What’s What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary, Part 1

The recent CNN “Finding Jesus” special  titled “Secret Brother of Jesus,” that dealt with with the question of whether Jesus had brothers and sisters as well as the controversies surrounding the “James ossuary” has put the latter back in the news. For those a bit rusty on the background of all this here is a primer in two parts, that expands upon my previously published “Reader’s Guide to the Unfolding James Ossuary Story.”

On October 21, 2002 the dramatic headline news flashed around the world—First Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone! Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the flagship magazine of the non-profit Biblical Archaeology Society, held a press conference packed with journalists at the Marriot Hotel in Washington, D.C. He revealed that a limestone “bone box,” called an ossuary, reliably dated to the 1st century CE, had recently surfaced in Israel in the hands of an unnamed private collector. It was inscribed in Aramaic, Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui di Yeshua. English translation: James son of Joseph brother of Jesus. Shanks announced that scientists at the prestigious Geological Survey of Israel had verified the authenticity of the ossuary itself, and world-renowned Sorbonne epigrapher André Lemaire—an expert in ancient scripts—had also authenticated the inscription. Based on these verifications, and the statistical improbabilities of these names and relationships referring to anyone else in that time, Shanks asserted that this ossuary had once held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. If correct, this would be the first and only archaeological artifact from the time of Jesus to mention his name.


Credit: Lori L. Woodall

Major media throughout the world, including the New York Times and virtually every other newspaper in the world, the major wire services, and all the major TV networks, picked up the story immediately. Shanks released photographs, passed out press releases, and the full story, including Lemaire’s analysis, and that of the geologists, was published in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.[1] Shanks and his co-author, professor Ben Witherington also released a book, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family to coincide with the press conference.

Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici was present throughout these dramatic events as he had contracted with Shanks to produce a TV documentary on the James ossuary that aired on the Discovery Channel, in over seventy countries, the following Easter, 2003. This much overlooked documentary is one of the best and most basic treatments of the controversial ossuary. I highly recommend it.[2]

Shanks then dropped another bombshell—the ossuary itself was being flown from Israel and would be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, beginning November 15, 2002—just over a month away. The city and the date had been chosen to coincide with the annual professional meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Schools of Oriental Research that would be gathering the weekend before Thanksgiving in Toronto. These meetings would bring together over 10,000 of the world’s biblical scholars, professors of religion, and biblical archaeologists.

The orchestration of all of these related publications and activities could not have been more effective. The James ossuary was already being hailed as perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.

The exhibition was an overwhelming success drawing nearly 10,000 visitors to the ROM to see the ossuary. I almost crossed paths in Toronto that November with Simcha Jacobovici–whom I had never met. I was attending the annual meetings and had been invited by Shanks to join him and a group of about thirty professors for a private after-hours viewing of the exhibit. Simcha was there to document the gathering and get the first live reactions of the scholars. A who’s who of biblical scholars, experts in ancient inscriptions, and historians, filled the exhibit hall that evening. Fortunately my wife Lori was with me and took some professional photos that captured the spirit of the event and have been subsequently published in Biblical Archaeology Review magazine.

Everyone present seemed genuinely moved by the ossuary itself and impressed with its authenticity, including the renowned epigraphers Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, Joseph Fitzmyer of Catholic University of America, and Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University–all of whom said in my presence that they found the inscription to be authentic from a paleographic examination. In addition to the viewing, there was a special plenary session with a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting that weekend. The only objection expressed on a panel that included André Lemaire, and several leading historians and archaeologists, was that giving such attention to an artifact that had been purchased on the antiquities market, and thus lacked any archaeological context that could serve to inform its interpretation, was less than ideal. One has to remember that this was the case for many of the Dead Sea Scrolls that first came to public view in 1947 because they were being offered for sale by the Bedouin who claimed to have found them in caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Sometimes the value of such archaeological finds, no matter how they end up coming to the attention of competent scholars for evaluation, outweighs these less than ideal circumstances. This is simply the reality of things in the Middle East. The archaeologists do not make some of the most important discoveries in licensed and controlled settings, but rather circumstance and luck, or even looting play their roles. Because of this lack of context one has to always be cautious, since possibility a convincing forgery is always present.[3]


