According to James Tabor, after John was executed by Herod, Jesus went to Jerusalem and confronted the Jewish religious leadership with their corruption, demanding a return to righteousness and the kingdom of God. Jesus expected God’s help and protection in this mission, but was instead crucified. Jesus did not rise from the dead—an idea Tabor argues developed much later...
This article was first published in the Fall 2008 issue of Bible and Spade.
On March 4, 2007, the Discovery Channel aired The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a riveting documentary produced by James Cameron, best known for the Oscar-winning motion picture Titanic, and directed by Simcha Jacobovici. The documentary complemented the launch of the publicity campaign for a book on the subject by Jacobovici, co-authored with Charles Pellegrino, entitled The Jesus Family Tomb. The two-hour special focused on the 1980 discovery of what appears to be a family tomb located in East Talpiot, Jerusalem. The tomb housed ten ossuaries (bone boxes),several of which bore inscribed names intimately associated with Christianity, including Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Jacobovici claims that one of the ossuaries should be identified as that of Mary Magdalene, whose inclusion in the family tomb of Jesus proves that she and Jesus were married. For Jacobovici and his associates, the find constitutes proof that Jesus had not risen from the dead as the New Testament describes.
The television documentary produced a flurry of responses from scholars across the theological spectrum who took umbrage with the way the archaeological material was handled and interpreted. I said as much four years ago at the Near East Archaeological Society meeting in Atlanta, when I delivered a paper on the Jesus ossuary in the Talpiot tomb. At the time, the ossuary was basically unknown except to specialists. My own knowledge of it came about due to my research into Jesus bloodline mythologies, an esoteric subject until The DaVinci Code. Since I have a habit of investigating the intersection of the arcane and Biblical studies, it has been gratifying to see so many scholars turn a critical eye toward this kind of material, since it has a profound impact on the general public.
With one exception, the scholars interviewed as part of the documentary have issued disclaimers and objections to the way their words and opinions were portrayed and utilized. The exception I speak of is Dr. James Tabor, Professor and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Despite the fact that popular interest in the Jesus Family Tomb has declined steadily in the wake of the overwhelmingly unfavorable response, Tabor has defended the film’s thesis. The reason is straightforward: an identification of the Talpiot tomb as the Jesus Family Tomb would lend support to Tabor’s own theory about the historical Jesus.
Tabor articulates his theory at length in his recent book, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity. His thoughts can be summarized as follows. Tabor rejects the virgin birth of Jesus, arguing on one hand that Jesus’ father was not Joseph, but a Roman soldier named Panthera. (This proposal is not new, but was first proposed by Celsus in the late second century AD.) Jesus and John the Baptist were royal and priestly messiahs, respectively. The focus of their teaching was a call back to the Torah and the kingdom of God, not the person of Jesus or his earthly purpose.
According to Tabor, after John was executed by Herod, Jesus went to Jerusalem and confronted the Jewish religious leadership with their corruption, demanding a return to righteousness and the kingdom of God. Jesus expected God’s help and protection in this mission, but was instead crucified. Jesus did not rise from the dead—an idea Tabor argues developed much later. The leadership vacuum in the Jesus movement was filled by his brother Joseph (Heb. Yoseh) and then by another brother, James. Since Jesus was of Davidic lineage, so were his brothers—in effect forming a new Davidic dynasty. James and Jesus’ followers continued to call for national reform in Israel. In Tabor’s thought, what we know as orthodox Christianity was actually articulated by Paul in opposition to what Jesus and his dynastic brothers taught.
Tabor and Talpiot
The theory that the tomb in East Talpiot is actually the family tomb of Jesus has provided Tabor with some useful fodder in his effort to defend his explanation of the historical Jesus. In particular, Tabor has devoted considerable effort in developing three arguments in favor of a Jesus family tomb and, as a byproduct, legitimizing his own work.
The Name 'Yoseh"
First, Tabor argues strongly that the ossuary bearing the name Yoseh (composed of the Hebrew letters, yod-waw-samech-heh; Joseph) belongs to Jesus’ brother by that same name in the gospels. For Tabor, this correlation would support his idea of a Jesus dynasty, because it would place Jesus’ oldest brother—the male in direct dynastic descent behind Jesus—in a tomb with Jesus and other important members of his family.
