Is it the Tomb of Jesus? Some Preliminary Remarks

Always a sure sign that Easter is approaching, the popular media has a new "evidence" that could potentially destroy the Christian faith at it very roots. Yup, they now have evidence that, contrary to what Christians have been strongly affirming for the last 2,000 years, Jesus of Nazareth did not rise from the dead after His crucifixion. Not only did He not rise from the dead, but He is also said to have married Mary Magdalene and had a son by her (where have we heard that before?) So what is the evidence for these astounding claims? A family tomb discovered in Jerusalem back in 1980.

On March 28, 1980, a construction crew developing an apartment complex in Talpiot, Jerusalem, uncovered the tomb in which 10 limestone burial boxes, or ossuaries, had been placed. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson surveyed the site and drew a layout plan. L.Y. Rahmani later published "A catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries". It is a well-known fact that from around AD 30 to 70 the custom among the Jews was to wrap a dead loved one in a burial shroud and inter them in a stone tomb. A year later, the family would return and put the now decomposed remains into an ossuary. Arron Brody, associate professor of Biblical Archaeology at the Pacific school of Religion and director of California's Bade Museum stated that, "Such tombs are very typical for that region." [1] There is little doubt at this point that the tomb discovered and the ossuaries it contained are from the time of Christ. So what's the big deal? The "big deal" is the names that are inscribed on these ossuaries.

Five of the 10 ossuaries had names said to be associated with key New Testament figures inscribed on them: Jesus, Matthew, Joseph, and Mary Magdalene. A sixth inscription, written in Aramaic reads, "Judah, son of Jesus." One of the inscriptions translates "Jesus son of Joseph", while another contains the name "Maria", which is a Latin version of "Miriam" - in English - "Mary". One of the Hebrew inscriptions reads, "Matia", which is believed to be the original form of "Matthew". Only one of the inscriptions is written in Greek. It reads, "Mariamene e Mara", which may be translated "Mary known as the master." It is conjectured that this is referring to Mary Magdalen. One 14th century copy of a fourth century Gnostic text known as the Acts of Phillip mentions Mariamne, sister to the apostle Philip. The texts states, "When Philip is weak, she is strong." Francois Bovon, Professor of the history of Religion at Harvard University states, "She likely was a great teacher who even inspired her own sect of followers, called Mariamnists, who existed from around the 2nd to the 3rd century." [2]

Hollywood Hype
None of this has escaped the attention of Israeli-born, Canadian-based filmmaker Simcha Jacobovivi. He and James Cameron (director of the immensely successful "Titanic") have joined forces in producing the documentary "The Lost Tomb of Jesus", in which they argue for the tomb's identification with the "holy family". How compelling is the case really? Here are some points to ponder:

1. The Gospels and their acceptance. Without a doubt the Gospels are first century documents. [3] Whether we accept what they say about the resurrection is entirely beside the point. The important thing to consider here is that all four of them claim that Jesus was buried in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea, and that he was resurrected - bodily. It cannot be denied that this claim, true or false, was believed by multitudes of people. How is this possible if his body was "right there" for all to see?

2. The Authentic Writings of Paul. Almost no scholar today rejects the fact that at least 7 of the epistles ascribed to the great apostle Paul are indeed authentic [4]. The epistle to the Galatians and the first Corinthian letter are of particular interest. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul could not be clearer in asserting that Jesus did in fact rise from the dead. This he was claiming less than 20 years after the fact.[5] He also claims that Jesus was seen by the other apostles and by no less than 500 others at once. In his epistle to the Galatians he states that he had seen Peter within 3-5 years of the resurrection [6], in Jerusalem, and conversed with the apostle for 2 weeks (what do you think they talked about during this time?) How likely is it that a man as brilliant and successful as Paul would give up literally everything for the belief that Jesus was the resurrected Son of God when there was absolutely no evidence for such an astounding claim? Clearly evidence of a family burial in Jerusalem was not easily accessible, even to those who had more than enough reason to thoroughly investigate the matter.

