‘The Jesus Discovery’— Now That the Dust has Settled

Now that the post Easter dust has begun to settle, and the Discovery Channel special has come and gone with its juxtaposition of important and interesting information about early ossuaries and unlikely speculations about their connections with Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus of Nazareth, it is perhaps time to point out a few flies in the ointment.   First of all let’s start with the James ossuary itself (and yes I am printing up the T shirts as we speak that read ‘Free the James Ossuary’).   

If we go back to the beginning of all this with the book ‘The Brother of Jesus’ which Hershel Shanks and I wrote,  it is important to bear in mind that we do know something about the provenance of the James ossuary.  Oded Golan said from the outset that the antiquities dealer from whom he bought the box had said it was found ‘in situ’ in Silwan. Not Talpiot, Silwan, a very different suburb of Jerusalem than Talpiot and furthermore, one near where the stele, erected in honor of James and mentioned by Eusebius, must have stood.

Secondly, inscriptions, and even ossuaries with the line ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ were known as far back as the time of Sukenik. As Sukenik said, there is no reason to connect such an inscription or ossuary with Jesus. Why not? Firstly because these are indeed exceedingly common names. But secondly because in fact all the historical evidence we have from the Gospels and elsewhere, including early Jewish evidence, indicates that Jesus of Nazareth was NOT the son of Joseph, though some outsiders mistook him for the son of Joseph.

This is precisely why Luke, who tells the story of the virginal conception states in Luke 3.23 that he was ‘supposed’ or ‘so-called’ the son of Joseph, but not by those in the know. The moniker would fit only in the sense that Joseph adopted him as his son. Texts like Mark 6 show that even the hometown folks knew he was really only just ‘the son of Mary’ and later Jewish tradition said he was the son of a Roman soldier named Panthera.

My point in regard to this is simple— no family member nor any close disciple or associate would make the mistake of identifying Jesus on his burial box as ‘Jesus son of Joseph’, because that would be false. He was not literally a son of Joseph. The idea that Jesus was buried at Talpiot Tomb B (with the Patio Tomb being Talpiot Tomb B) and then reburied 100 yards away at Talpiot tomb A by friends, family, close disciples requires the conclusion that these insiders would have known the truth about Jesus of Nazareth, namely that the tomb was not empty and he did not rise from the dead. He was not buried by strangers or outsiders according to the TV show. In other words, the earliest disciples perpetrated a hoax about an empty tomb.

Perhaps the most flimsy of all the many conjectures in that TV show was that the Patio/Talpiot B tomb is somehow connected to Joseph of Arimathea— on the basis of no hard evidence or inscriptional evidence at all. Arimathea was not a part or suburb of Jerusalem it was “a city of Judea” according to Luke 23:51. Arimathea is usually identified with either Ramleh or Ramathaim-Zophim, where David came to Samuel (1 Samuel chapter 19).
Furthermore, the meaning of Arimathea, despite the assertion of the TV show is not ‘two hills’! In fact it may mean ‘lion dead to the lord’. There are so many questionable statements in this show, one is tempted to throw up one’s hands and dismiss the whole thing.

And as for that supposed upside down fish on the ossuary in the Patio tomb– the scholarly vote is in on the ASOR blog— most think it is a representation of an amphora, and only James Tabor seems to be fully convinced its a fish.

Equally fishy is the assumption that someone could drag Jesus’ corpus from Golgotha all the way to Talpiot before sundown arrived on that Friday in April A.D. 30. Even on a conservative view, if Jesus died at 3 p.m. and then it had to be reported to Pilate, and then the body was finally taken off the cross and turned over to Joseph, there definitely would not have been time to get the body to Talpiot before sundown at about 5 or so. This whole conjecture, based on one flimsy assumption based on another, simply doesn’t satisfy the logistical test of distance. It is over two miles at the least from where Jesus was crucified to the Talpiot tombs. If there was not enough time for the women to buy spices and grave wrappings and get to the tomb before sundown Friday, there wasn’t time for Jesus’ body to be dragged to Talpiot either. The tomb has to be closer to Golgotha to meet the logistics.

