Burial in Ancient Israel Part 6: Ossuaries

This is an ongoing series about graves and tombs in the ancient Levant, from the Paleolithic Period until the time of Christ. The entire series can be found here.


Since rock-cut tombs were reused over many generations, an issue arose: what to do with the bones? Two approaches have been found.

There is evidence that, for many years, bones were placed in shallow depression underneath the beneath the bench where the bodies had been laid out. Grave goods were swept into the same depression, creating a jumble of bones beneath the bench.

Over time, this practice grew less common and the use of ossuaries becomes more prominent. Ossuaries make their first appearance in Jerusalem’s rock-cut tombs during the reign of Herod, with the earliest dating to approximately 20 BC. Unlike earlier clay ossuaries found elsewhere in the Levant, these are carved from local stone, almost always in a casket design. They’re rarely larger than 2 feet long, and, in the case of children, quite a bit smaller.

Capped with curved, gabled, or flat lids and sometimes carved with a design, they exhibit a Roman style in keeping with the influences of the Herodian period. When names appear on ossuaries, they often seem to have been carved by a different hand than the decorative design, perhaps by a family member scratching a name in Aramaic, Hebrew, or Greek after transferring the bones in the tombs.

Notable Ossuaries

Association: Caiaphas, high priest who presided over the trial of Jesus
Verdict: Genuine

In 1990, a tomb was found southwest of the Old City, Jerusalem. Inside this rather small tomb was a well-decorated ossuary with an evocative name carved into the side: “Joseph son of Caiaphas.” Based on date, location, and name, archaeologists immediately knew it could be none other than the tomb of the man who served as high priest from 18-36 AD: the man responsible for the death of Christ.

Please note: yes, it looks like the inscription was rather poorly and hastily scratched into an otherwise beautiful box. This was quite common (as noted above), since a family member usually transferred the bones in the tomb and scratched the name himself, in cramped, dimly lit conditions.

Association: The “family” of Jesus
Verdict: A rather lame and obvious hoax. (Please note: the inscriptions and artifacts are genuine. It’s the association with Jesus of Nazareth that is false.)

Filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, along with religious studies professor James Tabor, attempted to make the case that ossuaries discovered in the “Patio Tomb” in Talpiot in 1980 were actually from the family grave of Jesus, complete with wild and unfounded speculation that they proved Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son named Judah. The claim was widely ridiculed, with archaeologist Jodi Magness saying that it “flies in the face of all available evidence.”

Given that Jesus had a poor family, was not from Jerusalem (his tomb would have been in Nazareth), was not married, did not have a child, was laid in a borrowed tomb (thus proving he did not have a family tomb), and that the names on the ossuaries (Jesus, Mary, Joseph) were quite common at the time, the entire claim was an absurd tissue of lies created to generate headlines, booksales, and viewers for a Cameron-produced documentary. When I saw the artifacts in the United States, the exhibit didn’t even mention the ridiculous claims, and no one except the original promoters believe it was anything but a hoax.

James Charlesworth offers a summary of a symposium during which the hoax was addressed, and the weasley methods of the people promoting it. The consensus: not even close. His verdict on the grandstanding techniques of those involved and the media they duped is withering. (Please note: Charlesworth is not a marginal figure: he’s pretty much the dean of deuterocanonical and pseudepigrapha study.)

Association: St. James, leader of the Church in Jerusalem
Verdict: Undetermined. Almost certainly not the ossuary of St. James (who was inhumated).  The box is genuine.  The inscription may or may not be forged. (My opinion, FWIW: forged.)

The so-called James ossuary did not provide the tidy closure of the debunked Talpiot claims. The name on this ossuary–James son of Joseph brother of Jesus–ignited a firestorm of debate that resulted in claims of forgery and a highly publicized trial in Israel. The connection to St. James, leader of the church in Jerusalem and one of the major figures in the early church, made the find important, if true. The trial, however, was unable to prove that the inscription was a forgery, and the issue remains up for debate.

The Meaning of Ossuaries
The question naturally arises: what led to the sudden appearance of ossuaries in stone-cute tombs in Jerusalem around the Herodian period? One answer may have to do with a shift in theology. A theory has been proposed by archaeologist Levi Yitzhak Rahmani that ties the sudden appearance of the ossuaries to a new belief among Jews in the 1st century BC: belief in the resurrection of the dead. Although the Sadducees rejected the idea of a literal resurrection of the physical body, it was strongly held by the Pharisees, and was eventually accepted by Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism.

Rahmani believes that the practice of intermingling bones ends with the spread of this belief, with the shift to ossuaries driven by a need to keep body parts together and as undamaged as possible, ready for the resurrection. Furthermore, the decay of flesh emphasizes the Pharisaical association of flesh with sin, with sin being devoured along with the decomposing flesh.

