Myth of The Lost Tomb

In my last post I discussed the latest absurdity from the world of Simcha Jacobovici. Specifically, his alleged discovery of a “Lost Gospel” that in reality was never lost, nor a Gospel. I explained why scholars of all stripes do not take him or his claims seriously, and noted that Jacobovici is renowned for making outrageous claims. Nevertheless, in this post I thought it might be amusing to discuss the most outrageous claim ever espoused by Jacobovici.  And the winner is: his alleged “discovery” of the so-called “Lost Tomb of Jesus” – which was heavily promoted in the 2007 “documentary” that aired on The Discovery Channel.

First, for some background on the alleged “discovery” of the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” by Jacobovici: In the year 1980, an ancient tomb containing ten ossuaries was discovered under a building site in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem. Ossuaries are ancient boxes used to hold the bones of the dead. Typically the bones would be deposited in the ossuary one year after a person’s death by their surviving family members. The tomb in question, which is actually called the Talpiot tomb in archeological circles, was NOT discovered by Jacobovici. Nonetheless, Jacobovici and his team of “experts” and filmmakers have visited the site and looked into the 1980 discovery. And guess what? Jacobovici & Company (Co) claim to have uncovered that the Talpiot tomb, is in fact, the final resting place for Jesus of Nazareth and his family. In other words, the notorious cynic claims to have not only proved that Jesus did not rise from the dead, but that Jesus was also married and had children. Seriously!

So what evidence led Jacobovici & Co to arrive at this monumental “discovery”, and one that numerous scholars and archeologist missed decades earlier? Well according to Jacobovici & Co, the ossuaries in this particular tomb are inscribed with the names: “Yeshua bar Yosef” and “Mariamne e Mara”, translated “Jesus, son of Joseph”, and “Mary, the master” whom they argue is Mary Magdalene (or rather assume). Other boxes inside the tomb are reportedly inscribed with the names Matthew, Joseph and Judas, plus another Mary. Therefore, due to the familiarity of many of these names to that of the biblical New Testament (NT) record, they argued that the Talpoit tomb was in fact really the tomb of Jesus’ family. Specifically, Jesus himself, his mother (Mary), brother (Joseph) and “wife” (the one they claim is Mary Magdalene). Therefore, based on this assumption the box inscribed as “Judas, son of Jesus,” must naturally be the resting place of Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s son. Never-mind there is no proof for any of this, and that these are among the most popular Jewish names of the time period.

But wait! There’s more! They visited the Talpiot tomb, and using “snake camera” technology, found yet another ossuary next door. This one reportedly inscribed with an image of Jonah emerging from the “great fish” that swallowed him. This, they argued, was further archaeological proof that the site was a cluster of very early Christian tombs. Huh?

The final (and more recent) piece to this wacky claim is that the soil found at the Talpiot ossuaries, is reportedly a close match to the soil found on another controversial artifact, known as the James ossuary. The James ossuary was purchased by an Israeli antiquities dealer in the 1970s. Like the ossuaries from the Talpiot Tomb, what made this one interesting was its alleged inscription: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”. Thus by linking the James ossuary to the Talpiot Tomb, skeptics claim to have now provided “scientific evidence” that it must have once been inside the Talpiot Tomb – thus adding greater weight to their theory that the tomb was where Jesus and his family (including an alleged wife and child) were buried.

All this taken together, the claim may actually seem like a compelling theory, to some. However, pick up any single piece of alleged “evidence” for further examination, apply some scrutiny, and the entire claim quickly dissolves away into nothing.

So why do the overwhelming amount of scholars and archeologists dismiss this claim?

First, the identification of the Talpiot Tomb as the burial site for Jesus’ family is made primarily on the basis of the names inscribed on the ossuaries, i.e. Jesus and Mary. However, what they neglect to mention is that many of these inscriptions are disputed among experts in the field. For instance, the ossuary box allegedly inscribed as “Jesus, son of Joseph” definitely says “son of Joseph,” according to the experts. However, the first and most crucial part, the actual name, is severely eroded and very much in doubt. Many scholars argue the name is actually “Hanun”, a fact Jacobovici & Co gloss over. It goes without saying, but if the name on the tomb is NOT Jesus, as many experts contend, then EVERYTHING else is irrelevant. That said, let us continue.

The next ossuary box, supposedly belonging to Mary Magdalene, and allegedly inscribed as “Mary, the master” actually translates as “Mariam and Mara,” meaning this ossuary box is actually for two different women buried together. Scholars argue that it is also problematic that this ossuary is inscribed in Greek, while the others are all inscribed in Aramaic. Once more, the New Testament Gospels never once refer to Mary Magdalene as “Mariamne”, the spelling version of Mariam (Mary) that is inscribed on the ossuary in question. Moreover, there is nothing on the inscription that would indicate or connect this ossuary (which is really for two women) as being the wife of the alleged Jesus in the tomb. For instance: Why could this not be the wife of Joseph, Judas or Matthew? In fact, such cynics actually weaken their case by trying to link this woman (which is actually two different women) to Jesus, as his wife, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

