Articles & Reviews

The Lost Tomb of Jesus?

Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and director James Cameron claim in a TV documentary that a burial cave uncovered 27 years ago in Talpiot, Jerusalem, is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

The crypt, discovered in 1980, contained ten ossuaries, or bone boxes. Most were apparently empty. Of the ten, six bear inscriptions with names found in the Bible, including the names Jesus, Mary, a second Mary, Matthew and Josa.

While Jacobovici’s claims do not precisely contradict Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus (even if the family of the biblical Jesus had prepared a set of ossuaries, we will never be able to tell if Jesus was actually interred there), here’s why I think these are unlikely to be the ossuaries of the Jesus of the Bible and his family:

1. The opinion of the archaeological expert who knows these ossuaries best

According to The Jerusalem Post, Amos Kloner, the archeologist who officially oversaw the work at the tomb starting in 1980 and has published detailed findings on its contents, dismissed the claims: It makes a great story for a TV film, but it’s impossible… There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE.

2. The names are common

Despite the arguments of the filmmakers that this was an unusual set of names, these names were extremely common — then and now. The name combination “Jesus son of Joseph” was so widespread that it has in fact been already discovered on other first-century ossuaries over the years. Archaeologist Kloner told the Jerusalem Post, Those were the most common names found among Jews in the first centuries BCE and CE. At least three other ossuaries have been found inscribed with the name Jesus and countless others with Joseph and Mary. There are at least two other “Jesus” characters in the New Testament alone. There are at least six distinct “Marys” in the New Testament: The mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the sister of Lazarus, the wife of Cleopas, the mother of John Mark, and a Christian in Rome. So these ossuaries could belong to any of them—or none of them. What we know for certain is that there were many first-century families with these exact same names.

3. The likelihood that these names would be found together in a first-century family is in fact high

Archaeologist Kloner says the names “Jesus”, “Mary”, “Joseph”, and “Judah”, found on the ossuaries were the most common names of their era. In an article on the demographics of first-century C.E. Judea, Shmuel Katz writes: When Jewish independence came to an end in the year 70, the population numbered, at a conservative estimate, some 5 million people (By Josephus’ figures, there were nearer 7 million.). So imagine visiting a city of five million, and finding a group of people who had the most popular names of the day. This would not be a statistically amazing feat. Or imagine someone finding tombs in England with the names “George”, “William”, and “Mary” and claiming they were the tombs of British royalty. They might be, but there have been many other people in Britain with those popular names too.

Incidentally, the filmmakers also make another unwarranted assumption: That the “Mariamne” ossuary inscription must mean “Mary Magdalene”. In fact, the word “Magdalene” appears nowhere. Mariamne is simply the Greek form for Mary. There were several other women named Mary in the New Testament to whom Jesus was not related.

4. The ossuary of the “son of Jesus”

One of the ossuaries is that of the son of the “Jesus” in this family: it bears the inscription “Yehuda bar Yeshua”, or Judah, son of Jesus. This is a problem for the filmmakers. Not one ancient document, either by Christians, their opponents, Gnostic Christians, or others, purports that the Jesus of the Bible had a son. We’re told of his brothers, his mother, his cousin, his aunt, but never a son. Popular Da Vinci Code-inspired beliefs aside, it would not have been impossible, in Christian theology, for Christ to have married and fathered children; Christians have always believed him to be fully man as well as divine. But there is simply no ancient evidence that he did. The obvious conclusion is that this ossuary tabs this to have been a family other than the family of the Jesus of the Bible.

5. The mistaken identification of the James ossuary as being from the tomb of Jesus

In order to strengthen their case, the filmmakers make the contention that the famous ossuary reading “James, the brother of Jesus” was stolen from the group of ten shortly after the tomb was found. The archaeologists examining the tomb 26 years ago found 10 ossuaries, but only nine remain. In “The Lost Tomb…”, it is alleged that the James ossuary is that missing box. But as Stephen Goranson points out, the original documentation of the ossuaries, A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiot, ’Atiqot 29 (1996) plainly lists that (#10) ossuary as having “No Inscription.” If it had no inscription in 1980 how can it be the anciently-inscribed “James” ossuary today? Recently an Israeli police officer testified in court that he saw the James ossuary in the 1970s. His recollection is backed up by a photograph of the James ossuary from that time period. Clearly, then, an ossuary found in 1980 could not be this same James ossuary. This is merely one of the items in the documentary that do not add up. To add further doubt, many scholars have already called the ossuary inscription ‘brother of Jesus’ a modern-day forgery.

6. First-century foes of Christianity apparently did not consider these to be the ossuaries of Jesus’ family

The surest way to squelch a movement based on belief in a resurrected man would have been for authorities to point to these ossuaries while they still contained remains, thus quickly disproving the resurrection They didn’t, either because it was apparently known that this was not the family of THAT Jesus, or because the ossuary was empty even then.

7. The opinions of other experts

Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, told the Associated Press that the film’s hypothesis holds little weight. Skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear. But how possible is it? On a scale of one through 10 — 10 being completely possible — it’s probably a one, maybe a one and a half. Pfann is even unsure that the name “Jesus” on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it’s more likely the name “Hanun.” William Dever, an expert on near eastern archaeology and anthropology, who has worked with Israeli archeologists for five decades, said specialists have known about the ossuaries for years. The fact that it’s been ignored tells you something, said Dever, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. It would be amusing if it didn’t mislead so many people.

8. The track record of these filmmakers in biblical documentaries

Jacobovici and Cameron earlier made Exodus Decoded, which claimed to have found new evidence that the ten plagues of the Exodus were caused by a volcanic eruption on a Greek island that occurred 3,500 years ago. None of the relics — or arguments — cited in the made-for-TV film has been accepted by archeologists or any prominent archeological institution as proof for the theory, and their interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics was ripped apart by experts in Biblical Archaeology Review.

Here are more critical reviews from scholars about Jacobovici’s previous work:

The documentary will get headlines; it’s best to see past the hype and think clearly. Whether you’re a Christian or not, an honest look at the evidence will lead to the conclusion that these are not likely to be the ossuaries of the Bible characters.

René Schlaepfer, Teaching Pastor
Twin Lakes Church, Aptos, CA

Some other links regarding the “lost tomb”

More Articles & Reviews

List of all articles and reviews