Ben Witherington on the James Ossuary and the Talpiot “Jesus” Tomb

Ben Witherington1 has a new blog post titled “Once More with Feeling: Did the James Ossuary come out of the Talpiot Tomb?” in response to Sunday’s NYTimes story on the recently concluded chemical tests carried out on the controversial “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary and several dozen other randomly selected 1st century Jerusalem ossuaries, including those in the Talpiot “Jesus son of Joseph” tomb. He gets a lot of things confused and some things just wrong, about these latest tests but I appreciate his response. Ben is a friend, he even grew up in Charlotte, but we have had our strong disagreements over theology, from the virgin birth of Jesus to his burial and resurrection. Given his strong stance as a leading Evangelical Christian scholar such is no surprise. For Ben there can be no tomb holding the bones of Jesus–much less his family–since he was taken bodily (bones and all) to heaven 40 days after the resurrection of his physical body–leaving behind his empty tomb.

James&Jesus.jpg

James and Jesus Ossuaries, both plain and similar in shape and style.

We do agree on one thing–the authenticity of the inscription of the James ossuary and its very likely connection, not just to “any Jesus” of the 1st century, but to Jesus of Nazareth, see my posts here and here. In fact, with co-author Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ben “wrote the book” on the James ossuary, namely The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family back in 2003, shortly after the public debut of the ossuary. It remains, in my view, the “gold standard” among the many subsequent books that have come out.

Now to Ben’s latest blog post. I will take up some of his main points one-by-one, in no particular order, with a bit more of the back-story.

 Witherington begins by questioning whether Dr. Aryeh Shimron, whose expertise is in ancient “plaster,” is qualified to do the kinds of chemical and soil analysis these tests involve. Dr. Shimron’s broad qualifications and distinguished career in the field of geo-archaeology is well known in his field so there is no need for further comment.2 He then laments that Ammon Rosenfeld, who worked with Shimron for the Geological Survey of Israel is no longer with us, since he would be able to comment on Shimron’s latest work. Dr. Rosenfeld, whom I knew well, died tragically in a car accident last July. What Witherington apparently does not know or recall is that he was the decided opinion that the James ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb simply based on patina tests. He was the lead author of a paper “The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot Tomb,” available on-line here.

I was of course not surprised at his ad hominem attack on Simcha Jacobovici, who, by the way produced the initial 2003 documentary “James, Brother of Jesus” for Discovery, that I think Ben and I both would rate as outstanding. But attacking Simcha and his motives has become fairly standard operating procedure.3

The Earthquake and East Talpiot. Dr. Shimron first got his idea for these chemical ossuary tests in 2008 at the Princeton sponsored “Jerusalem Symposium on the Talpiot Jesus tomb” organized by James Charlesworth. The papers from this conference are now published in a marvelous 585 page volume, James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? (Eerdmans, 2013), that explores the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb and related issues from all viewpoints.

PrincetonTalpiot

I happened to be sitting next to Shimron as Shimon Gibson was presenting his paper, pointing out that the blocking stone of the Talpiot tomb had apparently been missing long before 1980 when the tomb was discovered by the building blast–so the tomb was left open for an extended time and had filled up with soil–covering even the tops of the ossuaries in the inner tomb. Shimron immediately had the idea that deeply scraped samples, below the surface patina, from the bottom and inside of the Talpiot tomb ossuaries, would provide a chemical signature based on the soil absorbed by the porous limestone over the centuries, that could then be used for comparison with other ossuaries–including that of James–to possibly determine provenance. It was a hypothesis at this stage, but one that could be tested.

Shimron thought that the patina comparisons of the James ossuary and those in the Talpiot tomb were important but not wholly definitive–even though they had already pointed in the direction of a connection between the James and Jesus ossuaries. These tests were done by Pellegrino in 2007 (published in the Charlesworth volume) and supplemented with further testing and analysis in 2014 by the late Amnon Rosenfeld (with Krumbein, Pelligrino, Feldman) in an article titled “The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot Tomb,” that I cited above.

Shimron was particularly intrigued the the question of how and when the Talpiot tomb had had its blocking stone dislodged, and filled with soil. I suggested that he take a look at British and PEF aerial photographs of the East Talpiot area when it was bare without any buildings and see if he could learn anything. He followed up on that and discovered clear evidence of tectonic slides specifically at the Armon Hanatziv ridge, where the Jesus tomb is located. He presented his thesis at the Bar Ilan University conference “New Studies on Jerusalem,” arguing that the phenomenon was related to the 363 C.E. earthquake that devastated Jerusalem and the wider region. His presentation was well received and the resulting paper, co-written with Moshe Shirav, “The Armon Hanatziv Tectonic Slide and Some Archaeological Implications,” is now published and is available for download here. I find it quite persuasive and I know Ben will want to carefully read it.

