Thinking Through Easter: What Do Our Sources Really Say?

Most people raised in our Christian culture have a vague story in their heads as to what is supposed to have happened Easter morning, whether drawn from attending church services, reading the Bible themselves, or even from various “Jesus” films. Around Easter Jesus usually makes the cover of some of our major magazines. Even one who is non-Christian or secular can’t help picking up on the basic story-line, which goes something like this:

Early Sunday morning after Jesus’ Good Friday crucifixion several of his women followers went to his tomb only to find the heavy stone blocking the entrance removed and the tomb empty with the grave clothes left behind. They were told by two dazzling angels dressed in white “He is not here, he is risen, come see the place where he lay.” They were dumbfounded, as were the other apostles to whom they reported these strange events. Later that day Jesus appeared to the apostles and allowed them to examine his body with its wounds, assuring them it was him, and that he had been raised from the dead. Various other appearance of Jesus followed over a period of weeks until Jesus departed this earth, taken up in the clouds of heaven.

What will come as a complete surprise to many people is that our historical sources for this scenario offer wildly differing accounts of Easter morning. Historians work with sources and evidence and when it comes to Easter all we have are six ancient texts–our four New Testament gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and the fragments of the more recently discovered Gospel of Peter. I have written recently about the Gospel of Peter here, and I have offered an extended analysis of Paul’s understanding of resurrection of the dead with a lot of historical background here.

What I want to do in this post is take closer look at our earliest three sources, taken in chronological order–Mark, Matthew, and Luke, viewing them side-by-side, in “Synoptic” fashion, when it comes to their accounts of the empty tomb of Jesus and the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus to his various followers. Readers who have never bothered to do this will find much of surprise I think. All you need is a copy of the Bible with the New Testament included, any translation will do fine.

Most scholars are agreed that Mark is our earliest gospel. What few non-specialists realize is that Mark’s account of the empty tomb stands in the sharpest contrast to those written after him.

Mark 16:1-8 provides the early core account with what scholars consider to be the original version of Mark ending abruptly with verse 8:

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun was risen. And they were saying among themselves, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?” and looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, Be not amazed: you seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified: he has been lifted up; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goes before you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told. And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.

This is how our earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end!

Later copies of the Mark supply one of several added endings, clearly finding such an abrupt ending to the gospel story inadequate, so you will find in most Bibles the additional verses 9-20, which were composed by in the 3rd or 4th century by someone who wanted to round the story out and make it more in harmony with the endings of Matthew, Luke, and John[1]

Please note the rather astounding fact that Mark’s original ending has no appearances of Jesus. A young man, not an angel, tells the women Jesus has been “lifted up,” with a promise that they will “see him in Galilee,” which is in the north of the country.[2] This was apparently the earliest faith of Jesus’ first followers–namely, that Jesus had been taken up to heaven, and that the disciples would see him at a later time in Galilee. I have argued, see the post noted above, that this is also the understanding of Jesus’ resurrection we find in Paul, and ironically, it is the view of resurrection we find in the newly discovered Talpiot tomb inscription about God “lifting up” (Greek hupso/υψω) the dead–see our book, The Jesus Discovery. Paul reports Jesus was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and the subsequent “sightings” of Jesus, by him and the earlier apostles, were seeing Jesus in his heavenly glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-50, compared with vv. 3-7). To be “lifted up” in this way is to leave the physical body behind, like old clothing, and thus to be “absent from the body,” but present with God (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). This was the earliest Christian resurrection faith.

As far as the age old question, “What happened to the physical body of Jesus,” the most likely explanation is that it was reburied by Joseph of Arimathea after being placed temporarily in an unused tomb near the site of crucifixion. I have written extensively about this “first burial” of Jesus here.[3]

Matthew and Luke, written a decade or more after Mark, are clearly not satisfied with Mark’s abrupt ending. Even though Mark is their basic narrative source, they are bound and determined to expand the tradition and supply expanded versions of his ending that will be more dramatic and impressive, and in the case of Luke and John–introduce a wholly new understanding of the resurrection of Jesus as the resuscitation of his physical corpse. One has to keep in mind this is not an idea that Paul supports, in fact he speaks emphatically against the notion of confusing the “body of dust” with the “spiritual body” or “life-giving spirit,” as noted above.

