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.

Selected Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

The Jesus Dynasty was published in April 2006 (Simon & Schuster). It was a New York Times Best Seller, featured on ABC’s Nightline and 20/20 and the cover of USNews & World Report. It has been translated into 22 languages. Here are some key excerpts with further links, media and otherwise, to the book below. It is available in print, e-formats, and audio, see JesusDynasty.com

 

Jesus Dynasty Hardcover

The New Testament gospels:

“[The New Testament gospels present] a tangled tale of political intrigue and religious power plays with stakes destined to shape the future of the world’s largest religion.” (p. 81)

“[A]lthough our New Testament gospels contain historical material, the theological editing is a factor that the discerning reader must constantly keep in mind.” (p. 139)

The birth of Jesus:

“[The gospel of] Matthew implies that Isaiah’s prophecy was ‘fulfilled’ by the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus—but the original text clearly carries no such meaning.” (p. 46)

“The assumption of the historian is that all human beings have both a biological mother and father, and that Jesus is no exception. That leaves two possibilities—either Joseph or some other unnamed man was the father of Jesus.” (p. 59)

More than one messiah:

“The English word ‘messiah’ comes from the Hebrew word moshiach, which simply means ‘an anointed one.’ The equivalent Greek word, christos, also means ‘annointed’ and form that we have derived our more familiar term ‘Christ,’ meaning Messiah…. Most people are surprised to learn that the very first Messiah in the Bible was Aaron. He was ‘annointed’ as a priest by his brother Moses and is referred to in the Hebrew text as a ‘mosiach’ or ‘messiah’ (Exodus 40:12-15).” (p. 58)

“Christians and Jews subsequently have come to focus on the Messiah—a single figure of David’s line who was to rule as King in the last days. And yet, in the Dead Sea Scrolls we encounter a devoutly religious community, usually identified with the Essenes, who expected the coming of three figures—a prophet like Moses and the messiahs of Aaron and of Israel.” (p. 57)

“This ideal vision of Two Messiahs became a model for many Jewish groups that were oriented toward apocalyptic thinking in the 2nd to 1st centuries B.C.” (p. 143)

The family of Jesus:

“That Jesus has four brothers and at least two sisters is a ‘given’ in [the gospel of] Mark, our earliest gospel record. He names the brothers rather matter-of-factly: James, Joses, Judas, and Simon.” (p. 73)

The historical Mary:

“The later Christian dogma that Mary was a perpetual virgin, that she never had children other than Jesus and never had sexual relations with any man lies at the hart of the issue. No one in the early church even imagined such an idea, since the family of Jesus played such a visible and pivotal role in his life and that of his early followers. It all has to do with Mary being totally removed from her 1st-century Jewish culture and context in the interest of an emerging view of the time that human sexuality was degraded and unholy at worst, and a necessary evil to somehow be struggled against at best.” (p. 74)

“There is good reason to suppose that Joseph died early, whether because he was substantially older than Mary or for some other unknown cause…. According to the Torah, or Law of Moses, the oldest surviving unmarried brother was obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow and bear a child in his name so that his dead brother’s ‘name’ or lineage would not perish. This is called a ‘Levirate marriage’ or yibbum in Hebrew, and it is required in the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10).” (p. 76)

“Given this information, a rather different but historically consistent picture begins to emerge. Jesus was born of an unknown father, but was not the son of Joseph. Joseph died without children, so according to Jewish law ‘Clophas’ or ‘Alphaeus’ became his ‘replacer,’ and married his widow, Mary, mother of Jesus.” (p. 80)

The “lost” childhood of Jesus:

“We have extraordinarily good historical records from the reign of Herod the Great. It is inconceivable that such a ‘slaughter of the infants’ would go unrecorded by the Jewish historian Josephus or other contemporary Roman historians. Matthew’s account is clearly theological, written to justify later views of Jesus’ exalted status.” (p. 88)

“A good trivia question would be ‘What was Jesus’ vocation?’ Everyone knows he was a carpenter, or at least the son of a carpenter…. The Greek word tekton is a more generic term referring to a ‘builder.’ It can include one who works with wood, but in its 1st-century Galilean context it more likely refers to a stoneworker.” (p. 89)

Jesus as a Galilean Jew:

“Jesus was a Jew, not a Christian…. To understand Jesus in his own time and place we have to understand his deep commitment to the ancestral faith of his fathers.” (p. 108)

“…[Jesus] is not ‘liberal’ with regard to Jewish observances in any modern sense of the term. What he did not accept were certain oral traditions and interpretations that some rabbinic teachers had added to the biblical commandments.” (p. 115)

