Update: Other Major Media Coverage:
Live Science: New Controversy Surrounds Alleged Jesus Family Tomb (see my response here)
Sunday’s New York Times broke a major full-page story (page A-4) based on new chemical tests done on the ossuaries (i.e. lidded limestone bone boxes) from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb comparing it with the controversial “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary. Dr. Aryeh Shimon is interviewed on the results of these tests that compare extensive scrapings from inside and outside ossuaries carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority of comparative ancient tombs of the same period in Jerusalem. Previously, tests had been done on patina, as noted below, but the new tests were of a far more telling nature, accessing the limestone beneath the patina. Limestone ossuaries over time absorb the soil and chemical environs of the tomb they are placed in. Each tomb has a characteristic chemical profile unique to its environment. Dr. Shimron’s conclusion is that there is an extremely high probability that the James ossuary was originally taken from the Talpiot tomb–either around 1980 when it was discovered, or perhaps earlier–since the tomb itself was unsealed. I might also point out that an ossuary from the nearby Talpiot tomb B was also sampled, just 60 meters away, and it did not match at all the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb ossuaries (Tomb A). This shows that Tomb A had a very specific and unique chemical environment–even with a tomb quite close by. Everyone seems to agree in terms of our statistics that adding the James ossuary to the names that are already in the Talpiot tomb changes everything in favor of its high probability of being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, see the calculations by Kilty and Elliot, “The James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.”
You can read an on-line version of the full New York Times story here:
Dr. Shimron was looking for unusual amounts of elements derived from Rendzina soil, like silicon, aluminum, magnesium, potassium and iron, as well as for specific trace elements, including phosphorus, chrome and nickel — signature components of the type of clayey East Jerusalem soil that he says filled the Talpiot Tomb during the earthquake. The findings, he says, clearly place the James ossuary in the same geochemical group as the Talpiot Tomb ossuaries. “The evidence is beyond what I expected,” he said.
What follows is the backstory on this controversial issue. For an overview of the James ossuary controversy more broadly see my previous post “What is What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary.”
Is the James Ossuary from the Talpiot Tomb?
There are four issues to be addressed related to the possibility that the James ossuary came from the Talpiot Jesus tomb.
First, if the James ossuary was in fact the tenth missing ossuary from the tomb, even though it has disappeared, it was definitely catalogued by the authorities at the IAA, apparently measured, and given a registration number. Oded Golan says that he purchased it from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. It is difficult to construct any kind of hypothetical scenario that would have it removed from the IAA collection and end up on the market.
Second, even though the dimensions of the missing ossuary and that of the James ossuary are close, it is also described as plain and broken by Rahmani in his catalogue. Although in 2002 the James ossuary was broken while in transport to the Royal Ontario Museum and subsequently repaired, it was not broken when Golan acquired it. While not elaborately ornamented, it does have faint traces of the beginnings of rosette designs on the side opposite the inscription, so technically it is not “plain.” Rahmani, known for his keen eye and detailed descriptions, would have not likely missed this feature.
Third, Golan has testified that he obtained the ossuary sometime before 1978, providing photographic evidence to support his story, whereas the Talpiot tomb was not excavated until April, 1980. ((See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml )) Although it is possible that it had been looted from the tomb sometime previous to 1980, we don’t know if the entrance to the tomb was visible to passerbys before the construction blast that obliterated its outside front entrance or porch, making it stand out even from the road below.
Finally, since Hegesippus reports, in the second century CE, that the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City, how and when would James’s ossuary have been moved to the Talpiot tomb?
Sometimes it seems impossible to fit all the pieces of a complex puzzle together but it is nonetheless important to have those pieces in view. Recently new evidence has come to light that not only supports the case for the James ossuary originating in the Talpiot tomb, but addresses these major objections in an unanticipated way. We are now in a position to put all that evidence together with some compelling new results.
Recently a group of scientists headed by Amnon Rosenfeld of the Israel Geological Society published a summary of their own work on the authenticity of the patina inside the inscribed letters of the James ossuary. Rosenfeld was on the original team at the IGS that had authenticated the patina on the ossuary in 2002. They conclude:
The most important indication that the inscription “Ya’akov Son of Josef Brother of Jesus” is authentic is the beige patina that can be found inside the letters, accreting gradationally into the inscription. The patina can be observed on the surface of the ossuary continuing into the engraving. . .These minerals and the circular pitting within the thin layers of the beige to gray patina were found on the surface of the ossuary and, more importantly, within the letters of the inscription. They indicate biological activity and are the product of airborne and/or subaerial geo-bio activity that covers all surfaces of the ossuary . . .indicative of slow growth over many years. ((“The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot (Jesus Family Tomb) Ossuaries” on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/JOT.shtml. The two other principal investigators were H. R. Feldman, Division of Paleontology, Touro College and W. E. K. Krumbein, Department of Geomicrobiology at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg.))
The team then turned to an evaluative analysis of the scientific tests done in 2006 on the comparative chemical composition of the patina accretions on ossuaries taken from various ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area. The premise of the tests was that ossuaries accumulate distinctive and measurable biochemical “signatures” based on the cave environments in which they have spent the past two millennia. ((Peak elements such as silicon, phosphorous, titanium, iron, aluminum, and potassium are compared according to their ratios.)) Patina samples were taken from the James ossuary, three ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb (Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene, and Matthew) and ossuaries from thirteen other burial caves in the area. By comparing these signatures one can determine if the James ossuary had developed its patina in that particular “tomb” environment:
Among the examined 14 burial caves was also the Talpiot cave. Six Talpiot tomb wall and ceiling patinas were sampled December 14th, 2006 (op. cit.). The elemental spectra of the samples were examined by SEM-EDS in the Suffolk Crime Lab (NY). Each sample was analyzed (SEM-EDS) in at least 3 different locations. The differences between tombs were easily discerned by the elemental fingerprints. The quantitative variability of the elements (patina fingerprint) within an individual tomb (wall patina, ceiling patina, ossuary patina) were small, 5% or less. ((See Rosenfeld, et. al., op. cit. and Rosenfeld, A. and S. Ilani. 2002. SEM-EDS analyses of patina samples from an ossuary of “Ya‟akov son of Yossef brother of Yeshua.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6 (2002):29.))
Even tombs that shared a similar rock formation in close proximity to one another nonetheless had their own distinctive chemical signatures. The results showed that the James ossuary shared the same chemical signature as the three tests ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb as well as the walls and ceiling of that tomb. In contrast, the James ossuary patina signature differed considerably from any of the other thirteen burial caves. ((The full study by Charles Pelligrino, “The Potential Role of Patina History in Discerning the Removal of Specific Artifacts from Specific Tombs,” in The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins, pp. 233-243, eds. James H. Charlesworth and Arthur C. Boulet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming, 2011). ))
Rosenfeld and his colleagues suggest that based on these patina fingerprints the James ossuary was more likely a looted eleventh ossuary, rather than the missing tenth ossuary that had been catalogued by the IAA in 1980 and discarded or misplaced. They observed that the James ossuary was weathered intensively with massive pitting and striations.
None of the other nine ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb show this kind of weathering. They concluded, on the basis of this weathering, that the James ossuary had been exposed to the elements for at least 200 years. Since we know that the blocking stone was missing from the tomb when it was examined in 1980, and the tomb itself was filled with the local terra rosa soil to a depth of two feet, covering the tops of the ossuaries in the niches, the James ossuary had likely been nearer the exposed doorway of the tomb, where the fill was more shallow. When or how James ossuary would have been taken from the Talpiot tomb we cannot determine. It might have been a number of years before the 1980 excavation of the tomb, or it could have been looted the first night when front porch of the tomb was blown open and exposed, before the IAA officials arrived to begin their work. If it were close to the entrance it would have been the only ossuary seen inside by looters since the others were covered with soil.
During the trial Oded Golan presented photos taken in 1976 in his parents’ apartment showing that he possessed the James ossuary, with its full inscription at that time—before the excavation of the Talpiot tomb in 1980. A photographic expert, former head of the Department of Photography and Documentation at the FBI, found no possibility that the photos were made at a later time. ((See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony cited above.))
If the James ossuary inscription is authentic and it comes from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, what about the late second century CE report by the Christian chronicler Hegesippus who says the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City wall, where James was murdered? It hardly seems likely that the tomb of James was once in that location and then subsequently moved to the Talpiot tomb. We suggest that there well might have been some kind of monument to James in that area but we know little of Hegesippus, who spent his career in Rome. We can’t assume that he is reporting any kind of eyewitness account. In Rome there are reports of tombs and monuments to both Peter and Paul in several locations. ((See Graydon F. Snyder, Ante-Pacem, pp. 180-189.)) Monuments were assumed, over the ages, to be tombs, and tombs might not have monuments. The fourth century church historian Eusebius, for example, quotes an unknown writer named Gaius who says: “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.” ((Eusebius, Church History 2. 25. 7.)) We are not certain if he means some kind of monument, pillar, or relic, or is he speaking of a tomb. Clement of Rome, who lived just a few decades after the deaths of Peter and Paul, mentions their martyrdom but seems to know little of any circumstances and mentions no tomb locations (1 Clement 5:3-7).
Today there are several monumental tombs in the Kidron Valley, dating to the late Hellenistic period (200-100 BCE) that are variously identified as the “Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the “Tomb of Zechariah,” the “Pillar of Absolom,” and a tomb inscribed as that of a priestly family,that is sometimes identified as the “Tomb of James.” On Mount Zion today, the southwest hill of Jerusalem, millions of pilgrims visit what is called “the tomb of David,” though most scholars locate it further to the south, outside the city of David. No one takes any of these sites and locations seriously as historically connected to these figures. They are part of hagiographic traditions that Christians developed in the late Byzantine period down through the Crusades.
Even though we had initially suggested the possibility of the missing tenth ossuary being that of James, based on the similar dimensions and the patina fingerprints that seemed to place it in the Talpiot tomb, we must always adapt our views to new evidence. ((Jacobovici and Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb, pp. 175-192 and James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (paperback, 2007), pp. 319-331.)) Shimon Gibson had suggested this theory of a missing eleventh ossuary to us back in 2006, when he recalled that the ten ossuaries inside the niches, and removed to the Rockefeller, had been covered with soil. When the IAA archaeologists arrived on a Friday morning, March 28, 1980, the first day of the excavation, they took photos and there is no evidence of any ossuaries having been dug out of the niches. But it is entirely possible, since patina tests show the James ossuary spent much of its history over the past two millennia in the Talpiot tomb environment, that it was near the door, less covered with soil, and thus easy to carry off. By whom or when we will likely never know.
