Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Another Ossuary Story: The Tomb of Jesus

On 4 March 2007, Discovery Channel broadcast a documentary entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus. The following essay, previously unpublished, presents Prof. Eric Meyers's initial thoughts on the alleged discovery.

Another Ossuary Story: The Tomb of Jesus

The latest discovery of the so-called “Tomb of Jesus” sounds very familiar to a story that made headlines in 2002 when in November at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Toronto, a plenary session was hastily convened only weeks in advance to assess the dramatic announcement, presented to the public shortly before the meeting, concerning the James Ossuary, the so-called reburial box for the bones of the brother of Jesus. That announcement, sponsored by the Biblical Archaeological Society, brought the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, defending the authenticity of the ossuary and its inscription, to the unprecedented attention of the interested public. I was one of the early skeptics, for I questioned whether the latter part of the inscription was original or had been added. Today, the consensus would seem to be that that the “brother of Jesus” portion was added to an original inscription that read only “James son of Joseph;” and Golan is standing trial in Israel today accused of antiquities fraud. I was also critical of the fact that the artifact was unprovenanced, its place of origin unknown, and hence should not have been given the kind of reception and regard it instantly achieved when the Royal Ontario Museum signed on and planned a show on such short notice.

I begin with this old news because both the documentary (the Discovery film) as well as the book by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb, claim that the James ossuary came from the so-called tomb of Jesus in Talpiot and that patina tests they arranged prove it to be so. This claim is strongly denied by the excavator, Professor Amos Kloner, one time chief archaeologist for Jerusalem, along with many of his Israeli colleagues, who says the ossuary does not match the original dimensions of that ossuary and could not have come from the Talpiot tomb excavated by him nearly 27 years ago and published in 1996. Kloner also rejects all claims that this could be the ancestral tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Golan, however, has testified that he purchased the James ossuary in the early 1970’s before the antiquities law forbidding such inscribed purchases changed in 1978. It has been a mainstay of his defense and now we have the book and film claiming otherwise to strengthen the case for authenticating the contents of the tomb from Talpiot and associating them with the family of Jesus.

This is the kind of drama that seems to play out on television every year before Easter, beginning with the requisite news conference, this time at the New York Public Library. Serious scholarly claims of this sort are not usually made in such a manner. If the theories embedded in the film and books are correct, they have serious repercussions for Christianity. One of the most provocative is that Jesus’s skeletal remains were in fact reburied as much as a year later after his flesh had wasted away, which as many theologians have pointed has huge implications for understanding the resurrection in any literal way. Are we to believe that the empty tomb traditions of the New Testament are untrue and that Jesus’s body was conveyed from the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, buried elsewhere, and then reburied in a tomb in the southernmost tip of Jerusalem, thus contradicting New Testament sources? Also, the claim based on new DNA studies that Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Mariamene on the ossuary) are not related and could have enjoyed a very intimate relationship hints at Jesus’s relationship with women about which there is no agreement at all among scholars and which requires a much better and more sensitive treatment and does not warrant such sensationalist and provocative claims.

This is not to say that we should dismiss out of hand all of the claims James Cameron and Simcha Jocobovici and the co-author of the book Charles Pellegrino make in film and book: but when claims so large as those being made are presented to the public in the manner in which they have come to us, the public has a right to be suspicious. The archaeological community is deeply skeptical; the religious community is deeply skeptical; and the biblical studies community is skeptical and downright suspicious as well. As many of us found out during the original James ossuary fiasco, there was plenty of money to be found in the bone box metaphorically speaking: but the ones who got the money were the ones who would listen to few critics. Jacobvici strongly pushed the authenticity of the James ossuary in his documentary on it, and he now contends that it comes from the Talpiot tomb and not from Silwan as Oded Golan, the owner, has claimed all along.

Many voices have been heard on the Internet about the statistics and probability of all these names occurring in a single tomb. We assume that they were common Jewish names and are well attested in the first century. The fact is, however, we do not have a solid database from which to draw. Only a fraction of all the tombs in the Land of Israel from this period have been excavated let alone published. Why should we rely solely on Jerusalem tombs and inscriptions? Many inscribed materials have been illicitly excavated and are in collector’s hands or in antiquities shops in the Old City of Jerusalem and around the world. Since I do not know the database that each blogger is using regarding names, or whether they are using attested names in only inscribed materials or relating it to other corpora of contemporary literature, it is difficult to know how to assess the work of the statistician hired by the team. The statistician is well regarded but is not a specialist in Jewish names of the first century in ancient Palestine. Besides, the book has not even been released yet; and the film will only air next Sunday, March 4th. Can’t we the public wait until we have the opportunity to see them?

Jesus’s hometown was surely Nazareth in Galilee, and Joseph’s ancestral home was Bethlehem. Aside from the empty tomb traditions, the whole question of the burial and reburial of Jesus’s remains requires a fuller and more serious discussion. Reburial in an ossuary, which was common Jewish practice at that time, would place Jesus in the mainstream of a custom that is more familiar to Jerusalem than to Galilee. In any event, the renewed attention to one such tomb for the reburial of the remains of family members is not all that bad. Let us hope that this increased attention to the little- known Talpiot tomb will lead at least some to investigate more fully all of its contents and their social and religious context.

Eric M. Meyers
Duke University
See further the following article:

Jesus Tomb: Reasons to be Skeptical
Eric Meyers, On Faith (Washington Post / Newsweek)

For further discussion of the Talpiot tomb, see also Mark Goodacre's NT Gateway blog: Talpiot Tomb.