Skip to: Site Menu | Main content

Yoseh/Yosey – Heavyweight Names at Talpiot*

After all, the effort to show that Yoseh and Yosey were in fact one and the same in Jesus' time fails completely when we take another look in Ilan's יוסף [Yosef] entry. Amazingly, there is no Yosey (יוסי) on any ossuary! Moreover: this particular form does not occur in any pre 70 written sources (Dead Sea Scrolls, NT, ossuaries). Therefore no comparison of Yoseh to Yosey can be made when Jesus' time is under discussion. There is no way to compare a rare form (or any other form) to a form that did not exist at the relevant time.

By Eldad Keynan
Bar Ilan
October 2012

Among the Talpiot Tomb A (henceforth - TT) names, one name draws wide scholarly attention: the Aramaic\Hebrew יוסה (Yoseh), which the synoptic gospels tell us is the name of one of the brothers of Jesus. It is for that reason that Yoseh, a Jewish name of the Second Temple Era, has taken on a pivotal role in the debate over the TT. Is such a central role justified? My answer is yes and this article will summarize my reasons for taking this stance. I am not a statistician; nonetheless I understand the importance of Yoseh through the existing textual and archaeological evidence.

Statistical analysis of the TT Yoseh reveals this name was very rare in the Second Temple Era (henceforth – STE). Yoseh was so rare in the first century as to make it a virtual singularity. If the name was a common name it would simply be one more name in the cluster of names found on the ossuaries within the TT. However, such is not the case, and Yoseh is therefore a sort of litmus test for determining the authenticity of the TT and crucial for determining the significance of the names contained therein.

One of the claims made by TT detractors is that Yoseh is not rare at all and therefore not unusual. Another claim made by these same detractors is that Yoseh and Yosey are actually the same name and the variation in spelling is due merely to the differences between Hebrew and Aramaic, which are close cognates. It is these assertions by the detractors of the TT that I will address.The following article includes material from the lecture I delivered during the proceedings of the Princeton Theological Seminary symposium which focused upon the Talpiot Tomb. The symposium was held in Jerusalem in January of 2008 and the proceedings of the symposium will be published in the near future by Eerdmans Publishing House. I have added new insights and sources regarding this particular subject for this article.

It is a well-known fact--according to Ilan's Lexicon--that the name יוסה (Yoseh) does not occur in the Mishna, while the form יוסי (Yosey) does, and there is only one יוסה (Yoseh) inscribed on an ossuary.1 However the credibility of the Mishna is debated as to historical issues and as a witness to facts and events related to the Second Temple Era; but even if we accept this question of credibility as problematic we cannot on that basis ignore the simple glaring fact that Yoseh doesn't occur in the Mishna; it implies that the form Yoseh was rare not only in the Second Temple Era but also when the Mishna was complied in 200-220 CE.

Moreover, Ilan counted 231 occurrences of the Biblical יוסף\הוסף (Yosef\Yehosef) and the derivatives thereof as one homogeneous group.2 Her method is helpful when discussing the influence of foreign languages on the Jewish contemporary onomasticon, but not when we discuss individual names discovered in a specific site and context. The rarity of the form Yoseh is evident when we look at the later rabbinic sources such as the Tosefta, the Jerusalem Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud. The numbers are, according to the Bar Ilan computerized Responsa Project (=BIRP, Ver. 11) as follows:

Yosey – 11, 289 occurrences
Yoseh – 1209 occurrences (this form doesn't occur in the B. Talmud)
When we look at the Henkind Talmud Text Databank (= HTTD), the numbers are astonishing:
Yosey - 20,312
Yoseh – 20 (!)

Here it must be stated that the HTTD project includes later versions and manuscripts, all of them of the Babylonian Talmud only and no Palestinian sources. Both projects include multiple occurrences of the same name when related to certain sages. However, the numbers demonstrate that throughout the entire corpus of rabbinic literature Yosey is the preferred form of all the derivatives of the Biblical names Yosef\Yehosef. Another fact regarding these numbers is that the earlier the rabbinic sources, the less the Yoseh form occurs.

