Rare Roman Gold Coin of Nero Found at Mt Zion Excavations!

A Roman gold coin depicting the Emperor Nero, dated to 56 CE was discovered in summer, 2016 at UNC Charlotte's archaeological excavation at Jerusalem's Mt. Zion. Credit: Shimon Gibson
A Roman gold coin depicting the Emperor Nero, dated to 56 CE was discovered in summer, 2016 at UNC Charlotte’s archaeological excavation at Jerusalem’s Mt. Zion.
Credit: Shimon Gibson

The discovery of a rare gold coin bearing the image of the Roman Emperor Nero at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s archaeological excavations on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, has just been announced by the archaeologists in charge of the project, Drs. Shimon Gibson, James Tabor, and Rafael Lewis.

“The coin is exceptional,” said Gibson, “because this is the first time that a coin of this kind has turned up in Jerusalem in a scientific dig. Coins of this type are usually only found in private collections, where we don’t have clear evidence as to place of origin.”

The gold coin (aureus) bears the bare-headed portrait of the young Nero as Caesar. The lettering around the edge of the coin reads: NERO CAESAR AVG IMP. On the reverse of the coin is a depiction of an oak wreath containing the letters “EX S C,” with the surrounding inscription “PONTIF MAX TR P III.” Importantly, these inscriptions help to work out the date when the coin was struck as 56/57 AD. Identification of the coin was made by the historian and numismatist, Dr. David Jacobson from London.

The coin dates to a little more than a decade before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD, and was found in rubble material outside the ruins of the 1st Century Jewish villas the team has been excavating. The team has hypothesized that the large houses may have belonged to wealthy members of the priestly caste, and it may have come from one of their stores of wealth.

“The coin probably came from one of the rich 2000-year old Jewish dwellings which the UNC Charlotte team have been uncovering at the site,” said Gibson. “These belonged to the priestly and aristocratic quarter located in the Upper City of Jerusalem. Finds include the well-preserved rooms of a very large mansion, a Jewish ritual pool (mikveh) and a bathroom, both with their ceilings intact.”

This mansion and other like it, were utterly destroyed by Titus and the Roman legions, when Jerusalem was razed to the ground. It is likely, owing to the intrinsic value of the gold coin, it was hidden away ahead of the destruction of the city, and was missed by the marauding and looting Roman soldiers.

“It’s a valuable piece of personal property and wouldn’t have been cast away like rubbish or casually dropped. It’s conceivable that it ended up outside these structures in the chaos that happened as this area was destroyed.”

The image of Nero is significant in that it shows the presence of the Roman occupation and provides a clear late date for the occupation of the residences. There is no historical evidence that Nero ever visited Jerusalem. Tabor pointed out that the coin is dated “to the same year of St. Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, which resulted in his arrest (on the charge of taking Gentiles into the Temple) and incarceration in Caesarea.” Last of the Julio-Claudian line, Nero was Roman emperor for fourteen years (54-68 AD). He had the reputation for being a tyrant, and some believed he was responsible for the devastating fire of 64 AD, which resulted in the burning of much of Rome.

The archaeological project has brought to light many other significant finds during the 2016 summer season, and work at the site will be resumed next year.


Story Source:

The above post is reprinted from materials provided by University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Picking and Choosing: How Scholars Read the Gospels

I recently wrote a post titled “Do Historians Exclude the Supernatural?” Here I want to explore a related issue that one often hears from a variety of circles also having to do with methods of the academic study of religions–how scholars evaluate ancient texts–and here I will particularly focus on my own work on the historical Jesus.

When it comes to a critical reading of our New Testament gospels and other related texts one can get the impression that scholars end up rather arbitrarily “picking and choosing” whatever they want–especially in trying to construct their portraits of the “historical Jesus.” In other words, as Albert Schweitzer cautioned long ago, all too often historians seem to come up with a Jesus made in their own image, so that texts and traditions they favor are retained whereas those they disfavor are discarded as unreliable. In fact, I would argue that more often quite the opposite is the case. Many of those who claim simply to “take the Bible as it is,” without any critical discernment of sources, traditions, and historical contexts actually end up as the ones who quite arbitrarily fall into this trap of subjectively “picking and choosing.”

HistoricalJesus Books


For example, we have two very different versions of the so-called Beatitudes–Matthew 5:1-12 and Luke 6:20-26. The same is the case for the Lord’s Prayer–compare Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. Matthew’s version is by far the one best known, most often quoted, and clearly favored by most Christians–but what about Luke’s alternative version? How and why is it different and what can we make of those differences? Why do we have differing versions of many of Jesus’ teachings and sayings in Matthew and Luke that are not in Mark–this is the “double tradition” that most scholars refer to as Q. Rather than picking ones “favorite” version, and using it arbitrarily for ones own purposes, what critical scholars attempt to do is analytically account for the various strands of tradition, carefully comparing the similarities and differences, in an effort to get at why our traditions differ, when and where they originated, and which might more reliably go back to Jesus himself–if such can be determined. I often tell my students, a critical reading of our sources means a careful reading, with great attention to differences and details. Many of those who claim that they simply “take the Bible as it is,” in fact have never carefully read the very texts they claim to honor and are blissfully unaware of the important differences in our various sources.

As an illustration take a look at my post on the various differing accounts of the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb following his crucifixion, “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed.” Rather than arbitrarily choosing the one I liked best, I tried to arrange them in their most likely chronological order and to account for the differences in terms of the obvious rewriting and overwriting of earlier sources by later ones.

So how do historians go about doing their work? What methods and principles do they value and seek to follow?

To begin with, historians do not privilege any texts, be they in or out of the Bible, as inherently reliable based on a view of divine inspiration. This method immediately separates historical work from theological work, in that theology, at least traditional Christian theology, begins with the assumption that the texts of the Bible are inspired and thus at some level “true” or at least “more true” than other writings of the time. For the historian there is a sense in which all texts are created equal and are therefore examined with the same methods of analysis. That does not mean, however, that some are not considered more accurate historically than others. For example, when it comes to reliable history or teaching of Jesus most scholars would not give as much weight to the Gospel of Thomas as the Gospel of Mark. Often this has to do as much with dating and chronology as to whether a text is “in” the New Testament or not. Thomas, like the newly published Gospel of Judas, dates from the late 2nd or early 3rd century whereas Mark seems to have been written around 70 CE–within forty years of Jesus’ lifetime.

Older is not always better, but when we have a text as old as Mark, we surely want to give it the priority that it deserves. And we can show how Mark becomes the narrative core or basis for both Matthew and Luke, who “overwrite” and “rewrite” it with their own interests in mind. This does not mean, necessarily, that anything from Matthew’s and Luke’s “rewritten Mark” has no historical value, but it does allow us to account for how and when the various differences arose, and often we can trace them to particular emphases or interests of the authors. For example, Luke consistently removes, time and time again, the motif, so dominant in Mark, of the failure of the disciples. Those sections of Mark are simply missing in Luke–he purposely and consistently takes them out (e.g. Mark 8:32-33; 10:35-40; 14:32-50).

It is also possible that the “double tradition” in Matthew and Luke, that most scholars refer to as Q, might well predate even Mark. It appears to be an early collection of the teachings of Jesus with a minimum of narrative material. Chronology is not everything, but at least in the beginning we want to try to arrange our sources as much as possible in a chronological fashion, thus when it comes to Jesus we have: the Q source, Mark, Matthew, Luke, the “Signs source,” John, the letter of James, the Didache, fragments of the Gospel of Peter, fragments of “Hebrew Matthew” and the gospel of Thomas, even though scholars might disagree as to their precise dating. Surprisingly, to many, the letters of Paul are earlier than any of these gospel materials and one of our latest sources, which is mistakenly taken by many as the most foundational text for the development of the early Christian movement, is the book of Acts.

