A tomb was uncovered on March 28, 1980, a construction crew developing an apartment complex in Talpiot (Jerusalem) uncovered a tomb which archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority excavated shortly thereafter. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson surveyed the site and drew a layout plan. Scholar L.Y. Rahmani later published “A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries” that described 10 ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, found in the tomb. Many of the ossuaries originally contained bones, but as part of the cultural and legal tradition of the land, these bones were removed and reburied. It is important to note that there are NO bones in any of the ossuaries under question. Interestingly, the ossuaries that are most contested (those containing names similar to the Biblical family of Jesus) were already empty and had been vandalized in antiquity according to the first archeologists at the scene. The 10 ossuaries were then taken to the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Nine were catalogued and stored but the tenth was apparently left outside in a courtyard. This tenth ossuary has subsequently gone missing.
The discovery made the press on several occasions over the years, taking its most ambitious form in a 2007 documentary called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” from executive producer James Cameron and director Simcha Jacobovici.
From the Discovery.com web site:
New scientific evidence, including DNA analysis conducted at one of the world’s foremost molecular genetics laboratories, as well as studies by leading scholars, suggests a 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah.
If this tomb is actually the family tomb of Jesus, then everything that we believe as Christians has to be reconsidered. Did Jesus really resurrect from the grave? Did he really ascend into heaven? These foundational truths are called into question if we can actually demonstrate that the Talpiot Tomb is the true resting place of Jesus of Nazareth. For this reason, it is important for us to examine the claims being made by the filmmakers. As with any claim of truth, it’s important for us to think critically and calmly as we examine both the case FOR and AGAINST the claim. So let’s do our best to begin this journey together, looking at all the evidence that is being offered on both sides of the claim.
Evidence in SUPPORT of the Claim:
Let’s begin by looking at the best evidence that is offered by the filmmakers in an attempt to make the case that the Talpiot Tomb contains the ossuary of Jesus and the Holy Family.
The Location of the Tomb
The Talpiot Tomb is located in Jerusalem and its contents have been dated back to the Second Temple Period, indicating that the tomb is set in the time and place that the filmmakers would expect it to be if it were, in fact the tomb of the Holy Family.
The Inscribed Names
Five of the 10 discovered boxes in the Talpiot tomb were inscribed with names that are similar (although not exact) to characters from the Biblical narrative. The documentary claims that at least four leading epigraphers have corroborated the ossuary inscriptions. The inscriptions include the following titles:
“Yehoshua bar Yosef” (interpreted here as Aramaic for ‘Jesus Son of Joseph’)
“Miriam” (the filmmakers argue that this is “Maria” in Latin, the same name that is later translated as “Mary” in English)
“Mati” (interpreted as the original Hebrew word for ‘Matthew’)
“Mariamene e Mara” (the claim here is that this is Greek for “Mary known as the master.” Francois Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University, claims that this was probably the actual name given to Mary Magdalene)
“Yehuda bar Yehsu” (interpreted here as Aramaic for “Judah Son of Jesus”)
“Yoffe” (interpreted as Aramaic for “Joseph”, is either Joseph (husband of Mary) or his son)
The Statistical Probability
In addition to this, Andrey Feuerverger, professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto, attempted to make the case stronger by conducting a statistical analysis of the probabilities that these names could be present in the tomb and NOT be the family of Jesus. He first tried to determine how many times each name was used in a tomb of this type in this area of the world in the first century. Then he multiplied the instances that each name appeared during this time period with the instances of every other name. He claims that he found that “Jesus Son of Joseph” appeared once out of 190 times, and Mariamne appeared once out of 160 times. He then divided the resulting numbers by 25 percent, (as a statistical standard) and went so far as to divide the results again by 1,000 to attempt to account for what he believed to be all possible tombs — even those that have not yet been uncovered — that could have existed in first century Jerusalem. He concluded that the odds are at least 600 to 1 in favor of the Talpiot Tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb.
The DNA Analysis
A DNA analysis was done on two sets of samples from the ossuaries. First, DNA was examined from tiny bits of matter taken from the “Jesus Son of Joseph” and “Mariamene e Mara” ossuaries. Secondly, DNA was examined from the patina (a chemical film encrustation) on one of the limestone boxes.
These were analyzed by Carney Matheson (Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada). A mitochondrial DNA examination was completed, and Matheson determined that the matter from the ‘Jesus’ ossuary and the mater from the ‘Mary Magdalene’ were not maternally related. Based on the fact that tombs from this time and place usually contain people who are either related by blood or marriage, Jacobovici and his team default to the position that the two people in these ossuaries were married. Jacobovici then proposed that the “Judah,” ossuary contains the son of these two people, although no DNA work was reportedly done on this ossuary.