The Talpiot Tomb Soil Fill in East Talpiot. Ben is mistaken about the soil of East Talpiot being the same as soil through the Jerusalem area. He wrote me an e-mail immediately this past Sunday morning after reading the NYTimes piece:

There is no such thing as a chemical fingerprint as is suggested in the report.   There might well be many ossuaries from many places around Jerusalem that ended up in caves which would test out with a similar chemical residue.   Why?  Because the type of seepage and residue is the same in multiple places in Jerusalem.  It’s not specific to the Talpiot tomb!  Jerusalem limestone is Jerusalem limestone, and the ground seepage is bound to be similar in numerous places.

Frankly I found these dogmatic assertions rather amazing. One has to wonder, how Prof. Witherington, a New Testament scholar, would know such things, and would assert his views over those of Dr. Shimron, who has done field-work on this for the past seven years and has professional qualifications.

What Shimron determined is that the soil that had filled the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb was a one-time event in the past. It was not built up over the years with silt and water laid layers of soil, bit by bit. He could determine that from the ossuaries as well as the walls of the tomb itself. The result is that “time stopped,” because of this soil burial. Two things resulted: 1. The buried ossuaries absorbed trace amounts of the chemistry of the soil and muck;  2. Only one kind of material could enter the ossuaries and that was the material in which the ossuaries were  buried. These two left items left their unique chemical signature on the Talpiot and James ossuaries.

When it comes to the issue that all soil in Jerusalem is the same, the fact is that Witherington is just plain wrong. East Talpiot is different than the other regions of Jerusalem. Rendzina soil is characteristic of east Jerusalem, not the rest of Jerusalem, but it is the way in which deeply penetrated the limestone ossuaries that allowed Shimron to test for any possible chemical signature. For example, one of the ossuaries scraped was taken from Talpiot Tomb B--just 60 meters from the Jesus tomb. It is the only one Amos Kloner took out in 1981 and it is in the Israel Antiquities Authority collection4 Even given the same kind of soil on the same ancient estate–as determined by Joseph Gat the original excavator–Shimron found no characteristic chemical pattern that would link it with the Jesus tomb ossuaries nearby.

Photo taken by the IAA in 1980 showing the soil covering the tops of the ossuaries. Used with Permission.

Photo taken by the IAA in 1980 showing the soil covering the tops of the ossuaries. Used with Permission.

Shimon Gibson is surely right that there are other soil filled tombs in the Jerusalem area. I know of two myself, in the Hinnom Valley, just adjacent to our “Tomb of the Shroud,” discovered in 2000.5 Ossuaries from this area were in fact sampled, including from the Shroud Tomb, and there is no chemical match. Also these tombs were filled by silt and build-up over time, not in one major event. Also the soil is distinctively different.

Shimon Gibson is my colleague here at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I have excavated with him for 15 years (Suba and Mt Zion), and I consider him to be among the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to the history and archaeology of Jerusalem. In addition, he was present at the original Jesus tomb excavation in 1980 and produced the official map of the tomb. Shimon and I disagree on Talpiot and the Jesus family tomb identification rather sharply, but our interchanges are professional and respectful. He does not accuse me of “leaping” to my conclusions based on flimsy evidence nor do I think him “dense” for not sharing my views. He openly recommends my publications and papers and encourages a wide debate and discussion. Shimon is an honest and open minded person and he does change his views, often, based on new evidence. I feel the same about Chris Rollston and Mark Goodacre, who also disagree with me and me with them, but our ASOR sponsored forum a few years ago was to me a model of proper academic exchange–see the papers, pro and con, archived at bibleinterp.com.

Chemical Fingerprints. Prof. Witherington tells us that “there is no such thing as a chemical fingerprint,” referring to Dr. Shimron’s work. Again, I have no idea how he would know such a thing as a New Testament scholar reacting to a NYTimes story he just read on Sunday. Even Dr. Shimron did not know his results before the tests were done. Ben seems to think one tests for a few stray elements–he mentions phosphorus, chrome and nickel–when it fact as 33 elements are precisely measured. Only with the Talpiot tomb A ossuaries and that of James brother of Jesus did these signatures correspond in a significant way.

I want to also stress that the samples were collected by the Israel Antiquities Authority, not by Dr. Shimron or Simcha Jacobovici, and the tests were lab tests carried out at some of the top scientific facilities in Israel. Dr. Shimron was the one who had the idea and developed the hypothesis–but like all scientific work, everything then has to be tested.

