Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Talpiot Tomb: Sorting It Out

The implications of the Talpiot Tomb is only beginning to sink in for me. On my first blog post I amused myself with the question, What if We Found the Body of Jesus? It never occurred to me that it might actually be possible to find the remains or evidence of the remains of Jesus. I don't know if the Talpiot Tomb was the final burial place for Jesus or his family. I cannot dismiss it out of hand. Knee-jerk reactions seem to me to be based on apologetic concerns. The find whether it goes back to Jesus or not is very likely the major claim of Christian (and Western) history. This is not a hoax. This is not about finding Noah's ark or whatever. This is an actual find. Evidence has been discovered. Whether this evidence is evidence of the burial of Jesus of Nazareth or not is to be determined. The story is complex. How do I sort this out?

First of all, I am not simply going to champion someone who is on my side and find an article or blog that dismisses this in order to save Christendom or to save her or his pet view of the historical Jesus.

Second, I am going to reserve judgment until at least I understand the story itself and get a handle on what is and what is not being claimed. Perhaps you would like to sort it out along with me. What questions do you have? What are your prejudices and presuppostions? We can continue to ask these things as we go along. Let me begin with some of my prejudices and presuppositions. I do not think Jesus rose from the dead in any literal way. I have not thought so for some time. The biblical narratives have for me been metaphorical. Finding the remains of Jesus is not a threat to my faith. However, this find could challenge my views of the historical Jesus. I have generally affirmed that Jesus was a sage and I have even entertained the more radical view that Jesus never even existed and that the Gospels (including the empty tomb narratives) are fictional. This find if authentic would show that Jesus was an historical person with a family and that the Gospels ironically contain more history than I thought.

Third, I am not going to be afraid of having my reputation tarnished because I am seriously considering this possiblity. I don't expect the Church to accept this find. I don't expect historical Jesus scholars to accept this find. It is easy to scoff at this and dismiss it without even checking it out. The harder path (and the more dangerous for one's career) is to take the time to sort out the story.

Here is my working outline for sorting out this story. I want to look at the following topics:

  • What were Jewish burial practices in the first century CE. What is the scholarly consensus?
  • What is the chronology of this find? What did the archaelogists know and when did they know it? Who are the archaeologists and scholars involved?
  • Where is this tomb? Is it an authentic first century tomb? What do we know about it?
  • Are the names scratched on the ossuaries authentic? Of what can we be sure? What is in question?
  • What do we know about these names from the New Testament, Josephus, and other first or early second-century sources?
Those questions should keep us busy for awhile! I am also going to post on the right of this blog resources that we can turn to in our quest. If you find something of interest let me know. I am still working on my own personal theology for the 21st century. But this issue is potentially so major that I feel the need to get a handle on it before I move ahead with the other.

Finally, as a minister and pastor, my sermonette to those who might be confused or shaken by all of this is, don't be afraid. Keep an open mind to challenge everything you know or think you know. Be a seeker and enjoy the search!


  1. I agree - I watched the doc last night and it's defintely worth watching to get a fuller understanding of what they are saying. However, and I am not scientist or archaeologist, they seem to pick up many an error on the way to the conclusion - which if you watch the doc - they never make.

  2. Hi Society,

    I think it will be important to sort out the documentary from what the archaeologists and scholars such as James Tabor are saying. Sorting it out will be an ongoing task.

  3. A couple of things:

    1) Craig Evans has written a recent (2003) article on Jewish burial traditions, focusing on how they illuminate the Gospel narratives. You can find it in a PDF file here.

    By following his footnotes, you can find a wealth of information. Take a look at the Anchor Bible Dictionary or the Encyclopedia Judaica (you can read the old article on burial here). You'll find that the Gospels reflect intimate acquaintance with these traditions.

    You'll also discover that the tomb of the family of Jesus would not be in Jerusalem. It would be somewhere in Galilee or Bethlehem (either the one in Galilee/Zebulun or the one in Judea/Judah).

    2. The tomb was discovered in a suburb of Jerusalem back in 1980 by arcaheologists of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (though outside of the Jerusalem of ancient times, as all burials had to be done outside the city). Amos Kloner and Joe Zias, two of the original archaeologists involved in the project, have openly repudiated the findings of the show in strong terms, both on television and in the public forum.

    Let's face it - if Jews could prove that they had the body of the man Christians say was resurrected (and Muslims say ascended without death), why would they sit on it for twenty years?

    3) It does seem to date from before the second century, and it is a very nice tomb belonging to a middle-class (or better) family. It was decorated from the outside and on the inside with a strange rosette shape, indicating the attention was to be drawn to it rather than being a secret.

    Do we believe that Jesus' family was well-to-do? Do we believe that anyone associated with Jesus and his family closely enough would want to draw attention to his burial place? It could hardly be argued that any of his disciples would want to do so.

    4) The names are a big problem for those who believe it's the biblical Jesus. Some names are in Hebrew, others in Aramaic, and the one of Mariamne is in Greek! That suggests it's a multi-generational tomb (rather than everyone being piled in there at roughly the same time).

    5) History of the names - Richard Bauckham provides the following statistics. Out of a total number of 2625 males, these are the figures for the ten most popular male names among Palestinian Jews. the first figure is the total number of occurrences (from this number, with 2625 as the total for all names, you could calculate percentages), while the second is the number of occurrences specifically on ossuraies.

    1 Simon/Simeon 243 59
    2 Joseph 218 45
    3 Eleazar 166 29
    4 Judah 164 44
    5 John/Yohanan 122 25
    6 Jesus 99 22
    7 Hananiah 82 18
    8 Jonathan 71 14
    9 Matthew 62 17
    10 Manaen/Menahem 42 4

    No mention is made in the documentary of the fact that though we only have a few hundred ossuaries with inscribed names, there is in fact another ossuary with the inscription 'Jesus son of Joseph'. Apparently this was not a rare combination of names at all.

    For women, we have a total of 328 occurrences (women's names are much less often recorded than men's), and figures for the 4 most popular names are thus:

    Mary/Mariamne 70 42
    Salome 58 41
    Shelamzion 24 19
    Martha 20 17

    At one juncture we are told that the name Mariamenon is found in Hippolytus a second century church historian. Two problems with this. Firstly so far as I can see, that name never occurs in the works of Hippolytus [I'm using the Lightfoot The Apostolic Fathers vol. i, part ii (London, 1889-1890)]. Secondly, Hippolytus died in about A.D. 236. He comes to us from the end of the second century A.D. He could never have known any eywitnesses or even second-third generation followers of Jesus. Even if he did mention the name in question (the one on the ossuary found at Talpiot), he provides no early second century evidence for this name, much less for the theory that this name is one way of referring to Mary Magdalene.

    In fact the Acts of Philip, at best a fourth century document is the basis of the theory of Prof. Bovon that Mariamenou Mara= Mary Magdalene, but nowhere in that document are the two equated. The woman referred to in that document is an evangelist in Greek who is the sister of Philip (whether Philip the apostle or the later Philip the evangelist found in Acts 8, is up for debate).

    In sum, there is a reason that every Biblical archaeologist, save possibly one, interviewed either in the Discovery Channel special or in the hour long debate thereafter repudiates or is unpersuaded by the findings of the show.

    It's not the tomb of the biblical Jesus of Nazareth.

    If you want to find his body, you'll see it come together (usually on Sunday mornings) to be fed on the Word and then sent out into the world.

    Or you can ask John Dominic Crossan to point to some fossilized dog turd to find the remains of a Jewish rabble-rouser that people falsely called God.

  4. Thank you, Chris, for the references. They will help me on my quest.

  5. You know, John Dominic Crossan has pointed out some time ago that most people who were executed by the Romans were simply left out to be eaten by the animals. He argued that it is unlikely that Jesus was buried in any kind of special locale whatsoever, but in fact was thrown into a common burial place.

  6. Hi Seeker,

    That is what Chris so elegantly referred to with his "fossilized dog turd" comment. The dogs ate the bodies of the crucified.

    Crossan's view is like all hypotheses about what could have or should have happened to the body of Jesus:

    he is too poor for a tomb,
    he must have been buried in Galilee,
    he must have been eaten by dogs,
    and the most bizarre of all--he must have risen from the dead!--

    They are hypotheses. Here is some evidence. Here is an actual tomb with names.

    Again, I don't know. I am not saying that this is definitely our boy, but those other theories do not by necessity eliminate this plausible perhaps even probable

  7. You're right, I missed that reference to Crossan in his comment. When it tends to blather on like that I mostly just ignore what he writes.

    While I think it is fun to speculate, I am not so sure it really matters in the long run. Crossan did allow for the possibility that Jesus was buried, but he considered it unlikely.

    I do have to wonder if we can ever know for sure what happened to his body. Some things in history are just lost for all time. It would be fun to know, and it is fun to speculate.

    My feeling is that, no matter what happened to Jesus's body, I'm not sure that it really matters. At least I feel like it shouldn't matter to people of a mature faith whether he was buried in a tomb, his body was left to the dogs, or his bones were left in an ossuary.

  8. Hi Seeker, : )

    I agree with you completely. Christianty has been so derailed by the literal-fundamentalist silliness that we have missed the real import of what these symbols teach us as well as the message of Jesus.

    I do think this Talpiot tomb is interesting to explore and I am enjoying Jim Tabor's blog,

    I think the whole thing can make for a "teaching moment."

  9. I should say that more than just a teaching moment, the Talpiot Tomb, if it is Jesus's tomb will be important for uncovering his life. It would call for a new angle on the historical Jesus. Tabor's Jesus Dynasty sheds light on this.