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

CanaWedding

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.

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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

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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.  

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.

SnakeProbe

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.

IMG_7422

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:

IMG_7785

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.

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  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)  

The Most Important Ten Verses of the Gospels to Read on Easter Morning

All across the world this morning, moving from east to west, Easter bells are ringing. Multiple millions will gather in churches to celebrate Easter–“Rejoice! Christ is Risen!” will be the theme of every service. Without exception texts of the gospels reporting on the first Easter and the discovery of Jesus’ empty tomb–along with his appearances to his followers–will be read.  In the New Testament gospels we have four rather complex and ofttimes contradictory accounts of what happened Sunday morning after Jesus was crucified–so there is quite a mix to choose from (Mark 16; Matthew 28; Luke 24; John 20-21). Liturgical traditions have a set of these texts already designated. More independent groups will go with whatever their minister or preacher has prepared for the Easter sermon. What almost everyone will miss is the following:

Embedded in these layers of tradition are ten verses that appear to be the earliest narrative–and one that rings historically more likely given all the circumstances of that fateful weekend. Although these verses are found in the Gospel of John, one of our latest gospels, this little fragment of tradition stands alone and unique.

Mary Magdalene Alone at the Tomb
Mary Magdalene Alone at the Tomb

 

Here are those verses:

Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. So she ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb; he saw the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself. Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not know the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. Then the disciples went back to their homes. (John 20:1-10).

That is it. Short and simple. What it does not say is as important as what it does say:

  • There is no group of woman coming just after sunrise
  • There is no earthquake
  • There are no angels appearing and proclaiming “Christ is risen”
  • There are no Roman guards knocked out cold from the terror of it all
  • There are no men in white garments
  • There is no resurrections of the “saints” who have recently died
  • And most important: There are no appearances to anyone.

Notice carefully: What Mary, the unnamed “Beloved” disciple, and Peter “believe” is that the body has been taken away, not that Jesus has been raised from the dead! This is made explicit in this text.

Now all of these elements appear elsewhere in the accounts of Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, cited above. But this little fragment of tradition clearly stands alone, in “silent” contradiction and start contradistinction from the Easter tradition as a whole.

I am convinced this passage preserves an independent embedded early tradition that centered on the mysterious Mary Magdalene that was passed on to John’s community through the equally mysterious “Beloved Disciple.”1

Notice the three main elements of this text:

  1. Mary Magdelene came alone before before sunrise–while it is still dark and she discovered the tomb already open and drew the obvious conclusion–namely that “they” had moved the body and placed it elsewhere.2
  2. The “they” in this context is clearly those in charge of Jesus’ permanent burial–namely the Joseph of Arimathea burial party–Jesus’ corpse had been temporarily stashed in this unfinished and as yet unused tomb nearby the site of crucifixion just an hour or so before Passover (John 19:41-42).
  3. Peter and the “beloved disciple” rush to the tomb, confirm the body has been “taken away,” and return to their homes in the Galilee–which fits well with the parallel tradition we have in the lost Gospel of Peter. There the disciples weep and mourn and return to Galilee to resume their fishing still in despair.

In this text and this text alone: Mary Magdalene, with her unique and special connection to Jesus came alone early that morning, most likely to mourn at the tomb and await the others to finish the rites of burial. This simple “bare bones” account rings true. The subsequent accounts here in John, as well as in Mark, Matthew, and Luke all are part of the typical “myth-making,” literary expansion, and theological embellishment–40 to 60 years after Jesus’ death.  One would expect that these Christian communities begin to bolster their faith stories in the face of skeptical opposition. That is why all of the subsequent accounts have an “apologetic” tone to them–with some doubting and more and more “proof” being offered that the “sightings” of Jesus were more than apparitions. These ten verses seems to be a primitive core account that is then later embedded in the larger narrative of John’s gospel with physical appearances in Jerusalem and Galilee and all the trappings we have come to associate with Easter.

How, when, and why the disciples began to have experiences of “sighting” Jesus is another question that I have explored in depth, see “What Really Happened Easter Morning–The Mystery Solved.” But this simple primitive account gives us much to ponder this Easter weekend–and along with Mark’s account which has no appearances of Jesus–it allows us to begin to reconstruct the birth of the Easter tradition from its beginnings.3


  1. See my series “There is Something About Mary–Magdalene, and Who Was the Mysterious Disciple Whom Jesus Loved

  2. See my article, “The First and Second Burials of Jesus.” 

  3. See “The Strange Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why it Makes all the Difference.” 

The First Easter: When Angels and Apostles Wept

Jesus was taken down from the cross a few hours before sundown on the preparation day for Passover, the afternoon of the 14th of Nisan. Joseph of Arimathea, an influential follower, had hastily placed Jesus’ dead body in an unfinished rock-hewn tomb that just happened to be near the place of execution until after the festival and the Sabbath day when proper rites of Jewish burial could be carried out and decisions about a permanent burial place could be made. A blocking stone had been placed at the entrance to protect against predators.

Just after sundown the entire Jewish populace of Jerusalem, swollen by tens of thousands of pilgrims, gathered to eat the Passover meal. Jesus’ core followers, including the twelve apostles, and a band of disciples, both men and women, who hopefully followed him down to the festival from Galilee expecting him to publicly reveal himself as Messiah were in utter despair. Their Teacher was dead–brutally murdered by his Roman and Jewish enemies in the most shameful of deaths.

HolySat Weeping

Jesus’ followers had scattered at his arrest the night before and we are not told where or how they observed Passover that night. One might assume they would have regathered at the house of Lazarus, in Bethany, just over the southern summit of the Mount of Olives, with the sisters Mary and Martha hosting the Passover meal for these out of town guests. Present would have been Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ mother, broken hearted beyond expression, as well as other close followers along with the Twelve. According to Mark, when Jesus and his band had arrived in Jerusalem a week earlier they had made this household their home, spending the nights there and their days in the Temple and its surrounding areas. As Jews they surely would have surely sat down together at the traditional Passover meal. One can scarcely imagine their grief and shock. Passover is normally a festival of joy and celebration but this particular “night to be much remembered,” to use Moses’s words, had to be the saddest of their lives. Our gospels record nothing of that evening or of the Passover day and Sabbath following. We must assume there was little to be said. A dead Messiah is no Messiah and all the talk about the kingdom of God being at hand, and the leaders sitting on thrones ruling over the regathered tribes of Israel had become meaningless.

The four New Testament gospels variously report what happened next. They do not agree on any of the substantive details and I have carefully documented their differences and the unfolding legendary embellishment of what happened that first Easter morning in several posts:

What Really Happened Easter Morning

The Strange Original Ending of the Gospel of Mark

We do have another ancient source that appears to change the entire story significantly–namely the Gospel of Peter, see “The Surprising Ending of the Lost Gospel of Peter.” This fragmentary narrative, discovered at the end of the 19th century, was found buried with a Christian monk in upper Egypt, just north of Nag Hammadi where another trove of ancient writings was found–including the Gospel of Thomas. It was our first non-canonical gospel to have surfaced for modern eyes. In more recent times two additional fragments were recovered that appear to belong with what we already had. This Gospel is narrated in the first person by Peter. Toward the end we find his strikingly significant words, and then the text breaks off:

[58] Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. [59] But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. [60] But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord …

Notice–according to this source the disciples of Jesus spend the entire week of Passover and the seven days of Unleavened Bread–in a state of weeping and mourning. Clearly, in this tradition, no one has seen the multiple apparitions of Jesus reported by Matthew, Luke, and John. In fact, the Gospel of Peter agrees with our earliest gospel source–Mark. It has no appearances of Jesus but predicts a recovery of faith in Galilee. This is precisely what is implied in the appendix to the Gospel of John–chapter 21–which should be taken as a source separate from that gospel as a whole. Peter and the rest of the disciples depart home to Galilee, still in a state of mourning, and they resume their fishing business. That means the entire Easter morning cluster of stories of appearances in Jerusalem are late, legendary, and without any basis in history. As dear and central to Christian tradition as the Eastern morning “appearance” scenes might be, this alternative scenario, preserved in Mark, the Gospel of Peter, the appendix of John, and alluded to in the ending of Matthew, turns out to be more historically believable, and in the end more inspiring.

These sources ring true to what most likely happened and they give us a limited glimpse into Passover and the entire week following with all its sadness and disappointment. Christians today celebrate Easter but it seems clear that such was not the case that fateful Passover week in 30 CE. No one was rejoicing that weekend or through the next seven days. The return to Galilee must have been a painful one, leaving behind the body of their Teacher, now buried permanently in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea. How the group recovered its faith that Jesus had indeed been exalted to the right hand of God is another story–but it took place clearly in Galilee not in Jerusalem, apparently during the 50 days between Passover and Shavuot or Pentecost–when the group would have returned to Jerusalem for the that pilgrim festival. It clearly had nothing to do with “bodily” appearances of Jesus, with Jesus limping up to Galilee sometime after the festival with festering wounds and crippled limbs. Jesus lifeless body was given back to the dust, like putting off old clothes, but faith that his spirit had returned to God and been “reclothed” with a new immortal spiritual body was the earliest resurrection faith.  Here Paul is our best source as I have discussed extensively out in a previous post, “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of the Resurrection of the Resurrection of the Dead.”

Has the Intact Tomb of Jesus Been Found?

Many years ago a man from the BBC came to me and he asked me if the Dead Sea Scrolls will harm Christianity. I said to him that nothing can harm Christianity. The only thing which could be dangerous to Christianity would be to find a tomb with the sarcophagus or ossuary of Jesus – still containing his bones. And then I will surely hope that it will not be found in the territory of the State of Israel. –David Flusser1
Has the tomb of Jesus been found? Here is my response to two influential critics whom I greatly respect but with whom I disagree: Does the Evidence Add Up? Although I have to agree with David Flusser that such a discovery would be controversial–I don’t think it poses any danger to Christianity or “resurrection” faith, at least as I understand the earliest development of this idea, see my analysis, Why People are Confused About the Earliest Christian Resurrection Faith.
If this whets your appetite, you can find the whole story here in what I consider to be my most important book–as it is about much more than the discovery of these tombs–but their implications for understanding earliest Christianity:
Jesus Discovery Paper RD
Click on the image for an Amazon Link

  1. Quoted by Neil Silberman, The Hidden Scrolls (New York: Putnam, 1994), p. 129. 

A Bit of Background Reading for the “Jesus Dynasty” Tour

I put together this reading list for our “Jesus Dynasty” 10th Anniversary tour participants this week–I call it “tracking Jesus,” see here. I thought readers of the Blog might enjoy “coming” along. I will be posting daily photos and reports on the trip–so stand by. The PDF might take a few seconds to load. Unfortunately the hyperlinks might not be active on all browsers but the URLs can be pasted in and loaded.

Wadi-el Yabis Entrance
Wadi-el Yabis Entrance

A Jesus Hideout in Jordan

I am often asked a question at lectures and programs that I find hard to answer–“What is your greatest archaeological discovery in the field of Christian Origins?” I have been privileged to be involved in the Tomb of the Shroud in Akeldama, the Suba “John the Baptist” cave, the Talpiot tombs, and several other sites–including my location for Golgotha. If I had to choose I think I would pick what I call “The Jesus Hideout in Jordan.” This one is mine and mine alone. Here is the story.

In 1999, at the very first Biblical Archaeology Society “Bible and Archaeology Fest held that year in Boston, I gave a lecture titled “A Jesus Hideout in Jordan: Texts, Geography, and Archaeology Converge.” If I am not mistaken that lecture has proven to be the most popular of the hundreds I have done in Biblical Archaeology Society Seminars over the past 20 years. I also have uploaded an academic paper, “Wadi el-Yabis and the Elijah “Wadi Cherith” traditions in Relationship to John and Jesus in the Gospel of John,” dealing with the same topic here. This paper, presented at the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in 2011, offers the technical underpinnings of my basic theory and proposal. I thought I would offer here a less technical overview of my analysis on this subject.

All our gospels are theological by definition. That is one solid result of the past 100 years of critical-historical work on these texts. However, it has generally been acknowledged that the gospel of John, in contrast to our three Synoptic gospels–Mark, Matthew, and Luke–is the most explicitly theological, especially in the long “red letter” sections where Jesus is represented as giving extended teaching about topics such as the spiritual “birth from above,” receiving eternal life, a spiritual resurrection, his “incarnation,” and mystically consuming his “flesh” and “blood.” Consequently John is usually dated late, even into the 2nd century CE, and he is usually regarded as much further removed from the “historical Jesus” than the Synoptics, and thus less useful for doing serious historical work on Jesus as we might imagine him to have been.