Credit: Lori L. Woodall

By the time of the Toronto exhibit the name of the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, had been leaked. The IAA launched an investigation and by the summer of 2003, just a few months after Simcha Jacobovici’s Discovery TV documentary had been released, a team of Israeli experts issued a report that concluded that although the James ossuary itself was authentic, Golan had forged all or part of the ossuary inscription in order to increase its value. Golan and four other co-conspirators, including Robert Deutsch, one of Israel’s leading antiquities dealer, were indicted on 44 charges of forgery and antiquities trafficking, not only of the James ossuary, but another inscribed artifact that had appeared on the black market in January of that year.[4] The criminal trial (482/04 State of Israel v. Oded Golan), began in December, 2004. In the meantime charges were dropped against all but Golan and Deutsch[5]

Once the indictments were announced and the trial began in Jerusalem, a virtual bandwagon of opposition to the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription followed. This included articles in the New Yorker and Archaeology magazine, a segment on 60 Minutes and stories in most major newspapers around the world, as well as countless blog and internet posts—all concluding that Oded Golan had was part of an extended forgery ring and there was conclusive physical evidence that the James ossuary inscription was a forgery.[6] Since then two major books have been published, one popular, the other scholarly, purporting to document the entire scandal and weighing in on the side of forgery.[7] The academic response on the whole has been harsh and final: “the archaeological fact [is] that the inscription is a modern forgery.”[8]

The general public appears to have been convinced by this tsunami of criticism, so most of the original excitement and enthusiasm for this biblical artifact has dissipated. Hershel Shanks, an experienced lawyer, and his co-author Ben Witherington, have stood their ground but reserved final judgment. Their current position is that a convincing case for forgery has not been made. A few scattered academics have agreed but by far the mainstream would chuckle at any serious mention of the James ossuary inscription as an authentic find from the time of Jesus.[9] Likewise, the scientists at the Geological Survey of Israel have not retracted their initial judgment as to the authenticity of the inscription and the ancient patina covering the ossuary, based on their initial physical tests.

Drawing by Shimon Gibson

Drawing by Shimon Gibson

On October 3, 2010, both the prosecution and the defense concluded their cases. The trial that had lasted seven years came to an end.  Judge Aharon Farkash came to a verdict on March 14, 2012.  Golan was acquitted of the forgery charges but convicted of illegal trading in antiquities. The judge said this acquittal “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic.” The ossuary has since been returned to its owner, Oded Golan, who plans to put it on public display, see here.

It should be noted, despite the widespread perception that the inscription was forged so far not a single epigrapher has disqualified the ossuary inscription on paleographic grounds in legal testimony—that is, the style of the writing and its integrity. See Hershel Shanks’s summary of the overall case for authenticity here. Expert epigraphers can usually spot forgeries by examining the form and style of the letters and comparing them with inscriptions of the period in question that are known to be authentic from the archaeological contexts in which they were found. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been authenticated in this way, even though many of them also surfaced on the black market without any verifiable archaeological context. The IAA case for forgery was partly circumstantial, but primarily based on physical tests conducted by Yuval Goren. He concluded that the letters of the inscription cut through the original patina of the ossuary—the natural growth of chemical deposits that builds up over time on stone—showing that the incisions were made later—in modern times.[10] The indictment further charged that Golan had clumsily tried to apply a fake patina over the inscription, once he had carved it, applying a pastiche he created and mixed with hot water. The case of the prosecution suffered a tremendous blow when it was shown by experts that although the ossuary inscription had been cleaned by its owner, there was nonetheless original, authentic patina in the grooves of the letters—showing it could not have been added later. The chief witness for the prosecution on the patina authenticity, once all the testimony was out, admitted under oath that this was the case.[11]  Based on all the trial evidence presented I think the case in favor of authenticity has become quite compelling.

