A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 2)

A Woman Called Magdalene

            Mary Magdalene is referred to by name only twelve times in our New Testament gospels and never again in any of the other New Testament writings. As we have seen she appears at the death scene of Jesus, his burial, and the empty tomb, and then disappears totally from the record. If the New Testament writings were all we had we would be hard pressed to say anything more about her. Before I move to an alternative world of early Christian texts outside the New Testament that present an entirely different picture of her status and relationship to Jesus and the Twelve apostles, I want to briefly examine why she might be called Magdalene, distinguishing her from the other Marys in the gospel narratives—including Jesus’ mother and particularly, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom she has often been confused.

 In the Greek texts of the gospels she is known by three slightly differing descriptions: Maria the MagdaleneMiriam the Magdalene, and Maria the one called Magdalene.[i] The majority of scholars understand the designation “Magdalene” to refer to the city of Magdala (or Migdal in Hebrew) located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee about seven miles north of Tiberius. The Greeks called the city Taricheia, referring to the pickling of salted fish from the Sea of Galilee, exported throughout the Roman Empire. According to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Migdal was walled on the west side and it had a large aqueduct system, a theater, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail.[ii]

Josephus fortified the city as his headquarters when he became commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in the 1st Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73 CE). It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and fully exposed to Greco-Roman culture. Shortly after the first Jewish revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, the Roman military commander Vespasian, who was later to become emperor, surrounded the city with three Roman legions and laid siege. He stationed 2000 archers on the mountain to the west overlooking the city. There was a great naval battle at its port and thousands of Jews, defenseless in small boats were slaughtered. Josephus, an eyewitness, reports that the Sea of Galilee was red with blood, with stinking corpses filling its shoreline for days to follow. The city finally surrendered and opened its gates while thousands of inhabitants who had fled south toward Tiberius were slaughtered or exiled.[iii] 1200 older people were executed, 6000 of the strongest sent as a gift to the emperor Nero, and 34,400 were sent off as slaves.

The city was apparently more Romanized than the nearby Jewish cities of Capernaum or Chorazin with a cosmopolitan atmosphere more akin to a Greek polis.[iv] Ongoing excavations at Migdal, including the 2009 discovery of an ancient 1st century CE synagogue at Migdal, will likely reveal much more as to what this important city was like.[v] I visited the excavation site last fall and one of my graduate students excavated there this summer. It is clear that only a small part of this extensive city has begun to be uncovered. If Mary’s designation as “Magdalene” refers to her city of origin, placing her in that context, growing up in Magdala, gives us a glimpse into her possible background. One is tempted to take Luke’s tradition at face value and imagine her as a cosmopolitan woman of independent means and wealth who was able, with her connections reaching even into Herod Antipas’s household, to head a sizeable entourage of woman who followed Jesus in Galilee and thus to wield considerable influence in the Jesus movement (Luke 8:1-3).

Even though the identification of Mary’s name with the city of Magdala seems to carry the most weight there are two alternative suggestions.

It is possible that the designation “Magdalene” is a nickname, perhaps even given to Mary by Jesus. We know in the gospels that Jesus often gave his closest followers descriptive nicknames to characterize either their role in his movement or in some cases their personalities. For example, Simon son of Jonah, that most people know as “Peter,” was given the nickname Cephas or Petros (Peter) in Aramaic and Hebrew respectively—“the Rock,” or “Rocky” (Matthew 16:18). The two fisherman brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, were nicknamed Boanerges, meaning “sons of Thunder,” apparently based on their aggressive personalities (Mark 3:17; 10:35-41; Luke 9:54). The apostle James was nicknamed “James the Less,” or “James the Younger,” either referring to his shortness of stature or his young age, and distinguishing him from the other James, son of Zebedee (Mark 15:40). Simon, another of the Twelve apostles was called “Simon the Zealot,” either referring to his militant bent or to his zeal for a cause (Luke 16:15). Since the name Magdalene comes from the Hebrew or Aramaic word migdal—meaning tower, perhaps she was given this surname meaning “Mary the Tower,” as a description of her status or her strong personality.

Finally there is a third option, less well known but interesting to consider in the light of the Talpiot tombs. It is found tucked away in the Talmud, the ancient written collection of rabbinic oral tradition that was put together between the 5th and sixth centuries CE. There is a strange story about two women named Miriam—one is a hairdresser, presumably referring to Jesus’ mother, the other is called Miriam the Megadla—meaning the “baby tender,” or the one who “grows” the child.[vi] It is generally recognized that these are veiled cryptic references to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

One of the most fruitful new aspects of the study of the early development of Judaism and Christianity is the realization that Jews and Christians were living side by side both in the Land of Israel and in the major urban centers of the Roman world between the 2nd century CE into the early Byzantine period (4th century CE). Both religions were thriving and both were seen by the dominant culture as strange and foreign due to their adherence to monotheism and their refusal to worship the emperor and participate in mainstream Greco-Roman religious and civic rites.  The Jews and the Christians lived side by side and were in dialogue and debate with one another. For that reason there are many cryptic passages in the rabbinic literature of this period that refer to Jesus, his disputed paternity, his mother, his disciples, his teachings, and even his execution. These sharply polemical passages can seldom be taken as history per se, but they do reflect genuine debates and polemics between Jews and Christian in this time.[vii] This material has often been dismissed or ignored because of its complexity. It is also very difficult to date. It is an area that should not be overlooked since most of the other sources we have on Christianity come from its adherents, written for the purpose of promoting the Christian faith. For example, the late 2nd century philosopher Celsus, mentioned above, says that he based his primary knowledge of the Christians by listening to a Jew who knew the “inside” story that the Christians were trying to repress. What we can begin to construct from the rabbinic materials is an alternative side of the story by those who rubbed shoulders with Christians daily but strongly disputed their claims.

For this reason I believe that this possible interpretation of a more cryptic, coded, meaning of Magdalene should be brought into the discussion and considered. Based on this tradition there were two Marys in Jesus’ life—his mother and the one who “grew” the baby. Since this appears to be what we might have in our 1st century Talpiot Jewish tomb, as I argue below, perhaps this understanding of “Magdalene” should be given some serious consideration.

