The Talpiot Jesus Tomb: Sorting Through the Facts and the Fictions

Of the approximately 900 cave tombs presently known in the Jerusalem from the Herodian period and the 2000+ ossuaries recovered from these tombs we have over 600 that are inscribed with names. Of these there is not another tomb that one could even hypothetically argue might be connected to Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

The Talpiot “Jesus” tomb was hastily excavated 34 years ago this week. I recently posted a long exposition of my best take on the events surrounding its accidental discovery by a dynamite blast and its subsequent excavation, see here.

Since the tomb came into public attention in 2006-2007, first in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, and subsequently through the documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus and the best-selling book, The Jesus Family Tomb, there has been an  avalanche of media coverage and Internet discussion. A simple Google search for the string “Jesus family tomb” generates several million hits. Jerry Lutgen has assembled an impressive bibliography of some of the main papers and publications here as well as an exceptionally rich web site talpiottomb.com, that assesses all the evidence and arguments, Pro and Con, as to whether this tomb is lto be identified with Jesus of Nazareth and his family. There is also an open Facebook group, Talpiot Tomb that Lutgen runs where there is lots of good discussion back and forth. The passions and emotions on this topic have been high, and correct and reliable information has been hard to come by. In February 2012 I published (with co-author Simcha Jacobovici) The Jesus Discovery, a comprehensive documented analysis of both the “Jesus” family tomb and the “Patio” tomb less than 200 feet away with its unusual iconographic and inscriptional evidence.

The Jesus, Mariamene, Matya, and Jose ossuaries are currently “on tour” in the United States with the Dead Sea Scroll Exhibit. Judah son of Jesus is on display in the Israel Museum, next to the Caiaphus ossuary, and Maria is in the basement of the Israel museum “in storage.”

I have published overviews of the evidence related to each tomb here and here but in this post I want to attempt to sort through a list of the “fictions” regarding the “Jesus” Tomb, its discovery, and its investigation, focusing on things that have been reported or written over the past few years that I think are in error. Unfortunately, these are the very points that one most often sees repeated endlessly by those less informed as well as those adamantly opposed to the possibility that the Talpiot tomb is that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

The following are what I consider to be the top twenty “fictions” related to the discussion of the Talpiot tomb separated into six basic categories.

THEOLOGICAL AND FAITH ISSUES

1) Research and discussion of the Talpiot tomb as related to Jesus of Nazareth shows contempt for Christianity and is an attack on the faith of millions.

Any scientific or academic investigation of an archaeological site related to biblical history, by definition, cannot be an “attack” on faith. I often tell my students, “good history can never be an enemy of proper faith.” Historians neither disallow nor preclude evidence and the methods and tasks of history cross all lines of faith. Proper historical investigation involves posing hypothesis and testing them in order to determine what we can know, what we might suppose, and what we might responsibly assume to be the case. In the case of the Talpoit tomb, which is in fact a tomb of a 1st century Jew named “Jesus son of Joseph,” it is entirely proper to investigate in an objective manner whether this particular Jesus might be identified with Jesus of Nazareth.

2) Belief in the literal “flesh and bones” resurrection of Jesus as a physical being is fundamental to all authentic versions of Christian faith, and accordingly, the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning precludes the permanent burial of his body in a second tomb.

The earliest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus comes from Paul writing in the 50s CE (1 Corinthians 15). He writes that Christ “appeared” to him but he distinguishes between a “natural” or physical (psuchikos) body, and what he calls a “spiritual” (pneumatikos) body. This spiritual body he says is not “flesh and blood” and in contrast to the “first Adam,” who was made a “living being,” of dust of the earth, is a “life-giving spirit,” made of heaven. When Paul describes death in general he speaks of “putting off” the body like a tent or garment, and “putting on a heavenly dwelling” or new body (2 Cor 5). When he describes the future resurrection of the “dead in Christ” he says they will be raised with incorruptible bodies and there is no implication that the physical components of their physical bodies, now turned to dust, will be literally raised.

The first burial of Jesus was by definition a hasty one, a “burial of opportunity,” as Joseph of Arimathea placed Jesus’ body in a tomb that happened to be nearby the place of his execution, possibly even one in an area provided by the Sanhedrin for just this purpose (John 19:42; Sanhedrin 6, 5). He would have been moved to a more permanent place of burial as soon as the Passover Sabbath was over, most likely by Joseph who had taken responsibility for the initial burial. Mark, the earliest gospel, has no “appearances” of Jesus, the account in Matthew takes place in Galilee and has a “visionary” quality to it, and the various reports in Luke and John come from a much later period when the “empty tomb” was used as proof that the “appearances” were of a flesh and bones sort. This represents a later, more literal, development in how the resurrection of Jesus was being argued with opponents.

For further thoughts on this point see my posts:

Why People are Confused About the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead

What Really Happened Easter Morning?–The Mystery Solved

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND

3) Jesus and his family would not have a family tomb in Jerusalem. If there were a Jesus family tomb at all it would have been in Nazareth in the Galilee, which is the ancestral home of the family.

Joseph, the legal father of Jesus, had likely died some years earlier than Jesus and we have no record of where or how he was buried (Mark 6:3). According to Jewish law one is buried where one dies and corpses are not moved to distant locations, even in the case of an ancestral tomb in another city (Semachot 13, 7). The movement Jesus established, led by his brother James following his death, took up its permanent residence in Jerusalem. Jesus’ mother Mary and his brothers, as well as all his Galilean followers, lived in Jerusalem. When James was murdered in 62 CE, Simon, a second brother (or some say cousin), takes over leadership of the movement, still headquartered in Jerusalem. Jewish law permits a woman to be buried in the tomb of her sons, so it would be appropriate for Mary to be in such a tomb with her sons Jesus and Jose (Semachot 14, 6).

