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#2 Supposed Discovery of Jesus’ Family Tomb

April 30, 2007

My faith has really been shaken by the supposed discovery of Jesus' family tomb. I tell myself this isn't really it, but the nagging doubts remain. Please help me!

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Dr. craig’s response


I must confess that I was a little surprised by your question. My impression is that most people saw through the sensational claims concerning the discovery of Jesus' family tomb and moved on. The Talpiot tomb is, as one of my colleagues put it, "so five minutes ago."

Let me say right at the start that you need to get a grip on reality. What do you really think are the chances that the Talpiot tomb is the family tomb of Jesus? The claim of the Cameron documentary that the odds are 600 to one is based on the assumption that Jesus' tomb is one of the 1,000 tombs discovered so far in Jerusalem. But, of course, that very assumption is in dispute and on the face of it highly improbable.

So suppose you were forced to lay a bet of your home mortgage on whether or not the Talpiot tomb is Jesus' family tomb. If you guess right, you keep your house; if you guess wrong, you lose your house and are turned out into the street. Now how would you bet? Would anybody, even James Cameron, really bet that this is the tomb of Jesus? Would you really go against the judgment of the overwhelming majority of scholars, including non-Christian Israeli archaeologists, who have called these claims nonsense, and bet that they are wrong? Would you ignore your own inclination to "follow the money" and suppress your suspicions that Cameron and his colleagues have noticed the notoriety and wealth that have come Dan Brown's way as a result of The DaVinci Code? Do you really believe this is Jesus' tomb? Would you bet your house on it?

If not, then what's the problem? The probability is that these sensational claims are false. Therefore, you would be ill-advised to buy into them.

And, in fact, when you look at these claims more closely, they really don't stand up to scrutiny. In the first place, there is little evidence to commend them. What is the evidence that the Talpiot tomb is Jesus' family tomb? The only evidence is the improbability of the names on the ossuaries' being associated with anyone other than Jesus of Nazareth. But is this all that improbable?

In the first place, it's not even clear that the name on the ossuary is "Jesus." Here is a facsimile of the inscription:




One can make out the words "son of Joseph" but the initial name on the right is like a child's scrawl with a crayon on the wall. It may not be "Jesus" at all.

Second, "Jesus, son of Joseph" was so common in Judea that it's been reckoned that one out of every 79 males during that time was named Jesus, son of Joseph! Similarly, "Maria" was the most common Jewish name for women at the time; one out of every four women was named Maria.

Third, Mary Magdalene was not called "Mariamne" or "Mariamenon" (the name on the ossuary); her name was Maria. Not until the forged apocryphal Acts of Philip 400 years after Christ is "Mariamne" possibly used of her (if the reference is not to Mary of Bethany). Cameron makes the implausible claim that the name "Mara" following the name on the ossuary is a Greek transliteration of an Aramaic word for "Master." In fact, it is a common nickname for "Martha." Since "Mariamenon" is in the genitive case, the inscription may mean Martha of Mariamenon (i.e., Mariamenon's daughter Martha) or Mariamenon also called Martha. There are no grounds for resorting to Aramaic transliteration.

Fourth, the DNA evidence at most shows that Jesus (if that be his name) and Mariamenon did not have the same mother; but they may have been cousins, half-brother and sister, etc. Since this is a multi-generational tomb, there's no reason to think they were even of the same generation. Moreover, since the ten ossuaries contained bones of more than 17 persons, we don't even know whose DNA was actually tested.

Finally, the other names "Matia" and "Joseh" just have no connection with Jesus of Nazareth. There are no grounds for taking these as variants of the names of Jesus' disciple Matthew (who was in any case not a relative) or his brother Joses. If anything, these names serve as evidence against identifying this Jesus with Jesus of Nazareth. Cameron's claim that the celebrated ossuary of James was stolen from the Talpiot tomb is false, since that ossuary was known in the mid-1970s before the tomb was even opened.

So that's about it. There just isn't much reason to think that this tomb is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

On the other hand, evidence against the identification of the Talpiot tomb with the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is pretty powerful. In a case like this there are two sorts of historical evidence that interface: literary evidence and archaeological evidence.

We have remarkably abundant literary evidence for the life of Jesus, in the form of the Gospels, the letters of Paul, and other ancient sources. We also have some archaeological evidence which bears upon the life of Jesus, such as remains of the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem, the foundations of Peter's house in Capernaum, the ossuary of Caiaphas the high priest, an inscription of Pilate's name and title, and so forth. Obviously, the testimonial evidence borne by literary sources for Jesus' life is incomparably richer than the archaeological evidence. Apart from the literary evidence, for example, we would know next to nothing about Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect who sentenced Jesus to execution.