Finally, as with the possibility that the surname means “the Tower,” all three could be true. Nicknames often can have variant meanings and that is one reason they are so popular.

 

Is Mary Magdalene called  “Mariamene Mara”  

As many of my readers know the name Mariamene Mara is inscribed on one of the ossuaries or bone boxes in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb. This ossuary, as well as the one inscribed “Judah son of Jesus,” is elaborately ornamented and the inscriptions are elegant and more formal in appearance than the graffiti like name tags that many ossuaries exhibit. The inscription Mariamene Mara is even more fascinating with regard to the mistaken assertion that the names in the Jesus tomb are exceptionally common.  Clearly it is some form of the common name Mary or Mariam/Mariame in Hebrew—but what about its strange ending? And what is the significance of Mara?

Of the six inscriptions from the tomb this is the only one in Greek.  In contrast to the ossuaries of Jesus, Maria, and Yoseh, which are plain, this woman was buried in a beautifully decorated ossuary. The venerable expert, Levi Rahmani had first deciphered her inscription in his Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries published in 1994. For most of us Rahmani has become the “Bible” for the study of ossuaries and their inscriptions. His keen eye and uncanny ability to decipher some of the most obscure inscriptions is legendary.

Rahmani read the inscription as Mariamene Mara. No one questioned his judgment for thirteen years—until the publicity about the Talpiot “Jesus tomb” hit the headlines. Suddenly everyone was scrambling, it seemed, to come up with arguments against those that Simcha Jacobovici had put forth for the first time in his 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” There he had suggested, based on Rahmani’s reading, which no one had disputed at the time, that Mariamene was a unique form of the name Mary that was used by Jesus’ first followers when referring to Mary Magdalene.

Several scholars have subsequently suggested that Rahmani misread the Greek, and that it should read Mariame kai Mara—Mary and Martha, referring to two individuals, perhaps even two sisters buried together in this one ossuary.[viii] Since Mariame (without the final stem ending “n”) is the most common form of the name Mary in Greek, any argument about uniqueness would thus evaporate. The Mary in the tomb might have been any Mary of the time and she would be impossible to identify further. And her sister Martha would be equally unknown.[ix]

I find this new reading unconvincing and remain impressed with Rahmani’s original transcription. The inscription itself appears to be from a single hand, written in a smooth flowing style, with a decorative flourish around both names—pointing to a single individual who died and was placed in this inscribed ossuary. According to Rahmani, Mariamene is a diminutive or endearing variant of the common name Mariame or Mary.[x] Mariamene—spelled with the letter “n” or nu in Greek, is quite rare—only one other example is found on an ossuary.[xi] There are no other examples from this period—or as I have now discovered, in the entirely of Greek literature down through the late Middle Ages.

A couple of years ago I ran an exhaustive computer search of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a comprehensive digital database of Greek literature from Homer through 1453 CE.  To my surprise I only found two ancient works that use Mariamn—with this rare “n” stem ending and both texts specifically referred to Mary Magdalene!

The first text is a quotation from Hippolytus, a third century Christian writer who records that James, the brother of Jesus, passed on secret teachings of Jesus to “Mariamene,” i.e., Mary Magdalene.[xii] There it was, in plain Greek—this unusual spelling of the name Miriame or Mary—precisely like the spelling on the ossuary. How could this be, since the ossuary was from the 1st century and Hippolytus was writing at least 150 hundred years later?  According to tradition Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John—who of course knew both Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Perhaps it is this link of oral teaching, through three generations, that somehow had preserved this special name for Mary Magdalene. Its diminutive ending makes it a term of endearment—like calling someone named James “Jimmy,” or an Elizabeth “Betty.”

The second text that had uses the name Mariamene was a rare 4th century CE Greek manuscript of the Acts of Philip, dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE.  Throughout the text Mary Magdalene is called Mariamene—again the precise form of the name found on the Talpiot tomb ossuary.

Some critics have argued that one has to jump to the third or fourth century to find a parallel to a 1st century name on an ossuary in order to try and argue it belongs to Mary Magdalene.  Quite the opposite is the case. What the ossuary preserves is a rare endearing form of the common name Mariame. What should surprise us is that it shows up, out of the blue, in Hippolytus and the Acts of Philip—two centuries later, when referring to Mary Magdalene. They could not know anything about the ossuary or these inscriptions—so where did they get this tradition of the rare form of the name?  That this rare form appears in these later sources strengthens rather than diminishes the argument here. If Mariamene is a late form of the name, only found in these 3rd and 4th century texts, as some have asserted—what is it doing on the Talpiot tomb ossuary?

It strains any credibility to imagine that Rahmani, who was unaware of any association whatsoever between his transcription of this ossuary inscription and identifications with Mary Magdalene in these later texts, would have mistakenly and accidently come up with this exceedingly rare form of the common name Mary.  It seems clear to us that Rahmani’s keen eye and years of experience have unwittingly provided us with one of the most important correlations between the names in this tomb and those we might expect, hypothetically, to be included in a Jesus family tomb—a name uniquely appropriate for Mary Magdalene. Does it make any sense to think a misreading of the name in this inscription would end up producing two hits for Mary Magdalene? The force and implications of this evidence is so strong that a few scholars have even suggested that the text in Hippolytus somehow got corrupted. Again, it strains all credulity to maintain that mistakes, misreadings, and scribal areas would just happen to produce a match for an ossuary inscription in a 1st century Jerusalem tomb. What are the chances?

What about the second word in the inscription—Mara? Rahmani understood this as an alternative form of the more common name Martha and many scholars apparently agree.[xiii] He translated the full inscription:

[the ossuary] of Mariamne also known as Mara

His understanding was that this Mariamne was also called Mara—a kind of nickname equivalent to the more popular form Martha.