But of course there is a further problem with this whole line of thinking, namely: 1) the originally excavators of the Talpiot tomb A were clear enough that it had no connection with Jesus of Nazareth, and 2) more importantly there is no historical evidence at all that Jesus was moved from the tomb where he was initially buried to another tomb. NONE. Why exactly would the family of Jesus have a tomb in Jerusalem anyway? Nazareth— yes. Bethlehem, less likely but possible. Talpiot—- no.

Thirdly, at the trial of Oded Golan, and as confirmed by the transcripts, and for that matter it could be confirmed by Matthew Kalman, the only reporter that sat through the whole trial, the evidence was presented, and was clear enough, that there is ancient patina in the word Jesus at the end of the inscription. In other words, there is no evidence that the ‘brother of Jesus’ part of the inscription on the James ossuary is a modern forgery. None. This claim by the IAA is refuted by the evidence itself. There is also no reason to conclude that the inscription bears witness to two hands, though I wouldn’t say that’s impossible. If so, it’s two ancient hands.

The notion that the patina on the James ossuary has a fingerprint so specific that it matches the patina of items from the Talpiot tomb is just bad science. Patina is not a fingerprint, and the atmospheric conditions in limestone rock cut tombs is basically the same in the whole region of Jerusalem. The fact that the chemical composition of the patina on the James ossuary is closely similar to that from ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb proves nothing other than that they all likely come from the environs of Jerusalem. A more specific connection is impossible on the basis of this chemical evidence.

Fourthly, while the new drawings and pictures from the Patio tomb are very interesting, their interpretation is up in the air. Is that really a cross? Different scholars are weighing in with different view points. Probably not. Is that really fish? Different scholars are weighing in with different view points. In other words, it’s not clear what we’ve got yet, and the discussion needs to go on.

What is clear is that there is no compelling reason to connect any of Patio tomb stuff to: 1) the Talpiot tomb A which is about 100 yards away; 2) and no compelling reason to think that the Patio tomb has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth any more than the Talpiot tomb does. The TV show presents no evidence whatsoever that these two Talpiot tombs should be connected to each other, or were originally part of one connected tomb complex.

Fifthly, and in some ways most importantly James Tabor and I have had an exchange about early Jewish views about the resurrection, and we certainly disagree. He wants to argue that Paul in 1 Cor. 15 suggests that there is a resurrection body that could be called ‘a spiritual body’ (i.e. a body that doesn’t involve material flesh and bones). So, according to Tabor we might well find the body of Jesus somewhere, but that would not refute the claim that he arose from the dead because what resurrection meant was ‘spiritually being lifted up into heaven’. There are lots of problems with this whole line of thinking.

First of all, there is the problem that Paul was, before becoming a follower of Jesus, a Pharisee. And the Pharisees most certainly believed that resurrection always and everywhere referred to something that happened to a physical body— it was raised from the dead. The evidence for early Jewish views on resurrection is laid out in great detail in N.T. Wright’s Resurrection and the Son of God, and should be consulted.

Secondly, there is the further problem, as Dale Martin showed in his book The Corinthian Body, that the ancients even thought of ‘spirit’ as a sort of gossamer type of material. Even spirit was not thought to be ‘non-material’ if we are talking about the spirit or ‘spiritual’ body of a human being whether alive or deceased.

Thirdly, there is the grammatical problem with taking the phrase ‘pneumatikon soma’ in 1 Cor. 15 to mean ‘a body made out of spirit’. There are parallel phrases in Paul for example ‘a spiritual teaching’ and the like, which does not mean a teaching made out of spirit! What Paul is contrasting in 1 Corinthians 15 is a body animated by normal life breath as was Adam’s and a body animated entirely by the Holy Spirit. In neither case is the assumption that the body has no physicality. In short, James Tabor’s interpretation of Paul does not stand up to close scrutiny.

