This morning, archaeologists from Bar Ilan University and Tel Aviv University announced the discovery of an ossuary (burial bone box) in Israel, which was recovered from thieves who had robbed a tomb.
The ossuary is unprovenanced – that is, because it was not discovered in a controlled archaeological excavation, its origin and context are unknown. However, further investigation (which I understand to be interrogation of the thieves) has led researchers to the conclusion “that the ossuary came from a burial cave in the area of the Valley of ‘Elah, in the Judean Shephelah.”
The authenticity of the ossuary and inscription were verified by Dr. Boaz Zissu of the Department of the Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology of Bar Ilan University, and Professor Yuval Goren of the Department of Archaeology and Ancient Near Eastern Civilizations of the Tel Aviv University using ESEM/EDS (Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope / Energy-Dispersive Spectrometer) technology. The results of the study are published in Vol. 61 of Israel Exploration Journal (published this week by the Israel Exploration Society).
The ossuary includes the Aramaic inscription, which appears to read:
מרים ברת ישוע בר קיפא כהני מעזיה דבית עמרי
“Miriam, Daughter of Yeshua, Son of Caiaphas,
Priests of Ma’aziah from Beth ‘Imri”
מרים ברת ישוע בר קיפא כהן דמעזיה דבית עמרי
“Miriam, Daughter of Yeshua, Son of Caiaphas,
Priest of Ma’aziah from Beth ‘Imri”
or, as Jack Kilmon suggests
“Miriam, Daughter of Yeshua Bar Qayafa,
Priest of (the course of) Ma’aziah of the House of ‘Omri”
(There is a question about whether the letter following the נ (nun) in כהן (cohen, or priest) is a ד (dalet), or a י (yod) with an unrelated scratch beneath it, or a מ (mem, apparently not in final form) similar to the letter that follows it. This is partially due to the fact that it is not certain whether the נ (nun) is in final form. It is longer, which would argue for a final ן (nun), but it is also curved, which would support the letter being a regular נ (nun). If it is a ד (dalet), then it would serve as a genitive construct indicator for the phrase “priest of Ma’aziah.” If it is a י (yod), then the word כהן (priest) would become the plural construct כהני מעזיה (priests of Ma’aziah), and the נ (nun) before would have to be interpreted as a standard נ (nun) not in final form. If it is a מ (mem), the result would be a pluralized כהנמ מעזיה with the construct implied (“priests [of] (the course of) Ma’aziah”), and the preceding נ (nun) before would have to be interpreted as a standard נ (nun) not in final form. All three options translate roughly the same. There will be other questions about the ש (shin) in the name Yeshua, as well as the diagonal mark to the right of the initial י (yod) in the same name, as well as a few others. I shall leave the formal epigraphical work to my Aramaic colleagues, who to be sure are already working up all possible interpretations and alternatives for this inscription.)
The ossuary is not unprecedented as ossuaries bearing the family name “Qayafa” (which many pronounce as “Caiaphas”) were among a total of twelve previously discovered in Jerusalem in 1990. I stated in an article at Bible and Interpretation:
“Twelve ossuaries were discovered in the so-called “Caiaphas” tomb, including a highly ornate ossuary discovered in situ (Ossuary 6) with two inscribed Aramaic inscriptions reading, יהוסף בר קיפא and יהוסף בר קפא (variant spellings of “Joseph, son of Caiaphas”), and another (Ossuary 3) with just the name קפא (“Caiaphas”) etched in an almost graffito fashion on the ossuary.”
The peripheral significance of this discovery to Christianity is that the High Priest Caiaphas, son-in-law of Annas, is mentioned in the trial and crucifixion of Jesus:
“First they took him to Annas, who was the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest that year.” (John 18:13 NRSV)
Dr. Boaz Zissu of Bar-Ilan University made the following photo available:
The official press release is here. DO read this release for the best information about the ossuary and inscription.
One can see the Aramaic inscription running from right to left along the top of the ossuary.
Regarding the end of the inscription, Arutz Sheva explains:
Ma’azyah was the name of the 24th priestly service shift at the temple. Members of this family signed the convention mentioned in the book of Nehemiah (10,9). The House of Imri refers to the priestly family of Miriam, or to the location she came from.
