James Tabor is the chairman of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His book challenges many of the beliefs that Christians hold dear, maintaining that Jesus is neither the son of God nor the son of Joseph but most likely the child of a Roman soldier named Pantera. Jesus, Tabor maintains, became the head of the household when Joseph died and looked after his six half-brothers and sisters. When Jesus died, his brother James took over his dynasty. Jesus and James' teachings, Tabor says, are very different from the Christian philosophy that eventually spread across the world.
Read an excerpt of the book below.
Many of the great archaeological discoveries of our time have been accidental. It is as if there is some mysterious hidden axiom at work -- what we most hope to discover we seldom find, and what we least expect can suddenly appear. This seems to be particularly true when it comes to the historical study of Jesus and the movement he founded, subsequently known as Christianity. One thinks of the appearance of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 from caves in the Judean desert, or the uncovering of the 1st-century A.D. skeleton of a crucified man by a road-building crew in Jerusalem in 1968, or the chance discovery in 2000 of the tomb of the high priest Caiaphas, who presided over the trial of Jesus.1 When it comes to archaeology it seems that time and chance are equal partners with careful planning and method.
A Late Night Discovery in Jerusalem
I learned this firsthand late one Wednesday afternoon on June 14, 2000, while hiking with five of my students in the Hinnom Valley, just south of the Old City of Jerusalem in an area known as Akeldama.2 We had been in Israel for two weeks excavating a newly discovered cave a few miles west of Jerusalem at a place called Suba, which has the earliest drawings related to John the Baptizer ever found. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where I am a professor, is the academic sponsor of the dig. Dr. Shimon Gibson and I are co-directors of the excavation. It had been an exciting trip, our second season at the "Cave of John the Baptist," as we had come to call it. We had decided to do a bit of archaeological sightseeing as a break from a hard day of digging in the summer heat. The Hinnom Valley is an area thick with ancient rock-hewn tombs, just a stone's throw from the Arab village of Silwan. Many of the tombs are open, having been robbed and emptied centuries ago. But a significant number are still sealed and intact, covered with topsoil and preserved for the past two thousand years. On that late evening Gibson, who is an Israeli archaeologist, had offered to take us into some of the open tombs to give us an idea of what Jewish burial was like in the time of Jesus.
None of us had the slightest inkling of the exciting discovery just ahead, or the stealth operation that was about to begin. I certainly had no idea that we were about to stumble onto something that would relate to my lifelong research regarding the historical Jesus, and more specifically to the Jesus dynasty itself. We finished our tour of half a dozen tombs about 7 p.m. It was beginning to get dark and we needed to head back to Jerusalem to the British School of Archaeology where we were staying so we could get some rest. As it turned out, none of us were to sleep at all that night.
As we were making our way back to our cars, Jeff Poplin, one of my students, pointed down the hillside below where we had parked. The entrance to a freshly opened tomb was visible in the setting sunlight. Moist soil was piled about the entrance and we could see fragments of broken ossuaries scattered all about. These were the stone bone boxes that Jews of the 1st century used to hold the bones of the deceased. As we approached closer the rectangular entrance to the tomb was clearly exposed, measuring about a square meter. We stuck our heads inside. It was pitch dark, but the damp musty smell of such a space, sealed from outside air for thousands of years, filled our nostrils. It is not an unpleasant smell, but one like no other, and something one never forgets.
Tomb robberies in this area are relatively rare -- perhaps two or three occur over the span of a decade. The Israelis have a special armed unit responsible for protecting antiquities, and the desecrating of an ancient tomb is a serious crime. Judging from the broken ossuaries at the entrance and the fresh soil piled around, the tomb in front of us had most likely just been robbed the night before.
Gibson alerted the Israeli authorities on his cell phone and with their permission he, his assistant Rafi Lewis, and a couple of my students went inside to survey the damage while the authorities were on their way. I waited outside with the others, standing watch. It was rapidly growing dark. The tomb had more than one chamber or level. The group inside disappeared and after a while we could not hear them anymore. The Israelis took much longer to arrive than we expected. The minutes ticked by. After about twenty minutes, and hearing and seeing nothing, those of us outside began to wonder if we should go in and find the others.
Suddenly we heard the excited shouting of Lee Hutchinson, another of my students, muffled at first, then more distinct, as he scrambled toward the upper chamber. He was yelling, "Dr. Tabor! Dr. Tabor! Dr. Gibson has found something very important!" He was so excited he could hardly talk. With his head sticking out of the entrance and his body still inside, he told us that the tomb had three chambers or levels, and in the lowest chamber, in a burial niche carved into the wall, there were the remains of a skeleton with portions of its cloth burial shroud still intact.
Gibson eventually surfaced and explained to us the remarkable implications of this discovery. Jewish burial at the time of Jesus was carried out in two distinct stages -- a primary and a secondary "burial." First the body was washed and anointed with oils and spices and wrapped in a burial shroud. It was then placed on a stone shelf or in a niche known as a loculus carved into the bedrock wall of the tomb. The body was allowed to decompose and desiccate for as long as a year. When mostly bones were left, the remains were gathered and placed into an ossuary or "bone box" usually carved from limestone.3 Often the name of the deceased was carved or scratched on the side into the stone. Some ossuaries hold the bones of more than one individual, and some are inscribed with more than one name. These rectangular lidded boxes vary in size but typically they are 20 by 10 by 12 inches, long enough for the femur or thigh bone, and wide enough to hold the skull.
Ossuaries were commonly used in Jewish burials in and around Jerusalem from about 30 B.C. to A.D. 70, a hundred-year period surrounding the lifetime of Jesus. They regularly turn up through foiled tomb robberies, or accidentally as a result of construction projects. When a tomb has been so violated the archaeologists are called in on an emergency, or rescue, basis to record what they can. The artifacts, including the ossuaries, are catalogued and stored, and the bones are promptly turned over to the Orthodox Jewish community for reburial.
Thousands of ossuaries have been found in Israel, especially in the rock-hewn tombs outside Jerusalem. But finding a skeleton still laid out in a loculus and wrapped in its burial shroud was a first. For some reason the family of the deceased had not returned after the primary burial to place their loved one more permanently in an ossuary.
Organic materials, such as cloth, normally could not survive outside a desert area, and with Jerusalem in the mountains, with its damp winters and rainfall, such a find seemed unbelievable. The tomb had probably been undisturbed since the 1st century A.D. Most of the tombs in this area of Akeldama dated to the time of Jesus, and only a few of them had been opened or robbed over the centuries. We could see no evidence to think this one was any different from the others. However, Gibson did allow the possibility that maybe this particular skeleton with the burial shroud had been placed there from a later period -- perhaps from the Crusades -- thus accounting for its preservation. There are cases where ancient tombs were reused in later periods. But Gibson was of the view that we might well have stumbled across the only example of a 1st-century burial shroud ever found. Only carbon-14 testing of the fabric could tell us for certain. The whole scene reminded me of the initial examination of the Dead Sea Scrolls. At that time scholars found it hard to believe they could have survived for two thousand years. The Scrolls had been preserved in the dry heat of the Judean desert, but we were in the mountains of Jerusalem where the winter weather is rainy and damp. So we were quite prepared to accept a late medieval or Crusades date for the fabric.
The Israelis arrived with supervisor Boaz Zissu of the Israel Antiquities Authority. We spent the rest of the night removing and labeling every bit of the fragile remaining cloth. Boaz told us that thieves had initially opened this very tomb in 1998 but that he and Amir Ganor, who is in charge of protecting tombs in the area, had been able to block it back up and prevent its total looting.4 No one at that time had noticed the shrouded skeletal remains in the lower chamber.
Since my students were trained in archaeology they were allowed to participate. Gibson spent several hours bent over on his hands and knees, squeezed into the narrow loculus. The students photographed, labeled, and recorded each stage of the retrieval. We finished close to daybreak and our carefully packaged cargo was taken to the laboratory of the Israel Antiquities Authority at the Rockefeller Museum, just north of the Old City.
Our team returned to the States a few days later and a precious sample of the cloth, hastily licensed for scientific export, was shipped off to the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory at the University of Arizona in Tucson for carbon-14 dating. It was in this lab, back in 1988, that the "Shroud of Turin" had been dated to A.D. 1300, demonstrating it to be a medieval forgery. As fate would have it, the scientist I contacted in Tucson, Dr. Douglas Donahue, was the individual who supervised the C-14 tests on the Turin shroud. I did not tell Donahue anything about the provenance of our sample -- only that we knew it was not modern and we wanted it to be rushed if possible. As the days passed I found it hard to think of anything else or to concentrate on my other work.
Just after noon on August 9, Donahue reached me by phone at my office at the university. He had the results of the tests. His voice was matter-of-fact and subdued. He asked me if I was sitting down and as he began to read aloud his report I detected a hint of excitement. The Akeldama shroud had been scientifically dated to the first half of the 1st century A.D. -- precisely to the time of Jesus!
Donahue faxed me a copy of his report and I sent it immediately to Gibson in Jerusalem. In his cover letter Donahue closed with an interesting observation: "Our friends from Shroud of Turin days would certainly have appreciated a result like this. I will be interested to know the ramifications of this result." At the time we had just begun to study the tomb and what remained of its contents. None of us could have imagined the far-reaching ramifications that would come to light.
The tomb itself had been strewn with hundreds of fragments of broken ossuaries and scattered bones. Only one large heavy ossuary was left intact, but it had no inscription. What the tomb robbers typically do is remove only a few of the finest ossuaries, preferably some with clear or interesting inscriptions, so as not to flood the antiquities market where they hope to carry out clandestine illegal sales to collectors. They purposely break the rest and carry out only the pieces that have the inscriptions, since such fragments can be easily sold and draw little attention.
Gibson put together an impressive team of experts to begin scientific analysis of the remains of the Tomb of the Shroud, including forensic anthropologists, textile experts, DNA specialists, paleobiologists, and epigraphers. The fragmented ossuaries had to be restored, the cloth of the shroud analyzed, and DNA and other biological tests done on the skeletal remains. In the end twenty ossuaries were restored and three of them had inscriptions that had been missed by the thieves. The clearest one has the name "Maria" or Mary written in Aramaic. A second one possibly is the name "Salome."
The DNA tests done on the various bone samples were quite successful, even after two thousand years. We were able to establish a network of sibling and maternal links between the individuals buried in the tomb. Typically families and extended families used the same rock-hewn tomb over several generations. As for our shrouded individual, we were able to determine that "he" was indeed an adult male, probably of aristocratic birth, that he suffered from leprosy (Hanson's disease), and, microbiological tests indicated, that he most likely died of tuberculosis.
Gibson and I began to comb the ancient literature for evidence related to the use of burial shrouds and ossuaries among the Jews of Judea and Galilee in the Roman period. As it turns out, the references in the New Testament to the shrouded burial of Jesus provide us with some of our most valuable evidence related to the Jewish customs in use in the early 1st century A.D. in Jerusalem -- the very time of our man of the shroud. After all, Jesus' body was washed and wrapped in a two-piece linen shroud and laid out with spices on a stone shelf or slab in a rock-hewn family tomb just outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. Our man of the shroud must have been similarly prepared for burial. We had no reason to speculate that our tomb was in any way connected with the one in which Jesus was initially taken, but as Gibson once remarked to me, our "man of the shroud" lived and died in Jerusalem in the time of Jesus and as a member of the upper classes, very likely might have observed the fateful events of that Passover weekend when Jesus was crucified.