Tabor’s main line of evidence for an identification of the Yose in the tomb and the Yose of the gospels is that the name is very rare. Tabor writes on his Jesus Dynasty blog:
In the time of Jesus, that is, in 2nd Temple times, before the Destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, this nickname Yoseh is extremely rare in either Hebrew or Greek. As faras Hebrew goes, it is found only here, in the Talpiot tomb,on an ossuary, and one other time in a slightly different, but equivalent spelling (Yod, Samech, Hey), on an ossuary from Mt. Scopus. It is also found once on a tomb inscription from the period (Jason’s Tomb), and once in apapyrus from Wadi Muraba’at (pre-135 CE). In Greek, its equivalent forms (Ιωσε/Ιωση/Ιωσης), which are usually translated Yose/Jose or Joses/Joses in English, occur on only five ossuaries. In contrast, the full name Joseph/Yehosef is found on 32 ossuaries and many dozens of literary references in the period...This nickname Jose/Joses in Greek is found in Mark 6:3 as the nickname for Jesus’ brother Joseph. (2007b).
In the same blog post Tabor admits,
Of course this alone does not prove that the Yoseh in the Talpiot tomb is the brother of Jesus. But the data does indeed argue that as a rare nickname, known only on a handful of ossuaries and from two inscriptions of the period, found in a tomb with a “Jesus son of Joseph,” Yoseh is quite striking. And that Mark knows this as the unique and rare nickname of Jesus’ brother Joseph, is surely significant evidence. (2007b)
One could rightly ask, “significant evidence for what?” This is characteristic of Tabor’s writing style. He produces data, is honest enough to admit the limitations of the data, but then proceeds to give the reader the feeling that, despite the fact that the evidence does not and cannot prove idea X, the reader still ought to find idea X pretty compelling. This is little more than assuming what one is trying to prove, and Tabor does this with regularity, as many reviewers of the Jesus Dynasty have pointed out (Peerbolte 2007; Witherington 2006; Evans 2006).
Tabor’s argument concerning the rarity of the name Yose actually proves nothing. That a name is rare does not mean it is exclusive, and if not exclusive, there is no necessary connection between it and the Yose of the gospels. Tabor, of course, admits there are other occurrences of the name besides in the Talpiot tomb, but that does not stop him from steering the reader toward a more positive assessment of Tabor’s idea than the evidence can sustain. Tabor’s argument is further hampered—and I would say undone—by two considerations: (1) We have no proof that the Yose of the tomb is actually related to any of the other people named on the tomb’s ossuaries; and (2) even if Yose is related to the other people in the tomb—which is a reasonable guess, but a guess nonetheless—we have no idea HOW he was related since Yose’s ossuary lacks any patronym, or statement of kinship relation.
This is perhaps a good place to highlight the need for clear thinking with regard to the Jesus tomb theory and the names in the tomb. The Jesus tomb theory is only compelling if two considerations are true: (1) that the Jesus of the tomb’s Jesus ossuary was in fact Jesus of Nazareth, and (2) the names of the people in the tomb are related to the Jesus of this tomb in the same way that people with those names were related to the Jesus of the New Testament. Both of these are inextricably linked. We can only embrace the Jesus tomb theory if its Jesus figure was Jesus of Nazareth, and that in turn can only be established if the other people in the tomb are the people who knew Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, the Jesus figure of the tomb only takes on the identity of Jesus of Nazareth if it can be established that the other people in the tomb were related to the Jesus figure the way the New Testament describes. The inscriptions must match the New Testament record to “get Jesus in the tomb,” so to speak. If they do not, there is no case.
This means that from the outset, the reader must make a basic decision before embracing or rejecting the Jesus tomb theory. You must decide if you are going to make your decision to embrace or reject on the basis of data that actually exist, or data that are speculated to have once existed. The former is real; the latter is the domain of the imagination. This decision is fundamental to processing the inscriptions in the Talpiot tomb in terms of what we can actually know and what we imagine might be knowable.