4) Jesus was a poor, illiterate, itinerant peasant, and neither he nor his followers would have been able to afford a burial cave such as the one found at Talpiot.

It is not at all clear that Jesus and his family were destitute or poor in later life. The last three years of his life he was “on the road” in terms of his preaching but he and his family had artisan skills his brothers were married and must have maintained themselves and their households and cared for their mother. Jesus also had hundreds of loyal core followers, some of whom had means, including Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:1-3), and of course Joseph of Arimathea. Someone like Joseph of Arimathea could have provided the Talpiot tomb for the family.

For further elaboration see my post in response to Prof. Jodi Magness who has made a major is issue of this point at the Society of Biblical Literature web site here.

5) The Talpiot tomb held the remains of dozens, perhaps even hundreds of individuals, over several generations, so that the six names on the ossuaries are hardly representative of the Jewish family that used this tomb.

The idea that the Talpiot tomb held 35 or more individuals is not based on any anthropological study of the skeletal remains but was a demographic estimate that Amos Kloner offered based on averages found in tombs around Jerusalem. What the preliminary reports and notes of Joseph Gath indicate is that there were the bones in the ten ossuaries, and three skulls on the floor with bones associated with them, just below the arcosolia, as if they had been swept off, perhaps by intruders in the tomb, before they were given their secondary burial. This might help date the end of the tomb’s use to 70 CE since the family had not come back to gather these bones and place them in ossuaries. Given the six ossuaries with inscriptions, the four without, and the three additional skulls, the evidence seems to show this was a small family tomb with just over a dozen burials. This would fit a family that had taken up residence in Jerusalem around 30 CE and had made use of the tomb for about 40 years. That six of the ossuaries are inscribed is rather extraordinary and it offers us an opportunity to possibly identify the family clan as a whole.

THE OSSUARY INSCRIPTIONS

6) The ossuary that supposedly has the Aramaic inscription “Jesus son of Joseph” might not even have the name “Jesus” at all, and its illegible scrawl, even if it does have the name “Jesus,” does not reflect the honor that Jesus’ followers would have had for him as their leader.

The reading “Yeshua son of Yehosef,” or “Jesus son of Joseph” is quite solid and confirmed by several of the world’s leading epigraphers, including Dr. Frank Cross, of Harvard University. Even though there were some initial attempts to question this reading by a few scholars when news of the Tapiot tomb first broke in late February, I think most are in agreement that we do indeed have a tomb with an ossuary inscribed “Jesus son of Joseph.” What is under discussion is not what the inscription says, but whether this particular “Jesus son of Joseph” might be identified with Jesus of Nazareth.

The “Jesus son of Joseph” inscription is in a cursive graffiti style that is somewhat difficult to read. In contrast three of the Aramaic inscriptions (Maria, Matya, Yose) are written in very clear block text, very likely by the same hand, and perhaps at the same time. In the case of Jesus of Nazareth, he died quite early, just past age 30, and the tomb is used for the next forty years, until 70 CE, so one might suppose that the other inscriptions, if they are from the Jesus family, would come later. It is extremely common to have “messy” graffiti-like inscriptions on ossuaries, even of persons of importance. The ossuary of the wealthy and influential high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus, Joseph son of Caiaphus, is quite difficult to read. Ossuary inscriptions are not intended to be on display, they are neither announcements nor proclamations. They function more as “tags” to identify the skeletal remains of a particular family member. Even if they are scribbled out, as long as they can be read by the intimate family they serve their function. There is no reason to think that an ossuary holding the bones of Jesus of Nazareth would have any sort or formal or monumental character. The plain and simple style of the “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuary itself, with its informal inscription, can be seen as highly appropriate for someone like Jesus of Nazareth. In contrast the Caiaphus ossuary is lavishly ornate with carved decorations.

For evidence that the cursive graffiti style of the “Jesus” inscription in fact has a rather elegant and artistic flair see my post here.

7) Jesus, or Yeshua, was an extremely common male name among 1st century Jews in Palestine. Many ossuaries have been found inscribed with the name and half a dozen with “Jesus son of Joseph.”

The name Jesus or “Yeshua” is a shortened form of the biblical name Joshua or Yehoshua. It is known of course, but to say it is common is incorrect. If you take all forms of the name Joshua known to us from inscriptions and literary sources as compiled by Tal Ilan (Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Palestine 300 BCE to 200 CE) one finds 100 examples of the name out of a total of 2538 male names, which is 3.9%. The specific shortened nickname “Yeshua” is less common than that. For example, on the 214 inscribed ossuaries in the Israeli State Collection, besides the Talpiot tomb (which has two ossuaries with the name Jesus), there are only three other examples of this name (Rahmani # 9, 121, 140). In the more recently publisher, broader collection edited by Hannah Cotton, et al., Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palestinae, Volume I: Jerusalem. Part 1:1-704 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010) we have eighteen “Jesus” names in all forms, variations, and languages–Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic in addition to the two occurrences in the Talpiot tomb. We have examined firsthand all of these inscriptions (other than three that are known only through drawings and have disappeared) and I have compiled a comprehensive list of them all, along with all the other names in the Talpiot tomb that appear in ossuary inscriptions that you can download here: CIIP Jesus Tomb Names. Of the eighteen most can not refer to Jesus of Nazareth because of their context or their clear identification otherwise, i.e. “Jesus father of Simonides,” or “Jesus son of Dositheos,” and ironically, six more, in addition to the three in the Talpiot, might in fact refer to Jesus as exclamations of devotion–see our complete analysis of these in The Jesus Discovery, pp. 94-103.

So it is not the case that most family tombs in the period are likely to have a person named Yeshua, and certainly not a Yeshua son of Joseph. In fact, depending on how one understands such terms, I would say the name is known but relatively uncommon. The fact is only one other ossuary has ever turned up with the name “Jesus son of Joseph” but unfortunately we do not know anything about its provenance. That makes the Talpiot tomb ossuary the single provenanced example from the period.

