Epigraphy, the Microscope and Statistics: Tools of the Trade

Beginning 34 years ago, as a graduate student, Dr. Stephen Pfann studied Greek and Coptic epigraphy at Berkeley (well known for its epigraphers and its classics scholars including Finegan, Wire, Dillenberger and their students). It was the heyday of the release of Nag Hammadi codices and a reexamination of the associated libraries of the Bodmer and Chester Beatty papyri. During that time and since then, he has taught Greek language and literature for more than 18 years. He produced a paleographic description of 7Q5 (the so-called Greek “Gospel of Mark” fragment from Qumran) in JBL 1999 with Robert Gundry.


When he arrived in Jerusalem 25 years ago, his focus turned toward improving his Semitic languages and epigraphy. Accordingly, Dr. Pfann and his wife Claire studied epigraphy for 2 years with Joseph Naveh, as contemporary students with Ada Yardeni.


Dr. Pfann is part of the International Team of Editors for the Dead Sea Scrolls. During the past 15 years he has edited one scroll of Daniel and 50 to 100 fragmentary papyrus and parchment scrolls written in Cryptic A script. Drawing on his earlier years as a biology major coupled with an astute eye for form, he developed a system to sort and identify fragmentary parchment scrolls based upon microscopic observation of the arrangement of hair follicles over the surface of the fragments (published in Discoveries in the Judean Desert XX). For fragmentary papyri he developed a system of sorting and identification based upon 20 criteria (as part of his work produced in Discoveries in the Judean Desert XXXVI, both volumes under the editorship of Prof. Emanuel Tov). He has also developed a system of statistical analysis for fragmentary manuscripts and worked out the history of the Cryptic A script for his Hebrew University doctoral dissertation under Prof. Michael Stone. He and his wife Claire produced most of the concordances to the official publications of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

bethshemeshepigraphy.jpg              bethsemesha.jpg 

Dr. Pfann is presently generating a paleographic script chart for the local Greek inscriptions of the Second Temple Period for the Shrine of the Book’s new educational center. With staff and colleagues at the University of the Holy Land, he is also working on the development of various forms of digital imaging (including multispectral and stereo-optic imaging) of scrolls and other inscribed surfaces. He is happy to spend time in research and in training the next generation of students who, like him, want to see the text for themselves.

Selected Publications

‘Scripts and Scribal Practices’ in ed. John Collins, The Dictionary of Early Judaism, Eerdmans Publishers (in preparation)

‘Reassessing the Judean Desert Caves: Libraries, Archives, Genizas and Hiding Places’ Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 25 (2007)139-162.

‘A Reassessment of CJO 703: Mary Magdalene has left the Room’ Near Eastern Archaeologist 70 (2007).

‘Dated Bronze Coinage of the Sabbatical years of Release and the First Jewish City Coin’. Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 24 (2006) 101-113.

‘Qumran’, Encyclopedia Judaica (New York: Keter and Macmillan Publishers, 2006).

‘Concordance’, Hebrew and Aramaic Concordances for each of volumes XI, XIII, XVIII–XX, XXII, XXIII, XXV-XXX, XXXIV–XXXVI, XXXVIII of Discoveries in the Judaean Desert. (Oxford, 1993–2001)

‘"313c. 4QcryptA Calendrical Document B," "317. 4QcryptA Lunisolar Calendar," "324d. 4QcryptA Liturgical Calendara," "324e. 4QcryptA Liturgical Calendarb," "324f. 4QcryptA Liturgical Calendarc?" "324g. 4QcryptA Calendrical Document F?" "324h. 4QcryptA Calendrical Document G?" "324i. 4QcryptA Mishmarot J".362. 4QcryptB Unidentified Text A," "363. 4QcryptB Unidentified Text B," "363a. 4QcryptC Unidentified Religious Text," "363b. 4Qcrypt Miscellaneous Texts".’ In Wadi Daliyeh II: The Samaria Papyri from Wadi Daliyeh and Qumran Cave 4.XXVIII: Miscellanea, Part 2, ed. Douglas M. Gropp et al., Pls. XLI-XLIII. DJD 28. Oxford: Clarendon, 2001.

The Character of the Early Essene Movement in the Light of the Manuscripts Written in Esoteric Scripts from Qumran, unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Hebrew University, 2001.

‘The Writings in Esoteric Script from Qumran.’ In The Dead Sea Scrolls: Fifty Years after Their Discovery. Proceedings of the Jerusalem Congress, July 20-25, 1997, ed. Lawrence H. Schiffman, Emanuel Tov, and James C. VanderKam, 177-190. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society in cooperation with the Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, 2000.

‘Cryptic Texts: 249a-z, 250a-j and 313-313b, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXXVI (2000) 515-701; pls. xxxv-xlix.

‘Sons of Dawn’, Encyclopedia of the Dead Sea Scrolls. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000) 891.

‘249. Midrash Sefer Mosheh, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XXXV (1999) 1-24; pls. I-III.

‘No Nu in Line 2 of 7Q5: A Final Disidentification of 7Q5 with Mark 6:52–53’, (in collaboration with R. Gundry). Journal of Biblical Literature 118 (1999) 698–707.

‘From John Trever to Digital Imaging: Photographing the Dead Sea Scrolls’, with G. Bearman and S. Spiro, in The Dead Sea Scrolls Jubilee Volume (Leiden: Brill, 1998) 472-84.

