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New York Times Runs Easter Story Suggesting Resurrection Didn’t Happen

Ossuary of Judah Son of Jesus

Nick Thompson-cc

John Burger - published on 04/09/15

Scholars highly skeptical of new findings linking James ossuary to supposed tomb of Jesus
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A few weeks ago, an Israeli geologist met with a reporter from the New York Times in the lobby of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. The geologist brought along evidence.

Just before Easter, the Times came out with his story.

The geologist, Aryeh Shimron, claims to have proof of a connection between a famous ossuary, or burial box for bones, and a tomb in the environs of Jerusalem that, he believes, was the final resting place for Jesus of Nazareth, his wife and his family.

If he were right, his theory would call into question the truth of the Resurrection. The Times explained: 

Hailed by some as the most significant of all Christian relics but dismissed by skeptics amid accusations of forgery, misinterpretation and reckless speculation, two ancient artifacts found here have set off a fierce archaeological and theological debate in recent decades.

At the heart of the quarrel is an assortment of inscriptions that led some to suggest Jesus of Nazareth was married and fathered a child, and that the Resurrection could never have happened.

Now, the earth may have yielded new secrets about these disputed antiquities. A Jerusalem-based geologist believes he has established a common bond between them that strengthens the case for their authenticity and importance.

The story isn’t new. It features an ossuary bearing the Aramaic inscription “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus,” which was the subject of a forgery trial over a decade ago, and a local tomb made famous in a James Cameron documentary that aired in 2007, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." 

The burial chamber, which subsequently became known as the Talpiot Tomb, contained 10 ossuaries, some with inscriptions that have been interpreted as “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Mary” and other names associated with New Testament figures.

Granted, those and other names found in the tomb—Mary Magdalene, Matthew, and Judah—were very common in Jesus’ day. But Cameron, of Titanic fame, and fellow film-maker Simcha Jacobovici engaged the services of a statistician, who determined that the chance of finding all the names in one place were 1-in-600. 

The James ossuary is owned by an Israeli collector and is kept in a secret location. If it could be proven that it came from the Talpiot tomb, the addition of the names it bears to the cluster of names in the tomb would bolster the view that the site was the burial place that belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth.  

Shimron believes he is able to prove that theory through a geochemical match between "specific elements found in samples collected from the interiors of the Talpiot Tomb ossuaries and of the James ossuary," the Times reported on Holy Saturday.

When the Talpiot ossuaries were discovered, they were covered by a thick layer of a type of soil, Rendzina, that is characteristic of the hills of East Jerusalem and was apt to impose a unique geochemical signature on the ossuaries buried beneath it….

Dr. Shimron based his research on the theory that an earthquake that convulsed Jerusalem in A.D. 363 flooded the Talpiot Tomb with tons of soil and mud, dislodging its entrance stone and, unusually, covering the chalk ossuaries entirely.

“The soil created a kind of vacuum,” he said. “The composition of the tomb was simply frozen in time.”

For the last seven years, Dr. Shimron has been studying the chemistry of samples from chalk crust scraped from the underside of the Talpiot ossuaries and, more recently, from the James ossuary. He has also studied samples of soil and rubble from inside the ossuaries. In addition, for comparative purposes he has examined samples from ossuaries from about 15 other tombs.

Funding for the research came from a new film production that Jacobovici is working on. The Israel Antiquities Authority, which in 2003 had called the inscription on the James ossuary a forgery, granted Shimron access to most of the other ossuaries.

The findings, says Shimron, clearly place the James ossuary in the same geochemical group as the ossuaries from the Talpiot Tomb, which is underneath a now-developed area southeast of Jerusalem. 

Oded Golan, the collector, gave Shimron access to his James ossuary for testing but said he was skeptical about the results.

For one thing, Mr. Golan said in a telephone interview, he bought the ossuary in 1976 at the latest, whereas the Talpiot Tomb was excavated in 1980….

Even if the chemistry is correct, the James ossuary could have come from another tomb in East Talpiot, Mr. Golan posited, adding that such research required samples from a much broader test base.

“It is very interesting but not enough to determine anything conclusively,” Mr. Golan said of Dr. Shimron’s work. “You would need samples from at least 200 to 300 caves.”

The new report was greeted with skepticism by a number of prominent Scripture scholars, including Ben Witherington, Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary. He wrote on his Patheos blog:

We are not talking about a scientific sampling of enough ossuaries to draw such a conclusion. The earthquake that struck Jerusalem presumably did not just affect the small region of Talpiot. It presumably affected quite a few areas around Jerusalem, and this news just in— the limestone soil in Jerusalem doesn’t seem to vary all that much from place to place. It’s perfectly possible that the same sort of subsidence or fill affect a wide variety of tombs in and around Jerusalem. Shimron at least admits that the James ossuary could at least have come from other tombs in east Jerusalem. I see no reason to limit the discussion to east Jerusalem if we are talking about a significant earthquake, which apparently we are.

Witherington also cautioned that Shimron has not yet published his results, nor has there been peer review of them by other scholars.

"But nonetheless, another Jacobvici movie is already in the works," he bantered. "This is not how proper and objective scholarship is done, either in terms of the financing, nor in terms of the announcements of results. You don’t sort of make a bombshell announcement of conclusions to the press on Easter weekend before other peers have had a chance to weigh in on the evidence, unless of course you are trying to make an impression of a certain sort. And there is little doubt that a certain agenda is being pursued here, as has been clear before with previous films, and in all likelihood with the forthcoming one. Disinterested pure science this is not."

"It’s interesting how this story keeps coming back, especially at Easter time," said Mark Goodacre, professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at Duke University, in an email to Aleteia. "I don’t think there is any merit in the identification of the Talpiot Tomb with Jesus and his family. All along, Jacobovici has not taken seriously contradictory evidence, like the presence of ‘Judah son of Jesus’ in the tomb."

Contradictory, he said, because there is no ancient evidence of Jesus having a son, let alone a son called Judah.

"He has also overplayed the idea that Mary Magdalene is found in the tomb, and that she was married to Jesus," Goodacre added.

"Certainly the particular combination of certain (albeit common) names in the Talpiot tomb is striking," admitted Ian Boxall, associate professor of New Testament at the Catholic University of America. "Joseh (the New Testament Joses, Mark 6:3); Jesus son of Joseph (though the reading Yeshua/Jesus is disputed); Maria. It is precisely this correspondence of names in the Talpiot tomb to names of Jesus’ family members which is held to be significant."

But what is equally striking are the “mismatches,” Boxall said in an email to Aleteia. "Matia/Matthew may be the name of one of Jesus’ chosen twelve; it is not, however, ever associated in the early Christian sources with a family member. Mariamene can only be identified with Mary Magdalene by ignoring all the New Testament references to her and resorting instead to the late apocryphal Gospel of Philip. Even ‘Judah son of Jesus’ (which grabs the headlines for its tantalizing hint that Christ was a father) is utterly unknown in any of the sources about Jesus, Christian or otherwise. So there is some inconsistency in the application of criteria here."

Deacon Stephen Miletic, professor of scripture at Franciscan University at Steubenville, said the Times article "presents a very non-credible case. Too many ‘what ifs’ need to work. If Jesus was from Nazareth, and, if his adoptive father Joseph died before his public ministry, then it is most likely Joseph would have have been buried in Nazareth. So, how did the ‘family plot,’ so to speak get to Jerusalem? Did Christians move them some time after Roman occupation? Any records of such a move (e.g., receipts of purchase for the land, etc.)?

"Also, the fact than many individuals shared common names makes it very difficult to track and link this back to Jesus," Deacon Miletic said in an email. "This is just a new rehearsal of an old theory that Jesus never died on the cross, that he died and was buried by, none other than, his own wife and children. This looks like a typical move for attention, perhaps even financial gain driven by controversy."

In the July/August 2007 issue of the Biblical Archaeology Review, editor Hershel Shanks described the idea that the James Ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb as “nonsense.”

“It all depends on Jesus’ body having been moved after his initial burial in the rock-cut family tomb of Joseph of Arimathea,”  Shanks wrote. “The overwhelming likelihood is that this tomb was located where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands. If Jesus already had a family tomb in Talpiot, there would be no need to bury him in a temporary tomb, despite the onset of the Sabbath. It’s little more than a half-hour’s walk from Golgotha to Talpiot.”

John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.

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