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An Ancient Phonebook

Ossuary Inscriptions

When it comes to the ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb, also called the “Tomb of Ten Ossuaries,” there is absolutely no academic dispute concerning the provenance of any of the inscriptions. Nor is there any question as to how they should be read.

This is because they were found by card-carrying archaeologists in situ—that is, in an undisturbed tomb where they had sat for two thousand uninterrupted years. Josef Gat, Amos Kloner, and Shimon Gibson documented the tomb, its layout, features, and contents under the auspices of what is now called the Israel Antiquities Authority. Yes, a bulldozer had uncovered the tomb. But the construction workers had quickly handed over responsibility to the men with the tiny brushes, picks, and pencils to perform their “salvage” archaeology.

The truth is, in the thriving Jerusalem antiquities market, forgeries are common. Without provenance, artifacts are usually assumed to be forgeries. The fact that most finds are made not by archaeologists but by goat herders, construction workers, and other “accidental” archaeologists makes establishing provenance especially difficult most of the time. Reportedly more than 90 percent of Israeli antiques have been looted from thousands of sites across the country. The Talpiot Tomb is an exception: because the construction foreman called the IAA the moment the bulldozer unearthed it, the find was “good,” the ossuaries were “good.”

Of the ten ossuaries, inscriptions were recorded as occurring on six, a high ratio considering that only 20% of ossuaries bear such inscriptions. The names scratched into the sides of those six ossuaries were suggestive:

Ossuary 80/500: Mariamene e Mara” – “Mariamne, also called Master” Ossuary 80/501: Yehuda bar Yeshua” – “Judah, son of Jesus” Ossuary 80/502: "Matia” – “Matthew” Ossuary 80/503 "Yeshua bar Yosef” – “Jesus, Son of Joseph” Ossuary 80/504: "Yose” or “Yosa” – a nickname for “Joseph” Ossuary 80/505: "Maria” – a Latinized version of the Hebrew “Miriam.”

Ossuaries 80/506-508 were plain, with no inscriptions. Ossuary 80/509 disappeared before it could be checked for inscriptions and decorations.

At the very least, this cluster of New Testament names should have set off alarm bells. But the archaeologists, no matter what misgivings they may have had at the time, decided this tomb couldn’t be the Jesus family tomb. The find was kept quiet. The cluster dismissed.


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