Official Report on the James Ossuary

This report concentrates solely on the evidence of the writing system. As the evidence requires extensive discussions of background material, in order to keep this report within reasonable limits, people are referred to known experts in their fields on linguistic determination,* materials,** and textual evidence.*** 

By Dr. Rochelle I. Altman
Background data
Writing Systems

    Writing systems are systems in the precise dictionary meaning of the word: “A set or assemblage of things connected, associated, or interdependent, so as to form a complex unity; a whole composed of parts in an orderly arrangement according to some scheme or plan.” The interconnectedness of a writing system means that when we examine only a script system or a spelling system or a content system, we are creating boxes, separating the parts from the whole. Although it is much easier to examine small pieces, we must remember to put the pieces back into their appropriate places, or we lose three quarters of the information. 1

    These sub-systems consist of: a finite symbol-set, prescribed graphic symbols (script), writing limits, direction of writing, format, size, punctuation, comprehension (white space), orthographic, shape, and content systems.


    The content is important. Content establishes which script, size, and format system should be used. Content itself is determined by other factors: the current ruling powers, whether sacred or secular. In the phonetic-based writing systems, all the sub-systems had to be correct or the document was not the voice of authority.


    One term on the list of sub-systems may appear odd; nevertheless, “prescribed” is correct. Scripts are tightly bound to a culture's identity. Scripts were a people's visual statement of independence and identification. 2

    This last point cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Language does not identify a people: script does. When dealing with inter-ethnic texts, the script identifies a group within the larger context, not a koine. (Although commonly referred to, for example, as “bilingual inscriptions,” bi-ethnic is a more accurate designation.)

Script as Sub-System

    Scripts do not simply develop, nor are they merely collections of various available forms. Only when viewed from a distance of millennia can scripts be said to develop. Development implies a continuum; it suggests that one letter form changes here, another there, until finally a totally new script arrives.

    Methods develop; scripts do not develop -- they mutate. There may be an unfinished quality to random shards, but ancient formal or official inscriptions and tablets display fully-formed graphic symbol sets designed to work within their respective writing systems. 3

Mensural Base

    The mensural base of a writing system is the “ayin” in Semitic scripts and the “o” in Latin and Greek scripts. This is called the “o” base. The “o” base determines the height of the average graphs in the writing zone and the horizontal spacing between clusters of graphs, which are referred to as “expressions.” In Semitic writing systems, the spacing between expressions is one-half “ayin”; in Latin and Greek systems, the spacing between expressions is one “o.”


    Within a specific hierarchy, the size, shape, script, and format are determined by the social status of the author of a text: the higher the status, the wider the margins, the larger the size, the more formal the script. The largest documents are always those issued by the ruling power. 4

The Cuneiform Wedge

    A modern printed text tells us by its typeface whether its reading matter is serious or frivolous. Back in antiquity, as the cuneiform wedge, the starting wedge produced by the cuneiform wet surface writing technique, was the mark of an authoritative or official script, it was incorporated into all Western official or authoritative script designs. The method for incorporation into the various script designs divides into two distinct branches.

    Designs of Branch 1 incorporate the wedge into the starting strokes on the individual graphs and imitate very closely the shape of the wedge-and-thin-line cuneiform graph. Representatives of this branch include Hebrew Square Letter, African half-uncial, and the Insular family of fonts.

    In designs of Branch 2, the wedge is added as a finishing stroke. Designs of Branch 2 have two sub-divisions. (1) The scripts and fonts of sub-division one have thick finishing strokes. Representatives of this sub-division include the Aramaic font families and African Rustic Capitals. (2) Scripts and fonts of sub-division two have thin finishing strokes with wedges added. Representatives of this sub-division include Roman Capitals and Alexandrian-Roman Greek Biblical Uncials.

    Today we call the finishing strokes that imitate the cuneiform wedge in Branch 2 a serif. (The serif is the line across the bottom and the little hook on the top right and crossbar of, for example, “F.” 5


    According to Rahmani (1982) on Jerusalem burial practices, most ossuaries are from the period between 30/20 BCE-70 CE -- but by no means all. 6

    Human remains are not disinterred or displaced without very good reasons. Ossuaries appear in quantity when burial space is at a premium.

    Solutions to the burial space problem are quite varied. In Classical Greece, for example, low status people were buried in space-saving one-person shaft graves (with a tiny round marker on the spot with the necessary data). The Keramikon in Athens has many of these. In Italy, from the Renaissance until the late 19th-century, after 3 years, unless a family could afford an ossuary or pay another three years’ rent, the bones were dumped in a mass grave site -- usually a convenient quarry or crevice -- and filled with dirt layer by layer. In Athens, ossuaries are still used (metal boxes today); again, that three-year rent period runs. Even in modern Louisiana along the Mississippi, water seepage makes it impossible to dig graves of a reasonable depth; the bodies float to the surface. Burials are in family mausoleums set in “Cities of the Dead,” and bones are pushed down to make way for the latest arrival.

