Friday, March 9, 2007

Who's your daddy? The contribution of Patronymics to the Talpiot ossuary inscriptions

The ancient practice of patronymics--of naming people based on their fathers--spans both continents and centuries. Examples from four different languages are Johnson, Ben-Gurion, Ibn Ezra, and Barnabas. On the Society of Biblical Literature Forum, Christopher Rollston, Professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Emmanuel School of Relgion, helpfully explains the significance of patronymics for the current Jesus tomb debate. Rollston's point is simply that it is irresponsible to imply that we can know how the tomb's various occupants are related since only two of the inscribed names (Yehudah bar Yeshua and Yeshua bar Yosep) have patronymics:
without patronymics it is not possible for someone in the modern period to ascertain the precise kinship relationships of antiquity
He is not the first to note that the nuclear family the Jacobovici team claims to have found is only one of many possible configurations. But he may be the first to press the point based on the regretable lack of explicit father-child relationships among the inscriptions. Here's what Rollston has to say about Jose/Josah, the name Jacobovici matches with Jesus' brother Jose (Mark 6:3):
Yoseh could be the son of Mattiyah, or the son of Yehudah, or the son of Yeshua'. Perhaps, he was the father of Maryah, or the father of Miriamne, or Mattiyah. Maybe he is the uncle of one of these. Perhaps, Yoseh was the son or father or brother or uncle of someone who was buried in one of the ossuaries that does not contain an inscription. It is possible to suggest that he was a cousin of someone in the tomb. Not all of these are mutually exclusive, but ultimately, because there is neither patronymic, statement of relationship (e.g., brother), or title, any suggestion about the relationship of Yoseh to those interred here remains conjecture and speculation. (emphasis added)
You get the idea: the lack of patronymics dooms us to uncertainty regarding the various family relationships in the Talpiot tomb. But it seems to me that James Tabor, Simcha Jacobovici and Andrey Feuerverger would conceed the point. Their argument only requires that the collocation of these four names--Jesus, Joseph, Mary and Jose (with only one father-child relationship specified)--be sufficiently improbable that it would not have occured more than once in, say, every 600 familes. Rollston's point carries weight: we can only guess at how to draw the family tree. But it is not clear to me that it defeats the argument from probability.

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