The Invisible Things

Articles in Apologetics

Initial Impressions of the “Jesus Tomb” discovered in Talpiot, Jerusalem

with 16 comments

A tomb discovered in Jerusalem has been the subject of much media attention in recent days. A Time Magazine blog entry, entitled “Jesus: Tales from the Crypt” (http://time-blog.com/middle_east/2007/02/jesus_tales_from_the_crypt.html?iid=feed-middle_east) has been heavily viewed, as has the Discovery Channel interactive site that details much of the information known about the tomb (http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/tomb/tomb.html).

Though the tomb and its contents (10 ossuaries, 6 of which have inscriptions, as well as 3 unidentified skulls) have not yet been evaluated to the satisfaction of most interested parties, enough information has been gathered so far as to merit discussion. My initial impression is that much of the alleged evidence that has been interpreted as proof that the tomb discovered in 1980 was indeed that of the Biblical Jesus and his family is gaining such widespread attention now based upon an excellent and intentional public relations effort and hype rather than its own validity. However, I will be paying close attention to this story as it develops further.

Most of the information that will be revealed at the coming press conference and Discovery Channel documentary produced by Hollywood director James Cameron is known at this point. I have detailed below what I think are several strong points of contention.

The Family

It should be wondered whether a humble Galilean family would have been able to afford what is obviously an opulent and grand tomb for its time, or whether they would have located that tomb in Jerusalem rather than their own home. Though tradition recounts that James, the brother of Jesus, came to believe in Jesus as messiah and lead what became the early church in Jerusalem, it is also known that he was stoned to death by the Jewish Sanhedrin in approximately AD 62. This is an important fact because the nature of his death would lead many historians to conclude that his subsequent burial would not have been likely to be honorable. Additionally, James’ presence in Jerusalem may lead some to conclude that the rest of his family was there as well, though there really is no conclusive evidence to suggest this.

The Inscriptions

Six of the ten ossuaries in the tomb have inscriptions. They are: “Maria,” the Latin form of Mary, inscribed on the side of the ossuary in Hebrew script; “Matia,” inscribed in Hebrew script; “Yose,” the diminutive of “Yosef,” inscribed in Hebrew script; “Yeshua bar Yosef,” translated “Jesus, son of Joseph,” inscribed in Aramaic lettering; “Mariamene e Mara,” so far translated as “Mary, known as master,” inscribed in Greek lettering; and “Yehuda bar Yeshua,” translated “Judah, son of Jesus,” inscribed in Aramaic lettering on a more decorated façade.

Though the collection of names bears striking resemblance to what we know are names of Jesus’ family, it should be said at the outset that these names were extremely common at that time. Additionally, there are some names from Jesus’ family that are missing from the tomb and some heretofore unknown names present. Joseph, the father of Jesus, does not seem to be present among the ossuaries, unless of course, his is one of the uninscribed. The ossuary inscribed “Yose” is unlikely to be that of the patriarch given that Yose would have been nicknamed this because of his father’s name. The ossuary inscribed “Matia” is puzzling given that the name Matthew has been associated with Jesus because of his disciple, Levi, though not with a member of his immediate family. “Matthan,” a name similar to Matthew, is listed among the genealogy of the Gospel of Matthew as the grandfather of Joseph. It seems doubtful that the two are related as the names themselves are different and the presence of Joseph’s grandfather in the tomb would only further raise the question of Joseph’s absence, as well as why the grandfather’s ossuary would be inscribed but Joseph’s presumably not.

The presence of the ossuary inscribed “Yose” strengthens the circumstantial case, as the name has been listed in the Gospel accounts as being a brother of Jesus. However, there is no other evidence to confirm that this ossuary belonged to the brother of the ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yosef.”