Weathering and PittingProfessor Witherington points out that the main visible way in which the James ossuary differs from the other ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb is its weathered and pitted exterior. He is certainly correct. That’s not an issue with respect to the work that Shimron did. Shimron went beneath the patina, about 2 mm into the ossuary itself to see what had been absorbed over 2,000 years by the limestone. The surface simply doesn’t matter to this test. Having said this, it didn’t matter to Rosenfeld and Krumbein either. What weathering does do is make sense of the 11th ossuary theory i.e., that it was closer to the opening. The Talpiot Jesus tomb had a “porch” or antichamber entrance, before one entered the main tomb complex. It was entirely blown away by the 1980 construction blast. With the missing blocking stone it might well be the case that the James ossuary was near the entrance–placed in the tomb last–having previously been in the Kidron/Hinnom valley area. It explains why somebody could have stolen it in the mid-70s and sold it to Oded Golan. The reason is simple, the James ossuary was near the opening. So not only does it not contradict Shimron’s work, it makes sense of the 11th ossuary theory.

After the ossuaries had been dug out with the exposed entrance. Sunday, March 28,1980. Credit: Maoz Family

After the ossuaries had been dug out with the exposed entrance. Sunday, March 28,1980. Credit: Maoz Family

Not Enough SamplesOded Golan, the owner of the James ossuary is quote in the NYTimes story saying the test sample was much too narrow–and suggesting that one would need to check at least 200-300 tombs to draw the conclusions Shimron has reached. Witherington, in contrast, mercifully reduces the number he thinks would be required:

You would have to do tests on say a 50 ossuaries from various places around Jerusalem and compare them to the ones in the Talpiot tomb before you could come to any sort of scientific conclusions of the sort that are made in this report. (e-mail, April 5, 2015)

In his blog post he echoes the same objection. Again, how Ben would know this I have no idea. Most of us are familiar with “random” sampling, as used in any number of ways in scientific tests. I immediately thought of the analysis of the Qumran cemetery, with up to 1100 graves, done by Joe Zias and others, based on the few dozen that have been “randomly” opened. In this case Shimron carried out tests on approximately 100 samples, three taken from each ossuary, taken from 15 tombs. He did not do only one test on an ossuary. He did not select the ossuaries, the IAA did that. And they were distributed throughout Jerusalem, but included all nine of the Talpiot Jesus tomb ossuaries (the 10th is missing) plus the James ossuary that Oded Golan was kind enough to make available. The results, according to Dr. Shimron, are definitive. I know him to be a very cautious man and he has, along the way, he has always raised sharp scientific questions on issues related to the Jesus tomb. He is willing to say publicly, putting his career on the line, “The evidence could not be stronger than what we have,” linking the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb.”

Traditions on a Tomb of James. Witherington wonders about the traditions of a tomb of James in the Kidron Valley, and whether that would not preclude the James ossuary being placed in the Talpiot tomb.

If the James ossuary inscription is authentic and it comes from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, what about the late second century CE report by the Christian chronicler Hegesippus (quoted by Eusebius) who says the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City wall, where James was murdered? We suggest that there well might have been some kind of monument to James in that area but we know little of Hegesippus, who spent his career in Rome. We can’t assume that he is reporting any kind of eyewitness account. In Rome there are reports of tombs and monuments to both Peter and Paul in several locations.6 Monuments were assumed, over the ages, to be tombs, and tombs might not have monuments. The fourth century church historian Eusebius, for example, quotes an unknown writer named Gaius who says: “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.”7 We are not certain if he means some kind of monument, pillar, or relic, or is he speaking of a tomb. Clement of Rome, who lived just a few decades after the deaths of Peter and Paul, mentions their martyrdom but seems to know little of any circumstances and mentions no tomb locations (1 Clement 5:3-7).

Today there are several monumental tombs in the Kidron Valley, dating to the late Hellenistic period (200-100 BCE) that are variously identified as the “Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the “Tomb of Zechariah,” the “Pillar of Absolom,” and a tomb inscribed as that of a priestly family,that is sometimes identified as the “Tomb of James.” On Mount Zion today, the southwest hill of Jerusalem, millions of pilgrims visit what is called “the tomb of David,” though most scholars locate it further to the south, outside the city of David. No one takes any of these sites and locations seriously as historically connected to these figures.  They are part of hagiographic traditions that Christians developed in the late Byzantine period down through the Crusades.

But even if there was an early tomb of James in the Kidron Valley that would not preclude his bones being moved or relocated, to the Jesus family tomb at some point in antiquity–perhaps before the conflagration in 66 CE, whereas the “monument” marking the spot of his death would have then been remembered and revered.

Even though I had initially suggested the possibility of the missing tenth ossuary being that of James, based on the similar dimensions and the patina fingerprints that seemed to place it in the Talpiot tomb, we must always adapt our views to new evidence.8 Shimon Gibson had suggested this theory of a missing eleventh ossuary to us back in 2006, when he recalled that the ten ossuaries inside the niches, and removed to the Rockefeller, had been covered with soil.

