Thursday, March 1, 2012

Did Jesus live in a mansion in Jerusalem and have an apostle named "Lil' Wayne"? No. Are sensational historical claims the hit records or blockbuster movies of historians and archaeologists? Yes! Let me be more specific: are the sensational historical claims regarding new evidence about Jesus' marriage to Mary Magadalene and their young son Yehudah the blockbuster movie which is always released, in one form or another, near Easter by historians or archaeologists of early Christianity and Second Temple Judaism? Yes, yes, yes, and bring me another Gospel or newly excavated Tomb, now, Easter is coming!

Personally, these "sensational," "earth-shattering," and "unbelievable" finds are exciting for those of us who drone on in classrooms to undergraduates who struggle to stay awake. You might get a phone call from a local TV or radio station and a PR person from your university might untether you from your cell and bring you, blinking into the light, to ramble on about the "Gospel of Judas" and debunk the startling claims made on behalf of it  by those scholars who have a knack for creating "exciting" theories and selling books. After the perfunctory debunking, you go back to your cell and busy yourself with translating ancient Greek or Hebrew, to the quiet cheers (or boos) of a colleague in Belgium who has been working on the same text for the past 30 years.

The most recent Easter excitement has been created by a supposed find of an early Christian tomb in Jerusalem (Talpiyot Tomb B), near the so-called (or supposed) "Jesus Family Tomb" (Talpiyot Tomb A) which became a cause celebre in 2007. The paper reporting these finds, from James Tabor, is more exciting than anything I have ever done and any paper that contains these lines below will forever be more exciting than any academic work most people ever do: TV feeds on excitement.This is not to say that the research is not first rate, or that the technical skill involved in filming these tombs is not ground-breaking. The initial evidence points to first rate data and ground-breaking technology. It is not, ultimately, the technology that excites, however, or even the data, it is how one interprets the data that is so significant and that brings viewers before the TV screen.
"The challenge now was for Walter Klassen to construct a robotic arm that could be inserted into an enlarged 20cm probe hole that could then have the leverage to bend and extend itself throughout the 3.5 x 3.5m tomb as well as into the
kokhim that held the ossuaries that were on average between 2m to 2.3m deep, but in a confined space that was only 2.1m from tomb floor to ceiling." (10)
A robotic arm is so cool! This is from page 10 of Tabor's report on their explorartion of these tombs by robotic camera, which was necessitated since the tombs are now covered up by the cement floor of a condominium. The actual exploration is fascinating, magical even; the problem comes with the interpretation of the data and this is where one wonders if there can be sober interpretations of the data or if one will always tend to the most exciting possibility when a footnote (2) such as this appears on page 1
I thank in particular Simcha Jacobovici, film director, and professor in the Department of Religion at Huntington University, Ontario, and Felix Golubev, producer, both of Associated Producers Ltd, for their tireless work in every phase of our many faceted efforts to make our operations a success. Without their help and dedication none of what we accomplished would have been possible. We also thank The Discovery Channel and Vision TV, Canada for providing basic funding;

And that, of course, is where the claims of "exciting new finds which will reshape our understanding of early Christianity" and the subsequent "hold on there; we can read this data in a number of ways and they way you choose stretches credulity"  debunking begin. Tabor says of the inscriptions,
We are convinced that our inscription clearly makes some affirmation about either resurrection from the dead or lifting up to heaven. Whether one might identify it as “Christian,” or to be more historically precise—as associated with the early followers of Jesus, is another question. I would strongly argue in the affirmative. Although it is true that ideas of resurrection of the dead and even ascent to heaven are found in a multiplicity of Jewish sources in the late 2nd Temple period, they do not appear as expressions in burial contexts unless we have an exception here in the Talpiot tomb.(23)
See Tabor's whole article, which in the PDF includes photos of the inscriptions and many other images, here at Bible and Interpretation. There is also a new book  The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity (Simon and Schuster, 2012), which I have not seen, written by Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici, and which currently sits at #1 in Christian books on and #66 overall.

In response to all of this, Christopher A. Rollston wrote an extended response at the ASOR blog,  in which he discusses both the Talpiyot Tomb A (the one presumed by Tabor and Jacobovici to be the "Jesus Family Tomb"), which he like the majority of scholars rejects as related to the Jesus of Christianity, and Talpiyot Tomb B, the one specifically examined for Tabor's recent paper and new book. Of Talpiyot Tomb B, he says in section IV. of his paper that there is no strong evidence that these two tombs are related in any way or hold bones of people who were related. As to the interpretation of the rest of the data, the actual inscriptional evidence, both words and images, one must be able to work with ancient Greek and Hebrew to understand the linguistic issues at stake. Rollston, however, rejects much of Tabor's reconstruction of the words themselves, the primary data, as well as their interpretation based upon the primary reconstruction. He concludes in this manner:
Ultimately, therefore, I would suggest that this is a fairly standard, mundane Jerusalem tomb of the Late Second Temple period.  Its contents are important and interesting, but there is nothing that is particularly sensational or unique.  I wish that it were different.  After all, it would be quite fascinating to find a tomb that could be said to be “Christian” and to hail from the very century that Christianity arose.  Moreover, it would be particularly interesting to find a tomb that could be associated with Jesus of Nazareth and his family.  But, alas, the evidence does not suggest this.  A basic methodological stricture is this: dramatic claims require dramatic and decisive evidence.  Stringing together a series of “maybe this” or “perhaps this” or “could it be” will sell books, but it will not convince careful historians nor will it change the facts.  Careful historians and students want evidence and reasonable conclusions.  Tabor and Jacobovici (much as I like these two people on a personal level) simply do not provide the goods.  They have stretched the evidence far beyond the breaking point in their attempt to make sensational claims.
I am at first blush rather convinced by Rollston; his blog post at ASOR is the equivalent of an academic paper in depth. It should also be stated that his response is not some quick reaction to these finds, but as he says on his own, personal blog, "I should note that I have known about these finds from Talpiyot Tomb B for about nine months, as I served as the epigraphic consultant for National Geographic with regard to this find (ultimately, the show was purchased from National Geographic by the Discovery Channel…an interesting story in and of itself…). I had been required to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, but after Jacobovici and Tabor broke the story early this morning, I was free to write….thus, two blog articles of mine were placed on the official blog of the American Schools of Oriental Research early today {February 28, 2012}, the first a brief statement with the salient points and the second a longer, detailed statement totaling about twenty pages in my manuscript."

A sensational new archaeological find regarding the family tomb of Jesus and inscriptions related to the belief in the resurrection of the earliest Christians will rocket a book to #1 on And while there is no question that Tabor and Jacobovici are fine scholars, with mind-blowing technology at their disposal, when TV channels fund and buy the story, to air it around Easter, what is the chance that it would be interpreted simply as a normal Jewish tomb from the time of Jesus?  Ultimately, of course, the evidence will be examined, re-examined, debated and decided, but that will take time, deliberation and continuing careful analysis.

John W. Martens

Follow me on Twitter @johnwmartens


  1. Hi John,

    There is a new aspect to this unfolding controversy. Here is my first article describing it.

    Illuminating the Talpiot Tomb and Jesus Discovery Controversy

    I will publish additional details soon...