A Hebrew Gospel of Matthew: Even Bohan

Any number of our early Christian sources record that the Gospel of Matthew was originally composed in Hebrew. We have fragmentary quotations of various versions thereof from writers like Jerome, but we also have three separate manuscripts of Matthew in Hebrew that have survived, the most valuable of which is Even Bohan [EB], also know as “Shem Tov” [ST]. George Howard, who published a critical text and translation of this work in 1995, argued that it was not merely a Hebrew translation of our Greek Matthew–but that it showed evidence of an independent origin. I found his arguments, as well as his responses to his critics, quite convincing, which you can find linked here. Here are some of my rough notes on the Hebrew Matthew of Even Bohan with bibliographical sources for further reading and study.

The 14th century polemical treatise Even Bohan [see Isaiah 28:16] was written by Rabbi Shem-Tob ben-Isaac ben-Shaprut [Ibn Shaprut], a Castilian Jewish physician who later lived in Aragon. The 12th/ 13th book of this work contains a Hebrew version of the complete text of Matthew. EB completed in 1380 CE, revised in 1385 & 1400. This is not to be confused with the Sebastian Münster (1537; dedicated to Henry VIII under title The Torah of the Messiah); or Jean du Tillet (1555) versions of Hebrew Matthew. In 1690 Richard Simon mistakenly identified Shem-Tob’s Matthew with the versions of Münster and du Tillet.

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Tim Hegg has graciously provided all of us information on all these texts of Hebrew Matthew including a PDF version of the Hebrew text of Even Bohan, see here.

George Howard’s edition based on nine manuscripts of Shem Tov dating from 15th to 17th centuries; namely British Library Add no. 26964 for chapters 1:1-23:22; and JTS Ms. 2426 for 23:23-end.

Shem-Tov’s text is basically Biblical Hebrew (Vav Consecutive predominates) with a mixture of Mishnaic Hebrew and later rabbinic vocabulary and idiom. In addition the text reflects considerable revision to make it conform more closely to the standard Greek and Latin Gospel texts. The underlying text, however, reflects its original Hebrew composition, and it is the most unusual text of Matthew extant in that it contains a plethora of readings not found in any other codices of Matthew. It appears to have been preserved by the Jews, independent from the Christian community.

It sometimes agrees in odd ways with Codex Sinaiticus. It contains some striking readings in common with the Gospel of John, but in disagreement with the other Gospels. It is very likely that the author of John polemized against the portrait of John the Baptizer that he found in as text such as ST’ Hebrew Matthew. He might well have then known a Shem-Tov type Matthean text. ST also often agrees with the Lukan version of Q. ST also contains 22 agreements with the Gospel of Thomas.

N.b. Sinaiticus, Q, and Thomas were all lost in antiquity but found in modern times-making the parallels with ST all the more remarkable.

The Pseudo-Clementine writings (Recognitions and Homilies) when quoting or referring to Matthew occasionally agree with ST Hebrew Matthew against the canonical Greek versions.

E.g., puns that make sense in Hebrew: Matt 7:6: “Do not throw your pearls before swine [chazir], lest they trample them under foot and turn [yichazru] to attack you.”

Lack of Trinitarian formula for baptism in Matt 28:19-20 is unique but seems to be in codices that Eusebius found in Caesarea: he quotes (H.E. 3.5.2): “They went on their way to all the nations teaching their message in the power of Christ for he had said to them, ‘Go make disciples of all the nations in my name.’”
ST reads: “You go and teach them to carry out all the things that I have commanded you forever.”

Howard argues that Shem Tov did not create the Hebrew Matthew himself (e.g., translating from the Latin) but had an existing Hebrew text to work with-as he sometimes comments on its scribal errors and strange readings. Matt 11:11 is a good case in point, as the Greek, Latin, and all other Matthean witnesses contain the qualifying phrase: “nonetheless, the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” Shem Tov comments on the unique Hebrew version he is following, and how its lack of such a phrase implies that John is greater than Jesus. If he were translating from the Latin, Greek, or any other version such a comment would be meaningless.

Papias (Eusebius, H.E. 3.39.16)
“Matthew collected the oracles (ta logia) in the Hebrew language, and each interpreted them as best he could.”

Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. 3.1.1
“Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews n their own dialect while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome and laying the foundations of the church.”

Origen (Eusebius, H.E. 6.25.4)
“As having learnt by tradition concerning the four Gospels, which alone are unquestionable in the Church of God under heaven, that first was written according to Matthew, who was once a tax collector but afterwards an apostle of Jesus Christ, who published it for those who from Judaism came to believe, composed as it was in the Hebrew language.”

Eusebius, H.E. 3.24.6
“Matthew had first preached to Hebrews, and when he was on the point of going to others he transmitted in writing in his native language the Gospel according to himself, and thus supplied by writing the lack of his own presence to those from whom he was sent.”