Readers will recall that one of the inscriptions we found on one of the ossuaries in the nearby Patio tomb also read Mara. Is it just another form of the name Martha? In looking through all 650 ossuary inscriptions that are extant we discover that Mara is also quite rare, with only five examples other than the two in the Talpiot tombs.[xiv]

I am convinced that Mara is an honorific title not a proper name per se.[xv] Mara and Martha are related; they both come from the Aramaic masculine word Mar, which means “Master” or “Lord” in English.[xvi]  This is true still in Modern Hebrew today. One can  address a man formally as “Mar,” meaning “Sir” or “Mister.” It is a title not a name. If you add the feminine ending to Mar you get Mara—it is that simple. The problem is we have no good word in English to translate the feminine. If we try “Mistress” there are negative connotations. “Lordess” sounds awkward, and “Madame” surely will not work. English simply has no good alternative for the feminine, while we use the masculine constantly. The followers of Jesus called him “Lord” or “Master,” but how would we translate that title for a woman in English—perhaps one they also honored as his companion, partner, and wife?  Probably our best equivalent in English is “the Lady,” which is the formal feminine form of the masculine Lord. When Catholics speak of “Our Lady,” referring to Mary the mother of Jesus, they are preserving and echoing this very honorific title—they just don’t use it for Mary Magdalene. As we shall see she was vilified as a whore or as mentally unstable, or both, and was finally written out of any dominant version of the rise and development of Christianity. Fortunately we can pick up her muted and forgotten story as we will see in subsequently in this series of post.

There are two other ossuary inscriptions that are relevant to a proper understanding the Mariamene Mara inscription. The first refers to two males, a Matthew and a Simon, who are called “masters” of their tomb—meaning they own it. The word there for master is the plural of Mar. It is obvious that when it comes to males there is no hesitation to read Mar as a title. Even Jesus was referred to as Mar in the New Testament, in the early Christian Aramaic prayer—Mar-na-tha—meaning “our Lord come (1 Corinthians 16:22).”[xvii] The second inscription names a woman named Alexa, who is called Mara—just as in the Mariamene inscription. Rather than a second name, I take it as a title, so the inscription would read: “this is the ossuary of Alexa, [the] Lady.” It is a title of honor. Her name is given in the possessive case—showing the ossuary belongs to her, but her title is nominative—indicating it is not part of her proper name.

Continued here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/17/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-3/

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.



[i] Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 18.

[ii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462ff.

[iii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462–505, 532–542.

[iv] Rami Arav and John.J. Rousseau, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1995), p. 189.

[v]See: http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1601&module_id=#as and http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/09/11/jerusalem.synagogue/index.html.

[vi] b. Chagiga 4b. In another story in the Talmud Jesus’ mother is referred to as the “hairdresser,” who was seduced by a gentile named “Pandeira” (b. Shabbat 104b). There is a play on words here, likely referring to two Miriams, one who “grows” the hair, the other who “grows” the child. In the story the angel of death strikes the wrong Mary—in this case Miriam the Megdala, getting the names confused. See Burton Visotzky, “Mary Maudlin among the Rabbis,” in Fathers of the World: Essays in Rabbinic and Patristic Literature, ed.  (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1995), pp. 85-92.

[vii] See Peter Schaeffer’s comprehensive study of all the major passages, Jesus in the Talmud, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[viii] See S. J. Pfann, “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room. A Suggested New Reading of Ossuary CJO 701,” Near Eastern Archaeology 69: 3-4 (2006): 130-131. Pfann’s reading is accepted by Jonathan Price and others, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 447.

[ix] Even though we do not accept the reading “Mariam and Martha” it is worth pointing out that those two names come up in the gospels for two sisters who live in Bethany, near Jerusalem, along with their brother Lazarus (John 11:1). According to our records Jesus is quite close to this family, so ironically, the names “Mary and Martha” are not alien to the Jesus tradition of intimates. Some have even suggested that the Mary of Bethany is Mary Magdalene.

[x] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 701 as well as his introductory comments, p. 14. The Greek is in the genitive case, a diminutive form of Mariamhnh. This form of the name is rare and is found also on one other ossuary, Rachmani #108. Di Segni supports Rahmani’s reading (as per private e-mail correspondence with the author in 2007).

[xi] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 108. It is interesting to note that Jonathan Price, who disputes Rahmani’s reading of the Talpiot tomb as Mariamene, accepts tentatively his reading of this second ossuary as Mariamene—and yet the inscriptions are almost identical, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 133 as well as the representations in Rahmani of the inscriptions themselves.

[xii] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.1.

[xiii] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 97.

[xiv] Cotton, et. al., CIIP, nos. 97, 200, 262, 517 and 563. We do not accept that no. 543 is using Mara for a male named Joseph. A close examination shows a line break that would indicate this man is being called Mar—the son of Benaya, son of Yehuda. See the limited examples of the use of Mar/Mara in Aramaic and Greek in Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in late Antiquity, pp. 422-423.

[xv] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 262 where Jonathan Price writes that although Mara is short for Martha it can be a title.

[xvi] Mara, which comes from the Aramaic masculine word Mar is the absolute feminine, whereas “Marta” (Martha) is the emphatic feminine. They both come from the same masculine noun and mean the same thing, but Martha evolved more into a name and is common (18 examples on ossuaries), whereas Mara functions more as a title and is rare.

[xvii] Paul translates the Aramaic into Greek as maranatha.

 

 

A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 1)

Yesterday I published a piece in the Huffington Post dealing with what I consider to be reasonably strong evidence for a “married Jesus” and within hours it had drawn thousands of responses and hundreds of comments–positive, negative, and even threatening and denunciatory.  Clearly this is a topic that generates more heat than light. The vast majority of my colleagues would take the same position I took for the first 30 years of my career–until I reexamined the evidence a couple of years ago and had cause to be more open to the idea of a married Jesus–much like others have done, including Birger Pearson, whose judgment I greatly respect.[1] Here, in a four part series, I offer my analysis of the source materials we have as I now view them. I hope this series might help readers to at least be familiar with all the evidence and have more of a basis for making a reasoned judgment on the matter should they choose to do so. Like others I could say, “Does it really matter,” and I would say yes and no. In some ways Jesus is Jesus, whether married, sexual,  or celibate, but if in fact Mary Magdalene’s prominent position in his life has been muted by a dominant Christian orthodoxy, and Jesus has been cast as a non-sexual male in the interest of a misplaced sense of purity and holiness–such as we encounter often in early Christian texts–then I think it does matter. Recovering Jesus as he was or might have been as a Jewish male of his time is surely part of the “Quest’ for the historical Jesus.

