by Laurence Gardner
1980: The Excavation
In 1980, ten 1st-century ossuaries were unearthed during excavations
in Dov Gruner Street, East Talpiyot, a suburb three miles eastward
from the city of Jerusalem. Ossuaries are rectangular bone-boxes, as
distinct from coffins, and are generally made from clay or limestone
mortar. Most have flat (pencil-box type) sliding lids for easy
stacking, but others have raised, roof-styled tops. Sometimes the
boxes were inscribed on the outside with the occupants’ names, but
very often they were not.
Jewish burial of the era was conducted in two stages. Immediately
after death, a body was washed, oiled, perfumed and wrapped. It was
then laid full-length on a stone slab in a cave space. After a year
or so, it would be little more than bones. These would then be
gathered together, placed in an ossuary and stored in a niche – a
kokh (plural kokhim) – within a permanent sepulcher. (Alternatively,
they were stacked or shelved.)
More than a thousand ossuaries have been unearthed in Israel and
subsequently placed in storage. Those of particular historical note
or artistic merit are displayed in museums. But they are all
numbered and catalogued by the Israel Antiquities Authority. There
is however a rule of religious law within the State of Israel, in
that any disinterred bones, bone remnants or other human residue
must be removed from their box, to be reinterred by the Orthodox
Jewish authorities. Only then can the empty ossuary be placed in
The 1980 discovery at East Talpiyot was made when workmen were
excavating the site in preparation to build a new apartment block.
The surveyor Shimon Gibson drew internal diagrams of the
(see Appendix), and the archaeologist Joseph Gat was called to
validate the discovery.
It was later recorded by the Israel
Antiquities Authority that the ten ossuaries were of “no particular
significance”, and they were taken to an old factory site in a side
street of Romemma, a rundown suburb of Jerusalem.
The East Talpiyot
When discussing such finds in a recent
Jerusalem Post interview (25th February 2007), the Jerusalem
District archaeologist, Amos Kloner, stated that the Israel
Antiquities Authority routinely left ossuaries in the open if they
were unremarkable since there was no room to house them all indoors.
This was the case at Romemma, but when
the time came to catalogue the East Talpiyot boxes, one of them
(provisionally numbered 80.509) was missing from the yard.
Six of the remaining nine were found to be inscribed and, when
catalogued and renumbered (701–706), they were placed in the factory
warehouse. Meanwhile, the disappearance of the 10th ossuary remained
a mystery for many years until (as detailed in the ‘2004’ section of
this report) it eventually reappeared with a newly contrived
1996: The Film
Fifteen years later, in 1995, Barrie Allcott, director of the
London-based television production company CTVC, was looking for new
subject matter for a documentary. (CTVC is an independent company
founded by J Arthur Rank specifically to make religiously themed
Allcott decided that he would
investigate burial traditions at the time of Jesus, and discussed
the idea with Anne Reevell, editor of a BBC-1 series called ‘Heart
of the Matter’. Subsequently, Barrie Allcott traveled to Jerusalem
with filmmaker Ray Bruce and Chris Mann, their documentary director.
Keeper of the Ossuaries Directory at that time was Tal Ham, who held
a catalogued list of all inscriptions from the 1st and 2nd century
eras. Allcott asked her,
“Is there by any chance an ossuary
inscribed with the name Jesus (Yeshua)?”
Tal Han replied
“There are many. It is a very
typical name of the period”.
There were actually 71 immediately
identifiable ‘Jesus’ inscriptions (the first was discovered in
1926). Allcott further enquired,
“What about an inscription for
‘Jesus son of Joseph’ – Might there perhaps be one of these?”
Tal Ham replied,
“There are a number of ‘Jesus son of
Joseph’ inscriptions. In fact, Yehosef (Joseph) was the second
most common name for men after Simon”.
Pressing still further, Allcott asked,
“How about an ossuary inscribed
‘Mary’ – Is that name on the list?”
Once again, Tal Ham’s answer
“Mary (Miriam) was the most common of all names
for women of the period”.