Epiphanius (ca. 315-403), bishop of Salamis, refers to a gospel used by the Ebionites (Panarion 30. 13.1-30.22.4). He says it is Matthew, called “According to the Hebrews” by them, but says it is corrupt and mutilated. He says Matthew issued his Gospel in Hebrew letters. He quotes from this Ebionite Gospel seven times. These quotations appear to come not from Matthew but from some harmonized account of the canonical Gospels.

Jerome also asserts that Matthew wrote in the Hebrew language (Epist. 20.5), and he refers to a Hebrew Matthew and a Gospel of the Hebrews-unclear if they are the same. He also quotes from the Gospel used by the Nazoreans and the Ebionites, which he says he has recently translated from Hebrew to Greek (in Matth. 12.13).

We have quotations from such a source from Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome, Origen, Didymus, Clement of Alexandria.

None of these surviving quotations seem to have any relationship to our current version of Shem Tov’s Even Bohan.

Theological Motifs of Shem Tov’s Hebrew Matthew
Ø Preaching to the Gentiles is not mentioned, and is even called the work of the “anti-Christ” in Matt 24:14-15: “And this gospel will be preached in all the earth for a witness concerning me to all the nations and then the end will come. This is the Anti-Christ and this is the abomination which desolates which was spoken of by Daniel as standing in the holy place. Let the one who reads understand.”

Ø ST never identifies Jesus as the Christ; e.g. 1:1 “these are the generations of Jesus…”; 1:18 “The birth of Jesus was in this way . . .” etc.

Ø John the Baptizer plays an exalted role: Matt 11:11 “Truly, I say to you, among all those born of women men has risen greater than John the Baptizer.” Phrase “yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” is missing. In the Lucan parallel (7:28), mss. 5, 475* and 1080* also omit the qualification. The same reading is inferred in the Pseudo-Clementine Writings, Rec 1.60.1-3, where one of the disciples of John argues that his teacher is greater than Jesus, Moses, and all men and thus the Christ. Also, in Rec 1.63.1 Peter taught the disciples of John not to allow John to be a stumbling-block to them. Matt 11:13 “For all the prophets and the law spoke concerning [al] John” in contrast to the Greek: “For all the prophets and the law prophesied until John.” Matt 17:11 “Indeed Elijah will come and will save all the world” in contrast to the Greek: “Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things.” Matt 21:32 “Because John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him. But violent men and harlots believed him and you saw it and did not turn in repentance. Also afterward you did not repent to believe him. To the one who has ears to hear let him hear in disgrace.” These words are directed to his disciples (v. 28), not to the chief priests and elders as in the Synoptic Greek tradition. The kind of polemic found in the Gospel of John appears to be directed toward an evaluation of John the Baptizer such as that found in ST Matthew. Similar reflective evidence is found in Luke-Acts and the Pseudo-Clementines (noted above). John 1:7-8-He is a witness to the light, but is not the light 1:15, 30-He who comes after me ranks before me, for he was before me 1:20-I am not the Christ; nor Elijah 1:26-27-Not worthy to untie his sandals 3:30-He must increase but I must decrease 10:41-John did not sign; Jesus did many (20:30) Indeed Bultman argued that the Prologue was a hymn of the Baptist community, now recast to refer to Jesus (Gospel of John: A Commentary, 17-18). Luke-Acts 3:20-22 John is in prison-then only is baptism of Jesus mentioned!  Luke drops Mark’s moving account of the death of John (Mark 6//Luke 9). Acts 18:25-Apollos knows only baptism of John. Acts 19:1-7-Twelve from Ephesus that only know of John’s baptism

Bibliographic Notes on Shem Tov’s Hebrew Matthew
Howard, George. The Gospel of Matthew according to a Primitive Hebrew Text. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press; Louvain: Peeters, 1988.

Reviewed by William L Petersen (then at UND) JBL 108:4 (1989): 722-726. Peterson argues that the Dutch Liége Harmony (copied ca. 1280), contains many parallesl to ST, thus showing it is not so “primitive” after all in its unique readings. ST is derived from medieval traditions allied with the Vetus Latina, Vetus Syra, and Diatessaron.

__________. Hebrew Gospel of Matthew. 2nd edition. GA: Mercer University Press, 1995.

Petersen, William. “The Vorlage of Shem-Tob’s ‘Hebrew Matthew.” NTS 44 (1998): 490-512.

Howard, George. “A Primitive Hebrew Gospel of Matthew and the Tol’doth Yeshu,” NTS 34 (1988): 60-70.

__________. “A Note on the Short Ending of Matthew,” Harvard Theologial Review 81 (1988): 117-20.

__________. “A Note on Codex Sinaiticus and Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew.” Novum Testamentum 34 (1992): 46-47.

__________. “A Note on Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew and the Gospel of John.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 47 (1992): 117-26.

__________. “The Pseudo-Clementine Writings and Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew.” NTS 40 (1994): 622-28.