Conclusion. This is a story that has been over 10 years in the making, with many complex strands (Talpiot tomb A and B; epigraphy, prosopography, statistics, DNA, and chemical tests) and its controversial nature will not simply disappear. If it were the tomb of any other 1st century Jew we would likely not even have an argument, but since millions believe that Jesus was raised from the dead in his physical body, which was then taken to heaven, theological issues come to play as well. And faith. Simcha was asked in the NBC interview above whether it took “faith” for him to be absolutely persuaded, particularly with this new evidence adding the James ossuary to the mix, that this was the tomb of Jesus and his family. His reply was interesting: Faith only comes into it if you want to believe that it is not.”

Several academics have already begun to suggest how the addition of the James ossuary to the names found in the Talpiot Jesus tomb would affect the probability statistics. You can read a preliminary analysis, “The James Ossuary at Talpiot,” by Kilty and Elliot on-line at Bibleinterp.com here. I encourage everyone to take a look at this article as it considers a wide range of related issues, beyond the new statistical calculations. They are convinced one goes from 48% to 92% probability–that this tomb can be identified with that of Jesus of Nazareth.

The final irony in all this is that folks like Ben Witherington face a real dilemma here. Ben absolutely accepts the high likelihood of the James ossuary–take alone–to Jesus of Nazareth–not just to “any Jesus” of the time. Statistician Camil Fuchs did some impressive work on this question that you can read in the Witherington/Shanks book, James the Brother of Jesus. But if you add this authentic James ossuary to a Talpiot Jesus tomb–the tomb further authenticates the James ossuary and gives it a provenance, while the James ossuary solidifies the identification of the “Jesus son of Joseph” of the tomb with the brother of Jesus. One supports the other, and normally that would be good news, but because of theological assumptions about Jesus’ physical body being taken to heaven–it just can’t be. It is like a man accused of murder, whose wife believes him to be innocent. The man has a rock solid alibi but he fears to tell his wife–or the court.  At the time of the murder he was in bed with her best friend.

My own sense of things, having done historical work on both Jesus and James now over my 35 year career, is that to find them together in life and in death is an incredibly moving thing.


  1. Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland, see “About Ben Witherington”  

  2. Dr. Shimron is retired and though involved in various projects he also gives specialized tours related to his work in Geo-Archaeology. See here for some of his background and here for some of his most recent publications. 

  3. In fact neither Simcha nor Dr. Shimron had anything to do with whether or when the NYTimes story would run–Easter or otherwise. Contrary to the implication in Witherington’s post, Simcha did not air his new James film on these new scientific tests on Easter to ride this publicity. It is not “in the work” but finished, and It aired in Canada earlier this year, not on Easter, and not at all yet in the USA or internationally. 

  4. For a photo and further information on this ossuary see, Tabor and Jacobovici, The Jesus Discovery (Simon & Schuster, 2011), pp. 17-21. We now have an eyewitness account of its removal, supplementing what Prof. Kloner has written, see here

  5. See the scientific report here and implications here and here 

  6. See Graydon F. Snyder, Ante-Pacem, pp. 180-189. 

  7. Eusebius, Church History 2. 25. 7. 

  8. Jacobovici and Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb, pp. 175-192 and James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (paperback, 2007), pp. 319-331. 

Breaking News: The Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb

Update: Other Major Media Coverage:

The Jerusalem Post: Geologists Claim Stats, Science, Prove Jesus Buried in Jerusalem with Wife and Supposed Son

NBC News: Geologist Revives Controversy Over Jesus Tomb

Live Science: New Controversy Surrounds Alleged Jesus Family Tomb (see my response here)

CNN: Jesus’ Tomb Story: Does the Evidence Hold Up?

 

Sunday’s New York Times broke a major full-page story (page A-4) based on new chemical tests done on the ossuaries (i.e. lidded limestone bone boxes) from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb comparing it with the controversial “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary. Dr. Aryeh Shimon is interviewed on the results of these tests that compare extensive scrapings from inside and outside ossuaries carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority of comparative ancient tombs of the same period in Jerusalem. Previously, tests had been done on patina, as noted below, but the new tests were of a far more telling nature, accessing the limestone beneath the patina. Limestone ossuaries over time absorb the soil and chemical environs of the tomb they are placed in.  Each tomb has a characteristic chemical profile unique to its environment. Dr. Shimron’s conclusion is that there is an extremely high probability that the James ossuary was originally taken from the Talpiot tomb–either around 1980 when it was discovered, or perhaps earlier–since the tomb itself was unsealed.  I might also point out that an ossuary from the nearby Talpiot tomb B was also sampled, just 60 meters away, and it did not match at all the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb ossuaries (Tomb A). This shows that Tomb A had a very specific and unique chemical environment–even with a tomb quite close by.  Everyone seems to agree in terms of our statistics that adding the James ossuary to the names that are already in the Talpiot tomb changes everything in favor of its high probability of being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, see the calculations by Kilty and Elliot, “The James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.”