‘298. 4QcryptA Words of the Maskil to All Sons of Dawn’, with Menahem Kister, Discoveries in the Judaean Desert XX (1997) 1-30.

‘4Q249: Midrash Sefer Moshe’, in Legal Texts and Legal Issues: Proceedings of the Second Meeting of the International Organization for Qumran Studies, Cambridge, 1995 (STDJ XXIII; Leiden: Brill, 1997).

‘Physical Descriptions’ in The Damascus Document (4Q266-273), J. Baumgarten, ed. (DJD XVIII; Oxford: Clarendon, 1996).

‘4QDanield: A Preliminary Edition’, RevQ 17 (Milik Festrschrift; 1996) 37-71.

‘4Q298: Word of the Maskil to All Sons of Dawn’, Jewish Quarterly Review (1994) 203-235.

The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche: Companion Volume (in collaboration with Emanuel Tov). Brill/IDC, 1993, 2nd ed. 1995.

‘Chronological List of the Negatives of the PAM, IAA, and Shrine of the Book’, chapter 3 in The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche: A Comprehensive Facsimile Edition of the Texts from the Judean Desert (in collaboration with Emanuel Tov). Brill/IDC, 1993.

‘Sites in the Judean Desert Where Texts Have Been Found, Chapter 5 in The Dead Sea Scrolls on Microfiche: A Comprehensive Facsimile Edition of the Texts from the Judean Desert (in collaboration with Emanuel Tov). Brill/IDC, 1993.

‘The Aramaic Text and Language of Daniel and Ezra in the Light of Some Unpublished Manuscripts from Qumran’, Textus 16 (1991) 127-37.

Click to see Dr. Pfann's CV

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The Ossuary of RIKEGΠ "RICH"

Posted by admin on April 14, 2007


A number of our readers found it difficult to follow the technical language of the previous posting and have asked, "Can't you put the same thing in layman's terms?"

Okay. Remember how James Cameron said that "Mary Magdalene" combined with a group of otherwise commonplace names such as those found in theTalpiot tomb creates a distinctive group that could be interpreted as the family of Jesus? He suggested the Mariamne (assumed name of Mary Magdalene) identification does for the Talpiot tomb, what finding an individual named “Ringo” would do for a tomb group with “John, Paul and George” inside.

To quote him:

"The prevailing wisdom at the time, and even today, is that these are like finding a John, Paul and a George, and you’re not obviously going to leap to the conclusion that that’s the Beatles...unless you found a Ringo. If you found a Ringo in the tomb, then you’d start to have to look pretty carefully at that being the tomb of the Beatles."

This is a fair statement. But let's not mix apples and oranges. We don't have the actual name "Mary Magdalene" nor even the exact name "Mariamne" in the tomb.

So, as an exercise in methodology, let's take the name RINGO and subject it to the same transformations that are proposed to have been done to the name "Mariamne" and see if the comparison is still valid. (This follows the same observations for MARIAMHNOU (H) MARA in the previous blog).

1. First, add an extra vowel "E" between two of the letters to form "RINEGO."

2. Next, place an unusual ending on the end of the word to make it sound cuter, such as "RINEGOE."

3. Now, merge the last two letters of the name together in a bound form unfamiliar to the readers, "RINEGŒ." And write the word in the possessive case "RINEGŒ'S."

4. Mistakenly use the letter "K" instead of "N" when writing the name, thus "RIKEGŒ'S".

5. Then, presume that an illegible imperfection on the writing surface after the name should be taken as a substitution for the word "which" which is taken to be short for "which is also called."

6. Add a second name, a nickname, which is not widely known to be used for this individual and which can be mistaken by others to be read as a title), something like "RICH." The ossuary now reads “RIKEGŒ’S ¬ RICH.” Is "Rich" here a nickname for "Richard" or does it mean "Rich" as in "wealthy"?

7. Now, take the two names (the name RIKEGŒ’S and the nickname RICH) and the imperfection ¬ and call it by a fancy technical term like "signum," even though the two words do not follow the grammatical rules of the signum. Suggest the reading "RIKEGŒ'S ¬ (WHICH IS ALSO KNOWN AS) RICH," that is, “Rikegœ’s who is also known as wealthy.”

8. Very importantly, completely ignore the fact that two different type styles are used for the two parts of the inscription starting with the letter "Œ". "RIKEGŒ'S ¬ RICH".

9. And also ignore the fact that no one is called by this name in the 20th century in England.

10. Would any English speaker in recent times, with nice handwriting, make this many writing and grammatical errors when creating a name plaque of only two words?

So let's propose that we find a tomb with the name plaques of "John", "Paul", "George", among a few others and somone by name of "Rikegœ-Rich" inside. Is this combination a "dead ringer" for "the Beatles”?

Nice try, but let's be honest. It does take a real stretch of the imagination.

S. Pfann

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One Too Many Mariamenes

Posted by admin on April 13, 2007

In the past I made a case for a new reading of the Ossuary inscription CJO 701 in the article "Mary Magdalene is now missing: A corrected reading of Rahmani Ossuary 701". After the article was first published on this web site, but before the Associated Press picked it up, both Emile Puech and Tal Ilan stated that they had arrived at the KAI "and" independently. Several other epigraphers from around the world confirmed the reading, who also sent additional examples to support the new reading from the Egyptian papyri.