It is also important to try and detect the kind of editorial development that goes on in such a trajectory of texts. It is not always strictly chronological, but often it is. On the whole we can see, within the early Christian tradition, a tendency to make Jesus more divine and less human, to downplay the role of John the Baptist, and to mute or mitigate the role of James and the family of Jesus. What we try to do is to take all our sources and compare them side by side and then to draw conclusions, as much as we can, as to what is most likely closer to Jesus and what might be a later development.

To take just a few examples, Matthew uses Mark as a source and he consistently “edits” him at crucial points. In Mark 10:17-18 a man says to Jesus “Good teacher, what do I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus rebukes him replying, “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God.” Matthew comes to that story and alters Jesus’ answer to read: “Why do you ask me about the good.” Here you can see that given Matthew’s more divine view of Jesus, he finds the wording of Mark troubling and freely edits it. When it comes to Q there are times when the Hebrew version of Matthew appears to be less edited than the Greek versions in either Matthew or Luke. A prime example is Matthew 11:11 (Luke 7:28) where Jesus declares that “among those born of women there is none greater than John.” This startling statement stands unqualified in the Hebrew version of Matthew preserved by Ibn Shaprut, whereas in Greek, both Luke and Matthew have the qualifying addition: “but nonetheless, the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” I am convinced that the latter is an editorial gloss that was added to soften the shocking implication that John the Baptist is then greater than Jesus. In such a case we often give the more difficult, or the more “primitive” reading more weight than what appears to be a later addition. The issue of Jesus being baptized by John is one of the clearest examples one can find of the unfolding tendency to elevate Jesus above John. Mark offers a straight account of John Baptizing Jesus, Matthew adds the lines in which John objects to doing this since Jesus is greater, Luke reports Jesus’ baptism and implies John did it, but never directly says so, and John drops the entire narrative account entirely. Most of us are convinced that this kind of evidence can not be dismissed as chance and it should not be ignored but carefully analyzed.

This entire process can appear to a casual reader as “picking and choosing” at will, but it is in fact a carefully worked out process. In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I try to bring the reader into the methods of analysis I employ so as to make clear why certain texts and traditions are thought to be more historically reliable while others are seen as secondary. In  our book, The Jesus Discovery, coauthored with Simcha Jacobovici, that process continues. The book begins with our new archaeological discoveries at the Talpiot tomb but it is much more than that, with two thirds of the book devoted to a careful and critical analysis of a set of related issues–who was Mary Magadelene? What about the accounts of the “empty tomb”? What role did James the brother of Jesus play in early Christianity? How do Paul’s letters contribute historically to our understanding of Jesus?–as well as many others.

What we historians attempt is not a perfect lab science–if such a thing exists–but there is a method to what might appear to some to be “madness.” I want to invite my readers into the process of critical evaluation and reflection; the same process that I use with my students and that is commonly followed in advanced courses in universities when one deals with the historical Jesus. Once one carefully works through the arguments presented in both The Jesus Dynasty and more recently in The Jesus Discovery,  I think one might find that what seems at first glance to be “picking and choosing” is actually a rather careful methodological attempt to sort through the sources in a responsible historical manner.

Reapproaching the Gospel of John

It has become almost axiomatic to assume that any responsible “quest for the historical Jesus” will value the Synoptic gospels–particularly Mark–as primary and more historically reliable in contrast to the gospel of John, which is viewed as secondary, and thus much more theological than historical.1 Although there has been a growing recognition of the heavily theological nature of Mark, Matthew, and Luke–including the so-called Q or “Sayings” source–the general result has been a favoring of Mark over John.


I studied in the 1970s at the University of Chicago with the late Norman Perrin who advanced the recognition of the theological elements of Mark, to a new level.2 Krister Stendahl (The School of St Matthew 1954), Anthony Saldarini (Matthew’s Jewish-Christian Community 1994), Hans Conzelman (The Theology of St. Luke, 1961) and a host of others have done the same for Matthew and Luke. The result has been the recognition that none of our gospel writers are composing history per se, and all are expressing their individual theologies–particularly their Christology–as a first priority in the ways they cast the Jesus story.

The recognition of the stark differences between the Synoptics and John is implicitly recognized in the early Church. Clement of Alexandria writes that “John, last of all, conscious that the outward facts had been set forth in the Gospels [i.e. Matthew, Mark, and Luke], was urged on by his disciples, and, divinely moved by the Spirit, composed a spiritual Gospel” (Eusebius, Church History 6.14.7). Although there is no doubting that John’s gospel is heavily theological in a more overt way than is obviously apparent in Mark and the Synoptics, it would be incorrect to conclude that it is of no value in contributing to our “quest for the historical Jesus.” In recent years there has been an enormous amount of scholarly work done on John and its contributions to historical Jesus studies–so much so that one might refer to this trend as a kind of “rehabilitation” of the gospel of John.3

John is a very complex book with several layers of tradition embedded therein to give us the version we have now. Scholars have identified an earlier “Signs Source” that runs through the whole (1:19-12:50). There is an appended “Epilogue” in chapter 21 that rather strangely continues the story after the clear and definitive ending of 20:30-31. There is mysterious role of the unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loves,”whom I have identified as James the brother of Jesus, who appears to be named as an eyewitness source in John 21:24. Chapters 6-10 and 14-17 are quite literally filled, with page after page, of extended “red letter” Dialogues and Monologues attributed to Jesus. This material is starkly different in both style and content in contrast to the teachings and sayings of Jesus in the Synoptics. In the gospel of John  Jesus never speaks in parables, offers short maxims or sayings, or focuses his work around exorcisms and preaching the “Kingdom of God” as in the Synoptics. Jimmy Dunn has convincingly argued that the style and vocabulary of Jesus’ speaking in John is that of the writer of the letter of 1 John–not of the historical Jesus.4

What I have concluded over the past few decades in my own work on the historical Jesus is that John is an invaluable resource, especially in matters of chronology and geography. For a start, see the simple handout I use in my classes on “Narrative Movement in the Gospel of John.” ((See, for example, my article “Wadi el-Yabis and the Elijah “Wadi Cherith” traditions in Relationship to John and Jesus in the Gospel of John,” and James Strange, “John and the Geography of Palestine.”  I have also found that the material John uniquely provides often correlates in remarkable ways with recent archaeological evidence in both Jerusalem and the Galilee. In my own work I have used John exclusively or primarily in several areas of investigation including the Suba cave at Ein Kerem,  “A Jesus Hideout in Jordan,”  “The Last Supper and Passover,” “Locating Golgotha,” the “Burial of Jesus,” and the judgment seat of Pontius Pilate–to name a few.

What I propose to do in future posts is to offer a series of correlations between the basic materials found in John and the text of Mark on a wide variety of topics. Stay tuned for some interesting and new insights.

  1. The Jesus Seminar lists this as one of its “Seven Pillars” of scholarly wisdom, see Robert Funk, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1993): 2-4. 

  2. See my tribute to Perrin here.  

  3. See in particular the work of the Society of Biblical Literature’s ongoing “John-Jesus-History” Group that began in 2002 and is still ongoing. 

  4. See his contrasting breakdown and analysis in James D. G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1989): 30-45. 

Is the Gospel of John Opposed to So-called “Jewish Christianity”?

