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.

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
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:


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. 

Tracking Jesus

Two weeks from now the adventure begins. Our “10th Anniversary Jesus Dynasty” tour group will set off for the Galilee and we will begin what I call “tracking Jesus.” Our focus will be on exploring the places, both geographically and archaeologically, where “Jesus walked.” You can take a look at our itinerary here: Jesus Dynasty Tour Itinerary. At this point our group numbers 33 plus me–with two more joining us just yesterday–so it is never too late, so long as one can find a good airfare. This trip is unique and I won’t be doing one like this again. I am particularly pleased that my friend Ross Nichols has signed on to go with us.

Sunrise over the Mt of Olives, Jerusalem
Sunrise over the Mt of Olives, Jerusalem

This is my 60th trip to the Holy Land since my first in 1962 at age 16 when our family made a pilgrimage to the Old City. On March 2 I turn 70 year old. Since that time I have been involved in what we scholars call “a quest for the historical Jesus,” and my trips to Israel have inevitably involved an investigation of the geographical, archaeological, and textual evidence related to what I have called “the Jewish Roman World of Jesus,” see the excellent essays by Dennis Duling and my teacher Norman Perrin, that masterfully survey this historical landscape, linked with permission here.  I have been profoundly influenced by my mentors and colleagues whose archaeological experience far exceeds mine–particularly Jim Strange, the late Bargil Pixner, and Shimon Gibson–with whom I have worked the most closely. None of them, of course, should be held responsible for the various positions I have come to over the past 40 years. One aspect of my quest that continues to this day–even on this tour–is to ask the question Carl Sandburg poses in his marvelous poem “The Grass,” namelywhat is this place? Where are we now?

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work–
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
I am the grass.
Let me work.

So much of what I have been fascinated with over the years is trying to determine just that–from Jesus’ birth, to his growing up outside Sepphoris, to his connections to John the “Baptizer and his subsequent preaching career, to his last days in Jerusalem leading to his death. I have written extensively on these topics in my books and on this blog, see for example, see my posts, “Locating Golgatha,” Standing Again with Jesus: Ecco Homo Revisited,” and “A Jesus Hideout in Jordan.”

Here is the preface to my book, The Jesus Dynasty, in which I describe my outlook and state of mind on my very first trip to Jerusalem in 1962 when my life-long career of “tracking Jesus” all begin. I hope it will tantalize you enough to read the whole book and join the adventure alongside me:

Early morning in the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mt of Olives over 50 years after my 1962 visit

It is a rare book that is forty years in the making. In some sense this is the case with The Jesus Dynasty. Over forty years ago, as a teenager, I made my first visit to the Holy Land with my parents and my sister. It was that experience that set me on my own life-long “quest for the historical Jesus.” This is the phrase the scholars use to describe the historical research related to Jesus and the origins of early Christianity over the past 200 years.

What do we really know about Jesus and how do we know it? Forty years ago I had not even formulated the question with any sophistication. I knew nothing of archaeology, the Dead Sea scrolls and other ancient texts, or historical research. I had begun to read the Bible, particularly the New Testament, and I had become fascinated with the figure of Jesus. On that Holy Land trip this interest began to develop into a more intense desire to know what could be known about him and to somehow touch that past.

I vividly remember walking around the Old City of Jerusalem. The city was thick with tourists, all Christians, no Jews or Israelis. This was before the 1967 Six Day War when the Old City of east Jerusalem was still ruled by Jordan. We were shown around by one of the hundreds of would-be resident guides who pressed upon anyone who looked like a tourist and could be hired on the spot. We saw all the sites typically shown to Christian pilgrims—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Mount of Olives, the garden of Gethsemane, the Upper Room of the Last Supper, and the Dome of the Rock, where the ancient Jewish Temple once stood. On such a tour one enters dozens of churches, all built centuries after the time of Jesus but supposedly at the precise place where this or that event took place.

