You have heard about the “Jesus family tomb,” but If you have not read the book, check it out. It covers all the latest discoveries as well as a full and documented discussion of the three tombs on the ancient estate in East Talpiot, south of Jerusalem–plus related discussions, from Mary Magdalene to latest DNA results, to the James ossuary. No matter what your conclusion it remains the most comprehensive discussion in print on the “Talpiot tombs.” You will find links and lots of additional information here at jesusdiscoverybook.com/
No one maintains that the tomb of Joseph Caiaphas, discovered just south of the Old City of Jerusalem at Abu Tor on a cold November day in 1990 can not be the tomb of the New Testament High Priest Caiaphas because they believe that Caiaphas was taken bodily up to heaven, or that the inscription is too sloppy, or that he would have been buried in a more monumental tomb given his status.
Language is as tricky and misleading as it is vital and essential. This is so much more the case when it comes to controversial topics such as evaluating the Talpiot tomb with regard to its possible identification as the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. If we were talking about the tomb of a Hillel or a Socrates that had been potentially discovered in Jerusalem or Athens, much of the discussion, and thus the language, would dramatically shift to neutral.
A helpful analogue is the 1990 discovery of a tomb just south of the Old City with ossuaries and inscriptions that some excavators and scholars identified as the family tomb of Caiaphas, including the bones of a Joseph Caiaphas, the same name as the high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus according to the gospels. Is it possible, or even likely, that this tomb is that of the Caiaphas of the New Testament? Is the evidence compelling? What are the objections and problems with such an identification? Most of that has now been sorted out, but no one maintains that it “can’t be” the tomb of Caiaphas for theological reasons–that he was taken bodily to heaven. There are in fact a few scholars who have questioned the identification with the N.T. Caiaphas. They have argued that the evidence is not sufficiently compelling to draw that conclusion, and would hold it is “a Caiaphas” family but not necessarily the Caiaphas family. I am aware of no one who has argued that it “can not be” the Caiaphas family tomb.
With the Talpiot Jesus tomb things are dramatically different–and understandably so. Because the topic is so potentially “hot” various sides have much invested in the outcome. For many, even among the scholars who have weighed in on the topic, their declared belief that Jesus rose bodily to heaven, precludes from the outset, even before any examination of evidence, that this tomb belonged to Jesus of Nazareth. Most of the academics in this category would affirm that such beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with their position that this “could not be” the Talpiot tomb. There are other sensitive issues such as a potential backlash of antisemitism, since this tomb is part of an official excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority (Dept of Antiquities in 1980). Is holding custody of a “tomb of Jesus,” and dealing with bones of the Holy Family, really something that the Jewish State of Israel needs to be involved in? There is also a tendency among scholars to avoid sensational topics, particularly those vetted in the media (“Ark of the Covenant” “Gold of the Exodus” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” “The Davinci Code”), so that to suggest serious consideration of this ultimate “sensational” site, a family tomb of Jesus, is bound to generate lots of scoffing and outright dismissal. The Academy is accustomed to consider far more standard subjects. And then there are the skeptics and anti-Christian folk who would dearly love it if the tomb of Jesus were found, as a way of poking the eye of evangelical and orthodox Christian believers. Finally, in a matter this sensitive, where there are no in situ photos of the excavation with the ossuaries intact, no bone reports, no official DNA tests, and no correlation record of where in the tomb a given cataloged ossuary was found, those responsible have been put on the defensive to explain the hows and whys, with resulting emotions and tensions.
Consider the following three statements, from one single prominent academic colleague who has written extensively on the Talpiot Jesus tomb:
- “I think we have to remain open to the possibility that this tomb is that of Jesus but so far we are lacking compelling evidence and many of the assertions of the film have been shown to be questionable.”
- “There is a near universal scholarly consensus that the Talpiot tomb could not be the Tomb of Jesus”
- “My conclusion is that in no way can we say that the lost tomb of Jesus is the same as the one in East Talpiot”
Is this to say then such an identification is possible but not compelling, or “impossible.” The language is not clear. Others have said the identification thesis is “possibly but not likely,” “very improbable,” or “unlikely.”
Always in the background, and often in the foreground, is the Cameron-Jacobovici film with its various assertions and claims. It is entirely possible to question any number of the theses or assertions in the film but nonetheless to conclude that a scientific evaluation of the tomb itself does yield evidence in favor of the Jesus family identification. It might be beneficial to try and move the film from the center of the academic discussion, whether one views it as good, bad, or ugly. The heated emotions, provoked by the film, have seemed to shift the agenda to the filmmakers rather than an evaluation of the site.
All this aside it seems to me that we have the following range of language that might help shed some light on “Evaluating the Talpiot tomb in context,” the title of the 2008 Jerusalem Symposium, the papers from which are now published by James Charlesworth in his edited volume, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls, Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2013). I highly recommend interested readers get a copy of this volume and read it through carefully. The volume runs over 500 pages with abundant illustrations so it is well worth the price. After the conference several scholars who attended published a statement denying that the evidence for any identification with Jesus of Nazareth was convincing, though since some of the “signatories” have subsequently clarified that they do not agree with the statement and their names were mistakenly included. See the Duke University blog here and be sure to read the comments (especially that of Itamar Bernstein), as well as my own formal response on the SBL site here.
