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The Lost Tomb of Jesus

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The community of professional Christians have been getting in another tiz, such a short time after the tiz they were in over the Da Vinci Code. They are now anquished about the showing of a film by the man who flattered himself with the sobriquet, the Naked Archaeologist, a man who is no archaeologist but a get-rich quick film maker, the Israeli, Simcha Jacobovici, now operating out of Canada. It is hard to find sympathy for either side, but Jacobovici is more of a crook than a scientist, so it is impossible to side with him, and the Christian professionals have proven over centuries that they are no different. They too are crooks and no scientists, so here it is the stew pots calling the kettle black.

Thirty years ago a tomb was found in Jerusalem, hardly a novelty, but it contained some names on the limestone ossuary boxes found in it that were prominent in the Christian gospels, Joseph, Jesus and Mary. Tombs were usually then owned by families, as they still are, and so this was termed the “Jesus Family Tomb”, and eventually, Joan Bakewell, the thinking man’s crumpet, did a documentary on it at Easter 1996 for the BBC. Now, the story has been revived by the prominent producer of the film, The Titanic, James Cameron, just as the Da Vinci Code revived the theories of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Cameron said in a press release:

It doesn’t get bigger than this. We’ve done our homework, we’ve made the case, and now it’s time for the debate to begin.

Well, Cameron cannot have done too well at school because his homework gets a mark for effort, and nothing much more.

The problem for Christians is that Jesus is believed by most of them, though not all, to have risen from the dead bodily and ascended bodily into heaven where he now sits on the right hand of God, presumably still bodily. Yet, if the claims made about this tomb are true, then here are ossuaries with the names of Jesus family members on them including the man himself. Ossuaries, being boxes for the bones left after the flesh of a dead man has decomposed, laid back in tombs, must have had the said bones in them, and so the bones of Jesus were in this tomb and not in heaven, where Christians think they ought to be.


Tomb Names
The Israel Antiquities Authority say six coffins were marked in Aramaic with the names “Yeshua bar Yosef”, or Jesus son of Joseph, and “Yehuda bar Yeshua”, or Judah son of Jesus. In Hebrew were “Maria” or Mary, “Matia” or Matthew, and “Yose”, a nickname for “Yosef” or Joseph. In Greek is “Mariamene e Mara”, which the filmmakers said means Mary the master” or Mary the teacher. Stephen Pfann, an archaeologist in Jerusalem, doubts that “Jesus” is read correctly on its box. It is badly scrawled and could even be just natural scratch marks, but, if really an inscription, he reads it as “Hanun”.

What is more curious is that besides the boxes for Jesus, Mary and Joseph there were two others, said to have the names of Matthew and Mary Magdalene on them! So besides the Holy Family, a male and a female disciple of Jesus’s were buried with them! Even more striking is that another box had the inscription on it, Judah Son of Jesus. The Da Vinci Code plot is vindicated, if this is indeed what the film makers claim, the tomb of Jesus, for Jesus had a son, and so must have had a wife, and who else would the wife be than Mary Magdalene, who was also buried in this self-same tomb. Many of the main characters of the gospels are all buried together in this tomb, apparently supporting their existence but blowing to smithereen the whole point of Christianity—that Jesus was God playing the role of His own Son for the sake of Christian belief in salvation.

Like all pseudo history books and films, the film makers offer up some evidence, contriving, and this the the art of these artists, to make it seem convincing. Simcha Jacobovici, self trained in making bogus archaeological films, is a past master of the genre. In other words he has done the same trick many times before, and that is a good reason why no scientist will take a bit of notice of anything he says, but will keep their scientifically skeptical nose in practice and look for themselves at all the evidence, not just the bits filtered appropriately to the innocent reader or viewer by these crooks and grifters. Like the Christians themselves, they are interested in making money out of people’s gullibility, and it is this head on clash of interests that has generated such fevered interest.

