“Had these names not been found in a single tomb that was professionally excavated I would have said, 100 percent, that what we are looking at are simple forgeries. I find it very interesting that we have this completely unique combination of names. This thing definitely, I think, is worth some further research.” Joe Zias to the BBC (1996)
A little history here. Back in 1996 when the existence of the Talpiot tomb and its interesting cluster of names broke headlines via a BBC special produced by Ray Bruce and his associates, just about everyone interviewed, from Tom Wright to Amos Kloner all said the same thing: these are common names, and they mean nothing in terms of this “Jesus son of Joseph” being potentially related to the Nazarene Jesus. Here is an excerpt from chapter 1 of our book, The Jesus Discovery, that fills in the background:
The Garden tomb was either ignored or forgotten for sixteen years. In 1995 a British film crew working on an Easter special on the resurrection of Jesus had noticed the two “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuaries listed in Rahmani’s catalogue and asked to film either one or both of them. When the director discovered that the 1980 Garden tomb had contained ossuaries with a clustered set of names like Joseph, Mary, Jesus, Judah, and Matthew, all names associated with Jesus and his family in the New Testament, they were quite taken back and their interest was considerably piqued. Their subsequent 1996 BBC Easter television special, coupled with a front page story in the London Sunday Times titled “The Tomb that Dare Not Speak Its Name,” sparked a worldwide flurry of news coverage. Archaeologists, officials from the IAA, and biblical scholars quickly weighed in, assuring the public that “the names were common” and the tomb could have belonged to any man named Jesus, not necessarily the one we know as Jesus of Nazareth. There were even calls from the Vatican to the IAA seeking clarification about the veracity of the stories that were circulating in the media. The story lasted about a week and it was largely dropped. Most academics chalked the whole subject up to an unfortunate case of media frenzy. One positive result of the news coverage was that the late Amir Drori, director of the IAA, embarrassed that he had never heard of this “Jesus” tomb, demanded that a full publication of the tomb and its contents be assigned at once. The task fell to Amos Kloner to write up a full official report on the tomb so as to dispel irresponsible media speculation. Kloner’s article appeared later that same year, surely record time for an academic publication. Had the 1996 publicity bubble never occurred it seems unlikely that anything about the tomb would have ever been published.
At that time there was only one lone voice to the contrary, and that was Joe Zias, then curator at the Rockefeller museum. Through years of dealing with ossuaries, epitaphs, and even fakes and forgeries, Joe immediately realized that if these names indeed came from a single tomb it was the cluster or grouping of names that made this tomb significant and he called for further investigation when everyone else could only talk of how “common” the names were. He was in fact so impressed with this cluster that he said had he not known they were from a single tomb, excavated by competent archaeologists (Joseph Gath, Shimon Gibson, and Amos Kloner), he would have had to assume the names were forged since they were so unique as a set. His seasoned observation was part of what convinced the BBC crew that they were onto something important.
I had never heard of this Talpiot tomb with its cluster of names until 1996 when Ray Bruce, with whom I was working on other projects, told me about it. Joe and I were very close friends at the time and got together every time I visited Israel. Ironically, it was Joe’s view of the importance of this cluster of names that got me first interested in the subject. I remember posting something on the topic on the old Orion listserv. Some of my colleagues will remember this discussion list, centered on the Dead Sea Scrolls, that Michael Stone and others had pioneered. There was a brief flurry of exchanges, which I have printed out and saved, and just about everyone but Joe concluded that the “names were common” so Talpiot was much ado about nothing. A decade later when I mentioned this tomb in passing to Shimon Gibson, with whom I had begun to do archaeological work at both Suba and Mt Zion, he shocked me with the news that it was he who had worked with Kloner and Gath in the initial excavation in 1980.
Joe has of course since changed his mind radically but I agree with him to this day and I think his initial trained instincts were right. His judgment has been amply born out by the latest statistical studies, that take us beyond the initial work of Andrey Feuerverger, on the frequencies of this cluster of names, most of which have been ignored by colleagues who continually repeat the mantra, without foundation, about the “names being common.”