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

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

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

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



Avraham Leket Today


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorting out the “Jameses” in the New Testament

Despite what many have heard or assumed the evidence favoring the authenticity of the inscription on the James ossuary, namely “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” has become more and more convincing. Unfortunately few have kept up with the controversy following the conclusion of the forgery trial. I have posted a summary here with lots of links for further reading. The main question remaining is how to determine the provenance of the ossuary–where did it come from and when did it make its way onto the antiquities market? We explored what we know about this in our book, The Jesus Discovery and alluded to the ongoing research that may well prove definitive on this question in the future. The ossuary is one thing but what about “James” himself–who was he and how can he be differentiated from all the other “Jameses” in the New Testament.  When news of this ossuary inscription first broke in 2002 any number of people asked–James who? Or responded that they had no idea Jesus even had a brother!

Few English readers of the New Testament are aware that the familiar name “James,” as it is translated in English, is actually the name “Jacob,” or Yaaqov in Hebrew. In other words James=Jacob. It is the same name. In Greek it is written Yakobos, which echoes the name Jacob quite clearly. It is an unfortunate circumstance of English naming traditions that the original origin of the name James has been largely lost on people.

James the Just, Brother of Jesus

The name itself occurs about 60 times in the New Testament and according to John Painter, in his worthwhile book, Just James, these occurrences break down into as many as eight different Jameses (or Jacobs):

(1) Jacob the patriarch (Abraham’s grandson) in the Hebrew Bible

(2) Jacob the father of Joseph (husband of Mary, Matthew 1:16)

(3) James the son of Zebedee, brother of John the fisherman

(4) James the son of Alphaeus, one of the Twelve (Mark 3:18)

(5) James the “less,” son of Mary and Clophas (Mark 15:40)

(6) James the brother of Joses/Joseph (Mark 6:3)

(7) James, the brother of Judas (one of the Twelve Luke 6:16; Jude 1)

(8) James the brother of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Galatians 1:19)

This can all become rather confusing but I think we can bring some clarity to the data with a bit of examination.

The first three are without question different persons, thus unlikely to be confused. Number 3 is the well known Gospel character, James son of Zebedee, the fisherman, brother of John. The possible overlap occurs with numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8. Each might well refer to a separate person, giving us our total of eight Jameses, but I am convinced all five of these references could well be the same person.

Number four and five fit well with the Clophas/Alphaeus scenario which I cover in chapter 4 of my book, The Jesus Dynasty. Number six seems likely to be the same James as well because the brothers of Jesus were James and Joses according to Mark 6:3. Number seven is also the “other” James of the Twelve, and brother of Judas/Jude, and therefore Jesus. Number eight is clearly James the brother of Jesus.

Therefore, each of the Jameses listed here, namely numbers 4, 5, 6, 7 & 8 can be seen as one individual represented in five contexts. It is confusing to readers today, but once the identification of this “second” or “other” James is made, these texts fit together rather well. If we leave out the Patriarch Jacob, and Jacob/James the father of Joseph, husband of Mary, that leave only TWO Jameses–James the fisherman and James the brother of Jesus. And that is indeed what we find in the letters of Paul as well as in the book of Acts–two Jameses not six. I not only find the economy of this interpretation convincing but it makes the best sense of the various passages where these “Jameses” are mentioned.

James the fisherman apparently dies quite early on, beheaded by Herod (Acts 12). But what about the “other” James, the brother of Jesus, about which there is so much confusion. Two theories come to dominate in Christian theology, one being the eastern view and the other being the western. The eastern view holds Mary to be a virgin not only at the time of the birth of Jesus, but throughout her entire life. It goes on to portray Joseph as father of four sons and two daughters with another woman prior to his marriage to Mary. He becomes a widower, remarries, and thus brings these six children to the marriage. The western view is stricter in that it holds not only Mary, but Joseph also were strict virgins throughout their entire lives and neither of them ever had any children. These “brothers” and “sisters” are merely cousins, children of Joseph’s brother Clophas, but through another woman named Mary, not Mary the mother of Jesus. In The Jesus Dynasty I present an alternative view.

