Essays on John the Baptist: Mark our Earliest Narrative Source (4)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Leaving aside the Q portrait of John, what emerges in the Markan narrative regarding the figure of John the Baptizer? In other words, what does “Mark as Mark” contribute to the tradition?

Mark contains many notable additions to the Q portrait of John. This gospel was written around 70 C.E. and has the tendency not to tell the reader secrets, instead letting them figure things out for themselves. Mark 1:2-3 is crediting Isaiah with a prophecy that isn’t entirely his own. Instead, it is a combination of Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1. “Behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare thy way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Mark is utilizing a Qumran (pesher) style of combining texts to get his message across to the reader. He does this as an introduction to John (like Q he begins with John the Baptist). From Mark, scholars are able to add to their professional portrait of John and one of the first examples is Mark 1:6. It reads, “now John was clothed with camel’s hair and had a leather girdle around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey.” Mark is describing some of the physical characteristics of John’s daily life in the wilderness of Judea. Scholars learn what he wore while “preparing the way” and what he ate (since it is already know that he neither ate nor drank) “locusts and wild honey.” As a side note, locust in Greek is akris and manna is ekris (only one letter difference) – it is possible that the Greek was translated incorrectly and John ate manna (honey wafer) instead of locusts (see the Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs or Pancakes?). Mark 1:9 also adds to the portrait that John in the Jordan baptized Jesus of Nazareth. After Jesus came out of the water, he saw the Spirit descending upon him like a dove, Mark 1:10-11. Here, Mark is relaying to the reader that this is more of a personal disclosure to Jesus in that only Jesus saw the spirit and the voice said, “thou art my beloved son.” Mark has Jesus in 1:14 coming onto the scene after John was arrested – almost signaling that since the main person/teacher (John) is removed from the scene, now one must come to take up the movement. Mark contains a wonderful story of John’s capture and subsequent death by the hands of King Herod. Mark 6:14 introduces the plot in that Jesus has been preaching and casting out demons and when Herod heard of it, some said, “John the Baptizer has been raised from the dead.”

Beheading Reubens

Then in Mark 6:16-29 the fate of John is told in detail – this is a very important addition to our running portrait of John the Baptist. Josephus records that Herod seized John and most likely took him to his palace/fortress Machaerus. While there, Herodias’ daughter danced seductively for Herod and in return he promised her anything, up to half of his kingdom. She asked for the head of John the Baptizer on a platter at the instruction of her mother (presumably because of his rejection of Herod and Herodias’ relationship). To stay true to his word, Herod sent a soldier to behead John and brought it in on a platter as requested. The reader is also made aware that after this had taken place, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb. Another interesting addition Mark makes is Mark 8:27-30. Jesus and his disciples were heading to the village of Caesarea Philippi and he asked them “who do men say that I am?” Their first answer was “John the Baptizer.” Presented here is a strong indication of the importance John had in his time that the disciples and general public would say that Jesus was John the Baptist. John had done many great things in the desert (preaching, baptizing, etc.) and when Jesus comes along doing similar actions, the people begin to think John has come back from the dead in another form. Some scholars have even suggested that John and Jesus looked similar physically. From these reports, the general public, disciples, and even King Herod feel that John the Baptist has come back from his execution and if Jesus and John did in fact look similar, it would make sense that such reports would begin to circulate. Mark 9:9-13 details a conversation between Jesus and his disciples regarding the scribes recording that Elijah must come first. Jesus says to them (Mk. 9:12) that “Elijah does come first to restore all things” and then poses a question (Mk. 9:12) “how is it written of the Son of man, that he should suffer many things and be treated with contempt?” He is alluding to Daniel 7:13 “I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven,” yet the Son of man is not suffering in that text. He then goes on to say in Mark 9:13, “but I tell you that Elijah has come and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written of him”(Zechariah 13:7). Jesus is clearly hinting here that John is Elijah return but as it is written of him? Scholars are not sure what this is in reference to, but there are four suffering servant hymns – Isaiah 42, 49, 50,53. Jesus may not be referring to a specific line of text, but a combination of these Isaiah hymns to form a “corporate role” so to speak for any servant of God, here John. Mark is showing the reader the importance John not only held to his disciples, but the high regard that Jesus himself held John to be. Finally in Mark 11:27-33, the chief priests, scribes, and elders confront Jesus asking “by what authority are you doing these things or who gave you this authority?” It is as if John is the benchmark test against which all things are measured and if you cannot speak to that, then Jesus will not speak to you. Mark is giving the information as he received it. He is not pushing an objective per se, it appears as though he presents the material fairly – showing the events in John’s life and portraying the events in Jesus’ life without editing either for a specific purpose. From Mark (as discussed above), scholars have learned a great deal relating to John’s clothing, his diet, disciples, and the manner in which he met his death. Also, readers are shown the importance in which John was held to his own disciples, the public at large, to Herod, and even to Jesus. From Mark, scholars are able to draw a fairly detailed and complete profile of who the historical figure of John the Baptist was.

Essays on John the Baptist: The Q Source (3)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Discuss the portrait (role, teachings, significance, etc.) of John the Baptizer that emerges from the Q Source (Lukan version), including the possibility that Lukan material such as 3:10-14 and 7:29-30 (and maybe even more), may well have been part of the original Q text (included by Luke but excluded by Matthew). Ask yourself: if all I knew was the John of Q, what kind of John would emerge?

The Q source is widely held to be the material common to Luke and Matthew, but not found in Mark. Scholars believe that is was a collection of the sayings of Jesus around the time of 50 C.E. Basing the discussion on the Lukan version of Q, a very distinctive portrait of John the Baptist emerges within the text. It is clear that John plays an important role from the beginning as the Q material begins with him instead of Jesus. In Luke 3:7-9 John is speaking to the multitudes, calling them a “brood of vipers,” and somewhat chastising them for not being more involved in the movement and with their own lives. This is the most solid Q example scholars have because it is word for word with Matthew in Greek. For such a document to start with John the Baptist instead of Jesus has strong implications and definitely displays the significance and importance John held to the author/people of the time. John is out in the wilderness of Judea baptizing all that come to him. Q even has John saying in Luke 3:16-17 that he baptizes people with water yet there is one greater than he who will come and baptize the multitudes with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Jesus is considered the leading figure of Christianity, well it was based on him, but nevertheless John is considered one of the major players in the movement and considered significant by the author of Q.

Brueghel JtB

 

In Luke 7:18-23, one finds John sending two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he is “he who is to come or shall we look for another?” Jesus heals a few people and then sends John’s disciples back to tell “John what you have seen and heard.” To begin with, John is on the scene before Jesus ever arrives into the picture plus John has his own disciples. He is an important leader of a community of followers in the wilderness, preparing the way of YHVH, and is doing so with his own set of followers independent of Jesus. By Luke 7:24-26 one sees the importance John holds in a question Jesus asks to the crowds about John. This is the main statement scholars have regarding John the Baptist. Jesus spoke to the crowds concerning John asking, “what did you go out into the wilderness to behold?” From this simple question, there are three answers offered; a reed shaken in the wind, a man clothed in soft raiment, and a prophet. After two failures, the people give the answer Jesus was looking for in their third response. “A prophet, yes, I tell you, and more that a prophet.”

Being a prophet is the highest rank one can obtain in Judaism, so for Jesus to say John is more than a prophet has strong implications as to his status within the religious community. It shows that even Jesus is of the opinion that John is someone special, doing what the LORD has commanded him to do, and that the people should listen to and heed his words carefully for he is “more than a prophet.” Adding to this is Jesus’ statement in Luke 7:27 where he is referring to John as the one spoken about in Malachi 3, saying this is he (John) of whom it is written, “behold I send my messenger before thy face who shall prepare thy way before thee.” Luke 7:28 contains one of the most important statements about John spoken by Jesus. “I tell you, among those born of women none is greater that John.” This simple statement adds considerably to the portrait of John in the Q source. Here is Jesus, considered to be the son of man, speaking of John as the greatest of all those born of women. Being born from Mary, this puts Jesus into that group as well.

The Q source also adds to John’s profile by explaining what not eating and drinking mean. In Luke 7:31-34, it states that John has come eating no bread and drinking no wine. This shows the reader that John was a vegetarian and abstained from wine, unlike the Son of man and others who are considered gluttons and wine bibbers. Also an important addition to the role John plays is Luke 16:16 where it reads “the law and the prophets were until John; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is preached, and every one enters it violently.” Here is an excellent verse showing the status John was afforded. Reading this, one notices that it is John who has brought a new covenant to the land of Israel and not Jesus. In addition, Luke 11:2-4 has Jesus’ disciples coming up to him asking to be taught the prayer John taught his own disciples. Here we have Jesus’ own disciples asking him not for his own prayer, but the one John taught his disciples and Jesus begins “when you pray, say…” Preserved here is quite possibly the very prayer John taught his disciples and it is of such importance that the disciples of Jesus wish to learn it too. There are a handful of teachings throughout Luke that are attributed to Jesus but are without any context. Scholars have suggested that these could very well be the original teachings of the Baptist. Some of these teachings are like blessed are the poor (6:20), be merciful (6:32), a blind man can not lead the blind (6:39), do not be anxious about your life (12:22), and no servant can serve two masters (16:13). It can and has been argued that these could have come from John. He and Jesus have geographic connections – Wadi el Yabis and the Jordan River. Family wise their mothers are related, both baptize, and both have disciples. Both carry very thematic teachings like care for the poor, repent and baptize, accept sinners, and the coming kingdom. It could be that these were the original teachings of John and are attributed to Jesus because he picked them up when he picked up the Baptist movement when John was arrested and imprisoned by Herod. Luke 3:10-14 is what scholars label as “maybe Q” – at least entertained as being a possible part of Q but not exactly fitting the definition. It is the only major teaching of John scholars can ascribe to him without doubt. This teaching contains many of the same themes as the various other teachings as stated above, attributed to Jesus but without any context. Here one can see John is telling the people if “you have two costs, give one away,” that sinners (tax collectors) are welcome in the kingdom also, and not to take money under false pretenses. Luke 7:29-30 is also with the “maybe Q” group of texts. Although set in parenthesizes, these too sound familiar to 3:10-14 above in that sinners (tax collectors) are accepted because they had been baptized by John and that the Pharisees and the lawyers had rejected God’s purpose since they rejected the baptism of John. Given such evidence, one can draw the conclusion that such teachings could be from the original Q source and that the various other out of context teaching running throughout Luke 6, 11, and 12, which are attributed to Jesus, could actually be those of John the Baptist.

