Is it Jesus' Tomb? (Part 2)

After seeing the documentary film by James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici "The Lost Tomb of Jesus", I feel that my preliminary remarks are still valid. Two amendments however need to be made.

First, the initial reports that I read before the documentary premiered stated that the name on one of the ossuaries read "Matthew". One report suggested that it might refer to the disciple of the same name. In actuality, the documentary makes no such claim. The inscription reads "Matia".

Second, initial reports stated that one of the ossuaries had the name "Mary Magdalene" inscribed on it. This too is inaccurate. The actual inscription read "Mariamene e Mara". Though the film argues that this refers to Mary Magdalene, the case is far from conclusive.

What follows here are the major claims made in the documentary and my rebuttals.

1. Claim: One ossuary reads "Yeshua [Jesus] bar Yosef" (Jesus son of Joseph).

Rebuttal: The expert in the film admitted that Yeshua was "difficult to read" and that it was "quite messy." Not everyone agrees that the inscription actually reads "Yeshua" (Jesus) [1]. If the scholarly community is divided over what the inscription actually says, then certainly the layman has a right to question the film's claim that a man named Jesus was interred in this particular ossuary. That Jesus of Nazareth was the man in question is far from a certainty.

2. Claim: Jesus' mother, Mary, has her name inscribed on one of the ossuaries. It is written as "Maria" (as it is recorded in the New Testament) which is a Latinized form of the Hebrew "Miriam." This is because of the large number of Romans that became followers of her.

Rebuttal: The epistles of Paul universally accepted as genuine (Romans, 1&2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) make clear the fact that it was the crucified and risen Saviour that had gained a following in first century Jerusalem. Where is the evidence that Mary the mother of Jesus had ever gained a following during that time? None is given in the documentary. The film admits that "Maria" is not unheard of on ossuaries.

3. Claim: The name "Matia" on one of the ossuaries refers to an ancestor of Jesus on his mother's side

Rebuttal: This is an interesting claim. For years sceptics have pointed to the two very different genealogies of Jesus given in the New Testament (one in Matthew's Gospel, the other in Luke's) as a contradiction. Such a contradiction, it is argued, gives the sceptic sufficient cause to write the New Testament off as unhistorical myth. The typical Christian response to this argument has been that Matthew records Christ's lineage through his adopted father, Joseph, while Luke records his lineage through Mary. It's funny how the sceptic has scoffed at this explanation, until it suits his purpose. In this case, the filmmakers needed a name in Jesus' ancestry that resembled "Matia". They claim that several men in Mary's line fit the bill. "Matthat", "Mattathias", "Maath", "Mattathias", "Matthat", "Mattatha" do indeed appear on the list. They may be close, but as the saying goes, "no cigar". "Matia" does not appear in Jesus family anywhere. Surely this must be factored in when trying to calculate the odds of the Tapiot tomb being the resting place of the Jesus family.

4. Claim: One of the ossuaries contains the name "Jose". Since this is the only ossuary with this name, and since it was the 'nickname' of Jesus' brother, it is strong evidence that this is the Jesus family tomb.

Rebuttal: The New Testament records the name of one of the Lord's brothers in Mark 6:3 as greek letters for Joses ( "Joses" ).How do the filmmakers know that "Jose" was his 'nickname'? I don't remember them giving any evidence whatsoever. If no such evidence exists, then (as in the case of Matia) we really don't have a correlation here at all, just wishful thinking.

5. Claim: One of the Ossuaries has been identified as belonging to Mary Magdalene. This is overwhelming evidence that Taliot tomb is the tomb of the Jesus family.

Rebuttal: This claim is tenuous at best. The ossuary in question is the only one bearing a Greek inscription. The actual text reads: "Mariamene e Mara". To make it equivalent to "Mary Magdalene" requires that several questionable assumptions be made. For example, the filmmakers state that Magdala was close to the Sea of Galilee, where the general populace spoke Greek. Since Mary also preached in Greek it was only natural that Greek would be the language of choice on her ossuary. All this is pure speculation. According to archaeologist Jodi Magness, Magdala was not the "important trading centre" the documentary claimed it was. Nor was it a place where the general populace spoke Greek. Instead it was a small Jewish town where only the upper class spoke Greek. The poorer Jews very likely spoke Aramaic as their everyday language. [2] All this serves to weaken the case that Mary of Magdala "spoke and preached in Greek."