Nonetheless some scholars have begun to reexamine the underlying narrative framework found in the gospel of John. John provides details about both chronology and geography that are most intriguing. In contrast, Mark has few chronological markers, so much so that halfway through his account (chapter 8 of 16 chapters total), Jesus is already on his final journey to Jerusalem where he is crucified. What goes on before that, essentially Jesus’ entire preaching career, narrated in chapters 1-8, is presented in a rapid and sweeping flow of events with no indication as to whether the time involved was days, weeks, months, or even years. In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I adopted the three and one-half year chronological scheme of the gospel of John (Fall, 26 CE to Spring, 30 CE) and attempted to understand Mark’s fast paced narrative in that light.

I have posted a useful document charting the narrative movement in the gospel of John here on my UNC Charlotte Web site. It is interesting that Mark provides a few “hooks” into John’s framework. The most obvious is the sequence of events with Jesus feeding a crowd, walking on the Sea of Galilee, and teaching in the area of Capernaum, found in Mark 6 and John 6. According to John’s account this is around the time of a 2nd Passover, which would be the spring of the year 29 CE. The most interesting and intriguing of these “hooks,” however, is the short statement in Mark 10:1:

“And he left there (Capernaum) and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and crowds gathered to him again; and again, as his custom was, he taught them.”

Until the last week of Jesus’ life when Jesus goes to Jerusalem, Mark sets his entire rapid-paced narrative around the Sea of Galilee, but here he seems to at least be aware of the tradition that we find elaborated in John, that Jesus made these excursion-like forays south to Judea and east beyond the Jordan. Jesus’ move across the Jordan River during the final months of his life is something that really caught my attention in the spring of 1992. I was teaching my standard New Testament/Christian Origins class and we were working through the ending of the gospel of John when these words jumped off the page at me:

“He went away again across the Jordan to the place where John at first baptized, and there he remained. And many came to him…” (John 10:40)

I was showing the students how that verse tied into the one in Mark, and that, according to the gospel of John, Jesus had made a quick trip to Jerusalem at Hanukkah (December, 29 CE), and that Mark at least mentions him going “to the region of Judea” but with no details, but we know from the gospel of John that Jesus’ life was actually in danger and he was in need of a safe place to hide until he decided to make his final moves in Jerusalem the following Spring. But what caught my attention that day was John’s reference to a specific place. I had never noticed that before. I remembered that earlier in his gospel John had actually pinpointed that very place with this description:

“John also was baptizing at Aenon near Salim, because there were many pools there; and people came and were baptized” (John 3:22).

We pulled out the Oxford map of Galilee in the time of Jesus and quickly located Aenon near Salim, just south of Scythopolis, or Beth Shean today. Directly across the Jordan from that spot I noticed two things. There was a “Wadi” or ravine named Cherith, and just to the north the Decapolis town of Pella. Both rang different bells in my head. Cherith, of course, was the ravine where Elijah hid and was fed by the ravens when he fled from king Ahab and queen Jezebel when his life was in danger (1 Kings 18:1-7). And Pella was the traditional location where the followers of Jesus fled around 68 CE when Jerusalem was put under siege by the Romans prior to its destruction. Scholars have always had problems imagining this flight of the Nazarenes, led by Shimon bar Clophas (whom I argue in The Jesus Dynasty is Jesus brother Shimon rather than his cousin), to a pro-Roman Hellenistic city such as Pella and any number have questioned the historical probability of this tradition. However, recent research, by Houwelingen1 and others, in my view at least, has shown the tradition is most likely reliable. I have also become convinced that perhaps the Pella tradition referred to the area of Pella, not the city itself. The Wadi Cherith is just six kilometers to the south, literally part of the “precincts” of what could be called Pella. In a matter of minutes it all began to fit together.

Later in doing further research I discovered that the 4th century Egeria Pilgrim (384 CE) visits Tel Salem, identifying it of course with the biblical Melchizedek of Genesis 14:18-24. Egeria visited the abundant springs in that area–the “many pools” of John’s Gospel. She was guided by a priest who pointed out to her “This garden is called to this very day ‘The Garden of John’.” She was told that monks of the time come from various places to bathe themselves there (15:1-4). The Israelis call it today “‘Ainot Mechatezetzim,” and the rich springs supply modern fish ponds in the area. It is in this area, according to the Gospel of John, that a dispute arose between the the disciples of John and “a Jew” over matters of water purification (John 3:25-30). The implication in this context is that Jesus own baptizing activity had somehow sparked the controversy. Water purification was understood in a number of ways among various Jewish groups in late 2nd Temple Judaism. Some restricted ritual immersion strictly to the Torah proscriptions of purification to enter the Temple following menstruation, sexual intercourse, contact with the dead, and various other activities would bring ritual defilement. Others used it as part of a conversion ritual when Gentiles took on the “yoke of the Torah.” Sectarian groups such as those who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls practiced immersion in water as an initiation rite into their “New Covenant” Community (1QS III.4-12). Josephus comments on this very point in recounting the baptism practiced by John, making clear that his “immersion” rites had nothing to do with the cleansing of the body but only of the soul already purified by repentance (Antiquities 18.117-118).

Pella Cherith Map

The Wadi Cherith, across the Jordan, would have been remembered as a “place of safety” for Elijah. Although some have located the Wadi Cherith to the south, the weight of evidence favors the northern Gilead location. It fits the description in 1 Kings 17 precisely, and the site of Jabesh-gilead (Abu el Kharaz) as well as Tishbe has been located in the Wadi. If Jesus also went “across the Jordan,” from Aenon near Salim, that would put him right into the Wadi Cherith, and thus provide an explanation for this odd choice of location for his flight. Finally, nearly 40 years later, his followers, some of whom would have been with him in the winter of 29 CE flight, would have returned to that area.

I had been to Jordan before but only to see the standard tourist sites. I had no idea what the Wadi Cherith might be like. On a modern map of Jordan I saw the name used today: Wadi el-Yabis, which actually connects to the name Cherith (“to cut”), referring to the rugged rock-cut nature of the Wadi. I decided to make a trip to Jordan as soon as the semester was out and in June of that year I found myself hiking with some students and friends deep into the reaches of Wadi el-Yabis.

Wadi-el Yabis Entrance
Wadi-el Yabis Entrance
ElYabisEntrance
Deeper Into the Wadi with Sheer Cliffs, Water Falls, and Caves

What we found was quite amazing. The Wadi was incredibly rugged with water falls, pools, and surrounding high cliffs on both sides, dotted with abundant caves. We searched some of the caves and found early Roman period pottery shards in abundance.

I asked the extraordinarily gifted artist Balage Balogh, who specializes in archaeological drawings and painting, and who was doing illustrations for my book, The Jesus Dynasty, to create a scene that would portray Jesus and his small band of followers living in this Wadi that last winter of Jesus’ life. He took great care in the details, as he always does, wanting to get the clothing, hairstyles, and other things just right. The result, in color, is quite stunning and it helps one to suddenly imagine an amazingly moving scene from the life of Jesus that has never until now been imagined. I have called it “The Last Winter.” I wanted to share it with my readers here:

Wadi-elYabisBlog

Based on the traditions of both Mark and John regarding Jesus’ excursion “beyond the Jordan,” as well as the Pella flight tradition, I am convinced that the location of Wadi el-Yabis as a “Jesus Hideout” has good historical probability. If John’s chronology is correct this is where Jesus and his entourage spent the last winter of his life, from December until early April, when he hears of Lazarus being deathly ill and is summoned by Mary and Martha of Bethany to come to the Jerusalem area. It would also be the location where the band of fleeing Nazarenes went in 68 CE as the Roman laid siege to Jerusalem. A Wadi el-Yabis Survey Project (G. Palumbo, J. Mabry, I. Kuijt) begun in the 1990s has identified a number of Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age sites but a specific concentration on potential early Roman habitation of the caves south of Pella remains to be done. I have been back to Wadi-el Yabis four times and we have surveyed the caves and found 1st century CE Roman pottery is quite abundant. Perhaps in the future more work can be done here.


  1. “Fleeing Forward: The Departure of Christians from Jerusalem to Pella,” Westminster Theological Journal 65 (2003): 181-200. 

The “Jesus” Tomb Story: Does the Evidence Add Up?

Many years ago a man from the BBC came to me and he asked me if the Dead Sea Scrolls will harm Christianity. I said to him that nothing can harm Christianity. The only thing which could be dangerous to Christianity would be to find a tomb with the sarcophagus or ossuary of Jesus – still containing his bones. And then I will surely hope that it will not be found in the territory of the State of Israel. –David Flusser1

LA_Cathedral_Mausoleum_Ascension RD

In future years I believe that Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 will be remembered as a pivotal date upon which the evidence identifying the ancient tomb in Talpiot, a south suburb of Jerusalem, as that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family reached a critical mass in favor thereof. The story in the New York Times, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones,” reported by Isabel Kershner and published prominently on page A-4 marked a watershed moment. You can read my preliminary analysis here, “The Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.” It might take a decade or even a century, who knows, for the implications of this evidence to be widely acknowledged by historians, theologians, and the public–but I believe that day will come.

In this post I want to specifically address the April 9th 2014 CNN piece, “Jesus’ Tomb Story: Does the Evidence Add Up?” by colleagues Joel Baden and Candida Moss. After rehearsing the basic “Jesus tomb” story, including the latest claims about the James ossuary originating in that tomb, Baden and Moss offer their summary assessment:

It is a compelling story. But it is also a fragile one. This small group of scholars, scientists and filmmakers has presented us with a intricate puzzle, in which all the pieces have been perfectly aligned. But pick up any single piece to examine it more carefully, and it crumbles to dust.

Before this latest evidence placing the James ossuary in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb, I thought the case of identification with the Jesus of Nazareth and his family was quite strong. Given the collective evidence related to both the “Jesus” tomb (Tomb A) and the nearby “Patio” tomb (Tomb B)–the one under the condo building–less than 60 meters away, I was 90% persuaded–if one can put a “percentage” on such things. The evidence I find so persuasive is summarized here: The Case for a Jesus Family Tomb: A Comprehensive Overview of the Evidence and The Tombs at Talpiot: An Overview of the Jesus Discovery.2

If one adds the ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” to the mix, the probability case is closed. There is a succinct summary by Jerry Lutgen, “The James Ossuary in Talpiot: More About Probability,” covering all the variables, and showing the probability with the James ossuary added to our cluster reaches 100% or virtual certainty.

Baden and Moss proceed to go through these “pieces” of evidence, one-by-one, seven in all, asserting that not a single one of them hold up. The Baden and Moss piece is quite remarkably comprehensive, but at the same time succinct, and I commend them for putting before a wide audience most of the essential issues related to “The Jesus Tomb Story.”

But there is a problem. Not a single one of their seven assertions hold up!  This is a bold assertion–all the more so as I am addressing the arguments of two colleagues whom I respect greatly. Rather than crumbling to dust quite the opposite is the case, as we shall see.

Baden and Moss have unfortunately misunderstood, or misstated each of the seven “pieces” they propose to examine. I will go through them one by one and offer what I hope might be some helpful response and evaluation:

1.The box that supposedly says “Jesus, son of Joseph” definitely says “son of Joseph,” but that first, crucial name is very much in doubt. One scholar suggested that it says Hanun, just to give a sense of how uncertain the reading is.

This first assertion is the one I find the most surprising–that the name “Yeshua” is “very much in doubt.” I am at a loss to understand how Baden and Moss have arrived at this conclusion or could possibly support it. I discussed the inscription with Frank Cross back in 2004 and he stated without the slightest equivocation that it read “Yeshua bar Yehosef,” though pointing out it was informally written and badly scratched–which is often the case with such ossuary names. Rahmani, Kloner, Zissu, Rollston, Pfann, Ilan, and Price/Misgav, who have all formally published on the subject, all agree. Far from the reading being “very much in doubt,” I can’t think of a single epigrapher who disagrees or proposes an alternative to the “Yeshua” reading.

YeshuabarYosefGraphic

It is true, as Rahmani (CJO: 704)3 and  Price/Misgav (CIIP 1:1: 474)4  note, that the scratches on the ossuary running through the letters make it more difficult to read, but as Rahmani notes, one can separate those from the incisions rather assuredly–leaving the letters themselves as: Yod, Shin, Vav,’Ayin. When one examines the ossuary directly, as I have done, the Yod is a bit difficult to distinguish due to pitting and scratching but the Shin, Vav, and ‘Ayin are absolutely clear. Given the proper names we know from the time there is simply no other alternative.

