Were the Early Followers of Jesus Christians?

Where did the term "christian" come from?

Quest for the Real Paul

In modern times, the term Christian is applied to those who consider themselves to be following the teachings of Jesus. But where did the term originate, and would the first followers of Jesus recognize Christianity today?  

Quest for the Real Paul, now also available on DVD from Vision Media Productions, sheds light on this question.


Quest for the Real Paul takes viewers on a fascinating journey through the rich cultures of the Mediterranean, once the center of the ancient Roman Empire, to visit the places where Paul traveled and taught. Along the way, publisher and Middle East scholar David Hulme begins to unravel the centuries of accumulated misunderstandings about Paul and his teachings. Through a fresh look at the cultural, historical and religious context of his writings, viewers will get to know this complex and colorful man. With modern scholarship shedding new light on the biblical record, an astonishingly different picture of the apostle Paul emerges.

Tags: Jesus Christ, Paul, John Gager, Acts of Apostles, Christian, Pinchas Lapide

Buried in Time

Two Israeli specialists discuss aspects of First Century burials
The “Jesus Tomb” has been the hot topic on many religious and biblical study blogs and news sources. Vision researcher Peter Nathan conducted interviews with two of the people involved in the archaeology of the tomb that was uncovered in Talpiot, Jerusalem, in 1980. 

Shimon Gibson was a junior archaeologist at the time, working with the Israel Department of Antiquities (now known as the Israel Antiquities Authority), and was intimately involved with this excavation. Today he is a Senior Fellow with the W.F. Albright Archaeological Institute in Jerusalem and an independent researcher excavating on Mount Zion.

Joe Zias was the curator of the Israel Department of Antiquities at the time of the Talpiot excavation. Although not directly involved at the front line of the dig, as an anthropologist he was largely responsible for analyzing human remains unearthed in this and other such projects. 

Both men have published widely on their work and discoveries.

The tomb at Talpiot is just one of numerous tombs that have been discovered and excavated in the Jerusalem area.  These two men bring their individual expertise and memory to bear on the subject. Clearly the passing of 27 years has faded some details pertaining to this particular tomb. Nonetheless, Gibson and Zias provide a useful insight into burial practices of the first century C.E. as we understand them today.

 Shimon Gibson
 Photo Courtesy of Daniel Gibson
Shimon Gibson on the Talpiot Tomb

PN  The Talpiot tomb is described as a salvage operation. How does that differ from a regular excavation?

SG  In a regular university-sponsored excavation, one has specific research objectives in mind. Together with students and volunteers, a professional scientific staff sets out to excavate a given archaeological site. Without undue pressure, archaeologists basically set out to solve research problems they have in the field.
In an emergency operation or salvage excavation, it’s a different matter altogether. The site is usually discovered by chance during the course of building construction activities—with bulldozing and preparation of areas for new neighborhoods, new highways and so forth. The excavations must then take place as quickly as possible in order to release the area for modern construction.

PN  So clearly, time is the essential thing in a salvage operation. But you still have to remove all of the fill from the tomb and find out what’s in there?

SG  Yes, of course. When the Talpiot tomb was discovered in April 1980, the building constructors (Solel Boneh) informed the Israel Department of Antiquities [now the Israel Antiquities Authority] that while leveling an area for the foundations of apartment buildings, they came across the opening to a cave. Amos Kloner, the Jerusalem district archaeologist for the Department of Antiquities, sent out an archaeologist, Eliot Braun, to see what was going on there. Braun informed him that it was indeed an ancient cave, and then Yosef Gath subsequently went out to the site to conduct excavations. That was on a Friday, and I followed on the Sunday to record the cave, to provide a bird’s eye plan and sections.
I remember it was an exciting tomb. Since then I’ve excavated quite a few tombs around Jerusalem, but this one has actually stuck in my memory. But, like everything else, with the passing of time some of the fine details of the dig have probably escaped me. But I recall it was a fun dig. I received a call on that Saturday evening from Amos Kloner, saying, “Shimon, there’s a tomb out there. Yosef Gath needs some help; we need to record this tomb as quickly as possible. Could you go out tomorrow morning?” I said, “Yes, why not?” And off I went the next day.
It was incredibly important to get the position of the ossuaries (limestone bone boxes) on the map of the tomb correctly, to number and label them, and to indicate the height of the soil within the cave. The ossuaries had already been taken out before I arrived. It transpired that the tomb itself had been broken into in antiquity, because reddish soil (terra rossa) had poured in through the cave entrance and had filled the central chamber up to about the height of one’s knees. This fill had, in turn, flowed from the central chamber into the individual kokhim, which are tunnel-like burial recesses cut into the walls in three directions. This was the way the tomb looked at the time of the discovery: the ossuaries were clearly visible even though the central chamber hadn’t yet been excavated.

PN  Did the central area get excavated?

SG  The excavation was eventually fully completed. We had workers provided by the construction company. I know some people have suggested the tomb might not have been fully excavated. This is incorrect. It was excavated all the way down to the rock floor. All the reddish soil was removed, and all the finds that existed within the tomb were transferred for safekeeping to the Rockefeller Museum. The only thing I did point out to Simcha Jacobovici, when he made the documentary about the cave, is that, with hindsight, we now know that some tombs in Jerusalem have hidden entrances descending to chambers at a lower level. Could this have been the case in this tomb? Perhaps, but I hasten to add that I don’t recall any kind of rock-cut feature that might suggest this. One thing is strange, and that is that the tomb has no central standing pit. This was so that a family member would be able to stand within the tomb chamber without bumping his or her head on the ceiling of the cave. However, other tombs that lacked this feature have been found at Akeldama and elsewhere.