3. Severe Opposition: Remember that the Romans crucified Jesus as an insurrectionist, at the insistence of the Jewish religious leaders. The very fact that Paul was arrested and sent to Rome is telling. According to Tacitus, in AD 64 the emperor Nero unleashed a wholesale slaughter of Christians [7]. By AD 112, the number of Christians throughout the Roman world had exploded, and Pliny the younger, governor of Bithnya in Asia Minor had to write the Emperor Trajan for instructions on how to deal with them [8]. What are the implications? First, anyone considering becoming a Christian would certainly have incentive to carefully investigate the claim of Christ's resurrection. Considering the number of converts to the new faith, we must conclude that compelling evidence against the resurrection story (i.e. a family tomb in Jerusalem) was simply not available. Secondly, we must consider Pliny's remark that Christians were known for their love of the truth [8]. We must also consider the strong historic evidence that many died horrible deaths rather than recant on their belief in a resurrected Messiah. How is this explained? It is not unreasonable to suppose that these people had good reasons for believing such a story; that it was not "blind faith." Thirdly, we must ask why such persecution was even necessary at all. If the body of Jesus lay in a family tomb right there in Jerusalem, why didn't the authorities just say so? That would have stamped out Christianity at its inception.

4. Jesus was a Galilean. All four Gospels agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but was raised in Nazareth in Galilee. If Jesus really was interred in a "family tomb" it would most likely had been in his native Galilee [9].

5. The Resurrection Story. The belief in a resurrected Christ is as old as Christianity itself. Notice that, though Jesus' teachings were profound to be sure, the propagation of His teachings was really of secondary importance to the early church. The primary message was, and still is, trust in the person of Jesus. The Man, and not His teachings, was and is, the center of the Christian faith. How can this be? What mechanism can we ascribe to such a phenomenon? As far as I know, there exists no parallel in all human history. Surely anyone without a decidedly anti-supernaturalistic bias must seriously consider the resurrection as a viable option.

6. Jospeh of Arimathea. Joseph is seen in all four Gospels as a "good guy", who gave Jesus a proper burial in his own tomb. He is also described as being a Jewish council member, which demands pause for consideration. By the second century a definite rift existed between Jews and Christians. It is therefore unlikely that a Christian would invent a character like Joseph, at least not by the second century. If he was purely a Christian invention, then most likely he was invented early on, before the schism grew too great. This however raises another question: How likely is it that Joseph's character could be invented at so early a date, when those most eager to destroy the new faith, namely the Jewish religious leaders, could have and certainly would have exposed the fraud? Clearly Joseph appears to be an historic figure. But notice that this seemingly historic figure is linked inextricably with the tomb, which was later found empty.

7. Would Jesus have been buried this way? In Matthew 8:22 and Luke 9:60, a certain man tells Jesus that he would like to follow Him, but he must first bury his father. Jesus' response to "Let the dead bury their dead" seems unreasonable and unnecessarily harsh. It seems to run counter to the portrait of Jesus painted in other portions of Scripture as loving and compassionate. What's going on?

In the first century, burial of the dead was carried out in two distinct phases. Phase one was called "being gathered to the fathers", when the body of the deceased was placed in a family burial cave. This was followed by a period of mourning, which lasted about a year. Phase two involved the placing of the remains (just bones at this point) into an ossuary. This secondary burial, known as ossilegium, is probably what the Gospels are referring to in the above mentioned passages.

According to rabbinic sources, the decomposition process was actually a purification of sorts, which atoned for the sins committed during the deceased person's life. The consummation of this process was the ritual secondary burial [10]. Since Jesus clearly taught that atonement for our sins could only come about through God alone, His response could be seen as a correction to this improper practice. In other words, Jesus was telling His disciple that he had already honored his father with a proper burial, and that he should waste no time waiting for the flesh to decay, which could not atone for sin. Instead, he was to go and preach the kingdom of God, and the only true means of atonement, and let the bones of his father's dead ancestors worry about placing his bones in an ossuary.

If this interpretation of the Christ's words is correct, then it would serve to cast considerable doubt on the claims that Jesus and his entire family (and possibly one disciple) were given secondary ossuary burials.

8. Common Names. Those promoting the Talpiot tomb as the burial site of Jesus and his family make much of the names which appear on the ossuaries. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and Matthew are all associated with Jesus in the New Testament. Surely there must be some connection. Or is there? It has been pointed out that these names were extremely common among Jewish folks in the first century. Over 900 burial sites have been discovered within 4 km of the old city of Jerusalem. Among the names found at these sites, "Jesus" has turned up 71 times [11]. "Jesus son of Joseph" has also been found. Consider that the name "Jesus" occurs in reference to no less than three people in the New Testament (Paul's associate mentioned in Colossians 4:11, and the sorcerer "Barjesus" mentioned in Acts 13:6). Mary is a name that is likewise used of several people in the New Testament (Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the mother of James and Joses, Mary the sister of Martha and Lazrus, Mary the mother of John Mark, and of course Mary Magdalene.) Joseph as well is seen multiple times in the New Testament (Joseph the step-father of Jesus, Joseph of Arimathea, and Joseph Barsabbas, who was selected by the apostles as a possible placement for Judas).

