The Burial of Jesus, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot Tomb

The Burial of Jesus, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot Tomb January 9, 2012

I’ve been revising The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith and I hope a second edition of it will be available as a ebook at some point in the future. One topic that has given me pause is the intersection of the questions related to the New Testament evidence, the James Ossuary, and the Talpiot tomb.

The subject is addressed in a new article in The Bible and Interpretation by Kevin Kilty and Mark Elliott, “Regarding Magness and Talpiot.” In it, the authors respond to Jodi Magness’ treatment of the Talpiot tomb in her book, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus (a book I’m currently reading and hope to review in the coming weeks).

It seems to me that, if it can be demonstrated scientifically that patina corresponding to an authentic inscription is there on the whole of the James Ossuary inscription; and if it can be shown that comparing patina using minerological analysis allows one to trace an ossuary to a specific tomb; and if it can be shown that the aforementioned analysis indicates that the James Ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb, then it would seem to be reasonable to conclude that the Talpiot tomb probably contained at some point the bones of Jesus, his brother, and other relatives including a son of Jesus.

But at the moment, those are big ifs.

One of the reasons I wrote The Burial of Jesus was to address the aversion that many religious believers have to historical study. On the one hand, historians discuss awkward topics such as whether a place where Jesus and his son were buried has been found. They may answer “no,” but many religious believers consider even the question inappropriate. On the other hand, historical study even when it lends supporting evidence to the reliability of texts, it only does so with probability, not certainty.

I remember on my visit to Israel last summer listening to two visitors from Italy translating the description of what one of the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb, which were on display there, said: “Judas the son of Jesus.” They said it twice, each time sounding as though they couldn’t believe what they were reading. They probably weren’t even aware that there was more than one “Jesus” and more than one “Judas” in the first century. They didn’t know what to do with the apparently tangible and highly disconcerting objects in front of them.

It is crucial not to attempt to dismiss unsettling subjects like this one because of one’s faith tradition believing that the evidence can’t possibly mean this or that. Whether the Talpiot tomb is a place where Jesus or his bones were buried at some point must be decided based on the evidence, and nothing else.

Read the article in The Bible and Interpretation, then come back here and let me know your impression. My own view is that the possibility cannot yet be ruled out, but neither is the authenticity of key evidence or the reliability of the methods used beyond dispute. And so if a revised version of my book is published sooner rather than later, I will be hedging my bets.

But that is the nature of history, and the challenge of relating it to faith. Its conclusions are always provisional, and subject to revision in light of new evidence, or further study of old evidence.

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  • Brian

    I myself do not know what to make of the article since everybody who writes on this topic claims to be an expert. Now I myself, hope that this isn’t the tomb of Jesus with his bones and all, but I side with you in saying that before we talk about any theological issues we must first study the subject using the tools of historical analysis.
    But I’ll leave it to experts or competent folk like you, to help me evaluate the evidence. Since that’s all I can do really. Anyway, I’m seriously hoping this isn’t it, cause not only would that suck but it be a bit of a headscratcher for me on many other issues.

  • Eldad Keynan

    Thanks, James, for thr entire content, and especially for pointing at the attitude.

  • Michael Wilson

    I’m afarid the names are too common to say that this is likely related to Jesus of Nazareth. Their is an air of corruption around the story as well.

  • Geoff Hudson

    Kilty and Elliott’s arguments are based on the NT being literally true.

  • Geoff: no, it isn’t.

    Michael, the names are indeed common, but I think that if we have a Jesus son of Joseph and a James son of Joseph brother of Jesus ossuary from the same tomb, that would be statistically significant, since there were not a lot of Jesuses and Jameses sins of Joseph where the Jesus was so famous that his brother’s ossuary would mention him.

    To Brian and perhaps everyone, the jury is still out on some of the crucial questions, and so it is perfectly acceptable not to get panicked about this! 🙂

    • Geoff Hudson

      James you wrote: “since there were not a lot of Jesuses and Jameses sins of Joseph where the Jesus was so famous that his brother’s ossuary would mention him.”

      The whole trial has been about the authenticity of the James ossuary, although I don’t see why there has been any dispute.  I don’t know what the verdict was, if any.  I would imagine that the culprits will get off scot-free to preserve the reputation of the traders and their lucrative trade in relics.  The judge will no doubt receive a fat brown envelope.  A detached opinion is given by professor Yuval Goren.      

      • The trial was about whether Oded Golan was guilty of criminal acts, and he was, as I understand it, found not guilty. But that says nothing about whether the artifact is authentic, only about whether a jury drew the conclusion that one particular individual created a fake. The tests that were done initially suggest that the ossuary is old but at least part of the inscription might not be authentic. A subsequent reexamination raised further issues. That’s why I have said that further scientific analysis of the patina, and whether it is there on the entirety of the inscription, is called for. On that, metaphorically speaking, the jury is still out.

