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.
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.
PN When did people in the Jerusalem area start using ossuaries?
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.
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.
It must be Easter again!
|Have 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 Mara. Mariamenou 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.
Assumptions abound in current discussion
|An 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.
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