Another point that I thing is relevant here is the fact that by far most Christian families that I know have named their children after prominent people in the Bible. It's almost as though many (if not most) Christians believe that some unwritten rule exists that their children must have Bible names. This is the case today, when the actual meaning of names is hardly considered at all. In New Testament times, names actually meant something. How much more therefore ought we to suspect that the Christians of the first century felt likewise compelled to name their children after prominent New Testament figures?

9. Does it Really say Jesus? Possibly the weakest link in the whole story is the identification of the name "Jesus" inscribed on one of the ossuaries. It is written in ancient Semitic script, which is difficult to decipher. According to Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of The Holy Land in Jerusalem, the inscription is more likely "Hanun." [12]

Tentative Conclusion:

I have not yet seen the documentary film. Rest assured a more complete examination of the data will appear on this site once I have. For now, here are some general observations about the case being put forward by Cameron and Jocobovici.

Because the names on some of the ossuaries match New Testament figures the assertion is made that this is "most likely" the burial place of Jesus and His family. If all we had to go on was this tomb, and some knowledge of the key New Testament players, then the conclusion would hold substantially more weight. In other words, in order to reasonably reach such a conclusion, the Talpiot tomb and its contents must first be placed within a vacuum. However, this is not how history or science works. For example, it was once widely believed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. This can be proven by dropping a piece of paper and a bowling ball at the same time. The ball hits first, right? Case closed. But there's more to consider isn't there? Yes, there is air resistance to think about. So further experimentation, where all air pressure is removed, needed to be performed. Once done, cherished ideas about heavier objects falling faster had to be abandoned. Don't miss the point. The first experiment, if seen in isolation, would have led us to the wrong conclusion.

The same may be seen in historic matters. Pontius Pilate, for example, is seen historically as a ruthless Jew-hating tyrant. Because the Gospels portray him as conceding to the Jewish demands to crucify Jesus, the Gospels were necessarily seen as being in error. Why? Because the picture painted by other historians of Pilate simply did not square with what the New Testament was claiming about the man. Once again, there is more to consider before declaring "case closed!" Note that the Emperor Tiberius left Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian guard in command at Rome from AD 26. Sejanus was notoriously anti-Semitic (Philo, "Legatio", 24, 159-161) and it is almost certain that he was the man who appointed Pilate to the position of Governor in Judaea. In AD 31, Tiberius became convinced that Sejanus had been plotting to secure the throne, and so had him executed. Twenty of his associates also promptly lost their lives. To boot, the Emperor issued a decree that the Jews were to be treated fairly. Philo states (Philo, "Legatio", 24, 159-161):

"[Tiberius] charged his procurators in every place to which they were appointed to speak comfortably to the members of our nation in different cities, assuring them that the penal measures did not extend to all but only to the guilty, who were few, and to disturb none of the established customs but even to regard them as a trust committed to their care, the people as naturally peaceable, and the institutions as an influence promoting orderly conduct."

In the light of this evidence, the actions of Pilate in the New Testament become plausible, even likely. The point is, no historic or scientific observation ought to be placed in a vacuum. It needs to be weighed against all other relevant data. When calculating the odds that the Talpiot tomb actually contained the remains of Jesus of Nazareth one must also consider the positive case for the New Testament's historical accuracy. We've looked at a few key points here. For much more check out my 100 Reasons to trust the New Testament.

John Feakes, Feb 28th, 2007

Notes and References:

1. Jenifer Viegas, Discovery News,

2. ibid

3. Clement's first epistle (c. AD 95) contains many clear allusions to the writings of Paul, the book of Hebrews, and the Book of Acts. The words attributed to Christ in this epistle parallel the sayings of Christ recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke as well, affirming that these works were already in existence and considered authoritative before the end of the first century. In other words, well within the lifetimes of the various witnesses to Jesus, the New Testament was already written, propagated, and accepted as fact by multitudes of people - a difficult situation to explain if there was absolutely no compelling historical evidence for the New Testament's claims.

