“The Lost Tomb of Jesus”: A Review

Television these days thrives on sensationalism: if it gets ratings, it is good for business. Over the past few years, especially on channels formerly known for their integrity and commitment to the increase of knowledge, we have seen a trend of degeneration– sensationalism and hype now trump truth and facts. No more do we see documentaries focusing on what can be known; instead, we see special after special based on fictional books like The da Vinci Code and radical theories presented by fringe individuals trying to make a name for themselves. Then along comes the new special by The Discovery Channel by famous filmmaker James Cameron along with Simcha Jacobovici entitled “The Lost Tomb of Jesus”. We could only hope that the sensationalist trend would end; unfortunately, this television program only perpetuates it. When most of Biblical archaeology is even against the show, it should tell us something!

The television program makes the following assertion: a family tomb found south of Jerusalem in Talpiot in 1980 contained ten ossuaries, of which at least six have inscriptions. The inscriptions include “Jesus, son of Joseph,” “Jose”, “Maria”, “Mariamne Mara”, “Matthew,” and “Judah son of Jesus”. Since many of these names are parallel to names in the Gospel narratives, this could be the family tomb of Jesus. The hypothesis continues that the recently publicized “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” ossuary actually came from this tomb, being perhaps the one missing ossuary (10 were discovered, but only 9 cataloged), and based on ancient documents, Mariamne Mara actually refers to Mary Magdalene. The connection is then made between Jesus and Mary Magdalene as married with this Judah as the son. The hypothesis is bolstered by statistical analysis that would claim that there is either 1 in 600 or 1 in 30,000 chance that the tomb is not the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

As one can imagine, these are all stunning claims, and when presented by a scholar or two may gain great credibility in the public sphere. It is important, therefore, that we understand these claims and be able to provide a defense for our faith (1 Peter 3:15), giving an answer to people who may perhaps ask regarding its claims.

First and foremost is the idea that the family of Jesus would have a family tomb near Jerusalem. While it is conceded within the film that Joseph most likely died in Nazareth, no one ever questions the idea that Jesus’ family would have a family tomb near Jerusalem. It is true that Jesus died in Jerusalem according to the Gospel accounts, and that many of His family members were present in Jerusalem after His death (cf. Matthew 27, Acts 1:14). Nevertheless, Jesus’ family was from Nazareth. If Jesus’ family were to have a family tomb, would it not begin or at least include that of Joseph himself, and therefore be in Nazareth? Even if we were to posit a family tomb in Judea, would it not be in Bethlehem, the ancestral home of Joseph (Luke 2:4)? These possibilities are never raised or discussed at all.

Another question would involve whether Jesus’ family would have the resources to have such a tomb. Joseph was a carpenter (Matthew 13:55); it is not likely that he or the family could afford such a luxury. This possibility is never raised or discussed at all.

Furthermore, if Jesus was known to have a family tomb in the area of Jerusalem, why would we expect Joseph of Arimathea to obtain the body and feel the need to place the body in his own prepared tomb (Matthew 27:57-60)? If the family of Jesus had a tomb near Jerusalem, Joseph himself or His mother or some other person would likely obtain the body and place it within the family tomb. This possibility is never raised or discussed at all.

“Jesus, son of Joseph” itself is rather controversial. We know that Mary and the brothers of Jesus were believers (cf. Acts 1:14); if they believed that Jesus was the Son of God, they would know for certain that Jesus was not in truth the son of Joseph. The difficulty with considering Joseph the father of Jesus is also not raised or discussed at all.

Very early in the show, the possibility is raised that the story in Matthew 28:11-15 could actually be true:

Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city, and told unto the chief priests all the things that were come to pass. And when they were assembled with the elders, and had taken counsel, they gave much money unto the soldiers, saying, “Say ye, ‘His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.’ And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and rid you of care.”
So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying was spread abroad among the Jews, and continueth until this day.

The idea is actually presented that the disciples took the body of Jesus and put it into His family tomb, and then claimed that He arose. The show would then claim that it is believable by “some Christians” that Jesus could have been resurrected and dispensed with His physical body at the ascension, and therefore the actual body could be buried and kept until now. A fantastic tale, to be certain, and one that strains belief! Are we to believe that twelve dispirited disciples somehow got beyond a Roman guard that knew that it would be put to death if it failed, took the body of Jesus, only to move it into another tomb? No discussion is given regarding the motive, and the fantastic claim is never defended. Regarding the ascension of Jesus, Paul establishes in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44, 51-54:

So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption; it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory: it is sown in weakness; it is raised in power: it is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body…Behold, I tell you a mystery: We all shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. But when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

If such is the resurrection for which we wait, would the resurrection of Jesus be any different? Shall we not expect that at the ascension, Jesus’ mortality put on immortality, and the perishable imperishable?

Finally, if it were the family tomb of Jesus, we would expect to see Jesus’ family members within it. This is the very claim explicated by the show itself, and the show even provides a list of who would be in it: Joseph and Mary; Jesus, His sisters Miriam and Salome (Matthew 13:56; names provided by tradition), His brothers James, Joseph (or Jose/Joses), Jude (or Judas), and Simon (cf. Matthew 13:55). Out of these eight persons, the tomb itself only would present three (Jesus, Jose, and Mary) and claims a fourth that was removed (James). Nothing is mentioned about the presence of the other four. Even if we were to assume that the sisters would be buried with any husbands that they would have, we still do not have any knowledge of where Jude and Simon are. On top of all this, there are additional ossuaries (bone boxes; in the first century, bodies decomposed and then their bones were collected in boxes called ossuaries) with names of Mariamne Mara and Matthew, names not explicitly in the family. Therefore, two people are missing and two more are added. While it could be assumed that the missing persons are part of the three or four uninscribed ossuaries, but this remains an assumption, along with the stated assumption that Matthew was part of the family, for which there is not a shred of evidence. The “resident scholar”, James Tabor, tries to establish that since variants of the name Matthew are often present in the genealogy of Luke 3:23-28, it is “likely” that there would be a Matthew in the family sometime near Jesus. This is sheer assumption with no good evidence for it.

None of this takes into account that normally family tombs include ossuaries from multiple generations, and that it would be rather odd to find all these ossuaries involving only one or two. It is more likely that whatever this family is that the ossuaries are more spread out than the family of Jesus.

Much is made regarding statistics in the show, because the most significant historical argument against the show’s hypothesis is the commonality of the names involved. Indeed, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and James are some of the most popular names in first century Judea. The show would try to posit, however, that all these names showing up in the same family tomb drastically increases the odds that it is the family of Jesus. The final numbers seem striking: 599 out of 600 chances, or 29,999 out of 30,000 chances, that the tomb is the family tomb of Jesus. These numbers, however, pose some problems. While the statistician did not take “Matthew” into account, he did not factor “Matthew” as a negative factor against the hypothesis. Furthermore, the odds are all based on Mariamne Mara being Mary Magdalene, and we will show below that the association is extremely over-hyped. The statistician, in the show “The Tomb of Jesus: A Critical Review,” himself admits that if Mariamne Mara is not Mary Magdalene, the odds are not nearly so stunning. The statistics, therefore, do not prove anything whatsoever.

One of the most controversial pieces of evidence in the film is the idea that Mariamne Mara is indeed Mary Magdalene and that the ossuaries show that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. The association between Mariamne Mara and Mary Magdalene is made on the basis of the Gnostic fourth-century document Acts of Philip, supposedly written by Mary Magdalene’s brother, that explains how Mary Magdalene was a missionary. The hypothesis goes that since she was a missionary, and “Mara” can mean “Master” (somewhat equivalent to “Teacher”), the ossuary inscribed “Mariamne Mara” is of “Mary the Master,” and therefore Mary Magdalene. First of all, this idea is based on an admittedly late document from a Gnostic source, and it is being used to make a story that no one in the ancient world would recognize. Gnostics rejected marriage and any form of sexuality; “orthodox Christianity” did not believe that Jesus was married to anyone. The evidence that has no credibility to begin with is being abused to suit twenty-first century sensationalist theology. Furthermore, Ben Witherington (“‘The Jesus Tomb?’ ‘Titanic’ Talpiot Tomb Theory Sunk From the Start”, http://benwitherington.blogspot.com) asserts that “Mara” is an abbreviated form of “Martha,” and posits that the ossuary held the bones of both a Mary and a Martha, which is a much more feasible and far less tenuous hypothesis than the many jumps necessary to make it from Mariamne Mara to Mary Magdalene.