TalpiotTomb.jpg

You can read an on-line version of the full New York Times story here:

Dr. Shimron was looking for unusual amounts of elements derived from Rendzina soil, like silicon, aluminum, magnesium, potassium and iron, as well as for specific trace elements, including phosphorus, chrome and nickel — signature components of the type of clayey East Jerusalem soil that he says filled the Talpiot Tomb during the earthquake. The findings, he says, clearly place the James ossuary in the same geochemical group as the Talpiot Tomb ossuaries. “The evidence is beyond what I expected,” he said.

What follows is the backstory on this controversial issue. For an overview of the James ossuary controversy more broadly see my previous post “What is What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary.”

Is the James Ossuary from the Talpiot Tomb?

James&Jesus.jpg

The James and Jesus Ossuaries Side-By-Side

There are four issues to be addressed related to the possibility that the James ossuary came from the Talpiot Jesus tomb.

First, if the James ossuary was in fact the tenth missing ossuary from the tomb, even though it has disappeared, it was definitely catalogued by the authorities at the IAA, apparently measured, and given a registration number. Oded Golan says that he purchased it from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. It is difficult to construct any kind of hypothetical scenario that would have it removed from the IAA collection and end up on the market.

Second, even though the dimensions of the missing ossuary and that of the James ossuary are close, it is also described as plain and broken by Rahmani in his catalogue. Although in 2002 the James ossuary was broken while in transport to the Royal Ontario Museum and subsequently repaired, it was not broken when Golan acquired it. While not elaborately ornamented, it does have faint traces of the beginnings of rosette designs on the side opposite the inscription, so technically it is not “plain.” Rahmani, known for his keen eye and detailed descriptions, would have not likely missed this feature.

Third, Golan has testified that he obtained the ossuary sometime before 1978, providing photographic evidence to support his story, whereas the Talpiot tomb was not excavated until April, 1980.1 Although it is possible that it had been looted from the tomb sometime previous to 1980, we don’t know if the entrance to the tomb was visible to passerbys before the construction blast that obliterated its outside front entrance or porch, making it stand out even from the road below.

Finally, since Hegesippus reports, in the second century CE, that the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City, how and when would James’s ossuary have been moved to the Talpiot tomb?

Sometimes it seems impossible to fit all the pieces of a complex puzzle together but it is nonetheless important to have those pieces in view. Recently new evidence has come to light that not only supports the case for the James ossuary originating in the Talpiot tomb, but addresses these major objections in an unanticipated way. We are now in a position to put all that evidence together with some compelling new results.

Recently a group of scientists headed by Amnon Rosenfeld of the Israel Geological Society published a summary of their own work on the authenticity of the patina inside the inscribed letters of the James ossuary. Rosenfeld was on the original team at the IGS that had authenticated the patina on the ossuary in 2002. They conclude:

The most important indication that the inscription “Ya’akov Son of Josef Brother of Jesus” is authentic is the beige patina that can be found inside the letters, accreting gradationally into the inscription. The patina can be observed on the surface of the ossuary continuing into the engraving. . .These minerals and the circular pitting within the thin layers of the beige to gray patina were found on the surface of the ossuary and, more importantly, within the letters of the inscription. They indicate biological activity and are the product of airborne and/or subaerial geo-bio activity that covers all surfaces of the ossuary . . .indicative of slow growth over many years.2

The team then turned to an evaluative analysis of the scientific tests done in 2006 on the comparative chemical composition of the patina accretions on ossuaries taken from various ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area. The premise of the tests was that ossuaries accumulate distinctive and measurable biochemical “signatures” based on the cave environments in which they have spent the past two millennia.3 Patina samples were taken from the James ossuary, three ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb (Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene, and Matthew) and ossuaries from thirteen other burial caves in the area. By comparing these signatures one can determine if the James ossuary had developed its patina in that particular “tomb” environment:

Among the examined 14 burial caves was also the Talpiot cave. Six Talpiot tomb wall and ceiling patinas were sampled December 14th, 2006 (op. cit.). The elemental spectra of the samples were examined by SEM-EDS in the Suffolk Crime Lab (NY). Each sample was analyzed (SEM-EDS) in at least 3 different locations. The differences between tombs were easily discerned by the elemental fingerprints. The quantitative variability of the elements (patina fingerprint) within an individual tomb (wall patina, ceiling patina, ossuary patina) were small, 5% or less. ((See Rosenfeld, et. al., op. cit. and Rosenfeld, A. and S. Ilani. 2002. SEM-EDS analyses of patina samples from an ossuary of “Ya‟akov son of Yossef brother of Yeshua.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6 (2002):29.))