It has become common to read the Gospel of John, with its theology of Christ as the heavenly Messiah, its attitudes toward the Torah, and its “othering” reference to “the Jews,” as elements of an emerging anti-Judaic, or even anti-Semitic, stage of the developing Jesus movement. Years ago James McGrath published a most informative article in this regard that I only recently read. It is particularly valuable for its citations to the various discussions of this topic. I am sure James would find ways he would want to update it today but I found it most helpful and I want to recommend it to my readers. It is fortunately available on-line:

“Johannine Christianity: Jewish Christianity?” Koinonia (1996):1-20.

Jews Jesus

“Jewish Christianity” has been a category notoriously difficult to define–given its inherent complexities and the subsequent developments of various forms of Judaism as well as Christianity in the post-70 CE period. McGrath’s article and its conclusion is well worth considering:

Given the diversity in both first century Judaism and in early Christianity, it would be reasonable to presume that there was also a certain amount of diversity in jewish Christianity. One corollary of this is that there is no need to force John into a set mould: John could differ from a given defi­nition of Jewish Christianity in one or more areas, and yet possibly still be rightly classed as a Jewish Christian work in some sense. Yet what is striking is the fact that it is possible to read and understand John quite naturally as containing precisely those features which have been singled out by many scholars as distinctively Jewish Christian: adoptionist Christology, Torah observance, and a continuing Jewish or Israelite self­identity. Although there is still work to be done in this area, it would seem reasonable to conclude that, in light of the evidence we have surveyed and the many other indicators of Jewish influence on and Jewish elements in John’s Gospel, the burden of proof rests on those who seek to deny a Jewish/Jewish-Christian setting for the Fourth Evangelist’s community and Gospel.

Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth?

Legendary stories of gods fathering humans, so common in  Greco-Roman culture, may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul.

Christians regularly affirm that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” This faith is embedded as a cornerstone of all the major Christian creeds and is recited by hundreds of millions each week. Surprisingly, the gospel of Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus. It opens with Jesus as an adult, traveling from Nazareth down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Since Mark is our earliest gospel the question arises–what is the origin of the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth? When and where did it originate?

Adonis & Venus Vecellio

In contrast to Mark both Matthew and Luke give us different versions of the “Christmas story,” but they both agree on the source of Mary’s pregnancy. In Matthew’s account Joseph had a dream shortly after finding out about the pregnancy. In this dream an angel told him that her pregnancy was “by a holy spirit” and that he was to go ahead with the marriage regardless. He was to name her child Jesus. By marrying a pregnant woman who carried a child that was not his, and legally naming that child, he was in effect “adopting” Jesus as his legal son. The phrase “by a holy spirit” implies that the pregnancy came from the agency of God’s spirit but falls short of saying, outright, that God was the father of Jesus in the sense that, say, Zeus was said to be the father of Hercules by his seduction of his mother, Alkmene. In that sense the account is different from those miraculous birth stories so common in Greco-Roman mythology.

Nonetheless, scholars who question the literal truth of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories have suggested that they are a way of affirming the divine nature of Jesus as “Son of God” by giving him an extraordinary supernatural birth. This idea of humans being fathered by gods is quite common in Greco-Roman culture. There was a whole host of heroes who were said to be the product of a union between their mother and a god–Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and even Caesar Augustus. In text after text we find the idea of the divine man (theios aner/θεῖος ἀνήρ) whose supernatural birth, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death separate him from the ordinary world of mortals. For a sample of these texts see “Divine Men, Heroes, and Gods.” These heroes are not “eternal” gods, like Zeus or Jupiter. They are mortal human beings who have been exalted to a heavenly state of immortal life. In the time of Jesus their temples and shrines filled every city and province of the Roman Empire. It is easy to imagine that early Christians who believed Jesus was every bit as exalted and heavenly as any of the Greek and Roman heroes and gods would appropriate this way of relating the story of his birth. It was a way of affirming that Jesus was both human and divine. Modern interpreters who view the stories in this way usually maintain that Joseph was likely the father and that these supernatural accounts were invented later by Jesus’ followers to honor Jesus and to promote his exalted status in a manner common to that culture.

These legendary stories from Greco-Roman culture may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul. Paul’s letters date several decades before our New Testament gospels and it is Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent, divine, Son of God, that lays the conceptual groundwork for our Christmas stories. ((For a possible identification of the biological father of Jesus see “The Jesus ‘Son of Pantera’ Traditions.”

Paul never explicitly refers to Jesus’ virgin birth nor does he ever name either Mary or Joseph. What he does affirm is that Jesus pre-existed before his human birth and subsequently gave up his divine glory through his birth as a human being. He writes that Jesus “though existing in the form of God” emptied himself and took on human form, “being made in the likeness of humankind” (Philippians 2:6-7). He says further “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He is likely referring here, metaphorically, to the “riches” of Jesus’ pre-existence with God, since we have no evidence Jesus came from a wealthy family background. Paul also writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman …” (Galatians 4:4). Although this verse is often translated “born of a woman,” Paul avoids the Greek verb gennao (γεννάω), which means “to beget, to give birth to,” referring to either the mother or the father.  The implication of these texts is that Jesus’ mother was merely the human receptacle for bringing Jesus into the world. It is not a far step from these ideas about Jesus’ pre-existence to the notion of Jesus as the first-begotten Son of God–eliminating any necessity for a human father. Paul’s entire message centers on a divine not a human Jesus–both before his birth and after his death. For Paul he is the pre-existent Son of God, crucified, but now raised to sit at the right hand of God. Like the Christian creeds that jump from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection in single phrase, entirely skipping over his life, Paul paves the way for a confessional understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Bultmann once put it, it is the “thatness” of the Gospel which interested Paul–that he was born of a woman, he died, that he rose, that he is coming again–with nothing inbetween.

The Jewish followers of Jesus later known as the Ebionites (see my previous post here) by the Orthodox Church Fathers, rejected Paul, used a version of Matthew in Hebrew that did not contain the account of the virgin birth in our present chapter 2 of the Greek text, and followed James the brother of Jesus in observing the Torah. It is difficult to imagine the virgin birth idea arising within these original Jewish circles whereas the perspectives of Paul lend themselves so easily to such mythology.

An alternative way of thinking about being a Christian is preserved in the gospel of Mark–our earliest narrative account of the career of Jesus. Mark mentions neither Jesus’ birth, nor any resurrection appearances on Easter morning (according to our earliest manuscripts that end with chapter 16:8). For discussion of the implications of this abrupt ending see my previous post, “The Strange Ending of Mark and Why it Makes all the Difference.” When a would-be follower addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” Jesus sharply rebukes him with the retort: “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God” (Mark 10:17-18). Mark emphasizes the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but only as a call to others to also “take up a cross” and thus give their lives as servants to others. In Mark Jesus defines true religion as loving God and loving ones neighbor, in contrast to all systems of religion. His version of the Jesus story is surely one that should not be forgotten despite the ubiquitous triumph of Paul’s theology.

Do Historians Exclude the Supernatural?

