse tablet” from Jordan, with the exact same spelling of the name of God. Second, this particular spelling, although in Greek, is consistent with a Hebrew understanding of the word i.e., in Hebrew, there are four letters in God’s name, so the earliest Jewish followers of Jesus would have written four letters for the name of God even in Greek. Finally, to this day, Jews purposely misspell or mispronounce God’s name so as not to “take God’s name in vain”. It’s a form of honour. Jews do not write the Holy name, lest it be desecrated.
So, in the final analysis, even though Rollston’s “Agabus” reading would be fine for the Talpiot thesis, the Charlesworth, Tabor and now Puech reading seems to be the correct one. The inscription seems to be attesting to resurrection faith, it seems to speak to a community of both Greeks and Jews and, by its presence in Talpiot, it lends dramatic support to the idea that the tomb of Jesus and his family has been found.
For a complete discussion of this inscription, click here.