Thursday, January 17, 2008

My Reflections on the Talpiot Tomb Princeton Theological Seminary Conference

I flew back into Houston a few hours ago. Sorry that I was unable to blog while in Jerusalem, but the computer connections weren't fast enough to be able to get my observations posted in a timely fashion.

If you have any questions about the conference, ask and I will do my best to answer them. If you attended the conference too and want to add something to my list, or correct me if you had a different take, let me know in the comments and I'll flip your comment up to the main page.

This was one of the most extra-ordinary conferences I have had the privilege of participating in. I learned an enormous amount of information about disciplines I normally don't interact with, including statistics. The conference had so many high moments - and high emotions with many conference members yelling and becoming agitated, especially the archaeologists who seem to have very contrary opinions among themselves and about the involvement of the media in their discipline. At one point, Professor Charlesworth had to intervene and call for order.

What did I learn?

1. There were two stats professors on the panel: Andrey Feuerverger (who had to create a new methodology to deal with the problem and is now publishing his 100 page result in a refereed stats journal) and his very vocal critic, Camil Fuchs (who was one of the referees for Feuerverger's article). The stats are fascinating, and everything is dependent on Mary Magdalene according to both professors - whether Mariamenou kai Mara refers to her. If she is "in" the equation, the stats are astounding, double what had been previously aired in The Lost Tomb film. If she's out of the equation, then the numbers are not statistically meaningful. Many participants wanted Feuerverger to run different scenarios with different assumptions, but he was hesitant because the paper that he has written has already taken so much out of him in terms of time and commitment.

2. So everything is dependent on Mary Magdalene, a woman. The panel on Mary included myself, Jane Schaberg, and Ann Grahman Brock. My own conclusions about Mary:

2.1 Mariamenou kai Mara can't be maintained as the best reading of the inscription in my opinion. There are major problems with Mariame[noue]Mara, as Steven Pfann and Jonathan Price have pointed out. The inscription ought to be read: MARIAMEKAIMARA. This translates either "Mariame and Mara (=Martha)" (if the second part of the inscription KAIMARA were added at a later date with new bones of a new person were put in the ossuary) or "Mariam, who is also Mara" (if the inscription was written at the same time). Some at the conference wanted to play around with the inscription IDs and wondered if "Mariam, who is also Mara" might refer to Mary the mother, while the other "Maria" ossuary might refer to one of Jesus' sisters (according to the Gospel of Philip, Mary is the name of his mother, his sister, and his partner) or Mary Magdalene.

2.2 It is questionable in my opinion whether Mariamene (which is what Rahmani said Mariamenou derived from) is even a name for Mary Magdalene. The "E" has to drop out to get Mariamne which occurs in the Acts of Philip. But Mariamne in the Acts of Philip isn't distinctively identified with Mary Magdalene; she appears to have been understood in some of the manuscripts as Mary of Bethany sister of Martha. Mary Magdalene in fact has a plethora of names attached to her from the very early sources: Mariam, Maria, Mariamme, Mariammen, Mariamne, Maria he Magdalene (but not Mariamene, as far as I know - please correct me if I'm wrong).

2.3 The Magdalenes in our literature are memorial Maries rather than historical Maries. I contrasted the encratic Mary (female-become-male celibate) with the Valentinian gnostic Mary (wife of Jesus). I explained how these Maries are the result of communal memory functioning within different socio-religious environments. The earlier knowledge of Mary that they seem to be developing is the tradition that Mary Magdalene was a single woman, who was a disciple of Jesus, and an important Christian leader. This is plausible historical information about her.

3. On the final day of the conference, I asked if only family members could be in these tombs. I got "yes" from some of the archaeologists and "no" from others. When they were pushed, I got "we don't know." Why? because not all ossuaries are marked with information about relationships that the deceased had with each other. On average there is buried 4-6 people in one bone box, and sometimes the box only has one name on it. The period of ossuary burial in these "family" tombs is very brief. By the second century, catacomb burial arrived full force, probably influenced by Roman practice.

