Monday, October 06, 2008

Orthography of the High Priest Sarcophagus

Jim Davila has directed us to the discovery of an inscription on a sarcophagus dating from the Second Temple period, which reads ‏בן הכהן הגדול, "son of the High Priest."

I will leave the historical analysis to others who are better qualified. What interests me are the orthographical minutiae. The main two words, kohen and gadol, both give the opportunity for the use of matres lectionis (consonants used as vowel letters). However, only one word has a mater, ‏גדול. This is consistent with the vast majority of its occurrences in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible.

The spelling of the other word, ‏כהן, without a mater, is also consistent with its spelling in the Masoretic Text, where it never appears with a mater. Not very interesting, I know. However, in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the largest collection of Second Temple Hebrew texts that we have, the word appears with a mater in the majority of cases (‏כוהן), as does ‏גדול. This is true for both words even of the biblical texts.

The Mishnah has the same orthography as the Masoretic text, but for the expression "High Priest," it uses the phrase without the definite article: ‏כהן גדול. The same is true of the Hasmonean coins, but this may be for reasons of space.

So of the three ancient forms of this title (Masoretic tradition, Qumran, Mishnaic/numismatic), the sarcophagus is aligned with the Masoretic tradition. As far as I know, this has no historical implications. I just think it's interesting.

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