Paul indicates that “seeing the Lord” is an essential criterion for one claiming to be an apostle. According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection.” Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter, James, or any of the Twelve apostles.

 

Is it probable that Jesus was married?  And that he could have fathered a child?  These claims are in such direct contradiction to our received tradition that it is hard to believe.  Furthermore, there have been such sensational claims in the past, particularly in the famous novel, The DaVinci Code, that it is important to be skeptical and to base any claims on solid evidence.  It is for this reason that in my last book, The Jesus Dynasty, I argued that I did not believe there was sufficient evidence to argue that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had had a child.  But to be a scholar is to remain open to new data and new interpretations and always to be willing to change one’s position.  Based on new evidence, I now believe that my earlier position was most likely mistaken.

The New Testament says nothing directly about Jesus being married or having a child.  If Jesus had been married with a child would there not be some record, even some hint of this somewhere in the gospels? There are times when the silence of a text speaks volumes. Such silence can reflect absence, ignorance, or suppression. I am now convinced that in the case of Mary Magdalene the silence does not indicate he was unmarried. The authors of the New Testament gospels, written many decades after Jesus’ life, and when most of the original witnesses were dead, were either unaware of Jesus’ wife and child, or more likely, for theological reasons, decided to suppress this information.  The Jesus of these gospels was the divine Son of God, ascended to heaven, and any “earthly,” or sexual ties to a mortal woman were deemed inconceivable. His exalted heavenly status as the Son of God surely precluded him “leaving behind” such mortal remains. The New Testament gospels are male dominated accounts in which the few women who do play a role in Jesus’ life are marginalized and subordinated.   They purportedly did not hold leadership roles equivalent to the male disciples. This is not to say that the gospels are devoid of references to Mary Magdalene’s singular importance in Jesus life. To the contrary, the inclusion of narratives involving Mary Magdalene as intimately involved with Jesus’ mother and his sister in preparing Jesus’ naked corpse for burial, and as the first witness to his resurrection from the dead, signals how central her role must have been in his life. It is as though she could not be written out of the story entirely—but her relatively isolated inclusion in such an intimate and important way makes very little sense overall.

This silence is in sharp contrast to half a dozen other ancient texts that have been discovered in the last hundred years, including several “lost” gospels that are not included in the New Testament.  In these texts, Mary Magdalene is mentioned very prominently, given a role superior to the Twelve apostles, and presented as Jesus’ intimate companion. Even though these texts were written later than the New Testament gospels—most of them dating to the 2nd century CE—they also have their theological axes to grind yet nonetheless bear witness to an expanded and wholly alternative role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ life. As such they give voice to a suppressed history and a muted memory that correlates strongly with the evidence in the Talpiot tombs.

The fact that the Talpiot tomb contains two ossuaries inscribed with names of women—Maria on one and Mariamene Mara on the second—plus a third ossuary Judas son of Jesus, strongly suggests that one of these two Marys is most likely the mother of the son, and thus the wife of the Jesus buried in this tomb. The DNA evidence done on the bones from the Yeshua and the Mariamene ossuaries, further shows that Mariamene Mara is not Jesus’ mother or his sister, leaving her as a possible candidate for his wife, and thus the mother of the son Judas. Jesus of Nazareth had a mother named Mary, and apparently one of his sisters was also named Mary.[i] If Jesus’ sister Mary were married, which seems likely given the norms of the culture, she would not be in his tomb but in the tomb of her husband. If the Talpiot tomb is that of Jesus and his family, the second Mary—Maria—is most likely either his mother, unless she lived past 70 CE when the tomb went unused.  Alternatively, the second Mary could perhaps be a wife of one of his brothers. That leaves Mariamene Mara as the most likely candidate to be the mother of his child.

There is the related issue of the status of Mary Magdalene. The Mariamene buried in the Jesus family tomb is also known as Mara—the Lady. This title can potentially refer to her place of leadership and authority in the emerging Christian movement, a role that is hinted at by the evidence in the Talpiot tomb but never explicitly indicated in any of our sparse New Testament texts mentioning Mary Magdalene.

What I present here is a consideration of all the relevant ancient textual evidence regarding Mary Magdalene, both inside and outside the New Testament, with the new archaeological evidence from the Talpiot tombs. There is an impressive correlation between much of this textual material and what we observe in the tombs themselves.

Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels

            I begin with our earliest source on Mary Magdalene—the gospel of Mark, most scholars consider to have been written before Matthew, Luke, or John.  According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly the most mysterious and intriguing woman in Jesus’ life. She appears for the first time completely out of the blue, without any kind of introduction, watching the crucifixion of Jesus from afar. She is named first, surely giving her special priority, and she is associated with an entire group—one might even say, an entourage of women who had followed Jesus down from Galilee to Jerusalem just before the Passover festival began:

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41).

Luke supplements this tradition of Mark, also emphasizing the many women from Galilee who were followers of Jesus. He names Mary Magdalene first, implying she has some kind of leadership role, but then identifies two others, a certain Joanna, who is the wife of Chuza, a household administrator in the court of Herod Antipas, king of Galilee, and Susanna, otherwise unknown. The implication is that these women are of high standing with financial means. Luke specifies that they provided for the Jesus movement from their means (Luke 8:2-3).

In Mark’s gospel it was Mary Magdalene, along with the other Mary, the mother of Joses, most likely Jesus’ mother, who observe Joseph of Arimathea taking down the bloodied body from the cross, placing him temporarily in a nearby tomb, and sealing the entrance with a heavy stone, until the Passover was over (Mark 15:47).[ii] As soon as the Sabbath day was over Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary, probably Jesus’ mother, and an unidentified woman named Salome, possibly Jesus’ sister, bought spices so they might return to the tomb early Sunday morning to wash the corpse and complete the rites of burial. Mark relates that early on Sunday morning, again, Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary and Salome, go to the tomb very early, before the sun is risen, and find the stone rolled away and the body removed. Inside the tomb is a young man dressed in a white linen garment who informs the women that Jesus has been “raised up,” that they are to go and tell his male disciples, and that he is going to meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:1-4).[iii] According to Mark they fled from the tomb in fear and astonishment, saying nothing to anyone. In our oldest copies of Mark that is how the story ends—abruptly and mysteriously, with the promise to the women that Jesus will appear in Galilee in the future. The oldest copies of Mark have this abrupt ending with no “sightings” or appearances of Jesus to anyone. Later manuscripts or copies of Mark add on one of three different alternative endings, composed by editors to try and blunt the abruptness of Mark’s original ending. The fear was that Mark’s account, if left as is, might leave doubt as to Jesus’ resurrection.[iv]