PN  Were the pits also used for collecting bones?

SG  Sometimes. The usual procedure was that once a body had been anointed with oil and covered with a shroud and brought to a cave, it was placed on a bench within an arched niche hewn into one of the chamber’s walls, known as an arcosolium. There the body rested for about a year to allow it to fully decompose, at which point the bones were gathered and placed into an ossuary. Alternatively, the bones were sometimes gathered and collected into a pit cut into the floor or into the side of the bench. This process was known as secondary burial. Only when the body had decomposed was death an absolute certainty. Hence, the story in the Gospels (of the women visiting Jesus’ tomb on the day following his burial) was not at all unusual. It was common practice in antiquity, since the idea was that people might somehow fall into a coma, get buried, and then suddenly awaken. You can imagine the horror of such an event. The “shroud tomb” that I excavated with two of my colleagues in Akeldama (the Field of Blood), just below Mt. Zion—in which we found well-preserved remains of a shroud dating from the first century A.D.—suggests that in addition to a shroud used for wrapping the body, there was also a separate piece of cloth used for covering the head, a kind of handkerchief. If the person did wake up, they wouldn’t suffocate; they could breathe and also shout and alert those outside. (For this reason I believe it’s impossible that the Turin shroud is the real thing—in addition to the fact that radiocarbon determinations have suggested a 13th or 14th century date for this cloth, as you know. A shroud made of a single sheet would not seem to have been the common practice at the time of Jesus.)

PN  When the Israel Department of Antiquities arrived at Talpiot, what had been disturbed in the tombs?

SG  It’s really difficult to say. Simcha Jacobovici managed to find some eyewitnesses (who were at that time kids) who claim they went into the tomb at some stage before archaeologists arrived on the scene. I’m not quite sure how this works out, because there is an intervening weekend, and the ossuaries had already been removed. The tomb was found on a Friday in April 1980, and the visible ossuaries inside the cave were removed to the Rockefeller Museum, and I only arrived on the scene the following Sunday. I can’t remember further details. It is possible that there were kids playing around in the area, and they might have happened upon the tomb, even though it was already known to the authorities. The sequence of events and who got there first is still a bit unclear, I have to admit. What I can tell you is that when I arrived at the site, the East Talpiot neighborhood still didn’t exist. It was just an enormous construction site, with bulldozers, trucks and the outlines of streets carved into the side of a hill, but nobody was actually living there. Twenty-seven years can take a toll on a person’s memory, including perhaps for some of the eyewitnesses interviewed by Simcha in his documentary.

PN  One supposition is that the builders didn’t advise the Israel Department of Antiquities immediately and that the kids you mentioned were wandering around at night and found it.

SG  It’s unlikely. I can imagine the kids playing there on the Saturday, but not during a working day, and definitely not at night. Let me tell you a story about another tomb. I was excavating northeast of Jerusalem in 1987, and I received information that a tomb had been opened the previous night. In the morning I went there and the tomb was empty. In the soil left behind, I could see indentations where ossuaries had been. So I think it’s hardly likely, taking into consideration that there were still 10 ossuaries in the Talpiot cave at the time Yosef Gath got there, that the tomb had been rifled in any considerable fashion beforehand. The cave would have been in a vandalized state, which it wasn’t, and the ossuaries would definitely have been stolen. Such stone caskets are saleable objects on the antiquities market.

The idea that the James ossuary might have come from this tomb has been kicked around. I have my doubts about that, but I think we’ll never know anything for certain. First, there are considerable doubts about the provenance of this ossuary (and the authenticity of the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”), with some suggesting that it was already around in 1976, quite a few years before the Talpiot tomb was discovered. What I can say for certain is that there were indeed 10 ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb, and that these were all taken out and recorded properly, and that none of them looked like the James ossuary, including the mysterious “plain” 10th ossuary that has apparently gone missing. I think it’s just the sloppy handling of the ossuaries while they were in storage that has resulted in this specific ossuary being mislaid. I wouldn’t put any sort of conspiracy idea behind the missing ossuary as Simcha does in his documentary.

PN  Coming back to the uncovering of the Talpiot tomb, what had been disturbed in antiquity? Were covers displaced? Were stones removed?

SG  It’s difficult to tell who broke into the tomb and when, because of the soil that had gathered inside the tomb. Also, no artifacts dating from the time the tomb was opened were found. One thing I can say for certain: the breaking into the tomb is unlikely to have occurred in the 19th century or later, and this is because from the early part of the 19th century, stone ossuaries were already marketable objects being sold in antiquities shops. Now, tombs were robbed quite frequently in antiquity. Unlike Roman- and Byzantine-period tombs, however, in which you might find silver and gold jewelry and other sorts of ornaments worth stealing, the contents of Second Temple–period tombs tended to be quite sparse, with ossuaries, the bones of the dead, the occasional cooking pot, or a perfume bottle used by those who came to bury the dead. And that’s about it. I hasten to add that these weren’t grave goods. The perfume bottles were there because of the Jewish practice of leaving the body to decay without any soil covering it. This changed in the later Roman and Byzantine periods, when soil was heaped up on top of the body to absorb fluids and to take away nasty smells within the tomb. This was not the practice in the Second Temple period, so there were quite strong, pungent smells inside a tomb, and the perfume bottles were used for scattering scent to sweeten or to mask the smells to a certain extent.

