Remarks On The Aramaic Of The James Ossuary

The short phrase ahuy d'Yeshua in the James Ossuary is perfectly acceptable Aramaic for the first century CE.

By Edward M. Cook
Cincinnati, OH
November 2003

    Although many have wished to consign the "James Ossuary" to the dust heap of history, it continues to engender passionate comment. My own position on this artifact is still undecided. However, I do not believe that the ossuary, if authentic, tells us much that we did not already know from Galatians, one of the earliest, and most unquestionably authentic of the Pauline epistles, which refers to "James the Lord's brother" (1:19). The most the ossuary can do is confirm something that no one has seriously doubted.

    If I do choose this moment to enter the discussion, it is because several comments have been made about the Aramaic dialect of this inscription, which are unfounded or misleading. These comments center on the second part of the inscription that reads ahuy d'Yeshua, "brother of Jesus." It has been claimed that certain elements of this phrase are uncharacteristic of first-century Aramaic.

    First, let me break down the grammar of this short phrase. The first word consists of the word "brother," which in Aramaic has the form ahu before pronominal suffixes to which is joined the masculine singular pronominal ending y, yielding ahuy, "his brother." The second word consists of the relative pronoun d-, here with the meaning "of," followed by the personal name "Yeshua." The phrase as a whole, translated literally, is "his brother, of Jesus," or more idiomatically, "the brother of Jesus."

    I should point out that the syntax of this phrase is exactly what would be expected. By the time of the 2nd century BCE, Aramaic had developed three ways of forming genitive phrases: (1) the ordinary construct phrase consisting of two words, the first "in construct" with the second, e.g., beyt malka, "the house of the king"; (2) two words joined by the relative pronoun di or d, e.g., bayta di malka, "the house of the king"; and (3) a variant of the second type, when the first word in the genitive pair has a suffix agreeing with the second word in the pair, e.g., beyteh di malka, "his house, of the king." The James Ossuary is of the third type.

    Although I have illustrated the forms with the same word pairs, in fact the types are used in different ways. The third type is most often used when the speaker wishes to stress the closeness of the connection between the two words or that the first word is the "inalienable possession"1 of the second word, usually a name. An example from Biblical Aramaic is the _expression shemeh di elaha, "his name, of God" = "the name of God" from Daniel 2:20. Another example, this time from Qumran Aramaic, is the phrase qaleh di iyyob, "his voice, of Job" = "the voice of Job" from the Job Targum from Cave 11 (38:2). The third type of genitive comes to be used very often with kinship terms such as "son of," "father of," "brother of," and so on. An example from Qumran is the _expression breh di El, "his son, of God" = "the son of God" from the controversial text 4Q246. An example from an ossuary of the first century CE found in Jericho is "Shelamzion, emmeh di Yehoezer," i.e., "his mother, of Jehoezer" = "the mother of Jehoezer."2 Thus the _expression ahuy d'Yeshua, "his brother, of Jesus," fits in perfectly with this usage.

    So much for the syntax of the phrase. What about the morphology? Paul Flesher has claimed that the form of the pronominal suffix in the ossuary is characteristic of later Aramaic and thus cannot have been used in the first century CE. Flesher says of this ending:

In texts and inscriptions of first-century AD and BC Judea, it is nearly always spelled -uhy. There is only one instance of the shorter spelling: in an unusual text called the Genesis Apocryphon (21:32-22:1). The text's editor, Dr. Fitzmyer, assumed it was a spelling error. In all known Jerusalem Aramaic inscriptions, it is spelled -uhy. In Jewish Palestinian Aramaic of Galilee in the late second century and beyond, the -uy spelling is the main one in both inscriptions and texts.3

    Flesher is right in that intervocalic he has often disappeared in later Aramaic so that forms like ahuhi, "his brother," have almost always changed to ahuy. However, since this change cannot have happened overnight, it must have begun to occur before it first becomes prevalent in written texts. Typically, language changes at the level of speech and these changes only gradually find their way into written documents. Before these "spoken" forms become the new standard, they are often found as vernacular variants or intruders in formal texts. Such is the case with ahuy. Flesher admits there is that one occurrence in the Genesis Apocryphon,4 which reads Lot bar ahuy di Abram, "Lot, the son of his brother, of Abram" = "Lot, the son of Abram's brother." Not only the form of the word but the syntax of the phrase is the same as the James Ossuary. It is not strange to find occasional usages characteristic of later dialects in earlier texts, as most philologists recognize.

    Also, Flesher did not cite, and perhaps was not aware of, another occurrence of the same spelling with the same syntax in another ossuary, no. 570 of the Rahmani catalogue,5 which reads "Shimi, son of Asiya, ahuy d'Hanin." The last phrase is "his brother, of Hanin" = "the brother of Hanin." This is an exact parallel to the James Ossuary.