The investigative task of the ancient historian is by definition an interpretive one and no interpretation is without predisposition or even prejudgment stemming  from known or unknown proclivities of both a personal and contextual nature. Add to this the paucity of our incomplete evidence, whether textual or material, and there is no wonder we hardly ever agree on anything of consequence. Nonetheless careful argument based on logical analysis and best evidence remains our only path.  ((James D. Tabor to his students regarding the “methods” of the academy, and more specifically that of the ancient historian. ))

One of the most frequent responses I get to my work as a historian of religions, particularly in my dealings with Jesus, Paul, and the development of early “Christianities” is the objection that I “exclude  the miraculous” as a valid part of the investigation. The idea seems to be that “secular historians” prejudge evidence and are accordingly biased in that they will not allow even the possibility of the miraculous as part of ones historical inquiry. If historians ask the questions: what do we know and how do we know it–how is it that we claim to “know” from the start that miracles do not happen and that supernatural explanations for various developments are to be rejected? As Darrel Bock put things, reviewing my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Christianity Today: “James Tabor’s historical assumptions that reject God’s activity on Earth force him into odd arguments to explain the birth of Christianity.”

The divine light of logic and reasoned evidence shines its rays of light on the scholar’s table

For Bock and others these assumptions essentially result in “explaining away the New Testament” to use his words. Bock is referring particularly to my observation that historians assume that all humans have two biological parents, that dead bodies don’t rise, and that humans do not bodily ascend to heaven. Oddly enough, I maintain, along with most historians, that the “odd arguments” are characteristic of those who take the assertions that Jesus had no human father or that he walked out of his tomb and ascended bodily into the clouds of heaven as literal scientific statements of fact. Whether I reject “God’s activity on Earth” is a much more complex matter that I will deal with in another context, but what about this charge that secular historians are biased against the supernatural?

My training at the University of Chicago was that of a historian, not a theologian or even a “Biblical Scholar” as such. My Ph.D. was not from the Divinity School but in the Division of Humanities. I worked broadly in the area study of “Ancient Mediterranean Religions and Culture” and more specifically within ancient Judaism and early Christianity. My teachers were primarily Jonathan Z. Smith and Robert M. Grant. What I reflected in The Jesus Dynasty and in all of my academic work (my full CV here), are the methods and approaches generally employed by most qualified scholars who work in these areas.

Doing the work of an historian is not “hard” science in the purest sense of the term, but none of us in the field would want it to be understood as “art” either, at least not in some wholly subjective way. There is no doubt that historians often differ in their conclusions in important ways, and that “interpretation” of the data, how it is finally weighed and processed, is indeed a somewhat subjective process. When it comes to Jesus, as Albert Schweitzer pointed out long ago, historians all to often have “looked into the long well of history” and seen their own reflection staring back at them. In other words, when they come up with a so-called “historical Jesus” fashioned almost wholly by their own imaginations and biased desires.

When my students retreat to some historical conclusion that I or others have reached, with the easy retort “but that is just your interpretation,” I encourage them to go beyond that kind of reductionism. History is not mere subjective interpretation, even if it involves such. Ideally it is based on arguments and evidence and in the end a good historian wants to be persuasive. It is rare that historical conclusions close out any possible alternative interpretations, but the goal is to set forth, in the open court of reasoned argument and evidence, a compelling “case” for whatever one is dealing with. Even when we disagree we end up stating “why” we don’t find this or that argument convincing, or what we find weak in the assumptions of one with whom we differ.

As for sources, nothing is excluded and everything can be evaluated as long as it offers us some reasonable way to reconstruct the past. Historians love and welcome evidence. That is what we live on and we crave any new materials that can shed more light on what we know. But even our best sources, particularly the literary ones, are remarkably tendentious. Modern standards of argument and objectivity were unknown to ancient writers. Writing was more often than not a blatant attempt at propaganda and apologetics, and all the more so when it came to competing systems of religious understanding. Recognition of those factors is a vital part of every historian’s method. If we want to “use” Josephus we also have to give attention to what we know of him as a person, as a writer, what his tendencies are, what his competence was, and so forth. It is the same with the Gospels, with Eusebius, and with all the ancient texts and material evidence that we have at our disposal. It is also the case that for many important questions related to Jesus and his movement we simply do not have good evidence and probably never will. As thankful as we are for what we have, whether textual or archaeological or myth or tradition, in the end we have to face our own limitations.

Determining what Jesus said, or what he did, given the obvious theologically motivated editing and “mythmaking” that goes on even in our core New Testament gospels is a methodologically challenging project upon which none of us wholly agree. For example, we know virtually nothing about the so-called “lost years of Jesus,” and thus are left to speculate about his childhood and early adult life until about age 30 (assuming we even trust Luke, our single source, about his age when he joined John the Baptizer). Our attempts are educated guesses and creative reconstructions. Most of us are quite sure that the reports of the various so-called “Infancy Gospels” that have Jesus as a child magically turning clay birds into real ones or jumping off the roof of a building unharmed are less than historical. They are late, legendary, and fabulistic to the extreme. It is doubtful that such sources contain any useful historical information at all. I cannot prove that Jesus and his brothers worked with their father Joseph in the building trades in nearby Sepphoris, but I think it is a likely possibility, given what we know (see Mark 6:3). In contrast, the assertions that Jesus traveled as a child with his uncle Joseph of Arimathea to Britain, or that he studied in Egypt or in India, are based upon legendary materials far removed in time and place from his world. It is the same with the question of whether or not Jesus was married or had children. For years I agreed with most of my colleagues that the possibilities of this appear to be slight but over the past five years, in looking at the new evidence from the Talpiot tombs, as well as reviewing all the arguments, I have become convinced otherwise. A recent reviewer of our new book, The Jesus Discovery, has asserted on this point that “The claim that the Gnostic Gospels are a good source on Jesus being married to Mary Magdalene, for instance, is just breathtakingly silly — they were written incredibly late and reflect a particular theology/religious perspective–not history.” I have to disagree here and clearly, the reviewer, Raphael Magarik, is completely unaware of the solid scholarship on Mary Magdalene by fine scholars such as the late Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, Karen King, Ann Graham Brock, Margaret Starbird or a host of others. But more important he seems not to have read very carefully the arguments I review in the book that I think are actually quite persuasive.

The public has been geared to think of the suppression of evidence, usually with the Roman Catholic church being the culprit, but such grand “conspiratorial” theories have little basis in fact. What is most characteristic of early Christianity, or more properly, “Christianites,” is a competing diversity of “parties and politics,” each propagating its own vision of the significance of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. All sorts of interpretations are offered of Jesus, but the question finally comes down to how convincing a given argument is to other historians who work in the field and deal with the same sources and materials. But even “consensus” is no guarantor of final truth. Sometimes a minority view, in time, can prove to be true, and often pioneers in any area of history are castigated or rejected by colleagues when they initially put forth their theses.

Even a subject as seemingly straightforward as the claim in the Gospels that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead and ascended to heaven is one that is “textually bound” by what our sources actually say or don’t say–and the work of the historian is to interpret these texts as objectively as possible. See for example my methods on this very topic in my essay, “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed: An Old New Hypothesis.”

