Wednesday , 16 April 2014

Home » Archaeology and Bible » Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici

Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici

Professor Christopher A. Rollston ( Professor of Semitic Studies, Emmanuel Christian Seminary


Here are the basic claims of James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici: “Talpiyot Tomb B contained several ossuaries, or bone boxes, two of which were carved with an iconic image and a Greek inscription.  Taken together, the image and the inscription constitute the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus’ resurrection.”  They go on and state that these ossuaries “also provide the first evidence in Jerusalem of the people who would later be called ‘Christians.’  In fact, it is possible, maybe even likely, that whoever was buried in this tomb knew Jesus and heard him preach.”

In addition, Tabor and Jacobovici claim that because “Talpiyot Tomb B” is within around two hundred feet of “Talpiyot Tomb A” (the tomb Tabor and Jacobovici have also dubbed the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’), “the new discovery [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb B] increases the likelihood that the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ is, indeed, the real tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Tabor and Jacobovici also believe that “Jesus of Nazareth was married and had a son named Judah,” something which they have been proposing for several years now.  Tabor and Jacobovici also assume that “both tombs appear to have been part of the property of a wealthy individual possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to the gospels, buried Jesus.”

At this juncture, I shall turn to a fairly detailed discussion of both tombs and the contents thereof.  Anticipating my conclusions, I am confident that most scholars will not consider the grand claims of Tabor and Jacobovici to be cogent.  The reason is quite elementary: the conclusions they draw do not follow from the extant evidence.


This tomb was discovered in 1980 by Yosef Gath during a salvage excavation at a site in the neighborhood of East Talpiot, Jerusalem.  It contained ten ossuaries, six of them inscribed.  These were subsequently published in Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Inscriptions (1994, nos 701-709).  The personal names on the ossuaries of this tomb are as follows:  (1) Mariamē  kai Mara (Mariam and Mara).[2]  (2) Yhwdh br Yšw‘ (Yehudah bar Yeshua‘).  (3)  Mtyh (Mattiyah).  (4) Yšw‘ br Yhwsp (Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep).  (5) Ywsh (Yoseh).  (6) Mryh (Maryah).  The names Yehosep, Yoseh, Yeshua‘, Yehudah, Mattiyah, Maryah, Maryam, Mariamne, Mara and Martha (or the variants thereof) all have multiple attestations in the multilingual corpus of ossuaries and some are very common (Rahmani 1994, 292-297; Ilan 2002).  In fact, even the name and patronymic “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique in the epigraphic corpus.  After all, some eighty years ago, Sukenik published an ossuary inscribed “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) and the names Yeshua‘ and Yehosep (“Jesus” and “Joseph”) are predominant in the family of Babatha’s first husband. In fact, the father of Babatha’s first husband was named Yeshua‘ and his father was named “Yehosep,” so this is yet another “Yeshua‘ son of Yehosep” (i.e., “Jesus son of Joseph”; see Sukenik 1931; Lewis 1989, 35-40; cf. Yadin 1971, 233-234; Kraeling 1946, 18-19).  Thus, even with the small corpus of epigraphic attestations of personal names, the Talpiyot Tomb A occurrence of “Yeshua‘ bar Yehosep” (“Jesus son of Joseph”) is not unique!

It is true that filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici, along with scholars Charles Pellegrino, James Tabor, and Andrew Feuerverger attempted to argue that this was the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.  Yet, the epigraphic evidence (such as personal names) does not support their contention. Their claims are also not supported by DNA evidence or statistical evidence.  They tried to make their case several years ago (Jacobovici and Pellegrino 2007; Tabor 2006; Feuerverger 2007), but the vast majority of scholars remained unconvinced.  Indeed, a cross-section of scholars (including Eric Meyers, Shimon Gibson, Jodi Magness, Sandra Scham, and I) wrote articles in the academic journal Near Eastern Archaeology 69 (published by the American Schools of Oriental Research) arguing that the cumulative evidence did not support the view that this Talpiyot tomb was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth or his family.