Statistician Prof. Camille Fuchs had examined the prevalence of names of deceased Jewish male individuals in Jerusalem in the first century CE. He determined that it is possible to determine at a very high probability, close to 99%, that between the years 45-70 AD not more than one adult male Jew with the name James who had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus is likely to have lived in Jerusalem.[12]

A Missing Ossuary

Early on in our investigation Talpiot tombs, we began to consider the possibility that the unprovenanced James ossuary might have come from the Garden tomb. It was speculation at first, a hypothesis that if proven would substantiate the mounting evidence linking the Garden tomb with Jesus of Nazareth.   If the mystery of the origin of the James Ossuary was somehow settled, and it did come from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, its tie to Jesus of Nazareth could hardly be questioned and of course that probability statistics based on the names found in the tomb would go through the roof. Along with the new finds in the Patio tomb, so clearly connecting these tombs to faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we would be in a position to advance our understanding of the faith of Jesus’ first followers in a most significant way.

Joseph Gath’s initial report on the Garden tomb’s excavation clearly states that there were ten ossuaries originally in the tomb. Presumably all ten were transported to the IAA lab at the Rockefeller for cataloguing and analysis. Here are Gath’s own words:

During the archaeological dig at the site 10 ossuaries were found in the different niches. No primary burial was found in the niches and only one niche was found without ossuaries (Niche no. 4). On the floor of the main room there were remains of bones, including skulls and limb bones below the burial shelves.[13]

In 2005, when I first visited the IAA storage warehouse in Bet Shemesh outside Jerusalem to examine the Talpiot Jesus tomb ossuaries, I was accompanied by Shimon Gibson, who had been the surveyor for the excavation in April, 1980. We were both astounded when the curator informed us that everything was ready, handing us an inventory list, and offering to bring out all the ossuaries, but explaining that only nine of the ten ossuaries from this tomb were listed on his tally. He apologized, explaining that they had searched for the tenth but had no idea what had happened to it, even though it had been given a cataloguing number in 1980. His precise words were, “The tenth ossuary has gone missing.” Shimon rechecked the map he had drawn of the tomb at the time of the excavation—there was no doubt, the tomb had originally contained ten ossuaries.

Shimon and I spent hours searching through the archive files of the IAA. There were clear photos of only nine ossuaries, but nothing in the records about a tenth. We checked the 1996 published report on the tomb prepared by Amos Kloner, who was supervisor over Gath and had overseen the excavation. Kloner described each of the first nine ossuaries in detail along with the original photographs. At the end of his roster he listed the tenth, but with a one-word description and no photo:

  1. IAA 80.509: 60 x 26 x 30 cm. Plain

From this one line we knew that at least it had been given a catalogue number but no one seemed to have any idea what happened to it and the curator explained that it should have been photographed as part the routine registration process. He and his staff had searched and had found nothing.

Later we noticed that the Rahmani catalogue of ossuaries in the Israeli state collection also included only nine (nos. 701-709), with the comment that the tenth was plain and broken and was not retained. Its catalogue number: 80.509 is simply not included–with the list of ossuaries jumping from 80.508 to 80.510.[14] I was finishing my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that summer I had noticed that the dimensions of the James ossuary were officially published as: 56.5 x 25 x 30.5—close but not exactly the same as the missing tenth ossuary. Simcha Jacobovici subsequently was able to re-measure the James ossuary under IAA supervision, using the standard template indicating where to take length, width, and height measurements. It was 56.5 x 25.7 x 29.5—a bit closer to the dimensions Kloner had published. Where Kloner got these dimensions we have no idea. They are not in the IAA official files on the excavation of this tomb. Apparently he has his own records of the excavation that he has not made public.

It should be noted that the James ossuary was not rectangular in shape but trapezoid, so that its dimensions, depending on which side or end measured, would vary slightly.[15] For us there was enough of a “fit” that we did not think the possibility that the James ossuary was the missing tenth from the Talpiot tomb should be dismissed. Obviously, there would need to be much more evidence but I decided to mention this possibility in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, published in 2006[16]

After the book was out I was in Jerusalem and I met with Joe Zias, a close friend who was the anthropologist at the IAA in 1980. I wanted to know what Joe thought might have happened to the tenth ossuary, based on how materials were catalogued and handled in those days. Joe said he had no specific recollection of that particular tomb or ossuary but he suggested three possibilities: 1) It was simply misplaced in storage rather than being shelved where it should be with the other nine; 2) it had been put outside in the courtyard of the Rockefeller because of lack of space and lost its tag and would now be unidentifiable; or, 3) it was discarded during one of the moves of the IAA collection since 1980—from the Rockefeller, to a warehouse in Romena, and finally to Bet Shemesh. Joe explained that things regularly go missing, with millions of artifacts from thousands of excavations, but often they show up again. Joe was quite sure the missing tenth ossuary had nothing to do with the James ossuary and told James he thought his speculation in that regard was irresponsible and misleading. That is how things stood in 2006.

