Radio National’s [Australia] The Ark program has completed a 3 part series on the so called Jesus tomb with a Rachel Kahn interview of Jodi Magness.
Sunday 29 April 2007
Biblical scholar, Dr Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill casts doubt on the findings and conclusions put forth by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino in their book, The Jesus Family Tomb.
Rachael Kohn: Hello, welcome to Part III of The Jesus Tomb on The Ark, here on ABC Radio National, with me, Rachael Kohn.
To find the tomb of Jesus and his family would surely be the most controversial discovery in the history of archaeology. And that’s exactly what’s been suggested here on The Ark for the past two weeks, as I’ve interviewed film producer Simcha Jacobovici, who co-authored The Jesus Family Tomb.
But to American archaeologist, Jodi Magness, there’s precious little on which to make that claim, and its audacity inflames her passions.
Jodi Magness: When I heard this, I immediately knew without even hearing all of the supposed evidence that he had to marshal, that it could not be true. And it had nothing to do with him being a film maker or anything like that. It’s because I know the archaeology of this period, I know Judaism of this period, this is what I specialise in and so I knew on the basis of hard scientific evidence that there was no support for this claim.
Rachael Kohn: So let’s look at the specifics of the tomb. It’s a rock-cut tomb. Is that the type of tomb you’d expect Jesus to be buried in?
Jodi Magness: No, and in fact that’s one of the major flaws of this claim, and of this entire way of thinking. And partly archaeologists are a little to blame for this, in the sense that rock-cut tombs, tombs that were cut by hand into the bedrock slopes of Jerusalem are fairly conspicuous in the archaeological landscape and so they have attracted the majority of attention from archaeologists and other scholars. So when you read about Jewish burial customs, in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Judea, in the time of Jesus, generally people focus on rock-cut tombs.
The fact of the matter is however, that the majority of the Jewish population did not bury their dead in rock-cut tombs. Rock-cut tombs were expensive to cut, so only a relatively small proportion of the population could afford rock-cut tombs. The majority of the population, which was not very affluent, buried their dead in a manner analogous to the way we bury our dead today, which is in a sort of simple trench grave, an individual trench grave dug into the ground, which is quite different by the way from rock-cut tombs, which were family tombs used by a single family, over the course of several generations.
The reason why trench graves have not attracted that much attention is because they are inconspicuous in the archaeological landscape, they’re easily covered up or buried or bulldozed or destroyed, and when you do find them and dig them up, they’re very hard to gauge, because since these were poor people, they generally were not buried with grave goods, and so there’s really no inherent way of gauging the burials a lot of the time. But this is in fact the way that the majority of the population buried their dead.
Rachael Kohn: Is it possible that the wealthy Joseph of Arimathea, who’s mentioned in the Gospel of Mark, actually provided the tomb for Jesus and his family?
Jodi Magness: Well it is possible, at least if we follow the Gospel accounts. And here is the other thing about the current claim surrounding the Talpiot tomb, which is that if we want to believe that it’s true – and I think that there are many reasons why we cannot believe that it’s true – we would have to disregard the canonical Gospel accounts surrounding the death and burial of Jesus.
Now I am not a religious fundamentalist, and I’m not claiming that the canonical Gospel accounts are literally true and completely historically accurate. However they are the closest descriptions that we have in time to the death and burial of Jesus. They’re believed to have been composed between 30 to 50 years after Jesus’ death, which means that there were still people alive at the time these accounts were written, who were alive when Jesus died, you could potentially have them drawing on first-hand witnesses. That is as good as the evidence that we’re going to get.
If you want to believe the current claim about the Talpiot tomb, we would have to dismiss the canonical Gospel accounts completely, in terms of their description of the death and burial of Jesus. So having said that then, according to these accounts, a wealthy follower named Joseph of Arimathea offered Jesus a spot in his family’s rock-cut tomb, that is, took Jesus’ body and placed it in his family’s rock-cut tomb, after Jesus died, and we would simply have to disregard that completely in order to accept the current claim. And I’m happy to explain to you why we would have to disregard that, because it’s not clear on the face of it.
Rachael Kohn: Can you elaborate?