The equating of "Mariamene e Mara" with Mary Magdalene is likewise on shaky ground. The reasoning goes like this. A 700 year old copy of a 4th century spurious text known as "The Acts of Philip" speaks of a women named "Mariamne", who is said to be the sister of the apostle Philip. The film seeks to identify this woman with the Mariamene on the ossuary, but there are a few problems with such identification. First, the name isn't the same. Mariamene is not the same as Mariamne. Second, nowhere in the New Testament is Mary of Magdala identified as the sister of Philip. An interesting omission. Third, texts like "The Acts of Philip", so far removed from the events it describes, and so full of fanciful embellishments must certainly be viewed as being of questionable value. For example, the text speaks of Mary aiding in the slaying of a dragon, and of various talking animals. How much stock ought we to place in such a document?

Nevertheless, some believe that the Mariamne in the Acts of Philip is talking about Mary Magdalene. Here's what this document says about Mariamne:

  • She prepared bread and salt for the breaking of bread
  • Jesus called her "chosen among women"
  • She was not to wear her summer dress
  • She assisted in healings
  • She baptized converts
  • She assisted in slaying a dragon
  • When threatened, she transformed into a glass box of a cloud of fire
  • She was prophesied to die in the Jordan River

Some of these points might be consistent with Mary Magdalene, but the case is far from closed. The point is not to be missed: The "Acts of Philip" does not claim that Mariamne is Mary Magdalene. This is an inference made by certain scholars today.

The documentary makes much of the fact that the name on the ossuary, Mariamene e Mara may be translated, "Mary, also known as the Master." The widespread belief in this post-DaVinci Code era is that Mary Magdalene became the real head of the Christian church after the death of Jesus. To these people, the identification of Mary also known as the master must certainly be speaking of Mary Magdalene. I'm no linguist so I have to accept that the experts know what they're talking about; that the text really could be translated the way they say. After all, according to the Strong's Concordance, the term "Maranatha" means "Our Lord has come". But is this really enough to make a firm connection between Mary Magdalene and the Mariamene on the ossuary? I really don't think so, especially when we consider what else "Mara" may mean.

In Ruth 1:20, the woman Naomi declares, "Call me not Naomi, call me Mara: for the Almighty hath dealt very bitterly with me." The Hebrew term "Mara" means "bitter", and as we just saw here, became a woman's name (at her request). As far as I'm concerned, the inscription on the Mariamene could just as easily be translated, "Mariamene, also known as bitter."

Notice that the name Mariamene is really made up of two names: Maria and Mene. Maria is very familiar to us, but Mene requires explanation. Mene is a pet form of the Greek Menelaus, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew Menechem. Menechem is translated as "comforter." Paradoxically, it is also the name of an Israelite king mentioned in 2 Kings 15:14, known for his cruelty. It is a well-known fact that in Jewish literature, plays on words are often made. This woman's nickname "Mara" plays on her actual name Mariamene, which contains the word for comforter, and also the name of a cruel king. Her name "bitter" may therefore be due to the hardships she either endured or caused others. This interpretation of "Mariamene e Mara" is certainly valid, and makes more sense to me than "Mariamene also known as master."

One more thing. According to Josephus, Mariamne was the name given to several important ladies:

  • Mariamne, Agrippa Senior's daughter by Cypros (Ant 18.5.4.)
  • Mariamne, wife of Herod (War, 1.12.3)
  • Mariamne, daughter of Olympias, who was daughter of Herod the king (Ant 18.5.4)
  • Mariamne, daughter of Simon the High Priest (War 1.28.4)

Even if we equate the name Mariamene with Mariamne it doesn't prove a thing. Mariamne was a popular name among nobles, and we might suspect among commoners well.