In addition, I should also emphasize that Tabor and Jacobovici’s desire to state that the Ya‘akov Ossuary (often called the “James Ossuary” by those who wish to say this ossuary is Christian) came from Talpiyot Tomb A is absolutely groundless (and I would also note in this connection that the patina of stone ossuaries from the same quarry which were housed in the same basic environment in a Jerusalem tomb will, of course, share certain many chemical features…so even patina evidence is of no great value.  I will be happy to talk more about this later, should the need arise).

It is important to remember this dictum: Dramatic claims require dramatic evidence. Ultimately the strong consensus of scholars working in the fields of ancient epigraphy, archaeology, and ancient religion was then, and is now, that Talpiyot Tomb A is not that of the family of Jesus of Nazareth.  That is, the dramatic claims of Tabor and Jacobovici could not be embraced previously because the evidence was not there.  I am happy to resurrect this discussion (in future blog posts), but the claims of Tabor and Jadobovici for this tomb are no more convincing now than they were then.

It is perhaps important to say a few words about DNA evidence again (much as was discussed by several of us in the 2006 issue of Near Eastern Archaeology).   (1) Multiple people were often buried in a single ossuary in antiquity and so attempting to determine which bones belonged to which named person is very difficult, even if the ossuaries have multiple names listed.  (2) Many ossuaries did not have personal names inscribed on them, and those that did have names inscribed often did not have inscribed all of the names of all of the people whose bones were deposited in the ossuaries.  (3) In addition, one cannot assume that there was not some contamination of the data in antiquity (e.g., via robbery, etc.) or during the modern excavation, cleaning, and redeposition processes.  (4) Thus, collecting bone fragments from an ossuary and then doing DNA analyses is not as revelatory as a non-specialist might assume a priori.


During course of construction work in Jerusalem during the spring of 1981, a tomb with nine kokhim (“burial shafts”) was discovered.  There were a total of eight ossuaries in this tomb (originally distributed in four of the kokhim, that is, “carved chambers”), one of which was removed in 1981 (one belonging to a small child or infant).  It was noticed then (in 1981) that there were some Greek inscriptions on (at least) two of the ossuaries, but the tomb was not excavated and documented thoroughly because of various exigencies, including religious sensitivities.  Ultimately, modern buildings were soon erected at this site.  However, rather than destroying this tomb, the modern buildings were built above the tomb.

During the course of a few days in 2010, James Tabor, Rami Arav, and Simcha Jacobovici (now the primary researchers for this tomb) were able to send a robotic camera into this tomb (through the basement floor of the building which had been built on top of the tomb) and to photograph the tomb itself, the ossuaries in it, and some inscriptional remains.  One of these inscriptions, consisting of four very brief lines, has garnered substantial attention, as has some of the ornamentation (which Tabor and Jacobovici refer to as “iconography,” a term that conjures up in the minds of many readers something which is quite “Christian”) on one of the other ossuaries.  Indeed, Tabor and Jacobovici have claimed that this four-line inscription on one ossuary, and the ornamentation on another, can be understood as referring to a belief in some sort of resurrection and that this inscription and ornamentation are, therefore, Christian.  They have also noted that another one of the ossuaries in Talpiyot Tomb B has the word “Mara” on it, an Aramaic word normally meaning “sir,” or “master” or even “husband” (although it is written in Greek letters in this tomb, as is often the case in epigraphic materials from this region).  Frankly, I would find it very interesting if this were a Jewish-Christian tomb, but the evidence simply does not support this view.  At this juncture, my focus will turn to historical and epigraphic consideration of the salient aspects of the finds in Talpiyot Tomb B.