It’s an appealing theory, offering a neat solution to an unanswered question, but it has problems. First, ossuaries often contain bones from multiple bodies, and often those are missing certain pieces. Second, many of the ossuaries were found in the richest tombs and areas, and those belonged to the Sadducees, not the Pharisees.

Ossuary from “Patio” (Tapliot) tomb, with remains

More likely, the appearance of ossuaries at this place and this time is simply a reflection of the Roman influence upon the upper classes, encouraged by the Herodians The ossuaries suddenly disappear with the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, further suggesting ties to a Roman influence. It may also be tied to a sudden sense of individuality inspired by Greek thought. As we’ve seen, an extreme diversity of burial customs has characterized the region, so it’s not unusual to find new practices developing suddenly and fading from popularity just as suddenly.

Recommended Reading:

Embracing Mystery
The Judas Tree, And Other Legends of the Betrayer
VIDEO: ISIS Destroys Antiquities
Pope Benedict, Creation, and Biblical Criticism
About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.

  • Mike Yohe

    I was excited to see an article about the ossuaries reaching the news, but very, very disappointed with the article after reading it. I would have to file this article in the inquisition file. Come on guys; let’s get out of the Dark Ages. And please when you write an article Mr. Thomas L. McDonald, stop lying. I thought James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici’s investigating reporting was excellent and should receive reporting awards. I think the church backs your poor researching because they want to stay focused on stuff like burial boxes and keep the investigative reporters away from alter boys.
    In your part “The Meaning of Ossuaries” you missed the obvious question that all the readers want answered. Jesus was born a Jew. But did not die a Jew, so most likely the boxes are not Jewish. They are part of the new religion Jesus was involved with.
    We want proof the boxes are Jewish, if not, what the hell is the rabbis doing take the bones out of the boxes and giving them a Jewish burial? It is looking like a big cover up.
    For the life of me, I do not know how you guys sleep at night. Must be under that blanket of faith that keep the light of knowledge out.

  • http://www.godandthemachine.com Thomas L. McDonald


    I gotta admit, I didn’t understand most of that, and the part I did understand was just … weird. So, to be brief: the Talpiot tomb is NOT (in any way, shape, or form) the tomb of the family of Jesus of Nazareth, for reasons briefly outlined above. It is a hoax. The vast majority of the (largely non-Catholic) experts on ANE archaeology have completely dismissed it. It’s not even a consideration: it’s just a weird pop-sci footnote to be filed away with the Da Vinci Code. Just because the director of Avatar made a slick documentary claiming it was true doesn’t make it so. If that were the case, we should be swarming with assassination cyborgs from the future by now.

    So, to repeat: the claims for Tapliot tomb have been judged, not by me, but by every recognized expert on the subject, to be a transparent fraud. This is a dead issue. Ancient astronaut stories are more credible. Here’s just one summary detailing various problems with the claim: http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/2007/02/jesus-tomb-titanic-talpiot-tomb-theory.html

    And since you didn’t follow the Charlesworth link above, I’ll excerpt his conclusions:

    Among the most interesting discussions were those dedicated to the topic of Mary Magdalene in early Gnostic and Christian traditions. Each of the panelists expressed skepticism concerning the identification of “Mariamene” (allegedly inscribed on one of the Talpiot tomb’s ossuaries) with Mary Magdalene of the Christian tradition. The insights of the Magdalene Panel harmonized with a previous session in which the paleographers and epigraphers agreed that the precise reading “Mariamene” is probably incorrect. Thus, almost all invited scholars deemed it highly unlikely that this tomb is related in any way to Mary Magdalene.

    Specialists spoke on diverse scientific methodologies, including forensic anthropology and Paleo-DNA evidence. Specialists on DNA stated that the Talpiot samples were contaminated; thus, there is no validity to the sensational claim that the bone samples reveal a relation between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Specialists on the statistical significance of the combination of personal names on ossuaries in any tomb stated that a priori names to be included dictate the mathematical results. Since most in attendance did not think Mary Magdalene is represented in this tomb, they judged the statistical results to be inconclusive.

    A rich variety of scientific methods were represented over the course of the four-day conference. Scholars openly shared their opinions and listened to each other. The atmosphere remained academic and constructive. Virtually all participants would share the opinion of Geza Vermes, the much-esteemed Professor Emeritus of Jewish Studies from Oxford University, that as a whole the conference was very “useful in airing the latest views on ancient Jewish burial practices and modern science.”