The data provide us with six ossuaries with the following inscriptions:
- Mariamenou [e] Mara (“Mary, who is Martha / lord”); or
(Mariamē kai Mara; “Mary and Martha”) (Pfann 2007)
- Yhwdh br Yshw’ (“Judah/Jude, son of Jesus”)
- Mtyh (“Matiyahu”; “Matthew”)
- Yshw’ br Yhwsp (“Jesus, son of Joseph”)
- Ywsh (“Joseph/Yose”)
- Mryh (“Mary”)
Notice that only two of the names have what is called a patronym—a descriptive phrase denoting family affiliation or ancestry (e.g., “Jude, son of Jesus”; “Jesus, son of Joseph”).What this means is that, in terms of data that actually exists,the Talpiot tomb tells us only that we have a Jesus who was the son of a Joseph, and a Jude who was the son of a Jesus. We know nothing about the other relationships of the other people in the tomb. Despite this paucity of information, Jacobovici and his associates know how the mind works. Since millions around the world are familiar with the names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph,and Mary Magdalene—whether because of Biblical literacy or The DaVinci Code—the creators of the Jesus Family Tomb documentary assume correctly that when a person hears those names presented together, the mind will immediately cluster them in a manner associated with the New Testament. The mind therefore “defaults” to the supposition that these people are related in the way the New Testament describes, and so the mind is predisposed to equate them with the actual New Testament characters. But that is not what the data from the tomb tell us, since there are no patronyms that produce that conclusion—it is just where the mind goes subconsciously.
The data speak to two family relationships. Now here is what we do not know, based on the lack of patronyms, not on where our mind wanders:
- We do not know if all or even most of the people in the Talpiot tomb are related. It is assumed that the Talpiot tomb is a family tomb, but we do not actually know that. It is probably a fair guess, but it does not lend any clarity to the situation.
- We do not know who among the named occupants of the tomb were immediate or distant relatives. We have only two sonship patronyms on six ossuaries, but that is not as helpful as it has been assumed.
- We do not know if the people in the ossuaries were adults or children. There is nothing inscribed on any of the ossuaries that tells us anything about the age of the occupants.
- We do not know if the two Jesus names on the ossuaries are one and the same. That is, we do not know if Joseph, Jesus, and Jude are grandfather, father, and son. Those relationships are assumed by the defenders of the Jesus Family tomb theory, but they are actually only speculation. These three individuals could be unrelated in terms of immediate family, but still belong in the family tomb because they are more distantly related to the immediate family members in the tomb.
- Though it is assumed, we do not know that Mary (not the Mariamenou) in the tomb is the mother of Jesus. There is no patronym that conveys this information. That Mary may have been the sister of the tomb’s Jesus, or an aunt, or a grandmother.
- It is also assumed that Mariamenou, considered to be Mary Magdalene, was married to the Talpiot Jesus. Positing such a relationship is based purely on speculation, not on what the ossuaries actually tell us.
- We have no way of knowing from the data that actually exists if either Mary was married to the Joseph in the tomb who was supposedly the father of Jesus.
The general point to be made by these observations is important. If we have no data with which to match the family relationships that existed between the people who bore these names in the New Testament and the named individuals in the Talpiot tomb, we cannot make an evidence-based claim that this is the Jesus Family Tomb. That conclusion cannot be drawn from the existing data; it must be supplied by means of the imagination.
Tabor would respond that the mitochondrial DNA evidence lends support to his view of the names in the tomb. We read from a different blog post:
There are two “Marys” in this tomb, known by different forms of that name, namely Maria and Mariamene. The mitDNA test indicates the Mariamene in this tomb is not related to Yeshua as mother or sister on the maternal side. That leaves open the likelihood that Maria could well be the mother, especially if we have two of her sons, Yeshua and Yose, in this tomb. It would make sense that she would be buried with her children in this intimate, small, family tomb and that her ossuary would be inscribed Maria (2007a).
Yes, this would make sense—if the data actually told us that Yeshua and Yose were the sons of Mary—but of course there are neither patronyms nor DNA evidence for that. The absence of patronyms means that this Mary could be the wife, sister, or cousin of Yeshua or Yose. The fact that the mitDNA test indicates the Mariamene in this tomb is not related to Yeshua as mother or sister on the maternal side does not rule out a host of other possibilities, including sharing the same father. Yeshua and Mariamne could have had the same father with different mothers or could be paternally related as cousins, aunts-uncle, grandparents, or father-daughter. They could even be close family friends. I can think of several adjectives that would characterize this line of argumentation, but “compelling” is not one of them.