The following year, in the summer of 2001, when I returned to Israel to continue our work at the "John the Baptist" cave, I still had the Tomb of the Shroud much on my mind. I began to make some discreet inquiries in the Old City of Jerusalem among some trusted contacts I had made in the antiquities business. I was able to determine that the missing inscribed fragments from our ossuaries had made it onto the illegal market and could possibly be recovered. At one point the principal person with whom I was dealing asked me if there would be a "bonus" payment if all the missing inscriptions were retrieved. I tried to be calm and matter of fact at this implied disclosure, excited to think that the stolen material from our shroud tomb might still be retrieved. On the other hand, I knew that making payments for stolen goods is something we could not do. I simply replied that we would discuss the matter further when I could see the fragments. I felt it was important to stress the scientific aspects of our quest. After all, my university would now be responsible for publishing the academic study of the shroud tomb and we were not collectors wanting to get hold of some new artifacts. I got the distinct impression that if no one would be prosecuted some type of "exchange" could be worked out. To recover these inscribed fragments would have been invaluable to our study of the Tomb of the Shroud because we would be able to assemble the names of the deceased and match them by DNA with the slight residue of human remains that still clung to the insides of our restored ossuaries. Gibson and I were exploring how that might legally be done when the Intifada or Palestinian uprising reached such a level that we felt it was too dangerous to carry out our plan. At one point that summer, after a series of three bombings over one weekend, we were told not even to go into the city of Jerusalem at all. We had set up our excavation at the "John the Baptizer" cave at Kibbutz Suba near the site, outside the dangerous areas.
On my next visit to Jerusalem I resumed my investigative efforts to recover our missing ossuary fragments through my contacts in the antiquities market. I quickly discovered that everything had changed. Even those I had talked to before began to act as though we never had spoken. What had changed was the dramatic announcement in October 2002 that an ossuary inscribed "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" had suddenly come to light. Its appearance and the resulting controversy it stirred had caused everyone who deals with antiquities in the Old City to completely clam up.
The Burial Box of James
The Brother of Jesus?
It was noon on Monday, October 21, 2002, when Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, announced at a press conference in Washington, D.C., that a limestone ossuary or "bone box" inscribed in ancient Aramaic with the phrase "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus" had surfaced in Jerusalem. The Associated Press flashed the story around the world that afternoon, and the next morning there were front-page stories about the James ossuary in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and practically every other newspaper in the world. That evening all the major television networks carried the news. Feature stories followed in Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report. Even though the ossuary had once held the bones of James, not Jesus, most of the stories emphasized that the inscription was the only physical artifact ever found from the 1st century A.D. that mentioned Jesus. The writers had to scramble a bit to deal with the "James" side of the story since it quickly became obvious that few people, whether in media or the general public, were even aware that Jesus had a brother named James.
We were told that an undisclosed private collector, later revealed to be an Israeli named Oded Golan, had bought the ossuary fifteen years earlier from a Jerusalem antiquities dealer who said it came from the area of Silwan, just south of the Old City of Jerusalem. Golan had not paid much attention to the inscription nor realized its significance. In April 2002 he had shown a photo of the ossuary to André Lemaire, professor of Semitic languages at the Sorbonne, who was on a visit to Jerusalem. Lemaire was immediately intrigued, recognizing that the combination of names and relationships very likely pointed to not just any James but to the James, brother of Jesus in Christian tradition. He could hardly believe his eyes. Golan allowed him to study the actual ossuary shortly thereafter. After careful examination Lemaire was convinced based on his expertise in ancient scripts that the inscription was authentic. Later in interviews Golan was asked why he had not recognized the potential importance of such an artifact when he first bought it. He explained that as a Jew he was of course familiar with the Christian teaching of Mary's virginity but had never imagined that Jesus, the "son of God," could have had a brother. Obviously, he was not alone in that assumption.
Lemaire told Shanks about the ossuary when Shanks was on a visit to Jerusalem in May 2002. Shanks was duly cautious, since this particular ossuary had not come from any authorized archaeological excavation, and thus its authenticity could be questioned. He asked Lemaire to prepare a detailed article about the new find to be published in the upcoming issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, and he insisted that the ossuary be tested scientifically. Golan agreed, and arrangements were made for experts at the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem to examine it.
Inscriptions on ossuaries can of course be forged, but modern cuts into ancient limestone will not contain the ancient patina that naturally coats the surface of the stone over time. In the meantime Shanks brought in several other expert paleographers to give their opinions on the authenticity of the script itself. The ossuary passed all the authenticity tests with flying colors. The scientists concluded that the patina inside the letters was ancient, adhering firmly to the stone, despite the fact that someone had done a bit of cleaning of the inscription. No signs of the use of any modern tool or instrument were evident. The paleographers agreed with Lemaire's analysis that the script was authentic and wholly consistent with that of the 1st century A.D. There seemed little doubt that the ossuary once held the bones of "a" James, son of "a" Joseph, with a brother named "Jesus," who had died and been buried in the 1st century A.D.
Shanks was ready to go to press and he went into high gear. He knew that next to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls this was perhaps the most sensational archaeological find in modern times. He engaged the services of Emmy Award?winning producer Simcha Jacobovici to produce a documentary for the Discovery Channel on the James Ossuary that would air on Easter Sunday of 2003. He also worked out a deal to publish a co-authored book with biblical scholar Ben Witherington to coincide with the release of the film.5 The discovery was hailed in both the book and film as "the first archaeological link to Jesus and his family." With Golan's permission Shanks arranged a special exhibit for the ossuary at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It would open in late November 2002. The city of Toronto and the month of November were not accidental choices. Toronto was slated to be the host city for the annual meeting of thousands of biblical scholars, archaeologists, and academics in the study of religion the weekend before Thanksgiving. The Society of Biblical Literature quickly arranged for a special session devoted to a discussion of the authenticity and potential significance of the James Ossuary.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) had to approve the temporary export license but at that point no one recognized the potentially explosive attention that the ossuary would generate. When the ossuary suddenly made world headlines following Shanks's press conference on October 21 in Washington, D.C., the Israeli authorities were taken completely unawares and were duly embarrassed. But all the arrangements for the Toronto exhibit were already in place. The Israelis immediately initiated an investigation into the circumstances of Golan's acquisition of the ossuary but they did allow it to leave the country. According to Israeli law, if Golan had acquired it after 1978, the ossuary would have been sold il-legally and subject to confiscation by the state.