    In Jerusalem of the late first century BCE, the solution to the space problem was to use caves, usually carved out the soft rock. Each cave-tomb was the equivalent of a family mausoleum. Wrapped in shrouds, the bodies were either buried or left to decay until reduced to skeletons. At this point, the bones were collected and, if the family could afford it, placed in ossuaries -- boxes made of the local limestone. Afterwards, the boxes were stored in the family cave-tombs where they were stacked or stored side-by-side. The name on each box probably faced outwards where it could be read, for survivors would have come to visit the cave to say the prayers for the dead. 7

    As ossuaries contravene the normal rules for Jewish burial, the appearance of so many ossuaries in the period before the destruction of the temple is strong evidence that the cemeteries around Jerusalem were extremely short on normal burial space. (The post-70 reduction in ossuaries follows naturally enough from the removal of enough people from the area to reduce the need for bone-boxes. 8) It is not a question of an increase in “popularity” that accounts for the large number of ossuaries (and even empty unused boxes) but a lack of burial space. This increase also gives us information about the population density of a given area. The correlation between the space constraints indicated by the rise in ossuaries and the density of the population of a given area is natural.

Means of Identification on Ossuaries

     While today grave markers are carved by professionals, this was not the case in these Jewish ossuary inscriptions. The apparently wide variations in ossuary inscriptions comes from a simple fact: these ossuary inscriptions are covenants, vows to affirm continuing respect for the deceased in spite of having disinterred/disturbed his/her remains. As with any other vow, the text must be in the hand of the one making the vow. 9 Thus (as is noted in the literature), a surviving member of the family added the memorial data. 10

    The great majority of ossuaries for the first period (30/20 BCE - 70 CE) are decorated around the edges with the center left clear. Almost without exception, the inscriptions are just scratched into the boxes with anything handy -- a nail, a piece of glass, what have you -- and scrawled all over the box any which way by the relative(s) who collected the bones and deposited them in the boxes. Some are painted with ink and brush. There is one bone-box that the grieving family scratched the name on four or five times -- on the side, on the top. People were not concerned with the placement of the “inscriptions.”

    Over-carving of the handwriting of the text exactly as written by a professional carver is a standard practice for legally binding covenants, such as formal vows issued at a shrine or between parties to a contract. 11 Ossuary inscriptions, like votive cups and other such offerings, almost never are over-carved.

    In other words, all those ossuary inscriptions are holographs. Clearly, in such a mass of individual writing, literacy varied tremendously from semi-literates, who wrote only upon occasion and who did not have complete control of graph sizes and could not hold a straight line, to school-boys to scholars. Many “inscriptions” are by semi-literates. Some are clearly the holographs of literate people.

    There is a relationship between status and ossuary, but this does not reflect the wealth or social status of the encasketed individual(s) (up to three sets of same-family bones can be buried in one ossuary) but the level of literacy and status of the survivors. Thus, to determine the relationship between status and inscription, we would need information on the *survivors* in each case to know who, what, when, how, and why.

Size and Shape of Ossuaries

    Ossuaries were supplied by professional box makers, that is, the boxes were ready-made. From the diversity of decorations, people were given a choice as to which style they wished. They could even have a choice of legs or not. As the ossuaries were stacked or stored right next to each other in the family cave-tomb, for long term storage and visiting, the size of an ossuary tends towards an average of around 24 inches in length by 13-3/4 inches in height by 12 inches in width. The boxes were rectangular for ease of storage.

The James Ossuary

The Size and Shape of the James Ossuary

    The size and shape of the James Ossuary are non-standard. The box is custom-made. It is 20 inches in length; the shape is a trapezoid: 10 inches in width at one end and 12 inches at the other. The shape is not convenient for either stacking or side-by-side storage. Its dimensions suggest that the box was intended for one-person storage only. The trapezoidal shape would reduce the amount of room. As the bones were arranged in a specific order, the skull would have been at the 12 inches end. The leg bones are long and the angle would reduce the amount of space.

    The shape of the box bears a decided resemblance to a truncated Egyptian mummy case. The probability that this is indeed what was meant gains support when we turn to the inscription on the side of the box.