The inscription “Mariamene e mara” is of high interest, especially to those who would like to make a case for the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene. The inscription has been translated “Mary, known as master,” which is strange indeed as it is unlikely that such a description would be given to a woman of that time, no less strange given that her presumed “mastery” bears reference to Jesus himself, yet the ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yosef,” has no other description or title associated with it. If these are indeed the ossuaries of the Biblical figures, why would Mary have such a title and Jesus not? However, it is also possible, if not likely, that the inscription “Mariamene e mara,” could be translated as the diminutive form of “Mariam,” or “Maria.” In any case, none of these translations bear a direct or confirmed link to Mary Magdalene, nor do they really indicate a relationship between the owners of the “Mariamene e mara” ossuary and the “Yeshua bar Yosef” ossuary.

The other ossuary bearing an inscription reads “Yehuda bar Yeshua,” or “Judah, son of Jesus.” There is really no strong evidence to suggest that the Biblical Jesus had a son, nor that he was married (I have discussed this previously here: http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/04/11/what-about-all-the-other-gospels-part-2/). However, the presence of this inscribed ossuary in a tomb among other common yet Biblically familiar names in no way merits the reinterpretations of Biblical passages widely interpreted to be referring to the disciple John as actually referring to a child- possibly the child of Jesus. Without any additional historical evidence that Jesus had a son, the presence of the Judah ossuary seems to be a strike against the case, not for it.

The Discovery channel site seems to imply that an ossuary inscribed with “Yaakov bar Yosef a khui d’ Yeshua,” or “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” in Aramaic, is present along with the others. This is not the case, and is frankly misleading on the part of Discovery. Indeed, an ossuary with this inscription has been found and has been the subject of much discussion given its inscription. Much of the controversy surrounding this ossuary is due to the dismissal of the last part of the inscription, “brother of Jesus,” which some scholars have claimed was added as a forgery to bolster the value of the artifact. Incidentally, the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, testified in 2004 that it had been in his possession for over 25 years, and prior to that had been owned by someone else. This means that the James ossuary must have been discovered at least several years prior to the discovery of the intact Talpiot tomb, leading to the conclusion that it was never among the ten ossuaries found there.

Lastly, it seems to me that the linguistic variety of the ossuary inscriptions do not necessarily imply any kind of special status. It seems that the inscription of the “Maria” ossuary is being singled out due to the fact that Maria is the Latin form of Mary. Yet, what of the “Mariamene e mara,” “Yeshua bar Yosef,” and “Yehuda bar Yeshua” ossuaries, which are also inscribed in languages other than Hebrew script? This means that four of the six inscribed ossuaries are not in Hebrew script. Perhaps, then, the Hebrew inscribed ossuaries are the special ones? The statistical evidence, which has been put forth to conclude that the chances that this tomb is not that of Jesus’ family are 600:1 is also quite misleading. It assumes that the “Mariamene e mara” inscription identifies Mary Magdalene. It also does not weigh the presence of the names not associated with Jesus’ family against it, nor does it take in to consideration the presence of unmarked ossuaries. While the collection of names is intriguing, 600:1 in favor of this tomb being that of Jesus’ family seems almost absurd.

The DNA Evidence
According to information released about the tomb, useable tissue samples were only able to be extracted from the ossuaries inscribed “Mariamene e mara” and “Yeshua bar Yosef.” (Jewish law prohibits the bones from being disturbed, so testing has been limited to organic tissue residue found in the ossuaries.) Testing has so far concluded that the occupants of the two ossuaries could not have been maternally related. However, this is a far cry from establishing that the two were married! Though it seems obvious, it should be noted that without an authentic sample of DNA from either the person him/herself or a proven descendant, it is impossible to use DNA sampling to establish the identity of a person. Thus, without an existing sample of DNA from the Biblical Jesus, or a sample from a proven descendant of the Biblical Jesus, no DNA evidence will prove that this ossuary belonged to him.

Historical Considerations
While the information collected from this tomb might seem to build a convincing case for it being that of the Biblical family, it must be considered along side of all the other information we do know about the family and the circumstances of the early church. The historical validity of the New Testament documents provides ample information about the followers of Jesus, as do the writings of early church fathers and Josephus. Taken as a body of evidence, they certainly suggest that something significant happened to alter the behavior of the disciples and to propel the Christian movement into what it is today. I have written about this previously here: http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-3-the-origin-and-perseverance-of-the-church/ and here: http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/11/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-2-the-empty-tomb/.)