When the ossuary arrived in Toronto it had been cracked in transit and the scientific team at the Royal Ontario Museum took on the task of repairing it for the exhibit. One of the cracks ran through part of the inscription, allowing the scientific team at the museum to more closely examine the way the letters were cut into the limestone. They agreed with the Israeli scientists that ancient patina was present in the letters, it was firmly adhering to the stone and consistent with the rest of the ossuary.
Even before the Toronto gatherings, questions were being raised about the conclusions of Lemaire and Shanks. No one questioned the authenticity of the ossuary itself -- it was clearly a genuine artifact from the time of Jesus. Some objected to any discussion of the ossuary at all since it was a "black market" item lacking an archaeological context. Others had argued that the phrase "brother of Jesus" appeared to be written in a different hand than "James son of Joseph," and might have been added by a forger. Still others maintained that even if genuine we would never be able to prove that the "James son of Joseph" of the ossuary was the brother of Jesus of Nazareth since all three names were common in the period.
I first viewed the ossuary at the November meeting in Toronto at a private after-hours gathering of scholars at the Royal Ontario Museum. About twenty-five of us were invited -- historians, archaeologists, epigraphers, and New Testament scholars. I stood next to Shanks and heard firsthand three of the top experts on ancient scripts in the world all agree that the inscription was authentic. The feeling in the room was contagious and electrifying yet strangely sober and subdued. I think most of us were convinced that we were standing before the actual 2,000-year-old stone box that had once held the bones of James the brother of Jesus of Nazareth.
When the James Ossuary was returned to Israel in February 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority confiscated it and appointed a team of fifteen experts to make a judgment as to the authenticity of all or part of the inscription. The committee was divided into epigraphers who were experts in ancient scripts and physical scientists who were to test the geochemistry of the artifact. In June 2003 the IAA committee declared the ossuary genuine but the inscription a partial forgery. A month later Golan was arrested on suspicion of forging antiquities. He has since been formally indicted and charged with adding the phrase "brother of Jesus" to an otherwise genuine ossuary that was inscribed with "James son of Joseph," attempting to coat the letters with a fake baked-on patina, and lying about when he acquired the ossuary -- all for purposes of generating worldwide publicity and financial gain. Both the IAA committee conclusions and the indictment against Oded Golan were widely reported in the media, giving the public the impression that the experts had now concluded that the James Ossuary was a forgery.6 Such is hardly the case, and the authenticity issue is far from settled.7
André Lemaire, the Sorbonne epigrapher, continues to strongly defend the authenticity of the inscription and has offered detailed responses to the ossuary detractors. Ada Yardeni, not on the IAA committee but one of Israel's leading experts in ancient writing, agrees. She points out unique features about the Aramaic phrasing in the inscription that no forger could have possibly known. She even offered a concluding comment, "If it is a forgery then I quit."8 To date not a single qualified epigrapher or paleographer has pointed out any evidence of forgery. In fact one member of the IAA committee who, against his better judgment, went along with the original vote now says he thinks the inscription is authentic. Other qualified experts have questioned the IAA geochemical tests on the patina. The IAA geologists have had to back down from their initially proposed theories as to how the allegedly fake patina was produced. One member of the IAA committee has said that she saw ancient patina in the last two letters of the inscription -- the very part that is supposed to be forged. The geologists from the Geological Survey of Israel who initially found the inscription to be authentic have not changed their position, nor has the scientific team at the Royal Ontario Museum that examined the ossuary after it was broken.9
The James Ossuary inscription is likely authentic. There is also reliable circumstantial evidence that it was looted from our Tomb of the Shroud either when it was first robbed in 1998, or perhaps just before we discovered it looted a second time in June 2000. Was it possible that we had unknowingly stumbled upon the Jesus family tomb?
The main inconsistency in Oded Golan's story has to do with when he acquired the ossuary. When the story first broke in October 2001 he told Shanks that he had had it for about fifteen years. He later gave a number of interviews in which he said he acquired it in the "mid-1970s" or about twenty-five years earlier. That would put the date back before 1978, when it was legal to buy such items. At one point he said he acquired it in 1967, just after the Six Day War, which would mean he had owned it for thirty-five years. But the rest of his story is consistent. He says that he bought it from an Arab antiquities dealer in the Old City of Jerusalem who in turn said it came from the area of Silwan, an Arab village south of the Old City where the Kidron and Hinnom valleys meet.
Oded Golan expanded upon his "Silwan" in an informal social conversation with Rafi Lewis at Golan's apartment in December 2002. (In June 2000, Rafi Lewis was Shimon Gibson's assistant and was with us the night we found our looted tomb.) Rafi had asked Golan whether "Silwan" included the Hinnom Valley and he replied yes, explaining that in fact the James Ossuary came from the Hinnom Valley. Of course Akeldama, in Hinnom, is the precise location of our Shroud tomb.10
According to Shimon Gibson, only two tombs were looted in the Hinnom Valley area in the 1990s. The first was not excavated and was resealed. There is no evidence that ossuaries were taken from that one. The second was our shroud tomb. Recall that my inquiries in the Old City shortly after we found the tomb indicated that the black market had been suddenly "flooded" with new ossuary materials.