    Indeed, the testimony of the Shimi Ossuary is so damning to the case for forgery that some have claimed that the Shimi Ossuary was the template from which the forger of the James Ossuary worked. Esther Eshel, in the official report of the Israel Antiquities Authority, claims that the paleography of the Shimi Ossuary in the words ahuy d- has a "surprising resemblance" to the same words in the James Ossuary.6 Although I am not going to discuss paleography, I will say that I do not see any extraordinary resemblance in the letters in question, especially the aleph and daleth, the most diagnostic of these forms for paleographic typology.7

    But the most interesting attempt to undercut the evidence from the Shimi Ossuary as it bears on the James Ossuary comes from a recent contribution from Jeffrey Chadwick, who wishes to read the Shimi Ossuary in a different way. He believes the letters read as ahuy d'Hanin actually should be read ahi Yohanin, "brother of Yohanin," with the offending yod of the supposed ahuy being no letter at all:

The short diagonal mark between the two long letters should not be read as a yod, since it is so dissimilar to all the other yods of the inscription - it was either a carving slip or a divider separating the yod of ahi from the yod of Yohanin. And if that little mark is not a yod, then the word "ahui" does not exist in the inscription. It cannot be used as a parallel to the alleged appearance of "ahui" on the Yakov bar Yosef Ossuary.8

    The problem with this solution, and it is insuperable, is that the form ahi is not Aramaic at all! The construct form of the word "brother" in Aramaic is ah, not ahi. The latter form is Hebrew. Chadwick seems to be claiming that the carver of the Shimi Ossuary began his 5-word text in Aramaic and ended it in Hebrew. Although Hebrew titles sometimes appear in Aramaic ossuaries,9 it is unlikely that Aramaic and Hebrew kinship terms would both be used in the same ossuary. Chadwick's "solution" therefore must be set aside.10

   Finally, the form of the relative pronoun must be examined. Flesher writes that the inscriptions offer no parallel to the James Ossuary's usage of the word translated "of," the Aramaic d-.

    The James' inscription actually spells out the "of" using the Aramaic letter for "d." This frequently happens in the Aramaic translation texts (i.e., the Palestinian Targums) and the inscriptions of the later dialect of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. In the Aramaic inscriptions found in Jerusalem, however, this form never appears.

    I am not sure what Flesher is claiming here. If he means that only the construct type of genitive occurs in epigraphic material, then counter-examples are readily at hand, including the instances already cited above.

    But perhaps he refers to the spelling of the Aramaic relative pronoun. The "standard" Aramaic relative pronoun in Judean Aramaic is the word di. In later Aramaic di is shortened to the form d- followed by a reduced vowel. In the first-century-BCE Aramaic of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the form di is usually used, but the form d- appears over 50 times in many different scrolls, showing that it was coming into common use. And, contra Flesher, the form does appear in inscriptions. Even if the Shimi Ossuary is discounted, d- occurs in the Givat ha-Mivtar Abba Inscription11 from the late 1st century BCE and in the Jebel Hallet et-Turi Ossuary from the same period.12 Both are from the Jerusalem area.13

    In summation, the short phrase ahuy d'Yeshua in the James Ossuary is perfectly acceptable Aramaic for the first century CE. Its morphology and its syntax are consistent with expected developments in Aramaic and are paralleled by other occurrences in other texts from the same period or earlier.

    Is the James Ossuary authentic? Maybe, maybe not. But any final answer will have to come on non-linguistic grounds.


[1] For "inalienable possession" in the Aramaic genitive construction, see David Golomb, A Grammar of Targum Neofiti (Harvard Semitic Monographs 34; Chico: Scholars Press, 1985), pp. 218-221.

[2] See R. Hachlili, "The Goliath Family in Jericho: Funerary Inscriptions from a First Century A.D. Jewish Monumental Tomb," BASOR 235 (1979), p. 42. The paleography of these inscriptions deserves comparison with the James Ossuary.

[3] Paul Flesher, "Does James' Ossuary really refer to Jesus Christ?" Bible and Interpretation website.

[4] It is unclear why Flesher refers to the Genesis Apocryphon, the longest preserved Aramaic text among the Dead Sea Scrolls, as "unusual," unless he wishes somehow to delegitimize the evidence it offers. Its language and contents are not unusual at all from a philological standpoint.

[5] L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994).

[6] Quoted in Andre Lemaire, "Ossuary Update: Israel Antiquities Authority's Report on the James Ossuary Deeply Flawed," BAR (Nov./Dec. 2003), p. 57.

[7] Eshel's statement has been adequately answered by Andre Lemaire in BAR.

[8] Chadwick, "Indications that the 'Brother of Jesus' Inscription is a Forgery," Bible and Interpretation website.

[9] For instance, a tomb inscription from Mount Scopus reads in part br hnzyr, "son of the Nazirite." The first word is Aramaic; the second is Hebrew. J. Fitzmyer, Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts (Rome, 1978), p. 178 (no. 122).

[10] Ironically, Chadwick says "The first forger [of the James Ossuary] probably did not even know the difference between ancient Aramaic and Hebrew." The name "Yohanin" is also unusual since the standard form is "Yohanan" or "Yehohanan."

[11] In line 7, see J. Fitzmyer, Manual, p. 168, no 68.

[12] Fitzmyer, Manual, p. 168, in no. 69, line 2.

[13] A more detailed analysis of the ossuary from Dr. Flesher, with additional citations and evidence, will soon be published in Journal of the Aramaic Bible.

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.