FIRST-PERSON: Has the family tomb of Jesus been found?

ALPHARETTA, Ga. (BP)--In New York City Feb. 26, movie director James Cameron, film documentarian Simcha Jacobovici and a few others announced that they have identified a tomb in East Talpiot, just south of the old city of Jerusalem, which they believe contained the skeletal remains of Jesus Christ.

Supposedly, in the tomb also were found the remains of his family, including his mother Mary, his "wife" Mary Magdalene, his "son" Judah, his brother Joses and another possible family member named Matthew. The remains were found in burial bone boxes called ossuaries.

"When the Talpiot tomb hypothesis is weighed on the historian’s scale, a few beans may be placed on the side in its favor while a brick of historical evidence is placed gently on the side against it. The tip of the scale that follows is not a gentle one."
Mike Licona
The group also claims they can tie the James ossuary revealed in 2002 to the tomb, which was actually discovered in 1980 but little was thought of it until 1996. At that time the BBC aired a report suggesting that it may be the burial tomb of Jesus’ family, a claim that was dismissed by archaeologists and scholars. The most recent news spectacle is based on additional evidence that has emerged through DNA testing.

A book called “The Jesus Family Tomb” is being released Feb. 27, and a corresponding documentary on the tomb is set to air on The Discovery Channel March 6.

If the tomb really does contain the remains of Jesus and His family, the ramifications would be devastating to Christianity. The Apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins.” In the original Greek, Paul literally wrote “worthless your faith is,” placing the word “worthless” first in the clause for emphasis.

If the bones of Jesus have been discovered, it is time for Christians to hang up their faith and go find something else in which to believe because we have been deceived.

While I look forward to getting the entire story, there are five glaring problems that immediately surface with the suggestion that the tomb of Jesus’ family has been identified in Jerusalem.

-- The ossuaries are from the wrong location. In those days, family members were normally buried in their hometowns. In Jesus’ case, this would be Galilee, not Jerusalem. So if Jesus was not resurrected, we should be looking for his ossuary in Galilee. But if Jesus was resurrected, we might expect to hear of traditions of burial in Jerusalem where the Christian Church was centered. And that is what we find.

The traditional site of Jesus’ tomb in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher predates the 4th century. Eusebius reported that a stone marked the burial spot of James, Jesus’ brother, by the Temple Sanctuary in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb now being postulated is some distance away from where that spot would have been. According to tradition that goes back to the 6th century, there are two possible sites for Mary’s burial in Jerusalem, and the Talpiot tomb isn't one of them. It is also interesting to note that the traditional burial spots of Jesus, James and Mary were all in different locations.

-- The collection of very popular names presented in the tomb claim is unimpressive. Mary was the most common female name in Jesus’ day, and there are at least six women by that name in the New Testament. Joseph was the second most common male name in Jesus’ day, Judah was the fourth most popular name and Matthew was the ninth.

Of nearly 1,000 ossuaries that have been discovered in Jerusalem, at least 22 have the name “Jesus” inscribed on them and two have “Jesus, son of Joseph.”

According to the documentary's website, the six ossuaries read, "Jesus Son of Joseph," "Mary," "Mary known as the master," "Judah son of Jesus," "Jose" and "Matthew."

So to find six ossuaries with the names Jesus, Mary, Mary, Judah, Joses (Joseph) and Matthew has limited value. Moreover, one cannot ignore the fact that Matthew is among the bunch. If he wasn’t a son of Jesus, who was he? He was not listed as one of Jesus’ brothers. A good historian could not ignore this odd factor.

-- There is strong historical evidence that Jesus was single. In 1 Corinthians 9:5, Paul states that he and Barnabas have the same right to be married as others in their positions who are married. He then names Peter, the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers. If Jesus had been married, Paul would only have had to mention his name and would have had no need to mention the others.

Phillip, in Acts 8:30-34, talks to an officer in the Ethiopian Army who is reading the writings of Isaiah while resting on his chariot. The passage the eunuch reads says of the Messiah, “Who can speak of his descendants?”

There is no mention in the New Testament that Jesus was married. There were two women named Mary at Jesus’ cross, and Jesus made provisions for his mother but not for the woman who some claim was his wife.

It is also noteworthy that there is not a shred of good evidence that Jesus was married or had children. The passage in the gospel of Phillip, written 100 to 200 years after Jesus and to which author Dan Brown referred in “The Da Vinci Code,” is preserved only in a single manuscript. That manuscript contains holes that Brown conveniently supplied words for, making it appear that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a romantic relationship.

Two years ago, I had a collegial television dialogue with Princeton professor Elaine Pagels on the gospel of Thomas. During the break, moderator Lee Strobel asked us what we thought of Brown’s assertion that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Pagels, who is not at all sympathetic to evangelical Christianity, replied that Brown is perhaps the only person in the world who believes that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married.

With the most recent bone box revelation, Pagels may now add a few more names to her list. The bottom line is that if Jesus of Nazareth was single and had no descendants, the remains of those in the Talpiot tomb do not belong to him and his family.

-- Most importantly, the theory that the Talpiot tomb once contained the bones of Jesus and his family cannot explain other known historical facts. It is fairly certain that James became a Christian after the death of his brother Jesus and was serving as leader of the Jerusalem Church when Paul wrote the Book of Galatians between 49 and 55 A.D.

The earliest proclamations of Paul, James, Peter, John and the other Jerusalem apostles is that Jesus had been resurrected. In light of this, why would James, who was a pious Jew and who had not been a follower of Jesus through the time of his crucifixion, help perpetrate the fraud that Jesus had resurrected when he knew where he was buried?

The fact that shortly after his death by crucifixion Jesus’ disciples sincerely believed that he had resurrected and appeared to them belongs to the historical bedrock that even most skeptical scholars regard as indisputable. The Talpiot tomb theory cannot explain this fact.

-- The DNA evidence establishes little. At best, it only links possible familial relationships between those in the Talpiot tomb. It cannot even suggest that the remains belong to the family of Jesus of Nazareth.

This new book and television documentary will be fascinating, and the hype appears at first glance to be of a sensationalist genre. But when the Talpiot tomb hypothesis is weighed on the historian’s scale, a few beans may be placed on the side in its favor while a brick of historical evidence is placed gently on the side against it. The tip of the scale that follows is not a gentle one.


Mike Licona is director of apologetics and interfaith evangelism at the North American Mission Board.

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