With such a response, I presumed that the difficulties in the original reading were already clear. However, to be fair, and to be complete, the following is intended to illustrate the difficult set of hurdles one must take to justify the original reading. (This may take a bit of patience and a dictionary for the armchair philologist.)

The Mary Magdalene Ossuary?

In order to maintain the previous published reading MAPIAMHNOU’MAPA, one must first accept a string of premises which are based upon a number of anomalies and exceptions.

1. One must account for the word MARIAMHNH (Mariamene, which is an otherwise altogether unattested form of MARIAMNH, Mariamne).

2. One must create an unattested morpheme -ON/OU for the neuter diminutive case ending (in place of the normal -ION/-IOU), to create the name MARIAMHNON, -OU, (Mariamenon/ou, taken as a hypocorism).

3. One must presume that the inscriber connected the two letters OU (as a ligature), a form which begins to appear regionally and only sparingly in the early second century (and which is not written in the form found in this inscription).

4. The N of MARIAMHNOU must be interpreted to be a mistaken retrograde, or backwards, form of the Greek letter nu (although this anomaly is unattested elsewhere in legible inscriptions of the late Second Temple Period), instead of a normal kappa, that is, K, which is frequently attested.

5. One must presume that a potentially accidental scratch before MARA is an otherwise unattested cryptic representation of the feminine article H “eta”, and that this, in turn, is an abbreviation for H KAI “who is also called…,” which often precedes a “signum” (i.e., an alias) or an appositive. (This suggested form is, in itself, inaccurate and should be THS KAI. See the next paragraph.)

6. One must also take the second name to be a signum for the first, and an ambiguous one, at that. Is it MARA the name, or MARA a title? In spite of the spelling and grammatical issues, one must still assert that the signum formula is being intended here, despite the fact that the earliest evidence for its use in inscriptions comes from the beginning of the second century (See, M. Schwabe, Beth Shearim, Vol. II, PUBLICATION INFO).

7. One must then forgive the improper use of Greek grammar with respect to appositives (and the signum) which, by definition, requires agreement in inflection and case endings. (Since the first name is actually in the genitive case according to this reading, proper Greek grammar would dictate that both the noun MARIAMNH and its appositive (or signum) MARA should agree with respect to the inflectional form. In this case both should be in the genitive (e.g., MARIAMNHS-MARAS; or if we take the original reading seriously: MARIAMHNOU THS KAI MARAS).

8. One must ignore the existence of two writing styles, documentary and cursive, each being characteristically clear, distinct and consistent for each of the two parts of the inscription. This is consistent with the apparent use of a somewhat sharper point in the second part of the inscription. (These factors bring into question the proposed unity of the inscription from the outset.)

9. To still accept this reading as “MARIAMHNH/ON/OU” on the basis of the only two first century inscriptions thought to bear that name (CJO 701 and 108, both now in question), one must do so in spite of the fact that the name “Mariamne” is otherwise unattested in the inscriptions and the literature before the 3rd century CE.

10. As ossuaries go, both of the scribal hands preserved on this ossuary are exceptional and betray writers who are both practiced and comfortable in writing Greek. Therefore, it is difficult to imagine that an apparently literate Hellenistic Jew of first century Jerusalem could produce such an extraordinary list of anomalies, lapses in basic Greek grammar and writing errors, all within the space of two words.

Although there can undoubtedly be rare exceptions to rules or accidental writing errors that can be proposed, that can account for any one these inherent problems, such a long series of unsubstantiated premises weakens the case for this reading considerably.

The proposed reading MARIAME KAI MARA (or its alternative MARIAM H KAI MARA) is now widely received and is not plagued with the inherent problems of the earlier reading.

For a more detailed discussion click here.

Stephen Pfann, Ph.D.


With regard to the suggested “match” between the James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus ossuary and that of Jesus, son of Joseph, film participants Steven Cox and Robert Genna provide a word of caution.

STEVEN COX (Forensic Scientist, University of the Holy Land), appeared in the film explaining the importance of the materials that still remain within the ossuaries. He notes that since patina is a film that forms on the outside of an object, the ossuary samples ought to have been carefully collected from the outside of the ossuaries and placed in the testing instruments with the outer surface uppermost. Since this was not the case, the most the forensic portion of the documentary could possibly say is that the ossuaries might have come from the same quarry.

In a paper on the UHL web site, Steven Cox has cited a number of systematic errors and misinterpretations of results exhibited in the film.


Underlying logical errors

• A conclusion was formed first through speculation and conjecture, then facts were sought to support the preconceived notion.

• Speculation and conjecture are converted into FACTS without supporting logic or confirmed scientific methodology.

• Sample collection errors

• Sample contamination errors

• Sample preparation errors

• Sample orientation errors

"It should be very evident at this point that the The Lost Tomb of Jesus (TLTJ) team’s statement is, at best, an overstatement of opinion based on limited fact, poor scientific protocol, unresolved sources of error and shrouded in poor research."