Both Matthew and Luke recast this core scene of the women’s visit to the tomb and they are each clearly relying on Mark as their source. What obviously bothers them about Mark’s story is the final line, about the women fleeing the scene and saying nothing to anyone, end of story! That Mark has no appearances of Jesus is a huge problem for them. Both Matthew and Luke are keen to expand this abrupt and problematic ending. Each of them recasts that final line, so that it can lead into what comes next, notice carefully:

“So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matthew 28:8).

“And returning from the tomb they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest” (Luke 24:9).

At this point their dependence on Mark drops off.  Matthew has his one “sighting” of Jesus in Galilee, taking his cue from Mark’s line about “there you will see him,” while Luke removes that line about Galilee entirely and adds a string of “appearances” in Jerusalem.

What this means, in terms of the Synoptic tradition is that Matthew and Luke only follow their source Mark up to the point where the women flee the tomb, and thereafter, they are presenting their own independent and quite differing traditions of what the “resurrection of Jesus” meant within their separate communities and traditions.

It is altogether striking that at this point there are absolutely no parallels whatsoever between what they quite separately relate. It is not the case of differing witnesses to the “same event” reporting slightly differing accounts, as Christian apologists often insist. It is the case of both Matthew and Luke at this point losing their core source Mark, leaving it behind, and going their separate ways entirely!

What this means for our historical reconstruction is that Matthew and Luke reflect independent witnesses to the growth and apologetic (in the sense of defense) development of traditions defending the notion of Jesus being raised from the dead for the post-70 CE generation. Mark is content to relate his story with no appearances of the risen Jesus, and yet nonetheless attest to resurrection faith, looking forward to the Parousia (return of the “Son of Man” in the clouds of heaven), probably expected in Galilee. But both Matthew and Luke have other concerns that they have to address.

What is clearly the case is that neither Matthew nor Luke are relating history, but writing defenses against charges that are being raised by opponents who are denying the notion that Jesus literally rose from the dead. Luke is clearly worried about claims that any so-called “appearances” of Jesus were simply hallucinatory apparitions–in other words, “ghost stories.” He has good reason to worry. We know various pagan critics of Christianity were beginning to heap fun on the Christians for naïvely swallowing the unstable fables of women and ignorant peasants. [4] He is keen to show that Jesus, though not always readily recognized, nonetheless could be touched, and that he ate with his followers, clearly showing his “bodily” existence. He is interested in what he calls “proofs,” and he repeats this concern in Acts 1:3.

What we can be quite sure of, from a historical point of view, is that none of these so-called proofs has any historical basis whatsoever. Mark knows nothing of such stories, nor does Matthew. They are not part of any early and core tradition of Jesus’ resurrection and they have no correspondence to the type of visionary “appearances” claimed by Paul for himself and for others.

And just as important, notice, Luke is also concerned to shift the emphasis to Jerusalem, away from Galilee, where the family of Jesus originated. Mark’s focus is on the apostles seeing Jesus in Galilee, as is Matthews. They know nothing of any Jerusalem appearances.

Matthew has two concerns. First, he wants the resurrection to be a dramatic cosmic event, and second he wants to refute the story that is being spread in Jewish circles that Jesus’ followers came Saturday night and moved the body to another location. At the death of Jesus he has already added earthquakes, tombs splitting open, and multiple corpses of the dead coming alive and appearing to various people in the city (Matt 27:51-53). So here, to Mark’s stark account of the empty tomb discovery, he adds another earthquake, an angel as bright as lightning descending from heaven and moving the heavy stone from the tomb entrance. He also relates that Pilate, the Roman governor, had authorized a band of soldiers to seal and guard the tomb against the possibility that someone might take the body and claim he was raised. At the sight of the angel they fell as dead for fear of the terrifying heavenly being. None of this is in Mark. Matthew’s account is quite patently a theological and apologetic embellishment on Matthew’s part. What we need to ask is what Matthew intends to address with such a dramatic retelling of his source Mark? Unlike Luke, he knows nothing of multiple appearances of Jesus in the city of Jerusalem, and he has only one mountain top sighting of Jesus by the apostles in Galilee, where Jesus gives to them the so-called “Great Commission” with some of them doubting what they saw! Those are obviously the most theologically constructed set of verses in his entire gospel, but even at that he notes that some of the Eleven “doubted” that they were really seeing Jesus, a most telling admission (Matthew 28:16-20).