It was suggested to the CTVC team that a
good place to look would be the antiquities warehouse at Romemma,
where they would find ossuaries to suit their requirement. The first
example of a ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ inscription was on a broken
ossuary, so Allcott asked the custodian, Baruk Brendel, if there
might be a better example.
He led them to the shelf with the East
Talpiyot ossuaries, and among these was a box in good shape – about
24 by 10 inches and 12 inches deep (roughly 65 x 25 x 30
Since many of the grouped collections
included Mary and Joseph inscriptions (as did the East Talpiyot
group), Allcott figured that this was a suitable collection. (The
ossuaries have now been moved to a warehouse at Beit Shemesh,
between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv.)
The inscribed names for the East Talpiyot cache, as given in the
1994 Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries (ed, LY Rahmani), and item: A
Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot, Jerusalem (by Amos
Kloner), Atiqot, vol 19, 1996, are:
701 (80.500): Mariamene e Mara
(inscribed in Greek) [equiv. meaning ‘Miriam or Martha’]
702 (80.501): Yehuda bar
Yehoshua (inscribed in Hebrew) [equiv. ‘Judas son of
703 (80.502): Matya (inscribed
in Hebrew) [equiv. ‘Matityahu’ or ‘Matthew’]
704 (80.503): Yehoshua bar
Yehosef (inscribed in Aramaic) [equiv. ‘Joshua son of
705 (80.504): Yose (inscribed in
Hebrew) [equiv. ‘Joses’]
706 (80.505): Marya (inscribed
in Hebrew) [equiv. contraction of ‘Maryam’]
The name Jesus, as given in the
Testament gospels, is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua.
name Mary, as in the gospels, is a Greco-Egyptian variation of the
Jewish name Miriam.
Since the biblical Jesus had a brother called
Joses and a sister
called Miriam, this particular batch was appropriate enough, and the
ossuary inscribed Matya was discounted as unnecessary for the
purpose. The main problem was that the characters, although probably
a descendent family, could not be linked within the same immediate
time-frame as the producers might have preferred. The ossuaries had
distinctly different cultural designs, variable linguistic styles,
and spanned a few generations.
By that time in 1995, there was a large apartment block at the East
Talpiyot site, and this was unsuitable for filming, but the team
endeavored to find the archaeologist Joseph Gat, who had been
involved 15 years earlier. Gat had died in the interim, however,
from a heart attack – so they found another with whom to discuss the
ossuary collection. He was the above mentioned Amos Kloner of Bar-Ilan
But it was subsequently noted in the documentary report:
“He poured cold water on our
suggestion that the ossuaries could be those of the Christian
holy family. The names were just too common, and the possibility
of it being Jesus’ family are very close to zero”.
In terms of ossuary inscriptions and
other discoveries of the era, Miriam (Mariamene) was the most common
of all female names. Joseph (Yehoshua) was the 2nd most common male
name after Simon. Judas (Yehuda) was the 3rd most common male name,
and Joshua (Yehoshua/Jesus) was the 6th most common male name. All
of these names appeared with great regularity.
The anthropologist Joe Zias was more useful to the documentary
team’s endeavor and, although the inscription Yehoshua bar Yehosef
was clumsily carved, badly scratched and difficult to interpret,
Zias is on record as saying,
“The combination of names is really
It was however (along with the accompanying ossuaries)
not in any way unique, which is why the Israel Antiquities Authority
had determined back in 1980 that the collection was of “no
The BBC’s ‘Heart of the Matter’ presenter, Joan Bakewell, then went
to Jerusalem, where the documentary was made. Prior to its release,
word was passed to the UK national press and, on 31st March 1996,
the Sunday Times News Review published a 3,500 word feature article
entitled The Tomb that Dare Not Speak its Name. A week later, on 7th
April: Easter Sunday, the documentary was broadcast on television
with the title The Body in Question.
Despite the somewhat sensational press headline, there was no claim
in the film that the ossuaries were those of Jesus and his family;
they were simply used as examples of burial practice at the time.
Motti Neiger of the Israel Antiquities Authority had said,
“The chances of these being the
actual burials of the holy family are almost nil”.