PN  Had robbers scattered bones around the tomb, or was it just the skulls that were discovered on the floors?

SG  In the central chamber there were scattered bones in addition to those three skulls that are depicted on my map. But these bones were so fragmentary that there was no point in me recording them in my drawing. The documentary makers believe that there’s some kind of secret symbolism behind the triangular shape formed by the position of the skulls. But as one of the archaeologists who was there, I can say that it remains unclear to me whether they were placed there on purpose or just fell there at the time the robbers entered the tomb.

PN  What happened to all those scattered remains? Were they put into ossuaries?

SG  No, no. Archaeologically, you have to record and collect the finds according to the exact location where they are found, and every find has to come from a clearly labeled context. The scattered bones were collected, placed in plastic bags and conveyed to the Rockefeller Museum, together with the other finds and ossuaries, which also had bones inside. The bones in the ossuaries weren’t removed or even examined until they reached the Rockefeller Museum, at which point they were recorded. The bones were then looked at and the inscriptions were also carefully examined. It wasn’t the case that this was a relaxed excavation, when you can spend time recording everything very carefully at your leisure. There was extreme pressure that the ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem might hear about the tomb, get up in arms, begin demonstrating, and perhaps even succeed in stopping the excavation. I’ve been on quite a few excavations where the work had to be stopped abruptly. Indeed, in the vicinity of the Talpiot tomb there’s another tomb, which I’m sure you’ve heard about, where the excavation was eventually stopped by the religious and the ossuaries had to be left without any archaeological work being done.

PN  Yes, Simcha actually got a miniature video camera down into that tomb.

SG  That’s the one. It’s full of ossuaries. It wasn’t just left there because the archaeologists had not been doing their job properly; the fact is that the ultra-orthodox prevented this excavation from proceeding. The tomb was eventually sealed and covered over. A great pity. I am sure some of these ossuaries have inscriptions, and I would love to excavate there. One small ossuary was taken out by Amos Kloner—an ossuary of a child. But the rest were left at the spot. The normal practice while excavating tombs in the 1970s and 1980s was that the ossuaries were the first items to be taken out. You would not spend time examining inscriptions or the contents of the ossuaries until later. The same thing goes for the other finds, such as ceramic vessels. Everything was packaged to go as quickly as possible, so that eventually the work could be conducted slowly back in the Rockefeller Museum. There was an anthropologist at that time in the Department, whose job was to look at the bones when they were brought to the Rockefeller museum. His name was Joe Zias. He would note the number of buried individuals within the ossuaries, estimate their sex and age, and look for evidence of pathologies on the bones. At that time (the 1980s) ossuaries brought to the Rockefeller Museum were stored in the central courtyard of the wing used by the Israel Department of Antiquities as office spaces for archaeologists. There was limited storage space, so the ossuaries were stacked in rows against the side walls of the courtyard, with a thin plank of wood over each row of ossuaries.

PN  Is it fair to say there were multiple skeletons in the ossuaries?

SG  I tried to find out who actually wrote up the bone report, because in Amos Kloner’s 1996 article, there’s no mention of the name of the anthropologist who worked on the bones. There are two possibilities: the work could have been done by Joe Zias or Pat Smith. Pat was researching dental aspects of skeletons from some Second Temple–period tombs dug in Jerusalem at that time. I tried to hunt for more detailed information about the bones and came up with nothing. For this reason there is some uncertainty as to which bones came from which ossuary, at least on the basis of the published material. Since anthropologists at that time were fully aware of the evidence of a crucified man found earlier in the 1970s in a tomb at Givat Hamivtar, had there been evidence of a crucified man in the Talpiot tomb, the anthropologist working on the Talpiot material would definitely have alerted Gath and Kloner. We know from the excavation of other tombs around Jerusalem that there were frequently multiple burials within ossuaries. It is not the case that you would have one ossuary per person. There might be the bones of a principal individual within a given ossuary, a “Mary” for instance. But you could also have within the same ossuary, without any indication of name, the bones of Mary’s daughter. In addition, there’s an assumption that only members of nuclear families were buried in such tombs, but I think extended families were also buried in some of the tombs. I’ve been researching in some detail the Akeldama cemetery—the famous Field of Blood—which has multiple complexes, indicating that some were clan based, not just family tombs.

PN  So you’d have related families in adjacent tombs?

SG  Yes. Macalister surveyed quite a few tomb complexes in the Akeldama cemetery in the early 20th century. If you look at the plans, you can see that some of the tomb complexes, which have separate burial chambers, loculi, arcosolia, and so forth, link up directly to additional burial complexes, and since they all shared a common external courtyard, the assumption has to be that they belonged to families who had some kinship ties with each other. One also has to take into account that a tomb wasn’t used just for one generation of dead but, in the case of Second Temple–period tombs, for at least three generations. Based on a consensus of opinion regarding the date of the appearance of ossuaries, the Talpiot tomb should be dated to between the late first century B.C. and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. So it is possible that at least two generations of people or more were buried in that tomb.