Given the question: “Can the Talpiot tomb arguably be identified with a family tomb of Jesus?” one might propose the following grid of responses, beyond “Definitely not.” After all, one might hold that such an identification is “definitely not” supported by the evidence, yet still consider it possible but just not proved. Or, another might totally reject the identification for compelling negative reasons.
Impossible: strong negative evidence to the contrary
Improbable: weight of the evidence does not support the thesis with some negatives weighing against
Possible but not compelling: evidence in favor is there but just not enough data and information to so conclude
Possible and compelling: bulk of the evidence fits with no serious negatives
One of the clearest ways of approaching this questing is just to list the positives and the negatives. If indeed, as some have argued, Jesus could not have been buried in a rock hewn tomb, or in Jerusalem itself, then clearly this “could not be” the tomb. However, there is a wide range between “could not be” and “not enough positive evidence.”
I want to point out that I am using “possible” in the scientific/academic sense, not in the unrestricted sense, “Well, anything is possible.” One might say, for example, it is “possible” that atoms move because they are pushed by invisible demon forces,” and there is no way to “falsify” such an assertion. But in the world of science, such a “hypothesis” can not be taken seriously. In terms of the Talpiot tomb, the notion that this “could not be” the Jesus’ tomb because he was taken bodily to heaven is not on the academic table, so that the “anything is possible” refrain does not apply.
The Encyclopedia Britannica offers the following on the all-important “Principle of Falsification,” which is the bedrock of science. Those of us who are historians, working in the “soft sciences,” utilize this principle as an ideal, though often we have no methods for testing:
“Being unrestricted, scientific theories cannot be verified by any possible accumulation of observational evidence. The formation of hypothesis is a creative process of the imagination and is not a passive reaction to observed regularities. A scientific test consists in a persevering search for negative, falsifying instances. If a hypothesis survives continuing and serious attempts to falsify it, then it has “proved its mettle” and can be provisionally accepted, but it can never be established conclusively.”
What I have suggested is that we begin with a “hypothetical pre-70 CE tomb of the Jesus family,” and then compare it to the Talpiot tomb. This is the method I pursue in my article, “Testing a Hypothesis,” published in Near Eastern Archaeology way back in 2006. I have not found reason to change my mind, but to the contrary, since that paper was published the evidence that can be brought into consideration using this method has greatly expanded, see the book, The Jesus Discovery, and summarized in my ASOR paper here.
Such an approach does not mean that the results are merely “hypothetical,” in some reduced sense of the term, since all scientific and historical conclusions are by definition hypothetical. Just to pose the question: Can we identify this tomb with that of Jesus?” already presupposes we are considering something “hypothetical.” One has to have a method, otherwise one’s conclusions can tend to be impressionistic and unsystematic.
The use of the principle of falsification, so much as the evidence allows, offers a way to bring some clarity into our deliberations. Working with the historically constructed model of a hypothetical “Jesus family tomb” does not mean that one begins with the assumption that the Talpiot tomb is that tomb, thus “stacking the deck” in favor, as some have argued. This is simply the way that science proceeds, never with certainty, but one hopes, as my teacher Jonathan Z. Smith used to say, “in the direction of the truth.”
What this means, in the case of the Talpiot tomb, is that falsifying or negative instances, of sufficient force and certainty, would make impossible or highly improbable the identification with Jesus. What one must then do is “test” all possible “falsifications” against the evidence we have, as best we can.
A few of the proposed falsifications most often voiced by colleagues are the following:
- Jesus could not be buried in Jerusalem at all, his family tomb would be in Nazareth
- Jesus would have been put in a trench grave, not a rock-hewn tomb
- Yose is a very common form of Yehosef and thus carries no statistical weight
- Jesus of Nazareth was never married and thus could not have had a son named Judah
- Jesus was buried in the location in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher so could not be in a tomb in Talpiot
If any of these could be established and be of sufficient weight to falsify the hypothesis being tested then one would have to conclude, depending on the certainty of the falsification, that the Talpiot tomb either “can not be” or “is highly unlikely to be” that of Jesus. So the question is, are these “falsifications” sufficient and valid? The fact is all of them have been shown to be invalid despite their constant repetition by critics of the “Talpiot tomb theory” as it is often called. We address each of these in detail in The Jesus Discovery.
Unfortunately, in the case of the Talpiot tomb there are any number of “falsification” possibilities that are not available to us–full DNA testing, examination of the bones in the tomb, and documented evidence of the positioning of the ossuaries in situ. If we even knew how the 10 ossuaries were grouped in the niches of the tomb it might tell us volumes about the relationships between the six named individuals. The tomb adjacent to the Talpiot tomb, now explored in a preliminary way by camera, has in fact brought us significant new evidence to supplement our addressing the question, “Is this likely the family tomb of Jesus?”