But the word ‘almost’ intrigued the
producers, and the question was posed:
“What if they were? How would this
affect Christian faith?”
In any event, since there was no way to
prove the historicity of the ossuaries and, given that there were no
inner remnants or archival record, there was little else to tell and
the story soon disappeared from the news.
London Sunday Times
article, 31 March 1996
Seven years later, the Biblical Archaeological Review for
November–December 2002 announced that another ossuary had been
discovered, inscribed in Aramaic with the name Ya’akov bar Yehosef
akhui di Yeshua – that is: ‘James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus’.
But it was not actually a new discovery; the ossuary had been owned
since 1986 by Oded Golan, an Israeli collector who reckoned it had
come from a tomb in the Silwan suburb of south-eastern Jerusalem. He
said he had bought it at auction for around $500.
The Hebrew Union College and
Ben-Gurion University confirmed, however, that the ossuary had no known
archaeological provenance. Apart from its inscription, it is a plain
and very common type of limestone bone box, measuring 20 x 11 x 12
inches (51 x 28 x 31 cms) and weighs about 45 lbs (20 kgs) – [see
In April 2002 Oded Golan had shown a photo of the ossuary to André Lemaire, professor of Semitic languages at the Sorbonne, who was on
a visit to Jerusalem.
Lemaire was immediately intrigued, and was convinced that the
inscription was authentic even though the Israel Antiquities
Authority had never heard of it. In a later interview Golan was
asked why he had not recognized the potential importance of such an
artifact when he first bought it. He explained that, being a Jew, he
had not known that the Christian gospels related that the biblical
Jesus had a brother called James (although James is actually
mentioned twice in the 1st-century Antiquities of the Jews).
Lemaire reported the find to Hershel Shanks, editor of the
Archaeology Review, and arrangements were made for experts at the
Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem to examine the box. The
scientists concluded that the patina appeared ancient, adhering
firmly to the stone, although someone had recently cleaned the
inscription, which made a full determination of that area difficult.
Golan then admitted to having scrubbed the letters in ignorance of
the ossuary’s relevance.
By arrangement with Oded Golan, Shanks arranged a special display of
the ossuary in late November 2002 at the Royal Ontario Museum in
Toronto, where a Society of Biblical Literature event was taking
place. The exhibit was announced at a press conference on 21
October, following which the Israel Antiquities Authority initiated
an investigation into the circumstances of Golan’s acquisition.
Given that the item was said to have been acquired after 1978,
Golan’s purchase was deemed illegal under the Law of Antiquities
introduced in that year, and was subject to confiscation by the
By that time, however, the ossuary had already left the country and,
notwithstanding the illegal circumstances, the Toronto exhibition
took place as planned. Meanwhile, the box had been cracked during
transit and had to be repaired at the Royal Ontario Museum. During
the course of restoration, questions arose concerning the
conclusions of Lemaire and Shanks. The conservators did not question
the authenticity of the ossuary; it was clearly a genuine artifact,
but the inscription came under close scrutiny.
When the James Ossuary was returned to Israel in February 2003, the
Israel Antiquities Authority confiscated it and appointed a team of
15 epigraphers and physical scientists to analyze and judge the
authenticity of the inscription. In June 2003 the IAA declared the
ossuary itself to be genuine, but the inscription was a partial
A month later Oded Golan was arrested on suspicion of
The James Ossuary and
Meanwhile, Hershel Shanks of the Biblical Archaeology Review had
engaged Emmy Award-winning producer Simcha Jacobovici to make a
related television documentary for the Discovery Channel that would
air on Easter Sunday 2003. To coincide with the film, Shanks also
co-authored a book with biblical scholar Ben Witherington III of
Asbury Theological Seminary, entitled The Brother of Jesus: The
Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus &
Discounting all earlier unearthings of
ossuaries bearing the name Yehoshua (Jesus), and even those
inscribed Yehoshua bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph), it was
wrongfully stated that the James Ossuary was the first
archaeological discovery to carry the name Jesus.
