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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.YeshuabarYosef

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

2. Schematic drawing of YeshuabarYehosef

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

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

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

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

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

Mariamene Inscription

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

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

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

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

Think about all we do not know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yonah Inscription

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

03 Original Jonah Image - no cgi copy

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

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

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

God
Owns
All
Eggs

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

Greek Inscription #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talpiot Tomb Fatigue Syndrome

Although many of my colleagues are suffering from a malady called TTFS  (Talpiot tomb fatigue syndrome), and likely view further posts on the subject (especially from me!) akin to “beating a dead horse,” I trust their condition will not be chronic. This is not to be confused with a related but more rare condition TFS (Tabor Fatigue Syndrome) that is easily handled with proper consultation. Nonetheless, I continue to find the vast majority of folk, academics included, are “underinformed” on the subject. I think if I hear the dismissive mantra “The names in the Talpiot tomb are extremely common” again I will be down to my last nerve.

TTFS Image

I have been inundated with calls, emails, Facebook messages, and queries in the comments on my FB pages about all sorts of Talpiot related questions since the story in the New York Times, “Findings Reignite Debate on Claim of Jesus’ Bones,” was published so prominently last week. How many Talpiot tombs are there? Were there bones in the ossuaries? Were DNA tests done and what were the results? Wasn’t the James ossuary inscription shown to be a forgery? Were not these names found in this tomb extremely common? Is there any evidence Jesus was married? How could there be a tomb of Jesus known to his followers and they still report he was resurrected?–and on and on it goes. I realize some are coming to this Jesus tomb story late and are not up on the basic facts. I can’t really tutor everyone who asks about the basics, not because I don’t want to–I am a teacher by trade–but for lack of time. In just about every case the answer to these basic questions are readily at hand. If you read and dig a bit you will learn all you want about the Talpiot tombs rather easily. Here are some places to start, based primarily on my own work on the topic, but also branching out to further resources written by others, most of which are online and readily available.

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. Also, Jacobovici’s 2007 book, The Jesus Family Tomb, remains an indispensable introduction to the subject as a whole.

Then there is the rich volume edited by James Charlesworth, The Tomb of Jesus and His Family (Eerdmans 2013), a wonderful 584 page collection of s from the Jerusalem 2008 Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins covering every aspect of the topic. 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, read my full report on the Society of Biblical Literature web site, “The Meyers/Magness Talpiot Tomb Statement: Some Observations.”

In terms of web resources there is a lot. You might want to begin with my exchange with my friend Jodi Magness, one of the most vocal Talpiot tomb critics (“the Talpiot tomb is not – indeed, cannot – be the tomb of Jesus and his family“) on the Society of Biblical Literature web site, archived here and here. There is quite a bit more archived at the SBL site that you can retrieve by searching for “Talpiot.” The web site Bibleinterp.com has special topical sections on both the Talpiot Tombs and the James ossuary, see here and here. All sorts of papers and documents are archived there and can be downloaded or read online. They represent views both pro and con and cover just about every issue that has been discussed. I would recommend in particular the ASOR papers with exchanges between me, Mark Goodacre, and Chris Rollston, see: The Tombs at Talpiot: An Overview, plus my overview of the Jesus tomb published in Charlesworth’s volume that you can access on-line here: The Case for a Jesus Family Tomb: An Overview. Simcha Jacobovici also has numerous posts on his blog, Simchajtv.com, try searching for “Talpiot.”

There are many dozens–alright hundreds!–of posts on my blog but you might begin with these and follow the links, plus run searches for “Talpiot” or “James” if you are not sated after reading these and want more:

http://jamestabor.com/2007/04/09/the-talpiot-jesus-tomb-an-overview/

http://jamestabor.com/2014/04/02/the-talpiot-jesus-tomb-sorting-through-the-facts-and-the-fictions/

http://jamestabor.com/2015/04/09/how-the-belief-in-the-resurrection-of-jesus-originated-and-developed-a-newold-hypothesis/

http://jamestabor.com/2012/04/14/why-people-are-confused-about-the-earliest-christian-view-of-resurrection-of-the-dead/

http://jamestabor.com/2013/09/30/cold-case-christianity-and-the-resurrection-of-jesus-read-these-five-posts-and-you-will-never-view-things-the-same/

http://jamestabor.com/2012/12/19/a-readers-guide-to-the-unfolding-james-ossuary-story/

http://jamestabor.com/2015/03/26/whats-what-regarding-the-controversial-james-ossuary-part-1/

http://jamestabor.com/2015/04/04/breaking-news-the-controversial-james-ossuary-and-the-talpiot-tomb/

http://jamestabor.com/2015/04/07/ben-witherington-on-the-james-ossuary-and-the-talpiot-jesus-tomb/

http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/15/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-1/

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&Jesus.jpg

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.

PrincetonTalpiot

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.

Breaking News: The Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb

Update: Other Major Media Coverage:

The Jerusalem Post: Geologists Claim Stats, Science, Prove Jesus Buried in Jerusalem with Wife and Supposed Son

NBC News: Geologist Revives Controversy Over Jesus Tomb

Live Science: New Controversy Surrounds Alleged Jesus Family Tomb (see my response here)

CNN: Jesus’ Tomb Story: Does the Evidence Hold Up?

 

Sunday’s New York Times broke a major full-page story (page A-4) based on new chemical tests done on the ossuaries (i.e. lidded limestone bone boxes) from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb comparing it with the controversial “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary. Dr. Aryeh Shimon is interviewed on the results of these tests that compare extensive scrapings from inside and outside ossuaries carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority of comparative ancient tombs of the same period in Jerusalem. Previously, tests had been done on patina, as noted below, but the new tests were of a far more telling nature, accessing the limestone beneath the patina. Limestone ossuaries over time absorb the soil and chemical environs of the tomb they are placed in.  Each tomb has a characteristic chemical profile unique to its environment. Dr. Shimron’s conclusion is that there is an extremely high probability that the James ossuary was originally taken from the Talpiot tomb–either around 1980 when it was discovered, or perhaps earlier–since the tomb itself was unsealed.  I might also point out that an ossuary from the nearby Talpiot tomb B was also sampled, just 60 meters away, and it did not match at all the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb ossuaries (Tomb A). This shows that Tomb A had a very specific and unique chemical environment–even with a tomb quite close by.  Everyone seems to agree in terms of our statistics that adding the James ossuary to the names that are already in the Talpiot tomb changes everything in favor of its high probability of being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, see the calculations by Kilty and Elliot, “The James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.”

TalpiotTomb.jpg

You can read an on-line version of the full New York Times story here:

Dr. Shimron was looking for unusual amounts of elements derived from Rendzina soil, like silicon, aluminum, magnesium, potassium and iron, as well as for specific trace elements, including phosphorus, chrome and nickel — signature components of the type of clayey East Jerusalem soil that he says filled the Talpiot Tomb during the earthquake. The findings, he says, clearly place the James ossuary in the same geochemical group as the Talpiot Tomb ossuaries. “The evidence is beyond what I expected,” he said.

What follows is the backstory on this controversial issue. For an overview of the James ossuary controversy more broadly see my previous post “What is What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary.”

Is the James Ossuary from the Talpiot Tomb?

James&Jesus.jpg

The James and Jesus Ossuaries Side-By-Side

There are four issues to be addressed related to the possibility that the James ossuary came from the Talpiot Jesus tomb.

First, if the James ossuary was in fact the tenth missing ossuary from the tomb, even though it has disappeared, it was definitely catalogued by the authorities at the IAA, apparently measured, and given a registration number. Oded Golan says that he purchased it from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. It is difficult to construct any kind of hypothetical scenario that would have it removed from the IAA collection and end up on the market.

Second, even though the dimensions of the missing ossuary and that of the James ossuary are close, it is also described as plain and broken by Rahmani in his catalogue. Although in 2002 the James ossuary was broken while in transport to the Royal Ontario Museum and subsequently repaired, it was not broken when Golan acquired it. While not elaborately ornamented, it does have faint traces of the beginnings of rosette designs on the side opposite the inscription, so technically it is not “plain.” Rahmani, known for his keen eye and detailed descriptions, would have not likely missed this feature.

Third, Golan has testified that he obtained the ossuary sometime before 1978, providing photographic evidence to support his story, whereas the Talpiot tomb was not excavated until April, 1980. ((See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony: http://bibleinterp.com/articles/authjam358012.shtml )) Although it is possible that it had been looted from the tomb sometime previous to 1980, we don’t know if the entrance to the tomb was visible to passerbys before the construction blast that obliterated its outside front entrance or porch, making it stand out even from the road below.

Finally, since Hegesippus reports, in the second century CE, that the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City, how and when would James’s ossuary have been moved to the Talpiot tomb?

Sometimes it seems impossible to fit all the pieces of a complex puzzle together but it is nonetheless important to have those pieces in view. Recently new evidence has come to light that not only supports the case for the James ossuary originating in the Talpiot tomb, but addresses these major objections in an unanticipated way. We are now in a position to put all that evidence together with some compelling new results.

Recently a group of scientists headed by Amnon Rosenfeld of the Israel Geological Society published a summary of their own work on the authenticity of the patina inside the inscribed letters of the James ossuary. Rosenfeld was on the original team at the IGS that had authenticated the patina on the ossuary in 2002. They conclude:

The most important indication that the inscription “Ya’akov Son of Josef Brother of Jesus” is authentic is the beige patina that can be found inside the letters, accreting gradationally into the inscription. The patina can be observed on the surface of the ossuary continuing into the engraving. . .These minerals and the circular pitting within the thin layers of the beige to gray patina were found on the surface of the ossuary and, more importantly, within the letters of the inscription. They indicate biological activity and are the product of airborne and/or subaerial geo-bio activity that covers all surfaces of the ossuary . . .indicative of slow growth over many years. ((“The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot (Jesus Family Tomb) Ossuaries” on-line at: http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/JOT.shtml. The two other principal investigators were H. R. Feldman, Division of Paleontology, Touro College and W. E. K. Krumbein, Department of Geomicrobiology at the Carl von Ossietzky Universität, Oldenburg.))

The team then turned to an evaluative analysis of the scientific tests done in 2006 on the comparative chemical composition of the patina accretions on ossuaries taken from various ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area. The premise of the tests was that ossuaries accumulate distinctive and measurable biochemical “signatures” based on the cave environments in which they have spent the past two millennia. ((Peak elements such as silicon, phosphorous, titanium, iron, aluminum, and potassium are compared according to their ratios.)) Patina samples were taken from the James ossuary, three ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb (Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene, and Matthew) and ossuaries from thirteen other burial caves in the area. By comparing these signatures one can determine if the James ossuary had developed its patina in that particular “tomb” environment:

Among the examined 14 burial caves was also the Talpiot cave. Six Talpiot tomb wall and ceiling patinas were sampled December 14th, 2006 (op. cit.). The elemental spectra of the samples were examined by SEM-EDS in the Suffolk Crime Lab (NY). Each sample was analyzed (SEM-EDS) in at least 3 different locations. The differences between tombs were easily discerned by the elemental fingerprints. The quantitative variability of the elements (patina fingerprint) within an individual tomb (wall patina, ceiling patina, ossuary patina) were small, 5% or less. ((See Rosenfeld, et. al., op. cit. and Rosenfeld, A. and S. Ilani. 2002. SEM-EDS analyses of patina samples from an ossuary of “Ya‟akov son of Yossef brother of Yeshua.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6 (2002):29.))

Even tombs that shared a similar rock formation in close proximity to one another nonetheless had their own distinctive chemical signatures. The results showed that the James ossuary shared the same chemical signature as the three tests ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb as well as the walls and ceiling of that tomb. In contrast, the James ossuary patina signature differed considerably from any of the other thirteen burial caves. ((The full study by Charles Pelligrino, “The Potential Role of Patina History in Discerning the Removal of Specific Artifacts from Specific Tombs,” in The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls: The Fourth Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins, pp. 233-243, eds. James H. Charlesworth and Arthur C. Boulet (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, forthcoming, 2011). ))

Rosenfeld and his colleagues suggest that based on these patina fingerprints the James ossuary was more likely a looted eleventh ossuary, rather than the missing tenth ossuary that had been catalogued by the IAA in 1980 and discarded or misplaced. They observed that the James ossuary was weathered intensively with massive pitting and striations.

JamesOssuaryDecorated.jpgNone of the other nine ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb show this kind of weathering. They concluded, on the basis of this weathering, that the James ossuary had been exposed to the elements for at least 200 years. Since we know that the blocking stone was missing from the tomb when it was examined in 1980, and the tomb itself was filled with the local terra rosa soil to a depth of two feet, covering the tops of the ossuaries in the niches, the James ossuary had likely been nearer the exposed doorway of the tomb, where the fill was more shallow. When or how James ossuary would have been taken from the Talpiot tomb we cannot determine. It might have been a number of years before the 1980 excavation of the tomb, or it could have been looted the first night when front porch of the tomb was blown open and exposed, before the IAA officials arrived to begin their work. If it were close to the entrance it would have been the only ossuary seen inside by looters since the others were covered with soil.

During the trial Oded Golan presented photos taken in 1976 in his parents’ apartment showing that he possessed the James ossuary, with its full inscription at that time—before the excavation of the Talpiot tomb in 1980. A photographic expert, former head of the Department of Photography and Documentation at the FBI, found no possibility that the photos were made at a later time. ((See Oded Golan’s summary of the trial testimony cited above.))

Golan Shelf

If the James ossuary inscription is authentic and it comes from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, what about the late second century CE report by the Christian chronicler Hegesippus who says the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City wall, where James was murdered? It hardly seems likely that the tomb of James was once in that location and then subsequently moved to the Talpiot tomb. We suggest that there well might have been some kind of monument to James in that area but we know little of Hegesippus, who spent his career in Rome. We can’t assume that he is reporting any kind of eyewitness account. In Rome there are reports of tombs and monuments to both Peter and Paul in several locations. ((See Graydon F. Snyder, Ante-Pacem, pp. 180-189.)) Monuments were assumed, over the ages, to be tombs, and tombs might not have monuments. The fourth century church historian Eusebius, for example, quotes an unknown writer named Gaius who says: “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.” ((Eusebius, Church History 2. 25. 7.)) We are not certain if he means some kind of monument, pillar, or relic, or is he speaking of a tomb. Clement of Rome, who lived just a few decades after the deaths of Peter and Paul, mentions their martyrdom but seems to know little of any circumstances and mentions no tomb locations (1 Clement 5:3-7).

Today there are several monumental tombs in the Kidron Valley, dating to the late Hellenistic period (200-100 BCE) that are variously identified as the “Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the “Tomb of Zechariah,” the “Pillar of Absolom,” and a tomb inscribed as that of a priestly family,that is sometimes identified as the “Tomb of James.” On Mount Zion today, the southwest hill of Jerusalem, millions of pilgrims visit what is called “the tomb of David,” though most scholars locate it further to the south, outside the city of David. No one takes any of these sites and locations seriously as historically connected to these figures.  They are part of hagiographic traditions that Christians developed in the late Byzantine period down through the Crusades.

Even though we had initially suggested the possibility of the missing tenth ossuary being that of James, based on the similar dimensions and the patina fingerprints that seemed to place it in the Talpiot tomb, we must always adapt our views to new evidence. ((Jacobovici and Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb, pp. 175-192 and James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (paperback, 2007), pp. 319-331.)) Shimon Gibson had suggested this theory of a missing eleventh ossuary to us back in 2006, when he recalled that the ten ossuaries inside the niches, and removed to the Rockefeller, had been covered with soil. When the IAA archaeologists arrived on a Friday morning, March 28, 1980, the first day of the excavation, they took photos and there is no evidence of any ossuaries having been dug out of the niches. But it is entirely possible, since patina tests show the James ossuary spent much of its history over the past two millennia in the Talpiot tomb environment, that it was near the door, less covered with soil, and thus easy to carry off. By whom or when we will likely never know.

Jacobovici Responds to Bauckham Review of “Lost Gospel”

Update: Bauckham has now posted Parts 3 his review of the book here as well as Part 4 which is a counter-response to Jacobovici’s initial response to his Parts 1 & 2, here.

Last week Richard Bauckham began a serial publication of his detailed assessment of the new book, The Lost Gospel, by Simcha Jacovovici and Barrie Wilson via Mark Goodacre’s blog. Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus Vatican grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica.

Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus Vatican grottoes under St. Peter’s Basilica.

Simcha has just posted a detailed response to Parts 1 and 2 at his Web site here and here. This respectful and informative exchange is most welcome.

Update: Bauckham has now posted Parts 3 his review of the book here as well as Part 4 which is a counter-response to Jacobovici’s initial response to his Parts 1 & 2, here.

Simcha also offers an overview of the thesis of his new book in a Huffington Post blog post, “Jesus’ Marriage to Mary Magdalene is Fact Not Fiction,” that is trending “most popular” on the Religion Home page this morning with 4.4K “likes”

In related news the Washington Post issued a correction and an apology for its initial story on the new book in which the writer had incorrectly asserted that Discovery TV, that produced Simcha’s 2002 documentary on the “James ossuary,” had called it “one of the top ten hoaxes of all time.” Neither Discovery nor any of its agents ever made no such statement and the source was actually Joe Zias, whom Simcha is suing for just that sort of libel. In fact Discovery aired two of Simcha’s subsequent documentaries on the Talpiot Tombs (“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” (2007) and “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery” (2010), both of which it still promotes on its web site). The companion documentary to the Lost Gospel titled the “Bride of God” that will air on Discovery Science, December 14 and 21.

Simcha has also responded to Bill O’Reilly’s charge that he is “stupid” and that Jesus never had any brothers or sisters, see here.

 

A Married Jesus: Why I Changed My Mind (Part 4)

In early Christian tradition outside the New Testament Mary Magdalene’s profile is elaborated considerably, she is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her against the criticism of the other apostles who are jealous of her role and standing.

N.B. To better explore the texts quoted in this post, examining their relevance, history, and wider context, see my post on Marvin Meyer’s book, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus,” and particularly the movingly challenging conclusion by Esther A. de Boer, “‘Should We All Turn and Listen to Her?’ Mary Magdalene in the Spotlight.” I also highly recommend the recent article by Birger Pearson, one of the world’s experts on these “gnostic” materials, addressing the question “Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus?” which I posted with some comments here.

Mary Magdalene as the Apostle of the Apostles

            We have seen how Mary Magdalene, and in some case her female entourage, are portrayed as “first witness” to Jesus’ empty tomb and given the commission to tell the male disciples he is risen in our New Testament gospels. In Mark the women flee from the tomb and say nothing to anyone (Mark 16:9). In Luke they report to the Eleven remaining apostles but their testimony is considered an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In Matthew, as the women flee the tomb they meet Jesus, grab hold of his feet, and worship him, and he directs them to tell the male apostles he will meet them in Galilee (Matthew 28:9-10). Finally in John, Mary goes alone to the tomb and has her personal encounter and exchange with Jesus, thus becoming the singular first witness to Jesus raised from the dead and ascending to heaven (John 20:11-18).

Outside the New Testament there are a dozen or so ancient texts, most of them discovered in the last hundred years, that present an alternative “lost” portrait of Mary Magdalene and her role as Jesus’ female apostle extraordinaire—quite literally the apostle of the apostles and the successor to Jesus. Five of them were discovered in Egypt in 1945, buried in a jar in a field outside a village called Nag Hammadi.  These texts are:  The Gospel of ThomasThe Dialogue of the SaviorThe First Apocalypse of JamesThe Gospel of Philip, and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. The others, including Pistis SophiaThe Gospel of Mary, and the Acts of Philip, have turned up in various places, whether on the antiquities market, an archaeological dig, or lost or forgotten in ancient libraries. In these texts Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ intimate confidant and companion, one who possesses unparalleled spiritual insights that she received directly from him. She is praised, but also at times opposed—especially by Peter, leader of the male apostles, who is threatened by her position and status based on her special relationship with Jesus. These texts originate outside the mainstream, that is, the male dominated form of orthodox Christianity that began to take hold and triumph down to the time of Constantine, the first Christian emperor (c. 325 CE). The canonical New Testament, with its twenty-seven approved documents were increasingly seen to be the only authorized texts, inspired by God, while these other sacred texts were marginalized, declared heretical, and eventually lost and forgotten. They are witness to the diverse mix of “Christianities” that were developing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE before a more singular orthodoxy, backed by Christian councils and creeds, took center stage.

