The Jesus Tomb Show–Biblical Archaeologists Reject Discovery Channel Show’s Claims

By: Dr. Ben Witherington; ©2007
The worst sort of misuse of archaeological evidence to support a tendentious theory that is so speculative it requires linking one weak hypothesis to another to another to reach a conclusion.


You can tell things are coming unraveled when every Biblical archaeologist, save possibly one, interviewed either in the Discovery Channel special or in the hour long debate thereafter repudiates or is unpersuaded by the findings of the show. Both William Dever and Jonathan Reed were not merely dubious about the findings of the show. Reed actually called it archaeo-porn, the worst sort of misuse of archaeological evidence to support a tendentious theory that is so speculative it requires linking one weak hypothesis to another to another to reach a conclusion.

In addition, both Amos Kloner and Joe Zias, two of the original archaeologists involved in the project, have openly on television and in the public forum repudiated the findings of the show in strong terms. I have had a strongly worded email from Joe Zias in the last 24 hours saying that the data was deliberately manipulated at various points. I will come back to that point in a moment.

Since Charles Pellgrino, the co-author of the The Jesus Family Tomb book, is not a Biblical archaeologist at all, but rather a forensic one, and apparently has never dug a Biblical site, he certainly cannot count as an expert in this field either. This leaves only Shimon Gibson, which, if I am understanding things right (I am happy to be corrected on this), was only a young artist, a sketch artist for the original excavation of the Talpiot tomb. He says he is skeptical of the results, but then he says he is skeptical by nature. In other words, the show could not find the sort of experts in Biblical archaeology which would have lent real credence to their theory.This stands in contrast to when Andre LeMaire was prepared to put his good reputation on the line to say that the James ossuary is genuine (and this word just in. He still thinks that, and the recent evidence presented in the trial in Jerusalem of genuine patina from the word ‘Jesus’ on the James box inscription provides further evidence for this conclusion).

Back to what Zias and I were discussing. It has to do with the James ossuary. First of all, the makers of this film and book were told that the tenth ossuary found in the Talpiot tomb was not missing. It was a blank, having neither ornamentation nor inscription, and so it was not catalogued with the other nine. However, on the show, mystery is concocted when the list of the nine catalogued ossuaries is presented and it is concluded one is missing, which is false.

Blank ossuaries are a dime a dozen. You can buy one in the market in Jerusalem for a very reasonable price. There never was a mystery about the 10th ossuary. One was concocted for this show. It is also the case that the makers of this film were told clearly that the tenth ossuary had no inscription and in addition did not match up with the dimensions of the James ossuary, which is the focus of the book Hershel Shanks and I wrote for Harper entitled The Brother of Jesus. More information about it can be found in that book.

There are further problems as well in connection with the James ossuary. The claim is made in the debate follow up show that Oded Golan said that somewhere around 1980 he bought the James ossuary. This is false. Golan has consistently maintained that he bought this ossuary before the Israeli law changed in 1978. In fact he claims to have bought it in the mid-70s and at the trial that continues in Jerusalem a 1970s era picture of him with the inscribed James ossuary was produced. The reason that the date is important is because after 1978 all such important artifacts found in Israel belong to the state of Israel. They cannot belong to a private collector like Oded Golan. For the reader wanting to see proof positive of this, see p. 84 of the Brother of Jesus book. The other reason that is important is it means the James ossuary could not possibly have come from the Talpiot tomb at all since it was not opened until 1980. The next feeble attempt to save the show’s theory will perhaps be to claim there were other ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb that went missing from some break in. Not no. 10, but rather no 11 perhaps? Of course this will be a complete argument from silence. We do not know there were more than 10 ossuaries in that tomb ever.

Other sorts of problems that crop up from the show itself include :