6. DNA evidence proves that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.

Rebuttal: Without a doubt, the Tapiot tomb is a family tomb, but the relationships between its occupants, even with genetic testing, remains shrouded in mystery. How's that? Well, only two of the occupants had any genetic testing done on them: The "Jesus" and "Maramene". Since scientists were unable to secure nuclear DNA from the specimens, they had to rely on mitochondria DNA, which limits their diagnostic ability as far as determining family relationships go. Mt DNA is passed down from mother to offspring, so that child will have their mother's Mt DNA, not their father's. The film claimed that since the Mt DNA was different between Mariamene and Jesus, they were not related by blood. The claim was made since they were found together in a family tomb, they must have been married. This is only one way of interpreting the data. The Jesus in the tomb could just as easily been the father, grandfather, uncle, or half-brother of the Mariamene.

7. The James Ossuary was taken from the Tapiot Tomb.

Rebuttal: The film uses several lines of evidence to show that the ossuary with the inscription "James, son of Jospeh" actually belonged in this tomb, thereby strengthening their argument that this is the Jesus Family Tomb. None are particularly convincing:

  1. Ten ossuaries were found in the tomb, one went missing.

  2. The dimensions match. Again, osuaries come within a certain size range. Considering the sheer number of ossuaries that have been unearthed in that part of the world, I'm willing to bet that there are many with the same dimensions.

  3. The patina from the tomb matches the James ossuary's patina. This still doesn't prove that it came from the same tomb. Remember that when the 10 ossuaries from the Taiot tomb where first discovered, no mention was made whatever of a "James" ossuary being among them. An interesting omission.

    In the documentary, the team followed the layout of the tomb made by the original archaeologists. They determined that it lay directly under the apartment building and so tried to access it with a small camera on a wire through a basement suit. What did they find? The wound up inside a completely different tomb, one that no one knew existed! As it turned out, the tomb they were looking for lay several meters away now situated under a garden. The point is this: The area is apparently littered with tombs. The so-called James ossuary could have been taken from a nearby tomb. If so, we would expect a similar patina profile. Wouldn't we? I would also like to point out that the whole James ossuary story is a huge mess. As this article is being written, several men are in court on charges of fraud.

  4. In the film, it was pointed out that the Tapiot tomb was discovered in 1980, about the same time that the James ossuary was purchased by Oded Golan. The whole fact that Golan was uncertain of the exact time of purchase, sometimes stating that it was made before 1980, was completely glossed over. Of course we know why. If Golan purchased the ossuary before 1980 it could not possibly have come from the Tapiot tomb! This is exactly what the evidence suggests. From the Toronto Star, Monday, Feb 26, 2007:

    "But there is one wrinkle that is not examined in the documentary, one that emerged in a Jerusalem courtroom just weeks ago at the fraud trial of James Ossuary owner Oded Golan, charged with forging part of the inscription on the box. Former FBI agent Gerald Richard testified that a photo of the James ossuary, showing it in Golan's home, was taken in the 1970s, based on tests done by the FBI photo lab. The trial resumes tomorrow."

8. Claim: Jesus had a son named Judah

Rebuttal: One of the ossuaries bears the inscription, "Judah, son of Jesus", which the filmmakers decided must be Jesus' son. Historically, however, there is not the slightest reason to believe that Jesus had a son. This name therefore ought work against the identification of the Tapiot tomb as the Jesus family burial plot. Support for the filmmaker's hypothesis comes from no less than the Gospel of John. The words of Jesus while on the cross, recorded in John chapter 19, are said to be directed at Mary Magdalene (his wife), and their young son Judah. As the story goes, because Jesus and his family were subject to persecution, John wrote the exchange in code, so as to mask the fact that Jesus even had a son. The whole claim is sheer nonsense. The actual text reads:

"When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by, whom he loved, he saith into his mother, Woman, behold thy son. Then saith he to the disciple, Behold thy mother. And from that hour that disciple took her unto his own home." John 19:26-27

The text hardly needs comment. Jesus was not talking to his wife, but his mother and a disciple of his, not his son. The passage is clear, he was making sure that after his departure someone would look after his mother, so he charged the "disciple whom he loved" with the task.

9. Claim: Statistics Prove that this is the Jesus Family Tomb.

Rebuttal: This was the documentary's "ace in the hole". How likely is it that this cluster of names associated with the Jesus family would all be found together? The obvious response to such a question is to point out the dubious identification of these as truly being "associated with the Jesus family." Let's quickly review the names on the ossuaries and what we know to be undisputable facts:

  1. "Jesus son of Joseph" - Uncertainty exists over whether or not the inscription actually says "Jesus".
  2. "Jose" - Is not the same as Joses the brother of Jesus seen in the New Testament.
  3. Maria - An extremely common name in the first century.
  4. "Matia" - Is not identical to anyone in Mary's ancestry
  5. Mariamene - Has not been positively identified as Mary Magdalene. "Known as master" is only one way to interpret the text. It could just as easily be rendered "also known as bitter".

