Ben Witherington responds to the latest claim by Simcha Jacobovici that the James Ossuary came from the Talpiot Tomb, thereby proving that this was the burial place of Jesus the Messiah.

Of course [Aryeh] Shimron has not published his results yet, nor has there been peer review of them by other scholars, but nonetheless another Jacobvici movie is already in the works. 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.

James Tabor responds to Witherington here, but he does not address the issues that Witherington has raised in the paragraph above. If the scholarship is so solid, why use such unscholarly methods?

HT: Ted Weis


Visitors to the Garden Tomb of Jerusalem are usually shown the “Skull” identified by Charles Gordon as part of the case that this spot may be the authentic site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. On February 20 the bridge of the skull’s nose collapsed during a storm. Our friend Austen Dutton visited the site, alerted us to the event, and sent us this photo.

Gordon's Calvary near Garden Tomb, amd022115831

For contrast, here’s a photo taken in 2008.

Gordon's Calvary near Garden Tomb, tb051608027

Visitors to the Garden Tomb are shown the passage that identifies the place of Jesus’ death as “the place of the Skull.”

“Carrying his own cross, he went out to the place of the Skull (which in Aramaic is called Golgotha)” (John 19:17).

It is worth noting that the Gospels never explain why the place was identified by a skull, nor does it say anything about a hill. The name could have come from a geological feature that bore this resemblance. Or it could have been for another reason altogether.

The recent storm and the resultant erosion suggests that the escarpment would have been greatly altered in the years since it was created by quarrying. I would consider it doubtful that anything like the skull-shape visible in recent years was known in the first century. Fortunately for those who prefer the Garden Tomb location, this has never been the primary support for its identification.

Gordon's Calvary showing skull, mat00918
Gordon’s Calvary in 1910s

Our Jerusalem volume in the American Colony and Eric Matson Collection has a section devoted to the Garden Tomb. In notes written by Tom Powers, he provides some of the fascinating background to the identification of the skull.

General Charles Gordon, spending several months in Jerusalem in 1883, became firmly convinced that the hill seen here was the Golgotha of the New Testament. The idea of Skull Hill as Golgotha was not original with him, however, as several earlier travelers and writers had proposed the same identification beginning as early as the 1840s, and Gordon certainly knew of some of these. Among the other proponents of this view was Claude Conder, a Palestine Exploration Fund explorer and surveyor who was sent to Palestine in 1872 and recorded the idea in two of his books, Tent Work in Palestine (1878) and The City of Jerusalem (1909).

Gordon, however, added his own unique, mystical notions to the theory, however, based in part on both topography and Biblical typology. He believed, for example, that because sacrificial animals were slaughtered in the ancient Jewish temples north of the altar, according to the Mishnah, that Jesus must have been crucified north of the city. Further, Gordon devised a conceptual scheme by which he superimposed a human skeleton on a map of Jerusalem. The skull, not surprisingly, fell on Skull Hill (and he even pinpointed the human figure’s esophagus, a known water channel that entered the city beneath the north wall)!

Plan of Gordon's Idea of Calvary, mat01364
Plan of Gordon’s Idea of Calvary

Gordon added at least one other unusual aspect to the Skull Hill speculations: Being a military man, he consulted a detailed map of the area, the Ordnance Survey Plan of Jerusalem, and was struck by a particular contour line—2549 feet (797 m) above sea level—which, encircling the summit of “Skull Hill,” formed what looked to him like the outline of a human skull. Mention is sometimes made, somewhat derisively, of a revelatory dream or vision that Gordon had, but this seems not to be mentioned in the general’s own writings nor in contemporary accounts.

Gordon expressed his views in a flurry of letters and reports sent to various acquaintances and colleagues, including many to Conrad Schick and many others to Sir John Cowell in England, comptroller to the royal household. General Gordon was a hugely popular figure in his day, the perfect embodiment, one might argue, of military heroics, fervent Christian faith, and Victorian Romanticism, and after his death in Khartoum in 1885 his stature and fame only grew, if that were possible. In any event, there is no denying that the force of his personality provided an important impetus toward the acquisition, development and promotion of the Garden Tomb site, and did much to cement its credentials in the popular imagination.

