Not every dream in the Joseph story had a happy ending. The dream of Pharaoh’s chief baker, one of two court officials imprisoned with Joseph, had a particularly disturbing ending—as did the baker. But the baker’s true fate remains clouded behind centuries of uncertain Bible translation.

While Joseph was in Pharaoh’s prison, two of his fellow inmates—Pharaoh’s chief cupbearer and Pharaoh’s chief baker—had strange dreams, which Joseph interpreted for them, as recorded in Genesis 40. The cupbearer, sleeping on the left in the mosaic at left, dreamed that he saw a grapevine sprout three branches, which budded, blossomed and yielded ripe fruit. He reached out, plucked the grapes, pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and presented the cup to Pharaoh. Joseph told him that the three branches represented the three days that would pass before Pharaoh, during his birthday celebration, would lift up the cupbearer’s head1 and restore him to his former position. In transliterated Hebrew, Joseph’s prediction reads, “B’od shloshet yamim yisah Pharo et roshecha vahasiv cha al kanecha” (Genesis 40:13).

The chief baker, encouraged by this positive interpretation, told Joseph his dream too. Depicted at right in the mosaic, the baker dreamed that he had three baskets of bread for Pharaoh on his head and that birds ate from the top basket. With gallows humor, Joseph tells him that the three baskets represent the three days that would pass before Pharaoh would lift up the baker’s head too—right off his shoulders. The birds eating the bread, Joseph explains, represent the birds that will eat his flesh. According to rabbinic tradition, Joseph’s clever but cruel play on words—transliterated from Hebrew, “B’od shloshet yamim yisah Pharo et rosh cha me’alecha” (Genesis 40:19)—earned him another two years in prison.

Genesis 40:22 assures us that both of Joseph’s interpretations of his fellow inmates’ dreams came true. But in the baker’s case, there is little agreement among Bible versions about how exactly the baker was executed. After telling the baker that his head will be lifted off of him, Joseph adds that the baker will, literally, “hang” (talah) on a tree (Genesis 40:19). His grisly fate is alternatively translated (and understood) as being beheaded and hanged on a pole (New Revised Standard Version), hanged on a tree (Revised English Bible), impaled on a pole (New Jewish Publication Society), simply impaled (New American Bible) or hanged on a gallows (New International Version and the New Jerusalem Bible). Some of the Bible versions list one possibility in the verse and a second possibility in a footnote.

The mosaic immediately at left depicts still another interpretation—crucifixion. Here, too, he hangs from a tree (wood). The mosaic decorates the ceiling of the church of San Marco in Venice, Italy. An expert on these 12th-century mosaics, Johns Hopkins University professor Herbert L. Kessler, notes that the early Christian artists who made the mosaics probably drew their inspiration from a fifth-century Greek manuscript of Genesis called the Cotton Genesis, which translates talah (hanged) as anestaurose—“crucified.” The manuscript cites the work of the first-century A.D. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus as the authority for this interpretation.2 The mosaic merely shows the influence of this Greek translation.

But where did Josephus get anestaurose? Yeshiva College professor Louis Feldman, a specialist in Josephus, explained to BR that “Josephus, on a number of occasions, is guilty of anachronisms, taking biblical events and updating them.” Crucifixion was a Roman punishment “not known in the time of Joseph,” according to Feldman.