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“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again

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Symposium on Afterlife and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism

The third in a series of privately-funded symposia on Judaism and Christian Origin was recently held in Jerusalem (Jan 13–16, 2008). As with the earlier two events, this symposium was organized by Professor James H. Charlesworth, the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. 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,” with specific attention also given to an evaluation of the so-called “tomb of Jesus” in Talpiot, in southeast Jerusalem. Lectures, presentations, and panel discussions focused on a wide range of topics, from views of the afterlife in Second Temple Biblical Literature, Jewish Apocryphal Works, and the Dead Sea Scrolls, to archeological assessments of tombs, ossuaries, and burial practices in the Second Temple Period, including an evaluation of the archeology of the Talpiot tomb itself by one of the tomb’s excavators, Shimon Gibson. Among the most interesting discussions were those dedicated to the topic of Mary Magdalene in early Christian tradition. Each of the panelists expressed extreme skepticism concerning the identification of “Mariamene” (allegedly inscribed on one of the Talpiot tomb’s ossuaries) with Mary Magdalene of the Christian tradition—the precise reading “Mariamene” is rightly disputed. Various specialists also spoke on diverse scientific methodologies, including forensic anthropology and paleo-DNA evidence (the validity of the evidence previously cited was rigorously challenged), and the statistical significance of the combination of personal names on the ossuaries retrieved from the Talpiot tomb. Indeed, a rich variety of methods were represented over the course of the three-day conference. Scholarly opinions were aired, and the atmosphere was academic and constructive. Most of the 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.”

The most spirited discussion arose around the topic of the Talpiot tomb itself. But even here there was broad consensus among the vast majority of scholars in attendance, as Professor Charlesworth, the chairperson and chief organizer of the symposium, pointedly observes: “Most archaeologists, epigraphers, and other scientists argued persuasively that there is no reason to conclude that the Talpiot Tomb was Jesus’ tomb.” Unfortunately, many of the initial reports in the press following the symposium gave almost the exact opposite impression, stating, instead, that the conference proceedings gave credence to the identification of the Talpiot tomb with a putative family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. As is abundantly clear from the statements to the contrary that have been issued since the symposium by many of the participants, such representations are patently false and blatantly misrepresent the spirit and scholarly content of the deliberations.

We would clarify two additional points at this time. First, despite reports to the contrary, the “missing” tenth ossuary was cataloged. Its existence is recorded in Rachmani’s catalogue published in 1994 (Comm. 1). The Israeli Department of Antiquities retained nine ossuaries (Nos. 701–709) recovered from the Talpiot Tomb in 1980; in addition, a broken specimen, without decoration, was also found. It thus cannot be identified as the “James” ossuary. Second, it has now been ascertained that Joseph Gat died on June 14, 1993, well after Joseph Naveh had deciphered “Yeshua bar Yehosef” (“Jesus, Son of Joseph”) on one ossuary.

Papers from the symposium are to be published in two volumes by William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, U.K.).

The Steering Committee

J.H. Charlesworth (chair), D. Mendels, M. Aviam, G. Mazor, S. Gibson, D. Bahat

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