The Statistical Rarity of the Combination of the Names
Tabor’s second argument is that the combination of names on the ossuaries is statistically improbable, and so the Talpiot tomb is likely the Jesus family tomb. Anyone who has followed the debate over the Talpiot tomb knows that this statistical argument has been forcefully disputed, chiefly by Dr. Randy Ingermanson, whose expertise is computational physics,a field that requires professional experience in statistics.
Dr. Ingermanson has written two analyses of the Talpiot names, one a discussion for the statistics novice (2007), and another, more technical paper co-authored with Jay Cost (2007).These analyses examine the statistical work of Dr. Andrey Feuerverger, the mathematician whose statistical work was used in the Discovery Channel documentary in favor of the Talpiot tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb, and offer independent conclusions. Briefly, Randy argues that the names are common and the combination of these names in the tombs does not amount to a statistical slam dunk at all. Tabor recently posted a new statistical analysis of the names in the tomb that, in part, disputes Ingermanson’s method and conclusions. The paper is entitled, “Probability, Statistics, and the Talpiot Tomb” (Kilty and Elliott 2007). It is authored by Dr. Kevin Kilty, whose PhD is in geophysics, and Mark Elliott, whose PhD is from the University of Arizona in Near Eastern Studies. Both teach at Laramie County Community College. Tabor touts this paper as the answer to those who would argue that the combination of names is not statistically significant. He writes:
[This paper] is exceptionally clear in argument, thoroughly academic in approach and method, and in my view advances the discussion of the Talpiot tomb to a new level. I believe that this paper clears the air on any number of convoluted issues, but particularly the matter of whether or not the cluster of names found in the tomb are common and statistically insignificant, or rare and unique (2007c).
Tabor’s enthusiasm for this paper exceeds the paper’s merits. To date there has been no published response to the paper, but one is in process, in conjunction with a lengthy response to Feuerverger’s original statistical analysis. Feuerverger’s work, which formed the basis for the Discovery Channel documentary’s statistical claims, actually never underwent peer-review. Feuerverger’s work, along with a lengthy response by Dr. Ingermanson that will be relevant to Kilty and Elliott’s criticisms, is scheduled for publication in a peer-reviewed journal sometime in 2008.
While I am not a statistician, I have one thought on the Kilty and Elliot paper. While Tabor wants his blog readers to think that the paper evidences tight thinking, it appears that their statistical analysis needs a methodological logic check in at least one place. Tabor is eager to point out that what makes Yoseh important is the fact that this shortened form for Joseph (Yehoseph) is rare, occurring only three other times. However, these three other occurrences are in Hebrew (Yodh-Samech-Heh or Yodh-Waw-Samech-Heh). Everyone in the discussion admits that the Greek term in Mark 6:3 is an abbreviation or nickname for the longer “Joseph.” What seems to be missed by Tabor, and now Kilty and Elliott as well, is that we cannot argue that the shortened Greek form has a one-to-one correspondence to the shortened Hebrew Yoseh. That is, it is possible that Jesus’ brother ‘Iωση never went by Hebrew Yoseh, but by the longer Yehoseph. The Greek ‘Iωση is a nickname for either long or short name in Hebrew. This needs to be factored into any statistical analysis.
Tabor’s third line of argumentation is that the Talpiot tomb could have belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, circumventing the objection that Jesus and his family could not have afforded such a family tomb. Tabor writes:
Nearly everyone seems to assume that the gospels report that Joseph of Arimathea took the corpse of Jesus and laid it in his own new tomb late Friday night. A group of women, Mary Magdalene and others, followed, noting the location of the tomb. Sunday morning when they visited, to complete the Jewish rites of burial, the tomb was empty. The problem with this assumption is that our best evidence indicates that this tomb, into which Jesus was temporarily placed, did not belong to Joseph of Arimathea. Mark, our earliest account, says the following:
And he [Joseph of Arimathea] bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a stone against the door of the tomb” (Mark 15:46).
John’s gospel, reflecting an independent tradition, offers a further explanation:
Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb where no one had ever been laid. So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, as the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there (John 19:41–42).