To be continued…Part II will explore in more detail the question “Did the James Ossuary Come from the Talpiot Tomb?”

  1. André Lemaire, “Burial Box of James, the Brother of Jesus: Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Jesus Found in Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6 (2002): 24-33, 70. The SEM-EDS geological analysis conducted by Amnon Rosenfeld and Shimon Ilani was also summarized in this issue, p. 29. []
  2. James: Brother of Jesus, Holy Relic or Hoax. It was shown over the course of the next month in over eighty additional countries. []
  3. See the observations of Yuval Goren on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Goren_Jerusalem_Syndrome.shtml. []
  4. The other inscription, the Yohoash tablet, was a stone artifact with a Hebrew text that was purported to come from the reign of King Jehash in the 9th century BCE (see 1 Kings 12). See Uzi Dahari, ed., Final Report of the Examining Committee for the Yehoash Inscription and James Ossuary (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2003) for the results of the IAA investigation. The reports are conveniently posted on-line: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/Final_Reports.shtml. A summary of this report with comments also appears in the revised edition of Shanks’ and Witherington’s book, The Brother of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004), pp. 227-237. []
  5. Correspondent Matthew Kalman serially reported on the entire trial for Time magazine and his articles are archived on his web site: http://jamesossuarytrial.blogspot.com/. Oded Golan has recently released his own account of the trial proceedings titled “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Tablet Inscriptions—Summary of Expert Trial Witness,” available here: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml. His summary appears to provide convincing evidence that he was falsely accused and that both artifacts and their inscriptions are authentic. []
  6. Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren, “Faking Biblical History,” Archaeology 56:5 (2003): 20-29; David Samuels, “Written in Stone,” New Yorker, April 12, 2004, pp. 48-59. []
  7. Nina Burleigh, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greek, and Forgery in the Holy Land (New York: Harper-Collins, 2008) and Ryan Byrne and Bernadette McNary-Zak, eds., Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009). []
  8. Byron R. McCane, “Archaeological Context and Controversy,” in Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus, op. cit. p. 20; http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/West_reply.shtml; http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Ossuary_Again.shtml. []
  9. See the comments of Craig Evans on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Evans_Thoughts.shtml. []
  10. See Goren’s report at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Goren_report.shtml. []
  11. See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony cited above. []
  12. Camil Fuchs: “Demography, literacy and names distribution in ancient Jerusalem: How many James/Jacob son of Joseph, brother of Jesus were there?” in The Polish Journal of Biblical Research 4:1 (2005): 3-30. []
  13. Gath published this short preliminary report in Hebrew in 1981, but before the ossuary inscriptions had been deciphered (Hadashot Arkheologiyot 76 (1981), pp. 24-26. Translation is by Noam Kusar. The Jesus tomb has two ledges or “primary burial shelves,” (arcosolia) on the northern and eastern walls upon which corpses were laid out for the first year so they would decompose. []
  14. See Rahmani, Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, p. 222. []
  15. It should also be noted that Rahmani’s catalogue often gives two differing measurements for individual ossuaries, recording initial measurements as well as subsequent lab measurements that were more precise. It is also possible, since the James ossuary was broken and restored in November, 2002, when it was flown to Canada to be put on display, that its measurements today might tend to be slightly less than when it was first measured. []
  16. See James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-83. []

An Eyewitness Account of the 1981 Discovery of the Talpiot “Jonah” Tomb

They sent over a young archaeologist by the name of Amos Kloner. He climbed into the tomb and came out literally shaking. I’ll never forget. I asked him what he saw and he repeatedly muttered ‘I never saw such a thing….I never saw such a tomb.’

