The Lost Tomb of Jesus: Another ‘Titanic’ Disaster
Published: 3 April 2007 (GMT+10)[See also Addendum (16 April 2007): Tomb scholars backflip.]
It seems that it’s time for another media attack on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and hence on Christianity as a whole (see our article Time and Newsweek blatantly attack Christian doctrine: Christians use Internet to refute mainstream media misochristism—and be heard!). Hollywood director James Cameron, maker of the fictionalized movie of the sinking of the Titanic, and renowned for turning out science-fiction epics like Aliens and The Terminator, and the TV series Dark Angel, has sought further fame and financial gain by producing a TV ‘documentary’ movie entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus. This was shown to the world via the Discovery Channel on 4 March 2007 (29 April in Australia).
This film was directed by Simcha Jacobovici, who obtained Discovery’s backing and a $3.5 million budget. He also co-wrote a book with author Charles Pellegrino, on the same subject entitled The Jesus Family Tomb.1 The Foreword in this book was written by Cameron, so in this article Cameron, Jacobovici and Pellegrino will be referred to as the ‘filmmakers’ or the ‘authors’. The film and the book claim that a 2000-year-old rock-tomb, discovered in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot in 1980 was the family plot of Jesus Christ and contained the remains of Jesus, Mary his mother, his alleged wife Mary Magdalene, as well as their supposed offspring named Judah son of Jesus. If this were true, then it would make the Resurrection of Jesus and His victory over death a hoax, deny Jesus’ divinity and hence His role as Saviour, and show that all of Christian history has been based on a lie.
The skeletal remains were in ten limestone boxes—small coffins called ossuaries—designated ‘IAA 80/500–509’ by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The names inscribed on six boxes (translated) are said to be Jesus son of Joseph (in Aramaic), Maria (in Hebrew), Mariamene e Mara (in Greek—which Cameron claims can be translated as ‘Mary known as the master’, i.e. Mary Magdalene), Matthew (in Hebrew), Judah son of Jesus (in Aramaic), and Jose, a diminutive of Joseph.2
DNA analysis has shown that tissues from the ossuaries labelled Jesus and Mariamene e Mara were not related, and so, according to the authors, these two were husband and wife. The theory that they were all from one family is based on statistics—the improbability that these names could all have belonged to another first-century family.
So what should we make of all this?
The first thing to note about this recent analysis of this 27-year-old discovery is that it has come from a filmmaker and a Hollywood director, who specialize in turning fiction into believability, but who are neither historians nor archaeologists. They would have to be among the least qualified to determine biblical truth.
Their bias is shown in the first sentences of the Foreword to the book, The Jesus Family Tomb1 (p. vi): ‘What if Jesus didn’t exist at all? Today many experts are saying exactly that.’ Actually, no experts in history state such nonsense. The main proponent of the theory that Jesus didn’t exist is a G.A. Wells, who is an expert in German not history.3
In an effort to undermine the testimony of the Gospels, Cameron writes (p. x), ‘The Gospels as we know them today have been retranscribed and rewritten many times … .’
This is manifestly untrue. The Bible has not evolved. Modern English versions of all the New Testament books are based on meticulous translations of the ancient Greek manuscripts. The earliest of them is the papyrus classified as P52 from the John Rylands Library in Manchester, UK, dated to about AD 125, only about 30–60 years after it was written. The front contains lines from John 18:31–33, in Greek, and the back contains lines from vv. 37–38. There are over 5,000 manuscripts of the New Testament in Greek, and over 19,000 copies in the Syriac, Latin, Coptic, and Aramaic languages. Compare that with other famous classical authors like Plato, Herodotus, Caesar and Tacitus, represented by only 20 manuscripts at the most, the earliest of which dates to 1,000 years after the original. Yet no classical scholar would claim that these authors ‘have been retranscribed and rewritten many times’ with the implication that we don’t have essentially what they wrote (what is called an authentic text—see Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability).
Throughout their book and their film, the authors/filmmakers appeal to various Gnostic gospels,4 especially the Acts of Philip, to bolster their claims re Mary Magdalene. However, these writings were rejected by the Early Church Fathers as spurious almost as soon as they were written, which was up to three centuries after the writing of the biblical (or canonical—see The New Testament Canon, from the Da Vinci Code critique) Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So it doesn’t matter how much material the scriptwriters quote from the Gnostic writers to show that Mariamene means Mary Magdalene, they are quoting ideas that the people closest to the events, i.e. the Apostles, rejected as being untrue.
There is nothing new here. Amos Kloner, a Ph.D. student in 1980, was the first archaeologist to examine the site. Now a professor at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, Dr Kloner says: ‘Their movie is not serious. They [say they] are “discovering” things. But they haven’t discovered anything. They haven’t found anything. Everything had already been published. And there is no basis on which to make a story out of this or to identify this as the family of Jesus.’5
Details of the ossuaries found were published in 1994 by archaeologist Levy Yitzhak Rahmani in A catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel, and also in 1996, in a scholarly article by Dr Kloner in the Israeli journal Antiqot, vol. 29, pp. 15–22, 1996, entitled ‘A Tomb with inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem’.6
In the book and the film, the makers claim that they discovered a ‘second, as yet unexplored tomb’ and that they filmed the ‘first ever recorded footage of an undisturbed burial cave from Jesus’ time’. However, Dr Kloner says that ‘he personally excavated the second cave years ago and managed to extricate one of its eight sarcophagi before protests by ultra-Orthodox Jews shut down the dig.’ ‘The filmmakers combined this cave with the other and lowered a camera inside just so that they would have a story,’5 he said.
So what the filmmaker authors are giving us is all old news recycled, with spin and for profit, as well as to attack the Christian faith.
In 1996, the BBC aired a short documentary on the same subject; at the time, archaeologists challenged the claims. Commenting on this BBC documentary, the authors write that ‘after a mere mention of the IAA 80/500–509 ossuaries in passing (taking up a total of five minutes during a two-hour program titled The Body in Question), everyone forgot about the Tomb of Ten Ossuaries’ (p. 24). Really? According to Google, the BBC program titled The Body in Question was ‘First aired: 6th November 1978 BBC2’7 This is two years before the tomb was discovered, and 18 years before the 1996 documentary! The Body in Question is about the functioning of the living human body not discovery of old dead ones, by author/presenter Jonathan Miller. So much for the scholarship and research of the filmmaker authors!
The authors acknowledge that an ossuary with the name ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ was found in 1926. They say that it made international headlines when it was announced in 1931, and is ‘still on permanent display in the Israel Museum, not as a unique find that may have once held the bones of Jesus, but as an illustration of how common names like Jesus and Joseph were in first century Judea’ (p. 33). It seems also that claims have been made that other Jesus’ tombs have been discovered in India, as well as in Japan!8
On page 36 of the book, the authors say, ‘For many people, Christianity was born in Rome in the fourth century.’ This is complete nonsense. As early as the end of the first century, Christians in Rome were being burned at the stake or fed to the lions because of their faith in the Risen and alive Jesus Christ as God, and their refusal to worship the Roman Emperor as divine.
The authors try to get across the idea that the Resurrection of Jesus was spiritual rather than physical, ignoring that to a Jew, a non-physical resurrection was an oxymoron.9 In support of this they write, ‘The author of Luke wrote almost apologetically, acknowledging at the start that all of this sounds strange but that this is how it appears to have happened. Read your Luke and John and you’ll see what I mean’ (pp. 70–71).
This is deliberate spin. Luke addresses his Gospel to a nobleman named Theophilus and what he actually says concerning the eyewitnesses to Jesus is: ‘Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed’ (Luke 1:1–4). Notice the keywords: ‘eyewitnesses’, ‘perfect understanding’, ‘orderly account’, and ‘know the certainty’. Archaeologists such as Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851–1939) have shown by careful research that Luke was a historian of the first rank, so accurate and professional was his approach to his work.10
The Apostle John likewise gives the reason why he wrote his Gospel, as follows: ‘And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name’ (John 20:30–31). Yes, do indeed read your Luke and your John, and you will see what we mean!
Re the discovery of the tomb
The cave-tomb, cut in the soft limestone and chalk,6 containing ten bone boxes was indeed discovered in Jerusalem in 1980 by construction workers. It was one of hundreds of such tombs that contained thousands of ossuaries, unearthed during a construction boom. As required by Israeli law, the workers immediately contacted the Israel Antiquities Authority (the Govt. agency that protects Israel’s archaeological finds and runs the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem), who sent a small team of archaeologists to investigate. The film says that they had three days to work before the tomb was due to be sealed, and that the ten ossuaries were taken to the Rockefeller Museum, where it was discovered that six out of the ten had inscriptions, i.e. four did not. The ossuaries were catalogued IAA 80/500–509.
The official report at the time by archaeologist-in-charge, Amos Kloner, found nothing remarkable. It included the following information:6
- IAA80-500: 68.5 x 26 x 14.5 cm. Greek: Μαριαμήνou (ή) Μάρα (of Mariamēnē [also called] Mara). Mariamēnē, a variant of the name Miriam, Maryam and Marya. Mara, a contraction of Martha, is used here as a second name.
- IAA80-501: 55 x 23 x 27 cm. Well executed Hebrew: Yehuda son of Yeshua.
- IAA80-502: 55 x 28 x 34 cm. Matya = Matthew
- IAA 80-503: 65 x 26 x 30 cm. Yeshua (?) son of Yehosef It is preceded by an X—the mark of either the mason or the bone collector. The first name is difficult to read … . Each of the four letters suggesting Yeshua is unclear, but the reading is corroborated by the inscription on Ossuary 2, above.
- IAA 80-504: 54.5 x 26 x 34.5 cm. Yosé, a contraction of Yehosef (Joseph).
- IAA 80-505: 52 x 27 x 33 cm. Marya.
- IAA 80-506: 67 x 31.5 x 38.5 cm.
- IAA 80-507: 51 x 27 x 3–.5 cm. [The last measurement is unclear—ed.]
- IAA 80-508: 61 x 26.5 x 31.5 cm.
- IAA 80-509: 60 x 26 x 30 cm. Plain.
The ossuaries were then put on shelves in the IAA warehouse, where they sat for more than 20 years (except when the BBC photographed them in 1996), until filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici stumbled across them in 2002. There were then only nine, so at some unknown time one of these ossuaries disappeared.
Jewish religious authorities, who might have used this discovery to discredit Christianity, did not do so. Quite the opposite. Qualified archaeologists, both then and now have seen no significance in the names, because they were so common in New Testament times, and it seems they are embarrassed by the whole affair. Anthropologist Joe Zias, who was the curator for archaeology and Anthropology at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem from 1972 to 1997 and personally numbered the ossuaries, states, ‘Simcha has no credibility whatsoever. He’s got this guy Cameron, who made Titanic … what does this guy know about archaeology? I am an archaeologist, but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would say, “Who is this guy?” … Projects like these make a mockery of the archaeological profession.’11
Professor Amos Kloner says, ‘The names on the ossuaries are very common names or derivatives of names.’ Resemblance to members of the Holy Family, he says, ‘is just a coincidence’.11
Problems regarding the Names
Mary was the most popular female name in New Testament times, with an estimated one-quarter of Jewish girls being named Miriam or a derivative. Dr Richard Bauckham, Professor of New Testament Studies at University of St Andrews (Scotland) says that of 328 discovered female ossuary names, 42 are Mary/Mariamne.12
Coincidently, there are at least six Marys mentioned in the New Testament. They are: Mary the mother of Jesus (Matthew 1:18), Mary the sister of Martha (John 11:1), Mary Magdalene (Luke 8:2), Mary the mother of James (Matthew 27:55) who is probably also ‘the other Mary’ (Matthew 27:61) as well as Mary the wife of Clopas (John 19:25), Mary the mother of Mark (Acts 12:12), and a Mary greeted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 16:6.