Over the three days we were there I began to experience a growing sense of disappointment. I was having difficulty connecting, even in my imagination, 20th century Jerusalem with the city in the time of Jesus as described in the New Testament. Even if the names and places were the same, and correctly identified, what I saw before me were Turkish, Crusader, and Byzantine remains, with little if anything from the 1st century AD visible. Even the modern street level, I learned, was 12 to 15 feet above that of Roman times. I had purchased a tourist guidebook entitled Walking Where Jesus Walked, and somehow, in my naiveté, I wanted to do just that.

We stayed in a small hotel on top of the Mount of Olives just to the east of the Old City. About midnight, restless, I got out of bed, Bible in hand, and decided to walk to the garden of Gethsemane that is at the foot of the mountain. The steep path down is now paved, but I could see bedrock cut or worn along the way on both sides, indicating this was the narrow road from ancient times. I imagined Jesus riding the donkey down that very path into the Old City, hailed by the crowds as Messiah, a week before he was crucified. In those days, unlike today, you could enter the garden of Gethsemane at any hour, day or night, as the gate was always open. Visitors were also allowed to walk among the centuries-old olive trees. I was the only one there that night, at that hour. My reading had convinced me that this was the spot where Jesus spent the last night of his life in prayer. For the first time on our tour, on that path and in the garden, I felt that I was able to reach back and connect with the past that I sought. I stayed there for the longest time, trying to imagine it all. I kept thinking to myself—this is the place. It happened here. The “historian” in me was awakening and I think a bit of the “archaeologist” as well. In some way I had begun what would become a lifelong quest to understand and reveal the life of Jesus as he lived it.

There is something in all of us that thrills to this experience of touching the past. It could be an old letter, a genealogical record, a battlefield, a cemetery, or fragments of an ancient text. Today in Israel you can visit the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum and view the Dead Sea Scrolls that date to around the time of Jesus. I think many visitors experience the same feeling I did the first time I saw the displays. There, under glass, just a few inches away, are the actual ancient documents written over 2000 years ago. I remember pausing for long minutes before each exhibit trying to take in the reality of what I was viewing. There one is looking at the very parchment or papyrus from that long-ago time, with words in Hebrew and Aramaic that could have been read by Jesus or his followers.

Many other sites in Jerusalem have now been excavated. You can walk or sit on the very steps that led up to the Jewish Temple built in the time of Herod the Great. When I first visited Jerusalem in 1962 these steps were twenty-five feet below the present surface, completely lost to modern eyes. In various places the paving stones of the streets of the Roman city have been exposed. Twelve feet below the modern street level, in the Jewish Quarter, you can walk in the ruins of a wealthy mansion, likely belonging to the family of high priests that presided over the trial of Jesus. In the summer of 2004 the pool of Siloam, mentioned in the New Testament, was uncovered, forgotten and hidden for centuries from view. All over the country the past is being exposed to the present by the spade of the archaeologist and equally by the deciphering of ancient texts by the historian.

A “Strange” Review of The Jesus Dynasty (Part 1)

In December, 2006 my friend and senior colleague Prof. James F. Strange, Professor of New Testament at the University of South Florida wrote a very interesting and provocative two-page review of my book, The Jesus Dynasty for Biblical Archaeology Review. That review has now been archived on the Biblical Archaeology web site, so you can read it here on-line. It was Professor Strange who gave me my first field experience in archaeology at Sepphoris where he has been excavating since the 1980s. He is a brilliant scholar and one of the most careful and capable archaeologists in the field. On the whole Strange’s review is negative and he highlights what he considers to be the book’s many deficiencies, although he also remarks that it is a well-written fascinating read with much of value and importance. I have the deepest respect for Jim and consider it an honor for him to have written about my work.

Strange JD Review BAR Dec 2006

Since that review is now available more widely and the book, The Jesus Dynasty seems to be experiencing a new life even ten years after publication, I wanted to republish here my response to his review, not so much along formal “academic” lines as a series of personal reflections. Here is part 1:

Was Christianity All a Mistake?