Simcha Jacobovici has just posted a new eyewitness account of the initial discovery of the Talpiot “Patio” tomb in April, 1981 by Avraham Leket. This is the tomb with the Jonah image and the “resurrection” inscription, just yards away from the more famous “Jesus family tomb,”–but located on the same ancient estate. Avraham Leket worked at the time for the building company carrying out construction at the site when the tomb was found. He was the one who first called the Israel Antiquities Authority when the drill they were using punched through the roof of the tomb and he was present when the young archaeologist Amos Kloner first entered the tomb. Here is Leket’s report as just published by Simcha here:

“My name is Avraham Leket. I saw your films on the Talpiot tombs (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery”). And I want you to know that, at the time that Talpiot was being built up, I was working for the building company Shikun Ovdim, which was responsible for part of the site. The site supervisor was a man by the name of Eli Parsi. When he went on vacation, I filled in for him. As we were drilling, the drill went through the roof of a burial cave [i.e., the Patio tomb]. I realized we had hit an archaeological site and I called the Antiquities Authority. They sent over a young archaeologist by the name of Amos Kloner. He climbed into the tomb and came out literally shaking. I’ll never forget. I asked him what he saw and he repeatedly muttered ‘I never saw such a thing….I never saw such a tomb.’ He took out one ossuary that did not weigh much because it was small, belonging to a child. But then religious people got involved. They didn’t want the tomb disturbed. Things shut down for the Sabbath and after that Eli Parsi came back to work.” Mr. Leket said that he hoped the information was helpful. It’s very helpful, Mr. Leket.



Avraham Leket Today


What Kloner saw that day and what happened next is a subject of much confusion and contradictory testimony that we tried our best to sort through in our book, The Jesus Discovery, published in 2012, with full primary source documentation. An article published in the now defunct newspaper Davar, in May, 1981, had tantalizingly hinted at “rare” or “unique” ornamentation. But this is the first we have heard of Amos Kloner’s amazement at what he found in this tomb which he has since said was entirely “ordinary.”

After we published our book something entirely new surfaced–which rather than clearing the air, added more to the confusion. Prof. Amos Kloner gave lecture at Bar Ilan University on December 27, 2012 at the “New Studies on Jerusalem Conference” on his original exploration of the Talpiot “Patio” tomb in 1981. Kloner’s intention was to “set the record straight” and more specifically, to counter what he considered to be the sloppy and sensational interpretations of Simcha Jacobovici and me, based on our IAA licensed 2010 re-examination of this sealed tomb by robotic camera with archaeologist Rami Arav.

We have argued that one of the ossuaries in this tomb contains an image of a fish spouting out Jonah and a second has a four-line Greek inscription referring to “lifting up” or resurrection of the dead. We further maintain that both the inscription and the Jonah image most likely came from Jewish followers of Jesus who are affirming faith in resurrection of the dead. The main outlines of my argument I presented in a technical paper posted on-line at Bible & Interpretation here, as well as in a co-authored book that extensively deals with the evidence from both of the Talpiot tombs, The Jesus Discovery (Simon & Schuster, 2012).  We have also released photos and other relevant documents related to our investigation at our official web site on the “Patio” tomb here. When the book and the article were published in February 2012, the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) devoted the month of March to an open discussion of these finds and their interpretation on its blog, sparking a heated and controversial series of posts and comments with diverse points of view. The Israeli magazine Eretz made our discoveries and the resulting controversy a cover story of the May issue with the provoking article, “Who’s Afraid of the Tomb of Jesus?

Prof. Kloner offered no input whatsoever to the month-long ASOR discussion so we now hear for the first time his views on the subject. He now reveals that he thinks the “Jonah” image is not a fish at all but a vase or “amphora,” and that the Greek inscription has nothing to do with resurrection but rather is a prohibition against disturbing bones. These various alternative interpretations, along with the idea that the “fish” is a “funerary tower,”  were debated extensively on the ASOR blog and I have covered them extensively here on my blog though the month of March. I have read a transcript of his oral remarks, which I make available to readers here: Kloner Lecture Transcript. I have also obtained a copy of his much longer published paper on the subject in Hebrew, which can be viewed here.

Kloner’s paper immediately generated an Op-Ed in the Times of Israel in which Matthew Kalman offered a very balanced overview here. I offered my own preliminary reactions here and Simcha Jacobovici, who was present at the lecture recorded his initial impressions which you can access here.