Washing and anointing a corpse for Jewish burial was an honored and intimate task. The body was stripped naked and washed from head to toe. It was taken care of by the immediate family or those closely related. Although these narratives from Mark do not identify Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, they certainly cast her as taking the lead in carrying out the burial rites for Jesus—an extremely intimate task for a wife, mother, or sister. Matthew and Luke have Mark as their source, and although they relate the story of Jesus’ burial slightly differently, it is unlikely that they have much independent information. It is also entirely possible, writing so many decades after the events, when all of the original witnesses were dead, that they know the tradition of Mary Magdalene’s involvement in Jesus’ burial, and thus find it essential to include her, but have no idea who she was or why she is so prominent in the story they had received.

It is in the gospel of John one finds an alternative narrative tradition, one independent of Mark. What John brings to the table is utterly fascinating and sheds an entirely different light on what might have happened early that first Easter morning John writes that Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb, very early Sunday morning, while it was still dark. She sees the stone rolled away from the tomb and the body removed and she runs in panic to tell Peter and an unnamed disciple, otherwise identified as the “one whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). What she exclaims to the men is most revealing:

They have taken the Master out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2).[v]

In this account Mary Magdalene’s logical assumption is that the body has been removed from the temporary tomb, which John has already emphasized was a tomb of convenience in an emergency, not a permanent burial cave (John 19:41-42). Her reference to “they” obviously refers to Joseph of Arimathea, assisted by another Sanhedrin member, Nicodemus, whom John says assisted in the initial removal of the body from the cross.

What happens next is a story completely unique to John. Mary Magdalene returns to the empty tomb, weeping outside, she then enters the tomb for the first time to look inside. She sees two angels dressed in white sitting inside. The Greek word translated “angel” (aggelos) can refer to a “messenger,” and does not necessarily mean an angelic non-terrestrial being. These two ask her why she is weeping. She repeats her take of the situation—“Because they have taken away my Master, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). Just as she replies she turns and sees a man outside the tomb that she takes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question—“Woman, why are you weeping, whom do you seek?” She replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have taken him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). The man then addresses her by name—calling her Miriam, using the Hebrew form of her name. She apparently recognizes the voice and turns to face him, crying out in Hebrew, Rabboni—a diminutive term of endearment meaning “my dear Master.” She recognizes it is Jesus but he tells her not to touch him, adding that he is ascending to heaven (John 20:16-17). For a woman to touch a man in this culture further implies a familial connection. Mary Magdalene returns to the male disciples and tells them what she has seen.

This remarkable story presents Mary Magdalene as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike Mark who has no appearances of Jesus following the empty tomb, or Matthew who has Jesus encountering the Eleven remaining apostles on a misty mountain in Galilee much later, or Luke who relates that Jesus appeared physically to the disciples in a closed room, showing his wounds and eating a meal in front of them—John’s story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter stands in sharp contrast. Even John includes in his gospel additional appearances of Jesus to groups of men, but he alone preserves this Magdalene tradition.

My friend, the late professor Jane Schaberg and others have interpreted this singular experience of Mary Magdalene as forming the core of the resurrection faith of Jesus’ first followers.[vi] It is a personal encounter prompted by an exchange of greetings—Miriam and Rabboni—as if those words signaled a flash of recognition based on personal intimacy.  If one asks—who can lay claim to the first appearance of Jesus after his death John’s story offers a clear answer—it was Mary Magdalene. Matthew knows a garbled version of the story in which the group of women encounter Jesus as they flee from the tomb, but without the personal exchange between Mary and Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10). In Matthew’s story they are mere vehicles who are to carry the news to the male disciples, not independent witnesses whose testimony is valued. Jesus commissions the Eleven remaining apostles and the women are nowhere to be seen (Matthew 28:16-20).

Paul, who wrote in the 50s CE, just twenty years removed from the crucifixion, says explicitly that Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve [apostles], then to James, and finally to 500 brothers en mass  (1 Corinthians 15:5). He either knows nothing of the Magdalene tradition, or given his view of women, considers it less merit.  This was after all a time in ancient history when a woman’s testimony in court did not carry the same weight as that of a man. Even in Luke the initial testimony of the women who first visited the tomb is dismissed as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In a male dominated movement how could a hysterical woman, weeping at a tomb, provide any kind of credible testimony?

There is evidence that such a critique was leveled against the developing Christian movement from the late 2nd century CE. Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote an attack of the Christians called True Doctrine around 178 CE, says:

Jesus went about with his disciples collecting their livelihood in a shameful and importunate way . . . For in the gospels certain women who had been healed from their ailments, among whom was Suzanna, provided the disciples with meals out of their own substance.[vii]

He does not specifically name Mary Magdalene he seems to have her in mind:

While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those (women) who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has a happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a change for other beggars.”[viii]

Further on in the same narrative Celsus charges that Jesus “appeared secretly to just one woman and to those of his own confraternity.”[ix] This is without a doubt an accusation based on his reading of the account in the gospel of John. There is evidence that a number of other pagan writers were critical of the female initiative that apparently was central to Christianity’s development.[x]

Is there any likely historical truth to the notion that the faith in Jesus’ resurrection began with this entourage of women led by Mary Magdalene? Schaberg has argued that this singular account in John 20:1-18, where Mary Magdalene encounters and speaks to Jesus in the garden tomb, preserves fragments of a tradition of Mary Magdalene as successor to Jesus—and thus, “first founder” of Christianity, in the sense of authoritative witness to resurrection faith. Whether this early tradition can be connected or not to later Christian texts that present Mary as a leading intellectual and spiritual guide, a beloved companion of Jesus and transmitter of his teachings I will deal with in the subsequent parts of this blog post.