…Tabor seems to have a personal stake in letting us in on his ‘discoveries and insights.’ I wish I knew what that stake was, besides telling us that Christianity is all a mistake. Has he finally, after centuries of systematic doubt from Feuerbach, Freud, Voltaire, Bruno Bauer, Lüdermann [sic], Spong, the Jesus Seminar and others, finally got the Jesus story straight?”

This is quite a list of figures, some of whom I would gladly associate myself with out of admiration for pioneering courage, given their culture and times (Freud, Voltaire), but other than Lüdemann, none of those listed would have much in common with my own approach or results in terms of the quest for the Historical Jesus. Bauer concluded that even the Gospel of Mark, though our earliest, was almost wholly fiction, a position quite opposite from my own. Indeed, I built my basic narrative framework around Mark and what I consider the reliable primitive structure of the Gospel of John. The Jesus Seminar, though hard to characterize with a single brush, would by and large scoff at the degree to which I accept the historical reliability of our Gospel sources. I actually think we can say with some assurance all sorts of things that Jesus did and said, and with a linguistic, chronological, and geographical detail that many critical scholars would question. In that sense I end up strangely “conservative” by such measures of conventional scholarship on the New Testament and early Christianity.

It is interesting that Prof. Strange mentions Gerd Lüdemann on this matter of whether I consider Christianity as all a mistake. I do indeed value Lüdemann’s pioneering and controversial book, The Resurrection of Jesus: History, Experience, Theology (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1994). In fact, I consider it to be one of the most important studies on the subject of the “historicity” of the notion of the “Resurrection of Jesus Christ” ever written. Its explicit aim was to prove the nonhistoricity of the resurrection of Jesus and thus encourage Christians to find a new grounding for faith based entirely on what he considers to be “the historical Jesus.” I strongly share that aim and consider my own work a small step in that direction. However, in Lüdemann’s subsequent work, The Resurrection of Christ: A Historical Inquiry (Prometheus Books, 2004), I am disappointed to see that Dr. Lüdemann repudiates his former position regarding a potential Reformation of Christianity on historical grounds, but frankly states that his latest work “…spells out in detail why the result of the nonhistoricity of the resurrection of Jesus leaves little if any room for Christianity.” In other words, Lüdemann gives up in his later work what I hold most dear–that a genuine recovery of the perspectives of the historical Jesus can, ironically, spell “life from the dead” for the cause that Jesus himself lived and died for–call it Christianity or not. The mistake I think he makes is to equate Paul’s visionary experience, which I think fundamentally dominates all subsequent definitions of “Christianity,” as determinative for defining what Jesus himself was all about, lived and died for, and for that matter–would have repudiated!

I guess what it comes down to is how one defines Christianity. My argument is that as one gets closer to the Founder, one also draws close to the original faith that one can define as a movement separate from other groups in “Judaism,” namely a Nazorean form of “Christianity,” indeed the “faith once delivered” that was subsequently taken in a decidedly different direction by Paul.

I hope that most readers of my book will sense on many levels, whether the academic, the descriptive, or the personal, that I have an engaged personal stake in the enterprise. Far from being an iconoclastic secularist, my whole life has been committed to what I consider to be the original and “true” view of Jesus of Nazareth himself. Accordingly, far from wanting to tell folks that “Christianity was all a mistake,” I want to affirm the opposite–that the original vision of John, Jesus, and James his brother can provide a new dynamic perspective in the new millennium. Yes, I do think it has been “hidden” and “lost,” as sensational as that sounds. But I present my arguments for a tiny glimpse of that original faith peeking through the mist of history, and I hope and trust these points will be not only convincing but inspiring to many who want to be faithful to Jesus. I try my best to say this in the Conclusion to the book, a section over which I labored long and hard to make clear. I regret that Dr. Strange did not seem to grasp that central point of my book. Yes, it is indeed a “personal narrative,” but one that argues with a passion that a recovery of the original vision of the founders of the movement we subsequently know as Christianity can truly lead to a new and fruitful faith. In that sense I think Dr. Strange is mistaken to cast me with the likes of Voltaire, Freud, Bauer, and even the collective Jesus Seminar–as much as I can appreciate the contributions of each of these. I stand decidedly on different ground, and as I try my best to convey. My model here is Albert Schweitzer–whom I consider to be a singular hero of the past century when it comes to to “historical Jesus” research–as honest as one can be historically, but never deaf to the ethical call of Jesus’ message of the Kingdom of God on earth. I dedicate The Jesus Dynasty to Schweitzer with these heartfelt words:

Ad memoriam Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965).
Missionary, philosopher, historian extraordinaire.
In whose shadow we all stand

You can read my post “Albert Schweitzer and a Thoroughly Apocalyptic Jesus (and Paul)” here, which is an exposition of his place as I see it in the field of historical Jesus studies as well as his influence upon me as a scholar.

A Comprehensive Review of My Book The Jesus Dynasty

The following is a review of my book, The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 2006), by professor Dennis E. Groh, noted scholar of early Christianity.  If you find this very thorough review intriguing I urge those who have not to “read the book” itself, see more information here, and you can “like” it on our new Facebook page here.1 This study of the “historical Jesus” is a precursor to my new book, Paul and Jesus (Simon & Schuster, 2012), published last November.2

Jesus Dynasty Hardcover

James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty. The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2006. ISBN # 13: 978-0-7432-8723-4

Is there anyone who has been so cut off from the religious scholarship and news reporting of the last decade that s/he does not realize that our portrait of the person and message of Jesus has been seriously “messed with,” if not “messed over” [i.e., intentionally distorted] as it has been transmitted to us in the traditions of both the New Testament and early catholic Christianity? We can now add to the myriad of books offering new pictures of what has come to be called “The Jesus Movement” yet another reinterpretation of its founder and progress.

James D. Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, a distinguished scholar of the texts and archaeology of first century Palestinian movements, has written a book that offers a real alternative to historic interpretations of Jesus founded on, and (he thinks) obscured by, the literature of early Gentile Christianity—most notably Paul’s letters and Luke/Acts. In fact, Tabor proposes a different list of literary sources from which he reconstructs a far different picture of Jesus and his movement, one that builds on Jewish prophetic and royal messianic movements:

“The Christianity we know from the Q source, ((Behind both Matthew and Luke was an oral sayings-collection common to both and unknown to Mark. The German word Quelle (or “Q”) which means “source” was given to this collection of sayings, which most scholars believe began as an oral source but was eventually written down, perhaps as early as 50 AD in a form that served as a source for Matthew and Luke, either directly or through one using the other’s work.)) from the letter of James, from the Didache, and some of our other surviving Jewish-Christian sources, represents a version of the Jesus faith that can actually unite, rather than divide, Jews, Christians, and Muslims, or at least open wide new and fruitful doors of dialogue and understanding among these three great traditions that have in the past considered their views of Jesus to be so sharply contradictory as to close off discussion.” (316).

Tabor has utilized recent archaeological finds from first century Jewish ossuaries to stabilize and verify the authenticity of family names attributed to Jesus by the New Testament and other literary remains of the period; he has leaned heavily on the genealogical tables of the Gospels and upon the notices in the New Testament and contemporary literature on the relatives of Jesus; he has drawn on the picture of contemporary Messianic prophecy and scriptural fulfillment from Qumran and the New Testament; he has mined early Christianity for notices of so-called “Jewish Christianity”; and he has accepted as historically accurate many statements from the narrative framework of the Gospels, usually ignored by biblical scholars as purely theological constructs. The picture of Jesus, his expectations, and the successor movement we know as early Christianity departs in a completely different direction from the Christianity long-associated with triumphant Gentile Christianity—that of Paul and Luke/Acts.