Fourthly, amalgamating ascension into heaven with resurrection will not work on so many grounds. Firstly there is the OT traditions about bodily assumption into heaven of a figure like Elijah. The story is clear enough— he did not leave his bones behind. Secondly, the ascension stories in Luke 24 and Acts 1 insist on bodily assumption of Jesus into heaven. Not merely in the spirit, in the flesh. Thirdly the language about ‘being lifted up’ is nowhere equated in the Gospels with resurrection. In the Fourth Gospel in fact that language is applied to Jesus being lifted up onto the cross— bodily and this is distinguished entirely from what happened to him on Easter when the tomb was empty.

Lastly, the Greek phrase Paul uses to describe Jesus’ resurrection (which btw is chronologically our earliest account of it– from the early 50s) is ‘resurrection from out of the dead ones’. The idea is clear enough. There is a realm of the dead from which the deceased Jesus was raised. They are still there in Sheol or Hades, but Jesus is not, nor are his bones. The tomb is empty, the grave has been evacuated. And Jesus first appeared to his disciples on earth and then ascended to heaven in the flesh.

By all means we should continue to study closely what has been found in the Patio tomb, and we may look forward to better and more evidence and clearer pictures perhaps. Any more evidence about Jewish ossuaries, or even Jewish Christian ossuaries would be welcome. This new robotic technology is wonderful, and shows promises of helping us explore many more tombs with minimum of intrusion.

But I’m afraid that the very fact that this ‘astounding discovery’ was revealed to us not after a careful vetting of the information in the academy but in a way so as to make headlines and money and create yet another sensation at Easter in a made for television docu-drama format should be seen for what it is. And what it is, is frankly a sad attempt to grab headlines, raise money, and draw attention to oneself.

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  • Andrew Wilson

    What an outstanding review and response, Ben. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesdtabor James Daniel Tabor

    Thanks for this Ben. You have badly misread and thus misrepresented what I have argued most plainly and consistently now for six years both about the initial burial of Jesus (in my published papers, my blog, and our latest book) and the nature of the resurrection. I have never argued that Jesus corpse was “drug from Golgotha” and put in Talpiot tomb B, then moved to Tomb A, or that either tomb was used the day Jesus died. Since I would not want to trouble you to get the book or go back through published articles (ANE, bibleinterp.com, etc.) I would appreciate it if you and your readers, in the interest of accurately representing one with whom you disagree, take a look at this blog post, just put up yesterday, that summarizes my position on both subjects: http://jamestabor.com/2012/04/14/why-people-are-confused-about-the-earliest-christian-view-of-resurrection-of-the-dead/.

    I would appreciate it if you would correct this as soon as possible before all of your readers and other bloggers pass it all over the world in this incorrect and misleading version.

    You are correct, we do disagree about the nature of “resurrection” according to Paul but maybe this latest post will clarify for you where I stand. The “natural” body is not the “life-giving spirit,” and although definitely a body–not a spirit–the new body is not “physical” if by that you mean “of the dust,” that is Carbon-Hydrogen-Oxogen based–unless you think Jesus’s glorious body today, or that of the angels, is so based.

    Quite a few other points you have wrong here. Just quickly here:

    1)It is not the case that all the scholars have agreed our Jonah image is a amphora on the ASOR blog. Again, I think you have not read too carefully. That is a recent proposal, and one that I covered in my bibleinterp.com paper–take a look. I even provide a photo. It is nothing new. The two art historians who have commented on the ASOR blog say it is a nephesh or funerary tower, up-side-down at that, and they were followed by four others who agreed, only one of whom has moved to the amphora. As you know a nephesh looks nothing like an amphora. Then there are those supporting quite strongly the perfume flask theory, even though the image produced by Prof. Taylor looks nothing like unguentaria of the period. Others, most notably Cargill, and he seems to have quite a following, have argued a krater-vase, of Hellenistic style, from 3rd c. Greece. None of these alternative proposals look like amphora so it is pretty clear that there is no consensus after all among critics of the Jonah and the fish image. Most recently the clear letters YONAH in Hebrew have been identified by Charlesworth and others, which I think pretty well cinches the case we are dealing with a Jonah image here. This should be cause for celebration among those of us who study early Christianity, just as the James ossuary was, as it provides clear links to Jesus’ earliest followers and their beliefs. It would be a shame to throw out this “baby” with the “bath water” you consider to be the “Jesus family tomb.” Let it be another Jesus–say Jesus the baker, or Jesus son of Yose, Jesus’ brother, but that does not make this clear fish a pillar, flask, krater vase, or amphora.