Here is how I have reconstructed what we know. Jesus was the son of Mary, father unknown, but possibly one named Pantera. See my post on “An Unnamed Father of Jesus.” We know nothing about the circumstances of her pregnancy and should not assume the worst, joining the slanderers she must have faced in her circumstances, as I discuss here. Joseph marries Mary, despite her pregnancy, but dies early leaving no sons behind, see my post on the “Mystery of the Missing Joseph.” Joseph’s brother, nicknamed Clophas/Alphaeus, stepped in, according to the custom of Levirite law (Deuteronomy 25:5-10), and married Mary, Jesus’ mother, and they had six children–the four boys, James, Joses, Simon, and Jude, as well as two sisters, whose names are not given in the New Testament but tradition holds were named Mary and Salome (Mark 6:3). Jesus was adopted by Joseph and is thus called “Jesus son of Joseph,” whereas James, the second-born, was also designated “son of Joseph” in keeping with Levirite law–that the second brother “raise up seed” in his deceased brother’s name.” I am convinced, as Robert Eisenman has argued, that Clophas/Alphaeus comes from the Hebrew word chalaf= replacer, to replace, to step in, one who replaces. I am further convinced that at least three of these brothers, and possibly all four, were part of the Twelve.[1] In my thinking this particular theory makes the best sense of all the evidence we have, concerning the various James, both Alphaeus and Clophas, and the “two” Marys, whom I take to be one–namely the mother of Jesus. The gospel of John puts Mary, mother of Jesus, at the cross, along with “Mary her sister, wife of Clophas, conflating the two (John 19:25). That Jesus’ mother Mary is at the cross in John, but “Mary, the “mother of James and Joses” in Mark, seems to indicate the two Mary’s are the same, Jesus’ mother Mary in Mark 6:3–mother of James and Joses


  1. See Robert Eisenman’s James the Brother of Jesus []

Destroying Mummy Masks and the Oldest Known Copy of the Gospel of Mark?

Update: Article by Candida Moss and Joel Baden for CNN that nicely  summarizes more of the facts here.

The first any of us heard of a new discovery of the fragment of the New Testament Gospel of Mark dating to the late 1st century C.E. was in 2012. Bart Ehrman of UNC and Daniel Wallace of Dallas Theological Seminary were engaged in a debate in Chapel Hill on the question “Is the Original New Testament Lost?”  Wallace simply asserted his “bombshell” claim without giving any details. The debate is available on Youtube here. Our earliest physical manuscript of any part of the N.T.  is a tiny papyrus fragment (3.5 x 2 inches, seven lines, front and back) from the Gospel of John known as Rylands P52, now on display in the John Rylands University Library in Manchester, UK. It is usually dated, with some controversy, between 117-150 C.E.


Following Wallace’s “leak” lots of blog posts appeared, including this more recent one by Brice C. Jones who alarmingly reported the involvement of evangelical Christian apologist Josh McDowell, who has no academic credentials. Here he unabashedly and gloatingly defends this destruction of antiquities, see video here (See at timemark 24:23 where Josh scoffs at the destructive process: “Scholars die when they hear this but we own them.”). Another evangelical defender of the process wrote just this week that “archaeology is inherently destructive,” as if artifacts themselves are destroyed rather than carefully preserved by responsible archaeologists.

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We can now assume, based on headline stories breaking this week, that Prof. Wallace was referring to a fragment of the Gospel of Mark recovered by the controversial destruction of Egyptian Mummy masks:

A text that may be the oldest copy of a gospel known to exist — a fragment of the Gospel of Mark that was written during the first century, before the year 90 — is set to be published.

At present, the oldest surviving copies of the gospel texts date to the second century (the years 101 to 200).

This first-century gospel fragment was written on a sheet of papyrus that was later reused to create a mask that was worn by a mummy. Although the mummies of Egyptian pharaohs wore masks made of gold, ordinary people had to settle for masks made out of papyrus (or linen), paint and glue. Given how expensive papyrus was, people often had to reuse sheets that already had writing on them.




Prof. Craig Evans of Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia has been quoted in all the news reports. Craig is a friend and he and his students dig with us at Mt. Zion. He and I certainly have our differences and we have often dialogued on opposite sides over the history and interpretation of the “Jesus” tombs in Talpiot. Yesterday he sent me an e-mail clarifying the discovery from his perspective. He believes his role in the discovery has been somewhat misrepresented. Here is his response which I include here with his permission:

I am part of the team that interprets the discoveries. I am not a papyrologist or technician, so I am not involved in the dismantling of the masks and cartonnage. The photo belongs to Scott Carroll. Here’s his contact info:

SCOTT CARROLL MANUSCRIPTS & RARE BOOKS, INC. 16893 Buchanan St Grand Haven, MI 49417, 616-847-4009

