AKM Adams had an interesting random thought about the recent discovery of King Herod’s tomb. He links to the press release by the Hebrew University and then makes the following comment:
What, you say you didnâ€™t hear about this archaeological find on CNN, with Hollywood sponsors and best-selling authors claiming that it changes everything about human existence? Right. Thatâ€™s the point. An academically reputable, serious excavation with warranted claims relative to historically-plausible finds doesnâ€™t need hype; and hype doesnâ€™t make a dodgy find with tenuous claims on historical probability into a world-changing watershed moment.
What probably disturbed me most about the Jesus/Talpiottomb discovery wasn’t the actual discovery and the hypotheses surrounding it, but how the whole thing was treated like a blockbuster movie release. There was the media hype, slick documentary (which was admittedly well done), related sensational book — all it needed was a merchandising tie-in with McDonald’s (perhaps a Jesus tomb toy where you can still see Jesus’s shrouded body?). I know that James Tabor has been trying valiantly over at The Jesus Dynasty blog to raise the level of discussion about the Jesus/Talpiot tomb, but I wish the whole affair could have been handled more professionally (or perhaps at least more academically).
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think that biblical scholars/archaeologists/etc. need to popularize our findings. It’s the commodification of archaeological finds and biblical scholarship that I find distasteful. On the other hand, we all probably don’t mind when publishers make a fuss over our books!
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There have been a couple late additions to the Jesus/Talpiot Tomb debate in this month’s SBL Forum (see my previous post here).
First, there is a lengthy response by James Tabor to the articles by Jodi Magness and Christopher Rollston. Tabor’s article, Two Burials of Jesus of Nazareth and The Talpiot Yeshua Tomb, primarily deals with Magness’s criticisms, though he also addresses Rollston’s questions surrounding the identification with the family of Jesus of Nazareth.
Tabor also helpfully offers some comments about the nature of the debate and some suggestions for future research:
The nature of the question, with its theological and emotional overtones, coupled with the way the issue was put before the public and the academy (i.e., through a documentary film and a trade book) has understandably galvanized the responses into “yes” or “no,” (mostly “no”), when reasonable alternatives might be “possible but uncertain,” to even “probable but not certain,” but in any case a call for further investigation. I will make some suggestions at the end of this piece regarding directions for future research.
Taken as a whole it seems to me that this tomb and its possible identification with Jesus and Nazareth and his family should not be dismissed. The evidence from the gospels I have surveyed, coupled with the cluster of significant names that fit our hypothetical expectations for a posited pre-70 Jesus family tomb, is strong, and should be further tested. Of course, if the ossuary inscribed “James son of Joseph,” is added to the cluster, and the evidence for that possibility is unresolved at this point, the correspondence would be all the more striking. What is needed is further work on the epigraphy, expanded patina tests, further DNA testing if that is possible, and since the tomb in 1980 had to be excavated so quickly, but now has been located, a fuller archaeological examination of the site itself.
Tabor also has a response to the letter to the editor by Jonathan Reed.
The other article added to the SBL Forum is by Stephen J. Pfann. In his article, “Mary Magdalene is Now Missing: A Corrected Reading of Rahmani Ossuary 701,” Pfann offers an alternative analysis of the “Mariamene the Master” inscription. He argues the inscription reads “Mariame and Mara” and suggests the ossuary contained the bones of at least two different women — neither of being Mary Magdalene.
James Tabor has a response to Pfann’s new reading of the inscription on his Jesus Dynasty blog. Tabor consulted noted epigrapher Leah Di Segni and she writes: â€œI well remember that, while here and there I had some suggestions about interpretation of a particular form (for instance, Mariamenon being an hypochoristic form of Mariam), I could not but confirm all his readings. I have not changed my mind now.â€? I encourage you to read his whole post, “Leah Di Segni on the Pfann â€œCorrectionâ€? of Rahmani.”
Now that the initial buzz surrounding this “Jesus tomb hypothesis” seems to be dying down a bit, I hope that there will be some more fruitful academic debate surrounding the tomb and ossuaries — and I think that these Forum articles are a good start.
