James Tabor Responds to the Conference Participants Statement

“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again

Back to “Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again

James Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

On Monday, January 21, 2008, Eric Meyers of Duke University and Jodi Magness of UNC-Chapel Hill issued a public statement signed by eleven other scholars who had attended the recent Princeton Theological Seminary Symposium on “Jewish Views of the Afterlife and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism: Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context,” held in Jerusalem, January 13-17th. Readers can find the original statement on Mark Goodacre’s Weblog, NTGateway, and an updated version, with a few significant changes, at the Dept. of Religion Blog at Duke [and on this Web site at 15 Scholars Protest “Vindication” Claim]. The main purpose of the declaration was to strongly deny any media reports that most of the scholars attending the conference had concluded that the Talpiot tomb might possible be the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. To the contrary, the signatories affirmed that they “either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus’ family or find this claim highly unlikely.” Although the three main stories published on this subject, in the Jerusalem Post, TIME, and in the HaAretz, all recorded that attendees at the conference were divided, those who signed onto the Meyers/Magness statement charged that a “spin” had been put on the whole conference by filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, through a press release, and an orchestrated ending involving a statement by the Ruth Gat, widow of the late Joseph Gat, excavator of the tomb in 1980.

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.

My own report on the conference, published on my Blog on January 21st, and now posted also on the Biblical Archaeology Society site [It Could Be the Tomb], echoed a similar assessment of the results, namely, that most of the participants remained unconvinced that the identification case had been made.

However, quite significantly, the Meyers/Magness statement contains much more than this corrective caveat regarding the media. It goes on, in the body, to outline in summary form the reasons that the signatories in fact reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to the Jesus family.

As one who has given considerable thought and effort to all the arguments involved, pro and con, regarding the potential identification of the tomb with Jesus, I was quite surprised to see that the statement, so far as I can judge, contained some significant errors that serve to undermine its force. I have been assured by Meyers and Magness that all those signing the statement agree with it wholly, which puzzled me even more, since I have talked to three or four of those who signed on and unless the statement reflects a change of mind, it is not reflective of their views. It is possible that people signed on in order to support the general point of the statement, knowing that details can always be sorted out in various ways, but it is unfortunate, I think, that readers of the statement will have the impression that since these experts have signed on, everything that follows is agreed upon as established.

Without debating all the complex issues upon which this comprehensive summary statement touches upon, let me focus on just four points that I think are questionable. Here I will quote the statement verbatim, and follow with some observations.

1. A statistical analysis of the relatively common names engraved on the ossuaries leaves no doubt that the probability of the Talpiot tomb belonging to Jesus’ family is virtually nil if the Mariamene named on one of the ossuaries is not Mary Magdalene.

This is decidedly not the case, as has now been pointed out by several statisticians who have already commented on theDuke University and Goodacre Web sites. Based on the calculations of Elliot and Kilty, whose paper is up on the Web, and as discussed by Camil Fuchs, who along with Andrey Feuerverger, sat on the panel dealing with statistics. The name cluster, even leaving Mariamene out entirely, with no assumptions regarding Mary Magdalene, show a probability factor of .48. This result is far from “virtually nil,” in fact it is very close to 1/2, meaning if we had two tombs to examine, one of them would be the Jesus tomb. My understanding is that Fuchs will clarify this in his published paper.

A bit of forgotten history here: It is interesting to note that when the 1996 story broke on the Talpiot tomb by the BBC TV special and a front page story in the London Sunday Times, there was a brief discussion on the Orion Dead Sea Scrolls discussion list (archived still at the Orion site and worth reading through the thread) and Asia Lerner, doing some quick calculations on name frequencies, came up with 1/10, commenting at the time, “The point that I wanted to show with my little computation is that the chance is far from being nil-because even if the names themselves are frequently encountered, the chance of encountering them in a particular configuration diminishes exponentially.” If 1/10 is not considered “nil,” then surely 1/2 would be far less so. What happened I think is that non-statisticians, listening to Feuerverger’s presentation, misunderstood the probability language. What can not be proved by statistics (say with a figure of .90 or .80) is not thus made “nil” by a number close to .50. Virtually “nil” would be something close to .1, given the estimated number of tombs we are dealing with in this period and region.

All this is not to say that Elliot and Kilty are correct, but just to say, as Randy Ingermanson has pointed out, the “virtually nil” conclusion represents a fundamental misunderstanding of their results that Fuchs discussed at the conference.

2. In fact, epigraphers at the conference contested the reading of the inscription as “Mariamene.” Furthermore, Mary Magdalene is not referred to by the Greek name Mariamene in any literary sources before the late second-third century AD.