"In my opinion, one of the greatest tools a forensic scientist learns is not how to operate an instrument. Rather, it is how to logically assess the weight of the result derived from examining evidence or artifacts. In forensic work, someone’s life hangs in the scales of justice. Be it a suspect or a victim of crime, the result and the following testimony will affect that persons’ life forever. So, a forensic scientist has to take making conclusions and opinions very, very seriously."

"If this type of conservative and cautious reporting were applied to the TLTJ documentary, the program probably wouldn’t have gotten much notice or, at best, it would have produced more responsible journalism."

Click here to obtain a pdf of the entire paper.

ROBERT GENNA, Director of the Suffolk County, New York State Forensic Lab, was active in the film in conversation with Charles Pellegrino over the results obtained in the lab from certain of the ossuaries using a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) in conjuction with Energy Dispersive Spectroscopy (EDS)

Although he had earlier pointed out the consistencies between the readings from two of the ossuaries (i.e., "Jesus son of Joseph" and "James son of Joseph and brother of Jesus", from an unknown tomb) he later had to clarify his statement due to certain misunderstandings that had been broadcast.

"The elemental composition of some of the samples we tested from the ossuaries are consistent with each other. But I would never say they’re a match… No scientist would ever say definitively that one ossuary came from the same tomb as another...We didn’t do enough sampling to see if in fact there were other tombs that had similar elemental compositions...The only samples we can positively say are a ‘match’ from a single source are fingerprints and DNA."

The preceding is an excerpt from Ted Koppel interview with Dr. Genna and other experts that was televised following the film's broadcast.

For an overall word of caution and disclaimers from the film's experts click here.

UHL Staff Report

Scholars Weigh In and Bow Out

Posted by admin on April 07, 2007

Academy Award winner James Cameron and Emmy Award winner Simcha Jacobovici, the producers of the Discovery Channel film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," saw over 4 million households watch their film. Jacobovici saw his book, based on the film, skyrocket to number 6 on the best seller list. The two posed a challenge at the release of the film, that the scientists and the academics should bring their skills to bear on the issue of this tomb and the claims of the film and book. These after-the-fact challenges came in place of open peer review, which according to some, should have taken place before the film and book were released.

This, then, is the central challenge of the filmmakers: that additional experts, scholars, and scientists, from outside the film and the book, come to the table to (1) study and challenge their own assumptions that they gave to the experts (e.g., that they have substantiated that one of the ossuaries contained the remains of Mary Magdalene) and (2) study and test the statements made by their experts who went on to support, or apparently support, their claims (especially Feuerverger, Matheson, Pellegrino, Bovon and Cross). As we shall see below, in some cases, the support for the filmmakers’ assertions are not expressly stated by the experts themselves. But, rather the assertions are made by the filmmakers by extending the statements of the experts to make claims that they never intended to make.

There have been many who have risen to the challenge and are presently working on papers that will deal with the issues involved in various fields of research. These will be published over the coming months.

There are also views that are shared by certain scholars outside of the film that have typified the work of the film as "archaeoporn" or "pimping the Bible." These are unscientific typifications of the work that don't help the scholarly community to move forward in response to the challenge of the filmmakers.

However, a rather telling phenomenon is taking place already that actually may take the wind out of the sails of some of these film producers. With the exception of the actual filmmakers and authors themselves, just about every one of the experts who appeared in the documentary has published an attack on the claims of the film or, even more telling, a disclaimer on what they either said or were purported to have said in the film.

The fact is that any scholars and scientists who have taken time to respond and have raised a challenge to the film's premises, rather than being dealt with scientifically, have been publicly dismissed out-of-hand by the film's producers and their core advisors.

It seems that the only participants in the film that are left supporting the premises of the film and the book are the makers of the film "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" (J. Cameron and S. Jacobovici), the authors of the book The Jesus Family Tomb (C. Pellegrino and S. Jacobovici) and their historical advisor James Tabor (author of the recent book The Jesus Dynasty, which the film supports). It is worthwhile to note that the Discovery Channel has cancelled the second airing of the film and has postponed the DVD. The book, although it is still being read, it is no longer on the New York Times bestseller list.

For more details, read the article on our web page, "Cracks in the Foundation"

UHL Staff Report

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Teens Weigh in on the Lost Tomb of Jesus

Posted by admin on April 04, 2007

Our Teenagers Michael and Shoshie wanted to express to other young people what they should know concerning the recent film in their own words:

Reasons why the conclusions of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” are wrong

1. If Jesus of Nazareth were to have had ossuary it would be a lot nicer.

2. “Jesus of Nazareth” would be written on the ossuary.

3. Just because the DNA from the Mariame ossuary doesn’t have the same mitochondrial DNA as the DNA from the “Jesus” ossuary doesn’t mean they were married. It just means they didn’t have the same mother. The two individuals could still have had the same father (being step brother and sister) or Mariame could have been married to one of the other men in the tomb.

4. Where is the rest of the family? The fact is that not all of Jesus’ known family are in the tomb. Also the names which are there are common, occurring in most families.

5. Who are these strangers? There are names which don’t belong there like Matiya, Mariame, Mara and Yehuda.

6. If Mariame was Mary Magdalene the ossuary would say “Mariame of Magdala.”

7. There are no ancient writings that portray Jesus of Nazareth being married let alone having a son.

8. The rabbis back then allowed married people to be buried together. If this Jesus and this Mariame were married why was she buried separately?