Some scholars believe that both of these forms are actually one and the same name,3 and argue on that basis that the numbers make no difference. This argument might have been plausible if the chronological effect was not so clear and compelling. It is highly probable that not until the mid third century CE that both spellings became forms by which Jews named Yosey or Yosef were addressed in day-to-day life. In the time of Jesus Yoseh was virtually nonexistent. People did not address one another by this form according to existing evidence which includes the New Testament, the Mishna, and the ossuaries. Moreover, even Prof. Bauckham (a detractor of the TT ) stated: "Ilan mentions . . . that there are ten cases of Yose (final he) on Palestinian synagogue inscriptions (post-200 CE). They would also have to be part of the evidence for or against a chronological difference in the spelling of the name".4 We agree with Bauckham and judge this as epigraphic evidence that Yoseh was a rare name in the first century.

Bauckham's comment raises yet another question: what sorts of names are included in synagogue inscriptions? The answer is - probably formal birth names. Therefore we may safely conclude that those Jews were named Yoseh upon their circumcision. In most cases Jewish names in funerary inscriptions are formal birth names. This fact is supported by rabbinic rules which address the subject several times. The quotation below is material regarding Levirate marriage. The specific situation is one in which a Jewish male has died and left behind no sons; his younger brother should marry the widow.

מדרש תנאים לדברים פרק כה, ו':
". . .יקום על שם אחיו לנחלה אתה אומר לנחלה או אינו אלא שמו יוסף קורין אותו יוסף יוחנן קורין אותו יוחנן"

Trans. Midrash Tanaim to Deuteronomy 25:6:
". . . will be after his (dead) brother's name for (the purpose of) property; do you say "for the purpose of property" or only (to preserve) his name? If the name (of the deceased) is Yosef, (the son the younger brother and the former widow will have first) will be named Yosef, if it was Yokanan, (the son's name) will be Yokhanan." This rule occurs also in the Babylonian Talmud Yebamot 24a with the same names. One of the parallels, Sifrey to Deuteronomy, Ki Tetze, 289 (6), is both interesting and relevant:

ספרי דברים פרשת כי תצא פיסקא רפט (ו):
"והיה הבכור אשר תלד, יכול אם היה שמו יוסי יקרא שמו יוסי היה שמו יוחנן יקרא שמו יוחנן תלמוד לומר יקום על שם אחיו מכל מקום"

Trans.: "And the first that she will give birth to, if the (deceased's name) was Yosey, the (child) will be named Yosey, if Yokhanan, (the child) will be named Yokhanan; our teaching states: after his brother's name anyway."

Whether it was Yosef or Yosey, or Yokhanan, funerary circumstances require formal birth names. This rule has two purposes: 1) preserve the deceased's name; 2) keep family property under family control and ownership. Both purposes cannot be achieved unless a formal birth name is used. Land ownership is a necessary precondition of tomb ownership. The Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) takes this as obvious as Isaiah 22:16 makes clear:

ישעיהו כב, טז:
"מַה לְּךָ פֹה וּמִי לְךָ פֹה כִּי חָצַבְתָּ לְּךָ פֹּה קָבֶר ". . .

Trans.: "What do you have here and whom do you have here, that you carved yourself a tomb here?" In other words "does this plot of land belong to you? Do you have any relative here thereby giving you the right to locate your tomb here"?