The sensational claims made by Cameron and others on behalf of the Talpiot tomb remind us that archaeological evidence, like literary evidence, needs to be interpreted. It does not bear its meaning on its face. In particular, archaeological evidence needs to be assessed in light of the literary evidence. So, for example, if DNA testing were to show that the person whose remains were contained in the ossuary inscribed "Judah, son of Jesus" were the child of Jesus and Mariamne, then that would be decisive proof that the Talpiot tomb is not the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, since we have overwhelming literary evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was not married, but chose to remain celibate. We have multiple, early, independent sources which are unanimous in portraying Jesus as celibate. Had Jesus left behind a widow in the early church, then it is almost inconceivable that there would be no mention of her anywhere in the sources. Especially significant is the fact that Paul, when justifying his right to be accompanied on his travels by a wife, appeals to the examples of Peter, the other apostles, and Jesus' younger brothers (I Cor. 9.5). What is conspicuously absent is an appeal to the example of Jesus himself, which would have served as a knock-down argument for Paul's point. Almost all scholars therefore agree that Jesus of Nazareth chose celibacy over marriage.

But if that is the case, then the Jesus whose bones were interred in the Talpiot tomb, if he had a son named Judah, cannot have been Jesus of Nazareth.

Identifying the Talpiot tomb as Jesus' family tomb would collide with other facts firmly established by literary evidence. For example, the literary evidence tells us that Jesus was from Galilee, so that there would not have been a family tomb in Jerusalem in which he could have been interred after his crucifixion. Moreover, most scholars regard as historical Jesus' interment by Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, late on the day of Jesus' crucifixion. Most scholars also believe that that tomb was found to be empty by a group of Jesus' female disciples on the Sunday morning following his crucifixion. (For the multiple lines of evidence supporting these facts see my The Son Rises or Assessing the New Testament Evidence for he Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus.) These facts are abundantly attested by the literary evidence.

So how are we to re-interpret this literary evidence on the hypothesis that the Talpiot tomb is Jesus' family tomb? Are we to conclude that the testimony of these multiple, independent sources is just wrong? If so, how can that be? If Jesus had a family tomb in Jerusalem, how does one account for the unanimous testimony that he was from Galilee? If Jesus' corpse was placed in a family tomb in Jerusalem, if his widow and son were still around, then how do we account for the unanimous testimony to his burial by Joseph and the discovery of his empty tomb? Indeed, where did belief in his resurrection come from at all? Why would a Christian movement founded on belief in his resurrection originate and flourish in Jerusalem in the face of a tomb containing his corpse, the location of which must have been known, since his widow and son were later to be interred with him there? Remember: the accounts of his burial by Joseph and of the discovery of his empty tomb are already attested in Mark's source material for the Passion story and are therefore very early, not to mention Paul's allusion to them in I Corinthians 15.3-5. It just doesn't make sense to say that these stories arose and were believed by early Christians when Jesus' tomb was known to be there in Jerusalem.

It seems, therefore, that the Talpiot tomb enthusiast has to say that the tomb of Jesus was a secret known only to a select few, who deliberately misled everyone else into thinking that he was risen from the dead. Maybe they stole the corpse out of the tomb after Joseph had left, and that's why the women found it empty. The body was placed in a secret location known only to selected individuals. Maybe even Mary, Jesus' wife, was kept in the dark about where Jesus had been interred. Later, when she died, she was also placed there, so that the tomb became the family tomb of Jesus. In this way, the literary evidence can remain intact, and yet the sensational claims about the Talpiot tomb be true!

The problem now, of course, is that we have lapsed back into the fantastic conspiracy theories of seventeenth century Deism. Never mind that the Talpiot tomb was evidently a well-marked, public gravesite. The overriding point is that in order to make the literary evidence mesh with the family tomb hypothesis we have to resort to conspiracy theories of history, which no historian will be anxious to do. Conspiracy theories of Jesus' resurrection are ad hoc, implausible, and anachronistic, viewing the disciples' situation through the rear view mirror of Christian history rather than from the standpoint of a first-century Jewish disciple whose chosen Messiah had just been crucified.

The point, again, is that archaeological evidence does not wear its meaning on its sleeve but needs to be interpreted, especially in light of the literary evidence. If this case, the dislocations in the literary evidence become so fantastic that it is plausible to think that the archaeological evidence has been seriously misinterpreted by Cameron and colleagues.

With little to commend it and powerful literary evidence against it, the hypothesis that the Talpiot tomb is Jesus' family tomb is of no profit historically. But then its proponents were probably not interested in historical profits to begin with.

- William Lane Craig