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The tomb of Jesus (First part)

Three years ago on the english newspaper “The Independent” appeared an article on the famous and very disputed question of the supposed “Jesus’ family tomb” found at Talpiot, Jerusalem. Before to discuss the position of the author – Aryeh Shimron – I want to publish an article where I offer an overview of the Talpiot archaeological dicoveries. Phrases beetwen square bracktes are mine.

“There was a hushed air of expectancy in the hall when the attendants took away the black cloth covering two stone boxes (ossuaries) that bore inscriptions, so the assembled journalist were told, of none other than Jesus son of Joseph and Mary Magdalene. The press conference took place in February 2007 at the New York Public Library and was organized by Discovery Channel, and by Simcha Jacobovici and James Cameron, the makers of the documentary “The Lost Tomb”.

I too attended the press conference, even though I had considerable doubts regarding their controversial interpretation of the Talpiot tomb as the family tomb of Jesus. But I did think it important for me to be present, first because I happened to be one of the team members who excavated the tomb, and second so that I might register my skepticism on the spot and tell journalists a different side of the story.

The tomb was excavated twenty-eight years ago on a westward-facing slope of a hill, within the area of East Talpiot, a new residential suburb which was constructed about 2 kilometers due south of ancient Jerusalem. The cave was in the side of a rocky scarp just above the street (later known ad Dov Gruner Street) and the gaping hole of the entrance was visible even from a distance.

Tha facts of the discovery are quite straightforward. A blast at the East Talpiot construction site brought to light the tomb and resulted in the destruction of its large external rock-out courtyard and and part of a roofed vestibule. The discovery of the cave was reported separately by two individuals on Thursday, 27 March, 1980, namely by Kerner Mandil, in charge of the supervisory office of the Armon Hanatziv/East TalpiotProject, and by the enigineer Ephraim Shohat, of the construction company Solel Boneh. An archaeologist, Eliot Braun, was immediately dispatched on that same day by the Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums to check on the nature of the discovery and he reported back to Amos Kloner, the Jerusalem District Archaelogist. Kloner eventually reached the site himself to check on the situation. Clearly the cave needed to be excavated.

The blocking stone to the cave was missing and the interior of the burial chamber had become blocked with approximately half a meter of soil that had been washed in from outside. However, a few ossuary fragments were noticed outside the cave entrance, and were reported by Yoseph (“Yoske”) Gath, an archaeologist working for Kloner in the Department. It was too late to do any digging so the work was postponed to the following day.

The next day (Friday, 28 March 1980), Gath began excavating and by noon managed to extract ten ossuaries from the cave, with a special truck arranged to transport them back to the safekeeping of the Rockefeller Museum. These ossuaries were handed over to Curator and Anthropologis Joe Zias and placed into temporary storage, where they later examined by Chief Curator L.Y. Rahmani.

Not long after the archaeologists left the site that Friday, an eleven-year-old boy named Ouriel, returning from school, entered the building site and saw the cave entrance. This was after he had heard additional blasting at the site. At that time he says there was only one Arab guard and all the constructionworkers had gone home. He peered into the cave, identified it as a tomb, and then went home to tell his mother, Rivka Maoz. The Maoz family were living in an apartment block they had moved into in 1976 in the older part of the East Talpiot neighborhood, about 100 meters or so to the south of the area of the tomb. His mother tried to contact the archaeological headquarters at the Rockefeller Museum, but without much success since everyone had already gone home. There were no excavations that Saturday and the guard at the construction site was not very diligent. As a result the tomb was visited by local children who had heard about the tomb and were drawn to investigare it. This resulted in some human bones being taken out of the tomb and emoved from the site. Conscientiously, Rivka Maoz, with the help of her son, collected the pilfered bones from the kids and placed them in a plastica bag. When the excavations were resumed on Sunday, Ouriel handed over the bones to the archaologists. My involvement with the Talpiot tomb began with a telephone call from Kloner: “Could you go tomorrow morning to Talpiot where Yoske is digging?” he wanted to know.

The excavations within the cave was conducted in stages with breaks between 30 March to 11 April 1980, and it was supervised by Gath, with the help of three to four workers provided by the Solel Boneh construction company.

Clambering into the cave I could see that its interior chamber was intact. Toolmarksleft by the hewer’s chisels were evident on the walls and ceiling. A step led down into the chamber, which was square (2.9 x 2.9 meters) and had a ceiling that was sufficiently high (2 meters) to allow for standing room, so that family members could arrange with ease the burial of their kin on the two shelves positioned within arched burial spaces (arcosolia) in the upper northern and eastern walls of the cave. This was where the shrouded bodies were placed as primary burials and left to decompose (a process that took about 1 year), with the bones later gathered and placed within ossuaries. Cur into the lower walls of the chamber were kokhim (averaging 1.8 meters in depth and 0,50 meter in width), and there were two in each of the three walls.

