Article- Have They Really Found "Jesus' Family Tomb"?

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Have They Really Found "Jesus' Family Tomb"?

It has only been about a year since the sensational “Gospel of Judas” made headlines. The implication then was that the NT story, as we have it, is not quite true. “Jesus connived with Judas, his favorite disciple, to bring about his own death,” etc.—so they said. Now some filmmakers have produced a documentary that has a similar purpose—to prove to the world that the Jesus story, as we have it, is not what we thought it was. This time it’s the bodily resurrection that is impugned. The following are some of my preliminary observations.

Although this tomb is close to where we used to live in southern Jerusalem, I have not seen the tomb. However, I have seen the documentary and read numerous articles about the theory of the documentary and book. I have also seen close-up pictures of the inscriptions on the six ossuaries, provided by the Discovery website. There are many problems in the hypothesis of the filmmakers.

James Cameron (of Titanic fame) and Simcha Jacobovici are the two filmmakers who put together the film. They seem to have consulted closely with NT scholar James Tabor.  

The tomb in question was discovered in Talpiot in south Jerusalem in 1980. It was excavated by Israeli archaeologists and then closed up and left for 25 years or so. Originally ten ossuaries (bone boxes) were found, but one went missing somewhere along the line. Six of the ten ossuaries bore inscriptions with names from roughly the first century AD. The inscriptions were, supposedly, Jesus son of Joseph, Mary, Mariamne e Mara, Matthew, Joseph, and Judah.

First of all, some of the inscriptions are problematic. Mariamne e Mara (which they claim is Mary Magdalene) is in Greek letters (why would simple Galileans have inscribed an ossuary in Greek letters?). Another inscription is Maria, which is the Latin form of the Hebrew name, Miriam (or Maryam in Aramaic). It is unusual to write out the Latin form of the name in Hebrew letters; in fact it would have been unusual for the family to use the Latin form at all. This already begins to sound like a later situation when Mary has become important in the church. But the most problematic inscription is Yeshua bar Yosef. The name Yeshua in Aramaic letters is extremely hard to make out—so much so, that I personally doubt the name is really there. It may be something else. Although no one expects the letters to appear in a nice printed font, they should at least look a little bit like this: יֵשׁוּעַ‎ (the Aramaic and Hebrew are similar). But they don’t; they are close to being unreadable. (This can be checked by going to the Discovery website and clicking on the “Enter the Tomb” button; then click on “Jesus.” Or, for those of you who can open it, I have attached the inscription from the website, and also there is a rough sketch of the supposedly "Jesus" part below my name at the end of this article.)  

These difficulties in the inscriptions could shoot the whole theory of the documentary, but let’s leave that for the moment and go on to further considerations.

The names are all very common: like John, Paul, George. If you found these three names together, would you conclude you were dealing with the Beatles? Not necessarily, but if there was a Ringo you might think so. But in this case there is no “Ringo.” On the other hand, the filmmakers think Mariamne was Mary Magdalene, so James Cameron says that would provide the “Ringo.”  

Not so. There is no evidence Mary Magdalene was ever called Mariamne. The main evidence the filmmakers use to prove that her original name was Mariamne is a fictitious work from approximately the 4th century called the Acts of Philip. This work is spurious, contains fantastic stories, such as a talking leopard and goat. There is no reason why the author of this late novel would know what Mary Magdalene was called in the first century. Any rumor that the ossuary of “Mary Magdalene” was found in the Talpiot tomb is spurious. There is a Mary and a Mariamne; neither one, apparently, is Mary of Magdala.

(It is true that Mariamne—sometimes spelled Mariamme—is the Hellenized form of the Hebrew name Miriam. There were several women with the name Mariamne in the late Hasmonean kingdom. But that still does not constitute evidence that Miriam of Magdala was known in her lifetime by the Hellenized version of her name.)  