The Jesus Dynasty was published in April 2006 (Simon & Schuster). It was a New York Times Best Seller, featured on ABC’s Nightline and 20/20 and the cover of USNews & World Report. It has been translated into 22 languages. Here are some key excerpts with further links, media and otherwise, to the book below. It is available in print, e-formats, and audio, see JesusDynasty.com
The New Testament gospels:
“[The New Testament gospels present] a tangled tale of political intrigue and religious power plays with stakes destined to shape the future of the world’s largest religion.” (p. 81)
“[A]lthough our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.” (p. 139)
The birth of Jesus:
“[The gospel of] Matthew implies that Isaiah’s prophecy was ‘fulfilled’ by the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus—but the original text clearly carries no such meaning.” (p. 46)
“The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilities—either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus.” (p. 59)
More than one messiah:
“The English word ‘messiah’ comes from the Hebrew word moshiach, which simply means ‘an anointed one.’ The equivalent Greek word, christos, also means ‘annointed’ and form that we have derived our more familiar term ‘Christ,’ meaning Messiah…. Most people are surprised to learn that the very first Messiah in the Bible was Aaron. He was ‘annointed’ as a priest by his brother Moses and is referred to in the Hebrew text as a ‘mosiach’ or ‘messiah’ (Exodus 40:12-15).” (p. 58)
“Christians and Jews subsequently have come to focus on the Messiah—a single figure of David’s line who was to rule as King in the last days. And yet, in the Dead Sea Scrolls we encounter a devoutly religious community, usually identified with the Essenes, who expected the coming of three figures—a prophet like Moses and the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel.” (p. 57)
“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 B.C.” (p. 143)
The family of Jesus:
“That Jesus has four brothers and at least two sisters is a ‘given’ in [the gospel of] Mark, our earliest gospel record. He names the brothers rather matter-of-factly: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” (p. 73)
The historical Mary:
“The later Christian dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had children other than Jesus and never had sexual relations with any man lies at the hart of the issue. No one in the early church even imagined such an idea, since the family of Jesus played such a visible and pivotal role in his life and that of his early followers. It all has to do with Mary being totally removed from her 1st-century Jewish culture and context in the interest of an emerging view of the time that human sexuality was degraded and unholy at worst, and a necessary evil to somehow be struggled against at best.” (p. 74)
“There is good reason to suppose that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause…. According to the Torah, or Law of Moses, the oldest surviving unmarried brother was obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow and bear a child in his name so that his dead brother’s ‘name’ or lineage would not perish. This is called a ‘Levirate marriage’ or yibbum in Hebrew, and it is required in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).” (p. 76)
“Given this information, a rather different but historically consistent picture begins to emerge. Jesus was born of an unknown father, but was not the son of Joseph. Joseph died without children, so according to Jewish law ‘Clophas’ or ‘Alphaeus’ became his ‘replacer,’ and married his widow, Mary, mother of Jesus.” (p. 80)
The “lost” childhood of Jesus:
“We have extraordinarily good historical records from the reign of Herod the Great. It is inconceivable that such a ‘slaughter of the infants’ would go unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus or other contemporary Roman historians. Matthew’s account is clearly theological, written to justify later views of Jesus’ exalted status.” (p. 88)
“A good trivia question would be ‘What was Jesus’ vocation?’ Everyone knows he was a carpenter, or at least the son of a carpenter…. The Greek word tekton is a more generic term referring to a ‘builder.’ It can include one who works with wood, but in its 1st-century Galilean context it more likely refers to a stoneworker.” (p. 89)
Jesus as a Galilean Jew:
“Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian…. To understand Jesus in his own time and place we have to understand his deep commitment to the ancestral faith of his fathers.” (p. 108)
“…[Jesus] is not ‘liberal’ with regard to Jewish observances in any modern sense of the term. What he did not accept were certain oral traditions and interpretations that some rabbinic teachers had added to the biblical commandments.” (p. 115)
“As we shall see, Jesus held Herod Antipas and all he stood for in utter contempt…. It was Herod who had brutally murdered his kinsman and teacher John the Baptizer, and Jesus had witnessed firsthand how Herod’s aspirations for wealth and power had unjustly oppressed the lives of his countrymen.” (p. 106)
His relationship with John the Baptizer:
“Jesus near his thirtieth birthday joined the crowds that were streaming out to hear John. He traveled from Nazareth down to the Jordan, along this very route, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9). By such a response he was publicly joining and endorsing the revival movement John had sparked…. [F]rom the time of Jesus’ baptism he was ready to take his destined place alongside John as a full partner in the baptizing movement.” (p. 127)
“The great embarrassment that the Christians faced was that it was well known that John had baptized Jesus—not the other way around! Jesus had come to John and joined his movement—which in the context of ancient Judaism meant that Jesus was a disciple of John and John was the rabbi or teacher of Jesus.” (p. 133)
“There [in a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew untouched by the Greek copyists] Jesus’ astounding testimony to John’s greatness stands unedited and unqualified: ‘Among those born of women there is none greater than John.’” (p. 134)
The twelve apostles:
“When he told them, ‘Let’s leave the nets and go fish for people,’ they did not blindly drop everything in some mesmerized state of devotion to his irresistible bidding as is so often portrayed. These disciples had worked with him and lived with him for months the previous year in Judea when they were baptizing huge crowds of people.” (p. 158)
“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament. Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called ‘Twelve Apostles.’ This means they were the muted participants in all those many references to the ‘Twelve.’ They were with Jesus at the ‘last Supper’ and when he died he turned his movement over to his brother James, the eldest, and put his mother into James’s care. James is none other than the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ of the gospel of John.” (p. 163)
This arrival of the ‘Son of Man,’ which Christians later took as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus, was coded language from the book of Daniel. It does not refer to Jesus’ arriving, since he was standing with them when he said it, predicting the effect of their vital mission…. The phrase ‘son of man’ in the dream vision of Daniel 7 stood collectively for the faithful people of Israel who would receive rule from their Messiah.” (p. 164)
The final week in Jerusalem—the Temple and the Last Supper:
“Jesus’ activities that day [in the temple] were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution. Like his ride down the Mount of Olives on the foal of the donkey, he intended to signal something—namely that the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand and the vision of the Prophets would be fulfilled.” (p. 194)
“Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that its one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.” (p. 197)
“At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism…. This general sensitivity to the very idea of ‘drinking blood’ precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such symbols.” (p. 200-201)
Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion:
“Scholars are agreed that little in the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is historically credible. They have been completely shaped by a later Christian theological tradition that sought to put the blame for Jesus’ death wholly upon the Jewish people while exonerating the Romans as sympathetic to Jesus, with Pilate doing all he possibly could to save Jesus’ life.” (p. 213)
“If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death, delivered from the ‘mouth of the lion’ as the Psalmist had predicted (Psalm 22:21).” (p. 179)
The resurrection of Jesus:
“As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all!” (p. 228)
“Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body’ and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon.” (p. 230)
“In this context, it is easy to see why the Tomb of the Shroud, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot tomb discovered in 1980 spark such heated controversy. At the heart of the storm is the unspoken possibility that the tomb might contain the remains of Jesus himself. Neither Christianity or Judaism welcomes that proposition.” (p. 235)
Jesus’ successors and legacy:
“Although the followers of Jesus reshaped themselves under the new leadership of James, and eventually returned to Jerusalem, there might well have been a period in which they retreated to Galilee in order to sort things out, and that is just what these gospel traditions appear to reflect. If that was the case then the more idealized account of the Jesus movement in the early chapters of the book of Acts is Luke’s attempt to recast things in a more triumphant way.” (p. 238)
“There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament. One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1st century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 259)
“The Nazarene movement, led by James, Peter, and John, was by any historical definition a Messianic Movement within Judaism. Even the term ‘Jewish-Christianity,’ though perhaps useful as a description of the original followers of Jesus, is really a misnomer since they never considered themselves anything but faithful Jews. In that sense early Christianity is Jewish.” (p. 264)
“I would go so far as to say that the New Testament itself is primarily a literary legacy of the apostle Paul.” (p. 270)
“There is no evidence that James worshipped his brother or considered him divine.” (p. 280)
“…[W]hat we can know, with some certainty, is that the royal family of Jesus, including the children and grandchildren of his brothers and sisters, were honored by the early Christians well into the 2nd century A.D., while at the same time they were watched and hunted down by the highest levels of the Roman government in Palestine.” (p. 290)
Academic Endorsements of The Jesus Dynasty
Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty
Interview with Dr. Tabor on The Jesus Dynasty
Facebook page on The Jesus Dynasty with news and updates
Critical but well done review in Slate by Richard Wrightman Fox.
Read the first chapter here on-line from ABC News
For reviews, interviews and more media coverage of The Jesus Dynasty see Media Tab
The recent CNN “Finding Jesus” special titled “Secret Brother of Jesus,” that dealt with with the question of whether Jesus had brothers and sisters as well as the controversies surrounding the “James ossuary” has put the latter back in the news. For those a bit rusty on the background of all this here is a primer in two parts, that expands upon my previously published “Reader’s Guide to the Unfolding James Ossuary Story.”
On October 21, 2002 the dramatic headline news flashed around the world—First Evidence of Jesus Written in Stone! Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, the flagship magazine of the non-profit Biblical Archaeology Society, held a press conference packed with journalists at the Marriot Hotel in Washington, D.C. He revealed that a limestone “bone box,” called an ossuary, reliably dated to the 1st century CE, had recently surfaced in Israel in the hands of an unnamed private collector. It was inscribed in Aramaic, Ya’akov bar-Yosef akhui di Yeshua. English translation: James son of Joseph brother of Jesus. Shanks announced that scientists at the prestigious Geological Survey of Israel had verified the authenticity of the ossuary itself, and world-renowned Sorbonne epigrapher André Lemaire—an expert in ancient scripts—had also authenticated the inscription. Based on these verifications, and the statistical improbabilities of these names and relationships referring to anyone else in that time, Shanks asserted that this ossuary had once held the bones of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. If correct, this would be the first and only archaeological artifact from the time of Jesus to mention his name.
Major media throughout the world, including the New York Times and virtually every other newspaper in the world, the major wire services, and all the major TV networks, picked up the story immediately. Shanks released photographs, passed out press releases, and the full story, including Lemaire’s analysis, and that of the geologists, was published in the November/December issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. ((André Lemaire, “Burial Box of James, the Brother of Jesus: Earliest Archaeological Evidence of Jesus Found in Jerusalem,” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6 (2002): 24-33, 70. The SEM-EDS geological analysis conducted by Amnon Rosenfeld and Shimon Ilani was also summarized in this issue, p. 29.)) Shanks and his co-author, professor Ben Witherington also released a book, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story and Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus and His Family to coincide with the press conference.
Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici was present throughout these dramatic events as he had contracted with Shanks to produce a TV documentary on the James ossuary that aired on the Discovery Channel, in over seventy countries, the following Easter, 2003. This much overlooked documentary is one of the best and most basic treatments of the controversial ossuary. I highly recommend it. ((James: Brother of Jesus, Holy Relic or Hoax. It was shown over the course of the next month in over eighty additional countries.))
Shanks then dropped another bombshell—the ossuary itself was being flown from Israel and would be on display at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, beginning November 15, 2002—just over a month away. The city and the date had been chosen to coincide with the annual professional meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, the American Academy of Religion, and the American Schools of Oriental Research that would be gathering the weekend before Thanksgiving in Toronto. These meetings would bring together over 10,000 of the world’s biblical scholars, professors of religion, and biblical archaeologists.
The orchestration of all of these related publications and activities could not have been more effective. The James ossuary was already being hailed as perhaps the greatest archaeological discovery of all time.
The exhibition was an overwhelming success drawing nearly 10,000 visitors to the ROM to see the ossuary. I almost crossed paths in Toronto that November with Simcha Jacobovici–whom I had never met. I was attending the annual meetings and had been invited by Shanks to join him and a group of about thirty professors for a private after-hours viewing of the exhibit. Simcha was there to document the gathering and get the first live reactions of the scholars. A who’s who of biblical scholars, experts in ancient inscriptions, and historians, filled the exhibit hall that evening. Fortunately my wife Lori was with me and took some professional photos that captured the spirit of the event and have been subsequently published in Biblical Archaeology Review magazine.
Everyone present seemed genuinely moved by the ossuary itself and impressed with its authenticity, including the renowned epigraphers Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, Joseph Fitzmyer of Catholic University of America, and Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University–all of whom said in my presence that they found the inscription to be authentic from a paleographic examination. In addition to the viewing, there was a special plenary session with a panel discussion at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting that weekend. The only objection expressed on a panel that included André Lemaire, and several leading historians and archaeologists, was that giving such attention to an artifact that had been purchased on the antiquities market, and thus lacked any archaeological context that could serve to inform its interpretation, was less than ideal. One has to remember that this was the case for many of the Dead Sea Scrolls that first came to public view in 1947 because they were being offered for sale by the Bedouin who claimed to have found them in caves on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Sometimes the value of such archaeological finds, no matter how they end up coming to the attention of competent scholars for evaluation, outweighs these less than ideal circumstances. This is simply the reality of things in the Middle East. The archaeologists do not make some of the most important discoveries in licensed and controlled settings, but rather circumstance and luck, or even looting play their roles. Because of this lack of context one has to always be cautious, since possibility a convincing forgery is always present. ((See the observations of Yuval Goren on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Goren_Jerusalem_Syndrome.shtml.))
By the time of the Toronto exhibit the name of the owner of the ossuary, Oded Golan, had been leaked. The IAA launched an investigation and by the summer of 2003, just a few months after Simcha Jacobovici’s Discovery TV documentary had been released, a team of Israeli experts issued a report that concluded that although the James ossuary itself was authentic, Golan had forged all or part of the ossuary inscription in order to increase its value. Golan and four other co-conspirators, including Robert Deutsch, one of Israel’s leading antiquities dealer, were indicted on 44 charges of forgery and antiquities trafficking, not only of the James ossuary, but another inscribed artifact that had appeared on the black market in January of that year. ((The other inscription, the Yohoash tablet, was a stone artifact with a Hebrew text that was purported to come from the reign of King Jehash in the 9th century BCE (see 1 Kings 12). See Uzi Dahari, ed., Final Report of the Examining Committee for the Yehoash Inscription and James Ossuary (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 2003) for the results of the IAA investigation. The reports are conveniently posted on-line: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/Final_Reports.shtml. A summary of this report with comments also appears in the revised edition of Shanks’ and Witherington’s book, The Brother of Jesus (San Francisco: HarperOne, 2004), pp. 227-237.)) The criminal trial (482/04 State of Israel v. Oded Golan), began in December, 2004. In the meantime charges were dropped against all but Golan and Deutsch ((Correspondent Matthew Kalman serially reported on the entire trial for Time magazine and his articles are archived on his web site: http://jamesossuarytrial.blogspot.com/. Oded Golan has recently released his own account of the trial proceedings titled “The Authenticity of the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Tablet Inscriptions—Summary of Expert Trial Witness,” available here: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml. His summary appears to provide convincing evidence that he was falsely accused and that both artifacts and their inscriptions are authentic.))
Once the indictments were announced and the trial began in Jerusalem, a virtual bandwagon of opposition to the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription followed. This included articles in the New Yorker and Archaeology magazine, a segment on 60 Minutes and stories in most major newspapers around the world, as well as countless blog and internet posts—all concluding that Oded Golan had was part of an extended forgery ring and there was conclusive physical evidence that the James ossuary inscription was a forgery. ((Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren, “Faking Biblical History,” Archaeology 56:5 (2003): 20-29; David Samuels, “Written in Stone,” New Yorker, April 12, 2004, pp. 48-59.)) Since then two major books have been published, one popular, the other scholarly, purporting to document the entire scandal and weighing in on the side of forgery. ((Nina Burleigh, Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greek, and Forgery in the Holy Land (New York: Harper-Collins, 2008) and Ryan Byrne and Bernadette McNary-Zak, eds., Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus: The James Ossuary Controversy and the Quest for Religious Relics (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2009).)) The academic response on the whole has been harsh and final: “the archaeological fact [is] that the inscription is a modern forgery.” ((Byron R. McCane, “Archaeological Context and Controversy,” in Resurrecting the Brother of Jesus, op. cit. p. 20; http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/West_reply.shtml; http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Ossuary_Again.shtml.))
The general public appears to have been convinced by this tsunami of criticism, so most of the original excitement and enthusiasm for this biblical artifact has dissipated. Hershel Shanks, an experienced lawyer, and his co-author Ben Witherington, have stood their ground but reserved final judgment. Their current position is that a convincing case for forgery has not been made. A few scattered academics have agreed but by far the mainstream would chuckle at any serious mention of the James ossuary inscription as an authentic find from the time of Jesus. ((See the comments of Craig Evans on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Evans_Thoughts.shtml.)) Likewise, the scientists at the Geological Survey of Israel have not retracted their initial judgment as to the authenticity of the inscription and the ancient patina covering the ossuary, based on their initial physical tests.
On October 3, 2010, both the prosecution and the defense concluded their cases. The trial that had lasted seven years came to an end. Judge Aharon Farkash came to a verdict on March 14, 2012. Golan was acquitted of the forgery charges but convicted of illegal trading in antiquities. The judge said this acquittal “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic.” The ossuary has since been returned to its owner, Oded Golan, who plans to put it on public display, see here.
It should be noted, despite the widespread perception that the inscription was forged so far not a single epigrapher has disqualified the ossuary inscription on paleographic grounds in legal testimony—that is, the style of the writing and its integrity. See Hershel Shanks’s summary of the overall case for authenticity here. Expert epigraphers can usually spot forgeries by examining the form and style of the letters and comparing them with inscriptions of the period in question that are known to be authentic from the archaeological contexts in which they were found. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been authenticated in this way, even though many of them also surfaced on the black market without any verifiable archaeological context. The IAA case for forgery was partly circumstantial, but primarily based on physical tests conducted by Yuval Goren. He concluded that the letters of the inscription cut through the original patina of the ossuary—the natural growth of chemical deposits that builds up over time on stone—showing that the incisions were made later—in modern times. ((See Goren’s report at http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Goren_report.shtml.)) The indictment further charged that Golan had clumsily tried to apply a fake patina over the inscription, once he had carved it, applying a pastiche he created and mixed with hot water. The case of the prosecution suffered a tremendous blow when it was shown by experts that although the ossuary inscription had been cleaned by its owner, there was nonetheless original, authentic patina in the grooves of the letters—showing it could not have been added later. The chief witness for the prosecution on the patina authenticity, once all the testimony was out, admitted under oath that this was the case. ((See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony cited above.)) Based on all the trial evidence presented I think the case in favor of authenticity has become quite compelling.
Statistician Prof. Camille Fuchs had examined the prevalence of names of deceased Jewish male individuals in Jerusalem in the first century CE. He determined that it is possible to determine at a very high probability, close to 99%, that between the years 45-70 AD not more than one adult male Jew with the name James who had a father named Joseph and a brother named Jesus is likely to have lived in Jerusalem. ((Camil Fuchs: “Demography, literacy and names distribution in ancient Jerusalem: How many James/Jacob son of Joseph, brother of Jesus were there?” in The Polish Journal of Biblical Research 4:1 (2005): 3-30.))
A Missing Ossuary
Early on in our investigation Talpiot tombs, we began to consider the possibility that the unprovenanced James ossuary might have come from the Garden tomb. It was speculation at first, a hypothesis that if proven would substantiate the mounting evidence linking the Garden tomb with Jesus of Nazareth. If the mystery of the origin of the James Ossuary was somehow settled, and it did come from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, its tie to Jesus of Nazareth could hardly be questioned and of course that probability statistics based on the names found in the tomb would go through the roof. Along with the new finds in the Patio tomb, so clearly connecting these tombs to faith in Jesus’ resurrection, we would be in a position to advance our understanding of the faith of Jesus’ first followers in a most significant way.
Joseph Gath’s initial report on the Garden tomb’s excavation clearly states that there were ten ossuaries originally in the tomb. Presumably all ten were transported to the IAA lab at the Rockefeller for cataloguing and analysis. Here are Gath’s own words:
During the archaeological dig at the site 10 ossuaries were found in the different niches. No primary burial was found in the niches and only one niche was found without ossuaries (Niche no. 4). On the floor of the main room there were remains of bones, including skulls and limb bones below the burial shelves. ((Gath published this short preliminary report in Hebrew in 1981, but before the ossuary inscriptions had been deciphered (Hadashot Arkheologiyot 76 (1981), pp. 24-26. Translation is by Noam Kusar. The Jesus tomb has two ledges or “primary burial shelves,” (arcosolia) on the northern and eastern walls upon which corpses were laid out for the first year so they would decompose.))