It seems valid at this point to conclude that the evidence that has been released so far is not strong enough to build a case for the Talpiot tomb having belonged to the family of the Biblical Jesus. Indeed, even Amos Kloner, the Bar-Ilan University professor and archaeologist who lead the excavation and subsequent analysis, has been quoted recently, dismissing the hype by saying “It makes a great story for a TV film, but it’s impossible. It’s nonsense. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE.”

- – – – – – – – – – – – – – -

Related Issues:

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 1 (The Pos-Mortem Appearances)
http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/10/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-1-the-post-mortem-appearances/

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 2 (The Empty Tomb)
http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/11/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-2-the-empty-tomb/

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 3 (The Origin and Perseverance of the Church)
http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/13/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-3-the-origin-and-perseverance-of-the-church/

The Historical Resurrection of Jesus, Part 4 (Addressing Alternative Explanations)
http://christopherbutler.wordpress.com/2006/03/14/the-historical-resurrection-of-jesus-part-4-addressing-alternative-explanations/

Related Articles (offsite):

The Discovery Channel interactive site on the “Lost Tomb of Jesus”
http://community.discovery.com/eve/forums/a/frm/f/3601981278

The Discovery Channel sponsored “Lost Tomb of Jesus” discussion board
http://community.discovery.com/eve/forums/a/frm/f/3601981278

CNN Article posted after the televised press conference:
http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/02/26/jesus.sburial.ap/index.html

Ben Witherington’s take on the Talpiot tomb:
http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/jesus-tomb-titanic-talpiot-tomb-theory.html

Ben Witherington’s second take on the Talpiot tomb:
http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/problems-multiple-for-jesus-tomb-theory.html

David Kuo’s take on the Talpiot tomb:
http://www.beliefnet.com/blogs/JWalking/2007/02/think-jesus-meets-titanic.html

A fair take on some of the scholarly objections on Time.com:
http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1593893,00.html?cnn=yes

Update (03/06/2007):

An interesting commentary on the symbols found in the tomb, by Pastor David Janssen (new):
http://davidjanssen.wordpress.com/2007/03/05/the-jesus-tomb-and-its-tale-of-symbols/

Craig Blomberg’s article on the Talpiot Tomb (new):
http://www.denverseminary.edu/dialogue/jesusbones

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16 Responses

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  1. Don’t forget to check out the OFFICIAL movie website at http://www.jesusfamilytomb.com.

    Karen

    February 27, 2007 at 12:56 am

  2. Thanks for clearing away all the hype. The DNA claims stink like a three-day-old fish, and now you point out they’re even flimsier than I thought they were! Not to mention the totally inconclusive inscriptions, etc., etc., etc.

    This is an amusing story, however, for one reason. Let’s humour the skeptics and say that the claim of intimate relations between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is valid (and where in heck does that idea come from, anyhow? I’m going to have to read your earlier linked article on that subject). So we now have two major, competing pop-culture theories on what happened to MM: the Holy Blood-Holy Grail theory that she moved to France, or the James Cameron theory that she stayed in Judea. Hmmm, even if the basic premise were right, then one of these theories that people are making money from is guaranteed to be wrong! That gives me some satisfaction.

    sewing

    February 27, 2007 at 3:46 am

  3. Somebody already beat Mr.Cameron to it. A movie called “The Body” tells a story remarkably similar to this.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0201485/

    snowjunkie

    February 27, 2007 at 7:56 am

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  9. I think you should know about a potential inaccuracy in this blog. You stated that no Josephs were found among the inscriptions in the Talpiot tomb, but James D. Tabor, in his book, “The Jesus Dynasty,” says otherwise: “In addition to the “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuary there was a Joseph; a Mary, presumably his wife; another Mary; a Jude son of Jesus; and a Matthew.” That quote is on page 10 of this sample from the book:
    http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/JESUS_DYNASTY.pdf

    Kent

    February 27, 2007 at 5:29 pm

  10. Watch the paroxysms of joy that atheists and God-deniers are going through over this. Then think on this:

    “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie and so that all will be condemned who have not believed the truth but have delighted in wickedness.” II Thessalonians 2: 11-12.