8) Jesus was never called “Jesus son of Joseph” by any of his followers and this is an entirely inappropriate name for Jesus of Nazareth. If this ossuary belonged to Jesus it would have likely said something like “Jesus of Nazareth,” or “Jesus the Lord.”

Although there is evidence that Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph, husband of Mary (see my Jesus Dynasty, chaps 1-4), when Joseph takes the pregnant Mary as his wife Jesus is for legal purposes known as “Jesus son of Joseph.” He is also called “son of Mary” and “son of Pantera,” but those are not his official legal patronymic designations. We have other examples of sons being called by the name of their mother. Josephus mentions a certain “Joseph son of Iatrine” (“the midwife” Vita 185) and the rabbis call Titus, son of the Roman emperor Vespasian, “son of the wife of Vespasian,” to convey doubts about his paternity (Sifre Deut 328). However, his legal name is “son of Vespasian.”

Jesus is properly and legally known as “Jesus son of Joseph.” This is the force of Luke’s designation in his genealogy where he records: “Jesus, being the son as was supposed of Joseph” (3:23). Jesus early followers called him by this name, showing it was his common designation (John 1:45), and his enemies knew him by the same name (John 6:42). It is not the case that everyone from Galilee who was buried in Jerusalem would have their town of origin inscribed on their ossuary (i.e., Jesus of Nazareth), and it is even more rare for a designation “Lord” or “Rabbi” to be included, especially in a small family tomb of this type. Ossuary inscriptions are not normally proclamations so much as identification tags–i.e., which “Jesus” is this one? The name “Jesus son of Joseph” is quite parallel in usage to what one finds on the James ossuary: “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” but in this case the addition of “brother of Jesus” offers a further identification.

9) Rahmani’s reading of the ossuary inscription “Mariamene he Mara” has been corrected and actually should read “Mariame and Mara,” referring to two women, one named Mary and the other Martha. Since it is in Greek it is very unlikely that it belonged to anyone connected to Jesus or his family.

According to L. Y. Rahmani, who first published the Talpiot ossuary inscriptions in his Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel (1994: 221-223), this particular Greek inscription (#701 in the catalogue) reads: “of Mariamene, who is (also called) Mara.” In other words we have two names for one woman. The first name is a diminutive form of Mariamene (namely Mariamenon), which is one of many variants of the common name Mariam or Mariame. Following this name there is a clearly inscribed stroke, that Rahmani says probably represents the Greek letter eta, representing eta kai, in Greek, which is used in the case of double names, signifying, “who is also called.” The second name, Mara, Rahmani takes as a contraction of the common name Martha. The name is Aramaic and means “lord” or “mistress,” but unfortunately it has no useful equivalent in the feminine in English since “lordess” or “mistress” is awkward and misleading. Mara is the feminine absolute form, while Mart(h)a is the emphatic.

Stephen Pfann has recently suggested an alternative reading: “Mariame and Mara”, suggesting two women are intended. He argues that the ending on the name Mariamene is actually the Greek word “kai,” (“and, also”) and the stroke, that Rahmani saw as standing for “eta,” he sees as a pit or scratch. I am not an epigrapher but I did have a chance recently to examine this ossuary inscription carefully in good light and it seems clear to me the stroke is part of the inscription and not a random pit or scratch. If so, then it would not make much sense to have a reading: “Mariame and/who is (also called) Mara.” Leah Di Segni, whom Rahmani consulted for his original publication, has recently reexamined the reading and remains convinced that Rahmani was correct. Pfann takes a similar approach to ossuary # 108, which Rahmani cites as another example of Mariamene. He understands part of the letter nun as a scratch, and redraws Rahmani’s genitive ending “omicron upsilon” so it become an eta. There are other technical and grammatical arguments involved that would be too lengthy to cover in a post of this sort that I want to take up subsequently, but I find the original reading of Rahmani to be convincing and I am quite wary of Pfann’s reconstruction that requires letters and parts of letters to be scratches and other letters to be redrawn. In the end this whole exercise might turn out to be moot, since two names in Greek, linked with “kai” can be a signum or double name anyway, thus “Mariame also (know as) Mara.”

That the inscription is in Greek is quite interesting. It could very well fit a woman such as Mary Magdalene. We know two things about her status in our N.T. records—she is a woman of means associated with other aristocratic or well-connected women (Luke 8:1-3), and she is from the highly cosmopolitan city of Magdala on the northwest coast of the Sea of Galilee.

10) Yose is also a very common Jewish male name among 1st century Jews in Palestine and there is no reason to associate this form of the name with Jesus’ brother Joseph.

It is the case that the name Joseph in its various forms in Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek (Yehosef, Yosi, Ioseph, Iosepos) is relatively common. After Shimon, it is the second most common male Jewish name of the period. Tal Ilan finds 217 examples (out of 2538 valid male names) of some form of “Joseph,” or 8.6% (ratio 1 in 11.7).

However, the specific nickname Yose in Aramaic (Yod, Vav, Samech, Heh) is extremely rare. It is found only once on an ossuary, namely the one from this Talpiot tomb with only two other examples known (a papyri and an inscription). The name in Greek (Iose or Ioses) is equally rare with only five examples listed by Tal Ilan outside the N.T. gospels. In contrast, the nickname, Yosi is quite common with dozens of examples listed by Tal Ilan. It continues to be a very common Israeli nickname for Yehosef today.

This is in fact the rare form of the name of Jesus’ second brother in the various Greek manuscripts of Mark 6:3 (Yoses, Yose). At the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, Mark also mentions a “Mary the mother of Joses/Jose” (Mark 15:40; 47) and this is clearly the mother and brother of Jesus as well (see my arguments on this in The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 77-81). Matthew changes the name of this second brother of Jesus to the more common form Joseph (Matt 13:55), but some manuscripts of Matthew 27:56 still retain the original Yose.

