To understand what these claims are, we need to go back to a (widely discredited) documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” released by documentarist Simcha Jacobovichi in 2007.
“The Lost Tomb” in question, now called the Talpiot Tomb, was discovered in 1980. It contained ten ossuaries – a type of small coffin for holding bones – dating to the first century or perhaps a little earlier. Some of the ossuaries had names: Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph), Maria (Mary), Yose (Joseph/ Jose), Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus), Mariamene e Mara (Miriam [and] Martha), and Matya (Matthew). One blank ossuary was measured and then stored with other blank ossuaries. None of this was very surprising, since tombs and ossuaries are common archeological finds in and around Jerusalem.
But Jacobovici asserted that this was Jesus’ family tomb: “Jesus son of Joseph” is the Jesus of the New Testament; “Mariamene e Mara” is a single person, Mary Magdalene, who was married to Jesus; and Judah is their son. Others in the tomb include Mary the mother of Jesus, Jose the brother of Jesus (Mk 6:3) and an otherwise unknown Matthew. In addition, Jacobovici claimed that the famous James ossuary, inscribed with “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” originally came from the Talpiot Tomb (rather than being from the Silwan area east of the Temple, which is what experts have previously claimed). That rounded out Jesus’ family by including another of Jesus’ brothers, James (Mk 6:3, Gal 1:19).
Before we tackle the new claims this year, let me briefly explain the problems with Jacobovici’s original documentary. At the time of the documentary, many experts in archeology (some Christian, some Jewish, some with no particular beliefs) examined the claims that the Talpiot Tomb contained Jesus and his family, and they roundly rejected it. Their main reasons:
- All of the names found in the tomb are very common in ancient Israel. Some estimate that during the three-to-four generation period that the tomb was in use, there were about 1000 men with the name “Jesus son of Joseph” living in Jerusalem, and many more outside Jerusalem. Archeologists have catalogued three other ossuaries with the name “Jesus son of Joseph.” Mary / Miriam, along with spelling variants, was the name of 21% of Jewish women! A papyrus find from the early second century gave evidence for another family with the names Jesus, Simon, Mary, Jacob and Judah, so this combination of names is not strange.
- Jacobovici made much of the DNA evidence showing that some of the males in the tomb are related, but Mariamene is not related to Jesus. He claimed that this was proof that the two were married. It doesn’t take much to see the silliness of this claim. Mariamene could have been the wife, daughter, half-sister, or cousin of any of the males in the tomb; the DNA test only proved that the two did not share a mother.
- Ossuaries were often reused. Amos Kloner, the archeologist who oversaw the initial find, estimated that the ten boxes contained the remains of 17 people, and that the surrounding tomb contained another 30 sets of remains. In particular, the ossuary labeled “Mariamene e Mara” may have contained the bones of two women who died at different times (it may also have been a name and a nickname). So there is no way to tell if any of the bones tested correspond to the names on the boxes. In addition, since the ossuaries and remains were handled by several people after the discovery, it is even possible that the DNA tested came from a modern archeologist.
- Jacobovici heavily relied on statistical work: what were the odds that this clustering of names was just coincidental, rather than being connected to Jesus’ family? A statistician quoted in the documentary, Andrey Feuerverger, estimated that the odds were 1 in 600 that the collection of names was mere coincidence. But Feuerverger based this on multiple faulty assumptions that were given to him by Jacobovici. Among the faulty assumptions: Jesus’ family had a tomb in Jerusalem (begging the question!); Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene; the name Mariamene is highly likely to refer to Mary Magdalene; a son of Jesus named Judah is historically plausible; and others. Since all of these assumptions are highly suspect, the resulting odds are not worth much.
Do the claims of the geologist bolster Jacobovici’s “Tomb of Jesus” idea? Not really. Here are some problems with the new claims.
- The James Ossuary was photographed in 1976. The Talpiot Tomb was discovered and excavated in 1980, so it is very unlikely that the James Ossuary is from the Talpiot Tomb
- The so-called “tenth ossuary” from the Talpiot Tomb was measured and described as having no inscription. The James Ossuary has different measurements and an inscription. So the “tenth ossuary” from Talpiot is not the James Ossuary.
- The idea being floated that this is an "eleventh ossuary" that was somehow removed much earlier than 1980, while the rest of the tomb was left intact, seems like mere supposition, with no real evidence.
- This method of evaluating patina for location is interesting, but untested. No one has demonstrated that the composition of the patina could be used to identify the specific place of origin for an artifact. It has not yet been tested in enough locations. It is quite possible that the James ossuary was in another tomb that was filled in with the same kind of soil.
- So far, patina analysis has primarily been used to prove that the false patina on forged artifacts does not match the patina expected for a genuine artifact. In fact, patina analysis is uncertain enough that archeologists have sometimes been unable to agree on whether the patina on other artifacts (such as the Jehoash inscription) is genuine.
- The geologist who did this work has never done any previous research on patina.
- The James Ossuary itself is on shaky ground. Because it was bought on the antiquities market rather than uncovered by an archeological team, its inscription may be forged. Experts remain divided on its authenticity.
The picture: the James Ossuary, inscribed with "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus."