Richard Bauckham on the Talpiot Ossuary Inscription

In a detailed analysis of both the text and the surrounding artistic border on the Talpioth ossuary, Dr. Bauckham makes a fascinating case for this inscription as unique, artistically and poetically complex, and (if I understand correctly) consistent with some strands of Hellenized late Second-Temple Judaism.

The article is fairly dense and technical at times, but if I understand correctly, he argues that:

– the artistic design on the ossuary was clearly intended for a text inscription in the center: the four lines of text fit there perfectly

– the central design resembles the iconography of Bar Kochba coins, which (arguably) depict the Ark of the Covenant in an idealized image of the Temple

– the text includes both Greek and somewhat unusually-transliterated Hebrew, that pays as much attention to how the Greek letters visually resemble the corresponding Hebrew letters, as to similarities in sound.

– the second line is a transliteration of the Tetragrammaton; its initial letter is a capital iota that is unusually but not uniquely decorated with serifs. (This would serve as a visual reminder not to pronounce the Name.)

– the first word (dios) may be the genitive of Zeus, the first two words then corresponding to an identification of Zeus Olympios with the God of Israel: “pagan writers did make such identifications (Hengel 1973:262-264) and some Jewish writers in the western diaspora were prepared to allow that pagans worshipped the one true God under the name of Zeus. . . . As far as I know, our inscription is the only extant example of an identification of YHWH with Zeus in a Palestinian Jewish context after the Maccabean period.” Note that sacred items were often marked with the name of the god to whom they were dedicated with this formula, and if the central design is intended to be the Ark of the Covenant, it would make sense to mark it with the Name.

– or, it could be an adjective meaning divine or glorious, which would be consistent with biblical praises of God

– the third line seems to be the verb “to exalt” in the first person singular: I exalt

– the fourth line is “plainly not a Greek word”, but could be a transliterated form of the Hebrew imperative verb “Raise up”.

The writer could be employing a clever play on the meaning of the two verbs, thus:
‘I exalt’ (you), (i.e. I praise you, IAIO)
‘Exalt’ (me)! (i.e. I pray you, IAIO, to raise me up from death).
On this reading the writer proposes a kind of quid pro quo: I am exalting you, so you should exalt me.

– or, it could be a transliterated form of the Hebrew name Hagab. Note that ossuary inscriptions do usually include the name of the deceased.

– In this reading, the structure of the inscription is interestingly symmetric:
Greek name of God
Transliterated Hebrew name of God
Greek verb of praise
Transliterated Hebrew name of deceased

The two ‘divine’ lines each have four letters, corresponding to the four letters of the Hebrew divine Name, while the two ‘human’ lines each have three letters, corresponding not only to the three letters of the Hebrew human name Hagab, but also to the three letters of the Hebrew word for ‘human’: אדם. This artful composition is quite unlike the carelessly scribbled notes that most ossuary inscriptions are, and corresponds to the remarkable difference in content between this and most other ossuary inscriptions.

I propose the translation:
Belonging to Zeus IAIO.
I, Hagab, exalt (him/you).

Isn’t that neat??

What strikes me is that both proposed interpretations of the two lines in question (line 1: Zeus, or glorious? line 4: raise up, or Hagab?) result in a very artistic composition, which really makes it look to me like the deliberate work of a talented bilingual poet. Not that I have the linguistic expertise to make such a judgment! But I tend to believe that equally-plausible, equally-artistic readings are likely to be equally intended by the author.

(Thanks to Larry Hurtado’s blog for the pointer to the article.)

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2 Responses to Richard Bauckham on the Talpiot Ossuary Inscription

  1. Thank you for an accurate summary of my article. I have wondered whether both my suggestions about line 4 are correct. The writer would be making a really clever play on the name Hagab. This is tempting!

  2. Thanks for stopping by! and for the confirmation that I summarized your article correctly.

    About the possible wordplay in line 4: it occurs to me that somebody with a name that either meant, or sounded like, “rise up”, might very well have grown up with wordplay like that. I can just imagine it in the morning, when it’s time to get out of bed, having parents or sibs calling Time to hop, grasshopper! or Rise up, Riser!

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