In 2005, when I first visited the IAA storage warehouse in Bet Shemesh outside Jerusalem to examine the Talpiot Jesus tomb ossuaries, I was accompanied by Shimon Gibson, who had been the surveyor for the excavation in April, 1980. We were both astounded when the curator informed us that everything was ready, handing us an inventory list, and offering to bring out all the ossuaries, but explaining that only nine of the ten ossuaries from this tomb were listed on his tally. He apologized, explaining that they had searched for the tenth but had no idea what had happened to it, even though it had been given a cataloguing number in 1980. His precise words were, “The tenth ossuary has gone missing.” Shimon rechecked the map he had drawn of the tomb at the time of the excavation—there was no doubt, the tomb had originally contained ten ossuaries.
Shimon and I spent hours searching through the archive files of the IAA. There were clear photos of only nine ossuaries, but nothing in the records about a tenth. We checked the 1996 published report on the tomb prepared by Amos Kloner, who was supervisor over Gath and had overseen the excavation. Kloner described each of the first nine ossuaries in detail along with the original photographs. At the end of his roster he listed the tenth, but with a one-word description and no photo:
- IAA 80.509: 60 x 26 x 30 cm. Plain
From this one line we knew that at least it had been given a catalogue number but no one seemed to have any idea what happened to it and the curator explained that it should have been photographed as part the routine registration process. He and his staff had searched and had found nothing.
Later we noticed that the Rahmani catalogue of ossuaries in the Israeli state collection also included only nine (nos. 701-709), with the comment that the tenth was plain and broken and was not retained. Its catalogue number: 80.509 is simply not included–with the list of ossuaries jumping from 80.508 to 80.510. ((See Rahmani, Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, p. 222.)) I was finishing my book, The Jesus Dynasty, that summer I had noticed that the dimensions of the James ossuary were officially published as: 56.5 x 25 x 30.5—close but not exactly the same as the missing tenth ossuary. Simcha Jacobovici subsequently was able to re-measure the James ossuary under IAA supervision, using the standard template indicating where to take length, width, and height measurements. It was 56.5 x 25.7 x 29.5—a bit closer to the dimensions Kloner had published. Where Kloner got these dimensions we have no idea. They are not in the IAA official files on the excavation of this tomb. Apparently he has his own records of the excavation that he has not made public.
It should be noted that the James ossuary was not rectangular in shape but trapezoid, so that its dimensions, depending on which side or end measured, would vary slightly. ((It should also be noted that Rahmani’s catalogue often gives two differing measurements for individual ossuaries, recording initial measurements as well as subsequent lab measurements that were more precise. It is also possible, since the James ossuary was broken and restored in November, 2002, when it was flown to Canada to be put on display, that its measurements today might tend to be slightly less than when it was first measured.)) For us there was enough of a “fit” that we did not think the possibility that the James ossuary was the missing tenth from the Talpiot tomb should be dismissed. Obviously, there would need to be much more evidence but I decided to mention this possibility in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, published in 2006 ((See James D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-83.))
After the book was out I was in Jerusalem and I met with Joe Zias, a close friend who was the anthropologist at the IAA in 1980. I wanted to know what Joe thought might have happened to the tenth ossuary, based on how materials were catalogued and handled in those days. Joe said he had no specific recollection of that particular tomb or ossuary but he suggested three possibilities: 1) It was simply misplaced in storage rather than being shelved where it should be with the other nine; 2) it had been put outside in the courtyard of the Rockefeller because of lack of space and lost its tag and would now be unidentifiable; or, 3) it was discarded during one of the moves of the IAA collection since 1980—from the Rockefeller, to a warehouse in Romena, and finally to Bet Shemesh. Joe explained that things regularly go missing, with millions of artifacts from thousands of excavations, but often they show up again. Joe was quite sure the missing tenth ossuary had nothing to do with the James ossuary and told James he thought his speculation in that regard was irresponsible and misleading. That is how things stood in 2006.
To be continued…Part II will explore in more detail the question “Did the James Ossuary Come from the Talpiot Tomb?”
In the meantime, it is indeed interesting to note that this very practice of patronymy/paponymy/metronymy, by its repetitive nature, leaves the sample of names quite narrow and refutes in essence the argument of “very common names” put forward by a number scholars that the Talpiot tomb was not that of Jesus’ family.
—Prof. Claude Cohen-Matlofsky
I wanted to call my readers’ attention to a paper posted by Professor Claude Cohen-Matlofsky, “Jesus the Patriarch and Talpiot tomb A,” at Bible & Interpretation. Her article on this subject is included in the volume of 2008 Princeton Theological Seminar Jerusalem Symposium papers edited by James Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014).
Cohen-Matlofsky’s academic focus is in late 2nd Temple Judaism (see her notable recent study Flavius Josèphe entre Hasmonéens et Hérodiens, les ambitions d’un homme, L’Harmattan, Paris) ((See her contribution on Josephus in Bible & Interpretation)) but it is her distinguished work as a prosopographist that has new and overlooked relevance to a discussion of the Talpiot “Jesus” family tomb and its possible or probably relationship to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Her work in this area stems from her broad and substantial study, Les Laïcs en Palestine d’Auguste à Hadrien: étude prosopographique (Paris, H. Champion, 2001). ((This study consists in a list of 715 names found in the various sources with statistical charts including male and female distribution)).
What Cohen-Matlofsky has undertaken is a much tighter chronological calculation (63 BCE to 70 CE.) of the occurrences of various Jewish names, both male and female, in the period, as well as a broader and more comprehensive sampling than just names on ossuaries. She points out, for example, that Tal Ilan’s most useful lexicon includes names from 330 BCE to 200 CE, which is a very broad chronological swath, and that is what many of us have relied upon.Although Tal Ilan includes other sources beyond ossuary inscriptions, Cohen-Matlofsky has been able to update, expand, and in some places correct, her tallies.
She has previously published some of her results in connection to names in the Talpiot tomb at Bible & Interpretation here and here, but this latest contribution adds a new dimension to the consideration of the six names in the tomb–namely how the cluster of relationships reflected in the names sheds light on the family as a whole. For example, taking the three names with patronymic relationships in the Talpiot “Jesus” family, namely:
Jesus son of Joseph
Judah son of Jesus
Theoretically we would have six possible combinations of linear descent from grandfather to grandson, namely:
What is striking is that only the first, that is Joseph-Jesus-Judah would potentially have a fit with a hypothetical “Jesus of Nazareth” family tomb, making the sequence in the tomb much more unique than one might initially think.
The tomb of Jesus is an atypical, fatherless tomb: Jesus, the eldest son, became the patriarch by “replacing” the “husband” of his adulteress mother.
Cohen-Matlofsky takes seriously the likelihood that Jesus was most likely born illegitimate (Hebrew term mamzer)–that is not the biological son of Joseph, her betrothed. ((See the references in Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s paper in her footnote here.)) I have written extensively about this in a series of posts on this blog, see, for example, see, “Who Was Jesus Father?– Imagining the Best,” and “Joining the Slanderers,” as well as my five-part series on “The Birth of Jesus.” Whatever the circumstances of her pregnancy by another man, which we have no way of determining given our lack of evidence, Jesus’ legal status as a mamzer in Jewish law, becomes an important factor in assessing the implied relationships reflected in the Talpiot tomb. I recommend a careful reading of Prof. Cohen-Matlofsky’s latest important contribution.
Who was the unnamed intimate who “lay close to the breast of Jesus” at the last supper, the one to whom he passes on the care of his mother Mary, just before his death, and the “eyewitness” source that lies behind the traditions now embedded in the Gospel of John? And what about the enigmatic “Comforter” or “Helper” who is to come after Jesus departs–so they will not be left orphans?
In my book The Jesus Dynasty (Simon & Schuster, 2006) I offer my reasons for thinking that the enigmatic figure in the Gospel of John, described as “the disciple whom Jesus loved,” or more commonly, the “Beloved Disciple,” is none other than James the brother of Jesus. I am not sure who has suggested this over the years but I first encountered the idea from Robert Eisenman. ((See his book James the Brother of Jesus, p.992n28/p. 120.)) This is the unnamed intimate who “lay close to the breast of Jesus” at the last supper, and the one to whom he passes on the care of his mother Mary, just before his death. He appears to also be the “eyewitness” source that lies behind the traditions now embedded in the Gospel of John (21:24).
The traditional view that the Beloved Disciple was the fisherman apostle John, one of the sons of Zebedee can be traced back as early as Irenaeus (c. 180 CE) and was made part of the official Church History of Eusebius in the early 4th century. ((Church History 6. 25.)) This identification, however “beloved” to so many, seems highly unlikely. After all, from the few stories we have about John son of Zebedee, he has a fiery and ambitious personality—Jesus had nicknamed him and his brother the “sons of Thunder.” They are the two that had tried to obtain the two chief seats on the Council of Twelve, one asking for the right hand, the other the left. On another occasion they asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to consume a village that had not accepted their preaching (Luke 9:54). On both occasions Jesus had rebuked them. The image we get of John son of Zebedee is quite opposite from the tender intimacy of the “disciple whom Jesus loved.” No matter how ingrained the image might be in Christian imagination, it makes no sense to imagine John son of Zebedee seated next to Jesus, and leaning on his breast.
Eusebius also mentions another John, “the Elder,”perhaps the author of the New Testament letters of 2nd and 3rd John, whom some have seen as a more likely candidate than John the son of Zebedee ((Eusebius, Church History 5. 24.)) This view has been recently defended by Richard Bauckham in his massive study, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. A good summary of the arguments pro and con for these two Johns as the “beloved disciple” is on-line here.
Today there are several dozens of books in print suggesting various alternative identifications. Ben Witherington and others have suggested Lazarus, brother of the sisters Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raises from the dead in the gospel of John, see here. In the gospel the sisters send word to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (John 11:3). This view has received some possible support from the fragment of “Secret Mark” that Morton Smith found, see here. Mary Magdalene has also become a suggested candidate, despite the use of the masculine pronouns, see Ramon Jusino’s paper here. Most recently it has been suggested that an unnamed “son” of Jesus, whose identity had to be hidden, was the Beloved Disciple, see here. Some scholars have viewed the “beloved disciple” as a literary construction representing the “ideal disciple,” with no specific identity. James Charlesworth surveys all the possibilities with a full history of scholarship in his landmark book The Beloved Disciple, which I recommend as the best place to begin for readers with a serious interest in this question. Charlesworth ends up arguing for the apostle Thomas, an identification that I think is unique with him, while he is apparently unaware of the possibility of James the brother of Jesus–a choice that has not been part of the mainstream discussion.
Let’s take a look at the text themselves. The Gospel of John mentions the Beloved Disciple in only four scenes, all at the end of his narrative: at the Last Supper, at the Cross, at the empty Tomb, and on the Sea of Galilee after Jesus’ resurrection. Since he is never mentioned earlier we really have very little to go on. Here are the texts in the RSV translation:
1) John 13:23-25: One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was lying close to the breast of Jesus; so Simon Peter beckoned to him and said, “Tell us who it is of whom he speakings.” So lying thus, close to the breast of Jesus, he said to him, “Lord, who is it?”
