Eric Meyers on the Talpiot Tombs
by James Tabor
In a recent interview with two Duke University professors, Mark Goodacre and Eric Meyers, just put on-line in the campus newspaper, The Chronicle, there is a most interesting quotation attributed to Eric Meyers:
When asked “What is the Talpiot tomb” Eric wrote the following (emphasis mine):
“It’s Talpiot Tomb B. The first one is the one in which the James Ossuary was discovered. Those are approximately 100 feet apart and the story about each of them is interconnected in this way. I don’t know any serious scholars who have followed [Jacobovici and Tabor] in this, but they believe that the previous Talpiot Tomb A where the James Ossuary was found provided the earliest evidence of the family of Jesus…. Moreover, they say they have found the powders of the bones that have Jesus’ DNA…. The two tombs constitute the historic burial of Jesus—not the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which 95 percent of all Christians and all serious architects (sic) agree is the burial place of Jesus…. It is a preposterous, unfounded view taking advantage of the gullibility of the public and its insatiable appetite for sensational stories…. It undermines the modern study of the New Testament and is an inappropriate misunderstanding of ancient Judaism as well.”
The intemperate language about personal motivations in the last two sentences is unfortunate in that I have offered a solid academic treatment of my position on the Talpiot tombs both in my published papers and in the book, The Jesus Discovery, which, though written for the non-specialist, is fully documented and carefully argued. If Prof. Meyers wants to offer substantive counter arguments he should do so but this sort of language is in my view out of place and unfortunate among colleagues. But leaving that aside there are three things that I find quite surprising in Prof. Meyer’s statement:
First, does Prof. Meyers actually think that the James ossuary was discovered in Talpiot tomb A? I know he thinks the inscription is likely a forgery, in part or in whole, but as for its provenance I have never heard him say he thought it was from Talpiot. If such be the case then it would seem he would agree that the statistics on the names on this tomb will go off the roof in favor of identification with the Jesus family.
Second, so far as the assertion that no “serious scholars” have supported the possible-to-probable identification of the Talpiot “Jesus tomb” with Jesus of Nazareth Prof. Meyers has apparently not done much reading over the past few years on this topic. Just the articles up on the web site Bible & Interpretation alone, would demonstrate that such is not the case. See for example, the small sampling I cite in a recent post on this blog, urging my colleagues to “keep up with the latest” on Talpiot rather than repeating mantras such as “the names are common” which have been completely refuted by qualified “serious” scholars. There are also a number of papers coming out in the Princeton volume edited by James Charlesworth (Eerdmans, 2012) by a dozen or so “serious scholars,” who also support, to one degree or another, the possible-to-probable identification of the site with that of Jesus and his family. In the area of historical research we always end up dealing with probabilities. I would say the Talpiot Jesus tomb has a high probability of being that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Regardless of whether one says “possible,” “likely,” or “highly probably,” it is surely not the case that this identification is just a crazy sensationalist idea concocted to make money–or that it does violence to the proper academic study of ancient Judaism and early Christianity?
Finally, since Prof. Meyers is convinced that Jesus was buried in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which we can surely grant for arguments sake, he certainly knows that his body did not stay there but according to all our accounts that tomb was empty and remains empty to this day. So what happened to the body? I assume, as Eric is both a Jew and a historian, that he does not take literally mythological tales of the recessitation of corpses or mortals ascending to heaven–a common motif in the hellenistic world for many such “divine men.” In other words, surely he does not believe the corpse of the historical Jesus returned to life, walked out of the tomb, and ascended to heaven. That would leave the option that after an initial burial before Passover, as the gospels say, in an unused and unfinished tomb that happened to be near the place of crucifixion, in terms of history–not theology, his body would have been buried elsewhere. So it follows that the idea of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as this initial place of burial would not preclude a tomb of Jesus and his family being found elsewhere in Jerusalem, likely in the Necropolis of 3000 tombs that surround the Old City from this time. Since all of our sources, inside and outside the New Testament, have Joseph of Arimathea taking responsibility for Jesus’ legal and proper burial it is not unlikely that he would have taken charge. I am unclear as to how this very historical possibility–and really is there any other than that Jesus’ body was buried elsewhere–undermines the serious study of Judaism and early Christianity?
Prof. Meyers says he is offended that the bones of Jesus might still be on earth? This represents a misunderstanding of the ancient Jewish and early Christian view of resurrection where Paul likens the physical body to old clothes, cast off, as dust of the earth, and even the “sea” gives up the dead in it–surely not its bones or consumed body parts. And even Jesus, when challenged about resurrection by the Sadducees, said that in the world to come the physical (“male and female”) body is no longer a factor. In other words, no flesh and bones, but a new spiritual body. Paul calls Jesus’ a “life-giving spirit” and contrasts it explicitly to the body of flesh and blood, i.e., the “man of dust” as he puts it. Bones can be left behind, shuffled off, and yet Jesus followers nonetheless proclaimed he had ascended to heaven and sat at the right hand of God. This was the earliest Christian faith and it fits perfectly with Talpiot tomb A as well as the images and inscription in Talpiot tomb B.
The interview has quite a bit more that is inaccurate. We did not do DNA testing on “bone powders” but full and visible bones that were split open to get at the untouched marrow. And yes, they were from the “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuary, whether one identifies such with Jesus of Nazareth or not. Prof. Meyer’s account of how and why the documentary ended up with the Discovery Channel and not with National Geographic is also badly misstated and in error.
One thing that is surely correct is that Eric and I had a pleasant and informative meeting and exchange at Duke last summer followed by a nice lunch. What is not clear is whether Eric, who maintained our Jonah image was a nephesh or funerary tower–albeit upside-down, still holds that view. As recently as February 28 of this year, on the ASOR blog, he and five of his colleagues take this “funerary monument” view in opposition to the Jonah/fish identification. Since that time most seem to have moved to other possibilities–a perfume flask, an amphora, nor now, most in vogue–a krater-vase of the style one finds in 2-3 century BCE Greek contexts. It would be interesting to hear if Eric still holds the “tower” view, since he seemed so certain in his post and has said nothing to the contrary since in any direct way. The reason I wonder is that just yesterday he posted another blog on the ASOR site, with Chris Rollston, that might indicate he has moved from tower to amphora–I am just not sure.