    2. You are wrong about the patina studies of the James ossuary. They included samples from other tombs in the area for control purposes. Arhey Shimron is now doing soil comparison tests, which are even more accurate, and the preliminary results support the patina studies–the James ossuary spent some centuries in the Talpiot tomb, even if it was at one point in the kidron valley–or more likely Jame’s body was initially buried in the Kidron, but not in a cave, but with a memorial marker Heggisippus mentions, and then finally his bones put in an ossuary and moved to the family tomb (let’s say Yose’s) before 70 CE–but the marker where he died would have stayed.

    I agree with you on the “lifting up.” I think it refers to the exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God, not just his coming out of Hades/Sheol. It is far beyond coming out of the tomb, as in the case of Lazarus. Our Greek inscription clearly refers to that and is celebrating faith in Jesus exaltation.

    All best,

    James Tabor

  • Benw333

    James only time for one comment here. I do remember the original Discovery Channel special. It suggested Jesus was hastily buried near Golgotha and then moved to Talpiot. That was definitely not the impression the new show gave. The new show suggested he was buried in Talpiot B and then moved to Talpiot A. So…are you telling me that you disagree with either or both of the shows? Secondly, whether its an amphora or a nephesh or a perfume bottle, I really don’t care. In any case its not a fish with Jonah. Go back and watch the two shows and tell me what impression they leave on when Jesus was buried where. if your views are different, that’s just fine. But one doesn’t get that impression from either TV show which is what this commenting on.

  • Benw333

    James if you would like to send me a list of ways you disagree with the latest TV show, I’m happy to put that up here. And if you want to have your publisher send me the book… I will gladly go through that as well. I have read what you sent me before. Next up on this blog is Richard Bauckham’s full review of the inscription.

  • Joe

    Ben, shalom go to the ASOR blog, someone posted an article from Davar May 1981 by an Israeli archaeologist who entered the tomb shortly after its discovery and reported on the finds there. On one ossuary he noted, that there was an amphora on the facade. I feel that the case is closed as far as it being a photoshopped fish. Seems despite their multi million dollar budgets not everything gets reported, but truth eventually wins out.

  • Benw333

    Thanks Joe, as I said, probably an amphora, but possibly a nephesh. In any case decorative not theological art. And the idea that you can find the name Jonah in the inside of a decorative triangle is really a reach…. to say the least.

    One last p.s. to James. This blog post, apart from the mention of our exchange about resurrection, is a critique of the show. If you disagree with points in the show, that’s fine, and I would like to know which ones. If not, I don’t see how I have distorted your views, though I am open to persuasion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jamesdtabor James Daniel Tabor

    The book and the film agree, the film just does not elaborate and none of us have ever argued that Jesus was crucified in Talpiot, which would be what is required based on John’s account of the 1st tomb being near the cross. I would love to hear why you think the Hebrew letters spelling out YONAH are a stretch. I would think you might have more respect for Jim Charlesworth’s seasoned eye here with a lifetime of looking at Herodian scripts and manuscripts, and if not him then Deutsch or Misgav. You might want to look again, and see my blog post on this, YONAH is very clear: http://jamestabor.com/2012/04/11/name-of-jonah-encrypted-on-the-jonah-and-the-fish-image/

    Also, for a thorough critique of the various “vessel” hypotheses: http://jamestabor.com/2012/04/12/top-ten-objections-to-the-conclusions-of-the-jesus-discovery/

    Ben, this is truly an amazing discovery, we do indeed have a Jonah image and a resurrection/ascent epitaph and I think it goes back to Jesus’ early followers…I hope you will keep an open mind as you did on the James ossuary. Maybe you have not noticed but the “opposition” here is very similar to that, whereas you and I and a very few held firm as to authenticity of the inscription.