I don’t have the energy for an extensive update, but I did want to note a couple significant discussions surrounding the Talpiot tomb.
First, they have added an article entitled, “Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?,” by the noted archaeologist Jodi Magness to the February 2007 SBL Forum. I imagine they wanted to get the article online before they were ready with the entire March Forum. Magness rightly criticizes the way this “discovery” was turned into a media circus. I would add that I am not very comfortable with the notion that non-disclosure agreements were used to prevent scholars from discussing this theory in the academy. Since when should Hollywood dictate scholarship? At any rate, I digress. Her article contains a great summary of first century Jewish burial customs and how they relate to the gospel accounts and the hypothesis of the Jesus family tomb. She concludes: “…the identification of the Talpiyot tomb as the tomb of Jesus and his family contradicts the canonical Gospel accounts of the death and burial of Jesus and the earliest Christian traditions about Jesus. This claim is also inconsistent with all of the available information â€” historical and archaeological â€” about how Jews in the time of Jesus buried their dead, and specifically the evidence we have about poor, non-Judean families like that of Jesus. It is a sensationalistic claim without any scientific basis or support.”
Mark Goodacre did an excellent job live-blogging the documentary over last night (it doesn’t premiere until tomorrow night here in Canada). He also has a brief note on the “The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Critical Look” program that aired after the documentary.
Ben Witherington also has a post interacting with archaeological perspectives on the Jesus tomb hypothesis, noting that virtually all archaeologists are either repudiating the theory or are at the very least unpersuaded by the findings of the show.
Kevin Wilson at Blue Cord has some thoughts on the “Critical Look” program and promises some reflections on the documentary in the near future.
Over at Danny Zacharias‘s Deinde, Bruce Chilton has a guest post on the documentary, as does Craig Evans. Some of Danny’s own observations may be found here.
If Jesus was in there [the newly discovered ossuary], and sat up when I took the lid off, Iâ€™d first try to judge how angry he looked. If he had that money-changers-in-the-temple look, Iâ€™d go with a joke, like â€œHa ha! Turn the other cheek!â€? Or maybe Iâ€™d try to explain to him that the extra suffering was extra good for humanity, and after all, thatâ€™s his job. Then Iâ€™d say, â€œHey, I donâ€™t like my job either, but you donâ€™t see me complaining all the time.â€?
They ask: “Statistically, what are the chances that all of these names would occur in one cluster?”
My response: “I’m no expert in statistics, but I’m sure the odds are pretty close to the chances of two film producers making a discovery that will change history decades after the primary scholars concluded their work on the tomb.”
Time for another roundup of posts on the Jesus/Talpiot Tomb debate. First, a press release (“Ten Reasons Why The Jesus Tomb Claim is Bogus”) was issued by a number of scholars (Ben Witherington, Darrell Bock, Craig Evans, Gary Habermas, Paul Maier, Joe Zias, and Amos Kloner) a couple days ago that I have yet to mention. The press release really doesn’t have any discussion, but provides news agencies with a list of contacts for further information.
With some of the initial knee-jerk reactions behind us, there is more substantial discussion happening around the blogosphere.
Ben Witherington has a couple more posts, the first of which interacts with some of the evidence brought forward in the book The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History (HarperCollins, February 2007; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com). His second post should clear up the identity of the tenth ossuary. According to Joe Zias, who actually personally catalogued the item, the tenth ossuary was a blank ossuary that didn’t mysteriously go missing, it was just of little significance because it was blank. This should settle once for all that it was not the James ossuary.
Richard Bauckham has weighed in on the subject in a guest post over at Chris Tilling’s Chrisendom. His post, “The alleged ‘Jesus family tomb,’” is a lengthy discussion of the the names on the ossuaries that is well worth a read.
Your are surely right, the comments are flying. Unfortunately, there is so much out there that is not even reflective of anything those involved in the Talpiot tomb research have set forth that I am a bit taken back. I was on Larry King last night and the viciousness of the attacks by two of the guests were only matched by their utter ignorance of the subject. I am amazed at the nastiness that so many readily express about people they know nothing about and have ever met. I realize we all need time here, since the book that summarizes some of the latest research on the Talpiot tomb is just out, and the documentary has not even aired yet, but so many seem ready to condemn it wholesale in the most blanket manner, without even considering any of the evidence. BTW, Klonerâ€™s complete article as well as Rachmaniâ€™s treatment were given out to ALL the reporters yesterday at the press conference. There was no attempt to hold back on alternative views, in fact Klonerâ€™s views have now received more attention than they could have ever possibly had appearing just in Antiqot, a rather obscure journal for most. Further, he is presented in the documentary fully stating his views and Discovery is putting together a forum at which Kloner and many others with alternative views will be full participants.
I did take out time this AM to try to address some of the many misconceptions my friend Ben Witherington has about the whole matter on my Blog (www.jesusdynaty.com/blog). I will do my best over the next week or so to present on my Blog as reasonable and informed treatment of the topic as I can.
I think impuning motives here as so many are doing is really an ugly and unethical thing. I have worked with Simcha for three years now and I donâ€™t know of anyone with more integrity and commitment to investigating a story. His Emmy documentaries on the Israeli-Palestinian problem, the Sex Slaves trade in Europe, and many other similar projects speak worlds of him. I have also found Jim Cameron to be one of the finest persons I have ever worked with. At every step of the way he was concerned with scientific integrity and the highest standards of documentary evidence. We have exchanged countless e-mails and conversations and he was always consulting with me to try to get things as correct as possible.
Thanks for you honest and good attempts to keep up with all this.
The viciousness of the discussion perhaps saddens me the most — especially when it comes from Christians who are supposed to be known by their love! I have to agree with Tabor as well in regards to impuning motives. I think it’s best if we stick to the evidence and try to keep our emotions in check.
Last but not least, the academic article by Amos Kloner on the tomb, the relevant discussion from Levi Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, as well as the original published maps by Shimon Gibson are all available for download from the Discovery website in PDF format. This is very helpful since some of the resources are not easily found.
The hype surrounding the forthcoming documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus shows no signs of abating quite yet. The main website for the documentary and book has come on-line now (last time I checked it just had a brief text message): The Lost Family Tomb of Jesus
There is a lot of hype and knee-jerk reactions around the blogosphere, but there have also been some thoughtful responses as well. Here are a few that I think are worthy of reading:
James Tabor, who was directly involved with the project, has some initial thoughts on the significance of the Talpiot tomb as well as a brief post on a comment by Joe Zias on the remarkable nature of the combination of names in one tomb.
Darrel Bock has a brief post musing the confusing between Hollywood and Jerusalem. Since Bock had a small consultant role for the documentary and has actually seen it, his comments are especially relevant. In short, he is quite skeptical to say the least.
Ben Witherington has an engaging (and humorous) discussion of the Talpiot Tomb at his eponymous blog. He has some personal experience working with Simcha Jacobovici on a previous documentary and while he affirms his abilities as a filmmaker, he questions his abilities as critical reader of history. He also pokes holes in the statistics, DNA evidence, as well as a bunch of historical problems with the whole hypothesis. His conclusion is work reproducing: “So my response to this is clear— James Cameron, the producer of the movie Titantic,has now jumped on board another sinking ship full of holes, presumably in order to make a lot of money before the theory sinks into an early watery grave. Man the lifeboats and get out now.”
Duane Smith over at Abnormal Interests has a good discussion of the published archaeological sources for the Talpiot tomb complex, namely Amos Kloner’s article, “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem,” from the journal ‘Atiqot 29 (1996): 15-22, and Levi Yizhaq Rahmani’s book, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries: In The Collections of the State of Israel, Jerusalem (Israel Antiquities Authority: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1994), 222-224. Duane also cites some other authorities that question the significance of the find and takes a more in-depth look at the actual inscriptions. He concludes: “So what can be made of all this? Very little. Jacobovici appears to be sensationalizing an otherwise unremarkable discovery now over two decades old. There is nothing here that should cause consternation for believers or give hope (or consternation) to non-believers. Theological issues will not be dispelled or supported by archaeological discoveries. This tomb is no exception.”
