Things have been too serious here lately, so it’s time for something more fun.

On a recent trip with my students to southern Israel, we took the chance to act out some biblical stories.

The challenge is for you to identify the biblical characters in the photograph below. 

I’ll give you two hints:

1. We were at Beersheba and though all of the action didn’t occur here, some did (and the rest not far away).

2. Characters from several separate stories are posed together here, but the stories are told in a two consecutive chapters of the Bible.

When you’re ready, you can check your answers here.


There continues to be significant discussion about the purported tomb of Jesus’ family.  Here are some of the highlights.

The Pulpit Magazine has a helpful list of quotes from various experts about the issue.  Many experts have weighed in on the issue, making it the most one-sided debate I’ve seen in a long time.

Stephen Pfann has posted an article in which he concludes that the “Mariamene” ossuary should actually be read “Mary and Martha” (and see the response of James D. Tabor).  Pfann is one of the top scholars in inscriptions from this period, and it is guys like him who should have been consulted before sensational conclusions were published.  He also has written an essay on “The Improper Application of Statistics in ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus.’”  He promises a detailed review in the future.

The SBL Forum has several good articles on the issue, including:

Jonathan Reed says, “Like many biblical scholars and archaeologists, to use William Dever’s phrase, I don’t have a dog in the fight over faith and resurrection. But, as a field archaeologist and professor of biblical studies, I do have a stake in what archaeology is made to do and how scholars are manipulated on television. It smacks of exploitation.”  It’s short and worth reading in full.  Tabor has responded here.

Christopher A. Rollston writes on “Prosopography and the Talpiyot Yeshua Family Tomb: Pensées of a Palaeographer” in which he concludes:

Thomas Lambdin’s famous dictum is that within the field we often “work with no data.” This is a hyperbole, but the fact remains that we do work with partial data, and sometimes the data we have are just plain opaque. With the Talpiyot tomb, there is a dearth of prosopographic data, and this is a fact. Based on the prosopographic evidence, it is simply not possible to make assumptions about the relationships of those buried therein, and it is certainly not tenable to suggest that the data are sufficient to posit that this is the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Finally, it should be stated that at this juncture there is nothing in the statistical or laboratory data that can sufficiently clarify the situation, and I doubt that there ever will be.

Tabor responds to the articles of Magness and Rollston in which he concludes that the possibility that this is not Jesus’ family tomb should not be dismissed but is worthy of further investigation.  I think all scholars like the idea of further investigation, but why this is being done after the “conclusion” was foisted upon the public in dramatic fashion is still a mystery.

As of now, Tabor has two blog posts pending, including one that promises “breaking news.”


In my travels throughout the biblical world, a few sites have struck me as particularly promising for archaeological excavation.  If bulldozers could remove the modern city of Alexandria (Egypt), I’d guess the entire Roman city would be well preserved beneath.  Next on my list would be Antakya (Turkey), which is built over Antioch on the Orontes.  One of the most impressive sites that doesn’t require relocating a city is Laodicea (Turkey).  Excavations began in 2000 and applications are now being accepted for the summer of 2008.  Laodicea contains monumental remains just under the surface, and it surely would be an exciting experience.  For more information, see http://cognitivearchaeology.spaces.live.com    
Recent excavations of Laodicea


The movie has aired, but as far as I can tell, the theory has gained absolutely no traction.  It is astonishing to me to see such unanimity among scholars who otherwise hardly agree about anything. 

But this claim is just too bizarre, even if you reject the idea that Jesus rose from the dead. 

Jodi Magness has a good article on the subject at the SBL Forum.  She concludes,

To conclude, the identification of the Talpiyot tomb as the tomb of Jesus and his family contradicts the canonical Gospel accounts of the death and burial of Jesus and the earliest Christian traditions about Jesus. This claim is also inconsistent with all of the available information — historical and archaeological — about how Jews in the time of Jesus buried their dead, and specifically the evidence we have about poor, non-Judean families like that of Jesus. It is a sensationalistic claim without any scientific basis or support.  (Emphasis added)

Joe Zias, who knows more about the dead and burials than everyone involved in the movie combined, has prepared a “Viewer’s Guide” to the movie.  Among other things, he makes this interesting comment:

The truth of the matter is that the missing ossuary was never missing, never stolen from the IAA, nor stolen from the Talpiot tomb. Plain ossuaries which bore no inscription, nor any ornaments were automatically placed in an inner courtyard in the Rockefeller Museum during my tenure at curator (1972-1997). Due to a lack of storage space this was standard operating procedure, the ossuary was given a registration number, measured and simply stored in the inner courtyard with perhaps an additional 50-100 plain ossuaries. This was personally explained to Tabor by me so as to avoid any problems of a conspiracy theory in which the plain ossuary would figure. Unfortunately, it did not fit their agenda so they artificially created a story in which a plain white ossuary, suddenly morphed into a ossuary with two rosettes on the front, traces of red paint, bearing the inscription on the back ‘James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.  (Emphasis added)