2) John 19:26-27, 34-35: When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home…But one of the soldiers pieced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness — his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth — that you also may believe.
3) John 20:2-8 So she [Mary Magdalene] ran, and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” Peter then came out with the other disciple, and they went toward the tomb. They both ran, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first; and stooping to look in he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. . . Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in. . .
4) John 21:1, 7, 20-24 After this Jesus revealed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he revealed himself in this way. 2 Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples were together…That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his clothes, for he was stripped for work, and sprang into the sea…Peter turned and saw following them the disciple whom Jesus loved, who had lain close to his breast at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!” The saying spread abroad among the brethren that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?” This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know that his testimony is true.
It is also possible that the Beloved Disciple is mentioned in John 18:15 though he is not given that designation: “Simon Peter followed Jesus, and so did another disciple. As this disciple was known to the high priest, he entered the court of the high priest along with Jesus, while Peter stood outside at the door. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to the maid who kept the door, and brought Peter in.”
Based on these texts I would make the following points:
1. The Beloved Disciple is a male, not a woman, and since Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb and then runs to tell Peter and this “other disciple” whom Jesus loved, the news of the empty tomb, “he” cannot be Mary Magdalene.
2. Anyone mentioned by name in the Gospel of John, and especially in these latter chapters, 13-21, is likely not the Beloved Disciple, on the grounds that his identity is being veiled not revealed with a name. That means we can eliminate those mentioned in John 21:1-2, as well Philip, Andrew, and Judas Iscariot of the Twelve, but also Lazarus I think.
3. If we accept the reference in John 18:15 as referring to our figure, the Beloved Disciple seems to have priestly connections in that he is able to get Peter into the courtyard of the High Priest’s house, knowing the woman at the door.
4. The Beloved Disciple takes Jesus’ mother Mary into his care, when Jesus as the oldest son of the family was formerly responsible for the family as function “head of the house.” He is officially designated as the “son” meaning that he is now to carry on the caretaker function for the household that Jesus no longer could do. Whether this scene at the cross is to be taken as historical fact or not, I think it nonetheless reflects a tradition that Jesus’ mother was passed into the care of one who became the “son” in charge of the family, including his mother. Obviously he is gone from the scene and someone has to take over in terms of leadership in the family and care for his mother.
5. The Beloved Disciple is present at the last supper, and thus, based on Mark at least, possibly one of the Twelve, though John does not specify this, i.e., that the meal was with Jesus and the Twelve alone. The description of this disciple “lying close to Jesus’ breast” at the Last Supper indicates an honored place of proximity and intimacy. Jesus loves all his disciples but this particular one has a special place.
I am convinced that these traditions in the Gospel of John refer to a real person, not a symbolic figure. He should be known to us in other texts and in early Christian tradition by name. If we eliminate characters who are named in these latter sections of the Gospel, particularly Lazarus, Simon Peter, Thomas, Nathanael, Philip, Andrew, and James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, and Judas Iscariot, who is left?
Of the Twelve apostles it is noteworthy that the only ones not named in the Gospel of John are the “other” James, the “other” Jude, the “other” Simon, and Matthew. Jesus has three brothers: James, Simon, and Jude, as well as a fourth, Joseph. I think there might be some evidence, as I point out in The Jesus Dynasty, that Matthew is another brother, possibly even the one otherwise known as Joseph. This silence seems more than incidental or accidental.
Given these factors it seems to me that James the brother of Jesus surfaces as the best candidate. He is the one who takes over leadership of the followers of Jesus. The “mother and brothers” of Jesus are mentioned in the book of Acts as if they are intact and together (Acts 1:14). Although Luke is reluctant to name either Jesus’ mother or the brothers, given his emphasis on the dominance of Peter and eventually Paul as the main apostles, that he knows the tradition of the intact Jesus family, together in Jerusalem, gathered with the other followers is surely telling. And all the more so that he later has James as the clear head of the Jerusalem community (Acts 15:12-21). To have some other individual such as Lazarus, or the fisherman John, now functioning as caretaker over the family, just makes no sense at all with James present and functioning as leader of the community. I present arguments in my book that James the brother of Jesus was one of the Twelve, and is referred to otherwise as “James the less,” or “James the young one,” who has a brother named Joses. Mark names “James and Joses” as the two older brothers of Jesus. James the brother of Jesus also is known for his priestly orientation, even though his mother is Davidic if Luke’s genealogy is her own. As I discuss in the book, that line has a strong component of priestly/Levite blood running through it, just as Aaron married Elisheva, the leading princess of Judah. Hegisippus tells us that James wore the white linen of the priest, and a mitre of some type, and was allowed to enter the inner sanctuary of the Temple–perhaps as a representative of the Nazarenes. We also have the tradition in the Gospel of the Hebrews that James was indeed present at the last supper, and that Jesus handed over to him some kind of “garment” that signified his priestly office.
It is also possible that the references in John (14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7) to the coming of “another Helper,” following Jesus’ departure, who will not only bring them to remember what Jesus taught but also “guide them into all Truth” is not the Holy Spirit, per se, but rather an individual or person who will be filled with the “Spirit of Truth” and thus not leave the disciples “orphaned.” This fits perfectly with the quotation in the Gospel of Thomas.
I think it likely that the community that ended up shaping the Gospel of John, as indicated in chapter 21:24, had access to eyewitness materials that originated with James the brother of Jesus. Much as in the case of the Gospel of Thomas, the final product that has come down to us is considerably expanded in Gnostic/dualistic directions and a heavy theological overlay. It is noteworthy that the Gospel of Thomas also highlights James as the one to whom Jesus had passed on his authority, in a Logion that some have dated as early as the 40s CE, even though in its present form this work seems far removed from the theological perspectives of the historical James. I think the same is likely the case with the Gospel of John. I close with the key quotation from the Gospel of Thomas:
The disciples said to Jesus, “We are aware that you will depart from us. Who will be the greatest over us?” Jesus said to him, “No matter where you come it is to James the Just that you shall go, for whose sake heaven and earth have come to exist.” (Logion 12)
It is also possible that the references in John (14:16; 26; 15:26; 16:7) to the coming of “another Helper,” (παρακλητος) following Jesus’ departure, who will not only bring them to remember what Jesus taught but also “guide them into all Truth” is not the Holy Spirit, per se, but rather an individual or person who will be filled with the “Spirit of Truth” and thus not leave the disciples “orphaned.” This would account for the way in which this figure is spoken of in such personal terms. This fits perfectly with the quotation in the Gospel of Thomas. We know that the Ebiionites understood the “Christ Spirit” to be one that “hastened through the ages,” and could pass from Jesus to his brother James in terms of inspiration, authority, and function.
In my book, The Jesus Dynasty, I argue that the recovery of faith by the disciples in the Galilee was largely attributed to the presence of Jesus’ brother James who well might have looked enough like Jesus to provide them with both guidance and comfort in their “orphaned” state. This would not preclude visionary “resurrection” sightings and “appearances” of Jesus, as Paul recounts in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7, and indeed, many scholars see two traditions embedded here in Paul’s testimony–one based on an appearance to Peter in Jerusalem (Luke & John), and the other “to James and all the apostles,” only after they returned to Galilee (Mark, Matthew, John 21, Gospel of Peter).
The 51st anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy was all over the media this weekend and much on our collective minds. I happened to catch some of the CNN specials on “The 60s” with many reflections of our society and its changes–good and bad. Those of us in our 60s and older have very vivid memories of that day in Dallas–Friday, November 22, 1963. It all comes back so vividly. In my case it was truly a kind of “coming of age.” I was a young 17 year old freshman in college at what was then Abilene Christian College sitting in 1st year Bible class–a required course for all students–taught by Carl Brecheen. Around noon someone knocked on the classroom door and told us that President Kennedy had been shot. An audible gasp of shocked disbelief filled the room and Dr. Brecheen had us stand as he led a short prayer, then dismissed the class so we could get to the nearest television. The country and the world were in a state of utter shock. That weekend is a blur as we clustered in groups around televisions with little to say other than “I just can’t believe it.” For me the election of 1960 was truly a “coming of age.” I felt with many of my friends that somehow our “world” had ended that day.I My father likened the experience to the shock over the Pearl Harbor attack, when he like hundreds of thousands of others joined the service the Monday after. The only thing remotely like it in my life has been September 11th, 2001, in terms of the collective shock.
So now 50 years have passed and I began to think this morning about the generation living in Judea and Galilee in the time of Jesus 50 years after his shocking murder by the Roman authorities in April 30 CE. What were things like 50 years later–around the year 80 CE? What about those living at that time in their 60s and older, who had either known or heard Jesus or seen or heard about his death? What would they remember?
We know that the years 66-73 CE were horrible years of death, destruction, and societal disruption as a result of the Jewish Roman Revolt chronicled in such detail by eyewitness Flavius Josephus (Joseph bar Matthias). To understand better the background and foreground of the times I tell my Christian Origins students that before they even think about reading our New Testament documents if they are interested in understanding the Jewish Roman world of Jesus they need to wear out of a copy of Josephus’s Jewish War (Bellum Judaicum) published around 75 CE. ((The Penguin paperback translated by Williamson and Smallwood is easy to obtain and a good first choice)) Josephus served as both a Jewish commander in the Revolt but following his capture a confident and friend of the emperors Vespasian and subsequently Titus and Domitian. Along with a copy of Josephus I would also recommend The Historical Jesus in Context (eds. Levine, Allsion, Crossan) for the broader context of the “life and times” of Jesus.
I think there is no doubt that the generation of those who had heard of or known Jesus 50 years earlier would have memories both vivid and faded–just as some of our own regarding the death of President Kennedy–which undoubtedly have been refreshed tremendously by photos and film in the intervening years. But still, 50 years is just not that long a time. We all have memories of people, places, and even events and conversations that reach back that far. But as every family knows when someone recounts such things at a typical family gathering there can be drastic differences on details of chronology and setting! But still, with over 40,000 books now published on John F. Kennedy, and an abundance of sources that would take a lifetime to even access–photos, letters, documents, films, and memorabilia–biographers still can’t agree on much about Kennedy–whether in life or death.
So what about remembering Jesus in 80 CE? There is absolutely no doubt that there would have been many who had known or heard–or even heard about–Jesus who would have vivid memories of him, his teaching, and even his death. The problem we face is that other than a basic framework in Paul’s letters (which date back to the 50s CE)–i.e., references to Jesus being crucified, to Cephas, to James his brother, etc.–we have no eyewitness accounts or even contemporary secondary sources that give us anything about Jesus. There is simply no comparison in terms of historical sources and materials between what we have on JFK and what we have on Jesus.
