Many news outlets and blogs are talking about the second first-century tomb in Talpiot that James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici have investigated and written about in The Jesus Discovery. Having recently discussed the subject of Jesus’ burial in my book The Burial of Jesus: What Does History Have to Do with Faith?, I have my own thoughts about some of the claims being made. Since epigraphers and archaeologists have commented on the claims about the inscriptions and iconography in the second Talpiot tomb Tabor and Jacobovici explored, known as the “patio tomb,” let me offer a perspective from New Testament historical criticism.
In the scenario Jacobovici and Tabor envisage, the plot of land where the Talpiot tombs were found would have belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. Here’s what Tabor writes in The Bible and Interpretation:
If, the burial of Jesus, as all our ancient sources report, was carried out by a wealthy and influential member of the Sanhedrin, namely Joseph of Arimathea, who had the backing of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, might we expect any “Jesus family tomb” to be on his property and thus adjacent to other tombs that belonged to his extended clan. The gospel of John indicates that the initial burial of Jesus near the place of crucifixion was a hasty emergency measure in the late afternoon prompted by the nearness of the Sabbath/Passover holiday at sundown on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion (John 19:41-42). It was a burial of necessity and opportunity. This particular tomb was chosen because it was unused and happened to be near the place of crucifixion. The idea that this tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea makes no sense. What are the chances that Joseph of Arimathea would just happen to have his own new family tomb conveniently located near the Place of the Skull, or Golgotha,where the Romans regularly crucified their victims?
This seems to me to represent a combination of a variety of information from New Testament sources in a manner that is at times insightfully critical, and at others insufficiently critical. The idea that Joseph of Arimathea was a disciple of Jesus’ and buried Jesus in his own tomb (whether immediately after the crucifixion, as some Gospels claim, or at a later point as Tabor believes) is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and so is of dubious historical value. The Gospel of John, which Tabor cites, has a burial take place in a tomb that is conveniently located nearby, but it also implausibly has Joseph and Nicodemus use an enormous quantity of spices and give Jesus a burial fit for a king, which seems unlikely if Tabor is right that this was a temporary burial, with the aim of Jesus being moved to another tomb once the Sabbath was over. The burial fit for a king described in the Gospel of John also is at odds with the earliest account, in the Gospel of Mark, in which Jesus is not anointed for burial, Joseph of Arimathea is not a disciple of Jesus, and Jesus is simply placed in “a tomb” located near enough to be feasible with the start of the Sabbath approaching. It makes most sense to view that as having been a tomb used for the dishonorable burial of criminals executed on that site.
To sum up, then, in addition to issues with the interpretation of inscriptions and images on the ossuaries, the interpretation of the Talpiot tombs as the resting place of Jesus and many other Christians is at odds with our earliest historical sources as well. Jesus was most likely given a dishonorable burial in a tomb near to the site of his execution. The Talpiot neighborhood is some 45 minutes’ walk from the traditional site of Golgotha, and so would not have been used for that purpose. Joseph of Arimathea does not seem to have been a disciple of Jesus in historical fact, and so even if he had a tomb in that Talpiot area, it is unlikely that he placed the body of Jesus in it at any point, whether immediately after the crucifixion or subsequently.
Tabor’s reconstruction seems to require us to believe that at least some of the Gospel authors (1) knew about Jesus’ burial in Talpiot by Joseph of Arimathea, but (2) applied details of that burial to what was in fact only an initial, temporary burial, and (3) denied that Jesus was reburied but instead claimed that he rose from the dead. This seems extremely unlikely, and to combined details from the Gospels with other archaeological data in a manner that pays insufficient attention to the relative date of written source drawn upon and the corresponding likelihood or unlikehood that information contained in them is historical.
As a follow-up to yesterday’s collection of links, let me add some additional links on this topic:
James Tabor himself posted on his blog today, having published a piece yesterday in The Bible and Interpretation which I mentioned in my own post above. There’s also an excerpt from the book in the Huffington Post.
Rogue Classicism offers a detailed treatment of the alleged fish (the orientation on the ossuary suggests otherwise, and the photos have been rotated to give a misleading impression) and also comes up with a plausible reconstruction of the inscription.
As Jim West notes, ASOR’s blog posts have been having an impact. Today Robin Jensen added her voice to the posts on that blog yesterday on this topic. Bob Cargill posted on whether Absalom’s Tomb is the image in question (having also posted twice on his own blog). Yesterday Eric Meyers and Jodi Magness posted. Christopher Rollston today posted a shorter treatment on his blog of his ASOR post from yesterday, and he reposted an earlier article of his on the first Talpiot tomb.