There is one ossuary in particular from our shroud tomb that caught the attention of Gibson and me. It has a simple incised border running around the edges of the side panels that is precisely the style found on the James Ossuary. Ossuaries come in a wide variety of styles and decorations, and many have borders, but I have not seen another ossuary with that exact style of border. To get a firsthand look, Gibson and I recently visited the warehouse in Bet Shemesh where our ossuaries are stored. This particular one is smaller than the James Ossuary; it was likely intended for a child, but judging from its similarity it may well have been made by the same stonecutter. As we looked through the vast rows of shelves holding the enormous ossuary collection of the State of Israel we saw no other examples matching these two. It seemed to us another piece of the puzzle. It makes sense that a single family might buy two ossuaries from the same artisan -- and thus the styles would be matched.
There is one way this matter might be settled. The James Ossuary had significant bone materials still in it when it was first shown to Hershel Shanks and the filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. Simcha, an Orthodox Jew, was quoted by the New Yorker as saying, "I looked in the box, there were still some bone fragments. I thought, Oh my gosh, if this is real, then Jesus' DNA is there!"11 Oded Golan later cleaned out these fragments before shipping the ossuary to Toronto, and at one point he showed a Time magazine reporter a Tupperware container that he said was full of those bones. Presumably the Israelis who raided his apartment are in possession of those remains. Since we have already done extensive DNA tests on the skeletal remains of the inhabitants of our Tomb of the Shroud, why not test the bones from the James Ossuary to see if there is any possible match of mitochondrial DNA? That would tell us whether the deceased of the James Ossuary had any sibling relations in the tomb, or perhaps that one of the females was his mother. Or we might come up with no match at all. It would be particularly interesting to look at the DNA sequence of the James Ossuary remains and our "Maria" or Mary from the shroud tomb.
On November 17, 2003, Gibson and I made a formal request by letter to Shuka Dorfman, director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, that we be allowed to carry out such DNA tests on these skeletal fragments from the James Ossuary. Our thinking was that whether the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or forged -- and Dorfman is convinced it is forged -- it is nonetheless of scientific value to determine where the ossuary itself originated. Given the circumstantial evidence that it might have come from our Tomb of the Shroud, a DNA match or the lack thereof could help advance our knowledge, no matter what position one might hold about the inscription itself.
Our request was promptly denied on the grounds that the bones in the ossuary had been added by Golan to camouflage the forgery and have no connection to the original, thus rendering any tests unnecessary. We know that is not the case. But doing DNA tests on the bones of a "James" and a "Maria," particularly if that James had a brother named Jesus, means moving from the realm of science to that of theology. Our hope is that when the trial of Golan is completed and some of the emotions die down, we will still be able to pursue these scientific tests. But there is another intriguing side to this unfinished story.
The Mystery of the Talpiot Tomb
The "James Ossuary" story was not the first to generate worldwide headlines about ancient ossuaries and their possible relation to Jesus. Shortly before Easter in 1996 another dramatic story broke: "Jesus Family Tomb Discovered." It was reported that a tomb discovered back in 1980, but never brought to public attention, contained a significant cluster of names associated with the Jesus family, including a Mary, a Joseph, a second Mary, a Jude son of Jesus, a Matthew, and most significantly, a Jesus son of Joseph. The London Sunday Times paraded the story in a full front-page feature article under the title "The Tomb That Dare Not Speak Its Name" on March 31. On Easter morning the BBC aired a feature documentary on the tomb titled The Body in Question. The Associated Press, Reuters, and Gannett quickly cobbled stories from this initial in-depth treatment, and supplemented them with their own reports filed by correspondents who descended in droves upon unsuspecting officials of the IAA in the Old City of Jerusalem and clamored to know more. As with the James Ossuary, the Israelis were caught in the middle of things.
The questions mounted: When had the tomb been discovered? Why had it not immediately been reported to the public? Was there some type of cover-up due to the shocking contents of the tomb?12
In 1995, the year before the story broke, a BBC/CTVC British film crew led by Ray Bruce and Chris Mann was in Jerusalem filming a documentary on the Resurrection for their upcoming Easter special. Their aim was to bring to the British public the latest and best historical and archaeological evidence related to the reports of Jesus' empty tomb and his resurrection. They intended their program to be provocative and challenging, but they could not have imagined the surprise that awaited them.
They arrived at the archaeological warehouse of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Romemma, a rundown suburb of Jerusalem, where they had arranged for some routine filming of a few 1st-century "ossuaries." Ray Bruce and his fellow producer Chris Mann had done a bit of homework. They had learned from a catalogue published in 1994 by L. H. Rahmani13 that of the thousand or more ossuaries stored and catalogued in various Israeli collections, six bore the name "Jesus" (Yeshu, Yeshua, or Yehoshua in Hebrew), and of those six, two were inscribed with the designation "Jesus son of Joseph."
The first, found in 1926, is beautifully carved and clearly legible.14 The second, found in 1980, is nearly illegible, with the inscription scratched into the stone as if with a nail or sharp pointed object. As luck would have it, both were housed in the Romemma warehouse. The curator, Baruk Brendel, was willing to show the British crew both items.15 The crew was understandably pleased to be able to film an intact ossuary
with such an inscription from the very period of Jesus' lifetime. Still, things at this point were fairly routine, since even an ossuary with the name of "Jesus son of Joseph," however fascinating to the public, was not considered particularly noteworthy by the experts because both names were exceedingly common in that period. But then the excitement began. Chris and Ray asked Baruk whether any of the other ossuaries in the collection were related to either of the "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuaries. The catalogue and tags were examined and it turned out five others were shelved nearby that had all been found in the same tomb as the "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuary. The tomb was in East Talpiot, just south of Jerusalem's Old City. The tomb had been uncovered when TNT was detonated by a construction crew putting up a new apartment complex. Israeli archaeologist Joseph Gath, now deceased, excavated it quickly so the construction could proceed.
