Articles and Outlines - Contemporary Issues - The Lost Tomb of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

The Lost Tomb of Jesus: Fact or Fiction?

Author: Russ Wise
Date: 3/2/2007 6:02:56 PM


Jesus’ resurrection is being questioned once again by the “experts!”

Did Jesus bodily resurrect from the dead? Was He really married as some claim?

Could He have had children?


            Once again we can know that spring is just around the corner! The experts of everything religious have stepped up to hype their wares. I am referencing the latest blow-up over the Bones of Jesus discovery and the implied questions about His resurrection.

            The secular media have reported on numerous stories in recent years that would hopefully, at least it seems in their minds, discredit the veracity of the Bible. Early on we had the hyping of The Lost Gospels – in particular the Gospel of Thomas. It proved to be of no real concern to the faithful. Then we had The Da Vinci Code spark a renewed interest in understanding the “truths” of Gnosticism. These stories had their effect on the faithful in that they offered, in some minds, a plausible reality. Jesus was married and had children. He was one of us in a very real sense. The Gospel of Judas proved to be another attempt to cause the faithful to question God’s Word.

            Since the publishing of The Da Vinci Code there have been several other books that have made the scene as a result of the success of Dan Brown’s thriller. Just last spring The Jesus Papers authored by Michael Baigent, one of the authors Brown supposedly plagiarized, has been on book shelves for a while. The growing concern that many have is that these authors and movie makers often have an agenda. Sara James, a Dateline correspondent, interviewed Baigent about his book. His answers to her questions were quite revealing.

Sara James: You believe that much of what we think we know about Jesus is a lie?

Michael Baigent: It’s a lie. It’s an obvious lie.

James: So, basically, you’re asking anybody who is a Christian to question their fundamental beliefs?

Baigent: Absolutely.

James: Some might call your position heresy.

Baigent: I should hope they would.

It seems that a growing number of those who offer new information about Jesus have a point-of-view. The latest to cause the faithful to question their foundational beliefs is the reporting of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” recently aired on the Discovery Channel. The documentary’s two principles have been roundly criticized by recognized archaeologists over their lack of expertise and prejudice. We now live in a world where the individual cannot afford to accept every new idea that makes its way onto the turnpike. We must rightly discern everything that cries for our mind’s attention. As Christians we can do no less!


The Crux of the Matter

            Two filmmakers who have little to no credibility as archaeologists claim to have discovered the lost tomb of Jesus and His family. James Cameron is a filmmaker noted for his work, Titanic. His only credential is that he won an Oscar for his efforts. The other principle is Simcha Jacobovici, the film’s Israeli-born director. His credibility is yet to be determined.

            In 1980 a construction crew excavating for an apartment building in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem, unearthed a tomb holding ten ossuaries or burial boxes. These ossuaries were carved from limestone and were normally affordable only to the wealthy. It is the claim of these two filmmakers that one of the ossuaries was that of Jesus and His family. However, most every scholar who has commented on this discovery has acknowledged that Jesus’ family would not have been one that could have secured such a resting place since they were known to be of little wealth. Amos Kloner, the Bar Ilan University professor who led the initial work on the tomb’s excavation, noted the Talpiot cave was a typical middle-to-upper-class Jewish family’s tomb from the Second Temple period, which lasted from about 538 B.C. to A.D. 70.1

            In Jesus’ day bodies of loved ones were often laid to rest on a rock shelf within a specially hewed out cave or tomb. There the body would decompose and then later the remains, the bones, would be deposited in an ossuary for permanent keeping. Often the bones of several family members would be placed in the same box to conserve space and then placed into a niche.2

            The ossuaries were inscribed with the names of those whose bones were deposited in them. One in particular had the names of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and Judah among others carved into its surface. This “evidence” was good enough for Cameron to pursue the trail.

            So what exactly is the evidence that got these two budding “archaeologists” on point? The names found on one of the ossuaries were as follows: Jesus, son of Joseph; Maria; Mariamene; Matthew; Judas, son of Jesus; and Jose, a diminutive of Joseph.3 Amos Kloner in his report regarding the discovery found nothing of interest concerning the inscription on the ossuary. The names were of an ordinary nature and were not seen as a cause for any further investigation.

            Charles Pellegrino, an archeologist and one of the authors of the book, The Jesus Family Tomb, who is obviously promoting the film, observed that one of the names on the ossuary was Mariamene and that her name is a major support to the argument that the tomb is that of Jesus and his family.4 He adds that Mariamene is also a name recognized as Mary Magdalene. Of course he has some credibility as an archeologist, but he is on the same team as Cameron and Jacobovici. How objective is that!

            To bolster their claim the filmmakers employed a statistician to offer further probability that their story had legs. Andrey Feuerverger, a professor of mathematics at the University of Toronto offered a range of probability from 1 in 100 to 1 in 1,000 that another family might have the same cluster of names inscribed on their ossuary.5 However, as mentioned above there is ample evidence that the names were very common and further, it seems that if there were a real possibility that this ossuary  could have been the tomb where Jesus’ bones laid, the archaeologists who pour over Jerusalem looking for such a find would not have over-looked the “coincidence”.

            Perhaps one of the most damaging observations made to date is that of William G. Dever, a well-credentialed archaeologist who has worked excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years and is widely considered the dean of biblical archaeology among U.S. scholars.6 Dever exclaims, I just think it’s a shame the way this story is being hyped and manipulated.7 

            The fact that Dever is not a Christian or a believer makes him more credible than someone (such as Pellegrino) who has the potential of gaining financially from the project. Dever, now retired from the University of Arizona, said that some of the inscriptions on the ossuaries are unclear, but that all of the names are common.8 Dr. Dever makes a telling observation is stating that, It’s a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction. Sadly, Dr. Dever is correct in his assessment concerning the undiscerning Christian public.

            Another authority, Stephen Pfann, president of Jerusalem’s University of the Holy Land and an expert in Semitic languages, says that he has doubts about the documentary’s claims. He notes that scholars have found other ossuaries with the names of Joseph and Jesus on them. He also notes that after viewing high-resolution images of the ossuary inscription in question . . .he doesn’t think it says Jehoshua (Jesus). It says Hunun or something.9

            Joe Zias, a former curator of archaeology at the Israeli Antiquities Authority, made this comment regarding the veracity of Jacobovici’s claim: the documentary is a hyped up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest.10 Another archaeologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offered this concern: these claims were made at a news conference rather than in a peer-reviewed scientific article. Jodi Magness states that by going directly to the media and by-passing the scrutiny of a peer-review the filmmakers threw their claim into the arena of academic debate without having to suffer the consequences. She added that the vast majority of scholars who specialize in archaeology of this period have flatly rejected this.11 I must say that I believe she has a point. I find it amazing that Cameron and Jacobovici would believe that the thoughtful individual would accept the craftsmanship of a filmmaker over that of most every scholar of archaeology on the planet.

            Jodi is no light-weight. She is the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at Chapel Hill and she earned her Ph.D. in Classical Archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. To further support her claim she notes that the names on the Talpiyot ossuaries indicate that the tomb belonged to a family in 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, 12 rather than as Cameron and Jacobovici suggest. However, when you have a story to tell why bother with archaeological scholars and trustworthy evidence. And to thicken the icing on the cake, she is one of the distinguished professors in the Center for Jewish Studies at Chapel Hill.13 I haven’t thoroughly checked, but I haven’t yet found any comparable credentials for our filmmakers.


Evidence – Everyone’s Got Evidence

            The filmmakers rest their case on four main points.14 First, recent biblical scholarship argues that Mary Magdalene’s real name was Mariamene, a common first-century derivative of Miriam. Second, DNA tests show that microscopic human remains scraped from the Jesus box and the Mariamene box are not related, at least not matrilineally, leaving open the possibility that the two humans whose bones were once in those boxes were married. Third, the patina on the Talpiot ossuaries – that is, the mineral crust accumulated over centuries – matches that of the James box. This argument supposedly lends credibility to the possibility that the two ossuaries were originally in the same tomb, but later separated. If so, this possibility would lend tremendous testimony to the provenance of the James box which has been largely discredited as a forgery, but then who needs scholarly evidence to support a good story.

            Miller and Chen quote John Dominic Crossan, leader of the liberal Jesus Seminar and author of “Excavating Jesus,” as saying the biggest questions relate to the early break-in of the tomb: who vandalized the cave, when, what did they do there and why?15 Now, I would call that a reasonable if not an objective viewpoint. Once again we have a contemporary of Dever’s who seemingly does not hold a conservative view regarding Christianity who asks the tough questions.

            The filmmaker’s fourth argument is statistical. Individually, Jacobovici concedes that all the names on the Talpiot ossuaries are common. Miller and Chen make this common sense rejoinder, Good sense, and the Bible, still the best existing historical record of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, argue against Jacobovici’s claims. All four Gospels say that Jesus was crucified on the eve of the Sabbath; all four say that the tomb was empty when the disciples woke on Sunday morning. The evidence is there, but it precludes a high view of scripture rather than disparaging its veracity.

            Alan F. Segal, Ingeborg Rennert Professor of Jewish Studies at Barnard College, says that the New Testament is very clear on the events surrounding the burial of Jesus. He states, Jesus was put in a tomb that didn’t belong to him and then rose and there was nothing left.16 According to Miller and Chen the ossuary inscription under scrutiny reads that Judas was the son of Jesus. If so, then it would seem highly improbable that Jesus would have named his “son” after the one who betrayed him that cool night in Gethsemane.

            One thing we do know for certain – spring has arrived and we have experienced another attempt to discredit the Gospel account. Jesus has risen indeed and He sits at His Father’s right hand and because He does we can take great comfort in knowing that He sits in His Father’s presence interceding on our behalf. Cameron and Jacobovici may make a fortune with their discredited film, but those who serve the risen King will have wealth throughout eternity.


  1. Milstein, Mati, Jesus’ Tomb Claim Slammed By Scholars, National Geographic News, February 28, 2007,

  2. Miller, Lisa and Chen, Joanna, Have Researchers Found Jesus Christ’s Tomb?, Newsweek, March 5, 2007,

  3. Ibid.

  4. Matthews, Karen, Scholars Criticize Jesus Documentary, ABC News, New York.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Cooperman, Alan, ‘Lost Tomb of Jesus’ Claim Called a Stunt, Washington Post, February 28, 2007; A03

  7. Ibid.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Milstein, Mati

  10. Cooperman, Alan

  11. Ibid.

  12. Ibid.


  14. Miller, Lisa and Chen, Joanna

  15. Ibid.

  16. Ibid.



©2007 Russell V. Wise


Author's Comments:
Once again the secular elite have produced a docu-fantasy attempting to discredit the message of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. The Christian must rightly discern Truth from experiential fantasy so he or she will not be deceived. The Truth of the scripture is that Jesus did not leave his bones in a burial box, but he rose bodily and now sits at the right hand of his Father in heaven.

Site Designed and Developed by Agency Creative