4. The KEY moment at the conference was when the widow of Joseph Gat (the man who originally excavated the tomb) accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award given by Princeton for her husband. She gave a moving speech in which she shocked us all. It has been said over and over by the archaeologists that there isn't anything particularly stirring about the cluster of names on these ossuaries, and no one seemed to notice them including Professor Gat. Mrs. Gat told us that when he salvaged the tomb contents her husband thought that this tomb was the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and because he was a Holocaust survivor, he kept silent. He was afraid that a wave of anti-semitism would erupt if he said anything.

5. The patina expert (I am forgetting his name because he sat in the audience rather than up front on the panel floor) said that it could be significant that the James ossuary and the others in the Talpiot tomb had the same patina, especially since the Talpiot ossuaries were half covered with earth and the tomb had been breached. He said that the random sample that was tested wasn't high enough - another 50 ossuaries would need to be tested, and other tombs in the immediate proximity of the Talpiot tomb would need to be tested too. So there is more work that would need to be done to link the James ossuary to the Talpiot tomb. But it is not the 10th ossuary that Gat found. The 10th one was plain, uninscribed and broken. The archaeologists were very verbal and very committed to this. Could there have been another ossuary looted from this tomb before Gat got there? Who knows. More tests would need to be run to figure this out. We found out that these tests are very costly and time consuming, so who knows if they will be conducted.

6. The DNA test that was run on the Mariame ossuary was so contaminated that the results have to be thrown out.

7. The results. We didn't take a vote, or anything like that. There seemed to me to be an enormous range of opinions, many of which were connected into theology and why theologically it can't be the tomb of Jesus and his family. There were some that said "No way" for other reasons. Most people I polled during the reception said that there wasn't enough evidence to make a positive identification (for various reasons), so they said they were "very skeptical" or "skeptical." A few people, however, did find it likely if not probable. There were a number of scholars who thought that this might be an early Christian tomb or what Professor Charlesworth called a "clan" tomb, rather than a "family" tomb.


Danny Zacharias said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Danny Zacharias said...

Have you seen this yet?

notice the article on the left

April DeConick said...


Yes. But I am too jet-lagged to respond today. I will in due time. In fact, I'm very glad that Marvin wrote it.

Pastor Bob said...

Thanks for your article on the conference. I watched the original show and started writing down mistakes as the show went on. One of my primary notes was on the Mariamne box. As you said it looks more like KAI. And if I remember correctly Mariamne was not used in the until the Gospel of Philip. A bit late

And this is personal but I've watched the Naked Archeologist and have never liked the shallow way he talks about things that presents complicated issues.

tjn2104 said...

An excellent run down, very glad to have something from someone who was there, and appears skeptical.

April DeConick said...

Yes, I am one of the skeptical ones.

Peter Nathan said...

Thanks April. Have posted a link to your post at
Good analysis.


Archaeologyknits said...

Can you shed some more light on the contamination of the Mariamne DNA tests, I am quite interested in this, and definitely could see how it happened, but have yet to see this in publication or any statement as to how this conclusion was drawn.

April DeConick said...

The contamination was troubling to me. From what I got out of the debate at the conference, it appears that one of the scientists who was there and is shown in the film, saw the bone fragments and didn't have any sterile containers. So the bone fragments were put in a non-sterile container, and gloves weren't even used. DNA tests are very touch and go because one skin flake from the collector can mess up the data. Everyone who has every touched the ossuary would need to be tested so that their DNA can be ruled out. To do this you have to grid the ossuary in six areas, take DNA from those areas, and run it against everyone who has touched the thing. I don't understand why the samples weren't taken properly the first time, especially since this scientist was the one at the conference who was so vocal about how we can't use the data because the sample was contaminated. There was some heated arguments about this point at the conference, but as in many heated arguments, in the end I couldn't figure out what had happened. Again, if anyone else was there and can relate the story better than I have, please do.

eblondet said...

Dr. DeConick:

As ususal, a wonderful assesment of the symposium. I thank you.

May I link/re-post your blog entry to a group that is discussing the Talpiot Tomb issues?

Always questioning,

David Creech said...

Dr. DeConick,
What do you think of the letter just posted on Mark Goodacre's blog (Jan 21)?