What we have is a single source–the gospel we call Mark, which most of us date in the 70s CE. The problem with “Mark” is that the name is merely a traditional designation–it is not part of the ancient work itself–and the writer neither claims to be an eyewitness nor presents material that one might associate with eyewitness testimony.
Mark is a theological production–a highly self-conscious literary presentation of what the author represents as the “Gospel of Jesus Christ” (Mark 1:1, some manuscripts add “Son of God”). You might call it a “Drama about Jesus in three Acts” (roughly chapters 1-8a; 8b-10; 11-16). That does no mean it contains no history at all–indeed the basic narrative framework of Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem is generally considered reliable by most critical historians. That would include Jesus growing up in Nazareth, associating with John the Baptizer, preaching an apocalyptic message of the imminence of the Kingdom of God, gathering together a group of followers, healing and casting out demons, and confronting the authorities in Jerusalem at Passover in 30 CE.
But Mark is far removed from the kind of memories one would encounter in interviewing people regarding what they remember about November 22, 1963–or even talking to those who actually knew President Kennedy in one capacity or another. There is plenty of myth, legend, and anecdote floating around–since Kennedy has become such an iconic figure–but no dearth of firsthand oral memory.
And that is what we don’t have with Jesus. Mark was subsequently overwritten by Matthew, who used him as a source, reshaped his story considerably, and expanded it with blocks of “teaching” materials or “sayings” of Jesus that are not known to Mark. Matthew clearly has his own very theological agenda–and as with Mark, the name “Matthew” is a traditional association, not one inherent to the work itself. Despite the common assumption that he is an eyewitness (one of the Twelve!), the book itself never makes such a claim, and its content is never presented in the style of eyewitness material. Matthew’s sayings material (most often called the Q source by scholars) seems to have a history that goes back earlier than Matthew’s composition, but it is anonymous and amorphous, and much of it exists in a different version in Luke.
Scholars have expended an enormous amount of effort the past 50 years trying to systematically evaluate our gospel sources in an effort to get back to the historical Jesus. We don’t all agree on our conclusions but the issues have been significantly sharpened and in some areas there is consensus. I would recommend first and foremost Dale Allison’s works in this area, starting with his Jesus of Nazareth: Millennarium Prophet and then his more substantial work Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History. The latter work is deals specifically with the question of what was remembered, by whom, and how was it passed on and shaped. The one central insight that many of us share, including my own take on Jesus in The Jesus Dynasty, is, to quote Dale Allison, “our choice is not between an apocalyptic Jesus and some other Jesus; it is between an apocalyptic Jesus and no Jesus at all.”
It is this radical apocalyptic outlook that most heavily effects out ability to access “memories” of Jesus during the first 50 years. Not only was the world of 1st century Jewish Judea and Galilee utterly shattered by the Great War with Rome, but the hopes and expectations of the Jesus movement had utterly failed by 80 CE. What they most expected to happen never came–namely the “Coming of the Son of Man in the Clouds of Heaven,” and what they least imagined came about–the triumph of the Roman Imperial “Beast” over all enemies and opposition. In my view the early followers of Jesus are best understood 50 years after his death as emerging through the crisis scholars have characterized as “When prophecy fails,” brought on by the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. In my view S. G. F. Brandon’s monumental work, The Fall of Jerusalem and the Christian Church is among the most important work in the field of Christian Origins. I have written extensively on this phenomenon of early Christian apocalypticism, see my blog post “Getting Up to Speed on Apocalypticism,” here for some references and links.
In early Christian tradition outside the New Testament Mary Magdalene’s profile is elaborated considerably, she is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her against the criticism of the other apostles who are jealous of her role and standing.
N.B. To better explore the texts quoted in this post, examining their relevance, history, and wider context, see my post on Marvin Meyer’s book, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus,” and particularly the movingly challenging conclusion by Esther A. de Boer, “‘Should We All Turn and Listen to Her?’ Mary Magdalene in the Spotlight.” I also highly recommend the recent article by Birger Pearson, one of the world’s experts on these “gnostic” materials, addressing the question “Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus?” which I posted with some comments here.
Mary Magdalene as the Apostle of the Apostles
We have seen how Mary Magdalene, and in some case her female entourage, are portrayed as “first witness” to Jesus’ empty tomb and given the commission to tell the male disciples he is risen in our New Testament gospels. In Mark the women flee from the tomb and say nothing to anyone (Mark 16:9). In Luke they report to the Eleven remaining apostles but their testimony is considered an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In Matthew, as the women flee the tomb they meet Jesus, grab hold of his feet, and worship him, and he directs them to tell the male apostles he will meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Finally in John, Mary goes alone to the tomb and has her personal encounter and exchange with Jesus, thus becoming the singular first witness to Jesus raised from the dead and ascending to heaven (John 20:11-18).
Outside the New Testament there are a dozen or so ancient texts, most of them discovered in the last hundred years, that present an alternative “lost” portrait of Mary Magdalene and her role as Jesus’ female apostle extraordinaire—quite literally the apostle of the apostles and the successor to Jesus. Five of them were discovered in Egypt in 1945, buried in a jar in a field outside a village called Nag Hammadi. These texts are: The Gospel of Thomas, The Dialogue of the Savior, The First Apocalypse of James, The Gospel of Philip, and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. The others, including Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Mary, and the Acts of Philip, have turned up in various places, whether on the antiquities market, an archaeological dig, or lost or forgotten in ancient libraries. In these texts Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ intimate confidant and companion, one who possesses unparalleled spiritual insights that she received directly from him. She is praised, but also at times opposed—especially by Peter, leader of the male apostles, who is threatened by her position and status based on her special relationship with Jesus. These texts originate outside the mainstream, that is, the male dominated form of orthodox Christianity that began to take hold and triumph down to the time of Constantine, the first Christian emperor (c. 325 CE). The canonical New Testament, with its twenty-seven approved documents were increasingly seen to be the only authorized texts, inspired by God, while these other sacred texts were marginalized, declared heretical, and eventually lost and forgotten. They are witness to the diverse mix of “Christianities” that were developing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE before a more singular orthodoxy, backed by Christian councils and creeds, took center stage.
Professor Schaberg has constructed a working profile of Mary Magdalene from these texts, isolating the major elements. She is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her.[i]
Each of these texts contains an assortment of these elements but one in particular, The Gospel of Mary, has them all. This is an extraordinary text. Before there were only gospels of men but now we have a gospel of a woman—not just any woman—Mary Magdalene. A fragmentary copy of The Gospel of Mary was purchased in Cairo in 1896. It is written in Coptic but was likely translated from a Greek original. It dates to the early 2nd century.[ii] In this text Mary Magdalene is a beloved disciple of Jesus, taking center stage in leading the apostles and encouraging them. Peter is jealous of her, but admits her status as one closer to Jesus than anyone else, and more important, one who received revelations that the male disciples were not privy to:
Peter said to Mary: “Sister we know the savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the savior that you remember, which you know but we do not, because we have not heard them.” Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I shall reveal to you” (Gospel of Mary 10).[iii]
As she begins to recount her visionary message both Peter and his brother Andrew express doubts about her veracity and question her authority. Peter objects:
Did he really speak with a woman in private without our knowledge? Should we all turn and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us? (Gospel of Mary 18).
Levi, who is better known as Matthew in the New Testament, defends her and rebukes Peter:
If the savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the savior knows her well. That is why he has loved her more than us (Gospel of Mary 18).
The message Mary reveals, in this and many of these other texts, has been characterized as Gnostic, but most scholars consider the term to be less than helpful in characterizing the Christian groups reflected in these texts with their alternative versions of Christianity. It tends to lump them together as a monolithic whole.[iv] In my analysis I am not so much interested in the content as the framework of the profile of Mary Magdalene and her prominent status alongside Jesus.
The Gospel of Philip is a beautifully written “gnostic” sermon by the followers of the brilliant 2nd century early Christian mystic and teacher, Valentinus. Some have even suggested he is the author of the text. It only refers to Mary Magdalene twice, but both passages are noteworthy:
Three women walked with the master: Mary his mother, [his] sister, and Mary Magdalene, who is called his companion. For “Mary” is the name of his sister, his mother, and his companion (Gospel of Philip 59:6-10).
The companion of the [savior] is Mary Magdalene. The [savior loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth]. The other [disciples] said to him, Why do you love her more than all of us? (Gospel of Philip 63:32-64, 9).
The word translated “companion” means his partner or consort. There is a worm hole in the papyrus right at the point where it says Jesus used to kiss Mary often on the …? Most scholars have restored this to “mouth.” Whether this relationship between the two involved sexual intimacy or not, scholars have debated, but given what we know of Valentinian ideas it most likely did. It was considered a “sacred union,” but it was nonetheless carried out through the vehicle of the body.[v]
Pistis Sophia contains a series of questions asked of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene has the most prominent role among the disciples. She asks thirty-nine of the forty-six questions and offers elegant teachings about the nature of life in the world. Jesus extravagantly praises her:
Blessed Mary, you whom I shall complete with all the mysteries on high, speak openly, for you are one whose heart is set on heaven’s kingdom more than all your brothers (Pistis Sophis 18).
Peter complains about her, telling Jesus “we cannot endure this woman,” but Jesus praises her pure spiritual insights and declares her the most blessed of all women.
Scholars who work on these texts generally do not take the prominent and privileged portrait of Mary Magdalene reflected therein unmediated history. Clearly the accounts themselves have been embellished and elaborated for theological reasons. However, it is generally agreed that since she becomes the vehicle for these alternative forms of emerging Christianity her special role in the life of the historical Jesus, more muted in our New Testament gospels, was not a fictional creation lacking any basis whatsoever. Many of them come from the 2nd century CE and are accordingly not so far removed from the earlier Christian oral tradition.
Mary Magdalene and the Talpiot Tombs
We live in an age of the rediscovery of long lost texts and ancient manuscripts that are adding immensely to our understanding of early Christianity. Along with the exposure of the archaeology of ancient Jerusalem, we truly stand on new ground as we seek to evaluate the evidence found in the Talpiot tombs, especially with regard to Mariamene Mara and her role in Jesus’ life and family.