Out of curiosity, Ray and Chris asked about the names on the other five ossuaries. Chris later commented that as Brendel ticked off the names "it felt like the balls of the national lottery coming up and approaching the jackpot." In addition to the "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuary there was a Joseph; a Mary, presumably his wife; another Mary; a Jude son of Jesus; and a Matthew.16
For the crew this was a journalistic moment made in heaven. The traditional tomb where Jesus was buried after his crucifixion is just outside the Old City to the north, the site today of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Jesus had been placed hastily in a tomb near the crucifixion site by an aristocratic and influential sympathizer, Joseph of Arimathea, and not in his own family tomb. Even the gospels imply that he was only temporarily put there, due to the rush of the Passover holiday. Although the family was from Nazareth, a town to the north in Galilee, the New Testament indicates that Mary as well as Jesus' brothers and sisters had taken up residence in Jerusalem. Tradition has it that Mary, mother of Jesus, did in fact die and was buried in Jerusalem, not Galilee, and there are no fewer than two sites shown today to tourists that lay claim to being the spot. Needless to say, this Talpiot tomb had not been put on any tourist map.
Was it possible that Jesus' mortal remains were finally buried with those of his father and mother? Might the other Mary be either a sister or his close companion Mary Magdalene? Could the "Jude son of Jesus" be his biological son? The possibilities were as intriguing as they were shocking and heretical.
The producers interviewed various Jewish and Christian archaeologists and historians familiar with the tomb. Everyone seemed to agree that although the names were interesting, they were so common in this period to make even such a grouping as this unique but inconclusive. Several pointed out that the name Mary was the most common female name in the period and the name Joseph the second most common male name, after Simon. Amos Kloner, who subsequently published the official report on the Talpiot excavation, maintained that the "possibility of it being Jesus' family [is] very close to zero."17 Motti Neiger, spokesperson for the Israel Antiquities Authority, agreed "that chances of these being the actual burials of the holy family are almost nil."18
But it was the "almost" that interested the producers. And everyone did seem to acknowledge that this particular cluster of names, among the hundreds of ossuaries catalogued, was unparalleled, however common the individual names might have been. Joe Zias, curator at the Rockefeller Museum and perhaps as familiar with Jewish tombs in the area as anyone, seemed to be the only expert that thought the grouping might be statistically significant and at least deserved further investigation. He commented: "Had it not been found in a tomb I would have said 100 percent of what we are looking at are forgeries. But this came from a very good, undisturbed archaeological context. It is not something that was invented."19
The only way anything else could be done scientifically would be to carry out mitochondrial DNA tests on the bone samples to at least ascertain how the individuals buried there might be maternally related. Such tests, no matter what the results, could not "prove" that this particular Jesus was the one who became known as Christ, but they could show whether any of these individuals were offspring of either of the two Marys, or had a sibling relationship to one another.
If neither of the Marys turned out to be mother to this "Jesus," it would at least eliminate the possibility that this was the mother and son of Christian faith. But one of the Marys could also be a sister. Since Joseph was such a common male name we should not assume that the ossuary with the name "Joseph" was necessarily for the father of the one called "Jesus son of Joseph." He could easily be related in another way, or not at all. For example, Jesus of Nazareth also had a brother named Joseph.
Neil Silberman once quoted David Flusser, the late and great professor of ancient Judaism and early Christianity at Hebrew University, on this subject:
Many years ago a man from the BBC came to me and he asked me if the Dead Sea Scrolls will harm Christianity. I said to him that nothing can harm Christianity. The only thing which could be dangerous to Christianity would be to find a tomb with the sarcophagus or ossuary of Jesus -- still containing his bones. And then I said I surely hope that it will not be found in the territory of the State of Israel.20
This is the stuff of which novels are made and there have been several published about "finding the bones of Jesus," but in the real world of archaeology such things smack of sensationalism. Biblical scholar Father Jerome Murphy O'Connor of Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique commented that although there was no way to prove the ossuary inscribed "Jesus son of Joseph" had contained the bones of Christ, if such proof could be made "the consequences for the faith would be disastrous."21
The Israelis are very sensitive to the Christian world and maintain official diplomatic relations with the Vatican. They are pleased to fill the role of the welcoming custodians for Christian tourism of the Holy Land. The last thing in which they want to be involved is some archaeological find that would spark controversy or provoke Christian theological debates. A Jesus "family tomb" would be problem enough, but one that contained an ossuary marked "Jesus son of Joseph" would surely place them in the most delicate situation imaginable.
Although it is impossible to prove that this particular tomb was related to Jesus of Nazareth, what made the tomb remarkable was not only the grouping of the names, but the fact that these ossuaries came from a documented and controlled archaeological context. The tomb and its remains could be scientifically studied. Perhaps there was more to learn from a careful reexamination of all the evidence related to the tomb or maybe even from a further investigation of the site itself. After all, Joseph Gath, the original excavator, was dead, and the official report on the tomb had not yet been published.
The media had reported, however, that an apartment building had been built over the site of the tomb shortly after its excavation in 1980, obliterating the site and foreclosing any possibility of further direct investigation. Until the official report on the tomb was published, there seemed to be little more to learn.
I had not the slightest inkling back in 1996 that this Talpiot tomb would become part of my own firsthand investigation in future years, nor how it might relate to my research on the Jesus dynasty. Shimon Gibson and I had not even met. Nearly a decade later, in early 2004, I learned that Gibson had assisted Gath in the excavation of this 1980 tomb and had done the official drawings for publication. Time and time again Shimon Gibson turns up as the right man at the right time, fortuitously linking discoveries that one would not suspect to be linked at all.