That Mark, our earliest gospel, has passed on a tradition that associates this rare endearing form of the name Joseph for Jesus’ second brother is most significant in terms of the Talpiot tomb and what we know of Jesus’ brothers. When Jesus is crucified in 30 CE, James his oldest brother takes over. But when James is brutally murdered in 62 CE Yose the second brother, who would have rightfully taken charge, is nowhere mentioned in any of our historical records. Rather Simon bar Clophas, takes charge of the group. Most take him to be a cousin though I have argued that he is Jesus’ third brother Simon. Either way, Yose disappears from our records. I think it is reasonable to assume that by 62 CE he had died, and if so, it should not surprise us to find a Yose buried with a Yeshua bar Yehosef. This is just what one might expect in a pre-70 CE Jesus family tomb. Given the rarity of the name, its association with Jesus’ second brother, and what we know of the pre-70 CE history of the Jesus family, the presence of a Yose in this tomb is a striking and compelling datum linking this particular tomb to Jesus of Nazareth.

The other Joseph in the tomb (Yeshua bar Yehosef) is also the form of the name one might expect since Joseph, the father of Jesus, is only known to us by the regular form of the name in Greek (Ioseph), and there is no reason whatsoever to associate him with the rare nickname Yose.

11) The name Matya or Matthew would not belong in a Jesus family tomb and counts as evidence against this tomb being that of Jesus of Nazareth.

If we postulate the existence of a small family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth we have no way of predicting all who might be in such a tomb. What we might expect, based on our historical sources, would be Jesus himself, his brother Yose, perhaps his brother James, his mother, and perhaps one or more of his sisters. In Jewish tradition a widowed mother can choose to be buried in the tomb of her sons. These expectations are based on names we know in historical documents. As with any archaeological site we learn things that we do not know from textual sources.

In the case of the Matthew in the Talpiot tomb we are limited in what we can say. In theory he could have any number of relationships with others in the tomb, named or unnamed. However, there are a few pertinent observations we can make based on our gospel records.

Tal Ilan lists 63 examples of males with some form of the name Matthew of her 2509 total examples of male Jewish names in Palestine. So the name Matthew is relatively uncommon, occurring 2.4%. It is a name known in both of the genealogical records related to Jesus’ ancestry (Matt 1 and Luke 3). In fact, this rather uncommon name is actually the most common name listed in the Lukan genealogy (which I take as Mary’s side of the family, see The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 48-57), occurring a total of six times, two of which are sons of Levi. This is most interesting in that the well known disciple of Jesus, one of the Twelve, named Matthew, is called Levi in our earliest gospel of Mark (2:4), and he is said to be “of Alphaeus,” a family name I have associated with Clophas, brother of Joseph, the husband of Mary. So I think what we can say is that the name “Matthew” is familial, even if we can not posit a precise identification of this particular Matthew in a hypothetical Jesus family tomb.

Matthew is a fierce name associated with the Maccabees. Mary, the mother of Jesus chooses two other Maccabean names for her sons—Simon and Judah. The style of his inscription is identical to that of Maria and Jose and appears to be by the same hand. What we can say is that the identification of this particular Matthew remains unknown to us, that it is relatively uncommon name, but that it is one strongly associated with the Jesus family. Given the named individuals closely associated with Jesus it is possible that this Matthew is indeed the one mentioned in Matthew 2:4 and is thus related to the family through Alphaeus. Other common male names found on ossuaries of the period that have no association whatsoever with the Jesus family are Eliezer, Joezer, John, Saul, Ananias, and Jonathan.

12) The ossuary inscribed “Jude son of Jesus” provides definitive evidence that the Talpiot tomb could not be that of Jesus of Nazareth since we have no historical record that he had a son.

It is the case that the ossuary inscribed “Judah son of Jesus” is the most surprising in terms of a postulated Jesus family tomb. There are no explicit references to Jesus being married or having a son in our gospel records. However, we have to allow for the possibility that the theological nature of these early records, all written after 70 CE, when a understanding of Jesus as the divine preexistent “Son of God” was becoming more and more widespread, might account for their silence in this regard. The idea of Jesus being sexual, much less passing on the “seed” (the Y chromosome) of God his Father, was just not an idea that could fit into such a theological construct. The gospels are not biographies of Jesus, but faith proclamations of him as Lord and Savior. They tell us next to nothing about his family, even his mother, or any other personal details of that sort. They also come to us from circles wholly removed from the Jerusalem scene and the congregation of Torah observant followers of Jesus led by James the brother of Jesus in the generation after Jesus’ death. We have evidence that Jesus’ brothers were married and had children (1 Corinthians 9:5). But we have no names of their wives or children mentioned, and if we did not have this passing reference of Paul one might have argued they were celibate as well. Of the Twelve apostles only Cephas is mentioned as married, but it is likely that all of them were. In other words, “silence does not equal celibacy” given the very limited theological orientation of our surviving records.

In Jewish culture males in general were expected to be married, and rabbis, teachers, or leaders of communities even more so. Evidence for the selective celibacy that Josephus claims for the Essenes is completely lacking in the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves. They rather reflect a normal Jewish understanding of marriage as a fulfillment of the very first commandment of the Torah: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” This mitzvah was considered both an honor and a duty. The only clear pre-70 CE Christian evidence we have of celibacy is Paul’s advice to his followers in 1 Corinthians 7. He is quite anxious in this chapter to appeal to Jesus to back up his arguments, for example, in the case of prohibiting divorce (v. 10). But when he recommends celibacy he only refers to himself, not to “the Lord” (cf. v. 25). I think this is pretty strong evidence that he knows Jesus was married. Otherwise Paul would have surely used Jesus as his main example for his case for celibacy, just as he uses himself. Evidence of this type from Paul’s own hand, when he is actually addressing the subject of marriage and celibacy is quite decisive I think, though it had not occurred to me until I began to factor in the evidence that the Talpiot tomb might have been that of Jesus and his family.