__________. “Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew and Early Jewish Christianity.” JSNT 70 (1998): 3-20.

Horbury, William. “The Hebrew Text of Matthew in Shem Tob Ibn Shaprut’s Even Bohan,” in W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison, Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary of the Gospels according to St. Matthew. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1988), pp. 729-38.

Shedinger, R. F. “The Textual Relationship between P45 and Shem-Tob’s Hebrew Matthew.” NTS 43 (1997): 58-71.Notes on Shem Tov’s Hebrew Matthew
The 14th century polemical treatise Even Bochan [Isaiah 28:16] written by Shem-Tob ben-Isaac ben-Shaprut Ibn Shaprut], a Castilian Jewish physician, living later in Aragon. 12th/ 13th book contains a Hebrew version of the complete text of Matthew. EB completed in 1380 CE, revised in 1385 & 1400. This is not to be confused with the Sebastian Münster (1537; dedicated to Henry VIII under title The Torah of the Messiah); or Jean du Tillet (1555) versions of Hebrew Matthew. In 1690 Richard Simon mistakenly identified Shem-Tob’s Matthew with the version sof Münster and du Tillet.

Howard’s edition based on nine manuscripts of ST dating from 15th to 17th centuries; namely British Library Add no. 26964 for chapters 1:1-23:22; and JTS Ms. 2426 for 23:23-end.

1st Century Mikveh with Mystical Inscriptions Discovered in Jerusalem!

Breaking news!

Graffiti on 1st Century CE Mikveh plastered walls. Courtesy Shai Halevy, IAA.

Graffiti on 1st Century CE Mikveh plastered walls. Courtesy Shai Halevy, IAA.

The word is out as of today and I am writing this on the plane flying back from Jerusalem. A first century CE mikveh or ritual bath was recently uncovered just south of the Old City and east of Hebron road in the Arnona neighborhood of Talpiot. Back in late June Shimon Gibson and I had been invited by the IAA to visit this newly discovered site. We spoke with the excavators and were able to examine the inscriptions firsthand–but we were not permitted to speak of the details publically until the story was officially released today. Here are two links with videos and photos, one in HaArtez the other from Arutz Sheva.

Talpiot Mikveh

I find it somewhere between amusing and predictable that we are already getting speculation by the various experts evaluating the “significance” of these inscriptions asserting that they are nonsense, “secular,” or have no meaning at all. I have been working on these symbols in the mikveh now for the past month and I can assure you they have to do with mystical ideas of rebirth and the heavenly world that we can document precisely in Jerusalem during this period. Folks need to get out their copies of some of the publications of  Goodenough, Testa, Saller, and Bagatti on Jewish/Christian symbols to put this find in its proper context. For example, here is a plastered wall of a Jerusalem tomb I will not identify, lest it get defaced, but notice the striking similarities in motif and symbolism–and remember this is a tomb not a mikveh.

Bethphage Graffiti


We also have similar symbols in the Talpiot patio tomb, not far from the Jesus tomb, as well as within the Dominus Flevit necropolis on the Mt of Olives. This mikveh is just down the ridge from the Talpiot tombs and dates to the same period.

I will write more on this topic in the days to come.

What Did You Find this Summer at the Mount Zion Dig?

This is the question I have been asked most often during the week I have been back home from spending a month excavating in the Old City of ancient Jerusalem. I have told our students and participants to answer with the retort–“everything that is there, from modern back to Iron Age.” This is indeed the proper response as we do not favor sensational finds or monumental structures–archaeology is the material evidence of the human past–all the evidence from all the past. But to be specific the word is now out, as of today, from our own archaeologist Dr. Shimon Gibson,  who has co-directed our Mt Zion excavation with me since 2006. Our interviews appear in the Charlotte Observer, now on-line and in print in tomorrow’s newspaper. So the word is out.  You can follow all the news at our main

University Web site: http://digmountzion.uncc.edu
Our Facebook site here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/digmountzion/

Shimon Gibson Interview: http://www.charlotteobserver.com/news/science-technology/article27905509.html

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One clarification, our dig does not cost $100K per week, if it did we would be staying at the King David Hotel. It is more like 100K per season/year, meaning everything from field operations to conservation and post-excavation. Somehow those figures got mixed up in the story below.




UNCC archaeology team in Jerusalem unearths 1st-century mansion

  • UNC Charlotte team unearths lavish, lower-level rooms from the time of Jesus
  • Remains of early Roman mansion ‘extraordinarily well preserved,’ says dig director Shimon Gibson
  • This summer’s find: a complete vaulted room

The 2015 excavations at Mount Zion, as seen from Jerusalem’s city wall.| Rachel Ward – UNCC



Shimon Gibson marvels at a depth of irony that’s borderline mythological: While digging up Jerusalem’s past, he’s also digging up his own.

