Editor’s Note: Joel Baden is professor of Hebrew Bible at Yale University. Candida Moss is professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame.
Did you hear the most recent “news” about Jesus? If you haven’t, it’s that new evidence has emerged revealing the true site of his burial place, casting doubt on the traditional biblical picture of his life and death.
It is worth looking past the media hype at some of the facts and questions at play in this story. First, the background:
In 1980, in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem, an ancient tomb was discovered sealed under a building site. The tomb, known in scholarly circles as the Talpiot Tomb, contained 10 ossuaries, boxes for holding the bones of the deceased, deposited there a year after death.
The Talpiot Tomb rose to international fame in 2007 with a Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” produced by James Cameron and written by filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici.
The film and its supporters claim that the Talpiot Tomb was the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Not only had they proved that Jesus was not raised from the dead, but they claimed to have evidence that Jesus was married and had children.
Names you know from the Bible
The ossuaries in this tomb, remarkably, seemed to bear familiar names: “Yeshua bar Yosef” (Jesus, son of Joseph), and “Mariamne e Mara” (Mary, known as the master). Other boxes were inscribed with the names Mary (another Mary), Matthew, Joseph and Judas.
This was, the filmmakers argued, Jesus’ family: his mother Mary, his brother Joseph, and, most importantly, the other Mary. That’s Mary Magdalene, who was buried beside Jesus because they were married. And the box of Judas, which reads “Judas, son of Jesus,” was exactly what it purports to be: the resting place of Jesus and Mary’s son.
Five years later, in 2012, Jacobovici and others went back to the site to investigate a tomb directly adjacent to the first. Using a robotic “snake camera” to see inside the tight space, they found yet another ossuary of note: this one adorned with an image of Jonah emerging from the great fish that swallowed him, a traditional symbol of Jesus’ resurrection.
The image on the box was accompanied by a four-line inscription that was presented as “Divine Jehovah lift up! Lift up!” This was further archaeological proof, it was argued, of a cluster of very early Christian tombs at this spot in 1st-century Jerusalem.
Another piece of the puzzle
This week, a further piece of evidence has been added to the puzzle. An Israeli archaeologist, Aryeh Shimron, announced that the soil found on the Talpiot ossuaries was a very close match to the soil found on another controversial artifact: the James ossuary.
The James ossuary was revealed to the public in 2002, having been purchased by an Israeli antiquities dealer some time in the 1970s. Like those from the Talpiot Tomb, what made the ossuary interesting was its inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
Linking the James ossuary to the Talpiot Tomb – in fact, providing scientific evidence that it once must have been inside the Talpiot Tomb – adds far greater weight to the theory that the tomb was, in fact, where Jesus and his family (including his wife and kids) were buried.
It is a compelling story. But it is also a fragile one. This small group of scholars, scientists and filmmakers has presented us with a intricate puzzle, in which all the pieces have been perfectly aligned. But pick up any single piece to examine it more carefully, and it crumbles to dust.
Can the evidence stand up to scrutiny?
The identification of the Talpiot Tomb as the burial site for Jesus’ family was made primarily on the basis of the names found on the ossuaries in the tomb: most notably, of course, those of Jesus and Mary.
We can start there. The box that supposedly says “Jesus, son of Joseph” definitely says “son of Joseph,” but that first, crucial name is very much in doubt. One scholar suggested that it says Hanun, just to give a sense of how uncertain the reading is.
And the box that supposedly belongs to Mary actually says “Mariam and Mara,” which suggests that there were actually two women buried in that single ossuary. It is also a problem that while all the other ossuaries are inscribed in Aramaic, this one is in Greek.
As for the names on the other ossuaries, some of them fit perfectly well into the Jesus story (Joseph, for example, Jesus’ younger brother). Others, however, not so much: Matia (Matthew), not a member of Jesus’ family according to the Bible, and, more problematically, Yehuda bar Yeshua – Judas, son of Jesus.
Supporters of the theory regularly point to the remarkably collocation of so many biblical names in a single tomb. But as most every other scholar has pointed out, these were just about the most common names in that period, especially Joseph and Mary.
The evidence from the tomb next door – the ossuary with the early Christian symbol of Jonah and the fish on it – is equally hard to swallow.
It seems that the only people who see a fish on that box are those who already thought that Jesus was buried next door; just about everyone else sees an abstract geometric pattern, or perhaps the depiction of a jar.
As for that inscription about God raising someone up, it seems that this was a case of mistaken reading. The Greek most likely says something far less interesting: “Here are bones. I touch them not. Agabus.” Agabus would be the name of the deceased, perhaps.
Then there is the James ossuary. The question of the authenticity of the inscription on the box – the ossuary itself is certainly ancient – is so fraught that the dealer who owns it was taken to trial for antiquities fraud.
Even if the trial ended without proving claims of forgery, we have no idea where the artifact came from.
What’s more, almost every expert in ancient epigraphy has concluded that while the name James seems authentic, the words “brother of Jesus” are patently from a different hand, and most likely a much later, if not modern, addition.
Four problems with the James ossuary story
The newest part of the James ossuary story – that it might have once been housed in the Talpiot Tomb – has its own set of issues:
1. It requires that a tomb that has always been thought to have held 10 ossuaries in fact held 11.
2. That this otherwise unknown 11th ossuary happened to be the closest to the entrance to the tomb.
3. That this box closest to the doorway was looted, but all the others left just where they were;
4. That the only box to emerge from the tomb was the James ossuary.
None of this is supported by any evidence.
Finally there is the most recent piece of the puzzle: the soil analysis that seems to link the James ossuary with the Talpiot Tomb.
These lab results have not been published or subject to peer review. And there are reasonable questions to be raised even by nonexperts about the process: most notably, only a handful of soil samples were taken, which means that we don’t know whether this is a unique relationship or whether many tombs in Jerusalem would show the same correlation.
All of the individual pieces needed to make up the finished puzzle are very much in doubt. It’s not clear whether they actually all belong together, or whether they actually produce a meaningful picture when they are combined.
A story that doesn’t hold together
The story that is being told about this tomb simply doesn’t make much sense.
Even if we were to grant all of this – that the first generation of Christians buried Jesus and his family and some close followers in these tombs, perhaps secretly for fear of harassment by Jewish authorities – we would have to believe that the knowledge of this burial spot was lost to early Christians almost immediately.
The idea of the resurrection emerged very early in Christianity – almost immediately after Jesus’ death. This would, in theory, explain the Jonah image (if it were such) on the tomb next door.
But this presents a logical dilemma: We would have a tomb containing Jesus’ ossuary – his bones – coexisting, temporally and physically, with the belief that his bones shouldn’t be in there. And we would have to believe that a year after Jesus died and was supposedly resurrected, his followers went and reburied his decomposed corpse in an ossuary.
What’s more, all of the other people from Jesus’ family, all those other names on the ossuaries in the Talpiot Tomb, would have been buried there after Jesus, presumably years later.
In other words, early Christians, believing that Jesus was the resurrected son of God, were entering his burial chamber to deposit the bones of his relatives, and no one ever mentioned the place, turned it into a pilgrimage site or marked it for other Jesus followers.
Considering how dangerous the existence of Jesus’ burial site – and bones – would be for traditional Christian belief, even very early on, we might be surprised that no one, in the years that they must have been returning to the tomb to bury everyone else, didn’t think to destroy the best evidence that their central claim was a lie.
The media attention around this story is easy enough to explain: Jesus is hot right now, and this would be a blockbuster if it were true. Unfortunately, the evidence is faulty, and the story doesn’t make sense.