It is worth noting that Messianic texts that were being applied to Jesus by his followers from the Hebrew Prophets do speak of him “seeing his seed” and bearing sons (Isaiah 53:10; Ezekiel 46:16-17). The very notion of an anointed descendent of David, or Davidic Messiah, carries with it the idea that he would pass on to his sons the royal lineage. A king or prince of Israel without offspring was considered cursed (Jeremiah 22:30).

It is also the case that the emperors Vespasian and Domitian considered those of the lineage of David seditious and liable to execution. Herod Antipas had beheaded John the Baptizer, Jesus was crucified, James was stoned to death, and Simon bar Clophas was crucified. A descendent of one so revered as Jesus might well have been kept out of the limelight.

Mark mentions a mysterious unnamed “young man” who runs away naked at the arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. He is wearing only a linen garment and he is apparently not part of the Twelve (Mark 14:51-52). John mentions an unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loves” who leans on his breast at the last supper. Some have suggested these could be clandestine references to a son of Jesus. I find these proposals interesting but necessarily speculative. If there are any surviving records of Jesus having an intimate connection to Mary Magdalene and having a child or children they will be from a much later time, and remain problematic as solid historical evidence.

The Talpiot tomb, if connected to Jesus of Nazareth on other grounds, would be our first evidence of Jesus having a son. Here we would have a case of archaeological evidence taking us beyond what we can know from our surviving historical texts alone.

For much more on the liklihood that Jesus was married see there series of posts beginning here titled There’s Something About Mary.

DNA TESTING

13) Only two ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb were tested for mitochondrial DNA because those conducting the research were only interested in proving a potential marital or sexual relationship between Yeshua and Mariamene. They were testing to prove a preconceived theory not to objectively determine historical data.

The reason that skeletal fragments from only two of the ossuaries were tested for DNA, namely those inscribed Yeshua and Mariamene, is a simple one: none of the other ossuaries contained visibly testable remains. The other four had been cleaned out, even vacuumed, with nothing left that could be easily tested. The cleaning probably had to do with these ossuaries being put on display in the Israel museum, and one of them, the Judah son of Jesus, was included as part of an exhibit that is currently in the United States, illustrating how names familiar to Christians from the New Testament (Jesus, Mary, Joseph, Judah, etc.) were common names among Jews of that time.

14) The DNA tests done on the Yeshua and Mariamene ossuary remains were sloppily done and the results are inconclusive and unreliable. Modern DNA may have contaminated them. Also, since the bones of more than one individual are often found in a single ossuary no one can label any results as belonging to the “Yeshua” or the “Mariamene” inscribed on the ossuary. The results could belong to any number of other unknown persons.

Separate tests were conducted at the Paelo-DNA Lab at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada and the University of California at Davis. The Paleo-DNA Laboratory is a world-renowned research laboratory in the application of modern molecular genetic techniques and technologies to the study of archaeological, degraded, and ancient DNA. These labs are the finest in existence with state-of-the-art equipment and a distinguished record of results worldwide in connection with many important archaeological sites. They specialize in obtaining either mitochondrial or nuclear DNA, or both, from extremely ancient and fragile biological specimens. These are materials that normal forensic DNA labs would not be able to process or examine. Special techniques have been developed and there exists now a possibility of even extracting nuclear DNA data from ancient bone samples. These more sophisticated tests have not yet been conducted on the Talpiot materials.

Part of the testing process involved a careful processing of the samples to insure there is no contamination. The tests themselves are run on marrow inside the bones that has never been exposed before the tests are conducted. The quality controls are rigid with multiple backup steps to insure accuracy. All the strange looking “space suits” are an indispensable part of a process of the decontamination of the staff before entering the testing area.

Dr. Carney Matheson, Forensic Examiner and Scientific Officer at Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA Laboratory and Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, analyzed the 2000-year-old bone samples from the two Talpiot ossuaries. The representative samples tested each belonged to a single individual, and the mitochondrial analysis showed conclusively that the two samples were not maternally related. Neither sample tested by the Lakehead lab indicated the bones were from more than one individual.

“For this project, my role was to examine the residue including bone fragments from two ossuaries that were provided to the Laboratory, and determine if they were related,” Dr. Matheson says. “My focus was to ensure that the process was undertaken under the strictest forensic and ancient DNA procedures, which are a standard part of Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA protocols. I expected that the results of the mitochondrial DNA analysis of the “tomb of Jesus” would spark widespread discussion and debate among theologians and historians, among others, and intellectual discourse is always good. As a scientist, I am mainly concerned with ensuring that the analysis used as a basis for discussion is beyond reproach. And the science behind the DNA analysis is solid.

In the case of a sample of mixed bones from more than one individual the tests would yield multiple profiles. As Dr. Matheson has explained in response to several queries about more than one individual in the ossuaries, “The methodology we employed would be able to identify this possibility. Unlike forensic DNA typing where you do a profile and that is all, we use methods developed for ancient DNA that clone the PCR product and by doing this we would be able to identify a mixture of two or more individuals.” For example, several years ago mitDNA tests were done on mixed bone samples from the Akeldama “tomb of the Shroud,” first discovered by Israeli Boaz Zissu in 1998 when it was illegally robbed. The tomb was resealed only to be broken into again in the summer of 2000. This time most of the ossuaries had been broken and the bones scattered about. Even though the bones were in a state of total disarray Carney Matheson, then working at Hadassah/Hebrew University with Mark Spigelman, produced mitDNA profiles yielding results for several dozen individuals who were then placed in familial relationships on a family tree. It turned out the tomb had two separate maternal clans with a number of verified sibling relationships.