Jesus Walking on Water

As far as the subjects of the miraculous and the supernatural, historians of religions remain observers. The fact is we do not exclude religious experience in investigating the past–far from it. We actually embrace it most readily. What people believe or claim to have experienced becomes a vital part of our evidence. We can note that Mark reported that Jesus walked on water or raised the dead or met his disciples in Galilee after his death, and then we date and evaluate Mark as a source, just as we note the miracles that Philostratus claims for his contemporary hero Apollonius of Tyana, or that the story that Zeus fathered Hercules or that Romulus was taken bodily into heaven (see these and other texts here). Most scholars in the field would say that Jesus practiced “exorcism,” and healed the sick, which was seen as a releasing one afflicted from Satanic power, but what that implies about the reality of the demonic world goes beyond our historical methods. We know enough about human psychology and our modern controversies regarding psychic phenomenon to realize the complexities of drawing such conclusions. History and theology/faith do part ways in some of these areas but I tell my students often: “Good history is never the enemy of proper faith.” It is easy to hold that “God” can do anything, and thus argue for the acceptance of a male baby being born without male sperm, or reports of a corpse rising after two or three days and ascending bodily into heaven, but such claims are not the purview of historians and they run contrary to our human experience and a more rational scientific understanding of birth and death. Historians likewise deal with “beliefs” about the afterlife and the unseen world beyond, but without asserting the historical reality of these notions or realms. We can evaluate what people claimed, what they believed, what they reported, and that all becomes part of the data, but to then say, “A miracle happened” or this or that “prophet” was truly hearing from God, as opposed to another who was utterly false prophecy, goes beyond our accessible methods. I don’t want to oversimplify things here and I realize that the question of “faith” and “history” and the assumptions modern historians make in terms of a so-called “materialistic” worldview can be challenged, even philosophically. But for the most part historians are willing to leave the “mystery” in, but in terms of advocating this or that view of the so-called “supernatural,” as an explanation, they properly, in my view, remain wary.

We will probably never know with absolute certainty who Jesus’ father was, or what happened to the body of Jesus, or whether Paul “really” talked with Jesus after his death, but I prefer the “odd arguments” of the historian in investigating those matters, however inconclusive and speculative, to the dogmatic assertions of theology that are problematic from a scientific point of view.

A Wedding at Cana–Whose and Where?

There is a very intriguing story, unique to the Gospel of John, about a wedding attended by Jesus and his disciples at the Galilean village of Cana (John 2:1–11). Within the Gospel of John the story functions in a theological and even allegorical manner—it is the “first” of seven signs, the “water into wine” story, but that is not to say it lacks any historical foundation.1


The story is part of an earlier written narrative that scholars call the “Signs Source,” now embedded in the Gospel of John much like the Q source is embedded in Matthew and Luke. Many scholars consider the Signs Source to be our most primitive gospel narrative, earlier than, and independent from, the Gospel of Mark. Most readers of John’s gospel concentrate on the long “red letter” speeches and dialogues of Jesus with the lofty language about him as the “Son” sent from heaven, in cosmic struggle with “the Jews” who are cast in a pejorative light. Such elements are apparently a much later theological overlay, as they are absent from this primitive narrative source. The work, at least according to this “Signs Source,” was originally written to promote the simple affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, the anointed King of the line of David, and to explain how his death was part of the plan of God. This narrative source is written in a completely different style from the later material now in John’s gospel. It moves along from scene to scene with vivid details and in gripping narrative flow. This Cana wedding story is called the “the first of his signs” (John 2:11; cf. 4:54)

The elements of the Cana story are fascinating. Jesus and his disciples, who have been down in the Jordan valley with John the Baptizer, return to the area to join the wedding celebration. Jesus’ mother Mary (though unnamed in John) and his brothers are already there (2:12), so it seems to be some kind of “family affair.” Indeed, Mary appears to be officially involved in the celebration as a hostess since she takes charge of things when the wine planned for the occasion, unexpectedly runs out. Perhaps the crowd was larger than expected or the affair became quite festive. Mary turns to Jesus and the rest of the story is well known to everyone–he miraculously turns six stone vessels, filled initially with water, into the finest wine. But beyond the “miracle” or the “sign,” a number of other quite interesting questions arise.


First, one has to ask why the lack of wine would be a concern of Mary, Jesus’ mother? And what do we know about Cana? And most interesting, whose wedding was this and why was Jesus and his family present in the first place?

Cana MapLet’s begin with Cana itself. What do we know about it? Most tourists are taken to the traditional site of Cana (Kefr Kenna) near Nazareth on the road to Tiberius that the Franciscans maintain. The problem is this location has no Roman period ruins and most certainly is not the place mentioned in the New Testament. Its veneration began sometime in the Middle Ages. An alternative site, Khirbet Qana, is 8 miles northwest of Nazareth and 12 miles west of the Sea of Galilee. It is high on a hill overlooking the Bet Netofa valley. This location has much more evidence in its favor. My colleague and friend, the late Professor Doug Edwards, began excavating there in 1998, and Tom McCollough, has carried on his work as time has allowed.  What they have found seems fairly decisive, including 2nd Temple period tombs, houses, and possibly a beth midrash or synagogue. Evidence of Christian veneration at this site dates back to the 6th century CE. You can see photos and a summary of the finds and here.2


Right after the wedding, according to John 2:12, Jesus went to Capernaum and with him are his disciples, but also his mother and his brothers. I think that implies the whole family, including the brothers (and thus the sisters) were not only at the wedding but are now traveling with him–though in John they only stay there “a few days.” In contrast, Mark pinpoints Capernaum as the house of Peter and there Jesus sets up a kind “residence” or operational HQ, (see Mark 2:1; 3:19; 9:33 and the references to the house and being “at home.”).  Mark knows nothing of Cana whereas John never presents Capernaum as any kind of base or operational HQ for Jesus.  John mentions Cana again when Jesus returns from a trip to Judea where he stirred up a considerable amount of trouble and needs someplace to “lay low.” He and his disciples go back to Cana (John 4:46). Why go back there if the first visit was just for a wedding and had no connection to him? I think this is important in that it seems to become for Jesus a kind of “safe house” or place of operations when he needs to retreat to Galilee.

Khirbet Cana

There is definitely a “Jesus connection” to Cana, parallel to the one that Mark reports regarding Capernaum. Peter Richardson, of the University of Toronto, has written a significant academic article on this point titled “What Has Cana to Do with Capernaum?” (New Testament Studies 2002:48: 314-331) that I highly recommend. He argues that the significant differences on geographical matters between the Synoptics with their sources and John with its sources–especially the question of Jesus’ “place”–should not be resolved simply in favor of Mark. Cana as a place in John is as significant as Capernaum in Mark. In fact, Richardson argues that Cana served as an operational base for Jesus according to the tradition that John reflects. It is interesting to note that during the Jewish Revolt Josephus, commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee, made Cana his strategic headquarters for a time (Life 86). Its prime location, overlooking Sepphoris and the cities of the Bet Netofa valley made it an ideal location. Also, Jewish tradition locates the priestly family of Eliashib, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 24:19 as one of the 24 orders of Cohanim or priest, as from Cana.3

John indicates the connection in the last chapter of his gospel, where he says that the disciple Nathanael, mentioned only in the gospel of John is from Cana in Galilee (21:2). Nathanael is mentioned earlier in the gospel of John as an early follower or disciple, associated with Andrew of Bethsaida (1:45). He is most often identified as one of the Twelve, under his father’s name, Bar-Tholomew or “Bar Tolmai” in Aramaic, in Mark’s list of the disciples (Mark 3:18). I find this identification likely.

Given this background all we can do is speculate. I think we can assume that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is somehow involved in the wedding and since we know Jesus and his disciples, as well as his brothers are invited to the wedding, it is not a passing event but some kind of family affair. And since he returns to the place when things get heated for him and his disciples in Judea, it is a safe place for him, and one to which he is connected. So whose was the wedding? Or can we even make a wild guess?

Many have suggested that the wedding at Cana was that of Jesus. I find this unlikely. Even though the account is very “allegorical” as it comes to us in John, and it is accordingly hard to derive historical material therefrom, the way in which Jesus shows up with his disciples, when his mother and brothers are already there, indicates to me that the wedding is of someone else. My own guess would be that it is the wedding someone to whom Mary is related, perhaps one of her daughters, since she is involved, but not as the hostess. It is the bridegroom who seems to be from Cana and he is the one who takes charge of things, but Mary is unquestionably concerned with the provisions for the wedding–so she is not just a guest. Cana then becomes a place to which Jesus can return, and as with Capernaum, it served as a kind of “home” for him. Regardless, I do think, as Richardson has argued, we should take John’s references to geographical locations as rooted in some of the earliest traditions we have related to the life of Jesus–even predating Mark.