                There is often a great deal of misunderstanding about this subject generally.  That is, people who do not work in ancient history or ancient religion often assume that a belief in a resurrection was some sort of distinctively Christian belief.  That, however, is a misconception.  The fact of the matter is that within various segments of Late Second Temple Judaism, the notion of a resurrection was warmly embraced.  The locus classicus in the Hebrew Bible is arguably the following text from the mid-2nd century BCE: “Many of those sleeping in the dust of the earth shall awaken, some to everlasting life and some to everlasting peril” (Dan 12:2).  Within the Old Testament Apocrypha, the notion of a resurrection is embraced at times as well, with the narrative about the martyrdom of “the mother and her seven sons” being a fine exemplar of this.  Thus, according to the narrative, one of the sons said during the torture that preceded his death: “the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc 7:9).  Similarly, the mother herself says within the narrative, as an exhortation to her martyred sons: “the Creator of the world…will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again” (2 Macc 7:23).  2 Maccabees arguably hails from the first half of the 1st century BCE.   Regarding the dead, the Wisdom of Solomon also affirms that the dead “seemed to have died,” but “they are at peace,” and “their hope is full of immortality,” and they will ultimately “shine forth” and “will govern nations and ruler over peoples” (Wisdom 3:2-8 passim, with the Greek future tense being used here).  The Wisdom of Solomon arguably hails from the second half of the 1st century BCE.  Significantly, all of these texts antedate the rise of Christianity and they all affirm a belief in a resurrection.  In short, many Jews believed in a resurrection long before Christianity came along.  To be sure, a belief in a resurrection was not universally accepted by Jews in the Second Temple period.  Some Jews did not believe in a resurrection.  For example, the traditionalist Ben Sira rejected the notion of eternal bliss for the righteous and eternal punishment for the wicked.  Thus, he wrote: “Who in the netherworld can glorify the Most High, in place of the living who offer their praise?  No more can the dead give praise than those who have never lived; they glorify the Lord who are alive and well” (Sir 17:27-28).  In sum, although not all Jews of the Late Second Temple period accepted the notion of a resurrection, there are texts from this period that demonstrate that a fair number did.

Furthermore, the Jewish historian Josephus (lived ca. 37-100 CE) also discusses the subject of the perishability and imperishability of the soul, with regard to some of the major strands of Judaism during the first century of the Common Era.  Regarding the Pharisees, therefore, he states that they believe “every soul is imperishable, but the soul of the good alone passes into another body, while the souls of the wicked suffer eternal punishment.”  Conversely, regarding the Sadducees he states that “as for the persistence of the soul after death, penalties in the underworld, and rewards; they will have none of them.”  Regarding the Essenes, Josephus states that they believe “the body is corruptible and its constituent matter impermanent, but that the soul is immortal and imperishable…sharing the belief of the sons of Greece, they maintain that for virtuous souls there is reserved an abode beyond the ocean, a place which is not oppressed by rain or snow or heat, but is refreshed by the ever gentle breath of the west wind coming in from ocean, while they relegate base souls to a murky and tempestuous dungeon, big with never-ending punishments” (Josephus, Jewish War, II, 11-14; for more discussion, see Nickelsburg 1972, 164-169).  Of course, pericopes within the Greek New Testament regarding the Pharisees and Sadducees dovetail nicely with Josephus.  The locus classicus for the New Testament is arguably contained within the book of Acts: “The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three” (Acts 23:8; cf. also Matt 22:23).

Naturally, scholars and students of the Hebrew Bible, Second Temple Judaism, the Greek New Testament, and Early Christianity have for a very long time dealt with these ancient assumptions about the afterlife.  Moreover, based on the convergence of the evidence (such as the texts cited above), the consensus of the field has long been that some Jews within the Late Second Temple period embraced a belief in a resurrection and some did not (e.g., DiLella 1966; Collins 1998; Ehrman 1999).  To be sure, Christianity (originally a sect of Judaism, with strong apocalyptic tendencies) did embrace a notion of a resurrection, and this is very clear from the documents of the Greek New Testament.  But the fact remains that many Jews of the late Second Temple Period believed in a resurrection, not just Jewish Christians.   Thus, even if the inscription or ornamental motifs of this tomb provided evidence for a belief in a resurrection, one cannot assume that this must have been a Christian (i.e., Jewish Christian) tomb.  Many, many non-Christian Jews (if not most) accepted the idea of a resurrection.