Bertha Spafford Vester, daughter of American Colony founders Horatio and Anna Spafford, recounts her childhood memories of the famous General Gordon (1882–83):

“Five is not too young for hero worship, and my hero was a frequent visitor to our house, General Charles George ‘Chinese’ Gordon, ‘the fabulous hero of the Sudan’. He was fulfilling a lifelong dream with a year’s furlough in Palestine, studying Biblical history and the antiquities of Jerusalem. This was the only peaceful time the general had known in many years, and it was to be his last. . . . The general lived in a rented house in the village of Ein Karim . . . and General Gordon came often from his village home to Jerusalem riding a white donkey. . . . Whenever General Gordon came to our house a chair was put out for him on our flat roof and he spent hours there, studying his Bible, meditating, planning. It was there that he conceived the idea that the hill opposite the north wall was in reality Golgotha, the ‘Place of the Skull’ . . . He gave Father a map and a sketch that he made, showing the hill as a man’s figure, with the skull as the cornerstone. Part of the scarp of the rock of what is known as Jeremiah’s Grotto made a perfect death’s-head, complete with eye-sockets, crushed nose, and gaping mouth. Ever since then this hill has been known as ‘Gordon’s Calvary,’ although archaeologists are skeptical on the subject . . . Father did not agree with all the general’s visionary ideas, but he liked to talk about these and many other subjects with him, and they were good friends. Mother wanted General Gordon to have peace when he was meditating on the roof, and cautioned me not to disturb him, but I would creep up the roof stairs and crouch behind a chimney; there I would wait. I watched him reading his Bible and lifting his eyes to study the hill, and my vigil was always rewarded, for at last he would call me and take me on his knee and tell me stories.” — Bertha Spafford Vester, Our Jerusalem: An American Family in the Holy City, 1881-1949 (Ariel, 1988), pp. 102-3.

Gordon's Calvary from city wall, mat00919
Gordon’s Calvary from wall of Jerusalem’s Old City (1910s)
Photos from The American Colony and Eric Matson Collection

Simcha Jacobovici’s lawsuit against Joe Zias opened in court in Israel today. Jacobovici alleges that Zias gave false information to National Geographic with the result that the channel refused to air Jacobovici’s film on the “Jesus Tomb.”

From the Jerusalem Post:

In October 2011, Jacobovici filed a defamation suit against his harshest critic, former Antiquities Authority official Joe Zias, claiming damage of NIS 8.57 million and demanding NIS 3.5m. The case was brought before Lod District Court Judge Ya’acov Sheinman.
The filmmaker claims that while others have disparaged his ideas in a reasonable manner, Zias went beyond legitimate debate and defamed him by initiating a broad-based campaign to directly sabotage lucrative contracts he had already signed and was executing.
Zias’s “tip-off” about some of Jacobovici’s alleged conspiracies came from Joanna Garrett, a woman who was originally a big supporter of Jacobovici’s theories, but who then fell out with him.
Jacobovici said that Zias contacted his broadcaster, National Geographic, his publisher, Simon & Schuster, as well as others, and defamed him with a wide array of false accusations, such as elaborate forgery, paying off people, and manipulating people and events to try to build his credibility.

The full story is here.

HT: Joseph Lauer


The sensational discoveries get all the media (and blog) attention, but too little is reported when the initial claim falls short. One example is the papyrus fragment that mentions “Jesus’ wife” which Harvard University probably wishes would just quietly be forgotten. (More than a year later, there is still no report from a test that was supposed to take weeks.)

Another case is that of the “Jesus family tomb” in Talpiot. There was a barrage of sensational press coverage when the movie was released, but what do scholars say once they’ve had a chance to evaluate the evidence?