Postscript on a “married Jesus.” I have of late become persuaded that Jesus well might have been married, and this represents a change of mind for me that I have detailed in our new book, The Jesus Discovery. If such be the case it seems impossible to tell whether he would have been married long before this point in his life, perhaps in his 20s, or whether he chose not to be married into his adult life, and only subsequently did so closer to the end. For a summary of my own thinking in that regard see “There’s Something About Mary. . . Magdalene (Part 3) and for an overview of the discoveries in Talpiot see “The Case for a “Jesus Family” Tomb” and “The ‘Jesus Tomb’ Story: Does the Evidence Add Up?”

  1. A version of this post is now published at the Biblical Archaeology Society web page: http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-topics/new-testament/mark-and-john-a-wedding-at-cana-whose-and-where/  

  2. See most recently, Tom McCollough, “Searching for Cana: Where Jesus Turned Water into Wine,” Biblical Archaeology Review 41.6 (Nov/Dec 2015): 30–39 as well as his “Khirbet Qana,” in Galilee in the Late Second Temple and Mishnaic Periods, vol. 2, Life, Culture, and Society, ed. David A. Fiensy and James Riley Strange (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 127-145. Also see James F. Strange, “Cana of Galilee,” Anchor Bible Dictionary 1. 827.  

  3.  M. Avi-Yonah, “A List of Priestly Courses from Caesarea,” Israel Exploration Journal 12:2 (1962): 137-39.  

Mt Zion Excavation 2016: Lives of the Rich and Famous in the Time of Jesus

The influential Israeli newspaper HaAretz offers a nice profile of our 2016 Mt Zion excavation highlighting some of our new finds and offering a summary of past seasons and what we are concluding.

Site Overview End of Season 2016

Archaeologists excavating in the heart of ancient Jerusalem have begun to uncover the neighborhood that housed the elite 2,000 years ago – most probably the priestly ruling class.

One of the houses had its own cistern, a mikveh (a Jewish ritual bathing pool), a barrel-vaulted ceiling and a chamber with three bread ovens.

Inside a room found with its ceiling intact was a bathtub – an extremely rare luxury that commoners of the time could not afford.

Bathtubs, as opposed to ritual dipping pools, have so far only been found at King Herod’s palaces in Masada and Jericho, and in the so-called “Priestly Mansion” in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.

“It’s clear from the finds that the people living here were wealthy, aristocrats or perhaps even priests,” Prof. Shimon Gibson, co-director of the excavations, told Haaretz.

You can read the entire article with some lovely photos here.

Masada Mysteries: What Do We Know About the Bones?

According to the Jewish historian Josephus (Jewish War 7:389-406), when the Roman Tenth Legion finally captured the desert fortress of Masada in the spring of 73 CE, bringing a tragic end to the Jewish Revolt, 960 Jewish defenders of Masada–men, women, and children–perished at their own hands the night before the Romans broke into the camp. Though a few historians have doubted the historical veracity of Josephus’s heroic account, in the main it has been substantiated by the archaeological work done at the site over the past 50 years.1


Today Masada remains the single most visited tourist site in Israel, so much so that any tour to Israel, whether Jewish, Christian, or other, must include a visit to Masada on the itinerary. I could not count the times I have visited Masada, sometimes walking up the narrow snake path, but most often, with groups in tow, taking the lovely cable cars to the 1300 foot plateau. Twice I have even rappelled down into the caves on the southern tip of the fortress, seeking to learn more about Masada’s ultimate mystery–what happened to the skeletal remains of the defenders? The most likely hypothesis is that the Romans would have buried them in a pit, cremated them, or thrown them over the steep sides of the ravine, since they subsequently occupied the site themselves for several decades. No evidence of either a burial pit or funerary pyre has yet been found. The Hebrew text Yossipon, offers an alternative account to the Greek versions of Josephus most familiar to us. It says the men killed the women and children only, buried them in a pit at Masada, and then died fighting the Romans, inflicting significant casualties before they were wiped out. Tourist who visit the site are often told by their guides about the skeletal remains of three individuals found at the base of the northern palace–as if they jumped off or were thrown off the heights–a young man, a young woman, and her child. Portions of the braided hair of the woman are on display to this day at the Masada museum and the Israel Museum.  What many do not realize, including scholars in my field, is that much larger representation of human skeletal remains were discovered in the row of caves at the very southern tip of Masada, particulary in the double cave marked on the excavation map as 2000-2001. I have rapelled down the side of the southern tip of Masada on three different occasions and thoroughly examined this cave–other than the accumulated dust and animal droppings it is completely clean of material remains.

IMG_5507 2

In the fall of 1963, just into the first season of the famed Masada excavation conducted by Yigael Yadin, human skeletal remains of 25 individuals were discovered in one of the caves just below the southern edge of the fortress. The following is my full summary of what we know about these bones and what still remains to be determined.

The Discovery

Entrance to Cave 2000-2001 at the Southern tip of Masada, the "cave of the skeletons."
Entrance to Cave 2000-2001 at the Southern tip of Masada, the “cave of the skeletons.”

The Masada “Cave of the Skeletons” (loci 2001-2002) was first mentioned in Yigael Yadin’s preliminary report Masada: First Season of Excavations 1963-64 (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1965), pp. 90-91. This volume contains a short report by Yoram Tzafrir who was the supervising excavator for the locus. The cave is the westernmost of a row of caves below the southern cliff of Masada. It is elongated, with its western half designated locus 2001 and its eastern locus 2002.

Tzafrir reported (based on Dr. Nicu Haas’ evaluation) that 25 skeletons were found in this cave: 14 males, 6 females, 4 children and one foetus. The women were all ages 15-22 years; the men were aged 22-60, one being over 70, and the children were 8-12 years of age. Six of the men, aged 35-50, were of a powerfully built, distinctively different physical type from the rest. Tzafrir writes that the cave was rich in material remains: juglets, cooking pots, fragments of mats, food remains. The bodies were in disarray, as if tossed in heaps, with fragments of clothing throughout.

One of the piles of scattered bones in the middle of Cave 2001
One of the piles of scattered bones in the middle of Cave 2001


Cave on the South Face of Masada
Yadin also relates the find in chapter 15 “The Remains of the Last Defenders” in his popular illustrated book Masada: Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand (Jerusalem: Steimatzky’s; 1966, pp. 192-199). His book includes a photo of a portion of the cave floor with a some of the skeletons visible (pp. 198-199). Yadin reports, also basing his summary on Dr. Nicu Haas’ examination, that 14 were males between 22-60, one is a man over the age of seventy; 6 are females between 15-22; 4 are children between 8-12, plus the embryo. His enumeration appears to separate the 14 males aged 22-60 from the single man over 70, thus making 15 adult males and bringing the total skeletons to 25 plus the foetus. It remains unclear whether there were a total of 25 skeletons including the foetus (Tzafrir) or 25 plus the foetus.


Neither Yzafrir nor Yadin report when the Cave was discovered and cleared out. Both conclude that the remains are those of the defenders of Masada, ruling out that they were Romans or later Byzantine monks, based on Dr. Haas’ conclusion that most of the skulls matched the type discovered in the Bar Kochba caves in Nahal Hever.