  • Benw333

    Thank you James for this. This is helpful. I know of no precedent for an inscription being done in a semi-circular fashion in a floral design on an ossuary. Do you? That’s what would appear to be required in this case. I certainly do respect those scholar’s works, and I know Jim pretty well. I have taken the time to look at the catacomb images of Jonah and the whale and they look nothing like this! As the TV show did briefly mention, there was the sea dragon, and clearly the spitting out of a person in the catacomb image. It looks nothing like what is on that ossuary. And why in the world would the fish be swimming down to the bottom of the sea ( or in this case the bottom of the ossuary)? That doesn’t match the Jonah story at all— where Jonah is spit up on land.

    While I have your attention, there was mentioned in the film the notion that Mara might mean Lord on that other ossuary. Probably not, as Bauckham argued in regard to the one found in Talpiot A. I would have expected maran or even marana, but not Mara, which seems to be a personal name.

  • Benw333

    P.S. to James. My memory is that the dirt found in the James ossuary was checked out a decade ago, and matched Silwan dirt.

  • http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/ed_babinski/babinski-bio.html EdwardTBabinski

    It depends on how systematically and literally you take the NT stories.

    For instance, it would not take “too much time to drag the body from Golgotha to Talpiot.” Aside from the use of a swift donkey, why drag the body to Talpiot at all? Couldn’t Jesus’ body have been laid in a common grave with other criminals of Rome (not to mention that Jesus was condemned by the Jewish civil authorities)? Doubly condemned. So probably a common grave. Or if in a tomb, why not a tomb containing multiple bodies since that was not uncommon either, since bodies were only placed in tombs till the flesh rotted off, and then bones were transported to final resting places such as Talpiot. There would have been no rush in either of the later cases. If it was a common grave or a tomb with other dead bodies in it, then someone could have transported any old bones, not necessarily Jesus’ and put them in an ossuary in Talpiot. By the way my own views on the development of resurrection tales in the Gospels can be found here, though my essay-like comment probably has not yet been posted: http://ntmark.wordpress.com/2012/04/17/gospel-posts-around-the-blogs/

    I will say that I’m pleased to see Ben relying foremost on the story in Mark concerning the hasty burial of Jesus with no anointing, contra the tale in the Gospel of John involving enough spice for a king laid round Jesus’ body prior to burial. There was certainly not enough time for the GJohn tale to be true.

  • Susan Burns

    After reading many blogs about the Jonah ossuary discovery, it seems that the reason academia does not share the interpretation of a fish is one of channels. The discoverers did not go through established channels before releasing their theories. Another thread that runs through all objections is that they made money from their discovery.

    Because of the internet, the world is changing. First the music and entertainment industry had to adapt to downloading. The publishing and newspaper business has had to adapt as well. Now it is happening to the academic community. We have bought and read the books you people write and now we have a voice. No matter how many learned people tell me it is not a fish I cannot help but see a fish. I cannot help but see Jesus fish on the border. I cannot help but see “Jonah” in Hebrew letters. I have a mind and I like to use it.

    Everybody must make money to feed their children. Ben, do you write your books out of altruism? I am sure you are making money. But to make a living from something you are passionate about is a wonderful thing. You go for it!

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Edward: You seem to have missed the point that this is Judea, and during festival season and burial on an unclean corpse was of paramount importance to Jews, especially during festival season. So no, no way was Jesus buried by non-Jews in a common grave. He was buried by Jews, in this case Joseph of Arimathea, probably with help. The Sanhedrin in particular had an interest of having the man buried, since they were the initiators of the process that led to the crucifixion in the first place, and they did not want to further upset the several hundred thousand Jews present at the festival. It was already a mess that this was happening at the beginning of the festival.

  • Ben Witherington

    Hi Susan: My objections to the theories in the TV show are that they require us to believe too many hypothetical possibilities, which have not been demonstrated to be probabilities, and when you pile one possibility on top of another, this does not amount to ‘mounting evidence’. In other words, there are weaknesses in various aspects of the case. As for me making money on my books… I got news for you, there isn’t a lot of money in religious publishing these days unless of course you have a million dollar TV show to help you publicize it. Even then, its iffy. BW3