Talpiot Tombs and New Testament Historical Criticism

Talpiot Tombs and New Testament Historical Criticism March 5, 2012

A piece I wrote, expanding on my thoughts about the relationship between the recent claims regarding the Talpiot tombs on the one hand, and New Testament historical criticism on the other, has appeared on the ASOR blog. Click through to read it.

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  • Hey James, you wrote a good article.  Edward Babinsky left the following comment from a radio interview with Crossan on my latest post (http://ntmark.wordpress.com/2012/03/04/prophecy-historicized-or-history-scripturized/#comment-798) and I was wondering if you would comment on it?  My question is that I know you accept Mark’s dishonourable burial at least as historical (against Crossan) but would that imply there were other crucified criminals with Jesus in the tomb and if so would anyone be able to distinguish Jesus’ corpse from the others (i.e. to know Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb)?  I know I should probably get a hold of your book, especially at the brilliant price for the ebook on the UK Amazon, but I first have to get one of those Kindle things 🙂

  • Correction: please edit that to “Babinski” (I made that spelling error before too).

    • Mike K, you can edit your own comments in Disqus.

      It’s a great question that I have found it difficult if not impossible to find a clear answer to. It seems as though, to the extent that families of at least some executed criminals would have been allowed to claim the bones after a year had passed, some manner of marking a particular location in a tomb of this sort would have been necessary. But I have not found any clear evidence in the form of names or markings inscribed on tomb shelves for this purpose – but that may just be because I work mostly in texts rather than archaeology and epigraphy. I’d welcome input from others, and may actually post something about this in a separate blog post…

  • goodacre

    Thanks for the article, James, and thanks for the reference to my blog post on Jonah in Q. 

  • Brian

    Excellent work as usual James. Hopefully your opinion is represented or given heed to, when this goes out to the media.

  • James Tabor

    Thanks for your thoughts James. I will try to post something more fully on my blog in the future but for now, just a couple of observations.First, I think we all are committed to a critical reading of our sources, so no disagreement there. Although dating gospels is fraught with difficulties (we just did a grad seminar here on this last semester and surveyed all the dating proposals and their assumptions and methods–very complex) I generally put Q (apologies to Mark Goodacre, still find it persuasive in a modified way) pre-70, Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts, and of course John post-70. I remind myself and my students continually of how little we know of the pre-70 Jesus community. I think we all agree that strands of oral tradition must be floating around, but other than Q and some of our possible reconstructions (Crossan, et al.) it is difficult to know for sure what affirmations were being made pre-70. We do have Paul. And he knows the “third day” tradition. I think that is the key. We find it repeatedly in Mark, so that takes us close to 70 (based on Mark 13), and then of course it shows up in Luke 24 and even John. It seems to be based on a pesher of Hosea 6:2 and the Jonah story. That along with Psa. 110 and Dan 7:14 seems to me to be our early cluster of Jesus exaltation faith–as I prefer to call it. Jesus is raised on the third day, sits at the right hand, and comes in the clouds of heaven. All of these are in Paul, so they go back to the 50s. So when they show up, as in Matthew’s elaboration of Q 11:29-32, we should not assume that elaboration is “late” and therefore irrelevant to this tomb. I think, with Bauckham, Hurtado, and others, it is the earliest Christology and goes back to the first followers–40s and 50s CE. In a non-specialist book, for readers who don’t even know what Q is, much less Goodacre’s objections and qualifications, it is difficult to get into all this. What I intended to convey is that the “third day” “after three days” and “three days and three nights” tradition seems to be widespread and reach back to the 30-70 CE period. Matthew often elaborates Mark and Q (the leaven is the teaching of the Pharisees, the abomination is from Daniel, etc.) and his elaborations of Luke/Q’s double tradition is not necessarily late–who knows, sometimes it might even be early. I also wonder if Q11:30 is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection also–a greater than Jonah is here, and he will become a “sign” as Jonah was a sign. But more on that elsewhere.On the JoA burial traditions you are right of course, the strands are complex and I surely did not intend to play fast and lose with them. I would begin again with Paul, who knows of a burial and a third day tradition. Unlike many of my colleagues I doubt the empty tomb was invented by Mark. And the core JofA story, of him taking charge, commissioned by Pilate, I accept as a frame. It could of course be doubted, but Mark has him a member of the Sanhedrin, etc. Although I think we should generally privilege the earlier sources it is increasingly acknowledged that John, though late, seems to preserve many older traditions. I am well aware of the criminal burial site near the cross possibility but that would discount the empty tomb story, which I am not willing to do. Here I find myself strangely bedfellow with my avowed evangelical Christian colleagues who also insist it is early. So in looking at all the sources I have tried to construct a skeletal narrative: Pesach is pending, JoA takes charge of burial, hastily puts him near the cross in an unused tomb, body found removed by Sunday AM (maybe Sat night)…thus my reburial conclusion by the only obvious candidate–JofA who had taken charge of things. James, I realize this is your speciality and as you know I read your thesis and your book and have learned greatly from your work. I appreciate your post. That said, I do not think the earliest followers had a problem with a tomb of Jesus and faith in his heavenly exaltation–Mark has no appearances as you know and Jesus will meet them in the “clouds of heaven” as per the transfiguration. Perrin was my teacher at Chicago. Like the Lubavitcher Rebbe they could honor the burial and believe in the heavenly exaltation. This, by the way, would be true of your tomb near the cross idea as well I suppose, unless you think he was moved from there, which sounds like you do not.

    • Thanks, James, for your comment. I am certainly open to the possibility of the early tomb tradition being early – Paul mentions burial, and while it is less than explicit that he thought of the remains of Jesus leaving the tomb, it is certainly possible that he did so, and that others thought likewise.

      Presumably if a tomb used for burial of executed criminal was in view in Mark, then the tomb was not found empty, but the Gospel of Mark doesn’t say that it was empty, just that Jesus’ body was no longer there. 

      If disciples went to the tomb and the body was not there, then historically speaking the most likely explanation is that someone moved it, or that the stone was left to one side and scavengers such as dogs got in. If someone connected with the Christian movement moved the body, then I find it difficult to make sense of the developing textual tradition, which seems concerned to give Jesus a more honorable burial than he actually received, and yet does not mention the disciples actually doing precisely what John would eventually fictionally depict them as doing, namely giving Jesus the honorable burial they thought he deserved.

      I’m open to other explanations as to why this might be – for instance, it might be that moving a body from the tomb for criminals was considered a violation of the very purpose of that tomb, namely dishonorable burial, and might even have been considered grave robbing, a serious crime. But at least as yet, I don’t feel that there is an account of the Talpiot tomb and New Testament evidence that provides a scenario which deals persuasively with all such aspects. I’m not opposed in principle to such an explanation being offered, or to finding it persuasive!  🙂