(by Ryan Jaroncyk)
As a layman, I have followed the “Jesus Family Tomb” and “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” Ossuary controversies fairly closely since 2007. In an attempt to bring greater clarity to those of us who are not archaeological, biblical, or philosophical scholars, I have composed lists summarizing what appear to be the pros and cons of each position. All of my research was conducted online and focused on reading scholarly blogs and magazine articles, scholars’ personal websites, book excerpts, and popular science and news media sources.
I tried to read a variety of views across the theological and philosophical spectrum. For example, I consulted sources which offered the opinions of scholars such as James Tabor, Aryeh Shimron, James Charlesworth, Jodi Magness, Eric Meyers, Christopher Rollston, Joel Baden, Candida Moss, Hershel Shanks, Stephen Pfann, Steve Caruso, Oded Golan, Gary Habermas, Ben Witherington III, Joseph Fitzmyer, Camil Fuchs, André Lemaire, Mark Goodacre, Robert Cargill, and James Davila.
I view these lists as a “running tally” of the ongoing arguments and not the final word. Critique is welcome and future revision is likely as more data emerges.
Arguments Given in Favor of Identifying the Talpiot Tomb as the Tomb of Jesus
1. The Talpiot Tomb is consistent with the style of a 1st-century tomb.
2. Most scholars are willing to accept the full “Jesus son of Joseph” inscription as being accurately translated.
3. Jesus is called the son of Joseph in the Gospel of John.
4. Mary (and/or Joseph) had ancestors with the name (or variant) Matthew, at the level of grandfather and older.
5. The tomb contains 4 out of 6 names of Jesus and his immediate family (of those who are specifically named in the New Testament).
6. The tomb is suggestive of wealth, which is consistent with the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea, who is recorded as having buried Jesus.
7. Removal of Jesus’s body from an original tomb could be consistent with the Jewish authorities’ claim in the Gospel of Matthew.
8. Removal of Jesus’s body from an original tomb could be consistent with Mary Magdalene’s initial wondering if a gardener had moved the body, as recorded in the Gospel of John.
9. Most ancient Jewish rabbis were married, which means the hypothesis that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene is at least a theoretical possibility.
10. The Talpiot Tomb does not necessarily negate any of the (first burial) accounts recorded in the Gospels.
11. Some ancient sources place Mary’s burial in Jerusalem.
Arguments Given Against Identifying the Talpiot Tomb as the Tomb of Jesus
1. At least two Aramaic scholars contest the “Jesus” portion of the “Jesus son of Joseph” inscription on one of the ossuaries. They believe “son of Joseph” is an accurate translation, but “Jesus” is not.
2. Two or three other “Jesus son of Joseph’ ossuaries have been discovered from this period.
3. Statisticians have estimated that 1 in 79 males, in and around Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, were called “Jesus son of Joseph,’ which would have been approximately 1,000 men.
4. In Acts and Mark, the earliest Gospel, Jesus is often called “Jesus of Nazareth,’ not “Jesus son of Joseph.’
5. In the earliest Gospel, the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is referred to as the “son of Mary,’ not the “son of Joseph.’
6. Mary was the most common name of Jewish females in the 1st century. 1 in 5 girls was named Mary.
7. The inscription, “Mariah,” for Mary is not unique. It is found on several other ossuaries.
8. Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and their immediate family were residents of Nazareth. Therefore, a family tomb in Nazareth, not Jerusalem, would have been more likely.
9. The Talpiot tomb bore hallmarks of a tomb for the wealthy. There is no indication that Jesus’s family was wealthy.
10. The Talpiot Tomb bears no sign, mark, or inscription of the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea.
11. The Talpiot Tomb was ornate and visible. Therefore, it did not appear to be covertly concealed so as to hide its potentially “myth-busting’ contents from potential public investigation.
12. There is no record of a “Mattia” or Matthew in Jesus’s immediate family.
13. Jesus’s other brothers (or cousins), Simon and Judas, are not present in the tomb. The Judas/Judah ossuary in the tomb belongs to a Judas/Judah who was the son of Jesus, not Joseph.
14. Besides the Mary and Mariamne e Mara ossuaries, there are no other female inscriptions despite Jesus having sisters (or female cousins).
16. There is no record of Jesus ever having had a child.
17. There is one other tomb on the Mount of Olives which contains several of these same names grouped together.
18. These type of tombs were often multi-generational and could contain bones of close relatives, extended family, adopted family, step family, and even cherished servants and slaves, making any precise familial relationships difficult to decipher.
19. All four Gospels record Jesus being buried in a tomb, by himself, by Joseph of Arimathea without ever being moved to a different tomb at any time.
20. If a small group of Jesus’s followers secretly moved his bones to the Talpiot tomb, who were they and why are there no records or even legends about them?
21. If Jesus’s bones were moved to the Talpiot Tomb, then his closest apostles, particularly Peter, James, John, and Paul were either terribly deceived or terrible deceivers themselves. Keep in mind that we have records of Peter, James, and Paul being martyred for their faith in the resurrected Christ.
22. How were James and Paul unaware of the Talpiot Tomb? Both were former skeptics who spent a good deal of time in and around Jerusalem. And James was a family member.
23. How was the Talpiot Tomb hidden from hostile sources, i.e., Roman or Jewish authorities who would have loved to squash the central teaching of Christianity at its outset?
24. Why didn’t Jesus’s subsequent family members or small band of followers who knew of the Talpiot Tomb ever destroy his alleged ossuary in order to preserve the myth of a resurrected Christ?
25. Even according to most critical (i.e., skeptical) scholars, the bodily resurrection of Christ was believed and taught no later than five years after the crucifixion. A “spiritual” resurrection was not so taught.
26. The gable and rosette of the Talpiot tomb are consistent with a pre-Christian Jewish symbol. It is not indicative of an early Christian tomb.
27. Mary Magdalene is never called Mariamne in any early historical literature. She is always called Maria.
28. There is no ancient literature that reports of a romantic or conjugal relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
29. The Mariamne Mara ossuary inscription is likely better interpreted as “Mary and Martha” or “Mary known as Martha.”
30. There is no DNA control sample of Jesus’s family to make any meaningful genetic comparisons.
31. DNA testing proved no positive links.
32. There were at least 14-18 different individuals’ bones in the tomb, making it difficult to decipher whose bones were actually tested.
33. The statistical analysis is based on several critical assumptions. If even one assumption is incorrect, the odds of this being the family tomb of Jesus begin to drop.
34. There is a 2nd-century reference and plentiful 4th-century literary evidence which points to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as the likely burial tomb of Jesus. Numerous archaeological digs have provided evidence that is consistent with such a view.
35. The “Mariamne e Mara” ossuary has nothing of Magdala or Migdal in its inscription.
36. The “Mariah” ossuary denotes no family relationship despite a few other local ossuaries providing specific “daughter of” and “wife of” inscriptions.
37. The “Mariamne e Mara” inscription is in Greek, while the others are in Aramaic. Mary Magdalene hailed from a relatively poor Jewish fishing village, where Aramaic, not Greek, would have been spoken.
38. Non-Judean families, if buried in the Jerusalem area, often identified their specific place of origin on their tombs. Jerusalem residents did not. Jesus’s family was non-Judean, yet none of the ossuary inscriptions bear geographical identifiers.
39. If the “Yoseh” ossuary is Jesus’s brother Joses, then where is Joseph’s ossuary?
40. If “Yoseh” is Jesus’s brother, why does his tomb inscription not include “son of Joseph” as well?
41. If “Mattia” is an ancestor of Mary (or Joseph) where are the ossuaries of their more proximal ancestors?
42. If “Yoseh” was Jesus’s brother, why did they not find a “Yoseh son of Joseph brother of Jesus” inscription? Jesus was a prominent figure and many scholars consider the “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” inscription to be authentic and identified with Jesus of Nazareth.
43. At this time, the vast majority of scholars, from all across the philosophical spectrum, reject the view that this is the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.
44. It is the universal testimony of the earliest apocryphal writings, as well as the early church historians and theologians, representing both Eastern and Western Christianity, that Mary was buried in Jerusalem, not the Talpiot area.
Recently a new claim was made that the James Ossuary originated from the Talpiot Tomb, thus greatly strengthening the case that the tomb belonged to Jesus’s family. Tomorrow I’ll share a summary of arguments for and against that claim.