Only nine of the ten ossuaries from the tomb are at present in the Israel Antiquities Authority storerooms in Beth Shemesh. Where is the tenth missing ossuary? Rahmani in his 1994 catalogue described it as “a plain, broken specimen”. [James] Tabor has suggested that it might be the same as the so-called “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary, implying that the ossuary was stolen and eventually eneded up in the hands of the collector Oded Golan. [This ossuary was bought from a Jerusalem’s Antiquity Dealer at the end of the Seventies]

Th status of this artifact is still unclear. The ossuary is rendered useless for historical purposes since we lack information about its original provenance. Indeed, Ya’aqov (James), Joseph, and Jesus were common names for males in the first century CE. While I can see how attractive it would be to link the so-called “James” ossuary with the Talpiot tomb, it simply cannot be the case because we know for certain that the tenth “missing” ossuary was plain, undecorated, and uninscribed, and on top of everything else it was broken. This description does not fit the “James” ossuary, which is complete and decorated on one side with double rosettes and on the other with a deeply-carved inscription in Jewish script. Rahmani, however, reecently provided me with with an explanation as to how the tenth ossuary might have become mislaid. All decorated or inscribed ossuaries, when received in the Rockefeller Museum in the 1980s, he tells me, were placed on shelves, whereas broken in the external courtyard of the museum. When the ossuaries were transferred to the new storage facility at Beth Shemesh, the tenth, broken example was most likely thrown away, owing to a lack of storage space.

Six of the osuaries were inscribed (five in Jewish script and one in Greek). The inscriptions were scratched in different hands with a nail or stylus. The inscriptions were originally read by L. Y. Rahmani (assisted by L. Di Segni), and published in a catalogue he prepared on Jewish ossuaries.

1. Rahmani read the Greek inscription as “Mariamenou Mara” (of Mariamenon, sho is [also called] Mara), with Mariamenon being interpreted as a diminutive on Mariamene, a reading he inferred based on comparisons made with Greek inscription of later date found at the cemetery of Beth Shearim. Mara is interpreted as “honorable lady”, but, in fact, the correct from for “honorable lady” should be Martha. Mara is either the emphatic male form wich sits oddly on a woman, or a colloquial contracted form. Recently, a number of scholars have suggested, independently of each other, that the inscription should be read as “Mariame kai Mara”, i.e., that it represents the names of two separate individuals, Mariame and Mara [Stephen Pfann 2006] The first name is a variant of two very common Jewish names in the first century CE: Miriam/Maryam and Marya. The second name “Mara” is generally held to be a shortened versione of Martha.

2. There is a deeply incised inscription in Hebrew script, “Yehuda bar Yeshua”, on the decorated front of teh ossuary. The names “Yehuda” (Judas) and “Yeshua” (Jesus) were very popular names in the first century CE. Rahmani suggested that this person was the son of the “Yeshua (?) son of Yehosef” who appears in an inscription on another ossuary (see No. 4, below).

3. The inscriptions in Hebrew script are in different hands: “Matya,” and “Mata,” on the exterior and interior of the ossuary. Both are contractions of the name Matityahu (Matthew).

4. A badly scrawled inscription in Hebrew script: “Yeshua (?) son of Yehosef,” is in the reading provided by Rahmani and Kloner. The first name, “Yeshua (Jesus),” is not at all clear and it may have been superimposed over an earlier name (as Stephen Pfann has suggested). The first name is preceded by an X maker’s mark.

5. Another inscription in Hebrew script reads: “Yosé”. Thi is a shortened version of Yehosef (Joseph), which itself was a very popular name in the first century CE. This Yosé may possibly have been the father of the individual (identified as Yeshua) who appears in an inscription on another ossuary (see No. 4, above).

6. Another inscription in Hebrew script reads: “Marya”.

There has been a lot of controversy wroldwide about the suggestion that the Talpiot tomb might be the family tomb of Jesus. Beyond the general recognition of the similarity between certain names on the Talpiot ossuaries with that of names known from the Gospels (Jesus, Mary, and Joseph), the main thrust of this argument has been that the “Mariamene” named on one of the ossuaries is a form of Mariamne, which should be identified as that of Mary Magdalene, and that the “Yosé” name on another ossuary should be identified as that of Joses, the borther of Jess (Mark &:3). This clustering of names, when examined statistically in term of appearance of Jewish names of the period, is taken to represent strong evidence in support of the Jesus family tomb hypothesis.

So what should we make of this? The suggestion that the Mariamne name is that of Mary Magdalene is based on an assumed association between the two, as reflected in the Acts of Philip. However, since this text dates from the fourth century, and since the only other possible references to Mary Magdalene as Mariamne are in the writing of Hippolytus from the second century CE, we must express caution in the suggestion that Mariamne could have been Mary Magdalene’s real name.

However, as mentioned above, the proper reading for the so-called Mariamne inscription appears to be “Mariame kai Mara”, as a number of scholars have recently concluded. This would imply theta the skeletal remains of two female individuals were placed in the ossuary, a mother and daughter, or perhpas two sisters. If we accept this reading then the entire argument about Mariamene being Mariamne, and Mariamne being Mary Magdalene, evaporates. Moreover, the name “Yosé”, on one of the other ossuaries, could acutually be a shortened form of Yehosef, and, in my opinion, this is probably the same Yehosef who is the father of Yeshua on another ossuary in the tmob, who, in turn, was the father of Yehuda. Hence, if we discount the Mariamne-Mary Magdalene and Yosé-brother of Jesus connections, then we are simplly left with a group of ossuaries bearing common Jewish names of the first century CE. As a result of this, there is nothing to commend this tomb as the family tomb of Jesus. At best, the names of the ossuaries are suggestive but nothing more.

The place of the Tomb of Jesus is most likely to have been at the traditional spot beneath the present-day Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem”. (From Shimon Gibson, The Final Days of Jesus, Oxford 2009, pp. 175-187. The book’s text has been slightly modified).

Simone Venturini


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