Despite Golan’s arrest and the legal proceedings in Jerusalem, the
television documentary, James, Brother of Jesus, was broadcast as
scheduled. Ignoring the questioned authenticity of the inscription, Jacobovici claimed in the film that the inscribed ossuary was
absolutely genuine. But subsequently in Jerusalem, Oded Golan was
indicted and charged with adding to the ossuary’s inscribed name of
‘James’ the spuriously etched phrase ‘brother of Jesus’.
2004: The Indictment
In the interim, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israeli
police had further investigated the activities of Oded Golan and his
collaborators. This resulted in a charge that, over several decades,
they had created and traded a series of biblically-related fakes,
some of which had been bought for very high prices and placed in the
prestigious Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Aiding the case for proving
various forgeries were geologists from Tel-Aviv University and the
Israel Geological Survey, along with epigraphists from Ben-Gurion
University and The Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Indicted along with Golan in December 2004 – under Criminal File
482/04 at the District Court of Jerusalem – were three other
Robert Deutsch (an antiques dealer)
Refael Brown (an
ex-conservator at the Israel Museum)
Shlomo Cohen (another antiques
their Palestinian associate Faiz El Amlah
Menasseh Seal, Widow’s Plea Ostracon, Jehoash Tablet
They were charged not only with faking the James Ossuary
inscription, but also some of Israel’s hitherto prized museum
pieces. These included the ivory Temple Pomegranate, the inscribed
Jehoash Tablet, the Widow’s Plea Ostracon, various other ostraca
(clay shards written on with iron-carbon ink), an inscribed
wine-jug, 190 impressed bulla seals, a stone oil-lamp, a quartz
bowl, and the royal Manasseh Seal.
These items, it was said, had been very cleverly forged, with “fake
patina manufactured with great expertise”. The Israel State
authorities and others had spent millions of dollars for the
assorted acquisitions – and the next item on the list for Golan’s
lucrative trading negotiation had presumably been the pseudo James
This was doubtless planned to take place
once it had gained international recognition and acclaim by way of
the Toronto exhibition, the Biblical Archaeology Review article, and
the Simcha Jacobovici documentary for the Discovery Channel.
A truly important revelation of the ongoing court case emerged when
Oded Golan openly admitted that the pseudo James Ossuary was in fact
the 10th and (as detailed on page 2) previously lost ossuary from
the 1980 cache, which had disappeared from the open yard at Romemma.
Indeed, the dimensions were identical, and forensic testing of the
original patina identified that they came from the same tomb at East
Even though foreign soil had been
applied to the box in order to support Golan’s original claim that
it had been found in the Silwan suburb, there was no doubt that the
ossuary had been stolen from the Israel Antiquities Authority yard
in the early 1980s.
James and Mariamene ossuaries
Although it was clear that the missing box and the pseudo James
Ossuary were one and the same, things took a slightly different
course when Golan recently changed his story. Attempting to
circumvent the 1978 ruling, his attorney produced a photograph of
the ossuary in Golan’s home, which was said to have been taken in
1976 before the East Talpiyot discovery.
A former FBI agent, Gerald Richard,
testified that analysis revealed that the photograph could perhaps
have emanated from the 1970s, although the time difference between
1976 and the early 1980s was hardly significant in this regard.
Crime lab scientists reported:
“The signature of the James ossuary
sample matched samples taken from the ossuaries in the Talpiyot
tomb. The James ossuary sample did not match any of an
assortment of random samples from other archaeological finds”.
At this current date of March 2007, the
case continues in Jerusalem, but one fact became plain enough a
while back: In the light of the court action, the filmmaker Simcha
Jacobovici needed another Discovery Channel documentary to weigh the
balance of credibility in the light of his ill-informed assertion
that the James Ossuary was absolutely genuine.
In this regard, Golan’s court statement
had brought to his attention the 1980 Jesus Ossuary discovery at
East Talpiyot. This was potentially a much bigger story, and this
time there was an established archaeological provenance.