4. "Paul's authorship of seven of the letters remains virtually undisputed. First Thessalonians, the earliest known Christian text (dating to about 50 CE), is universally ascribed to Paul, along with Galatians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, and Philemon." Jeffery L. Sheler, (U.S. News and World Report religion writer) "Is the Bible True?", Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 1989, p. 36

"There is, however, general agreement that Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon are authentically Paul's." James L. Kugel (Starr Professor of Hebrew Literature at Harvard University and Professor of Bible at Bar Ilan University in Israel), "The Bible as it Was", Belknap Press, 1997, p.596

"In fact, except for the so-called Pastoral Epistles and Ephesians, it would be next to impossible to find any competent present-day scholarship that denies the Pauline authorship of the corpus of letters purporting to have been written by him." John Warwick Montgomery, "History and Christianity", Downers Grove, Illinois, Intervarsity Press, 1971, p.19

"Ignatius of Antioch tells the Ephesians that Paul mentions them in every letter. Polycarp of Smyrna, collector of the letters of Ignatius, refers to those of Paul. Somewhat earlier, Clement of Rome certainly knows I Corinthians, and he probably knows others as well." Robert M. Grant, "Historical Introduction to the New Testament", Harper & Row, 1963, p.171

5. In Acts 18 we read of Paul's stay in Corinth on his second missionary journey. This visit includes an encounter with the Proconsul Gallio, who would have held this position for only one year. Inscriptional evidence from Delphi indicates that this would have been in AD 51. Paul eventually left by ship for Jerusalem, where he didn't stay long, and then returned to Antioch. From there he went to Ephesus (Acts 19) where he stayed for 2 ½ years (probably autumn of 52 to spring of 55). It was there that he penned his two letters to the believers at Corinth.

Werner Georg Kummel states (Introduction to the New Testament, p. 275): "The genuineness of I Cor is not disputed: the letter is already clearly known in I Clem 37:5; 47:1-3; 49:5; Ign., Eph 16:1; 18:1; Rom 5:1; Phila 3:3." Date of 1 Corinthians AD 55

6. The date of the first Jerusalem council meeting (Acts 15) is almost universally dated to AD 49 or 50. Paul's epistle to the Galatian churches must have been written after his first missionary journey (c. AD 48). The contents of the epistle make it unlikely that it was written after the council meeting (i.e. many of the points Paul was trying to make could have easily been made by citing the conclusions reached at the meeting. Also Peter's actions described by Paul in Galatians 2 hardly fit with a "post-meeting" timeframe.) Paul states in his epistle that three years after his conversion he saw Peter in Jerusalem. Fourteen years later he claims to have visited Jerusalem again. When was this? Most likely this is the Acts 11-famine relief visit, which took place somewhere around c. AD 48-49. If we subtract 14 years from AD 48 it brings us to AD 34. Though uncertainties exist, it is clear that Paul's first meeting with Peter took place well within a decade of the crucifixion.

7. "Hence to suppress the rumor [that he had set Rome on fire], he [Nero] falsely charged with the guilt, and punished with the most exquisite tortures, the persons commonly called Christians, who were hated for their enormities. Christus, the founder of the name, was put to death by Pontus Pilate, procurator of Judea in the reign of Tiberius: but the pernicious superstition, repressed for a time, broke out again, not only through Judea, where the mischief originated, but through the city of Rome also." Cornelius Tacitus, Annals XV, 44

8. "[The two captured Christian women] affirmed, however, that the whole of their guilt, or their error, was, that they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verse a hymn to Christ as to a god, and bound themselves to a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft, adultery, never to falsify their word, not to deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up" Pliny the Younger, Epistles X, 96

This information, wrote Pliny, was confirmed when he captured and tortured two Christian women - presumably to death. The strong moral commitment to honesty by those who wrote and propagated the New Testament, even in the face of unspeakable tortures, can only serve to strengthen the case for the substantial reliability of the New Testament

9. Amos Cloner, a Professor at Bar-Ilan University, was the district archaeologist who officially oversaw the work at the tomb back in 1980. He stated: "There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb…They were a Galilean family with no ties in Jerusalem." David Horovitz, "The Jerusalem Post", Online Ed.,, Feb 25, 2007

10. See Archaeologist Randall Price, "The Stones Cry Out", Harvest House Publishers, 1997, pp.42-43. Price cites as his sources:

  • Bryon McCane, "Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead": Secondary Burial and Matthew 8:21-22", Harvard Theological Review 83, 1990, pp. 31-43
  • Eric Meyers, "Jewish Ossuaries: Reburial and Rebirth", Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 1971 and "Theological Implications of Ancient Jewish Burial Custom", Jewish Quarterly Review 62, 1971-72, pp. 95-119

11. Delphine Matthieussent, "Israeli expert quashes film claim about Jesus Tomb", Mon, Feb 26,

12. Karen Matthews, The associated Press, The Winnipeg Sun, Tuesday, Feb 27, 2007, p. 2

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