(The following article is an excerpt from the upcoming book “The Bible As History – 2nd Edition” by Kevin MckInney. The new edition is due out in June 2013)
In 2008 Simcha Jacobovici authored a book and produced a corresponding documentary which was aired on the Discovery Channel. The book and film told the story of a Jerusalem tomb which the producers claim contained not only the bodily remains of Jesus’ family members, but of Jesus Himself. This remarkable story actually began twenty-eight years earlier when the tomb was first discovered.
A construction crew working in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talpiot accidentally discovered a tomb. The authorities were called in and the tomb and its contents were examined. Inside the tomb were ten ossuaries (bone boxes), six of which had names inscribed on them. These included, Jesus son of Joseph, Maria, Mariamene, Matthew, Judas son of Jesus, and Jose (Joseph). The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) cataloged the contents, reburied the bones in accordance with Jewish tradition, then placed the ossuaries in storage. At that point the story went quiet for nearly three decades until Jocobovici began his investigation.
The documentary claims the ossuaries contained the bones of Jesus, Mariamene His wife (Mary Magdalene) and their son Judas. Also in the tomb were Jesus’ mother Mary and His earthly father Joseph. Matthew was considered a family acquaintance by the producers. The producers also claimed the ossuary inscribed “James, son of Joseph brother of Jesus” also came from this same tomb. DNA samples were taken from the Mariamene and Jesus ossuaries and they were found to be unrelated, so it seemed logical to the producers this made them husband and wife. They also produced a statistician who said the chances of finding these names in a single tomb were between 600 and 1000 to one. With these odds, and the names mentioned, the producers felt they have a solid argument for their claims, but do they?
There are several items which raise serious doubts as to the claims of the documentary. The first of these are the people found in the tomb. Most believe it highly unlikely that Joseph would have been buried in Jerusalem. It is believed Joseph died much earlier than Jesus and would have been buried in either his ancestral home which was Bethlehem, or where he lived as an adult, which was Nazarath. While there is no archaeological proof, tradition tells us Jesus’ mother Mary died in Ephesus and is buried there. In addition, Matthew, while prominent in the New Testament, was not a family member so why would he have been buried in a family tomb? The only way the producers could make this work was to make him an ‘acquaintance’ of the family.
A second interesting point are the comments made by the archaeologist who originally examined and excavated the tomb in 1980. Both Amos Kloner and Joe Zias have stated that this tomb has nothing to do with Jesus of Nazareth and the claims the authors and producers are making are total nonsense. The statistician used on the documentary also made comments concerning the methodology used by the producers. The only way the statistical data holds true is if you assume all people in the tomb were actually related (family members). This has not been proven, and the statistician pointed out that if all variables are considered the outcome would be far different than the stated 600-1000 to 1 odds. Instead you should expect numbers which would not be significant, which would be a major blow to the producers claims. It should be noted all of the names listed were extremely common in first century. The name of Joseph has been found on 218 other ossuaries, the name Judah/Judas on 164 ossuaries, while the name of Jesus has been discovered on 99 different ossuaries. It is also estimated twenty-one percent of the women in that day were named Mary. Based solely on statistics, the odds of these being the people mentioned in the Biblical text are extremely slight.
The claims that the James Ossuary also came from this tomb have been dismissed by most experts. Soil samples from inside the James Ossuary indicate it came from the Kidron Valley area. This evidence matches the testimony of the man who brought forth the James Ossuary, claiming it was discovered in the Kidron Valley. Removing the James Ossuary from the equation greatly reduces the argument for the tomb belonging to the family of Jesus.
The DNA testing conducted is also suspect in my mind. If the bones were reburied almost thirty years before the DNA samples were taken, just how certain can we be of where these samples came from? In regards to the samples, they only showed that the samples from the Marianmene ossuary and the Jesus son of Joseph ossuary were not related. They assumed, which is a very large assumption, that this must mean they were husband and wife. If they wanted to show this was in fact a family tomb, why not test the DNA from the Mary and Jose ossuaries as well as the Judas son of Jesus ossuary. If their theory is correct, all of these should have shown to be related, but no such tests were done, or if they were done the results were not used in the documentary. In either case one must ask why? As discussed with the Ossuary of Caiaphas, it was not uncommon for the bones of more than one person to be placed in a single ossuary. In the case of the Caiaphas ossuary the remains of six different people were included. How could the producers ever hope to know exactly whose DNA they were in fact testing?
If this was indeed the family tomb of Jesus, it must have certainly been well known. After all, according to the documentary it held the remains of Mary, Joseph, Matthew, Jesus’ son, Jesus’ brother James, Jesus’ wife, and several others. Just how much of a secret could this tomb have been? Why was it important to keep the tomb a secret? The Jews as well as the Romans found the new Christian movement to be troublesome at best and both groups certainly desired to abolish the belief in Jesus. In order to do this all they had to do was to present His body, show all the people He did not rise from the dead, and His disciples would have been discredited and faith in Jesus would have died out quickly. Is it reasonable to believe that no one knew the location of this tomb? Is it reasonable that none of the authorities knew where all of Jesus’ family members were buried? Simply by finding this tomb and exposing the body of Jesus they could have done away with Christianity in its infancy. Why would they not reveal this to the people and make their lives easier? Quite simply they could not do it because they knew, just as experts today know, this tomb did not belong to the family of Jesus and never contained the body of Jesus.
There are other arguments to be made against this tomb belonging to anyone associated with Jesus, but I will only point to one additional fact. If this was indeed the tomb of Jesus’ family, or any family for that matter, would you not expect them all to speak or use the same language? Would you not expect the inscriptions on the ossuaries to be in the same language for all family members? Why then are the names of Jose, Maria and Matthew inscribed in Hebrew, while the names of Jesus, and Judah and inscribed in Aramaic? Additionally the name of Marianmene is inscribed in Greek. These different languages indicate these people came from widely different backgrounds and were likely not family members. How they all came to be in the same tomb with four other ossuaries is unknown, but the facts speak very clearly that these ossuaries, and the bones they once held, had no relation to the Biblical Jesus.
The information, when presented in a certain manner and ignoring certain data, can make for a sensational book or documentary program. When all the facts are examined it seems clear the producers have heavily slanted this story and presented only the information they feel supports their claims. This program and associated book are not based on any sound archaeological or historical evidence and are nothing more than a fictional tale intended to earn a few dollars for their authors and deceive the public in so doing.