It is the case that two epigraphers at the conference disagreed with L. Rahmani’s reading of Mariamene, but it should be pointed out that those two, Stephen Pfann and Jonathan Price, also disagree with one another in significant ways. Before one discounts Rahmani, who is supported by Leah Di Segni, who recently reexamined the inscription, perhaps those of us who are not experts should acknowledge that the verdict is still out, and arguments are still to be made. Rahmani in no way agrees with any kind of Mary Magdalene interpretation, to put it mildly, but he has told Charlesworth and others that he stands firmly by his reading. If indeed, the Rahmani reading holds, the question is not how late Mary Magdalene might be referred to by this unusual form of the name, but rather, who else, in all of our records, has this form of the name, other than Mary Magdalene, and this ossuary of the Talpiot tomb.

In other words, we have lots of examples of the Greek forms Mariam, Mariame, and Mariames, and but only this single reference to Mariamene—with the letter “nun,” and it is in the special neuter diminutive form—showing endearment. So far as I know, the only other example of this form of the name in all of our ancient records is in reference to Mary Magdalene—in Hippolytus and the Acts of Philip. One must admit that is a rather strange linguistic correspondence. How likely is it that a random ossuary from a 1st century tomb, with a “Jesus son of Joseph” inscription, would also have a rare form of the name Mariam that is linked to only one identifiable “Mary” in the ancient Jewish world, namely Mary Magdalene. This is not proof that the ossuary inscription refers to Mary Magdalene, but what it does indicate, it seems to me, is that Rahmani’s reading should not be excluded from the discussion in a summary statement based on two experts who read it differently.

3. The identification of the Talpiot tomb as the tomb of Jesus’ family flies in the face the canonical Gospel accounts, which are the earliest traditions describing Jesus’ death and burial. According to these accounts Jesus was placed in the tomb of a prominent follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Since at least the early fourth century Christians have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial at the spot marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

This statement hits home with me since I presented a summary of my paper on this very subject. I attempted to show that a redaction critical reading of our sources indicates that the idea of Joseph of Arimathea owning the tomb is a Matthean theological gloss, and not supported by our two independent core sources. I realize that most of those who signed the initial statement do not specialize in historical-critical readings of gospel materials. This sort of face-value reading ignores 200 years of insights into the heavily theological nature of our gospel sources. April DeConick cites this as one of the reasons she could not sign onto the Meyer/Magness statement. Further, as Kloner and others have shown, this tomb (whether the site of the 4th century Church of the Holy Sepulcher or not) was a temporary burial. Since neither historian nor believer maintains Jesus’ body remained in that initial tomb, one must hold, from an historical point of view, that he was moved to another location. So, if he was moved to another location, how can one possibly exclude the Talpiot tomb? This does not prove the Talpiot tomb was the place to which he was moved, but it fits well with the gospel accounts, read critically. Jodi Magness holds the view that he would have been reburied in a shaft tomb but the experts at the Symposium did not agree on that. That leaves open the idea that he was buried in a second rock-hewn tomb, especially since Mark and John say the tomb was chosen for emergency purposes because it happened to be nearby. So, in fact, the gospel accounts seem to support a “second tomb” theory, rather than preclude such.

4. However, Joseph Gat lacked the expertise to read the inscriptions. His supervisor and other members of the Israel Antiquities Authority believe that Gat could not have made such a statement in his lifetime since the inscriptions seem to have been deciphered only after he had passed away.

This final point in the Meyers/Magness statement I find most troubling. It implies that Ms. Ruth Gat, who reported conversations with her husband, was either deluded or lying. Either of these are very heavy charges. DeConick states on her Web site that she could not sign on to this statement for those very reasons. She did not want to get into the business of endorsing such an accusation without evidence. I was rather surprised to see a group of colleagues sign onto such a charge without further investigation. I wrote Meyers and Magness about this matter and received a reply just today that they saw no reason to change their statement. Nonetheless, in preparing to write this post tonight I went to the Duke University Web site to copy the texts upon which I wanted to comment. I found a significant sentence is missing, namely, “His supervisor and other members of the Israel Antiquities Authority believe that Gat could not have made such a statement in his lifetime since the inscriptions seem to have been deciphered only after he had passed away.” I am quite pleased to see that sort of charge is now gone, but it seems it was removed without any acknowledgment of the seriousness of the charge, or the damage it might have already done to Ms. Gat’s reputation. The original has no doubt been copied and circulated numerous times. To his credit, Stephen Pfann, on his Blog yesterday, issued an apology for such a “rush to judgment,” and one has to admire his integrity in this regard. I have not seen such an acknowledgment anywhere else.

The point I made in my own initial report on the Talpiot tomb conference was that even if Joseph Gat did indeed think the Talpiot tomb was the Jesus tomb, it would not serve as “evidence” in the sense of proving anything. He was not a historian, and I doubt if he had delved into the complexity of evaluating these names in literary sources. What it would tell us is one more bit of the puzzle in terms of how the tomb and its names first came to light and was discussed and evaluated among certain circles in Jerusalem before 1993. And that is of interest in the overall story, more and more of which was emerging even last week.

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