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It Could Be the Tomb

“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again

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James Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

1. There was no official “conclusion” made by the participants, nor were any polls taken, other than the agreement at the end that there should be further examination of the tomb itself in the future. My sense is that a few would say this tomb can not be the tomb of Jesus, but that the vast majority would say that although it might be possible, there is no compelling evidence, given what we now know or possibly can know, and for some, there is evidence pointing against such an identification. Since there are no bone reports, and apparently, the possibility of full DNA testing is now closed, we seem left with what we have. A very few of those who think it might be possible would go on to say it has a probability of being the Jesus family tomb. Still, to be fair here, of those who are not convinced, I would say most find the evidence in favor to be flimsy at best. Language here can be tricky of course. For example, Shimon Gibson said at the conclusion of the conference that based on all the evidence he “does not think this is the Jesus tomb,” but that should not be taken to mean he would say it is impossible, which I have never heard him say. He simply, like most, does not find the evidence compelling enough to move to the “probably” side of things.

I am with the “possible to likely” group, and it is not always easy to take positions that are in the minority, but my conclusions are based on my own sense of “best evidence,” and I have published them in Near Eastern Archaeology. I also think there is more to be said about the DNA testing as well as the statistical studies, some of which was misunderstood, in my view at least, at the Symposium. I will be writing more on this in coming days.

Lots of confusion comes at this point as people mix the matter of the “site” of Talpiot, with what was said in the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” film produced by Cameron and Jacobovici. I have urged, as much as possible, to separate consideration of the “site” from the “film,” but as it turned out that was often not possible, given the ways in which the film had generated lots of the issues we discussed (DNA tests, statistical studies, etc.).

2. The headline that the Symposium “vindicated” the Jacobovici film is misleading and untrue and was apparently based on a misunderstanding of an interview in which Jacobovici said: “We feel totally vindicated. My work with James Cameron was the catalyst for an international symposium that has finally considered the evidence and is opening the door for further research.” The truth is, the Symposium as a whole brought into question many important elements of the film and dealt with it rather critically. I think the word “vindicated” was ill advised, but the context helps to put it in proper perspective.

3. The statement that Rut Gat, the widow of the excavator Yosi Gat, read at the close of the Symposium has grabbed a few headlines but what is causing great rancor is the charge that Jacobovici somehow orchestrated or even wrote her statement as a publicity stunt, and that her husband never said such a thing—namely that he thought the Talpiot tomb belonged to the Jesus family. No one I have talked to, including Charlesworth, had any idea what Ms. Gat might say, other than expressing thanks for remembering her husband, and Jacobovici has stated that he did not in any way shape her statement and was surprised himself when he first heard it. I think it is understandable but unfortunate that the Gat issue has taken center stage at a conference that otherwise has offered so much in terms of debate and information on the Talpiot tomb. After all, the views of the late excavator are interesting, but really offer nothing evidentially in terms of the academic evaluation of the tomb. Given the time and money Charlesworth put into the Symposium, I hope we can all look toward the substance of the conference itself, the published volume that will result, and leave personality and media issues behind. For that reason I have done no media interviews whatsoever in that I have not wanted to contribute to this misdirected flurry and confusion.

What I find more interesting than Ms. Gat’s recollection is the source that editor Horovitz quoted in his Friday Jerusalem Post story, which I think refers, more correctly to the 1996 “publicity” the tomb received as a result of the BBC film and was confused with the Gat matter:

In the wake of Wednesday’s declaration by Mrs. Gat that her husband knew he’d found Jesus’s tomb, an expert who insisted on anonymity charged to the Post Thursday that Israel had deliberately “covered up” the significance of the find for fear of the anti-Semitic backlash to which Mrs. Gat referred. “The Jews have suffered for 2,000 years, being blamed for the death of Jesus,” the expert said. “The last thing Israel needed was to find proof of Jesus’s earthly remains. Our relations with the Vatican would never have recovered.”

Therefore, he said, Gat and other senior archeologists and experts decided they would reject any suggestion that the coincidence of apparent Jesus-related names on the ossuaries in the tomb was significant. “When that combination of names came up, it was like winning the lottery,” this expert said. “But it was agreed that the ‘Jesus talk’ would be denied, and that it would be argued that the names were extremely common and their presence in a single Jerusalem tomb thus statistically unimportant. Mrs. Gat told the truth,” he said, “because she’s not a politician.”

My understanding is that this “expert” was involved in the meetings and deliberations on this matter, that they involved IAA meetings called by late director Drori, but that this individual feels in the present atmosphere he can not agree to be identified. Unlike Gibson, quoted in the Post story, I would not characterize such things as “conspiracy” but simply a matter of practical fact—how could Israel best handle the unbridled speculations that would result as a result of the publication of the names in the tomb, especially in the media. My hope is in a new atmosphere the full story can emerge, but it looks like that won’t be soon.

In any event I want to honor and thank Prof. James Charlesworth for all his hard work in making the Symposium possible and being willing to bring together in the same room all those who had been involved, regardless of emotions and passions. The concrete results of the conference lie ahead, both in new investigation and the publishing of the papers of this Symposium, to be published next year by Eerdman’s Press. This product will prove more lasting and enduring than media reports for a day.


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