Monday, March 12, 2007

TransMin Topples Talpiot Tales

This email was issued from Transformation Ministries today regarding the claims of the Talpiot tomb by James Cameron.

Dear Pastor and Church Leader:

On Sunday, March 4, 2007, James Cameron (Director of the movie "Titanic") aired a program on the Discovery Channel called, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." In it, Cameron claims to have scientific proof that they have found the bones of Jesus and his family in a tomb in Jerusalem.

I've included here a Christian response as written by Dr. Wes Brown. Please feel free to make this available to your congregation.This past Sunday we were at the First Baptist Church of Pomona where Carl Toney showed a 5-minute video on this subject. You may access this video on his website at


Dale Salico, Executive Minister

Transformation Ministries

Christian Response to the Claims of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”
Wesley H. Brown*

On March 4th the Discovery Channel aired a made-for-TV documentary entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” claiming to present archaeological evidence that Jesus of Nazareth’s family tomb was discovered in Jerusalem, including an ossuary (a limestone bone box) with Jesus’ name etched on it. James Cameron, the producer, well known for producing Titanic, showed one of the ossuaries with Jesus’ name in a New York press conference, but failed to mention that Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) was a popular name found on 21 other ossuaries! Some major archaeologists and other scholars who saw the film, agree with archaeologist and author Jodi Magness that “the tomb is not—indeed cannot—be the tomb of Jesus and his family.”[1]

The tomb’s contents and the film’s claims

In 1980, ten ossuaries were found in a tomb in East Talpiot in Jerusalem which dates from the first century. Six of the ossuaries had names scratched on the outside-- the names of people similar to those mentioned in the New Testament—Jesus, Maria, Mariamne (a variant of Mary which they claim was Mary Magdalene), Yose (said to be Joseph), Matia (said to be Matthew), and Judah son of Jesus. “What are the chances of those people being buried in one tomb unless they were the family of Jesus of Nazareth?” the film asks, and then presents statistical studies to try to convince a viewer that it was indeed Jesus of Nazareth’s family tomb.

Director Simcha Jacobovici, claims that this discovery demonstrates that Jesus of Nazareth was actually buried with other family members in this tomb. Furthermore, it asserts that the tomb is evidence that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, by whom he had a child named Judah. (This sounds like someone wanting to give evidence for the theory in Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code.)

First century burials and what was found

Excavations of the tomb were undertaken by Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner in 1980 when the entrance to the tomb was discovered as contractors prepared to construct new apartment buildings. Many first century tombs, cut into rocky hillsides, have been found around Jerusalem. Almost all of them have places to lay the body of the deceased, called “arcosolia” – shelf-like ledges on which the body of the deceased was placed, or “kochim” (Hebrew, or “loculi” in Greek) -- slots cut directly into the rock wall, about six feet deep, two feet wide, and arched at the top. About a year after the placing of the body for decomposition, the bones were gathered and placed in an ossuary or bone box.

Kloner found ten ossuaries in that tomb, six of them with names scratched on the outside, as stated above. The ossuaries were taken first to the Rockefeller Museum where the bones were carefully removed from the ossuaries, and respectfully reburied. This is commonly done because of the strong objections of Orthodox Jews when any buried human remains are moved. The ossuaries were later moved to a huge Israel Antiquities Authority warehouse in Beit Shemesh, where hundreds of other ossuraries are stored.

Kloner told ABC news that the tomb and ossuaries were “interesting but of no particular archaeological importance.”[2] He said there are many more buried tombs with ossuaries just like the "Jesus" tomb. Of those ossuaries, 71 bear the name “Jesus” and two “Jesus son of Joseph.” The tomb in Talpiyot is one of them. But the inscription, he said, was barely decipherable and therefore questionable.[3]

Why major scholars reject the film’s claims

1. The earliest accounts of the death and burial of Jesus are in the Gospels in the New Testament. Magness says that the Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea placing the body of Jesus in his family tomb cut into the rock, is consistent with practices in the first century revealed in archaeological findings around Jerusalem.[4] Acceptance of the theories of the film demand a rejection of the earliest traditions about Jesus. Assumptions make a very big difference. The film assumes that Jesus of Nazareth, if resurrected, ultimately died, his body deteriorated, and his bones were placed in an ossuary that they have identified. Christians begin with the assumption that the Gospels are historical and reliable, and that an ossuary with the name Yeshua/Jesus must contain the bones of another person of the same name.

2. “Names on the ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb are extremely common among the Jewish population of Jerusalem in the first century.”[5] It is estimated that 25% of women were named Mary/Miriam/Mariamne. Jesus (Yeshua) was also common. Tal Ilan, author of Lexicon of Jewish Names, estimates that about one Jewish man in 20 was named Yeshua (Jesus) in the first century. So we can’t be sure which Jesus this was, and we have no record elsewhere of Yose and Matia being in Jesus’ family.

3. The name “Mariamne” (Greek) on the ossuary is followed by “Mara,” meaning Master, but which the film said should be interpreted “leader” or “teacher”. The film proposes that this is Mary Magdalene, referring to “The Acts of Philip” fromthe 2nd or3rd century. This is a big leap of speculation. Why was the name in Greek while others were in Aramaic or Hebrew? The filmmakers, says Magness, “transform the small Jewish town of Magdala….into ‘an important trading center’ where Greek was spoken.”[6]

4. People who were buried in rock-cut tombs were from wealthy families or benefited by wealthy friends’ making a place, even temporary, for their burial.