Briefly stated, Tabor’s thesis can be summarized as follows:

Jesus was “the firstborn son of a royal family—a descendant of King David of ancient Israel. He really was proclaimed ‘King of the Jews’ and was executed by the Romans for this claim.” (4). Neither a religion-founder or a church-founder, “he established a royal dynasty drawn from his own brothers and immediate family.” (4). The Hebrew Prophets which pointed to a leader from this blood line in the Last Days and the Dead Sea Scrolls gave precision to this expectation that Herod’s house and the Roman rulers worried about and watched-out for. “Shortly before he died, Jesus set up a provisional government with twelve regional officials, one over each of the twelve tribes or districts of Israel, and he left his brother James as the head of this fledgling government. James became the uncontested leader of the early Christian movement. This significant fact of history has been largely forgotten, or as likely, hidden. Properly understood, it changes everything we thought we knew about Jesus. . . . The pivotal place of James, the beloved disciple and younger brother of Jesus, has been effectively blotted from Christian memory.” (4-5).

Not surprisingly, such a radical thesis from so respected a scholar has generated a storm of discussion plus an unusual amount of curiosity in the wider public. The Jesus Dynasty was featured on ABC 20/20 and Nightline, the centerpiece of a cover story by USNews and World Report, and shot immediately upon publication to number 22 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Some key conclusions of Tabor’s—ossuary evidence confirming Jesus’ familial names (including accepting the authenticity of the disputed “James Ossuary”); his assertion that Jesus’ brothers and sisters were children of Mary by a second marriage (likely to Clopas or Alphaeus, the brother of Joseph); the location of Jesus’ probable permanent burial [hence, Tabor’s denying any resurrection claims], along with that of James, somewhere near the Mount of Olives where he thinks Jesus was actually crucified—really push the boundaries of the evidence to its extremities. And his case is not helped by “what if” thinking that he reports from various historic locations he visits in ancient Palestine. But despite its radical ragged-edges and popularist speculations, this book makes a major contribution to a new picture of Jesus which takes into account very crucial and completely disregarded aspects of early Christianity. I want to take you on a sampling of three “soundings” into Tabor’s research that show how truly interesting and controversial his work is.

1. Jesus Relationship to John the Baptizer. One of the clearest embarrassments of the written Gospels is the priority in time and importance of John the Baptizer. John not only began the “Kingdom” preaching first; it was John who baptized Jesus, not the other way around. The writers of the four Gospels respond by stressing the clear superiority of Jesus to John, emphasizing that he was only a forerunner of or witness to Jesus’ messianic status (cf. 136-137). ). Here, Tabor turns to the Q document’s saying in Luke 7:26, that there is “no one greater than John,” which Luke or the early Christians amended to, “yet the least in the kingdom is greater than he” (136). Clearly, Jesus had considered John an equal in the original form of the saying. Another Q saying preserved in Luke 7:32-34 (which Tabor does not cite) underscores the contention that early in his ministry, Jesus considered John and him to be equal partners in announcing the news of the Kingdom. Thus when Jesus’ disciples ask to be given a prayer, as were the disciples of John, Tabor suggests the Lord’s Prayer Jesus taught his disciples was the very one he himself learned from John (137).

In Tabor’s complicated and intriguing reconstruction, early in his ministry Jesus moved south into Judea baptizing while John remained baptizing in the north—at the crossroads of Herod’s territory, the Galilean routes south, and the safety of western Transjordan (that is, out of what he supposed was the “reach” of Herod Antipas). Drawing on the Qumran literature, Tabor argues for a joint message to Israel delivered in concert by the Priest Messiah (John the Baptizer) and a Davidic Royal Messiah (Jesus) (pp. 147-150).

“Later, after Jesus’ death, when a replacement on the Council of Twelve was chosen for Judas Iscariot. . .it was specified that only candidates who had been with Jesus and the group ‘beginning from the baptism of John’ would be considered for this important office (Acts 1:22). Christians later tended to separate the two movements—that of John the Baptizer and Jesus, as if one was ‘Jewish’ and the other ‘Christian.’ In the lifetime of Jesus, and among his immediate followers, there was one unified movement and one baptism.” (150). It is only with the shocking and sudden arrest and killing of John, that Jesus realizes he must go on alone proclaiming: “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.” (157).

