“Jesus Tomb” Controversy Erupts—Again
James D. Tabor, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Jodi Magness argues on this web site that the controversial tomb in the east Talpiot area of Jerusalem cannot be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family because (1) such an idea contradicts the canonical gospel accounts; (2) it ignores the lower-class status of Jesus’ family and their non-Judean origins; (3) and finally, even if the family might have had such a tomb it would be in Nazareth not Jerusalem. Christopher Rollston has now contributed a piece (found on the web site of the Society of Biblical Literature) arguing that the inscriptions on the six ossuaries found in the Talpiot tomb are sufficiently common, generic, and lacking in patronymic data as to preclude any convincing prosopographic identification with the family of Jesus of Nazareth. I take it that Rollston is not arguing the impossibility of the identification but rather its lack of convincing data.
I agree with Magness that Jesus was buried twice, but my own view, contrary to Magness, is that the Talpiot tomb fits nicely with our earliest canonical sources (the gospels as well as Paul) as to the nature and location of that second burial. At the end of my treatment here I will offer some very brief observations on Rollston’s welcome contribution. The nature of the question, with its theological and emotional overtones, coupled with the way the issue was put before the public and the academy (through a documentary film and a popular book), has understandably galvanized the responses into “yes” or “no” (mostly “no”) when reasonable alternatives might be “possible but uncertain,” to even “probable but not certain,” but in any case a call for further investigation. I will make some suggestions at the end of this piece regarding directions for future research.
1. Why the tomb does not contradict the Gospel Accounts: Dead but Twice Buried
Our earliest testimony to the death and burial of Jesus comes from a letter of Paul to his followers at Corinth in the early 50s CE. He reports on a tradition he had received “that Christ diedÉthat he was buriedÉthat he was raised on the third day. . .that he was seenÉ” (1 Corinthians 15:3-5). Leaving aside the matter of the nature of these “sightings” of Jesus, including Paul’s own claim in that regard years after the crucifixion, it is significant that Paul writes that Jesus was buried. Burial implies a tomb, of whatever type, and he clearly intends the phrase “raised on the third day” to imply that that tomb was empty. In that regard I have to agree with evangelical apologists that Paul knows an “empty tomb” tradition. I cannot see how his language can make any sense otherwise.
Chronologically Mark would be our next source, assuming one is convinced, as I am, of the priority of his account of the burial and the empty tomb. Mark relates that an influential sympathizer of Jesus and his movement, Joseph of Arimathea, obtained permission from Pontius Pilate to remove Jesus’ body from the cross and to bury him in haste before the Sabbath arrived. Mark writes that Joseph wrapped the corpse in a linen shroud, laid it in a rock-hewn tomb, and blocked the entrance to the tomb with a stone or golal (Mark 15:42-47). He also notes that Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joses (whom I take to be Jesus’ mother, see my book, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 77-81) were present at this burial. Here one must read carefully, as Mark does not say, as often assumed, that this tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, nor does Luke, who is following Mark, or John, who clearly has independent material. The only source for the commonly held assumption that this tomb belonged to Joseph is a gloss in Matthew, whereby Joseph becomes a “rich man” who puts Jesus in “his own new tomb.” This is clearly not history but Matthew’s tendentious attempt to show a fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 53:9, where the suffering servant is buried in the tomb of a rich man.
If we discount Matthew’s theological embellishment and rely upon the core source Mark, we find that it comports well with John, who offers an independent but corollary account. John also knows the Joseph of Arimathea tradition but he adds a critical point: “Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there” (John 19:41-42). Both Mark and John see this burial as hastily done, and John makes it clear that it was a burial of temporary necessity in constrained emergency circumstances. What does one do with a corpse as the Sabbath approaches (and according to John, the Passover seder)? How can it be kept from predators until the rites of burial are completed? This initial burial of Jesus was by definition a temporary and emergency move, based on necessity, until something more permanent could be worked out or arranged.
What happened next in terms of when and how the corpse of Jesus was taken from that temporary tomb is unfortunately a matter about which historians can say little, given the theological nature of our sources and their relatively late apologetic character. Mark, our earliest narrative source, reports that the tomb was empty by early Sunday morning and that Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome were told by a “young man” waiting for them in the empty tomb that Jesus had been taken up (aorist passive of egeiro) and would see them in Galilee. Mark ends abruptly with no sightings, but according to some, including my teacher Norman Perrin, his community looked in hope to the promise of a parousia appearance in Galilee, something they still anxiously awaited in the time Mark composed his gospel in the 70s CE.
One must assume that the corpse was taken and reburied, perhaps as soon as the Sabbath was over just after sundown Saturday night. If one were speculating, one might suppose that Joseph of Arimathea, the one who had taken responsibility for the corpse in the first place, would have retrieved the body as soon as Jewish law permitted. Whether the family was involved or whether we are to trust the accounts of the Sunday morning visits to the tomb are questions that take us beyond history to a later apologetic stance intended to defend a view that Jesus had been raised bodily and taken to heaven (Luke and John). As historians we can reasonably expect that the “tomb” would be empty, given that the tomb near the crucifixion site was not intended as a permanent place for Jesus’ corpse but used in an emergency until other arrangements could be made.