Jodi Magness: Yes. So according to the canonical Gospel accounts, and it’s not just Mark, although Mark and Matthew are generally thought to be the earlier and more reliable Gospels. But anyway, according to these accounts, a wealthy follower of Jesus named Joseph of Arimathea goes to Pilate and asks for Jesus’ body. Jesus of course had been crucified on Friday, which was the eve of the Sabbath. In Judaism the Sabbath starts on Friday at sundown.
Jesus had been crucified by the Romans on the eve of the Sabbath. By the way the fact that Jesus was crucified by the Romans is consistent with what we know about Jesus’ background and about Roman practice, because all of the indications that we have are that Jesus came from a poor family, and the Romans generally reserved crucifixion for the poorer classes of society who they considered criminals. And just to give you a contrast, if you think about the case of Paul, Paul of Tarsus, Paul was not crucified by the Romans. Why was he not crucified by the Romans? Because he claimed to have Roman citizenship and the Romans did not crucify Roman citizens. He was sent back to Rome to be judged, say for a trial.
So Jesus in contrast, was a poor Jew. He is executed by crucifixion and of course the Romans had no regard for Jewish law, so they execute Jesus on the eve of the Sabbath, something that the Jewish people then would never do, the Jewish authorities sometimes sentenced Jewish criminals to death for violating Jewish law, but they would never have executed somebody on the eve of the Sabbath or a festival, and they would never have used crucifixion as the means of execution. They would have used other means, like James the Just, brother of Jesus, was stoned for violating Jewish law, so by way of contrast.
So Jesus dies, then just before the Sabbath is about to start, and according to the Synoptic Gospels, it’s just about sundown, and Joseph of Arimathea, this wealthy follower of Jesus hurries to Pilate. The reason why Joseph runs to Pilate to ask permission is because of the concern with Jewish law, and here what’s very interesting is that the Synoptic Gospels show a familiarity with Jewish law that is lost on many modern readers of this episode, because Jewish law on the one hand requires that when a person dies, they must be buried within 24 hours of death. On the other hand, Jewish law prohibits burial on the Sabbath, or on festivals. If Jesus therefore was going to receive a burial in accordance with Jewish law, he was going to have to be buried before the Sabbath started, that is, before sundown.
Joseph rushes to Pilate, gets permission to take the body, and places it in his own family’s rock-cut tomb, something that was quite exceptional, since rock-cut tombs by definition were family tombs, you didn’t usually bury people who were unrelated who were strangers, in your family’s tomb. The Gospel accounts by the way also make it perfectly clear that Joseph’s concern was not to ‘honour’ Jesus by burying him in his family’s rock-cut tomb, there was no shame associated with being buried in a trench grave, the concern here is to make sure that Jesus gets buried before the beginning of the Sabbath so that he can be buried in accordance with Jewish law.
Now what is all of this connected with? Here’s the thing. How would Jesus have been buried had Joseph not offered him a spot in his family’s rock-cut tomb? Since Jesus came from a poor family, his family presumably did not own a rock-cut tomb. And by the way, if you want to argue that Jesus’ family was wealthy enough to own a rock-cut tomb, their family tomb would have been located in their home town of Nazareth, not in Jerusalem. But at any rate, had Joseph of Arimathea not offered Jesus a spot in his family’s rock-cut tomb, Jesus would have been buried in a simple trench grave.
The problem here is that there is no time before the Sabbath starts to dig a trench grave. And so Joseph takes the body and the Gospels tell us very accurately by the way, wraps it in a shroud, places it in his family’s rock-cut tomb, and then goes away, rolls a stone to seal the doorway of the tomb, and then goes away.
If the so-called Talpiot tomb is the tomb of Jesus, then the whole episode with Joseph of Arimathea becomes completely unnecessary and incomprehensible because there would be no need for it. Jesus then simply would have been buried in his family’s rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem. But the point is that there is no tomb ready for Jesus.