The Inscription on the James Ossuary

    The inscription on the “James” ossuary is anomalous. First, it was written by two different people. Second, the scripts are from two different social strata. Third, the first script is a formal inscriptional cursive with added wedges; the second script is partly a commercial cursive and partly archaic cursive. Fourth, it has been gone over by two different carvers of two different levels of competence.

Placement of the Inscription

    The inscription on the James ossuary is placed to the right hand side of the box, approximately one hand’s span in width from the outside edge and roughly one-third of the height of the box in distance from the top of the box. Contrary to all other known ossuaries where little attention is paid to the placement of the inscription, here the placement is clearly carefully calculated, and the first part of the inscription is balanced in proportion to the overall size of the box. This careful balance has been disturbed by the second part of the inscription.

The Two Parts of the Inscription

    The inscription is in two distinct parts. Below is the transcription by Ada Yardeni:

                              Y(QWBBRYWSP )XWW?Y#W(

    (The question mark is on the form that has been stated to be a dalet but is an open question. See below. The second vav is actually a yod that has been inexpertly over-carved. The above is encoded in the Michigan-Claremont encoding for computer manipulation.)

    The inscription has been translated as “Jacob son of Joseph brother of Joshua.”

    The two parts are not related; the differences between them are striking.

    Part one (Jacob son of Joseph) is written in a carefully executed and expertly-spaced *inscriptional* cursive -- including careful angles and added cuneiform wedges on the bets, the resh, and the yod.

    These added wedges give us information about the family of Ya’acob ben Yosef (but not him). These are not full wedges. The full wedge is reserved for official and authoritative documents only. The authoritative and/or official script is forbidden for use by the common people. Yet, here we find small wedges included in this formal I inscriptional cursive design. Priests would not use the official square script with full wedge for an inscription on an ossuary, nor would a government official. The addition of the wedges indicates a family with pretensions. 12

    In keeping with the careful placement of the inscription and the custom-made shape of the box, this part of the inscription was very probably written by the eldest son of a second generation, nouveau riche mercantile family. The shape of the box suggests that they also are quite likely to have had commercial connections in both Alexandria and Jerusalem. This would also accord with the nefesh, or pyramids, found among the tombs in the Kidron Valley. 13 The wedges also indicate that Jacob ben Josef probably lived and died during the age of Herod.

    Part two, Brother of Yeshua, could not be more different. The script is a poorly-executed, mostly *commercial* cursive without any sign of wedges. Mostly, commercial cursive is correct; the aleph and het are both archaic forms. In Paleo-Hebraic the het was “eared.” In cursive square script, the het retained its “ears” until the 2nd century BCE and then disappeared from standard use. 14 The third questionable graph is the one referred to as an “angular dalet.” The shape of this graph is exactly that of an archaic 6th-4th centuries BCE Greek cursive upsilon. At no point did a dalet, whether in cursive Paleo-Hebraic or cursive square, not have a “cup” at the top. This graph does not have even the smallest “cup” at the junction of the two parts of the graph. The graph in question looks like this:


    Whether the graph is an upsilon or a very poorly copied version of a dalet is irrelevant in the overall examination of the writing system. What is relevant are the clear and striking differences in the script and the execution between the two parts of the inscription. While it is customary to dismiss such differences as unimportant (“scribes are not typewriters”), here the differences between the two parts are glaring.

The Differences between the Two Parts of the Inscription

    In part 1, the script is formal. The left-hand “arm” of the ayin has an acute angle and the arm meets the lower extension cleanly at a precise distance from the right hand arm. The bets, resh, and yod have the reduced cuneiform wedge, and the yods are consistent in size and cannot be confused with the vavs.

    The person who wrote the first part of the inscription was necessarily a surviving member of the family. He was fully literate; he clearly was familiar with the formal square script (those cuneiform wedges), the writing is internally consistent, and this part of the inscription is his expertly written holograph. The ease with which he wrote on stone further implies a mercantile family; commercial contracts and real property transactions were often painted on stone and over-carved. The carver of the ossuary inscription was an expert.

    In part 2, the script is informal. The right-hand arm of the ayin curves and the left-hand arm has been over-written and widened to move the join from the lower extension at the right-hand arm to a position that more closely approximates that on the ayin in the first part. The ayin in the second part is completely different from the ayin in the first part. When we compare the two yod graphs in the first part with the yods in the second part, we immediately can see that this is a different person writing. One yod is distorted by a slip on the part of the carver and has no sign of a wedge.

    The other yod is at an angle running from left-to-right in contrast with yods in the first part, which are perpendicular. The yod in the second part does not have a wedge and does not resemble the yod in Yosef [ YWSP ] as written in part 1 which does have a wedge. The shin in the second part is wedgeless, does not belong to this script design, and certainly does not belong to the formal design of the first part. In the script design of the first part, the shin would have a small wedge on each arm, and both the left-hand and central strokes of the shin would be curved. The carving on the second part was executed by a competent, but not expert carver.

