“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again
Recently, in Jerusalem, at the third Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian origins, I contributed my thoughts in two panel discussions: one on prosopography the other on epigraphy, examining the evidence from the Talpiot Tomb. I was not interviewed in Simcha Jacobovici’s documentary. I am not an archeologist whose scientific quality of work has been challenged or who has been working under pressure whether of political or religious nature. I am not a partisan, I am a free thinker and a freelance scholar.
Nevertheless I published my doctoral dissertation in 2001, a prosopographic study of early roman Palestine which deals in great proportions with ossuaries and burial practices of the Jews in Herodian and post-Herodian period up to the end of the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Prior to that, in 1991, I published an article entitled “Controverse sur les coutumes funeraires des Juifs en Palestine aux deux premiers siecles de l’empire romain,” in which I tried to establish the possible relation between secondary burial in ossuaries and the concept of resurrection. Asked to examine the evidence of the Talpiot Tomb, I am afraid I have to say that the negativist scholars might have put themselves in a Peter and the Woolf type of scenario.
It is true that over the centuries many times evidence of the existence of Jesus of/from Nazareth had been put forward to the public in a rather sensationalistic way, and this includes the so called “James ossuary.” It is not the case for the Talpiot tomb. In fact we might be dealing with the most tangible evidence ever of the existence of Jesus and his family.
I was among the first to question the authenticity of the so-called “James ossuary” in an article entitled “Was it Jesus’ Brother’s” published in the Globe and Mail prior to its exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2002. I revealed that the inscription was partially fraudulent while the box was authentic. As a matter of fact, my main concern was the lack of provenance for the “James Ossuary” and I am not prepared to reintegrate it in the Talpiot tomb either, for even further reasons now.
In the case of the Talpiot tomb there is no question of provenance not even of the nature of the findings. The only problem is that the archeologists could not take proper notes on the spot. So we are left with almost secondary sources in some way since the bones, for instance, had to be reburied by the modern orthodox Jews of Israel before they could be recorded or properly examined.
This tomb, although typical in many ways, is imperfect for many reasons that I am not going to discuss here. This being stated, how many of the thousands of this type of tombs excavated in Jerusalem and vicinity presented an archetypal model, like the one of the Goliath Family in Jericho, for instance? In fact, Rachel Hachlili, a leading Israeli archeologist in the field of funerary customs and burial practices in early Roman Palestine, was very lucky when excavating the Goliath Family tomb in Jericho. This was an archetypal tomb. Every member of the family was there, over four generations, the inscriptions, very clearly carved, matched the bones found intact in the ossuaries, etc. That allowed her to draw a family tree. However there is no mention so far of this perfect Goliath family in the literary sources of the time. Could it possibly have been the tomb of biblical Goliath? No one came up with this suggestion jokingly or not thus far.
As a social historian, a prosopographist of the Jews in early Roman Palestine, I am inclined to reconstruct Jesus, the man, the Jew, and his family in the proper historical context. One cannot believe in historical Jesus and deny him a historical context and this context has to be found in the formative Hellenistic Judaism of Ancient Palestine and more specifically in Rabbinic roots.
What do we know for sure?
1. A large group of Jews in Roman Palestine had their family tomb hewn in the rock according to archeological and literary sources. (See the last books of A. Kloner and B. Zissu, and R. Hachlili, Israeli archeologists who extensively excavated such tombs; see as well the New Testament and Rabbinic sources).
2. Some of these tombs were more architecturally elaborated than others. Some contained ossuaries, some of these ossuaries bore inscriptions, some bore decorations, some had both.
3. These family tombs were of patriarchal type over three or four generations. That means that once a daughter was married she most likely would have been buried in her husband’s tomb unless she was an adulteress.
4. The practice of a secondary burial among probably the largest group of Jews of Roman Palestine is widely attested from the Herodian period up to the Byzantine Era.
5. This practice, which consists of the gathering of bones, ossilegium, must have remained in use among the first Christians since burial practices and funerary customs are the last that a people would give up on, due to the sensitivity of the matter, including rites of a superstitious nature, like some borrowings from pagan surrounding religions. In fact the practice of burial in ossuaries was also in use among the Christian monks living in the caves of Cappadocia in Turkey, in the Byzantine Era.
6. Jesus’ corpse was temporarily (referring perhaps to a primary burial?) placed in a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem according to the New Testament sources.
7. A large group of Jews in early Roman Palestine were preoccupied with the afterlife, including immortality of the soul and/or resurrection according at least to sources such as Josephus Flavius and Rabbinic literature.
Is the Talpiot tomb the family tomb of Jesus? At this point I am saying: the evidence is worth scholarly examination. In fact by paying attention to the matter in a scientific way one could only advance the research on the historical Jesus and his movement, as well as on the social history of early Roman Palestine as a whole with an emphasis on burial practices and funerary customs. The careful review of the evidence could also help reestablish sound methodologies for further discussions in this field.
Sign up to receive our email newsletter and never miss an update.
Dig into the world of Bible history with a BAS All-Access membership. Biblical Archaeology Review in print. AND online access to the treasure trove of articles, books, and videos of the BAS Library. AND free Scholar Series lectures online. AND member discounts for BAS travel and live online events.Subscribe Today