                The presence of ornamental designs on an ossuary is standard.  Rosettes are among the most common ornamental motifs, but the repertoire is quite broad.  Rahmani has discussed them in great detail.  He mentions that, in addition to rosettes, the attested ornamental motifs include things such as depictions of tomb facades, columned porches, lattice gates, nephesh towers, amphorae, menorahs, grapes and grapevines, palm trees, and even a putative fish (Rahmani 1994, 28-52).  Of course, the fact that ossuaries would have such rich ornamental diversity should come as no surprise, as Late Second Temple period tombs themselves would sometimes be decorated rather nicely as well (see Berlin 2002, 138-148).  The following pericope from Maccabees is also apropos in this connection: “Simon sent and took the bones of his brother Jonathan, and buried him in Modein, the city of his ancestors…and Simon built a monument over the tomb of his father and his brothers…he also erected seven pyramids, opposite one another, for his father and mother and four brothers.  For the pyramids he devised an elaborate setting, erecting about them great columns, and on the columns he put suits of armor for a permanent memorial, and beside the suits of armor he carved ships…” (1 Macc 13:25-29).

Predictably, therefore, there are ornamental motifs on the ossuaries in Talpiyot Tomb B.  One ornamental motif in particular has attracted the attention of Tabor and Jacobovici.  Namely, Tabor and Jacobovici have contended that one ornamental motif is to be understood as a fish.  But they did not stop there.  Rather, they have argued that this ornamental motif is not just any fish, they have actually argued that it is the dag gadol (the “big fish”) of the book of Jonah (Jonah 1:17)!  But they went still further, as they speculated that the etchings at one end of the motif are a graphic depiction of Jonah himself, as he is being spewed from the mouth of the big fish!  In addition, they have also contended that this symbol should be understood here as the earliest reference to “Jonah as a symbol of the Christian resurrection,” citing the following text from the Greek New Testament: “For just as Jonah was in the belly of the sea monster for three days and three nights, so also shall the son of man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights” (Matt 12:40), as well as later Christian usage of the Jonah motif.

First and foremost, I must emphasize that I am confident the engraving  is simply a standard “nephesh tower motif,” an ornamental motif that is fairly widely attested on the corpus of ossuaries.  In fact, in Rahmani’s discussion of the ornamental motifs of ossuaries, the first ornamental motif he mentions is that which has the appearance of a tomb façade or nephesh tower (Rahmani 1994, 28).  Moreover, at least in terms of general design, Rahmani’s first exemplar is quite similar to that of Talpiyot Tomb B (see the detailed, illustrated comment of Eric Meyers in his blog post on this web site).  By the way, the features of  this ossuary’s ornamentation that Jacobovici and Tabor contend are the “fins of a fish,” are actually a standard feature of a roof, namely, the eaves (which, of course, are important for directing the water away from a building).  Note also that eaves are visible in multiple of Rahmani’s drawings of ossuary ornamentation.  In short, this is not a fish.  It is a nephesh tower or tomb façade.

Second, I would note that there is absolutely no epigraphic material that has been found in this tomb that would suggest that this engraved structure should be understood as a fish.  But, for the sake of argument, let us assume that it is a fish.  Even then, it would most naturally be understood as simply a reflection of a nautical motif in a tomb (not dissimilar to that reflected in the Maccabees reference cited above).  Similarly, it could be considered to be a reflection of the profession of the owner of the ossuary (e.g., a fishmonger).  Perhaps of some significance in this connection, Rahmani has indeed suggested that the ornamentation on ossuaries can sometimes functions in just this manner, that is, as a means of symbolizing the profession of the deceased (Rahmani 1994, 20; and this is precisely what Rahmani proposed for ossuary number 348, page 156).  In short, the ornamentation on the inscribed ossuary is difficult to press into service as some sort of definitive marker of this tomb as “Christian.”  The most convincing interpretation is that it is a tomb façade or a nephesh tower.  This is not a very sensational interpretation, but it is the most reasonable construct of the totality of the evidence.