Last summer I gave a presentation on the number, age, and reliability of New Testament manuscripts. In this lecture I described the effort under way in recent  years to recover manuscript fragments, including biblical manuscripts, from ancient cartonnage, including mummy masks. All of these materials are from Egypt. Just over three years ago a fragment of Mark was recovered, which those studying it think dates to the 80s. If they are correct, this will be the first New Testament manuscript that dates to the first century. The fragment is to be published later this year (by E. J. Brill). Someone video-recorded my lecture and posted it on YouTube. Last week a reporter, Owen Jarus, from Live Science contacted me and I gave him an interview. What he wrote was posted on Sunday 18 January 2015 and is accurate. However, other journalists have made use of his story and/or the video on YouTube and have misunderstood some aspects of it, claiming incorrectly that I was myself the discoverer of the fragment of Mark or that research on the papyri recovered from the mummy masks is going on here in Nova Scotia. Some have also posted a photo of a mummy mask giving me credit for the photo. The photo is not mine. I have directed reporters who inquired to the person to whom the photo does belong. Unfortunately, not all reporters inquired. The Live Science link is

Here are also some answers I have provided to commonly-asked questions:

1) Since it is believed the gospel of Mark was written in Rome, does it surprise you that a copy written so soon after the original would have made its way to an Egyptian mummy mask? No. In the Roman Empire mail moved almost as quickly as it does today. A letter put aboard a packet in Ephesus (today’s Turkey) could be in Egypt within one week. Something written in Rome could be in Egypt being read within a few weeks. Mark was written in the late 60s, so finding a copy of Mark in Egypt dating to the 80s is not strange in the least. 

2) Does dating indicate when the text was incorporated into the mummy mask? There are four important dates: (1) the date of the papyrus, (2) the date when ink was applied to the papyrus, (3) the date when the writing went out of use, and (4) the date when the no-longer-used writing was dismantled and used for the making of a mummy mask or some other form of cartonnage. Because some of the papyrus used in these masks are letters or business papers, we sometimes find dates, which is a big help. The style of handwriting helps date the papyrus. Features of the mask (e.g., its design and artwork) can sometimes help date it. A date in the tomb or in the sarcophagus can be very helpful. Carbon-14 can be helpful. All of these methods can potentially come into play in attempting to date the mask and then the earlier dates of the various papyri that were used later in making the mask. 

3) How many such masks are currently in the possession of scientists? I do not know. There are several thousand of them, many hundreds on display in museums. Many in private collections. Many of them   are of poor quality. These are the ones that are being taken apart, in order to recover written text. 

4) If the original owners retain possession of the texts after they have been analyzed what will likely happen to them? Hard to say. We hope they will be placed on exhibit in museums. 

5) Since we don’t really hear much about first century evangelistic endeavors in Egypt, does it surprise you that so many texts are being found in mummy masks? Not at all. The ancient world was far more literate than we moderns realize. Some 500,000 pages of papyrus have been recovered from Oxyrhynchus alone and it was not an especially important or cultured city. We have this enormous amount of material simply because the arid climate made preservation possible. There would have been millions of documents in other cities like Ephesus, Alexandria, Rome, Rhodes, and the like. 

6) The article posted by NBC News said you believe the original writings of the gospels were in circulation for as long as 200 years. What leads you to believe that is true? For two reasons: (1) Church fathers, writing 150 to 200 years after the originals were written, refer to the autographs as still available in their time. (2) Several libraries and book collections have been recovered which provide compelling evidence. For example, a collection is found in a layer of the Oxyrhynchus landfill that is dated to the fourth century C.E., yet the books that are recovered were produced in the first and second century C.E. This shows that the library was in use for at least 200 years before being retired. Many books, including old Christian Bibles, have been found to have been read, corrected, repaired for more than 500 years. Several Bible scrolls from Qumran (i.e., the Dead Sea Scrolls) were at least 200 years old before the Qumran community was destroyed by the Romans in the first century C.E. 

Jesus as Illegitimate and the Talpiot Tomb: Some New Considerations

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

—Prof. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky

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

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

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

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

Jesus son of Joseph
Judah son of Jesus

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


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

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

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


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

Remembering James Olof Ribb (1946-2006)

In my more resigned moments I figure this thing is going to get me sooner or later — it wasn’t exactly caught in the early stages–but all I really want is what I’ve always wanted even before this happened: some good days (without pain) and the opportunity to put things in order, providing for a minimum of fuss after I’m gone. If I can have that, I’ll be happy. It’s quality, not quantity.