There is no proof that the name Mary on Ossuary 80-500 is Mary the mother of Jesus. Dr Paul Maier, Professor of Ancient history at Western Michigan University, says:
‘[C]hurch tradition and the earliest Christian historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, are unanimous in reporting that Mary, the mother of Jesus, died in Ephesus, where the apostle John, faithful to his commission from Jesus on the cross, had accompanied her.’13
The filmmakers assert that the Acts of Philip show that Mariamēnē [or Mariamnē] is Mary Magdalene. However, this comes from an apocryphal book from the fourth century, well over 200 years after Mary’s life and times. In fact, experts do not agree that Mariamēnē e Mara was Mary Magdalene. Prof. Bauckham says, ‘The first use of ‘Mariamēnē’ for Magdalene dates to a scholar who was born in 185, suggesting that Magdalene wouldn’t have been called that at her death.’8 He also says, ‘“Mara” in this context does not mean Master. It is an abbreviated form of Martha, probably the ossuary contained two women called Mary and Martha (Mariamēnē and Mara).’12 Notice that this was exactly what Amos Kloner said in his report on Ossuary 80-500 in 1980, viz. ‘Mara, a contraction of Martha, is used here as a second name’.6
The Greek name on Ossuary 80-500 is actually in the genitive or possessive case, ‘mariamēnou, meaning ‘of Mariamēnē’, as first reported by Amos Kloner.6 Thus even if ‘mara’ meant ‘master’, it would have to be translated as ‘A Master of Mariamēnē’ rather than as ‘Mariamēnē the Master’. This means that the authors’ repeated claims that Mary Magdalene is called ‘the Master’ in the Acts of Philip are totally irrelevant. The Greek name on the ossuary does not read ‘Mariamēnē the master’.
The historical evidence is that in the four New Testament Gospels, Mary Magdalene is always identified only by this name and never by Mariamēnē (see Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1, 9; Luke 8:2; 24:10; John 19:25; 20:1, 18). Likewise she is never referred to in these Gospels as ‘the master’. It is anachronistic and disingenuous for the filmmakers to bring in non-canonical Gnostic Gospel references from two or three centuries later.
The fact that the name of the alleged Mary Magdalene is in Greek, while other names are either in Aramaic or Hebrew, is also a major problem. Dr Ben Witherington, Professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary, Kentucky, writes:
‘This suggests a multi-generation tomb, not a single generation tomb, and indeed a tomb that comes from after AD 70 after the Romans had destroyed the temple mount and Jewish Christians fled the city. … The earliest Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, including members of Jesus’ family and Mary Magdalene, did not speak Greek. They spoke Aramaic. We have absolutely no historical evidence to suggest Mary Magdalene would have been called by a Greek name before AD 70. She grew up in a Jewish fishing village called Migdal, not a Greek city at all.’14
The filmmakers have illegitimately transformed this village into ‘an important trading centre’ to account for the Greek name. However, Dr Witherington says: ‘It makes no sense that her ossuary would have a Greek inscription and that her alleged husband an Aramaic inscription.’14
Yeshua (Jesus, the N.T. equivalent of O.T. Joshua) was a very common name in New Testament times. Prof. Richard Bauckman says that of 2625 discovered male ossuary names, 22 are called Jesus.12
Historian Prof. Paul Maier says: ‘There are 21 Yeshuas cited by Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian [whose Antiquities of the Jews covered Jewish history from Creation to his day], who were important enough to be recorded by him, with many thousands of others that never made history.13 Newsweek reports that ‘Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary says he has a first-century letter written by someone named Jesus, addressed to someone else named Jesus and witnessed by a third party named Jesus.’11
The name on the Yeshua ossuary is quite difficult to read, as reported by Amos Kloner above.6 The film describes it as ‘informal’ and ‘graffiti’ and ‘cursory’. If it had been written in ink we could have said ‘scribble’. There is even some doubt about whether it is ‘Yeshua’. After viewing high-resolution images of the inscription, Stephen Pfann, president of Jerusalem’s University of the Holy Land, and an expert in Semitic languages, said, ‘I don’t think it says Yehoshua [Jesus]. It says Hanun or something.’5
Concerning the epithet ‘Jesus son of Joseph’, the New Testament writers and others identified Jesus as ‘Jesus of [or from] Nazareth’, rather than as ‘Jesus son of Joseph’, e.g. Matthew 21:11; Mark 1:24; 10:47; Luke 24:19; John 18:5, 7; 19:19 (the inscription on the cross, viz. ‘Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews’, and not ‘Jesus son of Joseph …’); Acts 2:22; 4:10; 6:14; etc. When the blind beggar Bartimaeus knew that Jesus of Nazareth was passing by, he addressed Jesus by His Messianic title, ‘Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me’, not ‘Jesus son of Joseph …’ (Mark 10:47–48). It is true that the Jews referred to Jesus as Joseph’s son on a couple of occasions, but these were derogatory remarks to show their contempt for his lack of birth credentials (Luke 4:22; John 6:42). They also called him Mary’s son (Mark 6:2–3), which would have been an insult in that culture. The unbelieving Jews thought Jesus was illegitimate; Jesus’ followers believed Mary had conceived as a virgin, and so neither group called Him ‘Jesus son of Joseph’. This ossuary name therefore shouts that the contents are NOT the remains of the historical Jesus of Nazareth.
Prof. Paul Maier says, ‘All the names … are extremely common Jewish names for that time and place, and thus nearly all scholars consider that these names are merely coincidental, as they did from the start.’13 Prof. Richard Bauckham agrees, ‘[T]he names with Biblical resonance are so common that even when you run the probabilities on the group, the odds of it being the famous Jesus’ family are “very low”’8 So the names Mary, Joseph, Judah and Jesus could be expected to be in any tomb in the area. because they were the most common names of the day.
What about José? If this is the brother of Jesus, as claimed, why is the inscription not ‘José son of Joseph’? Also if this is the ossuary of Jesus’ brother, it cannot also be that of Joseph the father. So where is Big Daddy’s ossuary? In Nazareth? But if this is the tomb of Joseph’s family, should we not expect that his body would have been brought there as the honoured patriarch?