PN  What are the archaeological plans for the Talpiot tomb? Is there any way of getting back inside and looking further?

SG  One can still gain access to the tomb; in fact, Simcha did it for his documentary. It’s situated beneath a cement-lined shaft within a garden, surrounded on all sides by modern apartment blocks. The shaft is sealed but could be accessed if permission is obtained from the Israel Antiquities Authority. On the day of the filming of his documentary, Simcha called me and said, “Would you like to revisit the cave for old times’ sake?” And I said, “Wow, why not?” So I went along, and after he finished his filming, I climbed down into the cave to have a look at it. It’s interesting, but I seem to remember the cave being much larger than it actually is. It’s always like that. When one thinks back to one’s earlier years, one always remembers things being much larger than they were, and this was 27 years ago, and I was only 22 years of age. The tomb is at the present time full of old discarded Jewish books. It was at some point after 1980 used as a geniza for religious documents by the ultra-orthodox. But the tomb has been preserved and is accessible, which is quite something, because most of the ancient tombs found during construction work around Jerusalem in the 1970s and 1980s were destroyed to make way for modern development. Can one do further excavations at the tomb? There’s nothing really left to excavate; we dug all the way down to the floor of the tomb. Because of the great interest in this site, however, one could get sonar equipment into the cave to see if there are any hidden hollows in the walls or floor, but my gut feeling is that nothing further will be found and that we did complete operations there back in 1980. But who knows? I must concede that there’s always the possibility of a hidden passage beneath the floor that perhaps got blocked up. There is, of course, the other tomb nearby, which definitely deserves excavation. There are intact decorated and possibly inscribed ossuaries there, and it would be interesting to see what new names emerge there, and whether the two tombs belonged to an extended family or to two separate families. This is something that would definitely be worthwhile and could be done with the scientific technology available to us nowadays. Back in 1980 we couldn’t have imagined letting down miniature cameras into a small cave hidden underground. We also couldn’t imagine the possibilities inherent in the DNA examination of minute scraps of human bones. Perhaps one could even devise a small camera mounted on a miniature digging implement that could go down and move around the ossuaries and perhaps even record the inscriptions. The inscriptions are usually along the long sides of the ossuaries, and they’re actually facing the walls on both sides of the kokhim, so one can’t really see anything in the footage shot by Simcha’s crew. But perhaps in some future project the ossuaries could be levered out of the kokhim and their inscriptions could thus be fully recorded. I would like to be part of this project if it ever takes place. 

PN  The documentary on the Talpiot tomb in early March generated a great deal of interest. What is your overall reaction to the idea that this is the tomb of Jesus and His family?

SG  The idea that the Talpiot tomb might be the family tomb of Jesus is the main thrust of the television documentary made by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron. They have been very clear in interviews that they are not archaeologists but investigative journalists and filmmakers. As such they have done a good job, and I think with integrity and vision. They don’t always make use of the full gamut of archaeological knowledge, but that’s to be expected. Hence, I would say to people reading this interview that they should keep an open mind and not get too emotional; after all, with all due respect to the filmmakers, it is still just a television documentary. Personally, I’m skeptical that this is the tomb of Jesus and I made this point very clear to the filmmakers. When I arrived in New York, I said to Cameron, “I’m skeptical; I don’t think this is the tomb of Jesus, but I’m keeping an open mind. I’ll be positive about things I can be positive about, and I’ll be very skeptical about things that deserve my skepticism based on the knowledge I’ve acquired over the last 20-odd years in the field of archaeology.
But it’s so easy to dismiss the theory of the family tomb of Jesus and say, “This is a load of nonsense. They don’t know what they’re talking about.” I’m open to the possibility of a family tomb of Jesus being around Jerusalem somewhere. I’m not quite sure about the “Jesus” part of it all. I wrote a book with Joan Taylor about the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I have a feeling that the tomb under the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is properly the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, which was then used for the burial of Jesus. Can I prove it? No. In regard to the Garden Tomb I have extreme doubts, and it appears originally to have been an Iron Age (8th or 7th century B.C.) tomb, as Gaby Barkay was able to show. Indeed, General Gordon himself only put forward this tomb as a possibility, and not as a sure identification. But the Garden Tomb has caught on and has gained a lot of acceptance amongst Christian tourists to Jerusalem.
One could say that if Jesus was indeed buried in Jerusalem, and I think we cannot doubt the evidence as presented in the Gospels (I cannot really comment on the matter of the resurrection), when the time came for the immediate family of Jesus to be buried, including Joseph and Mary, and later James and other family members, they had to be buried somewhere. And why not in Jerusalem? Hence, theoretically I would say that while the tomb of Jesus was situated in the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, his immediate and extended family might have been buried in a burial cave in the vicinity of the city of Jerusalem.

PN Provided they could afford one.