I have kept a low profile on my blog about this fragment because I do not think that the blog is the best venue to vet manuscript finds like this. Why? Because the distribution of knowledge happens too quickly on blogs, before we have had time to really sort through everything, test our hypotheses, ask more questions that our hypotheses raise, and change them as necessary. People make fast claims to be the first like a “news flash”, sometimes very bold and sensational, and then, because blog posts are public, reputations end up on the line. So it becomes personal very fast. And this can crowd out the truth which most often is slow in coming after a long process of reflection and revising. Prof. April DeConick, Rice University
April Deconick, as ever, talks some sense about the “Gospel of Jesus Wife” fragment and it sounds like some of the bloggers out there need to slow down a bit–especially those who have declared the case “closed” and are giving one another “high fives” for exposing the twin forgeries of the Gospel of John and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife fragments. Assertions about “the same hand,” an “identical pen,” and “the same ink” seem a bit astounding coming from folks who presumably have no expertise or training in such areas. By and large the physical evidence published in the special issue of Harvard Theological Review is being ignored. Anyway, here is April’s very perceptive piece and one can only hope her cautionary warnings will have some effect:
On the “Ugly Sister” issue don’t miss this perceptive piece by Eva Mroczek–maybe the most important thing I have seen in print on the subject this week: “”Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Less Durable Than Sexism Surrounding It, as well as the totally off-base response of Jim West here, missing all her major points and basically demonstrating the case she makes, plus Deconick’s response to responses like West’s here.
Finally, on the whole complex and crazy controversy with all the players laid out, and all the relevant links, see Michael Grondin’s absolutely wonderful summary account here. Thanks Michael, from us all!
P.S. And while you are at April’s blog notice the wonderful new format and be sure and subscribe to her e-mail alerts–and no, she did not pay me to say this.
Simcha Jacobovci has just posted a opinion piece that I think is worth reading on the swirl of blogs and new stories that have celebrated the past week and a half. A second papyrus text, called the GJ (“Gospel of John”) has been declared the definitive “smoking gun” evidence that the controversial “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus is a very recent forgery. If you have not caught up on the latest here is a “roundup” of posts and news stories by Mark Goodacre.
You can find Simcha’s post here. I find myself mostly in agreement with the substance of Simcha’s post though I think his characterization of the “naysayers’ as “sleeper agents of Christianity” is far off the mark. What is going on here in terms of the “will to disbelieve” is something much more complex–and for that matter more interesting. Defending Christian Orthodoxy, is surely become a bit outdated and boring–though there are such “agents” out there.
I was planning to write just one blog post on the forgery issues itself and post it on Friday. Now I think I will write two. One will deal with what I think is going on with reference to what Simcha thinks is “Pauline theology,” but I think something else much more general is at work–a phenomenon ubiquitous to the academy. The other will deal with the substantive issues raised by those now “celebrating” the exposure of a double forgery, giving one another “High Fives” across the biblioblogosphere, as they talk of “ugly sisters” and “smoking guns.”
On the “Ugly Sister” issue don’t miss this perceptive piece by Eva Mroczek–maybe the most important thing I have seen in print on the subject this week: “”Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Less Durable Than Sexism Surrounding It, the totally off-base response of Jim West here, missing all her major points and basically demonstrating the case she makes, plus Deconick’s response to responses like West’s here.
I just watched the Smithsonian program, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” I thought it was truly well done. Much of it was about an alternative image of Mary Magdalene, and thus implicitly of the role of women in earliest Christianity, as reflected in our recently discovered non-canonical gospels (Gospel of Mary, various Nag Hammadi texts). We carefully survey these sources in our book, The Jesus Discovery, based on the fine work pioneered by many scholars such as Jane Schaberg, Karen King, Elaine Pagels, Ann Graham Brock, and others. Much of the program’s emphasis was on the role of women in the earliest Jesus movement and whether the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” (GJW) is a forgery or not, the main points stand up well. I am pleased to see such a quality presentation of this neglected side Christian origins put before the public as an alternative view.
For those who have not kept up with the plethora of “blogs” on the subject Mark Goodacre offers a nice summary of the main links and Laurie Goodstein wrote a very fine summary of the controversy in Sunday’s New York Times, see here.
I plan to weigh in on the “forgery” question later this week but for now I just wanted to say that the current triumphantly/sarcastic (Jesus’ ugly sister, et al) “pile on” mood on the part of some of the critics touting “forgery” is in my view greatly premature and quite a few very key issues have been skirted over (pun intended!). I am surprised that some of the most basic issues presented in the materials on this text that were released last month by HTR are not really being addressed by the critics. I also trust Roger Bagnall’s good eye and his experience and sense of judgment in these matters. I am also not convinced that the fragment of the Gospel of John that apparently is in the same hand, and done with the same ink, supports the forgery case. On the contrary, taken with the GJW fragment, and especially the faded ink on the reverse side–still in the same “hand,” but truly “aged,” I am more convinced than ever this papyrus text is ancient. There are still more than enough questions to go around but I think many of my colleagues have rushed to judgment on this one. More to come.