The UNC Charlotte adjunct professor of archaeology has been co-directing an annual dig on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion that returns him to the historic, mysterious region he first explored as an 8-year-old. The UNCC team is using maps Gibson made in 1975 – at age 17 – as it uncovers unprecedented findings that provide important clues about life in firstcentury Jerusalem.

“This dig is the only academic archaeological expedition currently working in Jerusalem,” said Gibson, 57, an English native. “UNCC did some probes in the early 2000s, but it was in 2006 and 2007 that we really started excavating.”

This summer his crew has continued to investigate a finished bathroom it discovered in 2013, on the lower levels of what it believes to be an early Roman mansion. The team also found another complete vaulted room, again easing decades of concerns by archaeologists that remains from first-century Jerusalem were poorly preserved.

“These remains are extraordinarily well preserved,” Gibson said, “such that not only do we have the complete basements of houses with their rooms intact, but also the first story of these houses are also very well preserved. This is truly amazing.”

Reasons for the buildings’ condition are twofold, he said: Occupying Romans destroyed the Jerusalem of Jesus’ era in AD 70. The city was deserted for 65 years, until the Roman emperor Hadrian rebuilt a city on the ruins. “Then, in the Byzantine period (AD 330-1453), the buildings were filled in so the area could be flattened in order to build houses and structures on the top.”

Because of the elaborate nature of objects found in these buildings and their proximity to an excavated mansion in the nearby Jewish Quarter, “we surmise that the houses either belong to aristocrats, or probably to well-to-do priestly families,” Gibson said. If this can be verified – ideally via an inscription or document – the find may provide details about the lives of those who ruled Jerusalem at the time of Jesus.

One UNCC discovery underscoring this opulence was the largest number of murex shells ever found in the ruins of Jerusalem during that period. Murex – a Mediterranean sea snail–was coveted due to a rich purple dye that could be extracted.

Gibson said many of the tools used in digs haven’t changed over the years – pickaxes, hoes, trowels, brushes used for cleaning, buckets for carrying. He credited technological advances and a more sophisticated approach to digs as primary factors in the team’s finds.

UNCC student Brijesh Kishan calculates elevations at the site of the Mount Zion dig. | RACHEL WARD UNCC

UNCC student Brijesh Kishan calculates elevations at the site of the Mount Zion dig. | RACHEL WARD UNCC

An example: “In the 1970s, they excavated on the southern side of Jerusalem the remains of a medieval gate that dated to the beginning of the 13th century. Nothing was known about the area outside the gate.

“Well, this season, we know because of new scientific techniques of microarchaeology,”which involves taking soil samples. “We were able to determine once and for all that this area was a marketplace. So outside of the gate of the city was a marketplace where they specialized in the selling of chicken eggs and fish.”

Another newer approach is counting pot shards. “By charting these millions, billions of pot shards statistically, we can trace the movement of different types of vessels that date back thousands of years. This is a main way of dating for archaeologists.… Also, there’s all kinds of technology that can record and visualize remains that didn’t exist 40 years ago.”

Gibson says the mindset of archaeologists has evolved as well: “Forty years ago, it was all about getting down to the bottom as quickly as possible and unearthing the earlier remains as quickly as possible. Now we’re much more sensitive to the academic questions that are being asked about certain periods of time.”

James Tabor, a professor in UNCC’s department of religious studies, met Gibson during an excavation after the archaeologist had been studying agricultural landscapes in the area of Ein Karem, the traditional hometown of John the Baptist. Tabor said their collaboration is part of an unusually large community effort.

“Eighty percent of funding for these digs comes from the Charlotte community,” Tabor said. “These people aren’t just writing checks. We get people of all ages and faiths who join us on these digs,” which he said typically last about four weeks and cost $100,000 a week.

He’s excited about future possibilities. Gibson, who has lived in Jerusalem and conducted digs there most of his life, will teach a UNCC course on the history of Jerusalem this fall.

Tabor hopes public tours will be available at some of the dig sites several years down the road – and that thanks to UNCC’s strong ties with Jerusalem, “maybe there will even be a day when UNCC will be able to design an archaeological site there after having done the excavations.”

The Jesus Dynasty: Seven Major Themes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Comforter: The Forgotten Brother of Jesus

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

James the Just, Brother of Jesus

James the Just, Brother of Jesus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus’ Teachings in the Q Source

Teachings of James

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2. Schematic drawing of YeshuabarYehosef

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

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

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

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

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

Mariamene Inscription

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

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

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

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

Think about all we do not know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yonah Inscription

