“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again
Rarely does the world of Biblical archaeology make as much news as when filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici announced at a press conference in late February 2007 that they had identified the remains of Jesus. Those remains, the two filmmakers claimed, had been in an ossuary, or bone box, inscribed “Jesus son of Joseph” that had been uncovered in 1980 during construction of an apartment building in the Jerusalem neighborhood of East Talpiot. As if that were not news enough, Cameron and Jacobovici further claimed that the tomb also contained the ossuaries of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and of Mary Magdalene. And if that weren’t enough, they went on to claim that another ossuary in the tomb, inscribed “Yehudah [Judah, or Judas in Greek] son of Jesus,” was the son of Jesus of Nazareth and of Mary Magdalene, who, the filmmakers said, were married. The Talpiot tomb, they concluded, was nothing less than the tomb of Jesus and his closest family.
Cameron and Jacobovici’s views were elaborated soon after the press conference in The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a program that aired on the Discovery Channel.
It did not take long for the criticism against the show’s claims to mount. Some of the criticism was personal and ugly, sometimes motivated by a misguided sense of defending Christianity. Much of the criticism, however, came from scholars who raised substantive objections to the program’s claims. Some quickly pointed out that the Talpiot tombñ cut into bedrock and containing niches for ossuariesñ was a type of tomb popular among Jerusalem’s wealthy in the first century.
Jesus’s family was not wealthy, these scholars noted, and would not have had such a family tomb. Several other criticisms were raised: Jesus’s family, coming from Galilee, would not have had a tomb in Jerusalem; if they had one at all, it would have been in their home region. The scholars also noted that the purported ossuary of Jesus is inscribed simply as “Jesus son of Joseph.” People from outside Judea, these scholars argued, would have been called by their city or region of originñ Mary of Magdala, Paul of Tarsus and, indeed, Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars also pointed out that Jesus, in the Gospels, is invariably called “Jesus of Nazareth” and not “Jesus son of Joseph,” which is how the Talpiot ossuary is inscribed.
Other objections included the fact that the Jesus ossuary contained no title, such as Master or Messiah, that we might expect Jesus’s earliest followers to have inscribed on the bone box of their revered teacher. Also missing was any history of veneration of the Talpiot tomb as the burial place of Jesus; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in contrast, was thought by early Christians to be the site of Jesus’ death and burial as far back as the second century.
None of the proceeding objections are by themselves strong enough to be fatal to the claim that the Talpiot tomb was the tomb of Jesus and his family. But note that every one of those objections has to be wrong for the claim to be rightñ even if one of those objections is correct, the Talpiot tomb is not the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that these objections are indeed all wrong. Even if we grant that Jesus’ family had a tomb in Jerusalem (and not in Galilee), that they could afford (and had a desire to own) a rock-cut family tomb of the type favored by Jerusalem’s wealthy, that Jesus’ ossuary would have been inscribed simply as “Jesus son of Joseph” (and not “Jesus of Nazareth” or with the title Master or Messiah), and that the early Christian community in Jerusalem not only would have forgotten where their leader had been buried but would later come up with an entirely spurious tradition that he was buried where the Holy Sepulchre would later be builtñ if we assume all that, how strong a case do the makers of The Lost Tomb of Jesus have? The answer is: a surprisingly weak one.
When the Talpiot tomb was discovered in 1980, the excavators found ten ossuaries inside; six were inscribed. In addition to the one inscribed “Jesus son of Joseph,” there were ossuaries inscribed “Mariamne Mara,” “Maria,” “Mattia,” “Judah son Jesus” and “Joseh.” The “Mariamne Mara” inscription is written in Greek letters; the others are in Hebrew/Aramaic.
The “Mariamne Mara” ossuary is key to the filmmakers’ argumentñ and it is the one over which their claims are particularly unconvincing. They argue that Mariamne, one of several Greek variations on the Hebrew name Miriam, refers to none other than Mary Magdalene (the name Mary, too, derives from Miriam). They point to the fourth-century apocryphal work the Acts of Philip, in which a woman named Mariamne plays a prominent role. The filmmakers, basing themselves on an interpretation by Francois Bovon, of Harvard Divinity School, argue that this Mariamne was thought by the author of the Acts of Philip to be Mary Magdalene.
There are several severe problems with this theory, however. The Mariamne in the Acts of Philip is not identified as Mary Magdalene and does not do any of the notable things Mary Magdalene does in the Gospels (for example, Mary Magdalene is healed by Jesus in Luke 8:8; is witness to Jesus’ place of burial in Mark 15:40-47; and is witness to the resurrection of Jesus in Mark 16:1-8). The Mariamne of the Acts of Philip also does numerous things for which we have no parallel in the Gospel accounts (such as converting talking animals and slaying a dragon!). Indeed, the Mariamne of the Acts of Philip is identified as the sister of Martha. So whatever we are to make of the Mariamne of the Acts of Philip, she is not Mary Magdalene.