What is Matthew doing there—if this is the correct translation of ‘Matya’? None of Jesus’ brothers listed in the New Testament is named Matthew. And why is he not ‘Matthew son of somebody’? The authors suggest he is a relative of Jesus’ on his mother’s side—‘cousin Matthew’ (p. 113), but evidence is needed, not speculation.
Prof. Amos Kloner said recently, ‘The claim that the burial site has been found is not based on any proof, and is only an attempt to sell.’ He mentioned that a similar film was released 11 years ago [i.e. the BBC film in 1996], and said that this current film was merely a renewed effort to create controversy in the Christian world in order to make a bigger profit. ‘I refute all their claims and efforts to waken a renewed interest in the findings. With all due respect, they are not archaeologists,’ Kloner said, referring to the filmmakers. According to Kloner, ‘the names inscribed on the coffins were very common in the Second Temple era, and as such were not sufficient proof that the cave was the burial site of Jesus’ family.’15
Problems concerning the James ossuary
In the film, the highlight of ‘proof’ that this is Jesus’ tomb is the filmmakers’ claim that an ossuary discovered some years ago with the inscription ‘James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus’ came from the same tomb and is the missing tenth ossuary. So what are the facts?
The James ossuary was not discovered ‘in situ’ i.e. in the tomb, which would have been a test for authenticity, but came to light via an antiquities dealer, Oded Golan. Golan claims he bought it from another dealer who said that it ‘came from Silwan, not Talpiot, and had dirt in it that matched up with the soil in that particular spot in Jerusalem’.16 Dr Ben Witherington says, ‘Oded confirmed this to me personally.16 Dr Witherington further comments that according to Eusebius, the father of church history, the tomb of James the Just, the brother of Jesus, was near the Temple mount, where he was martyred. He quotes Eusebius as follows: James ‘was buried on the spot, by the Sanctuary and his inscribed stone (stele) is still there by the sanctuary (Hist. Eccles. 2.23.18)16 Talpiot is nowhere near this location.
Amos Kloner measured all the ossuaries from the Jesus tomb in 1980, as written in his 1980 report. He recorded that the tenth ossuary No. 80-509 was 60 x 26 x 30 cm. The James ossuary is only 56.5 cm long. The authors try to wriggle out of this dilemma by suggesting that ‘because the James ossuary broke en route to Toronto and was then reglued, its original length changed slightly’ (p. 210). Then, realizing the fallibility of this argument, they suggest that the measurement numbers of this ossuary ‘are rounded to even numbers across the board’ and so ‘it may very well be that the initial measurements are off by 3.5 centimeters on one side’ (p. 210). But the numbers are not rounded ‘across the board’. The width is 26 cm, accurate to 1 cm; cf. ossuary No. 80-508 which Kloner recorded as 26.5 cm wide, accurate to 0.5 cm. It is an unwarranted slur on Kloner’s 1980 work for the authors to say his measurement on one side of the tenth ossuary was wrong by 3.5 cm.
Kloner specifically reported that this tenth ossuary was ‘plain’, i.e. it had no name on it.6 There were only six names on the ten ossuaries. Furthermore the James ossuary name included an honorific title, which none of the six named ossuaries did.14 The filmmakers make much of a supposed match of patina (chemical encrustation on exposed surfaces) between the James ossuary and the ten ossuaries. But this is totally irrelevant. If the tenth ossuary had no name on it, it was not the James ossuary. Dan Bahat, an archaeologist at Bar Ilan University, makes the perceptive comment, ‘I don’t think the James Ossuary came from the same cave. If it were found there, the man who made the forgery would have taken something better. He would have taken Jesus.’17 For all these reasons, the tenth ossuary is thus NOT that of James.
Note: We are not saying that the James ossuary does not exist or that it is not genuine (cf. Bonebox bashers blasted: Update on James ossuary claims), but just that it is not ossuary No. 80-509 from the Talpiot tomb.
Problems about DNA
There is no control sample of DNA from some known member of Jesus’ family to compare the DNA results with. The DNA tests merely show that the people from whom the DNA came were not related.
However, other DNA tests could substantially boost the filmmakers’ theory, if they were to do them. For example, DNA tests could show whether the person in the Jesus ossuary is the father of the Judah person; and whether he is the son of the Mary person; and whether he is the brother of the José person. A match of any of these would at least show the persons were related, and so be some evidence for their thesis. So why have they not tested and compared DNA from all the ossuaries to show whether any of them are related? Is it because a mismatch would falsify the filmmakers’ theory, and they dare not risk this?
Concerning the non-match of DNA from the Jesus and the Mariamēnē ossuaries, the authors say, ‘because they came from the same tomb—and we suspect it to be a familial tomb—these two individuals, if they are unrelated, would most likely have been husband and wife’ (p. 172 emphasis added). But suppose the DNA from the Mariamēnē ossuary does not match that from the Matthew ossuary, by the above logic they too ‘would most likely have been husband and wife’. And if it does not match that from the José ossuary, they too ‘would most likely have been husband and wife’. And if it does not match that from the Judah ossuary, they too ‘would most likely have been husband and wife’. And, assuming that two of the four unnamed ossuaries contained males whose DNA does not match hers, she and each of them too ‘would most likely have been husband and wife’. That is, according to the authors’ logic. Six husbands—hmmmm! Now what woman does that remind us of in John chapter 4?