      • Geoff Hudson

        And there was no jury in the trial, only a judge.  The whole thing stinks.

        • You are quite right, I believe. No jury, just a judge.

        • Geoff Hudson

          If Oded Golan was found not guilty, I can only laugh. 

  • Eldad Keynan

    As for the commonness of the names: it’s completely depended on the method of calculation. The names were commonn provided we count the generic name, say: Josef, and all it’s derivatives as one. When we separate the derivatives and count each “form” individually, NONE of the Talpiot names is really commonn.

  • “son of Jesus”? Huh? Did I miss some major discovery? Maybe a new gospel or something?

    • It is the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb that I’m referring to. Among them are one that says “Jesus son of Joseph” and “Judas son of Jesus.”

  • Eldad Keynan

    Of course there was no jury – we have no jury in our legal system. Goeff, your line with the brown envelope would get you in real trouble here. Anyway – the Talpiot Tomb affair, in its entirety, does smell; sharply smell. I wonder what causes that smell. Or rather: who and why?

    • Geoff Hudson

      Thanks for telling me something that I already knew.  As for the origin of the smell, that is obvious, it is from the judiciary and the defendants.  I am really surprised at you Eldad for supporting them.

  • Would I be opening a can of worms here by asking, does the authenticity of the Talpiot tomb really come down to the James ossuary? Is that the “make or break” artifact? What about the two female ossuaries? Is it possible that they should receive more research and scrutiny? (Or have they, and my info is just outdated, and/or I missed something while scanning the “Regarding Magness” essay?) Maybe these Marys–whoever they were–are the ties that bind the mystery together?

    Mind you, I’m not a scientist, professor or scholar — simply a writer fascinated by religious history, with a particular interest in the Talpiot tomb.

    My apologies for jumping off topic, just wanted to ask the question if the James ossuary is the end all/be all…

    James, I’d be most interested in an e-version of The Burial of Jesus.

    • Geoff Hudson

      There is no provenance that links the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb. 

      • Eldad Keynan

        Geoff, did you know that? If so, then what is this : “And there was no jury in the trial, only a judge. The whole thing stinks”?
        You may also dismiss anything that doesn’t fit into your set of ideas; thus you may keep this one as well “There is no provenance that links the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb”. Three labs confirmed the James ossuary source, meaning: the Talpiot Tomb. I’m not supporting “them”, Geoff. I support reasonable finds, debates and conclusions. This is in contrast to those who do whatever in their power to keep themsleves and their audience away from reason. The authors of “Regarding Magness and Talpiot” were professional and polite enough not to discuss motives. Believe me. Remember Galileo.

        • Geoff Hudson

          You mean like the research lab that can identify the patina on the James ossuary to those found on the actual Talpiot ossuaries whose provenance is proven?  Tell me another. 

          Galileo was way above this seedy Talpiot tomb business.  

          • Geoff Hudson

            I would compare the scandal of the James ossuary to the wall built around Masada which Josephus would convince us was built by the Romans to keep Jews from escaping.  

          • Eldad Keynan

            Geoff – it seems you will dismiss any sort of evidence that might support the Talpiot Tomb as being Jesus’ last resting place. It’s OK – you are in a large company, very large indeed. Go on; it’s your choice. I don’t see how the Masada wall is connected here, but I guess this connection shows the best way to clarify historical questions. One should face the truth, yet one may also decide what truth is.

          • Geoff Hudson

            The judge has apparently reached the conclusion that Oded Golan is innocent of criminal charges. I am flabbergasted.   My conclusion is that the judge must have been bribed in some way, and went against the overwhelming evidence of criminal behaviour.     


          • Eldad Keynan

            So, Geoff. If the judge is not in line with your expectations – he must have been bribed. What a conspiracy! Unfortunately, others, who oppose the Talpiot Tomb as well, live here, but decided to keep silent. I wonder why.

          • Geoff Hudson

            Would it be because they would be seen to be anti-Jewish by a large number of Jewish scholars?  
            The stakes were too high. And the whole lucrative antiquities market would have been undermined.  
            May be it would  be for the same reason that I would be in trouble if I lived there, and said the judge had been bribed.  

            This judge did not even call the two people who did the original excavation of the Talpiot tomb.  He had five years to do it. He failed.  I have to wonder why?  His decision was political on behalf of the State of Israel. 

