Onomastics and Statistics in Second Temple Judaism

By Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
University of Toronto
IUEJ Elie Wiesel, Paris
July 2012

This essay is, for the most part, an excerpt from my contribution in the forthcoming Eerdmans volume on the Talpiot Tomb A, the so called “Jesus Family Tomb.”

Various statistical studies have been undertaken by scholars, including K. Kilty and M. Elliot, A. Fuerverger and C. Fuchs, on the cluster of names found inscribed on the ossuaries of the Talpiot Tomb A. One may read their contributions especially in the forthcoming above-mentioned Eerdman’s volume.

Statistics applied to onomastics in Second Temple Judaism were already used by André Lemaire in the context of the so called “James Ossuary.”1

For the statistical analysis of the Talpiot Tomb A, the so-called “Jesus Family Tomb,” in my judgment, one has to follow a strict methodology. First, in order to make a relevant statistical analysis based on the prosopography of early Roman Palestine, one has to establish a sample based on the whole spectrum of contemporary sources at our disposal. In my book2 (Cohen-Matlofsky 2001), I carefully did so.

A sample based exclusively on ossuary inscriptions would be erroneous by nature for at least two reasons:

  1. not all Jewish residents of early Roman Palestine practiced the secondary burial in an ossuary, let alone with an inscription
  2. it seems at least that some Diaspora Jews buried their dead in and around Jerusalem for resurrection purposes as recommended in the Old Testament. Therefore it would be impossible and erroneous to draw conclusions of a statistical nature from deceased people’s names found in funerary inscriptions of early Roman Palestine, about the living population at the time in this country.

In my research, I drew names from the writings of Flavius Josephus and other ancient authors, biblical, and rabbinical sources, including the New Testament , the documents of Qumran, Murabba’at and other caves of the Judean desert and finally the archeological material, especially funerary inscriptions mostly found in rock-cut tombs excavated in and around Jerusalem. In terms of chronology, my window is 63 BCE to 138 CE. Therefore, my sample for the distribution of names in early Roman Palestine is indeed broader than just ossuary inscriptions and is more reliable than T. Ilan’s lexicon since the latter comprises data from 330 BCE to 200CE as noted by Andrey Fuerverger himself.3

Therefore to be really scientific for the purpose of the statistical analysis of the Talpiot Tomb A, one should carefully use in Ilan’s lexicon, exclusively the names found in Roman Palestine sources of people known to have lived between 63 BCE and 70 CE. As if this were not a challenge big enough, Rahmani’s catalog of ossuaries has to be completed with the Israel Antiquities Authority’s collection that should have, compiled, all the ossuaries found after 1994, the second edition of Rahmani’s CJO. In the meantime, the most recent Corpus of Judaean and Palestinian inscriptions of Hannah Cotton and al., at our disposal since 2010, must also be taken into consideration.4

However following my reasoning in the lines above my sample is the most relevant for statistical analysis since the spectrum of my sources is exhaustive and my chronological window is the closest to the Talpiot Tomb A’s.

Moreover Ilan and I sometimes disagree on renditions of names. This explains why in my results Yochanan (and variables) comes as the second most common name after Shimon; Yeshua` (withYa`aqob) is the least common male name in my list. I also come up with many more variables of the name Shlomsion than Ilan does; therefore, in my chart, it is the most common female name before Maria (and variables).

In order to use statistics in a historical perspective, one does not need necessarily an exhaustive list but rather a chronologically correct sample taken from all the sources at our disposal.

I propose to draw a revised chart of name distribution in early Roman Palestine based on Cohen-Matlofsky 2001: 194, as follows:

On a sample of 549 Jewish names taken in either Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek from the various sources, there were among the male names:

43 Shim`on and variables [Simai, Simewn (read Simeon), Simwn (read Simon)]
41 Yehochanan and variables [Ananias, Ananos, Chanan, Chananah, Chananyah, Chanin, Chanina, Choni, Iwanhs (read Ioanes), Iwanna (read Ioanna), Iwannes (read Ioannes), Yechoni, Yochanan]
37 ‘El`azar and variables [Elazaros, Eleazar, Eleazaros]
31 Yehoseph and variables [Iwshph (read Ioseph), Iwshphos (read Iosephos), Iwshpos (read Iosepos), Yoseh, Yoseph]
27 Yehudah and variables [Iouda, Ioudas, Ioudhs (read Ioudes)]
13 Yehonathan and variables [Iwnathhs (read Ionathes)]
10 Ya`aqob and variables [Iakkwbos (read Iakkobos), Iakwbos (read Iakobos)]
10 Yehoshua` and variables [Ihsous (read Iesous), Yeshua`]

Among the female names were:

26 Shlomsion and variables [Salamsi, Salampsiw (read Salampsio), Salwmh (read Salome), Selampsin, Shalom, Shlomsi, Shlomsin]
24 Miryam and variables [Mara, Maria, Mariah, Mariam, Mariamh (read Mariame), Mariammh (read Mariamme)].

As for the names of the Talpiot Tomb A, in light of the chart above: Yeshua` is the least common, Yehudah is the fifth least common, Mathiah is not even listed among the top 8 most common male names. I have treated Yoseh as a rare rendition of the name Yehoseph. Mariam/Mar(i)a is not the first most common female name in early Roman Palestine. Concerning the “cluster of names” as found in the Talpiot Tomb A, I wish the statisticians could revisit it in light of the above.


1 See A. Lemaire, “Burial Box of James, Brother of Jesus,” BAR, 28, (2002): 24-33.

2 See C. Cohen-Matlofsky, Les Laïcs en Palestine d’Auguste à Hadrien: étude prosopographique, Paris, 2001.

3 See A. Fuerverger, “Statistical Analysis of an Archeological Find,” in Annals of Applied Statistics, 2, 2008, pp. 3-54, especially p.15.

4 H. Cotton et al. Eds, Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/
Palaestinae, Volume I Jerusalem Part I, Walter De Gruyter, 2010.

*No part of this article may be reproduced in any format, electronic, print, or otherwise, without the expressed written permission of the author. Expressed written permission has been granted to the on-line journal, Bible and Interpretation. The article will be reproduced in its entirety, with expressed permission, in an upcoming book.

Comments (3)

Claude, this is a most welcome contribution and it seems to me you have made some real improvements in our methods and assumptions regarding these names in the tomb. I very much look forward to seeing you contribution in the forthcoming Charlesworth volume. From the contents it will contain much that is new and of value. I will see if one of our colleagues who has worked on the stats might attempt to see where these observations leave us. I think Jerry Lutgen, who has done a lot of work on the "assumptions" and variables, would be particularly interested in working through this. His articles on on this site, if you are not familiar with them.

#1 - James D. Tabor - 07/26/2012 - 20:11

Thanks James I look forward to anyone taking the challenge.

#2 - Claude Cohen-Matlofsky - 07/27/2012 - 06:00

Claude, I am glad that someof your conclusions here match my suggestions. It is very important that different works, on different sources, render similar conclusions. Thank you!

#3 - Eldad Keynan - 10/26/2012 - 05:35

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