Further Comments by Charlesworth

“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again

Back to “Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again

Rebutting Sensational Claims Concerning a Symposium in Jerusalem

Introduction. A carefully planned and highly successful symposium in Jerusalem—on Jewish views of the afterlife and burial practices near Jerusalem before the destruction of the area by Roman armies in 70 CE—has been high-jacked by two disturbing and unexpected developments. First, the widow of the archaeologist who excavated a tomb in Talpiot, in southeast modern Jerusalem, unexpectedly read a prepared statement. She shocked the audience by claiming that her husband had found “the burial tomb of Jesus Christ.” While everyone has a right to voice an opinion, it is inappropriate to let a non-participant’s opinion discolor a symposium and caricature a major event.

Second, before the concluding panel discussion, the hall was flooded surprisingly with television cameras and reporters. In the auditorium and before the concluding session, I stated through one of the television crews that the symposium had been a success. It brought together specialists representing many diverse disciplines necessary to explore the complex issues being discussed. I also noted that this is one of the best ways for scholars to learn about methodologies and insights in disciplines outside of their own field. After the conclusion, I was taken upstairs to be interviewed by a reporter from Time magazine. Later, I was astounded to learn that some reporters contended that the symposium had been focused on one tomb and that it belonged to Jesus and Mary Magdalene. To report that the symposium “legitimized” this conclusion is preposterous; such releases are examples of how the media can grotesquely misrepresent the purpose and the subtleties demanded by disinterested scientific and biblical research at the highest level. Along with esteemed colleagues, I protest the misrepresentations of the conference proceedings in some of the media. Having cleared the air from such distortions, we might now reflect back on the symposium.

Retrospect. The event was the third in a series of privately funded symposia on Judaism and Christian Origins. The setting was the appealing ambience of the artists’ quarter outside the western walls of Jerusalem; the dates were Jan 13-16, 2008. The conference was attended by some fifty international and Israeli scholars. The general subject of the symposium was “Jewish Views of the Afterlife and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism.” Obviously included were the recently discovered tomb of King Herod the Great and an evaluation of the alleged “tomb of Jesus” in Talpiot. Lectures, presentations, and panel discussions focused on a wide range of topics. Textual experts focused on the diverse views of the afterlife in Second Temple Biblical Literature, Jewish Apocryphal Works, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the New Testament, Gnostic texts, and early Christian Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Archaeologists and scientists trained in assessing the ancient past discussed tombs, tomb architecture, ossuaries, and burial practices in the Second Temple Period.

Among the most interesting discussions were those dedicated to the topic of Mary Magdalene in early Gnostic and Christian traditions. Each of the panelists expressed skepticism concerning the identification of “Mariamene” (allegedly inscribed on one of the Talpiot tomb’s ossuaries) with Mary Magdalene of the Christian tradition. The insights of the Magdalene Panel harmonized with a previous session in which the paleographers and epigraphers agreed that the precise reading “Mariamene” is probably incorrect. Thus, almost all invited scholars deemed it highly unlikely that this tomb is related in any way to Mary Magdalene.

Specialists spoke on diverse scientific methodologies, including forensic anthropology and Paleo-DNA evidence. Specialists on DNA stated that the Talpiot samples were contaminated; thus, there is no validity to the sensational claim that the bone samples reveal a relation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Specialists on the statistical significance of the combination of personal names on ossuaries in any tomb stated that a priori names to be included dictate the mathematical results. Since most in attendance did not think Mary Magdalene is represented in this tomb, they judged the statistical results to be inconclusive.

A rich variety of scientific methods were represented over the course of the four-day conference. Scholars openly shared their opinions and listened to each other. The atmosphere remained academic and constructive. Virtually all participants would share the opinion of Geza Vermes, the much-esteemed Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies from Oxford University, that as a whole the conference was very “useful in airing the latest views on ancient Jewish burial practices and modern science.”

