Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Tomb that Won't Close: More Reflections on the Talpiot Conference

Some have asked my opinion of the Duke letter that is now circulating with signatures from several scholars who attended the Talpiot conference. Mark Goodacre has posted it on his blog.

First let me say up front that I do not have a dog in this fight. I find the discussion interesting, mostly imaginative, but very contentious. I went to the conference a skeptic and I have returned home a skeptic, although a much more informed one.

What I learned at the conference is that Mary Magdalene is the linchpin. Without the Mariamne inscription factored into the stats, the stats are insignificant statistically. Since the Mariamne inscription should be read, "Mariam(e) kai Mara", this means that the stats as they have been run with Mariamne are not compelling proof.

The statisticians, however, were very clear that a different set of assumptions would mean a different result. What if we were to change the assumptions and run a different set of names, Mariame instead of Mariamne? What if we get rid of Jesus' sisters' names which were part of the original equation? Since we don't actually know his sisters' names (and how they got on the statistician's list is a mystery to me), Joanna and Salome can't be on the list of possibilities for those who might belong in the tomb. So the conference discussion did not result in a definitive dismissal. Rather the suggestion was made by more than one participant, including Stephen Pfann, that the statisticians might try a different range of names as the assumptions for the problem.

The same is true about the DNA tests. They were contaminated. So they are inconclusive. The DNA specialist, however, told us exactly what has to be done to do the tests correctly. But the tests are very expensive and no one at the conference seemed compelled to take up the charge to go and do it right, although it was suggested that this should be something to pursue.

I found the Duke letter arresting because it takes at historical face value the canonical stories, with little appreciation for critical textual methods. The proof that the Talpiot Tomb can't be Jesus' tomb is because the canonical stories relate that Joseph buried him in a new cut tomb of his own?

Finally, and perhaps the most compelling reason that I did not sign this letter is the marginalization of Gat's widow, which I find offensive. Her treatment is appalling to me, especially with no proof given that we shouldn't trust her words. What benefit is there to discredit her memory of her husband and his work? It makes absolutely no difference to the Talpiot Tomb discussion whether or not Professor Gat thought this was or wasn't the Jesus family tomb. So why would a handful of archaeologists feel so compelled to argue that she doesn't know what she is talking about because Gat didn't read the inscriptions? I assume that he could read Hebrew fluently.


JDT said...

Hey April,

Just a couple of observations. The assertion that the stats are "nil" if we take out Mariamene is not the case at all. As Camil Fuchs, the other person on the Statistics panel pointed out, based on Kilty we get .48 in terms of probability. This is hardly nil. Even 1/10 would be far from nil. If you check the Goodacre Blog you will see several stats people have weighed in, including Ingermanson, who does not support the tomb ID with Jesus of Nazareth. This figure, .48, does not mean 50/50 in the coin flipping sense, it means if we had just two tombs, one of them would be the Jesus tomb.

On Ms. Gat, there was a real rush to judgment and Steve Pfann apologises on his Blog about it. As it turns out the official Duke statement is wrong, the late Mr. Gat did not die until 1993 and there are others now who have come forward saying he did hold these views. I never had the least sense we should doubt Ms.Gat and did not see the point. So what if Yosi Gat had that view...it becomes part of the history of where people stand on the tomb, but his view then is one of many and there is no need to trash him and his abilities, or his wife's veracity.

I understand the desire to make clear that the conference was not a "vindication" for Jacobovici, though his comment, read in context, I think did not mean that, but be that as it may, it seems to me that the real value of the conference is going to be the published papers where everyone will give their views in an academic manner.

James Tabor

Phil Snider said...

I'm not entirely sure why we have to, automatically, dismiss the canonical accounts of the burial either. I grant you, that the historical status of the canonical gospels is debated, so we do have to be careful not to assume they'll clinch the question, but, surely, they are evidence which should cause us to wonder about the Talpiot tomb a bit more. They are, after all, the only source detailing Jesus' burial (unless I'm missing something in the apocrypha)

Archaeologyknits said...

I think there may be some important points to make about the various aspects of this post.

First, even if you get a very high significance or high unique value for the tomb, that does not prove it belonged to Jesus, no matter how much the statistics approach 100%, there remains a chance that it was not the tomb of Jesus. To prove something like this, one would really require some non-statistical proof.
Similar issues arrive from DNA, where they can help outline familial relations etc, but without known samples for comparison, they can't offer indisputable positive identification.
As for the Gat issue, I agree with Dr. Tabor's post above, that it is now just history of the study of this tomb. However, I will depart from his statement a bit, and say that I did see a reason to doubt her statement, not because I think she was lying, but because in any situation where one is offered two contrary claims, such as Ms. Gat's and Amos Kloner's that Yosef Gat did not believe this, there remains a reason to doubt both sides. Basically, until the debate between the two sides is concluded, there is obvious reason to take either with a grain of salt.