Even tombs that shared a similar rock formation in close proximity to one another nonetheless had their own distinctive chemical signatures. The results showed that the James ossuary shared the same chemical signature as the three tests ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb as well as the walls and ceiling of that tomb. In contrast, the James ossuary patina signature differed considerably from any of the other thirteen burial caves.4

Rosenfeld and his colleagues suggest that based on these patina fingerprints the James ossuary was more likely a looted eleventh ossuary, rather than the missing tenth ossuary that had been catalogued by the IAA in 1980 and discarded or misplaced. They observed that the James ossuary was weathered intensively with massive pitting and striations.

JamesOssuaryDecorated.jpgNone of the other nine ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb show this kind of weathering. They concluded, on the basis of this weathering, that the James ossuary had been exposed to the elements for at least 200 years. Since we know that the blocking stone was missing from the tomb when it was examined in 1980, and the tomb itself was filled with the local terra rosa soil to a depth of two feet, covering the tops of the ossuaries in the niches, the James ossuary had likely been nearer the exposed doorway of the tomb, where the fill was more shallow. When or how James ossuary would have been taken from the Talpiot tomb we cannot determine. It might have been a number of years before the 1980 excavation of the tomb, or it could have been looted the first night when front porch of the tomb was blown open and exposed, before the IAA officials arrived to begin their work. If it were close to the entrance it would have been the only ossuary seen inside by looters since the others were covered with soil.

During the trial Oded Golan presented photos taken in 1976 in his parents’ apartment showing that he possessed the James ossuary, with its full inscription at that time—before the excavation of the Talpiot tomb in 1980. A photographic expert, former head of the Department of Photography and Documentation at the FBI, found no possibility that the photos were made at a later time.5

Golan Shelf

If the James ossuary inscription is authentic and it comes from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, what about the late second century CE report by the Christian chronicler Hegesippus who says the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City wall, where James was murdered? It hardly seems likely that the tomb of James was once in that location and then subsequently moved to the Talpiot tomb. We suggest that there well might have been some kind of monument to James in that area but we know little of Hegesippus, who spent his career in Rome. We can’t assume that he is reporting any kind of eyewitness account. In Rome there are reports of tombs and monuments to both Peter and Paul in several locations.6 Monuments were assumed, over the ages, to be tombs, and tombs might not have monuments. The fourth century church historian Eusebius, for example, quotes an unknown writer named Gaius who says: “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.”7 We are not certain if he means some kind of monument, pillar, or relic, or is he speaking of a tomb. Clement of Rome, who lived just a few decades after the deaths of Peter and Paul, mentions their martyrdom but seems to know little of any circumstances and mentions no tomb locations (1 Clement 5:3-7).

Today there are several monumental tombs in the Kidron Valley, dating to the late Hellenistic period (200-100 BCE) that are variously identified as the “Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the “Tomb of Zechariah,” the “Pillar of Absolom,” and a tomb inscribed as that of a priestly family,that is sometimes identified as the “Tomb of James.” On Mount Zion today, the southwest hill of Jerusalem, millions of pilgrims visit what is called “the tomb of David,” though most scholars locate it further to the south, outside the city of David. No one takes any of these sites and locations seriously as historically connected to these figures.  They are part of hagiographic traditions that Christians developed in the late Byzantine period down through the Crusades.

Even though we had initially suggested the possibility of the missing tenth ossuary being that of James, based on the similar dimensions and the patina fingerprints that seemed to place it in the Talpiot tomb, we must always adapt our views to new evidence.8 Shimon Gibson had suggested this theory of a missing eleventh ossuary to us back in 2006, when he recalled that the ten ossuaries inside the niches, and removed to the Rockefeller, had been covered with soil. When the IAA archaeologists arrived on a Friday morning, March 28, 1980, the first day of the excavation, they took photos and there is no evidence of any ossuaries having been dug out of the niches. But it is entirely possible, since patina tests show the James ossuary spent much of its history over the past two millennia in the Talpiot tomb environment, that it was near the door, less covered with soil, and thus easy to carry off. By whom or when we will likely never know.


  1. See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml  

  2. “The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot (Jesus Family Tomb) Ossuaries” on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/JOT.shtml. The two other principal investigators were H. R. Feldman, Division of Paleontology, Touro College and W. E. K. Krumbein, Department of Geomicrobiology at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg. 

  3. Peak elements such as silicon, phosphorous, titanium, iron, aluminum, and potassium are compared according to their ratios. 

  4. The full study by Charles Pelligrino, “The Potential Role of Patina History in Discerning the Removal of Specific Artifacts from Specific Tombs,” in The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins, pp. 233-243, eds. James H. Charlesworth and Arthur C. Boulet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming, 2011).  

