What’s What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary?

The CNN “Finding Jesus” special  titled “Secret Brother of Jesus,” that dealt with with the question of whether Jesus had brothers and sisters as well as the controversies surrounding the “James ossuary” has put the latter back in the news. For those a bit rusty on the background of all this here is an overview in two parts covering the basics and all the latest developments.

On October 21, 2002 the dramatic headline news flashed around the world—First Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone! Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the flagship magazine of the non-profit Biblical Archaeology Society, held a press conference packed with journalists at the Marriot Hotel in Washington, D.C. He revealed that a limestone “bone box,” called an ossuary, reliably dated to the 1st century CE, had recently surfaced in Israel in the hands of an unnamed private collector. It was inscribed in Aramaic, Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui di Yeshua. English translation: James son of Joseph brother of Jesus. Shanks announced that scientists at the prestigious Geological Survey of Israel had verified the authenticity of the ossuary itself, and world-renowned Sorbonne epigrapher André Lemaire—an expert in ancient scripts—had also authenticated the inscription. Based on these verifications, and the statistical improbabilities of these names and relationships referring to anyone else in that time, Shanks asserted that this ossuary had once held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. If correct, this would be the first and only archaeological artifact from the time of Jesus to mention his name.

Inscription on the face of the James Ossuary. Credit: Lori L. Woodall

Major media throughout the world, including the New York Times and virtually every other newspaper in the world, the major wire services, and all the major TV networks, picked up the story immediately. Shanks released photographs, passed out press releases, and the full story, including Lemaire’s analysis, and that of the geologists, was published in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.1 Shanks and his co-author, professor Ben Witherington also released a book, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family to coincide with the press conference.

Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici was present throughout these dramatic events as he had contracted with Shanks to produce a TV documentary on the James ossuary that aired on the Discovery Channel, in over seventy countries, the following Easter, 2003. This much overlooked documentary is one of the best and most basic treatments of the controversial ossuary. I highly recommend it.2

Shanks then dropped another bombshell—the ossuary itself was being flown from Israel and would be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, beginning November 15, 2002—just over a month away. The city and the date had been chosen to coincide with the annual professional meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Schools of Oriental Research that would be gathering the weekend before Thanksgiving in Toronto. These meetings would bring together over 10,000 of the world’s biblical scholars, professors of religion, and biblical archaeologists.

The orchestration of all of these related publications and activities could not have been more effective. The James ossuary was already being hailed as perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.

The exhibition was an overwhelming success drawing nearly 10,000 visitors to the ROM to see the ossuary. I almost crossed paths in Toronto that November with Simcha Jacobovici–whom I had never met. I was attending the annual meetings and had been invited by Shanks to join him and a group of about thirty professors for a private after-hours viewing of the exhibit. Simcha was there to document the gathering and get the first live reactions of the scholars. A who’s who of biblical scholars, experts in ancient inscriptions, and historians, filled the exhibit hall that evening. Fortunately my wife Lori was with me and took some professional photos that captured the spirit of the event and have been subsequently published in Biblical Archaeology Review magazine.

Everyone present seemed genuinely moved by the ossuary itself and impressed with its authenticity, including the renowned epigraphers Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, Joseph Fitzmyer of Catholic University of America, and Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University–all of whom said in my presence that they found the inscription to be authentic from a paleographic examination. In addition to the viewing, there was a special plenary session with a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting that weekend. The only objection expressed on a panel that included André Lemaire, and several leading historians and archaeologists, was that giving such attention to an artifact that had been purchased on the antiquities market, and thus lacked any archaeological context that could serve to inform its interpretation, was less than ideal. One has to remember that this was the case for many of the Dead Sea Scrolls that first came to public view in 1947 because they were being offered for sale by the Bedouin who claimed to have found them in caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Sometimes the value of such archaeological finds, no matter how they end up coming to the attention of competent scholars for evaluation, outweighs these less than ideal circumstances. This is simply the reality of things in the Middle East. The archaeologists do not make some of the most important discoveries in licensed and controlled settings, but rather circumstance and luck, or even looting play their roles. Because of this lack of context one has to always be cautious, since possibility a convincing forgery is always present.3

James Ossuary Viewing, Toronto, 2002. Credit: Lori L. Woodall
James Ossuary Viewing, Toronto, 2002. Credit: Lori L. Woodall

By the time of the Toronto exhibit the name of the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, had been leaked. The IAA launched an investigation and by the summer of 2003, just a few months after Simcha Jacobovici’s Discovery TV documentary had been released, a team of Israeli experts issued a report that concluded that although the James ossuary itself was authentic, Golan had forged all or part of the ossuary inscription in order to increase its value. Golan and four other co-conspirators, including Robert Deutsch, one of Israel’s leading antiquities dealer, were indicted on 44 charges of forgery and antiquities trafficking, not only of the James ossuary, but another inscribed artifact that had appeared on the black market in January of that year.4

The Forgery Trial of the Century

The criminal trial (482/04 State of Israel v. Oded Golan), began in December, 2004. In the meantime charges were dropped against all but Golan and Deutsch5

Once the indictments were announced and the trial began in Jerusalem, a virtual bandwagon of opposition to the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription followed. This included articles in the New Yorker and Archaeology magazine, a segment on 60 Minutes and stories in most major newspapers around the world, as well as countless blog and internet posts—all concluding that Oded Golan had was part of an extended forgery ring and there was conclusive physical evidence that the James ossuary inscription was a forgery.6 Since then two major books have been published, one popular, the other scholarly, purporting to document the entire scandal and weighing in on the side of forgery.7 The academic response on the whole has been harsh and final: “the archaeological fact [is] that the inscription is a modern forgery.”8

The general public appears to have been convinced by this tsunami of criticism, so most of the original excitement and enthusiasm for this biblical artifact has dissipated. Hershel Shanks, an experienced lawyer, and his co-author Ben Witherington, have stood their ground but reserved final judgment. Their current position is that a convincing case for forgery has not been made. A few scattered academics have agreed but by far the mainstream would chuckle at any serious mention of the James ossuary inscription as an authentic find from the time of Jesus.9 Likewise, the scientists at the Geological Survey of Israel have not retracted their initial judgment as to the authenticity of the inscription and the ancient patina covering the ossuary, based on their initial physical tests.

Detailed Drawing of James Ossuary Inscription by Shimon Gibson
Detailed Drawing of James Ossuary Inscription by Shimon Gibson

On October 3, 2010, both the prosecution and the defense concluded their cases. The trial that had lasted seven years came to an end.  Judge Aharon Farkash came to a verdict on March 14, 2012.  Golan was acquitted of the forgery charges but convicted of illegal trading in antiquities. The judge said this acquittal “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic.” The ossuary has since been returned to its owner, Oded Golan, who plans to put it on public display.

Oded James Ossuary

It should be noted, despite the widespread perception that the inscription was forged so far not a single epigrapher has disqualified the ossuary inscription on paleographic grounds in legal testimony—that is, the style of the writing and its integrity. See Hershel Shanks’s summary of the overall case for authenticity here.  You can also download the free book, James,  Brother of Jesus: The Forgery Trial of the Century, produced by the Biblical Archaeology Society.

 Expert epigraphers can usually spot forgeries by examining the form and style of the letters and comparing them with inscriptions of the period in question that are known to be authentic from the archaeological contexts in which they were found. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been authenticated in this way, even though many of them also surfaced on the black market without any verifiable archaeological context. The IAA case for forgery was partly circumstantial, but primarily based on physical tests conducted by Yuval Goren. He concluded that the letters of the inscription cut through the original patina of the ossuary—the natural growth of chemical deposits that builds up over time on stone—showing that the incisions were made later—in modern times.10 The indictment further charged that Golan had clumsily tried to apply a fake patina over the inscription, once he had carved it, applying a pastiche he created and mixed with hot water. The case of the prosecution suffered a tremendous blow when it was shown by experts that although the ossuary inscription had been cleaned by its owner, there was nonetheless original, authentic patina in the grooves of the letters—showing it could not have been added later. The chief witness for the prosecution on the patina authenticity, once all the testimony was out, admitted under oath that this was the case.11  Based on all the trial evidence presented I think the case in favor of authenticity has become quite compelling.