    • Sorry for the delay in replying to your specific question, Katie! I singled out the James Ossuary because, even though it still seems to me unlikely that it is a missing ossuary from the Talpiot tomb, if it could be shown that it probably was in fact from there, then we would have the following convergence: a tomb with an ossuary of a Jesus son of Joseph, and in that same tomb, an ossuary of a James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus. While there were probably multiple families with the common names Joseph, James, and Jesus in this period, I know of none apart from that of Jesus of Nazareth in which the Jesus was so famous that his brother’s ossuary might mention him. 

      The other names, however unusual, are unlikely to be unique, and so the evidence they provide is less decisive, in my opinion.

      Does that explain why I focused so much attention on that particular ossuary and its connection with the Talpiot tomb, treating it as decisive?

      • Geoff Hudson

        The other big if of course is: did an original inscription not have the words, “brother of Jesus”.  The answer is simple.  Those words being valid would increase the value of the ossuary by an enormous sum.  This was a temptation too far.

        • Geoff, Saying something would increase the value of an ossuary is not a simple answer. The question is whether the patina indicates authenticity of the entirety of the inscription or not. If there had not been some ambiguity about the experts’ conclusions regarding that, then we might indeed have had a simple answer by now.

          • Geoff Hudson

            James that there is ambiguity from the experts coupled with the temptation for financial gain, coupled with the fact that Oded Golan had all the paraphernalia to create patina, coupled with the fact that Oded Golan had previous form, is more than enough to convince me that the inscription is a fake.

          • Eldad Keynan

            Geoff, so maybe we all would better look for a thief rather than a forger?

          • Geoff Hudson

            I find this video interesting.  

            Watch how Oded Golan rubs his hands nervously together.    

          • Eldad Keynan

            So, rubbing hands nervously is one strong evidence. Decisive, in fact.

          • Geoff Hudson

            One of a number.

          • Geoff Hudson

            And this video shows the motive for the court finding.  


            Business is booming!  In the sale of biblical antiquities. That is despite all the talk of the IAA wanting to stop the trade.  Voices are being suppressed.   

          • Geoff Hudson

            The court case reminds me of an old saying.  If two Jews have an argument, you hear three opinions.

          • Eldad Keynan

            Yet this case is different. Some agree, unfortunately.

          • Geoff Hudson

            Its an old old story that has gone on ever since Adam and Eve denied eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge – “I have never faked anything”

      • Thanks for the clarification, James. Yes, I understand why you are focusing on the James ossuary. The two “Mary” ossuaries have no title identifier like “daughter of” or “wife of” — they are simply names on a box and therefore, I’m guessing, it would be harder to prove their relationship to anyone else in the Talpiot tomb. Especially since Mary was one of the most popular names at the time. Thanks again! The debate continues!

  • James D. Tabor

    I appreciate the contribution this article makes and I hope that people who continually talk about the Talpiot tomb as having no probably or even possible relationship to Jesus of Nazareth will read a bit and educate themselves on the latest research, most of which is so readily available at 

    I do disagree with the authors’ argument that the earliest Jesus followers were deceived, with some even knowing knowing they had his body but
    representing otherwise. I think it is far more likely that the earliest
    followers had apparition-like experiences, not the “bodily” encounters reported
    by Luke and John and they are perfectly okay with the “bones” respectfully
    interred in a family tomb. After all, Mark has no appearances at all, showing that our earliest gospel could
    circulate just fine without such stories—which then of necessity are later and added for obvious apologetic
    reasons—i.e., hysterical women first found the empty tomb, those who claimed to
    see him saw a ghost, etc. We have to separate pre-70 and post-70. The gospels,
    with the possible exception of Q and Mark, are post-70. What the community in
    Jerusalem, say, between 30-63 or so were doing is unknown to us in terms of a
    tomb of Jesus. They well might have been visiting it and venerating Jesus as
    spiritually ascended to heaven, as Paul indicates in 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Cor
    5. The old body is shuffled off like clothing and the new clothing is then “put
    on.” You don’t keep the old clothing around, or “take it to heaven.” After all,
    Paul says Jesus was buried. But he sees “resurrection” as the raising
    from the “dust” of a “spiritual body,” that he calls a “life-giving” spirit.
    The Lubavitch today regularly visit the Rebbe’s grave but believe nonetheless
    he is glorified in the ‘Olam HaBa and is the Moshiach.


    After 70 CE, and even more so the disasters of 135ff we have
    no records of what Jerusalem followers of Jesus knew or did not know. When we
    get our first pilgrim accounts of holy places in the 3rd and 4th
    centuries there is no certainty about the location of places connected to
    Jesus, much less where the pre-70 followers might have venerated his grave.