Essays on John the Baptist: Redemptive Figures (1)

In this new six part series I present responses to s offered in my course at UNC Charlotte on “John the Baptist.” John is the most underrated figure in Christian tradition, rarely given his due as a messiah and inaugurator of the movement Jesus himself arose from. The responses are by my student, Jeff Poplin, now a USAF Lt Colonel, fighter pilot, married with two boys. Jeff wrote them without notes in response to exams given in the course! They offer a good, concise, and rather extraordinary summary of what we covered in the course:

Discuss the complex of traditions found in the Hebrew Bible concerning the expectation of messianic or redemptive figures, whether Prophet/Teacher, Priest, or Davidic King/Ruler. Briefly cover the origins of the basic idea of “anointed figures,” in ancient Israel, then examine the main texts, images, concepts, and ideas, related to the arrival and mission of specific redemptive/messianic agents.

To discuss the basic idea of “anointed figures” (Messiah, Christ/Christos), one must first examine how or with what such figures are anointed. Oil, we are told, is the substance chosen to do the deed so to speak. Exodus 30:22 is our introduction to how God (YHVH) instructed Moses to make this “messiahing” oil from cinnamon, cassia, spices, etc. and how to anoint an individual, thus making them a Messiah. Psalm 45:7 also refers to this by recording God has anointed you with the “oil of gladness.” From the instruction of Moses, this ritual has come to symbolize the making of an ordinary individual into a public figure, one set apart from the others for having been chosen and gone through the rite of passage. Incorporated into this theory or idea of having importance to become anointed, the anointer must be greater than the anointed.

john-the-baptist

 

Numerous examples can be found to support this: Exodus 40:13 Moses anoints Aaron making him the first messiah in the biblical traditions (priestly), I Samuel 10 shows how Samuel anointed Saul, and I Kings 1:39 Zadok anoints Solomon. Again we can see the importance placed by the Israelites on this ritual of taking oil and actually pouring it onto the head of another to anoint him. Isaiah 61:1 talks about the spirit of the Lord God is upon me because the LORD has anointed me. Another reference surprisingly appears in Sirach 45:15 addressing the occasion of Moses anointing Aaron as the first messiah with the holy oil. However, it is not only this ritual the people are interested in, it is the person. Throughout the Old Testament, one can find examples of the Hebrews looking for and believing in an “anointed” individual. They see him as coming or arriving on the scene and having a mission from God to carry out. Although they look for the anointed, this does not necessarily imply it is one individual. However, a text may not present multiple messiahs but individuals looking at texts with an idea or notion of two and sometimes three messiahs may apply such a concept. In the middle appears the Teacher/Adon, with a Kingly and Priestly messiah on his right and left side. One indication of this comes in Exodus 17:8-12. Moses is pictured in the middle with Aaron (a Levite) on one side and Hur (Judah) on the other. Looking back to the anointing of Aaron, since he was from the tribe of Levi, he is considered the represent the priestly christ or messiah. Traditions in I Samuel show the tribe of Judah represented by Saul, David, and later Solomon is the other half of the equation being a kingly messiah. Zechariah also contains a three-figure scenario in which one may see three messiah-like figures. Zechariah 4:2-4, 13 has a lampstand of gold centered (Adon) and is flanked by two olive trees on opposing sides. Psalm 80 reinforces the position of the right hand in verse 17, “let your hand be upon the one at your right hand.” To highlight the priestly messiah theme, one must turn to Psalm 110:4, “you are a priest according to the order of Melchizedek (one who blesses Abraham in Genesis 14). With the arrival of one or both Messiah figures, the texts explain a mission he/they are to engage in to save the Israelite race from the evil doers. Isaiah 9:1-7 is a good example of events to come upon his/their arrival. The beginning is signaled through the arrival of a child, appearing as a light in the land beyond the Jordan (Gentile territory). Once in power, this occupant of the “throne of David” (Isaiah 11:1) will bring endless peace, establish and uphold justice, and authority will rest on his shoulders. Isaiah 11 continues explaining the rule of the Messiah, this shoot out of the stump of Jesse. He shall judge the poor and meek, bring peace so the calf will lie with the wolf, and wolf with the lamb. Most endearing to the people in Isaiah 11:10-16 when the messiah will restore all the lost tribes of Israel from Assyria to Egypt, from Elam to Hamath. Part of the messiah’s mission too is to occupy the “throne of David,” ruling Judah (Jeremiah 22:30). Their Messiah will come with the clouds and to him is given dominion and glory and kingship that all nations should serve him (Daniel 7:13-14). Although the term “messiah” or “Davidic messiah” is never used in the Hebrew Bible, the most complete portrait of a Davidic Messiah can be found in Isaiah 2, 9, 11, and Micah 5.

Extra:  Did John the Baptist Eat Bugs?

Did Paul Invent the Virgin Birth?

Legendary stories of gods fathering humans, so common in  Greco-Roman culture, may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul.

Christians regularly affirm that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” This faith is embedded as a cornerstone of all the major Christian creeds and is recited by hundreds of millions each week. Surprisingly, the gospel of Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus. It opens with Jesus as an adult, traveling from Nazareth down to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Since Mark is our earliest gospel the question arises–what is the origin of the idea of Jesus’ virgin birth? When and where did it originate?

Adonis & Venus Vecellio

In contrast to Mark both Matthew and Luke give us different versions of the “Christmas story,” but they both agree on the source of Mary’s pregnancy. In Matthew’s account Joseph had a dream shortly after finding out about the pregnancy. In this dream an angel told him that her pregnancy was “by a holy spirit” and that he was to go ahead with the marriage regardless. He was to name her child Jesus. By marrying a pregnant woman who carried a child that was not his, and legally naming that child, he was in effect “adopting” Jesus as his legal son. The phrase “by a holy spirit” implies that the pregnancy came from the agency of God’s spirit but falls short of saying, outright, that God was the father of Jesus in the sense that, say, Zeus was said to be the father of Hercules by his seduction of his mother, Alkmene. In that sense the account is different from those miraculous birth stories so common in Greco-Roman mythology.

Nonetheless, scholars who question the literal truth of Matthew and Luke’s birth stories have suggested that they are a way of affirming the divine nature of Jesus as “Son of God” by giving him an extraordinary supernatural birth. This idea of humans being fathered by gods is quite common in Greco-Roman culture. There was a whole host of heroes who were said to be the product of a union between their mother and a god–Plato, Empedocles, Hercules, Pythagoras, Alexander the Great and even Caesar Augustus. In text after text we find the idea of the divine man (theios aner) whose supernatural birth, ability to perform miracles, and extraordinary death separate him from the ordinary world of mortals. These heroes are not “eternal” gods, like Zeus or Jupiter. They are mortal human beings who have been exalted to a heavenly state of immortal life. In the time of Jesus their temples and shrines filled every city and province of the Roman Empire. It is easy to imagine that early Christians who believed Jesus was every bit as exalted and heavenly as any of the Greek and Roman heroes and gods would appropriate this way of relating the story of his birth. It was a way of affirming that Jesus was both human and divine. Modern interpreters who view the stories in this way usually maintain that Joseph was likely the father and that these supernatural accounts were invented later by Jesus’ followers to honor Jesus and to promote his exalted status in a manner common to that culture.

These legendary stories from Greco-Roman culture may well have contributed to accounts of Jesus’ miraculous birth in Matthew and Luke but I would suggest an alternative. I am convinced that the idea of Jesus’ birth from a virgin–without a human father–implicitly goes back to the apostle Paul. Paul’s letters date several decades before our New Testament gospels and it is Paul’s understanding of Jesus as the pre-existent, divine, Son of God, that lays the conceptual groundwork for our Christmas stories.

Paul never explicitly refers to Jesus’ virgin birth nor does he ever name either Mary or Joseph. What he does affirm is that Jesus pre-existed before his human birth and subsequently gave up his divine glory through his birth as a human being. He writes that Jesus “though existing in the form of God” emptied himself and took on human form, “being made in the likeness of humankind” (Philippians 2:6-7). He says further “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9). He has to be referring here, metaphorically, to the “riches” of Jesus’ pre-existence with God, since all our sources have Jesus born of a poor peasant family. Paul also writes “In the fullness of time God sent forth his Son, made of a woman …” (Galatians 4:4). The implication of these texts is that Jesus’ mother was merely the human receptacle for bringing Jesus into the world. It is not a far step from these ideas about Jesus’ pre-existence to the notion of Jesus as the first-begotten Son of God–eliminating any necessity for a human father. Paul’s entire message centers on a divine not a human Jesus–both before his birth and after his death. For Paul he is the pre-existent Son of God, crucified, but now raised to sit at the right hand of God. Like the Christian creeds that jump from Jesus’ birth to his death and resurrection in single phrase, entirely skipping over his life, Paul paves the way for a confessional understanding of what it means to be a Christian. As Bultmann once put it, it is the “thatness” of the Gospel which interested Paul–that he was born of a woman, he died, that he rose, that he is coming again–with nothing inbetween.

The Jewish followers of Jesus later known as the Ebionites (see my previous post here) by the Orthodox Church Fathers, rejected Paul, used a version of Matthew in Hebrew that did not contain the account of the virgin birth in our present chapter 2 of the Greek text, and followed James the brother of Jesus in observing the Torah. It is difficult to imagine the virgin birth idea arising within these original Jewish circles whereas the perspectives of Paul lend themselves so easily to such mythology.