  5. See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony cited above. 

  6. See Graydon F. Snyder, Ante-Pacem, pp. 180-189. 

  7. Eusebius, Church History 2. 25. 7. 

  8. Jacobovici and Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb, pp. 175-192 and James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (paperback, 2007), pp. 319-331. 

Selected Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

The Jesus Dynasty was published in April 2006 (Simon & Schuster). It was a New York Times Best Seller, featured on ABC’s Nightline and 20/20 and the cover of USNews & World Report. It has been translated into 22 languages. Here are some key excerpts with further links, media and otherwise, to the book below. It is available in print, e-formats, and audio, see JesusDynasty.com

 

Jesus Dynasty Hardcover

The New Testament gospels:

“[The New Testament gospels present] a tangled tale of political intrigue and religious power plays with stakes destined to shape the future of the world’s largest religion.” (p. 81)

“[A]lthough our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.” (p. 139)

The birth of Jesus:

“[The gospel of] Matthew implies that Isaiah’s prophecy was ‘fulfilled’ by the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus—but the original text clearly carries no such meaning.” (p. 46)

“The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilities—either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus.” (p. 59)

More than one messiah:

“The English word ‘messiah’ comes from the Hebrew word moshiach, which simply means ‘an anointed one.’ The equivalent Greek word, christos, also means ‘annointed’ and form that we have derived our more familiar term ‘Christ,’ meaning Messiah…. Most people are surprised to learn that the very first Messiah in the Bible was Aaron. He was ‘annointed’ as a priest by his brother Moses and is referred to in the Hebrew text as a ‘mosiach’ or ‘messiah’ (Exodus 40:12-15).” (p. 58)

“Christians and Jews subsequently have come to focus on the Messiah—a single figure of David’s line who was to rule as King in the last days. And yet, in the Dead Sea Scrolls we encounter a devoutly religious community, usually identified with the Essenes, who expected the coming of three figures—a prophet like Moses and the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel.” (p. 57)

“This ideal vision of Two Messiahs became a model for many Jewish groups that were oriented toward apocalyptic thinking in the 2nd to 1st centuries B.C.” (p. 143)

The family of Jesus:

“That Jesus has four brothers and at least two sisters is a ‘given’ in [the gospel of] Mark, our earliest gospel record. He names the brothers rather matter-of-factly: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” (p. 73)

The historical Mary:

“The later Christian dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had children other than Jesus and never had sexual relations with any man lies at the hart of the issue. No one in the early church even imagined such an idea, since the family of Jesus played such a visible and pivotal role in his life and that of his early followers. It all has to do with Mary being totally removed from her 1st-century Jewish culture and context in the interest of an emerging view of the time that human sexuality was degraded and unholy at worst, and a necessary evil to somehow be struggled against at best.” (p. 74)

“There is good reason to suppose that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause…. According to the Torah, or Law of Moses, the oldest surviving unmarried brother was obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow and bear a child in his name so that his dead brother’s ‘name’ or lineage would not perish. This is called a ‘Levirate marriage’ or yibbum in Hebrew, and it is required in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).” (p. 76)

“Given this information, a rather different but historically consistent picture begins to emerge. Jesus was born of an unknown father, but was not the son of Joseph. Joseph died without children, so according to Jewish law ‘Clophas’ or ‘Alphaeus’ became his ‘replacer,’ and married his widow, Mary, mother of Jesus.” (p. 80)

The “lost” childhood of Jesus:

“We have extraordinarily good historical records from the reign of Herod the Great. It is inconceivable that such a ‘slaughter of the infants’ would go unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus or other contemporary Roman historians. Matthew’s account is clearly theological, written to justify later views of Jesus’ exalted status.” (p. 88)

“A good trivia question would be ‘What was Jesus’ vocation?’ Everyone knows he was a carpenter, or at least the son of a carpenter…. The Greek word tekton is a more generic term referring to a ‘builder.’ It can include one who works with wood, but in its 1st-century Galilean context it more likely refers to a stoneworker.” (p. 89)

Jesus as a Galilean Jew:

“Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian…. To understand Jesus in his own time and place we have to understand his deep commitment to the ancestral faith of his fathers.” (p. 108)

“…[Jesus] is not ‘liberal’ with regard to Jewish observances in any modern sense of the term. What he did not accept were certain oral traditions and interpretations that some rabbinic teachers had added to the biblical commandments.” (p. 115)

“As we shall see, Jesus held Herod Antipas and all he stood for in utter contempt…. It was Herod who had brutally murdered his kinsman and teacher John the Baptizer, and Jesus had witnessed firsthand how Herod’s aspirations for wealth and power had unjustly oppressed the lives of his countrymen.” (p. 106)