Tabor and Jacobovici have suggested that the word “God” is in the first line of this inscription (spelled deos), that the Hebrew divine name “Yahweh” (transliterated into Greek letters) is in the second line of this inscription, and that the third line of the inscription has a verb for “resurrect” or “lift up” (but they have an obvious preference for the “resurrect” meaning, which is at most a secondary or tertiary meaning for this Greek word, as discussed below).  Together, lines one, two, and three have been said to read basically as “God, Yahweh has lifted up” or “Divine Yahweh has resurrected.”  Furthermore, because of this reading and because of their understanding of the tomb façade as “Jonah and the Whale,” Tabor and Jacobovici have argued that this tomb is indeed Early Christian and that it should be considered the earliest archaeological evidence for a belief in the resurrection among Christians of the first century of the Common Era.  These are dramatic claims.  Here are some of my detailed epigraphic and philological comments about the inscription.

Regarding the reading of line two, I must  emphasize that I do not consider the reading “Yahweh” (i.e., the Greek form of it) to be convincing at all.  Simply put, this reading is wrong.  To be sure, the tetragrammaton is attested in ancient Greek (with various spellings) and Iaeo can be considered a viable Greek spelling of the tetragrammaton.  However, the problem is that the first letter of line two is not an iota (and, at the very least, this letter would be necessary for reading the tetragrammaton in this line)!  Of course, Tabor and Jacobovici argue that the first letter of this line is an iota, and they are obviously assuming that this letter consists of a top horizontal, a bottom horizontal, and a long vertical connector.  There is, however, a palaeographic problem with this reading.  Here is the reason: for the Greek script(s) of the Late Second Temple period, the morphology of iota is quite consistently a vertical stroke (sometimes with modest curvature), but without distinct top or bottom horizontals.  This is the case for Greek texts on soft media (e.g., papyri) and on hard media (e.g., stone).  The panoramic Greek script charts of the great Princeton Theological Seminary palaeographer Bruce Metzger are reflective of this (e.g., Metzger  1981, 23, figure 2).  For further demonstration of this aspect of the morphology of this letter, readers might also consult photos of the Greek textual material from this chronological horizon on soft media (e.g., the Greek papyri from the Bar Kokhba Cave of Letters; See Lewis 1989, passim) and on hard media (e.g., Jerusalem Ossuary inscriptions; see Cotton, et al., 2010, passim, including #64, 65, #98, #134, #189, 199, etc.).  Again, I must stress that the convergence of the cumulative evidence demonstrates in a cogent manner that the first letter is simply not an iota.  In reality, this letter is most readily understood as a tau (i.e., a top horizontal and a vertical) or (alternatively) a zeta.  However, it is certainly not an iotaOf course, since there is no iota in this line , there is no tetragrammaton here.

Regarding the suggestion that the noun “God” (they are reading deos ) might occur in the first line of this inscription, several things should be noted.  At first blush, this might seem quite convincing.   Yet, a difficulty with this reading (and there are several difficulties), is the fact that this inscription is Greek and so it is the Greek word for “God” that would be most natural, namely, theos (rather than the Latin word deus).  Someone might contend that it is indeed the Latin word deus (with an orthographic variant, namely, an omicron instead of an upsilon), but as a Latin theophoric element in a personal name written in Greek script.  Obviously, this would be a more satisfying proposal.  However, my main point here is that I am quite disinclined to believe that the line one should be construed as simply the common noun “God.”[3]

