Monday, January 21, 2008

The Talpiot Tomb Controversy Revisited

[This slightly revised version was posted on 24 January]

A firestorm has broken out in Jerusalem following the conclusion of the “Third Princeton Theological Seminary Symposium on Jewish Views of the Afterlife and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism: Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context.” Most negative assessments of archaeologists and other scientists and scholars who attended have been excluded from the final press reports. Instead the media have presented the views of Simcha Jacobovici, who produced the controversial film and book “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” with Hollywood director James Cameron, and who claims that his identification has been vindicated by the conference papers. Nothing further from the truth can be deduced from the discussion and presentations that took place on January 13-17, 2008.

A statistical analysis of the names engraved on the ossuaries leaves no doubt that the probability of the Talpiot tomb belonging to Jesus’ family is virtually nil if the Mariamene named on one of the ossuaries is not Mary Magdalene. Even the reading of the inscribed name as “Mariamene” was contested by epigraphers at the conference. Furthermore, Mary Magdalene is not referred to by the Greek name Mariamene in any literary sources before the late second-third century AD. An expert panel of scholars on the subject of Mary in the early church dismissed out of hand the suggestion that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus, and no traditions refer to a son of Jesus named Judah (another individual named on an ossuary from the Talpiot tomb). Moreover, the DNA evidence from the tomb, which has been used to suggest that Jesus had a wife, was dismissed by the Hebrew University team that devised such procedures and has conducted such research all over the world. The ossuary inscribed with the name “Jesus son of Joseph” is paralleled by a find from another Jerusalem tomb, and at least one speaker said the reading of the name “Jesus” on the Talpiot tomb ossuary is uncertain. Testimony from archaeologists who were involved in the excavation of the Talpiot tomb leaves no doubt that the “missing” tenth ossuary was plain and uninscribed, eliminating any possibility that it is the so-called “James ossuary.”

The identification of the Talpiot tomb as the tomb of Jesus’ family flies in the face of the accounts of Paul and the canonical Gospel, which are the earliest traditions describing Jesus’ death and burial. According to these accounts Jesus’ body was placed in the tomb of a prominent follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Since at least the early fourth century Christians have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial at the spot marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In contrast, not a single tradition, Christian or otherwise, preserves any reference to or recollection of a family tomb of Jesus anywhere in Jerusalem.

The smoking gun at the conference was the surprise appearance of Ruth Gat, the widow of the archaeologist who excavated the tomb in 1980 and has since passed away. Mrs. Gat announced that her husband had known about the identification all along but was afraid to tell anyone because of the possibility of an anti-Semitic reaction. However, Joseph Gat lacked the expertise to read the inscriptions. Jacobovici now says that Mrs. Gat’s statement has vindicated his claims about the tomb.

To conclude, we wish to protest the misrepresentation of the conference proceedings in the media, and make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance – including all of the archaeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb - either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus’ family or find this claim highly speculative.

Professor Mordechai Aviam, University of Rochester
Professor Ann Graham Brock, Iliff School of Theology, University of Denver
Professor F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp, Princeton Theological Seminary
Professor C.D. Elledge, Gustavus Adolphus College
Professor Shimon Gibson, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Professor Rachel Hachlili, University of Haifa
Professor Amos Kloner, Bar-Ilan University
Professor Jodi Magness, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Professor Lee McDonald, Arcadia Seminary
Professor Eric M. Meyers, Duke University
Professor Stephen Pfann, University of the Holy Land
Professor Jonathan Price, Tel Aviv University
Professor Christopher Rollston, Emmanuel School of Religion
Professor Alan F. Segal, Barnard College, Columbia University
Professor Choon-Leong Seow, Princeton Theological Seminary
Mr. Joe Zias, Science and Antiquity Group, Jerusalem
Dr. Boaz Zissu, Bar-Ilan University


Randy Ingermanson said...

I am no fan of the Talpiot tomb, but I do not agree with this part of the statement: "A statistical analysis of the relatively common names engraved on the ossuaries leaves no doubt that the probability of the Talpiot tomb belonging to Jesus’ family is virtually nil if the Mariamene named on one of the ossuaries is not Mary Magdalene."

I have studied Andrey Feuerverger's statistical analysis in great detail and have done several computations of my own. It is not correct to say that the probability is "virtually nil" if you get rid of the Mary Magdalene hypothesis. (Almost everybody agrees that you should eliminate it.)

The fact is that if you read the Mariamenou inscription as "just another Mary," then Feuerverger's calculations lose "statistical significance." But they most likely still lead to a fairly high probability for the authenticity of the tomb. (To my knowledge, Feuerverger has not done this calculation, although Jay Cost and I have, and likewise Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott. Depending on assumptions, you can get as high as 49%, or you can get very close to 0.)

From a mathematical point of view, the key issues are these:
1) Should "Yoseh" be regarded as a rare form of "Yehosef" or should it not?
2) What is the relative probability that Jesus had a son, as compared to other Jewish men of Jerusalem?
3) What is the relative probability of Jesus being buried in a rock-cut tomb, as compared to other men of Jerusalem?

These are issues of archaeology and history, and so I leave them to experts in those disciplines. I am just a math guy and all I can do is point out which points in the calculation affect the probability the most strongly.

Randy Ingermanson, Ph.D. (theoretical physics)

Kenny said...

The whole thing is fatally flawed. I have the video, and paused it each time a name was highlighted, and copied it on a notecard for reference. Anyone with a knowledge of Hebrew script at even at that time would be well aware that the name interpreted as Yeshua as inscribed on the ossuary is a very far stretch, hence the Harvard professor consulted to say it was th ename Yeshua in code. It isnt even close. A couple of letters maybe, only one for sure. The "b" of the "bar" (son of) is completely lacking, and the "r" ddescends past the base of the writing like a final "k". Yoseph appears as Yehoseph, but the "ho" are questionable. As far as the name "Maria", anyone with a knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet, even that of the first century, knows that the name on that ossuary is "Siriach"- only one letter matching "Maria". The other names are pretty clear. The whole thing is a hoax passed on to an unsuspecting public unable to know the difference

Kenny said...

Sorry about the misspels and inferior typing on my previous post. There is a correction to make on the supposed name "Maria". There are two letters, the "r" and a "y" that do appear on the ossuary in question, but the first letter is definitely a samech, or "s", and the last is definitely a chet, or what we would refer to as a German "ch" as in the name of "Bach". Therefore, the name "Maria" on this ossuary is impossible. Another strike against it is that in the Aramaic of the day, the supposed spelling of "Maria"- mryh, is too close to saying "MarYah", or Lord YAH, and no Jewish person of any era would be so bold to use it for their ossuary

Itamar Bernstein said...

I've studied this the Talpiot Tomb for years, long before it became public knowledge following that TV documentary. I believe the Talpiot Tomb find is serious, and warrants further study. Critics of the magnitude of this tomb prevail for the time being because the vehemence of their assertions, rather than the logic of their substance.

The critics basically argue:

1. That the Jesus family would be buried in Nazareth, not Talpiot;
2. That the 'Jesus' ossuary would have been inscribed 'of Nazareth';
3. That the Jesus family couldn't have afforded a tomb like the Talpiot tomb;
4. That the "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuary is not inscribed "Yeshua" (Jesus) at all;
5. That the names inscribed on these ossuaries were supposedly common;
6. That the "Mariamne" ossuary didn't contain the remains of Mary Magdalene, but of two other women;

I believe the first five of these allegations against the book's premise don't carry much water. The sixth argument actually supports the conclusion that this is the real thing. My comments:

1. Talpiot is the right place for Jesus' family tomb- Per Luke, 2:3-4, the family's LEGAL residence was Bethlehem, not Nazareth. The fact that Joseph and the pregnant Mary could not take the census in Nazareth but had to take it in Bethlehem indicates that Bethlehem was their DOMICILIUM under Roman Law. That basically means that they had no intention to reside in Nazareth permanently. Therefore it would have made little sense for them to have a family tomb in Nazareth, that they wouldn't be able to frequently visit at a later stage in their lives. They would have wanted a family tomb close to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, easily accessible also to future generations of the family. The fact is indeed that Mary and her children moved to Jerusalem around 30 AD.

2. The traditional name of Jesus in Hebrew, as reflected also in the Talmud, is "Yeshu Hanotzri." This appellation stems from "Netzer" (Shoot or Branch). It alludes clearly to Isaiah 11:1, indicating the Royal birth of Jesus, to substantiate his claim for Jewish messiahship. Not to indicate the place he comes from.

There's actually no evidence in Jewish sources, such as the Old Testament or the Mishna and Talmud, that a place called "Nazareth" even existed in or before the first century. I'm not disputing the evidence per the NT, that there was indeed a place called Nazareth. But to the best of my knowledge, there's no mention of Nazareth at all in any ancient writings outside the New Testament. So the place existed, but nobody knew about it. And those in close proximity in Galilee who did know about it, obviously thought derogatorily of it , cf. "can anything good come from Nazareth?" (John 1:46.) Therefore there was no reason to call Jesus "of Nazareth." Either in life or on an ossuary. He was called "Jesus the Branch" (of David) in Hebrew/Aramaic.

The line of argumentation detracting this discovery around the supposed Nazareth origin of Jesus' family may therefore be based on a very shaky foundation.

3. Talpiot is located about 2.5 miles North of Bethlehem. Jesus' family, of Davidic descent according to the New Testament, could have held the burial cave there even before it moved to Nazareth. Davidic birth was absolutely the most exalted in Judaism, always. The suggestion that any person of Davidic descent could be of the lowest social echelon, that couldn't fund or get funding for a burial cave, doesn't make much sense, if any. There's substantial evidence to the contrary, e.g. 1. Jesus had some very wealthy active supporters like Joseph of Arimatea and Nicodemus (known as Nakdimon ben Gorion in post biblical Jewish sources-one of the richest Jews in Judea;) 2. Josephus, A.J. XX, 9:1. Note the prominence of James, brother of Jesus.

4. The inscription on the Jesus ossuary does say "Yeshua bar Yehosef" ("Jesus son of Joseph")to my eye. All letters but one are quite clearly there. The only letter which is somewhat more difficult to discern at first blush is the second letter- "Shin". That's because it's written in a somewhat irregular form (in a regular Shin there are three teeth in the fork, pointing upwards. Here there are two teeth, pointing sideways to the right.) But that particular irregularity appears also on other ossuaries- notably numbers 9 (this one has two "Shin"- one with three teeth pointing to the right, and one with TWO teeth pointing to the right. Exactly like the subject inscription) and 121 in the Rahmani catalogue, which both feature also a "Yeshua."

Still, the name "Yeshua" on this ossuary is among the most, if not the most, difficult to read names of all ossuaries listed in Rahmani's catalogue of Jewish ossuaries. It is almost written as a person's complex signature on a check. Contrast that with the patronymic following the first name. This is written in a simple straightforward fashion, which is very easy to read. There's no other example in Rahmani's catalogue of a first name that has to be deciphered, and a patronymic that's so plain and clear. Is this merely a coincidence?

5. Mr. Huston on 3/13/07 made the following comment to my post:

"The inscription, Pfann said, is made up of two names inscribed by two different hands: the first, "Mariame,'' was inscribed in a formal Greek script, and later, when the bones of another woman were added to the box, another scribe using a different cursive script added the words "kai Mara,'' meaning "and Mara.'' Mara is a different form of the name Martha.

According to Pfann's reading, the ossuary did not house the bones of "Mary the teacher,'' but rather of two women, "Mary and Martha.'"

Here's my thought about that:
If the Mariamne ossuary indeed housed the bones of Mary and Martha, these are two sisters of NT fame. One of them could have been married to "Jesus son of Joseph." -Whether or not she was Mary Magdalene (Maybe the Mary who anointed Jesus' feet and then dried them with her hair- very intimate scene.) The other sister would than also automatically belong in the family. It still fits. Actually it increases the statistical odds that this is the real thing quite substantially.
This is a very intriguing possibility indeed, fitting perfectly with John 12:3. Intimate contact with a man, as described in this NT passage, was allowed only to a woman who was an immediate blood relative of that man, his wife (...or a working woman.) That's all. Therefore Mary of Bethany was quite possibly by elimination Jesus' wife or in the process of becoming his wife. In that context, Margaret Starbird already theorized that similar anointing with spikenard oil was part of pre marriage ritual of a Davidic king, per certain passages in the Song of Songs. Note also that intercourse by itself was sufficient under Jewish Law in certain circumstances to constitute valid marriage. That practice, termed Bi'ah marriage, was abolished in the 6th century, but it was lawful in Jesus' time.

Mary of Bethany could have become pregnant by Jesus while he stayed at her house, shortly before his crucifixion. In that case it's quite possible that she bore Jesus' son posthumously and named him "Judah." And in that case both she and her sister Martha would have become part of Jesus' family, which earned them a place in the Talpiot family tomb..

Reminds me of the reaction to this find of a BBC reporter in 1996- It seems like all balls in the national lottery coming one by one.

