Talpiot Tomb Geology

Talpiot Tomb Geology April 16, 2015

CNN, the New York Times, the Independent, the Jerusalem Post, and the Guardian have had articles about it. James Tabor has mentioned it on his blog more than once, and others like Mark Goodacre, Bob Cargill, and Ben Witherington have also chimed in.

I am referring, of course, to the not at all new suggestion that Jesus and other members of his family, including his wife and son, were buried in a tomb in what is now the Talpiot suburb of Jerusalem.

There is nothing new in the news reports that I can see. And so the recent attention to this presumably reflects the media’s penchant for making or reviving sensationalistic claims at Easter.

I am actually long overdue to blog about a book on precisely this subject: The Tomb of Jesus and His Family?: Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls edited by James Charlesworth.

Although recent reports suggested that “new” chemical analysis indicated that the James Ossuary comes from the Talpiot tomb, the data seems to be what was already known when the aforementioned book was published. It is not clear to me whether geochemical analysis can be used to identify a specific tomb from which artifacts came. This is the first instance that I am aware of in which an attempt is made to identify the place of origin of an ossuary by the chemical signature of elements in the patina. The validity of this method, and the degree of specificity and certainty it offers, need to be evaluated and demonstrated.

The evidence for the authenticity of the James ossuary is not insubstantial (despite what has sometimes been claimed). But due to the combined factors of not having been documented when excavated, and having been handled poorly subsequently, it is unlikely that we would be able to demonstrate that to everyone’s satisfaction at this point. Which is unfortunate, but a not uncommon state of affairs in archaeology.

If, however, the aforementioned points could be addressed, and it turned out that the James ossuary and its inscription are ancient, and that it came from the same tomb in Talpiot as the ossuaries that say “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Mary and Martha,” “Matthias,” and “Jose,” then I think that would make it very likely indeed that we are dealing with the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

Historians cannot simply dismiss the possibility that we might find not just the tomb but the remains of Jesus. But when sensational claims are made, we expect a high standard of evidence. And when the investigation is done in connection with a filmmaker known to sensationalize and misconstrue the unsensational, even more skepticism is warranted.

I was pleased to see two contributions to The Tomb of Jesus and His Family? by my friend Eldad Keynan. I’m not persuaded by his view that Jesus was a mamzer – for my reasoning, see my article, “Was Jesus Illegitimate?”

And of course, for more of my thoughts on the burial of Jesus, you might want to check out my e-book, The Burial of Jesus.



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  • Occam Razor

    Why do sensational claims require a higher standard of evidence? That seems to me to be a self-fulfilling requirement aimed at dismissing anything that upsets the status quo.

    Does that mean if this tomb involved some less important figure, you would look at the evidence differently?

    And how do you judge what is a sensational?

    There is a tomb with the names of Jesus and his family. However common the names might be, the combination of names is extremely uncommon.

    • The odds of finding the remains of a famous person are less than for finding the remains of a commoner. And the motive of profit is a possible reason to make false claims in the former case that can be discounted in the latter. And so there is reason to focus more scrutiny on sensational claims – not to discount them a priori, but to look even more closely at the evidence.

      When a claim is made by someone who has made sensational claims before, and those claims are ones which scholars in relevant fields find to be unjustified or dubious, then the same point applies, I think.

      • Occam Razor

        I like your blog a lot, James, but you have a blind spot when it comes to your clique with Goodacre and Cargill.

        When you say somebody makes a claim for “profit,” understand that is totally unsupportable by any facts, and is basically a way to dismiss something without dealing with the facts. For one thing, whatever a person’s motive, that doesn’t affect the truth of the matter. What’s more, the idea that someone has the idea that they are going to get wealthy by making claims about Biblical Archeology is simply ludicrous. You get wealthy trading derivatives on Wall Street. You don’t get wealthy writing about archaeology, whatever the topic.

        Again, what is “sensational” is purely relative. Your books are no less sensational in terms of what they claim.

        Here’s the difference between Simcha and scholarly academics like yourself: he has a journalist’s mind and knows not to bury the lead. That’s it.

        Scholars like to discuss their evidence and then get to the point at the end. This is generally the case in every discipline.