Professor Schaberg has constructed a working profile of Mary Magdalene from these texts, isolating the major elements. She is prominent among the followers of Jesus, she speaks boldly and is often in open conflict with the male disciples, she is an intimate companion of Jesus and he praises her for her superior spiritual understanding and defends her.[i]

Each of these texts contains an assortment of these elements but one in particular, The Gospel of Mary, has them all. This is an extraordinary text. Before there were only gospels of men but now we have a gospel of a woman—not just any woman—Mary Magdalene. A fragmentary copy of The Gospel of Mary was purchased in Cairo in 1896. It is written in Coptic but was likely translated from a Greek original. It dates to the early 2nd century.[ii] In this text Mary Magdalene is a beloved disciple of Jesus, taking center stage in leading the apostles and encouraging them. Peter is jealous of her, but admits her status as one closer to Jesus than anyone else, and more important, one who received revelations that the male disciples were not privy to:

Peter said to Mary: “Sister we know the savior loved you more than any other woman. Tell us the words of the savior that you remember, which you know but we do not, because we have not heard them.” Mary answered and said, “What is hidden from you I shall reveal to you” (Gospel of Mary 10).[iii]

As she begins to recount her visionary message both Peter and his brother Andrew express doubts about her veracity and question her authority. Peter objects:

Did he really speak with a woman in private without our knowledge? Should we all turn and listen to her? Did he prefer her to us? (Gospel of Mary 18).

Levi, who is better known as Matthew in the New Testament, defends her and rebukes Peter:

If the savior made her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the savior knows her well. That is why he has loved her more than us (Gospel of Mary 18).

The message Mary reveals, in this and many of these other texts, has been characterized as Gnostic, but most scholars consider the term to be less than helpful in characterizing the Christian groups reflected in these texts with their alternative versions of Christianity. It tends to lump them together as a monolithic whole.[iv] In my analysis I am not so much interested in the content as the framework of the profile of Mary Magdalene and her prominent status alongside Jesus.

The Gospel of Philip is a beautifully written “gnostic” sermon by the followers of the brilliant 2nd century early Christian mystic and teacher, Valentinus. Some have even suggested he is the author of the text. It only refers to Mary Magdalene twice, but both passages are noteworthy:

Three women walked with the master: Mary his mother, [his] sister, and Mary Magdalene, who is called his companion. For “Mary” is the name of his sister, his mother, and his companion (Gospel of Philip 59:6-10).

The companion of the [savior] is Mary Magdalene. The [savior loved] her more than [all] the disciples, [and he] kissed her often on her [mouth]. The other [disciples] said to him, Why do you love her more than all of us? (Gospel of Philip 63:32-64, 9).

The word translated “companion” means his partner or consort. There is a worm hole in the papyrus right at the point where it says Jesus used to kiss Mary often on the …? Most scholars have restored this to “mouth.”  Whether this relationship between the two involved sexual intimacy or not, scholars have debated, but given what we know of Valentinian ideas it most likely did. It was considered a “sacred union,” but it was nonetheless carried out through the vehicle of the body.[v]

Pistis Sophia contains a series of questions asked of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene has the most prominent role among the disciples. She asks thirty-nine of the forty-six questions and offers elegant teachings about the nature of life in the world.  Jesus extravagantly praises her:

Blessed Mary, you whom I shall complete with all the mysteries on high, speak openly, for you are one whose heart is set on heaven’s kingdom more than all your brothers (Pistis Sophis 18).

Peter complains about her, telling Jesus “we cannot endure this woman,” but Jesus praises her pure spiritual insights and declares her the most blessed of all women.

Scholars who work on these texts generally do not take the prominent and privileged portrait of Mary Magdalene reflected therein unmediated history. Clearly the accounts themselves have been embellished and elaborated for theological reasons. However, it is generally agreed that since she becomes the vehicle for these alternative forms of emerging Christianity her special role in the life of the historical Jesus, more muted in our New Testament gospels, was not a fictional creation lacking any basis whatsoever. Many of them come from the 2nd century CE and are accordingly not so far removed from the earlier Christian oral tradition.

Mary Magdalene and the Talpiot Tombs

 We live in an age of the rediscovery of long lost texts and ancient manuscripts that are adding immensely to our understanding of early Christianity. Along with the exposure of the archaeology of ancient Jerusalem, we truly stand on new ground as we seek to evaluate the evidence found in the Talpiot tombs, especially with regard to Mariamene Mara and her role in Jesus’ life and family.

Given the collective evidence, and particularly the unique tradition that the gospel of John adds to the core story of Mary Magdalene from Mark and Matthew, it seems entirely plausible that the enigmatic figure of Mary Magdalene as first witness to Jesus’ resurrection can be seen alongside that of “Mary of Bethany,” and the unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ head as well as his feet and dries them with her hair. These are acts of intimacy, as is the preparation of his body for burial, seem most appropriate for a wife. The fact that her first impulse on seeing Jesus resurrected was to touch him, further suggest the intimate relationship between them.  Taken together, these texts along with the later 2nd century “gnostic” ones, provide us with a broader context in which the evidence form the Talpiot tombs can be read in a new light. Jesus may very well have been married and had a son named Judah, and to reject this tomb as that of Jesus of Nazareth on the grounds that he could not have been, is based on traditional bias and misguided criteria.

The position of Mary of Bethany in the gospel of John also offers a new interpretive possibility for the names in the Talpiot tomb. If the traditions about her and about Mary Magdalene are confused, as they seem to be in the New Testament gospels, then Mary Magdalene might well have had a sister named Martha. Some scholars have read the Mariamene Mara ossuary inscription as Mariam and Mara—referring to two women named Mary and Martha. I am convinced otherwise, namely that Mara is more likely a title of honor for Mariamene, but having these two sisters, “Mary and Martha,” buried together in a single ossuary, one the mother of Jesus’ son, the other her unmarried sister, would also fit closely with the thesis that the Talpiot Jesus tomb is the family tomb of Jesus.


[i] Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 71-97.

[ii] Karen L. King, The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle (Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge Press, 2003) is the most thorough study of this text with a full introduction and translation. Since the discovery of the Coptic manuscript two additional fragments in Greek have turned up. King includes them as well in her analysis.

[iii] Translations of these Mary Magdalene related texts that of Marvin Meyer, The Gospels of Mary: The Secret Tradition of Mary Magdalene the Companion of Jesus (New York: Harper SanFrancisco, 2004).

[iv] See Schaberg’s observations in Mary Magdalene Understood, pp. 68-71.

[v] See April D. DeConick, The Great Mystery of Marriage: Sex and Conception in Ancient Valentinian Traditions,” Vigiliae Christianae 57 (2003): 307-342.

 

A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 3)

The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.

We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.

A Married Jesus and the Silence of the New Testament

            Even though there is no explicit reference to Jesus being married in any of the four gospels or other New Testament writings the silence might turn out to be less deafening than one would suppose. There are several factors one must consider in making the judgment that he lived a celibate single life.[i]

First, it is important to realize that we know very little about the historical Jesus. What historians are relatively certain about could be written down on a single piece of paper. What we have in the gospels are not biographies of Jesus—far from it—but theological presentations regarding his preaching, healing, and in particular the significance of his death and resurrection. They contain almost no personal information. The gospel of Mark, for example, never names or mentions Jesus’ father while the gospel of John never names his mother. We have one childhood story, when he was twelve years old, and most scholars consider it a standard literary motif, not a historical account (Luke 2:41-52).[ii] We know nothing of his life beyond that point, including his teens and 20s when most Jewish males were expected to marry.

Second, in regards to the Twelve apostles, no wife is specifically mentioned or named for any of them. None of their children are mentioned or named—how many, what they did, or any personal details about them. Most of the Twelve, with the exception of Peter, hardly speak at all in our gospel accounts—a few lines at most.

This silence hardly means that none of them were married. In fact, there is a reference to Peter’s mother-in-law, whom Jesus healed of a fever in Mark 1:30—but her name is never given. Paul refers to the wives of the other apostles and the brothers of Jesus, but again, no names are given (1 Corinthians 9:5). He even mentions that these women accompanied their husbands on their missionary travels. We are dealing here with a culture in which countless women are largely forgotten and unknown, their voices muted by the dominant male culture in which men are seen as the main players.[iii]

Third, celibacy was not considered an ideal or valued lifestyle among Jews in the Greco-Roman period. Even though it is mistakenly believed that the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, valued and practiced celibacy, this notion is a pure invention. They were one of the three major Jewish groups of this period, along with Pharisees and Sadducees. This misunderstanding stems from the reports of Josephus the Jewish historian (37-100 CE), Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish Hellenistic philosopher (20 BCE-50 CE), and Pliny, the Elder, a Roman official (23-79 CE) about the Essenes. Each of these writers projected their own admiration of celibate idealism onto the Essenes, though, ironically, each of these writers was married. Josephus, for example, in writing of the sect of the Essenes, makes the following observation about women and marriage:

They [the Essenes] do not absolutely deny the value of marriage, and the succession of the human race is thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man.[iv]

Such a negative attitude toward women commended here by Josephus, who was unhappily married three times has no basis in history. Philo writes:

[the Essenes] repudiate marriage; and at the same time they practice self-control to a remarkable degree; for no one of the Essenes ever marries a wife, because a wife is a selfish creature, addicted to jealousy and skilled at beguiling the morals of her husband and seducing him by her continued deceptions.[v]

Pliny the Elder says that the Essenes “have no women and have renounced all sexual desire.[vi] We know that what each of these men claim about the Essenes is untrue. What is most telling here is that none of these three were celibate, all were married.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, representing over 600 texts of the period before and after the time of Jesus, were discovered hidden away in caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between 1947 and 1956, never hint at celibacy, but quite the opposite. Like other pious Jews of the time, they strictly adhered to the first commandment in the Torah: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 1:28). The Scrolls are full of instructions about marriage, divorce, and avoiding fornication, or sex outside of marriage.[vii]

Jesus as well as John the Baptist have been rightly connected to the apocalyptic and messianic ideas in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Though neither was likely a formal member of the Dead Sea community, there are common ideas they share. Since the Dead Sea community is most often identified as Essenes, and it is mistakenly assumed that the Essenes practiced celibacy, the argument is often made that Jesus’ own celibacy arises out of this context

It is true that the New Testament says nothing about either Jesus or John being married, but such silence is part of the cultural norm. It is the same with the rabbis that we know from this period. There are few explicit statements about rabbis being married in the rabbinic sources, but we can be sure that marriage was the norm and not to be married an anomaly. Entire tractates of Jewish Law deal with marriage, divorce, and what is forbidden and allowed in terms of sexual behavior. As a Jew of his time we should assume that Jesus was married unless we have some statement to the contrary.