If this was truly Yadin’s conviction, it is puzzling that these extraordinary finds in Cave 2001 were never reported to the press. In contrast, when three skeletal remains (a man, woman, and child) were found in the Northern Palace in late November, 1963, Yadin called a press conference and excitedly reported his find of the very bones of some of the Jewish defenders of Masada. I have now been able to determine, based on confidential sources, that Cave 2001 was discovered and cleared in late October, 1963, just one month earlier, making it all the more puzzling that these bones were not mentioned at that time, or at least when those of the Northern Palace were reported in November. Neil Silberman, in his definitive study of Yadin titled A Prophet from Amongst You (1993), makes the point that Yadin’s Masada efforts were very much driven by ideological factors and that finding human remains of the Masada defenders was a central part of his agenda—in order to confirm the heroic account of Josephus (see pp. 278-281). One can only wonder what reaction the discovery of these 25 skeletons caused on the part of Yadin and his senior staff at the time. The Jerusalem Post published regular stories throughout the dig season on what was being found–however, a thorough search of all these accounts indicates that nothing was reported about the contents of Cave 2001. The Post ran a special “Masada Section” written by Yadin on November 27, 1964 as the second season of the excavation began. In it he reports on his sensational finds of the first season, including the mosaics of the palace, the scrolls, the synagogue, the mikvas, and even the three skeletal remains of the “defenders” in the Northern Palace. Curiously, no mention is made of the skeletons found in Cave 2001. Further, the Illustrated London News published an even more extensive report with photos by Prof. Yadin on October 31, 1964, and once again Cave 2001 and its contents are not mentioned, while the three skeletons found in the Northern Palace are highlighted (pp. 693-697). The only press account I have found that mentions the Cave 2001 finds is a report on the press conference that Yadin held following the second season’s excavation (November, 1964-April 1965), published in the Jerusalem Post on March 28, 1965. He laments that only 28 skeletons had been found at Masada, leaving the mystery of what happened to the more than 900 others that Josephus claims died there in April, 73 C.E.

The Burial Controversy
A major public controversy regarding the skeletal remains from Masada erupted two years later. Following the publication of Yadin’s popular book on Masada in 1966 (reviewed in the Jerusalem Post, December 23, 1966), Agudat Yisrael MK Shlomo Lorinez mounted a vigorous protest in the Knesset, bewailing the fact that these Jewish defenders had never been given a proper burial (Jerusalem Post, March 23, 1967). Lorinez charged that cynical archaeologists and medical researchers were violating Jewish law and that according to his sources, some of the skeletons had even been sent abroad. Yadin’s defenders in the Knesset replied that the research was necessary to determine as accurately as possible the identity of these remains, whether Jewish, Roman, or Christian.

Dr. Haas’ research apparently continued over the next two years as the question of when and where to re-inter the Masada bones became more heated. Yadin was strongly opposed to the plans of the Religious Affairs Minister and the Chief Rabbis to bury all the remains in the Jewish cemetery on the Mt. of Olives. He argued that only the three found in the Northern palace were most certainly Jewish, and that the identity of the remaining 24 (this is the number reported in the Jerusalem Post story, March 11, 1969 based on Yadin’s statement), which had been found “in a cave” was uncertain, though they were probably Jews. This position starkly contradicts the view he expresses in his book, namely that “they can be only those of the defenders of Masada” (p. 197). Yadin wanted these remains to be buried quietly in the cave where they were found. A hastily appointed Ministerial Committee ruled on March 23, 1969, that all the bones found at Masada would be buried at the site and plans were made accordingly. The burial took place on July 7, 1969, near the tip of the Roman ramp (this description of the location, taken from news reports, does not make clear the precise location of the site). Chief Chaplain of the Army Rabbi Shlomo Goren officiated at the ceremony, which included full military honors. Prof. Yadin read part of Josephus’ record of the final speech of Eleazar, Jewish commander of the defenders of Masada in 73 C.E. Various dignitaries were also present, including MK Menachem Begin. It should be noted that the press reports consistently refer to 27 skeletons, three from the Northern Palace and 24 (rather than 25) from the southern Cave (see Jerusalem Post, July 7, 1969).

One significant sidelight to the 1969 controversy was Yadin’s revelation, reported in the Jerusalem Post on March 4, 1969, that animal bones, including pig bones, were found among the remains in the Cave. In a 1981 interview with Post reporter Benny Morris, Yadin said that he told the chief rabbi Yehuda Unterman back in 1969 that he could not vouch for these bones being Jewish since “the pile of bones found in the cave on Masada’s southern face were mixed together with bones of pigs” (Jerusalem Post, November 11, 1981). More recently Joe Zias has offered further argument that the “pig bones” were the reason for Yadin’s reticence.2

Finally, on September 4, 1994 a new tomb for the Defenders of Masada was unveiled. Funded by the National Parks Authority, the monument has twelve stones signifying the tribes of Israel and is located at the foot of the Roman Ramp on the northwest side of the fortress (Jerusalem Report, Sept 5, 1994). It was not revealed whether the remains were moved or disturbed by this operation but one assumes they were left in their 1969 location.

Carbon-14 Dating
Despite all the questions regarding whether the bones found in Cave 2001 were Jewish or not, Prof. Yadin later asserted, in the same 1981 interview with Morris, that Carbon-14 tests were never carried out on these remains nor on those found in the Bar Kochba caves. He said it was not his business to initiate such tests. In the same interview, anthropologist Patricia Smith said Carbon-14 dating was expensive and that facilities to carry it out in Israel had only recently become available, so such tests were done infrequently in the past. The subject had come up in connection with assertions that the Bar Kochba skeletons, found in Nahal Hever, were actually from the Chalcolithic period. The latter were subsequently buried in Nahal Hever on May 11, 1982 with a State funeral officiated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren and attended by Prime Minister Begin.3

In 1991 Joseph Zias of the Israel Antiquities Authority initiated a C-14 test of woolen textile from Cave 2001 at the Weizmann Institute. The results came out 77 C.E. (+/- 37), indicating the probability that these were remains of the Jewish defenders of Masada (see Jerusalem Post, Sept 20, 1991 as well as the Addendum, “Human Skeletal Remains from the Northern (sic) Cave at Masada—A Second Look” by Joseph Zias, Dror Segal, and Israel Carmi, Masada: Final Reports, Vol. IV, pp. 366-367).4

The Nicu Haas Examination
The Masada skeletal remains were apparently in the control of Dr. Nicu Haas (Dept. of Anatomy, Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School) from their discovery until their re-interment in July, 1969—a period of over five years. Dr. Haas never published anything on these remains. Dr. Haas lapsed into a coma due to a fall in January, 1975 and died in November, 1987. He is best known for his work on the Giv’at ha-Mivtar/Jerusalem skeletons, which included the remains of the Roman period “crucified man” Yehochanan.5 Although aspects of Prof. Haas’ work on human remains have been criticized and his failing health hampered his work over the years, his published articles demonstrate his general ability to produce detailed reports and analysis with drawings, tables, and statistical measurements. That he never published even a preliminary report on the results of the Masada skeletal remains is regrettable. Joseph Zias reports that in cleaning out Prof. Haas’ office and files following his death he discovered nothing in the way of notes, drawings, or analytical data relative to the Masada remains. A subsequent search by Alan Paris of the Israel Exploration Society and Associate Editor of The Masada Reports, in response to my own 1994 queries in this regard, has produced a few notes on the Masada skeletons that were found stored in the attic of one of Dr. Haas’ relatives which I now have. They are currently being analyzed by several Israeli forensic anthropologists.