2007: The New
To my knowledge, apart from the Jerusalem court statements, the
subject of the East Talpiyot excavation had never been mentioned in
the mainstream literary arena from 1996 until I wrote about the
ossuary discoveries in my February 2005 book The Magdalene Legacy
In April 2006 the matter received a further airing, with rather more
detail, in The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor of the Religious Studies
Department, University of North Carolina. Given Simcha Jacobovici’s
experience with regard to the pseudo James Ossuary, it is likely
that Tabor’s book provided enough information to set Jacobovici on
course for a further documentary concerning the East Talpiyot
ossuaries. In this regard, he teamed up with the Oscar-winning
Hollywood director James Cameron of 1997 Titanic fame.
A $3.5m budget was raised and the result
was a dramatically presented 90-minute film, The Lost Tomb of Jesus,
broadcast by the Discovery Channel on 4th March 2007. Published for
release two days earlier was Jacobovici’s related book The Jesus
Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that
could Change History. This was written in collaboration with author
Charles Pellegrino, whose DNA-cloning concept had inspired Michael
Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park.
Two of the East Talpiyot ossuaries – those inscribed Mariamene
Mara (Greek) and Yehoshua bar Yehosef (Aramaic) – were sent from
Israel for exhibition display at Jacobovici’s 5th March press
conference held at the New York City Public Library.
Amos Kloner told the Jerusalem Post that, under the prevailing
circumstances, he felt the loan was “very foolish”. Osnat Goaz, a
spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority, responded:
“We agreed to send the ossuaries,
but it doesn’t mean that we agree with the filmmakers … This
loan does not signal our authorization of the claims made in the
discusses the ossuaries inscribed
Mariamene (left) and
The filmmakers’ claim (as referred to by
Osnat Goaz) was that Jacobovici, Cameron and Pellegrino reckoned
that the East Talpiyot sepulchre was the actual family tomb of the
biblical Jesus. This was not something that the 1996 BBC documentary
had maintained because, as mentioned above, the occupants (with
their various culturally designed ossuaries, separately inscribed in
Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek) were not necessarily all members of the
Amos Kloner (who had researched the tomb
for the Israeli periodical Atiqot in 1996) explained that the East
Talpiyot tomb was a standard local facility, “an ordinary,
middle-class Jerusalem burial cave”.
The film’s assumption that the tomb was that of the biblical Jesus
and his family was not however a product of any historical or
archaeological evidence, neither does it concur with any related
anthropological evaluation. According to Jacobovici, it is based
simply on a calculation of probability made by Andrey Feuerverger,
professor of mathematical statistics at the University of Toronto.
In an effort to make their speculation work, the filmmakers decided
that DNA testing of microscopic residue in the ossuaries could
perhaps determine the occupants’ relationships with each other. It
is not clear whether this analysis was conducted, but its findings
were not reported in the film. Instead, the producers concentrated
on a particularly negative aspect of their investigation.
Tests on residue found in the two
ossuaries marked Mariamene e Mara and Yehoshua bar Yehosef were
performed by Carney Matheson at the Paleo-DNA Laboratory, Lakehead
University, Ontario, and the analysis determined that these two
characters were “in no way blood related”.
Hence, this was claimed by the
filmmakers to prove that they must have been husband and wife! Thus
it was deduced that Yehoshua must have been Jesus, and
must have been Mary Magdalene. From this it was further announced
that Yehuda (as named on one of the other boxes) must have been
In practical reality, all that had actually been achieved was a
proof that Yehoshua and Mariamene (Joshua and Miriam) of Talpiyot –
whoever they might have been – were not in any way blood related.
Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament Studies at St Andrews
University in Scotland, has catalogued ossuary names from the
Jerusalem region since 1980. In accordance with all archival record
in Jerusalem, Bauckham’s catalogue identifies that these names were
among those most commonly used at the time in question.
the Jacobovici film team had succeeded in proving absolutely nothing
– especially since Yehoshua bar Yehosef inscriptions have been found
at several other locations which also housed Miriam inscriptions.
(Ossuaries citing the name of Yehoshua [Joshua/Jesus] are listed in
the 1978 Manual of Palestinian Aramaic Texts and the 1994 Catalogue
of Jewish Ossuaries.)
David Mavorah, a curator of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, also
asserts that the names on the Talpiyot ossuaries were extremely
popular and widely used in the 1st century.