Tony Chartrand-Burke has a short note on his Apocryphicity blog about the questionable appeal to the Acts of Philip to identify the ossuary of â€œMariamneâ€? with Mary Magdalene. Tony notes that one shouldn’t look to the Acts of Philip for reliable information about first-century figures and that the Mariamne referred to in the Acts of Philip is not Mary Magdalene, but Mary of Bethany.
Todd Bolen has some strong comments at his BiblePlaces blog. He is especially skeptical about the motives behind the documentary; he asserts: “In short, this ‘discovery’ has nothing to do with facts and everything to do with financial gain. You can make a lot of money and gain a lot of notoriety by creating the most sensational of discoveries. It would all be so much better if journalists would call up a few experts, determine that the story is rubbish, and then publish nothing about it. Unfortunately, journalists are complicit in perpetuating the fraud, because sensational stories like this are good for their ratings.”
Mark Goodacre has a couple posts on the whole Jesus tomb theory on his NT Gateway blog. His first post looks back to March 1996 when the The Sunday Times News Review in the UK had a story about the Talpiot tomb connected with an Easter TV special on BBC, while his second post highlights the valuable role that blogging can play in such “discoveries” in that we have access to the thoughts of some scholars who played a role in the documentaries and that blogging brings together a wide range of expertise. I would add that blogging also provides some amazingly fast feedback on such issues.
Ed Cook at Ralph the Sacred River has a brief post lamenting the hype — especially considering that the Talpiot “Jesus bar Joseph” ossuary has been known for over a decade and is not even the only such ossuary that has been discovered. He concludes: “The rather limited onomastic repertoire of first-century Jews is a well-known fact to specialists, and it is both dishonest and cynical of the purveyors of this ‘theory’ to exploit the gullible with a proposal they must know is highly unlikely.”
Christopher Rollston has a guest post on Dr Jim West‘s blog where he criticises a number of the underlying assumptions of the whole theory and concludes, “The Discovery Channel special is sensationalistic and tragically flawed.”
Scot McKnight over at Jesus Creed also had a brief post questioning the sensationalism.
Rick Brannan has two posts over at ricoblog; one in which he provides links to an academic paper on the “Jesus Ossuary” by Dr. Michael S. Heiser.
Chris Heard of Higgaion fame has a short note questioning the theory that the James ossuary was originally from the Talpiot tomb. For an assessment of Simcha Jacobovici’s past track record, see Chris’s scathing 14-part review of the Exodus Decoded.
Michael Barber over at Singing in the Reign disputes James Cameron’s Titanic Claim (I liked the title of his post so included it here!)
OK, I guess it was more than a few! As you can see, there is a lot of discussion on this in the blogs, and most of it is very skeptical and negative. As with Jacobovici’s other documentaries, I imagine this one will be a slick production. While I don’t want to pre-judge it, it’s really too bad that the same amount of resources and skill can’t be marshaled for a documentary that is also academically sound. Such is life.
Dr. James Tabor, Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was one of the scholars involved with the discovery and the documentary. Now that the publication ban has lifted on the material, he will be posting his thoughts on his blog, The Jesus Dynasty.
For the past few days I have read many news reports and Blogs on various aspects of the Talpiot tomb as aspects of this story have â€œleaked outâ€? and lots of inaccuate and erroneous information has spread rather crazily on the internet. Because of a non-disclosure agreement that protected all of us working on this research I have not written in any detail beyond what I cover in the Introduction to The Jesus Dynasty. Following the press conference tomorrow that all changes. Now with all the facts officially released I will do my best to share with readers of this Blog what appears to be our present state of knowledge about this tomb. I will also be participating with a number of scholars in a Discussion Forum at the Discovery Web site.