Statistician Prof. Camille Fuchs had examined the prevalence of names of deceased Jewish male individuals in Jerusalem in the first century CE. He determined that it is possible to determine at a very high probability, close to 99%, that between the years 45-70 AD not more than one adult male Jew with the name James who had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus is likely to have lived in Jerusalem.12

A Missing Ossuary

Early on in our investigation Talpiot tombs, we began to consider the possibility that the unprovenanced James ossuary might have come from the Garden tomb. It was speculation at first, a hypothesis that if proven would substantiate the mounting evidence linking the Garden tomb with Jesus of Nazareth.   If the mystery of the origin of the James Ossuary was somehow settled, and it did come from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, its tie to Jesus of Nazareth could hardly be questioned and of course that probability statistics based on the names found in the tomb would go through the roof. Along with the new finds in the Patio tomb, so clearly connecting these tombs to faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we would be in a position to advance our understanding of the faith of Jesus’ first followers in a most significant way.

Joseph Gath’s initial report on the Garden tomb’s excavation clearly states that there were ten ossuaries originally in the tomb. Presumably all ten were transported to the IAA lab at the Rockefeller for cataloguing and analysis. Here are Gath’s own words:

During the archaeological dig at the site 10 ossuaries were found in the different niches. No primary burial was found in the niches and only one niche was found without ossuaries (Niche no. 4). On the floor of the main room there were remains of bones, including skulls and limb bones below the burial shelves.13

In 2005, when I first visited the IAA storage warehouse in Bet Shemesh outside Jerusalem to examine the Talpiot Jesus tomb ossuaries, I was accompanied by Shimon Gibson, who had been the surveyor for the excavation in April, 1980. We were both astounded when the curator informed us that everything was ready, handing us an inventory list, and offering to bring out all the ossuaries, but explaining that only nine of the ten ossuaries from this tomb were listed on his tally. He apologized, explaining that they had searched for the tenth but had no idea what had happened to it, even though it had been given a cataloguing number in 1980. His precise words were, “The tenth ossuary has gone missing.” Shimon rechecked the map he had drawn of the tomb at the time of the excavation—there was no doubt, the tomb had originally contained ten ossuaries.

Shimon and I spent hours searching through the archive files of the IAA. There were clear photos of only nine ossuaries, but nothing in the records about a tenth. We checked the 1996 published report on the tomb prepared by Amos Kloner, who was supervisor over Gath and had overseen the excavation. Kloner described each of the first nine ossuaries in detail along with the original photographs. At the end of his roster he listed the tenth, but with a one-word description and no photo:

  1. IAA 80.509: 60 x 26 x 30 cm. Plain

From this one line we knew that at least it had been given a catalogue number but no one seemed to have any idea what happened to it and the curator explained that it should have been photographed as part the routine registration process. He and his staff had searched and had found nothing.

Later we noticed that the Rahmani catalogue of ossuaries in the Israeli state collection also included only nine (nos. 701-709), with the comment that the tenth was plain and broken and was not retained. Its catalogue number: 80.509 is simply not included–with the list of ossuaries jumping from 80.508 to 80.510.14 I was finishing my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that summer I had noticed that the dimensions of the James ossuary were officially published as: 56.5 x 25 x 30.5—close but not exactly the same as the missing tenth ossuary. Simcha Jacobovici subsequently was able to re-measure the James ossuary under IAA supervision, using the standard template indicating where to take length, width, and height measurements. It was 56.5 x 25.7 x 29.5—a bit closer to the dimensions Kloner had published. Where Kloner got these dimensions we have no idea. They are not in the IAA official files on the excavation of this tomb. Apparently he has his own records of the excavation that he has not made public.

It should be noted that the James ossuary was not rectangular in shape but trapezoid, so that its dimensions, depending on which side or end measured, would vary slightly.15 For us there was enough of a “fit” that we did not think the possibility that the James ossuary was the missing tenth from the Talpiot tomb should be dismissed. Obviously, there would need to be much more evidence but I decided to mention this possibility in my book, The Jesus Dynastypublished in 200616

After the book was out I was in Jerusalem and I met with Joe Zias, a close friend who was the anthropologist at the IAA in 1980. I wanted to know what Joe thought might have happened to the tenth ossuary, based on how materials were catalogued and handled in those days. Joe said he had no specific recollection of that particular tomb or ossuary but he suggested three possibilities: 1) It was simply misplaced in storage rather than being shelved where it should be with the other nine; 2) it had been put outside in the courtyard of the Rockefeller because of lack of space and lost its tag and would now be unidentifiable; or, 3) it was discarded during one of the moves of the IAA collection since 1980—from the Rockefeller, to a warehouse in Romena, and finally to Bet Shemesh. Joe explained that things regularly go missing, with millions of artifacts from thousands of excavations, but often they show up again. Joe was quite sure the missing tenth ossuary had nothing to do with the James ossuary and told James he thought his speculation in that regard was irresponsible and misleading. That is how things stood in 2006.

See also “The Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb


  1. André Lemaire, “Burial Box of James, the Brother of Jesus: Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Jesus Found in Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6 (2002): 24-33, 70. The SEM-EDS geological analysis conducted by Amnon Rosenfeld and Shimon Ilani was also summarized in this issue, p. 29. 

  2. James: Brother of Jesus, Holy Relic or Hoax. It was shown over the course of the next month in over eighty additional countries. 

  3. See the observations of Yuval Goren on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Goren_Jerusalem_Syndrome.shtml

  4. The other inscription, the Yohoash tablet, was a stone artifact with a Hebrew text that was purported to come from the reign of King Jehash in the 9th century BCE (see 1 Kings 12). See Uzi Dahari, ed., Final Report of the Examining Committee for the Yehoash Inscription and James Ossuary (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2003) for the results of the IAA investigation. The reports are conveniently posted on-line: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/Final_Reports.shtml. A summary of this report with comments also appears in the revised edition of Shanks’ and Witherington’s book, The Brother of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004), pp. 227-237. 

  5. Correspondent Matthew Kalman serially reported on the entire trial for Time magazine and his articles are archived on his web site: http://jamesossuarytrial.blogspot.com/. Oded Golan has recently released his own account of the trial proceedings titled “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Tablet Inscriptions—Summary of Expert Trial Witness,” available here: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml. His summary appears to provide convincing evidence that he was falsely accused and that both artifacts and their inscriptions are authentic. 

  6. Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren, “Faking Biblical History,” Archaeology 56:5 (2003): 20-29; David Samuels, “Written in Stone,” New Yorker, April 12, 2004, pp. 48-59. 

  7. Nina Burleigh, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greek, and Forgery in the Holy Land (New York: Harper-Collins, 2008) and Ryan Byrne and Bernadette McNary-Zak, eds., Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009). 

  8. Byron R. McCane, “Archaeological Context and Controversy,” in Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus, op. cit. p. 20; http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/West_reply.shtml; http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Ossuary_Again.shtml

  9. See the comments of Craig Evans on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Evans_Thoughts.shtml

  10. See Goren’s report at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Goren_report.shtml

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

  12. Camil Fuchs: “Demography, literacy and names distribution in ancient Jerusalem: How many James/Jacob son of Joseph, brother of Jesus were there?” in The Polish Journal of Biblical Research 4:1 (2005): 3-30. 

  13. Gath published this short preliminary report in Hebrew in 1981, but before the ossuary inscriptions had been deciphered (Hadashot Arkheologiyot 76 (1981), pp. 24-26. Translation is by Noam Kusar. The Jesus tomb has two ledges or “primary burial shelves,” (arcosolia) on the northern and eastern walls upon which corpses were laid out for the first year so they would decompose. 