Problems regarding the tomb
In New Testament times, for families who could afford it, a newly dead body would be put on a rock shelf for a year or so until the flesh decomposed; members of families would then put the bones in a box and deposit this in a rock-cut tomb. The custom was to bury the dead in this way where they lived, which for Joseph’s family was Nazareth in Galilee. There is no historical evidence that Joseph’s family were wealthy enough to afford a rock-cut tomb in either Nazareth or Jerusalem; none whatsoever that Jesus’ mother and father, or Mary Magdalene either, ever lived in Jerusalem; and none that their corpses were ever transported from Galilee to Jerusalem. The site is described several times as a large one, e.g. on p. 9, ‘a good-sized tomb’, so would have been beyond both the needs and the means of a humble country carpenter like Joseph, and his family. It is the wrong kind of tomb, located in the wrong city. Anthropologist Joe Zias states, ‘It has nothing to do with Jesus. He was known as Jesus of Nazareth, not Jesus of Jerusalem, and if the family was wealthy enough to afford a tomb, which they probably weren’t, it would have been in Nazareth, not here in Jerusalem.8
The historical evidence is that Jesus was taken down from the cross by Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, and buried in ‘a tomb cut in the rock’ (Luke 23:53) of Joseph of Arimathea (Matthew 27:57–61). So who was it then who supposedly removed the body, encased in 34 kg of myrrh and aloes (John 19:38–42), and took it to another site? And how did they do this despite the presence of the guard, on 24-hour duty there expressly to prevent this happening (Matthew 27:62–66)?
The best the authors can suggest is that the chief priests and Pharisees waited until after the Sabbath before they posted the guard, but that the disciples ‘by being positioned to act, they could have waited until sunset in the tomb and then moved the body immediately after sunset, but before the guard had been posted’ (p. 71, emphases in the original). This is more spin and utter nonsense. According to Matthew 27: 64–66, the request to Pilate was, ‘Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night and steal him away … . Pilate said unto them, “You have a guard: Go your way, make it as sure as you can.” So they went and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone and setting a watch.’ For the Pharisees to have waited until after the Sabbath, as the authors suggest, would have meant waiting until the third day—far too late to accomplish their stated purpose! Matthew’s text plainly says that the purpose of setting the guard was to prevent anyone taking the body from the day of the crucifixion.
If Jesus’ body was nevertheless transferred to this other cave, why didn’t the soldiers or the Jewish leaders find it a year or so later and expose the inscriptions, either then or later still after the nine other people died and were buried there? The facade of the tomb is unique, being decorated with ‘a chevron or upside-down V or Y deliberately carved. It measured more than a metre wide, with a prominent circle placed in its centre’ (p. 8). This surely proclaimed to the world that this tomb was something unusual and worth investigating! And why didn’t Jewish or Roman historians write about this tomb? Not one single contemporary historian did.
For this to have been Jesus’ tomb, his followers must have purchased it from someone. Who? There would have had to have been buyer(s) and seller(s). The Pharisees who hated Jesus enough to have crucified Him would surely have left no stone unturned in finding this tomb and everyone connected with it—if it really had contained Jesus’ body.
There is no historical evidence that Jesus received a second burial. All the historical evidence is that He was buried once, for a period of three days; that He then rose from the dead; that He was seen by many of the disciples on several occasions over a period of 40 days, including more than 500 at once (1 Corinthians 15:6); and that He then was observed to ascend bodily into heaven (Acts 1:1–11). All of which means there was no part of His body left behind.
For this to be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth, there are several people too many in the tomb, viz. Judah, Matthew, and an additional Mary (and/or Martha). The filmmakers need to supply independent historical evidence that Jesus of Nazareth had a son named Judah, as well as a relative named Matthew and a second Mary (and/or Martha) in His family; otherwise these names falsify their hypothesis. The names certainly do not prove it. There are also several people too few, viz. Jesus’ brothers (other than José) i.e. James, Simon and Judas, and ‘all his sisters’ (Matthew 13:55–56), and if this is the family tomb, what about Joseph? Could any of these others have been in the four unnamed ossuaries or in any stolen ones? That would be sheer speculation. The filmmakers need to supply evidence.
There is no literary or historical evidence whatsoever that members of Jesus’ family were interred together in a common burial place anywhere, let alone in Jerusalem. In the case of Jesus, the historical evidence—of the four Gospels, the preaching of Peter in Acts, the personal witness and writings of Paul, and the testimony of the early church—is that Jesus rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. There is no historical evidence that He left His bones in any box in Jerusalem.
Professor Jodi Magness says,18 ‘The poorer classes of Jewish society—the majority of the population—buried their dead in simple, individual trench graves dug into the ground, similar to the way we bury our dead today. This involved digging a rectangular trench in the ground, placing the deceased (wrapped in a shroud) at the bottom, and filling the trench back in with earth. Usually a crude headstone was set up at one end of the grave. Ossuaries are associated only with rock-cut tombs, since once bodies were interred in trench graves they were not dug back up for deposition in an ossuary. … the fact that Jesus’ body did not remain in Joseph [of Arimathea]’s tomb means that his bones could not have been collected in an ossuary, at least not if we follow the Gospel accounts.’
How many bodies were there in the Tomb of Ten Ossuaries?
There were many more bodies in the tomb than the ten in the ossuaries (or eleven, if No. 80-500 contained both a Mary and a Martha as Kloner first said). At the beginning of the book, in Spring 1980, local kids are described playing soccer with several skulls, at least two of which had shattered when kicked (p. 4). A woman resident, Rirka Maoz, gathered these into two large black plastic bags (pp. 4 & 11). Now how many skulls would two large black plastic bags hold? Twelve each? Possibly, but certainly 7 each, so that makes 14, maybe even 24. Then there were the ‘fragmented and powdered limbs’ on two shelves. That’s at least 2 more. And there were 3 skulls arranged in a triangular pattern on the floor, which a worker recorded on a map (pp. 10 & 11).
The authors suggest that these three skulls were placed on the floor in this pattern ‘somewhere near the twelfth century’ by intruders ‘who opened the seal of the fifth ossuary niche, removed the northernmost ossuary, studied it, and pushed it gently back into place but with one end still protruding’ (p. 123). Unfortunately the authors did not reference which crystal ball they used as the source of this information, but let’s assume it’s true. Where would the intruders have most likely obtained their three skulls? Taking them from the shelves would have been a lot simpler and much less messy than going out and decapitating three of the locals, who might reasonably be expected to have resisted!
So to return to the body count: with those in the ten ossuaries, the total is about 30, if not 40 corpses, all in a tomb large enough to hold many more ossuaries. What does that suggest? Answer: That this was not just a family tomb, but was a communal burial chamber.