The connection to Jesus in marriage comes from DNA testing done on physical material found in the “Jesus son of Joseph” and “Mariamne Mara” ossuaries. The mitochondrial DNA was found to be different; the conclusion made, therefore, is that this Jesus and Mariamne, since they were not related by blood but in a family tomb, were married. The show does not take into account the difficulty that lack of evidence is not evidence. Perhaps this “Mariamne Mara” was married to Jose, or to another occupant of the tomb? Perhaps she was the sister-in-law of this “Jesus son of Joseph”, or perhaps an aunt or niece. These possibilities are not raised nor discussed.

Next we come to the missing ossuary. When the tomb was excavated in 1980, ten ossuaries were found, but only nine were cataloged. The hypothesis goes that the recently publicized ossuary saying “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” comes from this family tomb. The evidence given is that the patina (mineral deposits on the ossuaries) from the James ossuary and the Talpiot ossuaries match quite well over and against other ossuaries discovered in other areas. There are, however, significant problems with this hypothesis. Oded Golan, owner of the James ossuary, has claimed to have purchased it before 1980, the discovery of the family tomb. When the Talpiot tomb was found, 6 of the 10 ossuaries were claimed to be inscribed, and we have 6 inscribed ossuaries: the lost ossuary was one claimed to be uninscribed. Since the James ossuary not only has the inscription but also has rosettes carved upon it, it is hard to believe that two archaeologists would have missed all or part of these details! Beyond all of that, the ancient historian Eusebius claims that when James was stoned in Jerusalem, he “was buried on the spot, by the sanctuary, and his inscribed stone is still there by the sanctuary.” (Ecclesiastical History, 2.23.18). This would mean that he was not buried in Talpiot nor in any family tomb anywhere, and further discredits the claim. These possibilities are not raised or discussed.

The final great claim of the show is that Jesus has a son– the final inscribed ossuary reads “Judah son of Jesus”. The show quickly moves to show why the New Testament would not name such a person on account of the risk of the child. The hypothesis is so bold as to claim that this child is the “beloved disciple” of John, left anonymous on account his close relation to Jesus. Such, supposedly, explains Jesus’ comment on the cross:

When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple standing by whom he loved, he saith unto his mother, “Woman, behold thy son!” Then saith he to the disciple, “Behold, thy mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her unto his own home (John 19:26-27).

The claim, then, is that Jesus is commissioning His own son to take care of his grandmother. The major difficulty with this view, of course, is that it is Biblically impossible. We know that Jesus ate the Last Supper with the twelve (Mark 14:17), and the “disciple whom Jesus loved” is present at that meal (John 13:23). Furthermore, this same disciple is the one concerning whom Peter asks Jesus in John 21:20, and in verse 24 “this disciple” is identified as the author of the book. In John 20:2, this “disciple whom Jesus loved” and Peter are the ones to whom Mary Magdalene comes to announce the empty tomb. We know from the Gospel texts that Jesus set James, John, and Peter aside as special among the twelve (cf. Matthew 17:1), and we see the close association of Peter and John after the resurrection (Acts 3:1). Based on all actual evidence, John, not some “Judah son of Jesus” seems to be the “beloved disciple”.

Regardless, the entire claim is based on the house of cards built previously, and there is no evidence that indicates that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and that they had a child named Judah.

“The Lost Tomb of Jesus” is a fantastic piece of sensationalist hype, assumptions and hypotheses clothed in “science”, and tenuous connections posited as fact. The show would posit a family tomb of Jesus, full of people found in the Gospel narratives; the actual evidence indicates that there is a fascinating tomb near Jerusalem of a regular family over many generations. The Talpiot tomb shows that sometime between 70 BCE and 70 CE there was a man named Jesus whose father was Joseph, and that he had a son named Judah. He had family members named Jose, Matthew, Mary, Miriamne, and Martha. This does not mean that he was Jesus of Nazareth; far from it. There is no reason to believe anything beyond what has been handed down in the Gospel accounts for two millennia: Jesus of Nazareth died, was buried, and was resurrected on the third day. His bones will not be found.

It is tragic that the claims of the Jews in the days of Matthew persevere to this day (Matthew 28:11-15). Nonetheless, we have seen that God is true, and men liars (Romans 3:4). We will not find Jesus in a box in Jerusalem; we will find Him coming from the heavens with the angels in judgment (Matthew 25:31-46). Let us be prepared for that day!


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