Finally, the apostle Paul is the major Jewish figure of the time who does in fact commend, but not require, celibacy, based primarily on his notion that the apocalyptic end of the age has drawn very near (1 Corinthians 7: 26, 29, 31). His was a “situational” celibacy; a practical choice one might make in view of the stressful times that he believed were imminent. Paul recommends celibacy for those who can handle a non-sexual life, but he knows most simply cannot and end up falling into fornication (1 Corinthians 7:2).

It is entirely possible, even likely, that Paul had been married earlier in his life.[viii] He says that he “advanced in Judaism beyond many of his own age,” indicating that he had formal training as a Pharisee, presumably in Jerusalem (Galatians 1:14). Since for Paul the end of the age was at hand, he thought it inopportune to invest one’s life in a gendered humanity that was soon to be transformed into a state where there would be “neither male nor female.” Paul expected to live to see a cosmic transformation—a new creation in which birth and death, and mortal states of life in general would pass away.

One of the strongest indicators that Jesus was married comes from Paul directly.   He quotes Jesus freely on the prohibition against divorce, but fails to use a celibate Jesus as his major model to back his position on celibacy (1 Corinthians 7:25). In fact he says quite the opposite, that when it comes to celibacy: “I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25). Had Jesus been unmarried he would have undoubtedly said that all men should live like him, following the celibate ideal espoused by the Lord, but he says nothing of the kind. In this case Paul’s silence indicates that he certainly did not think Jesus was unmarried. Given these considerations one can conclude with some degree of confidence, that Jesus was most likely married, and married people at that time usually had children, as the first commandment required.

The reason it is so difficult for people today to think of Jesus as a normally married Jew of his time and culture has little to do with the fact that his wife and child are not mentioned in our meager sources. It is based on an ideal of Christian asceticism that began to develop among the church fathers and mothers very early on in the 2nd century CE.

This was not based on any historical memory of an unmarried Jesus but rather upon Paul’s commendation of celibacy—now removed from its apocalyptic conditional context.

The celibacy these Christian leaders embraced was based on an aversion to the material world and the body, seen as inferior to the unseen spiritual realities of the heavenly realms. Christians rejected this world, even hated this world, with all its imperfections. They turned their attention wholly toward the heavenly, nonmaterial world beyond. This dualistic view of the cosmos owes little to the historical Jesus the Jew and everything to Hellenistic philosophy and its ascetic ideal.[ix] Unfortunately, the negative view of women already so rife in the dominant cultural norms of the time was radically advanced by the Christian philosophers and theologians since women, and the sexual temptations they represented for men, were shunned as the ultimate obstacle to a higher spirituality. Tertullian, often called the “father of Latin Christianity,” best represents this radically misogynous trend that remains deeply ingrained in Western Christian culture to this day. Although he believed that even women could be saved by God’s grace, he warned them that the whole responsibility for the human condition lay with Eve and her successors:

You are the gateway of the devil; you are the one who unseals the curse of that tree, and you are the first one to turn your back on the divine law; you are the one who persuaded him whom the devil was not capable of corrupting; you easily destroyed the image of God, Adam. Because of what you deserve, that is, death, even the Son of God had to die.[x]

The brilliant 4th century Augustine of Hippo carried forward  Paul’s  perspectives and pressed their implications to the limit. He faced sexual temptations his entire life, even fathering a child with his lover, but he sought to suppress his lust by choosing a rigorously ascetic life. His famous dictim; inter faeces et uriname nascimur—“We are born between feces and urine,” yet with an immortal soul, lay at the root of his attraction and aversion to women.  Perhaps the most notorious example of this unfortunate development in Christianity was the 5th century Latin theologian Jerome, the most learned of the Church Fathers. His savage condemnation of women and human sexuality was only matched by his disparagement of the “Old Testament” Law and those Jews who did not respond to Christ. He connected the two by arguing that the Old Testament was “carnal,” of the flesh, whereas Christ was spiritual and pure, from above. The virginal Christ, removed from the filth of sex, showed humankind the way to escape their fleshly bonds and achieve heavenly perfection. He even went so far as to state that a husband can best show his love of his wife by abstaining from all sexual intercourse, even in marriage. He opposed bathing, makeup, and female adornment, and saw sex, symbolized by the female temptress, as fit for pigs and dogs. Jerome wrote openly about his bouts with sexual temptations.[xi] Given this dualistic orientation towards the heavenly world and denigration of sex and birth—and therefore women as the vehicle of both, one can readily see how Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Mary the mother of Jesus, and even Joseph her husband had to be cast as living a non-sexual life. The belief that Jesus must be a perpetual virgin is firmly grounded in 2nd and 3rd century CE asceticism, not in Jesus’s own life and times.

Mary Magdalene as Sinner and Whore

            It is an easy step from this stream of dualistic misogynist thinking, the core of emerging fourth and fifth century Christianity, to recasting the New Testament figure of Mary Magdalene as a sinner and even a whore. None of eleven New Testament texts that mention her present her in any negative light whatsoever. On the contrary, as we have seen, she is the leader of the band of faithful Galilean women who stand by Jesus at the cross.  Even when the men have fled in fear she prepares spices and perfumed oils in order to complete the Jewish rites of burial, and she becomes a first witness to the empty tomb and Jesus’ resurrection. She enters and exits the scene in the space of a few pages of our texts—never to appear again in any New Testament text.

There are three scenes in Mark, Luke, and John respectively that recount how Jesus was anointed with a flask of costly scented oil by a woman. As they now stand in our texts they are not the same narrative, yet their core elements are so similar they appear to be three versions of the “same” story—namely of a woman anointing Jesus.

In the gospel of Mark the scene takes place in Bethany, a small village on the backside of the Mount of Olives, just east of the city of Jerusalem, two days before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion (Mark 14:3-9).[xii] Jesus is dining as a guest in the house of one called Simon the leper, otherwise unknown. A woman arrives with a flask of pure nard ointment, broke it, and poured it over Jesus’ head. Some at the dinner protested that such a costly ointment had been wasted and could have been sold and given to the poor for 300 denarii—which would be a year’s wages for a day laborer. Jesus defends the unnamed woman’s action, saying “You always have the poor with you. She had done a beautiful thing.” He then declares:

She has done what she could. She has anointed my body for burying. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her (Mark 14:8-9).

The gospel of John seems to know a very similar story (John 12:1-8; 11:1-3). Again the scene is in Bethany, but six days before the crucifixion, and at dinner in the house of the two sisters, Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Martha is serving but Mary took a pound of costly ointment of pure nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped them with her hair. Judas Iscariot, who was to betray Jesus, objected that the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor. The text points out that he did this out of greed not care for the poor, for he served as bursar of the group and used to pilfer the funds. Jesus replied:

Let her alone; let her keep it for the day of my burial. The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me (John 12:7).

In both texts the woman has a prophetic role—anointing Jesus’ body beforehand as if he were already dead; she is commended for her actions, as if she somehow “knows” more than the others, perhaps without even realizing it herself, while the others miss the point of her actions entirely. In John the woman is named—Mary of Bethany, and her family has already been introduced (John 11). In Mark she is unidentified, with the irony that her story will be told perpetually “in memory of her.” John’s account is more shocking, since the anointing of the feet, and especially the wiping of the feet with her hair, either implies a shockingly inappropriate intimacy, or a familial bond, since men and women who are not married would never touch in this way. The hair of a woman is considered sexually provocative and was to be covered, as in conservative Middle Eastern societies today, both Jewish and Muslim.[xiii] In that sense the story is scandalous, foreshadowing the attempt of Mary Magdalene to prepare spices and anoint the corpse of Jesus when he is dead. The problem is, Mary of Bethany is not Mary Magdalene—or is she? Mark had emphasized that Mary Magdalene and her entourage came from Galilee, whereas John introduces her at the crucifixion scene as an intimate family member, standing with Jesus’ mother.

It is impossible to reconcile these differences in any forced harmony. Mark and John clearly have the same story, but their details are simply different. The strong implication in John is that Mary of Bethany is otherwise known as Mary Magdalene, and she is either married to him or otherwise considered like a sister, a part of the family. Mark knows nothing of this and never mentions Mary of Bethany.

Luke’s story recasts everything (Luke 7:36-50). The setting is in Galilee, not Jerusalem, weeks if not months before Jesus’ death. Jesus is dining at the house of a man named Simon, though it is not said he is a leper. A woman comes in off the street, unnamed, uninvited and unannounced, but known to the village as a “sinner,” which implies she was a whore. The diners are reclining, in Greco-Roman banquet style, and she stands behind Jesus at his feet and begins to weep, wetting his feet with her hair, kissing them, and anointing them with oil. Nothing is said about the cost of the oil and the objection is not the waste but that Jesus would permit himself to be touched by such a sexually promiscuous woman and not realize, were he a prophet, her sinful status. Simon objects and Jesus rebukes him, commending the woman for her uninvited hospitality in welcoming him, washing his feet, and loving him. He declares:

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.

He then turns to the woman and says to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” The dinner guests were even more scandalized that he could claim the right to forgive sins.

Some have doubted the parallel accounts in Mark and John are related to this one, but most scholars, knowing that Luke is using Mark as his narrative source, are convinced he is deliberately recasting the scene to disparage Mary Magdalene. He drops the anointing scene entirely from the last days of Jesus’ life, moves it to Galilee and puts it much earlier. Why would he do this?

The answer is most likely that he wants to subtly disparage Mary Magdalene. Immediately following his anointing story he introduces her by name but presents her as a terribly deranged woman, possessed with seven demons that Jesus had cast out! (Luke 8:2). Later, when he introduces the women from Galilee who stood by at Jesus’ crucifixion, he does not mention their names or put Mary Magdalene at their head. He records no appearance of Jesus to Mary Magdalene at the empty tomb, as do Matthew and John.  Knowing how deeply embedded she is in early Christian tradition, Luke can not write her out of the story completely, he can minimize and disparage her role. Later in his narrative, as a further way of distancing himself from the anointing story in the gospel of John, he presents two sisters, Mary and Martha, but has them living far outside of Jerusalem, somewhere in Galilee to the north (Luke 13:22).

The Gospel of Peter, discovered in fragments in Egypt in the 1890s, adopts and further appropriates Luke’s marginalization of Mary Magdalene. In this text Peter is prominent, narrating the events surrounding Jesus’ empty tomb, but no women are mentioned at Jesus’ crucifixion scene, standing faithfully while the men fled. Although Mary Magdalene is mentioned, and even called a mathetria—a female disciple of Jesus, who comes early Sunday morning with her friends to mourn inside the tomb, most significantly Jesus never appears to the women and they receive no commission to go and spread the good news of the resurrection to the male disciples (Gospel of Peter 12:50).