SG  Yes. But the circumstances of a family can change. The family may have been poor while at Nazareth, but perhaps, having relocated to Jerusalem after the crucifixion, and because of their contacts with aristocrats or important citizens such as Joseph of Arimathea, the family might have joined the middle class. Jodi Magness published a statement on the SBL Web site, indicating that the family was probably buried in Nazareth and that since they came from a poor background it is unlikely they owned a burial cave. The fact is that Joseph of Arimathea, who gave his tomb for the burial of Jesus, was not a poor man. He had the ear of the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. He could go to Pilate and beg for the body of Jesus, so he was clearly somebody of some standing within the city of Jerusalem. So there is the possibility that because of the perceived significance of Jesus, based on his teachings and the story of his crucifixion and resurrection, that the significance of the overall family rose and that eventually they were able to afford a family tomb, or perhaps others were able to acquire one on their behalf. Perhaps even Joseph of Arimathea bought the family a burial cave, who knows? One has to keep an open mind. True, when it comes to the Talpiot tomb, one has to be very, very careful. But I think that when somebody comes up with what seems to be an unusual idea, the first thing is to take a step backward and to assess things. The best thing is not to get too emotional about things; let’s try to use our grey cells and let’s weigh up the evidence properly.

I have to add that the way I have separated “the tomb of Jesus” from “the family tomb of Jesus” is not something that is done by the makers of the documentary. They actually see the two as one and the same. Partly this is because of the appearance of the inscription “Jesus, son of Joseph” on one of the ossuaries from the tomb, but Jesus and Joseph were extremely common names at that time. And even if the documentary makers are correct and this is the family tomb of Jesus, it doesn’t mean that the Jesus who is named on one ossuary is the same as the more illustrious Jesus himself. Hence you could have two, perhaps even three Jesuses within the same extended family, especially if this is a burial cave that was used for a number of generations.
I remain open to the possibility that there was a family tomb of Jesus in the area of Jerusalem, with the tomb of Jesus situated at the traditional site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We need much more evidence before we can say that the Talpiot tomb might be the family tomb of Jesus.

 Joe Zias
  Photo Courtesy of AP (Rick Bowmer)
Joe Zias on the Talpiot Ossuaries

PN  When did people in the Jerusalem area start using ossuaries?

JZ  Levi Rahmani [who published A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, 1994] figures probably around 30 B.C.E.

PN  Is it fair to say that ossuaries like those found at Talpiot were used for more than one person?

JZ  More than one person! In fact, if you reference ‘Atiqot, 1992, Volume 21, you will find a report of a tomb that was undisturbed in antiquity, which I excavated along with Varda Sussman. She did the archaeology; I did the anthropology. In it was one of the most beautiful hard stone ossuaries ever discovered. It says, “This is the ossuary of Yehosef Bar-Hanania.” Along with Yehosef, another five people are in it. That’s the reason the DNA stuff is just not evidence.

PN We don’t know whose DNA it is.

JZ  Exactly. I have to laugh when they go and DNA an ossuary, and they say they found the remains of a woman. Well, there may be two men and three women in there. When I say six people, it’s bits and pieces of another five people. It’s very rare to find an ossuary with one person in it, even if it says “Martha” or “Yehosef” or something like that. Out of the 15 ossuaries [found in that excavation], I think three of them had at least five or six people in them. So, will the real Yehosef stand up? There are 88 people in the tomb. Fifteen ossuaries, 88 people! And most of them obviously are not in the ossuaries. There are at least four or five generations here. These folks are not a nuclear family; these are all extended families. And another thing—there’s a rule in Judaism that you can be buried with whomever you sleep with. So, for example, two brothers who may have grown up together, sleeping in the same bed; a husband and wife; a mother with three kids who died before the age of five.

PN  So on that basis a husband and wife would probably end up in one ossuary.

JZ  Along with a few others. You have to understand, these people did not understand anatomy. I mean, you find stones in ossuaries, you find tree roots in ossuaries, you find parasites in ossuaries—calcified parasite eggs. You find a lot of stuff. It’s very, very rare to find an ossuary with one person in it. That is really the exception.

There’s also no way of telling relationships. Just because it says “Jesus, son of Joseph,” it doesn’t mean that there is any relationship between that and the ossuary that says “Joseph.” The ossuary that says “Joseph” may have been two or three generations before him. There’s no way of telling. That Joseph could have been an uncle, a second cousin, so on.
It would be interesting to note how many people were in the Caiaphas tomb, which I excavated. We never were able to clean out the whole thing. Most of the tombs I’ve excavated have been robbed, either in antiquity or by modern building contractors. The reports on the [Mount Scopus] tomb are in ‘Atiqot, 1992, Volume 21, and in it I have a table of the contents of the ossuaries. In ossuary number one you have six people. Ossuary two: three people. Ossuary three: six people. Ossuary five: one female. Ossuary six: one child. Ossuary eight: one adult male. Ossuary ten: two people. Ossuary eleven: two. Ossuary fourteen: three. Ossuary fifteen: four. Ossuary sixteen: six people. Ossuary seventeen: four. Ossuary eighteen: four. There are two more ossuaries which we don’t have numbers for: one had three, the other had two.

PN  Why would one of them have had only one in it? Would that have been the most recent burial?

JZ  No, one was a child, so it was difficult to put another person in it. Two other people were by themselves: a female and a male. But three of the 16 ossuaries had six people in them.

PN  Returning to the Talpiot tomb—they found bones and skulls on the floor. How did they remove these? Did they just put them in another ossuary?

JZ  No, I think one of two things may have happened: the religious people may have come and gotten them after the archaeologists went home, or the archaeologist Gath, who is now deceased, gave them to the religious people.

PN  In other words, they were never brought back to the laboratory for sexing?

JZ  No, I turned my office upside down to try to find out where these bones were, or if there ever was a report. There never was a report on any of this.

PN  So you just got the ossuaries back?