It is obvious that for Matthew, unlike Luke, “appearances” are not much on his radar screen. Rather what really concerns him is refuting the story that “is told among the Jews to this day,” that followers removed Jesus body and reburied it on Saturday night. To do this he needs the earthquake, and the angel from heaven descending with blinding light, and a tomb sealed and guarded by Roman soldiers–none of which can possibly have any historical basis whatsoever. They are clearly constructed, even imposed on the bare account of Mark, to address this “Jewish” story.

What Matthew unwittingly provides is a witness that a generation after Jesus’ death it was being claimed in certain Jewish circles that Jesus’ body had been taken from the initial tomb into which it had been temporarily put by Joseph of Arimathea and presumably reburied. What the historian must consider is whether that “story,” to which Matthew provides such a definitive witness, is in fact based on what actually happened. This would not mean that the disciples “stole” the body to perpetuate a lie, as Matthew frames the story against his Jewish opponents, but only that the core story itself, that they removed the body Saturday night, is our best account of how the tomb became empty. What makes this possibility all the more likely is that it fits in with the initial, temporary, emergency burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea as the Passover Seder approached the afternoon of the crucifixion. A Saturday night removal to a place of permanent burial is precisely what one would expect.

I have recently noted how the Gospel of Peter, particularly with its broken off ending, gives strong support to the early account of Mark, see “The Last Passover and the First Easter–When Apostles and Angels Wept.” There we read clearly that the disciples wept and mourned for Jesus in Jerusalem for the entire eight day Passover week–hardly compatible with Luke’s dramatic appearances in Jerusalem the very day the empty tomb was found–before returning to their fishing business in the Galilee. What is quite amazing is that the appended chapter 21 of the gospel of John parallels this account. This version has to be read independently of John’s account of multiple appearances of Jesus in Jerusalem on Easter morning including the famous encounter with “doubting Thomas,” in chapter 20–the original ending of John’s gospel. An editor has added what he claims is an early “eyewitness” account of an “apparition” of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee when the disciples have returned to their fishing business. One can tell from the tone of the account that this is obviously presented as their first “sighting” of the risen Jesus.

I understand how pious readers of the New Testament are not comfortable with this sort of critical readings of our historical sources but once one takes a close look at the texts, and the clear and obvious elements I have gone through in this post, there is hardly any other recourse. Ironically, for believing Christians, rather than such an analysis being a threat to resurrection faith, it turns out to provide an glimpse of the original version of that faith–namely that Jesus left his body behind, that he was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and was  “lifted up” to God’s right hand.

Postscript: Until very recently these six texts were all we had in attempting a historical evaluation of the origins of faith in Jesus’ resurrection. With the 1980 discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb, and the recent exploration of the “Patio” tomb nearby, I believe we have for the first time, archaeological evidence that potentially supplements what we had from our texts. I am speaking in particular of the “Jonah and the fish” image, on one ossuary, and the Greek inscription celebrating “lifting up” from the tomb, on another. I am convinced that the earliest understanding of Christian faith in resurrection, as seen in Paul, Mark, and John 21, has now been corroborated by these findings. See our book, The Jesus Discovery for full details and arguments.

For further reading see the following posts that explore the details I have touched upon here:

The Strange Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes all the Difference

The Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead

The Earliest Account of the Discovery of Jesus’ Tomb–What it Says and What it Does Not Say

The Two Verses on the Discovery of the Empty Tomb that Ring True Historically

The Lost Gospel of Peter–A Valuable but Neglected Ancient Source

  1. In fact, this unknown editor simply drew from stories in the other three gospels, as is quite obvious if one examines the interpolation carefully. The appearance to Mary Magdalene is lifted from John, the appearance to the two disciples on the road as well as Jesus sitting with the apostles for a meal from Luke, and the “Great Commission,” from Matthew, and the ascent of Jesus into heaven, again, from Luke. In addition to this interpolated ending there are two others that achieved less popularity but some translations of the Bible put them in footnotes. []
  2. The verb used here, egeiro/εγειρω means “to lift up, raise up” or even “be carried away. It is used in Mark 2:12 for the paralyzed man whom Jesus heals and tells to “lift up” his bedroll and walk. []
  3. On this idea of a first burial see Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review (Sept/Oct, 1999), who argues that the tomb used by Joseph of Arimathea was a borrowed or temporary cave used for a limited time, pressed by the arrival of the Sabbath, with the intention of completing the rites of burial after the Passover holiday. See also Richard Carrier, “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day,” as well as his revised version of this article in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, edited by Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder, pp. 369-392. []
  4. See “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them,” as well as the important study of Deborah Thompson Price, “The ‘Ghost’ of Jesus: Luke 24 in the Light of Ancient Narratives of Post-Mortem Apparitions,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament (2007) 29:287-301. []

Tests on the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Fragment Show No Evidence of Forgery

Update: Candida Moss has a nice summary piece in The Daily Beast on this latest development with pros and cons and some good links, here.


