Excerpt: 'The Jesus Dynasty' by James D. Tabor

ByABC News via logo
March 20, 2006, 12:59 PM

April 7, 2006 — -- 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.