Jim West comments on the movie piece by piece and concludes,

If you are willing to accept a very long chain of unsupported suppositions you may well be convinced by the film.  If you can accept a confluence of disconnected factoids as determinative, Jacobovici may have proven his case to you.  Personally, I require a bit more than mere supposition and that, Jacobovici cannot, and does not, offer.  More than amused, I come away annoyed simply because many without any proper understanding of method may be duped by the film.  Don’t be tricked by the fast and loose way that “statistics” are handled in this film.  Statistics, after all, cannot be determinative of truth or fact.  They can only, if rightly used, demonstrate potential trends.  In this case, statistics prove nothing.  (Emphasis added)

Craig Blomberg has written a response in which he says:

Or take a more chronologically relevant example. Scholars have long known about (and tourists can still visit) the tomb in Bethany where inscriptions were discovered referring to Mary, Martha and Lazarus (and others). But every scholar worth his or her salt, no matter how conservative, acknowledges that those names were just so common that even to find them together in one tomb in the very town that the Bible says the three New Testament characters by those names lived proves statistically insignificant. It’s entirely possible that it happened completely by chance. There may easily have been a whole bunch families in Bethany with lots of children, including three with those names, in an age when parents had as many children as they could in hopes that a few might survive to care for them, if necessary, in their old age.
The same approach must be taken with the cluster of names in the Talpiot tomb. In fact, Bauckham’s tables extracted from Ilan’s monumental reference work add one very interesting footnote. The Hebrew woman’s name listed as ninth most common (actually tied for eighth with Imma) was Mara, like the form announced to have been found with the second Mary in the Talpiot tomb. Not only does Mara not mean Magdalene but, although it could be the Grecized feminine equivalent to the Aramaic masculine mar or “master,” it actually appears on one ossuary, discovered elsewhere in Israel much longer ago, as an alternate form of the name Martha. And the feminine form of “master,” in a highly patriarchal culture, was not used nearly as often as the masculine form. So the “Mary” that may have been a spouse to this Joshua/Jesus more likely was named Mary Martha, not Mary Magdalene, and not Mary the Master.

Joe D’Mello questions some assumptions made in the statistical analysis and arrives at a very different conclusion!

We see that P(A and B) = (1/10) * (599/600) = 0.1 (approximately). This immediately slashes the probability of the discovered tomb being that of the Jesus family down to 0.1 or 10%. In other words, there is then only a 10% chance that the discovered tomb belongs to the Jesus family – a number not likely to draw a runaway TV audience for Cameron!

In short, it would have been quite easy to have run this theory past scholars to find out if it really held water or not.  But a better way, if you’re interested in generating a media storm, is to keep the matter secret and require all involved to sign non-disclosure agreements.  Maximum press exposure is guaranteed before journalists know that essentially all archaeologists, biblical scholars, and statisticians think it’s a bunch of hooey.


I haven’t had time recently to post more about the “tomb of Jesus.”  Possibly I’ll be able to in the next few days, though I’ll be traveling most of next week.  Instead, see a summary of some recent replies at Denny Burk’s blog.  I have added a few names to the list of scholars who think there is something to the theory and those who do not.  James Tabor is the only one I’ve seen who suggests that it is worthy of consideration.  I think his credibility is taking some big hits on this one.

In the recent barrage, there are a couple of interviews with scholars worthy of posting here.

From Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

Modern architects of fantastic finds try to provide an air of legitimacy by invoking scientific jargon, said Garrett G. Fagan, a classics professor at Penn State University and author of, “Archaeological Fantasies: How Pseudoarchaeology Misrepresents the Past and Misleads the Public” (RoutledgeFalmer, $46.95).
“They’re not scientists, but they need to dress themselves in the clothes of science to pass muster,” Fagan said.
Some choose prestigious channels that style themselves as vehicles for public education, he said.
“Television is not in the business of education, even with the so-called educational channels like Discovery,” Fagan said. “Ultimately, they’re in the business of making money.”
And when critics pounce on the discoveries, Fagan said it’s often too late.
“By the time the rebuttals come out, the mass media would have moved on to the next sensation,” Fagan said, “and people will have this vague notion that they have found the tomb of Jesus.”
Fagan said he expects more fantastic archaeological discoveries to be announced in the near future.
“Someone is going to say they’ve discovered Moses’ beard,” he said.

From the Washington Post:

Jodi Magness, an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, expressed irritation that the claims were made at a news conference rather than in a peer-reviewed scientific article. By going directly to the media, she said, the filmmakers “have set it up as if it’s a legitimate academic debate, when the vast majority of scholars who specialize in archaeology of this period have flatly rejected this,” she said.
Magness noted that at the time of Jesus, wealthy families buried their dead in tombs cut by hand from solid rock, putting the bones in niches in the walls and then, later, transferring them to ossuaries.
She said Jesus came from a poor family that, like most Jews of the time, probably buried their dead in ordinary graves. “If Jesus’ family had been wealthy enough to afford a rock-cut tomb, it would have been in Nazareth, not Jerusalem,” she said.
Magness also said the names on the Talpiyot ossuaries indicate that the tomb belonged to a family from Judea, the area around Jerusalem, where people were known by their first name and father’s name. As Galileans, Jesus and his family members would have used their first name and home town, she said.
“This whole case (for the tomb of Jesus) is flawed from beginning to end,” she said.

I think there are some significant problems with the theory in the statistical analysis, but it will probably be some time before a qualified expert has time to prepare and present a rebuttal.  And, as Fagan notes above, by then, the media will have moved on.  (In the meantime, see Mark Goodacre.)