A Talpiot “Jesus” Tomb and James Ossuary News Roundup

Since the NYTimes story broke last Sunday reporting on Dr. Aryeh Shimron’s linking of the James ossuary with the ossuaries discovered in 1980 in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb, ((This article covers just Talpiot Tomb A, with the “Jesus family” ossuaries; see the book, The Jesus Discovery plus a summary of the evidence in my ASOR paper here, for an analysis of the contents of Talpiot tomb B as well–60 meters away on the same ancient estate.)) I have been both amazed and amused at the reactions from various detractors.

Photo by Yuval Pan:  Oded Golan Unpacking His Treasured Ossuary and Inscpecting the Damage

Photo by Yuval Pan: Oded Golan Unpacking His Treasured Ossuary and Inscpecting the Damage

Take for example just these three print stories all out today: AletiaThe Christian Post, and Live Science, that quote well some of well known critics such as Mark Goodacre, Robert Cargill, and Ben Witherington as well as a new “Biblical Archaeology Expert” Scott Stripling, of Wharton County Junior College and adjunct professor at a couple of Bible schools, of whom I had never heard of before and a Deacon Stephen Miletic of Franciscan University.

Aletia (not sure if that name is supposed to be the Greek word ἀλήθεια or Truth) is a conglomeration site for “Seekers of the Truth.” I am not familiar with it but it seems to just be a platform for a kind of standard Christian apologetics. Its headline, “New York Times Runs Easter Story Suggesting the Resurrection Didn’t Happen,” has the subheading “Scholars highly skeptical of new findings linking James ossuary to supposed tomb of Jesus.” Witherington is quoted of course, and Mark Goodacre, and even a 2007 quote from Hershel Shanks is dug up calling the theory that the James ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb “nonsense.”

The Christian Post, true to form, builds its entire story around Prof. Stripling, who in fact reports, “I have been to the Talpiot Tomb and interviewed one of the archaeologists who excavated it in 1980.” He asserts there is no evidence that Jesus was buried there and calls the careful scientific work of Dr. Shimron trafficking in sensationalism.

The Live Science piece is by far the best, as one would expect from a thorough staff writer like Tia Ghose, who did her homework, interviewing Shimron, Goodacre, Cargill, and me and producing a really balanced and informative story.

So why am I amazed and amused? Mostly because of what I consider to be the inaccurate or unfounded assertions that come out in these stories. This is nothing new and I am not the only one to lament this sort of treatment of the subject, see Kilty and Elliot, “Talpiot Dethroned.” I realize the Talpiot tombs (there are two not just one) story is complex and not so easy to get a grasp on in terms of the issues, but some of the assertions in these articles are just plain misleading.

Just a few observations:

  • No one is claiming that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the temporary tomb of Jesus, near the place of his crucifixion is invalided by the discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb as is implied by so many of the stories out this week. It as if I and others are playing a game of “who moved the tomb” which is decidedly not the case. Unless one believes Jesus body (bones and all) went up to heaven–since the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was never thought to have held the body of Jesus past Easter Sunday–Jesus must have been buried elsewhere. See my SBL paper on-line here for further exposition on this point–in response to Jodi Magness who accepts Jesus was first buried the rock-hewn tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepurchre, but apparently things he was then removed (she does not explain how or by whom) and buried in a “trench grave.” What we can say is that all of our sources claim that Joseph of Arimathea had charge of Jesus’ burial and it would have been him who would have provided a permanent tomb for Jesus–and I would argue, subsequently for his family.
  • We are told (“once more with feeling”) that the names found in the Talpiot Jesus tomb are extremely common–and Stripling even tells us that virtually every family in the first century would have this cluster of names. This is completely untrue as I have shown in several publications–exhaustively going through all 600 ossuary inscriptions we have with these names ((see a complete list here.)) There is not another tomb anywhere in Jerusalem with a “Jesus” of any sort (there are only 19 total outside of Talpiot with none containing any cluster that could be identified with Jesus of Nazareth and most disqualified by context. And the names are not all common–Yose is extremely rare, and if you add a James (Yaaqov), also rare–and a son of Joseph and a brother of Jesus at that–the stats on probability go through the roof, see Kilty & Elliot’s new calculations here. Cargill assures us that the “statistical case” falls apart without assuming Mary Magdalene is the Mariamene in the tomb. This is completely incorrect. The rareness of the names can be calculated without reference to any historical correspondence to anyone. Number are numbers and the cluster is the cluster–regardless. Kilty & Ellioit make no such assumptions, and Jerry Lutgen has demonstrated clearly why the different statistical studies–namely Feuerverger, Kilty & Elliot, and Ingermanson, differ so drastically. I assume Cargill is referring just to the names in the Jesus tomb, not with the addition of a “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”
  • The Talpiot tomb containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth may or may not be a threat to “faith in Jesus’ resurrection.” It depends on how one understands Jesus’ resurrection. As Paul put the issue–“How are the dead raised; in what kind of a body do they come forth”? (1 Corinthians 15:35). Paul went on to argue that the “old body,” that is, the mortal, corruptible, flesh and blood, “body of dust” was left behind like discarded clothing and a new glorious, incorruptible (“neither male nor female) “spiritual” body, was “raised” from the dead. He likened it to discarding “old clothing,” entering the realm of death “naked,” but then being “re-clothed” (2 Corinthians 5:1-5). He described the resurrected Jesus as a “life-giving Spirit,” and expected that same transformation for Jesus’ followers. This is not the only view of Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament, but it is the earliest one we have by decades. I think we should pay careful attention to it. Sorting out the texts and traditions over the next 100 years (30 CE to 130 CE) is complicated but here is hypothesis I have developed over the years: “How the Belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Originated and Developed.”
  • Many are persuaded that the presence of a “Jude son of Jesus” and presumably Jude’s mother in the Talpiot Jesus tomb preclude it from being that of Jesus of Nazareth. Goodacre, among others, seems to make this point most forcefully and most often. In my view this argument from silence is simply invalid. If a tomb of James or any of Jesus’ four brothers, or any of his 12 disciples for that matter were discovered and verified, but contained inscribed ossuaries with the names of sons–or their mothers–we would be in a very similar position. No wives or children of any of these intimates of Jesus are ever named–or even alluded to–in all of our Gospel records other than Peter’s unnamed “mother in law.” But we know some were married and can assume most if not all were, and had children–as Paul mentions in contrasting his own choice of celibacy with theirs (1 Corinthians 7-9). But we know none of the names of the wives or sons. ((Jesus’ brother Jude’s grandsons are mentioned in a passage in Eusebius attributed to Hegesippus, see Richard Bauckham’s discussion in Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, pp. 93-100)) Sadly, women were more often than not left in the dust-bin of anonymity. Paul never uses Jesus as an example of celibacy, though he offers a strong defense of the practice. That alone is quite telling. We have to face the fact that our theologically oriented gospel writers, so focused on Jesus as the divine (and in some cases pre-existent) Son of God, had no place for a Jesus who lived a normal life as a Jewish male of his day, married and sexually active. That is what makes Mary Magdalene’s mysterious and sudden appearance–at Jesus’ cross and leading (even ahead of his mother) the burial party responsible for washing and anointing his naked body–so compelling. Here is a woman, an intimate of Jesus and his inner family, who is named. This is not the place to rehearse all the arguments, as I have done here, but I maintain this objection to the Talpiot tomb belonging to Jesus of Nazareth is a moot one (see “Kilty & Elliot, here).

It is very interesting that many who have held that the James ossuary inscription was a forgery are now citing the photograph supplied by Oded Golan from the 1970s that shows the entire inscription–proving Oded did not forge it, as evidence that the James ossuary could not have come from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, excavated in 1980! I guess that is called coming around full circle.

But what is most missing from these various news stories is any statement from the Talpiot tomb detractors of all stripes and persuasions as to whether adding the “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary to the tomb would change things considerably.