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Updates on the Ossuary of Ya'acob bar Yosef and the Temple Tablet

©Rochelle I. Altman
May 2003

    *No part of this article may be reproduced in any format, electronic, print, or otherwise, without the expressed written permission of the author. Expressed written permission has been granted to the on-line journal, Bible and Interpretation. The article will be reproduced in its entirety, with expressed permission, in an upcoming book.


    This article was completed in May 2003. As it is unethical to discuss anything that is sub judice in a public forum, publication had to wait until the release of the reports on the two artifacts issued on Wednesday, June 18, 2003 by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

    As a result of the release of these two reports by the IAA, one item has been added and cited from a response as of Wednesday, June 18, 2003, and one comment has been made on the IAA reports. Otherwise, the article is as written one month ago.

    Please note that the ability to track the model used for a graph is a basic requirement in the professional training of a script designer, but not of epigraphers or paleographers. Nor does this imply anything negative about these fields; this is merely notice that, while there is a large area of overlap between the fields, the training of an epigrapher or paleographer does not cover exactly the same areas as that of a script designer.

    Finally, the IAA reports do not take into account some very important points:

  1. The graphs for the first part are not in Rahmani and do not appear as written anywhere else.
  2. The "James bond" covers both sides of the inscription, but this does not mean that both sides were written at the same time. It merely means that the forgers coated both sides to make them appear to have been written at the same time and then carved the second part and went over the entire inscription again.
  3. The heavier fake patina over the second part confirms that the second part is a very modern addition to an existing inscription.
  4. The third point also explains why the first part is correctly written in sound bites and why the second part is written in the completely wrong continuous stream.



    The majority of scholars agree that the inscription on the ossuary of Ya'acob bar Yosef is in two parts. Indeed, the meeting at the Toronto conference in November 2002 turned into a discussion of when and why the second part, "his brother of Yeshua," had been added.1 While still an open question at that date, nonetheless, it had become clear that “why” would depend rather strongly on “when.”

    “When” has no effect on any other conclusions -- the dialect of the second part is still Galilean Palestinian Aramaic of the second century CE and later;2 there are still two hands, two different fonts, two different levels of execution, two different carvers, and two different social strata.3 “When,” however, has been a bothersome point all along. The font on the first part is a coherent design, a member of a font family of formal bookhands usually reserved for editions of the Torah (Pentateuch). (Hence, it was extremely pretentious to use on an ossuary.)

    The font used on the second part is cursive, a mixture of business fonts. The technical term for such a mixture is a conglomerate font, that is, the graphs belong to different script designs.4 As prior to the second quarter of the 20th century CE, nobody,5 literate or not, would conflate five different script designs in a single phrase; there are only two reasons why a conglomerate would appear on this inscription.

  1. The second part is relatively old and was added by someone who was unfamiliar with the correct scripts in use several hundred years earlier. If early, the person or persons used whatever models were available on other nearby ossuaries.
  2. The second part is very modern indeed. If modern, it had to have been done by someone who assumed that the script merely had to be from the correct time period and the use of a conglomerate made no difference.6 A conglomerate font is a definitive mark of a forgery. Without additional information, the amateur execution suggested the fourth century (when relic collecting got under way) and someone unfamiliar with either dialects of Western Aramaic or the correct scripts and fonts for the time frame of the original. As we shall see shortly, the additional information has been supplied. Because the second part of the inscription is a conglomerate, if modern, this precludes the use of one of the books available today that contain full sets of the different scripts. The second part was executed by someone copying from other another source.

    One item has kept appearing among the very small, yet media-powerful, pro-authenticity faction.7 This was a constant reference to ossuary number 570 in L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, as evidence that the form “achuid” for "brother of" was in "common use."8 Rahmani 570 dates to the second century CE. The inscription on Rahmani 570 was written by a professional scribe in a chancery font that is chock full of abbreviations. A very careful re-examination of every ossuary in Rahmani seemed to be in order.

    The assumption that the graphs were copied from ossuaries and the assumption that someone unfamiliar with the dialects of Aramaic have turned out to be factual, not hypothetical.9 The assumption that the forger assumed that the use of a conglomerate did not matter has also become fact. To this, we should add that the forger's Greek is very weak, if he (or they) knows Greek at all.

    We can now state the earliest possible date for this addition.10 The graphs are from ossuaries, but not in some cave where the box was found. Just as Rahmani 570 was definitely copied as the model for "his brother of,"11 the graphs used to write "his brother of Jesus" are copied from ossuaries, all right, ossuaries in Rahmani's book.