An alternative way of thinking about being a Christian is preserved in the gospel of Mark–our earliest narrative account of the career of Jesus. Mark mentions neither Jesus’ birth, nor any resurrection appearances on Easter morning (according to our earliest manuscripts that end with chapter 16:8). When a would-be follower addresses Jesus as “Good Teacher,” Jesus sharply rebukes him with the retort: “Why do you call me good, there is One who is good, God” (Mark 10:17-18). Mark emphasizes the suffering of Jesus on the cross, but only as a call to others to also “take up a cross” and thus give their lives as servants to others. In Mark Jesus defines true religion as loving God and loving ones neighbor, in contrast to all systems of religion. His version of the Jesus story is surely one that should not be forgotten despite the ubiquitous triumph of Paul’s theology.

Waiting for the Messiahs–One, Two, or Three?

Who are you? Are you the Messiah? Or the Prophet? Or Elijah?

One of the ideas I explore and develop in my 2006 book, The Jesus Dynasty, was the notion of two Messiahs. I had no idea it would become sensational–much less controversial. It actually became headline news, with a cover story in USNews & World Report and special segments on ABC’s Good Morning America, 20/20, and Nightline!

Jews and Christians today have come to focus on the appearance of a single Messiah–a descendant of the lineage of David who is to reign as king in a messianic kingdom over the entire earth. These expectations are based on a dozen or more texts in the Hebrew Prophets that predict the reign of such a future scion of David (Isaiah 11, Micah 5, Jeremiah 23:5-6).

Lucas Cranach John & Jesus

 

One of the Thirteen Principles of the Jewish Faith as formulated by the great Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204 CE), known by the acronym “the Rambam,” states:

I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah, and though he may delay I will wait daily for his coming. ((The Koren Siddur, trans. and commentary by Rabbi Sir JonathanSacks, p. 204))

The Messiah expected is the Davidic King and this affirmation is sung daily in the Yigdal, a song based on the Ramban’s Thirteen Principles. One of the petitions of the Amidah, which is the heart and soul of Jewish daily prayer, beging: “May the offshoot of Your servant David soon flower.” ((The Shemoneh Esreh, The Koren Siddur, p. 124))

Christians affirm that Jesus of Nazareth, crucified but raised from the dead and ascended to the right hand of God, is this Davidic Messiah or King and that he will return in glory “with the clouds of heaven” in a Second Coming to establish his reign over all the earth.

SideBar: One question early Christians had to face, in declaring Jesus to be the King Messiah, was who anointed Jesus? Traditionally this was to be done by a Prophet. John the Baptist might be a candidate but we have no record of any such ceremony. Luke has Jesus “anointed of the Spirit,” picking up on Isaiah 61, rather than the traditional anointing with oil. Ebionites declared that Jesus was made “Son of God,” a term used for the Davidic messiahs, at his baptism by the Voice from heaven. But there is another surprising possibility some have suggested–more on that in a future post.

What few realize is that this expectation of a single Davidic Messiah had not so solidified in the time of Jesus. In text after text, in a diverse variety of of expectations reflected in a scattered range of primary texts from the period we read about any number of redemptive figures. In terms of “Messiahs,” what we find most commonly is not one but two Messiahs who are to usher in the Kingdom of God. One is to be a kingly figure of the royal line of David, but at his side will be a priestly figure, also a Messiah, of the lineage of Aaron from the tribe of Levi. The word “messiah” refers to one who is “anointed” or appointed. In ancient Israel both the kings and the priests were anointed with oil and were thus called “Messiahs.”  The verb mashach means to “smear with oil,” and a Moshiach or “Messiah” in English is one so smeared or “anointed” as we say in English. Technically speaking the “first” messiah was Aaron, brother of Moses, anointed with oil by his brother Moses in a formal ceremony that made him the Priest of Israel (Exodus 29:7). The first anointed king was Saul, anointed with oil by the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 10:1). When Saul lost favor with God David was likewise anointed by Samuel as king (1 Samuel 16:13; 2 Samuel 2:4). Both priest and king were accordingly “messiahs” or anointed ones. This means that the notion of two messiahs was the norm in ancient Israel and this norm, of the dual messiahs was, of course, the one that was projected into the future once the nation begin to be dismantled by the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions in the 8th-6th centuries BCE.

Zechariah, the 6th century BC Hebrew prophet, foretold of a man called “the Branch” who would bear royal honor and sit on his throne, but he adds, “There shall be a priest by his throne with peaceful understanding between the two of them” (Zechariah 6:13). Here is a clear picture of the Davidic King and his counselor, the anointed Priest. Zechariah refers in another vision to “two sons of fresh oil” (i.e., “anointed ones” or “messiahs”) who “stand before the Lord of the whole earth.” He likens them in his vision to two “olive branches” that stand before the Menorah, the seven-branched oil lamp that symbolized God’s Spirit and presence (Zechariah 4).

This ideal vision of two messiahs became a model for many Jewish groups that were oriented toward apocalyptic thinking in the 2nd to 1st centuries BC. The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, dating from the 2nd century BC puts things succinctly: “For the Lord will raise up from Levi someone as high priest and from Judah someone as king.” (Testament of Simon 7. 2). Throughout this influential work there is an emphasis that salvation for Israel will come jointly from the tribe of Levi and from the tribe of Judah, the tribe of King David. The Priest Messiah receives more attention than the King Messiah and in many ways he stands superior to the Davidic figure. In fact, the patriarch Judah himself declares, “For to me the Lord gave the kingship and to him the priesthood, and he set the kingship under the priesthood” (Testament of Judah 21:1-2). The book of Jubilees, coming from about the same period, pronounces a perpetual blessing upon Levi as the progenitor of the priests, and Judah as the father of the “prince” who will rule over the Israel and the nations (Jubilees 31). It seems, based on these texts, that the notion of “Two Messiahs” was the ideal structure of Jewish leadership. It is for this reason that the Maccabeans or Hashmoneans, in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC, who could claim only the Levitical priestly bloodline, were never really able to effectively establish themselves in the eyes of the populace as “kings,” despite massive political and military power. Ingrained in the Jewish imagination the ideal future in which both a Priest and a King would rule together.

John the Baptizer identified himself as the “messenger” who was to prepare the Way based on a prophecy from the book of Malachi. The version we read in our modern Bibles today is as follows:

“Behold I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming says Yahweh of hosts, but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2).

This translation is based on the standard Hebrew text (Masoretic), the oldest copy of which dates to the 9th century AD. We now have a version of this very passage from Malachi found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. This scroll dates to the 1st century BC, so it is a thousand years older than our standard Hebrew text. Notice carefully the differences in the pronouns:

“Therefore behold I send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me. And they will suddenly come to his temple, the Lord whom you seek and the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire; behold he himself comes, says Yahweh of hosts, but who can endure them when they come?” ((See Martin Abegg, Peter Flint, and Eugene Ulrich, The Dead Sea Scrolls Bible (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999), p. 477.))

This ancient version of Malachi has two figures that are to come jointly—a messenger of the covenant who prepares the Way, but also one called “the Lord whom you seek.” The word translated “Lord” (‘adon) is not the Hebrew name for God—Yahweh, but a word that means a “master” or ruler of some type. It may well be that Jesus and John the Baptizer were familiar with this version of Malachi with the plural pronouns, and identified themselves accordingly. This was certainly the understanding of the sectarian community that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

In one of the oldest founding documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Community Rule, the community is expecting the coming of a prophet they called the Teacher, but also the “Messiahs of Aaron and Israel.” They imagined a future in which the Priest Messiah would preside over a “Messianic banquet,” with the King Messiah of Israel, whom they call the “Prince of the congregation,” or the “Branch of David,” as his companion. There are many references in the Dead Sea Scrolls to their fervent expectation that these two Messiahs would appear. As important as the “Branch of David” was to be, they nonetheless had the most extravagant hopes for the coming priest. In a text called the Testament of Levi we read the following:

“He will atone for the sons of his generation and he will be sent to all the sons of his people. His word is like a word of heaven and his teaching is according to the will of God. His eternal sun will shine, and his fire will blaze in all the corners of the earth. Then darkness will disappear from the earth and deep darkness from the dry land” (4Q541).

This amazing text seems to match the high view in which Jesus held his teacher John the Baptizer where he says that “among those born of women there is none greater than John” and that he was not just a “prophet” but “much more than a Prophet” (Luke 7:26-30) ((In my view the qualification “but he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John,” is a later gloss by gospel editors, shocked by the implications that Jesus was here putting John even ahead of himself.)) It is the very opposite of the theological overlay that our New Testament gospels in their final edited forms project in their effort to make Jesus greater than John. It certainly supports the historical probability that Jesus did view John as his teacher as well as the priestly Messiah of Aaron of whom the prophets had spoken. For those reasons Jesus would have deferred to John’s leadership and direction, a point completely lost in our gospels other than in the collection of Jesus’ earliest teachings that many scholars call Q.

The Dead Sea Scroll community waited a long time for the fulfillment of these central expectations. They had retreated to the Judean desert sometime in the 2nd century BC in response to the prophetic Voice they heard through the prophecies of Isaiah, Daniel, and Malachi. They became convinced that “this was the time” of the preparation of “the Way.” They were the community of the “Last Days” responding to Isaiah’s call to prepare the Way in the desert (Isaiah 40:3). Sometime in the 1st century BCE an influential figure arose among them who had great spiritual and interpretive gifts. They refer to him in the Scrolls as the “Teacher of Righteousness.” We don’t know his name but many events of his life, and even some of his writings, are preserved in the Scrolls. Michael Wise’s wonderful treatment of both the leader and the group, with the provocative title, The First Messiah: Investigating the Savior Before Christ is one I highly recommend. The community saw him as a type of “Prophet like Moses” who had called them into a “new covenant.” They viewed themselves as a remnant group of faithful Israelites who had turned from their sins and separated themselves from the ungodly society around them. They considered the religious establishment of their day, whether Pharisee or Sadducee, to be hopelessly corrupt and compromised. They lived by the strictest interpretation of the laws of the Torah and firmly believed they were living in the “last days.” They believed that their Teacher had given them the definitive inspired interpretation of all the secrets of their prophetic writings.

When their teacher was killed, probably sometime in the mid-1st century BCE, they were convinced the final countdown had begun and that the two Messiahs would soon appear. There are some texts that speak of a final period of “forty years,” following the death of their Teacher. The forty years passed but there is no record in any of the Dead Sea Scrolls that the two Messiahs ever appeared. It was as if all their hopes and expectations were stopped in time and put on hold. For more on these disappointed hopes see my paper “Dead Messiahs Who Don’t Return“). A small group of their community still lived at the settlement we know as Qumran in the 1st century CE, and if they are indeed the people we know as the Essenes, they were scattered in communities all through the land of Palestine. They did not die out despite the failure of their original expectations. It is likely that they were partly responsible for keeping alive the hope of the coming of the two Messiahs.

Given these deeply rooted hopes and expectations among these Messianic Jews one can scarcely imagine the excitement and fervor that John the Baptist and Jesus would have stirred as they prepared their next moves in the spring of 27 CE. John as a priest from the tribe of Levi and Jesus as a descendant of David from the tribe of Judah must have stirred the hopes of thousands who had come to expect the arrival of the two Messiahs as a sure sign of the end. Even Herod Antipas soon felt the sting of John the Baptizers’ blistering message of repentance. Christians are prone to imagine a “meek and lowly” Jesus who seldom raised his voice but the evidence will show that he learned well from his teacher and that like John the Baptizer, Jesus’ radical message divided households and villages and shook the religious and political establishment.

I have prepared a special handout titled “Two Messiahs-The Evidence,” for classes and lectures that pulls together all the primary sources and fills out more details.  You are welcome to download this, print it out, and use it for your own study.

The Jesus Dynasty: Seven Major Themes

In April, 2006 I published The Jesus Dynasty.  Now in paperback it has continued to sell moderately but steadily. I wrote it as a popular summary of my own personal lifelong “quest” for the historical Jesus. It is written in a style accessible to the non-spet and many readers find that it pulls them into the story in an engaging fashion. It also has extensive references and notes. It received an enormous amount of media attention when it was released and has also been translated into more than a twenty foreign languages. It is also available in all major e-book formats (Kindle, iBooks, Nook) as well as an CD Audio version ready by yours truly, see links here.

The following is a summary of some of the main substantive points made in the book that advance our understanding of Jesus and early Christianity. If you have not read it it maybe well be that these themes will grab your attention. I know of no other book on the historical Jesus that includes these wider parameters in trying to understand Jesus as a human being in his own time and place.

1. The Material Evidence
One of the unique features of The Jesus Dynasty is the way in which archaeological discoveries inform and offer a new interpretive context to the unfolding Jesus story. Whether one is considering the location of the family tomb of Jesus, the splendor of the Roman city of Sepphoris, just north of Nazareth, the site of the Suba “John the Baptist” cave, or the location of the sites of the Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, Jesus is put in a time and place that becomes real to us through the material evidence that survives.

2. The Historical Mary
Much has been said about the “historical Jesus” but little attention has been given to Mary his mother. She is shrouded in legend, interpreted by theology, and the focus of personal devotion and piety. But what does history actually tell us? She is an unwed mother, a young Jewish woman, Miriam, mother of seven children, eventually widowed, struggling to survive in a troubled time, courageous and full of vision for her gifted children. So much of what Jesus and his brother James became has to trace back to her strong influence.

3. Jesus and John the Baptist
The relationship between Jesus and his kinsman John is a much neglected aspect of the Jesus story. John has been marginalized and minimized as the precursor of Jesus, introducing him and then quietly moving off the stage. John was in fact the most important influence in Jesus’ life. Their mothers were close. They likely knew one another growing up. Jesus looked to John as mentor and teacher and they joined ranks in their shared vision for Israel’s prophetic future as the two Messiahs, conducting a preaching campaign that rocked the nation back on its heels and drew the attention of the Roman authorities. John’s unexpected death was a vital factor in his own developing understanding of the role he and John were destined to play in the course of history, ultimately leading him to the cross.

4. Messianic Self-Identity
Jesus’ own Messianic self-identity, from an historical point of view, was a complex mix of his own royal pedigree, his reading of biblical prophetic texts, and unfolding events. He came to see that his destiny required him to confront the authorities in Jerusalem, and like John, face opposition and perhaps even death. He found himself in the sacred texts of Scripture, and at the same time he began to act out in his own life and career the series of events that would lead up to his death. His was no “Passover plot,” but a giving of the self for a cause in hope and trust that God would somehow honor his faith and fulfill the promises of the Kingdom.

5. On Earth, not in Heaven
The vision of the kingdom of God shared by John, Jesus, and their early followers was a spiritual one, but on earth not in heaven. Like the Hebrew Prophets they looked for a time in which peace would come to all nations and righteous and justice would emanate from Jerusalem as the new spiritual capital of a restored Israel, a beacon light to the world. The entire world would turn from idolatry to worship of the one true Creator God. The two Messiahs were to inaugurate that new era and their deaths would serve for the redemption of the world.

6. James and the Brothers as Successors of Jesus
Although recent studies have moved a long way toward rehabilitating the memory and importance of James, the brother of Jesus, his vital role as the “beloved disciple” and pillar of the Church has been largely lost and forgotten. A recovery of the “historical James” is not only possible, but it is perhaps our best method for getting back to the historical Jesus as well. The towering influence of James was based both on his pedigree, as a descendant of the royal line of King David, and also upon his remarkable faith and strong character, exhibited for over thirty years following the death of his brother. That Simon took charge of things after James’s death indicates that this dynastic aspect of early Christianity has been largely lost and forgotten through the legendary dominance of Paul and Peter. An understanding of the Jesus Dynasty is our clearest entrée to really understanding both the faith and the message of Jesus and his earliest followers.

7. Recovering the Original Gospel
Paul’s gospel message is the formative influence within the entire New Testament and thus forms the foundation of what became world Christianity.  In contract, the original message of John the Baptist, Jesus, and James is a singular one that was gradually, forgotten, suppressed, and marginalized in a Gentile Church that largely lost its Jewish roots and origins. That message can be recovered in both the New Testament and other ancient sources through a careful sifting of textual evidence and a commitment to recover the lost treasures of earliest Christianity. Throughout the book John the Baptist, Jesus, and James are put in the thoroughly Jewish 1st century contexts in which they are most clearly understood historically.

Another Comforter: The Forgotten Brother of Jesus

Something of which I am more and more convinced is the paramount importance of James the brother of Jesus to the very survival of the Messianic movement in the critical months and years following the tragic and brutal murders of both John the Baptist and Jesus. I present my extended argument for that idea in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, in the chapter titled “Go to James the Just.” James is not merely a figure we need to “add” to our emphasis on Peter and Paul in Christian tradition–he is, quite literally, the missing piece of the puzzle in terms of understanding Christian origins. ((Robert Eisenman, in his pioneering 1997 book, James the Brother of Jesus, laid out the foundation for his recovery, see Robert Price’s review here.))

James the Just, Brother of Jesus

James the Just, Brother of Jesus

As I explained here recently, I am convinced that James was the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” the one who became head of family, leader of the movement, and dynastic successor to Jesus as next in line of the royal lineage of King David. Jesus died in the year 30 CE and the earliest written records we have of the movement come from the apostle Paul in the early 50s AD–twenty years later. The historian John Dominic Crossan has called these twenty years the “dark age” of the Jesus movement in that we have no surviving records from those crucial years. What little we know is based on attempts to try to read back what we might possibly construct from later materials–namely the Synoptic Gospels, John, and the book of Acts–all of which are late compositions, heavily influenced by Paul and his visionary based Gospel. These texts become the “standard narrative” and James is pretty much written out of the story, see my post on getting the New Testament “James” straight here.  Given the dominance of these texts in the New Testament it becomes difficult to even imagine how vital James was to the survival and development of the movement in those first critical decades.

I am convinced that the earliest followers of Jesus and John regained their faith and resolve following Jesus’ crucifixion not by a spirit of ghost of Jesus appearing to them, nor by experiences of the resuscitated corpse of Jesus coming to life and living among them, passing through walls, and finally rising up bodily into the clouds into heaven, but by the living presence of James the beloved brother of Jesus.

It was the spirit that James must have reflected and exhibited in those dark days of danger and disappointment, when the scattered followers migrated back to Galilee after the Passover week ended, that would have held them together. I realize this is quite an alternative to the later “Easter story,” as I have explained here and here, but this is the picture presented by our earliest independent sources.

To have James with them was akin to having Jesus with them. In terms of historical explanations I think this one makes the most sense and it was James who led the group back to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost or Shavuot, 50 days after Jesus’ death, where they really began to consolidate things and found a new direction and hope for the expectation of the Kingdom of God to which they had dedicated their lives. Their faith was focused on the “coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven” based on their understanding of Daniel 7:13, which for them meant the “saints of the Most High” receiving “dominion, glory, and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages” would serve them (Daniel 7:13-14 as interpreted in verse 27).

The book of Acts quite deliberately mutes the vital role of James, listing the presence of the remaining Eleven apostles in Jerusalem and then adding, in passing, that “Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” were there as well (Acts 1:14). Peter and the fishermen James and John take center stage in Acts and Jesus’ brothers, including James, go unnamed.

It is only at the critical Jerusalem Council meeting (c. 50 CE), when the unity and survival of the entire movement hung in the balance, that the author of Acts, quite reluctantly, and without fanfare, has to acknowledge that none other than “James” (whom he does not even bother to identify as Jesus’ brother!) presided over the group, declared his “decision,” while both Peter and Paul stood before him in audience (Acts 15:13-21). If all we had was Luke-Acts we would not even know Jesus had a brother names James who assumed leadership of the movement. The same is true of all three of our Synoptic gospels. James’ place and role is written out of the story and that is why most non-academics, and even pew sitting Christians today have no idea he even existed–unless they have somehow picked up on all the publicity surrounding the “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary inscription.