José Solano said...

It is certainly interesting that Joseph Gat had an opinion about the Talpiot Tomb but isn’t this supposed to be a scientific examination rather than a gathering of opinions about whose tomb it is? His opinion is no “smoking gun” and he may not have even been able to read the inscriptions.

Of course Jodi Magness is correct that “The identification of the Talpiot tomb as the tomb of Jesus’ family flies in the face the canonical Gospel accounts . . . .” That is not saying you have to believe the canonical Gospel accounts or for that matter everything in the New Testament that states Jesus rose from the dead and therefore his tomb became empty. But let us not casually ignore the fact that if Talpiot is the tomb of Jesus, Christianity itself is buried in that tomb, at least all of Christianity that believes in the resurrection of Jesus. This is no small matter for humanity. The consequences and repercussions of such an finding objectively would be nothing less than catastrophic as I believe it would foment chaos within huge and powerful circles, destabilizing markets and already fragile human relationships worldwide.

This is why it is so important that scholars proceed in this study with the utmost responsibility and caution refraining from brash and sensationalistic claims.

PS: Surely James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici and the Discovery Channel should be able to afford the necessary DNA testing.

paulf said...

April, I see we agree on some things. I made some of the same points, not as politely, at the Goodacre page before I read this.

I don't understand how there can be a debate about what Gat said to his wife. The fact that he may have said something different to people in the archaeological community is not evidence at all of what he said to his wife.

To the contrary, if he was worried that he would catch flak for associating the site with Jesus Christ, then of course he might say something different to people in the archaeological community. THere is no reason whatsoever to doubt Mrs. Gat, not that whatever she says is evidence about the tomb.

Phil, if you look at this historically, Jesus had to die and was buried somewhere. In that case, the gospels were intentionally misleading or just repeated an incorrect tradition, but if Jesus didn't ascend to heaven, the gospels are all wrong and their value as "evidence" is negative.

Phil Snider said...


Using conventional historical methods, yes, I agree with you. I'm saying that, if there was a tomb, there is a suggestion of where it might have been. I'm not even counting in whether it was empty or not.


paulf said...

phil, I'm a bit embarrassed to answer your point in a thread in which James Tabor has contributed, given that he has literally written the book on the subject. I recommend his book "The Jesus Dynasty."

The gospels say that Jesus was put in a tomb but didn't stay there, so really there is no Biblical evidence at all about where he might be buried.

The Talipot naysayers say that Jesus would be buried in Nazareth, but why? He died in Jerusalem and we know his brother remained there until his death as a highy respected religious figure. It would seem probable that the rest of the family would have moved to Jerusalem because at that point James was the head of the family.

The Bible practically writes James out of the early Christian picture when we know from other sources that James was the leader of the movement. It makes sense to be careful as to how much weight you give the gospels when asking historical questions.

Phil Snider said...


Yet, doesn't that place the 'tomb' of Jesus (whether he was raised or not) in or near Jerusalem? That would seem to support Tabor's contention that Jesus was buried in Jerusalem, not Galilee as nay-sayers suggest.

My point is that one can reject the resurrection, but still find useful the story of Jesus being laid in the tomb by Joseph of Arimathea as evidence of a Jerusalem burial. Presumably, if one was assuming no resurrection, one would have to, then, say that the resurrection story is either a fictional add-on or that the disciples staged a body-snatching or just made the story up. I personally don't believe it (as I accept the resurrection, but note that it is singularly difficult to prove historically-being a singular event and, hence, improbable), but the position I state above I think is a reasonable use of evidence.

What I'm objecting to is the reflexive dismissal of evidence, albeit evidence which is difficult to interpret within certain worldviews. If we shift from biblical texts to, say, classical texts (about which I have rather more expertise), does the impossibilities of the Romulus and Remus story invalidate the usefulness of this story for establishing that there were likely two communities which merged to form Rome? No matter how difficult it is to interpret, surely we can't afford to throw away texts and evidence.


paulf said...

phil, I don't disagree. I don't think that the Bible stories were just created out of whole cloth.

But in this case, what the gospel authors say can't be true by any historical prespectives. It's not like a question of whether Jesus said what was in the Sermon on the Mount or if he was a prophet or rabbi or magician or cynic, or if he was born in Nazareth or Bethlehem, etc. One can spin those things, as the gospel authors did.