Then there is the inscription of Joseph, a name shared by Jesus’ earthly father and younger brother. However, the actual name inscribed on the ossuary is Joses, a nickname for Joseph, but this ossuary lacks any statement of kinship. Additionally, Jacobovici & Co neglect to mention, nor consider, that many of the ossuaries are inscribed with names that have no connection to Jesus’ family. For instance, there is Matia (Matthew) — not a member of Jesus’ family — and most problematic, “Yehuda bar Yeshua,” translated as “Judas, son of Jesus”. Jesus had a brother named Judas, but NOT a son by that name, nor any other child for that matter. That ossuary alone should debunk the whole theory being espoused here. After all, there is absolutely NO historical evidence, AT ALL, that Jesus was ever married or fathered children. See my earlier two part post on that recurring fictitious claim (Was Jesus Married?) for further discussion. Thus, even if one is a non-believer, the evidence is overwhelming that Jesus was single and celibate, i.e. no wife and no children. Therefore, the historical evidence would seem to rule out the proposition that the Talpiot tomb belongs to Jesus (of Nazareth) and his family based on the Judas ossuary inscription alone. That is, for those with whom historical evidence still matters. Nevertheless, let us continue.

Many cynics, who support this theory by Jacobovici & Co, will regularly point to the remarkable collection of so many apparent NT biblical names in a single tomb, and then calculate various faulty statistical probabilities in favor of this theory. However, what they fail to consider, and as numerous scholars have always pointed out and will attest, is that many of these names were the most common names in Judea during that time period, especially Mary, and also Joseph, Judas and Jesus. Once more, as already discussed, there are many problems with the alleged translation of the names actually inscribed on these ossuaries. Not to mention, they do not factor in those names that appear in this tomb that do not fit into Jesus’ family. Nor can such cynics explain why several other known family members are missing, in example, Mary’s husband Joseph, Jesus’s other brothers Simon and Jude, I’ll discuss James later. Therefore, their strongest argument is actually very, very, VERY WEAK — once it is put under scrutiny.

Next we come to the alleged “evidence” from the tomb next door: that is, the ossuary with the early Christian symbol of the fish on it. This one is extremely hard to grasp at as to why it is counted as evidence. It is true that the “fish” did become a symbol in early Christianity.  However, it had nothing to do with the story of Jonah and the fish/whale (although many have noted some interesting theological parallels). Instead it stimmed from two factors: first, that Christians considered themselves called to be “fishers of men,” and second, because if one was to spell out the words “Jesus Christ Son of God (Our) Savior” in Greek, and then take the first letter of each word and put them together, it would spell ΙΧOΟΥΣ (ICHTHOUS), which is the Greek word for “fish”. All that said, it seems that Jacobovici & Co are the only people who see a fish on that ossuary. Everyone else seems to see a geometric pattern possibly depicting a jar. Regardless, even if the symbol in question was indeed the Christian symbol for a fish, it belongs to the person buried next door — NOT the Talpoit tomb. In short, this is proof of nothing.

Finally we come to the alleged link to the James ossuary. What Jacobovici & Co do not readily tell everyone is that the authenticity for the inscription on this box is highly suspect. That the ossuary itself is authentically ancient is not questioned by most experts. However, the inscription on it is extremely problematic, so much so, that the dealer who owned it was actually put on trial for antiquities fraud. Although the trial ended without a conviction on the charge of forgery, no archeologist can substantiate where this artifact (ossuary) came from. Moreover, nearly every expert in ancient inscriptions has concluded that while “James, son of Joseph” appears to be authentic, the following words “brother of Jesus” are most certainly inscribed by a different hand, and from a much later time period. All that said, putting aside the serious authenticity problems concerning the James ossuary itself, there are still several problems for those trying to link it with the Talpiot tomb.

First, it requires that a tomb that archeologists have always believed held ten ossuaries, in fact, held eleven. That this unknown eleventh ossuary must have been the closest to the tomb entrance, as this box would have had to be looted prior to the tomb’s true discovery in 1980, in order to now be missing. Once more, all the other ossuaries were remarkably left undisturbed during this alleged “looting” – of which there are no signs of – as the only box to go “missing” from the tomb was the James ossuary. None of these presuppositions are supported by any evidence. Moreover, Amos Kloner is the man who oversaw the true archeological excavation of the Talpiot Tomb in 1980. He was asked directly about the alleged “missing ossuary” and the claim that the James ossuary originated from the Talpiot tomb. Kloner explicitly stated to the Jerusalem Post that there is NOT a missing ossuary from the tomb, and that the dimensions of the James ossuary would NOT fit in the tomb anyhow. This brings us to the only alleged “scientific evidence” provided for this claim: the soil analysis that appears to link the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb.