Schaberg, in my view, convincingly shows that the narrative structure of John 20 reflects an imaginative reuse of 2 Kings 2:1-18 where Elijah the prophet ascends to heaven, leaving his disciple Elisha as his designated witness and successor. This intimate personal appearance to Mary Magdalene, which focuses on an ascent to heaven rather than resurrection of the dead per se, stands in sharp contrast to the other formulations in the gospels that present indirect angelic encounters to a group of women.  Upon this foundation Schaberg offers a preliminary sketch of what she rather boldly labels “Magdalene Christianity,” both suppressed and lost in the our New Testament gospel tradition, and particularly in Acts, much like the history of James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem community from 30-50 CE.

The notion of apostolic authority in early Christianity depended most of all on one being included as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection and receiving a commission.[xi] Paul, for example, bases his own late addition to the apostolic roster upon his visionary experience of the Christ several years after he had been crucified: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). One should not take this modesty on the part of Paul as any indication that he thought he was in the least bit inferior to the apostles who were before him. He says of the other apostles:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Apparently Paul did receive challenges to his rights to be called an apostle. Against such charges he adamantly defended himself, insisting that his apostleship was based squarely on his experience of having “seen the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1). Apostleship was not, in his view, something that was passed on from men, but was given by a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12, 16). According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter. The gospel of Luke explicitly rejects her status in this regard, characterizing the report of Mary and her entourage of women from Galilee and their claim to have “seen Jesus” as an “idle tale,” using language that in the culture of that time was particularly associated with the testimony of women. Mary Magdalene’s disqualification was based on her gender. Paul, for example, insists to his congregations:

 The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the Law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

This silencing and subordination of women was carried into the next generation, long after Paul was dead. One of his successors paraphrased Paul’s position with even stronger language:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 1:11-13).[xii]

The remedy for this Adamic curse upon women was that they “be saved through bearing children”

Part 2 follows here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/16/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-2/

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.

 


[i] According to early Christian tradition the names of Jesus’ two sisters, not given in the New Testament gospels (see Mark 6:3), were Mary and Salome, see Epiphanius, Panarion 78.8-9 and compare Gospel of Phillip 59:6-11 with Protoevangelium of James 19-20.

[ii] For the arguments for identifying this second Mary as Jesus’ mother see, James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-82.

[iii] Salome is likely Jesus’ sister, or perhaps the mother of the sons of Zebedee, the fishermen James and John (Matthew 27:56). Luke adds that Joanna, the wife of Herod’s assistant, was with them. Even though the verb used for “lifted up” can just mean to pick up or carry, in this context it seems to refer to being lifted up from the dead—in other words, resurrected.

[iv] See James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 223-241. The main appended ending (Mark 16:9-20) does not appear in our two oldest manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dating to the early 4th century AD. It is also absent from about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, the Old Latin version, and the Sinaitic Syriac. Even copies of Mark that contain the ending often include notes from the scribe pointing out that it is not in the oldest manuscripts.

[v] I have translated “Lord” here as Master, which has less theological connotations and fits with what follows in the story where Mary Magdalene addresses Jesus as Rabboni—my Master.

[vi] See Jane Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood (New York: Continium Press, 2006), pp. 122-126. Schaberg’s full study is The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continium, 2004).

[vii] Contra Celsum 1. 65. Celsus’s critique is preserved by the church father Origin who wrote a defense against him around 248 CE. He apparently knows the passage in Luke 8:1-3 that mentions specifically Joanna. There is a summary of his critique in his own words on-line at: http://www.bluffton.edu/~humanities/1/celsus.htm.

[viii] Contra Celsum, 2. 55.

[ix] Contra Celsum 2. 70.

[x] See the study of Margaret Y. MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[xi] See Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Harvard Theological Studies 51 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[xii] Although the New Testament letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are attributed to Paul scholars are universally agreed that they are “deutero-Pauline,” written by some of his followers in the generation after his death, see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, pp. 395-407.

 

  1. There have also been a few scholars, influenced by some of the later gospel traditions (particularly the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip), who have argued that Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene included some type of sexual intimacy if not marriage. William E. Phipps published a full-scale study in 1970 titled, Was Jesus Married? The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition (New York: Harper & Row). Phipps argued that Jesus’ status as a Jewish male, a teacher, and a rabbi, would have virtually required that he be married. I have never found these arguments from silence convincing, knowing that there were forms of Judaism, at least according to Josephus and Philo, that honored celibacy, and that Paul himself mounts a strong argument in defense thereof, even as a Jewish male and “rabbi.” I found the treatment summarized by Birger A. Pearson, “Did Jesus Marry?” (Bible Review Spring 2005, pp 32-39 & 47) to be quite convincing. What seems notable is that over the years Pearson may have begun to change his mind, or at least to express more openness to the idea of a married Jesus, see his latest here, “Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus? Was She a Prostitute?” []

Was Jesus Likely Married?

If you ask most New Testament scholars the mantra is a firm and dogmatic “No”–there is not a shred of historical evidence that he was ever married or had children–the very idea is  baseless speculation at the best and cheap Holy Blood, Holy Grail/Davinci Code sensationalism at the worst. The argument most cited is that if Jesus had been married we would have surely had traditions, both within the New Testament and the so-called “Church fathers” that such was the case. The silence therefore is deafening. Jesus lived a celibate non-sexual life. Most are quick to add–at least the more “liberal” minded–that they don’t care a shred if he was or wasn’t–just that they don’t think there is any evidence that he was. This of course ignores the strongly dogmatic theological reasons the church clings to this day to an Ever-Virgin Jesus, parallel to a non-sexual Virgin Mary. The Holy Divine Son of God, and surely his Virginally Pure mother, never had sex.

Judah

In fact there is strong textual evidence that at least hints if not affirms that Jesus was married–and most likely to Mary Magdalene.

First, there is the apostle Paul–who is our earliest literary witness to any form of “Christianity,” who strongly advocates and encourages celibacy or the non-sexual life–but only mentions himself–not Jesus–as an example thereof. And this in a section of 1 Corinthians, where he mentions other apostles traveling with their wives (even though these “phantom” wives are never named in any of our texts), and quotes Jesus to support his views on forbidding divorce. If Jesus had been celibate Paul would surely have appealed to him as his main example.