    At this point, we need to stress that despite reports to the contrary, the “missing” tenth ossuary of the Talpiot Tomb was cataloged. Its existence is recorded in Rachmani’s catalogue published in 1994. The Israeli Department of Antiquities retained nine ossuaries (Nos. 701-709) recovered from the Talpiot Tomb in 1980; in addition, a broken specimen was also recovered. It was without decoration or inscription and thus cannot be identified as the ossuary bearing the name “James.” When hundreds of ossuaries pour into the Rockefeller Museum, those that are insignificant are sometimes put aside in preference to those deemed significant.

    While many methods, subjects, and tombs were discussed, the topic those outside the scholarly community want to hear about is the Talpiot Tomb; that preoccupation distorts the purpose and results of the constructive discussions. As the chairperson and chief organizer of the symposium, let me stress that on most issues there was broad consensus among the vast majority of scholars in attendance. I have been quoted correctly as reporting: “Most archaeologists, epigraphers, and other scientists argued persuasively that there is no reason to conclude that the Talpiot Tomb was Jesus’ tomb.”

  • Mike Yohe

    Thank you for replying.
    And I will overlook the non-science of the Avatar because of my statements about your church backing.

    Jesus’ family tomb is not a dead issue. Remember that all the Jewish experts and if I recall, at least 100 experts were called in by Israel to prove the box was a hoax. All of them putting their expertise on the side of the hoax. That was until experts across the waters proved them all wrong. So now all these experts are trying to get their creditability back. And you are trying to help them.

    I may just be a layman and a reader of interest of the subject. But, what I have seen was that Israel has been building and fabricating data for years about the history of Israel. One example was the population of the past. It turns out that they were using farm waste and classifying it as proof of housing. They now claim they did not know the difference between Sh__ and plaster. They admit their data is wrong, yet have not changed the past population findings or discredited them.

    Isn’t this what we have going on here?

    What you had with the conference was exactly what Simcha Jacobovice ask for. The experts to get together and come up with theories on what he reported in his investigative reporting.

    And what you have is the latest views, but in no way the finial views.

    I for one am not convinced that the bone boxes are a Jewish burial.
    Reason for my doubts.
    1. I am not sure the word Jewish is properly used. Would it not be better to say the follower of Moses?
    2. The Kingdom of Israel was Samaritan. Jesus was Galilean. The people in Jerusalem were Judah. Judah being the poorest of the three states.
    3. The gross of Galileans and Judah’s population was located in 5 cities in Egypt.
    4. Many of the Jewish traditions and bible are based upon customs from Egypt.
    5. Jesus went to Egypt as a child.
    It is a real possibility that Jesus was sent from Egypt by the majority of Judah and Galilean people to Jerusalem to bring the changes from Egypt to Jerusalem. Or you tell me why he would even go to Jerusalem if he was preaching a new religion. That would have been the last place he should have gone.

  • elGaucho

    I remember the Jesus tomb discovery. I think more recently, Cameron found a nearby(note use of term nearby) tomb that had a fish inscription in it which was somewhat uncommon for Jewish tombs and tried to say that this proved the different but nearby Patio Tomb was in fact Jesus’ because the fish inscription would only be used for Christians. This is of course implausible and the claim are just non-sequiturs, a common trait among conspiratorialists. Likely it was a Jewish nobleman’s tomb. This type of wild evidence making alone should bring in to question the type of credibility of the Cameron-Jacobovici team.

    What amuses me is the suggestion that a Jewish nation would bring in a team of biased experts to be sure to come up with lies to refute the evidence that the Jesus tomb was at best greatly exaggerated and at worst a malicious hoax all as an attempt to save Christians from the awful truth. I suppose as long as you can claim that real truthful unbiased scholarship is a conspiracy on the part of Israel or the Pope or some other mainstream figure you never have to answer any of the serious objections raised by scholars. On another note, I am glad you raised this objection again because it is bound to keep returning.

  • Mike Yohe

    elGaucho, history repeats itself. Cameron-Jacobovici are just the investigate reporters. We just went through this same type of miss-direction a couple years back with the Da Vinci Code. All the talk was about Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code, a fictional book.

    But no one challenged the Holy Blood, Holy Grail written by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln, all investigative reporters. Which Dan Brown’s book was using just a few point of their information!
    Ever ask yourself why?
    Ever ask yourself why the claim of Jesus’ tomb never really made a dent with American Christians?
    After all was not Jesus part of God?
    I’ll tell you what I think. Give me DNA and logic. The pope and Israel have no scholar credits anymore with me and a lot of the rest of the general public, nor do any of the organizations they fund.

    If this amuses you, you should look at the Peace Process. For years it has been a front for covering a land and resource grab. Yes the Peace Process is just a hoax by Israel. That is not my point of view, but the view of most of the people in today’s world.

    All I want and look for is the past history, the truth, nothing more. Let’s work together and bring religion out of the Dark Ages and learn about our past.