At this point, we need to stress that despite reports to the contrary, the “missing” tenth ossuary of the Talpiot Tomb was cataloged. Its existence is recorded in Rachmani’s catalogue published in 1994. The Israeli Department of Antiquities retained nine ossuaries (Nos. 701-709) recovered from the Talpiot Tomb in 1980; in addition, a broken specimen was also recovered. It was without decoration or inscription and thus cannot be identified as the ossuary bearing the name “James.” When hundreds of ossuaries pour into the Rockefeller Museum, those that are insignificant are sometimes put aside in preference to those deemed significant.

While many methods, subjects, and tombs were discussed, the topic those outside the scholarly community want to hear about is the Talpiot Tomb; that preoccupation distorts the purpose and results of the constructive discussions. As the chairperson and chief organizer of the symposium, let me stress that on most issues there was broad consensus among the vast majority of scholars in attendance. I have been quoted correctly as reporting: “Most archaeologists, epigraphers, and other scientists argued persuasively that there is no reason to conclude that the Talpiot Tomb was Jesus’ tomb.”

The proceedings of the symposium, with illustrations, will be edited by myself and published by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.) in a format similar to Jesus and Archaeology (2006).

Prospect. What may be learned from this exceptional international congress? Three insights seem especially noteworthy: 1) Following the end of the Babylonian Exile in the late-sixth century BCE, Jews in Palestine expressed mutually exclusive perceptions regarding the afterlife. These thoughts should not be reduced to some coherency or system, since such views range from the belief that death ended human existence (the Sadducees) to the concept of the resurrection of all or only the righteous that began to become widely popular after 200 BCE (viz., 1 Enoch, Daniel, 2 Maccabees, Testaments of the 12 Patriarchs, On Resurrection [4Q521], Psalms of Solomon, Life of Adam and Eve, Lives of the Prophets, Biblical Antiquities, the New Testament, Amidah, 4 Ezra, 2 Baruch, and Josephus [cf. Memar Marqa]). The early Jews who believed in a resurrection of the dead to an immortal existence had to struggle against Greeks and Romans who were convinced that the soul was immortal and thus did not have to be resurrected.

2) All invitees agreed that the study and assessment of the hundreds of Jerusalem’s tombs, some now empty and others unexplored, must proceed without contaminating evidence and continue without preconceptions or fascination with possible scenarios or stories. Research dedicated to ancient tombs should be enriched by teams of scholars who bring insight from many scientific methodologies, including DNA, AMS-C14 (the mass spectrometer), patina examination, dating and typology of ossuaries and architecture, forensic anthropology, computer enhanced digital imaging, sociology, geology, thermoluminescence, and paleography along with epigraphy. These disciplines help clarify the context of ancient texts. Textual studies and archaeology, however, are different disciplines; one of them should not provisionally be accorded a privileged status as specialists strive to comprehend and recreate the ancient past.

3) Biblical scholars, archaeologists, and other scientists who explore the world of pre-70 Palestinian Judaism, especially the emotionally charged evaluation of the Palestinian Jesus Movement, should not allow amateurs to monopolize the publication of popular articles and books. In representing ground-breaking research, scholars must not empower reporters to dictate questions and issues or to issue reports that are journalistically sensational.

Along with the cherished task of advancing research, experts must communicate more swiftly and engagingly to the masses that may not know how to read the Bible but are influenced by fictional depictions of the past—ostensible searches for truth—from Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1960) to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). Luminaries should also disseminate challenging discoveries through reporters who have proven skills in representing the necessary subtleties and qualifications in depicting the past, and who are aware of the obscurities always hindering any recreation of an ancient world. These communicators also need to create language that transcends the jargon of the academy and develop skills in speaking plainly and lucidly.

J. H. Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary, taken from the SBL Web site [based on my earlier report, as chairman of the steering committee, and issued through the ptsem.edu web page with other rebuttals of sensational media distortions]

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