Aramaic became the lingua franca, or dominant language, of the Middle East from the Persian Period (5th cent. BC). Over time, the parent Aramaic script developed independently among the different nations and peoples who utilized it. Each of these developed forms of Aramaic script that are called national scripts. These national Aramaic scripts include Jewish (the square script used today in Hebrew publications), Syriac, Palmyrene, Nabataean, and Hatran, among others. In addition, each of these scripts has lapidary (engraved), formal, semiformal, and cursive forms, depending on the writing material being used. Due to the hazards of preservation, the lapidary forms of the scripts are often the primary writing style to have survived. Stone-cut inscriptions last much longer than texts written on parchment or papyrus, and, with the exception of Jewish Aramaic script, we have only meager examples of the other national scripts written on these more fragile materials. Ossuary inscriptions present a special category, especially when they are inscribed in charcoal, as this one is.
Bellarmino Bagatti originally read this inscription from right to left, as one would normally approach reading a Semitic inscription. He assumed that the national script that he was reading was the normal Jewish Aramaic script (with cursive tendencies), that was the predominant script among the ossuary inscriptions he had read thus far. He could quickly read the first name shin – mem – ayin – waw – nun = SHM‘WN, “Shimon” or “Simon” (although mem and ayin were a little unusual). The next word that would naturally be anticipated was “the son of” normally the Aramaic word beth – resh = BR, “bar”, and so it was, (but, again, with an unusual resh).
Pushing on, he had to make sense of some unusual letter forms which, combined, and with a bit of imagination he took to be: yodh – waw – nun – heh, YWNH, “Yonah” or “Jonah” (in which case, as it turns out, not a single letter was read correctly).
The final editor J.T. Milik in 1958 was more cautious. And although he did not reject outright the earlier reading as possible, he did suggest some alternatives for the patronym (i.e., father’s name; the third word in the inscription).
“The reading of the patronym, as luck would have it, is not sure. The reading proposed in Liber Annuus III, p. 162 (YWNH) remains possible, but other possibilities for it can equally be proposed, such as ZYNH corresponding to Zena of n. 21. The two cases of a supposed nun are both a little unusual and the heh is rather abnormal, although it has an affinity to ‘Palmyrene’. Alternatively, these last two letters can be considered as a single one, that is, a heh with a bifurcated left leg, that would have been inexpertly executed with a piece of charcoal; compare the double feature in the charcoal tracings of fig. 22,7 and 6; photo 80; and Liber Annuus VII, p. 247, fig. 16. In this case it would have to be read ZYH, ZWH, etc.” (Dominus Flevit, p. 83.) Milik, not correctly recognizing the form of the final letter, made the curious proposal that the last two letters should be combined and read as a defectively executed heh.”
The initial problem in reading this ossuary inscription began when Bagatti assumed that the inscription was written in the Jewish script normally utilized by the local Jewish population. However, Jerusalem of that day was an international city. A survey of the names preserved on the inscribed ossuaries of Dominus Flevit and the holdings of the Israel Antiquities Authority indicates that least 35% of the inscribed burials were of Jewish immigrants from other nations, as is noted by the languages found in the inscriptions. In Milik’s reading of the inscription, he noted that at least one letter bore an affinity to the related national “Palmyrene” script.
How should one read this inscription? First of all, because the inscription is written with charcoal on stone, and not carved into the stone with an engraving tool, comparison should be made with letter forms written on parchment or papyrus where shading and more graduated curves are employed. Secondly, it is important to note that many of the letter forms of the first name should not be used for determining the identity of the national script. This is because a comparison of cursive handwriting of many national scripts reveals that a number of the letter forms are quite universal. In particular, the letters yod, waw, bet, resh, ayin and shin are often written as straight or slightly curved lines, without the serifs or hooks that are typical of lapidary or pen-and-ink traditions.