I have no knowledge of Greek, so I can only discuss the two propositions. Assuming that the ossuary does say "Mary and Martha", here's what I think the names are:
* 1."Jesus son of Joseph"("Yeshua bar Yehosef" in Hebrew/Aramaic script;)
* 2. "Mary" ("Marya" in Hebrew/Aramaic script);
* 3. "Joseph" ("Yose" in Hebrew/Aramaic script. Precise nickname of Jesus' second brother- cf. Mark 6:3);
* 4. "Mary and Martha" ("Mariame kai Mara" in Greek)-they must have been sisters because Jewish law didn't allow burial together of two unrelated women;
* 5. "Matthew" ("Matya" in Hebrew/Aramaic script)- Name of Jesus' first cousin, son of his father's brother Alphaeus/Clophas. As James Tabor suggests in a different context, Matya could also well have been Jesus' half brother, considering a certain specific rule of the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10.) This rule was applied in Jesus time- see Matthew 22:24-28;
* 6. "Judah son of Jesus"("Yehuda bar Yeshua" in Hebrew/Aramaic script.)
* Therefore out of eight names actually inscribed on these ossuaries (including the "Joseph" father of Jesus on the first ossuary) four names undoubtedly relate to Jesus' immediate family, and three other names relate to the same with a somewhat lower probability. In any event, they all relate to Jesus' extended family. Note that first century Jewish family tombs were usually a clan thing.
* The eighth name is "Yehuda bar Yeshua"- must have been the son of Jesus and one of the sisters Mary or Martha. More likely Mary, as explained above.

6. While the full versions of all these names were indeed common in Jesus' time, the derivatives, nicknames and contractions were not. Thus "Yeshua" for Jesus was less common than "YeHOshua;" ditto "YeHOsef" instead of "Yosef" for Joseph; "Marya" for Mary was extremely rare in Hebrew/Aramaic script; "Yose" for Joseph is unique. Therefore out of these eight names, two are irregularities, one is a particularity, and one a singularity. Statistical studies should factor these facts.

BOTTOM LINE- Ask yourself inversely a hypothetical question- If the Talpiot tomb hadn't yet been found, how would Jesus' family tomb have looked , which ossuaries would it have contained, to when would it have been dated and where would it have been located.

I would have thought of a tomb just like the tomb we're discussing. It fits perfectly with what I'd have expected Jesus' family tomb to be. Right place, right period, right names. I therefore believe that this matter, delicate as it obviously is, warrants further investigation. This could include opening and examination of the adjacent tomb, and forensic examination of the skeletal remains found in the Talpiot ossuaries, and apparently reburied back in 1980. These could hopefully be relocated by comparison to the mithochondrial DNA samples already taken from two of these ossuaries.

J. Phillip Arnold, Ph.D. said...

There is written evidence against Talpiot being the tomb of Jesus. It is found in Acts 2:29-34. Had anyone in the first century claimed that Talpiot was where the decaying bones of Jesus were kept, it would be very unlikely that Luke would have put the following words in the mouth of Peter while placing him next to the "Tomb of David," "I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day....He (David) spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he (Jesus) has received from the Father...for David did not ascend to heaven...."

If Talpiot was said to have been the very tomb of Jesus where his body was decaying, why would Luke bring up the exact claim against David? If enemies of the resurrection were pointing to the Talpiot Tomb as the location of the decaying body of Jesus, it is unlikely that a writer would introduce the subject of another tomb in Jerusalem where a decaying body that had not been resurrected and had not ascended into heaven was located!


My point is that it is most improbable that Luke writing in the first century would put such words in Peter's mouth when there is a devastating charge in circulation that Jesus is the one who is buried in a tomb nearby. It does not depend on whether Peter himself spoke these words at the time that Acts 2 is said to have taken place.... To go out of the way to have Peter say that which is being claimed against Jesus, would be a fatal flaw in the story line.... Such a rhetorical strategy would be as foolish as for a Mormon apologist to write that we know David Koresh could not be a true prophet, like Joseph Smith, because we know Koresh forged his Seven Seals from some golden plates he found which were planted by a writer named Solomon Spaulding. That would be the last thing a Mormon apologist would bring up to spike a rival prophet! Similarly with a Luke confronted with Talpiot. An author would avoid bringing up such a parallel. Let sleeping dogs lie.

Luke surely had never heard of any story connecting Talpiot to Jesus. He freely uses the Peter story about David's tomb without fear or hesitation.

Phil Arnold, Ph.D.
The Reunion Institute
Houston, TX.

Mark Price said...

Talpiot is a couple of miles south of the Old City, if my map is right. I don't recall any mention of a long hike with the Body.

Mark Price said...

Another couple of thoughts:
1.What happens to Joseph of Arimithea? His loan of a tomb makes sense if the sun is setting on Friday and time is of the essence. Why the story about having to guard the tomb against a theft by the disciples if it were obvious to anyone who knew the family that they had an established tomb in Talpiot and that the body would be moved as a matter of course.
2. Why didn't Jacobovici and Pellegrino submit the ossuary scratchings to several epigraphers for independent appraisal, saying somthing non-leading like, What does this say?