Given the collective evidence, and particularly the unique tradition that the gospel of John adds to the core story of Mary Magdalene from Mark and Matthew, it seems entirely plausible that the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene as first witness to Jesus’ resurrection can be seen alongside that of “Mary of Bethany,” and the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ head as well as his feet and dries them with her hair. These are acts of intimacy, as is the preparation of his body for burial, seem most appropriate for a wife. The fact that her first impulse on seeing Jesus resurrected was to touch him, further suggest the intimate relationship between them. Taken together, these texts along with the later 2nd century “gnostic” ones, provide us with a broader context in which the evidence form the Talpiot tombs can be read in a new light. Jesus may very well have been married and had a son named Judah, and to reject this tomb as that of Jesus of Nazareth on the grounds that he could not have been, is based on traditional bias and misguided criteria.
The position of Mary of Bethany in the gospel of John also offers a new interpretive possibility for the names in the Talpiot tomb. If the traditions about her and about Mary Magdalene are confused, as they seem to be in the New Testament gospels, then Mary Magdalene might well have had a sister named Martha. Some scholars have read the Mariamene Mara ossuary inscription as Mariam and Mara—referring to two women named Mary and Martha. I am convinced otherwise, namely that Mara is more likely a title of honor for Mariamene, but having these two sisters, “Mary and Martha,” buried together in a single ossuary, one the mother of Jesus’ son, the other her unmarried sister, would also fit closely with the thesis that the Talpiot Jesus tomb is the family tomb of Jesus.
[i] Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 71-97.
[ii] Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003) is the most thorough study of this text with a full introduction and translation. Since the discovery of the Coptic manuscript two additional fragments in Greek have turned up. King includes them as well in her analysis.
[iii] Translations of these Mary Magdalene related texts that of Marvin Meyer, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2004).
[iv] See Schaberg’s observations in Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 68-71.
[v] See April D. DeConick, “The Great Mystery of Marriage: Sex and Conception in Ancient Valentinian Traditions,” Vigiliae Christianae 57 (2003): 307-342.
The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.
We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.
A Married Jesus and the Silence of the New Testament
Even though there is no explicit reference to Jesus being married in any of the four gospels or other New Testament writings the silence might turn out to be less deafening than one would suppose. There are several factors one must consider in making the judgment that he lived a celibate single life.[i]
First, it is important to realize that we know very little about the historical Jesus. What historians are relatively certain about could be written down on a single piece of paper. What we have in the gospels are not biographies of Jesus—far from it—but theological presentations regarding his preaching, healing, and in particular the significance of his death and resurrection. They contain almost no personal information. The gospel of Mark, for example, never names or mentions Jesus’ father while the gospel of John never names his mother. We have one childhood story, when he was twelve years old, and most scholars consider it a standard literary motif, not a historical account (Luke 2:41-52).[ii] We know nothing of his life beyond that point, including his teens and 20s when most Jewish males were expected to marry.
Second, in regards to the Twelve apostles, no wife is specifically mentioned or named for any of them. None of their children are mentioned or named—how many, what they did, or any personal details about them. Most of the Twelve, with the exception of Peter, hardly speak at all in our gospel accounts—a few lines at most.
This silence hardly means that none of them were married. In fact, there is a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed of a fever in Mark 1:30—but her name is never given. Paul refers to the wives of the other apostles and the brothers of Jesus, but again, no names are given (1 Corinthians 9:5). He even mentions that these women accompanied their husbands on their missionary travels. We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.[iii]
Third, celibacy was not considered an ideal or valued lifestyle among Jews in the Greco-Roman period. Even though it is mistakenly believed that the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, valued and practiced celibacy, this notion is a pure invention. They were one of the three major Jewish groups of this period, along with Pharisees and Sadducees. This misunderstanding stems from the reports of Josephus the Jewish historian (37-100 CE), Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Hellenistic philosopher (20 BCE-50 CE), and Pliny, the Elder, a Roman official (23-79 CE) about the Essenes. Each of these writers projected their own admiration of celibate idealism onto the Essenes, though, ironically, each of these writers was married. Josephus, for example, in writing of the sect of the Essenes, makes the following observation about women and marriage:
They [the Essenes] do not absolutely deny the value of marriage, and the succession of the human race is thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.[iv]
Such a negative attitude toward women commended here by Josephus, who was unhappily married three times has no basis in history. Philo writes:
[the Essenes] repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practice self-control to a remarkable degree; for no one of the Essenes ever marries a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, addicted to jealousy and skilled at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued deceptions.[v]
Pliny the Elder says that the Essenes “have no women and have renounced all sexual desire.[vi] We know that what each of these men claim about the Essenes is untrue. What is most telling here is that none of these three were celibate, all were married.
The Dead Sea Scrolls, representing over 600 texts of the period before and after the time of Jesus, were discovered hidden away in caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956, never hint at celibacy, but quite the opposite. Like other pious Jews of the time, they strictly adhered to the first commandment in the Torah: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The Scrolls are full of instructions about marriage, divorce, and avoiding fornication, or sex outside of marriage.[vii]
Jesus as well as John the Baptist have been rightly connected to the apocalyptic and messianic ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though neither was likely a formal member of the Dead Sea community, there are common ideas they share. Since the Dead Sea community is most often identified as Essenes, and it is mistakenly assumed that the Essenes practiced celibacy, the argument is often made that Jesus’ own celibacy arises out of this context
It is true that the New Testament says nothing about either Jesus or John being married, but such silence is part of the cultural norm. It is the same with the rabbis that we know from this period. There are few explicit statements about rabbis being married in the rabbinic sources, but we can be sure that marriage was the norm and not to be married an anomaly. Entire tractates of Jewish Law deal with marriage, divorce, and what is forbidden and allowed in terms of sexual behavior. As a Jew of his time we should assume that Jesus was married unless we have some statement to the contrary.
Finally, the apostle Paul is the major Jewish figure of the time who does in fact commend, but not require, celibacy, based primarily on his notion that the apocalyptic end of the age has drawn very near (1 Corinthians 7: 26, 29, 31). His was a “situational” celibacy; a practical choice one might make in view of the stressful times that he believed were imminent. Paul recommends celibacy for those who can handle a non-sexual life, but he knows most simply cannot and end up falling into fornication (1 Corinthians 7:2).
It is entirely possible, even likely, that Paul had been married earlier in his life.[viii] He says that he “advanced in Judaism beyond many of his own age,” indicating that he had formal training as a Pharisee, presumably in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:14). Since for Paul the end of the age was at hand, he thought it inopportune to invest one’s life in a gendered humanity that was soon to be transformed into a state where there would be “neither male nor female.” Paul expected to live to see a cosmic transformation—a new creation in which birth and death, and mortal states of life in general would pass away.
One of the strongest indicators that Jesus was married comes from Paul directly. He quotes Jesus freely on the prohibition against divorce, but fails to use a celibate Jesus as his major model to back his position on celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:25). In fact he says quite the opposite, that when it comes to celibacy: “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25). Had Jesus been unmarried he would have undoubtedly said that all men should live like him, following the celibate ideal espoused by the Lord, but he says nothing of the kind. In this case Paul’s silence indicates that he certainly did not think Jesus was unmarried. Given these considerations one can conclude with some degree of confidence, that Jesus was most likely married, and married people at that time usually had children, as the first commandment required.
The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.
This was not based on any historical memory of an unmarried Jesus but rather upon Paul’s commendation of celibacy—now removed from its apocalyptic conditional context.
The celibacy these Christian leaders embraced was based on an aversion to the material world and the body, seen as inferior to the unseen spiritual realities of the heavenly realms. Christians rejected this world, even hated this world, with all its imperfections. They turned their attention wholly toward the heavenly, nonmaterial world beyond. This dualistic view of the cosmos owes little to the historical Jesus the Jew and everything to Hellenistic philosophy and its ascetic ideal.[ix] Unfortunately, the negative view of women already so rife in the dominant cultural norms of the time was radically advanced by the Christian philosophers and theologians since women, and the sexual temptations they represented for men, were shunned as the ultimate obstacle to a higher spirituality. Tertullian, often called the “father of Latin Christianity,” best represents this radically misogynous trend that remains deeply ingrained in Western Christian culture to this day. Although he believed that even women could be saved by God’s grace, he warned them that the whole responsibility for the human condition lay with Eve and her successors:
You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.[x]
The brilliant 4th century Augustine of Hippo carried forward Paul’s perspectives and pressed their implications to the limit. He faced sexual temptations his entire life, even fathering a child with his lover, but he sought to suppress his lust by choosing a rigorously ascetic life. His famous dictim; inter faeces et uriname nascimur—“We are born between feces and urine,” yet with an immortal soul, lay at the root of his attraction and aversion to women. Perhaps the most notorious example of this unfortunate development in Christianity was the 5th century Latin theologian Jerome, the most learned of the Church Fathers. His savage condemnation of women and human sexuality was only matched by his disparagement of the “Old Testament” Law and those Jews who did not respond to Christ. He connected the two by arguing that the Old Testament was “carnal,” of the flesh, whereas Christ was spiritual and pure, from above. The virginal Christ, removed from the filth of sex, showed humankind the way to escape their fleshly bonds and achieve heavenly perfection. He even went so far as to state that a husband can best show his love of his wife by abstaining from all sexual intercourse, even in marriage. He opposed bathing, makeup, and female adornment, and saw sex, symbolized by the female temptress, as fit for pigs and dogs. Jerome wrote openly about his bouts with sexual temptations.[xi] Given this dualistic orientation towards the heavenly world and denigration of sex and birth—and therefore women as the vehicle of both, one can readily see how Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, and even Joseph her husband had to be cast as living a non-sexual life. The belief that Jesus must be a perpetual virgin is firmly grounded in 2nd and 3rd century CE asceticism, not in Jesus’s own life and times.
Mary Magdalene as Sinner and Whore
It is an easy step from this stream of dualistic misogynist thinking, the core of emerging fourth and fifth century Christianity, to recasting the New Testament figure of Mary Magdalene as a sinner and even a whore. None of eleven New Testament texts that mention her present her in any negative light whatsoever. On the contrary, as we have seen, she is the leader of the band of faithful Galilean women who stand by Jesus at the cross. Even when the men have fled in fear she prepares spices and perfumed oils in order to complete the Jewish rites of burial, and she becomes a first witness to the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. She enters and exits the scene in the space of a few pages of our texts—never to appear again in any New Testament text.
There are three scenes in Mark, Luke, and John respectively that recount how Jesus was anointed with a flask of costly scented oil by a woman. As they now stand in our texts they are not the same narrative, yet their core elements are so similar they appear to be three versions of the “same” story—namely of a woman anointing Jesus.