The word hupsō is the reading which Tabor and Jacobovici consider to be the most convincing for line three of the inscription.  They consider this verb to be understood as referring to “resurrection.”  The psi and omega are both very clear and I so I read these letters this way as well.  I consider upsilon to be a plausible reading for the first letter, but because of the number of scratches on the stone in the region of this letter, I do not consider its reading to be as certain as are the readings of psi and omega.  Tabor and Jacobovici contend that this line contains a verb and they believe that the entirety of the verb is contained on this line.  Of course, often within the corpus of ossuaries (and inscriptions generally) words will begin on one line and end on the next line.  I am not entirely convinced that this is not the case with this line of this inscription.  That is, I am not convinced that the letters on line three constitute an entire word.  But for the sake of argument, I will not contest the reading at this point, but rather I will contend that the semantic range for this word is fairly broad.  It is certainly not confined to the notion of a resurrection.

Here is a synopsis of the semantic range for the word hupsoō, as detailed in some of the most authoritative lexical works on ancient Greek.  The standard lexicon of the Greek New Testament and Early Christian Literature (Bauer, Arndt, Gingrich, Danker 2000, 1045) lists two primary meanings for this word, namely, (1) “to lift up spatially, lift up, raise high” someone or something (e.g., Moses lifting up the serpent, Jesus of Nazareth lifted up on the cross, etc.); (2) and “to cause enhancement in honor, fame, position, power, or future, exalt” (e.g., God exalting the people in Egypt, someone exalting oneself, considering oneself better, etc.).  The standard lexicon of Classical Greek (Liddell and Scott 1996, 1910) lists two basic meanings, namely, (1) literally “to lift high, raise up” (2) and metaphorically “to elevate, exalt, represent in a grand manner, and (in the passive) to attain exaltation.”[4]  The standard lexicon of Early Christian Greek (Lampe 1961, 1468-1469) contains definitions that suggest the same basic semantic domains as these.  The entry in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Friedrich 1972, 602-620) is particularly detailed, focusing on the verbal, nominal, and adjectival forms of this root.  Within this article, it is noted that hupsoō is used in the Septuagint as a translation for the Hebrew words rwm, nś’, and gbh, words with a basic semantic domain that revolves around the meanings “raise, lift up, exalt.”  Also noted in this TDOT article is the fact that the Hebrew term rwm can have (at least in the Late Second Temple period) eschatological meanings and thus may mean (at times) “awakening or resurrection.” Moreover, similar ranges of meaning are considered plausible in some New Testament texts (Friedrich 1972, 607-609).  Based on the totality of the data of the standard Greek lexica, therefore, I would argue that “resurrection” is something that could be part of the semantic range of the word hupsoō, but it certainly cannot be considered to be the dominant meaning of this word.  For this reason, it is readily apparent that it cannot be readily assumed that the word in line three of the ossuary inscription must refer to a resurrection of some sort, as this is obviously not the only viable option.  Finally, I must emphasize that (if one assumes the correct reading to be the verb hupsoō) this verb would most naturally be understood as a first person (“I lift up”), not a third person (“Yahweh lifts up,” or the like).  For these sorts of reasons, I do not consider the rendering of Tabor and Jacobovici (with their assumption that the Greek form of Yahweh is present on line two, that this proper noun is the subject of the verb on line three, and that the word should be understood as referring to a “resurrection”) to be convincing.[5]


                Tabor and Jacobovici have noted that the word “Mara” is inscribed in Greek letters (though the word is Aramaic, of course) on one of the other ossuaries of Talpiyot Tomb B.  The word mr’ (Mara’) is an Aramaic, masculine, singular noun meaning “sir,” “master,” “lord.”  It is well attested (as a masculine noun) in the Aramaic corpus of Northwest Semitic inscriptions (Hoftijzer and Jongeling 1995, 682-689), and also in the Aramaic of the Hebrew Bible (see Dan 2:47; 4:16, 21; 5:23; Koehler and Baumgartner 2000, 1921-1922).  Moreover, it also occurs in Jewish-Palestinian Aramaic.  The feminine form of this Aramaic word is Martha’, as Jastrow also notes (see Jastrow 1950, 834-835, s.v., Mar IV).