JZ  Empty, yes. And I put the 10th one out in the courtyard.

PN  This is the one that some suggest is the “James” ossuary.

JZ  Yes, but there’s a difference of about 10 centimeters, almost exactly, in the length of the 10th ossuary and the “James” ossuary.

PN  Well, now it is being presented as maybe the 11th or 12th ossuary that was in the tomb—that there were probably 12 there, and somebody grabbed this one while he could.

JZ  As a matter of fact, if I was going to steal something, that would probably be the last thing I’d steal. The thing is beaten up, and the paint’s sort of washed off. If you think someone out there robbing tombs is going to pick that one up—it’s the last one anyone would want.

PN  Has [inscriptions expert] Emile Puech looked at the inscriptions on these ossuaries?

JZ  No, but Levi Rahmani has and Amos Kloner has. Believe me, this stuff is not rocket science. Most of them are not that difficult to read.

PN  Amos’s report talks about how the covers have been removed from some of the ossuaries, the stones were removed from the kokhim, bones were scattered, and so forth. Would that have been done by tomb robbers?

JZ  Yes, it was robbed twice. It seems to have been robbed in antiquity, and then again by the construction workers.

PN  Were tombs always used for extended families or could they represent a community?

JZ  Extended families.

PN  So there was always some sort of familial relationship. At Qumran (which is, of course, a totally different burial situation), you have a community buried. That wasn’t done by other communities anywhere else at any time?

JZ  It was done by other Essene communities, yes. There are three Essene cemeteries, I believe.

PN  Obviously we’re talking about the middle or upper class, who could afford to construct a tomb. What happened to the poor people?

JZ  We don’t know. They may have been buried in very shallow tombs and over time been washed away.

Tags: jerusalem, Jesus, First Century, burial practice, 1st century, ossuaries, tombs

The End of the Talpiot Tomb

Or, Mary Magdalene Has Disappeared From the Radar Screen!

The past two weeks have seen great discussion about many aspects of the “Jesus family tomb.” Many commentators have focused on the validity of the statistics that were used. Not considering myself to be a mathematician, I’ve stayed away from that area. However, some useful material has been presented on the names engraved on the ossuaries. Most has focused on the one reputed to represent Mary Magdalene.


Early in the discussion, Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, analyzed the Greek inscription (the results of which were related in the first post of this blog). More recently, Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, suggested that two different hands had undertaken the engraving, and that the inscription therefore related to two separate women whose bones had been put into the ossuary at different times.


This has led to yet another response, taking us back full circle to James Tabor. Prompted by Pfann’s widely circulated and eagerly accepted paper, Tabor approached one of the most respected Greek epigraphers for her input. The result? Leah Di Segni of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, dispensed with Pfann’s conclusions. Nevertheless, she dismissed any chance of Mary Magdalene being the person identified in the inscription and, in so doing, turned The Lost Tomb of Jesus script on its head. In her opinion, the names “Mariamenou” and “Mara” would have to be reversed if they are to be read as “Mary, the Master,” as proposed in the documentary.


Di Segni has effectively reinforced Bauckham’s assertion that the inscription should be translated “of Mariamene, also known as Mara.” In other words, the woman whose remains were interred in the ossuary was known in her day by both a Greek and an Aramaic name. Interestingly, the inscription is also an indication that her interment took place toward the end of the century-long period during which ossuaries were used in the Jerusalem area, as the use of a slash between two names was common from only the late first century C.E.


Tabor appears to have accepted Di Segni’s reading. And so, with the statistics under incessant fire and Mary Magdalene lost, the case presented so enthusiastically and doggedly by Tabor, Jacobovici and Cameron appears to have sunk like the Titanic. At the very least, their attempt to link Mary Magdalene to the ossuary (and, by extension, to the tomb) has surely lost its steam, and the discussion of the Talpiot tomb will probably disappear from forums and blogs as quickly as it disappeared in Britain in 1996 when the BBC tried to present a similar argument.

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Tags: Jesus, First Century, 1st century

A Critical Look Inside The Jesus Tomb

It must be Easter again!
A Critical Look Inside The Jesus TombHave archaeologists uncovered the tomb of Jesus? A highly publicized new book (The Jesus Family Tomb by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles R. Pellegrino) and documentary (The Lost Tomb of Jesus, produced by James Cameron and directed by Jacobovici) claim to provide evidence to that effect. But perhaps even more compelling in the post–Da Vinci Code world is that ossuaries found in the tomb are said to have held the remains of not only Jesus but Mary Magdalene and “Judas, the son of Jesus.” One of the conclusions this team offers is that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdalene, and that they had a son named Judas.

Discovered during foundation work for an apartment building near Jerusalem in 1980, the tomb was surveyed, and various artifacts, including 10 ossuaries, were removed by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). The excavation yielded little that was considered especially noteworthy at the time, as the IAA subsequently reported in its journal, ‘Atiqot.