“As we shall see, Jesus held Herod Antipas and all he stood for in utter contempt…. It was Herod who had brutally murdered his kinsman and teacher John the Baptizer, and Jesus had witnessed firsthand how Herod’s aspirations for wealth and power had unjustly oppressed the lives of his countrymen.” (p. 106)

His relationship with John the Baptizer:

“Jesus near his thirtieth birthday joined the crowds that were streaming out to hear John. He traveled from Nazareth down to the Jordan, along this very route, to be baptized by John in the Jordan River (Mark 1:9). By such a response he was publicly joining and endorsing the revival movement John had sparked…. [F]rom the time of Jesus’ baptism he was ready to take his destined place alongside John as a full partner in the baptizing movement.” (p. 127)

“The great embarrassment that the Christians faced was that it was well known that John had baptized Jesus—not the other way around! Jesus had come to John and joined his movement—which in the context of ancient Judaism meant that Jesus was a disciple of John and John was the rabbi or teacher of Jesus.” (p. 133)

“There [in a Hebrew version of the gospel of Matthew untouched by the Greek copyists] Jesus’ astounding testimony to John’s greatness stands unedited and unqualified: ‘Among those born of women there is none greater than John.’” (p. 134)

The twelve apostles:

“When he told them, ‘Let’s leave the nets and go fish for people,’ they did not blindly drop everything in some mesmerized state of devotion to his irresistible bidding as is so often portrayed. These disciples had worked with him and lived with him for months the previous year in Judea when they were baptizing huge crowds of people.” (p. 158)

“This is perhaps the best-kept secret in the entire New Testament. Jesus’ own brothers were among the so-called ‘Twelve Apostles.’ This means they were the muted participants in all those many references to the ‘Twelve.’ They were with Jesus at the ‘last Supper’ and when he died he turned his movement over to his brother James, the eldest, and put his mother into James’s care. James is none other than the mysterious ‘beloved disciple’ of the gospel of John.” (p. 163)

Apocalyptic vision:

This arrival of the ‘Son of Man,’ which Christians later took as a reference to the Second Coming of Jesus, was coded language from the book of Daniel. It does not refer to Jesus’ arriving, since he was standing with them when he said it, predicting the effect of their vital mission…. The phrase ‘son of man’ in the dream vision of Daniel 7 stood collectively for the faithful people of Israel who would receive rule from their Messiah.” (p. 164)

The final week in Jerusalem—the Temple and the Last Supper:

“Jesus’ activities that day [in the temple] were not intended to change things or to spark a revolution. Like his ride down the Mount of Olives on the foal of the donkey, he intended to signal something—namely that the imminent overthrow of the corrupt Temple system was at hand and the vision of the Prophets would be fulfilled.” (p. 194)

“Later Christian tradition put Jesus’ last meal with his disciples on Thursday evening and his crucifixion on Friday. We now know that its one day off. Jesus’ last meal was Wednesday night, and he was crucified on Thursday, the 14th day of the Hebrew month Nisan. The Passover meal itself was eaten Thursday night, at sundown, as the 15th of Nisan began. Jesus never ate that Passover meal. He had died at 3 p.m. on Thursday.” (p. 197)

“At every Jewish meal, bread is broken, wine is shared, and blessings are said over each—but the idea of eating human flesh and drinking blood, even symbolically, is completely alien to Judaism…. This general sensitivity to the very idea of ‘drinking blood’ precludes the likelihood that Jesus would have used such symbols.” (p. 200-201)

Jesus’ trial and death by crucifixion:

“Scholars are agreed that little in the accounts of Jesus’ trial before Pilate is historically credible. They have been completely shaped by a later Christian theological tradition that sought to put the blame for Jesus’ death wholly upon the Jewish people while exonerating the Romans as sympathetic to Jesus, with Pilate doing all he possibly could to save Jesus’ life.” (p. 213)

“If Jesus did come to anticipate his suffering at the hands of his enemies, I am convinced that he expected that he would be saved from death, delivered from the ‘mouth of the lion’ as the Psalmist had predicted (Psalm 22:21).” (p. 179)

The resurrection of Jesus:

“As shocking as it may sound, the original manuscripts of the gospel of Mark report no appearances of the resurrected Jesus at all!” (p. 228)

“Paul seems to be willing to use the term ‘resurrection’ to refer to something akin to an apparition or vision. And when he does mention Jesus’ body he says it was a ‘spiritual’ body. But a ‘spiritual body’ and an ‘embodied spirit’ could be seen as very much the same phenomenon.” (p. 230)