  14. See Rahmani, Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, p. 222. 

  15. It should also be noted that Rahmani’s catalogue often gives two differing measurements for individual ossuaries, recording initial measurements as well as subsequent lab measurements that were more precise. It is also possible, since the James ossuary was broken and restored in November, 2002, when it was flown to Canada to be put on display, that its measurements today might tend to be slightly less than when it was first measured. 

  16. See James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-83. 

There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 4)

In early Christian tradition outside the New Testament Mary Magdalene profile is elaborated considerably, she is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her against the criticism of the other apostles who are jealous of her role and standing.

Jesus & Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene as the Apostle of the Apostles

            We have seen how Mary Magdalene, and in some case her female entourage, are portrayed as “first witness” to Jesus’ empty tomb and given the commission to tell the male disciples he is risen in our New Testament gospels. In Mark the women flee from the tomb and say nothing to anyone (Mark 16:9). In Luke they report to the Eleven remaining apostles but their testimony is considered an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In Matthew, as the women flee the tomb they meet Jesus, grab hold of his feet, and worship him, and he directs them to tell the male apostles he will meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Finally in John, Mary goes alone to the tomb and has her personal encounter and exchange with Jesus, thus becoming the singular first witness to Jesus raised from the dead and ascending to heaven (John 20:11-18).

Outside the New Testament there are a dozen or so ancient texts, most of them discovered in the last hundred years, that present an alternative “lost” portrait of Mary Magdalene and her role as Jesus’ female apostle extraordinaire—quite literally the apostle of the apostles and the successor to Jesus. Five of them were discovered in Egypt in 1945, buried in a jar in a field outside a village called Nag Hammadi.  These texts are:  The Gospel of Thomas, The Dialogue of the Savior, The First Apocalypse of James, The Gospel of Philip, and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. The others, including Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Mary, and the Acts of Philip, have turned up in various places, whether on the antiquities market, an archaeological dig, or lost or forgotten in ancient libraries. In these texts Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ intimate confidant and companion, one who possesses unparalleled spiritual insights that she received directly from him. She is praised, but also at times opposed—especially by Peter, leader of the male apostles, who is threatened by her position and status based on her special relationship with Jesus. These texts originate outside the mainstream, that is, the male dominated form of orthodox Christianity that began to take hold and triumph down to the time of Constantine, the first Christian emperor (c. 325 CE). The canonical New Testament, with its twenty-seven approved documents were increasingly seen to be the only authorized texts, inspired by God, while these other sacred texts were marginalized, declared heretical, and eventually lost and forgotten. They are witness to the diverse mix of “Christianities” that were developing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE before a more singular orthodoxy, backed by Christian councils and creeds, took center stage.

Professor Schaberg has constructed a working profile of Mary Magdalene from these texts, isolating the major elements. She is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her.[i]

Continue reading “There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 4)”

There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 3)

The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.

We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.

A Married Jesus and the Silence of the New Testament

            Even though there is no explicit reference to Jesus being married in any of the four gospels or other New Testament writings the silence might turn out to be less deafening than one would suppose. There are several factors one must consider in making the judgment that he lived a celibate single life.[i]

MaryMagdaleneSinner

First, it is important to realize that we know very little about the historical Jesus. What historians are relatively certain about could be written down on a single piece of paper. What we have in the gospels are not biographies of Jesus—far from it—but theological presentations regarding his preaching, healing, and in particular the significance of his death and resurrection. They contain almost no personal information. The gospel of Mark, for example, never names or mentions Jesus’ father while the gospel of John never names his mother. We have one childhood story, when he was twelve years old, and most scholars consider it a standard literary motif, not a historical account (Luke 2:41-52).[ii] We know nothing of his life beyond that point, including his teens and 20s when most Jewish males were expected to marry.

Second, in regards to the Twelve apostles, no wife is specifically mentioned or named for any of them. None of their children are mentioned or named—how many, what they did, or any personal details about them. Most of the Twelve, with the exception of Peter, hardly speak at all in our gospel accounts—a few lines at most.

This silence hardly means that none of them were married. In fact, there is a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed of a fever in Mark 1:30—but her name is never given. Paul refers to the wives of the other apostles and the brothers of Jesus, but again, no names are given (1 Corinthians 9:5). He even mentions that these women accompanied their husbands on their missionary travels. We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.[iii]

Third, celibacy was not considered an ideal or valued lifestyle among Jews in the Greco-Roman period. Even though it is mistakenly believed that the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, valued and practiced celibacy, this notion is a pure invention. They were one of the three major Jewish groups of this period, along with Pharisees and Sadducees. This misunderstanding stems from the reports of Josephus the Jewish historian (37-100 CE), Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Hellenistic philosopher (20 BCE-50 CE), and Pliny, the Elder, a Roman official (23-79 CE) about the Essenes. Each of these writers projected their own admiration of celibate idealism onto the Essenes, though, ironically, each of these writers was married. Josephus, for example, in writing of the sect of the Essenes, makes the following observation about women and marriage:

They [the Essenes] do not absolutely deny the value of marriage, and the succession of the human race is thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.[iv]

Such a negative attitude toward women commended here by Josephus, who was unhappily married three times has no basis in history. Philo writes:

[the Essenes] repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practice self-control to a remarkable degree; for no one of the Essenes ever marries a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, addicted to jealousy and skilled at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued deceptions.[v]

Pliny the Elder says that the Essenes “have no women and have renounced all sexual desire.[vi] We know that what each of these men claim about the Essenes is untrue. What is most telling here is that none of these three were celibate, all were married.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, representing over 600 texts of the period before and after the time of Jesus, were discovered hidden away in caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956, never hint at celibacy, but quite the opposite. Like other pious Jews of the time, they strictly adhered to the first commandment in the Torah: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The Scrolls are full of instructions about marriage, divorce, and avoiding fornication, or sex outside of marriage.[vii]

Jesus as well as John the Baptist have been rightly connected to the apocalyptic and messianic ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though neither was likely a formal member of the Dead Sea community, there are common ideas they share. Since the Dead Sea community is most often identified as Essenes, and it is mistakenly assumed that the Essenes practiced celibacy, the argument is often made that Jesus’ own celibacy arises out of this context

Continue reading “There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 3)”

There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 2)

A Woman Called Magdalene

            Mary Magdalene is referred to by name only twelve times in our New Testament gospels and never again in any of the other New Testament writings. As we have seen she appears at the death scene of Jesus, his burial, and the empty tomb, and then disappears totally from the record. If the New Testament writings were all we had we would be hard pressed to say anything more about her. Before I move to an alternative world of early Christian texts outside the New Testament that present an entirely different picture of her status and relationship to Jesus and the Twelve apostles, I want to briefly examine why she might be called Magdalene, distinguishing her from the other Marys in the gospel narratives—including Jesus’ mother and particularly, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom she has often been confused.

Judah

In the Greek texts of the gospels she is known by three slightly differing descriptions: Maria the Magdalene, Miriam the Magdalene, and Maria the one called Magdalene.[i] The majority of scholars understand the designation “Magdalene” to refer to the city of Magdala (or Migdal in Hebrew) located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee about seven miles north of Tiberius. The Greeks called the city Taricheia, referring to the pickling of salted fish from the Sea of Galilee, exported throughout the Roman Empire. According to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Migdal was walled on the west side and it had a large aqueduct system, a theater, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail.[ii]

Josephus fortified the city as his headquarters when he became commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in the 1st Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73 CE). It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and fully exposed to Greco-Roman culture. Shortly after the first Jewish revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, the Roman military commander Vespasian, who was later to become emperor, surrounded the city with three Roman legions and laid siege. He stationed 2000 archers on the mountain to the west overlooking the city. There was a great naval battle at its port and thousands of Jews, defenseless in small boats were slaughtered. Josephus, an eyewitness, reports that the Sea of Galilee was red with blood, with stinking corpses filling its shoreline for days to follow. The city finally surrendered and opened its gates while thousands of inhabitants who had fled south toward Tiberius were slaughtered or exiled.[iii] 1200 older people were executed, 6000 of the strongest sent as a gift to the emperor Nero, and 34,400 were sent off as slaves.