    Now watch how they take joy in “killing” God. How they revile those who continue to believe, while they worship their own reason.

    -J. Kaiser

    totaltransformation

    February 27, 2007 at 11:38 pm

  11. At the time Jesus was actively preaching, he was regarded by the Jewish religious leadership as a rabble-rouser and heritic, leading many “devout” Jews astray. They were very concerned about disposing of this threat to their control of Jewish society. It is possible that this “Tomb” is an elaborate hoax created by the Sanhedrin as a cover-up to their duplicity and deceit. After all they tried to bribe the Roman soldiers to lie about the empty tomb where Jesus was placed.

    G Fish

    February 28, 2007 at 12:37 am

  12. I like G Fish’s idea—watch those who make money by discrediting people’s faith wriggle and squirm over such an un-PC idea—but had the leaders of the Pharisees or Sadducees known where Jesus’ body was located, surely they would have produced it a few days or weeks later in order to discredit those who were claiming that Jesus had been bodily resurrected—and not left it in the ground, in the vain hope that someone would stumble upon it 2000 years later?

    sewing

    February 28, 2007 at 2:03 am

  13. I agree with TotalTransformation… people are seeing what they want to see with this whole tomb situation. This is part of the delusion that God promises to send all of those who hate truth and would like to continue living in rebellion.

    Cory Tucholski

    February 28, 2007 at 9:46 am

  14. CB,

    Thanks for the great insight on this stuff. I look forward to reading your updates!
    You know, I don’t have a problem with people debating that any of this stuff could be true. The real shady part of it all is the manipulitve way they stretch truths and pretend things are facts that are nothing near the truth. Faulty diagrams and what not.
    I keep waiting for Leonardo DiCaprio to show up! I’d pay to see that.

    -ap

    Able Parris

    February 28, 2007 at 12:18 pm

  15. James Tabor, the religion professor promoting the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” film, is the same character at the center of the claim that an “Essene latrine” has been found near the site of Khirbet Qumran, where so-called traditional Qumranologists (including, it would appear, Tabor himself) continue to insist, in the face of mounting contrary evidence, that a sect of Essenes lived. Tabor is also involved in the current biased and misleading exhibits of the Dead Sea Scrolls traveling around the country.

    For details, see http://jesus-crypt-fraud.blogspot.com/ and the other postings published by the authors of that blog.

    For Tabor’s “Essene latrine” efforts (also based in part on a misleading use of DNA evidence), see K. Galor and J. Zangenberg at http://www.forward.com/articles/led-astray-by-a-dead-sea-latrine/, or the most recent article by N. Golb on the Oriental Institute website, http://oi.uchicago.edu/research/projects/scr/).

    Professor Jim Davila’s blog (March 6, 2007) http://paleojudaica.blogspot.com/ quotes Tabor as asserting to him in an email: “I have never excavated even one tomb, and I am not even an archaeologist and have never claimed to be such.”

    Yet Tabor himself, in an article published in the Charlotte Observer, excerpted on the same paleojudaica blog a year ago (February 13, 2006), wrote: “As an archaeologist, I have long observed and experienced the thrill that ancient discoveries cause in all of us. The look on the faces of my students as we uncover ancient ruins from the time of Jesus, or explore one of the caves where the scrolls were found, is unmistakable.”

    Tabor’s Ph.D. was awarded to him by the University of Chicago’s Department of New Testament and Christian Literature (which is housed in the university’s Divinity School building). The title of his dissertation was “Things Unalterable: Paul’s Ascent to Paradise”. He clearly has no training as an archaeologist or historian, and we are only left to wonder at the motivations that led him to become involved in these phony scams.

    Charles Gadda

    March 10, 2007 at 7:20 am


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