So, the thing to do is not to be taken in by the selective choice of evidence and opinion by either side, but to look at the totality of the evidence. That means that we must begin with the original source of these stories, and that is the gospel now read in the name of Mark. This work can be reliably dated to the time of the Jewish War against the Romans of 66-70 AD, but it records events that happened a lot earlier, when Pontius Pilate was Prefect of Judaea. Based on the work of Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, Pilate ruled Judaea from 26-36 AD, and Jesus is usually thought by Christians to have died in 33 AD. The trouble is that this is far from certain because the Christians controlled all book production from about 325 AD when Constantine put the Christian bishops in charge of Roman religion, and Christians, whatever modern believers might think, are known to have censored most everything they did not like from the books that were subsequently copied, and even from the ones that existed beforehand. That is the reason there is little left about Jesus at all.

The key point here, though, is that Jesus died no later than 33 AD, and quite possibly as early as 21 AD. So when were the relics laid in the Jesus family Tomb? Frank Moore Cross, a devout biblicist, dates the inscription by epigraphy, the shape of the letters used on the ossuaries, to the “Herodian period”.

The inscriptions are from the Herodian Period. The use of limestone ossuaries and the varied script styles are characteristic of that time.

Well Herod died in 4 BC, not many years after the birth of Jesus, according to Matthew, a later and less reliable gospel than Mark, because it had allowed more time for excuses and mythology to have been invented. It is impossible that epigraphy could date scripts, if this Herod is meant by “Herodian”, as accurately as to within 20 or 30 years unless they contain some absolutely datable pecularity or fashion, so Cross presumably means to imply that these tombs are from the right period based on the letters inscribed on the boxes. In any case Herod’s family remained in charge elsewhere in Palestine, so perhaps he simply means by “Herodian” while the Herodians remained influential.

The inscriptions are in Aramaic except for the inscriptions for Mary (Maria) and Matthew (Matia) which are in Hebrew, and the form of Mary is Latinized, suggesting, if anything that she, at least was a sympathizer with the occupying forces of Rome. The reference to the other Mary (Mariamene e Mara) was in Greek and translates as “Mary, a Lady”, in which “Mara” is Aramaic despite the Greek lettering. The use of Greek suggests this woman was influenced by western culture. She was Hellenized. The original excavators claimed that the meaning was either “Mary and Martha” or “Mary also Martha”, implying that “Mara” meant “Martha”, and the bones of two women were in the same casket, or that this Mary or Mariamne was also called Martha. A parallel is claimed in an inscription “Alexa e Mara” considered to mean “Alexa also called Martha”, but “Alexa, a Lady” seems more likely. It illustrates that the very name Mary began as an honoured title, the female equivalent of Lord (Mar), and the preponderance of the Marys in the gospel stories suggests that the title Mara has been mistaken for the name Mary.

Moreover, the name “Mariamene” means “Always Mary”, or, as Mary itself means “Lady”, it means “Always a Lady”, or “Truly a Lady”. Mariamne was a popular name for girls at the time, notably among the Herodian family, and perhaps this is why Francois Bovon, one of the tame “scholars” rolled out as expert witnesses by the Discovery Channel, says, “Mariamene, or Mariamne, probably was the actual name given to Mary Magdalene”. The skeptic will note the “probably” which means nothing without any confirmatory evidence. Bovon says that a fourth century version of the Acts of Philip, a non-canonical gospel, calls Philip’s sister Mariamne. NOw the additional assumption has to be made that Mary Magdalene was Philip the apostle’s sister, another speculation. Jacobovici, being suitably vague, says that in early Christian texts, “Mariamene” is the name of Mary Magdalene, making any naïve observer think that here was a fact not revealed by biblical translation, but he is saying the same as Bovon. Mariamne was a popular girls name that could have come down to us simply as Mary—but then again not! Wr begin to see the accumulation of specuilations needed for these pseudo histories just like the Da Vinci Code, and the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. They make interesting reading, or viewing in this case, but no one should imagine that speculation piled on top of speculation is what history is about. It is fantasy.