Luke’s strategy had a lasting effect. Readers of the gospels later found it easy to conflate the stories. First, it became common and accepted to identify Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and brother of Lazarus. As early as the late 2nd century, Tertullian had already equated Mary Magdalene as the “woman who was a sinner.”[xiv] This salacious identification stuck. The image of Jesus as the all forgiving one—the friend of prostitutes and sinners—was both irresistible and sexually provocative. The idea of the sinful woman, like Eve, seduced by the Devil, but now redeemed, could serve as the story of all women.[xv] It was Pope Gregory the Great (540-604 CE) who sealed her fate. He conflated John’s story of Mary of Bethany with the sinful woman who anoints Jesus in Luke, and declared both women were Mary Magdalene.  He waxed on as to how Mary the whore, who once perfumed herself to seduce men, flirted with her eyes, arranged her hair, and made use of her lips, now turned all those elements in chaste service to the Lord—anointing him, weeping and wiping the tears with her hair, and kissing his feet.[xvi]

In the Middle Ages Mary Magdalene became wildly popular with legends growing up regarding her missionary travels to Europe. She became the penultimate model of the hopeless sinner, transformed from a sexually fallen woman to a chaste and forgiven saint. All over Europe there are hundreds of shrines and churches dedicated to her with her supposed relics. Her feast days are among the most popular on the church calendar. It was not until the late 1970s that the Roman Catholic Church officially repudiated the connection between Luke’s sinful woman and Mary Magdalene. Ironically, on a more popular level, the myth continues and most people still think of Mary Magdalene as the deranged whore whom Jesus redeemed, spurred on by films, plays, and books such as Martin Scorsece’s The Last Temptation of Christ (based on Kazantzakis’s novel), and of course Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s an image too hard to resist and yet if the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of the Jesus family and Mariamene can be identified with the historical Mary Magdalene, then the alternative untold story is perhaps even more compelling.

The fourth and final installment is here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/18/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-4/

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.


[i] For a typical defenses of the idea Jesus was not married by an evangelical Christian writer see, http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/Christianity/2003/11/Was-Jesus-Married.aspx.

[ii] Josephus mentions a similar story about his own precociousness at age fourteen, see Life 9.

[iii] See Sarah Pomeroy, Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves: Women in Classical Antiquity (New York: Schoken Books, 1995).

[iv] Josephus, War 2. 121.

[v] Philo, Hypothetica 11. 14

[vi] Pliny the Elder, Natural History 5. 73.

[vii] See the excerpt on celibacy among the Essenes by Lawrence Shiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, The Anchor Bible Reference Library  (New York: Doubleday, 1995), pp. 127-144, available on-line: http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Celibacy_of_the_Essenes,_Lawrence_H._Schiffman,_Reclaiming_the_Dead_Sea_Scrolls,_Jewish_Publication_Society,_Philadelphia.

[viii] Like Jesus Paul forbids divorce, reflecting a primordial ideal, but his assertion that a Christian abandoned by an “unbelieving” mate was free from the bonds of marriage might well reflect his own experience (1 Corinthians 7: 12-16).

[ix] See Daniel Boyarin, A Radical Jew: Paul and the Politics of Identity (Berkely: University of California Press, 1997) pp. 158-179.

[x] Tertullian, On the Dress of Women 1.1.

[xi] Elizabeth Clark, Women in the Early Church (Willmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983.

[xii] Matthew 26:6-13 has the same story, based on his source Mark, but he specifies that the objection to the waste came from “the disciples.”

[xiii] See Paul’s insistence on covering the hair in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16.

[xiv] Tertullian, Against Marcion 4:18.9, 16-17.

[xv] See Gregory of Nyssa, the 4th century bishop, who equated Mary Magdalene with Eve, Against Eunomius 3. 10. 16.

[xvi] Homily 33 on Luke 7.

A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 2)

A Woman Called Magdalene

            Mary Magdalene is referred to by name only twelve times in our New Testament gospels and never again in any of the other New Testament writings. As we have seen she appears at the death scene of Jesus, his burial, and the empty tomb, and then disappears totally from the record. If the New Testament writings were all we had we would be hard pressed to say anything more about her. Before I move to an alternative world of early Christian texts outside the New Testament that present an entirely different picture of her status and relationship to Jesus and the Twelve apostles, I want to briefly examine why she might be called Magdalene, distinguishing her from the other Marys in the gospel narratives—including Jesus’ mother and particularly, Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, with whom she has often been confused.

 In the Greek texts of the gospels she is known by three slightly differing descriptions: Maria the MagdaleneMiriam the Magdalene, and Maria the one called Magdalene.[i] The majority of scholars understand the designation “Magdalene” to refer to the city of Magdala (or Migdal in Hebrew) located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee about seven miles north of Tiberius. The Greeks called the city Taricheia, referring to the pickling of salted fish from the Sea of Galilee, exported throughout the Roman Empire. According to Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Migdal was walled on the west side and it had a large aqueduct system, a theater, hippodrome, and a market. Josephus describes it in some detail.[ii]

Josephus fortified the city as his headquarters when he became commander of the Jewish forces in Galilee in the 1st Jewish revolt against Rome (66-73 CE). It was culturally and commercially diverse, opulent, and fully exposed to Greco-Roman culture. Shortly after the first Jewish revolt against Rome broke out in 66 CE, the Roman military commander Vespasian, who was later to become emperor, surrounded the city with three Roman legions and laid siege. He stationed 2000 archers on the mountain to the west overlooking the city. There was a great naval battle at its port and thousands of Jews, defenseless in small boats were slaughtered. Josephus, an eyewitness, reports that the Sea of Galilee was red with blood, with stinking corpses filling its shoreline for days to follow. The city finally surrendered and opened its gates while thousands of inhabitants who had fled south toward Tiberius were slaughtered or exiled.[iii] 1200 older people were executed, 6000 of the strongest sent as a gift to the emperor Nero, and 34,400 were sent off as slaves.

The city was apparently more Romanized than the nearby Jewish cities of Capernaum or Chorazin with a cosmopolitan atmosphere more akin to a Greek polis.[iv] Ongoing excavations at Migdal, including the 2009 discovery of an ancient 1st century CE synagogue at Migdal, will likely reveal much more as to what this important city was like.[v] I visited the excavation site last fall and one of my graduate students excavated there this summer. It is clear that only a small part of this extensive city has begun to be uncovered. If Mary’s designation as “Magdalene” refers to her city of origin, placing her in that context, growing up in Magdala, gives us a glimpse into her possible background. One is tempted to take Luke’s tradition at face value and imagine her as a cosmopolitan woman of independent means and wealth who was able, with her connections reaching even into Herod Antipas’s household, to head a sizeable entourage of woman who followed Jesus in Galilee and thus to wield considerable influence in the Jesus movement (Luke 8:1-3).

Even though the identification of Mary’s name with the city of Magdala seems to carry the most weight there are two alternative suggestions.

It is possible that the designation “Magdalene” is a nickname, perhaps even given to Mary by Jesus. We know in the gospels that Jesus often gave his closest followers descriptive nicknames to characterize either their role in his movement or in some cases their personalities. For example, Simon son of Jonah, that most people know as “Peter,” was given the nickname Cephas or Petros (Peter) in Aramaic and Hebrew respectively—“the Rock,” or “Rocky” (Matthew 16:18). The two fisherman brothers, James and John, sons of Zebedee, were nicknamed Boanerges, meaning “sons of Thunder,” apparently based on their aggressive personalities (Mark 3:17; 10:35-41; Luke 9:54). The apostle James was nicknamed “James the Less,” or “James the Younger,” either referring to his shortness of stature or his young age, and distinguishing him from the other James, son of Zebedee (Mark 15:40). Simon, another of the Twelve apostles was called “Simon the Zealot,” either referring to his militant bent or to his zeal for a cause (Luke 16:15). Since the name Magdalene comes from the Hebrew or Aramaic word migdal—meaning tower, perhaps she was given this surname meaning “Mary the Tower,” as a description of her status or her strong personality.

Finally there is a third option, less well known but interesting to consider in the light of the Talpiot tombs. It is found tucked away in the Talmud, the ancient written collection of rabbinic oral tradition that was put together between the 5th and sixth centuries CE. There is a strange story about two women named Miriam—one is a hairdresser, presumably referring to Jesus’ mother, the other is called Miriam the Megadla—meaning the “baby tender,” or the one who “grows” the child.[vi] It is generally recognized that these are veiled cryptic references to Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

One of the most fruitful new aspects of the study of the early development of Judaism and Christianity is the realization that Jews and Christians were living side by side both in the Land of Israel and in the major urban centers of the Roman world between the 2nd century CE into the early Byzantine period (4th century CE). Both religions were thriving and both were seen by the dominant culture as strange and foreign due to their adherence to monotheism and their refusal to worship the emperor and participate in mainstream Greco-Roman religious and civic rites.  The Jews and the Christians lived side by side and were in dialogue and debate with one another. For that reason there are many cryptic passages in the rabbinic literature of this period that refer to Jesus, his disputed paternity, his mother, his disciples, his teachings, and even his execution. These sharply polemical passages can seldom be taken as history per se, but they do reflect genuine debates and polemics between Jews and Christian in this time.[vii] This material has often been dismissed or ignored because of its complexity. It is also very difficult to date. It is an area that should not be overlooked since most of the other sources we have on Christianity come from its adherents, written for the purpose of promoting the Christian faith. For example, the late 2nd century philosopher Celsus, mentioned above, says that he based his primary knowledge of the Christians by listening to a Jew who knew the “inside” story that the Christians were trying to repress. What we can begin to construct from the rabbinic materials is an alternative side of the story by those who rubbed shoulders with Christians daily but strongly disputed their claims.

For this reason I believe that this possible interpretation of a more cryptic, coded, meaning of Magdalene should be brought into the discussion and considered. Based on this tradition there were two Marys in Jesus’ life—his mother and the one who “grew” the baby. Since this appears to be what we might have in our 1st century Talpiot Jewish tomb, as I argue below, perhaps this understanding of “Magdalene” should be given some serious consideration.

Finally, as with the possibility that the surname means “the Tower,” all three could be true. Nicknames often can have variant meanings and that is one reason they are so popular.

 

Is Mary Magdalene called  “Mariamene Mara”  

As many of my readers know the name Mariamene Mara is inscribed on one of the ossuaries or bone boxes in the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb. This ossuary, as well as the one inscribed “Judah son of Jesus,” is elaborately ornamented and the inscriptions are elegant and more formal in appearance than the graffiti like name tags that many ossuaries exhibit. The inscription Mariamene Mara is even more fascinating with regard to the mistaken assertion that the names in the Jesus tomb are exceptionally common.  Clearly it is some form of the common name Mary or Mariam/Mariame in Hebrew—but what about its strange ending? And what is the significance of Mara?