Olof James Ribb died nine years ago today on January 16, 2006 of a very aggressive form of bone cancer. Olof was one of those rare friends of a lifetime that some of us are fortunate enough to have. He was one of the truest people I have ever known, a “man in whom there was no guile,” and one of the most brilliant and honest human beings I have ever known. When I think of sterling impeccable character I think of Olof. All who knew him say the same. He had some rare combination of intelligence, brutal honesty, kindness, keen insight, a quest for truth, and a passionate sense of justice. I miss him immensely and think of him every day.

Two years ago I posted the draft of a manuscript he finished in 1994 but never published: Excerpts: A Collection of Thoughts, Quotations, and Observations.[1] Olof was exceedingly modest about this work and during his lifetime only shared it with a few friends, though he and I talked about publishing it someday and he seemed quite willing but said it would “need a lot of work.” I invite my readers to delve into this rather remarkable collection of random observations on “People, Books and Ideas, Death, Tradition, Politics, Reason and the Mind, Women, Gender, Sex, Morality, and Superstition,” as well as to browse the web site for the many photos, tributes, and memories of Olof Ribb–especially by his students. The section on “Olof’s Thoughts” is particularly fascinating. Olof was preeminently a linguist, a reader, a thinker–but most of all a teacherpar excellence. He was reluctant to write much formally given his conviction that most of what needed to be said about la condition humaine had already been said far better than he felt he could express things–hence the many quotations in his little book. He was a high school teacher of German and Latin much beloved of students, family, and friends. He could have easily had a Ph.D. and taught at the university level but he felt strongly that high school was the best and most critical place to serve in our culture so he was content with his M.A. in German and Latin. When he won the “Teacher of the Year” award at Western Alamance High School in Burlington, NC, where he was teaching when he died, he commented to a friend who congratulated him, “Thanks, Joy, for your card and congratulations. I certainly bamboozled them!” Olof lived in Greensboro, not far from the UNC campus and spent much time at Chapel Hill as well, both in the libraries and taking post-graduate classes in philosophy, literature, and Classics. Beginning in January, 1973 Olof and I exchanged letters in the good old-fashioned way, three to five page typed single-spaced, mailed back and forth every week to ten days for over 20 years. The last decade or so we turned to e-mail. I have copies of all our correspondence filling several storage boxes.  Those files are among my most precious possessions, next to family pictures and movies. Someday I hope to publish excerpts–mostly his not mine–as this weekly record of his intellectual and spiritual development over the 33 years of our friendship is truly an impressive legacy. Olof made a profound difference in countless thousands of lives over the years. German was Olof’s main academic expertise, though he had learned Italian and Spanish quite well, and was a master of Latin. His great loves were history, philosophy, religion, and literature, though he maintained a curiosity about almost everything, including the latest in science. He had read the complete works of Nietzsche and dozens of others German philosophers and writers, not to mention his deep love of Classics.  Because of his family “roots” he plunged into Swedish with a special passion the last decades of his life. I remember asking him once, since I knew his Germany was so fluent, if his Swedish would compare, and he answered simply “Yes.”  He had become over 20 years as comfortable in Swedish as in English or German. I don’t know of anyone inside or outside my academic field who had followed my work and research on the historical Jesus more avidly than Olof. But he was much more of a dialog partner and a critic than a fan. He had studied the Bible line-by-line in his youth and I have his old worn copy with markings and notations on every page–no exaggeration here. Over the years he read and thought himself “out of Christianity,” and in the end even the more Hebraic “process theism” that I find appealing failed to grip him. In the oddest way his “skepticism” and even “agnosticism” seemed to have more integrity to it than the creedal statements of so many. He was neither contentious nor pretentious, and was perfectly willing to patiently listen to my own expositions but just found himself unconvinced of what he considered to be the naive assumptions of “certainty” in any sort of biblically oriented faith.  I benefited immensely from his input and we differed sharply on some of these issues. Olof read every word of my Jesus Dynasty manuscript along the way and gave me helpful feedback on nearly every page. I still have his MS Word “markup” copies of each chapter, filled with his notes.  He traveled with me to Germany when I was doing the Pantera research in October, 2005, just a few months before he died. We had no idea he was even sick but he complained on that trip of a pain in his shoulder that turned out to be a malignant bone tumor. I mention him in the Acknowledgments of that book that was published in April of 2006. Olof never lived to hold a printed copy of the book in his hands but I flew up to Minneapolis the weekend before he died and showed him the final page proofs which pleased him immensely.

I hope all of you will both enjoy and be stimulated by Olof’s thoughts on this anniversary of his death.

  1. I want to thank our dear and mutual friend of Olof–Stephen Estes–for scanning and preparing this original manuscript for posting and Olof’s nephew Erick Mortensen who maintains the web site []