Continue reading “There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 2)”

There’s Something About Mary . . . Magdalene (Part 1)

Paul indicates that “seeing the Lord” is an essential criterion for one claiming to be an apostle. According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection.” Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter, James, or any of the Twelve apostles.

MM & Corpse Is it probable that Jesus was married?  And that he could have fathered a child?  These claims are in such direct contradiction to our received tradition that it is hard to believe.  Furthermore, there have been such sensational claims in the past, particularly in the famous novel, The DaVinci Code, that it is important to be skeptical and to base any claims on solid evidence.  It is for this reason that in my last book, The Jesus Dynasty, I argued that I did not believe there was sufficient evidence to argue that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had had a child.  But to be a scholar is to remain open to new data and new interpretations and always to be willing to change one’s position.  Based on new evidence, I now believe that my earlier position was most likely mistaken.

The New Testament says nothing directly about Jesus being married or having a child.  If Jesus had been married with a child would there not be some record, even some hint of this somewhere in the gospels? There are times when the silence of a text speaks volumes. Such silence can reflect absence, ignorance, or suppression. I am now convinced that in the case of Mary Magdalene the silence does not indicate he was unmarried. The authors of the New Testament gospels, written many decades after Jesus’ life, and when most of the original witnesses were dead, were either unaware of Jesus’ wife and child, or more likely, for theological reasons, decided to suppress this information.  The Jesus of these gospels was the divine Son of God, ascended to heaven, and any “earthly,” or sexual ties to a mortal woman were deemed inconceivable. His exalted heavenly status as the Son of God surely precluded him “leaving behind” such mortal remains. The New Testament gospels are male dominated accounts in which the few women who do play a role in Jesus’ life are marginalized and subordinated.   They purportedly did not hold leadership roles equivalent to the male disciples. This is not to say that the gospels are devoid of references to Mary Magdalene’s singular importance in Jesus life. To the contrary, the inclusion of narratives involving Mary Magdalene as intimately involved with Jesus’ mother and his sister in preparing Jesus’ naked corpse for burial, and as the first witness to his resurrection from the dead, signals how central her role must have been in his life. It is as though she could not be written out of the story entirely—but her relatively isolated inclusion in such an intimate and important way makes very little sense overall.

This silence is in sharp contrast to half a dozen other ancient texts that have been discovered in the last hundred years, including several “lost” gospels that are not included in the New Testament.  In these texts, Mary Magdalene is mentioned very prominently, given a role superior to the Twelve apostles, and presented as Jesus’ intimate companion. Even though these texts were written later than the New Testament gospels—most of them dating to the 2nd century CE—they also have their theological axes to grind yet nonetheless bear witness to an expanded and wholly alternative role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ life. As such they give voice to a suppressed history and a muted memory that correlates strongly with the evidence in the Talpiot tombs.

 

The fact that the Talpiot tomb contains two ossuaries inscribed with names of women—Maria on one and Mariamene Mara on the second—plus a third ossuary Judas son of Jesus, strongly suggests that one of these two Marys is most likely the mother of the son, and thus the wife of the Jesus buried in this tomb. The DNA evidence done on the bones from the Yeshua and the Mariamene ossuaries, further shows that Mariamene Mara is not Jesus’ mother or his sister, leaving her as a possible candidate for his wife, and thus the mother of the son Judas. Jesus of Nazareth had a mother named Mary, and apparently one of his sisters was also named Mary.[i] If Jesus’ sister Mary were married, which seems likely given the norms of the culture, she would not be in his tomb but in the tomb of her husband. If the Talpiot tomb is that of Jesus and his family, the second Mary—Maria—is most likely either his mother, unless she lived past 70 CE when the tomb went unused.  Alternatively, the second Mary could perhaps be a wife of one of his brothers. That leaves Mariamene Mara as the most likely candidate to be the mother of his child.

There is the related issue of the status of Mary Magdalene. The Mariamene buried in the Jesus family tomb is also known as Mara—the Lady. This title can potentially refer to her place of leadership and authority in the emerging Christian movement, a role that is hinted at by the evidence in the Talpiot tomb but never explicitly indicated in any of our sparse New Testament texts mentioning Mary Magdalene.

What I present here is a consideration of all the relevant ancient textual evidence regarding Mary Magdalene, both inside and outside the New Testament, with the new archaeological evidence from the Talpiot tombs. There is an impressive correlation between much of this textual material and what we observe in the tombs themselves.

Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels

            I begin with our earliest source on Mary Magdalene—the gospel of Mark, most scholars consider to have been written before Matthew, Luke, or John.  According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly the most mysterious and intriguing woman in Jesus’ life. She appears for the first time completely out of the blue, without any kind of introduction, watching the crucifixion of Jesus from afar. She is named first, surely giving her special priority, and she is associated with an entire group—one might even say, an entourage of women who had followed Jesus down from Galilee to Jerusalem just before the Passover festival began:

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41).

Luke supplements this tradition of Mark, also emphasizing the many women from Galilee who were followers of Jesus. He names Mary Magdalene first, implying she has some kind of leadership role, but then identifies two others, a certain Joanna, who is the wife of Chuza, a household administrator in the court of Herod Antipas, king of Galilee, and Susanna, otherwise unknown. The implication is that these women are of high standing with financial means. Luke specifies that they provided for the Jesus movement from their means (Luke 8:2-3).

In Mark’s gospel it was Mary Magdalene, along with the other Mary, the mother of Joses, most likely Jesus’ mother, who observe Joseph of Arimathea taking down the bloodied body from the cross, placing him temporarily in a nearby tomb, and sealing the entrance with a heavy stone, until the Passover was over (Mark 15:47).[ii] As soon as the Sabbath day was over Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary, probably Jesus’ mother, and an unidentified woman named Salome, possibly Jesus’ sister, bought spices so they might return to the tomb early Sunday morning to wash the corpse and complete the rites of burial. Mark relates that early on Sunday morning, again, Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary and Salome, go to the tomb very early, before the sun is risen, and find the stone rolled away and the body removed. Inside the tomb is a young man dressed in a white linen garment who informs the women that Jesus has been “raised up,” that they are to go and tell his male disciples, and that he is going to meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:1-4).[iii] According to Mark they fled from the tomb in fear and astonishment, saying nothing to anyone. In our oldest copies of Mark that is how the story ends—abruptly and mysteriously, with the promise to the women that Jesus will appear in Galilee in the future. The oldest copies of Mark have this abrupt ending with no “sightings” or appearances of Jesus to anyone. Later manuscripts or copies of Mark add on one of three different alternative endings, composed by editors to try and blunt the abruptness of Mark’s original ending. The fear was that Mark’s account, if left as is, might leave doubt as to Jesus’ resurrection.[iv]

Washing and anointing a corpse for Jewish burial was an honored and intimate task. The body was stripped naked and washed from head to toe. It was taken care of by the immediate family or those closely related. Although these narratives from Mark do not identify Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, they certainly cast her as taking the lead in carrying out the burial rites for Jesus—an extremely intimate task for a wife, mother, or sister. Matthew and Luke have Mark as their source, and although they relate the story of Jesus’ burial slightly differently, it is unlikely that they have much independent information. It is also entirely possible, writing so many decades after the events, when all of the original witnesses were dead, that they know the tradition of Mary Magdalene’s involvement in Jesus’ burial, and thus find it essential to include her, but have no idea who she was or why she is so prominent in the story they had received.