Of the six inscriptions from the tomb this is the only one in Greek.  In contrast to the ossuaries of Jesus, Maria, and Yoseh, which are plain, this woman was buried in a beautifully decorated ossuary. The venerable expert, Levi Rahmani had first deciphered her inscription in his Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries published in 1994. For most of us Rahmani has become the “Bible” for the study of ossuaries and their inscriptions. His keen eye and uncanny ability to decipher some of the most obscure inscriptions is legendary.

Rahmani read the inscription as Mariamene Mara. No one questioned his judgment for thirteen years—until the publicity about the Talpiot “Jesus tomb” hit the headlines. Suddenly everyone was scrambling, it seemed, to come up with arguments against those that Simcha Jacobovici had put forth for the first time in his 2007 Discovery Channel documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” There he had suggested, based on Rahmani’s reading, which no one had disputed at the time, that Mariamene was a unique form of the name Mary that was used by Jesus’ first followers when referring to Mary Magdalene.

Several scholars have subsequently suggested that Rahmani misread the Greek, and that it should read Mariame kai Mara—Mary and Martha, referring to two individuals, perhaps even two sisters buried together in this one ossuary.[viii] Since Mariame (without the final stem ending “n”) is the most common form of the name Mary in Greek, any argument about uniqueness would thus evaporate. The Mary in the tomb might have been any Mary of the time and she would be impossible to identify further. And her sister Martha would be equally unknown.[ix]

I find this new reading unconvincing and remain impressed with Rahmani’s original transcription. The inscription itself appears to be from a single hand, written in a smooth flowing style, with a decorative flourish around both names—pointing to a single individual who died and was placed in this inscribed ossuary. According to Rahmani, Mariamene is a diminutive or endearing variant of the common name Mariame or Mary.[x] Mariamene—spelled with the letter “n” or nu in Greek, is quite rare—only one other example is found on an ossuary.[xi] There are no other examples from this period—or as I have now discovered, in the entirely of Greek literature down through the late Middle Ages.

A couple of years ago I ran an exhaustive computer search of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, a comprehensive digital database of Greek literature from Homer through 1453 CE.  To my surprise I only found two ancient works that use Mariamn—with this rare “n” stem ending and both texts specifically referred to Mary Magdalene!

The first text is a quotation from Hippolytus, a third century Christian writer who records that James, the brother of Jesus, passed on secret teachings of Jesus to “Mariamene,” i.e., Mary Magdalene.[xii] There it was, in plain Greek—this unusual spelling of the name Miriame or Mary—precisely like the spelling on the ossuary. How could this be, since the ossuary was from the 1st century and Hippolytus was writing at least 150 hundred years later?  According to tradition Hippolytus was a disciple of Irenaeus, who was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of the apostle John—who of course knew both Mary Magdalene and Jesus. Perhaps it is this link of oral teaching, through three generations, that somehow had preserved this special name for Mary Magdalene. Its diminutive ending makes it a term of endearment—like calling someone named James “Jimmy,” or an Elizabeth “Betty.”

The second text that had uses the name Mariamene was a rare 4th century CE Greek manuscript of the Acts of Philip, dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE.  Throughout the text Mary Magdalene is called Mariamene—again the precise form of the name found on the Talpiot tomb ossuary.

Some critics have argued that one has to jump to the third or fourth century to find a parallel to a 1st century name on an ossuary in order to try and argue it belongs to Mary Magdalene.  Quite the opposite is the case. What the ossuary preserves is a rare endearing form of the common name Mariame. What should surprise us is that it shows up, out of the blue, in Hippolytus and the Acts of Philip—two centuries later, when referring to Mary Magdalene. They could not know anything about the ossuary or these inscriptions—so where did they get this tradition of the rare form of the name?  That this rare form appears in these later sources strengthens rather than diminishes the argument here. If Mariamene is a late form of the name, only found in these 3rd and 4th century texts, as some have asserted—what is it doing on the Talpiot tomb ossuary?

It strains any credibility to imagine that Rahmani, who was unaware of any association whatsoever between his transcription of this ossuary inscription and identifications with Mary Magdalene in these later texts, would have mistakenly and accidently come up with this exceedingly rare form of the common name Mary.  It seems clear to us that Rahmani’s keen eye and years of experience have unwittingly provided us with one of the most important correlations between the names in this tomb and those we might expect, hypothetically, to be included in a Jesus family tomb—a name uniquely appropriate for Mary Magdalene. Does it make any sense to think a misreading of the name in this inscription would end up producing two hits for Mary Magdalene? The force and implications of this evidence is so strong that a few scholars have even suggested that the text in Hippolytus somehow got corrupted. Again, it strains all credulity to maintain that mistakes, misreadings, and scribal areas would just happen to produce a match for an ossuary inscription in a 1st century Jerusalem tomb. What are the chances?

What about the second word in the inscription—Mara? Rahmani understood this as an alternative form of the more common name Martha and many scholars apparently agree.[xiii] He translated the full inscription:

[the ossuary] of Mariamne also known as Mara

His understanding was that this Mariamne was also called Mara—a kind of nickname equivalent to the more popular form Martha.

Readers will recall that one of the inscriptions we found on one of the ossuaries in the nearby Patio tomb also read Mara. Is it just another form of the name Martha? In looking through all 650 ossuary inscriptions that are extant we discover that Mara is also quite rare, with only five examples other than the two in the Talpiot tombs.[xiv]

I am convinced that Mara is an honorific title not a proper name per se.[xv] Mara and Martha are related; they both come from the Aramaic masculine word Mar, which means “Master” or “Lord” in English.[xvi]  This is true still in Modern Hebrew today. One can  address a man formally as “Mar,” meaning “Sir” or “Mister.” It is a title not a name. If you add the feminine ending to Mar you get Mara—it is that simple. The problem is we have no good word in English to translate the feminine. If we try “Mistress” there are negative connotations. “Lordess” sounds awkward, and “Madame” surely will not work. English simply has no good alternative for the feminine, while we use the masculine constantly. The followers of Jesus called him “Lord” or “Master,” but how would we translate that title for a woman in English—perhaps one they also honored as his companion, partner, and wife?  Probably our best equivalent in English is “the Lady,” which is the formal feminine form of the masculine Lord. When Catholics speak of “Our Lady,” referring to Mary the mother of Jesus, they are preserving and echoing this very honorific title—they just don’t use it for Mary Magdalene. As we shall see she was vilified as a whore or as mentally unstable, or both, and was finally written out of any dominant version of the rise and development of Christianity. Fortunately we can pick up her muted and forgotten story as we will see in subsequently in this series of post.

There are two other ossuary inscriptions that are relevant to a proper understanding the Mariamene Mara inscription. The first refers to two males, a Matthew and a Simon, who are called “masters” of their tomb—meaning they own it. The word there for master is the plural of Mar. It is obvious that when it comes to males there is no hesitation to read Mar as a title. Even Jesus was referred to as Mar in the New Testament, in the early Christian Aramaic prayer—Mar-na-tha—meaning “our Lord come (1 Corinthians 16:22).”[xvii] The second inscription names a woman named Alexa, who is called Mara—just as in the Mariamene inscription. Rather than a second name, I take it as a title, so the inscription would read: “this is the ossuary of Alexa, [the] Lady.” It is a title of honor. Her name is given in the possessive case—showing the ossuary belongs to her, but her title is nominative—indicating it is not part of her proper name.

Continued here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/17/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-3/

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.



[i] Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 18.

[ii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462ff.

[iii] Josephus, Wars, 3:462–505, 532–542.

[iv] Rami Arav and John.J. Rousseau, Jesus and His World: An Archaeological and Cultural Dictionary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1995), p. 189.

[v]See: http://www.antiquities.org.il/article_Item_eng.asp?sec_id=25&subj_id=240&id=1601&module_id=#as and http://edition.cnn.com/2009/WORLD/meast/09/11/jerusalem.synagogue/index.html.

[vi] b. Chagiga 4b. In another story in the Talmud Jesus’ mother is referred to as the “hairdresser,” who was seduced by a gentile named “Pandeira” (b. Shabbat 104b). There is a play on words here, likely referring to two Miriams, one who “grows” the hair, the other who “grows” the child. In the story the angel of death strikes the wrong Mary—in this case Miriam the Megdala, getting the names confused. See Burton Visotzky, “Mary Maudlin among the Rabbis,” in Fathers of the World: Essays in Rabbinic and Patristic Literature, ed.  (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr/Paul Siebeck, 1995), pp. 85-92.

[vii] See Peter Schaeffer’s comprehensive study of all the major passages, Jesus in the Talmud, 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007).

[viii] See S. J. Pfann, “Mary Magdalene Has Left the Room. A Suggested New Reading of Ossuary CJO 701,” Near Eastern Archaeology 69: 3-4 (2006): 130-131. Pfann’s reading is accepted by Jonathan Price and others, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 447.

[ix] Even though we do not accept the reading “Mariam and Martha” it is worth pointing out that those two names come up in the gospels for two sisters who live in Bethany, near Jerusalem, along with their brother Lazarus (John 11:1). According to our records Jesus is quite close to this family, so ironically, the names “Mary and Martha” are not alien to the Jesus tradition of intimates. Some have even suggested that the Mary of Bethany is Mary Magdalene.

[x] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 701 as well as his introductory comments, p. 14. The Greek is in the genitive case, a diminutive form of Mariamhnh. This form of the name is rare and is found also on one other ossuary, Rachmani #108. Di Segni supports Rahmani’s reading (as per private e-mail correspondence with the author in 2007).

[xi] See Rahmani, COJO, no. 108. It is interesting to note that Jonathan Price, who disputes Rahmani’s reading of the Talpiot tomb as Mariamene, accepts tentatively his reading of this second ossuary as Mariamene—and yet the inscriptions are almost identical, see Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 133 as well as the representations in Rahmani of the inscriptions themselves.

[xii] Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 5.7.1.

[xiii] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 97.

[xiv] Cotton, et. al., CIIP, nos. 97, 200, 262, 517 and 563. We do not accept that no. 543 is using Mara for a male named Joseph. A close examination shows a line break that would indicate this man is being called Mar—the son of Benaya, son of Yehuda. See the limited examples of the use of Mar/Mara in Aramaic and Greek in Tal Ilan, Lexicon of Jewish Names in late Antiquity, pp. 422-423.