2. Schematic drawing of YeshuabarYehosef

The reading is further corroborated by the clear, non-graffiti inscription (IAA 80.501), “Yehuda son of Yeshua’, from the same tomb, likely the son of this Yeshua. So far as I know everyone is in agreement on this reading, including everyone at the 2008 Princeton conference in Jerusalem devoted to evaluating “The Tomb of Jesus and his Family” (see note 2 below).

Baden and Moss completely misunderstand the position of Stephen Pfann, whom they reference without naming, who once suggested a reading of “Hanan.” Pfann and I have discussed this tomb countless hours over the years, we excavate together at Mt Zion and are close friends.  We disagree on just about everything related thereto–but not the inscribed name “Yeshua.” Stephen does not dispute the reading “Yeshua,” (as Baden and Moss imply here) but has argued that Yeshua was written over a prior name that he now thinks “with some imagination” might have been Yudan.5

Accordingly, for Baden and Moss to assert that the name Yeshua is “very much in doubt” and that the reading of the name Yeshua “turns to dust” upon examination is simply untrue and misleading to say the least.

2. And the box that supposedly belongs to Mary actually says “Mariam and Mara,” which suggests that there were actually two women buried in that single ossuary. It is also a problem that while all the other ossuaries are inscribed in Aramaic, this one is in Greek.

I am not at all clear on why the “Mariamene/Mara” ossuary inscribed in Greek is a problem, in contrast to the other five inscriptions being in Aramaic. Ossuary inscriptions are often in Greek (30%), including lots of examples of the name “Mary,” alongside those in Aramaic or Hebrew in the same tomb, and sometimes Greek and Hebrew mixed on the same ossuary (10%). Further, if one wanted to argue that the Mariamene of this ossuary might be identified with Mary of Magdala, a wealthy woman from that very Hellenized city, who had friends even in Herod’s court (Luke 7:2-3), having a finely decorated ossuary (in contrast to the others) inscribed in Greek, seems to fit her well.

Close-up of the Mariamene inscription
Close-up of the Mariamene inscription

As to the question of one or two women, it is of course possible we are dealing with two names here, and several epigraphers have argued that Rahmani’s original reading of “Mariamne who is also called Mara” (CJO: 701) should read Mariam and Mara.6 Even if that be the case, as Price points out (CIIP 1:1:477) one can still read the inscription as “Mariam who is also (known as) Mara,”–referring to one woman. This remains true in Greek today; a girl with the two names Sophia and Maria could be referred to as Sophia kai Maria–Sophia also known as Maria. So this objection is really no objection at all.

Further, even if one granted two women named Mary and Martha–it would be hard to eliminate them from any Jesus family tomb–given the intimate position of the sisters Mary and Martha in the gospel traditions, their close relationship to Jesus and his family, and a possible conflation of “Mary of Bethany” with Mary Magdalene, as Jane Schaberg and many others scholars have suggested.

3. As for the names on the other ossuaries, some of them fit perfectly well into the Jesus story (Joseph, for example, Jesus’ younger brother). Others, however, not so much: Matia (Matthew), not a member of Jesus’ family according to the Bible, and, more problematically, Yehuda bar Yeshua — Judas, son of Jesus.

The main problem with this objection is the assumption that we have something called “the Jesus story” that can serve as a control for what fits or does not fit archaeologically with the historical Jesus. What we have to realize is that our textual traditions (primarily the N.T. gospels) are not only late (post-70 CE), but extremely limited and fragmentary theological proclamations. Understandably, they are mostly silent in providing any basis for such exclusionary statements as to who “belongs” or does not belong in the “Jesus story”–much less the extended Jesus family. So the assertion that “Matthew” is not a part of the Jesus family “according to the Bible” is naive and misleading.

Think about all we do not know.

We don’t know a single name of any of the wives or children of any of the 12 apostles–much less the wider group of disciples. Are we to assume these important individuals never existed? Luke mentions “70” disciples that Jesus appointed and sent out but we don’t know the name of a single one of them–much less any wives or children! Fortunately, Mark (followed by Matthew) gives us the names of four of Jesus brothers–James, Jose, Simon, and Jude (Mark 6:4). But true to form, Jesus sisters are neither named nor enumerated, nor are their husbands if they were married.

When women and children are left out of the “Jesus story” it is not because they did not exist, but because they were not considered important to name. Luke and John never name any of Jesus’ brothers. So our knowledge of the names of these four brothers hangs on the “thread” of a single verse in Mark (whom Matthew uses as his source). Were there more than four? We have no way of knowing. What about half-brothers or step brothers–assuming these four are children of Mary? Paul names James but none of the others, and mentions none of their wives by name (1 Corinthians 9:5). We do get Jude’s name, as a brother of James, from the letter bearing his name and Hegessipus, a 2nd century Jewish convert to Christianity, mentions the sons (or grandsons) of Jesus’ brother Jude, arrested as descendants of David, during the reign of Domitian (Eusebius, Church History 3. 19-20). So we know Jude was married with children, but we surely do not know anything about his family in our New Testament sources.

Can we really say with any confidence that a name such as Matia/Matthew does not belong  in a Jesus family tomb? I would argue quite the opposite. We do know that the name Matthew (in various forms: Matthat, Mattathias, Maath, et al.) is the most frequent name in the immediate family lineage of Jesus–there are four listed in three verses (Luke 3:23-26). It is  not a particularly common name (2.5% of males, contrasted with Joseph at 8.6%), so since it is particularly associated with the Jesus family line its presence in the tomb is not so surprising. Mark tells us that Levi, also know as Matthew, who is one of the 12, is a son of Alphaeus (2:14), as are James and presumably Jude, his brother or son (Mark 3:18 and Acts 1:7). There is a high mathematical probability that these three are related and quite arguably brothers of Jesus7

But more to the point, we would not expect any identifiable tomb from the period to contain only names of whom we were aware from our literary sources. Mark Goodacre, who advised Baden & Moss on their article, has often argued that the names Matthew and Jude son of Jesus in this tomb are outliers and thus should count against this being identified with Jesus of Nazareth.

Let’s take two tombs of individuals we can identify from our 1st century literary records–the high priest Joseph Caiaphas (John 18:13 et al., Josephus, Antiquities 18:35) and Simon of Cyrene, the man impressed to carry Jesus’ cross, and his sons Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). The Caiaphas tomb (CIIP: 461-465) had five inscribed ossuaries of a total of 12, but other than “Joseph son of Caiaphas” we can’t identify any of the other family names from our records (Qafa, Shalom, Shem, Miriam). We have no idea of the name of the high priest’s wife, or children, or any others of the family, but the presence of these names hardly disqualify the tomb from being that of the high priest Caiaphas mentioned in our gospels.  In the case of the Simon of Cyrene family tomb (CIIP: 324-332) nine of the eleven ossuaries were inscribed, with a mixture of Hebrew and Greek, but we don’t know any the names from our Jesus story other than Simon and Alexander his son (i.e. Horea, Arristoboula, Ya’akov, Mnaso, Sabatis, Sara, Thaliarchos, Philiskos, Ioanes), but that would not preclude us from identifying this as the likely family tomb of Simon of Cyrene and his son Alexander–who are named by Mark.8

The same holds with any wife or child of Jesus–or of any of his disciples. It is true that the figure of Jesus is more prominent in our records than Caiaphas and Simon and Alexander, but in terms of personal biographical information we know precious little. As a Jewish teacher in his 30s Jesus was likely married, but our records of Jesus’ life and teachings are not history or biography but theological presentations of the divine Son of God, asexually born of a virgin (Matthew and Luke), or descended from heaven (John), with the divine authority of God himself on earth to forgive sins (Mark).

The one most likely candidate for a wife of Jesus, given all we know of her from later sources, is Mary Magdalene, who mysteriously shows up at Jesus crucifixion and who is mentioned even ahead of Jesus’ own mother as taking charge of the intimate task of washing his naked corpse and anointing it for burial. She is also “first witness” of Jesus’ resurrection and appears to have had the role of both apostle and leading teacher–even above the male disciples–but her place and importance is ignored or muted in Paul, our Gospels, and the book of Acts, as Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, Ann Graham Brock, Karen King and many others have shown. I have changed my mind on this issue of a “married Jesus” since I published my book, The Jesus Dynasty in 2006. I present my reasons in a series of posts, “There’s Something About Mary.” (( See, “Schaberg’s Resurrecting Mary Magdalene: A Review, and Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, California, 2003) ))

Of the “Judah son of Jesus” in this tomb we know little–other than he is the son of Jesus. The inscription is formally written, the ossuary is nicely ornamented (like Mariamene but in contrast to Yeshua, Mariah, Matai, and Jose), and it is one of the smaller ones in the tomb–perhaps indicating Judah died at a young age, which also might account for his obscurity. Here I refer the reader to Kilty and Elliot’s excellent contribution at Bibleinterp.com: “On Yoseh, Yosi, Joseph, and Judas son of Jesus in Talpiot.” It is also entirely plausible, as James David Audlin has argued, that early Christian traditions about the desposyni (δεσπόσυνοι) or those “belonging to the Master,” refers not just to ancillary family members (nephews, cousins, etc.) but to Jesus’ own offspring.9 Hegessipus, a 2nd century Jewish convert to Christianity, mentions the sons (or grandsons) of Jesus’ brother Jude, arrested as descendants of David, during the reign of Domitian (Eusebius, Church History 3. 19-20). So we know Jude was married with children, but we surely do not know anything about his family in our New Testament sources.

The Talpiot Jesus tomb contains six inscribed ossuaries out of the nine in the Israeli archives, which is a very high percentage (66%). In contrast Rahmani puts the overall percentage of inscribed vs. non-inscribed ossuaries in the Israeli State Collection at 25.2% (231 of 917). If the Jesus tomb had a set of names such as Eleazar, Menachem, or Daniel, for instance, or names of women such as Sarah, Bernice, or Alexandra–none of which can be identified with Jesus’ family and its wider circles–it would be a real stretch to try and identify it with Jesus of Nazareth. In surveying all the other known tombs with ossuaries inscribed with any form of the name “Jesus” in Greek or Aramaic–and there are only 18–none of them could be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, either because of invalidating patronyms (Jesus son of Matthew, Jesus son of Judas, Jesus son of Dositheos, et al.) or entire sets of outlying names (Chares, Eiras, Erotas, Doras, Megiste, Ariston, Helena, Shelamzion, Chananiya, Shapiraet et al.). All told we have over 600 inscribed ossuaries from approximately 900 tombs so far exposed in the necropolis of ancient 1st century Jerusalem.10 This alone does not prove the Talpiot tomb is Jesus’ tomb, but it does undermine the constantly repeated claims that these names are extremely common and there are lots of other tombs with such a set of names. That is simply not the case.

4. Supporters of the theory regularly point to the remarkably collocation of so many biblical names in a single tomb. But as most every other scholar has pointed out, these were just about the most common names in that period, especially Joseph and Mary.

Of all the objections to identifying the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb with Jesus of Nazareth and his family this assertion, that the “names are common,” one hears the most often. The implication is that just about “any tomb” of the time might have this cluster of names. I can’t count the times I have heard this, usually as the first thing coming out of the mouth of a naysayer. The Talpiot tomb is the family tomb of “some” Jesus, maybe “Jesus the baker,” or “Jesus the cobbler,” but there is no reason to think it might belong to Jesus of Nazareth. This assertion is simply incorrect. It is the cluster of names together, based upon name frequencies, that one has to guage. Rather than belabor the point, that has been so extensively demonstrated by a range of experts, I refer the reader to Kilty and Elliot’s excellent articles, “Talpiot DeThroned,” and “Regarding Magness and Talpiot,” along with the further statistical studies to which they link.

I suspect the mantra “the names are common,” will eventually become moot once it becomes wholly evident, based on Aryeh Shimron’s latest evidence, that the “James” ossuary also belongs in the cluster.

5. The evidence from the tomb next door — the ossuary with the early Christian symbol of Jonah and the fish on it — is equally hard to swallow. It seems that the only people who see a fish on that box are those who already thought that Jesus was buried next door; just about everyone else sees an abstract geometric pattern, or perhaps the depiction of a jar.

This is simply incorrect. Two of our finest epigraphical experts, Rachel Hachlili and Émile Puech agree that we have the inscription YONAH written across the image of a fish, and neither of them think the “Jesus” tomb has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth. James Charlesworth agrees, but does not think the Yeshua in the tomb is Jesus. Any Israeli child on the street can read the inscription: Yod, Vav, Nun, Heh. 