It is in the gospel of John one finds an alternative narrative tradition, one independent of Mark. What John brings to the table is utterly fascinating and sheds an entirely different light on what might have happened early that first Easter morning John writes that Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb, very early Sunday morning, while it was still dark. She sees the stone rolled away from the tomb and the body removed and she runs in panic to tell Peter and an unnamed disciple, otherwise identified as the “one whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). What she exclaims to the men is most revealing:

They have taken the Master out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2).[v]

In this account Mary Magdalene’s logical assumption is that the body has been removed from the temporary tomb, which John has already emphasized was a tomb of convenience in an emergency, not a permanent burial cave (John 19:41-42). Her reference to “they” obviously refers to Joseph of Arimathea, assisted by another Sanhedrin member, Nicodemus, whom John says assisted in the initial removal of the body from the cross.

What happens next is a story completely unique to John. Mary Magdalene returns to the empty tomb, weeping outside, she then enters the tomb for the first time to look inside. She sees two angels dressed in white sitting inside. The Greek word translated “angel” (aggelos) can refer to a “messenger,” and does not necessarily mean an angelic non-terrestrial being. These two ask her why she is weeping. She repeats her take of the situation—“Because they have taken away my Master, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). Just as she replies she turns and sees a man outside the tomb that she takes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question—“Woman, why are you weeping, whom do you seek?” She replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have taken him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). The man then addresses her by name—calling her Miriam, using the Hebrew form of her name. She apparently recognizes the voice and turns to face him, crying out in Hebrew, Rabboni—a diminutive term of endearment meaning “my dear Master.” She recognizes it is Jesus but he tells her not to touch him, adding that he is ascending to heaven (John 20:16-17). For a woman to touch a man in this culture further implies a familial connection. Mary Magdalene returns to the male disciples and tells them what she has seen.

This remarkable story presents Mary Magdalene as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike Mark who has no appearances of Jesus following the empty tomb, or Matthew who has Jesus encountering the Eleven remaining apostles on a misty mountain in Galilee much later, or Luke who relates that Jesus appeared physically to the disciples in a closed room, showing his wounds and eating a meal in front of them—John’s story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter stands in sharp contrast. Even John includes in his gospel additional appearances of Jesus to groups of men, but he alone preserves this Magdalene tradition.

My friend, the late professor Jane Schaberg and others have interpreted this singular experience of Mary Magdalene as forming the core of the resurrection faith of Jesus’ first followers.[vi] It is a personal encounter prompted by an exchange of greetings—Miriam and Rabboni—as if those words signaled a flash of recognition based on personal intimacy.  If one asks—who can lay claim to the first appearance of Jesus after his death John’s story offers a clear answer—it was Mary Magdalene. Matthew knows a garbled version of the story in which the group of women encounter Jesus as they flee from the tomb, but without the personal exchange between Mary and Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10). In Matthew’s story they are mere vehicles who are to carry the news to the male disciples, not independent witnesses whose testimony is valued. Jesus commissions the Eleven remaining apostles and the women are nowhere to be seen (Matthew 28:16-20).

Paul, who wrote in the 50s CE, just twenty years removed from the crucifixion, says explicitly that Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve [apostles], then to James, and finally to 500 brothers en mass  (1 Corinthians 15:5). He either knows nothing of the Magdalene tradition, or given his view of women, considers it less merit.  This was after all a time in ancient history when a woman’s testimony in court did not carry the same weight as that of a man. Even in Luke the initial testimony of the women who first visited the tomb is dismissed as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In a male dominated movement how could a hysterical woman, weeping at a tomb, provide any kind of credible testimony?

There is evidence that such a critique was leveled against the developing Christian movement from the late 2nd century CE. Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote an attack of the Christians called True Doctrine around 178 CE, says:

Jesus went about with his disciples collecting their livelihood in a shameful and importunate way . . . For in the gospels certain women who had been healed from their ailments, among whom was Suzanna, provided the disciples with meals out of their own substance.[vii]

He does not specifically name Mary Magdalene he seems to have her in mind:

While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those (women) who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has a happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a change for other beggars.”[viii]

Further on in the same narrative Celsus charges that Jesus “appeared secretly to just one woman and to those of his own confraternity.”[ix] This is without a doubt an accusation based on his reading of the account in the gospel of John. There is evidence that a number of other pagan writers were critical of the female initiative that apparently was central to Christianity’s development.[x]

Is there any likely historical truth to the notion that the faith in Jesus’ resurrection began with this entourage of women led by Mary Magdalene? Schaberg has argued that this singular account in John 20:1-18, where Mary Magdalene encounters and speaks to Jesus in the garden tomb, preserves fragments of a tradition of Mary Magdalene as successor to Jesus—and thus, “first founder” of Christianity, in the sense of authoritative witness to resurrection faith. Whether this early tradition can be connected or not to later Christian texts that present Mary as a leading intellectual and spiritual guide, a beloved companion of Jesus and transmitter of his teachings I will deal with in the subsequent parts of this blog post.

Schaberg, in my view, convincingly shows that the narrative structure of John 20 reflects an imaginative reuse of 2 Kings 2:1-18 where Elijah the prophet ascends to heaven, leaving his disciple Elisha as his designated witness and successor. This intimate personal appearance to Mary Magdalene, which focuses on an ascent to heaven rather than resurrection of the dead per se, stands in sharp contrast to the other formulations in the gospels that present indirect angelic encounters to a group of women.  Upon this foundation Schaberg offers a preliminary sketch of what she rather boldly labels “Magdalene Christianity,” both suppressed and lost in the our New Testament gospel tradition, and particularly in Acts, much like the history of James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem community from 30-50 CE.

The notion of apostolic authority in early Christianity depended most of all on one being included as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection and receiving a commission.[xi] Paul, for example, bases his own late addition to the apostolic roster upon his visionary experience of the Christ several years after he had been crucified: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). One should not take this modesty on the part of Paul as any indication that he thought he was in the least bit inferior to the apostles who were before him. He says of the other apostles:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Apparently Paul did receive challenges to his rights to be called an apostle. Against such charges he adamantly defended himself, insisting that his apostleship was based squarely on his experience of having “seen the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1). Apostleship was not, in his view, something that was passed on from men, but was given by a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12, 16). According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter. The gospel of Luke explicitly rejects her status in this regard, characterizing the report of Mary and her entourage of women from Galilee and their claim to have “seen Jesus” as an “idle tale,” using language that in the culture of that time was particularly associated with the testimony of women. Mary Magdalene’s disqualification was based on her gender. Paul, for example, insists to his congregations:

 The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the Law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

This silencing and subordination of women was carried into the next generation, long after Paul was dead. One of his successors paraphrased Paul’s position with even stronger language:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 1:11-13).[xii]

The remedy for this Adamic curse upon women was that they “be saved through bearing children”

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.


[i] According to early Christian tradition the names of Jesus’ two sisters, not given in the New Testament gospels (see Mark 6:3), were Mary and Salome, see Epiphanius, Panarion 78.8-9 and compare Gospel of Phillip 59:6-11 with Protoevangelium of James 19-20.

[ii] For the arguments for identifying this second Mary as Jesus’ mother see, James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-82.

[iii] Salome is likely Jesus’ sister, or perhaps the mother of the sons of Zebedee, the fishermen James and John (Matthew 27:56). Luke adds that Joanna, the wife of Herod’s assistant, was with them. Even though the verb used for “lifted up” can just mean to pick up or carry, in this context it seems to refer to being lifted up from the dead—in other words, resurrected.

[iv] See James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 223-241. The main appended ending (Mark 16:9-20) does not appear in our two oldest manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dating to the early 4th century AD. It is also absent from about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, the Old Latin version, and the Sinaitic Syriac. Even copies of Mark that contain the ending often include notes from the scribe pointing out that it is not in the oldest manuscripts.

[v] I have translated “Lord” here as Master, which has less theological connotations and fits with what follows in the story where Mary Magdalene addresses Jesus as Rabboni—my Master.

[vi] See Jane Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood (New York: Continium Press, 2006), pp. 122-126. Schaberg’s full study is The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continium, 2004).

[vii] Contra Celsum 1. 65. Celsus’s critique is preserved by the church father Origin who wrote a defense against him around 248 CE. He apparently knows the passage in Luke 8:1-3 that mentions specifically Joanna. There is a summary of his critique in his own words on-line at: http://www.bluffton.edu/~humanities/1/celsus.htm.