His relationship with John the Baptizer:

“Jesus near his thirtieth birthday joined the crowds that were streaming out to hear John. He traveled from Nazareth down to the Jordan, along this very route, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9). By such a response he was publicly joining and endorsing the revival movement John had sparked…. [F]rom the time of Jesus’ baptism he was ready to take his destined place alongside John as a full partner in the baptizing movement.” (p. 127)

“The great embarrassment that the Christians faced was that it was well known that John had baptized Jesus—not the other way around! Jesus had come to John and joined his movement—which in the context of ancient Judaism meant that Jesus was a disciple of John and John was the rabbi or teacher of Jesus.” (p. 133)

“There [in a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew untouched by the Greek copyists] Jesus’ astounding testimony to John’s greatness stands unedited and unqualified: ‘Among those born of women there is none greater than John.’” (p. 134)

The twelve apostles:

“When he told them, ‘Let’s leave the nets and go fish for people,’ they did not blindly drop everything in some mesmerized state of devotion to his irresistible bidding as is so often portrayed. These disciples had worked with him and lived with him for months the previous year in Judea when they were baptizing huge crowds of people.” (p. 158)

“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament. Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called ‘Twelve Apostles.’ This means they were the muted participants in all those many references to the ‘Twelve.’ They were with Jesus at the ‘last Supper’ and when he died he turned his movement over to his brother James, the eldest, and put his mother into James’s care. James is none other than the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ of the gospel of John.” (p. 163)

Apocalyptic vision:

This arrival of the ‘Son of Man,’ which Christians later took as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus, was coded language from the book of Daniel. It does not refer to Jesus’ arriving, since he was standing with them when he said it, predicting the effect of their vital mission…. The phrase ‘son of man’ in the dream vision of Daniel 7 stood collectively for the faithful people of Israel who would receive rule from their Messiah.” (p. 164)

The final week in Jerusalem—the Temple and the Last Supper:

“Jesus’ activities that day [in the temple] were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution. Like his ride down the Mount of Olives on the foal of the donkey, he intended to signal something—namely that the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand and the vision of the Prophets would be fulfilled.” (p. 194)

“Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that its one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.” (p. 197)

“At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism…. This general sensitivity to the very idea of ‘drinking blood’ precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such symbols.” (p. 200-201)

Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion:

“Scholars are agreed that little in the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is historically credible. They have been completely shaped by a later Christian theological tradition that sought to put the blame for Jesus’ death wholly upon the Jewish people while exonerating the Romans as sympathetic to Jesus, with Pilate doing all he possibly could to save Jesus’ life.” (p. 213)

“If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death, delivered from the ‘mouth of the lion’ as the Psalmist had predicted (Psalm 22:21).” (p. 179)

The resurrection of Jesus:

“As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all!” (p. 228)

“Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body’ and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon.” (p. 230)

“In this context, it is easy to see why the Tomb of the Shroud, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot tomb discovered in 1980 spark such heated controversy. At the heart of the storm is the unspoken possibility that the tomb might contain the remains of Jesus himself. Neither Christianity or Judaism welcomes that proposition.” (p. 235)

Jesus’ successors and legacy:

“Although the followers of Jesus reshaped themselves under the new leadership of James, and eventually returned to Jerusalem, there might well have been a period in which they retreated to Galilee in order to sort things out, and that is just what these gospel traditions appear to reflect. If that was the case then the more idealized account of the Jesus movement in the early chapters of the book of Acts is Luke’s attempt to recast things in a more triumphant way.” (p. 238)

“There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament. One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1st century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 259)

“The Nazarene movement, led by James, Peter, and John, was by any historical definition a Messianic Movement within Judaism. Even the term ‘Jewish-Christianity,’ though perhaps useful as a description of the original followers of Jesus, is really a misnomer since they never considered themselves anything but faithful Jews. In that sense early Christianity is Jewish.” (p. 264)

“I would go so far as to say that the New Testament itself is primarily a literary legacy of the apostle Paul.” (p. 270)

“There is no evidence that James worshipped his brother or considered him divine.” (p. 280)

“…[W]hat we can know, with some certainty, is that the royal family of Jesus, including the children and grandchildren of his brothers and sisters, were honored by the early Christians well into the 2nd century A.D., while at the same time they were watched and hunted down by the highest levels of the Roman government in Palestine.” (p. 290)

Academic Endorsements of The Jesus Dynasty

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Interview with Dr. Tabor on The Jesus Dynasty

Facebook page on The Jesus Dynasty with news and updates

Critical but well done review in Slate by Richard Wrightman Fox.

Read the first chapter here on-line from ABC News

For reviews, interviews and more media coverage of The Jesus Dynasty see Media Tab