Ray Bruce and his crew had been told that the ossuaries were "empty" of bones, indicating that the tomb had likely been robbed at an earlier time and the bones lost or scattered. We now know that this was not the case. According to the official report on the Talpiot tomb published in 1996 by Amos Kloner, these ossuaries definitely held bones.22 By Israeli law, all human remains from the tomb have to have been turned over to the Orthodox Jewish authorities for reburial, apparently precluding the possibility of DNA or any other kinds of scientific tests. I say "apparently" because most ossuaries, even those in the Israeli state archive collection, still contain slight residues of human remains and fragments of bone material. Unless the ossuaries are scrubbed clean, which is not the normal practice, modern sophisticated DNA tests can yield evidence from the tiniest sample.
I asked Gibson about the Talpiot tomb on a visit to Israel in 2004. He recalled two very unusual things about that particular tomb in addition to the interesting cluster of family names. The front of the tomb had a strange decoration carved into the façade over the entrance -- a circle
with an inverted pyramid over it. No one seemed to know what it might mean or symbolize. Also there were three skulls placed curiously on the floor of the tomb, each directly in front of a loculus or shaft holding ossuaries. Gibson pulled an old photo of the entrance to the tomb from his files. He also spread out in front of me his detailed original drawing of the plan of the tomb. The skulls were clearly visible, included in his plan just as he had seen them.
Curiously, in the official report on the tomb that Amos Kloner published in 1996, Gibson's drawing appears but with the skulls carefully airbrushed away. Gibson and I decided to do a bit of sleuthing. I think we might have been the first archaeologists in history to go looking for an ancient tomb by going out knocking on doors.
We went back to the neighborhood, to the very street, where the tomb had once been visible nearly twenty-five years earlier. An apartment complex had indeed been built on the site. We began asking around and to our surprise long-term residents knew the location of an "apartment of the tomb." Many thought that apartment was jinxed, and it had become the subject of local ghost stories. We knocked on the door and the present owner confirmed for us that there was a tomb under the floor of his apartment, just off the kitchen, where there was a raised porch area. Two ventilation vents marked the spot. The builders had constructed things so that the tomb had been preserved. The owner told us that he had bought the place at a good price, despite the stories, and he was not a believer in such superstitions.
Over the next year Gibson and I gathered every bit of published information about the Talpiot tomb. In 2005 we examined the original excavation files in the Israeli archives because Gibson had been the surveyor on the original team. We read the unpublished handwritten notes of Gath, the deceased excavator. As we looked through the Talpiot file we learned that two tombs had been found in the area, in close proximity to each other. One had been sealed up and left unexcavated. The other was the tomb Gibson had drawn -- the one with the unusual cluster of names. Whether they might be related we had no idea, but that possibility did occur to us. We were not sure which of the two tombs was under the apartment. The only way to know would be to try and drop a robot camera down the ventilation pipes to see whether the tomb had been excavated or not. It was not clear that we would find anything of importance if we ever did go back into the excavated tomb, but our interest was piqued. The strange insignia on the front of the tomb, the skulls that had been ceremonially placed in front of the ossuaries, and the interesting cluster of names all begged for an explanation.
We decided to drive out to Bet Shemesh just outside Jerusalem to take a look at the Talpiot ossuaries firsthand. They are now stored, along with hundreds of other archaeological artifacts, in the new warehouse built there by the Israel Antiquities Authority. There one sees shelf after shelf, floor to ceiling, of neatly stacked and stored materials, all carefully catalogued and labeled. Most of the ossuaries in the State of Israel collection are housed there. There was one major surprise.
The Missing Ossuary
Shimon Gibson's original drawing of the excavation of the Talpiot tomb clearly shows a total of ten ossuaries. In the official publication of the excavation Amos Kloner also confirms that ten ossuaries were recovered and retained by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Kloner carefully goes through them one by one in his report and describes them in detail as to size, decoration, and inscriptions. When he comes to the last, the tenth, he offers a single-word description: plain. Nothing more. Apparently he had nothing in his files regarding this tenth ossuary other than its dimensions: 60 by 26 by 30 centimeters. With each description he includes a photo of the ossuary under discussion -- all except the tenth. Since Kloner was not the original excavator he is merely writing up his report based on the notes of the now-deceased Gath.
But the official catalogue of ossuaries in the State of Israel collection, published by Rahmani in 1994, also includes just nine ossuaries from this tomb. And yet we know that the tenth was definitely given a catalogue number by the IAA: 80.509.
As we arrived at the Bet Shemesh warehouse the curator told us even before we were taken to the area where the Talpiot ossuaries were shelved that there was a minor problem -- one ossuary was missing. IAA 80.509, number ten in Kloner's report, was nowhere to be found. It had disappeared.
I have no idea what to make of this. In the vast collection of antiquities now held by the State of Israel things do get misplaced. But no one seems to have any explanation for this particular case and as far as I know we were the first to recognize the problem and inquire about it. Since the Talpiot tomb contained ten ossuaries, three with no inscriptions, but six with such an interesting cluster of names, one would surely like to confirm somehow whether the single-word description of "plain" is all that can be said of the missing tenth ossuary. If it could be located and it did have a name inscribed, it would be of the greatest interest to see what that name might be.
Just recently I noticed that the dimensions of the missing tenth ossuary are precisely the same, to the centimeter, to those of the James Ossuary. Is it remotely possible that Oded Golan did acquire his ossuary many years ago -- maybe not in the "mid-'70s" as he now says, but not that long thereafter -- in 1980 or thereabouts, when the Talpiot tomb was discovered? Was that tenth ossuary stolen after it was catalogued but before the excavation of the tomb was completed? Gibson did recall that when he arrived to do his drawings, some days after the excavation began, some but not all the ossuaries were in place. Several had been moved to facilitate the excavation work. He drew them in their original locations as the director of the excavation, Joseph Gath, indicated. Gibson told me that he is not sure if all ten were on site at that time or not.