But even if we accept Bovon’s theory that the Mariamne in the Acts of Philip was meant to be Mary Magdalene (and Bovon has recently stated that he does not think Mariamne is the real name of the historical Mary Magdalene), what bearing does a fourth-century work, composed far from Palestine (probably in Asia Minor), have on first-century artifacts from Jerusalem?
About eight times in the Gospels the form Maria is used to refer to Mary Magdalene (and a ninth time, if one counts Mark 16:9, part of Mark’s ending added much later). Four times the Semitic form Mariam is used. We see the same variation of names in reference to Mary, the sister of Martha, and to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In fact, Mariam is used in reference to the mother of Jesus more than a dozen times.
Accordingly, to identify the Mariamne of the Talpiot ossuary with one specific Mary of the New Testament is little more than special pleading. The Mariamne in the Talpiot tomb is almost certainly someone else.
The filmmakers also take the second name on that ossuaryñ Marañ to be a title, the feminine form of the Aramaic title for “Master” or “Teacher.” To the filmmakers, this gives added weight to their identification of the Mariamne in the ossuary with Mary Magdalene. In their view, Mary Magdalene was a central and honored early leader in the church, and her role was acknowledged by the inscription on the ossuaryñ “The Honored Teacher Mariamne.”
But here, too, the filmmakers are almost certainly wrong. Some epigraphers think the Greek inscription on the ossuary actually reads “Mariamne and Mara.” This interpretation is supported by similar, even identical, forms in Greek papyri (for example, P.Oslo 2.47; P.Oxy. 2.399; 4.745; P.Columbia 18a; and, from Palestine, 5/6Hev 12; 5/6Hev 16; and XHev/Seiyal 63 and 69). And, in fact, there is another ossuary, at Dominus Flevit, in which the names “Martha and Mary” are inscribed, thus providing an example where the names of two women are given.
In any case, we have no certain examples of “Mara” as a title (besides, the Aramaic Mara is normally masculine). The inscription on this ossuary should be read either as “Mariamne, known as Martha” or perhaps as “Mariamne and Martha,” to indicate that there were two women in the ossuary (it was common for ossuaries to hold the remains of several people).
The Lost Tomb of Jesus suggests that “Mariah” (written in Hebrew letters) is a “Latinized” form of Miriam and is quite rare and thus supports an identification with Mary the mother of Jesus. This is not convincing, however, for “Mariah” (written in Hebrew letters) is found on ossuaries from Mount Scopus (see L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, ossuary no. 26), the Mount of Olives (no. 27), Jericho (no. 55), in Jerusalem (for example, nos. 48, 49, 53, 56-58) and elsewhere (nos. 33-36, 41). Moreover, the name “Maria” (written in Greek letters) occurs in Josephus (Jewish Wars 6.201) and on ossuaries (Rahmani nos. 25, 28, 46). There is nothing about the nameñ written in Hebrew or in Greekñ that points to Mary the mother of Jesus.
There are also problems with the interpretations of the other names found in the Talpiot tomb. We know of no one in the family of Jesus by the name of “Mattia” (Matthew). The filmmakers point to ancestors of Jesus who had forms of that name, but their point is not convincing and is another example of special pleading.
The filmmakers also misunderstand another of the names found in the Talpiot tomb. The name YWSH should be pronounced “Yosah” (as Professor Tal Ilan in fact does in the documentary), not “Yoseh,” as the documentary consistently does. “Yosah” is not the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek form Joses, the name of Jesus’ brother (as in Mark 6:3 and elsewhere). The Hebrew equivalent is YWSY (and is found on a number of ossuaries in Greek and in Hebrew). The documentary’s discussion of this name is very misleading.
The Talpiot tomb also contained a “Judah son of Jesus.” The filmmakers suggest this Judah is the son of Jesus and of his wife Mary Magdalene. This whole line of interpretation needs to be challenged.
There is no credible evidence anywhere, at any time, that suggests that Jesus had a wife or a child. Had he a wife, it would not have been an embarrassment or something that needed to be kept secret. A wife of Jesus would have been a celebrated figure; children would have occupied honored places in the church. But there is no hint of this. Even the second century Gnostic Gospels of Mary and of Philip do not support the claim some make that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married or were lovers.
This important point seems not to have registered with the filmmakers. The inscription “Judah son of Jesus” argues against the identification of the Talpiot tomb as the tomb of Jesus and his family. Whoever this Jesus was, he had a son named Judah; Jesus of Nazareth had no children and he had no wife.
The filmmakers also suggest that a tenth ossuary from the Talpiot tomb, now lost, was in fact the now-famous James ossuary, whose inscription reads “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.” Amos Kloner, who excavated the Talpiot tomb, rejects the suggestion; he says the tenth ossuary from Talpiot was not inscribed. In addition, the owner of the James ossuary claims that he has photographic evidence that shows that the James ossuary was in his possession years before the discovery of the Talpiot tomb in 1980.