Problems involving the disciples
Consider the following:
The historical evidence recorded by Luke is that the first persons to go to the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea on the Sunday were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and some other women, all of whom who went there to anoint Jesus’ body with spices. When they found this tomb was empty they came back and told the Eleven disciples and all the others, none of whom believed the women’s report. (Luke 24:1–10). Very obviously all of them expected Jesus’ body to be there. None of them had removed the body or knew anything about such a plan.
Jesus had been buried once by Joseph of Arimathea. Why would the disciples have wanted to steal the body and bury it a second time?
If the disciples did mean to perpetrate a hoax by stealing the body of Jesus, why on earth would they have put it in a box, labelled that box with his name on it, kept it in Jerusalem of all places, and in a tomb (advertised as such by its very large ornamental chevron facade), where authorities would have been most likely to have found it? Why would they not rather have ensured that no one ever found it by burying it in the ground or cremating it? This makes no sense at all.
Nearly all Jesus’ disciples died martyrs’ deaths. Why would they have buried His bones in a family plot and then endured torture and death for preaching that Jesus was alive, if they had known it was all untrue? Men may suffer and die for what they believe in, but not for what they know is a hoax and a farce! This too makes no sense at all.
Chuck Colson, who was involved in the Nixon Watergate scandal, said, ‘I know the resurrection is a fact and Watergate proved it to me. How? Because 12 men testified they had seen Jesus raised from the dead, then they proclaimed that truth for 40 years, never once denying it. Every one was beaten, tortured, stoned and put in prison. They would not have endured that if it weren’t true. Watergate embroiled 12 of the most powerful men in the world—and they couldn’t keep a lie for three weeks. You’re telling me 12 apostles could keep a lie for 40 years? Absolutely impossible.’19
Major probability fallacy invalidates argument
As stated above, if Jesus rose from the dead, then this could not have been His family tomb. Thus a proper probability analysis must incorporate the probability of the resurrection into any probability analysis. This requires a famous equation called Bayes’ Theorem, after British Presbyterian minister and mathematician Rev. Thomas Bayes (1702–1761):
Pr(A|B) = Pr(B|A)Pr(A)/Pr(B).
Applied to this example,
Pr(A|B) is the conditional probability of A (this is Jesus’ tomb), given B ( the Resurrection).
Pr(A) is the prior probability or marginal probability of A—that this was the tomb of Jesus’ family. It is ‘prior’ in the sense that it does not take into account any information about B, the Resurrection. Yet the analysis in the book calculates only this value (even if we allow that this part is correct), and this is fallacious because it is only one variable of the equation.
Pr(B|A) is the conditional probability of B given A.
Pr(B) is the prior or marginal probability of B, the Resurrection. This would include the explanatory power of the Resurrection compared with the hypothesis of non-Resurrection.21 Indeed, there are at least 17 factors that meant Christianity could not have succeeded in the ancient world unless it was backed up with irrefutable proof of the Resurrection.22
So even if the Pr(A) as calculated by these authors is large, the overall probability could still be minute when Pr(B) is taken into account, as it must be.
Problems with the statistics
The Probability factor, ‘P’
The filmmakers have enlisted the help of statistician Prof. Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto. He has calculated a probability factor ‘P’, which gives a chance of 1 in 600 ‘that this is not the Jesus family tomb, if Mariamene can be linked to Mary Magdalene’. Notice the careful wording. Also this last ‘if’ is an enormous ‘if’.
What should we make of this? Well, first of all we need to temporarily set aside the fact that the Resurrection totally precludes this tomb from being a burial site for Jesus. Concerning the simplistic probability calculations involved, see box for the correct formula using Bayes’ Theorem. Then, Australian mathematician Allan Steel says, (in a private communication), ‘If they had unearthed 100,000 tombs, say, and built frequency tables from the names found, then it would have been more reasonable to assign a probability as to whether a given set of names might occur in a tomb. But since apparently only about 1,000 tombs have been used, this is not a large enough sample space for the claimed probability to have practical significance.’
In addition, Prof. Feuerverger is now backing away from the hype in the media over his probability figures. He has an Open Letter on his website to answer the huge number of queries he has received about his calculations. In this he says, ‘I now believe that I should not assert any conclusions connecting this tomb with any hypothetical one of the NT family. … The results of any such computations are highly dependent on the assumptions that enter into it. Should even one of these assumptions not be satisfied then the results will not be statistically meaningful.’20 (Emphasis added.) He then lists no fewer than eight of these assumptions—what he calls ‘the more important ones’. For example, concerning Mary Magdalene he writes, ‘We assume that Mariamene e Mara is a singularly highly appropriate appellation for Mary Magdalene. Note that this assumption is contentious and furthermore that this assumption drives the outcome of the computations substantially.’20
Put simply, we are given an argument that goes: If we assume A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H are true, then the probability that our main claim is correct is 599/600 or 99.8 per cent. Then people get the mistaken idea that the chance of the main claim being true without all the assumptions is also 99.8%. However, to say that therefore A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H, are true, would be circular reasoning. Prof. Feuerverger is obviously dissociating himself from any such conclusion as this, based on his figures.
How could a public figure like Jesus possibly have been married and had a son, and the matter have been kept a secret during His lifetime and until the 20th century?
The filmmakers make much of a mark that looks something like a cross on the ossuary attributed to Jesus. This mark is sloping at about 45 degrees and one arm is bent. Since when did Christians ever use a cross symbol except in the upright position, like this ‘+’? This could hardly represent Jesus bent over carrying the cross, because Jesus’ cross was carried by someone else, a man called Simone from Cyrene (Mark 15:21), which the author’s acknowledge (p. 200). Also Jesus probably carried a crossbeam that was then nailed to an upright stake at the site of the crucifixion to form what we call the cross. Archaeologists dismiss this feature as a mason’s mark, because that’s what it most looks like, and in any case Christians did not display crosses until many years after the time of the Crucifixion of Jesus.