Here is the clearest image we have, unaltered in any way, taken from our robotic camera feed

Many of my colleagues in our initial ASOR month-long blog discussion in March 2012 that was devoted to The Jesus Discovery first identified the iconic image as a nephesh or tower–but that was quickly abandoned in a couple of days when someone pointed out such a tower would be upside down! Subsequently many settled on the idea of a jar or amphora.11 I don’t recall anyone arguing the image was an “abstract geometrical pattern,” so I am not sure to what Baden and Moss refer in that regard. But that was before Charlesworth identified the name YONAH on the mouth of the fish/jar.  But why write “Jonah” on the mouth of a jar? And even with some imagination the image itself resembles no jars or amphora images on any other ossuaries, coins, or art from the period.

I remain convinced we have in Talpiot tomb B our earliest depiction of the “sign of Jonah,” as a symbol of resurrection–an image we associate with the early Jewish messianic Jesus movement.

6. As for that inscription about God raising someone up, it seems that this was a case of mistaken reading. The Greek most likely says something far less interesting: “Here are bones. I touch them not. Agabus.” Agabus would be the name of the deceased, perhaps.

It is surely the case that four or five alternative readings of the Greek inscription on the ossuary in Talpiot tomb B have been proposed, see my discussion here comparing each of them, but it is not established that any reading differing with Rollston’s proposal, favored here by Baden and Moss, is a “mistaken reading.” The different proposals turn upon rather technical matters, as is often the case, namely how one reads one ambiguous letter (Serif Iota or Tau) and how one understands the spelling and grammar. Here is an example in English that is somewhat parallel:

God
Owns
All
Eggs

Should we read this as “God Owns All Eggs” or “Go down Sal Leggs,” with the possessive of the name Sal understood and Legs misspelled? I favor the simple reading, given the context in this tomb, next to our Jonah inscription and image. Here is the clearest camera shot we were able to get:

Greek Inscription #1

The four line Greek inscription can be simply read: O Divine IAIO [Yahweh], Raise up! Raise up! [Hagbah] or perhaps, I, Divine IAIO [Yahweh], raise up! Raise up! [HagbahI]–with alternating bilingual Greek and Hebrew transliterations. This is a perfectly acceptable reading and it reflects precisely the cry of Jonah in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:2, 5-6). To take the final three letters (ΑΓΒ) is a cipher for the name–Agabus (Αγαβας), as Richard Bauckham first suggested, and Rollston accepted, is possible but seems a stretch.

7.  Then there is the James ossuary. The question of the authenticity of the inscription on the box — the ossuary itself is certainly ancient — is so fraught that the dealer who owns it was taken to trial for antiquities fraud.

Even if the trial ended without proving claims of forgery, we have no idea where the artifact came from.

What’s more, almost every expert in ancient epigraphy has concluded that while the name James seems authentic, the words “brother of Jesus” are patently from a different hand, and most likely a much later, if not modern, addition.

It is simply not the case that “almost every expert in ancient epigraphy” has so concluded. It is of course possible the words “brother of Jesus” were added in antiquity by a different hand, though neither epigraphers André Lemaire of the Sorbonne nor Ada Yardeni of the Hebrew University, think so. Both testified at the forgery trial that the inscription was authentic. Orna Cohen established that there is original patina in the words “brother of Jesus” and Yuval Goren later changed his testimony and agreed–despite his view that the inscription was faked. The entire James ossuary controversy is too complex to rehearse here but here is a overview with relevant links for those wanting to delve deeper, “What’s What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary?

Baden and Moss close their piece expressing doubt about the validity of Dr. Aryeh Shimron’s latest chemical tests as reported in the NYTimes story and asserting that any tomb of Jesus containing his bones would have undermined early Christian faith in Jesus’ resurrection. Dr. Shimron’s credentials are impeccable and I am quite certain the tests he conducted will hold up to peer review. As far as the origins of the earliest Christian views of Jesus’ resurrection I have laid out my own analysis in two comprehensive posts: “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated,” and “Why People Are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.” I am convinced that the material/archaeological evidence we find in the Talpiot tomb in fact complements a critical analysis of our historical texts.

I wish that Baden and Moss had given us a bit of a glimpse as to what they think, as historians, regarding the dead body of Jesus–if it was not buried in a tomb in Jerusalem what might have conceivably happened to it? I assume they do not think Jesus was taken to heaven and simply disappeared–as scores of legendary figures in the Hellenistic period were believed to have done. If not, it seems likely Jesus was reburied in a second tomb, see “The First and Second Burials of Jesus.”12


  1. Quoted by Neil Silberman, The Hidden Scrolls (New York: Putnam, 1994), p. 129. 

  2. The Talpiot “Jesus” tomb was exposed by a construction blast on Thursday morning, March 27, 1980–the weekend before Passover and Easter. The tomb and its contents were ignored for exactly sixteen years, until Easter 1996, when a BBC television crew, quite by accident, got interested in the six inscribed ossuaries found in the tomb with the names: Jesus son of Joseph, Jose, Mariah, Mariamne/Mara, Matya, and Jude son of Jesus; gathering dust in the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) warehouse then located in Romemma, a suburb of West Jerusalem. The resulting TV special was accompanied by a London Sunday Times front page story titled “The Tomb that Dare Not Speak Its Name”–both on Easter Sunday. The “bombshell” implied in the story was not only that the bones of Jesus of Nazareth might have been discovered in a Jerusalem tomb, but that he was presumably married, and had a son! No published report had ever been written on this forgotten tomb in East Talpiot but IAA director Amir Drori, upset and embarrassed that he had never even heard of this now famous tomb, commissioned Amos Kloner to rush out a publication that appeared a few months later. The official word to be given to the press was a simple message: “The names are extremely common, this tomb is no different from hundreds of others. We took no special note of it for that reason.” Kloner’s publication appeared in record time, in the Fall issue of the IAA’s journal, “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem,” Atiqot 29 (1996); 15-22. A brief whirlwind of media coverage swirled about in 1996 and the tomb was once again forgotten with the dismissive mantra “the names in the tomb are extremely common,” for the next decade.

    On October 21, 2002 Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, announced that an ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” had surfaced in Jerusalem in the hands of a private collector of antiquities. The November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review devoted the entire issue to the discovery, with reports by experts as to its authenticity and likely connection to Jesus of Nazareth. Shanks published a book, co-authored with Ben Witherington, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) and Discovery Television aired a film, directed by Simcha Jacobovici–a newcomer to the world of “Biblical Archaeology,” as well.

    In 2006 I offered an overview of what we knew of Talpiot “Jesus” tomb in the Introduction of my book, The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster) but no further investigation had been done. At the end of that introduction I offered the speculative possibility that a 10th missing ossuary from the Jesus tomb might be the ossuary of James the brother of Jesus that had now come to light. At the time we were not even clear that there were three tombs clustered together, with two of them still intact–on the same ancient estate. As it turned out the Jesus tomb was in a walkway garden area between condo buildings, but sealed over with a concrete slab, and the second tomb was under a condo building–discovered in 1981 but never excavated.

    In 2007 Simcha Jacobovici refocused attention on both tombs with his co-authored best-selling book, The Jesus Family Tomb (HarperOne) and the Discovery Channel documentary, produced with James Cameron, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The web site jesusfamilytomb.com archives all the background information related to research on the tomb that went into the film. Jacobovici’s efforts not only drew worldwide media attention and sparked controversy but pioneered a full scientific investigation of the Jesus tomb including epigraphical analysis of the names, formal peer reviewed statistical studies on name frequency clusters, DNA tests on bones in the ossuaries, and comparative chemical tests on the patina of the Jesus tomb ossuaries, the James ossuary, and a set of control ossuaries from other tombs in Jerusalem. None of these kinds of studies had ever been done before for any ancient tomb in Jerusalem.

    In January 2008 the 4th Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins was devoted to the topic of exploring the Talpiot “Jesus tomb” from every area of expertise–archaeology, history, statistics, DNA, chemical patina tests, and cultural context. The conference drew over 50 scholars from throughout the world. The major papers are now published in a 585 page volume edited by James Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family (Eerdmans 2013) containing the papers from the conference. There was plenty of controversy at the Symposium, with vocal reports in the press asserting all sorts of claims on one side or the other, you can read my full report on the Society of Biblical Literature web site, “The Meyers/Magness Talpiot Tomb Statement: Some Observations.”

    The book, The Jesus Discovery​, published in 2011 (co-authored with Simcha Jacobovici) is the most comprehensive treatment of everything dealing with all three Talpiot tombs with full documentation on all the issues of controversy. It includes full chapters on the excavation and explorations of Tomb A and B; the James ossuary, Mary Magdalene in history and tradition, bones and DNA tests, and the development of early Christian views of resurrection. It is all there. The recognition of the name “Yonah” (יונה), as read by Charlesworth (and confirmed epigraphers Hachlili, Puech, and Deutsch) on a fish-like icon on one ossuary with a Greek inscription about “raising up” on another, appears to reflect a form of Jesus-related resurrection faith that the early Jewish messianic Jesus movement referred to as “the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:38-40). By the 3rd century iconography depicting Jonah’s “resurrection” from the great fish became the dominant motif in Christian funerary art–whereas it was unknown as a image in Jewish art. 

  3. L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries 

  4. Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palestinae, Vol 1, Part 1, eds. Cotton, et al. 

  5. See Pfann, “Demythologizing the Talpiot Tomb,” in Charlesworth, ed. The Tomb of Jesus and His Family, pp. 174-183. Price/Misgav (CIIJ: 474) characterize Pfann’s theory as speculation that can not be conclusively shown. 

  6. I continue to be convinced, with Leah Di Segni and others, that Rahmani’s reading of the name as Mariamne is correct, based on the precise name in the same letter form on the lid of another ossuary (CJO: 108). There the name appears alone, as a form of the name Maria, and one would hardly argue it should be read “Mariam and…” with no second name. 

  7. See Andrew Sill, “The Apostles and Brothers of Jesus,” in Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and his Family, pp. 434-443. 

  8. See Tom Powers “Treasures in the Storeroom: Family Tomb of Simon of Cyrene,” Biblical Archaeology Review (July-August, 2003), pp. 46-51, 59. A version of Power’s analysis can be read at here.  

  9. See his article,  “Father Jesus: Clement’s Agraphon and Julius’s Desposynoi Suggest Widespread Early Belief that Jesus had Children.”  

  10. See footnote 6 in my paper “An Overview of the Jesus Discovery,” archived here and a breakdown of all the other names in the Talpiot tomb and where else they occur CIIPNotes6-13-2011.  

  11. See “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Fish.”  

  12. No one is claiming that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the temporary tomb of Jesus, near the place of his crucifixion is invalided by the discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb as is implied by so many of the stories out this week. It as if I and others are playing a game of “who moved the tomb” which is decidedly not the case. Unless one believes Jesus body (bones and all) went up to heaven–since the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was never thought to have held the body of Jesus past Easter Sunday–Jesus must have been buried elsewhere. See my SBL paper on-line here for further exposition on this point–in response to Jodi Magness who accepts Jesus was first buried the rock-hewn tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepurchre, but apparently things he was then removed (she does not explain how or by whom) and buried in a “trench grave.” What we can say is that all of our sources claim that Joseph of Arimathea had charge of Jesus’ burial and it would have been him who would have provided a permanent tomb for Jesus–and I would argue, subsequently for his family. 

The Case for a “Jesus Family Tomb” in East Talpiot: A Comprehensive Summary of the Evidence

This paper poses a simple question: Is there sufficient historical evidence to identify a modest first century CE Jewish rock-hewn tomb, accidentally opened by a construction crew in 1980 in east Talpiot, just south of the Old City of Jerusalem, as the probable burial tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his intimate family?

What follows is a comprehensive paper in which I attempt to summarize the case for identifying the East Talpiot “Jesus family tomb” as that of Jesus of Nazareth.1

The evidence I present here is based on the Jesus tomb alone (Talpiot Tomb A) with its six inscribed ossuaries. It does not include the latest findings in the nearby “Patio” tomb (Talpiot Tomb B) with its unique iconography and inscriptions. You can read my paper presented at the Society of Biblical Literature on the latest evidence regarding the “Patio” tomb here, as well as a paper delivered at the Southeast regional ASOR meeting in March 2013 summarizing the evidence for both tombs that can be downloaded here.

The Inner Façade of Talpiot Tomb A with the outer chamber blown away by the explosion.
The Inner Façade of Talpiot Tomb A with the outer chamber blown away by a construction explosion. The blocking stone for the entrance was already missing before the modern exposure.

I have written a lot on the Talpiot Jesus tomb since I first touched upon the subject in my 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty. Since that time there are a dozen books that deal with the subject as well as, quite literally, thousands of sites on the internet. Unfortunately, so far as I can see, a vast majority of those opining on this subject do not have some of the basic facts straight. In fact, the assertions one finds endless repeated everywhere, even by those who should know better, have been repeatedly refuted by competent researchers, namely:

The names found in this tomb are quite common, this is a “Jesus” but nothing to indicate who

Jesus would have been buried in Galilee not Jerusalem

A Jesus ossuary would be inscribed ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ or Jesus the Messiah

A Jesus ossuary inscription would likely be elegant on a highly decorated ossuary

Jesus was too poor to have a rock hewn tomb

There is no evidence Jesus was married

The gospels say Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb was found empty

There are attempts to remedy this, including a series of articles covering all sides of the issues at Bible & Interpretation, but in my experience few who opine on this controversial subject have done even the most basic reading–colleagues and scholars included. I hope this article can go a long way in setting out some of the main parameters of the debate as well as establishing, theology aside, that a strong case can be made in favor of the likelihood that this family tomb is that of Jesus of Nazareth.

The first time this Talpiot “Jesus” tomb received any public attention was sixteen years after its excavation when a BBC produced documentary titled “The Body in Question” aired in the United Kingdom on Easter 1996. The London Sunday Times ran a feature story titled “The Tomb that Dare Not Speak Its Name,” based on that documentary.[i] Both the documentary and the newspaper article called attention to the interesting cluster of names inscribed on six ossuaries found in the tomb: Jesus son of Joseph, two Marys, a Joseph, a Matthew, and a Jude son of Jesus. A flurry of wire stories followed with headlines that the “tomb of Jesus” had perhaps been found. Archaeologists, officials from the Israel Antiquities Authority, and biblical scholars quickly weighed in, assuring the public that “the names were common.” One lone voice, Joe Zias, an anthropologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem, demurred, stating that the cluster of names considered together was so significant that had he not known they were from a provenanced IAA excavation he would have been certain they were forged.[ii] Zias called for further investigation. Within a short time the press dropped the story and no one in the academy other than Zias saw any reason for more to be done. It was in response to that 1996 story, and the attention that it drew, that Amir Drori, then director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, asked Amos Kloner to write up an official report on the tomb, published later that year in the Israeli Anitquities Authority journal ‘Atiquot.[iii]

The media attention quickly subsided and other than Kloner’s article no further academic evaluations of the tomb were published. That all changed in March, 2007 with the broadcast of The Discovery Channel TV documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and the publication of the book, The Jesus Family Tomb, both of which argued that the Talpiot tomb was indeed the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family—including Mary Magdalene his wife, and an otherwise unknown “Judah, son of Jesus,” their son.[iv]  Both the film and the book have generated a massive worldwide reaction, characterized by passion, emotion, and heated debate. The academic world, the traditional media, and the Internet have all been abuzz with discussion. One might have expected strong opposition to the thesis of the book and film from more traditional Christian circles, but the negative assessment by a cadre of scholars, equally passionate in their denunciation of its hypotheses, has played a significant role in highlighting many of the important issues relevant to a proper scientific evaluation of the tomb and its contents. Unfortunately, more heat than light is often generated when the media serve as the primary forum for discussions involving such emotionally charged issues.

In January, 2008 an international group of scholars gathered in Jerusalem, convened by Prof. James H. Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary, in an attempt to generate the proper kind of academic and scholarly debate on what we know of the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb and how it might be responsibly evaluated.[v] I thank Prof. Charlesworth and his colleagues for the opportunity to publish my own analysis of these questions from the perspective of a biblical scholar and historian of early Christianity and late 2nd Temple Judaism.

I am convinced that there is a surprisingly close fit between what we might postulate as a hypothetical pre-70 CE Jesus family tomb based on our textual records, correlated with this particular tomb in Talpiot and its contents. Rather than starting with the tomb and its six inscribed ossuaries, and exploring all the alternative possibilities, which given the scarcity of data, are endless, I take a different approach.

It is true, for example, that a nickname like Yoseh—short for Joseph (or Yehosef in Hebrew or Aramaic), appearing alone without further identification, could be any male of a Jewish clan of the time, whether father, brother, son, nephew, or uncle. In fact Joseph is the most common male Jewish name of the period. But if we begin with our historical records asking a different set of questions—who was the “Yoseh” in Jesus’ life and is there any reason we might expect him to be in a hypothetical pre-70 CE Jesus tomb?—the answers are specific and singular. Jesus did have a brother who bore this precise and rare nickname—Yoseh (Greek Iose), according to Mark 6:3. What one needs to ask then is whether we have any evidence to think that Jesus’ brother Yoseh might have died before 70 CE, and thus be an appropriate “candidate” for inclusion in a Jesus family tomb.

Rather than starting with an endlessly open and undetermined set of “unknowns,” my approach, in terms of method, is to begin with the specific “knowns.” Essentially what I want to do is test a hypothesis, something we constantly do when we seek to correlate the material evidence of archaeology within our known textual and chronological “horizons.” It is obvious, no matter what one’s theory might be, that one can always posit other possibilities and alternatives. In terms of method I think what I suggest here can turn out to be quite enlightening and I hope it will contribute to the discussion in a positive way.

What I want to explore first in this article is what one might imagine for a hypothetical, pre-70 CE, Jerusalem tomb of Jesus and his family? Given our textual evidence, what might we reasonably construct in terms of likelihood? Toward the end of the article I will then briefly deal with the two main objections to my hypothesis—that the names are common and that Jesus and his followers were too poor to have a family burial cave—as well as a few closing theological observations.

The Second Burial of Jesus

            I begin with what we know about the burial of Jesus of Nazareth for our earliest sources—the New Testament gospels. Although the apostle Paul knows the tradition that Jesus was “buried,” he provides no narrative details that we might analyze historically (1 Corinthians 15:4). It is often assumed that the gospels report that Joseph of Arimathea took the corpse of Jesus and laid it in his own new tomb late Friday night. The problem with this assumption is that a careful reading of our gospel accounts indicates that this tomb, into which Jesus was temporarily placed, did not belong to Joseph of Arimathea. Mark, our earliest account, says the following:

And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath . . .[Joseph of Arimathea] bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).[vi]

John’s gospel, reflecting an independent tradition, offers a further explanation:

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there (John 19:41-42 emphasis mine).

Mark implies that it was the pressing necessity of a quick temporary burial brought on by the nearness of the Sabbath that prompted Joseph of Arimathea to act in haste and approach the Roman governor Pontius Pilate for permission to bury Jesus’ corpse. The gospel of John makes this specifically clear.  This initial burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea was a temporary, emergency measure, with the Passover Sabbath hours away. It was a burial of necessity and opportunity. This particular tomb was chosen because it was unused and happened to be near the place of crucifixion. The idea that this tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea makes no sense. What are the chances that Joseph of Arimathea would just happen to have his own new family tomb conveniently located near the Place of the Skull, or Golgotha, where the Romans regularly crucified their victims?[vii] Amos Kloner offers the following analysis, with which I wholly agree:

I would go one step further and suggest that Jesus’ tomb was what the sages refer to as a “borrowed (or temporary) tomb.” During the Second Temple period and later, Jews often practiced temporary burial. . . A borrowed or temporary cave was used for a limited time, and the occupation of the cave by the corpse conferred no rights of ownership upon the family. . . Jesus’ interment was probably of this nature.[viii]

Mark indicates that the intention of Joseph was to complete the full and proper rites of Jewish burial after Passover. Given these circumstances, one would expect the body of Jesus to be placed in a second tomb as a permanent resting place. This second tomb would presumably be one that either belonged to, or was provided by, Joseph of Arimathea, who had the means and had taken on the formal responsibility to honor Jesus and his family in this way. Accordingly, one would not expect the permanent tomb of Jesus, and subsequently his family, to be near Golgotha, just outside the main gate of the city, but in a rock-hewn tomb outside Jerusalem. These circumstances also address the issue that some have raised that the Talpiot tomb could not be that of Jesus since he is poor and from Galilee. James, the brother of Jesus, becomes leader of the Jesus movement following Jesus’ death in 30 CE. Our evidence indicates that the movement is headquartered in Jerusalem until 70 CE. The core group of followers, banded around Jesus’ family and the Council of Twelve, took up residence there as well, even though most of them are from Galilee.[ix] This evidence points strongly toward the possibility of a Jesus family tomb in Jerusalem, but one different from the temporary burial cave into which Jesus’ body was first placed.

A Jesus Family Cluster

            Based on our earliest textual sources I propose the following list of individuals as potential candidates for burial in a hypothetical Jesus family tomb:

Jesus himself

Joseph his father

Mary his mother

His brothers: James, Jose, Simon, and Jude
and any of their wives or children

His sisters: Salome and Mary (if unmarried)

Any wife or children of Jesus

            There had to be, of course, many other names we simply do not know, with various connections to the Jesus family, but these names and relationships we can at least consider as hypothetically likely. I realize the matter of Jesus having a wife and children is usually seen as unlikely but one has to factor in the nature of our records and the social context in which Jesus lived. None of the wives or children of any apostles or the brothers of Jesus are ever named in the gospels, yet Mark indicates that Peter was married (Mark 1:30), and Paul mentions that the apostles and brothers of Jesus traveled about with their wives (1 Corinthians 9:5). Silence regarding women, in late, post-70 CE, theological sources such as our New Testament gospels, does not imply non-existence. Also, when Paul strongly recommends celibacy as a superior spiritual lifestyle he fails to use Jesus as an example even in a context where he is desperate to refer to him for authority (1 Corinthians 7:8-12).

If we next ask which of these individuals might hypothetically be buried in a pre-70 CE Jesus family tomb in Jerusalem, after the year 30 CE when Jesus was crucified. 70 CE is the year the Romans devastated Jerusalem, exiled much of the Jewish population, and normal Jewish life, including the common use of burial caves around the city, diminished.  Given this watershed disaster we come up with a more chronologically restricted list of potential candidates, since we would only include those in the family that we can assume might have died before 70 CE:

Jesus himself

Mary his mother

Joseph his brother, and perhaps James

Any wife and children of Jesus who died before 70 CE

Jesus’ father Joseph we would eliminate because he seems to have died decades earlier, probably in Galilee, and we have no record of him in Jerusalem in this period (see Acts 1:14). Jesus’ mother Mary, given her age, could well have died before 70CE, and as a widow, according to Jewish custom, would be put in the tomb of her oldest son. Jesus’ brothers Simon and Jude apparently lived past 70 CE based on our records, so they should be eliminated from our list.[x] Jesus’ brother Joses is a strong candidate since he is the “missing brother” in our historical records. When James is murdered in 62 CE, it is Simon, the third brother, not Joses, the second, who takes over leadership of the movement—indicating that he had most likely died by that time. The N.T. letters of James and Jude testify to their influence, and we even have an account of the death of Simon by crucifixion, but nothing survives whatsoever regarding the brother Joses. Given the culture it is likely that either of Jesus’ sisters would be married, and thus buried in the tombs of their husbands, so they are not prime first level candidates either. Since we have no textual record of a wife or children we can only say, hypothetically, that if such existed they might be included.

The Talpiot “Jesus” Tomb

            There were ten ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb with six of them inscribed. This is an exceptionally high percentage. For example, just taking the sample of ossuaries retained in the Israeli State Collection only about 20% are inscribed, but that percentage is much too high for ossuaries in general, since plain ones are regularly discarded. It is not the case, as has been reported, that the remains of up to 35 additional individuals were found in this tomb. As Kloner makes clear in his article, this is a demographic estimate, not data based on any kind of anthropological study of the Talpiot tomb remains. There were remains of at least two or possibly three individuals—skulls vertebrae, and limb bones—apparently swept from the arcosolia, and found just below on the floor, perhaps by intruders in antiquity. Cooking pots dating to the 2nd Temple period were also found in three corners of the main chamber. That the bones of these individuals were never gathered and put in ossuaries seems to indicate that the 70 CE destruction of Jerusalem terminated the family use of the tomb.[xi] Although it is possible that the bones of more than one individual were placed in the ossuaries, the mitDNA results of the two that could be tested, that of Yeshua and Mariamene, showed clear singular profiles.[xii] The Talpiot tomb seems to be a small (2.9 x 2.9 meter), modest, pre-70 CE family burial cave with remains of at least a dozen or so individuals.