New scientific tests have turned up no evidence of modern forgery in a text written on ancient Egyptian papyrus that refers to Jesus as being married, according to a long-awaited article to be published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review. The findings support the argument of Harvard professor Karen L. King that the controversial text, the first-known explicit reference to a married Jesus, is almost certainly an authentic document. Boston Globe, April 10, 2014

Jesus Wife PapyrusIn September 2012 when Harvard Professor Karen King introduced to the world a small scrap of papyrus with a reference to Jesus’ wife a storm of controversy erupted. I covered the story rather thoroughly on this blog in a series of posts, including all the charges of forgery. Those post are worth revisiting in the light of today’s news on the dating and ink composition tests as they deliberate all sides of the controversies related to this fragment.


This morning the New York Times and The Boston Globe published rather full stories. Below is today’s Boston Globe story. Not surprisingly, it is clear that the controversies are still with us. You can also read the latest version of King’s article in the Harvard Theological Review, as well as some of the wider context and response on-line here:

“New scientific tests have turned up no evidence of modern forgery in a text written on ancient Egyptian papyrus that refers to Jesus as being married, according to a long-awaited article to be published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review.

The findings support the argument of Harvard professor Karen L. King that the controversial text, the first-known explicit reference to a married Jesus, is almost certainly an authentic document.

The “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” was introduced to the world by King at a conference in Rome 18 months ago. The announcement made headlines around the world, and many of King’s academic peers, as well as the Vatican newspaper, swiftly dismissed it as a fake.

King maintains the document was probably part of a debate among early Christians about the role of women, family, and celibacy in spiritual life.

The results of a carbon dating test found that the papyrus probably dates to eighth-century Egypt, about 400 years later than King originally thought, but still in ancient times.

Other tests found the ink’s chemical composition consistent with carbon-based inks used by ancient Egyptians. And microscopic imaging revealed none of the suspicious ink pooling that critics thought they saw in lower-resolution photographs of the fragment. Such pooling could have offered evidence that the ink was applied in modern times.

“I’m basically hoping that we can move past the issue of forgery to questions about the significance of this fragment for the history of Christianity, for thinking about questions like, ‘Why does Jesus being married, or not, even matter? Why is it that people had such an incredible reaction to this?’ ” King said in an interview.

King has never argued that the fragment is evidence that Jesus was actually married. It would have been composed much later than the gospels of the New Testament, which are regarded as the earliest and most reliable sources on the historical Jesus and which are silent on that question.

Still, the latest tests do not prove definitively that the text was written in ancient times. Specialists said, hypothetically, that a highly skilled modern forger could have obtained the right kind of ink and meticulously applied it to a blank piece of ancient papyrus.

Determining the age of the ink using conventional testing methods would destroy the tiny document, roughly the size of a business card. Groundbreaking work by Columbia University researchers may soon uncover a way to date the ink without harming the fragment, which would offer a more definitive verdict about its authenticity.

Meanwhile, the controversy over the fragment seems likely to continue.

Critics have dismissed the fragment as a ham-handed pastiche of bits of the Gospel of Thomas, a noncanonical gospel, mashed together by someone with an elementary grasp of Coptic. One scholar found that the fragment seemed to contain a typo found in an online edition of the Gospel of Thomas, a discovery that some academics said offered powerful evidence of a forgery.

Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University who offers a rebuttal to King’s thesis in the new edition of the Harvard Theological Review, said none of the test results alter his view that the document is a fraud, a modern-day cut-and-paste job with several glaring grammatical blunders that a native speaker of Coptic would never commit.

He believes the forger may have “wanted to put his or her own spin on modern theological issues,” such as the role of women and celibacy in Christianity.

“Nothing is going to change my mind,” he said in an interview this week. “As a forgery, it is bad to the point of being farcical or fobbish. . . . I don’t buy the argument that this is sophisticated. I think it could be done in an afternoon by an undergraduate student.”