In the book, the final ‘proof’ the authors put forward that Jesus had a son by Mary Magdalene is to discuss the identity of the ‘disciple whom Jesus loved’, who leaned against Jesus’ chest during the Last Supper (John 14:23–25). The church has always regarded this as the apostle John, but the authors say, ‘He’s not a baby or a toddler, but he’s also not a full-grown man. He’s a kid, a young boy (p. 207). This is contrary to Matthew 26:20 and Mark 14:7, which both say Jesus had this last meal with ‘the Twelve’, not thirteen people. Then the authors go on to equate this ‘kid’ with the young man who followed Jesus after He was arrested, and who fled naked from the soldiers when they grabbed his linen garment (Mark 14:51–52). The church has always regarded this young man as Mark, but the authors suggest that this was ‘a boy of ten or thirteen’ (p. 208), viz. Judah, son of Jesus (p. 209). They write, ‘Did Judah follow his father on the night of his arrest? Did he run desperate and naked to his mother, telling her the terrible news?’ (p. 209)
Well, they have just shot themselves in the foot! Jesus was about 30 years old when he began His 3-year ministry (Luke 3:23). So if Jesus had a son aged 10 or 13, the boy must have been conceived when Jesus was 22 or 19. The facts are that Jesus met Mary Magdalene during his three-year ministry. The first reference is in Luke 8:2, where we are introduced to Mary Magdalene as someone out of whom Jesus had cast seven demons. This was during Jesus’ first year of ministry. Just supposing Jesus did then marry Mary Magdalene (and presumably even the authors would not suggest that this happened while she was still demon possessed), then any child could have been no older than one or two at the time of Jesus’ Crucifixion!
A baby, one or two years old, was certainly not ‘Thomas the “twin”’ (p. 207), nor ‘the Beloved Disciple who leaned on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper (p. 207), and most certainly not the young man aged 10 or 13, who was fleet enough to escape from the soldier who pulled off his linen cloth when Jesus was arrested (p. 208).
The authors/filmmakers have not produced one shred of credible evidence to support any aspect of their theory. Prof. Jodi Magness says, their claim ‘is based on a string of problematic and unsubstantiated claims’ and ‘is inconsistent with all of the available information—historical and archaeological—about how Jews in the time of Jesus buried their dead, and specifically the evidence we have about poor, non-Judean [e.g. Galilean—ed.] families like that of Jesus. It is a sensationalistic claim without any scientific basis or support.’18
Wacky theory treated as dogma
The filmmakers have a theory but, instead of using the known evidence to evaluate the theory, they use their theory to judge the evidence. They regard their theory as fact, and then use this ‘fact’ to reject every bit of evidence contrary to it. They use many little inaccuracies and exaggerations and a lot of rhetorical questions to make their fictitious tale sound plausible. This is very similar to the way the theory of evolution is propagated in society today. It is declared to be fact, despite the huge amount of scientific evidence against it, and many scientific inaccuracies and exaggerations are used to make it sound plausible. Historical events such as creation, biblical miracles, and the Resurrection of Jesus are unrepeatable, so cannot be confirmed (or denied) by science today. They can, however, be confirmed by eyewitnesses. See also Miracles and science
Perhaps this explains why they chose to make their announcement in the popular media and circumvent the usual academic process of presenting new scientific ideas at professional meetings or in peer-reviewed journals. So why did they do it at all? Well, if Dan Brown could sell over 40 million copies of his distortion of history and have it made into a movie as well, why shouldn’t they have a go to do the same?
Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code yarn claimed that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and they produced a girl named Sarah, whom Mary raised in France23 (see refutations at What about the claims of The Da Vinci Code?). One gets the impression that only in a post-Da Vinci Code world could such nonsense be regurgitated with appropriate variations. According to The Da Vinci Code, Mary Magdalene’s bones are the Holy Grail and they are buried under the inverted pyramid in The Louvre in Paris. Come on guys, she can’t be buried in both Paris and Jerusalem. As Bible attackers, and purveyors of the Gnostic Jesus-and-Mary-were-married-and-had-kids-conspiracy-line, you need to get your act together.
The first people to disbelieve Jesus’ divinity were the Pharisees who, to prove their point, put Jesus to death on the cross. Jesus, to prove His point, rose from the dead three days later. The first denial of the Resurrection of Jesus occurred on the day it happened. As noted above, the Apostle Matthew records that the guard of soldiers took money to explain the disappearance of the body (Matthew 28:11–15). Now, Cameron, Jacobovici and Pellegrino are trying to make money out of the appearance of the bones of somebody who coincidently is also named Jesus.
So what should we conclude? The cave could be the family tomb of somebody called Jesus, but not Jesus of Nazareth. It could be the family tomb of almost any of the people named. It contained many other skulls and skeletons, so it probably was the tomb of a small community. The people may have been Christians or they may not.
Dr Ben Witherington summarizes: ‘James Cameron, the producer of the movie Titanic, has now jumped on board another sinking ship full of holes, presumably to make a lot of money before the theory sinks into an early watery grave.’16
Addendum (16 April 2007): Lost Tomb of Jesus scholars abandon ship!
Several prominent scholars who were interviewed for The Lost Tomb of Jesus film have now revised their opinions, according to a 16-page paper by epigrapher (inscription expert) Stephen Pfann of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem.24 These include University of Toronto statistician Prof. Andrey Feuerverger, whose rethink is mentioned in the main article above. Epigrapher prof. emeritus of Hebrew and oriental languages at Harvard University Frank Moore, who states in the film that one of the ossuaries reads ‘Jesus son of Joseph’, is now said to be skeptical about the film’s claims, not because of misreading the ossuary name, but because of the ubiquity of biblical names in Jerusalem; he is quoted as saying, ‘You know the saying: lies, damned lies and statistics.’
Pfann says that DNA scientist Dr Carney Matheson, who supervised DNA testing from the supposed Jesus and Mary Magdalene ossuaries, and who said in the film, ‘if they were unrelated, [they] would most likely be husband and wife’, now says, ‘To me it sounds like absolutely nothing.’ Pfann also says that the specialist in ancient apocryphal text, Prof. Franςois Bovon, who is quoted in the film as saying that the inscription ‘Mariamne’ is the same woman known as Mary Magdalene (one of the filmmakers’ critical arguments), has now issued a disclaimer stating that he did not believe that ‘Mariamne’ stood for Mary of Magdalene at all.
