Rant: Talpiyot/Patio Tomb Inscription Redux Redux ad Nauseam

I’ve got a number of rants  percolating inside of me and need to get one out before I damage myself.

As regular readers of rogueclassicism might be aware, Richard Bauckham has recently made another foray into trying to translate that inscription on an ossuary in Talpiyot Tomb B, a.k.a. the Patio Tomb. In case you haven’t seen it, it’s available via Mark Goodacre’s NTblog:

… in which he proposes the inscription consists of two names; this contrasts greatly with what he originally proposed on the ASOR blog back in March:

At the same time, Dr Bauckham conveniently collected most of the variant readings of the inscription in a guest post at Larry Hurtado’s blog:

… we should also mention H. Gregory Snyder’s comments at the ASOR blog on Christopher Rollston’s efforts:

… and, of course, Dr Rollston’s own posts:

I won’t even bother with my own efforts at coming up with a translation, because as I stared at the available photos, it was becoming increasingly obvious that I (nor others) did not have photos of sufficient quality to come up with a transcription, let alone a viable translation. I think the variations just in Dr Bauckham’s contributions alone serve well to underscore this fact. Adding weight to this, if I may dangle a participle, folks may know that I run an obscure mailing list for epigraphy and many of the premier Greek and Latin epigraphers on the planet are members thereof. A request for suggestions of what the inscription might say garnered zero response. Adding even further weight to the suggestion that the photos we have been provided with by the investigators of the Talpiot Tomb(s), when a similar request was posted at the Current Epigraphy blog, the very first comment was a request for a photo with raking light (i.e. light from the side) — not that a lot of folks weighed in at all.  Interestingly, though, one attempt at photomanipulation which was done in reverse order of something I tried, came up with a very different reading.

The point of this rant is this: the photos of the inscription from the Talpiot Tomb B, a.k.a. the Patio tomb, are of insufficient quality to draw scholarly conclusions from. I don’t know if it’s by design or what, but the handful of photos which have been released are those which ‘tend to’ lead the reader to whatever it is Drs Tabor and Jacobovici want them to see, but it is clear that professional epigraphers can see other things, but just aren’t sure what. Like the ‘jonah fish’, however, it is increasingly being seen that it isn’t what Drs Tabor and Jacobovici say is there (and yes, it is a valid criticism to point out what is claimed isn’t there without there being agreement on what is there — just anticipating a standard response which we witnessed when scholars didn’t agree on what the vessel on the ossuary depicted).

FWIW, I am not positive the amazing GE technology which was used to investigate the tomb is capable of producing a photo with the necessary raking light, although some combo of light + snake cam should have been able to do so. I am also doubtful, however, whether the small handful of photos which the investigators have released to the public are the only ones, or even the best ones. Surely there must be video as well. This sort of robot investigation of tombs holds great promise for archaeology in general, but it obviously is dead in the water if scholars are ‘holding back’ all the evidence they have available in order for it to have proper, scholarly peer criticism. This isn’t a situation where a questioning scholar can go to the museum and look at the inscription, or possibly track down a squeeze or rubbing to verify what is there. This isn’t a situation where we have to rely on some drawing made by some dead guy in the 18th or 19th centuries. This is a situation where — I’m sure — there are other images available and we aren’t deemed worthy to look at them, for whatever reason. Until such time as Drs Tabor and Jacobovici release more/all  photos/videos of the inscription and make them available to scholars, their interpretation of this inscription — and by extension, their investigation in general — cannot and will not be taken seriously by the academic community or by the learned lay community and should be delegated the same category as the Ancient Aliens series.

There … I feel better now.

One thought on “Rant: Talpiyot/Patio Tomb Inscription Redux Redux ad Nauseam

  1. Thanks David. Hey, you expressed yourself and I take you at your word and don’t mind your rank here. I can assure you that we have tried our best to select a range of the clearest photos we have from the video footage and if we had better we would be the first to release them. I am hoping there might be further investigations of the tomb using RTI photographic methods in the future and that looks like it might be possible, with certain challenges still to address. Still, given what we do have, I have a different impression about the reasons for our differing transcriptions and translations. Other than the dispute over the Iota/Tau in line 2.1, most of the letters seem to be read in agreement by most of us who have tried our hand at reading the inscription–or at least those who have written something publicly about it. Rollston indicated in his post that he has worked often with photographs of lesser quality and that on the whole he felt confident of his transcriptions. Translation is another matter, as it often is with inscriptions of this genre. I have puzzled long and hard over Rahmani 455 and the discussions between Naveh, Cross, and Puech. See Jonathan Price’s nice summary in Cotton, CIIP, p. 135-136. As Price notes, this kind of epigrammatic consolation is unparalleled on Jewish ossuaries. Unless Bauckham is right, that we have two or three Egyptian names here (strange ones at that), and I do not find his latest proposal convincing, it seems the Talpiot inscription is of special interest and far from ordinary or commonplace, whatever it says.

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