9. The majority of writing experts now read “Mariame kai Mara” meaning “Mariame and Mara” (that is a nickname for Martha) and not “Mariamene Mara” meaning “Mariamene the Mistress.”

10. Even your average person can see that there are two hand writings on the ossuary Mariame kai Mara

11. Most of the experts in the film don’t support the conclusions of the film anymore.

12. If this really were the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, why did it go unnoticed or forgotten and why did it not become a major pilgrimage site, with a church and so forth?

13. If the bones in the “Jesus” ossuary were of a crucified man as Jesus of Nazareth was, the bone specialists would have made a big deal out of it.

14. The Bible says that Jesus was buried in a new tomb close to the place of execution, just outside the city walls. This tomb is miles away.

When so many pieces in a theory don't add up then something is really wrong with it.

Michael and Shoshie Pfann

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Prof. Bovon cries foul in the use of his work

Posted by admin on March 31, 2007

Disclaimers from Key Experts Used in the "Lost Tomb" Documentary:

Part One

Prof. Bovon: Mariamne is not the Historical Mary Magdalene of the First Century

The filmmakers of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" and their advisers have asserted that Mary Magdalene's name in the apocryphal Acts of Philip was "Mariamne," and that this was also the current and accurate name for the actual historical person of the first century. They based this upon the important work of Prof. François Bovon of Harvard University, who recently discovered and published the first complete copy of the Acts of Philip.

However, Prof. Bovon wants to clarify that he did not in any way state that the name "Mariamne" of the Acts of Philip should be the linked to the historical Mary Magdalene of the first century. In fact, the Acts of Philip presents the geographically improbable assertion that the figure "Mariamne" was both the sister of Philip of Bethsaida and of Martha of Bethany. In reality, Bovon proposed that this Mariamne, who both evangelized and baptised, was the same character whose persona in time evolved to become the fictitious Gnostic sage and evangelist, more closely linked to the Mary of Magdala in the Manichean Psalms, the Gospel of Mary, and the Pistis Sofia.

Based upon apocryphal stories such as these, which speak of a close relationship between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, and which give a high prominence to her in the early church, the storywriters of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" have surmised that Jesus and Mary were married and even produced a family. Of these three assumptions—(1) that the name of Mary Magdalene was not Maria or Mariam, as recorded in the Gospels, but rather Mariamne; (2) that the Mariamne of the Acts of Philip is to be identified with Mary Magdalene, though the Acts of Philip never says so explicitly, and (3) that Jesus was married and fathered a child—none is supported by any of the earliest records dealing with these individuals, namely the canonical Gospels and Josephus.

See Bovon's disclaimer on this issue at the Society of Biblical Literature Forum

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Sticky Statistics

Posted by admin on March 20, 2007

The starting point for the supposed scientific investigation of a tomb in Jerusalem's East Talpiot neighborhood is an amazing claim that the viewer must accept a 600 to 1 probability that it is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. This statement is based upon a number of fallacies and a general misuse of statistics.

First, what database serves as the basis for establishing the probability of this claim? The names of Jesus’ family members have been preserved in the Gospels, but no other complete family lists from first century Judea or Galilee have survived for comparison. (The Census of Quirinius would have been useful with regard to this, but has not come down to us)

Even the records of who and how many individuals were actually buried in any given family tomb in 1st century Judea and Galilee are usually incomplete. This is due to the following circumstances:

a) Most tombs have already been visited and looted in antiquity or in recent times.

b) Not all ossuaries are saved during the excavations so as to be stored and registered. Oftentimes, only ossuaries with inscriptions, decorations or both are kept.

c) Only 25.2% of the 917 ossuaries in the collections of the State of Israel are inscribed with names. The East Talpiot tomb is unusual in that 6 of its 9 registered ossuaries (66%) were actually inscribed with names.

d) Those ossuaries which bear names have often contained the remains of more than one individual. The names of these individuals will never be known. (For example, the Caiaphas' ossuary contained the remains of several individuals, including one middle aged man.)

Thus, the most one can hope to do in establishing a working database upon which to base a statistical probability, is to make a general overall survey of inscribed ossuaries.

Because some ossuaries contain two or three names in the formula "x son of y," 286 personal names are found on the 231 inscribed ossuaries. Listing specific names together with their shortened forms or Greek or Latin equivalents brings the total down to only 72 unique Jewish names.

What does this mean? Compared with the large pool of individual personal names in use today in North America and Europe, a very small pool of personal names was normally used when naming a child in first century Judea and Galilee. In fact, a mere 16 personal names account for 75% of the inscribed names.

All of the names that are ascribed in the Gospels to Jesus of Nazareth's father (Joseph), mother (Mary) and brothers (Jacob/"James", Joseph/Joseh, Simon, and Judas) are found in the list of the 16 most commonly inscribed names. In fact, four of these names (Simon, Mary, Joseph and Judas) are among the top five most frequently used names.

Of the four names belonging to Jesus’ brothers, only one – Joseph/Joseh – can be identified on the inscribed ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb. (And unlike the nearby “Jesus” ossuary, his ossuary is not labeled as belonging to a son of Joseph, as one would expect in a “Jesus family tomb.”) All of the other siblings' names, including "James"/Jacob, are lacking.

The names that are found in the Talpiot tomb: Mary/Mariame (2x), Joseph/Joseh (2x), Judas and even Jesus, should well be expected there (or in almost any other tomb in the area, for that matter). These are simply the most common names of the day. The Talpiot tomb is unique only because it has so many names preserved among its ossuaries!

There very well could be numerous tombs which could claim the title "a Jesus' family tomb.” However in all cases, as in this, there would be no compelling reason to connect them with Jesus of Nazareth!

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Mary Magdalene is Missing

Posted by admin on March 12, 2007

Have the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene been found on the outskirts of modern Jerusalem? Yes, say James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici in their controversial new documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus.

Not only that, they say, but Mary's coffin gives her the title of "Master" or "Teacher." This coffin, actually a carved limestone box called an ossuary, was designed as the final resting place for someone who lived in first-century Jerusalem. It appears in the official archaeological catalogue as Rahmani Ossuary 701.

Dr. Stephen Pfann, Jerusalem-based Biblical scholar and president of the University of the Holy Land, was interviewed for the documentary. Here he takes a hard look at the evidence.

In brief:

*The original transcription of the inscription was incorrect.

*The inscription does not read “Mariamene the Master,” nor does the name Mariamene or Mariamne appear on the ossuary at all.

*The inscription reflects the writing of two distinct scribes who wrote in different forms of the Greek script.

*Based on parallels from contemporary inscriptions and documents, the correct reading of the inscription is “Mariame and Mara.”

*The ossuary thus contained the bones of at least two different women, interred at two separate times: one named Mariame and the other Mara.

*No support exists for ascribing the ossuary to Mary Magdalene.

The name "Mariamene" is of central importance to the story line of The Lost Tomb of Jesus and its companion book – because Mary Magdalene appears as "Mariamne" in the fourth-century apocryphal Acts of Philip.

Since “Mariamene” is unique (and likewise, “Mariamne” is rare) among first-century ossuaries, this name is also highly significant when creating statistics and probabilities concerning the uniqueness of the Talpiot cave and its inscribed ossuaries.

The original publication of the ossuaries by archaeologists L.Y. Rahmani and A. Kloner interpreted this inscription as reading MARIAMENOU-MARA: "of Mariamene (a.k.a.) Mara." However, recent publications of Greek papyrus manuscripts among the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided evidence to clarify the reading of the ossuary. The following evidence challenges the existence of the name "Mariamene/Mariamne" in this tomb at all.

The first name on the ossuary was written in the contemporary Greek documentary style of the first century. It reads “MARIAME,” which is the normal Greek form of the Hebrew name “Mariam.” (“Mariame” appears seven times in the Rahmani Ossuary Catalogue.)

This name is followed by a gap that is sufficiently wide to signify a space between distinct words. After this gap, the irregularities begin. As we shall see, this is not because the scribe suddenly introduced odd letter forms, nor even changed his handwriting style in mid-sentence. Rather, it is because a second scribe subsequently added the last two words of the inscription in a different handwriting style: the Greek cursive form now familiar from papyri found at Qumran and Masada.

Various cursive forms often appeared in official documents which normally would be written in the formal Greek documentary script. These forms may be termed as cursive or semi-cursive depending upon the extent to which these tendencies were exhibited. The most common cursive tendency was to write individual letters without lifting the tip of the pen from the writing surface. Another tendency was to connect consecutive letters without lifting the pen. This tendency is known as “connected writing.”

Upon closer examination with this fact in mind, it appears that the three letters Rahmani read as "NOU" are almost certainly to be translated by the common word “KAI” ("and").

Following normal scribal practice of the period, the scribe engraved the words of his inscription with no space between the words, writing KAIMARA. He, or someone else, subsequently provided a stroke, a word divider, to separate the KAI from the name, apparently to distinguish the two words, resulting in KAI'MARA. MARA is a common shortened form of the Aramaic name “Martha.”

The revised reading of the inscription based on contemporary inscriptions and documents would leave the words MARIAME KAI MARA "Mariam and Mara."


The so-called "Mariamene" ossuary contained the names and remains of two distinct individuals. The first name on the ossuary, “MARIAME,” was written in the common Greek documentary script of the period on the occasion of the interment of the bones of this woman. The second and third words “KAI MARA” were added sometime later by a second scribe, when the bones of the second woman Mara were added to the ossuary. This scribe's handwriting includes numerous cursive elements not exhibited by the first scribe who wrote “Mariame.”

In view of the above, there is no longer any reason to be tempted to link this ossuary (nor the ambiguous traces of DNA inside) to Mary Magdalene or any other person in Biblical, non-Biblical or church tradition.

For a more detailed analysis, click here.


Here is a supplementary note for the article linked above.


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Ben Padiah (Angel) Scroll

Posted by admin on September 27, 1999

The "Angel Scroll" or the Book of the Visions of Yeshua ben Padiah



Four months ago I was approached by a senior writer from the Jerusalem Report, Netty Gross, and was asked if I would help verify the existence of a Dead Sea Scroll manuscript which had not been published previously.

I was aware of a story, known by other scholars, that there was at least one rather well-preserved scroll which had made its way to Europe and which was similar to the Book of Enoch or Jubilees. This may be identified as the source of a scroll fragment examined by Prof. John Strugnell sometime in 1967-1968 which he described elsewhere as something "resembling the Book of Enoch".