At this point we enter what John Dominic Crossan has called the “dark age” of early Christian origins. Jesus died in 30 CE, but we have no records until Paul, in the 50s CE, of what the early Jerusalem followers of Jesus, now led by his brother James, might have preached or taught regarding the death of Jesus. For centuries everyone has “filled in” those 20 years based on the narratives of Luke-Acts and the sharply polemical account of Paul in his letter to the Galatians, but many of us have become convinced that Luke’s creation of a “myth of origins,” and Paul’s claim that his “gospel” was accepted by the Jerusalem “pillars,” (James, Cephas, and John) should be radically questioned (see the Society of Biblical Literature symposium papers, Redescribing Christian Origins, eds. Cameron and Miller).
My purpose in this piece is not to argue these complex issues but to make the simple point that from a critical reading of our earliest sources on the emergency burial of Jesus’ corpse, we would expect that first tomb to be empty within 24 hours. And I think we can safely assume that it was.
2. Was Jesus poor and lower class, and so most likely buried in a trench tomb?
Magness argues that whoever took the body would have buried him in a simple trench grave with no marker since the family was too poor to have afforded a rock-hewn tomb. Yet, she seems to allow that at least one follower of influence and means, namely Joseph of Arimathea, did in fact see to the initial burial. Why would one assume that either Joseph, or other followers of means who were devoted to Jesus’ messianic program, would not be able to provide a permanent tomb? The Jesus movement, now led by James his brother, was headquartered in Jerusalem for the next 40 years and their numbers and influence were enough to be noted by Josephus in the Antiquities. The family of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, who lived in Bethany and with whom Jesus was intimately connected, could afford to bury their dead in a rock-hewn tomb. I also find the evidence presented by Mancini, Bagatti and Milik, and Sukenik and Avigad, regarding rock-tomb burials with inscribed ossuaries elsewhere in Talpiot, at Dominus Flevit, and on the Mount of Offense, as convincingly connected to the early followers of Jesus (Finegan, Archaeology of the New Testament, pp. 359-374).
On more general grounds, what Magness overlooks, in my view, is the extraordinary devotion that followers exhibit toward their spiritual/messianic leaders. Mark tells us that the followers of John the Baptizer went to collect his body and that they placed him in a tomb (Mark 6:29). The Syriac “Ascents of James,” for example, recounts how devout followers of James buried another murdered leader, known in some traditions as Stephen, in a tomb close to Jericho to which they made an annual pilgrimage (see Van Voorst, Ascents, SBL Dissertation Series 112). I have studied apocalyptic and messianic movements, both ancient and modern, for 30 years now and I have never encountered anything close to the scenario that Magness imagines when it comes to such groups burying a murdered leader. It is an open and debated question in the field of Christian origins as to whether Jesus was poor and without means of any sort, but even if that were granted, to rule out the likelihood that devoted followers of means would have provided him and his family with a place of burial is unwarranted.
I have been in the Talpiot tomb, and it is quite modest in size and arrangement, measuring under 3 x 3 meters and less than 2 meters high. It is nothing like the more monumental decorated tombs closer to the city. Also, of the six inscribed ossuaries four are “plain,” and only two are “decorated,” (Mariamene Mara and Yehuda bar Yeshua). I am not convinced that the mere existence of a modest rock-hewn tomb of this type indicates high status and wealth. Indeed, Amos Kloner’s survey of rock-hewn burial tombs in and around Jerusalem seems to show that as one moves away from the “front-row seat” near the Old City, the tombs south of Akeldama, around the Mount of Offense, and south into Talpiot, are often more modest in form and size: thus the old adage, location, location, location.
3. The likelihood of a Jesus family tomb in Jerusalem and the question of toponymic markers
Finally I would expect, rather than doubt, that a tomb of Jesus and his family would be in the Jerusalem area rather than in the Galilee. We have no record that in the period from 30-70 CE that James and his brothers, and presumably their mother and sisters, lived anywhere but Jerusalem. Crossan has even argued, somewhat convincingly I think, that James might have established himself in Jerusalem long before the death of Jesus. Again, it is the nature of a messianic movement of this type to band together in hope and expectation rather than to scatter and go back to business as usual. The solidarity of the movement in the 40s, 50s, and 60s surely depended on fervent apocalyptic and messianic expectations that focused on the fate and future of Jerusalem (Mark 13). Jerusalem was the “50-yard-line of the apocalypse,” and everyone wanted a front-row seat. When Mark addressed the community, with the 70 CE disaster in mind, his word was “Let those who are in Judea, flee to the mountains.” The “sign” the community is waiting for was the “desolating sacrilege” of Daniel in which a foreign ruler would erect some sort of offensive image in the Temple, echoing the pattern of Antiochus IV in the second century BCE. The incident with Caligula in 41 CE provided a contemporary example of what might be possible.