As a methodological principle, one must identify those letter forms which are distinctive in order to assign a national script, and in this case, where charcoal was used, especially those letters where the writer spent the extra effort to add shading to the strokes. At the end of the day, it would have been far better for Bagatti and Milik to have started by reading from the end of the inscription. It is in the last letters of this inscription that the national script can be identified and the reading of the patronym can be ascertained.
Beginning with the last letter, this is apparently the most significant letter for identifying the national script of this ossuary inscription. The precursor of this form of alef can be found in the script known as “Seleucid Aramaic” script (cf. J. Naveh, Early History of the Alphabet: An Introduction to West Semitic Epigraphy and Palaeography. Jerusalem, Magness Press, (1982), pp. 147-151; “An Aramaic Inscription from El-Mal – A Survival of the ‘Seleucid Aramaic’ Script”, Israel Exploration Journal 25 (1975), pp. 117-123).
At least one other inscription written in this script has been discovered in Jerusalem. The most important witness was found on the sarcophagus of Queen Helene of Adiabene: reading “Sadan the Queen.”
Queen Helene of Adiabene’s tomb in Jerusalem and the sarcophagus with her inscription.
Queen Sadan’s (Helene’s) inscription according to J. Pirenne and J. Naveh.
The inscription, which was drawn at least twice, reads: “SDN MLKTA.” This inscription shares several letters in common with the Simon ossuary from Dominus Flevit (DF 11), including alef, mem, nun, and dalet/resh. In the drawings of both Pirrene and Naveh, the final letter, the alef, is strikingly parallel to the alef in the Dominus Flevit ossuary. The mem does bear some resemblance to that of the Dominus Flevit exemplar, but the left stroke pierces through the top of the right stroke. Dalet in the Syriac family of scripts is normally identical to resh. That being the case, the form of the dalet of the Sadan inscription is quite similar to that of the resh of the Dominus Flevit inscription. The final nun resembles that of DF 11, in that its tail curves or tilts backward under the word, as is typical of the Seleucid family of scripts, including Syriac and Palmyrene. The main difference between the two drawings has to do with the reading of the lamed (“L”, the second letter in the second word). The lamed is a diagonal line (potentially ending with a curve leftward – Pirenne).
Other examples from the Seleucid script family also provide valid parallels, as do examples from the Nabatean and Jewish national scripts. In the following table, the three script families: Syriac, Seleucid and Nabatean, are separated by double lines, respectively. The letters from DF 11 are included with the Seleucid script
Bagatti’s reading of YONAH in DF 11 was problematic for a number of reasons. If the word were truly YONAH, the short stroke of the yod should be followed by the long stroke of the waw. However, the reverse is actually the case on this ossuary; the longer stroke is first and the shorter stroke is second.
When we compare the letters to the exemplars from the Seleucid family of scripts above, a new reading emerges that is not beset by problems. The first letter of the patronym has a shaded head and form similar to the zayin of other exemplars from this script family. The second letter is clearly a yod, and is too short to be read as a waw. The third letter of the patronym appears closest to the lamed of the Seleucid Aramaic script and does not resemble the nun of the local Jewish Aramaic script nor of any other contemporary script. And the final letter, as noted above, is actually alef.
The cursive Seleucid Aramaic alphabet of this inscription; The new reading of the inscription: “SHIMON BARZILLA[I]”.
The patronym, based on Seleucid Aramaic script, should then be read as “ZYLA” and the full inscription as “SHM‘WN BR ZYLA,” “Shimon Bar Zilla.” Photos indicate some surface erosion exists to the left of the alef, which may allow for another letter, for example a yod, which would yield the reading SHM’WN BR ZYLA[I], that is, “Simon Barzilla(i)”. Milik’s suggested reading “Shimon bar Zinah” is closest to our reading. However, he neglected to note the Seleucid Aramaic alef and the lamed.
This new reading does, of course, exclude “Simon Bar Jonah” from the options and returns the discussion of the potential location of Simon Peter’s bones back to their traditional place, Rome.
Next, we will address the next obvious question: “Who was Simon Bar Zilla/Barzillai?”