How did the Rabbis understand this? Vayikra Rabah (Margolis Ed.) to Leviticus, 5:5:

ויקרא רבה פרשת ויקרא פרשה ה, ה:
"א"ר אלעזר צריך אדם שיהיה לו מסמר או יתד קבוע בבית הקברות כדי שיזכה ויקבור באותו מקום"

Trans.: "Said R. Elazar: a man ought to have a nail or a stack affixed in the graveyard so as to be entitled to be buried in the same place." "The graveyard?" What do tombs have to do with graveyards? This is nothing more than an example of two terms being used interchangeably. Every Jew has a right to be buried in a public cemetery. He does not need any nail or stack affixed in a public cemetery to be entitled to be buried in such a cemetery. The Mishna Sanhedrin 6:5-6 shows how intermingled are the Hebrew terms for grave and tomb. In rabbinic literature tombs are termed "graves" many times. Even the Biblical question by the prophet Isaiah implies a private tomb, not a public cemetery (tombs ownership doesn't need to be dealt with here: that tombs were privately owned is well known.)

Now the statement made above, that tombs designated land ownership, is much more understandable. Thus, in terms of declaring ownership, formal birth names were crucial and irreplaceable. This is not to say that inscribing nicknames was forbidden in a funerary context; only that the relatives could inscribe nicknames in this context if they wished to do so, but they were obliged to also inscribe the formal birth name of the deceased. Rahmani's catalogue supports this statement compellingly. Rahmani counted and described a total of 895 ossuaries; 235 of them are inscribed in legible inscriptions in Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek and a few in Latin.5 Some of the ossuaries have names inscribed that might be considered nicknames. The first is Rahmani No. 44 and the name is Grida (גרידא). The meaning of Grida is "the Dour". In section two of this entry Rahmani cites Sukenik, who considered Grida "an unspecified name or nickname" then adds: "it is most likely a nickname". We may accept this conclusion and thus Grida is a nickname.

Rahmani's No. 62 reads "the amputated" (הגדם). Below that definition Rahmani states "Nicknames of the period were often derogatory, though some eventually became family names". In spite of this statement we consider "the amputated" to be a nickname. Rahmani's No. 80 possibly means "the captive physician" (תרפט הנשבה). However, accepting this combination as a nickname is problematic. Yet there is also no doubt it's not a formal birth name thus we include it in the group of nicknames.

The numbers are striking: only three out of two hundred thirty five names are not formal birth names. That is barely more than a mere 1%. Other ossuaries have the combination of a formal birth name and a nickname. Rahmani's No. 35 is Yehuda Shapira which means "Yehuda the handsome". No. 117 reads יהודה בן אלמא = Yehuda son of Ilma. Whatever Ilma means, the deceased's formal birth name is Yehuda (No. 117 will be dealt with below). Number 421 is Gaius the small (or the dwarf). No. 498 reads Julia Grasshopper. No. 565 has only Niger which is a Roman formal name.6 These examples stress my point: nicknames are allowed, provided they come after, or with, the formal birth name.

Nos. 117, 288, 579, and 821 represent another sort of combination. Number 117 reads as follows: "Yehuda son of Illma"; possibly "Yehuda son of the mute" or even "Yehuda son of the strong". Number 288 is "Eliezer son of Shekhania" (אליעזר בר שכניה). Shekhania was the name of a priestly line, thus Eliezer might have been of high social status. Yet Shekhania might also mean "the beetle browed". Number 579 is "Khanania Zahma (or Zahima)" or "Khanania the son of Zahima". Zahima (or Zahma) means "the fat". So Eliezer was a fat man, or perhaps his father was a fat man. The Aramaic inscription of Number 821 reads מרים אתת העגל. In English it is "Maryam the wife of the calf". All these examples show a combination of the decedent's name with a nickname that might be ascribed to the decedent, or the decedent's father or husband. What they all have in common is the inclusion of the decedent's formal birth name with a nickname or what might be considered a nickname. This group demonstrates the importance of formal birth names in Jewish funerary inscriptions.