[xv] See Cotton, et. al., CIIP, no. 262 where Jonathan Price writes that although Mara is short for Martha it can be a title.

[xvi] Mara, which comes from the Aramaic masculine word Mar is the absolute feminine, whereas “Marta” (Martha) is the emphatic feminine. They both come from the same masculine noun and mean the same thing, but Martha evolved more into a name and is common (18 examples on ossuaries), whereas Mara functions more as a title and is rare.

[xvii] Paul translates the Aramaic into Greek as maranatha.

 

 

A Married Jesus–Why I Changed My Mind (Part 1)

Yesterday I published a piece in the Huffington Post dealing with what I consider to be reasonably strong evidence for a “married Jesus” and within hours it had drawn thousands of responses and hundreds of comments–positive, negative, and even threatening and denunciatory.  Clearly this is a topic that generates more heat than light. The vast majority of my colleagues would take the same position I took for the first 30 years of my career–until I reexamined the evidence a couple of years ago and had cause to be more open to the idea of a married Jesus–much like others have done, including Birger Pearson, whose judgment I greatly respect. (( There have also been a few scholars, influenced by some of the later gospel traditions (particularly the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Philip), who have argued that Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene included some type of sexual intimacy if not marriage. William E. Phipps published a full-scale study in 1970 titled, Was Jesus Married? The Distortion of Sexuality in the Christian Tradition (New York: Harper & Row). Phipps argued that Jesus’ status as a Jewish male, a teacher, and a rabbi, would have virtually required that he be married. I have never found these arguments from silence convincing, knowing that there were forms of Judaism, at least according to Josephus and Philo, that honored celibacy, and that Paul himself mounts a strong argument in defense thereof, even as a Jewish male and “rabbi.” I found the treatment summarized by Birger A. Pearson, “Did Jesus Marry?” (Bible Review Spring 2005, pp 32-39 & 47) to be quite convincing. What seems notable is that over the years Pearson may have begun to change his mind, or at least to express more openness to the idea of a married Jesus, see his latest here, “Was Mary Magdalene the Wife of Jesus? Was She a Prostitute?”)) Here, in a four part series, I offer my analysis of the source materials we have as I now view them. I hope this series might help readers to at least be familiar with all the evidence and have more of a basis for making a reasoned judgment on the matter should they choose to do so. Like others I could say, “Does it really matter,” and I would say yes and no. In some ways Jesus is Jesus, whether married, sexual,  or celibate, but if in fact Mary Magdalene’s prominent position in his life has been muted by a dominant Christian orthodoxy, and Jesus has been cast as a non-sexual male in the interest of a misplaced sense of purity and holiness–such as we encounter often in early Christian texts–then I think it does matter. Recovering Jesus as he was or might have been as a Jewish male of his time is surely part of the “Quest’ for the historical Jesus.

Paul indicates that “seeing the Lord” is an essential criterion for one claiming to be an apostle. According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection.” Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter, James, or any of the Twelve apostles.

 

Is it probable that Jesus was married?  And that he could have fathered a child?  These claims are in such direct contradiction to our received tradition that it is hard to believe.  Furthermore, there have been such sensational claims in the past, particularly in the famous novel, The DaVinci Code, that it is important to be skeptical and to base any claims on solid evidence.  It is for this reason that in my last book, The Jesus Dynasty, I argued that I did not believe there was sufficient evidence to argue that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that they had had a child.  But to be a scholar is to remain open to new data and new interpretations and always to be willing to change one’s position.  Based on new evidence, I now believe that my earlier position was most likely mistaken.

The New Testament says nothing directly about Jesus being married or having a child.  If Jesus had been married with a child would there not be some record, even some hint of this somewhere in the gospels? There are times when the silence of a text speaks volumes. Such silence can reflect absence, ignorance, or suppression. I am now convinced that in the case of Mary Magdalene the silence does not indicate he was unmarried. The authors of the New Testament gospels, written many decades after Jesus’ life, and when most of the original witnesses were dead, were either unaware of Jesus’ wife and child, or more likely, for theological reasons, decided to suppress this information.  The Jesus of these gospels was the divine Son of God, ascended to heaven, and any “earthly,” or sexual ties to a mortal woman were deemed inconceivable. His exalted heavenly status as the Son of God surely precluded him “leaving behind” such mortal remains. The New Testament gospels are male dominated accounts in which the few women who do play a role in Jesus’ life are marginalized and subordinated.   They purportedly did not hold leadership roles equivalent to the male disciples. This is not to say that the gospels are devoid of references to Mary Magdalene’s singular importance in Jesus life. To the contrary, the inclusion of narratives involving Mary Magdalene as intimately involved with Jesus’ mother and his sister in preparing Jesus’ naked corpse for burial, and as the first witness to his resurrection from the dead, signals how central her role must have been in his life. It is as though she could not be written out of the story entirely—but her relatively isolated inclusion in such an intimate and important way makes very little sense overall.

This silence is in sharp contrast to half a dozen other ancient texts that have been discovered in the last hundred years, including several “lost” gospels that are not included in the New Testament.  In these texts, Mary Magdalene is mentioned very prominently, given a role superior to the Twelve apostles, and presented as Jesus’ intimate companion. Even though these texts were written later than the New Testament gospels—most of them dating to the 2nd century CE—they also have their theological axes to grind yet nonetheless bear witness to an expanded and wholly alternative role of Mary Magdalene in Jesus’ life. As such they give voice to a suppressed history and a muted memory that correlates strongly with the evidence in the Talpiot tombs.

The fact that the Talpiot tomb contains two ossuaries inscribed with names of women—Maria on one and Mariamene Mara on the second—plus a third ossuary Judas son of Jesus, strongly suggests that one of these two Marys is most likely the mother of the son, and thus the wife of the Jesus buried in this tomb. The DNA evidence done on the bones from the Yeshua and the Mariamene ossuaries, further shows that Mariamene Mara is not Jesus’ mother or his sister, leaving her as a possible candidate for his wife, and thus the mother of the son Judas. Jesus of Nazareth had a mother named Mary, and apparently one of his sisters was also named Mary.[i] If Jesus’ sister Mary were married, which seems likely given the norms of the culture, she would not be in his tomb but in the tomb of her husband. If the Talpiot tomb is that of Jesus and his family, the second Mary—Maria—is most likely either his mother, unless she lived past 70 CE when the tomb went unused.  Alternatively, the second Mary could perhaps be a wife of one of his brothers. That leaves Mariamene Mara as the most likely candidate to be the mother of his child.

There is the related issue of the status of Mary Magdalene. The Mariamene buried in the Jesus family tomb is also known as Mara—the Lady. This title can potentially refer to her place of leadership and authority in the emerging Christian movement, a role that is hinted at by the evidence in the Talpiot tomb but never explicitly indicated in any of our sparse New Testament texts mentioning Mary Magdalene.

What I present here is a consideration of all the relevant ancient textual evidence regarding Mary Magdalene, both inside and outside the New Testament, with the new archaeological evidence from the Talpiot tombs. There is an impressive correlation between much of this textual material and what we observe in the tombs themselves.

Mary Magdalene in the New Testament Gospels

            I begin with our earliest source on Mary Magdalene—the gospel of Mark, most scholars consider to have been written before Matthew, Luke, or John.  According to the gospels, Mary Magdalene is undoubtedly the most mysterious and intriguing woman in Jesus’ life. She appears for the first time completely out of the blue, without any kind of introduction, watching the crucifixion of Jesus from afar. She is named first, surely giving her special priority, and she is associated with an entire group—one might even say, an entourage of women who had followed Jesus down from Galilee to Jerusalem just before the Passover festival began:

There were also women looking on from afar, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and Joses, and Salome, who, when he was in Galilee, followed him, and ministered to him; and also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem. (Mark 15:40-41).

Luke supplements this tradition of Mark, also emphasizing the many women from Galilee who were followers of Jesus. He names Mary Magdalene first, implying she has some kind of leadership role, but then identifies two others, a certain Joanna, who is the wife of Chuza, a household administrator in the court of Herod Antipas, king of Galilee, and Susanna, otherwise unknown. The implication is that these women are of high standing with financial means. Luke specifies that they provided for the Jesus movement from their means (Luke 8:2-3).

In Mark’s gospel it was Mary Magdalene, along with the other Mary, the mother of Joses, most likely Jesus’ mother, who observe Joseph of Arimathea taking down the bloodied body from the cross, placing him temporarily in a nearby tomb, and sealing the entrance with a heavy stone, until the Passover was over (Mark 15:47).[ii] As soon as the Sabbath day was over Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary, probably Jesus’ mother, and an unidentified woman named Salome, possibly Jesus’ sister, bought spices so they might return to the tomb early Sunday morning to wash the corpse and complete the rites of burial. Mark relates that early on Sunday morning, again, Mary Magdalene, accompanied by the other Mary and Salome, go to the tomb very early, before the sun is risen, and find the stone rolled away and the body removed. Inside the tomb is a young man dressed in a white linen garment who informs the women that Jesus has been “raised up,” that they are to go and tell his male disciples, and that he is going to meet them in Galilee (Mark 16:1-4).[iii] According to Mark they fled from the tomb in fear and astonishment, saying nothing to anyone. In our oldest copies of Mark that is how the story ends—abruptly and mysteriously, with the promise to the women that Jesus will appear in Galilee in the future. The oldest copies of Mark have this abrupt ending with no “sightings” or appearances of Jesus to anyone. Later manuscripts or copies of Mark add on one of three different alternative endings, composed by editors to try and blunt the abruptness of Mark’s original ending. The fear was that Mark’s account, if left as is, might leave doubt as to Jesus’ resurrection.[iv]

Washing and anointing a corpse for Jewish burial was an honored and intimate task. The body was stripped naked and washed from head to toe. It was taken care of by the immediate family or those closely related. Although these narratives from Mark do not identify Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus, they certainly cast her as taking the lead in carrying out the burial rites for Jesus—an extremely intimate task for a wife, mother, or sister. Matthew and Luke have Mark as their source, and although they relate the story of Jesus’ burial slightly differently, it is unlikely that they have much independent information. It is also entirely possible, writing so many decades after the events, when all of the original witnesses were dead, that they know the tradition of Mary Magdalene’s involvement in Jesus’ burial, and thus find it essential to include her, but have no idea who she was or why she is so prominent in the story they had received.

