Reviews of The Jesus Discovery: Eric Meyers
by James Tabor
This review was originally published on February 28, 2012, the day the book, The Jesus Discovery was released. It is archived at http://asorblog.org/?p=1612.
Review of The Jesus Discovery
(Simon and Schuster 2012, ISBN 978-1-4516-5040-2)
Eric M.Meyers, Duke University
For nearly two millennia Christians have venerated the site believed to be where Jesus was buried. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built at a place where liturgical celebrations were held in honor of Christ’s death and resurrection, even before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Emperor Hadrian in 135 CE built his Capitoline temple there, and a shrine to Aphrodite was built adjacent to it. Constantine, the first emperor to embrace Christianity (in the 4th c. CE), decided to build a church there to commemorate the Resurrection. The temple was thus torn down; construction of Constantine’s church began in 326, and the church was dedicated in 335 CE according to Eusebius of Caesarea (Life of Constantine 3:28). No other site in all Christendom has been more venerated and more often authenticated than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Nonetheless, on the basis of very little evidence James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici would have us throw all of this tradition away and identify a Jewish family tomb in East Talpiot, several kilometers south of the Old City on the road to Bethlehem, as the “new” family tomb of Jesus.
We know these authors from the James Ossuary controversy of some years back, when they identified a tomb as the James Ossuary Tomb or East Talpiot A. Now called the new “Garden Tomb,” it is less than 200 feet from Talpiot B, or what they call the “Patio Tomb,” and which they explored with a robotic camera just two years ago. The major discovery in the new tomb is an inscription and image on an ossuary. They describe the image and depiction of Jonah being spit out of the mouth of a big fish, which they take to be proof of the family of Jesus’ belief in his resurrection. The only image of the ossuary drawing published in the book (on page 91, fig.30) is very washed out, and any fish imagery is hardly identifiable let alone that of a fish spewing out a human. In fact, the image in the book is so poorly reproduced in my copy that one suspects it has been intentionally altered so that no one could see what the the image really is. Indeed, the image actually seems to resemble a nephesh, or tomb monument, like those found in many places in Jerusalem in the first century CE and depicted on ossuaries of this very period (so for example in fig. 13 or 30 of Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, 1994). A nephesh is the above-ground monument of a tomb that marks the tomb below and the one(s) buried there. Also it would not be surprising that a Jewish burial of the first century CE, even in an ossuary that was a secondary burial, might be related to a belief in resurrection. This belief was central to Judaism at the time according to first-century literary sources, and it was equally held by early Christians. But a belief in resurrection is not so much the question here as is the issue of the names on the ossuaries in the two-named tombs, which the authors identify with the family of Jesus. Remarkably they claim that the names included the child and spouse of Jesus, a claim that can hardly be supported by the material data from the tombs. Much of their argument involves defending the assumption of the placement of the James ossuary in the adjacent tomb, the so-called “Garden Tomb,” and defending their readings of the inscriptions in that tomb even those readings have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of the scholarly community.
The book is truly much ado about nothing and is a sensationalist presentation of data that are familiar to anyone with knowledge of first-century Jerusalem. Nothing in the book “revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus or early Christianity” as the authors and publisher claim, and we may regard this book as yet another in a long list of presentations that misuse not only the Bible but also archaeology.
I want to thank my friend and colleague Eric for this brief review. I have presented my preliminary analysis of our discoveries in an extensive academic article posted here. I have appreciated the responsible feedback from colleagues and I want to begin to take up some of the issues that have been raised in the discussion subsequent to the book’s publication. To characterize this substantial work as “much ado about nothing,” and one that deliberately manipulates data and misuses both the Bible and archaeology, is I think unfortunate, but I will leave it to other readers to examine the article and the book and form their own judgments.
In terms of substance I am surprised by two aspects of Eric’s post. First, the argument that since the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the historical tomb of Jesus therefore another tomb in Jerusalem could not conceivably belong to him and his family. Quite a few other scholars have offered this same objection to any identification of the Talpiot tombs with Jesus and his family or followers. The object seems to me to be groundless and in fact quite the opposite would be the case. Unless one believes Jesus body was taken to heaven, which historians do not entertain, since the tomb at the traditional spot is “empty,” one would have to assume the body was moved and reburied–whether at Talpiot or elsewhere. This is an idea that Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who first explored both of the Talpiot tombs, has suggested and I find convincing:
I would go one step further and suggest that Jesus’ tomb was what the sages refer to as a “borrowed (or temporary) tomb.” During the Second Temple period and later, Jews often practiced temporary burial . . . A borrowed or temporary cave was used for a limited time, and the occupation of the cave by the corpse conferred no rights of ownership upon the family . . . Jesus’ interment was probably of this nature” (“Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review 22:5 (1999): 23-29, 26).
In other words, the gospels report that Joseph of Arimathea, who had charge of the burial, put Jesus body in a temporary place that happened to be near the place of crucifixion. It was an emergency burial due to the Passover holiday hours away. John 19:41-42 makes this explicit: “Since it was the Jewish day of Preparation (for Passover), and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” There is no indication in Mark, Luke, or John that that tomb, just near the execution spot, just happened to be his own. The idea that Joseph owned the tomb, that seems to be almost universally assumed, is a later gloss found only in Matthew. See my full discussion on this here and here.
So if Jesus’ body was moved to a permanent place, at least hypothetically, there could well be a tomb of Jesus and his family in Jerusalem waiting to be discovered. Whether the Talpiot tomb has enough supporting evidence can be debated but it is clear that holding that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher was the “empty tomb” of the Gospel accounts is in no way contradicted by the possibility that Jesus’ permanent resting place has been found.
Second, I can not see any possible resemblance to a nephesh or funerary monument in the iconographic image we identify as “Jonah and the fish.” Eric and I discussed this last summer when we met face-to-face at his office at Duke University and went over this evidence. I have since looked at every example of these pillars or monuments on the extant ossuary holdings of the State of Israel as well as other collections. I can’t find a single example that resembles what we have found in the Talpiot “patio” tomb, but even more telling is that the “ball” which I take to be the “head” of the figure, is pointed down, making this “tower” upside down–which surely makes no sense! This idea was first suggested by Steven Fine, who was one of our academic consultants, and was subsequently adopted by a number of colleagues who have been sharply critical of our “Jonah” interpretation–Jodi Magness, Chris Rollston and Robin Jensen among them. I have offered a more detailed response to this idea here and will present a paper on this subject at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Chicago this November.
As for the “much ado about nothing” comment I recommend that those who have not read the new book, The Jesus Discovery, in which responsibly summarize the evidence as we see it. We cover all the major issues and and arguments in detail with full documentation in the notes. This includes all of the commonly heard objections, such as the assertion that the names in the Talpiot Jesus tomb are “common.” I have been a bit dismayed that some of the most senior colleagues in our field, respected for their knowledge of 2nd Temple Judaism and Christian Origins, seem to have not kept up with the most basic research that has been published since 2007 when all the controversy on the Talpiot tombs broke. A good place to begin are the many recent posts at the web site Bible & Interpretation (bibleinterp.com). I have offered a preliminary list here.