Second, in our earliest record of Jesus’ burial in Mark, the mysterious Mary Magdalene shows up out of nowhere, not only listed with Jesus’ own mother and a group of Galilean women, but clearly given first place and prominence. It is Mary Magdalene–above even Jesus’ mother or sister–who takes the lead in the Jewish burial rites for the corpse of Jesus–both washing and anointing his naked dead body. This is not the position of an outsider, or even a close “insider,” in terms of disciples or followers. This is an intimate honor and a duty reserved for ones closest relatives–particularly ones wife, mother, aunt, or sister. She appears and then disappears–though in John she is clearly the lone “first witness” to Jesus’ resurrection as well. Her disappearance is as strange as her sudden appearance. But then Mary Magdalene surfaces again in some of our 2nd and 3rd century gospels, as a prominent female leader, intimate companion of Jesus, and bearer of “secret” revelations. How is this to be best explained?

What one must always bear in mind is that the documents of our New Testament are overwhelmingly written in the 2nd generation of the movement, a decade or even several decades after Jerusalem’s destruction by the Romans in 70 CE–after the original followers of Jesus are either scattered or dead–including Peter, James, Mary Jesus’ mother, presumably Mary Magdalene, and even Paul. What we get in the case of Mary Magdalene are hints of her prominence, but also a muting of her status and role. A similar phenomenon occurs with James, and the Jesus family more generally (see my book, The Jesus Dynasty)  and their dominant leadership in the movement for its first 40 years. If all we had were the N.T. gospels were would hardly know James or his mother and brothers existed after Jesus’ death, much less the prominent position the family had in Jerusalem–and even the author of Luke-Acts fails to name the brothers of Jesus (ignoring Mark 6:3 which was his source for Luke 4), and only reluctantly mentions them in Acts 1 but not by name–and finally implies James is in charge of the entire movement in Acts 15 and 21–but never makes it explicit. Something is clearly going on here in terms of Jesus and his family and its prominence in the movement prior to 70 C.E.

There is much more which I cover fully in my book, The Jesus Discovery, but you can read a summary in my four-part blog series, “There’s Something About Mary,” beginning here.

A Comprehensive Analysis of the Talpiot “Jesus Family” Tombs

You have heard about the “Jesus family tomb,” but If you have not read the book, check it out. It covers all the latest discoveries as well as a full and documented discussion of the three tombs on the ancient estate in East Talpiot, south of Jerusalem–plus related discussions, from Mary Magdalene to latest DNA results, to the James ossuary. No matter what your conclusion it remains the most comprehensive discussion in print on the “Talpiot tombs.”  You will find links and lots of additional information here at jesusdiscoverybook.com/

Jesus Discovery Paper RD

Talpiot Tomb Talk: The Assumptions of Language and the Language of Assumptions

No one maintains that the tomb of Joseph Caiaphas, discovered just south of the Old City of Jerusalem at Abu Tor on a cold November day in 1990 can not be the tomb of the New Testament High Priest Caiaphas because they believe that Caiaphas was taken bodily up to heaven, or that the inscription is too sloppy, or that he would have been buried in a more monumental tomb given his status.

Language is as tricky and misleading as it is vital and essential. This is so much more the case when it comes to controversial topics such as evaluating the Talpiot tomb with regard to its possible identification as the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  If we were talking about the tomb of a Hillel or a Socrates that had been potentially discovered in Jerusalem or Athens, much of the discussion, and thus the language, would dramatically shift to neutral.

TalpiotTombOldCity

The two Talpiot tombs located on an ancient rich family estate just south of the Herodian Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem overlooking the main road to Mar Saba and the Dead Sea

A helpful analogue is the 1990 discovery of a tomb just south of the Old City with ossuaries and inscriptions that some excavators and scholars identified as the family tomb of Caiaphas, including the bones of a Joseph Caiaphas, the same name as the high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus according to the gospels. Is it possible, or even likely, that this tomb is that of the Caiaphas of the New Testament? Is the evidence compelling? What are the objections and problems with such an identification? Most of that has now been sorted out, but no one maintains that it “can’t be” the tomb of Caiaphas for theological reasons–that he was taken bodily to heaven. There are in fact a few scholars who have questioned the identification with the N.T. Caiaphas. They have argued that the evidence is not sufficiently compelling to draw that conclusion, and would hold it is “a Caiaphas” family but not necessarily the Caiaphas family. I am aware of no one who has argued that it “can not be” the Caiaphas family tomb.

With the Talpiot Jesus tomb things are dramatically different–and understandably so. Because the topic is so potentially “hot” various sides have much invested in the outcome. For many, even among the scholars who have weighed in on the topic, their declared belief that Jesus rose bodily to heaven, precludes from the outset, even before any examination of evidence, that this tomb belonged to Jesus of Nazareth. Most of the academics in this category would affirm that such beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with their position that this “could not be” the Talpiot tomb. There are other sensitive issues such as a potential backlash of antisemitism, since this tomb is part of an official excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority (Dept of Antiquities in 1980). Is holding custody of a “tomb of Jesus,” and dealing with bones of the Holy Family, really something that the Jewish State of Israel needs to be involved in? There is also a tendency among scholars to avoid sensational topics, particularly those vetted in the media (“Ark of the Covenant” “Gold of the Exodus” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” “The Davinci Code”), so that to suggest serious consideration of this ultimate “sensational” site, a family tomb of Jesus, is bound to generate lots of scoffing and outright dismissal. The Academy is accustomed to consider far more standard subjects. And then there are the skeptics and anti-Christian folk who would dearly love it if the tomb of Jesus were found, as a way of poking the eye of evangelical and orthodox Christian believers. Finally, in a matter this sensitive, where there are no in situ photos of the excavation with the ossuaries intact, no bone reports, no official DNA tests, and no correlation record of where in the tomb a given cataloged ossuary was found, those responsible have been put on the defensive to explain the hows and whys, with resulting emotions and tensions.

Consider the following three statements, from one single prominent academic colleague who has written extensively on the Talpiot Jesus tomb:

  • “I think we have to remain open to the possibility that this tomb is that of Jesus but so far we are lacking compelling evidence and many of the assertions of the film have been shown to be questionable.”
  • “There is a near universal scholarly consensus that the Talpiot tomb could not be the Tomb of Jesus”
  • “My conclusion is that in no way can we say that the lost tomb of Jesus is the same as the one in East Talpiot”

Is this to say then such an identification is possible but not compelling, or “impossible.” The language is not clear. Others have said the identification thesis is “possibly but not likely,” “very improbable,” or “unlikely.”