It is also claimed by TT detractors that Yoseh and Yosey are the same name. Thus, according to them, Yoseh is in fact Yosey. An effort was made to prove this argument by referring to the Jastrow Aramaic-English dictionary, the יוסי entry.7 It was claimed that the Hebrew/Aramaic letter ה (he) in יוסה is a long e, just like the Hebrew/Aramaic י (yod) on the left end of יוסי is a long י. If that were true then both would be pronounced "ei" like "gate," and thus both would literally be the same name. However, this is not the case. Jastrow’s entry יוסי reads יוסה - Yosa. This entry simply doesn't have the form Yoseh at all. True, the י (yod) on the left end of the form יוסי is a long י, thus the יוסי must be pronounced Yosey. But all these have nothing to do with יוסה, which is a different form. So different – and rare, apparently – that Jastrow ignored it although it occurs in the Jerusalem Talmud which Jastrow included as well. After all, Yosey might have "replaced" Yoseh in later rabbinic written sources (though not in the Babylonian Talmud). For example see Jerusalem Talmud Megila, 2:5, 73b:

ירושלמי מגילה, פ"ב ה"ה, עג ע"ב:
. . ."דרב מתנה אמר דרבי יוסי היא הדא אמרה היא שמע היא שאר כל המצות ומה טעמא דר' יוסה"?

Translation: ". . .Rav Matanah said: R. Yosey said so, thus we learn that it is to be applied to Shema commandment and all the other commandments; why did R. Yoseh say so? . . ."

ירושלמי תענית, פ"ד ה"ד, סח ע"ב:
. . ." אמר רבי אחא ךרבי יוסה היא ךרבי יוסי אמר ". . .

Jerusalem Talmud, Ta'anit. 4;4, 68b: ". . . said R. Akha this (tradition) is R. Yoseh's since R. Yosey said . . ."

This phenomenon occurred with other sages' names as well. It seems that some Jews had polymorphous names. Thus some Jews called a certain Jew "Yoseh," while others called the same Jew "Yosey." This phenomenon is reflected in the examples above. Scribes might have made such mistakes more than once. That is, in day-to-day life, through direct contact with each other, a few derivatives of the same name, relating to the same person, could have been used. But this has nothing to do with the formal birth names of these Jews, and certainly not in a funerary context, nor in other formal contexts.

Moreover, Hebrew was the rarest spoken language among STE (and much later) Palestinian Jews. Therefore the different spelling יוסה - יוסי doesn't necessarily represent two languages, Aramaic and Hebrew. Naturally, both Yosey and Yoseh were used by native Aramaic speaking Palestinian Jews; therefore both were Aramaic forms. Yet one of them had a י (yod), a long vowel in this case, on its left end. Thus it was the long form Yosey which happened to be the common form, while the other had only ה (he), which was not a vowel. Thus it was the short form Yoseh. The latter happened to be the rarest form within the generic group of the Biblical Yosef\Yehosef and one of the rarest names among STE Palestinian Jews in general. We may also ask: if Yosey and Yoseh were really one and the same name, wouldn't we expect to see both in relatively equal numbers of occurrences on ossuaries and in the written records? Of course we would but the finds don't meet our expectations.

However, it is argued, Yoseh might well be a Hebrew form. Excavators of the smaller synagogue in Bar'am in Upper Galilee have discovered an inscription on a lintel and the name on it was יוסה הלוי בן לוי (=Yoseh the Levite son of Levite).8 The inscription is entirely Hebrew; so one may reasonably assume that a name included in a Hebrew inscription is probably a Hebrew name, not an Aramaic name. Might this suggestion be supported by Bauckham's statement? "The spelling with final he is Aramaic since in Aramaic the final he as well as final yod can stand for the long e sound, whereas the spelling with the yod is Hebrew since in Hebrew the final he would indicate an a sound. Only yod can stand for the long e spelling. Of course, we would expect the rabbis to use the Hebrew spelling".9 This assertion stands in complete contradiction to the actual evidence in our possession. Not only is the Bar'am inscription (mentioned above) entirely in Hebrew and reads יוסה (Yoseh); the rabbis preferred the form Bauckham defines as Hebrew, namely, Yosey – although they were native Aramaic speakers. Moreover even the Babylonian rabbis, native Aramaic speakers who lived in an Aramaic milieu, preferred the so-called Hebrew form. It seems that our expectations of the rabbis regarding their preferences of spelling this or that name simply failed. The rabbis, by their preference of the Yosey form define the rarity of the Yoseh form. In contrast to Yosey, Yoseh was rare indeed in the Jewish-Palestinian onomasticon in the relevant periods and a complete absentee in the Babylonian Jewry at the same times.

