The Jesus Son of Joseph Inscription

This post has been transcribed from its original URL .

There has been so much press coverage about the upcoming documentary on the "Lost Tomb of Jesus" that I feel that I should add my 2 shekels (as it were) to the pot. I am no archaeologist, but I am very well learned in the Aramaic language in many of its dialects, so I believe that my experience in translation, interpretation and visualization may come the most useful to whoever is reading this. As such, I am going to limit my discussion strictly to that which I believe I have sufficient expertise to make a qualified statement on (e.g. translations and interpretations of the Aramaic inscriptions, themselves).

With that said, I've looked over every inscription that has been published in this tomb, and I have been able to read and confirm every translation easily. However, there was one exception, and (of course) it is probably the most debated of the lot: The inscription attributed to "Jesus son of Joesph." Over the past few days, I've been looking over that inscription, and I would like to share what I was able to glean, along with some theories that I believe merit further research.

Out of all of the inscriptions, the one attributed to Jesus is the most difficult to make out, and as a result the most difficult to interpret. Using the photographs released by the Israeli Antiquities Authority and double-checking my work with that of Rahmani, I was able to piece together a line drawing of the deepest lines carved into the ossuary. From that, mulled over the drawing for a full day, trying my best to visualize how the inscription was originally translated as "a cross preceding 'Jesus, son of Joseph'" and was able to break the inscription down into the following pieces:

From my knowledge of the language and the particular script this phrase was written in, I could easily make out the "cross" at the beginning (but more on that in a bit) and יהוסף Yehosef or "Joseph" at the end. I honestly could see how בר Bar or "son (of)" was implied, but it was not at all clear or coherent. With ישוע Yeshua` or "Jesus," however, I had a great amount of difficulty seeing, and only after picking things apart with my computer I was able to visualize how this initial reading was made:

In informal scripts from this period, the letters ו (waw) and י (yod) are notoriously difficult to tell apart. They are much easier to discern with the more formal scripts that were found on the ossuaries for Joseh, Judah and the authentic portion of James, but then again that is the point: those scripts are much more formal and the scribe/mason took the time to write them with serifs and proper proportions (which is no easy task). The ש (shin) is a textbook form, and the ע (`ayin), given the long tail, appears to indicate the end of a word.

However, there are still some unanswered questions. Given the angle and tilt of the strokes, the "cross" shape at the beginning of the inscription looks more like an א (alef), which would mean that it would be part of the name. Furthermore, the downwards stroke of the ע (`ayin) looks like it overlaps a stroke that is already there. This particular stroke, looks like it could also be interpreted as part of the stroke infront of it, forming a ד (dalet), the large swash to the lower left possibly a scratch or damage sustained after the carving. For example:

With these two things in mind, the inscription could then also possibly read:

This is also a difficult reading for me, to my knowledge, there is no historical record for a name "אושד/אישד", and there could also be nuances that I have missed. Furthermore, the portion that is assumed to read בר Bar (son of) may, in fact, also be part of the name, but given how it is garbled I cannot make sense of it. Dr. Stephen Pfann has suggested an alternate hypothesis that the name reads as "Hanun" or "Hanin." Even with the ambiguities, given the prominence of the ש (shin), I cannot agree with his conclusion on that specific name (as no form of Hanun contains a shin); however, as I've mentioned earlier, I can readily see the first glyph that was ignored in the "Yeshua`" interpretation as an א (alef), which can open things up other interpretations. As such, overall it is a very strong possibility that this inscription is not "Yeshua` bar Yehosef." I only hope that others can use the multimedia I've generated for further analysis, and that the letter ambiguities (especially how the cross/alef can alter the translation) are put under further critical examination.

-- Steve Caruso
Aramaic Designs

[updated Aug 2009] Steve Caruso is a professional translator at Aramaic Designs ( and has been studying the Aramaic language in all of its dialects for over a decade. His primary focus is research on the influence Aramaic has had over the New Testament as well as various forms of Aramaic calligraphy. He currently holds a Masters of Library and Information Science from Rutgers University and is working on the preservation of the language through digital library and lexicon projects (such as eBethArké and The Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon) as well as teaching classes online and translating for the public.

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