Rachael Kohn: Jodi, I guess a lot of points of the Gospel and details like that have been contested, so I want to just go on and have a closer look at the ossuaries that Simcha claims belong to the members of Jesus’ family. One of the strong arguments that Jacobovici and Pellegrino make is that the names on the ossuaries, the bone boxes, all bear names of Jesus’ family, and that finding them together is statistically significant. Now archaeologists have dismissed these names as very common names, but Jacobovici and Pellegrino argue that finding them together is the point. What do you think?
Jodi Magness: First of all I want to point out that the fatal flaw with this is that if there is no rock-cut tomb there are no ossuaries, because ossuaries are associated only with rock-cut tombs, not with trench graves. So if we assume that Jesus’ family was poor and did not have a rock-cut tomb, there would be no associated ossuaries. I would also point out that if you want to argue that Jesus’ family was affluent enough to own a rock-cut tomb, which I don’t believe, then that would have been in Nazareth and not in Jerusalem, so again you would not have ossuaries in Jerusalem. OK.
So about the question about the statistical analysis. First of all, yes, the names are in fact very common, having a cluster of names is interesting, but it’s certainly not meaningful in necessarily the way that it’s being claimed. But you know, and I’m not a statistician, so I can’t address the high statistics. But I will tell you this, in order to make the statistics statistically meaningful, they are added to the family of Jesus otherwise unknown members. In other words, there is an ossuary from this tomb that is inscribed with the name Matthew, Matya, and there is an ossuary from this tomb that is inscribed with the name Judah, or Greek Judas. In order to identify this as the tomb of Jesus, the producer and other people who are making this claim, have to argue that there were members of Jesus’ family who were otherwise unattested at least in our canonical sources, and to support this, what they have to do is draw on sources that are significantly later in dates than the time of Jesus for example the Gospel of Philip which dates to about four centuries after the time of Jesus.
What you would have to do is to crunch the numbers and to say Oh, but we have people here who actually were never known as members of the family of Jesus. We never knew that Jesus had a son named Judah, we never knew of a family member who was named Matthew, you know, then you know what? That torpedoes all of the statistics, because the data that the statistics were won on are flawed.
Rachael Kohn: Would it have been possible though for followers of Jesus later on who were now a movement around this person who they revered, is it possible that they could have provided a rock-cut tomb?
Jodi Magness: Look, nothing within the realm of history and archaeology is impossible. Our information on the past is fragmentary, it’s only partial, so all we can do is reconstruct based on the evidence that we have. While I can’t say for sure that what you’re suggesting is impossible, I can say that there’s not one shred of support for it.
We do have information about the death of the brother of Jesus, James the Just. The information that we have suggests very strongly that he was also buried in a simple trench grave, not in a family rock-cut tomb. The sources that we have, specifically Josephus, who was a contemporary and Hegesippus of the 2nd century CE, and the rock-cut tombs in Jerusalem that we are talking about actually went out of use after the year 70, when Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans, and the Jerusalem elite which is the population that buried its dead in those tombs, is dispersed, and no longer in the city. So those tombs go out of use. So how much later are you suggesting? After 70 it completely becomes irrelevant because those rock cut tombs are not being used any more.
Rachael Kohn: What’s your reading of the scholarly response to the claims by Jacobovici and Pellegrino, do they largely mirror your argument here today?
Jodi Magness: Well I don’t know, I can’t speak for other scholars, I can only speak for myself. I do know that the vast majority of scholars have rejected absolutely rejected, this claim. Sometimes on somewhat different grounds or reasoning than I have, but it has been pretty much universally rejected by most scholars. I mean I think an overwhelming majority.
Rachael Kohn: That was archaeologist Jodi Magness of the University of North Carolina. It’s a continuing debate; we’ve provided a link to a Forum, where James D. Tabor responds to Jodi Magness.
Next week we return to home ground, where the early religious history of Australia has come together in an astonishing collection. On The Ark, with me, Rachael Kohn.
Dr Jodi Magness is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. An active member of the Archaeological Institute of America, she serves on several AIA committees and has been President and Vice-President of the Boston Society. Her interest in the archaeology lies in the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods of the Near East, and she has participated and led numerous excavations in Israel, including one to the Roman siege camps at Masada in 1995. Her book on The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls appeared in print in August 2002.