Multiple scholars and archeologists have stated that these findings are not evidence of anything, as the lab results have not been published, nor subjected to the scrutiny of peer review. Moreover, numerous questions have been raised on this alleged soil evidence by experts and non-experts alike, i.e. only a small number of soil samples were taken for comparison. Meaning there is no way to tell whether this is unique, or if many tombs in Jerusalem would show the same results. Specifically, that the findings appear to only substantiate that the soil of both the James ossuary and the Talpiot tomb are from ancient Jerusalem. Unless a much larger number of soil samples are taken, and it can be proven there is some unique characteristic in the soil of the Talpiot tomb, not contained elsewhere in Jerusalem, the claim proves nothing. All that said, it is extremely doubtful that these items actually go together. Once more, as already stated, the team leader of the tomb’s true excavation (Kloner) says they do not. Moreover, it is not at all clear whether the James ossuary and the Talpiot tomb would actually provide any meaningful evidence even if they really did belong together, for the numerous aforementioned and highly problematic reasons.

And as if everything discussed to this point was not more than enough reasons to readily dismiss the whole absurd claim, we must also consider that the story itself simply does NOT make any real sense.

Specifically, it is a fact that the belief (or claim) in the resurrection of Jesus emerged almost immediately after his death. This presents a major dilemma for proponents of the Lost Tomb, i.e. you would have a tomb containing Jesus’ ossuary (bones) physically coexisting with the belief that his bones should NOT be in there. Meaning one must believe that a year after Jesus’s death, his followers went and reburied his bones in an ossuary, while still preaching that he had been raised from the dead. Something made even more difficult by the fact, that even their opponents, conceded the point that his “original” tomb was empty, and always claimed the body must have been stolen by his disciples as a counterpoint to the Christian message. Thus, they would have had to steal the body of Jesus and hide it, then return a year later to place his bones in an ossuary. Once more, they would have then supposedly placed him in a known family tomb, then as the other family members began to die in the subsequent years, they placed them in the same tomb they “hid” Jesus too. And not only that, inscribed the ossuary. In other words, we are being asked to believe that early Christians, many of whom would die preaching that Jesus was the Christ, and the resurrected son of God, entered his tomb (with his remains) to deposit the bones of his deceased family members, all the while preaching about his resurrection. Not only is all this preposterous, but if one is going to ascribe such devious motives, given the persecution of Christians during this time, then are we really to believe that nobody thought to destroy the single most crucial piece of evidence that could have proven their message was a lie. In addition to these issues, the Talpiot tomb is one that would have belonged to a wealthy family located in Jerusalem. However, Jesus came from a poor family that resided in Nazareth. This begs many questions. For instance: How would Jesus’ family acquire such a family tomb if they were poor? Why would Jesus’ family have a family tomb located in the Talpiot area of Jerusalem if they were from Nazareth? All of these considerations illustrate that the claim of the Lost Tomb, even if taken at face value, is simply absurd.

But enough already, I have bloviated on this topic long enough. As any rational person can see, despite the wild assertions, baseless assumptions, distorted facts, lack of real evidence, and bogus “discoveries” from Jacobovici & Co in this granddaddy of them all claim — any careful analysis of the facts proves that they have in fact NOT found the “Lost Tomb of Jesus”. Their alleged “evidence” is in fact not convincing, and the claim is not taken seriously by the overwhelming majority of scholars (OS & NS), not to mention archeologists. See my earlier post about scholars. If you can get near universal agreement between these two schools of thought on anything, you can almost certainly take it to be a fact.

See sample of quotes from both New School and Old School scholars alike addressing the alleged “discovery” of the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” by Jacobovici & Co:

“The media attention around this story is easy enough to explain: Jesus is hot right now, and this would be a blockbuster if it were true. Unfortunately, the evidence is faulty, and the story doesn’t make sense.” (Joel Baden & Candida Moss)

“No credible scholar except those that work with or for Simcha on this or some other project believe his conclusions … The evidence does not support their sensational claims. But that doesn’t stop them from wanting it to be true, so in their minds, it’s true.” (Bob Cargill)

“Recognized historians and archaeologists do not think that the Talpiot Tomb is the Tomb of the Family of Jesus and that Jesus himself was buried there. In my view, it is a most unlikely theory and will not be embraced by competent archaeologists and scholars.”    (Craig Evans)

“The Lost Tomb of Jesus is bad archeology, bad history, and biased investigative reporting. It is sensationalist eye-candy for a bored generation. But make no mistake: this is not the end of the non-substantive attacks on the Christian faith. Jesus is big business these days, especially for those who have a Jesus in mind who is other than the one portrayed in scripture.”   (Daniel Wallace)

Therefore in conclusion, any careful analysis of the alleged “facts” and “evidence” in this case proves that Jacobovici & Co have NOT found the “Lost Tomb of Jesus”. Nevertheless, I thought some may find it amusing to read the preposterous ends that some cynics will go, in order to dispute the Christian message and faith. However, as scholar Dan Wallace more or less stated: the media will go on airing and promoting these wild absurd claims – so long as it distorts the portrait of Jesus Christ painted in the biblical Gospels – even when such claims are readily dismissed by scholars and experts of all stripes. Sadly there is not much we can do about that, but what we can do, is continue to stand up for the truth and call out such outrageous claims when they come up.

Thank you for reading. That concludes this post. Hopefully some may have found it insightful.

JDN

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