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

03 Original Jonah Image - no cgi copy

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

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

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


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

Greek Inscription #1

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

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

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

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

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

Baden and Moss close their piece expressing doubt about the validity of Dr. Aryeh Shimron’s latest chemical tests as reported in the NYTimes story and asserting that any tomb of Jesus containing his bones would have undermined early Christian faith in Jesus’ resurrection. I have addressed the former quite extensively here, and the latter here, just this past week, so I won’t rehearse my responses in this already overly lengthy post!  I do wish, however, that Baden and Moss had given us a bit of a glimpse as to what they think, as historians, regarding the dead body of Jesus–if it was not buried in a tomb in Jerusalem what might have conceivably happened to it? ((No one is claiming that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the temporary tomb of Jesus, near the place of his crucifixion is invalided by the discovery of the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb as is implied by so many of the stories out this week. It as if I and others are playing a game of “who moved the tomb” which is decidedly not the case. Unless one believes Jesus body (bones and all) went up to heaven–since the tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was never thought to have held the body of Jesus past Easter Sunday–Jesus must have been buried elsewhere. See my SBL paper on-line here for further exposition on this point–in response to Jodi Magness who accepts Jesus was first buried the rock-hewn tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepurchre, but apparently things he was then removed (she does not explain how or by whom) and buried in a “trench grave.” What we can say is that all of our sources claim that Joseph of Arimathea had charge of Jesus’ burial and it would have been him who would have provided a permanent tomb for Jesus–and I would argue, subsequently for his family.))

Ben Witherington on the James Ossuary and the Talpiot “Jesus” Tomb

Ben Witherington ((Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland, see “About Ben Witherington” )) has a new blog post titled “Once More with Feeling: Did the James Ossuary come out of the Talpiot Tomb?” in response to Sunday’s NYTimes story on the recently concluded chemical tests carried out on the controversial “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary and several dozen other randomly selected 1st century Jerusalem ossuaries, including those in the Talpiot “Jesus son of Joseph” tomb. He gets a lot of things confused and some things just wrong, about these latest tests but I appreciate his response. Ben is a friend, he even grew up in Charlotte, but we have had our strong disagreements over theology, from the virgin birth of Jesus to his burial and resurrection. Given his strong stance as a leading Evangelical Christian scholar such is no surprise. For Ben there can be no tomb holding the bones of Jesus–much less his family–since he was taken bodily (bones and all) to heaven 40 days after the resurrection of his physical body–leaving behind his empty tomb.


James and Jesus Ossuaries, both plain and similar in shape and style.

We do agree on one thing–the authenticity of the inscription of the James ossuary and its very likely connection, not just to “any Jesus” of the 1st century, but to Jesus of Nazareth, see my posts here and here. In fact, with co-author Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, Ben “wrote the book” on the James ossuary, namely The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family back in 2003, shortly after the public debut of the ossuary. It remains, in my view, the “gold standard” among the many subsequent books that have come out.

Now to Ben’s latest blog post. I will take up some of his main points one-by-one, in no particular order, with a bit more of the back-story.

 Witherington begins by questioning whether Dr. Aryeh Shimron, whose expertise is in ancient “plaster,” is qualified to do the kinds of chemical and soil analysis these tests involve. Dr. Shimron’s broad qualifications and distinguished career in the field of geo-archaeology is well known in his field so there is no need for further comment. ((Dr. Shimron is retired and though involved in various projects he also gives specialized tours related to his work in Geo-Archaeology. See here for some of his background and here for some of his most recent publications.)) He then laments that Ammon Rosenfeld, who worked with Shimron for the Geological Survey of Israel is no longer with us, since he would be able to comment on Shimron’s latest work. Dr. Rosenfeld, whom I knew well, died tragically in a car accident last July. What Witherington apparently does not know or recall is that he was the decided opinion that the James ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb simply based on patina tests. He was the lead author of a paper “The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot Tomb,” available on-line here.

I was of course not surprised at his ad hominem attack on Simcha Jacobovici, who, by the way produced the initial 2003 documentary “James, Brother of Jesus” for Discovery, that I think Ben and I both would rate as outstanding. But attacking Simcha and his motives has become fairly standard operating procedure. ((In fact neither Simcha nor Dr. Shimron had anything to do with whether or when the NYTimes story would run–Easter or otherwise. Contrary to the implication in Witherington’s post, Simcha did not air his new James film on these new scientific tests on Easter to ride this publicity. It is not “in the work” but finished, and It aired in Canada earlier this year, not on Easter, and not at all yet in the USA or internationally.))

The Earthquake and East Talpiot. Dr. Shimron first got his idea for these chemical ossuary tests in 2008 at the Princeton sponsored “Jerusalem Symposium on the Talpiot Jesus tomb” organized by James Charlesworth. The papers from this conference are now published in a marvelous 585 page volume, James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? (Eerdmans, 2013), that explores the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb and related issues from all viewpoints.


I happened to be sitting next to Shimron as Shimon Gibson was presenting his paper, pointing out that the blocking stone of the Talpiot tomb had apparently been missing long before 1980 when the tomb was discovered by the building blast–so the tomb was left open for an extended time and had filled up with soil–covering even the tops of the ossuaries in the inner tomb. Shimron immediately had the idea that deeply scraped samples, below the surface patina, from the bottom and inside of the Talpiot tomb ossuaries, would provide a chemical signature based on the soil absorbed by the porous limestone over the centuries, that could then be used for comparison with other ossuaries–including that of James–to possibly determine provenance. It was a hypothesis at this stage, but one that could be tested.