  • Gary

    Just my opinion, but the first thing I would do is drop the Table 1, likelihood ratios based upon name association. This is pure “junk” science/math. I like hard data. Try to determine the dates of the material, otherwise name association means nothing. The names are NOT independent variables. The engineer authoring the article should have known that. Post-Christ’s crucifiction, the oral story and supporters of Jesus were exploding. The name association, if the tomb was 100 AD, could easily be explained by a family enamored with the Jesus story, and all the associated names that go with it. How many Mary’s, Jesus, etc are names used in Mexico, with a heavy Catholic population. How many people named their child John, after JFK or John Lennon got shot. A good date trumps all the name association “junk” by several orders of magnitude. Probabilities of names can not be used to associate a tomb with the real Jesus, based upon names on other tombs found. All you need is one fanatical family that followed the stories of a miracle worker, and named their babies after them. Not saying the study isn’t good….just dump the name association stuff, and trying to associate probabilities to it. That is Junk, as much as creation science is.

  • James D. Tabor

    I find it somewhat amazing that so many freely expressing opinions on the controversial Talpiot “Jesus” tomb and/or the “James ossuary” have not kept up with even the most minimum of the latest research on the topic. I find this is the case even with all too many of my academic colleagues, not to mention a host of others, most with an evangelical Christian bias, who regularly “trash” the idea that this tomb might arguably be that of Jesus of Nazareth. It seems everything but the facts are brought into play here.For the latest read my latest blog with the links to keep you up to speed:

  • To Gary,


    It is probably a good idea to attempt to read our papers before
    you state we engaged in junk science. It might interest you that our calculations
    have been accepted by university statisticians. But from the tone of your
    comment, that probably wouldn’t mean much.   


    M. Elliott

    • Gary

      To Mark Elliot… are you saying that the names Mary, Jesus, James, etc are independent variables? If they are, then your probabilities are perhaps valid. However, I do not see how you could possible NOT accept the fact that there are couplings between those names, for any date post 33 AD. As a matter of fact, I would say that clearly they are not independent variables in your probability calculations. Therefore, you had better raise the possibility to your experts. Your experts are probably taking your word for it that they are independent.

  • Eliyahu Konn

    What in the world was all that “if-ing” about the patina not running throughout the lettering on the James (sic) ossuary.  Which scientist here could not see the patterns of the profiles of elements, that they indeed did match.  As a chemist knowledgeable with elemental analysis the samples are conclusive.  You can’t put together the timing of the disappearance of the 10th ossuary?  Seriously guys, I see it will mean you will have to change your profession to Torah/Jewish studies but the world also made the change from all natural to some man-made textiles. Ribi Yehoshua simply fits the 1st century Torah-Jew, albeit the Mashiach, and not a Christian and no one of his people would ever have called him J*sus.

    I might suggest that the academics are calling the kettle black when they also reject the facts.

    If you want the documented facts try  Make sure you get the URL correct otherwise you will get zevel.

  • Eldad Keynan

    No Goeff. You may leave anti-semitism aside; those scholars are all Jews. They surely have another reason or reasons to keep silent.
    As for the antiquities market – it seems that scholars don’t have THAT in mind, huh?
    I never meant these scholars kept silent regarding the Judge, did I?
    In Israel, Judges do not call any witnesses. It’s the prosecution’s job. So judge Farkash did not fail, but the perscution; namely: the IAA, a formal part of the administration. Or maybe they didn’t?
    As far as I know, these two people you are talking about had nothing to state. After all, they stated long ago that the 10 ossuaries arrived at the Rockefeller musueum, did they? Anyway, there were four people, and none of them is connected to the forgery accusation. Justfully, I believe.
    Would you be kind enough to explain the interest of the State of Israel?

    • Geoff Hudson

      The judge knew who the original excavators were.  (The judge himself is an archaeologist).  He knew that the two principal archaeologists who had excavated the tomb had not been called to give their evidence.  They would surely have noticed an inscription “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus”.  

      It seems as though the prosecution lawyer was working hand-in glove with the judge?  The trial looks like a stitch-up of the IAAs employees Goren and Zias to whom it must have been a sham.  And what was it for?  Not justice.  It was to preserve the lucrative market in antiquities for the State of Israel. It seems that some scholars will sell their soul.   

      • Geoff Hudson

        In fact given the number of scholars who, in effect, supported Golan and Deutsch, the decision was as much a reflection on academic views as on the judge, and the prosecution lawyer who didn’t do his job properly.  The academics closed ranks around Golan and Deutsch, never mind about truth.      

  • goodacre

    Thanks for the helpful post, James.  I hope to blog on this later.