Simcha Jacobovici posted a long and probing piece based on his more carefully reading of Kloner’s published paper in Hebrew, which you can read here. Simcha and I have very different styles and I consider Amos Kloner a colleague and a friend, but the various problems he notes with Kloner’s account of the events of 1981 are serious and myriad. What jumped out at me when I read the full paper was that there is nothing Kloner reports seeing in 1981 that adds anything to our own camera probe discoveries in 2010, other than his reported “count” of how many individuals’ bones were in each ossuary–the basis of which one has to wonder. All the rest of the data were precisely what we reported.[1]

Most puzzling to me is the drawing Kloner publishes in his paper of the ossuary with the “Jonah and the fish” image. Kloner says that he made this sketch, along with another one of the ossuary with the Greek inscription, in 1981 while briefly inside the tomb. Why he had never revealed these before, not even to his co-author Shimon Gibson with whom he wrote his definitive paper on the Talpiot tombs for the forthcoming Charlesworth volume remains for him to answer.[2] The sketches are not in the Israel Antiquities Authority excavation files nor has anyone to my knowledge ever seen them before. We do know that the positions of these two ossuaries was different in 1981 from where they are today in the niches and the “Jonah” ossuary was not blocked from view in 1981 as it is today. So Kloner could have easily made such a sketch, or even better, taken a photo of both ossuaries.

Here is the problem. We were not able to see the entire front of the ossuary with the Jonah image. That ossuary is blocked by the one with the Greek inscription right in front of it, butted up to a few centimeters against its face. You can see here our camera coming into the niche with these two ossuaries up against one another. The one in the back is the one with the “Jonah” image, and just enough of the left side of that ossuary was visible to us to make out the image and get fairly good photos. It was the right side of the ossuary that remained a mystery to us. Our camera caught the bare beginnings of the square “temple” like structure on the right side, but what was inside that structure that we could not see clearly. In his paper Kloner is quite interested in this structure and offers analysis as to its possible meanings–but without mentioning anything about its important internal features–which would surely reveal more as to what the artist was wanting to portray.

When we had our replicas made this became a real problem. Since we could not see clearly the right side of this ossuary how should it be presented? In our first attempt, which was the ossuary displayed in New York at our February 28th press conference, the artisan took our limited photos of the right side and could barely make out something inside the “temple” and tried to represent it partially. This caused no end of problems because what he ended up with looked like some kind of “hangman’s gallows.” This led to endless speculation on those who saw the reproduction as to what the mysterious hidden meaning of this marking might be. The truth is this was simply all we could make out with our camera shots and it would have been best to leave the space blank.

When we had a second set of ossuary reproductions made in Israel for our subsequent press conference in Jerusalem on April 4th we wanted to do whatever we could to improve our first attempt. We made the Jonah fish image a bit fatter, having reexamined all our photos, and most important Simcha and I advised Felix Gobulev who was working with the artisans to simply leave the inside of the temple-like structure blank. There was something substantial inside, but since we could not see what it was, why offer a partial sketch that could end up being misleading? Accordingly, the second reproduction looked like this:

When I saw Kloner’s drawing I almost fell off my chair. It was an almost precise copy of our Jerusalem ossuary reproduction. The only problem is, he also leaves the inside of the “temple” structure blank–just as we did, though it is clear that anyone who was looking at the full unblocked face of the ossuary would have seen what is obviously inside the “temple” like structure. The “blank” is not blank–there is a substantial architectural feature plainly visible. When I heard Kloner had presented his drawings I was quite excited. I was even wondering or hoping there might be some kind of inscription inside that “blank” space–and now we would know at last. I leave it to readers to draw their own conclusions and I welcome any explanation from Prof. Kloner.

The main thing we could not see in our robotic probe, and which Kloner saw clearly enough to draw–but did not include–was what was on the panel opposite the “Jonah” image? One can only speculate and wonder if filling in that blank space might explain why Prof. Kloner would have repeated several times “I never saw such a thing, I never saw such a tomb.” Until we can remove all the ossuaries from the tomb and examine them carefully firsthand with full scientific tests (including I hope DNA tests) we have only the following hints from our partial view via the robotic camera probe.