For now, pending further evidence, whether through DNA tests or retrieval of the missing ossuary, this is where the Tale of Two Tombs must end. But it is where our story of the Jesus dynasty begins. These two rock-hewn family tombs located just outside the Old City of Jerusalem reveal more vividly than any scriptural source what family burial was like at the time of Jesus. And it is here that we begin to learn about Jesus' life and the dynasty that he established before his death, for his death was certainly not the end of his mission or his legacy. The gripping story of the Jesus dynasty that follows in no way depends on the authenticity of the James Ossuary inscription, nor whether either of these two tombs was indeed the Jesus family tomb. What we can say is that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was likely buried with her family in a tomb near the Old City of Jerusalem very much like one of these. There is something about a tomb of this type, with the ossuaries, preserved bones, and the inscribed names so familiar to us after two thousand years, that brings chills up the spine as we try to imagine and connect with the past. And what is most exciting is that we never know what new evidence might emerge at any point to allow us to put more pieces of our story together. After all, as we have seen, things that are least expected seem often to turn up and surprise us all.
1. For more information on these and other interesting sites relevant to biblical studies see http://www.tfba.org.
2. The students with me that afternoon were Kaitlyn Cotanch, Lee Hutchinson, Vicki Powell, Jeff Poplin, and Mark Williams.
3. In the Bible the phrase "gathering the bones" of the deceased possibly refers to this practice of secondary burial. The Jewish practice is summarized in the Mishnah, m. Sanhedrin 6:6: "When the flesh had decomposed they collect the bones and bury them in their right place."
4. B. Zissu, S. Gibson, Y. Tabor, "Jerusalem -- Ben Hinnom Valley," in Hadashot Arkheologiyot (Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2000), vol. 111, pp. 70?72, Figs. 138?39.
5. Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III, The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003).
6. David Samuels's "Written in Stone" (New Yorker, April 12, 2004), gave many the erroneous impression that the case was closed.
7. A full regularly updated archive of materials both pro and con on the authenticity of the James ossuary inscription can be found at http://www.bib-arch.org
8. Her official letter is at http://bib-arch.org/bswbOOossuary_yardeni.asp.
9. Their official press release is archived at: http://www.rom.on.ca/news/releases/public.php?mediakey=vhggdo3048.
10. See Gibson's published account of this information based on Rafi Lewis' written affidavit in "A Lost Cause," Biblical Archaeology Review (November/December 2004): 55?58.
11. Samuels, "Written in Stone," 51.
12. It is interesting that the initial AP headline, "JESUS" CASKET FOUND IN ISRAEL, was defensively softened to CASKETS LABELED JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPH PROBABLY COINCIDENCE within a matter of hours. By the time the story filed by veteran Jerusalem Post reporter Abraham Rabinovich appeared in USA Today on April 3, the Gannett headline read COFFIN IN ISRAEL IS NOT THAT OF JESUS' FAMILY, experts say. The story had deflated like a punctured tire.
13. L. Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities and Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994). The ossuary inscribed "Jesus son of Joseph" is catalogue No. 80.503 in the Israeli warehouse and listed as No. 704 in the Rahmani publication.
14. The ossuary is catalogued as S 767 in the warehouse and appears as No. 9/Plate 2 in Rachmani. It was "discovered" by Eleazar Sukenik of Hebrew University, the first Israeli to identify the Dead Sea Scrolls. He found it in a basement storage area of the Palestinian Archaeological Museum (today the Rockefeller) in Jerusalem in 1926.
Unfortunately it had no archaeological context. When Sukenik published a report about the ossuary in January 1931, the news that such an inscription existed, it being the only one ever found until that time, created no small stir in the world press, particularly in Europe (see L. H. Vincent, "Épitaphe prétendue de N.S. Jésus-Christ," Atti della pontificia: academia romana di archaeologie: Rendiconti 7 [1929?30]: 213?39).
15. For some reason Baruk seems to have misidentified the first one. Instead he showed them a broken inscribed fragment barely six inches in diameter that could not have read "Jesus son of Joseph." No such inscribed fragment exists. The actual 1926 ossuary with this inscription is complete and intact, pictured clearly in the Rachmani catalogue. Had the crew been shown this one it would have more than suited their purposes for filming and I doubt they would have even asked to see the second one. Baruk then brought out the second one, discovered in 1980.
16. The ossuary from Talpiot with the inscription "Jude son of Jesus" is on permanent display in the Israel Museum for public viewing as part of an exhibit showing the common use of these various Jewish names on burial ossuaries of the time.
17. London Sunday Times, March 31, 1996.
18. Reuters, April 2, 1996.
19. London Sunday Times, March 31, 1996. Zias's comments are all the more interesting given his later skepticism about the authenticity and significance of the so-called "James ossuary" revealed to the public in 2002.
20. Neil Silberman, The Hidden Scrolls: Christianity, Judaism, and the War for the Dead Sea Scrolls (New York: Putnam, 1994), p. 129.
21. Associated Press, April 2, 1996.
22. Amos Kloner, "A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in the East Talpiot," Atiqot 29 (1996): 15?22. Kloner writes, "The bones within these ossuaries were in an advanced stage of disintegration" (p. 16). He says nothing about the human skulls that Gibson saw and put in his drawing. In a final note in his article he says, "After the completion of the excavation, the bones were reburied" (p. 22). Notice that Kloner did not publish his official report until 1996, sixteen years after the excavation and the same year all the publicity broke. He apparently was not involved in the excavation and writes his report based on the information compiled by the excavator, the late Joseph Gath.
"The Jesus Dynasty." Copyright © 2006 by James D. Tabor. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc.