Why Do You Seek the Living One Among the Dead? Some Remarks on ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus’

On March 28, 1980, construction workers on an apartment building in Talpiot, south of Jerusalem, uncovered an ancient tomb and archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) began excavating it. Shimon Gibson surveyed the site and drew a layout plan and L.Y. Rahmani published A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collections of the State of Israel that described 10 ossuaries (limestone boxes for collecting bones), found in the tomb. Scholars know that from 30 BC. to 70 AD, many people in Jerusalem would first wrap bodies in shrouds after death. The bodies were then placed in carved rock tombs, where they decomposed for a year before the bones were placed in an ossuary.

One of the ten ossuaries found in the Talpiot tomb, unmarked with an inscription, disappeared immediately after the finding without any trace. Out of the nine remaining ossuaries, six bear inscriptions containing common names for the 1st century AD: Maria, Jesus, Jose, Judah, Matai, Mariamene. Pertaining to the inscriptions written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the leading epigrapher and Harvard emeritus professor Frank Moore Cross told Discovery News: “The inscriptions are from the Herodian Period (which occurred from around 1st century BC to 1st century AD). The use of limestone ossuaries and the varied scriptstyles are characteristic of that time.”

The documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” well publicized on a press conference Monday February 26, 2007, at the New York Public Library, was aired Sunday March 4 on Discovery channel. The piece was directed by Israeli-born, Canadian-based filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and produced by Hollywood director James Cameron (“Titanic”). The producers said that they worked on the project with renowned archeologists, statisticians and DNA specialists.

Twenty-seven years after discovery, filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici is convinced that there is a link between the common names inscribed on ossuaries and the names mentioned in canonical Gospels in relation to Jesus’ inner circle, such as, Maria (Mary), Jose (Joseph), Mary Magdalene. As a matter of fact, the New Testament speaks of Jesus “brothers” and “sisters” (close relatives, perhaps cousins), naming four of his “brothers,” James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas (Matthew 13:55). Hence Jacobovici’s fanciful mapping of these names:

  • “Jesus, son of Joseph” = Jesus of Nazareth
  • “Maria” (a Latin version, written in Hebrew consonants, of biblical Miriam (or in English Mary) = Mary, mother of Jesus
  • “Mariamene e Mara” rendered “Mariamene [Mariamne] known as the master” = Mary Magdalene
  • “Judas, son of Jesus” = Jesus’ son from a supposed marital union with Mariamene
  • “Jose” = a variant of Joseph, one of Jesus’ “brothers” mentioned in the New Testament (Mark 6:3); note though a parallel text, Matthew 13:55, where one may find the more common form “Joseph”
  • “Matay” = the original Hebrew of English Matthew, another “brother” of Jesus, yet unmentioned in canonical Gospels

Andrey Feuerverger, professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto, associated with this media project, studied the likelihood of the cluster of resonant names found in the tomb and concluded that the odds are at least 600 to 1 in favor of the Talpiot tomb being the Jesus family tomb. In other words, the conclusion works 599 times out of 600.

My goal here is to show that the ossuary inscription on which the entire statistical construal lies, the inscription pointing supposedly to “Mary Magdelene,” may be read in a way different from the one followed by the filmmakers. But before tackling with minute epigraphic and philological matters, I would like to make a few general remarks.

  1. As a matter of methodology, the filmmakers seemingly consider archaeological data as primary source of information while all the literary evidence should comply to their fanciful construal from bits and pieces. In their view, if not Scripture then at least the Christian theology must be rewritten according to the Gospel of Jacobovici & Co. Yet, most of us working with ancient texts would agree that archeological findings are a secondary source that can only support the data gleaned from the texts. Regarding Jesus of Nazareth, the New Testament remains the only reliable source of information.
  2. Regarding the location of the Talpiot tomb, 4 miles south of Jerusalem, one may say that it does not fit at all with the Passion narrative. The New Testament records that Jesus was crucified on a Friday morning, in the eve of Passover. His body was taken down from the cross, and quickly laid to rest in a new tomb hewn in the rock. The fact that this new tomb, offered by Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus’ burial, was located in the same garden where Jesus was crucified fits quite well in the urgency with which Jesus’ entombment occurred due to the legal constraints regarding the Sabbath day (John 19:41).
  3. The Synoptic Gospels suggest a round stone which was rolled on the entrance of Jesus tomb’s (Matthew 27:60; 28:2; Mark 15:46; 16:3; Luke 24:2), whereas the Talpiot tomb had a square stone closing the entrance, the way a bottle is stopped up by a cork.
  4. Jesus was not a wealthy individual to have a family tomb. Joseph of Arimathea offered his own tomb for Jesus’ untimely burial (Matthew 27:59-60). Moreover, according to canonical Gospels, Jesus was a Galilean (as his entire family) and a tomb of Jesus in Talpiot outside Jerusalem looks suspicious to say at the least.
  5. “Jesus, son of Joseph” says Amos Kloner, one of the first archaeologists who excavated the Talpiot tomb, is quite common and may be found on several other ossuaries discovered through the years. Kloner calls the identification of “Yeshua” with Jesus the founder of Christian church a “nonsense.” One may add that the attribute “son of Joseph” does not fit with Jesus of canonical Gospels. Jesus was known by his acquaintances and relatives as “Jesus of Nazareth.” Interestingly enough, while in Nazareth, Jesus was called “the carpenter, the son of Mary” (Mark 6:1-6)—a pejorative appellation in a patriarchal society, yet in this case likely reflecting the common view of Nazareth people on Jesus’ unusual origin. Jesus’ enemies call him “son of Joseph” (John 6:42), but one cannot imagine that his siblings or disciples would have used the same appellation in an inscription on Jesus ossuary.
  6. According to the filmmakers, the missing ossuary is the James ossuary announced in 2002. (In the New Testament, James is mentioned as one of the four “brothers” of Jesus.) The identification was done by patina analysis showing the presence of terra rossa on Talpiot ossuaries as well as on the James ossuary. Yet, terra rosa is not limited to the Talpiot region, so it cannot prove beyond any doubt the provenance of James’ ossuary. One may add, that, according to Amos Kloner, the missing ossuary was unmarked with any inscription. Moreover, an IAA special committee made up of experts in archaeology and epigraphy decided on June 15, 2003 that the inscription on James ossuary, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is a forgery.
  7. Since Jesus was fixed on the cross by nailing, as the New Testament suggests (John 20:27), one would expect to have direct evidence on the skeleton found in the ossuary with the inscription “Jesus, son of Joseph.” At Giv’at ha-Mitvar, north of Jerusalem, in 1968, archaeologists excavated a 1st century AD tomb containing an ossuary bearing the Hebrew inscription “Jehohanan, son of HGQWL.” Inside the ossuary were the skeletal remains of a man in his twenties, who had been crucified. The evidence for this was based on the right heel bone of the individual, pierced by an iron nail 5 inches in length. Yet the archaeologists involved in the excavation of the Talpiot tomb in 1980 reported no evidence of nailing with regard to the Jesus ossuary. Interestingly enough, the filmmakers are conspicuously silent on the lack of this crucial evidence in light of Giv’at ha-Mitvar finding.
  8. The filmmakers rely primarily on statistics and DNA analysis. Yet, given the multiple manipulation of the Talpiot ossuaries during the last three decades, one may assume that minimal, degraded human residues still preserved in some ossuaries have been tampered with. Nevertheless, argue the filmmakers, tests on mitochondrial DNA obtained from the Jesus and Mariamene (identified by the filmmakers with Mary Magdalene) ossuaries and conducted at Lakehead University’s Paleo-DNA laboratory in Thunder Bay, show conclusively that the two individuals were not maternally related. And here is the rushed conclusion of Jacobovici & Co.: This likely means Mariamene (Mary) and Jesus were related by marriage. Why not paternally siblings or not related at all?
  9. During the press conference on February 26, one of the reporters asked the panel what impact will this discovery have, should it be proved correct, on Christian belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection. (This question surfaced again at the round table discussion moderated by Ted Koppel after the Discovery feature documentary aired on March 4.) Both New Testament scholars, James Tabor of University of North Carolina University in Charlotte and James Charlesworth of Princeton University, suggested a type of “spiritual resurrection” while resorting to Paul’s distinction between “spiritual bodies” and “natural bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:44). This is a textual proof, said the above mentioned scholars, that Jesus’ resurrection was perceived variously by his own disciples. Some of them believed, as the Talpiot discovery intimates, that, while Jesus natural (physical) body remained in the tomb, he rose and ascended to heaven in a spiritual body or spiritually. But this is a sample of exegesis out of context betraying a certain tendency to play with the biblical illiteracy of the general public. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul indeed speaks of “spiritual bodies” in reference not to Jesus’ third resurrection, but rather pertaining to the final and universal resurrection, when the bodies of the dead will be simultaneously raised and transformed into incorruptible or “spiritual bodies” so that they may share eternity. Since both dead and living bodies will undergo the transition from corruptibility to incorruptibility, from “natural” to “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 15:51-53), it results that “spiritual bodies” are not a new creation or entity, but rather a transformation of the former physical existence. The bodily resurrection of Christ is supported by the New Testament texts, as well by the Jewish-Christian common belief in the bodily resurrection of all humans at the end of time. Even we theologians should not forget Paul’s clear statement “If Christ be not risen, then our preaching is vain, and your faith is also vain” (1 Corinthians 15:14).

I would like now to dwell on only one name that is at the core of the filmmakers’ theory, Mariamene e Mara rendered “Mary, known as master”; the consonantal cluster MARA was interpreted as the Aramaic (masculine!) word mara, spelled in Greek characters, and meaning “master, lord, teacher.” (The same word occurs in the liturgical formula marana tha [1 Corinthians 16:2; cf. Didache 10:6] “Our Lord, come!”) This transcription and its rendition, proposed by Jacobovici & Co., is different from the one recorded by L.Y. Rahmani in his Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries (1994). Rahmani reads Mariamenou [e] Mara meaning “of Mariamene, who is (also called) Mara.”

How did the filmmakers arrive at their own reading and interpretation? One may notice that the only inscription in Greek found in the Talpiot tomb uses a cursive type of writing with no space between words, hence the word division plays an important role.

One thing is obvious: the letter following the “Ny” (N) in “MARIAMEN…” is not the letter “Eta” (E long) as in the filmmakers’ reading, but perhaps an “Omicron” (O short) as in Rahmani’s reading, MARIAMENOU, a genitive of the neuter noun MARIAMENON – a diminutive of MARIAMENE, one of the many variants of the Hebrew name MARIYAM. The next letter, according to Rahmani, is “Eta” (E long) standing for E KAI “who is (also called)” used in cases of double names. The name MARA is considered by Rahmani a contraction of the more common name MARTHA. According to Rahmani, the whole inscription indicates that the ossuary belongs to a woman, Mariamene, known also as Mar(th)a. As for Jacobovici & Co., the ossuary belongs to “Mary Magdalene, known as master (teacher).”

The identification of Mariamene with Mary Magdalene (Magdala, a trade settlement on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee) proposed by Jacobovici & Co. relies on an interpretation of Prof. Francois Bovon of Harvard University who identifies “Mariamene, sister of Philip,” mentioned in Acts of Philip (a 4th century AD pseudepigraphon), with Mary Magdalene. “Sister” may define Mariamne’s role as a missionary. According to Prof. Bovon, Mariamene [Mariamne], the “sister” of Martha and apostle Philip (Acts of Philip 94), was probably the actual name given to Mary Magdalene, a great teacher whose influence was felt on her sect, the Mariamnists (2nd-3rd century AD). Bovon’s suggestion relies on Origen’s (185-257 AD) identification between Mariamme (not Mariamene!) and Mary of Magdala (Against Celsus 5:61). One may notice that the identification of Maria Magdalene with either Mariamene (“Acts of Philip”) or Mariamme (“Against Celsus”) is not found in the New Testament. Thus, from Bovon’s interpretation regarding the identity of “Mariamene, sister of Philip” found in a 4th writing (extensively preserved in a 14th century manuscript discovered by Bovon at Mt. Athos), to the filmmakers’ identification of Mariamene from a 1st century AD ossuary inscription with Mary Magdalene mentioned in the New Testament among the supporters of Jesus of Nazareth (Matthew 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; Luke 8:2; John 20:11, 16) is quite a stretch. One may add also that it is anachronistic to bring later Gnostic evidence and to use it in the case of 1st century AD ossuary inscription.

Since the gist of the filmmakers’ theory concerns Mary Magdalene, one may say that the Greek Fathers, based on New Testament evidence, distinguish between the three women mentioned below:

  • The sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50;
  • The sister of Martha and Lazarus of Bethany, Luke 10:38-42 and John 11; and
  • Mary Magdalene, a follower of Christ, of John 20:11-18.

According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, Mary Magdalene accompanied the Theotokos and John the Evangelist to Ephesus, where she was a missionary. She died at Ephesus. Later, in the year 886 AD her relics were moved to Constantinople.

The first writer to identify Mary Magdalene with Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, was Hyppolitus (3rd century AD) in his commentary on Song of Songs, followed by Origen. A step further towards the filmmakers’ portrait of Mary Magdalene, specifically her identification with the sinful woman of Luke 7:36-50, and Mary of Bethany of John 11, was done by pope Gregory the Great in 591 AD.

However, the ossuary Greek inscription may be read in a different way.

In a phone conversation, I had Saturday March 3, with the leading epigraphist and professor Emile Puech of Ecole Biblique et archeologique francaise in Jerusalem (where I studied in 1984-86), he was so kind to respond to my inquiry regarding the Talpiot ossuary inscriptions. According to Prof. Puech, Rahmani’s reading (MARIAMENOU MARA), and, if I may add, the one suggested by Jacobovici & Co. (MARIAMENE E MARA), is wrong. I totally concur with Prof. Puech’s proposal having now looked closely at the inscription. One may notice, after E in MARIAME… there is a clear “Kappa” (K) followed by a cursiv “Alpha” (A) in ligature with an obvious “Iota” (I). Thus, in Puech’s view, the whole line reads MARIAME KAI MARA meaning “Mariame and Mara”—where “Mara” could designate either a male or female individual. Out of eight instances known thus far, “Mara” is used one time as a masculine noun. Thus the inscription could designate two sisters, a mother and a daughter, or a wife and a husband according to the Jewish custom of the time. In any event, this new reading shatters the filmmakers’ quite convoluted hypothesis that the ossuary bearing the Greek inscription has once contained Mary Magdalene’s remains; and along with this, the other fanciful concoctions such as, the marital union between Jesus and Mary, with “Judas, son of Jesus” being the offspring of that union. In this case, there is no Mary Magdalene in the Talpiot tomb. At the February 26 press conference, James Cameron, the executive producer of the Discovery documentary, used the Beatles analogy. The analogy goes like this: if in 2,000 years from now a tomb were discovered in Liverpool that contained the names John, George, and Paul, we would not immediately surmise that we have discovered the tomb of the Beatles. But if we found so distinctive a name as Ringo, then we had discovered the Beatles tomb. Thus, using the filmmakers’ adagio “No ‘Ringo’ no Beatles tomb,” one may say “No ‘Mary Magdalene’ no Jesus family tomb”!

It has become a rule for past several years that around Lent and Easter a controversy around Jesus’ life and suffering would occur. If this year’s Hollywood hoopla has something positive to offer it is to remind us about our own spiritual quest for Jesus. A search for the risen Lord, a search done not among the dead, but rather among the living, among our ailing, aging, marginalized brothers and sisters, reflecting our Lord in his posture of “Son of Man” or “Son of Weakness” (a better rendition of the Aramaic phrase Bar Enosh). John Chrysostom alludes to such an identification of Christ with the lost: “Then I suffered bitter need for you, I endure it even now for you in order to move you to compassion.… On the cross I suffered thirst for you; now I thirst in the person of the poor, in order to move you to love for the sake of your own salvation” (Ad Romanos, Homily 15:6). This passionate, proactive search, the search of the good Samaritan for his neighbor in need, should be done here on earth, not beneath, not even inside a dark ancient tomb hewn in the rock, but rather here on earth, among the least of Jesus’ brothers and sisters whose dignity is daily menaced with erosion, and faith is under attack by human pride and insensitivity touching the untouchable, and genuine values are simply sullied by gold and vain fame seekers.

“Why do you seek the living one among the dead?” The angel’s voice echoes through the ages: “He is not here. He has risen!” He, the entire Jesus, not only a part of him, not only his “spiritual body,” but rather Jesus of Nazareth, the incarnate Logos, the One who took our weaknesses, the One who was crucified for our salvation, Jesus Christ, the Messiah, has risen! And may the living Church respond always with joy and hope in spite of all adversities: “Indeed He is risen!”