Harvard professor Karen L. King introduced her finding in Rome 18 months ago. Her paper is being published Thursday.

Harvard Divinity School granted the Globe, The New York Times, and Harvard Magazine advance access to the forthcoming Harvard Theological Review articles. The three news organizations were allowed to contact researchers involved with the articles, on the condition that they hold publication until Thursday morning, when the Theological Review will be published on line, and that they contact no outside sources for comment beforehand.

King began examining the fragment in 2011 at the request of its owner, who wishes to remain anonymous. Its provenance remains mysterious; the owner told King he bought it and five other papyri in 1999 from a collector who said he acquired them in the 1960s in East Germany. An undated, unsigned photocopied note in German accompanying the fragment said that a professor Fecht had examined the papyrus and thought it could be the only text in which Jesus speaks of having a wife.

The fragment appears to be cut from the middle of a larger document; it contains just eight partial lines, written in a crude hand, one of which says, “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,’ ” The next says, “She will be able to be my disciple.”

The first line, according to King’s translation, says in part: “My mother gave me life.”

King believes the document may have been copied from a much earlier Greek text, perhaps composed in the second century, and sees it as an important addition to the study of the development of Christianity as it spread through the Mediterranean world.

King said in the interview this week that her thinking about the meaning of the document has evolved somewhat. She originally hypothesized it concerned debates about discipleship, and whether becoming a Christian meant giving up one’s family to join a spiritual family. But in researching what early Christians said about whether Jesus was married or not, she recognized the importance of early Christian controversies about the spiritual advantages of celibacy. If Jesus were celibate, were Christians who were married or sexually active less fully human, or lesser in the eyes of God?

“Now when I come back and read the fragment, it seems the major issue being talked about was that Jesus was affirming that wives and mothers can be his disciples,” King said.

In her Theological Review article, the publication of which was delayed by some 15 months amid a storm of criticism and pending the results of scientific tests, King answers some of the major issues raised by critics.

Depuydt makes the case that there is only an infinitesimal possibility that the similarities between the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife are coincidental.

But King replies that the parallels are not nearly as close as Depuydt and others contend, and that some overlap is not surprising because they address similar topics and because many ancient Christian texts relied upon and responded to one another.

Depuydt says the grammatical blunders he sees in the text could not have been made by a Coptic speaker. One line, he said, appears to read, “An evil man does not he brings.”

“You can’t make sense of it as a fluent Coptic text,” he said. “Then you find out it’s all coming from Gospel of Thomas. Well, case closed.”

But King argues that the grammatical issues Depuydt raises are either errors of his own analysis or that similar grammatical constructions, including the same mistake as the apparent typo in the online Gospel of Thomas, exist in other Coptic texts whose authenticity is undisputed.

In sum, King said, it does not make sense that a forger with poor Coptic and scribal skills could also manage to acquire the right kind of papyrus and ink, and leave no ink out of place at the microscopic level. “In my judgment, such a combination of bumbling and sophistication seems extremely unlikely,” she wrote in her article.

The Theological Review was supposed to have published King’s findings in January 2013. King said it took longer than expected to complete the testing, particularly because she had no budget.

The original carbon-dating test of the papyrus, conducted by the University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory, gave a date of 400 to 200 years before the birth of Jesus. Researchers concluded that the result may be unreliable because the sample size was too small.

A second carbon-dating test was conducted by Noreen Tuross of Harvard and produced a mean date of 741 A.D.

The ink testing was done by a team of Columbia University researchers using a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy to investigate the ink’s chemical composition. The researchers have also studied the ink in many of the ancient papyri in Columbia’s vast collection.

“This looks qualitatively virtually like every other papyrus manuscript we’ve looked at,” said James Yardley, a professor of electrical engineering who helped lead the team.

Roger Bagnall, director of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and one of the world’s top papyrologists, assisted King with her initial analysis of the fragment.

“I haven’t seen any argument that I find at all compelling that would indicate that it’s not genuine, it’s not ancient,” he said.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

For further thoughts on this point see my posts:

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

What Really Happened Easter Morning?–The Mystery Solved


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

34 Years After: What Do We Know of the Discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus” Tomb?

As we approach the end of March, 2014, with Passover and Easter on the horizon, we come to the 34th anniversary of the accidental discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus family” tomb in 1980. We are now in a position to answer fairly definitively the questions surrounding its excavation. Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson have recently published a new account of the events surrounding the discovery in James Charlesworth’s edited volume, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family: Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusaelm’s Walls (Eerdmans, 2013) titled “The Talpiot Tomb Reconsidered: The Archaeological Facts.” Their account and my own reconstruction differ in some significant ways which I will discuss in subsequent posts. Here is my best effort at reconstruction.