One speculation I find appealing is the idea that James somehow reminded the shattered group of Jesus. Whether they were very similar in looks, voice, outlook, and personality we will never know, but somehow, after Jesus was dead and buried, the community found solace in the physical presence of James. Perhaps he was the mysterious figure on the shores of the sea of Galilee whom they had trouble recognizing, or the one who appeared to them on a mountain in Galilee, leaving some “doubting” (John 21:4-14; Matthew 28:16-17). This would also mean he is the “witness” cited by the final editors of the appendix to the gospel of John (21:24).

In gathering around James it was as if the spirit of Jesus was still among them in the person of his brother. I have wondered whether the original idea now embedded in latter part of the gospel of John, about the “Helper” (better translated as Guide) coming, was originally referring to James:

And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Guide, to be with you forever (John 14:16)

But the Guide, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you (John 16:26)

“But when the Guide comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me (John 15:26)

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Guide will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you (John 16:7)

The Greek word is Paraklete/παρακλητος, and refers to one who represents, advocates, helps alongside, leads, or guides. It is true the text personified this one in John as “the Spirit of Truth,” but “he” is spoken of in a very personal way, in the masculine gender, very much as one would speak of a person. Jesus says of this one that he will be “sent in my name,” and that he will be a Teacher who will remind the community of all that Jesus has taught them. The Ebionites held the view that what they called the “Christ Spirit” had “hastened through the ages” and rested upon various ones in a successive way from generation to generation. In this view the “Spirit of Truth,” that Jesus received at his baptism, making him the “anointed of the Spirit,” was passed on to James his brother. This idea, of the “anointed of the Spirit,” is based on Isaiah 61:1, a text that both Jesus followers and earlier, the Dead Sea community, had focused upon, as I recently discussed here. Jesus told them that this one “abides with” them and will be “among” them. This one will “not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

Indeed, when you compare the teachings of Jesus in our earliest source and the teachings of James, the parallels are quite striking, notice:

Jesus’ Teachings in the Q Source

Teachings of James

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God (Luke 6:20)

“Has not God chosen the poor to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom” (2:5)

“Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments . . . shall be [called] least in the kingdom” (Matthew 5:19) “Whoever keeps the whole Torah but fails in one point has become guilty of it all” (2:10)
“Not everyone who says ‘Lord, Lord’ shall enter the kingdom . . . but he who does the will of my Father” (Matthew 7:21) “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” (1:22)
“How much more will your Father . . . give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7: 11) “Every good gift . . . coming down from the Father” (1:17)
“Woe to you that are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:24) “Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you” (5:1)
“Do not swear at all, either by heaven for it is the throne of God, or by earth for it is his footstool . . . let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’” (Matthew 5:34, 37)

“Do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath but let your yes be yes and your no be no” (5:12)

Paul’s emphasize on his visionary apparitions or “appearances” of the heavenly “Christ,” come later by several years. The Galilean based group of Jesus followers must have found a way to sustain themselves and express their faith in Jesus as one whom God had exalted to heaven long before Paul showed up on the scene with his unique claims to be a “thirteenth” Apostle on a par with those who had known Jesus personally and were chosen by him.

Weekend Seminar: How An Ancient Apocalyptic Vision of the Future Took Over the World

I will be leading a seminar this weekend at the 72nd annual United Israel Conference here in Charlotte, NC at the lovely Doubletree Hotel in Southpark. Registration is open to anyone interested. My topic deals with “Apocalypticism, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to Isis,” and here is an outline of what I will cover:

Tabor Apocalyptic Lecture

 

Details on the conference at: http://unitedisrael.org/uiwu-e…/uiwu-2015-annual-conference/

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The Talpiot “Jesus” Family Tomb: Case Closed

On April 5th, 2015, Haaretz, Israel’s most respected newspaper, published a Hebrew article by Nir Hasson, their archaeology correspondent. Here is an English Translation provided by Simcha Jacobovici.

Jesus was buried in Jerusalem’s Armon Ha’Natziv/Talpiot neighborhood and may have had a wife and child

Dr. Aryeh Shimron used chemical analyses to find a clear link between ossuaries discovered in the Talpiot Tomb and the ossuary of the “Brother of Jesus” – reigniting debate on Jesus’ burial place.

By Nir Hasson

Jerusalem – A geological study supports the claim that a Second Temple Period burial cave, excavated 25 years ago in the Armon Ha’Natziv/Talpiot neighborhood in Jerusalem, belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth. That’s the conclusion of geologist Dr. Aryeh Shimron, who used chemical analysis to examine a possible link between the ossuaries (bone boxes) found in the Talpiot burial cave and the ossuary known as the bone box of the “Brother of Jesus”. Supporters of the theory maintain that this study could have far-reaching implications. If Dr. Shimron is right, Christians are wrong about the location of Jesus’ burial cave (Church of the Holy Sepulcher) and about the fact that Jesus did not have a wife and son. ((JDT Comment: 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.))

TombEntranceRD

The burial cave known as “The Talpiot Tomb” was discovered in 1980, during construction of the Armon Ha’Natziv/Talpiot neighborhood. An excavation of the tomb uncovered ossuaries from the Second Temple Period, such as can be found in many burial caves in the Jerusalem area. Though the names inscribed on these ossuaries were common during that era, the cluster of names in the same tomb provoked interest. Among the names are “Jesus, son of Joseph”, “Maria”, “Mariamene”, “Judas son of Jesus” and “Yose”.

The tomb has provoked international interest in the last decade largely due to the films and investigations of journalist Simcha Jacobovici. He makes the statistical argument that, at the time, there could not have been another family in Judaea with that particular combination of names.

Parallel with the story of the Talpiot tomb, the archeological world was rocked in the last few years by another story –the “Brother of Jesus” ossuary. Antiquities collector Oded Golan owns a bone box that bears the inscription “Jacob (James in English), son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. The State of Israel claimed in court that Golan faked the second part of the inscription (“Brother of Jesus”) so as to boost the ossuary’s value. Three years ago, after a long judicial battle, the district court of Jerusalem ruled that the State failed to prove its case.

In the last few months, following another judicial struggle, the ossuary was returned to Golan and he allowed Dr. Shimron to examine it. It’s clear to everyone that if Shimron can prove that this “Jacob/James ossuary” came from the Talpiot tomb, statistically speaking, there would be no doubt that the tomb belonged to the family of Jesus. The “James” ossuary, after all, is inscribed with three names: “Jacob”, “Joseph” and “Jesus”. It also describes familial relations between these people: Jacob son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. Two names from Talpiot were especially interesting to Simcha Jacobovici – “Mariamene” and “Yose”. These are rare versions of “Joseph” and “Mary” that are cited in early Christian writings. Jacobovici has also linked the Talpiot tomb with a close by burial cave, which contained symbols that are, according to his research, consistent with the iconography of early Christianity.

Shimron, who has been working at the Geological Survey of Israel (GSI) for 25 years, began his inquiry into this topic after hearing a lecture delivered seven years ago by one of the archaeologists who discovered the cave, Dr. Shimon Gibson. Gibson mentioned in passing that when they first encountered the cave it was completely blocked with earth. “When I heard that, I realized that there was a geo-chemical key here that can be utilized,” says Shimron. The cave, he explains, was most likely sealed during a dramatic earthquake in 363 C.E/A.D. This turned the Talpiot tomb into a kind of chemical time capsule that sets it apart from other caves.

Throughout the years, the limestone ossuaries in the cave absorbed elements from the earth that covered it. In this way, the Talpiot tomb developed a clear “chemical signature” that sets it apart from other tombs. Dr. Shimron conducted dozens of tests to check for these elements. [In addition to the Talpiot tomb ossuaries], the Israel Antiquities Authority provided about twelve random ossuaries. Recently, following its return to collector Golan, Shimron was also able to examine the “Brother of Jesus” ossuary.

The results of the examinations, as Dr. Shimron displays them in a series of charts, are unequivocal. Every chemical element Shimron examined in the James ossuary displayed the “chemical signature” shared by the Talpiot ossuaries and falls within the Talpiot chemical cluster. “The evidence is very powerful” he says. “It is almost without a doubt that the ‘James, Brother of Jesus’ ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb.”

Statistician Camil Fuchs had already established – based on the names inscribed on the James ossuary, their familial ties, the fact that the buried person was an adult, and the literacy displayed on the ossuary – that there could have been no more than two families with this particular combination of names in Judaea throughout the Second Temple Period. If, in addition to the names on the James ossuary, we now also add the names found in the Talpiot tomb to the cluster, there can be only one conclusion: the Talpiot tomb belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth.

“I’m saying this as a journalist, not as a researcher or a statistician,” says Simcha Jacobovici, “but it’s clear that by adding the ‘James, Brother of Jesus’ inscription into the mix, this supports the authenticity of the inscription and completely changes the statistical name balance of the tomb. From here on in, you can only argue against the Talpiot tomb from the point of view of faith and theology – you can say that you don’t care about the facts, that you believe what you believe and that’s that. But what I’m saying is not a gut feeling. These are facts. This case is closed.”

If this is indeed the Jesus family tomb, Dr. Shimron’s findings are of monumental importance – they imply that the IAA has in its possession the ossuary of Jesus himself – “Jesus, son of Joseph” – and of a man called “Judah, son of Jesus”. Their bones were buried in an unknown location 25 years ago, when the tomb was found. This also means that Jesus of Nazareth, contrary to popular belief, had a son.

