Updated: April 9, 2012
The Garden tomb contained 10 ossuaries, six of which contained identifying inscriptions. The official rendering by the
IAA of these six inscriptions is as shown in the “Ossuaries” section of the Background Guide (click here).
The rendering of these inscriptions is critically important, because supporters of the proposition see in these renderings
several key names associated with the family of the biblical Jesus. On the other hand, detractors point to several
possible incorrect readings for these names or they state that these names have been incorrectly associated with a
person in the family of Jesus. If these names are incorrect, they argue then there is nothing special about the Talpiot
One of the more difficult areas for the non-specialist to make an independent judgment has to do with the rendering of
the names from these ossuaries. The first thing that we must recognize is that the names we are accustomed to using
were originally recorded in Hebrew/Aramaic. However they came down to us through English translations of documents
written in Greek. So we need to recognize that names written on these ossuaries would have been passed down to us
through a Greek - Hellenizing filter.
To this we need to add the fact that the native language of Jesus was Aramaic, while Hebrew was the official language
in the area of Jerusalem. This confuses things because during the time of Jesus, Aramaic and Hebrew used very similar
alphabets, but neither of these alphabets were written uniformly across various contexts, regions and different time
When you add in some legibility problems it is easy to understand why the readings for some of the names on these
ossuaries are hotly debated. Even when there is agreement on the reading of a name there can still be disagreement
as to which historical person is actually being named.
Following are the readings and name associations that have received the most vocal challenges.
1. Jesus, son of Joseph/Yeshua bar Yosef
2. Mariamene e Mara
Jesus, son of Joseph/Yeshua bar Yosef
The reader can (click here) to see a reproduction of this inscription. Even to the casual eye it is apparent that it was
written in a messy, informal manner and is therefore subject to conflicting readings.
Critics argue that this inscription is either unreadable or that it has been misread. For example, Pfann has suggested
that it could be Hunan instead of Yeshua; presumably - Het Nun Nun Sofeet - as opposed to - Yod Shin Vav Ayin. It is
argued that if we can’t be certain that there is a Yeshua in the tomb, then we should have no further interest in the
Proponents counter that although the inscription is difficult to read, it has been rendered as Yeshua by several reliable
experts. They further make the argument that the presence of another ossuary (i.e Yehuda bar Yeshua) bearing the
name Yeshua adds substantial credence to the official reading.
Editorial Position: This remains an open question, but given the presence of another Yeshua reference in the tomb, it
would seem that the official reading is the most likely.
Mariamene e Mara (or Mariamene [also known as] Mara)
This rendering is important because proponents of the proposition have associated this name with Mary Magdalene and
further asserted that it shows that Mary Magdalene was the wife of Jesus and the mother of Judah, son of Jesus. As a
first step in this argument they argue that this rendering can be taken further to be read as Mariamene [also know as]
the Master. Another line of argument will take up the idea that this name should be associated with Mary Magdaline in
more detail. This section will deal only with the debate over the rendering of the inscription.
The official IAA rendering of the inscription has been challenged on the grounds that it has simply been misread.
Pfann has provided a detailed explanation for why this inscription should be read as denoting the names of two distinct
persons – Mariame and Mara. Recall that it was not uncommon for the bones of more than one person to be found in a
The critics would then argue that if Mary Magdalene is not in the tomb, then a great deal of the support for this being
the family tomb of Jesus is gone.
Proponents of the tomb counter that even if this reads as Mariame and Mara, these names may in fact refer to the
sisters of Bethany know to us in English as Mary and Martha. In fact, it could be that Mary of Bethany and Mary
Magdalene are one in the same person. In any event this would still provide a very strong link to the life of the biblical
Editorial Position: Expert opinion is divided, but seems to favor the official reading. Another line of argument will take
up the possibility that this ossuary should be associated with Mary Magdalene or the sisters Mary and Martha of
The debate surrounding this inscription has more to do with the association of this inscription with a brother of Jesus
than it does with the rendering of the name. Critics dispute this association for two reasons.
First, they assert that there is no certainty that the second oldest of the brothers of Joseph would be identified as
Yoseh. It is more likely that he would be referred to as Yosef.
Second, they argue that it is more likely that this Joseph is actually the same Joseph referenced as the father in the
Jesus, son of Joseph/Yeshua bar Yosef osssuary.
The proponents state that there are key references to this brother in the New Testament that make it clear that he
would be referred to as Yoseh.
This all matters because Yosef , and its variants, is a common name whereas Yoseh is a rare name. Finding a rare
name associated with the family of Jesus in the Talpiot tomb is much stronger evidence than would be provided by a
Editorial Position: Yoseh could be an appropriate name for a brother of Jesus, but this also could refer to the Yosef in
the “Yeshua bar Yosef” inscription.
Again the issue here is not about the reading but with the association of this name with the mother of Jesus. One of the
difficulties in reading the New Testament, especially for the non-specialist, is to keep track of the large number of
references to women who bear some variation of the name Mariam or Mary. While the authors of the New Testament
are on occasion clear about who they mean by these various Mariams, in many other cases we only get tantalizing clues.
This contributes to the controversy regarding what name one would expect to find on an ossuary bearing the bones of
the mother of Jesus. Proponents site New Testament references which lead to the choice of “Maria”, while critics point
to passages that lead to some other variation of “Mariam”.
Editorial Position: While “Maria” is a real possibility, it is clear other names could also have been appropriate.
Summary Editorial Position
The case is not closed with regard to any of these names. It seems likely that the debate over these names will remain
in its current unresolved state until further information regarding other aspects of the Talpiot Tomb are resolved,
perhaps shedding light on these names.
See in particular bibliographic references 17 – 21.
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