Shimron thought that the patina comparisons of the James ossuary and those in the Talpiot tomb were important but not wholly definitive–even though they had already pointed in the direction of a connection between the James and Jesus ossuaries. These tests were done by Pellegrino in 2007 (published in the Charlesworth volume) and supplemented with further testing and analysis in 2014 by the late Amnon Rosenfeld (with Krumbein, Pelligrino, Feldman) in an article titled “The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot Tomb,” that I cited above.

Shimron was particularly intrigued the the question of how and when the Talpiot tomb had had its blocking stone dislodged, and filled with soil. I suggested that he take a look at British and PEF aerial photographs of the East Talpiot area when it was bare without any buildings and see if he could learn anything. He followed up on that and discovered clear evidence of tectonic slides specifically at the Armon Hanatziv ridge, where the Jesus tomb is located. He presented his thesis at the Bar Ilan University conference “New Studies on Jerusalem,” arguing that the phenomenon was related to the 363 C.E. earthquake that devastated Jerusalem and the wider region. His presentation was well received and the resulting paper, co-written with Moshe Shirav, “The Armon Hanatziv Tectonic Slide and Some Archaeological Implications,” is now published and is available for download here. I find it quite persuasive and I know Ben will want to carefully read it.

The Talpiot Tomb Soil Fill in East Talpiot. Ben is mistaken about the soil of East Talpiot being the same as soil through the Jerusalem area. He wrote me an e-mail immediately this past Sunday morning after reading the NYTimes piece:

There is no such thing as a chemical fingerprint as is suggested in the report.   There might well be many ossuaries from many places around Jerusalem that ended up in caves which would test out with a similar chemical residue.   Why?  Because the type of seepage and residue is the same in multiple places in Jerusalem.  It’s not specific to the Talpiot tomb!  Jerusalem limestone is Jerusalem limestone, and the ground seepage is bound to be similar in numerous places.

Frankly I found these dogmatic assertions rather amazing. One has to wonder, how Prof. Witherington, a New Testament scholar, would know such things, and would assert his views over those of Dr. Shimron, who has done field-work on this for the past seven years and has professional qualifications.

What Shimron determined is that the soil that had filled the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb was a one-time event in the past. It was not built up over the years with silt and water laid layers of soil, bit by bit. He could determine that from the ossuaries as well as the walls of the tomb itself. The result is that “time stopped,” because of this soil burial. Two things resulted: 1. The buried ossuaries absorbed trace amounts of the chemistry of the soil and muck;  2. Only one kind of material could enter the ossuaries and that was the material in which the ossuaries were  buried. These two left items left their unique chemical signature on the Talpiot and James ossuaries.

When it comes to the issue that all soil in Jerusalem is the same, the fact is that Witherington is just plain wrong. East Talpiot is different than the other regions of Jerusalem. Rendzina soil is characteristic of east Jerusalem, not the rest of Jerusalem, but it is the way in which deeply penetrated the limestone ossuaries that allowed Shimron to test for any possible chemical signature. For example, one of the ossuaries scraped was taken from Talpiot Tomb B--just 60 meters from the Jesus tomb. It is the only one Amos Kloner took out in 1981 and it is in the Israel Antiquities Authority collection ((For a photo and further information on this ossuary see, Tabor and Jacobovici, The Jesus Discovery (Simon & Schuster, 2011), pp. 17-21. We now have an eyewitness account of its removal, supplementing what Prof. Kloner has written, see here.)) Even given the same kind of soil on the same ancient estate–as determined by Joseph Gat the original excavator–Shimron found no characteristic chemical pattern that would link it with the Jesus tomb ossuaries nearby.

Photo taken by the IAA in 1980 showing the soil covering the tops of the ossuaries. Used with Permission.

Photo taken by the IAA in 1980 showing the soil covering the tops of the ossuaries. Used with Permission.

Shimon Gibson is surely right that there are other soil filled tombs in the Jerusalem area. I know of two myself, in the Hinnom Valley, just adjacent to our “Tomb of the Shroud,” discovered in 2000. ((See the scientific report here and implications here and here)) Ossuaries from this area were in fact sampled, including from the Shroud Tomb, and there is no chemical match. Also these tombs were filled by silt and build-up over time, not in one major event. Also the soil is distinctively different.

Shimon Gibson is my colleague here at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, I have excavated with him for 15 years (Suba and Mt Zion), and I consider him to be among the most knowledgeable people on the planet when it comes to the history and archaeology of Jerusalem. In addition, he was present at the original Jesus tomb excavation in 1980 and produced the official map of the tomb. Shimon and I disagree on Talpiot and the Jesus family tomb identification rather sharply, but our interchanges are professional and respectful. He does not accuse me of “leaping” to my conclusions based on flimsy evidence nor do I think him “dense” for not sharing my views. He openly recommends my publications and papers and encourages a wide debate and discussion. Shimon is an honest and open minded person and he does change his views, often, based on new evidence. I feel the same about Chris Rollston and Mark Goodacre, who also disagree with me and me with them, but our ASOR sponsored forum a few years ago was to me a model of proper academic exchange–see the papers, pro and con, archived at bibleinterp.com.

Chemical Fingerprints. Prof. Witherington tells us that “there is no such thing as a chemical fingerprint,” referring to Dr. Shimron’s work. Again, I have no idea how he would know such a thing as a New Testament scholar reacting to a NYTimes story he just read on Sunday. Even Dr. Shimron did not know his results before the tests were done. Ben seems to think one tests for a few stray elements–he mentions phosphorus, chrome and nickel–when it fact as 33 elements are precisely measured. Only with the Talpiot tomb A ossuaries and that of James brother of Jesus did these signatures correspond in a significant way.

I want to also stress that the samples were collected by the Israel Antiquities Authority, not by Dr. Shimron or Simcha Jacobovici, and the tests were lab tests carried out at some of the top scientific facilities in Israel. Dr. Shimron was the one who had the idea and developed the hypothesis–but like all scientific work, everything then has to be tested.

Weathering and PittingProfessor Witherington points out that the main visible way in which the James ossuary differs from the other ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb is its weathered and pitted exterior. He is certainly correct. That’s not an issue with respect to the work that Shimron did. Shimron went beneath the patina, about 2 mm into the ossuary itself to see what had been absorbed over 2,000 years by the limestone. The surface simply doesn’t matter to this test. Having said this, it didn’t matter to Rosenfeld and Krumbein either. What weathering does do is make sense of the 11th ossuary theory i.e., that it was closer to the opening. The Talpiot Jesus tomb had a “porch” or antichamber entrance, before one entered the main tomb complex. It was entirely blown away by the 1980 construction blast. With the missing blocking stone it might well be the case that the James ossuary was near the entrance–placed in the tomb last–having previously been in the Kidron/Hinnom valley area. It explains why somebody could have stolen it in the mid-70s and sold it to Oded Golan. The reason is simple, the James ossuary was near the opening. So not only does it not contradict Shimron’s work, it makes sense of the 11th ossuary theory.

After the ossuaries had been dug out with the exposed entrance. Sunday, March 28,1980. Credit: Maoz Family

After the ossuaries had been dug out with the exposed entrance. Sunday, March 28,1980. Credit: Maoz Family

Not Enough SamplesOded Golan, the owner of the James ossuary is quote in the NYTimes story saying the test sample was much too narrow–and suggesting that one would need to check at least 200-300 tombs to draw the conclusions Shimron has reached. Witherington, in contrast, mercifully reduces the number he thinks would be required:

You would have to do tests on say a 50 ossuaries from various places around Jerusalem and compare them to the ones in the Talpiot tomb before you could come to any sort of scientific conclusions of the sort that are made in this report. (e-mail, April 5, 2015)

In his blog post he echoes the same objection. Again, how Ben would know this I have no idea. Most of us are familiar with “random” sampling, as used in any number of ways in scientific tests. I immediately thought of the analysis of the Qumran cemetery, with up to 1100 graves, done by Joe Zias and others, based on the few dozen that have been “randomly” opened. In this case Shimron carried out tests on approximately 100 samples, three taken from each ossuary, taken from 15 tombs. He did not do only one test on an ossuary. He did not select the ossuaries, the IAA did that. And they were distributed throughout Jerusalem, but included all nine of the Talpiot Jesus tomb ossuaries (the 10th is missing) plus the James ossuary that Oded Golan was kind enough to make available. The results, according to Dr. Shimron, are definitive. I know him to be a very cautious man and he has, along the way, he has always raised sharp scientific questions on issues related to the Jesus tomb. He is willing to say publicly, putting his career on the line, “The evidence could not be stronger than what we have,” linking the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb.”

Traditions on a Tomb of James. Witherington wonders about the traditions of a tomb of James in the Kidron Valley, and whether that would not preclude the James ossuary being placed in the Talpiot tomb.

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 (quoted by Eusebius) 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? 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.

But even if there was an early tomb of James in the Kidron Valley that would not preclude his bones being moved or relocated, to the Jesus family tomb at some point in antiquity–perhaps before the conflagration in 66 CE, whereas the “monument” marking the spot of his death would have then been remembered and revered.

Even though I 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.