But for this to be true, Jacobovici has to overcome a basic problem with his theory: when was the James ossuary removed from the Talpiot burial cave? During his trial, Oded Golan presented a photograph showing the ossuary in his possession as of 1976– four years before the Talpiot cave was discovered. In response, Jacobovici offers two alternatives. According to the first scenario, one of the ossuaries was stolen during the excavation, and Golan’s picture is dated incorrectly. And, indeed, the archaeologists reported finding ten ossuaries, whereas the IAA has only nine in its possession today. Another possible scenario is that the James ossuary was stolen and sold to Golan a few years before the discovery of the Talpiot tomb.

The theory’s opponents point out another issue. If Jesus’ earliest followers wanted to bolster the myth of his rising to heaven, there would be no sense in burying him in his family tomb – the first place skeptics would go to find proof of his “earthliness”. It is more likely that they would have concealed his remains. Jacobovici’s answer: “The problem is that we’re looking at this through Christian theology, rather than through Jewish history. If you take a Messianic Lubavitcher [an Orthodox Jewish Hasidic sect] today and ask him if the Rabbi of Lubavitch rose to heaven, he will say “yes”. If you ask the same Hasid if the Lubavitvher Rabbi has an earthly grave, he will also say “yes”. They do not believe that their Rabbi gathered up his kidneys and physically rose to heaven, body and all. A physical ascent – that’s Christian theology. It isn’t fact. The first believers weren’t Christians; they were Lubavitcher types.”

Prof. Amos Kloner, a former senior member of the IAA and one of the Talpiot cave excavators, rejects Jacobovici’s theories – as well as Shimron’s study – out of hand. First, Kloner is convinced that the “Brother of Jesus” inscription is both fake and modern”. Second, the missing ossuary from the Talpiot cave was listed in the archaeological reports as broken, uninscribed and without decoration. Last, there could not have been another ossuary in the tomb. “The ossuaries were completely buried,” he says. “They were not visible under the earth, so it makes no sense that one of them was at any point removed from the cave. I’d like Shimron to conduct his research on several more ossuaries. So far, his findings are not unequivocal. This whole business,” he adds, “is a commercial bluff.”

Dr. Shimon Gibson adds: “If there was another ossuary in the tomb, we should have found an imprint in the ground. I hope Aryeh Shimron publishes his research and then we can respond to it.”

Collector Oded Golan, who owns the ossuary and can potentially profit by linking it to Jesus, isn’t rushing to adopt the theory. “I bought it from someone who claimed he found it in the area of Silwan, not Talpiot,” he says. “The study is not statistically solid, it needs more samples. But we can’t rule out the theory that the James ossuary came from Talpiot.” If it turns out to be true, Golan believes that the cave served Jesus’ family, but not Jesus himself. “The argument about the specific versions of the names ‘Yose’ and ‘Jacob’ is a strong one, but there could certainly have been another man in the family who was called ‘Jesus, son of Joseph.”

The “Jesus” Tomb Story: Does the Evidence Add Up?

Many years ago a man from the BBC came to me and he asked me if the Dead Sea Scrolls will harm Christianity. I said to him that nothing can harm Christianity. The only thing which could be dangerous to Christianity would be to find a tomb with the sarcophagus or ossuary of Jesus – still containing his bones. And then I will surely hope that it will not be found in the territory of the State of Israel. –David Flusser ((Quoted by Neil Silberman, The Hidden Scrolls (New York: Putnam, 1994), p. 129.))

LA_Cathedral_Mausoleum_Ascension RD In future years I believe that Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015 will be remembered as a pivotal date upon which the evidence identifying the ancient tomb in east Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem, as that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family reached a critical mass in favor thereof. The story in the New York Times, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones,” reported by Isabel Kershner and published prominently on page A-4 marked a watershed moment. It might take a decade or even a century, who knows, for the implications of this evidence to be widely acknowledged by historians, theologians, and the public–but I believe that day will come.

Before this latest evidence I thought the case was quite strong. Given the collective evidence related to both the “Jesus” tomb (Tomb A) and the nearby “Patio” tomb (Tomb B)–the one under the condo building–less than 60 meters away, I was 90% persuaded–if one can put a “percentage” on such things. The evidence I find so persuasive is summarized here: The Case for a Jesus Family Tomb: An Overview and The Tombs at Talpiot: An Overview of the Jesus Discovery. ((The Talpiot “Jesus” tomb was exposed by a construction blast on Thursday morning, March 27, 1980–the weekend before Passover and Easter. The tomb and its contents were ignored for exactly sixteen years, until Easter 1996, when a BBC television crew, quite by accident, got interested in the six inscribed ossuaries found in the tomb with the names: Jesus son of Joseph, Jose, Mariah, Mariamne/Mara, Matya, and Jude son of Jesus; gathering dust in the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) warehouse then located in Romemma, a suburb of West Jerusalem. The resulting TV special was accompanied by a London Sunday Times front page story titled “The Tomb that Dare Not Speak Its Name”–both on Easter Sunday. The “bombshell” implied in the story was not only that the bones of Jesus of Nazareth might have been discovered in a Jerusalem tomb, but that he was presumably married, and had a son! No published report had ever been written on this forgotten tomb in East Talpiot but IAA director Amir Drori, upset and embarrassed that he had never even heard of this now famous tomb, commissioned Amos Kloner to rush out a publication that appeared a few months later. The official word to be given to the press was a simple message: “The names are extremely common, this tomb is no different from hundreds of others. We took no special note of it for that reason.” Kloner’s publication appeared in record time, in the Fall issue of the IAA’s journal, “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem,” Atiqot 29 (1996); 15-22. A brief whirlwind of media coverage swirled about in 1996 and the tomb was once again forgotten with the dismissive mantra “the names in the tomb are extremely common,” for the next decade.

On October 21, 2002 Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, announced that an ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” had surfaced in Jerusalem in the hands of a private collector of antiquities. The November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review devoted the entire issue to the discovery, with reports by experts as to its authenticity and likely connection to Jesus of Nazareth. Shanks published a book, co-authored with Ben Witherington,The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) and Discovery Television aired a film, directed by Simcha Jacobovici–a newcomer to the world of “Biblical Archaeology,” as well.

In 2006 I offered an overview of what we knew of Talpiot “Jesus” tomb in the Introduction of my book, The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster) but no further investigation had been done. At the end of that introduction I offered the speculative possibility that a 10th missing ossuary from the Jesus tomb might be the ossuary of James the brother of Jesus that had now come to light. At the time we were not even clear that there were three tombs clustered together, with two of them still intact–on the same ancient estate. As it turned out the Jesus tomb was in a walkway garden area between condo buildings, but sealed over with a concrete slab, and the second tomb was under a condo building–discovered in 1981 but never excavated.

In 2007 Simcha Jacobovici refocused attention on both tombs with his co-authored best-selling book, The Jesus Family Tomb (HarperOne) and the Discovery Channel documentary, produced with James Cameron, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The web site jesusfamilytomb.com archives all the background information related to research on the tomb that went into the film. Jacobovici’s efforts not only drew worldwide media attention and sparked controversy but pioneered a full scientific investigation of the Jesus tomb including epigraphical analysis of the names, formal peer reviewed statistical studies on name frequency clusters, DNA tests on bones in the ossuaries, and comparative chemical tests on the patina of the Jesus tomb ossuaries, the James ossuary, and a set of control ossuaries from other tombs in Jerusalem. None of these kinds of studies had ever been done before for any ancient tomb in Jerusalem.

In January 2008 the 4th Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins was devoted to the topic of exploring the Talpiot “Jesus tomb” from every area of expertise–archaeology, history, statistics, DNA, chemical patina tests, and cultural context. The conference drew over 50 scholars from throughout the world. The major papers are now published in a 585 page volume edited by James Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family (Eerdmans 2013) containing the papers from the conference. There was plenty of controversy at the Symposium, with vocal reports in the press asserting all sorts of claims on one side or the other, you can read my full report on the Society of Biblical Literature web site, “The Meyers/Magness Talpiot Tomb Statement: Some Observations.”

The book, The Jesus Discovery​, published in 2011 (co-authored with Simcha Jacobovici) is the most comprehensive treatment of everything dealing with all three Talpiot tombs with full documentation on all the issues of controversy. It includes full chapters on the excavation and explorations of Tomb A and B; the James ossuary, Mary Magdalene in history and tradition, bones and DNA tests, and the development of early Christian views of resurrection. It is all there. There is also a web site for Tomb B with photos and all sorts of other documentation on our 2010 robotic camera probe. The recognition of the name “Yonah” (יונה), as read by Charlesworth (and confirmed epigraphers Hachlili, Puech, and Deutsch) on a fish-like icon on one ossuary with a Greek inscription about “raising up” on another, appears to reflect a form of Jesus-related resurrection faith that the early Jewish messianic Jesus movement referred to as “the sign of Jonah” (Matthew 12:38-40). By the 3rd century iconography depicting Jonah’s “resurrection” from the great fish became the dominant motif in Christian funerary art–whereas it was unknown as a image in Jewish art.))

If one adds the ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus,” to the mix, the probability case is closed. There is a succinct summary just published this week by Jerry Lutgen, “The James Ossuary in Talpiot: More About Probability,” covering all the variables, and showing the probability with the James ossuary added to our cluster reaches 100% or virtual certainty.

I have previously responded to some of the press coverage generated by the New York Times story, see my “news roundup” here. In this post I want to specifically address the April 9th CNN piece, “Jesus’ Tomb Story: Does the Evidence Add Up?” by colleagues Joel Baden and Candida Moss. After rehearsing the basic “Jesus tomb” story, including the latest claims about the James ossuary originating in that tomb, Baden and Moss offer their summary assessment:

It is a compelling story. But it is also a fragile one. This small group of scholars, scientists and filmmakers has presented us with a intricate puzzle, in which all the pieces have been perfectly aligned. But pick up any single piece to examine it more carefully, and it crumbles to dust.

Then they proceed to go through these “pieces” of evidence, one-by-one, seven in all, asserting that not a single one of them hold up. The Baden and Moss piece is quite remarkably comprehensive, but at the same time succinct, and I commend them for putting before a wide audience most of the essential issues related to “The Jesus Tomb Story.”