Ben Witherington III, referring to a study by Prof. Richard Bauckham of St. Andrews, points out how common the names were in NT times. He says of a sampling of 2625 Jewish males from NT times, Simon occurs 243 times; Joseph appears 218 times; Judah appears 164 times; Jesus appears 99 times, Matthew appears 62 times. Obviously, then, these are extremely common names, including the name Jesus. Josephus, in his Histories, lists at least 13 people named “Jesus.” And that’s not a complete count; it doesn’t include the forms “Joshua” and “Jehoshua” which are actually the same name.

As for women, out of 328 occurrences, Mary/Mariamne appears 70 times, Salome 58 times, Martha 20 times, etc. However, women’s names are not recorded very often, so there are fewer examples to go by. Ben Witherington says 21% of all Jewish women were called Mary/Mariamne (another scholar says 30%). In modern times that would be like saying that out of every three or four American girls at least one will be named Susan.  

Thus common names in biblical times really were “common”—much more so than our modern names. For example, Dr. Stephen Pfann, who has studied the names and statistics, says that of all the inscribed names on various ossuaries found around Jerusalem, a mere 16 names account for 75 percent of the inscribed names. That would be a little bit like going out to your city cemetery, looking over several hundred tombstones and finding that they all boil down to, say, 20 names, used over and over.

Since the tomb in question is a multi-generational tomb, it could contain up to 35 people (according to one estimate). Statistics show that 97% of all people named “Jesus” or “Joseph” would be expected to have at least two women named Mary among their relatives (since the name was the most popular one among Jewish women). And incidentally, Jesus was almost never known as “Jesus son of Joseph”; rather he was usually known as “Jesus from Nazareth” as brought out in Gibson’s The Passion where the authorities call him “Yeshua Mi’ntsare,” which can be translated Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus from Nazareth.  

(I should insert a caveat here that I don’t understand statistics all that well. Most of the above percentages are those provided by the “experts”.)

The hypothesis of the filmmakers raises other questions. If this was Jesus’ family tomb, why was a non-family member there: Matthew? Why would a poor Galilean family have a middle-class tomb in Jerusalem? Why would James, the brother of Jesus, not have known about this tomb when he proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus? Since Jesus’ family was from Galilee (even though Joseph was from Bethlehem), why would they be buried in Jerusalem? As one writer pointed out, the family tomb would have been either in Galilee, or in the south close to Bethlehem. In fact, NT scholar James Tabor just wrote a book last year in which he claimed Jesus was buried in Galilee (the book is The Jesus Dynasty, Simon & Schuster; Tabor holds to a “spiritual” resurrection rather than a physical one). Now he seems to have changed his mind and supports the documentary’s thesis that Jesus was buried in Jerusalem.  

There are illogical and fallacious arguments throughout the film, and presumably the book. From the Mariamne and Jesus boxes, the men took DNA samples which showed that the two were not related. From that they concluded the two people must have been married. What kind of logic is this?

Furthermore, where is the logic in taking some information from the NT (names and other basic information about the life and ministry of Jesus) and then discarding what the same NT says about the body of Jesus. Such a pick-and-choose method of using the NT is far from scholarly. Interestingly a Jerusalem Post editorial also brings out this point.  

“Wait up, the experts protest. Where’s the logic in relying on the New Testament for the names of Jesus, Mary and his brother Joseph, but then ignoring the NT when asserting distant Talpiot for a burial tomb, and ignoring the NT too, in asserting Jesus had a partner and a son?” (JPost, March 4, 2007, article by David Horovitz).

Back to the Acts of Philip, as stated above this work is supposed to prove that Mary Magdalene’s original name was Mariamne, who is a sister of Philip in the book. In this book, women are said to bear positions of authority like men and wear men’s clothes. I understand that the “Mariamne e Mara” on the ossuary could be translated “Mariamne the master” (mara in Aramaic means lord or master). However, at least one scholar suggests that this should really be read as “Mariamne and Martha,” and that the ossuary was used for the bones of two people. In neither case would it have anything to do with Mary Magdalene’s original name.  

Most of you have heard of the “James ossuary”; it has been in the news now for a couple of years, and Oded Golan, an antiquities collector, is on trial in Jerusalem right now for suspected forgery. But the filmmakers now think the James ossuary might be the missing box from the Talpiot tomb. This would suit their theory very nicely, and would add another Jesus family member to the people in that tomb. But it’s not likely to get Oded Golan off the hook.

