Problems Multiply For Jesus Tomb Theory

Ben Witherington III

Ben Witherington III is professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Durham, England, and has taught at Ashland Theological Seminary, High Point College, Duke Divinity School and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has written more than 30 books and six commentaries, including What Have They Done with Jesus? (2006),The Gospel Code: Novel Claims About Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Da Vinci (2004), The Problem With Evangelical Theory: Testing the Exegetical Foundations of Calvinism, Dispensationalism, and Wesleyanism (2005), The New Testament Story (2004) and The Christology of Jesus (1990). One of his works, The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of Nazareth (InterVarsity Press, 1995), was selected as the top biblical studies book of 1995 by Christianity Today and the Academy of Parish Clergy. He has also appeared on the A&E Network and the History Channel.

Editor's note: This article is Dr. Witherington's blog posting for February 28,2007. For updated information on this and other subjects, visit his blog here.

Having now scrutinized the The Jesus Family Tomb book which accompanies the show there are further things that need to be stressed that are wrong with this whole theory and its varied speculations. I will list them seriatim as bullet points:

1. There is a major problem with the analysis of the names on these ossuaries. By this I mean one has to explain why one is in Hebrew, several are in Aramaic, but the supposed Mary Magdalene ossuary is in Greek. This suggests a multi-generation tomb, not a single generation tomb, and indeed a tomb that comes from after A.D. 70 after the Romans had destroyed the temple mount and Jewish Christians fled the city. This tomb is not in old Jerusalem. It is nowhere near the Temple mount, and we already know that the tomb of James was near the Temple Mount. The earliest Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, including the members of Jesus’ family and Mary Magdalene, did not speak Greek. They spoke Aramaic. We have absolutely no historical evidence to suggest Mary Magdalene would have been called by a Greek name before A.D. 70. She grew up in a Jewish fishing village called Migdal, not a Greek city at all. It makes no sense that her ossuary would have a Greek inscription and that of her alleged husband an Aramaic inscription.

2. The argument that the ‘Matthew’ ossuary still works with the theory this is a clan tomb because Mary had ancestors named Matthew does not work. We would need more distant descendants named Matthew, or immediate offspring named Matthew, neither of which we have. Ancestors are irrelevant, and in any case it is disputed whether the genealogy in Luke 3 is Mary's rather than Joseph's. None of the brothers of Jesus as listed in the NT are named Matthew.

3. Mary Magdalene is called ‘Maria’ constantly in first century Christian literature, and indeed well into the second century as well. She is never called Mariamene or the like. It is anachronistic and inappropriate to bring in later Gnostic document evidence from the Acts of Philip or the Gospel of Mary, neither of which date before the end of the second century A.D. to make your case when you have perfectly good first century data to help you. In fact, in regard to the former manuscript what we have is a 14th century manuscript which is theorized to go back to the fourth century A.D. It does not identify Mariamene as Mary Magdalene, rather it identifies her as the sister of Philip the apostle. It is the unproven theory of Francis Bovon, without real supporting evidence that Mariamene refers to Mary Magdalene. There are two problems with this: 1) we have both Mary Magdalene, and Philip in the NT, and the two are never connected at all. Indeed they are from different cities it seems clear. In terms of historical methodology you cannot use later Gnostic documents filled with wild fictional accounts, indeed fairy tales, about talking animals(yes we have that in the Acts of Philip) and like and be taken seriously when you want to make historical claims on the basis of such later and non-historically oriented evidence; 2) the accounts in the Acts of Philip have Maramene evangelizing foreign countries, yet on the argument of the film producers of this Discovery Channel special, she stayed in Jerusalem and was buried there with Jesus. In other words, we have no good historical connection between the sister of Philip, and Mary Magdalene. None.

4. Jesus is never called ‘son of Joseph’ by anyone who knew him intimately in the NT--- not by his family members, and not by his disciples. Indeed where this idea arises, for example, in John 6.42 the Jewish officials who are accosting Jesus call him ‘son of Joseph’ (cf. Jn. 8.41). These can only be called hostile witnesses, not those who were likely to have known the actual case. It is telling that in Nazareth itself, in our account in Mk. 6.1-6 in our earliest Gospel Jesus is called “the carpenter, the son of Mary”. Now in that patriarchal culture you don’t call a person a ‘son of their mother’ even if the father has died. That is a pejorative way of addressing a person, rather like calling them an S.O. you know what today. Did the people in Nazareth know there was something unusual about Jesus’ origins, and it disconnected him from Joseph? Yes they did, which is why they were angry and did not think Jesus had any right to teach them. He was probably viewed as a mamzer, as Dr. Bruce Chilton has argued—an illegitimate child. And this is precisely what James Tabor argues in his Jesus Dynasty book, claiming he was the son of a Roman soldier named Pantera. But of course now, he has reversed himself to support the Jesus Family Tomb theory. You can’t have it both ways, and in fact neither are correct. Jesus was not the physical descendent of Joseph, was known not to be by his hometown folks. The uncharitable suggested he was illegitimate but Mary claimed his conception was a miracle. Those are the two opposing explanations we have from the first century about Jesus’ origins. What we do not have is a tradition that Jesus would have been called ‘son of Joseph’ by members of his own family or his disciples—and that is what is required if the Talpiot tomb is a family tomb.

5. The second word on the Mariamene ossuary is Mara which is short for Martha another female name. It is not a reference to her being a master or teacher. You need to remember that the inscriptions on these ossuaries are very different in character to the one on the James ossuary. The latter has an honorific or monumental inscription on the side of the ossuary in a clear steady hand. The former all have what I call toe tag inscriptions scrawled hastily on the boxes as they are interred in order to distinguish the ossuaries. All that was required then was names, just names. No honorific additions like we find on monumental inscriptions would be used. So either we have two women in this ossuary, perhaps sisters, or we have one woman neither of which names match up with the first century naming of Mary Magdalene.

6. There is an interesting rosette or symbol over the Talpiot tomb, and from the pictures in the book inside the tomb as well. This is very interesting and it tells us one thing. This was a highly unusual and ornamental tomb meant to be recognized by the symbol. It is not, and indeed was not a secret tomb where a despised split off sect of Jesus following Jews could have hidden the bodies of Jesus or James or other family members. The ornamental decoration is meant to attract attention and draw people to the tomb. Indeed it is meant to distinguish the tomb from others. This is the opposite of what we would expect if this is a pre-70 A.D. Jesus family tomb. Remember we have clear historical evidence that Saul of Tarsus, from his own letters and from Acts was a persecutor of Christians. By the 40s this persecution got so bad that some Christians fled the city (see the sweep and trajectory of the story in Act 3-9). Under no circumstances would these beleaguered early Jewish Christians have been advertising where the bones of Jesus laid, if they knew.

7. No explanation is given as to why we have a monumental or honorific inscription on the James ossuary, but not on these other ones. My view would be that this makes clear that the James ossuary was not originally in the Talpiot tomb, indeed not likely there at any point.

8. Much is made of the fact that the chemical analysis of the patina on the James ossuary and some of the ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb match up. This is not actually surprising at all since you can find terra rosa in various locales in and around Jerusalem. This analysis cannot prove that these ossuaries all came from the same place or were interred in the same spot. Terra rosa is not a soil specific to the Talpiot region! And why is nothing at all mentioned about the very different sort of soil found within the James ossuary and not in these others--- namely soil from Silwan, which is where the James ossuary likely came out of the earth. Silwan is indeed within sight of the temple mount. Talpiot is not. It is miles away.

It is incumbant on any historian who wants to dispute a theory about the Jesus tomb to provide some other explanation for the Talpiot tomb. Clearly it is an important tomb, and it may be a Christian one. It would be interesting to know about the Greek inscriptions on the ossuaries or at least in the adjacent tomb which are pictured in the book The Jesus Family Tomb. Since they are in Greek it suggests to me they are not from early Aramaic speaking followers of Jesus, but they could be from later Christian ones, after the profile of who was Christian had broadened considerably with many Gentile Godfearers as converts even within Israel. It is therefore my tentative suggestion that the Talpiot tomb may well be an early Jewish tomb not connected with the followers of Jesus, but it could also be an early Christian tomb from a generation subsequent to the time of Jesus. And what we know about those Christians is that they related to each other as family, even when they were not physically related, and were in some cases buried together, not in clan tombs, because their religious families were more important to them than their physical ones. This tomb may reflect that later Christian practice and reality. It would be nice if the other ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb could be DNA tested so we could find out if any of the folks in this tomb were related. We do not know. But it would not surprise me if none of them were. The practice of osslegium, or burial in ossuaries, continued on after A.D. 70 until the Bar Kokhba revolt at least. There is no reason why this Talpiot tomb might not reflect the period between A.D. 70 and 125 or so.


Here is some additional data from Richard Bauckham on the names on the so-called 'Mary Magdalene' ossuary. He is more of an expert in early Jewish names than I am.

"The form of the name on the ossuary in question is Mariamenou. This is a Greek genitive case, used to indicate that the ossuary belongs to Mary (it means 'Mary's' or 'belonging to Mary'). The nominative would be Mariamenon. Mariamenon is a diminutive form, used as a form of endearment. The neuter gender is normal in diminutives used for women.

This diminutive, Mariamenon, would seem to have been formed from the name Mariamene, a name which is attested twice elsewhere (in the Babatha archive and in the Jewish catacombs at Beth She’arim). It is an unusual variant of Mariame. In the Babatha document it is spelt with a long e in the penultimate syllable, but in the Bet She’arim inscription the penultimate syllable has a short e. This latter form could readily be contracted to the form Mariamne, which is found, uniquely, in the Acts of Philip.

So we have, on the one hand, a woman known by the diminutive Mariamenon, in the ossuary, and, on the other hand, Mary Magdalen, who is always called in the Greek of the New Testament Maria but seems to be called in a much later source Mariamne. Going by the names alone they could be the same woman, but the argument for this is tenuous.

A final point about the Mariamenou inscription. The inscription also has a second name Mara. When Rahmani published this inscription in his catalogue of ossuaries he conjectured that the Greek particle ‘e’ (meaning ‘or’) should be supplied between the two names, making them alternative names for the same woman. The ‘e’ is not actually in the inscription, nor is there space for it between the two names. It is better to suppose that the bones of two women (or perhaps a woman and her child, the diminutive Mariamenon being used for the latter) were placed in the same ossuary (this would not be not unusual). The name Mara is known to have been used as an abbreviation of the name Martha. The programme makers take it to be the Aramaic word for ‘master,’ but this is implausible in the context. Beside the name Mariamenou on an ossuary, one would expect Mara to be a name, and since it is attested as a name this is the obviously correct reading."

I concur with this conclusion having now looked closely at the inscription on this particular ossuary. There is no word 'or' in the inscription, in fact there is a slash line separating the first name from the name Mara indicating we are most likely dealing with two different people. Prof. Bauckham has suggested to me that since these are all attested and some are very common Jewish names, that it is more probable this is a Jewish tomb but with no connection to Jesus of Nazareth. This may be so.

©2007 Ben Witherington III. Used by permission