In March, 2007, when all the publicity on the Talpiot Jesus tomb broke, I wrote a blog post that summarized what we knew at the time regarding the 1980 discovery and excavation of the tomb, highlighting some important unanswered questions. It is still worth reading and you can find it here. Seven years later we can say much more. In chapter one of our book, The Jesus Discovery, we summarize what we now know with extensive documentation in the footnotes. So far as I know our treatment supersedes anything that has been previously published. Our results are based on a meticulous examination of archive documents and photos from the Israel Antiquities Authority, all relevant publications, interviews with the archaeologists involved, as well as extensive discussions with the neighbors and Orthodox officials who visited the tomb on the first weekend, who provided us with additional photos. There have been a lot of contradictory accounts about the details but we have managed to sort thing out based on all the evidence taken together. Here is a summary of what we found. Our book contains extensive documentation, photos, and notes, including this never before published IAA close up of the Talpiot tomb facade, inside entrance, and the blown-away porch area, taken on Friday, the day after the blast:

The tomb was exposed by a dynamite blast by the Solel Boneh construction company on Thursday morning, March 27, 1980. It is located just off Dov Gruner Street in East Talpiot. Ironically it was just before Easter weekend with Passover falling on the following Monday evening. Engineer Ephraim Shohat, as well as his supervisor, immediately notified the Israel Department of Antiquities, as it was then known, who dispatched archaeologist Eliot Braun, who happened to live in the area, to investigate. The outside covered courtyard of the tomb had been completely blasted away, exposing an unusual façade with a chevron and a circle, carved on the face of the small inner entrance to the tomb itself. This entrance, measuring eighteen-by-eighteen inches, would have normally been covered with a sealing stone but it was missing, perhaps indicating the tomb had been left open or was disturbed at some time in the past. Braun crawled inside the tomb and found that it was filled knee deep with the local terra rosa soil that had apparently washed in over the centuries, covering the tops of the ten ossuaries, yet unseen, that were stored inside. The inside of the square tomb measured only nine-by-nine feet with the ceiling about four feet from the floor. He recalls that he could not even stand up inside. The Jesus tomb is a much more modest one than the Patio tomb 200 feet away, both in terms of size and the architecture of the niches, which are roughly cut. The Garden tomb’s interesting façade is its most distinguishing marker.

There were six burial niches or kokhim, measuring six feet deep, twenty-one inches wide, and thirty-four inches high, carved into the east, north, and west sides of the tomb, two per side, with ossuaries stored in five of them. The tomb had two arched shelves, called arcosolia, six feet in length, carved into the north and west sides of its walls. It was on these shelves that corpses would be initially laid out for decomposition before the bones were collected into ossuaries a year or so following death. Archaeologists later noted that there were bone fragments on the shelves and when the two feet of terra rosa soil fill was removed, exposing the ancient floor of the tomb, they found skeletal remains, including skulls and vertebrae, just below the two shelves, as if they had been swept off onto the floor by some ancient intruder.

District archaeologist Amos Kloner supervised the operation and he assigned Department of Antiquities archaeologist Joseph Gath to carry out the excavation. Gath invited Shimon Gibson, a young archaeology student with a talent for drawing to prepare a survey or map of the tomb. Kloner applied for the necessary license to excavate on Friday, March 28th with Joseph Gath as the license holder. The “Permit for a Salvage Dig 938” was issued on Monday, March 31st, the day before Passover, but apparently, according to IAA files, Gath had begun his work with the aid of Braun and three or four construction workers on the Friday morning after the discovery. The excavation continued, with short breaks for the eight day Passover holiday, until Friday April 11th, two weeks later.

Around noon Friday, the day after the tomb was exposed, an eleven-year-old schoolboy, Ouriel Maoz, whose Orthodox Jewish family lived near the site, passed by and saw the distinctive façade of the exposed tomb, clearly visible from the street below. He ran home excitedly to tell his mother, Rivka Maoz, who immediately called the Department of Antiquities to report the newly visible tomb; concerned that if left unguarded its contents might be plundered. She could not get through to anyone since businesses closed early on Friday afternoon for the Jewish Sabbath. The mother and son then went together to the tomb as the light was fading and they remember that they could see some skulls and bones inside, as if things had been disturbed. They saw no signs of any archaeologists or workers on the scene.