The six inscriptions in the Talpiot tomb show a rather remarkable correspondence to the chronologically restricted hypothetical list of potential candidates we can construct from our textual evidence:[xiii]

1. Yeshua bar Yehosef (Aramaic)

2. Maria (Aramaic)

3. Yoseh (Aramaic)

4. Mariemene [also known as] Mara (Greek & decorated)

5. Yehuda bar Yeshua (Aramaic & decorated)

6. Matya (Aramaic)

Yeshua bar Yehosef is an appropriate inscription for Jesus of Nazareth. Its informal style, and the lack of honorific titles (“the Messiah,” or “our Lord”) fit what I would expect for his burial in 30 CE. I would also not expect the place designator “of Nazareth” since the use of the terms Nazareth/Nazarene, like the titles, are more reflective of later theology than contemporary informal usage—especially within the family.[xiv] I have also become convinced that the ossuary inscription is written more elegantly than one might first think, see my arguments here. In fact, the very plainness of this ossuary, as well as its shape and style, seems to fit well with the three other family members inscribed Maria, Matya, and Yoseh, as well as the famous “James ossuary.”

YeshuabarYehosefGraphic

Jesus Son of Joseph

The Aramaic form of the nickname Yoseh (יוסה), short for Yehosef/Joseph, is rare in the 2nd Temple period, only found here on an ossuary and two other inscriptional examples. It is equivalent to the later popular spelling of this nickname as Yosey/Yosi  (יוסי) found in rabbinic texts from the late 2nd to 3rd century CE. However, in the first and second centuries of the common era it is extremely rare. It corresponds to an equally rare form of the name in Greek, namely Yoses or Yose (Ιωσης/Ιωση), that occurs only five times in all our sources, literary and inscriptional. This is in fact the precise form of the nickname by which the gospel of Mark, our earliest source, knows Jesus second brother Joseph (Mark 6:3).

YosehWeb

 

There are two “Marys” in this tomb, known by different forms of that name, namely Maria and Mariamene. The mitDNA test indicates the Mariamene in this tomb is not related to Yeshua as mother or sister on the maternal side. That leaves open the likelihood that Maria could well be the mother, especially if we have two of her sons, Yeshua and Yoseh, in this tomb. It would make sense that she would be buried with her children in this intimate, small, family tomb and that her ossuary would be inscribed Maria.

Given the presence of the named son of Yeshua in this tomb, namely Yehuda/Jude, and based on the mitDNA evidence (that she is neither mother or sister of Jesus), it seems quite likely that Mariamene is the mother of this son.  The speculation, if this is indeed the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, that she might be Mary Magdalene, is based on a cluster of later evidence. ֹOn the objection that this Talpiot tomb can not be the tomb of Jesus since we have no evidence that Jesus was married or had a child is a weak one. In the end this objection simply does not hold up and ends up being “circular.” Since Jesus was not married the Talpiot tomb can not be that of him and his family and the archaeological evidence that he was married, as seen in the Talpiot tomb, is dismissed because we already know he was not married.

There were three intimate “Marys” in Jesus’ life, his mother, his sister, and Mary Magdalene. Indeed, it was Mary Magdalene, his mother, and his other sister Salome, that attended to his burial rites (Mark 16:1). Family intimates carried out this important rite of washing and anointing the corpse for burial. If Mariamene is not Jesus’ mother or sister, as the mitDNA indicates, it seems a logical possibility that she could be the “third” Mary, namely Mary Magdalene, his follower and close companion, based on her inclusion as a named intimate in our earliest records. We don’t know much about Mary Magdalene in our New Testament sources, but she does seem to be a woman of means and she is associated with several other women of standing from Galilee (Luke 8: 1-3). The Mariamene ossuary is decorated and the inscription is in Greek, which surely fits this data, as Migdal, according to the record of Josephus, was a large, thriving, and culturally diverse “Romanized” city with theatre, hippodrome, and a large aqueduct system.[xv]

Some have suggested that this Greek inscription be read as Mariame kai Mara—Mary and Martha, referring to two individuals.[xvi] Even though these two names might fit a hypothetical Jesus family tomb, given the two sisters Mary and Martha mentioned in the gospels, I find this extremely unlikely even beyond the strict epigraphical issues involved.[xvii] The inscription itself appears to be from one hand, written in a smooth flowing style, with a decorative flourish around both names—pointing to a single individual who died and was placed in this inscribed ossuary:

Close-up of the Mariamene inscription
Close-up of the Mariamene inscription

I accept the reading of Rachmani (reaffirmed by Leah Di Segni) that Mariamene is a diminutive or endearing form of the name Mariamne, derived from Mariame.[xviii] Although Mariame is a common name, the rare form Mariamene—spelled with the letter “n” or nu in Greek, is quite rare. In fact, a check of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a comprehensive digital data base of Greek literature from Homer through 1453 CE finds only two ancient works that use Mariamn-  as a form of the name Mariame—both referring to Mary Magdalene! One is a quotation from Hippolytus, a third century Christian writer who records that James, the brother of Jesus, passed on secret teachings of Jesus to “Mariamene,” i.e.. Mary Magdalene.[xix] The other is in the 4th century CE Acts of Philip that regularly refers to Mary Magdalene as Mariamene. It seems unlikely to the point of impossibility that Rahmani, who made no association whatsoever between his reading of the ossuary name as Mariamene with Mary Magdalene, would have just happened to come up with this exceedingly rare form of the name Mariame as his preferred reading. It seems clear to me that Rahmani’s keen eye and years of experience have unwittingly provided us with one of the most important correlations between the names in this tomb and those we might expect, hypothetically, to be included in a Jesus family tomb—a name uniquely appropriate for Mary Magdalene. That this rare form appears in later sources strengthens rather than diminishes the case here since one would not expect such a “later” literary form of a name for Mary Magdalene to appear on a 1st century CE ossuary in Jerusalem.

That Mariamene is also known here on the ossuary by the Aramaic designation “Mara,” (the absolute feminine of ΜΑΡ/מרא) which like “Martha,” (the emphatic feminine) means “lordess,” seems all the more appropriate.[xx] Recent scholarship on Mary Magdalene has gone a long way toward rehabilitating her important place in earliest history of the Jesus movement. In a diverse collection of early Christian sources dating from the late 1st century through the 4th, she is a prominent leader and voice among the apostles and an intimate companion of Jesus, holding her place over against better-known male disciples.[xxi]

I find it striking that five of the six inscriptions correspond so closely to a hypothetical pre-70 CE family tomb of Jesus in Jerusalem as we might imagine it based on textual evidence. The one inscription we can’t account for in terms of what might be expected in our hypothetical Jesus family tomb is Matya or Matthew. The name is relatively rare (2.4% of males, compared to Joseph at 8.6% and Yeshua at 3.9%). It is worth noting that Matthew is a name known within the family of Jesus (see the genealogies of Matthew 1; Luke 3). Also, the only Matthew known to us in the gospels, also called Levi, is said to be of the Alphaeus family clan (Mark 2:14). In some early Christian traditions this Alphaeus or Clophas is the brother of Joseph, the father of Jesus. Still, just who this particular Matthew was and why he would be in this tomb, if it did belong to Jesus and his family, we simply do not know, but he might well have been a step-brother of Jesus, like James and Jude, both also sons of Alphaeus.

I find this hypothetical “fit” between the intimate pre-70 CE family of Jesus and Nazareth and the names found in this tomb quite impressive and it argues strongly against an out-of-hand dismissal of the tomb as possibly, or even likely, associated with Jesus of Nazareth.

How Common Are these Names?

            The most common reaction to this interesting cluster of six names found in the Talpiot tomb, namely, a Jesus son of Joseph, two Marys, a Joseph, a Jude son of Jesus, and a Matthew, is that these are common names. That perception is why the tomb was not given any special attention when it was discovered in 1980, nor again in 1996 when it briefly came to public light and was subsequently forgotten. The problem is, statistical probabilities are not intuitive. It is in fact possible to test the oft-stated assertion by scholar and non-specialist alike, that this cluster of names is highly probable/common, and thus meaningless. Is it the case that in the time of Jesus there would have been any number of other tombs and/or families with these precise names—rendering this cluster meaningless in terms of any historical identification with what we know of Jesus of Nazareth and his family? One needs to clarify what one means by “common.”

For example, the name Joshua, from which we get the nickname Yeshua or Jesus, has a frequency percentage of 3.9% among the 2538 examples of male names of the period surveyed by Tal Ilan.[xxii] Is 3.9% a high enough number to call it common? I suppose it depends on how one uses the word “common.” But remember, that is the percentage of all forms of the name Joshua in Aramaic and Greek, not the specific nickname Yeshua. If you just take the Rahmani catalogue of 231 inscribed ossuaries in the Israeli State collection there are three examples of Yeshua (#9, 121, 140) plus the two in the Talpiot tomb, for a total of five out of 286 total names.[xxiii] Should one refer to that as “common”? The Rahmani collection does not include all inscribed ossuaries found in the Jerusalem area for the period, but the name frequencies and distributions appear to be fairly representative of our large body of data.[xxiv]

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

Still, in the end, it is not merely the frequency of the names but the cluster that one has to consider. If we are considering a hypothetical “Jesus family tomb” with these names we would then ask: What are the probabilities of a Jesus son of Joseph, with a brother named Yoseh, and a mother named Mary being found in a 1st century Jewish family tomb? That is actually something a statistician can work with and the results can be correlated with what a historian might then postulate as the likelihood of these particular names being in a pre-70 CE Jesus tomb. The fact is of the hundreds of tombs in the Jerusalem area that have been opened in a random way over the past 200 years no other tomb so far has been found with even this limited cluster of names: Jesus son of Joseph, Maria, and Yoseh. So it is not the case that most family tombs in the period are likely to have a person named Yeshua, and certainly not a Yeshua son of Joseph. If the Talpiot tomb had contained other names, such as Eleazar, Menachem, or Daniel, for instance, or names of women such as Sarah, Martha, or Joanna—all common Jewish names of the period, but with no connection to the family of Jesus—then identifying the ossuaries in this tomb with the family of Jesus would be more problematic.

In examining the Talpiot tomb a first step is to run the statistics on the six names and their specified relationships in the Talpiot tomb itself without any reference to Jesus of Nazareth or his associates or family. One has to decide whether to handle the names generically (count a special form Yoseh as just another “Joseph,” Mariamenon as just another “Mary,” etc.), or include the aspect of “rarity.” It is always best to take a more conservative approach at the outset, so taking the names generically, i.e., a Jesus son of Joseph, two Marys, a Jude son of Jesus, a Matthew, and a Joseph is a good beginning. The question then becomes what is the probability of this cluster of names and the specified relationships based on frequency ratios? The latest statistical studies indicate that the chances of the combination of this cluster of names, in these relationships, are exceedingly rare.[xxv] This addresses the question of whether or not the cluster is common, i.e., probable, but leaves the matter of whether these names might “fit” with a hypothetical tomb of Jesus of Nazareth to the historians.

I want to make one final point about the argument over how common the names are and how significant the cluster in this particular tomb might be. As it turns out my hypothetical “family tomb of Jesus” is not all that hypothetical. Approximately 600 inscribed ossuaries, out of 2000 or more found in the Jerusalem area, have been documented. They come from an estimated 900 tombs. Of these 600 only 21 ossuaries have the name “Jesus”, whether in Hebrew/Aramaic (13) or in Greek (8).[xxvi] If you take out the Talpiot tomb, which has two, that leaves us with only 19 ossuaries total with the name Jesus. Keep in mind these are not 19 individuals named Jesus since the name can occur more than once in a given tomb, on more than one ossuary, but still refer to the same single individual. What is clearly the case, however, is that there is not another tomb that contained a Jesus ossuary that one could even hypothetically argue might be connected to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Unfortunately, the provenance of a few of the Jesus ossuaries is unknown, but most can be studied in the context of the tombs in which they were found. Invariably, they are surround with names like Shelamzion, Chananiya, Shapira, Dositheos, or Sara, that have no known association with Jesus of Nazareth in our texts. This means that the Talpiot tomb, with its inscription “Jesus son of Joseph,” surrounded by other names, even nicknames, that we can trace to the Jesus family, is the only one known to us for which one could even argue its possibility or probability. This does not prove the Talpiot tomb is indeed the family tomb of Jesus, but it goes a long way toward addressing the oft-made, but invalid point, that we have lots of tombs with Jesus inscriptions, as if to say that this one is like all the others. Such is simply not the case so this objection, considered by some to be the weightiest, simply fails.

Was the Jesus Movement Too Poor to Have a Burial Cave?