After all, the effort to show that Yoseh and Yosey were in fact one and the same in Jesus' time fails completely when we take another look in Ilan's יוסף entry. Amazingly, there is no Yosey (יוסי) on any ossuary! Moreover: this particular form does not occur in any pre 70 written sources (Dead Sea Scrolls, NT, ossuaries). Therefore no comparison of Yoseh to Yosey can be made when Jesus' time is under discussion. There is no way to compare a rare form (or any other form) to a form that did not exist at the relevant time.

This final blow still leaves us with another possibility; that Yosef and Yehosef (יוסף, יהוסף respectively) are the same name. According to Ilan, we have two יוסף and twenty seven יהוסף on ossuaries. This form occurs in the Mishna 11 times, in the Tosefta 42, and in the Jerusalem Talmud 110 times. The intriguing numbers concern the form יהוסף: it does not occur in the Mishna and Tosefta, and only once in the Jerusalem Talmud. This form occurs only once in the Hebrew Bible, Psalms 81:6. A later Midrash explains:

שכל טוב (בובר) בראשית פרק נ':
"אותו הלילה בא גבריאל והוסיף לו אות אחד משמו של הקב"ה וקראו יהוסף"

Sechel Tov (Buber Ed.) Genesis 50:5

"That night (the angel) Gabriel came and added to him a letter from God's name and called him Yehosef".

If we accept this mystical explanation, then the letter from God's name was he (ה) and the angelic act meant to exalt Yosef. The same intention might explain another phenomenon: that the form יהוסף is so rare in the written records, but it's the prevailing form on ossuaries, in terms of the Biblical יוסף and all its derivatives. Possibly, many Jewish families might have preferred the form Yehosef to be inscribed when a family member named Yosef died, in order to exalt and honor the decedent. In other words: in Jesus' times, Jews whose formal birth name was Yosef could have an additional ה in their name after they died. That said, we may assume that under certain conditions, יוסף and יהוסף might be considered the same name. However, this suggestion has nothing to do with the forms Yosey and Yoseh, and their interrelations.

One last point: since only 235 ossuaries are inscribed with clear names, the idea that tombs signified land and tomb ownership seems to lose some validity. Still, land ownership was undoubtedly a precondition for tomb ownership. One should bear in mind the fact that most of the 235 names are male names, and familial possession was transferred by family males. Thus a question remains open: why did many Jewish families give up their relatives' names on their ossuaries?

Conclusions: ancient Jews used names and their forms freely in daily speech. This leads us to another notion: we cannot confidently state that we know what vocalization those Jews employed when they addressed each other. However, we do know that when Jewish contemporary funerary (and honorary) inscriptions are under discussion, formal birth names were a must. We also know that Yoseh was a rare form, one in a group of different forms of the Biblical Yosef\Yehosef, and a part in both Aramaic and Hebrew inscriptions.


* I wish to thank my highly educated friend Rev. Nathaniel J. Merritt of West Jordan, Utah, USA, for the useful and inspiring comments that improved this article.

1 Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish names in late Antiquity,
Tubingen (2002): p. 154.

2 Ibid., the entire entry יוסף.

5 L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, Jerusalem 1994; I have excluded marks that resemble letters but have no meaning when combined.

6 M. Bunson, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, revised edition, USA 2002, p. 82, 422.

7 M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, New York 1903, p. 570.