One particularly intriguing mystery is this photo of an intact skeleton given to Joe Zias by the late Ehud Netzer, and subsequently published by Zias in Biblical Archaeology Review. In contrast to the jumble of skeletal remains of the 25 individuals in Cave 2001 this individual seems to be laid out for burial on a niche outside the cave and toward the east. So far nothing has been definitively published on the provenance of this find, or where these bones ended up, assuming they are separate from those reportedly buried at the foot of the ramp at Masada.6


Conclusion: What We Know and Don’t Know About the Bones
I want to stress here that I am not implying any kind of conspiracy or bad effort by anyone who has been involved in the archaeological investigations of Masada. My investigation is my own and has been motivated by the simple desire to sort through the facts about these skeletons discovered in the 1963 excavations. Unfortunately, at this point in time, what we don’t know, even information of the most basic sort, far exceeds what we know as the following concluding points make clear:

1. The first seven volumes of the Masada: Final Reports have now been published by the Israel Exploration Society. Other than a map which shows a drawing of the outline of Cave 2001 (Vol. III, p. 489), there is no information, discussion, or even mention of either the human or material remains of this locus in these volumes—including textiles, lamps, ostraca, basketry. This is despite Tzafrir’s recollection that the cave was “rich” in material evidence. Volume III does contain one notation in this regard: “Both the caves, surveyed and excavated in 1963-65, and this cistern [locus 2006] will not be included in the present report and will be published separately” (p. 499). It is not clear whether the editors mean Cave 2001/2002 will not be included in that particular volume, or in the Masada reports on the whole. In September, 1994 I closely questioned Israel Exploration Society director Joseph Aviram regarding plans to publish a full report on the contents of this cave. He referred me to Associate Editor Alan Paris, who following some preliminary inquiries, informed me that to his knowledge the Israel Exploration Society had no information or data on this locus (photos, drawings, written reports, notes) and he was aware of no concrete plans to cover the subject in the Final Reports.

2. In September, 1994 I also presented the same basic query in written form to Israel Antiquities Authority director Amir Drori. He replied to me by letter, dated October 6, 1994, that his information was very limited and he could not be particularly helpful, but suggested I contact editors Foerster and Netzer, as well as Yoram Tzafrir. Recently I learned, through Dan Bahat, who was a field supervisor at Masada, that Drori had actually assisted Tzafrir in cleaning out Cave 2001, so one can only assume that he would be in a position to respond firsthand to most of the questions I raised. Why he chose not to do so is unclear to me.

3. When one examines the commendably detailed volume published by Yadin, The Finds from the Bar-Kochba Period in the Cave of the Letters (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 1963), with its lavish information on every aspect of that cave’s contents, including that of the skeletal remains (photos, tables, drawings, scientific analysis), one can only wish for the same regarding Cave 2001/2002 at Masada. Given that we know virtually nothing about these skeletons, information even marginally equivalent to the details of Dr. Haas’ work on the Gi’vat ha-Mivtar remains would be most welcome. How can it be that a discovery of such significance was not carefully recorded (photos, drawings, field notes) and at least the results of Dr. Haas’ work on the human remains preserved or published?

4. For reasons that remain unclear it appears that Yadin was reticent to publicize and explore the significance of the skeletal remains of Cave 2001/2002. Perhaps he suspected they would turn out to be Roman or Christian? Perhaps the pig bones bothered him? Yet it should be recalled that Yadin mentions these animal bones quite openly to the Chief Rabbi in 1969. Surely the material evidence in the cave, as Tzafrir noted in his preliminary report, indicated nothing later than the period of the 1st Revolt. Why was this discovery not excitedly reported as Yadin had done in the case of the three skeletons found in the Northern Palace just one month later? Surely both the in situ evidence, as well as the subsequent anatomical analysis, might have indicated much of scientific interest about who these people were and how they died. And most intriguing of all, what about the single skeleton, laid out in burial fashion? Given our complete lack of data, we can not even determine which of the 26 he/she was (male, female or age). Surely this phenomenon alone deserves careful analysis and discussion, yet it was never even mentioned or reported in an already sparse set of references to Cave 2001 over the past 30 years. Many additional questions remain. Were these remains Carbon-14 dated prior to the Zias test in 1991? Were any bones shipped abroad as MK Lorinez charged? If so, where and for what purpose? What information now exists about the contents of Cave 2001—whether photos, drawings, notes, tape recorded sessions, or lab reports, and in whose hands? We can only hope that the present query will give rise to various sources of information that have been preserved so the impact and significance of this vital discovery will not be completely lost.

  1. Nachman Ben-Yehuda has been prolific critic of Josephus’s story, see The Masada Myth: Collective Memory and Mythmaking In Israel (University of Wisconsin Press, 1995) and Sacrificing Truth: Archaeology and the Myth of Masada (Humanity Books, 2002). Shaye Cohen summarizes the main objections in his article “Masada: Literary Tradition, Archaeological Remains, and the Credibility of Josephus” Journal of Jewish Studies: Essays in honour of Yigael Yadin 32 (Spring-Autumn 1982): 385-405, available on-line here. For a counter to these critiques see Amnon Ben Tor, Back to Masada (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2009).  

  2. “Whose Bones?” Biblical Archaeology Review 24 (1998): 40-45, 64-64 and most recently, “Masada: Who is a Jew?” at The Bible & Interpretation, available here. In my view Zias’s position is flawed by inaccuracies which I address in a response at The Bible & Interpretation, here.  

  3. A preliminary check of the journal Radiocarbon indicates Yadin did indeed send materials to the lab in Cambridge, England from the Bar Kochba caves during 1961-63, and that others in Israel (e.g. Pesach Bar Adon) used the lab of the U.S. Geological Survey in Washington, D.C. for the same purposes during this period (see Radiocarbon 6 (1964), p. 134; 4(1962), p. 70). In fact the tests were relatively inexpensive, running only about $150 per sample even as late as 1981. 

  4. “Northern Cave” is an unfortunate but acknowledged misprint in the volume and should have been “Southern Cave.” 

  5. See his detailed anatomical report “Anthropological Observations on the Skeletal Remains from Giv’at ha-Mivtar” Israel Exploration Journal 20 [1970]:38-59; as well as the revisions by Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles, “The Crucified Man from Giv’at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal,” Israel Exploration Journal 35 [1985]:22-27.  

  6. See my article on this subject in The Bible and Interpretation, here

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.’

Last year Simcha Jacobovici posted a new eyewitness account of the initial discovery of the Talpiot “Patio” tomb in April, 1981 by Avraham Leket. Unfortunately, due to a bit of “Talpiot Tomb Fatigue Syndrome,” on the part of some of my colleagues, this important bit of new evidence did not receive too much attention. What follows is a quick overview review of the latest including a “bombshell” that nearly knocked me off my chair!

The “Patio” tomb is the intact one that is presently under a condo building  with seven ossuaries including the one 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 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
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.

Just to review a bit here. We have argued that one of the ossuaries in this tomb contains an image of a fish spouting out Jonah–with the name “Yonah” (יונה) clearly inscribed across the image, see here.  Next to it there is a second ossuary that 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).  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?” which you can read here:

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 at subsequent ASOR meetings, with papers on all sides of the debate now archived at the Bible & Interpretation web site here. I have read a transcript of Kloner’s oral remarks, which I make available to readers here:

You can view a his much longer paper in Hebrew here.

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

Simcha Jacobovici subsequently 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.

Kloner Drawings


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, the Associated Producers technical expert 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 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)