Eerdmans has just released a volume based on a conference convened in Jerusalem in 2008. The Tomb of Jesus and His Family?: Exploring Ancient Jewish Tombs Near Jerusalem’s Walls was edited by James H. Charlesworth, and the 600-page volume includes 28 chapters written by several dozen contributors. The work is selling on Amazon for $34. Here are a few of the chapters:

The Talpiot Tomb Reconsidered: The Archaeological Facts, by Amos Kloner and Shimon Gibson

Identifying Inscriptional Names in the Century Before 70: 
Problems and Methodology, by André Lemaire

Demythologizing the Talpiot Tomb: The Tomb of Another Jesus, 
Mary, and Joseph, by Stephen Pfann

On the Authenticity of the James Ossuary and Its Possible Link to ‘the Jesus Family Tomb,’ by Amnon Rosenfeld, Howard R.
Feldman, and Wolfgang E. Krumbein

The Burial of Jesus in Light of Jewish Burial Practices and 

Roman Crucifixions, by Lee Martin McDonald

Polemics, Irenics, and the Science of Biblical Research, by James H. Charlesworth

The full table of contents is available via the preview in Google Books.

Eerdmans has also produced a 22-minute video interview with James Charlesworth.


The Friends of the Israel Antiquities Authority has announced the establishment of the Brandt-Lewis Center for Ancient Jewelry and Artifacts, to be part of the Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel in Jerusalem.

The BBC reports on a dispute over oil pipelines that run under the ruins of Babylon.

The Jerusalem Post reviews the 30th volume of Eretz Israel.

The Freeman Institute has produced a 14-minute film on the Rosetta Stone and how they create full-size replicas.

James Tabor explains why he believes that finding Jesus’ remains in the Talpiot tomb does not contradict Christian belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Michael Heiser writes an excellent response.

Joe Yudin describes the wonders of the Small Machtesh.

Don’t forget about Eisenbrauns 30/30/300 sale. It ends on the 30th.

I’ll be traveling the next couple of weeks, but I have some posts prepared and may have a little time along the way. When I return I’ll have the most important announcement in the history of this blog.

HT: Joseph Lauer, Jack Sasson

Machtesh Qatan panorama, tb042207334

Machtesh Qatan panorama

Bryant Wood has written a short summary of the 2009 and 2010 excavation seasons at Khirbet el-Maqatir, a site he believes may be biblical Ai.

Of the Talpiot Tomb, Richard Bauckham has a detailed examination of the four-line inscription, concluding that it does not have anything to do with Jesus or early Christianity but is nonetheless a very interesting ossuary inscription. Paleobabble observes that there is nothing in the “Jesus Discovery” related to Jesus or early Christianity. Those interested in reading about the first “Jesus tomb” in Talpiot can access a 2006 issue of Near Eastern Archaeology on the subject for free.

The Maps of the Zucker Holy Land Travel Manuscript have been digitized and put online by the University of Pennsylvania. The map was made in the late 1600s.

John Monson’s lecture on “Physical Theology: The Bible in its Land, Time, and Culture” at the Lanier Theological Library last month is now online.

Wayne Stiles visits the Mount of Beatitudes, Tel Dan, and Beth Shean. He provides an interesting quotation from George Adam Smith about Beth Shean, written in 1896: “There are few sites which promise richer spoil beneath their rubbish to the first happy explorer with permission to excavate.”

How right he was!

Joe Yudin describes a favorite hike in lower Galilee.

Turkey claims that Roman mosaics at a university in Kentucky were stolen in the 1960s and should be returned.

The Roman ruins in Palmyra are apparently being threatened by the Syrian army.

Greece is re-burying ruins because of a lack of funds.

HT: Jack Sasson, Joseph Lauer

Palmyra, triumphal arch, central portion, mat01428

Triumphal arch of Palmyra
source, with 30 free photos of the site)