In a second post, Tabor gives some of his initial thoughts on the whole discovery. His first two points are worthy of repetition:
1. I do not find it inherently unlikely or improbable that the family tomb of Jesus might be found in the Jerusalem area. Here the point I want to make is that most academics and professionals would scoff at the very possibility of such an idea as sensational and ridiculous nonsense. It is much like someone claiming to have found the â€œark of the covenantâ€? or any other Indiana Jones type nonsense. I think that sort of knee-jerk scoffing is unprofessional and we should hear out the evidence. I do indeed hold the view that Jesusâ€™ body was taken from its temporary tomb and moved to a permanent place of burial, very possibly in Jerusalem, and likely kept private and within the inner circles of the family. Accordingly, it is unscientific to dismiss out of hand such a possibility with smirking and scoffing. I also respectfully disagree with those who have made the point that the Jesus family would have been too poor to have been buried in such a manner, with rock hewn tomb and ossuaries. I have been in this tomb. It is small and very modest, quite plain, as are most of the ossuaries. My own understanding of the Nazarene movement as it began to thrive in the 40s through 60s CE is that one would expect, rather than doubt, that the inner family would receive such an honored and traditional burial. Also, the records we have indicate that the inner family lived in Jerusalem after 30 CE.
2. Although the names are â€œcommonâ€? (9%, 2%, 14%, 25% depending on which name) as many have pointed out, it does indeed seem to be the case that the statistical grouping of these particular names in this particular tomb is far from common, in fact it is so rare that the conclusion that this particular â€œJesus son of Josephâ€? is indeed, most likely, the figure we know as Jesus of Nazareth becomes highly probable. Statisticians often point out that â€œcommon senseâ€? when it comes to probability theory, is often quite misleading. What we have to ask is what are the probabilities of these six names occurring together in a 1st century Jewish family tomb, namely: Mary, a second Mary, Jesus son of Joseph, Jude son of Jesus, Joseph, and Matthew. Experts I am working with tell me that assuming a family size of six, the probability of these six names in these relationships occurring together in one family is: 1/253,403.Therefore, out of 253,403 families (a population of 1,520,418), this particular combination of names would occur only once. Obviously the population of late 2nd Temple Jerusalem was nothing of that sort, but perhaps only 25,000 (Jeremias) to 50,000. Further, two of the names, particularly, Mariamene and Jose, appear to be rare forms of names we know associated with Mary Magdalene and with Jesusâ€™ brother Joseph, which further indicates a significant statistical uniqueness, and a correlation with what we know of the Jesus family. A third name, Maria, is that form known to us in the New Testament for Jesusâ€™ mother Miriam, and perhaps his sister Mary as well. It is a relatively rare form of the name.
My statistical consultant gave me a very simple analogy: Imagine a football stadium filled with 50,000 peopleâ€”men, women, and children. This is an average estimate of the population of ancient Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. If we ask all the males named Jesus to stand, based on the frequency of that name, we would expect 2,796 to rise. If we then ask all those with a father named Joseph to remain standing there would only be 351 left. If we further reduce this group by asking only those with a mother named Mary to remain standing we would get down to only 173. If we then ask only those of this group with a brother named Joseph only 23 are left. And finally, only of these the ones with a brother named James, thereâ€™s less than a 3/4 chance that even 1 person remains standing.
I encourage you to take a gander at it. For now, I have to go teach!
James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici were on the Today Show this morning promoting their upcoming documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus. There wasn’t much new revealed, though Cameron’s comment is fair enough: “I think people have their specific agendas and their specific kind of knee-jerk reactions, but I think when they see the film and they see how the evidence is presented, then they should comment.” Of course, they love the hype and the controversy, since it is free publicity for their documentary!
Either way, we’ll have to wait until March to comment on the documentary, though the companion book, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History (HarperCollins, February 2007; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com), was released today.
In connection to my previous post, “Cameron and Jacobovici producing The Tomb,” I wanted to highlight that Jame’s book, The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity is available from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com. The first chapter, “The Tale of Two Tombs,” is available from the ABC News website.