The next day, Saturday, was the Sabbath. Ouriel remembers running home from synagogue to tell his mother that some local kids had entered the tomb, found the skulls and other bones, and were playing soccer with them, kicking them about the area. The tomb had been left unguarded over the Sabbath. She and her husband ran the children off and gathered all the bones they could locate, going door-to-door asking parents to be sure they made their children return all the bones. They gathered all they could collect, putting them in plastic bags for safekeeping until the next morning. On Sunday morning, when the archaeologists arrived to continue their work, she delivered the bags of bones to Joseph Gath.

Shimon Gibson arrived about noon on Sunday. In 2003, when we first interviewed him about his arrival at the scene, he distinctly recalled seeing the ossuaries that had been removed from the tomb lined up outside, waiting for a truck from the IAA that would transport them to the Rockefeller Museum, where the IAA was headquartered. There they would be cleaned, photographed, and most important, examined for inscriptions. The skeletal remains inside the ossuaries could also be studied. Gibson recalled how Joseph Gath took him inside the tomb, where the workers were removing the soil that had accumulated, and he could still see the impressions left by the ossuaries. Gath indicated to him where each had been located so he could include their original locations of all ten on his map. If Gibson’s initial memory was correct that would mean the ossuaries were not removed until midday Sunday and had been left in the tomb Friday and Saturday. This would explain how the neighborhood kids were able to pull skulls out of the tomb for their makeshift soccer game since the ossuaries were buried under a foot-and-a-half of soil and  not  visible when the archaeologists first began their work.

Getting these chronological facts straight is critical in the case of the Garden Tomb. If the tomb was indeed left open and unattended Sunday morning there is a real possibility that the tomb could have been looted and ossuaries removed. Might a passerby, or even a workman, have stolen anything from the tomb on the Friday and Saturday immediately following its discovery?  The construction workers who exposed the tomb were certainly aware of it and by Saturday those living in the neighborhood know of the tomb as well.

The matter of the scattering of the bones is also troubling. How many bones were scattered and lost? Were the rest left in the ossuaries and taken to the IAA for analysis by an anthropologist, which would have been the normal procedure? What did Gath do with the bag of bones that the Maoz family gave to him Sunday morning? We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. It is quite chilling to think the bones from this ancient Jewish family, including the skulls from inside the ossuaries, were scattered and kicked about, when the tomb was left unguarded over that fateful weekend.

Joe Zias, the anthropologist at the Rockefeller who routinely received bones from tomb excavations says that he does not remember receiving bones from this particular tomb but he observes that construction crews were uncovering many dozens of tombs in the 1980s and there was no reason for any particular set of bones to receive any special treatment. Since Zias was the main “bone man” or anthropologist there at the time it would seem that his lab would have gotten the skeletal materials but there is no record that he ever examined them or prepared a report. That is unfortunate since even a cursory examination would have contributed immensely to our know of the family that was buried in this tomb.

Typically at that time, ossuaries with the bones inside were transported to the laboratory intact where the bones could be separated for analysis and study. Depending on their state of deterioration they could be typed for age, sex, and any other distinguishing forensic information. This would also allow any potential correlation between the ossuary contents and ossuary inscriptions. One must assume that these and all other skeletal materials in various Israeli labs were turned over to the Orthodox religious authorities in 1994 when the Israeli government agreed to return such remains for reburial. The bones would have then been reburied in unmarked common graves by the Orthodox Jewish authorities.

Amos Kloner reports that he visited the tomb when it was first reported to the Antiquities authorities on Thursday, took photos, applied for the permit, and by noon Friday Gath and his workers had extracted all ten ossuaries from the niches, digging them out of the soil that filled the tomb. Kloner insists that all ten ossuaries, with their bones, were transported to the safekeeping of the Rockefeller Museum by midday, hours before the Sabbath arrived on Friday night. Kloner’s photos, now part of the official IAA files, do indeed show the niches in the tomb filled with soil to a level that made the ossuaries resting on the floor invisible. The IAA records show that Gath, Braun, and some workers had begun at least to clear the soil over the ossuaries on Friday morning. Various eyewitnesses, including Gibson in his original testimony, dispute whether Gath and his workers removed all ten ossuaries by noon that Friday for transport to the Rockefeller. It seems unlikely since several of the ossuaries were broken and extracting them all from their encasement in two feet of soil would have required considerable effort.