Fragments of human material in the ossuraries of “Jesus Son of Joseph” and “Mariamene e Mara” were tested for mitochondrial DNA, and it was shown not to have been from the same mother, and so these two were not born of the same mother. Curiously, the Israel Antiquities Authority agreed to send the two ossuaries to New York, but it claims they did not contain human remains, so how could they have been tested? If they were depending on using DNA cloning methods to magnify the DNA present in minute amounts on the bottom of the boxes, then there is another problem—the ossuaries rarely had only one skeleton in them. Amos Kloner lists 35 skeletons in the tomb and 17 in the 10 ossuary boxes. Unless the contents of the boxes are known, the DNA scaped and multiplied from them is useless. If the film makers had access to the other boxes, then why did they not test the residual DNA in them? Was the other Mary the mother of Jesus? Was Judah the grandson of this Mary.

Anyway, the conclusion the film makes is that Jesus and Mary Magdalene must have been married to be in the same tomb. Ergo, Jesus married Mary Magdalene, proving the theme of the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. Or, as one reporter put it:

The documentary asserts that tests on samples from two of the coffins show Jesus and Mary Magdalene were likely to have been buried in them and were a couple.

DNA can only be used for comparison. Unless the film makers had the DNA of Mary Magdalene and Jesus to begin with, or at least some close relatives, they could not possibly have made any such conlusion. Nor does anything stop either Jesus or this Mary from not being of the family blood, or of having different mothers. Or Jesus could have been the adopted son of Joseph, wealthy men without natural born sons often adopting sons in those days to provide security for the family and a successor for the family business in the days when there were no welfare checks. Mary might have married anyone else in the family, even Joseph, after his earlier wife died. Here again there is nothing but speculation in thick cosmetics, typical of Jacobovici’s trickery. Yet we learn that Jacobovici and his team say “it is possible” Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a couple, and the Judah mentioned “may have been” their son, and “could have been”…

…the “lad” described in the Gospel of John as sleeping in Jesus’ lap at the Last Supper.

John tells us this lad was the beloved disciple, presumed to have been John himself, not Judas, so here we have a pile of unfounded speculations again piled one on the other and amounting to… precisely nothing!

Another test was done to compare patina taken from the Jesus Family Tomb and the James ossuary, already shown to have been a forgery, but a forgery inscribed on a a genuinely old ossuary. The conclusion:

The samples were consistent with each other.

We are meant to conclude from this and the fact that there was enough room in the Jesus Family Tomb for another ossurary that the James ossuary was genuine and was taken from the same tomb, so James, the brother of Jesus was originally laid in the same tomb. The patina proves little indeed, and the claim that the two samples are consistent tells you nothing. Consistent with what? Limestone of the same age from the same district in the same climatic conditions will have aged in a consistent way, so the patina would be expected to be consitent. It says nothing about the relationship of the boxes except that they were of a similar age and from a similar place, and no one doubts it. It does not mean they were from the same place, and anything so tentative could not possibly overthrow the careful tests that showed the James box was forged.


A big deal is placed on the statistical anaysis of the concatenation of the names that occur in the tomb being the same as those prominent in the gospels. Another expert, Andrey Feuerverger, professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto, is rolled out to show the concatenation is virtually impossible, so the two separately recorded families must be the same one. He concludes the odds are over 600 to 1 that the Jesus Family Tomb is that of the gospel family. You have to take this “evidence” with a big pinch of salt. Mention anything mathematical and many people will credit it with a preciseness that they ought not to without examination. Like any syllogism, mathematics is only as good as its assumptions, and so it is here. Nor is it clear what this statistician is actually calculating. He seems to be working from names mentioned in tombs, and so seems to be calculating what the chances are of two tombs having the same set of names of people laid in them. That might be quite rare indeed, but it is not what we want to know, and even that might be not so rare when allowance is made for the fact that tombs often contain a quantity of ossuaries. This one had ten but we do not know what the names were on the others. Allowing that other tombs had additional ossuaries, the chances get less that among them might be these six names. Also dubious is that none of these people had a birthplace attached to their name, as Mary Magdalene is assumed to have had on the basis of her coming from Magdala—an unjustified Christian assumption, incidentally. If these people were not native Jerusalemites, they would have had their birthplace inscribed too, and, indeed, would have been unlikely to have been buried in Jerusalem at all, but in the place they were born in or lived in.