The reason is, there are problems with this theory. The antiquities dealer from which Oded Golan purchased the box, says it was from the village of Silwan (east of the Old City) and not Talpiot, and apparently it had dirt in it that matched the soil from Silwan. But the ossuaries from Talpiot came out of a rock cave, without such soil in it. So it does not appear likely that the James ossuary is part of the Talpiot group of ossuaries.  

Furthermore, the ancient testimony about James (who became leader of the Jerusalem church, as we know from Acts, and was martyred in AD 62 by Jewish authorities) was that he was buried near the Temple mount. Eusebius, writing circa AD 325, says he was buried on the same spot where he was killed “by the sanctuary,” and that his “headstone” is still there (Church History 2.23.18). It was a single tomb, apparently, with no other ossuaries there. This would rule out a family tomb in Talpiot.

Few scholars believe Jesus was buried at all (that is, in the secondary-burial form), since the body was missing according to all accounts—and even his enemies could not deny this. Even if Jesus was buried, it is unlikely he would have been buried around Jerusalem, where his bones would have been a prize “catch” by his enemies, hoping to disprove the resurrection.  

The ossuary purporting to be his is very simple and unadorned. It bears only chicken-scratch writing that simply says, “Jesus son of Joseph” (almost everyone who saw the ossuary said the name “Jesus” was rather uncertain, because of the crude way it was scratched on the ossuary). At the very least Jesus was considered to be a teacher, probably a healer, with a devoted following. Would his disciples have treated him so shabbily in his interment, with no ornamentation or anything on the ossuary?

If this is really Jesus’ family tomb, what about those family members who are missing? Where is Joseph? Where are his brothers, James, Simon? Where are his sisters? Where is his aunt (Mary’s sister, John 19:25)? Of at least 9 people known to have been in Jesus’ family, we only have 6 ossuaries with names on them.  

In actuality, only two boxes were tested for DNA (Jesus’ and Mariamne’s) and the two proved to be unrelated. Since other boxes were not tested, there is no proof that it even is a family tomb! A typical remark coming both from the filmmakers and also the media goes something like this: “DNA evidence may show that Jesus had a son and was married to Mary Magdalene…” This is pure fantasy. The only DNA test they did showed that the two people tested were not related! Christian scholar Darrell Bock points out that the DNA could prove the exact opposite of what is being claimed.

Finally, it has come to me as I watched the film, heard some of the scholars, and considered the facts, that this could even be an ancient (or not so ancient) forgery. Of course it would have been done by someone who wanted to “prove” that Jesus’ body was still there, in a bone-box in southern Jerusalem.  

Be assured no one needs to fear that the bones of Jesus have been found in a box in Jerusalem. Amos Kloner, one of the original Israeli archaeologists who studied the tomb gives the theory no credence at all; in fact, he says it is “absolute nonsense.” World-famous archaeologist, Bill Dever, also discounts the theory. Dr. Stephen Pfann, with whom we ourselves worked in Jerusalem for a while, says it is extremely unlikely that this could be the Jesus family tomb. Meanwhile, Simcha Jacobovici, who did the lion’s share of the filming, is considered by many scholars to be a modern-day Indiana Jones.

In conclusion, a Jewish rabbi, Marc Gellman, has written an interesting article in Newsweek about the documentary film. First he takes Jacobovici, a Jew, to task for trying to undermine the foundational belief of Christianity. He says he doesn’t think “interfaith relations are improved when a Jewish filmmaker implies such a thing.” He goes on to say:   

“The proofs offered in the film also leave me unimpressed. Why would a prominent archeologist overlook the names clearly inscribed on the stone bone boxes? [He’s referring to Amos Kloner, who first excavated the cave]. How do we know the inscriptions are not fakes? Why would followers of Jesus, who needed to maintain the belief that he had been physically resurrected, allow his name to be written on his coffin? How do we know that this is his family tomb and not the tomb of others with the same names? Too many questions and too many financial motivations exist to convince me that a real case has been made” (, March 7, 2007).

Lonnie C. Mings

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