But on the question of resurrection, they either were right (which I formerly believed) or said something that just cannot be true.

José Solano said...

That’s right Paulf; “they either were right . . . or said something that just cannot be true.” That is, they lied. Clearly not just a simple mistake. And if they were liars then they were also shrewd conspirators who perpetrated a fabulous plot to deceive everyone and somehow took the body and hid it someplace.

Yes, they hid it in Talpiot and buried his unknown wife (mistress?) and child (illegitimate?) with him, as well as other members of his family so that no one would know where he was buried and they could continue to spread the rumor that he had risen, a rumor started by “Master” Mary Magdalene who “saw” the risen Jesus first?? (“Rational” theory would hold that Jesus was quickly removed from his “temporary tomb” early Sunday morning before the women got there and placed in Talpiot. Forget all that Gospel story about guards guarding the tomb, etc.) The family sloppily, ignobly scratched his name on the ossuary, “Jesus, son of Joseph”, so that only the inner circle of conspirators might know where the popular rabbi was buried. (In Matthew we actually find there was suspicion that just such a thing might occur.) Oh yes, but they put a huge chevron sign over the tomb so that only people visiting the family tomb would recognize it.

The ossuaries of Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ “brother” James were very well carved because James was the “leader” in Jerusalem and Mary Magdalene was the “chief (master) apostle,” that is, they were leaders of the great deceivers. Hmm. Has anyone considered that James may have married Mary Magdalene to cover up that she was carrying Jesus’son? Eh, scratch that. That wouldn’t conform with the Talpiot plot and apparently the James ossuary was not in the “family” tomb.

This is really wonderful stuff for the creative imagination and I have already written a play with the rather lengthy title of “The Da Vinci Code meets the Gospel of Judas in the Family Tomb of Jesus.” It was originally just “The Da Vinci Code meets the Gospel of Judas” but I added to it when the Discovery Channel discovered the family tomb of Jesus. I must say it was very well received in the small communities were it was presented. I’d be happy to present it at the next Talpiot conference if certain scholars could endure a little parody and spoofing. I even use some scenes from Cecil B. De Mille’s King of Kings with the Mary Magdalene—Judas Iscariot liaison. I know you’re familiar with that one April and it’s a great favorite of mine.

Please forgive my somewhat irreverent humor but I don’t think it’s any more irreverent than the imaginative tales of Talpiot. Ah, that would be a good title.

Talon said...

Jose, there are other many other possibilities beyond "it happened exactly like the Bible says" and "the whole thing was a fraud invented by a bunch of hucksters."

It sounds like you are reading too much Josh McDowell. He says Jesus was either the second member of the trinity or a liar or lunatic.


José Solano said...

Sorry Paulf/Talon but I haven’t read Josh McDowell and I haven’t said “it happened exactly like the Bible says.” I read people like Rudolf Bultmann, Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Jean Danielou, Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and even more contemporary writers such Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels, among many others. Lots of people have offered the contrast of the biblical story being true or written by liars or lunatics. C.S. Lewis thought of it in this sense. But I’m very open-minded and always willing to hear other alternatives rather than mere assertions of “other many other possibilities.”

Talon said...

jose, who said James deceived anybody?

What I think you are missing is the idea that James and the early Jesus movement didn't preach modern day Christianity. There didn't have to be a big conspiracy for the truth to go astray.

It is clear that James and the Jerusalem followers were Jews and didn't espouse Jesus as God and salvation by faith. The book of James is directly at odds with the ideas of Paul.

The Pauline ideas developed or took over after the James group was either dead or out of power. It seems far more likely that the original memory of who Jesus actually was faded over time and other ideas took over gradually.


José Solano said...

I don’t imagine Paulf/Talon that you are taking my parody literally, are you? I certainly do not think that James deceived anyone. He could only be a deceiver if he was involved in a conspiracy to deceive people into believing that Jesus rose from the dead when he knew he didn’t.

“It is clear that James and the Jerusalem followers were Jews and didn't espouse Jesus as God and salvation by faith.” But this is what James says: “My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of Glory, with partiality. Hmm. “The Lord of Glory” to whom he is a self-indentured slave. (Presuming that the writer of the Epistle is the same James.)

I don’t want to get into a sound-bite theological discussion on the James/Paul perspectives on faith and works. I can only say here that in agreement with all major Christian faiths today, including Lutherans and Catholics, I find no contention between the teaching of Paul and James. There is only a difference in emphasis. Whatever differences might have existed in certain areas were apparently resolved through councils in Jerusalem (47 AD and 61 AD?) when Paul met with James, Peter and others and was given “the right hand of fellowship.”