A lexicon of Jewish names taken from ancient sources including ossuaries shows the names in the Jesus Family Tomb were among the most common of the time and place. One in every three Jewish women was a Mary, and one in every 20 Jewish men was a Yeshua, or Jesus. There could have been thousands of poor families with these names who could not afford a tomb, and we are led to believe from the gospels that Jesus was a poor man not a rich one. So the evidence, however precise, 600 to one might sound, is less than convincing.

Least convincing of all, because it is not at all convincing, is that one of the Marys is actually Mary Magdalene. The huge assumption needed is that “Mariemene e Mara” is Mary Magdalene. It does not say it is, and therefore it is not. Cameron told reporters the chances of finding the combination of names was like finding a grave marked Ringo next to others marked John, Paul and George.

Mariamene is Mary Magdalene—that’s the Ringo.

James Tabor, a respected archaeologist—until now—thinks the two are the same because they are both unique names! It is utter nonsense, and shows it is all too easy for a viewer to be carried along with the enthusiasm of the picture maker, or book writer, and to be easily persuaded on something that is just not so. Feuerverger seems to get his odds partly by taking Mariemene e Mara as a very rare coincidence:

The extraordinariness of the Mariemene e Mara inscription gets factored into the calculation as a very rare name.

So, instead of giving a chance of one in three, like any of the other Marys, he gives it much larger odds based on further dubious assumptions. As the inscription does not say Mary Magdalene but some other Mary that cannot be proved or even assumed to have been the same one, the odds on them being the same one could put put at very low ones, indeed zero until the identity of the grave woman is established! Then this is most certainly not the Dan Brown Jesus who married Mary Magdalene. Feuerverger ends up rather apologetic:

I did permit the number one in 600 to be used in the film—I’m prepared to stand behind that but on the understanding that these numbers were calculated based on assumptions that I was asked to use.

He took it that the experts in biblical archaeology would have given him reasonable assumptions. Naïve man!

The aforementioned James Tabor tries to argue that this tomb evidence is as good as the gospel evidence. He wants to refute the notion that Jesus was wealthy, that the tomb implies. It would be true if we had two pieces of evidence that were indisputably about the Christian Jesus, but we only have the gospel evidence that is indisputably about the Christian Jesus. This tomb is not indisputable, and that is why people are disputing it. Tabor effectivvely assumes the tomb is about the same man, then equates the value of the evidence, another absurd way of proceeding. You have to wonder what these “experts” were paid for their nonsense.


Tabor defends his view by arguing that a messianic movement would pay for an expensive tomb for its leader, and there seems no reason to quibble with the idea, but this tomb is not a tomb owned by a movement, but purports to be a family tomb. The notion that Jesus was buried by the Essenes as a noble man who died for his belief and his country is quite possible, but would require a new set of assumptions, and a proper examination of the tomb to establish that it was an Essene tomb. If it was, the danger is that a lot of priceless evidence has been destroyed, but it seems the clues would be clearer. Tabor notes that

There’s no evidence this family ever went back to Galilee. James [Jesus’s brother] dies in Jerusalem, Mary and his brothers are there—there’s no indication that anybody went back to Nazareth.

Well, if these arguments are to be accepted, and they should, there is no good evidence that Jesus had a family in this cuddly snese. In the earliest gospel, no father Joseph is mentioned, and Mary is pretty skimpily described. The mention of a family we get is that the family rejected Jesus! This is in the earliest gospel, not the one that had been elaborated by fantasy. the whole of the notion of the Holy family really depends on the utterly unrealistic and contrdictory tales of the nativity in Matthew and Luke. Christians are fond of these stories but there are few proper scholars who will not reject them as Hellenistic romances added to Mark many years later to pander to the gentile converts to the new religion. Frankly, the most reliable evidence is that Jesus had no family that he knew, or that knew him. He had brothers and sisters because he was a member of a brotherhood, and the fraternity of it might have extended to the use of the term father and mother to senior members, just as the later church did, almost certainly based on the original practice of the Essenes. So, an Essene tomb of Jesus would be possible, much more so than this supposed family tomb, but the supposition that it was a family tomb ought to be properly criticized, and the whole evidence on the ground examined.