But there is a problem. Not a single one of their seven assertions hold up!

Rather than crumbling to dust quite the opposite is the case, as we shall see. Baden and Moss have unfortunately misunderstood, or misstated each of the seven “pieces” they propose to examine. I will go through them one by one and offer what I hope might be some helpful response and evaluation:

1.The box that supposedly says “Jesus, son of Joseph” definitely says “son of Joseph,” but that first, crucial name is very much in doubt. One scholar suggested that it says Hanun, just to give a sense of how uncertain the reading is.

This first assertion is the one I find the most surprising–that the name “Yeshua” is “very much in doubt.” I am at a loss to understand how Baden and Moss have arrived at this conclusion or could possibly support it. I discussed the inscription with Frank Cross back in 2004 and he stated without the slightest equivocation that it read “Yeshua bar Yehosef,” though pointing out it was informally written and badly scratched–which is often the case with such ossuary names. Rahmani, Kloner, Zissu, Rollston, Pfann, Ilan, and Price/Misgav, who have all formally published on the subject, all agree. Far from the reading being “very much in doubt,” I can’t think of a single epigrapher who disagrees or proposes an alternative to the “Yeshua” reading.

1.YeshuabarYosef

It is true, as Rahmani (CJO: 704) ((L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries)) and  Price/Misgav (CIIP 1:1: 474) ((Corpus Inscriptionum Iudaeae/Palestinae, Vol 1, Part 1, eds. Cotton, et al.))  note, that the scratches on the ossuary running through the letters make it more difficult to read, but as Rahmani notes, one can separate those from the incisions rather assuredly–leaving the letters themselves as: Yod, Shin, Vav,’Ayin. When one examines the ossuary directly, as I have done, the Yod is a bit difficult to distinguish due to pitting and scratching but the Shin, Vav, and ‘Ayin are absolutely clear. Given the proper names we know from the time there is simply no other alternative.

2. Schematic drawing of YeshuabarYehosef

The reading is further corroborated by the clear, non-graffiti inscription (IAA 80.501), “Yehuda son of Yeshua’, from the same tomb, likely the son of this Yeshua. So far as I know everyone is in agreement on this reading, including everyone at the 2008 Princeton conference in Jerusalem devoted to evaluating “The Tomb of Jesus and his Family” (see note 2 below).

Baden and Moss completely misunderstand the position of Stephen Pfann, whom they reference without naming, who once suggested a reading of “Hanan.” Pfann and I have discussed this tomb countless hours over the years, we excavate together at Mt Zion and are close friends.  We disagree on just about everything related thereto–but not the inscribed name “Yeshua.” Stephen does not dispute the reading “Yeshua,” (as Baden and Moss imply here) but has argued that Yeshua was written over a prior name that he now thinks “with some imagination” might have been Yudan. ((See Pfann, “Demythologizing the Talpiot Tomb,” in Charlesworth, ed. The Tomb of Jesus and His Family, pp. 174-183. Price/Misgav (CIIJ: 474) characterize Pfann’s theory as speculation that can not be conclusively shown.))

Accordingly, for Baden and Moss to assert that the name Yeshua is “very much in doubt” and that the reading of the name Yeshua “turns to dust” upon examination is simply untrue and misleading to say the least.

2. And the box that supposedly belongs to Mary actually says “Mariam and Mara,” which suggests that there were actually two women buried in that single ossuary. It is also a problem that while all the other ossuaries are inscribed in Aramaic, this one is in Greek.

I am not at all clear on why the “Mariamene/Mara” ossuary inscribed in Greek is a problem, in contrast to the other five inscriptions being in Aramaic. Ossuary inscriptions are often in Greek (30%), including lots of examples of the name “Mary,” alongside those in Aramaic or Hebrew in the same tomb, and sometimes Greek and Hebrew mixed on the same ossuary (10%). Further, if one wanted to argue that the Mariamene of this ossuary might be identified with Mary of Magdala, a wealthy woman from that very Hellenized city, who had friends even in Herod’s court (Luke 7:2-3), having a finely decorated ossuary (in contrast to the others) inscribed in Greek, seems to fit her well.

Mariamene Inscription

As to the question of one or two women, it is of course possible we are dealing with two names here, and several epigraphers have argued that Rahmani’s original reading of “Mariamne who is also called Mara” (CJO: 701) should read Mariam and Mara. ((I continue to be convinced, with Leah Di Segni and others, that Rahmani’s reading of the name as Mariamne is correct, based on the precise name in the same letter form on the lid of another ossuary (CJO: 108). There the name appears alone, as a form of the name Maria, and one would hardly argue it should be read “Mariam and…” with no second name.)) Even if that be the case, as Price points out (CIIP 1:1:477) one can still read the inscription as “Mariam who is also (known as) Mara,”–referring to one woman. This remains true in Greek today; a girl with the two names Sophia and Maria could be referred to as Sophia kai Maria–Sophia also known as Maria. So this objection is really no objection at all.

Further, even if one granted two women named Mary and Martha–it would be hard to eliminate them from any Jesus family tomb–given the intimate position of the sisters Mary and Martha in the gospel traditions, their close relationship to Jesus and his family, and a possible conflation of “Mary of Bethany” with Mary Magdalene, as Jane Schaberg and many others scholars have suggested. ((See “Sorting out the Marys.”))

3. As for the names on the other ossuaries, some of them fit perfectly well into the Jesus story (Joseph, for example, Jesus’ younger brother). Others, however, not so much: Matia (Matthew), not a member of Jesus’ family according to the Bible, and, more problematically, Yehuda bar Yeshua — Judas, son of Jesus.

The main problem with this objection is the assumption that we have something called “the Jesus story” that can serve as a control for what fits or does not fit archaeologically with the historical Jesus. What we have to realize is that our textual traditions (primarily the N.T. gospels) are not only late (post-70 CE), but extremely limited and fragmentary theological proclamations. Understandably, they are mostly silent in providing any basis for such exclusionary statements as to who “belongs” or does not belong in the “Jesus story”–much less the extended Jesus family. So the assertion that “Matthew” is not a part of the Jesus family “according to the Bible” is naive and misleading.

Think about all we do not know.

We don’t know a single name of any of the wives or children of any of the 12 apostles–much less the wider group of disciples. Are we to assume these important individuals never existed? Luke mentions “70” disciples that Jesus appointed and sent out but we don’t know the name of a single one of them–much less any wives or children! Fortunately, Mark (followed by Matthew) gives us the names of four of Jesus brothers–James, Jose, Simon, and Jude (Mark 6:4). But true to form, Jesus sisters are neither named nor enumerated, nor are their husbands if they were married.

When women and children are left out of the “Jesus story” it is not because they did not exist, but because they were not considered important to name. Luke and John never name any of Jesus’ brothers. So our knowledge of the names of these four brothers hangs on the “thread” of a single verse in Mark (whom Matthew uses as his source). Were there more than four? We have no way of knowing. What about half-brothers or step brothers–assuming these four are children of Mary? Paul names James but none of the others, and mentions none of their wives by name (1 Corinthians 9:5). We do get Jude’s name, as a brother of James, from the letter bearing his name and Hegessipus, a 2nd century Jewish convert to Christianity, mentions the sons (or grandsons) of Jesus’ brother Jude, arrested as descendants of David, during the reign of Domitian (Eusebius, Church History 3. 19-20). So we know Jude was married with children, but we surely do not know anything about his family in our New Testament sources.

Can we really say with any confidence that a name such as Matia/Matthew does not belong  in a Jesus family tomb? I would argue quite the opposite. We do know that the name Matthew (in various forms: Matthat, Mattathias, Maath, et al.) is the most frequent name in the immediate family lineage of Jesus–there are four listed in three verses (Luke 3:23-26). It is  not a particularly common name (2.5% of males, contrasted with Joseph at 8.6%), so since it is particularly associated with the Jesus family line its presence in the tomb is not so surprising. Mark tells us that Levi, also know as Matthew, who is one of the 12, is a son of Alphaeus (2:14), as are James and presumably Jude, his brother or son (Mark 3:18 and Acts 1:7). There is a high mathematical probability that these three are related and quite arguably brothers of Jesus ((See Andrew Sill, “The Apostles and Brothers of Jesus,” in Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and his Family, pp. 434-443.))

But more to the point, we would not expect any identifiable tomb from the period to contain only names of whom we were aware from our literary sources. Mark Goodacre, who advised Baden & Moss on their article, has often argued that the names Matthew and Jude son of Jesus in this tomb are outliers and thus should count against this being identified with Jesus of Nazareth.

Let’s take two tombs of individuals we can identify from our 1st century literary records–the high priest Joseph Caiaphas (John 18:13 et al., Josephus, Antiquities 18:35) and Simon of Cyrene, the man impressed to carry Jesus’ cross, and his sons Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21). The Caiaphas tomb (CIIP: 461-465) had five inscribed ossuaries of a total of 12, but other than “Joseph son of Caiaphas” we can’t identify any of the other family names from our records (Qafa, Shalom, Shem, Miriam). We have no idea of the name of the high priest’s wife, or children, or any others of the family, but the presence of these names hardly disqualify the tomb from being that of the high priest Caiaphas mentioned in our gospels.  In the case of the Simon of Cyrene family tomb (CIIP: 324-332) nine of the eleven ossuaries were inscribed, with a mixture of Hebrew and Greek, but we don’t know any the names from our Jesus story other than Simon and Alexander his son (i.e. Horea, Arristoboula, Ya’akov, Mnaso, Sabatis, Sara, Thaliarchos, Philiskos, Ioanes), but that would not preclude us from identifying this as the likely family tomb of Simon of Cyrene and his son Alexander–who are named by Mark. ((See Tom Powers “Treasures in the Storeroom: Family Tomb of Simon of Cyrene,” Biblical Archaeology Review (July-August, 2003), pp. 46-51, 59. A version of Power’s analysis can be read at: http://israelpalestineguide.files.wordpress.com/2010/06/alexander-son-of-simon-ossuary-illustrated-2010-edit.pdf. ))

The same holds with any wife or child of Jesus–or of any of his disciples. It is true that the figure of Jesus is more prominent in our records than Caiaphas and Simon and Alexander, but in terms of personal biographical information we know precious little. As a Jewish teacher in his 30s Jesus was likely married, but our records of Jesus’ life and teachings are not history or biography but theological presentations of the divine Son of God, asexually born of a virgin (Matthew and Luke), or descended from heaven (John), with the divine authority of God himself on earth to forgive sins (Mark).