Mark does not explain the choice of the tomb, but according to the gospel of John this initial burial of Jesus by Joseph of Arimathea was a temporary, emergency measure, with the Passover Sabbath hours away. It was a burial of necessity and opportunity. This particular tomb was chosen because it was unused and happened to be near. The idea that this tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea makes no sense. What are the chances that he would just happen to have his own new family tomb conveniently located near the Place of the Skull, or Golgotha, where the Romans regularly crucified their victims? Mark indicates that the intention of those involved to complete the full and proper rites of Jewish burial after Passover. Given these circumstances, one would expect the body of Jesus to be placed in a second tomb as a permanent resting place. This second tomb would presumably be one that either belonged to, or was provided by, Joseph of Arimathea, who had both the means and the will to honor Jesus and his family in this way. Accordingly, one would not expect the permanent tomb of Jesus, and subsequently his family, to be near Golgotha, but in a rock-hewn tomb elsewhere in Jerusalem. These circumstances also address the issue that some have raised that the Talpiot tomb could not be that of Jesus since he is poor and from Galilee. James, the brother of Jesus, becomes leader of the Jesus movement following Jesus’ death in 30 CE (2007a).
I would agree that the wording of Mark 15:46 and John 19:41–42 could suggest that Jesus was hurriedly buried for expediency and then reburied in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb. This reading is possible. However, it does not support the idea that the Talpiot tomb is the Jesus family tomb, nor can it. The reason is simple: there is not a single point of data that links the Talpiot tomb with Joseph of Arimathea. This is complete speculation on the part of Tabor, carefully crafted to lead uninitiated readers into thinking they are reading a coherent argument, when in fact they are not. This kind of crafted leap on Tabor’s part demonstrates his propensity at constructing history rather than reconstructing it. Introducing a new hypothesis is fine, being an expected part of the scholarly enterprise. It is even better, however, when such newly introduced hypotheses are fairly tested. When a scholar introduces a theory and then frames questions in such a way that there is only the guise of testing, a methodological—and I would say an ethical—line has been crossed. Framing questions in a way that biases them in favor of a hypothesis is not the scientific method. One is not supposed to frame questions so as to allow for or even move toward certain answers. It is to frame questions that allow the data to speak for itself, whether clearly or otherwise, and then live with the results. As this paper and the work of others has shown, Tabor exempts the data from certain questions, and then frames the questions in such a way as to give life to preconceived conclusions.
I often ask myself the question, what drives people like Dr.Tabor to take the positions they hold? I do not think Dr. Tabor is part of the militant atheism we have seen growing more restless in the past few years. He seems too kind for that, both in print and in personal communications we have had. He just lacks the militant spirit, at least in my experience. Rather, I think Professor Tabor just cannot seem to accept that all scholarship—his included—is not about who is less a supernaturalist than whom, as if greater skepticism translates into more careful scholarship. There is no necessary cause-and-effect relationship there. Rather, scholarship is inevitably and invariably about presuppositions and methodology. All scholars operate on certain presuppositions, and those presuppositions intersect with a scholar’s methodology. The real questions to address are, “which presuppositions are most philosophically and intellectually coherent?” and, “are we admitting our presuppositions to our audience while taking great care in our methodology to make the playing field level for contrary presuppositions?” I do not see Professor Tabor answering either question very carefully. But before we cast the first stone at him, we need to ask whether we are guilty of doing the very same thing. Perhaps our opponents do not think about the role of presuppositional honesty because they feel justified in responding to us in kind. We have nothing to fear by allowing our presuppositions to be challenged, and should not do the work of scholarship as though we do. Although in a different context, my favorite quotation from Frederick W. Danker seems appropriate for those who follow mydrift: “the scholar’s tasks are not for sissies.”
Michael S. Heiser earned his PhD in Hebrew Bible and Semitic Languages at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He does translation work in roughly a dozen ancient languages, among them Biblical Hebrew, Greek,Aramaic, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and Ugaritic cuneiform, and has also studied Akkadian and Sumerian. As Academic Editor of Logos Bible Software, he is responsible for targeting and evaluating potential data projects for scholarly products, overseeing existing academic projects, and creating written content. He also has an active ministry to people whose worldview is molded by occult, paranormal, and esoteric beliefs.
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A moving video on archaeology related to the Passion Week, by Joel Kramer of Sourceflix (Off site link).