            Some scholars have suggested that Jesus and his family, as well as his movement as a whole, was too small, insignificant, and poor to have a family burial cave in Jerusalem.[xxvii] The argument is that whoever took the body from the initial cave burial would have buried him in a simple trench grave with no marker since the family was too poor to have afforded a rock-hewn tomb. This objection overlooks the fact that at least one follower of influence and means, namely Joseph of Arimathea, did in fact see to the initial burial in a rock-hewn tomb. Why would one assume that either Joseph, or other followers of means who were devoted to his messianic program, would not be able to provide a permanent tomb? We also have evidence that a group of wealthy and influential women, including Mary Magdalene, were supporting Jesus’ movement financially, had followed him from Galilee, and were involved in the preparation of spices and ointments for his proper burial. The descriptions and circumstances all fit well with the idea of a body prepared for burial in a rock-hewn tomb with ossuaries.[xxviii]

The Jesus movement, led by James the brother of Jesus following his crucifixion, was headquartered in Jerusalem for the next forty years and their numbers and influence were enough to be noted by Josephus in the Antiquities.[xxix] The family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who lived in Bethany, and with whom Jesus was intimately connected, could afford to bury their dead in a rock-hewn tomb. It has also been argued that some of the rock-tomb burials with inscribed ossuaries elsewhere in Talpiot, at Dominus Flevit, and on the Mt. of Offense, are connected to the early followers of Jesus.[xxx]

On more general grounds what this objection overlooks is the extraordinary devotion that followers exhibit toward their spiritual/messianic leaders. Mark tells us that the followers of John the Baptizer went to collect his body and that they placed him in a tomb (Mark 6:29). The Syriac “Ascents of James,” for example, recounts how devout followers of James buried another murdered leader, known in some traditions as Stephen, in a tomb to which they made an annual pilgrimage close to Jericho.[xxxi] I have studied apocalyptic and messianic movements, both ancient and modern, and it is universally the case that devoted groups have the collective means to support their leaders. It is an open and debated question in the field of Christian origins as to whether Jesus was poor and without means of any sort, but even if that were granted, to rule out the likelihood that devoted followers of means would have provided him and his family with a place of burial is unwarranted.

The Talpiot tomb and it is quite modest in size and arrangement measuring under 3 x 3 meters and less than 2 meters high. It is nothing like the more monumental decorated tombs closer to the city. Also, of the six inscribed ossuaries four are “plain,” and only two are “decorated,” (Mariamene Mara and Yehuda bar Yeshua). I am not convinced that the mere existence of a modest rock-hewn tomb of this type indicates high status and wealth. Indeed, the comprehensive Kloner and Zissu survey of Jewish burial in and around Jerusalem in the period indicates little evidence of trench burials. Instead rock-hewn burial tombs in and around Jerusalem were the norm for most of the population. As one moves away from the “front row” seat near the Old City, the tombs south of Akeldama, around the Mt. of Offense, and south into Talpiot, are often more modest in form and size.[xxxii]

A Final Theological Note

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

In terms of Christian faith I would also maintain that belief in the resurrection of Jesus does not have to be understood as a literal “flesh and bones” event, with Jesus ascending to heaven as a physical being. Jesus himself, when asked about resurrection of the dead, indicated that those so raised would have spiritual bodies undifferentiated as male and female (Luke 20:34-36). The book of Revelation speaks of the “sea” giving up the dead that is in it—indicating the former physical body is completely lost and destroyed (Revelation 20:13). The earliest testimony to the resurrection of Jesus comes from Paul writing in the 50s CE (1 Corinthians 15). He writes that Christ “appeared” to him but he distinguishes between a “natural” or physical (psuchikos) body, and what he calls a “spiritual” (pneumatikos) body, that he attributes to Christ, whom he says was raised as a “life-giving spirit.” When Paul describes death in general he speaks of “putting off” the body like a tent or garment, and “putting on a heavenly dwelling” or new body (2 Cor 5). When he describes the future resurrection of the “dead in Christ” he says they will be raised with incorruptible bodies and there is no implication that the physical components of their physical bodies, now turned to dust, will be literally raised. For more on this point see the post “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.”

Mark, the earliest gospel, has no “appearances” of Jesus, while the account in Matthew takes place in Galilee and has a “visionary” quality to it. Although it is true that Luke and John, as our latest gospel records, written in the 90s CE, picture Jesus eating food after his resurrection, that view does not necessarily imply a physical body. Angels in the Bible are often portrayed as eating with physical mortals, but remaining nonetheless in a spiritual form (e.g., Genesis 18). When Jesus spoke of the future resurrection of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, he pictures them as “sitting at table” in the kingdom of God, but clearly they are in a new and transformed state—not a physical body of flesh and bones (Matthew 8:11). For more on this point see the “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed.”

One might even see the discovery of the tomb of Jesus as a boon to faith in that it serves to ground his life and death in the very real history of the times. Such tangible evidence of Jesus and his family, buried together in death as in life according to the common Jewish custom of the times, provides a real “time-space” context for the gospel stories that some might otherwise take as mythological.

ENDNOTES


[i] London Sunday Times, March 31, 1996, p. 1.

[ii] Zias commented: “Had it not been found in a tomb I would have said 100 percent of what we are looking at are forgeries. But this came from a very good, undisturbed archaeological context. It is not something that was invented.” London Sunday Times, March 31, 1996. Zias has since changed his mind and joined those scholars who hold that the names are so common in the period that their occurrence together is of no special significance.

[iii] Amos Kloner, “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem,” `Atiquot XXIX (1996): 15-22. Two years earlier nine of the ossuaries were included in the catalogue description in L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority and The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994): 222-224. The late excavator, Joseph Gath, had published a short preliminary report in 1981, but before the ossuary inscriptions had been deciphered (Hadashot Arkheologiyot 76 (1981), pp. 24-26)

[iv] The Discovery Channel film was produced by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron and the book was coauthored by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History (New York: HarperSanfrancisco, 2007). A revised and expanded paperback edition was published in 2008 with an updated title: The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No One Wanted to Find (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

[v] The Third Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins: “Jewish Views of the After Life and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism: Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context,” was held January 13-16, 2008 at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim Conference Center in Jerusalem with 54 scholars participating. The papers were subsequently published in James H. Charlesworth and Arthur C. Boulet, eds., The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013).

On the press controversies following the conference and the various dispute and positions of the participants see James D. Tabor, ” The Meyers/Magness Talpiot Tomb Statement: Some Observations,” SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Jan 2008]. Online:http://sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleID=749.

[vi] Quotations from the New Testament are from the Revised Standard Version.

[vii] The assumption that Joseph owned this tomb is based on a theological interpolation of Matthew, where he adds two words to his source Mark, “he laid it in his own new tomb,” (Matthew 27:60), to make Jesus’ burial fit the prophecy Isaiah 53:9, that the grave of Yahweh’s “Servant” would be “with a rich man.”

[viii] Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review 22:5 (1999): 23-29, 26. Kloner cites several rabbinic texts to support his assertion. Compare his fuller academic treatment “Reconstruction of the Tomb in the Rotunda of the Holy Sepulchre According to Archaeological Finds and Jewish Burial Customs of the First century CE,” in The Beginnings of Christianity. A Collection of Articles (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi, 2005), pp. 269-278.

[ix] See Jeffrey Bütz, The Brother of Jesus and the Lost Teachings of Christianity (Rochester, Vermont, Inner Traditions: 2005), pp. 95-99, for a survey of a growing scholarly consensus that James, the brother of Jesus, had likely already taken up residence in Jerusalem prior to Jesus’ crucifixion.

[x] For the historical records of what happened to Jesus’ brothers and the disastrous impact of the 70 CE Roman destruction of Jerusalem see The Jesus Dynasty (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), pp. 284-304.

[xi] Rahmani writes, “Following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the manufacture of both hard limestone and chip-carved soft limestone ossuaries ceased” A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, p. 23. Such is the case with the Akeldama “Tomb of the Shroud,” found by Boaz Zissu in 1998 and subsequently examined by Shimon Gibson and James Tabor where the shrouded remains of a skeleton dating before 70 CE were found (see Zissu, Gibson, & Tabor, Hadashot Arkheologiyot  (2000): 70-72. For a discussion of Jewish tombs that post-date 70 CE see Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 8 (Leuven—Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2007), pp. 144-148. The exceptions are relatively rare and each tomb must be looked at individually to determine if artifacts or other evidence indicates continued use past 70 CE.

[xii] Despite claims to the contrary the mitDNA tests carried out on bone samples taken from the Jesus and Mariamne ossuaries were collected and handled with proper scientific rigor and care to avoid any possibility of modern contamination. My university supervised the tests and samples were shipped to the Paleo-DNA at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Dr.  Carney Matheson, who did the mitDNA work, says more than one individual would have shown up in the sample given the methods of testing that he followed.

[xiii] Two of the decorated ossuaries had inscriptions (IAA 80.500: Maramenon (he) Mara [Gk] and IAA 80.501: Yehuda bar Yeshua ) and four of the “plain” or undecorated ones (IAA 80. 502: Matya/Matah; IAA 80.503: Yeshua bar Yehosef ; IAA 80.504: Yose; and IAA 80. 505: Maria/Marya, see L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, pp. 222-224.

[xiv] Jesus is legally known as the “son of Joseph” in both the Synoptic tradition and in John (Luke 3:23; 4:22; Matthew 13:55; John 1:46; 6:42). One other example of “Yeshua bar Yehosef” is known on an ossuary (#No. 9/Plate 2 in Rahmani). It was “discovered” by Eleazar Sukenik in a basement storage area of the Palestinian Archaeological Museum in Jerusalem in 1926 but unfortunately is unprovenanced. He published a report about the ossuary in January, 1931, and the news that such an inscription existed, the only one ever found until 1980 in the Talpiot tomb, created no small stir in the world press, particularly in Europe. See L. H. Vincent, “Épitaphe prétendue de N.S. Jésus-Christ,” Atti della pontificia: academia romana di archaeologie: Rendiconti 7 (1929-1930): 213-39.The nickname Yeshua, a contracted form of Yehoshua/Joshua (which makes up 3.9% of male names in the period) occurs elsewhere on eleven ossuaries.

[xvi] See S. J. Pfann, “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room. A Suggested New Reading of Ossuary CJO 701,” Near Eastern Archaeology 69: 3-4 (2006): 130-131. Pfann’s reading is accepted by Jonathan Price and others.

[xvii] Luke 10:34-41; John 11-12. It is conceivable that one of brothers of Jesus, or for that matter Jesus himself, might have married one of these sisters, thus accounting for their presence in this tomb.

[xviii] See Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, p. 222 as well as his introductory comments, p. 14. The Greek reads Mariamenou, in the genitive case, a diminutive form of Mariamene. This form of the name is rare and is found also on one other ossuary, Rachmani #108. Di Segni also continues to support Rahmani’s reading (as per private e-mail correspondence with the author in 2007).

[xix] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.1.

[xx] There is another ossuary in the Israeli State Collection, Rachmani 868 that reads in Greek: αλεξαςΜαρα [of Alexa/Lordess], which offers a strong parallel to this usage. The name Alexa is also in the genitive case, followed by Mara. See the limited examples of the use of Mar/Mara in Aramaic and Greek in See Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in late Antiquity: Part I Palestine 330 BCE—200 CE, TSAJ 91 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), p. 422-423.

[xxi] Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rose, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003) and Ann Graham Brock, Mary Madalene, The first Apostle: The Struggle for Authority (Boston: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[xxii] The percentages of the most common male and female names and their variants based on data from Tal Ilan and Rahmani are conveniently tabulated by Andrey Feuerverger, “Statistical Analysis of an Archaeological Find,” The Annals of Applied Statistics 2 (2008): 3-54.

[xxiii] Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, p. 11.

[xxiv] Rahmani’s catalogue, though published in 1994, only covers ossuaries in the Israeli State collection up through August, 1989, see Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, p. 1.

[xxv] The primary and most fundamental statistical study is that of Feuerverger, op. cit., followed by six discussion papers in response and a final rejoinder by Feuerverger, pp. 66-73; 99-112. Since that publication the statistical discussion and its variables has been considerably advanced by Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott, see “Probability, Statistics, and the Talpiot Tomb,” “Inside the Numbers on the Talpiot Tombs,” and “Talpiot Dethroned.” A comprehensive overview of the various statistical proposals with their strengths, weaknesses, and varied assumptions is provided by Jerry Lutgen in his most enlightening paper, “The Talpiot Tomb: What Are the Odds?”