In the meantime, however, Israeli-born writer and filmmaker Jacobovici launched an investigation of his own. The lynchpin in his identification of the tomb is his interpretation of the name on one of the ossuaries as “Mary Magdalene.” In Greek, as opposed to the Hebrew of the other inscriptions, is the name Mariamenou, followed by MaraMariamenou is a diminutive form of the Greek Mariamene and is a term of endearment. It is derived from the Hebrew Miriam, which we know in English as either “Maria” or “Mary.” Mara is normally a contraction of “Martha” (L. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries). The two names are separated by a stroke, which was used in place of a preposition when two names appeared.Mariamenou is in fact the genitive form of Mariamenon and is found only here in the extant evidence for ancient Jewish names. It is a specifically Greek formation, not used in Hebrew or Aramaic, and indicates that this woman came from a Greek-speaking family, perhaps generations removed from her Hebrew or Aramaic relatives in the tomb. This point is overlooked by the documentary team, who present all the names (except for the other Mary, whom they identify as the mother of Jesus, and “Judas, the son of Jesus”) as belonging to a single generation. In fact, the IAA archaeological report notes that at least 35 bodies had been interred in this grave, indicating that it was at best a multigenerational family tomb.

But what of the second name on the ossuary? The filmmakers wish to read the second term,Mara, as the Aramaic word for “Master,” thus reading the inscription as “Mariamene, also called Master” (in accordance with a current perception of Mary Magdalene as leader among the apostles). This translation of Mara is based on the notion that Mariamene was Mary Magdalene, which in turn is based on a work known as the Acts of Philip, a noncanonical document dating from at least 300 years after the time of Jesus and the apostles. It was written to be read at celebrations in Philip’s memory for the purpose of highlighting his saintly acts or deeds—deeds that have no basis in the New Testament. A woman named Mariamne is featured in the Acts of Philip, a fact that is being presented by Cameron as a vital clue to Mariamene’s identity, and one that the Israelis would have been unaware of in processing the tomb in 1980. But the Mariamne in the Acts of Philip is identified as Philip’s sister and possibly also the sister of Martha. The conflation of this Mariamne and Mary Magdalene results from a tenuous link in Gnostic literature written at the earliest in the second century. What’s more, the Mariamne that is identified with Mary Magdalene is not even the same name as is inscribed on the ossuary. Similar though they are, Mariamne andMariamenon were unrelated names.  So this can hardly be used as evidence linking the name on the ossuary with Mary Magdalene. The simple reading would be that this was the ossuary of a woman named Mariamenon, who was also known by the Hebrew/Aramaic name Mara.

But there’s more from the documentary team. Hoping to further support his theory, Jacobovici and his associates arranged for mitochondrial DNA tests to be performed on material from the ossuaries they associated with Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Mitochondrial DNA is passed on only through the mother. The tests revealed no maternal relationship; hence, the two could not have had a mother-son or brother-sister relationship and must therefore have been husband and wife, or so we are to believe. Curiously, although the team assigned relationships between all the others whose names appeared on the various ossuaries (including Jesus’ mother and the supposed son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene), no further DNA tests were performed to verify any of them.

More significant is the fact that, as mentioned earlier, human remains of four or five generations could have been stored in a single ossuary, which means that there can be no control over the DNA found in any of the boxes. In other words, the DNA results prove nothing. Following standard practice, the excavation team removed the bones from the ossuaries in 1980 and handed them over to the religious authorities for reburial. No record appears to have been kept of the exact contents of the bone boxes or of how many skeletons were contained in each. So while some DNA may be recovered from residues in the boxes, we have no way of knowing to whom it belonged. The initial archaeological report also indicates that the tomb had been disturbed in the distant past and that parts of skeletons were scattered in the cave. We don’t know whether these were placed in the ossuaries to facilitate their removal from the tomb. Clearly, then, any DNA results are at best dubious.

What is known is that this is very likely a first-century C.E. tomb, as ossuaries were used only in the period from 30 B.C.E. until just before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. This raises an important question relating to traditional holy sites. Putting aside the claims made by the authors and their publicists, the tomb suggests the need for a fresh look at burial sites in the early first century. Talpiot, the site of the so-called Jesus tomb, is some five kilometers south of the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Another first-century burial site is at Sanhedriyya, about five kilometers north of the Temple Mount. The Garden Tomb, which was established by Protestants in the 19th century as a rival to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, has been dated to the seventh century B.C.E. and accordingly could not have been “a new tomb” at the time of Jesus’ death.

Then what about the legitimacy of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as Jesus’ burial site? According to the Mishnah (Rosh Ha-Shanah 2:5), it appears that the Sanhedrin, the governing council of the Jews under Roman rule, established a limit on the proximity of burial to the Temple Mount by establishing a perimeter 2,000 cubits (a little more than 900 meters, or about 3,000 feet) from the temple. This area was to represent the Camp of Israel. Burial, by definition, had to take place outside this limit. The problem is that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher falls within the 2,000-cubit radius and thus could not have been used as a burial site.

Perhaps the real value of the tomb at Talpiot is that it can encourage us to reexamine some of the myths that have been imposed on Christianity.

Tags: Jesus, First Century, 1st century

Did the Family Of Jesus Have a Tomb in Jerusalem?

Assumptions abound in current discussion
James TaborAn assumption at the heart of the docudrama The Lost Tomb of Jesus is that Jesus of Nazareth and his family must have had a common sepulcher. A rock-hewn tomb discovered in 1980 at Talpiot, just south of Jerusalem, is proposed in the film as most likely the very place. Early in the program, James Tabor, who acted as historical advisor to the filmmakers, remarked, “You have to have a family tomb.” The question is, do you?

