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