And finally, the filmmakers also misinterpret the pointed gable (or “chevron,” as they call it) above the rosette (or “circle”) at the entrance to the Talpiot tomb. They suggest that the gable and rosette were an early Jewish-Christian symbol. They also call our attention to an ossuary at the Dominus Flevit church (some of whose ossuaries may have belonged to early Christians), which on one end has markings similar to those of the Talpiot tomb entrance.
The pointed gable and rosette pattern has nothing to do with Christianity. In fact, this pattern predates Jesus and the Christian movement by many years. It is found on Hasmonean coins and on coins struck by the tetrarch Philip, son of Herod the Great, well before the activities of Jesus and the emergence of his movement. The gable and rosette pattern is also found in Jewish funerary and synagogue art, usually symbolizing the Temple or the Ark of the Covenant. The pattern is seen on several ossuaries that we have no reason to think are Christian (see Rahmani nos. 282, 294, 392, 408, 893). The pointed gable over the rosette is a pre-Christian Jewish symbol that referred to the Temple and is not a Jewish Christian symbol. Given Jesus’ criticism of the Temple cult, it is especially ironic that the filmmakers have confused a Temple symbol for a sign used by the earliest Christians.
Was there a Jesus family tomb in ancient Jerusalem? We think there likely was not, but if there was it was almost certainly not the Talpiot tomb.
Steven Feldman is the former Web Editor of the Biblical Archaeology Society.
Craig Evans is Payzant Distinguished Professor of New Testament at Acadia Divinity College, Acadia University, in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada. He earned a doctorate in biblical studies at Claremont Graduate University in 1983. Prior to his appointment at Acadia he was Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, and for twenty-one years was Professor of Biblical Studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia, where for many years he chaired the Religious Studies Department and directed the graduate program in Biblical Studies. He was also for one year a Visiting Fellow at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.
Professor Evans is author or editor of more than fifty books. Among his authored books are To See and Not Perceive: Isaiah 6.9Ð10 in Early Jewish and Christian Interpretation (1989), Luke (1990), Jesus (1992), Noncanonical Writings and New Testament Interpretation (1992), Word and Glory: On the Exegetical and Theological Background of John’s Prologue (1993), Luke and Scripture: The Function of Sacred Tradition in Luke-Acts (1993), Jesus and His Contemporaries: Comparative Studies (1995), Jesus in Context: Temple, Purity, and Restoration (1997), Mark (2001), The Bible Knowledge Background Commentary: MatthewÐLuke (2003), Jesus and the Ossuaries (2003), and Ancient Texts for New Testament Studies (2005).
Professor Evans has also authored more than two hundred articles and reviews. He served as senior editor of the Bulletin for Biblical Research (1995Ð2004) and the Dictionary of New Testament Background (2000), winner of a Gold Medallion. Currently Evans is serving on the editorial boards of Dead Sea Discoveries, the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, and New Testament Studies. He is also writing Matthew for the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series and a book on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Christian faith. His newest book, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels, was released by InterVarsity Press in December 2006. At the spring 2006 commencement the Alumni Association of Acadia University honoured Professor Evans with the Excellence in Research Award.
Professor Evans has given lectures at Cambridge, Durham, Oxford, Yale, and other universities, colleges, seminaries, and museums, such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Ottawa. He also regularly lectures and gives talks at popular conferences and retreats on the Bible and Archaeology, including the Biblical Archaeology Society summer sessions, as well as fall sessions at the annual Society of Biblical Literature meetings. He has lectured on the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus and archaeology, canonical and extra-canonical Gospels, and the controversial James Ossuary and has appeared several times on the television programs Faith and Reason and the John Ankerberg Show. He has appeared in the History Channel presentation on the Historical Jesus and the recent BBC and Discovery Channel presentation on Peter the apostle. He was also featured in Dateline NBC’s specials “The Last Days of Jesus” and “Jesus the Healer,” which aired in 2004 and were watched by more than 25 million North Americans. In 2005 he appeared on Dateline NBC’s “The Mystery of Miracles” and “The Birth of Jesus,” as well as History Channel’s “The Search for John the Baptist.” Professor Evans also appeared in 2006 in National Geographic Channel’s documentary on the recently discovered Gospel of Judas and in Dateline NBC’s “The Mystery of the Jesus Papers.” He also appeared in National Geographic Channel’s recently aired documentary sequel to the Gospel of Judas, entitled “The Secret Lives of Jesus.” He has recently been interviewed for documentaries investigating the extracanonical Gospels, the resurrection of Jesus, and the controversial Talpiot Tomb in Jerusalem.
Professor Evans lives in Kentville, Nova Scotia, with his wife Ginny; they have two grown daughters and a grandson.
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