Through time, this common noun came to be used at times as a personal name.  Regarding its usage as a personal name, it has been posited that Mara is sometimes a shortened version of the word Martha’, and thus can sometimes be a means of referring to a woman.  Thus, Tal Ilan states about the name Mr’ (also spelled Mrh during the Second Temple period, and in Greek it is normally spelled Mara) that “this is one of the rare cases of a name serving for both males and females” (Tal Ilan 2002, 392; cf. also 423-424).  The point that I would emphasize is this: although the name Mara’ might sometimes be used as a shortened form of the name Martha’, the fact remains that it is not prudent to assume that Mara is always a feminine name (i.e., a shortened form of Martha’).  After all, the form Mr’ is most readily understood as an Aramaic masculine (see Rahmani 1994, 197-198 [#561] for a nice example of the plural form of this word for two men).  In short, the philological evidence demonstrates that Mara is most naturally masculine, but can be understood as a short form of the feminine personal name Martha at times.  Thus, any case built on the assumption that Mara is definitively feminine must be considered a tenuous case.


Tabor and Jacobovici have argued that these two tombs are definitely connected in some fashion (indeed, their terms “Talpiyot A” and “Talpiyot B” are intended to suggest just this, even though there are additional tombs in this part of East Talpiyot).  They begin by mentioning that these two tombs are around two hundred feet apart and then they state that “the new discovery [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb B] increases the likelihood that the ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ [i.e., Talpiyot Tomb A] is, indeed, the real tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.”  Tabor and Jacobovici further conclude that “both tombs appear to have been part of the property of a wealthy individual possibly Joseph of Arimathea, the man who, according to the gospels, buried Jesus.”

I would simply make a number of notations regarding these conclusions.  (1) The word “Mara” occurs in both of these tombs, but that cannot be considered of real consequence.  After all, this is a common Aramaic name or term, and is used most naturally of a man (although rarely it can be used of a woman).  Thus, the use of this term in both of these tombs certainly cannot be construed as evidence of some sort of connection between the two.  This term is too common to be considered some sort of “missing link.”  (2) Along those lines, I must emphasize that there is no other epigraphic evidence (i.e., not the use of Mara and not any other evidence) that could be used to suggest some sort of connection between these two tombs.  (3) There is no epigraphic evidence in Talpiyot Tomb B to suggest that this tomb ever belonged to someone named “Joseph of Arimathea,” so it is irresponsible to suggest this, especially since the name Joseph is not even attested in Talpiyot Tomb B.  (4) The name “Joseph” occurs in Talpiyot Tomb A, but this is a very common personal name (attested scores and scores of times in the epigraphic record). Most importantly, there is no “of Arimathea” attested in either Talpiyot Tomb A or B).  For someone to suggest that these tombs must have belonged to “Joseph of Arimathea” the word(s) “of Arimathea” would have to be etched into a wall or an ossuary.  Yet, “of Arimathea” is not found in these tombs.  (5) There is no distinctive ornamental evidence that can link these two tombs.  (6) The distance of two hundred feet is not a small distance.  I thus am disinclined to suggest that tombs that are within two hundred feet of each other must contain the bones of people who are related.