    The person who wrote the second part may have been literate, but it is doubtful that he was literate in Aramaic or Hebrew scripts. The script of the second part is a conglomeration of unrelated graphs from across the centuries and not a coherent script design. This peculiar diversity suggests that the writer chose graphs from examples on other ossuaries and/or documents stored in a tomb-cave or other dug-out family “mausoleum.” (Ossuaries in Greek-Hebrew and Greek-Aramaic have been found. Perhaps the questionable upsilon/dalet is the result of imitating the inscription on one of these dual language ossuaries.)

    Once again, the writing in this part is internally consistent in its inconsistencies. Part 2 has the characteristics of a later addition by someone attempting to imitate an unfamiliar script and write in what could have been the correct “archaic” spelling for the language of the right period.

Text Security Measures

    There is yet another point that we must address. Much as in writing on lined paper, stone scribes used frames to align and keep their writing straight. 15 In this case, the frame would have been held against the right-hand edge of the box. From the professional quality of the over-carving on the first part of the “James” box, it seems quite possible that the professional who made the box to order held the frame for the son, who wrote the name in ink with a brush, and then the box-maker over-carved the handwriting.

    The carver sometimes marked the frame on the surface and sometimes left the surrounding surface blank. The frame is always visibly marked in official or authoritative inscriptions and frequently appears on other stelae, small inscriptions, and funerary markers. 16 The frame will always be used when someone wants to protect the inscribed words from possible alteration.

    In accord with the script, custom-made shape, and carefully balanced placement of the first part of this inscription, there would definitely have been a frame. Where is the frame?
The original frame would have been the barest minimum distance, one-quarter ayin from the text and have appeared something like this:


    The person who wrote the second part could not hold a straight line; it is also clear that he did not use a frame when a frame clearly was used on the first part. Nor was he accustomed to writing on stone. The text would have been written in ink. Limestone absorbs ink; mistakes cannot be erased. Although the second carver was not as professional as the carver of the first part, we cannot blame the carver for the incongruous mix of graphs from different centuries nor for their inexpert execution. It becomes increasingly clear what happened to the frame: it was removed to add the second part of this inscription.

    We must also ask: Why would anyone bother to add extra identification to the original inscription? The box would have been placed in the family “mausoleum,” a family cave-tomb. A child of Jacob bar Yosef would be identified as X bar Jacob. If X then had a son named after Jacob, then the child in turn would have been Jacob bar X. If, by any chance somewhere down the line we again had a Jacob bar Yosef, the inscription would read Jacob bar Yosef bar X to distinguish him from his who-knows-how-many-times great-grandfather.

    What if Jacob bar Yosef had a brother named Yeshua? Then the ossuary would have been “inscribed” Yeshua bar Yosef 17 and placed in the family cave-tomb. The family would know who was meant. There was no reason for any member of Jacob bar Yosef’s family to have added the second part of the inscription.

    There are other odd points, such as some question as to whether the inscription is incised or excised. While Ada Yardeni’s transcription in BAR shows the inscription as mixed incised-excised with raised sections, as does the photograph, Andre Lemaire states that it is incised. This question is not really relevant as it does not change the concrete evidence given by careful examination of the complete writing system.


   If the entire inscription on the ossuary is genuine, then somebody has to explain why there are two hands, two different scripts, two different social strata, two different levels of execution, two different levels of literacy, and two different carvers. They could also explain where the frame has gone.

    The ossuary itself is undoubtedly genuine; the well-executed and formal first part of the inscription is a holographic original by a literate (and wealthy) survivor of Jacob bar Yosef, probably sometime during the Herodian period. The second part of the inscription bears the hallmarks of a fraudulent later addition, probably around the 3rd or 4th centuries, and is questionable to say the least.