At this point it hardly matters how likely this cluster of names would be, since half of these names do not correspond to those associated with Jesus in the New Testament. Those that do - Maria, Joseph, and Jesus - are some of the most common names in use at that time.

Other Problems

1. Joseph of Arimathea. As I mentioned in my preliminary comments, Joseph would be an unlikely character for a Christian to "invent". By the second century the rift between Christian and Jew was already growing wide and deep. It is equally unlikely that he could have been invented early on, when most Christians were ethnic Jews, because of his status. According to the Gospel records, he was a prominent Jewish council member. If he was just a figment of someone's imagination, at that early date, the fraud could have - indeed would have - been exposed.

Note that in all four Gospels Joseph is linked with the burial of Jesus in his own tomb. There is nothing fanciful or hard to believe about the account, and the fact that it is echoed four times ought to convince us of the story's historic roots. The fact that no competing burial story has come down to us is also instructive. The very fact that Jesus was placed in the tomb of Joseph proves that there never was a "Jesus family tomb" in Jerusalem.

2 The Death and Burial of James. Early church history records (along with Joseph) that James the brother of Jesus was martyred by the Jewish religious leaders around AD 62. In the fourth century, Eusebius recorded that James was buried near the temple (from which he fell) and that an honorary stele was erected there. Apparently the monument was extant in his day and the area had become a pilgrimage spot for Christians. [3] There is no indication, historically, that James was ever placed in a "family tomb". Furthermore, the tomb in which James was interred is said to be near the temple, quite a ways from the Tapiot location.

3. Tapiot looks like a Judean burial plot. Archaeologists and historians agree that the Hasmonean kings established the independent kingdom of Judea (in which Jerusalem is situated) some 200 years before Christ. Even in the first century, after Rome had taken over the region, distinct boundaries existed between Judea and Idumea (to the south) and Galilee (to the north). Though people from these areas were occasionally buried at Jerusalem, there place of origin would be noted somewhere in the tomb. Jodi Magness states:

"On ossuaries in rock-cut tombs that belonged to Judean families, it was customary to indicate the ancestry or lineage of the deceased by naming the father, as, for example, Judah son of John (yohanan); Honya son of Alexa; and Matha daughter of hananya. But in rock cut tombs owned by non-Judean families (or which contained the remains of relatives from outside Judea), it was customary to indicate the deceased's place of origin, as for example, Simon Ptolemais; Papia the Bethshanite (or of Beth Shean); and Gaios son of Artemon from Berenike…If the Tapiot tomb is indeed the tomb of Jesus and his family, we would expect at least some of the ossuary inscriptions to reflect their Galilean origins, by reading, for example, Jesus [son of Joseph] of Nazareth (or Jesus the Nazarene), Mary of Magdala, and so on. However, the inscriptions provide no indication that this is the tomb of a Galilean family and instead point to a Judean family."

Though the documentary might seem persuasive on its face, a moment's consideration of the relevant historical quickly dispels the "Jesus Family Tomb" myth. I predict in a year from now some new "spectacular" discovery will again threaten to destroy Christianity, but will quickly go the way of the DaVinci Code, the Judas Papyrus, and now the Jesus Family Tomb.

Notes and References:

1. According to Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of The Holy Land in Jerusalem, the inscription is more likely "Hanun." See Karen Matthews, The associated Press, The Winnipeg Sun, Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007, p. 2

2. Jodi Magness is the Kenan Distinguish Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judasism in the Dept of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She received a PhD in Classical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania and a BA in Archaeology and History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. See her article at where she states unequivocally, "…the Tapiot tomb is not - indeed, cannot - be the tomb of Jesus and his family."

3. "They buried him on the spot by the temple, and his gravestone is still there by the temple. He became a true witness both to Jews and gentiles that Jesus is the Christ." Eusebius, "The Church History", 2.23, translation by Paul L. Maier, Kregel Publications, 1999, p. 83

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