This is consistent with the Gospel accounts that say that Joseph of Arimathea made his rock-hewn tomb available for Jesus’ burial. Magness comments, “Jesus’ family, being poor, presumably could not afford a rock-cut tomb, as even the more ‘modest’ ones were costly.” She suggests that Jesus’ family may have had a burial place in Nazareth or Bethlehem, but it would be unlikely in Jerusalem. Poor people were usually buried in a trench-type grave, and covered with dirt. Few of these graves have survived from the first century, but ossuaries from first century rock-hewn tombs around Jerusalem are numerous.

5. The Discovery Channel website about the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” supports the
theory that the disciples came and stole the body of Jesus-- to bury it in a permanent family tomb! Matthew (Matt.28:12-15) calls this a lie that was circulated. But the website also claims that the film does not challenge the belief in the resurrection! The website says, “Even if Jesus' body was moved from one tomb to another, however, that does not mean that he could not have been resurrected from the second tomb.”[7] So what happened? Did he later die a second time, was buried, and ultimately his bones were placed in an ossuary with his name?? Most Christians believe that after Jesus’ resurrection, he never died again but is forever alive.

6. Scientific American, on its website, has gotten into the debate about the tomb because of the involvement of Andrey Feuververger, a professor of mathematics and statistics in the University of Toronto. The Discovery Channel’s website claims that Feuerverger's calculations show that the odds are "600 to one in favor of this being the JESUS FAMILY TOMB." But which Jesus? Director Simcha Jacobovici assumes that the ossuary found in that tomb was of Jesus of Nazareth, with his bones in it. Most Christians would not talk about statistical odds because they do not believe that Jesus’ body remained in any tomb, but was resurrected and later ascended. To be sure, a man named “Jesus” died, and was buried, and his bones were finally placed in an ossuary, but it was not the Jesus of the New Testament!

7. Fragments found at the bottom of the ossuaries of “Jesus” and “Mariamne” were examined for their DNA, and it was shown that they did not have the same mother. The film speculates from that information that they must have been a couple who married and bore the person whose ossuary identifies the bones of “Judah son of Jesus”. There is no evidence that the bones of these two had originally been husband and wife. But even if they were, the Jesus whose bones were found was not the Jesus of Nazareth of the Gospels. Ultimately, most Christians trust the historicity and basic reliability of the Biblical record more than the speculative proposals of the filmmakers.

As Magness writes, the film is “a sensationalistic claim without any scientific basis or support.”[8]

8. If Jesus was not buried in the tomb in East Talpiot in Jerusalem, where was he most likely buried until his resurrection? The best scholarship points to the Church of the Resurrection, its Greek name (a.k.a. the Church of the Holy Sepulchre). The Biblical Archaeology Society has just released an excellent ebook entitled The Burial of Jesus. Go to where there is information on how to access the ebook. The article by Dan Bahat, “Does the Holy Sepulchre Church Mark the Burial of Jesus?” is the best I have seen on the history and archaeology of that location and why it should be considered the real place of the tomb of Jesus. If one visits the church, it is important to remember that there is nothing that remains of the original rock-hewn tomb because in 1009 A.D., under orders from the fanatical Muslim caliph Khakim in Egypt, the cave and tomb of the resurrection were destroyed, down to bed rock. Most of what people see today around the tomb is reconstruction from the early 19th century.

Many evangelicals prefer the Garden Tomb because of its uncluttered, open air environment with evidence of an ancient tomb and garden. The Biblical Archaeology Society has two articles about the Garden Tomb in the ebook which were written by the two best authorities on the archaeology of that area, Gabriel Barkay and Jerome Murphy-O’Conner. Ultimately, it is not the location of the tomb, but the fact of the resurrection that is the most important. Thanks be to God that the tomb was empty and the Lord is risen indeed!

*Wesley Brown served as American Baptist representative in Jerusalem for almost 12 years, wrote “Christian Comment” in the Jerusalem Post for eight years, and was on the staff of the Ecumenical Institute for Theological Research, Tantur, Jerusalem. He has returned to Jerusalem often, leading seminars. He earned his Ph.D. in Social Ethics at the Univ. of So. California.

[1] Jodi Magness, “Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?” online, Biblical Archaeology Society, March 5, 2007. Magness, who teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of No. Carolina at Chapel Hill, received a Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology from the Univ. of Pennsylvania, and has participated in more than 20 excavations in Israel and Greece. She is the author of the award-winning The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls (Eerdmans, 2002) and “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James,” in the Journal of Biblical Literature 124(2005).
[2] Matt Gutman, “Bones of Contention: Archaeologist Disputes Claims in James Cameron’s ‘The Lost Tomb of Christ,” ABC News on line, Mar.7, 2007 2905662&page=1
[3] Ibid.
[4] Jodi Magness, “What Did the Tomb of Jesus Look Like?” in The Burial of Jesus, ebook of The Biblical Archaeology Society, March 2007, p. 13
[5] J. Magness, op.cit., p. 4
[6] Ibid.
[8] J. Magness, op.cit., p.5

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