        Simcha, though, figures outt the “why we care” part and highlights it up front

        • If you look closely at his claims about the Exodus, and about Joseph and Aseneth, you’ll find that they bear very little relationship to the evidence.

          Trying to suggest that my books are “sensational” in what they claim seems dubious in and of itself without and specifics being mentioned. But even if you are correct, I can be expected to bring more relevant expertise to bear on a subject if I write about it. And even then, if my claims do not persuade my peers in my field, you would be ill advised to embrace them.

          • Occam Razor

            Sensational does not mean dubious. But that just shows that it is a relative term with different meanings to different people.

            I don’t have a problem with your views, and I don’t agree with everything Simcha says. But If you spoke to an evangelical Christian about your books, they would say the exact same things about you as to what you say about Simcha. Outside of the academy, saying what you say about Jesus is pretty scandalous. Millions of Christians would consider it sensational and accuse you of being a pointy-headed liberal trying to destroy the faith.

            I do think that Simcha pushes the evidence beyond where it goes in terms of probability. I don’t think he has proven that Jesus was married or had kids or was buried at Talpiot. But today I think the likelihood of those things is a lot higher than it was a few years ago, because there is evidence, and I don’t reflexively recoil at the mention of his name, and I find it ironic that people who produce and participate in “sensational” documentaries on TV are so averse to a filmmaker participating in their field.

          • Occam Razor

            An example of poor filmmaking: the recent piece on the Gospel of Judas. It kept going back and forth between the discovery, ancient history, the meaning, the silly flashbacks and so on. Finally in the last few minutes they tell us the nub of the story, that the consensus is now that the piece reflects the argument between second century Christians.

            But viewers to get that point had to wait through almost an hour of confusing back-and-forth. Anybody who didn’t already know the history (and I’m boring enough to have read some of the books about it) would have been thoroughly bored and confused by that point, if they kept watching. I wouldn’t have kept watching if I wasn’t lazy that hour.

            Much better would have been to tell people up front what the conclusion was, and then lead them to the facts that underline that point.

          • Thanks for clarifying where you are coming from. When something seems sensationalistic to those outside the academy but mundane to those in it, the problem is with people outside the academy not being aware of, or rejecting, what scholars do. I think that is very different from the situation in which something seems sensationalized to those in the academy.

            I am open to the possibility of the Talpiot tomb having been the burial place of Jesus and his family. If the method used to connect an ossuary with a tomb based on its patina can be shown to be chemically sound, the James ossuary to be from the Talpiot tomb, and the inscription on the James ossuary to not cut through the patina, then I would say that the Talpiot tomb is very likely to be the tomb of Jesus. I just don’t think that case has been made in a way that I find adequate. But I am open to it being made.

          • Paul E.

            Good point, well-made.

  • Joe Wallack

    “And when the investigation is done in connection with a filmmaker known
    to sensationalize and misconstrue the unsensational, even more
    skepticism is warranted.”

    Am I the only one to see the irony here.

    • What irony? A “believer” in what?

      • Joe Wallack

        Well let me put it to you this way. Who do you think has more credibility, James Cameron or whoever wrote “Mark”?

        • The question doesn’t make sense. Neither can be assumed to be “credible” in some vague sense. Both need to have each claim they make weighed by historians and scholars with expertise in the field about which a claim is being made.

          • Joe Wallack

            Is this the same James F. McGrath that makes broad general claims about the credibility of Mythicists?

          • No, this is the James F. McGrath who offers detailed explanations of why the specific claims of mythicists are not credible.

          • Bob


            The recent news reports do provide new information: Dr. Aryeh Shimron’s chemical analysis on the limestone deposit taken inside the ossuary wall matches the chemical deposits from both the walls of the talpiot tomb and the chemical signature from the other ossuaries that come from this tomb. This new evidence is completely separate from the patina chemical analysis which also suggested the James ossuary came from the talpiot tomb. Dr. Shimron does have the requisite scientific and statistical expertise related to this kind of analysis. Dr. Shimron needs to publish his findings in a peer reviewed journal. I contend that history will view Dr. Shimron’s work as achieving pivotal turning point in establishing that the talpiot tomb does belong to the Jesus family from the Bible.

  • Cuttlefish

    The most fair and balanced article I have read on this subject.