The one most likely candidate for a wife of Jesus, given all we know of her from later sources, is Mary Magdalene, who mysteriously shows up at Jesus crucifixion and who is mentioned even ahead of Jesus’ own mother as taking charge of the intimate task of washing his naked corpse and anointing it for burial. She is also “first witness” of Jesus’ resurrection and appears to have had the role of both apostle and leading teacher–even above the male disciples–but her place and importance is ignored or muted in Paul, our Gospels, and the book of Acts, as Jane Schaberg, April DeConick, Ann Graham Brock, Karen King and many others have shown. (( See, “Schaberg’s Resurrecting Mary Magdalene: A Review, and Karen King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Polebridge Press, Santa Rosa, California, 2003) ))

Of the “Judah son of Jesus” in this tomb we know little–other than he is the son of Jesus. The inscription is formally written, the ossuary is nicely ornamented (like Mariamene but in contrast to Yeshua, Mariah, Matai, and Jose), and it is one of the smaller ones in the tomb–perhaps indicating Judah died at a young age, which also might account for his obscurity. Here I refer the reader to Kilty and Elliot’s excellent contribution at Bibleinterp.com: “On Yoseh, Yosi, Joseph, and Judas son of Jesus in Talpiot.” It is also entirely plausible, as James David Audlin has argued, that early Christian traditions about the desposyni (δεσπόσυνοι) or those “belonging to the Master,” refers not just to ancillary family members (nephews, cousins, etc.) but to Jesus’ own offspring. ((See his article,  “Father Jesus: Clement’s Agraphon and Julius’s Desposynoi Suggest Widespread Early Belief that Jesus had Children.” More generally see my post “Was Jesus Married?,” and more extended thoughts here in several parts.)) Hegessipus, a 2nd century Jewish convert to Christianity, mentions the sons (or grandsons) of Jesus’ brother Jude, arrested as descendants of David, during the reign of Domitian (Eusebius, Church History 3. 19-20). So we know Jude was married with children, but we surely do not know anything about his family in our New Testament sources.

The Talpiot Jesus tomb contains six inscribed ossuaries out of the nine in the Israeli archives, which is a very high percentage (66%). In contrast Rahmani puts the overall percentage of inscribed vs. non-inscribed ossuaries in the Israeli State Collection at 25.2% (231 of 917). If the Jesus tomb had a set of names such as Eleazar, Menachem, or Daniel, for instance, or names of women such as Sarah, Bernice, or Alexandra–none of which can be identified with Jesus’ family and its wider circles–it would be a real stretch to try and identify it with Jesus of Nazareth. In surveying all the other known tombs with ossuaries inscribed with any form of the name “Jesus” in Greek or Aramaic–and there are only 18–none of them could be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, either because of invalidating patronyms (Jesus son of Matthew, Jesus son of Judas, Jesus son of Dositheos, et al.) or entire sets of outlying names (Chares, Eiras, Erotas, Doras, Megiste, Ariston, Helena, Shelamzion, Chananiya, Shapiraet et al.). All told we have over 600 inscribed ossuaries from approximately 900 tombs so far exposed in the necropolis of ancient 1st century Jerusalem. ((See footnote 6 in my paper “An Overview of the Jesus Discovery,” archived here and a breakdown of all the other names in the Talpiot tomb and where else they occur here. )) This alone does not prove the Talpiot tomb is Jesus’ tomb, but it does undermine the constantly repeated claims that these names are extremely common and there are lots of other tombs with such a set of names. That is simply not the case.

4. Supporters of the theory regularly point to the remarkably collocation of so many biblical names in a single tomb. But as most every other scholar has pointed out, these were just about the most common names in that period, especially Joseph and Mary.

Of all the objections to identifying the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb with Jesus of Nazareth and his family this assertion, that the “names are common,” one hears the most often. The implication is that just about “any tomb” of the time might have this cluster of names. I can’t count the times I have heard this, usually as the first thing coming out of the mouth of a naysayer. The Talpiot tomb is the family tomb of “some” Jesus, maybe “Jesus the baker,” or “Jesus the cobbler,” but there is no reason to think it might belong to Jesus of Nazareth. This assertion is simply incorrect. It is the cluster of names together, based upon name frequencies, that one has to guage. Rather than belabor the point, that has been so extensively demonstrated by a range of experts, I refer the reader to Kilty and Elliot’s excellent articles, “Talpiot DeThroned,” and “Regarding Magness and Talpiot,” along with the further statistical studies to which they link.

I suspect the mantra “the names are common,” will eventually become moot once it becomes wholly evident, based on Aryeh Shimron’s latest evidence, that the “James” ossuary also belongs in the cluster.

5. The evidence from the tomb next door — the ossuary with the early Christian symbol of Jonah and the fish on it — is equally hard to swallow. It seems that the only people who see a fish on that box are those who already thought that Jesus was buried next door; just about everyone else sees an abstract geometric pattern, or perhaps the depiction of a jar.

This is simply incorrect. Two of our finest epigraphical experts, Rachel Hachlili and Émile Puech agree that we have the inscription YONAH written across the image of a fish, and neither of them think the “Jesus” tomb has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth. James Charlesworth agrees, but does not think the Yeshua in the tomb is Jesus. Any Israeli child on the street can read the inscription: Yod, Vav, Nun, Heh.

Yonah Inscription

Many of my colleagues in our initial ASOR month-long blog discussion in March 2012 that was devoted to The Jesus Discovery first identified the iconic image as a nephesh or tower–but that was quickly abandoned in a couple of days when someone pointed out such a tower would be upside down! Subsequently many settled on the idea of a jar or amphora. ((See “It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s a Fish.” )) I don’t recall anyone arguing the image was an “abstract geometrical pattern,” so I am not sure to what Baden and Moss refer in that regard. But that was before Charlesworth identified the name YONAH on the mouth of the fish/jar. (( See “Inscription on the Jonah Image Says Jonah.” )) But why write “Jonah” on the mouth of a jar? And even with some imagination the image itself resembles no jars or amphora images on any other ossuaries, coins, or art from the period. Here is the clearest image we have, unaltered in any way, taken from our robotic camera feed:

03 Original Jonah Image - no cgi copy

I remain convinced we have in Talpiot tomb B our earliest depiction of the “sign of Jonah,” as a symbol of resurrection–an image we associate with the early Jewish messianic Jesus movement.

6. As for that inscription about God raising someone up, it seems that this was a case of mistaken reading. The Greek most likely says something far less interesting: “Here are bones. I touch them not. Agabus.” Agabus would be the name of the deceased, perhaps.

It is surely the case that four or five alternative readings of the Greek inscription on the ossuary in Talpiot tomb B have been proposed, see my discussion here comparing each of them, but it is not established that any reading differing with Rollston’s proposal, favored here by Baden and Moss, is a “mistaken reading.” The different proposals turn upon rather technical matters, as is often the case, namely how one reads one ambiguous letter (Serif Iota or Tau) and how one understands the spelling and grammar. Here is an example in English that is somewhat parallel:

God
Owns
All
Eggs

Should we read this as “God Owns All Eggs” or “Go down Sal Leggs,” with the possessive of the name Sal understood and Legs misspelled? I favor the simple reading, given the context in this tomb, next to our Jonah inscription and image.

Greek Inscription #1

The four line Greek inscription can be simply read: O Divine IAIO [Yahweh], Raise up! Raise up! [Hagbah] or perhaps, I, Divine IAIO [Yahweh], raise up! Raise up! [HagbahI]–with alternating bilingual Greek and Hebrew transliterations. This is a perfectly acceptable reading and it reflects precisely the cry of Jonah in the belly of the fish (Jonah 2:2, 5-6). To take the final three letters (ΑΓΒ) is a cipher for the name–Agabus (Αγαβας), as Richard Bauckham first suggested, and Rollston accepted, is possible but seems a stretch.

7.  Then there is the James ossuary. The question of the authenticity of the inscription on the box — the ossuary itself is certainly ancient — is so fraught that the dealer who owns it was taken to trial for antiquities fraud.

Even if the trial ended without proving claims of forgery, we have no idea where the artifact came from.

What’s more, almost every expert in ancient epigraphy has concluded that while the name James seems authentic, the words “brother of Jesus” are patently from a different hand, and most likely a much later, if not modern, addition.

It is simply not the case that “almost every expert in ancient epigraphy” has so concluded. It is of course possible the words “brother of Jesus” were added in antiquity by a different hand, though neither epigraphers André Lemaire of the Sorbonne nor Ada Yardeni of the Hebrew University, think so. Both testified at the forgery trial that the inscription was authentic. Orna Cohen established that there is original patina in the words “brother of Jesus” and Yuval Goren later changed his testimony and agreed–despite his view that the inscription was faked. The entire James ossuary controversy is too complex to rehearse here but here is a “Reader’s Guide” with relevant links for those wanting to delve deeper.

Baden and Moss close their piece expressing doubt about the validity of Dr. Aryeh Shimron’s latest chemical tests as reported in the NYTimes story and asserting that any tomb of Jesus containing his bones would have undermined early Christian faith in Jesus’ resurrection. I have addressed the former quite extensively here, and the latter here, just this past week, so I won’t rehearse my responses in this already overly lengthy post!  I do wish, however, that Baden and Moss had given us a bit of a glimpse as to what they think, as historians, regarding the dead body of Jesus–if it was not buried in a tomb in Jerusalem what might have conceivably happened to it? ((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.))