STATISTICAL STUDIES

15) The statistical work of Dr. Andrey Feuerverger and others was flawed from the beginning based on incorrect assumptions built into the calculations, i.e., that Mariamene was to be identified with Mary Magdalene, that Yose was the brother of Jesus, and so forth. It was a classic case of “garbage in, garbage out,” with no mathematical value.

This is simply not the case and represents a misunderstanding of Dr. Feuerverger’s methods and assumptions. In view of all the confusion he recently released the following statement: “I would like to make it clear that I stand by the statements I had made in my probability calculations. I have retracted nothing. My website makes clear the assumptions of my calculations. Subject to these assumptions, my estimates have not changed.” He has concluded (subject to the stated historical assumptions) that it is unlikely that an equally “surprising” cluster of names would have arisen by chance under purely random sampling. Taking into account the chances that these names would be clustered together in a family tomb, Feuerverger’s most conservative estimate is 167 to 1, meaning that this conclusion works 166 times out of 167. This means that the probability factor is in the order of 167 to 1 that an equally “surprising” cluster of names would arise purely by chance under given assumptions.

Feuerverger’s mathematical calculations have to do with the probability of this particular cluster of names occurring in a family tomb by random chance. Feuerverger ended up focusing on just the four names in the specific form they occurred and the one relationship specified: Jesus son of Joseph, Maria, Mariamene, and Yose, as names potentially associated with the Jesus family based on textual evidence. His thinking was that if these four alone, as a cluster, could be shown to be sufficiently rare, then he could properly draw the conclusion that although the generic forms of these names were indeed common, their specific forms, in these configurations, would not be. Feuerverger assigned frequency values to the individual names based on a synthesis of the figures in Tal Ilan and Hachlili. His initial calculation of 1/2,400,000 was quite high, but he then made two other moves that drastically reduced it. He divided by 4 for “unintentional biases in the historical sources,” and then he divided that result by 1000 to adjust for all possible 1st century tombs–thus his 1/600 computation.

Clearly Feuerverger is interested in the historical identification questions, as we all are, but he also recognizes this area is not his specialty. Math alone is not going to determine to what degree this cluster of names, in their configurations, are “appropriate,” or “highly appropriate,” as names for the Jesus family. That task, finally, rests upon the judgment of the historian who must make the case that such identifications are expected and likely.

16) We have no good statistical data showing the frequencies of various names among Jews in 1st century Palestine and only a small portion of the tombs of the period have been opened and examined. There is no way to accurately evaluate how rare or unique this particular cluster of names might have been in that time.

On the contrary our data on name frequencies among male and female Jews living in Palestine before, during, and after the time of Jesus is amazingly complete thanks to the monumental work of scholars like Tal Ilan, Rachel Hachlili, and L. Y. Rahmani. The most comprehensive survey is that of Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Late Antiquity: Part I: Palestine 330 BCE-200 CE. Dr. Ilan surveys male and female names from all extant sources: ossuary inscriptions, other epigraphic inscriptions, literary and historical texts, papyri and ostraca, and manuscript finds. She also distinguishes between “valid” and “invalid” names, i.e., names of fictional characters. She surveys a total of 2538 occurrences of valid male names and 320 of valid female names.

Based on this broad data it is possible to calculate percentages of males and females who would have used a given name. For example, just taking the names in the Talpiot tomb in their generic form (i.e. Joseph not Jose; Joshua not Jeshua) we get the following results: Joseph 8.6%; Judah 6.5%; Joshua 3.9%; Matthew 1.6%; and Mary 21.9%. Since Tal Ilan’s survey is from such a wide range of extant sources, over a period of 500 years, these percentages are statistically sound.

If we compare these results with those of Rachel Hachlili [“Names and Nicknames of Jews in Second Temple Times,” Eretz-Israel, vol. 17 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1984), pp. 188–211 (Hebrew) and 9*-10* (English), esp. 194.], who draws on a more narrow body of data, the correlations are quite close: Joseph 14%, Judah 10%, Joshua 9%, Matthew 5%, and Mary 21.4%. The much more narrow sampling of the 286 names found on ossuaries in the Israeli State Collection, as compiled by L. Y. Rahmani in his Catalogue, also reflect very similar name frequencies, as does the more extensive collection of over 600 ossuary inscriptions from the period now cataloged in Hannah Cotton, et al., Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palestinae, Volume I: Jerusalem. Part 1:1-704 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010).

This data allows us to calculate, for example, how many males out of 100 might have the name Joseph or Judah or Joshua, and further, the probabilities of whether a given Joshua might also have a father named Joseph, or a son named Judah.

Today, if I teach a class of 100 students, most of whom were born in the late 1980s, I can predict quite accurately that three males will have the name Michael and three females the name Jessica, based on name frequency percentages for that period. I can further project that in our entire student body undergraduate population of 20,000 we have about 600 Michaels and 600 Jessicas. With a more complex mathematical model one could also determine how many Michaels, born in the late 1980s, have a father named David and a mother named Linda, and so forth (born in the 1950s). The Social Security Administration has a Web site with all of this data collected and it is fascinating to search for name frequencies over the years.

We do not have this kind of precision in our ancient data but what we do have offers an amazingly good tool for determining how common 1st century Jewish names were in the population and thus to calculate probabilities of a given set of names appearing in a cluster in a family tomb such as the one in Talpiot.

17) The names found in the Talpiot tomb are common names used by countless Jews in 1st century Jewish Palestine, so their presence in this tomb means nothing. There would have been hundreds of tombs with just this combination of names so this particular “Jesus son of Joseph” is one of many and very unlikely connected with Jesus of Nazareth.

The refrain that the “names are common” is perhaps the most frequently repeated reaction of scholars who have been asked to comment on the Talpiot tomb and its possible relation to Jesus of Nazareth. Like so many general statements, it is partly true but partly fiction.