Always in the background, and often in the foreground, is the Cameron-Jacobovici film with its various assertions and claims. It is entirely possible to question any number of the theses or assertions in the film but nonetheless to conclude that a scientific evaluation of the tomb itself does yield evidence in favor of the Jesus family identification. It might be beneficial to try and move the film from the center of the academic discussion, whether one views it as good, bad, or ugly. The heated emotions, provoked by the film, have seemed to shift the agenda to the filmmakers rather than an evaluation of the site.

All this aside it seems to me that we have the following range of language that might help shed some light on “Evaluating the Talpiot tomb in context,” the title of the 2008 Jerusalem Symposium, the papers from which are now published by James Charlesworth in his edited volume, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls, Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2013). I highly recommend interested readers get a copy of this volume and read it through carefully. The volume runs over 500 pages with abundant illustrations so it is well worth the price. After the conference several scholars who attended published a statement denying that the evidence for any identification with Jesus of Nazareth was convincing, though since some of the “signatories” have subsequently clarified that they do not agree with the statement and their names were mistakenly included. See the Duke University blog here and be sure to read the comments (especially that of Itamar Bernstein), as well as my own formal response on the SBL site here.

Given the question: “Can the Talpiot tomb arguably be identified with a family tomb of Jesus?” one might propose the following grid of responses, beyond “Definitely not.” After all, one might hold that such an identification is “definitely not” supported by the evidence, yet still consider it possible but just not proved. Or, another might totally reject the identification for compelling negative reasons.

Impossible: strong negative evidence to the contrary
Improbable: weight of the evidence does not support the thesis with some negatives weighing against

Possible but not compelling: evidence in favor is there but just not enough data and information to so conclude
Possible and compelling: bulk of the evidence fits with no serious negatives

One of the clearest ways of approaching this questing is just to list the positives and the negatives. If indeed, as some have argued, Jesus could not have been buried in a rock hewn tomb, or in Jerusalem itself, then clearly this “could not be” the tomb. However, there is a wide range between “could not be” and “not enough positive evidence.”

I want to point out that I am using “possible” in the scientific/academic sense, not in the unrestricted sense, “Well, anything is possible.” One might say, for example, it is “possible” that atoms move because they are pushed by invisible demon forces,” and there is no way to “falsify” such an assertion. But in the world of science, such a “hypothesis” can not be taken seriously. In terms of the Talpiot tomb, the notion that this “could not be” the Jesus’ tomb because he was taken bodily to heaven is not on the academic table, so that the “anything is possible” refrain does not apply.

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers the following on the all-important “Principle of Falsification,” which is the bedrock of science. Those of us who are historians, working in the “soft sciences,” utilize this principle as an ideal, though often we have no methods for testing:

“Being unrestricted, scientific theories cannot be verified by any possible accumulation of observational evidence. The formation of hypothesis is a creative process of the imagination and is not a passive reaction to observed regularities. A scientific test consists in a persevering search for negative, falsifying instances. If a hypothesis survives continuing and serious attempts to falsify it, then it has “proved its mettle” and can be provisionally accepted, but it can never be established conclusively.”

What I have suggested is that we begin with a “hypothetical pre-70 CE tomb of the Jesus family,” and then compare it to the Talpiot tomb. This is the method I pursue in my article, “Testing a Hypothesis,” published in Near Eastern Archaeology way back in 2006. I have not found reason to change my mind, but to the contrary, since that paper was published the evidence that can be brought into consideration using this method has greatly expanded, see the book, The Jesus Discovery, and summarized in my ASOR paper here.

Such an approach does not mean that the results are merely “hypothetical,” in some reduced sense of the term, since all scientific and historical conclusions are by definition hypothetical. Just to pose the question: Can we identify this tomb with that of Jesus?” already presupposes we are considering something “hypothetical.” One has to have a method, otherwise one’s conclusions can tend to be impressionistic and unsystematic.

The use of the principle of falsification, so much as the evidence allows, offers a way to bring some clarity into our deliberations. Working with the historically constructed model of a hypothetical “Jesus family tomb” does not mean that one begins with the assumption that the Talpiot tomb is that tomb, thus “stacking the deck” in favor, as some have argued. This is simply the way that science proceeds, never with certainty, but one hopes, as my teacher Jonathan Z. Smith used to say, “in the direction of the truth.”

What this means, in the case of the Talpiot tomb, is that falsifying or negative instances, of sufficient force and certainty, would make impossible or highly improbable the identification with Jesus. What one must then do is “test” all possible “falsifications” against the evidence we have, as best we can.
A few of the proposed falsifications most often voiced by colleagues are the following:

  • Jesus could not be buried in Jerusalem at all, his family tomb would be in Nazareth
  • Jesus would have been put in a trench grave, not a rock-hewn tomb
  • Yose is a very common form of Yehosef and thus carries no statistical weight
  • Jesus of Nazareth was never married and thus could not have had a son named Judah
  • Jesus was buried in the location in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher so could not be in a tomb in Talpiot

If any of these could be established and be of sufficient weight to falsify the hypothesis being tested then one would have to conclude, depending on the certainty of the falsification, that the Talpiot tomb either “can not be” or “is highly unlikely to be” that of Jesus. So the question is, are these “falsifications” sufficient and valid? The fact is all of them have been shown to be invalid despite their constant repetition by critics of the “Talpiot tomb theory” as it is often called. We address each of these in detail in The Jesus Discovery.

Unfortunately, in the case of the Talpiot tomb there are any number of “falsification” possibilities that are not available to us–full DNA testing, examination of the bones in the tomb, and documented evidence of the positioning of the ossuaries in situ. If we even knew how the 10 ossuaries were grouped in the niches of the tomb it might tell us volumes about the relationships between the six named individuals. The tomb adjacent to the Talpiot tomb, now explored in a preliminary way by camera, has in fact brought us significant new evidence to supplement our addressing the question, “Is this likely the family tomb of Jesus?”