All this reinforces the many points of rebuttal made in the main article above.
The Resurrection of Jesus:
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is the fundamental doctrine of Christianity. It shows God’s perfect satisfaction with the death of Christ as an atonement for our sins (1 Peter 3:18a). Conversely by the resurrection of Jesus, God refuses and rejects all other methods of mankind’s salvation, whether they be good works, New Age philosophies, beliefs about reincarnation, the upwards-and-onwards hopeful fantasies of evolution, religious rules and regulations, or any other human initiatives.
In His death, Christ exhausted the penalty due to all mankind for our sin, and so His death created a new value, namely a free pardon, which He did not need for Himself, but which he obtained for others. In His life, Jesus was victor over sin, and because he had gained this victory, it was not possible that sin (or death, the penalty for sin) should win in the end, by His staying dead. Hence Peter says in Acts 2:24, ‘God raised Him from the dead … because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him.’ These two things, the free pardon and victory over sin, which Christ gained for us, are both communicated and imparted to us by His being alive.
The resurrection of Jesus is also the supreme example of God’s power. Paul says that Jesus Christ ‘was declared with power to be the Son of God by His resurrection from the dead’ (Romans 1:4). In Ephesians 1:19-20 he says that the resurrection of Christ was a demonstration of God’s ‘incomparably great power’, and he goes on to say that this same power is available to Christians.
The Bible also tells us that by the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, God has given assurance to all men that there will be a future Day of Judgment, and that the Judge will be the Lord Jesus Christ. ‘For He [God] has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead’ (Acts 17:31).
No wonder so many people want to disprove the Resurrection of Jesus. However, to do so they must answer:
- The fact of the church and its existence.
- The fact of the Christian day.
- The fact of the Christian book, the New Testament.
- The fact of the empty tomb.
- The fact of the recorded appearances of Christ.
- The fact of the changed disciples.
- The fact of personal experience and interaction of Christians with Christ today.
Though many have tried to refute the above, none has ever succeeded. See also the articles under Did Jesus Christ really rise from the dead?.
- Jacobovici, S., and Pellegrino, C., The Jesus Family Tomb, HarperCollins, New York, 2007. Return to Text
- Ref. 1, pp. 16–18. Return to Text
- See Holding, J.P., Shattering the Christ-Myth: The Reliability of the Secular References to Jesus. Return to Text
- Gnostics (from Greek gnosis = knowledge) taught that they had secret occult knowledge, e.g. flesh and matter were evil, and so Jesus could not have been God. The major spiritual problem was said to be ignorance, not sin, so salvation was through advanced knowledge, not forgiveness by grace through faith. They flourished in the 2nd century AD. The Early Church rejected gnosticism as anti-Christian and untrue. The structured development of Christian doctrine (e.g. the Creeds) was to a large extent the Church’s reaction against gnosticism. Return to Text
- Milstein, M., Jesus’ tomb claim slammed by scholars, National Geographic News, 28 Feb. 2007, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/02/070228-jesus-tomb.html 14 March 2007. Return to Text
- Available from Google: See A Tomb with inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/tomb/explore/media/tomb_evidence.pdf March 15, 2007. Return to Text
- See BBC Factual Programs Unofficial Site, http://www.tvfactual.co.uk/ March 12, 2007 Return to Text
- See Jesus tomb: fact or fiction? Y-Jesus, http://www.y-jesus.com/jesus_tomb.php Feb. 28, 2007. Return to Text
- See also Holding, J.P., Let’s Get Physical: Foundational Essay on the Resurrection Body. Return to Text
- See the documentation in Jaronczyk, R,. The Nativity: Fact or Fiction? 23 December 2006. Return to Text
- Miller, L., and Chen, J., Have researchers found Jesus Christ’s tomb?, Newsweek March 5, 2007. Return to Text
- Bock, D., Hollywood hype: the Oscars and Jesus’ family tomb, what do they share? <http://dev.bible.org/bock/node/106> 27 Feb. 2007. Return to Text
- Open letter from Dr Paul Maier. See <http://www.movieguide.org/index.php?s=news&id=273> March 14, 2007. Return to Text
- Witherington, B., Problems multiply for Jesus tomb theory, http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/ of Feb. 28, 2007 1/03/07. Return to Text
- Mandel, R., Israel Culture, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-3369346,00.html 1 March 2007. Return to Text
- Witherington, B. The Jesus tomb? “Titanic” Talpiot tomb theory sunk from the start, http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/jesus-tomb-titanic-talpiot-tomb-theory.html March 15, 2007. Return to Text
- Thomson, M., Scholars criticize new Jesus documentary, Breitbart.com, http://www.breitbart.com/news/2007/02/26/D8NHFDRG3.html March 1, 2007. Return to Text
- Jodi Magness is Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her quoted remarks are from Magness, J., Has the tomb of Jesus been discovered?, Society of Biblical Literature, http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=640 March 19, 2007. Return to Text
- Colson, C., Y-Jesus, http://www.y-zine.com/bodycount_8.htm?idCategory=7 28 Feb. 2007. Return to Text
- Feuerverger, A., Open Letter http://fisher.utstat.toronto.edu/andrey/ 21 march 2007. Return to Text
- See Is There Historical Evidence for the Resurrection of Jesus? A Debate between William Lane Craig and Bart D. Ehrman. Dr Craig applies Bayes’ Theorem to refute Dr Ehrman’s probabilistically fallacious Humean claim that miracles are too improbable to believe. Return to Text
- Holding, J.P., The Impossible Faith: Or, How Not to Start an Ancient Religion. Return to Text
- Brown, D., The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, London, 2004, p. 342. Return to Text
- Pfann, S., Cracks in the Foundation: How the Lost Tomb of Jesus story is losing its scholarly support. Quoted from Lefkovits, E., Jesus Tomb film scholars backtrack, The Jerusalem Post, Online Edition, 11 April 2007, http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1176152766396&pagename=JPost/JPArticle/ShowFull. Return to text