In the gospel of Mark the scene takes place in Bethany, a small village on the backside of the Mount of Olives, just east of the city of Jerusalem, two days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion (Mark 14:3-9).[xii] Jesus is dining as a guest in the house of one called Simon the leper, otherwise unknown. A woman arrives with a flask of pure nard ointment, broke it, and poured it over Jesus’ head. Some at the dinner protested that such a costly ointment had been wasted and could have been sold and given to the poor for 300 denarii—which would be a year’s wages for a day laborer. Jesus defends the unnamed woman’s action, saying “You always have the poor with you. She had done a beautiful thing.” He then declares:
She has done what she could. She has anointed my body for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her (Mark 14:8-9).
The gospel of John seems to know a very similar story (John 12:1-8; 11:1-3). Again the scene is in Bethany, but six days before the crucifixion, and at dinner in the house of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Martha is serving but Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair. Judas Iscariot, who was to betray Jesus, objected that the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor. The text points out that he did this out of greed not care for the poor, for he served as bursar of the group and used to pilfer the funds. Jesus replied:
Let her alone; let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me (John 12:7).
In both texts the woman has a prophetic role—anointing Jesus’ body beforehand as if he were already dead; she is commended for her actions, as if she somehow “knows” more than the others, perhaps without even realizing it herself, while the others miss the point of her actions entirely. In John the woman is named—Mary of Bethany, and her family has already been introduced (John 11). In Mark she is unidentified, with the irony that her story will be told perpetually “in memory of her.” John’s account is more shocking, since the anointing of the feet, and especially the wiping of the feet with her hair, either implies a shockingly inappropriate intimacy, or a familial bond, since men and women who are not married would never touch in this way. The hair of a woman is considered sexually provocative and was to be covered, as in conservative Middle Eastern societies today, both Jewish and Muslim.[xiii] In that sense the story is scandalous, foreshadowing the attempt of Mary Magdalene to prepare spices and anoint the corpse of Jesus when he is dead. The problem is, Mary of Bethany is not Mary Magdalene—or is she? Mark had emphasized that Mary Magdalene and her entourage came from Galilee, whereas John introduces her at the crucifixion scene as an intimate family member, standing with Jesus’ mother.
It is impossible to reconcile these differences in any forced harmony. Mark and John clearly have the same story, but their details are simply different. The strong implication in John is that Mary of Bethany is otherwise known as Mary Magdalene, and she is either married to him or otherwise considered like a sister, a part of the family. Mark knows nothing of this and never mentions Mary of Bethany.
Luke’s story recasts everything (Luke 7:36-50). The setting is in Galilee, not Jerusalem, weeks if not months before Jesus’ death. Jesus is dining at the house of a man named Simon, though it is not said he is a leper. A woman comes in off the street, unnamed, uninvited and unannounced, but known to the village as a “sinner,” which implies she was a whore. The diners are reclining, in Greco-Roman banquet style, and she stands behind Jesus at his feet and begins to weep, wetting his feet with her hair, kissing them, and anointing them with oil. Nothing is said about the cost of the oil and the objection is not the waste but that Jesus would permit himself to be touched by such a sexually promiscuous woman and not realize, were he a prophet, her sinful status. Simon objects and Jesus rebukes him, commending the woman for her uninvited hospitality in welcoming him, washing his feet, and loving him. He declares:
Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.
He then turns to the woman and says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The dinner guests were even more scandalized that he could claim the right to forgive sins.
Some have doubted the parallel accounts in Mark and John are related to this one, but most scholars, knowing that Luke is using Mark as his narrative source, are convinced he is deliberately recasting the scene to disparage Mary Magdalene. He drops the anointing scene entirely from the last days of Jesus’ life, moves it to Galilee and puts it much earlier. Why would he do this?
The answer is most likely that he wants to subtly disparage Mary Magdalene. Immediately following his anointing story he introduces her by name but presents her as a terribly deranged woman, possessed with seven demons that Jesus had cast out! (Luke 8:2). Later, when he introduces the women from Galilee who stood by at Jesus’ crucifixion, he does not mention their names or put Mary Magdalene at their head. He records no appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, as do Matthew and John. Knowing how deeply embedded she is in early Christian tradition, Luke can not write her out of the story completely, he can minimize and disparage her role. Later in his narrative, as a further way of distancing himself from the anointing story in the gospel of John, he presents two sisters, Mary and Martha, but has them living far outside of Jerusalem, somewhere in Galilee to the north (Luke 13:22).
The Gospel of Peter, discovered in fragments in Egypt in the 1890s, adopts and further appropriates Luke’s marginalization of Mary Magdalene. In this text Peter is prominent, narrating the events surrounding Jesus’ empty tomb, but no women are mentioned at Jesus’ crucifixion scene, standing faithfully while the men fled. Although Mary Magdalene is mentioned, and even called a mathetria—a female disciple of Jesus, who comes early Sunday morning with her friends to mourn inside the tomb, most significantly Jesus never appears to the women and they receive no commission to go and spread the good news of the resurrection to the male disciples (Gospel of Peter 12:50).
Luke’s strategy had a lasting effect. Readers of the gospels later found it easy to conflate the stories. First, it became common and accepted to identify Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and brother of Lazarus. As early as the late 2nd century, Tertullian had already equated Mary Magdalene as the “woman who was a sinner.”[xiv] This salacious identification stuck. The image of Jesus as the all forgiving one—the friend of prostitutes and sinners—was both irresistible and sexually provocative. The idea of the sinful woman, like Eve, seduced by the Devil, but now redeemed, could serve as the story of all women.[xv] It was Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE) who sealed her fate. He conflated John’s story of Mary of Bethany with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus in Luke, and declared both women were Mary Magdalene. He waxed on as to how Mary the whore, who once perfumed herself to seduce men, flirted with her eyes, arranged her hair, and made use of her lips, now turned all those elements in chaste service to the Lord—anointing him, weeping and wiping the tears with her hair, and kissing his feet.[xvi]
In the Middle Ages Mary Magdalene became wildly popular with legends growing up regarding her missionary travels to Europe. She became the penultimate model of the hopeless sinner, transformed from a sexually fallen woman to a chaste and forgiven saint. All over Europe there are hundreds of shrines and churches dedicated to her with her supposed relics. Her feast days are among the most popular on the church calendar. It was not until the late 1970s that the Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated the connection between Luke’s sinful woman and Mary Magdalene. Ironically, on a more popular level, the myth continues and most people still think of Mary Magdalene as the deranged whore whom Jesus redeemed, spurred on by films, plays, and books such as Martin Scorsece’s The Last Temptation of Christ (based on Kazantzakis’s novel), and of course Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s an image too hard to resist and yet if the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of the Jesus family and Mariamene can be identified with the historical Mary Magdalene, then the alternative untold story is perhaps even more compelling.
The fourth and final installment is here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/18/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-4/
For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.
[i] For a typical defenses of the idea Jesus was not married by an evangelical Christian writer see, http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2003/11/Was-Jesus-Married.aspx.
[ii] Josephus mentions a similar story about his own precociousness at age fourteen, see Life 9.
[iii] See Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schoken Books, 1995).
[iv] Josephus, War 2. 121.
[v] Philo, Hypothetica 11. 14
[vi] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5. 73.
[vii] See the excerpt on celibacy among the Essenes by Lawrence Shiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Anchor Bible Reference Library (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp. 127-144, available on-line: http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Celibacy_of_the_Essenes,_Lawrence_H._Schiffman,_Reclaiming_the_Dead_Sea_Scrolls,_Jewish_Publication_Society,_Philadelphia.
[viii] Like Jesus Paul forbids divorce, reflecting a primordial ideal, but his assertion that a Christian abandoned by an “unbelieving” mate was free from the bonds of marriage might well reflect his own experience (1 Corinthians 7: 12-16).
[ix] See Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkely: University of California Press, 1997) pp. 158-179.
[x] Tertullian, On the Dress of Women 1.1.
[xi] Elizabeth Clark, Women in the Early Church (Willmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983.
[xii] Matthew 26:6-13 has the same story, based on his source Mark, but he specifies that the objection to the waste came from “the disciples.”
[xiii] See Paul’s insistence on covering the hair in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.
[xiv] Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:18.9, 16-17.
[xv] See Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th century bishop, who equated Mary Magdalene with Eve, Against Eunomius 3. 10. 16.
[xvi] Homily 33 on Luke 7.
Paul never met Jesus. His claims to represent Jesus as the 13th apostle — last, but not least— are based wholly upon his visionary experiences. He has been both loved and loathed, and his letters are regarded by some as the Word of God, and by others as self-delusions.
The Apostle Paul is the single most influential figure in human history, suggests UNC Charlotte Religious Studies Professor James Tabor in his latest book, Paul and Jesus How the Apostle Transformed Christianity. Tabor argues that Paul has done more to shape all we think about almost everything than anyone else. In terms of influence, Paul trumps even the great “founders,” whether Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, or Mohammed.
Guests can hear Tabor’s fascinating and provocative take on the history of Christianity on Tuesday, Nov. 11, 2014, at UNC Charlotte Center City, 320 E. 9th Street in Charlotte. This is the second event in the Personally Speaking authors’ series presented by UNC Charlotte’s College of Liberal Arts & Sciences and J. Murrey Atkins Library.
The conversation with Tabor, a former chair of the Department of Religious Studies at UNC Charlotte, will begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be followed by a reception where he will autograph copies of his book. The event is open to the public without charge, but RSVPs are requested via the online registration form or by calling 704-687-1429. Complimentary parking will be provided in the two lots directly across 9th Street and directly across Brevard Street from UNC Charlotte Center City.
Tabor, who joined UNC Charlotte’s faculty in 1989, is the author of seven books and more than 100 scholarly articles. His book The Jesus Dynasty: A New Historical Investigation of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity (Simon & Schuster, 2006) presented the results of his work on the historical Jesus over the course of his career to a general audience. It has been translated into 25 languages and has become an international bestseller.
Over the past two decades Tabor has combined his work on ancient texts with field work in archaeology. He has worked at a number of sites in Israel and Jordan including Qumran, site of the Dead Sea Scrolls; Wadi el-Yabis in Jordan, Masada, and Sepphoris. In 2000 he teamed up with Dr. Shimon Gibson to excavate a newly discovered cave at Suba, west of Jerusalem, that dates back to the Iron Age but was used for ritual rites in the early Roman period. Tabor and Gibson were also the principals involved in the discovery of a 1st century Jewish burial shroud in a looted tomb at Akeldama. Their latest project is an ongoing excavation on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. Teaming up with filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and archaeologist Rami Arav Tabor has also investigated the Talpiot “Jesus Family” tombs, see The Jesus Discovery (Simon & Schuster, 2012). His work has been featured in numerous TV documentaries and news outlets including Nightline and 20/20 and most recently in a feature New Yorker story by Malcom Gladwell.