It is the case, as Magness notes, that ossuaries sometimes included toponyms, especially for native places of origin outside Roman Palestine, but to insist that all those from places other than Judea must have such toponyms is unlikely. Also, toponyms known from literary sources (“Judas the Galilean,” “Jesus of Nazareth”), written decades after a person’s life, are not necessarily reflective of contemporary oral or epigraphic designations.
4. A few notes on prosopography and the Talpiot Tomb
Strictly speaking Rollston is correct that the inscriptions on the six ossuaries found in the Talpiot tomb are sufficiently common, generic, and lacking in patronymic data as to preclude any convincing prosopographic identification with the family of Jesus of Nazareth. I think to some degree it is a question of rigor. There is a good deal of latitude between prosopographic certainty and flights of irresponsible fantasy. Indeed, it is often the case with historical data that if we demanded absolute rigor we could say hardly anything. In the case of the Talpiot tomb I am convinced that there is more we can say but not necessarily prove. Let me suggest an alternative way of approaching the prosopographic data that has more to do with testing a hypothesis rather than drawing an absolute conclusion.
One has only to page through the 895 entry catalogue of Rahmani listing ossuaries in the State of Israel collection to realize that the east Talpiot tomb stands out in a rather striking manner. Only 227 ossuaries in the catalogue are inscribed (25%) and yet this tomb has six out of ten, including the only provenanced example ever found of an ossuary inscribed “Yeshua bar Yehosef.” The cluster of names, even with their limited patronymics, appear to have statistical relevance based on purely mathematical considerations regarding name frequency data for the period.
Let’s pose the hypothetical questionÑof the named individuals we know, either as part of the Jesus family or intimately connected thereto, who might we expect in a pre-70 CE family tomb? I would list Jesus himself, his mother Mary, his brother Joses, perhaps his brother James who was murdered in 62 CE, his sisters Mary and Salome, and possibly Mary Magdalene, who seems intimately involved with the mother and the sisters in the burial rites (Mark 15:40; 16:1). Of those unnamed we might have spouses and children of the brothers and sisters, if they had any, but we have no names. This seems to me to be our “tight” list of named intimates. We would not expect the brothers Simon or Judah in a pre-70 CE tomb since Simon took over leadership of the movement at the death of James in 62 CE, and Judas and his sons (or grandsons) are also known in later accounts after 70 CE. Since Simon succeeded James, rather than the brother Joses, who was next by birth, and we know nothing else of this “missing brother;” it might well be that he died before 70 CE.
The Talpiot tomb has inscribed ossuaries naming a Jesus son of Joseph, a Mary (Maria), another Mary (Mariamene/Mara), a Joseph (Jose), a Matthew (Matya), and a Jude (Yehuda) son of Jesus. Four of the six names correspond to names we might predict in a pre-70 CE intimate family tomb of Jesus. The name Yose, only found here on an ossuary, is quite rare as a nickname and corresponds well with the Greek nickname in Mark (6:3; 15:40, 47) by which Jesus’ second brother, Joses, is known. Of the two Marys, the only DNA test that was possible indicates that Mariamene is neither Jesus’ mother nor his sister. Since there are three Marys that are intimate in the life of Jesus, his mother, his sister, and Mary Magdalene, one might suggest a hypothetical identification of this Mariamene with Mary Magdalene. This is, of course, by no means certain, but it is based on eliminating her as mother of sister. She could, of course be any other Mary, even one we know nothing about, since Mary is a common name (25% of all females). However, if we stay here with our list of hypothesized pre-70 named intimates, she can be logically included for consideration. Maria, the other Mary, is an appropriate name in Aramaic for Jesus’ mother in early Christian texts, and she is sometimes distinguished from Mary Magdalene, who is given forms of the name Miriame/Miriamne. Matthew is a name we would not have predicted, though it is found multiple times in both genealogical records of the Jesus family (Matthew 1, Luke 3), so we really can say nothing about him. Judah son of Jesus is unexpected, as we have no clear literary evidence of Jesus of Nazareth having a son, though one might assume, in the case of this particular Talpiot Jesus, that one of the Marys named might be the mother, and we do know that Mariamene is not a sister of Jesus or his mother. I am not persuaded that the presence of a son of this Jesus precludes his identification with Jesus of Nazareth.
This tomb and its possible identification with Jesus and Nazareth and his family should not be dismissed. The evidence from the gospels I have surveyed, coupled with the cluster of significant names that fit our hypothetical expectations for a posited pre-70 Jesus family tomb, is strong and should be further tested. Of course, if the ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph,” is added to the cluster, and the evidence for that possibility is unresolved at this point, the correspondence would be all the more striking. What is needed is further work on the epigraphy, expanded patina tests, further DNA testing if that is possible, and since the tomb in 1980 had to be excavated so quickly but now has been located, a fuller archaeological examination of the site itself.
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