Wednesday, January 30, 2008

More Talpiot Tomb Stories

Not surprisingly the Jerusalem Post, (which btw made several mistakes in reporting the recent conference in Jerusalem sponsored by Princeton), has now published a further series of articles saying that Ultra Orthodox Jews (the heredi council) are unlikely to agree to the reopening of the Talpiot tomb and the one adjacent to it, because of course it involves sacrilege, and further, the Talpiot tomb had been turned into a geniza, that is a repository of old and worn out sacred Jewish texts. There are thus two good reasons for them to object to this intrusion.

Here is the link for the most recent story in the Post.

The original Post story which involved an interview with Jim Charlesworth who is on sabbatical in Israel until April can be found at the following link---

There are several salient points to be made on the basis of yet other articles, also in the Post (Jan. 25th by David Horovitz in particular. You can type in Talpiot tomb and click on news at Google and you will find these stories quite readily). Here are a couple of key points:

1) Eric Meyers of Duke rightly complained as follows: "Most negative assessments of archeologists and other scientists and scholars who attended [the symposium] have been excluded from the final press reports," complained Duke University's Professor of Jewish Studies Eric Meyers and another dozen scholars in a statement that listed archeological, statistical, DNA and other objections. "We wish to... make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance - including all of the archeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb - either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus's family or find this claim highly unlikely."

2) Notice that all the epigraphers and archaeologists think these ossuaries are highly unlikely to have any relationship to Jesus' family. Why is their word so important? Because of course this is a matter calling for expertise, and the real experts in this matter are people like Shimon Gibson and Amos Kloner who dug the tomb in the first place and who stand by their conclusions that it is very unlikely to have anything to do with Jesus, and even more importantly the epigraphers who examined the inscriptions on the ossuary. Let me suggest an analogy in regard to this conference. This would be like going to a medical convention where a new drug was being debated. Of course many doctors would have opinions, but the real experts would be the chemists and toxicologists who would best be able to tell whether the drug showed promise, or was potentially dangerous, even lethal. Well in this case, the real expertise conclude any connection to Jesus is highly unlikely. I agree.

3) A third point needs to be made. No conservative or Evangelical scholars, whatever their expertise, seem to have been even invited to this conference, with the exception of Stephen Pfann, apparently. Jim Charlesworth kept saying that going forward, if further excavation and investigation is allowed, he wants only people who have no emotional stake in this matter one way or another! There are very few people like that out there, frankly, if they do Biblical archaeology, and it is odd that Dr. Charlesworth, an ordained UM minister from N.C., and someone whom I consider a friend, would think he was such a person, or could find any such persons. Perhaps however all he really means is he wants people who are reasonably dispassionate and can follow the evidence where it leads. If so, that is fair enough.

4) A fourth interesting point has come to light. Amos Kloner says that, despite what Joseph' Gat's widow said, Joseph Gat himself never claimed this was likely the tomb of Jesus, and he lived until 1990, long after the tomb had been excavated (the Post had originally said he died much earlier).

About one thing I certainly agree with Jim Charlesworth. This sort of study almost always produces highly ambiguous evidence. More study could produce better questions, but it is highly unlikely to produce anything like clear or certain answers. But then this is often true of archaeological investigation. It provides possibilities, but seldom proofs or refutations of a clear sort.

Let me illustrate why I say this---

Consider the inscription on the so-called Jesus ossuary. It is a 'toe tag' inscription, a mere scrawl for identification of the bones, not an honorific inscription. This inscription, except for the word Joseph at the end of the inscription is basically undecipherable-- the first name could be Hanan, it could be Yeshua, it could be something else. It is absolutely unclear how it reads, as the detailed study by Stephen Pfann made clear last year.

This means, that all the conjecture is inconclusive and could never reach a level where someone could really say 'it is highly probable that...' and back it up. Furthermore, this sup[posed Jesus ossuary is one of the poorer quality ossuaries that were found in the Talpiot tomb. As Charlesworth says, it makes no sense that Jesus would be buried in this sort of ossuary without an honorific inscription, whilst other less famous relatives in the tomb got better ones with clearer and better inscriptions.

And let me repeat once more--- there is, as of yet, no new evidence supporting any side of this debate. The conference simply rehashed the old evidence, and suggested further study should be done.

Shimon Gibson says the adjacent chamber in the Talpiot tomb should be examined as he opines that it may provide the clues to what sort of Jewish family owned this expansive, and I might add, expensive, rock cut tomb with an ornamented decoration over the tomb. The evidence we have about Jesus' family however does not match up with the social evidence found in the tomb thus far, indicating the social level and status of this extended family. Jesus' family was not well to do, from what we can tell, and furthermore, they did not bury Jesus anyway. Joseph of Arimathea did. Nor was James buried in this locale either, according to Eusebius.

Stay tuned, but don't expect much between now and April. Charlesworth may well not be able to get past the objections of the ultra Orthodox to further snooping in this Jewish graveyard.


Marc Axelrod said...

It's hard to imagine how Christianity could get started if there was a burial box with the bones of Jesus right there in Jerusalem. All the Pharisees would have to do is say, "Hey, there he is, right over there in that cave!

And how likely is it that the disciples would be willing to suffer and die for a religion that they knew was a lie?

I think the inscriptions are probably forged.

Ben Witherington said...

I completely agree with you Marc. It especially makes no sense, because Jerusalem was the center of Christianity until the Jewish war began in the 60s, which is to say for over thirty years after Jesus' death. The historical probabilities are so against this whole theory. And this brings up a further important point. It is when you have a convergence of evidence--- historical, textual, epigraphal, social culture, linguistic, that a theory goes from being merely possible to probable. In this case so much of the evidence goes against the theory, that it has quite a hill to climb and many obstacles to overcome. The archaeological evidence cannot be weighed in isolation from the other evidence.


Ben W.

Michael F. Bird said...

I think that Lee McDonald was at the conference. He's the recently retired President of Acadia Seminary and current President of the IBR (

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks Michael. Good to know. I know for a fact that Wright, Bock, Evans, Witherington, Hays, Habermas, etc. were not there.

Ben W.

Eclectic Pietist said...


A minor comment: Is there some way of formatting so that the text is not hard against the left side of the page? It's readable, but it would be nice to have some whitespace on the left hand side. You may need to ask a teenager for some help. BTW, I discovered your sent when a certain Calvinist blog railed against one of your previous posts. So of course I connected to your site and have been enjoying it ever since! Thanks! Mike Cheek

Marc Axelrod said...

I'm on chapter three of Living Word in terms of writing out study questions. Hope to have it done soon!