                Tabor and Jacobovici contend that Jesus of Nazareth was married to Mary Magdale and that they had a son named Yehudah.  They think the evidence from these tombs proves all of this and they also suggest that some hints of this can be found in the New Testament and Early Christian literature.  Bart Ehrman, a premiere scholar of the Greek New Testament and Early Christianity, has stated that the question people most ask him is this: “Were Mary Magdalene and Jesus of Nazareth married?”  Here is Ehrman’s answer: “It is not true…that the Dead Sea Scrolls contained Gospels that discussed Mary and Jesus.”  “Nor is it true that the marriage of Mary and Jesus is repeatedly discussed in the Gospels that didn’t make it into the New Testament.  In fact, it is never discussed at all—never even mentioned, not even once.”  He goes on and notes that “It is not true that the Gospel of Philip calls Mary Jesus’ spouse.”  Then he queries: “What does the historical evidence tell us about Mary and Jesus?….it tells us nothing at all—certainly nothing to indicate that Jesus and Mary had a sexual relationship of any kind” (Ehrman 2006, 248).  Ehrman’s historical analysis is dead on.  I completely concur with him.


                Much can, and no doubt will, be said about this find.  The following are my reflections on the find and the investigative process:.

(1)    The technology that was used to explore this tomb is stunning and auspicious.  Certainly the applications for it will be both broad and deep.  Tabor and Jacobovici are to be congratulated for leading in the development and employment of these robotic and photographic technologies, and it is hoped that these technologies can be refined even more during the coming months and years.

(2)    The epigraphic finds from these tombs are important, but they are not earth shattering nor do they provide dramatic, new evidence for understanding Jesus or Christianity. They were likely made public during lent to take advantage of the public’s interest in Jesus around the Easter season, but the finds do not us with anything new.

(3)    There is no necessary connection between these two tombs and there is no convincing evidence that some famous figure of history (not Jesus of Nazareth, not Joseph of Arimathea, not Mary Magdalene, etc.) was buried in these tombs.

(4)    I doubt that the inscription in Talpiyot Tomb B refers to a resurrection, but in any case, many Jews during the Second Temple Period believed in the resurrection, long before the rise of Christianity.

(5)    I am certain that the tetragrammaton (i.e., “Yahweh”) is not present in the four-line inscription from Talpiyot Tomb B.

(6)    The ornamentation on the ossuary in Talpiyot Tomb B which Tabor and Jacobovici wish to consider Jonah and the Whale is actually simply a nephesh tower or tomb façade, just as Eric Meyers has argued.

(7)    It is not prudent to assume that the word Mara is definitely feminine.  It could just as readily be masculine (and, in this time period, it could be used as a way of referring to the husband, or patriarch of the family).

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.


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[1] The book is entitled: The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity (Simon and Schuster, 2012).

[2]  For these names, I am reading with Rahmani, but in place of his Mariamēnou Mara, I accept Pfann’s reading (2006), namely, Mariamē  kai Mara.  I should also note in this connection that the word Mara is most readily understood as masculine.

[3] It is easier to say what a difficult inscription does not say than it is to state what it does say.  But I should mention here that I am most comfortable with reading the last two letters of line one and the first two letters of line two as “osta,” that is, “bones,” a word that certainly does occur in a number of ossuary inscriptions and burial texts.  Further, if one were to wish to read hupsō, I would then be inclined to understand this inscription to be stating that the bones of the deceased are not to be removed, that is, “lifted up” from the ossuary.

[4] I should note in this connection that Hupsō is also a name for Hypsipyle in the fragments of Aeschylus (Liddell and Scott 1996, 1910).

[5] Someone might broach the subject of abbreviations in this connection and I believe that this is justified.  For a very fine, and still authoritative, discussion of abbreviations in Greek, see the volume by Oikonomides (1974).

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Reflections of an Epigrapher on Talpiyot Tombs A and B: A Detailed Response to the Claims of Professor James Tabor and Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici Reviewed by on . Professor Christopher A. Rollston ( Professor of Semitic Studies, Emmanuel Christian Seminary I. THE CLAIMS OF TABOR AND JACOBOVICI: THE NEW B Professor Christopher A. Rollston ( Professor of Semitic Studies, Emmanuel Christian Seminary I. THE CLAIMS OF TABOR AND JACOBOVICI: THE NEW B Rating:
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