[viii] Contra Celsum, 2. 55.

[ix] Contra Celsum 2. 70.

[x] See the study of Margaret Y. MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[xi] See Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Harvard Theological Studies 51 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[xii] Although the New Testament letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are attributed to Paul scholars are universally agreed that they are “deutero-Pauline,” written by some of his followers in the generation after his death, see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, pp. 395-407.

How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed: A New/Old Hypothesis

Some years ago, after reading my book, The Jesus Dynasty, my dear friend and colleague, the late great Jerome Murphy O’Conner asked me the following:

You say that the body of Jesus was removed from its temporary resting place to a permanent tomb. This is not at all impossible. Extreme improbability sets in only when you invite us to assume that this group, who knew perfectly well what had actually happened to the body of Jesus, permitted their co-religionists to proclaim, not that he was still alive (immortality of the soul, well attested in Judaism) but that he was risen from the dead. This, of course, is against the background of what “resurrection” meant for first-century Jews. In order for me to take your “evidence” seriously, you would have to explain why the family and/or disciples based their future lives on what they knew to be a falsehood, namely that the body had been raised, and finally to justify how the secret was preserved in one of the gabbiest societies in ancient history

This article was written in response to his query and in memory of the good and fruitful discussions we had together about these matters at the University of Notre Dame in the 1980s and subsequently over the years at the École Biblique in Jerusalem.

 It makes perfect sense to read the New Testament in its current order. The four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John introduce us to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The book of Acts gives us the early history of Christianity, ending with the career of Paul. The letters of Paul and the other apostles, Peter, John, James, and Jude, come next, and the mysterious book of Revelation provides a climatic finale to the whole. It all makes perfect sense—unless one is a historian.

Historians read the New Testament backwards. Over the last hundred and fifty years they have made a significant discovery. If the New Testament writings were ordered chronologically, according to the dates the various books were written, a wholly different picture emerges, with radical and far-reaching implications. Historians disassemble these various sources in an attempt to understand them in chronological order. They focus on a precise set of questions: Where do we find our oldest and most authentic materials? How and when were they passed along, edited and embellished? Who was involved in this process and what theological motivations were operating? As it turns out, this seemingly destructive process of “disassembly” yields positive and fascinating results.

CrucifixionBaloghWeb

I want to return to my beginning question—what happened following the death of Jesus? Now that we have Paul as our master key, when we attempt to analyze the four New Testament gospels with their narratives of the empty tomb, an entirely different perspective opens up. Getting Paul right turns out to be fundamental to understanding what really happened, and the central affirmation of Paul’s message and apostleship—that he had “seen” Jesus had been raised from the dead—can be placed in its proper historical light.

In looking at the gospels, chronology turns out to be a remarkably fruitful starting point. There is no absolute guarantee that what is early is more accurate than what came after, but unless we begin the process of disassembly and comparison we have no way of even approaching our questions.

Evangelical Christian scholars, both Protestant and Catholic, believe that the only possible explanation for the empty tomb is that God raised Jesus bodily from the dead and that he emerged from the tomb fully and miraculous restored to health. They maintain that there is no other logical explanation for all the facts as reported and are quite keen uphold Jesus’ resurrection as the solid, demonstrable, bedrock of Christian faith.[i] Their thinking runs something like the following.

Continue reading “How Faith in Jesus’ Resurrection Originated and Developed: A New/Old Hypothesis”

The First and Second Burials of Jesus

I have been amazed over the years at what one assumes is in the New Testament Gospels and what is actually there. I have been teaching these texts for over 30 years and hardly a year goes by when I don’t see something I had missed, or have something pointed out by my students that I simply had incorrect. I find these sources endlessly fascinating and encourage my readers and my students to delve into them in-depth.

A case in point. Everyone “knows” that according to all four of our N.T. Gospels Joseph of Arimathea, elsewhere unmentioned, goes to Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, and gets permission to remove Jesus’ body from the cross. He takes the corpse and lays it in his own new tomb late Friday night. A group of women, Mary Magdalene and others, follow and see the location of the tomb. Sunday morning when they visit, to complete the Jewish rites of burial, the tomb is empty.

Durer Tomb

Sounds accurate, according to the Gospels, except that the part in italics, that everyone assumes, is apparently not the case. The tomb into which Jesus is temporarily placed does not belong to Joseph of Arimathea even though every book, film, and preacher tells it that way.

Mark is our earliest account. Notice his words carefully:

And he [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).

This is our core Synoptic account.  Mark is the source for both Luke and Matthew. But notice, nothing is said about Joseph putting Jesus in his own family tomb.

John, who offers us 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).

Notice what almost everyone has missed. The reason for this hasty and temporary burial carried out by Joseph of Arimathea was because of the imminent arrival of the Sabbath and the Passover. The tomb they chose was one that happened to be “close at hand.” Mark implicitly agrees. He notes that it is late afternoon on the “day of Preparation” with the Sabbath drawing near (Mark 15:42). John further explains that this particular Sabbath was a double-Sabbath or “high day,” with the Passover also beginning at sunset (John 19:31; 18:28).

So, as I often tell my students, “thank God for Mark and John.” Mark does not elaborate the choice of the tomb but John makes it clear that this initial burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea is a temporary and emergency burial of opportunity. That the tomb is new and unused meant that it could be used for a few hours, until the Sabbath and Passover holiday were past. This particular tomb is chosen because it just happened to be near, as John plainly explains. The idea that this tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea makes no sense at all. What are the chances that he 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? It is ludicrous even to imagine, but neither Mark nor John say anything of the sort.

Continue reading “The First and Second Burials of Jesus”

Mary Pregnant out of Wedlock–Why Join the Slanderers?

We know nothing about the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy other than the two accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 2–in which Jesus has no human father–and the traditions that Jesus was called “Yeshu ben Pantera,” son of a Roman soldier named Pantera–see my post here. If Jesus had a human father, and Joseph, who later married his mother Mary/Miriam, was not responsible for the pregnancy, which even the Gospel accounts insist upon, then we are left with nothing but imagination.

BMV Pregnancy Test

Given what we don’t know and can never really know I have been utterly amazed at the ugliness of some readers who can only imagine the worse when it comes to such a scenario. But why imagine the worse? Why join the slanderers? Why use words like “bastard” and “illegitimacy.” Why imagine rape and violence, or sexual looseness? One has to ask, illegitimate in whose eyes? Bastard according to whom? Matthew hints to the reader that one should be careful in judging those of the past, even those of this holy lineage of David of the tribe of Judah. What about Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, each presumably the subject of slander and evil tongues in their own times? And even if the name Pantera does represent a real person, the father of Jesus, we know nothing of his life at the time he met Mary, at what age he might have joined the Roman army, or really anything at all about him–unless the German tombstone tells us a bit–and there is no way to link that Pantera to the one spoken of in Sepphoris in the 2nd century A.D.

I am a Romanticist, so I am keen on imagining the best. My reading of ancient literature convinces me that the passion of love between a man and a woman is ubiquitous in every culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. Despite societal expectations and strictures the heart has always had its ways. Why not imagine–since we are imagining–Mary and this unnamed father of Jesus deeply in love? I had someone tell me after a lecture that such ideas were anachronistic projections into the past–Marriages were arranged, individual love between couples simply did not exist as an ideal to be sought. I had to wonder what literature from antiquity this person had been reading. Why not imagine honorable motives and pure intentions? Perhaps the family objected to the whole thing? Perhaps Mary was forced to flee to her relatives? I like to imagine her firmly standing her ground and honoring the child growing within her as a gift of God.

How Joseph comes into the picture we don’t know, whether he was indeed older, or the pick of the family, or what, but he appears to be a “good man” and he can be honored for that. The father, whoever he might have been, disappears. But who knows what Mary might have told Jesus about it all, if she chose to relate to him the circumstances? He seems to have grown up under the stigma of being called “son of Mary,” with no father named, in our earliest text. But again, I prefer to imagine Mary standing firm for her choice of his father and telling him that his father was a good and holy man in the eyes of God–no matter what the wagging tongues, ancient or even modern, might imply to the contrary. Only a woman knows the inner secrets of her heart, and who and why she decides to share her bed. Maybe Mary believed in destiny, in chosenness. Maybe she raised Jesus with a sense of his specialness, his uniqueness. All of this could be the case without angels appearing and pregnancies coming from on high, like some pagan Greco-Roman tale of the god Zeus or Jupiter impregnating a woman with a “son of God.”

Because of the extraordinary character of Jesus, of James his brother, and the others in the family, I choose to imagine the best about Mary and the unnamed father of Jesus, and I am convinced, even though we can only imagine in this case, that such imagination is in the direction of the truth.

What Really Happened Easter Morning–the Mystery Solved?

Most people raised in our Christian culture have a vague story in their heads as to what is supposed to have happened Easter morning, whether drawn from attending church services, reading the Bible themselves, or even from various “Jesus” films. Around Easter Jesus usually makes the cover of some of our major magazines. Even one who is non-Christian or secular can’t help picking up on the basic story-line, which goes something like this:

Early Sunday morning after Jesus’ Good Friday crucifixion several of his women followers went to his tomb only to find the heavy stone blocking the entrance removed and the tomb empty with the grave clothes left behind. They were told by two dazzling angels dressed in white “He is not here, he is risen, come see the place where he lay.” They were dumbfounded, as were the other apostles to whom they reported these strange events. Later that day Jesus appeared to the apostles and allowed them to examine his body with its wounds, assuring them it was him, and that he had been raised from the dead. Various other appearance of Jesus followed over a period of weeks until Jesus departed this earth, taken up in the clouds of heaven.

Jesus Resurrection

What will come as a complete surprise to many people is that our historical sources for this scenario offer wildly differing accounts of Easter morning. Historians work with sources and evidence and when it comes to Easter all we have are six ancient texts–our four New Testament gospels, namely Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, and the fragments of the more recently discovered Gospel of Peter. I have written recently about the Gospel of Peter here, and I have offered an extended analysis of Paul’s understanding of resurrection of the dead with a lot of historical background,  “Why People are Confused about the Earliest Christian View of Resurrection of the Dead.”

What I want to do in this post is take closer look at our earliest three sources, taken in chronological order–Mark, Matthew, and Luke, viewing them side-by-side, in “Synoptic” fashion, when it comes to their accounts of the empty tomb of Jesus and the subsequent “appearances” of Jesus to his various followers. Readers who have never bothered to do this will find much of surprise I think. All you need is a copy of the Bible with the New Testament included, any translation will do fine.

Most scholars are agreed that Mark is our earliest gospel. What few non-specialists realize is that Mark’s account of the empty tomb stands in the sharpest contrast to those written after him.

Mark 16:1-8 provides the early core account with what scholars consider to be the original version of Mark ending abruptly with verse 8:

And when the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Salome, bought spices, that they might come and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, they came to the tomb when the sun was risen. And they were saying among themselves, “Who shall roll us away the stone from the door of the tomb?” and looking up, they saw that the stone was rolled back–it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, Be not amazed: you seek Jesus, the Nazarene, who has been crucified: he has been lifted up; he is not here: behold, the place where they laid him! But go, tell his disciples and Peter, He goes before you to Galilee: there you will see him, just as he told. And they went out, and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them: and they said nothing to any one; for they were afraid.

This is how our earliest manuscripts of the gospel of Mark end!

Later copies of the Mark supply one of several added endings, clearly finding such an abrupt ending to the gospel story inadequate, so you will find in most Bibles the additional verses 9-20, which were composed by in the 3rd or 4th century by someone who wanted to round the story out and make it more in harmony with the endings of Matthew, Luke, and John1

Please note the rather astounding fact that Mark’s original ending has no appearances of Jesus. A young man, not an angel, tells the women Jesus has been “lifted up,” with a promise that they will “see him in Galilee,” which is in the north of the country.2 This was apparently the earliest faith of Jesus’ first followers–namely, that Jesus had been taken up to heaven, and that the disciples would see him at a later time in Galilee. I have argued, see the post noted above, that this is also the understanding of Jesus’ resurrection we find in Paul, and ironically, it is the view of resurrection we find in the newly discovered Talpiot tomb inscription about God “lifting up” (Greek hupso/υψω) the dead–see our book, The Jesus Discovery. Paul reports Jesus was transformed into a “life-giving spirit,” and the subsequent “sightings” of Jesus, by him and the earlier apostles, were seeing Jesus in his heavenly glory (1 Corinthians 15:42-50, compared with vv. 3-7). To be “lifted up” in this way is to leave the physical body behind, like old clothing, and thus to be “absent from the body,” but present with God (2 Corinthians 5:1-10). This was the earliest Christian resurrection faith.

As far as the age old question, “What happened to the physical body of Jesus,” the most likely explanation is that it was reburied by Joseph of Arimathea after being placed temporarily in an unused tomb near the site of crucifixion. I have written extensively about this “first burial” of Jesus here.3

Continue reading “What Really Happened Easter Morning–the Mystery Solved?”


  1. In fact, this unknown editor simply drew from stories in the other three gospels, as is quite obvious if one examines the interpolation carefully. The appearance to Mary Magdalene is lifted from John, the appearance to the two disciples on the road as well as Jesus sitting with the apostles for a meal from Luke, and the “Great Commission,” from Matthew, and the ascent of Jesus into heaven, again, from Luke. In addition to this interpolated ending there are two others that achieved less popularity but some translations of the Bible put them in footnotes. 

  2. The verb used here, egeiro/εγειρω means “to lift up, raise up” or even “be carried away. It is used in Mark 2:12 for the paralyzed man whom Jesus heals and tells to “lift up” his bedroll and walk. 

  3. On this idea of a first burial see Amos Kloner, “Did a Rolling Stone Close Jesus’ Tomb?” Biblical Archaeology Review (Sept/Oct, 1999), who argues that the tomb used by Joseph of Arimathea was a borrowed or temporary cave used for a limited time, pressed by the arrival of the Sabbath, with the intention of completing the rites of burial after the Passover holiday. See also Richard Carrier, “Jewish Law, the Burial of Jesus, and the Third Day,” as well as his revised version of this article in The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave, edited by Robert Price and Jeffrey Lowder, pp. 369-392.  

Who Was the Mysterious “Disciple Whom Jesus Loved?”

Of the Twelve apostles it is noteworthy that the only ones not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, and the “other” Simon, and Matthew–all members of the Jesus Family.

The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?” Jesus said to them, “No matter where you go you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.” (Gospel of Thomas 12)

This post, initially written some years ago, has ended up drawing more readers than any other post in decade long history of my blog. This says something about the extraordinary interest in this unnamed disciple of Jesus who shows up mysteriously in the Gospel of John at the Last Supper, at the foot of the cross as Jesus is dying, at the empty tomb on Sunday morning, and finally–and most important–on the Sea of Galilee when Jesus appears to his disciples. Who is this person? Why is he unnamed? Why would Jesus deliver his own mother into the hands of this disciple with his dying breath?  In that final scene the editors/authors of the Gospel of John add a most extraordinary affirmation: This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true (21:24).

In my book The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 2006) I offer my reasons for thinking that the enigmatic figure in the Gospel of John, described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” or more commonly, the “Beloved Disciple,” is none other than James the brother of Jesus. I am not sure who has suggested this over the years but I first encountered the idea from Robert Eisenman.1

Crucifixion Scene by Balage Balogh
Crucifixion Scene by Balage Balogh

The traditional view that the Beloved Disciple was the fisherman apostle John, one of the sons of Zebedee can be traced back as early as Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) and was made part of the official Church History of Eusebius in the early 4th century. 2  This identification, however “beloved” to so many, seems highly unlikely. After all, from the few stories we have about John son of Zebedee, he has a fiery and ambitious personality—Jesus had nicknamed him and his brother the “sons of Thunder.” They are the two that had tried to obtain the two chief seats on the Council of Twelve, one asking for the right hand, the other the left. On another occasion they asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume a village that had not accepted their preaching (Luke 9:54). On both occasions Jesus had rebuked them. The image we get of John son of Zebedee is quite opposite from the tender intimacy of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.

