More Analysis on the Talpiot Tomb and the James Ossuary

More Analysis on the Talpiot Tomb and the James Ossuary October 16, 2015


Eerdmans has published a very important collection of essays, which were originally papers given at a conference in Jerusalem in January 2008. The papers have been collected and put together by my fellow N.C. Methodist NT scholar, Jim Charlesworth, and the book is entitled ‘The Tomb of Jesus and His Family?
Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013. Pp. xx + 585. Paper.$48.00. ISBN 9780802867452.

The book has recently been reviewed by Jodi Magness of UNC for the RBL. Her judgment, with which I agree is that the most important paper at the conference was delivered by two of the original archaeologists associated with the dig at the Talpiot tomb, Shimon Gibson and Amos Kloner. As with any collection of essays, some are more helpful than others, some are more speculative than others, some are more fact based than others. Here are some of the papers, which in my judgment more accurately reflect what the evidence suggests. The RBL article usefully summarizes each of the papers’ conclusions and I will highlight some of these by quoting Magness’ summaries and comments verbatim. The full review can be found at, but I believe you have to subscribe to the RBL to be able to access these reviews, hence this blog post for general readers.

L. M. McDonald: There is no convincing evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene or anyone else, that he fathered a child named Judah, or that his earliest followers misplaced the location of his tomb.

M. Aviam: When Galilean Jews died while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, their remains generally were brought home for burial.

R. Hachlili: If Jesus and his mother Mary had been buried in an ossuary in a Jerusalem tomb, the names inscribed on the ossuaries would
have been Yeshua or Yeshua of Nazareth, and Maryam/Mariah mother of Yeshua of Nazareth. Because Mary Magdalene was not a family member, she would not necessarily have been buried in a family tomb belonging to Jesus.
The Talpiyot tomb is a Jewish family tomb “with no connection to the
historical Jesus family”.

S. Pfann:
The ossuary from the Talpiyot tomb is not the only one from the Jerusalem
necropolis inscribed with the name Jesus son of Joseph, and, statistically, one in every ten tombs in the necropolis would contain the remains of a male with this name (whether indicated by an inscribed ossuary or not). The claim that Jesus was married and fathered a child is unsupported by our earliest sources.
Ossuaries often contained the remains of more than one individual, and the fact that two individuals were named on the side of an ossuary does not limit the remains inside to only those two individuals.The correct reading of the inscription on the ossuary attributed by Jacobovici to Mary Magdalene indicates that it contained the remains of two individuals named Mariame and Mara.

M. Elliott and K. Kilty:
The inscription “Jesus son of Joseph” is rare on ossuaries, and no
tomb comparable in size to the Talpiyot tomb contains a group of names so close to what
we would expect of a Jesus family tomb. If Yoseh is a variant of the name Joseph, the probability that this is the family tomb of Jesus is 3 percent.

C. Fuchs:
The various analyses of the names on the ossuaries from the Talpiyot tomb
unanimously conclude that this cluster of names is not statistically significant.
They also agree that the claim that this is the family tomb of Jesus is not even “‘more likely than not,’ which is the standard of proof required in the civil law” (392).This is a lesser standard of proof than “beyond reasonable doubt,” which is required in criminal law and is sometimes considered comparable to reaching statistical significance. Most of the
statistical analyses conclude that there is only a slim probability that this is the family tomb of Jesus.

M. Spigelman:
The claim that ancient mitochondrial DNA from one of the inscribed
ossuaries belongs to two individuals who may have been husband and wife does “not in any way support the theory that this could be the DNA of Jesus and Mary Magdalene” (231). In fact, the sampling process
appears to have left open the possibility of contemporary contamination, and we have no idea what material was sampled.
Furthermore, there could have been other contamination,as we do not know how many people looked inside the ossuary since the burial (not only archaeologists but ancient grave robbers). In fact, it is unclear if the mitochondrial DNA found belongs to a human or a rodent.

A. Rosenfeld et al.:
The patina inside the letters incised on the ossuary appears to have
accreted gradually, rather than being artificially deposited, and
it has “the same geochemical fingerprints” as the patina in the Talpiyot tomb and its ossuaries. (“The claim that the patina on the James ossuary matches the patina in the Talpiyot tomb received renewed media coverage recently [Easter 2015],when A. Shimron, an Israeli geologist, announced the results of his own analyses[still unpublished]. Even if these results are correct, it is not clear to me how other tombs in the vicinity could be ruled out as possible matches without testing them all”). N.B. This last parenthetical quotation is a verbatim from Prof. Magness herself in her review, and I agree with her point. I would add, that it is not at all clear to me that we can really talk about a geochemical fingerprint at all. This matter can be debated by geologists.

Magness adds: “While the quality of the papers varies as much as the opinions expressed in them, several papers stand out. C. Rollston provides an excellent, critical analysis of the names on the ossuaries from the Talpiyot tomb. He notes that
only two of the names have patronymics, and there is a complete absence of matronymics, references to marital status, and fraternal or sororal relationships, all of which makes it impossible to ascertain the precise relationships of the individuals named in the inscriptions.Rollston concludes, “Based on the dearth of epigraphic evidence, it is simply not possible to make assumptions about the
relationships of those buried there in, and it is certainly not tenable to suggest that the data are sufficient to posit that this is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth” (221).”

J. Price: The correct reading of the inscription on the ossuary supposedly associated with Mary Magdalene “does not allow the name Mariamene/Mariamne, and thus there is no epigraphical or onomastic evidence to ascribe it to Mary Magdalene” (307).
Furthermore, the fact that this is the only Greek inscription in the tomb tells us nothing about the individual named, as “[t]he language of an epitaph does not necessarily reflect the mother tongue or even linguistic knowledge of the deceased” (307).

“The most important paper in the volume is by A. Kloner and S. Gibson, both archaeologists who were involved in the excavation of the Talpiyot tomb (which was published by Kloner).They set the record straight regarding the events surrounding the tomb’s excavation and provide a clear and detailed description of its contents (including the fact that the tenth [mis
sing] ossuary was plain and therefore cannot be the “James ossuary”).
Kloner and Gibson conclude that “there is nothing to commend the Talpiot
tomb as the family tomb of Jesus” (51). In fact, all of the archaeologists who spoke at the Jerusalem conference rejected the identification of the Talpiyot tomb as the tomb of Jesus and his family.”

Again, this last paragraph is a verbatim quote of Magness’ summary of their views, and it is an accurate summary. It’s probably time to let the Talpiot tomb/Jesus’ burial site theory R.I.P.

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