    Perhaps we should take a moment to note that one of the major advances in the examination of documents has been the computer and its ability to digitize photographs. The fact that scribes used different pressure when writing has long been known. With a digitized scan, one can separate out the different hands by viewing the document under different filters. In the case of the ossuary inscriptions, the first part (Ya'akob bar Yosef) remains stable at all percentages of filtration. The second part (achui d Yeshua) keeps shifting to the extent that some of the graphs disappear entirely.

    Digitization has one other enormous advantage when viewing inscriptions, particularly those that are obscured by encrustations. If one inverts the digital photograph, one can "see through" the encrustations to what is really there. To avoid the subjective interpretation of an artist's eye, in the examples below, the illustrations are traced directly from the inverted photograph and show the letter graphs exactly as they are in the second inscription on the ossuary. The inverted photograph enables a true comparison of the graphs on the ossuary with the inscriptions in Rahmani's catalogue.

    The Rahmani Catalogue contains 895 ossuaries of which 233 have inscriptions. Of these 233 with inscriptions, 143 are in square script (Jewish scripts), 73 in Greek, 14 Greek-Aramaic or Greek-Hebrew bilinguals, 2 in Latin, and 1 in Palmyrene script. On many of the boxes, inscriptions were written by more than one hand.

    The forger(s) made five very serious mistakes:

  1. The forger firmly believes the common error that scripts develop. Scripts do not develop: methods develop; scripts mutate. There must be an existing class model for scripts to mutate from.
  2. In spite of assertions by Andre Lemaire, including presumptive examples,12 no inscription on any ossuary in Rahmani is written in a mixture of fonts in one word: not one. Even the inscriptions written by semi-literates, no matter how poorly executed, are in one font design. All fourteen Greek-Aramaic and Greek-Hebrew bilingual inscriptions are written in one font per language.
  3. The forger used as a model for one of the graphs an inscription on an ossuary from Jericho. The scripts and fonts in use at Jericho are not the same designs as those used at Jerusalem.13
  4. The forger did not bother to read the inscriptions themselves; he
    read only the translations into English and the transliterations into modern Hebrew square script.
  5. In his delusion that one can use any graphs from any ossuary, he did not realize that the cursive script designs used on ossuaries in the Jerusalem area between ca. 5 and 70 CE have some decidedly peculiar features. A script is bound to cultural identity and reflects events and changes of power structure within any given period. The design family popular during this period of roughly 65 years is unusual and time-specific.14

    The “shin” the forger used on the ossuary was not used on ossuaries from Jerusalem in the relevant time period.


    This is a most peculiar shin for a cursive design: its model is an uncommon form of square script monumental. This shin consists of a straight minim (upright stroke) with two oblique strokes to the right of the upright. The upright descends below the bottom limit of the writing zone. (Fig. 1)

Figure 1: The angular shins

    There are slight variations (e.g., a slight leftwards tilt, reflected, tailed, truncated, etc.) dependent upon the individual who wrote the inscription on a given ossuary, but the minim is always straight and so are the oblique lines. Of the inscriptions containing a shin, this shin can be seen on, among others, Rahmani 9, 12, 13, 16, 18, 23, 24, 26, 66, 71, 86, 217, 288, 293, 342, 270, 430, 455, 559, 582, 610, 651, 655, 700, 702, 716, and 730.

    The reflected form can be seen, for instance, on Rahmani 38, 610, and 682. The complete script design that goes with this “shin” is very angular. A slightly rounded mutation of this design is also used during the period, but it does not appear to be a Jerusalem script. In this design, the “shin” still has a straight minim and oblique lines but incorporates curves at the ends of the obliques as, for example, on Rahmani 801, an ossuary from Jericho. These "tip" curves are incorporated into the rest of the graphs in this script design. Hand 4 (of 6) on Rahmani 217 uses this probable Jericho shin; the other five use the Jerusalem shin. (Fig.2)

Figure 2: Top: Jerusalem shins; Bottom: Jericho shins

    Rahmani 520, found on Mount Scopus, is an excellent example of the Jericho script design written by an educated person -- which tends to indicate that the family either was from Jericho; or the family lived in Jericho, but Ashuni, son of Shim'on, was from Jerusalem and was brought home to the family cave tomb in Jerusalem from Jericho; or the family was from Jerusalem but now lived in Jericho. [Number 520 is one of the boxes Lemaire claimed to be in a "mixture" of fonts; it is not. The inscription is written by two hands using the same Jericho font; the first hand was fully literate; the second hand was still learning to write (age 13??) and did not as yet have full control.]

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