Conclusion. This is a story that has been over 10 years in the making, with many complex strands (Talpiot tomb A and B; epigraphy, prosopography, statistics, DNA, and chemical tests) and its controversial nature will not simply disappear. If it were the tomb of any other 1st century Jew we would likely not even have an argument, but since millions believe that Jesus was raised from the dead in his physical body, which was then taken to heaven, theological issues come to play as well. And faith. Simcha was asked in the NBC interview above whether it took “faith” for him to be absolutely persuaded, particularly with this new evidence adding the James ossuary to the mix, that this was the tomb of Jesus and his family. His reply was interesting: Faith only comes into it if you want to believe that it is not.”

Several academics have already begun to suggest how the addition of the James ossuary to the names found in the Talpiot Jesus tomb would affect the probability statistics. You can read a preliminary analysis, “The James Ossuary at Talpiot,” by Kilty and Elliot on-line at Bibleinterp.com here. I encourage everyone to take a look at this article as it considers a wide range of related issues, beyond the new statistical calculations. They are convinced one goes from 48% to 92% probability–that this tomb can be identified with that of Jesus of Nazareth.

The final irony in all this is that folks like Ben Witherington face a real dilemma here. Ben absolutely accepts the high likelihood of the James ossuary–take alone–to Jesus of Nazareth–not just to “any Jesus” of the time. Statistician Camil Fuchs did some impressive work on this question that you can read in the Witherington/Shanks book, James the Brother of Jesus. But if you add this authentic James ossuary to a Talpiot Jesus tomb–the tomb further authenticates the James ossuary and gives it a provenance, while the James ossuary solidifies the identification of the “Jesus son of Joseph” of the tomb with the brother of Jesus. One supports the other, and normally that would be good news, but because of theological assumptions about Jesus’ physical body being taken to heaven–it just can’t be. It is like a man accused of murder, whose wife believes him to be innocent. The man has a rock solid alibi but he fears to tell his wife–or the court.  At the time of the murder he was in bed with her best friend.

My own sense of things, having done historical work on both Jesus and James now over my 35 year career, is that to find them together in life and in death is an incredibly moving thing.

Selected Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

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


Jesus Dynasty Hardcover

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)

Apocalyptic vision:

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

What’s What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary, Part 1

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.


Credit: Lori L. Woodall

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.))


Credit: Lori L. Woodall

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.

Drawing by Shimon Gibson

Drawing by Shimon Gibson

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:

  1. 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?”

Sale Ends Tomorrow: 2-1 Sale: Restoring Abrahamic Faith

SALE ENDS TOMORROW, December 31st.

Many of my blog readers have copies of my book Restoring Abrahamic Faith but I wanted folks to be aware of the annual “Holiday” 2-1 sale on this particular book. I was thinking many who appreciate find this book might find it to be an ideal gift for friends and family. Here are the details on the sale and below is a post from 2010 where I describe the book, its history, and how I came to write it. Unfortunately, due to sky high international postage (more than the cost of the book!), this 2-1 sale is only offered to US domestic customers. I hope to have an e-book version out in 2015. Copies are mailed UPSP Priority Mail and shipped the next business day of the order.

Holiday 2-1 SALE through the end of 2014
Order any quantity of copies of Restoring Abrahamic Faith
and your order will be automatically doubled at no extra cost
All Copies are signed by the author
US Domestic Orders Only

Payments by Credit/Debit or Paypal via genesis2000.org or through Amazon.
Payments by Check to: Genesis 2000 mailed to:
Genesis 2000 Press
2124 Crown Centre Drive, Suite 300
Charlotte, NC 28227


As a professor in a large and thriving Department of Religious Studies in a public/state university I make every effort to keep my personal religious faith and our enterprise as a faculty in the area of the academic study of religion properly separated. There is some debate in our field on this question with arguments on both sides as to what extent one’s implicit religious or political views should become part of the teaching discourse. Although there is no need to avoid matters of religious faith in the classroom, and indeed such matters are part of our study, my position is that personal theology belongs elsewhere–particularly for those in public education.

That said, like Frank Moore Cross and many others in our field who were raised in Christian contexts, I have found myself more personally drawn toward the complex of ideas, concepts, tensions, and even contradictions, reflected in the Hebrew Bible, as I have noted previously in my Blog post “Reflections on the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.”

Back in 1991 I published a little book titled Restoring Abrahamic Faith with a small non-profit publisher called Genesis 2000. It was more or less in response to questions I was getting from many quarters regarding my own “beliefs.” It was mainly an attempt to save my “breath,” so I could refer it to those who were curious about my own personal faith, or the lack thereof.  Also, in the final chapter of my popular book, The Jesus Dynasty, that was intended for general audiences far beyond my academic arena, I did include, a final “Conclusion” that delved into matters of faith and the consequences of historical Jesus studies–mentioning my view of “Abrahamic Faith.” In 2008 in an expanded, 3rd edition was released.  It is now available either directly from the publisher (http://genesis2000.org) or through Amazon. And yes, alas, it also has a Facebook Fan page! You can read the preface to the book on-line here, as well as several endorsements and reviews.