BelovedDisciple Bassano

Eusebius also mentions another John, “the Elder,”perhaps the author of the New Testament letters of 2nd and 3rd John, whom some have seen as a more likely candidate than John the son of Zebedee3 This view has been recently defended by Richard Bauckham in his massive study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. A good summary of the arguments pro and con for these two Johns as the “beloved disciple” is on-line here.

Today there are several dozens of books in print suggesting various alternative identifications. Ben Witherington and others have suggested Lazarus, brother of the sisters Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raises from the dead in the gospel of John, see here.  In the gospel the sisters send word to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). This view has received some possible support from the fragment of “Secret Mark” that Morton Smith found.  Mary Magdalene has also become a suggested candidate, despite the use of the masculine pronouns, see Ramon Jusino’s paper here. Most recently it has been suggested that an unnamed “son” of Jesus, whose identity had to be hidden, was the Beloved Disciple, see here. Although I find this view fascinatingly attractive on one level it seems short on evidence and it is hard to imagine Mary the mother of Jesus being delivered into the hands of a son who would have to have been a young adolescent in 30 CE–especially with Jesus’ four brothers on the scene who surely would have been responsible enough to take care of their own mother. In the only text we have that mentions Mary “after the cross” she is grouped with the brothers of Jesus (Acts 1: 14). Some scholars have viewed the “beloved disciple” as a literary construction representing the “ideal disciple,” with no specific identity. James Charlesworth surveys all the possibilities with a full history of scholarship in his landmark book The Beloved Disciple, which I recommend as the best place to begin for readers with a serious interest in this question. Charlesworth ends up arguing for the apostle Thomas, an identification that I think is unique with him, while he is apparently unaware of the possibility of James the brother of Jesus–a choice that has not been part of the mainstream discussion.

Let’s take a look at the text themselves. The Gospel of John mentions the Beloved Disciple in only four scenes, all at the end of his narrative: at the Last Supper, at the Cross, at the empty Tomb, and on the Sea of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. Since he is never mentioned earlier we really have very little to go on. Here are the texts in the RSV translation:

1) John 13:23-25: One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he is speaking.” So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”

2) John 19:26-27, 34-35: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home…But one of the soldiers pieced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.

3) John 20:2-8 So she [Mary Magdalene] 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. . . Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in. . .

4) John 21:1, 7, 20-24 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together…That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea…Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.

It is also possible that the Beloved Disciple is mentioned in John 18:15 though he is not given that designation: “Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in.”

Based on these texts I would make the following points:

1. The Beloved Disciple is a male, not a woman, and since Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb and then runs to tell Peter and this “other disciple” whom Jesus loved, the news of the empty tomb, “he” cannot be Mary Magdalene.

2. It is unlikely that the Beloved Disciple is anyone mentioned by name in the Gospel of John, and especially in these latter chapters, 13-21. His identity is being veiled not revealed with a name. That means we can eliminate those mentioned in John 21:1-2, as well Philip, Andrew, and Judas Iscariot of the Twelve, but also Lazarus I think.

3. If we accept the reference in John 18:15 as referring to our figure, the Beloved Disciple seems to have priestly connections in that he is able to get Peter into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, knowing the woman at the door.

4. The Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’ mother Mary into his care, when Jesus as the oldest son of the family was formerly responsible for the family as function “head of the house.” He is officially designated as the “son” meaning that he is now to carry on the caretaker function for the household that Jesus no longer could do. Whether this scene at the cross is to be taken as historical fact or not, I think it nonetheless reflects a tradition that Jesus’ mother was passed into the care of one who became the “son” in charge of the family, including his mother. Obviously he is gone from the scene and someone has to take over in terms of leadership in the family and care for his mother.

5. The Beloved Disciple is present at the last supper, and thus, based on Mark at least, possibly one of the Twelve, though John does not specify this, i.e., that the meal was with Jesus and the Twelve alone. The description of this disciple “lying close to Jesus’ breast” at the Last Supper indicates an honored place of proximity and intimacy. Jesus loves all his disciples but this particular one has a special place.

I am convinced that these traditions in the Gospel of John refer to a real person, not a symbolic figure. He should be known to us in other texts and in early Christian tradition by name. If we eliminate characters who are named in these latter sections of the Gospel, particularly Lazarus, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Philip, Andrew, and James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, and Judas Iscariot, who is left?

Of the Twelve apostles it is noteworthy that the only ones not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, and the “other” Simon, and Matthew–all part of the Jesus Family! Jesus has three brothers: James, Simon, and Jude, as well as a fourth, Joseph. I think there might be some evidence, as I point out in The Jesus Dynasty, that Matthew is another brother, possibly even the one otherwise known as Joseph, see my post here on “Sorting out the Jesus Family,” This silence seems more than incidental or accidental.

Given these factors it seems to me that James the brother of Jesus surfaces as the best candidate. He is the one who takes over leadership of the followers of Jesus. The “mother and brothers” of Jesus are mentioned in the book of Acts as if they are intact and together (Acts 1:14). Although Luke is reluctant to name either Jesus’ mother or the brothers, given his emphasis on the dominance of Peter and eventually Paul as the main apostles, that he knows the tradition of the intact Jesus family, together in Jerusalem, gathered with the other followers is surely telling. And all the more so that he later has James as the clear head of the Jerusalem community (Acts 15:12-21). To have some other individual such as Lazarus, or the fisherman John, now functioning as caretaker over the family, just makes no sense at all with James present and functioning as leader of the community.

I present arguments in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, summarized here, that James the brother of Jesus was one of the Twelve, and is referred to otherwise as “James the less,” or “James the young one,” who has a brother named Joses. Mark names “James and Joses” as the two older brothers of Jesus. James the brother of Jesus also is known for his priestly orientation, even though his mother is Davidic if Luke’s genealogy is her own. As I discuss in the book, that line has a strong component of priestly/Levite blood running through it, just as Aaron married Elisheva, the leading princess of Judah. Hegisippus tells us that James wore the white linen of the priest, and a mitre of some type, and was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple–perhaps as a representative of the Nazarenes. We also have the tradition in the Gospel of the Hebrews that James was indeed present at the last supper, and that Jesus handed over to him some kind of “garment” that signified his priestly office.

I think it likely that the community that ended up shaping the Gospel of John, as indicated in chapter 21:24, had access to eyewitness materials that originated with James the brother of Jesus. Much as in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, the final product that has come down to us is considerably expanded in Gnostic/dualistic directions and a heavy theological overlay. It is noteworthy that the Gospel of Thomas also highlights James as the one to whom Jesus had passed on his authority:

The disciples said to Jesus, “We know you will leave us. Who is going to be our leader then?” Jesus said to them, “No matter where you go you are to go to James the Just, for whose sake heaven and earth came into being.” (Gospel of Thomas 12)

Certainly the Gospel of Thomas in its present form seems far removed from the theological perspectives of the historical James–so much as we can recover or imagine them. However, scholars such as April DeConick have done much to critically lay out the layers of tradition within the text, tracing the ur-text back to the Jerusalem community of James the Just.4  I think the same is likely the case with the Gospel of John. The quasi-gnostic, dualistic, “overlay” that characterizes the Gospel of John, especially in the extended “red letter” Discourses of Jesus, are not likely part of the original “eyewitness” tradition of the Beloved Disciple to which the final editors/authors of this work appeal for authority.


  1. See his book James the Brother of Jesus, p.992n28/p. 120. 

  2. Church History 6. 25. 

  3. Eusebius, Church History 5. 24. 

  4. See a summary of her work here.