The Jesus Family Tomb: Fact or Fiction?

Jesus’ Bones Discovered?

Has the tomb of Jesus Christ been discovered in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot?

In a 2007 Discovery Channel TV documentary, producer James Cameron (The Titanic) and Jewish director, Simcha Jacobovici, attempted to prove that Jesus’ burial cave and bones were discovered near Jerusalem. Cameron and Jacobovici further cited evidence that Jesus sired a son with Mary Magdalene.

If Jesus Christ’s tomb has really been discovered, then all of Christian history has been based upon a false claim—that Jesus physically rose from the dead, was seen alive by over 500 followers at once, spent 40 days teaching his disciples, and then ascended into heaven. But before we get caught up in another Da Vinci type conspiracy, let’s look at the facts behind Cameron’s claims.

The Facts Claimed:

1. In 1980 ten limestone bone boxes (ossuaries) dated to the first century, were discovered in an excavated tomb in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot.

2. Six inscriptions were discovered with names similar to or the same as some of Jesus Christ’s family and disciples:

  • Jesua, son of Joseph,
  • Mary
  • Mariamene e Mara
  • Mathew
  • Jofa
  • Judah, son of Jesua.

3. Cameron attempts to prove that Mariamene e Mara is Mary of Magdalene, and that she and Jesus had a son named “Judah son of Jesua”.

4. DNA analysis identifies that tissues from the ossuaries of Jesua and Mariamene e Mara were not related, raising the possibility they may have been married and had a child.

Checking The Evidence

So, what are the odds that this is Jesus’ tomb? According to Cameron and Jacobovici, the statistical improbability of these names belonging to another family than that of Jesus Christ is 600 to 1. However, scholars challenge many of the assumptions in their interpretation of the facts. Let’s look:

1. It is true that these ossuaries were discovered in an ancient tomb. But thousands of similar tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem. And ossuaries were often used for the bones of more than one individual. In fact, according to Dr. Craig Evans, PhD, author of Jesus and the Ossuaries, the tomb carried the bones of about 35 different individuals, and about half were from these ossuaries. Evans also notes that there was considerable contamination of the site.

2. Are Cameron and Jacobovici correct about the names they assert are on the ossuaries? Not according to many experts. Some were written in Aramaic, others in Hebrew, and another in Greek. This indicates they were not buried in a similar time period. It is not even clear that “Jesus” is named on any of the ossuaries. Dr. Evans’s personal examination of the ossuary was inconclusive. Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, is also unsure that the name “Jesus” on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it’s more likely the name “Hanun.” Ancient Semitic script is notoriously difficult to decipher.

Additionally, it should be noted that the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were extremely common in the first century. About 25% of the women in Jesus’ day were named Mary. Joseph was also a common name. And about one in ten had the name, “Jesua”. Dr. Evans indicates that approximately 100 tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem with the name “Jesus” and 200 with the name “Joseph.” The name “Mary” is on far more.

“Each name with the exception of Mariamene seemed common to their period, and it was only in 1996 that the BBC made a film suggesting that, given the combination, it might be that family. The idea was eventually discounted, however, because, as New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham asserted ‘the names with Biblical resonance are so common that even when you run the probabilities on the group, the odds of it being the famous Jesus’ family are “very low.”

3. The statistical support for the entire “Jesus tomb” theory rises or falls on the question of Mary Magdalene. So did the name Mariamene e Mara mean Mary Magdalene, as Cameron and Jacobovici attempt to prove? Not according to most experts. Their interpretation is simply not supported by evidence. Bauckham notes, “The first use of ‘Mariamene’ for Magdalene dates to a scholar who was born in 185, suggesting that Magdalene wouldn’t have been called that at her death.”

So, even though Cameron and Jacobovici employed a statistician, Andrey Feuerverger, to support their case, his numbers were based upon assumptions disputed by the majority of scholars. In fact, Feuerverger himself admits that the assumptions were given to him by Jacobovici, and that the single biggest factor in his 600 to 1 odds was the identity of Mariamene e Mara being Mary of Magdalene. Feuerverger defends his role in an interview with Scientific American, “I did permit the number one in 600 to be used in the film—I’m prepared to stand behind that but on the understanding that these numbers were calculated based on assumptions that I was asked to use.”

Yet Dr. Randy Ingermanson’s statistical analysis of the probability indicates that there is less than one chance in 10,000 that this was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

4. But what about the DNA tests? Doesn’t that prove Jesus was in the tomb? Let’s look closer at what the DNA test measured. It took residue (there were no bones to examine) from the ossuaries Jacobovici identified as belonging to both Jesua and Mariamene, and used mitochondrial DNA testing to see if they were related. The results proved to be negative, indicating to him that the two individuals were not related maternally. He thus assumes the two were married. But Bauckham isn’t impressed. He writes, “If ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mariamene’ weren’t related matrilineally, why jump to the conclusion that they were husband and wife, rather than being related through their fathers?”

It is the fact that these particular names have been discovered in the same tomb that has fueled speculation that it really could be Jesus’ tomb. But many scholars believe Cameron and Jacobovici have skewed the evidence to build a case that just isn’t there. Additionally, there are many contradictory questions that need to be answered before one jumps to a conclusion that overturns centuries of historical scholarship.

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