It is in the gospel of John one finds an alternative narrative tradition, one independent of Mark. What John brings to the table is utterly fascinating and sheds an entirely different light on what might have happened early that first Easter morning John writes that Mary Magdalene came alone to the tomb, very early Sunday morning, while it was still dark. She sees the stone rolled away from the tomb and the body removed and she runs in panic to tell Peter and an unnamed disciple, otherwise identified as the “one whom Jesus loved (John 20:2). What she exclaims to the men is most revealing:

They have taken the Master out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him (John 20:2).[v]

In this account Mary Magdalene’s logical assumption is that the body has been removed from the temporary tomb, which John has already emphasized was a tomb of convenience in an emergency, not a permanent burial cave (John 19:41-42). Her reference to “they” obviously refers to Joseph of Arimathea, assisted by another Sanhedrin member, Nicodemus, whom John says assisted in the initial removal of the body from the cross.

What happens next is a story completely unique to John. Mary Magdalene returns to the empty tomb, weeping outside, she then enters the tomb for the first time to look inside. She sees two angels dressed in white sitting inside. The Greek word translated “angel” (aggelos) can refer to a “messenger,” and does not necessarily mean an angelic non-terrestrial being. These two ask her why she is weeping. She repeats her take of the situation—“Because they have taken away my Master, and I do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:13). Just as she replies she turns and sees a man outside the tomb that she takes to be the gardener. He asks her the same question—“Woman, why are you weeping, whom do you seek?” She replies, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have taken him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15). The man then addresses her by name—calling her Miriam, using the Hebrew form of her name. She apparently recognizes the voice and turns to face him, crying out in Hebrew, Rabboni—a diminutive term of endearment meaning “my dear Master.” She recognizes it is Jesus but he tells her not to touch him, adding that he is ascending to heaven (John 20:16-17). For a woman to touch a man in this culture further implies a familial connection. Mary Magdalene returns to the male disciples and tells them what she has seen.

This remarkable story presents Mary Magdalene as the first witness to Jesus’ resurrection. Unlike Mark who has no appearances of Jesus following the empty tomb, or Matthew who has Jesus encountering the Eleven remaining apostles on a misty mountain in Galilee much later, or Luke who relates that Jesus appeared physically to the disciples in a closed room, showing his wounds and eating a meal in front of them—John’s story of Mary Magdalene’s encounter stands in sharp contrast. Even John includes in his gospel additional appearances of Jesus to groups of men, but he alone preserves this Magdalene tradition.

My friend, the late professor Jane Schaberg and others have interpreted this singular experience of Mary Magdalene as forming the core of the resurrection faith of Jesus’ first followers.[vi] It is a personal encounter prompted by an exchange of greetings—Miriam and Rabboni—as if those words signaled a flash of recognition based on personal intimacy.  If one asks—who can lay claim to the first appearance of Jesus after his death John’s story offers a clear answer—it was Mary Magdalene. Matthew knows a garbled version of the story in which the group of women encounter Jesus as they flee from the tomb, but without the personal exchange between Mary and Jesus (Matthew 28:9-10). In Matthew’s story they are mere vehicles who are to carry the news to the male disciples, not independent witnesses whose testimony is valued. Jesus commissions the Eleven remaining apostles and the women are nowhere to be seen (Matthew 28:16-20).

Paul, who wrote in the 50s CE, just twenty years removed from the crucifixion, says explicitly that Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the Twelve [apostles], then to James, and finally to 500 brothers en mass  (1 Corinthians 15:5). He either knows nothing of the Magdalene tradition, or given his view of women, considers it less merit.  This was after all a time in ancient history when a woman’s testimony in court did not carry the same weight as that of a man. Even in Luke the initial testimony of the women who first visited the tomb is dismissed as an “idle tale” (Luke 24:11). In a male dominated movement how could a hysterical woman, weeping at a tomb, provide any kind of credible testimony?

There is evidence that such a critique was leveled against the developing Christian movement from the late 2nd century CE. Celsus, a pagan philosopher who wrote an attack of the Christians called True Doctrine around 178 CE, says:

Jesus went about with his disciples collecting their livelihood in a shameful and importunate way . . . For in the gospels certain women who had been healed from their ailments, among whom was Suzanna, provided the disciples with meals out of their own substance.[vii]

He does not specifically name Mary Magdalene he seems to have her in mind:

While he was alive he did not help himself, but after death he rose again and showed the marks of his punishment and how his hands had been pierced. But who saw this? A hysterical female, as you say, and perhaps some other one of those (women) who were deluded by the same sorcery, who either dreamt in a certain state of mind and through wishful thinking had a hallucination due to some mistaken notion (an experience which has a happened to thousands), or, which is more likely, wanted to impress others by telling this fantastic tale, and so by this cock-and-bull story to provide a change for other beggars.”[viii]

Further on in the same narrative Celsus charges that Jesus “appeared secretly to just one woman and to those of his own confraternity.”[ix] This is without a doubt an accusation based on his reading of the account in the gospel of John. There is evidence that a number of other pagan writers were critical of the female initiative that apparently was central to Christianity’s development.[x]

Is there any likely historical truth to the notion that the faith in Jesus’ resurrection began with this entourage of women led by Mary Magdalene? Schaberg has argued that this singular account in John 20:1-18, where Mary Magdalene encounters and speaks to Jesus in the garden tomb, preserves fragments of a tradition of Mary Magdalene as successor to Jesus—and thus, “first founder” of Christianity, in the sense of authoritative witness to resurrection faith. Whether this early tradition can be connected or not to later Christian texts that present Mary as a leading intellectual and spiritual guide, a beloved companion of Jesus and transmitter of his teachings I will deal with in the subsequent parts of this blog post.

Schaberg, in my view, convincingly shows that the narrative structure of John 20 reflects an imaginative reuse of 2 Kings 2:1-18 where Elijah the prophet ascends to heaven, leaving his disciple Elisha as his designated witness and successor. This intimate personal appearance to Mary Magdalene, which focuses on an ascent to heaven rather than resurrection of the dead per se, stands in sharp contrast to the other formulations in the gospels that present indirect angelic encounters to a group of women.  Upon this foundation Schaberg offers a preliminary sketch of what she rather boldly labels “Magdalene Christianity,” both suppressed and lost in the our New Testament gospel tradition, and particularly in Acts, much like the history of James the brother of Jesus and the Jerusalem community from 30-50 CE.

The notion of apostolic authority in early Christianity depended most of all on one being included as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection and receiving a commission.[xi] Paul, for example, bases his own late addition to the apostolic roster upon his visionary experience of the Christ several years after he had been crucified: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God” (1 Corinthians 15:8-9). One should not take this modesty on the part of Paul as any indication that he thought he was in the least bit inferior to the apostles who were before him. He says of the other apostles:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God, which is with me (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Apparently Paul did receive challenges to his rights to be called an apostle. Against such charges he adamantly defended himself, insisting that his apostleship was based squarely on his experience of having “seen the Lord” (1 Corinthians 9:1). Apostleship was not, in his view, something that was passed on from men, but was given by a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12, 16). According to the book of Acts the main criteria in deciding who would replace Judas Iscariot as the Twelfth apostle after he had betrayed Jesus and killed himself was that the one chosen had been with Jesus in his lifetime and was a “witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:21-22).

Not only did Mary Magdalene meet these criteria, she had the additional status of not only being a witness to Jesus’ resurrection but the first witness—even before Peter. The gospel of Luke explicitly rejects her status in this regard, characterizing the report of Mary and her entourage of women from Galilee and their claim to have “seen Jesus” as an “idle tale,” using language that in the culture of that time was particularly associated with the testimony of women. Mary Magdalene’s disqualification was based on her gender. Paul, for example, insists to his congregations:

 The women should keep silence in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the Law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in the assembly (1 Corinthians 14:34-35).

This silencing and subordination of women was carried into the next generation, long after Paul was dead. One of his successors paraphrased Paul’s position with even stronger language:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor (1 Timothy 1:11-13).[xii]

The remedy for this Adamic curse upon women was that they “be saved through bearing children”

Part 2 follows here: http://jamestabor.com/2014/11/16/a-married-jesus-why-i-changed-my-mind-part-2/

For a complete treatment of Mary Magdalene, especially understood in the context of the two Talpiot tombs and their latest findings, see our book, The Jesus Discovery.

 


[i] According to early Christian tradition the names of Jesus’ two sisters, not given in the New Testament gospels (see Mark 6:3), were Mary and Salome, see Epiphanius, Panarion 78.8-9 and compare Gospel of Phillip 59:6-11 with Protoevangelium of James 19-20.

[ii] For the arguments for identifying this second Mary as Jesus’ mother see, James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 73-82.

[iii] Salome is likely Jesus’ sister, or perhaps the mother of the sons of Zebedee, the fishermen James and John (Matthew 27:56). Luke adds that Joanna, the wife of Herod’s assistant, was with them. Even though the verb used for “lifted up” can just mean to pick up or carry, in this context it seems to refer to being lifted up from the dead—in other words, resurrected.

[iv] See James Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty, pp. 223-241. The main appended ending (Mark 16:9-20) does not appear in our two oldest manuscripts, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, dating to the early 4th century AD. It is also absent from about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, the Old Latin version, and the Sinaitic Syriac. Even copies of Mark that contain the ending often include notes from the scribe pointing out that it is not in the oldest manuscripts.

[v] I have translated “Lord” here as Master, which has less theological connotations and fits with what follows in the story where Mary Magdalene addresses Jesus as Rabboni—my Master.

[vi] See Jane Schaberg, Mary Magdalene Understood (New York: Continium Press, 2006), pp. 122-126. Schaberg’s full study is The Resurrection of Mary Magdalene: Legends, Apocrypha, and the Christian Testament (New York: Continium, 2004).

[vii] Contra Celsum 1. 65. Celsus’s critique is preserved by the church father Origin who wrote a defense against him around 248 CE. He apparently knows the passage in Luke 8:1-3 that mentions specifically Joanna. There is a summary of his critique in his own words on-line at: http://www.bluffton.edu/~humanities/1/celsus.htm.

[viii] Contra Celsum, 2. 55.

[ix] Contra Celsum 2. 70.

[x] See the study of Margaret Y. MacDonald, Early Christian Women and Pagan Opinion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[xi] See Ann Graham Brock, Mary Magdalene, The First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority, Harvard Theological Studies 51 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

[xii] Although the New Testament letters of 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus are attributed to Paul scholars are universally agreed that they are “deutero-Pauline,” written by some of his followers in the generation after his death, see Bart Ehrman, The New Testament, pp. 395-407.