First, one has to clarify what one means by “the names” and second, what one means by “common.” For example, the name Joshua, from which we get the nickname Yeshua or Jesus, has a frequency percentage of 3.9% among the 2538 examples surveyed by Tal Ilan. Is 3.9% a high enough number to call it common? I suppose it depends on how one uses the word “common.” But remember, that is the percentage of all forms of the name Joshua in Aramaic and Greek, not the specific nickname Yeshua. If you just take the Rahmani catalogue of 231 inscribed ossuaries in the Israeli State collection there are three examples of Yeshua (#9, 121, 140) plus the two in the Talpiot tomb, for a total of five out of 286 total names, and the Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palestinae, lists eighteen total (see analysis of these above).

. Should one refer to that as “common”? The Rahmani collection does not include all inscribed ossuaries found in the Jerusalem area for the period, but the name frequencies and distributions appear to be fairly representative of our large body of data.

Joseph, was certainly a relatively “common” name (14%), but then the specific form Yose, in Aramaic, only occurs one other time on an ossuary, and two additional times, as pointed out above. One would surely not call the name Yose common.

Still, in the end, it is not merely the frequency of the names, however they are counted (generic or nickname forms), but the cluster of names that one has to consider. If we are considering a hypothetical “Jesus family tomb” with these names we would then ask: What are the probabilities of a Jesus son of Joseph, with a brother named Yose, and a mother named Mary being found in a 1st century Jewish family tomb? That is actually something a statistician can work with and the results can be correlated with what a historian might then postulate as the likelihood of these particular names being in a pre-70 CE Jesus tomb.

The fact is of the hundreds of tombs in the Jerusalem area that have been opened in a distributively random way over the past 200 years no other tomb so far has been found with even this limited cluster of names: Jesus son of Joseph, Maria, and Yose.

For more on these statistical issues see my post Keeping Up with the Latest on the Talpiot Jesus Tomb.

THE JAMES OSSUARY AND THE TALPIOT TOMB

18) The 10 ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb with their six inscriptions were catalogued and thoroughly examined in 1980 by Amos Kloner, supervisor of the excavation, Joseph Gath, the excavator, and Joe Zias, the curator of collections at the Rockefeller museum. They were judged at that time to be of no special significance or interest.

The late Joseph Gath makes it clear in his final excavation report that when the ossuaries were removed and tagged in the field, during the first two days of the rescue archaeological operation (March 30 & 31, 1980) that only four of the six inscriptions had been noticed but none were yet “deciphered.” The task of the excavation was not to carefully examine the ossuaries but to remove them quickly, even the first day, excavate the cave, and record and tag any of the findings, and produce an accurate survey map. Those tasks were all carried out by Joseph Gath, with the assistance of Shimon Gibson and three or four workers, according to proper and established procedures. The area supervisor was Amos Kloner.

Several months later when Gath produced his printed report on the ossuaries he simply notes that “Some inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic were found in the cave that have not been deciphered yet.” Lots of ossuaries from tombs were being brought into the Israel Department of Antiquities in those days and those responsible had no reason to pay any special attention to this group. An inscription “Yeshua bar Yehosef” might have been of some interest had it been noticed, but it is quite difficult to read and could well have been one of the two inscriptions recognized only later when they were cleaned, examined, and photographed. It was Rahmani who finally published the inscriptions in his catalogue (1994), and Kloner’s publication of the Talpiot tomb in 1996 makes use of his work on the inscriptions, accepting his readings. We don’t know precisely when Rahmani looked at these particular ossuaries, but one would assume it was in the 1980s as he worked on his corpus of inscribed ossuaries in the Israeli State collection. There is no indication of anything related to this excavation, or this tomb, or the deciphering of these inscriptions that is in the least bit out of the ordinary in terms of methods and procedures.

In two separate interviews in late 2005 and early 2006 Joe Zias reported that he had checked all his records and notes and had nothing in his files related to the Talpiot tomb nor any specific recollection of these particular ossuaries of the many hundreds that were collected and catalogued in the Israel State collection during the decade of the 1980s. Zias first noted the ossuary “Jesus son of Joseph” with its interesting cluster of names from the Talpiot tomb while filming with a BBC crew in 1996. He stated that the “cluster” of names was so unusually impressive that were they not from the verified provenance of a licensed excavation site he would wonder about the possibility of forgery. He also called for further investigation of the tomb and its ossuaries.

19) The ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” cannot possibly be the so-called “10th missing ossuary” from the Talpiot tomb. That particular ossuary was described as “plain,” it had no inscription, it differed in size from the James ossuary, and it was put in the courtyard area behind the Rockefeller museum and essentially discarded.

There were originally ten ossuaries found in the Talpiot tomb, assigned the IAA numbers: 80.500 through 80.509. Only nine are now included in the Israeli State collection and published in Rahmani’s 1994 catalogue (Nos. 701-709, pp. 222-224). Number 80.509 is missing and there is no photography of it in the IAA files whereas the other nine have photographs and descriptions. All that we know about this 10th ossuary is the single line in Amos Kloner’s 1996 article in ‘Atiquot on the Talpiot tomb that reads:
10. IAA 80.509. 60 x26 x 30 cm. Plain.