2. Jesus’ Genealogy and Family. While most scholars skirt the genealogies of Jesus that open Matthew and Luke, Tabor mines them for the strange inclusions that appear there. He treats the information as historical data and not just as the Gospel writers’ inventions of interwoven quotations from the Septuagint [i.e., the Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture cited in the New Testament]. These genealogies provide Tabor with important clues to Jesus dynastic claims. Noting that especially Luke includes the names of women associated with the Leviticus (Priestly) tradition, he argues that Mary possess both the Davidic and Priestly lines of descent which she passes on to Jesus (56). In fact, Mary has both the royal and priestly lines one expects in an “anointed king” [a priestly king; cf. Aaron, actually the first ‘Messiah’ in the bible: Exodus. 40:12-15]. (56). The Talpiot family tomb-find (near Jerusalem) shows another first century example of the family association brought about through the intermarriage of individuals descended from both Priestly and Davidic lines (51-56).

Most importantly to Tabor is the fact that all four Gospels avoid claiming paternity for Joseph, thus clearing the way for him to argue for an unknown (human) father for Jesus and a second marriage for Mary (61-62), producing the four brothers and two sisters of Jesus that Mark 6:3 mentions (73).

It is on his biological family that Jesus builds his dynastic hopes: “Jesus by age thirty functions as head of the household and forges a vital role for his brothers, who succeed him in establishing a Messianic Dynasty destined to change the world. This extended family of Jesus is the foundation of the mostly forgotten and marginalized Jesus dynasty and it is long overdue for resurrection. By restoring the various historical possibilities related to the family, we are prepared to gain a truer understanding of Jesus and how he might have understood what he believed was his God-ordained mission as Messiah and King of a restored nation of Israel.” (81).

3. The Leadership of the Jerusalem Church. Despite efforts to skip over, or minimize, the fact, when the curtain opens after Jesus death, James leads the The Twelve. The leadership of the early New Testament church has passed to Jesus brothers, especially James.
“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament: Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called Twelve Apostles.” (165).

Everyone assumes that Jesus brothers never believed in him. “This spurious opinion is based on a single phrase in John 7:5 that many scholars consider to be a late interpolation. Modern translation even put it in parentheses.” (165). James, in fact, is not only a disciple; he is the beloved disciple (165).

Thus, the latter part of Tabor’s book is spent carefully introducing the kind of Christianity that was dominant in the succession of Jesus relatives [note: not Peter] as heads of their church (until 106 CE) (291-293), whose movement continued to exist into the fourth century CE. The theology of this earliest movement existed in sharp contradistinction to the Pauline views of the heavenly, divine Christ whose Gospel abrogated the Jewish Law. For the Jesus Movement, who saw themselves as “faithful Jews” (not “Christians,” and certainly not “Jewish Christians”), no abrogation of the Law, no matter how widely the good news was to be proclaimed, was ever conceived (266). Paul’s insistence that the Law was a temporary or custodial guardian until Christ or a “temporary revelation” and his bitter polemic against Jewish observance was totally different from the Messianic Movement’s proclamation and aims (cf. 267).

I have only scratched the surface of this book in the three soundings above; but I encourage you to read it for yourselves. Because Tabor is constructing a new thesis on all kinds of evidence, a number of his statements are educated “guesses” and speculation to be tested by future information and study (cf. his discussion of DNA evidence, pp 11-12, 14, 22). Many who read this book will be outraged by his arguments and conclusions. But, from my point of view, a thesis rarely flies into my scholarly life out of nowhere that makes me rethink my entire scholarly framework; and The Jesus Dynasty is certainly one of those very rare birds.

For contemporary “children of Abraham,” by emphasizing the human, prophetic, ethical and messianic center of the Jesus Movement, Tabor has put interfaith dialogue on an entirely different basis. He has set the very matrix and foundation of early Christianity back into a world comprehensible in terms of both ancient Judaism and the rise of Islam.