I do find it rather preposterous to claim that “the original memory of who Jesus actually was faded over time and other ideas took over gradually.” The idea that the realization or belief that he rose or did not rise from the dead “faded” makes no sense at all to me within a mere 20 to 50 year span in a tightly knit community. We’re talking about a claim of Resurrection not at what time someone entered Jerusalem or exactly where someone met with his friend 20 years ago, easily forgotten events. Someone has to consciously fabricate such a story if it did not happen. The testimony we have from numerous people tells us that this story was widespread from the earliest days. There is a huge difference also between memory fading and inventing stories. In fact, when you reach this point of disbelieve then of course every miracle must be a fabrication or hallucination, not a problem of fading memory. I think that clear reasoning and a little knowledge of human psychology must lead to this either/or situation. But, I’m willing to consider other possibilities. The fading memory story simply does not cut it.

The problem is exactly as with the Gospel of Judas. This has nothing to do with faded memory. It is a conscious fabrication no doubt to convey some esoteric “truth.” The author knows perfectly well that Judas had no such conversation with Jesus.

And so the Talpiot scenario, as it is being told, can only “expose” a huge conspiracy by Jesus' family and disciples to conceal that Jesus never rose from the dead. The only honest thing to do, if Talpiot is the family tomb of Jesus that included the bones of Jesus, is to just say it as many have done for varied reasons, “the resurrection of Jesus is one great deliberate hoax.”

paulf said...

Jose, I can't imagine how you can read these words as anything but an attack on the teachings of Paul:

"14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.
18But someone will say, "You have faith; I have deeds."
Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.
20You foolish man, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21Was not our ancestor Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,"[e] and he was called God's friend. 24You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone. "

Paul says Abraham was justified for his faith, James says, no way, it was what he did. I don't think these guys agreed on much.

You say a "mere 20-50" year period as if that were nothing. Fact is that a bigger miracle would be if anything were tramsitted accurately over that length of time in a culture with no media. What if the only thing we knew about the Kennedy assasination were the words passed on down through the decades from the handful of eyewitnesses? There would be no photos, films or news accounts written contemporaneously.

And them imagine the people passing down the stories were mostly illiterate peasants who had no concept of science, who believed disease was caused by demons, who thought he sun revolved around the earth, who didn't see anything unusual with a God ordering genocide.

To me, the odds are stacked that the stories passed down in that environment have little chance of being accurate.

There was a long time I would have agreed with you, but the weight of real evidence seems to be on the other side.

BTW, talon is my son's ID, when I'm at home the name automatically pops up.

José Solano said...

Hi Paulf,

You say, “There was a long time I would have agreed with you, but the weight of real evidence seems to be on the other side.” But you haven’t provided any evidence at all, only your "faded" memory opinion, which shows that you ignore that many of these disciples were highly literate and had a powerful concern for transmitting historical truth accurately. I have granted that some things could be forgotten over that time period and recorded imprecisely but not something like whether someone rose from the dead or not. That for me is just a preposterous notion. I know perfectly well, without any recourse to media or written records, that my grandmother died some 40 years ago and was buried. For me to say she rose from the dead could only be a bold face concoction even two thousand years ago. How many people do you know have been going around making such a claim? There are a few. Judge their veracity for yourself but don’t talk about “faded memory.”

Now, the assumed faith and works conflict between James and Paul is old stuff, certainly going back to at least Luther himself. In fact, as you may know Luther didn’t like the James “epistle of straw” at all. But it’s merely a simplistic misunderstanding of where the emphasis is being placed and their teachings are really perfectly reconcilable. Nevertheless, you’ll have to do this theological study on your own because, as I said, I’m not going to get into it through sound-bites on a blog.

We need to also understand that theology and the history of religions are two different but equally respectable disciplines. People tend to confound them too easily and I get the impression that some historians of religion have less respect for theologians than theologians have for historians.

So, this understanding of faith and works based on canonical works really falls within the domain of theology. Just go online and look up “faith and works—Paul and James” and you should find lots of sites that understand the reconciliation of the two. I think a deeper reconciliation of the two—faith and works—is presented in Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship. It has to do with the general misunderstanding of workless grace that he refers to as “cheap grace.” Perhaps you’ve read it.

But here is a good site to begin your study reconciling the biblical concepts of faith and works: http://catholic-resources.org/Bible/Paul-James.htm