The scroll discovery at hand was already known at least as early as 1974 and may have actually been discovered in the mid-to-late 1960's. If its authenticity could be verified, its similarity in content to writings of the Enochic tradition would posit this as being either similar to or identical to the elusive scroll of Europe.

Basis for Assessment

Since neither the original manuscript nor photographs of the "Angel Scroll" have been made available to me, I am not able to confirm or reject the authenticity of the report. Transcriptions of approximately one-fourth of the posited text of the scroll were given to me for examination. These allowed me to ascertain somewhat the feasibility that the text might have been derived from a Dead Sea Scroll.

However, these partial transcriptions derived from a computer file based on a handwritten copy of the original text. Thus, I cannot even ascertain their accuracy since the actual, handwritten copy of the text has not been provided to me. 

The Title

The title "Angel Scroll" has been applied recently to the scroll by its current editors. In antiquity, however, a book was normally known by the name of its author who was specified in its first line as in the case of Biblical books (for example "The Vision of Isaiah ...." or sometimes more specifically "The Book of the Parables of ....").


From the limited sampling given to me for examination, the following tentative description can be offered at this time: At least two sources are evident in the scroll (or scrolls) - which have likely been produced by separate authors - tentatively called here "Source I" and "Source II".

Source I

Attributed to a certain "Yeshua ben Padiah": Since I have seen two versions of the first line of the scroll, each attributing the scroll to a different name, the attribution of this scroll to Yeshua ben Padiah should be considered tentative until the original or a photograph is produced.

The vision of Yeshua ben Padiah is stated to have taken place at Ein Eglatain (located near the Eastern shore of the Dead Sea on the Lisan).

Age of Scroll: It is said to be dated palaeographically to the 1st cent CE.

Language: Post Biblical Hebrew with certain terms borrowed from Greek and Aramaic.

Phrases in this source that are generally accepted as being associated with the Essene writings at Qumran include: Children of Light/Children of Darkness, "Passing into the Covenant", midrash ha-torah, the use of the word 'el for "God", "the Congregation of God", "the Holy Council", "the priests who are the keepers of the covenant", "Belial" and "Mastemah", "the Children of Belial", "his covenant will be renewed forever", "the Law/Torah of Moses."

The text of this source also contains the characteristic "Qumran spellings" noted by scholars since the first Dead Sea Scrolls appeared.

Structure: Since only part of this source has been made available to me, a structure of Source I can only be provisionally suggested as containing at least four sections:

  1. The Introduction, providing the recipient of the vision, the occasion of the vision, and the place of the vision.
  2. A prophetic or apocalyptic section which foresees the siege of Jerusalem, its temple and the suffering of the pious.
  3. An account of Yeshua ben Padiah's ascent to and description of the heavenly realm, aided by a certain angel named Panameia. This is similar to the ascent to the heavenlies found in 1 Enoch in that the visionary visits the heavenly realm and is provided with a guided tour by a heavenly being. In the case of Yeshua ben Padiah, he enters through the gates of a heavenly palace (hekhal) in order to view the various parts of heaven. However, in the sections to which I have been given access, it is not yet clear if the gates are understood to be of a single palace or access gates to each of the seven (or ten) heavens spoken of in the other sources (e.g., 2 and 3 Enoch and Paul in 2 Corinthians 12).
  4. There are additional paragraphs which describe the nature and moral character of the Children of Light who have been endowed with the Spirit of God (contrasted with that of the Children of Darkness). It is here that we find certain philosophical or theological conceptions that are reminiscent of both the Dead Sea Scrolls and, in several cases, the New Testament. In every case, however, these conceptions are clearly derived from a certain line of interpretation of the Bible. In at least two cases, the text of the Bible is quoted and elaborated upon with a metaphorical or midrashic interpretation following.

Source II

Unknown authorship.

Age of Scroll: Likewise is said to be dated palaeographically to the 1st cent CE.

Language: Post Biblical Hebrew with certain terms borrowed from Greek and Aramaic.

Some Qumran terminology including the term "Children of Light". This portion also contains what are likely quotes from certain Dead Sea Scrolls including, in particular, the Rule of the Community.

Several grammatical similarities to Mishnaic Hebrew:

  1. nunation (-în) instead of mimation (-îm) for masculine plural endings.
  2. sh- for the relative particle (instead of 'asher)
  3. shel for the genitive particle (instead of 'asher l-)

The grammatical features of this source are found at Qumran in 4QMMT and in the Copper Scroll from Cave 3.

Unique grammatical characteristics: Aleph is used to divide a vowel cluster, especially before the furtive patach lû'ach, rû'ach, mô'ach

The second source seems to be providing additional material which is intended to illuminate or elaborate on elements or themes provided by the account of Yeshua ben Padiah. It concerns itself with the mechanics of Religion and Creation in a more scientific or detailed form. At times the conceptions seem quite primitive providing detailed recipes containing ingredients for the resurrection of the dead (through a prescribed embalming process) and the use of herbs and certain specially marked stones with special powers for healing. (This practice was already attributed to the Essenes by the first century historian Josephus).