The original excavator of the tomb in 1980 was Professor Amos Kloner, and he was the one who decided the tomb was of a well-off Jerusalem family of the time of herod the Great in the first century BC. Apparently he stands by his conclusion, and as it is based on less assumptions and direct data, it is a better conclusion than this farrago. Kloner knows of 900 Herodian tombs within 4 kilometers of Jerusalem’s Old City in which Jesus or Yeshu was found 71 times, and even “Jesus son of Joseph” too. In 1996, the Israeli Antiquities Authority said that the probability of the ossuaries being of the Jesus family were “next to zero”. Kloner is blunt about it:

The documentary filmmakers are using it to sell their film.

What to Believe?

That is the justified conclusion that the Christian professionals take too. And now these professional Christians call out for similar programmes to be funded by wealthy Christians or Christian institutions to right the wrong. Yet these Christians never complain when Discovery put out trashy and unscientific programmes in favour of Christianity or Judaism. This same Simcha Jacobivici made an equally dishonest programme purporting to prove the Exodus, finding evidence for it even hundreds of miles away in Greece. It is quite all right when the baloney is supportive of Christian beliefs but not so when it is not. Not that these fraudulent documentaries do not have some genuine history among the dross. The whole point of them is that they must be persuasive, and so a lot of good but usually irrelevant material is used to camouflage the lack of rationale in them.

If Christians are to get skeptical about absurd distortions of scholarship like this then they ought to get skeptical about their own beliefs, because it is more than likely that they began in a similar way in an age when it was not at all easy to question such matters. Christians always claim eyewitnesses were still alive when the gospels were written. Well, even if this is so, how would anyone skeptical get in touvh with them. Most of them either lived in Paestine while most Christians lived all over the Roman empire, or everyone who knew anything had been scattered by the Jewish War. The evidence of Mark is, in fact, thet people who knew the events being revered by Christians indeed did question what Christians believed, and Mark had to be written for apologetic reasons. The story put out could not be the truth and so had to be altered to fit, but it could not be totally altered. Remember we were now almost half a century on, and a lot Christians as well as their critics knew the truth, so the story had to be bowdlerized. It had to be close enough to what was known but yet explain it all in such a way that people would not cease to believe, but that would not oblige the authorities to take action against them.

No Christian will believe this either, but they shall have to begin to take truth more seriously than they have. It is not the “Truth” that they think it is, and even if this heap of garbage does nothing to undermine Christianity, it does not mean they have spent 200 years believing the truth. That is what they have to come to terms with. The makers of the film say that the resurrection could have been spiritual, and not bodily. Of course, it could have been neither, but what they mean to say is that there are a minority of Christians who accept a spiritual resurrection but not a bodily one. A bodily resurrection does not prove anything about life after death unless everyone will have the same sort of bodily resurrection, but few modern Christians think they will. The spiritual one is more appropriate to modern belief in a spiritual life after death. Even so, there need have been no such thing, and the author of Matthew knew what had happened. He invented a tale to explain it. Dr Tom Wright, the Dean of Lichfield, said this on the occasion of the first publicity for these ossuaries in 1996:

I have read pretty well everything that has been written and can see no other explanation other than the body was resurrected.

He proves that the Christians are no better than Jacobovici. The events of the gospel can be perfectly well explained, and without having to resort to the supernatural. Wright needs to read more, but then he might not be able to make his claim with any degree of honesty.

This whole nonsense could not have arisen unless the Christians felt obliged to believe that Jesus had a close family. Looked at in a fair and balanced way, he did not. he was a member of a brotherhood, the Essenes. Little in the story need be changed if this is true, and a great deal that seems mysterious can then be answered. But will the Christian suddenly stop just believing and instead look at the evidence properly. No chance! Christianity depends on exactly the sort of scam that Jacobovici is perpetrating. They are therefore hypocrites to complain about it. The skeptic can call down a plague on to both their houses!

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Written by mikemagee

4 March, 2007 at 11:10 pm

One Response

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  1. For a comprehensive and scholarly rebuttal of the film’s evidence please visit

    Read and hear the evidence for yourself.

    Chris Rosebrough

    5 March, 2007 at 12:52 am

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