Here the only three photos we were able to obtain so that anyone interested might have a tiny “peek” at what lies inside the blank space. One in particular shows the beginnings of a substantial internal rectangular pattern, which became the basis for our “hangman’s gallows” in the original reproduction. These are the original untouched photos from our probe cameras and I realise they will appear somewhat dark here on this blog but those who wish to download them can easily lighten them up and sharpen the quality and you will be able to see quite a bit. We thought it best to present them here in their original state for anyone to work with who might be interested.

  1. One example. Kloner had previously written in the publications below that there were “two Greek names” inscribed on ossuaries in this tomb. He says nothing about iconography or a Greek inscription, which presumably he not only saw but drew. We were able to see one name, MARA, but the other was out of range of our cameras. The only hint we had of this name was from the 1981 B&W photos, but it is faded and unclear, but at that time the ossuary was turned differently and plainly facing out. Kloner also reports that he can not read the second name, though anyone actually inside the tomb, looking right at the ossuary, would have seen the letters clearly. There are three published reports on the tomb, each tantalizingly sparse in details with some differences between them: Amos Kloner, Excavations and Surveys in Israel 1982, vol. 1, 78-81 (October 1982), p. 51; Amos Kloner, Survey of Jerusalem: the Southern Sector (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2000), p. 84; Kloner and Zissu, Necropolis of Jerusalem, pp. 342, which contains a map by Kloner. The IAA files contain one single memo dated August 2, 1981 plus some photographs. An April 17, 1981 memo that Kloner wrote right after his team finished their work is referenced in the August 2nd memo but nowhere to be found. One early Roman period cooking pot was catalogued by the IAA as from this tomb, although excavators remember other items being removed. There is no copy of the excavation license. These are unfortunate losses and perhaps these and other materials will be recovered in the future. Curiously, Kloner  reports that “three of the kokhim contained seven ossuaries” and does not mention removing an eighth one from a fourth niche, see Survey of Jerusalem: the Southern Sector (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2000), p. 84. Kloner later published a sketch of the tomb showing the locations of all eight ossuaries, distributed in four of the niches, see See Necropolis of Jerusalem, pp. 342, published in 2007 with Boaz Zissu. []
  2. See Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson, “The Talpiot tomb Reconsidered: The Archaeological Facts,” in The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins, eds. James H. Charlesworth and Arthur C. Boulet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming, 2013) []

Jesus as Illegitimate and the Talpiot Tomb: Some New Considerations

In the meantime, it is indeed interesting to note that this very practice of patronymy/paponymy/metronymy, by its repetitive nature, leaves the sample of names quite narrow and refutes in essence the argument of “very common names” put forward by a number scholars that the Talpiot tomb was not that of Jesus’ family.

—Prof. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

I wanted to call my readers’ attention to a paper posted by Professor Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, “Jesus the Patriarch and Talpiot tomb A,” at Bible & Interpretation. Her article on this subject is included in the volume of 2008 Princeton Theological Seminar Jerusalem Symposium papers edited by James Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).

Cohen-Matlofsky’s academic focus is in late 2nd Temple Judaism (see her notable recent study Flavius Josèphe entre Hasmonéens et Hérodiens, les ambitions d’un homme, L’Harmattan, Paris) [1] but it is her distinguished work as a prosopographist that has new and overlooked relevance to a discussion of the Talpiot “Jesus” family tomb and its possible or probably relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Her work in this area stems from her broad and substantial study, Les Laïcs en Palestine d’Auguste à Hadrien: étude prosopographique (Paris, H. Champion, 2001).[2].

What Cohen-Matlofsky has undertaken is a much tighter chronological calculation (63 BCE to 70 CE.) of the occurrences of various Jewish names, both male and female, in the period, as well as a broader and more comprehensive sampling than just names on ossuaries. She points out, for example, that Tal Ilan’s most useful lexicon includes names from 330 BCE to 200 CE, which is a very broad chronological swath, and that is what many of us have relied upon.Although Tal Ilan includes other sources beyond ossuary inscriptions, Cohen-Matlofsky has been able to update, expand, and in some places correct, her tallies.