At other times the conceptions of this source seem quite advanced for his time. As is quoted in The Jerusalem Report article, the human being is birthed within the womb as a union between two seeds, each contributing its own information to the "knowledge" of the combined seed which produces the child. This seems to be a common sense expression of what we would call today genetics based upon sober observation and deduction. The concept of two seeds: the seed of the woman and the seed of a man can be drawn from the book of Genesis 3. This, however, runs contrary to the contemporary teaching which sees the man as being the sole source of the seed with the womb merely acting as fertile ground, or perhaps, an incubator in which the seed can grow.

The second source often provides prescriptions/recipes detailing the ingredients and methods used for God's creation and the means which He has provided for His people to use them to obtain guidance and to participate in His healing and creative activity in this world.


Until the authenticity and the palaeographic dating of the scroll (or scrolls as the case may be) can be confirmed by photographs or the actual manuscript(s), we must be cautious not to make too much from the content of the text. However, if this would be confirmed unambiguously, then this new discovery may well prove to be an important witness or "missing link" to the connection between Qumran, early Christianity, and early Judaism during the first century of the Common Era.

S. Pfann 27.9.99

New Light on and Old Story

Posted by admin on December 25, 1993

Jesus’ Birth at Bethlehem

‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn’ (Luke 2:1-7).

For many of us, these words evoke the isolation, harshness, and difficulty which Mary and Joseph must have faced at Jesus’ birth. Images of cold, windswept, winter hills in Bethlehem, overcrowded inns, and a futile attempt to find housing in a strange city paint a bleak picture of the first Christmas, one that fills our Western hearts with sympathy for the new mother and her babe.

And yet, the circumstances of the first Christmas may not have been as bleak as we sometimes think. Understanding that Jewish society at the time of Jesus’ birth was traditional and eastern, several questions arise when we read this passage, questions that receive a fresh answer in this context.

The Judean Connection

When Joseph and his pregnant wife Mary made the journey to Bethlehem, they were returning to his ancestral home, the place where his family originated and in which, undoubtedly, some relatives still lived. From the gospels and early church historians we see glimpses of the network of relatives that Joseph and Mary had living in Judea: Zachariah and Elizabeth lived near Jerusalem; John the Baptist ministered in the Judean wilderness; and Jesus’ brother James later became the head of the Jerusalem church and was well respected by all the Jews living in Jerusalem.

The Family Home

The family in traditional societies is made up of an extended group of people, with a patriarch at the head. Married children and their children usually lived with or near the father and mother. The authority and protection of the father extended to them and their respect and obedience was expected in return (cf. Luke 15). Relatives from other towns were welcomed by the patriarch and brought under his protection during their stay in his village.

The House

The architecture of the family home both today and in antiquity made provision for the occasional guest. The most common dwelling was the courtyard home which was multi-levelled. A lower room or cellar was used as a storeroom. In the hilly areas like Bethlehem, a cave adjacent to the courtyard might often be adapted for this purpose. Here the family’s prized or more vulnerable animals could be fed and sheltered at night, protected from the cold, thieves and predators. The main living area, partitioned into several sections, was on an upper level. It had a work and kitchen area, where the children often slept, and a separate bedroom for the parents. In a wealthier home, a third room would be added for guests and for entertaining. In Luke 2:7 the Greek kataluma can be translated either ‘inn’ or ‘guest room’ and may have referred to this room in the family home. The latter translation is to be preferred in light of the cultural and societal backdrop of Jewish family life. (It is worthwhile to note that later in Luke, the word kataluma is translated ‘upper room’ or ‘guest room’ [Luke 22:11-12] whereas Luke uses the word pundakeion to mean ‘inn’ in the story of the Good Samaritan [Luke 10:34.)

The Christmas Story

These facts may shed new light on the circumstances surrounding Jesus birth. The evangelist presents the picture of a census in Luke 2:1-7, in which all heads of household had to return to their cities of origin. For Joseph, it was Bethlehem. When they arrived, Joseph most likely went straight to his paternal home, seeking the help and protection of his relatives currently living there, and received it, for Mary was pregnant and Jewish custom would demand such a response. Some time passed, and ‘the time came for her to be delivered’.

Bethlehem—and this family’s guest room—were full of relatives and no private place existed for her to deliver her baby. No private place, that is, until someone had the bright and compassionate idea to suggest that she could have the baby down below, away from the crowded kataluma, in the warmth of the storeroom and animal’s cellar, and yet still be within the security of the family home. Jesus was safely born ‘in the city of David’ as the angels told the shepherds (2:11), and laid in a manger or feeding trough. That a child should be found lying in a manger was unique, and yet it may have reflected, not a situation of abandonment and isolation, but one of compassion and protection and of the order of family life in traditional Jewish society of the first century AD. It is interesting to note that the traditional site of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem is in the middle of the city, where the family homes would have stood in antiquity, and not in the surrounding countryside.

The Weather

Just a closing word on the weather! It must not have been too cold that night, since the shepherds and their flocks were out in the fields, as we read in Luke 2:8. In really cold weather, the sheep are kept indoors at night and graze outside during the day. So Jesus was probably born in mild weather.

These facts combine to create a warmer picture of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Mary and Joseph were not necessarily abandoned and alone in a strange city, but were likely incorporated into the larger, extended family of Joseph’s relatives where they found shelter, compassion, and protection on that special night when their precious baby was born.