The Maoz family says they never saw any archaeologists working at the tomb on Friday afternoon when they first visited. That they saw skulls and bones exposed might indicate the archaeologists had reached the tops of the ossuaries that morning before suspending their work and shutting down for the Sabbath. The tomb was left unguarded, as it had been the previous Thursday afternoon and evening. This open tomb, with its striking façade, visible from a distance up on the ridge, was an invitation to local children or other intruders, to enter the tomb and ransack things Friday night. The presence of skulls is particularly noteworthy, since these skulls would have come from inside the ossuaries—indicating that at least the soil covering the tops of the ossuaries had been removed on Friday morning. Rivka Maoz gave us several color photos from the family album, two taken inside the tomb, showing that the ossuaries had been removed when the photos were taken. But that is the critical question—when were these photos made by the Maoz family? Kloner and Gibson insist they were made on March 29th, on the Sabbath, but that cannot be the case. The photos were definitely made sometime after Saturday since the Maoz family are observant Jews and are not permitted to take photographs on the Sabbath. They were most likely made late on Sunday since there are no workers in the photos and the ossuaries had already been removed. Shimon Gibson is now convinced that his initial memory was faulty and that when he arrived Sunday morning he must not have seen the ossuaries outside after all, since they would have been taken away by the archaeologists by noon on Friday according to Amos Kloner. Everyone has the right to revise their recollections and change their mind, but Gibson does have a near photographic memory and in his initial interviews with us he was quite explicit about seeing them all outside.

According to all the records the Garden tomb contained a total of ten ossuaries and they were catalogued as numbers 80.500 through 80.509 in the IAA collection. The current card catalogue at the IAA warehouse in Beth Shemesh only lists nine; the tenth, numbered 80.509, is not included, nor are there any photographs or measurements of it in the IAA excavation files. It is nowhere to be found though there are various possibilities as to its subsequent fate.

Gibson’s drawing shows all ten ossuaries in place in five of the six niches, marked with a number and a letter. Unfortunately Kloner reports that he can find no record that would match up the ossuaries and their catalogue numbers with their original locations in the tomb on Gibson’s map. That sort of information, correlating finds with their location at an excavation site, is basic Archaeology 101 for any archaeological fieldwork. Recording precisely where things were found is perhaps the most important aspect of any excavation, as every beginning student of archaeology knows. It seems impossible to imagine that Joseph Gath failed to tag the ossuaries with locus numbers. No one would send a group of ten ossuaries to the Rockefeller, or any artifact for that matter, without filling out a proper identification tag. The loss of that information is most unfortunate. Six of the nine ossuaries were inscribed with names and if we had their original locations one would be able to know how the names were grouped in the tomb, giving possible hints as to the relationship of the individuals buried there to one another.

The six inscriptions, the one in Greek and the rest in Aramaic are, in English: Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene called Mara, Joses, Judah son of Jesus, Matthew, and Mary. Since we clearly have a father named Jesus and his son Judah in this tomb, one wonders which of the named women, Mariamene called Mara or Mary, might have been the mother? One might expect that the ossuaries of the father, mother, and son would be grouped together in the same niche. There is one niche, just on the right as you enter the tomb, that, according to Gibson’s drawing, held three ossuaries, clustered together. It is tempting to imagine that the Jesus of this tomb, his son Judah, and the mother might be clustered together in this place of honor—first on the right as you enter the tomb. Unfortunately, given the lack of proper records we now have no way of knowing.

At the time the ossuaries were removed and taken to the Rockefeller Museum the archaeologists noticed that some of the ossuaries were inscribed in Greek and Aramaic but the name “Jesus son of Joseph,” that might have at least raised an eyebrow or two, is quite difficult to read as it is written in a informal cursive style. In due time Israeli epigrapher Levi Rahmani, along with Joseph Naveh and Leah Di Segni, deciphered the names, but how long after the tomb’s discovery we do not know. The nine ossuaries with descriptions and photos were included in the official Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in 1994, authored by Rahmani. This volume surveys 897 ossuaries that were in the collections of the State of Israel in 1994, 227 with inscriptions. The publication of Rahmani’s catalogue was the first time these six names from the Garden tomb, saw the light of day—fourteen years after their discovery.