Writing on his blog following the release of the film, Tabor further explained this assumption: “The Talpiot tomb, is, after all, by definition, ‘a Jesus family tomb.’ The question is, which Jesus? And Jesus of Nazareth did die, and was buried, and his flesh did decompose and his bones were left. I do not think it likely, as some have argued, that the Jesus/James movement would have discarded their leader in a common grave. It just does not fit anything we know of messianic apocalyptic groups and the way they revere their Rebbe/Master, and in this case, their Messiah” (The Jesus Dynasty Blog, Methinks Thou Protestest Too Much).

Once again the assumption is being expressed.

It is an important assumption for Tabor, because it is central to his argument in his recent book, The Jesus Dynasty. As the title suggests, he believes that Jesus and his brother James founded a dynasty. The New Testament records that in the years following Jesus’ crucifixion, James became leader of the early church in Jerusalem. According to our understanding of Josephus’s writings, as preserved by Clement, Origen and Eusebius, he was one of the most revered people there. If he had a tomb, it would be a tantalizing piece of evidence for Tabor.

But scholars have made the argument that rock-hewn tombs with ossuaries were only for the wealthy. Even then, the ossuaries or bone boxes within such tombs sometimes held up to six sets of human skeletal remains. The notion that the family of every first-century Jew could afford initial interment in a tomb and later placement in an ossuary within that tomb is fallacious. The majority of the dead were simply wrapped and buried in a trench in the ground. The cemetery at Qumran is a good example of this practice. Granted, the percentage of the population buried in tombs as opposed to being buried in the earth is difficult to establish.

At the New York press conference and program launch for The Lost Tomb of Jesus on February 26, one journalist asked how a poor family from Galilee could afford a tomb in Jerusalem. Tabor made the case that Jesus’ followers would have banded together to pay for one

It should be acknowledged that Jesus attracted some wealthy listeners. Joseph of Arimathea, in whose personal tomb Jesus was buried according to the biblical accounts, is a case in point. But some have suggested, without biblical evidence, that this Joseph was part of Jesus’ family and hence a family tomb existed from the beginning. That tomb was the one that was found empty by the disciples three days after the crucifixion.

Another tomb, possibly associated with Simon of Cyrene who carried the cross beam for Jesus, has been excavated in Jerusalem. But while this may add evidence that there were people close to Jesus who had the means to provide a tomb for the family, Tabor’s notion needs to be tested against the rest of the evidence from the New Testament. The accounts there show the early church caring for its needy widows (Acts 6:1 ff) and providing financial relief to Judea (1 Corinthians 16:1–3; 2 Corinthians 8 and 9). The model is one of the leadership caring for the needy rather than exalting itself, and of the church supporting the ministry of the apostles (Paul at times being the exception to this rule [1 Corinthians 9:1–18]). There is no evidence that any of the apostles were well-to-do or that their remuneration extended beyond covering their basic needs.

Additional clues to the humble lifestyle of Jesus’ family and early followers are provided by Josephus. Though the late-first-century historian’s extant works mention Jesus’ brother James only in passing, his additional writings did discuss James and were widely known up until the time of Jerome. Again as noted by Clement, Origen and Eusebius, those writings reflected James’s piety rather than any indulgent lifestyle. Though Origen expressed outrage that Josephus regarded the 70 C.E. fall of Jerusalem as divine judgment for the killing of James by the high priest, it speaks to the righteousness that Josephus attributed to James. This stands in contrast to what he saw as the rapaciousness of the high priests. Hegesippus, drawing on the earlier historian’s account, described James as a person given to prayer and fasting in the temple.

Interestingly, Tabor sees “the Jesus/James movement” as Ebionite. The traditional understanding of the term Ebionite is “the poor.” Not only is this its meaning in Hebrew (Exodus 23:11), but it is also attested in literature from the Second Temple period. It is difficult to see how a group that apparently identified itself as “the poor” would or could pay for a wealthy burial place for its leading family.

So can we know whether or not Jesus’ family had a tomb in Jerusalem?

Consider the reports of the death of James, who, as already noted, was Jesus’ brother (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19). According to Eusebius, James’s cousin Simeon, son of Cleophas, succeeded him as leader. This is an indication that there was still family present in Jerusalem who could have placed James in a family tomb—that is, if one existed. Yet the only detail we have of his burial is that it took place where he was killed. At the time of Hegesippus in the mid-second century, James’s grave was known to be close to the Temple Mount (not Talpiot). It was visible until the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt and the final destruction of Jerusalem in 135 C.E., during the time of the emperor Hadrian. If this account is true, it would also indicate that James’s bones were unlikely to have been placed in an ossuary. Of course, disciples could have removed the body surreptitiously, but the disturbance caused by removal from such a public place would have drawn some attention and prevented the continued recognition of his gravesite.

As ossuary inscribed with “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” gained wide notoriety in late 2002. Proponents of the Talpiot tomb as the Jesus family tomb would like to draw a connection with this “James ossuary.” But the latter is currently at the center of a forgery suit brought by the Israeli authorities against some antiquities dealers. Even if the case of forgery is not proven, the ossuary’s lack of provenance and the suspicion that surrounds it will prevent its existence from establishing proof of a family tomb. Besides, the archaeological reports provide little chance that it was ever part of the Talpiot tomb in question.

In the end, in spite of current arguments to the contrary, it would be safest to err on the ground of accepting that there is no known evidence that a Jesus family tomb existed.

Tags: Jesus, First Century, 1st century

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