  1. Altman, R.I.S (in review). Absent Voices: The Story of Writing Systems in the West. 1.
  2. Altman, Absent, 11; Goody, Jack. 1987 (1982). The Interface between the Written and the Oral. Cambridge, 56.
  3.  - - - . Absent, 23.
  4.  - - - . 2003. “The Size of the Law: Document Dimensions and their significance in the Imperial Administration,” in Linda Jones Hall, ed., Confrontation in Late Antiquity: Imperial Presentation and Regional Adaptation. Cambridge.
  5.  - - -. Absent, 6.
  6.  Rahmani, L. V. 1982. “Ancient Jerusalem's Funerary Customs and Tombs.” Biblical Archaeologist: 45, 109.
  7.  Many ossuaries have the name scrawled on the top, indicating that these boxes were stored side-by-side, rather than stacked.
  8.  There are three separate periods of ossuary use. The first ended with the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. The second runs from 70 CE to 135 CE and is marked by the extension of ossuaries into the Galilee. The third period runs from the late 2nd through the 3rd century CE.
  9.  Berlinerblau, Jacques. 1996. “The vow and the ‘popular religious groups’ of ancient Israel: a philological and sociological inquiry.” Sheffield. Cartledge, Tony W. 1992. Vows in the Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East. Sheffield. Altman, R. I. 2001. “Report on the Zoilos Votive Inscription from Tel-Dan.” ORION: Abstracts and Papers.
  10.  Rahmani, L. V. 1961. “Jewish Rock-cut Tombs in Jerusalem.” ‘Atiqot: 3. 117-118.
  11.  The thank-you note to the goddess Molqedet written by Bar Haddad Bar Rechem-Tov Bar Hezion, being vowed at a shrine, is an over-carved holograph. (There were a number of kids with the name Bar Haddad. Note the multiple Bar X formula used for same-name in another generation.) For the techniques used in “assembly-line” votive inscriptions, see Altman, 2001, “Zoilos.”
  12.  An amusing example of this type of "status" use of an official script can be seen in the early 14th-century Auchinleck Manuscript. The MS is a one-book library, not a cheap production but not an expensive one either. These books were normally placed on book stands and left open at the center. The book is executed in contemporary scripts, except for 4 leaves exactly at the center. On these four leaves is a list of Norman Barons executed in the official script of 100 years earlier. One wonders whom the gentleman claimed as ancestor.
  13.  Hachlili, R. 1981. “The Nefesh: The Jericho Column Pyramid,” Palestine Exploration Quarterly: 113, 33-38.
  14.  A well-known fact of paleography is that one older scribe can throw dating off by years. The Habbakuk Pesher has examples of the “eared” het. The Pesher is holographic. This means that (a) the Pesher is earlier than normally dated or (b) that the person who wrote the Pesher learned to write in the 2nd BCE and was an old man at the time he wrote the Pesher if dated to the 1st BCE.
  15.  For further information on frames see The Ioudaios-L Discussion List under Wed., 30 Oct. 2002. Subject: Ossuary. Author: John Lupia
  16.  Framing as an anti-fraud technique is widespread. A good example of a triple frame may be seen on the Uzziah sepulchral plaque. A simple raised frame can be seen on the Cippus on the Roman forum. Almost without exception, Official Imperial inscriptions are framed. The funerary inscription of Consul Lucius Mummus, the conqueror of Corinth, dated in 146 BCE does not have an extra frame; the inscription fills the entire block from side to side and from top to bottom and hence does not need a frame. Greek funerary inscriptions generally have a frame. The frame of the Salambo inscription (Neo-Punic) is formed by the entire writing area being excised and the inscription itself is incised into the excised area.
  17.  There are, in fact, two ossuaries inscribed “Yeshua bar Yosef.” These are numbers 9 and 704 in: L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel. Jerusalem: The Israel Antiquities Authority, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. 1994. Both are typical: ready-made with scratched grafitti-like “inscription.”

    * On the dialect of the inscription, see Paul Flesher's column in Religion Today.

    ** Courtesy of John Lupia, art historian and expert on the materials who sums up the physical evidence for possible fraud.

    When I first saw digital photographs of the so-called James Ossuary, I immediately knew the inscription was fake without giving a paleographic analysis for two reasons: biovermiculation and patina.

    Biovermiculation is limestone erosion and dissolution caused by bacteria over time in the form of pitting and etching. The ossuary had plenty, except in and around the area of the inscription. This is not normal. The patina consisted of the appropriate minerals, but it was reported to have been cleaned off the inscription. This is impossible since patina cannot be cleaned off limestone with any solvent or cleanser since it is essentially baked-on glass. It is possible to forge patina, but when it is, it cracks off. This appears to be what happened with the ossuary.

    With these observations, I immediately knew the inscription could not be authentic regardless of what any paleographer might say in favor of it since the physical aspects are prima facia evidence of forgery.

     ***For textual evidence see Robert Eisenman's article in the Los Angeles Times, 30 Oct. 2002: "Too Pat." Further textual questions may be sent via Ioudaios or directly to Steve Mason.

     I wish to thank Paul Flesher for his private comments on the dialect of the inscription. Many thanks also to John Lupia, Steve Mason, and Isidoros Kioleoglou for reading this report in advance. Any errors that remain are mine.

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