The IAA recently re-measured the James ossuary and its dimensions are 57.5 x 26 x 30. There are quite a few ossuaries in the Rahmani catalogue with original and re-measured dimensions, sometimes differing two or three centimeters, so the size of the James ossuary and the missing 80.509 are quite close. Ossuary 80.509 is described as “plain,” meaning not decorated, and it is also listed as “uninscribed.” One might properly ask whether the James ossuary might be described as “plain” or “uninscribed.” What one has to remember is that Joseph Gath reported a month following the excavation itself that only four of the ossuaries were “so far” noticed as inscribed, and yet we now know there turned out to be six once they were cleaned and more closely examined at the Rockefeller. This means that the original “field descriptions” were preliminary and that two of the inscribed ossuaries were not immediately noticed as inscribed. Kloner has said in interviews that all of the ossuaries were heavy with moisture and coated with terra rosa soil. So it is possible that a preliminary field description of 80.509 could have been “plain” and its inscription overlooked. If Kloner is basing his 1996 description on the preliminary field notes and observations rather than any subsequent closer examination of 80.509 at the Rockefeller then it is surely possible that “Plain” might fit the James ossuary as a preliminary description. Compared to other decorated ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb the James ossuary could be described as “plain.” As can be seen in a clear photo one can barely make out the beginnings of an extremely faint rossette pattern on the side without the inscription so that compared to the five elaborately “decorated” ossuaries from this tomb it might be called plain.

20) The patina studies comparing the James ossuary with the other ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb are invalid and tell us nothing. The physical condition of the James ossuary, and the fact that Oded Golan, its owner, acquired it before 1980, show that it could not have come from the Talpiot tomb.

Patina “fingerprinting” is the idea of scanning patina samples on stone surfaces, in this case samples from ossuaries taken at random from a dozen tombs from various locations in the Jerusalem area, with an electron microscope to reveal a chemical spectrum/measurement of elements such as magnesium, aluminum, phosphorus, potassium, titanium and iron. This is a new technique and preliminary results indicated the following.

The Talpiot Jesus ossuary, as expected, provided a close “echo” or correspondence to the patina spectrums taken from the surface walls of the tomb itself, as well as the other Talpiot ossuaries. The spikes and peaks of mineral accretion levels were very similar, just as one might expect from stone exposed to the same conditions over 2000 years. Ossuaries from the other tombs were then similarly tested with preference given to samples that seemed to be a close match visually, in terms of color, to the Talpiot ossuaries, but in no case did the spectrum or chemical pattern come close to that of the Talpiot tomb and its ossuaries. Patina samples were then taken from the 2002 ossuary owned by Oded Golan inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” which is quite similar in size and shape to the Jesus ossuary but different in visual color. The chemical spectrum of the James ossuary strongly “echoed” those of the Talpiot wall surfaces and its ossuaries, whereas no other ossuaries from other tombs chosen at random approached any type of correspondence at all. These tests indicated that color or “visual” comparisons of ossuary patina can be misleading, in other words, what you can’t see is more important than what you can see. You can read the full results of these patina studies by Rosenfeld, Pelligrino, and Krumbein, here and how the inclusion of the James ossuary in this tomb changes the statistical evidence here.

There are also ongoing soil tests of the Jesus tomb ossuaries, the James ossuary, and a wide selection of comparative samples. Limestone obviously absorbs the soil of a given tomb environment, and in the case of the Talpiot tomb, with the characteristic terra rosa soil filling to tomb itself, the soil absorbed would be sharply distinguished from other tomb environments. Preliminary results indicate that the James ossuary is closely associated to the Talpiot tomb environment.

These results appear to indicate that the James ossuary came from an environment such as that of the Talpiot tomb or one that was strikingly similar. These tests are preliminary and more samples are now being tested with the goal of assembling a more comprehensive data base taken from ossuaries from diverse locations in the Jerusalem area.

Oded Golan, the owner of the James ossuary, insists he had had the ossuary for decades, which puts one back at least to 1980 or earlier, but in his first interviews he was not precise about the date. The stamp on the photo that has now been admitted into evidence in his trial, “Expiry 76,” apparently indicates the expiration date of the paper upon which the photo is printed.

Raising the question about the James ossuary being the missing 10th of Talpiot does not imply any sort of improper conduct on the part of any IAA officials. Shimon Gibson has never been convinced of the 10th missing ossuary option, but he has raised another possibility, that the James ossuary might be a missing 11th ossuary, removed from the tomb prior to the inventory of the official 10, particularly if the patina tests are indicative of its provenance. There are several questions in this regard that are unresolved. Was the entrance to the tomb accessible even before the blast on March 27th exposed it to full view by blowing open the porch and its roof? The absence of a blocking stone might indicate such. Or alternatively, if the tomb was left open and exposed on the Sabbath between its discovery and the excavation that began on Sunday morning, who knows who might have entered it?

Krumbein’s tests have indicated that the James ossuary shows erosion and plant growth along the bottom as if it were exposed to outside elements at some point in its history, either in ancient or modern times. His initial estimate of a period of 200 years he has recently said was not precise, and the period of such exposure could be much shorter. The oddly faint pattern on one side of the James ossuary, along with its faded color makes one wonder whether it might have had a complex history even in ancient times. It does not have the “like new” look of most ossuaries that are sealed in a single tomb undisturbed for 2000 years. What is needed is a further refinement of the patina comparisons with a wider sample of ossuaries from more tombs in the area, plus any other types of comparative tests between the James ossuary and the nine we have from the east Talpiot tomb.

Conclusion: Of the approximately 900 cave tombs presently known in the Jerusalem from the Herodian period and the 2000+ ossuaries recovered from these tombs we have over 600 that are inscribed with names. Of these there is not another tomb that one could even hypothetically argue might be connected to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The few other “Jesus” inscribed ossuaries we have are surrounded with names like Shelamsiyon, Chananiya, Shapira, Dositheos, or Sara that have no known association with Jesus of Nazareth in our texts. This means that the Talpiot tomb, with its inscription “Jesus son of Jospeh,” surrounded by the other names, even nicknames, that we can trace to the Jesus family, is the only one known to us for which one could even argue its possibility or probability.

If one adds the “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” inscription to this tomb then its identification with Jesus of Nazareth approaches near certainty. That is not to mention the evidence found in the tomb nearby that appears to reflect some early version of resurrection faith on the part of Jesus followers. This tomb, on the same ancient estate, still unexcavated, we explored in 2011 with a robotic camera. See the preliminary report here and an updated evaluation here.