  1. I personally love the original hardcover edition which is now bargain priced the same as the paperback. It is beautifully bound and even has color plates in the front and back. 

  2. Dr. Groh received his Ph.D. from Northwestern University, where he spent his career teaching, rising to the rank of Full Professor. After his “first” retirement he took a post as Professor of Humanities and Archaeology, and University Chaplain at Illinois Wesleyan University, from which he has now retired as well. He has served as President of the North American Patristics Society and is the author or co-author of six books and over 100 articles. Perhaps his most enduring and notable contribution is his study, with Professor Robert Gregg of Stanford University, titled Early Arianism: A View of Salvation (1981), unfortunately now out of print. This single work has completely transformed our understanding of “how Jesus became God” and the history and development of what is called “Christology.” It is rare that a single book transforms an entire field–but that was in fact the impact of Groh & Gregg on Arianism. Dr. Groh is not only a textual scholar but a highly accomplished and widely experienced archaeologist. He and I worked together at Sepphoris with James Strange for many seasons in the 1990s. 

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.


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:


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.”


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).



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.


[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.


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). 

The Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb

In April 2015 the Sunday New York Times broke a major full-page story, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones” based on new chemical tests done on the ossuaries from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb comparing it with the controversial “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary that came to public light in 2002.1

Dr. Aryeh Shimon is interviewed on the results of these tests that compare extensive scrapings from inside and outside ossuaries carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority of comparative ancient tombs of the same period in Jerusalem. Previously, tests had been done on patina, as noted below, but the new tests were of a far more telling nature, accessing the limestone beneath the patina. Limestone ossuaries over time absorb the soil and chemical environs of the tomb they are placed in.  Each tomb has a characteristic chemical profile unique to its environment. Dr. Shimron’s conclusion is that there is an extremely high probability that the James ossuary was originally taken from the Talpiot tomb–either at the time of its discovery in 1980 by a construction crew, or perhaps earlier–since the tomb itself was found unsealed with no blocking stone. I should also point out that Dr. Shimron also sampled an ossuary from the nearby Talpiot Tomb B, just 60 meters away, and it did not match at all the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb ossuaries (Tomb A). This shows that Tomb A had a very specific and unique chemical environment–even compared with a tomb quite close by.  Everyone seems to agree that statistically speaking, adding the James ossuary to the names that are already in the Talpiot tomb changes everything in favor of its high probability of being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, see the calculations by Kilty and Elliot, “The James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.”


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

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

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

Is the James Ossuary from the Talpiot Tomb?

The James and Jesus Ossuaries Side-by-Side. Note the similar style and construction
The James and Jesus Ossuaries Side-by-Side. Note the similar style and construction

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

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

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

Third, Golan has testified that he obtained the ossuary sometime before 1978, providing photographic evidence to support his story, whereas the Talpiot tomb was not excavated until April, 1980.2 Although it is possible that it had been looted from the tomb sometime previous to 1980, we don’t know if the entrance to the tomb was visible to passerbys before the construction blast that obliterated its outside front entrance or porch, making it stand out even from the road below.

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

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

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

The most important indication that the inscription “Ya’akov Son of Josef Brother of Jesus” is authentic is the beige patina that can be found inside the letters, accreting gradationally into the inscription. The patina can be observed on the surface of the ossuary continuing into the engraving. . .These minerals and the circular pitting within the thin layers of the beige to gray patina were found on the surface of the ossuary and, more importantly, within the letters of the inscription. They indicate biological activity and are the product of airborne and/or subaerial geo-bio activity that covers all surfaces of the ossuary . . .indicative of slow growth over many years.3

The team then turned to an evaluative analysis of the scientific tests done in 2006 on the comparative chemical composition of the patina accretions on ossuaries taken from various ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area. The premise of the tests was that ossuaries accumulate distinctive and measurable biochemical “signatures” based on the cave environments in which they have spent the past two millennia.4 Patina samples were taken from the James ossuary, three ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb (Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene, and Matthew) and ossuaries from thirteen other burial caves in the area. By comparing these signatures one can determine if the James ossuary had developed its patina in that particular “tomb” environment:

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

Even tombs that shared a similar rock formation in close proximity to one another nonetheless had their own distinctive chemical signatures. The results showed that the James ossuary shared the same chemical signature as the three tests ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb as well as the walls and ceiling of that tomb. In contrast, the James ossuary patina signature differed considerably from any of the other thirteen burial caves.5

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

The faint outlines of a rosette pattern are visible on the face opposite the plain side with the inscription "James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"
The faint outlines of a rosette pattern are visible

None of the other nine ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb show this kind of weathering. They concluded, on the basis of this weathering, that the James ossuary had been exposed to the elements for at least 200 years. Since we know that the blocking stone was missing from the tomb when it was examined in 1980, and the tomb itself was filled with the local terra rosa soil to a depth of two feet, covering the tops of the ossuaries in the niches, the James ossuary had likely been nearer the exposed doorway of the tomb, where the fill was more shallow. When or how James ossuary would have been taken from the Talpiot tomb we cannot determine. It might have been a number of years before the 1980 excavation of the tomb, or it could have been looted the first night when front porch of the tomb was blown open and exposed, before the IAA officials arrived to begin their work. If it were close to the entrance it would have been the only ossuary seen inside by looters since the others were covered with soil.

During the trial Oded Golan presented photos taken in 1976 in his parents’ apartment showing that he possessed the James ossuary, with its full inscription at that time—before the excavation of the Talpiot tomb in 1980. A photographic expert,Gerald Richard, former head of the Department of Photography and Documentation at the FBI, found no possibility that the photos were made at a later time.6

Oded Shelf

If the James ossuary inscription is authentic and it comes from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, what about the late second century CE report by the Christian chronicler Hegesippus who says the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City wall, where James was murdered? It hardly seems likely that the tomb of James was once in that location and then subsequently moved to the Talpiot tomb. We suggest that there well might have been some kind of monument to James in that area but we know little of Hegesippus, who spent his career in Rome. We can’t assume that he is reporting any kind of eyewitness account. In Rome there are reports of tombs and monuments to both Peter and Paul in several locations.7 Monuments were assumed, over the ages, to be tombs, and tombs might not have monuments. The fourth century church historian Eusebius, for example, quotes an unknown writer named Gaius who says: “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.”8 We are not certain if he means some kind of monument, pillar, or relic, or is he speaking of a tomb. Clement of Rome, who lived just a few decades after the deaths of Peter and Paul, mentions their martyrdom but seems to know little of any circumstances and mentions no tomb locations (1 Clement 5:3-7).

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

Even though we had initially suggested the possibility of the missing tenth ossuary being that of James, based on the similar dimensions and the patina fingerprints that seemed to place it in the Talpiot tomb, we must always adapt our views to new evidence.9 Shimon Gibson had suggested this theory of a missing eleventh ossuary to us back in 2006, when he recalled that the ten ossuaries inside the niches, and removed to the Rockefeller, had been covered with soil. When the IAA archaeologists arrived on a Friday morning, March 28, 1980, the first day of the excavation, they took photos and there is no evidence of any ossuaries having been dug out of the niches. But it is entirely possible, since patina tests show the James ossuary spent much of its history over the past two millennia in the Talpiot tomb environment, that it was near the door, less covered with soil, and thus easy to carry off. By whom or when we will likely never know.

See also “What’s What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb

  1. Other Major Media Coverage:
    The Jerusalem Post: Geologists Claim Stats, Science, Prove Jesus Buried in Jerusalem with Wife and Supposed Son
    NBC News: Geologist Revives Controversy Over Jesus Tomb
    Live Science: New Controversy Surrounds Alleged Jesus Family Tomb (see my response here)
    CNN: Jesus’ Tomb Story: Does the Evidence Hold Up? (see my response here.)  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.