“In this context, it is easy to see why the Tomb of the Shroud, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot tomb discovered in 1980 spark such heated controversy. At the heart of the storm is the unspoken possibility that the tomb might contain the remains of Jesus himself. Neither Christianity or Judaism welcomes that proposition.” (p. 235)

Jesus’ successors and legacy:

“Although the followers of Jesus reshaped themselves under the new leadership of James, and eventually returned to Jerusalem, there might well have been a period in which they retreated to Galilee in order to sort things out, and that is just what these gospel traditions appear to reflect. If that was the case then the more idealized account of the Jesus movement in the early chapters of the book of Acts is Luke’s attempt to recast things in a more triumphant way.” (p. 238)

“There are two completely separate and distinct ‘Christianities’ embedded in the New Testament. One is quite familiar and became the version of the Christian faith known to billions over the past two millennia. Its main proponent was the apostle Paul. The other has been largely forgotten and by the turn of the 1st century A.D. had been effectively marginalized and suppressed by the other.” (p. 259)

“The Nazarene movement, led by James, Peter, and John, was by any historical definition a Messianic Movement within Judaism. Even the term ‘Jewish-Christianity,’ though perhaps useful as a description of the original followers of Jesus, is really a misnomer since they never considered themselves anything but faithful Jews. In that sense early Christianity is Jewish.” (p. 264)

“I would go so far as to say that the New Testament itself is primarily a literary legacy of the apostle Paul.” (p. 270)

“There is no evidence that James worshipped his brother or considered him divine.” (p. 280)

“…[W]hat we can know, with some certainty, is that the royal family of Jesus, including the children and grandchildren of his brothers and sisters, were honored by the early Christians well into the 2nd century A.D., while at the same time they were watched and hunted down by the highest levels of the Roman government in Palestine.” (p. 290)

Academic Endorsements of The Jesus Dynasty

Excerpts from The Jesus Dynasty

Interview with Dr. Tabor on The Jesus Dynasty

Facebook page on The Jesus Dynasty with news and updates

Critical but well done review in Slate by Richard Wrightman Fox.

Read the first chapter here on-line from ABC News

For reviews, interviews and more media coverage of The Jesus Dynasty see Media Tab

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 essay 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.

 

Jesus Son of Mary…

Did you know that Joseph, husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is never mentioned in the gospel of Mark? Since Mark is our earliest gospel that seems all the more striking. Mark has no account of the birth of Jesus whatsoever, much less any story of the virgin birth. When Jesus is identified in Mark by paternity he is called “the son of Mary,” (Mark 6:3).

stjoseph

We all tend to read our New Testament Gospels “backwards,” meaning many of us have years and years of “stories” in our heads about Jesus, Joseph, Mary, the Disciples, and so on, but with no sense of where any of them came from in terms of Mark, Matthew, Luke, John. Just imagine if Mark was ALL we had with no father even mentioned much less named for Jesus, with Jesus being called “son of Mary” in the only text that identifies him in terms of his family. What a difference that would make. Everyone tends to just “fill in” the name “Joseph” wherever it is missing. There is clearly more to this phrase–son of Mary– in Mark than immediately meets the eye.

Given Jewish culture, then and now, in which children are referred to as “X son of X,” naming the father, this is all the more jarring. I remember for years in flying into Israel we would have to fill out the visitors visa form on the flight as it landed. Under name one had to give “father’s first name.”  So even as a non-Jew I became, legally speaking, “Jimmy Dan Tabor son of Elgie,” my birth name and my father’s first name! I remember reading the trial brief for Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary who was accused and subsequently acquitted of forgery charges, the only Israeli trial brief I have ever read, and he was referred to as Oded Golan, son of his father–with his father’s first name given. I am convinced that the complete absence of Joseph from Mark’s record, plus the reference to “the carpenter, the son of Mary,” is a subtle admission by Mark, that Joseph was not the father of Jesus and at least by the time Jesus was an adult, he had likely died.

Interestingly, when Matthew does his “rewrite” of Mark, his main narrative source, he changes Mark’s reference to the “son of Mary” significantly to read: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matthew 13:55). And of course Matthew is our earliest source for the “virgin birth” of Jesus, in which it is asserted that Jesus had no human father.

What we do know with any certainty about the paternity of Jesus is precious little with lots of blank spaces to fill in. If Joseph was the father of Jesus we would surely expect Mark say so in this critical passage set in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth. For more on what we know, don’t know, and might responsibly determine see my series of posts here on the “Unnamed Father of Jesus.”