Steve Caruso at Aramaic Designs has offered up a mashup of the inscription with the letters filled in with black.
Caruso suggests the following:
I have done the same below. The top image is an animated GIF (made with the help of MakeAGif) of my Photoshop fill-in of the inscription. I flash the inscription because it allows the viewer to verify precisely how I filled in the inscription (transparency, transparency, transparency!)
Below is a still photo of the inscription released by Dr. Zissu (top), and my highlight with the letters in black (and uncertain areas in gray, bottom).
Finally, before everyone gets carried away with what this ossuary and inscription mean, let me give the reader a quick review of what it does NOT mean:
- Since the ossuary was recovered from a thief, it is unprovenanced, meaning we cannot be certain of its place of origin or context. As an unprovenanced archaeological object, many academic publications that have agreed not to publish unprovenanced objects (to deter against looting and forgery) will not be publishing this ossuary. That is why you may not read about it in some of the more credible archaeological journals.
- The “investigation” (which I’m assuming was, in part, the interrogation of the thieves) concludes that the ossuary came from the Valley of ‘Elah, in the Shephelah, and NOT from the so-called “Caiaphas family tomb” in the Jerusalem Peace Park. There are some who understand the tomb in Jerusalem to have been the family tomb of Caiaphas, the High Priest mentioned in the Bible (Matt 26:57-68), who is said to have been involved with the trial of Jesus. If the ossuary came from elsewhere, there is a question why this ossuary would not have been found in the Caiaphas family tomb in Jerusalem. One answer may be that the Valley of ‘Elah tomb may be that of ישוע (Yeshua/Joshua/Jesus) Bar Qayafa (whose daughter, Miriam’s, ossuary was recovered), while the Jerusalem tomb may belong to יהוסף (Yehosef/Joseph), his brother.
- That said, the discovery of this ossuary is NOT evidence of the existence of Jesus. The ישוע (Yeshua/Jesus) mentioned in the inscription was NOT the same Jesus who is the central figure of the New Testament. Likewise, the presence of an inscription mentioning a peripheral character mentioned in the Bible does not mean that the entire story is true or historical.
- The inscription is NOT evidence that Jesus was tried by Caiaphas. This inscription only lends support to the understanding that there was, in fact, a priestly family named Qayafa/Caiaphas.
- The inscription is NOT evidence that there was a trial of Jesus. (See above.)
- The inscription is NOT evidence that Jesus died and was raised form the dead. That has nothing to do with this ossuary. Again, this discovery only lends support to the understanding that there was, in fact, a priestly family named Qayafa/Caiaphas.
- The inscription in and of itself is NOT evidence that the Bible is historically reliable, inerrant, infallible, or any other “See, I told you so” statement. The Bible is full of true facts and historical verities. No one questions this. However, the authentication of one claim does NOT mean that all claims are verifiable.
What this discovery DOES tell us is this:
- Someone named Miriam existed. She was apparently the daughter of ישוע (Yeshua/Joshua/Jesus) Bar Qayafa (or the son of Qayafa/Caiaphas).
- If this Miriam is the daughter of Yeshua, and if that Yeshua is the son of Caiaphas, then the discovery gives us new information that the Qayafa/Caiaphas family was from the Ma’aziah order of priests from Beyt ‘Imri.
- Thus, the discovery of this unprovenanced ossuary provides support to the understanding that there was, in fact, a priestly family named Qayafa (Caiaphas) around the time of Jesus.
I look forward to following this story as it develops. I do NOT look forward to what will inevitably be the sensationalization of this story by some whose false or ignorant claims will be used to make money or promote a particular ideology, religious or otherwise.
Filed under: ancient near east, aramaic, archaeology, judaism Tagged: | 'Imri, 'Omri, aramaic, bar-ilan university, boaz zissu, Caiaphas, EDS, Energy-Dispersive Spectrometer, Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope, ESEM, high priest, inscription, Israel Exploration Journal, Jerusalem, Ma'aziah, Ma’azyah, miriam, ossuary, Qayafa, Tel Aviv University, unprovenanced, Valley of 'Elah, yeshua, yuval goren