[xxvi] See Hannah M. Cotton, and others, eds., Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palaestinae, vol. I.1 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2010), p. 8-9. The 21 “Jesus” inscribed ossuaries in this latest catalogue are the following: nos. 36, 109, 139, 195, 206, 239, 247, 267, 295, 320, 425, 456, 473, 474, 479, 480, 489, 546, 547, 548, 583. For a brief preliminary analysis see the appendix to my paper SBL/ASOR paper, “The Tombs of Talpiot: An Overview of the Jesus Discovery.”

[xxvii] See Jodi Magness, ” Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?,” SBL Forum,  as well as my response: James D. Tabor, ” Two Burials of Jesus of Nazareth and The Talpiot Yeshua Tomb,” SBL Forum .

[xxviii] See Luke 8:2-3; 23:55-56.

[xxix] Antiquities 20. 200-201.

[xxx] See Jack Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Testament, Revised edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 359-74 for a summary of the positive case. Not all scholars agree. James Strange, offers an assessment of the evidence for and against, see “Archaeological Evidence of Jewish Believers,” in Jewish Believers in Jesus: The Early Centuries, Oskar Skarsaune and Reidar Hvalvik, editors (Henrickson: Peabody, 2007), pp. 710-741. For other dissenting views see Joan Taylor, Christians and the Holy Places (New York: Oxford University Press,1993), as well as Gideon Avni and Shimon Gibson, “The ‘Jewish-Christian’ Tomb From the Mount of Offense (Batn Al-Hawa’) in Jerusalem Reconsidered.” Revue Biblique 115 (1998):161-175.

[xxxi] See Syriac, Recognitions 1.43.3 as reconstructed by Robert E. Van Voorst, The Ascents of James: History and Theology of a Jewish-Christian Community, SBL Dissertation Series 112 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).

[xxxii] Amos Kloner and Boaz Zissu, The Necropolis of Jerusalem in the Second Temple Period, Interdisciplinary Studies in Ancient Culture and Religion 8 (Leuven—Dudley, MA: Peeters, 2007).


  1. The final published version of this paper appears as “The Talpiot ‘Jesus’ Tomb: A Historical Analysis,” 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, 2013, pp. 247-266. 

Talpiot Tomb Talk: The Assumptions of Language and the Language of Assumptions

No one maintains that the tomb of Joseph Caiaphas, discovered just south of the Old City of Jerusalem at Abu Tor on a cold November day in 1990 can not be the tomb of the New Testament High Priest Caiaphas because they believe that Caiaphas was taken bodily up to heaven, or that the inscription is too sloppy, or that he would have been buried in a more monumental tomb given his status.

Language is as tricky and misleading as it is vital and essential. This is so much more the case when it comes to controversial topics such as evaluating the Talpiot tomb with regard to its possible identification as the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  If we were talking about the tomb of a Hillel or a Socrates that had been potentially discovered in Jerusalem or Athens, much of the discussion, and thus the language, would dramatically shift to neutral.

The two Talpiot tombs located on an ancient rich family estate just south of the Herodian Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem overlooking the main road to Mar Saba and the Dead Sea
The two Talpiot tombs located on an ancient rich family estate just south of the Herodian Walls of the Old City of Jerusalem overlooking the main road to Mar Saba and the Dead Sea

A helpful analogue is the 1990 discovery of a tomb just south of the Old City with ossuaries and inscriptions that some excavators and scholars identified as the family tomb of Caiaphas, including the bones of a Joseph Caiaphas, the same name as the high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus according to the gospels. Is it possible, or even likely, that this tomb is that of the Caiaphas of the New Testament? Is the evidence compelling? What are the objections and problems with such an identification? Most of that has now been sorted out, but no one maintains that it “can’t be” the tomb of Caiaphas for theological reasons–that he was taken bodily to heaven. There are in fact a few scholars who have questioned the identification with the N.T. Caiaphas. They have argued that the evidence is not sufficiently compelling to draw that conclusion, and would hold it is “a Caiaphas” family but not necessarily the Caiaphas family. I am aware of no one who has argued that it “can not be” the Caiaphas family tomb.

With the Talpiot Jesus tomb things are dramatically different–and understandably so. Because the topic is so potentially “hot” various sides have much invested in the outcome. For many, even among the scholars who have weighed in on the topic, their declared belief that Jesus rose bodily to heaven, precludes from the outset, even before any examination of evidence, that this tomb belonged to Jesus of Nazareth. Most of the academics in this category would affirm that such beliefs have absolutely nothing to do with their position that this “could not be” the Talpiot tomb. There are other sensitive issues such as a potential backlash of antisemitism, since this tomb is part of an official excavation of the Israel Antiquities Authority (Dept of Antiquities in 1980). Is holding custody of a “tomb of Jesus,” and dealing with bones of the Holy Family, really something that the Jewish State of Israel needs to be involved in? There is also a tendency among scholars to avoid sensational topics, particularly those vetted in the media (“Ark of the Covenant” “Gold of the Exodus” “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” “The Davinci Code”), so that to suggest serious consideration of this ultimate “sensational” site, a family tomb of Jesus, is bound to generate lots of scoffing and outright dismissal. The Academy is accustomed to consider far more standard subjects. And then there are the skeptics and anti-Christian folk who would dearly love it if the tomb of Jesus were found, as a way of poking the eye of evangelical and orthodox Christian believers. Finally, in a matter this sensitive, where there are no in situ photos of the excavation with the ossuaries intact, no bone reports, no official DNA tests, and no correlation record of where in the tomb a given cataloged ossuary was found, those responsible have been put on the defensive to explain the hows and whys, with resulting emotions and tensions.

Consider the following three statements, from one single prominent academic colleague who has written extensively on the Talpiot Jesus tomb:

  • “I think we have to remain open to the possibility that this tomb is that of Jesus but so far we are lacking compelling evidence and many of the assertions of the film have been shown to be questionable.”
  • “There is a near universal scholarly consensus that the Talpiot tomb could not be the Tomb of Jesus”
  • “My conclusion is that in no way can we say that the lost tomb of Jesus is the same as the one in East Talpiot”

Is this to say then such an identification is possible but not compelling, or “impossible.” The language is not clear. Others have said the identification thesis is “possibly but not likely,” “very improbable,” or “unlikely.”

Always in the background, and often in the foreground, is the March 2007  Discovery Channel TV documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and the publication of the book, The Jesus Family Tomb, both of which argued that the Talpiot tomb was indeed the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family—including Mary Magdalene his wife, and an otherwise unknown “Judah, son of Jesus,” their son.1 It is entirely possible to question any number of the theses or assertions in the film but nonetheless to conclude that a scientific evaluation of the tomb itself does yield evidence in favor of the Jesus family identification. It might be beneficial to try and move the film from the center of the academic discussion, whether one views it as good, bad, or ugly. The heated emotions, provoked by the film, have seemed to shift the agenda to the filmmakers rather than an evaluation of the site.

All this aside it seems to me that we have the following range of language that might help shed some light on “Evaluating the Talpiot tomb in context,” to pull a phrase from the title of the 2008 Jerusalem Symposium.  The papers from this important conference are now published by James Charlesworth in his edited volume, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls, Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids/Cambridge, UK: Eerdmans, 2013). I highly recommend interested readers get a copy of this volume and read it through carefully. The volume runs over 500 pages with abundant illustrations so it is well worth the price. After the conference several scholars who attended published a statement denying that the evidence for any identification with Jesus of Nazareth was convincing, though since some of the “signatories” have subsequently clarified that they do not agree with the statement and their names were mistakenly included. See the Duke University blog here and be sure to read the comments (especially that of Itamar Bernstein), as well as my own formal response on the SBL site here.

PrincetonTalpiot

Given the question: “Can the Talpiot tomb arguably be identified with a family tomb of Jesus?” one might propose the following grid of responses, beyond “Definitely not.” After all, one might hold that such an identification is “definitely not” supported by the evidence, yet still consider it possible but just not proved. Or, another might totally reject the identification for compelling negative reasons.

  • Impossible: strong negative evidence to the contrary
  • Improbable: weight of the evidence does not support the thesis with some negatives weighing against
  • Possible but not compelling: evidence in favor is there but just not enough data and information to so conclude
  • Possible and compelling: bulk of the evidence fits with no serious negatives

One of the clearest ways of approaching this issue is just to list the positives and the negatives. If indeed, as some have argued, Jesus could not have been buried in a rock hewn tomb, or in Jerusalem itself, then clearly this “could not be” the tomb. However, there is a wide range between “could not be” and “not enough positive evidence.”

I want to point out that I am using “possible” in the scientific/academic sense, not in the unrestricted sense, “Well, anything is possible.” One might say, for example, it is “possible” that atoms move because they are pushed by invisible demon forces,” and there is no way to “falsify” such an assertion. But in the world of science, such a “hypothesis” can not be taken seriously. In terms of the Talpiot tomb, the notion that this “could not be” the Jesus’ tomb because he was taken bodily to heaven is not on the academic table, so that the “anything is possible” refrain does not apply.

The Encyclopedia Britannica offers the following on the all-important “Principle of Falsification,” which is the bedrock of science. Those of us who are historians, working in the “soft sciences,” utilize this principle as an ideal, though often we have no methods for testing:

“Being unrestricted, scientific theories cannot be verified by any possible accumulation of observational evidence. The formation of hypothesis is a creative process of the imagination and is not a passive reaction to observed regularities. A scientific test consists in a persevering search for negative, falsifying instances. If a hypothesis survives continuing and serious attempts to falsify it, then it has “proved its mettle” and can be provisionally accepted, but it can never be established conclusively.”

What I have suggested is that we begin with a “hypothetical pre-70 CE tomb of the Jesus family,” and then compare it to the Talpiot tomb. This is the method I pursued in my article, “Testing a Hypothesis,” published in Near Eastern Archaeology way back in 2006. I have not found reason to change my mind, but to the contrary, since that paper was published the evidence that can be brought into consideration using this method has greatly expanded, see the book, The Jesus Discovery, and summarized in my ASOR paper here.

Jesus Discovery Paper RD

Such an approach does not mean that the results are merely “hypothetical,” in some reduced sense of the term, since all scientific and historical conclusions are by definition hypothetical. Just to pose the question: Can we identify this tomb with that of Jesus?” already presupposes we are considering something “hypothetical.” One has to have a method, otherwise one’s conclusions can tend to be impressionistic and unsystematic.

The use of the principle of falsification, so much as the evidence allows, offers a way to bring some clarity into our deliberations. Working with the historically constructed model of a hypothetical “Jesus family tomb” does not mean that one begins with the assumption that the Talpiot tomb is that tomb, thus “stacking the deck” in favor, as some have argued. This is simply the way that science proceeds, never with certainty, but one hopes, as my teacher Jonathan Z. Smith used to say, “in the direction of the truth.”

What this means, in the case of the Talpiot tomb, is that falsifying or negative instances, of sufficient force and certainty, would make impossible or highly improbable the identification with Jesus. What one must then do is “test” all possible “falsifications” against the evidence we have, as best we can.
A few of the proposed falsifications most often voiced by colleagues are the following:

  • Jesus could not be buried in Jerusalem at all, his family tomb would be in Nazareth
  • Jesus would have been put in a trench grave, not a rock-hewn tomb
  • Yose is a very common form of Yehosef and thus carries no statistical weight
  • Jesus of Nazareth was never married and thus could not have had a son named Judah
  • Jesus was buried in the location in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher so could not be in a tomb in Talpiot

If any of these could be established and be of sufficient weight to falsify the hypothesis being tested then one would have to conclude, depending on the certainty of the falsification, that the Talpiot tomb either “can not be” or “is highly unlikely to be” that of Jesus. So the question is, are these “falsifications” sufficient and valid? The fact is all of them have been shown to be invalid despite their constant repetition by critics of the “Talpiot tomb theory” as it is often called. We address each of these in detail in The Jesus Discovery.

Unfortunately, in the case of the Talpiot tomb there are any number of “falsification” possibilities that are not available to us–full DNA testing, examination of the bones in the tomb, and documented evidence of the positioning of the ossuaries in situ. If we even knew how the 10 ossuaries were grouped in the niches of the tomb it might tell us volumes about the relationships between the six named individuals. The tomb adjacent to the Talpiot tomb, now explored in a preliminary way by camera, has in fact brought us significant new evidence to supplement our addressing the question, “Is this likely the family tomb of Jesus?”


  1. The Discovery Channel film was produced by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron and the book was coauthored by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History (New York: HarperSanfrancisco, 2007). A revised and expanded paperback edition was published in 2008 with an updated title: The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No One Wanted to Find (New York: HarperOne, 2008).