Jacobovici postulates that this Jesus is Jesus Christ himself and that this Judah is Jesus’ son. In doing this, he overcomes the lack of ANY canonical or non-canonical historical evidence for the idea that Jesus had a son. There is no document in the Bible or outside the Bible that makes this claim. Jacobovici points to the Gospel of John and speculates that Judah could have been the “lad” described as sleeping in Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper.
The Patina was examined by Robert Genna, (director of the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory in New York), and he claims that the patina taken from the Talpiot Tomb and patina taken from the “James” ossuary are a match. The famous James ossuary was discovered around 1980. It disappeared for a period of time and then reappeared in the antiquities market. It was marketed as evidence that Jesus actually lived, and was inscribed as the ossuary of “James, the brother of Jesus”. Genna said that, “the samples were consistent with each other.” In addition to this, the filmmakers maintain that there is a space in the Jesus Family Tomb that would be consistent with the placement of this ossuary. In essence, they are claiming that the Ossuary came from this tomb and is further evidence linking Jesus to the tomb.
An Additional Tomb
The researchers also claim to have discovered an additional tomb approximately 66 feet away from the first tomb in Talpiot. The team speculates that this second tomb could contain the remains of other disciples or family members, but this tomb has NOT been examined in any way.
It is on the basis of this evidence that the “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” makes the claim that the ossuaries belong to Jesus and the Holy Family. These are the strongest pieces of evidence offered by the filmmakers. Now let’s take a look at the evidence with a critical eye…
Evidence NEGATING the Claim
In the midst of the media interest in the claims of the filmmakers, it’s important for us to realize that there is really nothing in the Talpiot Tomb that warrants the frenzy. We can calmly examine the evidence and place it in its proper perspective. Let’s take a look:
The Truth About the Original Discovery
Before we get to the specific claims of the filmmakers, let’s be clear about something. The evidence and facts presented in “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” are old news:
There’s Nothing New
The tomb was discovered years ago and has already undergone scrutiny by the archeological community who do not consider it to be the family tomb of Jesus. There is nothing new here. Scholars and archeologists have been looking at the contents of the tomb since 1980. There has never been a cover-up. The contents of the tomb have simply been unimpressive to the experts who know the context and history of the area. In addition, the BBC did a documentary on this subject in 1996 and James Tabor wrote a book, The Jesus Dynasty, that also tried to sensationalize the tomb. The facts surrounding the tomb have been long established and examined.
The Truth About the Location of the Tomb
The filmmakers are positing the claim that the location of the tomb is consistent with what we would expect if we were to look for the burial place of the Holy Family. But is this really so?
The Burial Site Would Not Be in Jerusalem
Archeologists, historians and Biblical scholars recognize that the historic site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City is the tomb in which Jesus spent three days prior to the resurrection. This is supported by historical, religious and archeological evidence. The burial site identified in Cameron’s documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood, nowhere near this church. Remember that there is NO tradition, either Christian, Jewish or pagan, that suggests that ANY member of the Holy Family was buried in Jerusalem.
If Mary and Joseph DID have a tomb, what makes us think it would be in Jerusalem in the first place? They came from Galilee. Joseph’s ancestral home was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth. It also appears from the scripture and the early tradition of the Church that his family was alive in Nazareth long after his death. Joseph appears to have been the first to die. So why would his family carry him back to Jerusalem and put him in a tomb (alone) when this was not his home?
But beyond this, there is a unanimous and strong tradition within Christianity (supported by Eusebius) that Mary actually died in Ephesus, where the apostle John (faithful to the promise he made to Jesus at the foot of the cross) took care of her.
The Truth About the Inscribed Names
Now let’s take some time to look at the names that have been discovered on the ossuaries. Let’s look carefully at the names that are listed and the names that are missing:
The Names Alone Don’t Prove Anything
Archeological scholars and historians agree that the names found on the ossuaries are extremely common for the first century. They are not surprised to find them in such a tomb. Archaeologist Zvi Greenhut of the Israel Antiquities Authority said that the combination of the names Jesus, Mary and Joseph on the ossuaries did not impress archaeologists at the time, and as experts in this field, they saw no reason to draw the conclusions of the filmmakers. He said, ”The names are common names. There is nothing unique in the appearance of all names together.” He said that among the 1,000 ossuaries from biblical times unearthed in Jerusalem by 1996, six carried the inscription ”Yeshua,” or Jesus. Of those, two were engraved with the words ”Jesus, son of Joseph.” In addition to this, Greenhut said that about 25 percent of the women’s caskets bore some form of the name Mary and that Joseph was the second most common man’s name of the period.
In addition, Tal Ham (one of Israel’s foremost experts on Jewish and early Christian history) has collected all the names that appear on ossuaries, on papyrus inscriptions and on other written documents from the 2nd century BC to about the 2nd century AD. It is a VERY complete work and catalogue. Ham says that “Mary is the most common name for women. Joseph is the second most common name for men, after Simon. Jesus is also one of those very typical names. So I would say the chance that this is the cave tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family is not very likely.”