1) The DNA lab in Thunder Bay was not told that they were testing alleged samples from Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Why is this important? For the very good reason that the lab no doubt wishes to keep its good name, and not be associated with sensationalistic projects of dubious merit. Had they been told in advance, then at least they could have decided whether they wanted to be involved in the project. This is not how a free and open historical inquiry into a subject proceeds. It is not shrouded in secrecy until unveiled at a press conference in order to make big news, garner big ratings, and sell lots of books.
2) Ted Koppel’s own correspondence with the DNA lab, and with the statistician reported in the follow up debate finds those folks doing their best to distance themselves from the conclusions of the show, and insisting that it is only a remote possibility.
3) At one juncture we are told that the name Mariamenon is found in Hippolytus a second century church historian. Two problems with this. Firstly so far as I can see, that name never occurs in the works of Hippolytus (and the name Mariamene is not the same name, see the previous post with Richard Bauckham’s analysis of the names). Secondly, Hippolytus died in about A.D. 236. He comes to us from the end of the second century A.D. He could never have known any eywitnesses or even second-third generation followers of Jesus. Even if he did mention the name in question (the one on the ossuary found at Talpiot), he provides no early second century evidence for this name, much less for the theory that this name is one way of referring to Mary Magdalene. In fact the Acts of Philip, at best a fourth century document is the basis of the theory of Prof. Bovon that Mariamenon= Mary Magdalene, but nowhere in that document are the two equated. The woman referred to in that document is an evangelist in Greek who is the sister of Philip (whether Philip the apostle or the later Philip the evangelist found in Acts 8, we could debate). In other words, we have no hard evidence at all that equates Mary Magdalene with this particular name, or even with the later figure found in the Acts of Philip. There is then certainly no first or second century evidence that Mary Magdalene was every called by the name on the Talpiot ossuary, or would have been labeled this on a first century A.D. ossuary. And why again would her inscription be in Greek, and all the other ones in the tomb in Aramaic or Hebrew? We are not told.
4) Towards the end of the program itself, we discover that the intrepid amateur archaeologists, namely the film maker and his cohorts failed to even ask the IAA for permission to find and reopen the sealed Talpiot tomb. But this was an IAA controlled archaeological site now adjacent to an apartment complex. And when the IAA did find out about the snooping around in a tomb without permission, they came and put a stop to it. But the most interesting thing found when the filmmaker was in the tomb was a very large Greek inscription inside the tomb. What does this suggest? It suggests to me this is not the tomb of the Aramaic speaking family of Jesus of course!
5) Strong objection was taken in the debate program to the dramatizations in the show because they present the theory of the filmmakers as if they were facts. There are not, for example any dramatizations of other theories. What’s the problem with this? Well as one professor from Virginia Seminary rightly pointed out, drama is powerful. It’s a form of preaching and persuasion. If this really were an open ended historical inquiry and not an argument for a particular point of view, not a docu-drama, this sort of filming technique would not have been used.
6) No mention at all is made of the fact that though we only have a few hundred ossuaries with inscribed names, there is in fact another ossuary with the inscription ‘Jesus son of Joseph’. Apparently this was not a rare combination of names at all, and in any case, as I have said Jesus of Nazareth is never called ‘son of Joseph’ by his family, or by his disciples. Notice how Luke pours cold water on that theory in Luke 3.21– “Now Jesus himself was about 30 when he began his ministry, he was the son, so it was supposed/thought, of Joseph.” Supposed by whom? Clearly not by Luke or the family whom Luke has just shown knew about the virginal conception of Jesus. Even the cousins knew about this miracle when Mary told Elizabeth. There can be no good reason Luke would put it this way if he knew the earliest followers of Jesus or members of his family had thought that Jesus was son of Joseph.
7) The unique theory presented in the show is that John 19 presents a conversation between Jesus on the cross and his wife Mary Magdalene, with their son being the Beloved Disciple! The problem of course with this is that Jesus is addressing his own mother, Mary. John 19.26 is quite clear— Jesus saw his mother standing there, and spoke to her about the Beloved Disciple, who is certainly not his son. In John 13 and following the Beloved Disciple is portrayed as one of the adult disciples in the upper room. Not as a child. Here is but one more example of how normal interpretations of the Biblical evidence are ignored and rejected in favor of rewriting the text to support the theory, and much later non-eyewitness Gnostic evidence from the Acts of Philip is made crucial to the case, even when that evidence itself does not likely support the case at all!
8) An important further corollary was pointed out as well. This special is an example of film-making, not good investigative journalism. Consider for example the difference between how this project was pursued and say the efforts of Robert Graysmith, recently blogged about here, who took years and years of investigating without pay to be able to demonstrate who the Zodiac killer was. He did not present his evidence in book form until he was sure. Until he chased down all leads. Until he convinced at least some of the police he had been bugging for years to consider this or that piece of evidence and solve the case. This docu-drama falls far short of what would be called good investigative journalism.To paraphrase a famous phrase “This is how a bad theory ends, this is how a bad theory ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”



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