She has previously published some of her results in connection to  names in the Talpiot tomb at Bible & Interpretation here and here, but this latest contribution adds a new dimension to the consideration of the six names in the tomb–namely how the cluster of relationships reflected in the names sheds light on the family as a whole. For example, taking the three names with patronymic relationships in the Talpiot “Jesus” family, namely:

Jesus son of Joseph
Judah son of Jesus

Theoretically we would have six possible combinations of linear descent from grandfather to grandson, namely:


What is striking is that only the first, that is Joseph-Jesus-Judah would potentially have a fit with a hypothetical “Jesus of Nazareth” family tomb, making the sequence in the tomb much more unique than one might initially think.

The tomb of Jesus is an atypical, fatherless tomb: Jesus, the eldest son, became the patriarch by “replacing” the “husband” of his adulteress mother.

Cohen-Matlofsky takes seriously the likelihood that Jesus was most likely born illegitimate (Hebrew term mamzer)–that is not the biological son of Joseph, her betrothed.[3] I have written extensively about this in a series of posts on this blog, see, for example, see, “Who Was Jesus Father?– Imagining the Best,” and “Joining the Slanderers,” as well as my five-part series on “The Birth of Jesus.” Whatever the circumstances of her pregnancy by another man, which we have no way of determining given our lack of evidence, Jesus’ legal status as a mamzer in Jewish law, becomes an important factor in assessing the implied relationships reflected in the Talpiot tomb. I recommend a careful reading of Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s latest important contribution.


  1. See her contribution on Josephus in Bible & Interpretation []
  2. This study consists in a list of 715 names found in the various sources with statistical charts including male and female distribution []
  3. See the references in Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s paper in her footnote here. []

Was Jesus Naked at his Resurrection?

I never thought much about it until looking at this lovely painting by Titian but have you ever wondered what Jesus was supposedly wearing in his reported empty tomb/post-resurrection “sightings”? The gospels of Matthew and John relate physical encounters with Jesus just outside the tomb by Mary Magdalene alone, or by her and her companions (Matthew 28:8-10; John 20:11-17)  Mark has no appearances (16:8 is the original ending) and Luke reserves the honor of such apostolic witnessing to the men alone. See my post on “The Strange Ending of Mark and Why it Makes all the Difference.”

Tizian Post-ResurrectionIt might seem like a trivial or silly question but it in fact touches on a very profound issue–namely the difference between Paul’s view of a spiritual body–that he characterizes as “clothed,”  being raised in contrast to the rather literal–presumably physical “touch me” body–that Luke and John both emphasize. If we are going to take these accounts literally–at face value–as many urge, we seem to have a naked Jesus. Since the shroud wrapping sJesus’ corpse were left in the tomb according to John (20:6-7), we can only assume that Jesus came out of the tomb naked–and so encountered Mary Magdalene (according to John)  or her with her companions (according to Matthew). I say this “tongue in cheek” of course, but it points to a much more substantial issue–namely the nature of the notion of “resurrection” of the dead among Jews and early followers of Jesus at that time.

What is interesting is that Paul uses this very image of clothing for the new spiritual “resurrection” body in 2 Corinthians 5:2-4. For Paul Jesus has shed his physical body like old clothing left behind and his “naked” soul has been “reclothed” with a spiritual body–so that he can refer to him in such a glorified state as a “life-giving Spirit”–in contrast to the “flesh and blood” body “of dust” of our present human existence–that is both physical and corruptible (see 1 Corinthians 15:45-50).

So Paul would answer the question of “what kind of a body did the resurrected Jesus appear?” differently than Matthew, John, and Luke–he would say Jesus was fully re-clothed in a new spiritual body. This touches on a rather complex issue that most of us have trouble sorting out, see my post “Why People Are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.” It is easy to forget  that it is Paul’s view that predates that of our Gospel writers by at least two or three decades–and is thus more likely representative of the original faith of Jesus’ first followers in Galilee and Judea. Thus the recently discovered Talpiot tomb inscription makes sense as a cry or a declaration of faith that from those ossuary bones God/YHVH will raise up! See the updated post here on its best translation. It is very likely, given the date of this tomb, contemporary with the apostle Paul, that it is our earliest archaeological evidence of faith in a spiritual resurrection of the dead–not merely a resuscitation of a largely intact corpse. Paul, and I would argue Jesus’ first followers in Jerusalem and Galilee, were not interested in raising up bones and flesh, but seeing the “naked” self reclothed with a new spiritual body.