“We know that Joseph, Jesus and
Mariamene were all among the most common names of the period. To
start with these names being together in a single tomb, and then
leap from there to say ‘This is the tomb of the biblical Jesus’
is farfetched, to put it politely”.
He contends that the film’s contentions
“are more than remote; they are closer to fantasy”.
In discussing the lack of DNA evidence
for any blood relationship between the ossuary occupants, William Dever, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona (who has
worked with Israeli archeologists for five decades), makes the
“The fact that it’s been ignored
tells you something … It would be amusing if it didn’t mislead
so many people”.
Although the said Jesus son of Joseph
ossuary had been selected as a well-preserved example for use in the
1996 BBC film, its translated inscription was, even at that time,
regarded as highly suspect by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Amos Kloner maintains:
“The inscription on the ossuary is
not clear enough to ascertain, and the idea fails to hold up by
archaeological standards. But it makes for profitable
The said ‘Jesus’ inscription is actually the most
difficult of all the East Talpiyot inscriptions to read, and
linguistic scholars are deeply divided as to precisely what name
it conveys. Stephen Pfann, president of the University of the
Holy Land in Jerusalem, for example, reckons that the Aramaic
inscription actually relates to a man called Hanun, not Joshua.
Joe Zias, curator for anthropology at the
Rockefeller Museum of
Archaeology in Jerusalem 1972–97, had personally numbered and
catalogued the East Talpiyot ossuaries in the 1980s. He had
aided the earlier BBC team, but commented that,
“Simcha Jacobovici has no credibility whatever. I am an archaeologist,
but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would
say, ‘Who is this guy?’ Projects like these make a mockery of
the archaeological profession”.
The Aramaic Yehoshua
bar Yehosef inscription
In the light of all this, and while the long-running Jerusalem court
case against Oded Golan and his colleagues prevails, Jacobovici’s
highly polished documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus and his book,
Jesus Family Tomb, will continue as items of heated debate for some
while – much as happened with Dan Brown’s novel
The Da Vinci Code.
Possibly, in the same way, there will be
follow-up documentaries to challenge the Discovery Channel film, and
maybe even some books in opposition. It is abundantly clear,
however, that there is actually very little to discuss since the
credibility of the Jacobovici documentary is already marred by his Oded Golan connection, his continued personal support for the
indicted Golan, and his evident lack of balanced judgment in the
previous James Ossuary film.
Churchmen and other Christian stalwarts will doubtless continue to
assault the latest documentary, but there would be little point in
trying to argue matters of belief and faith against archaeological
evidence even if such evidence actually existed. As it transpires,
however, no evidence of any substance or consequence has been
We know no more today than we knew in
1980 or 1996 – only that a tomb was discovered 27 years ago with
ossuaries carrying some biblically familiar names. There is nothing
unique about this; it has happened many times before, including
other Jesus son of Joseph inscriptions.
All that the Jacobovici team has added to our previous knowledge is
that DNA analysis now proves that two of the occupants were “in no
way blood related”. In reality, this is meaningless non-evidence. To
then presume, on the basis of nothing but an uneducated guess, that
this lack of blood relationship must prove the two characters were
married, and must therefore have been the biblical Jesus and
Magdalene, is more than a leap of faith. It is an ill-conceived
presumption for the sake of a sensational television show.
As is already evident, it will gain no
support from archaeological, anthropological or linguistic academia,
and will therefore be dismissed at every stage of debate and
1980 East Talpiyot
tomb diagrams by surveyor Shimon Gibson
Ossuary of Mariamene e Mara – the most impressive of the collection
Ossuary of Yehoshua bar Yehosef – the least impressive of the
The most famed of all
ossuaries is that of ‘Joseph surnamed Caiaphas’, high priest and
head of the Sanhedrin Council of Temple elders in Jerusalem at the
time of Jesus.
The ossuary was discovered in 1990 at the Peace
Forest in southern Jerusalem. It is now in the Israel Museum, and
the Aramaic inscription reads: Yehosef bar Kayafa.
The Caiphas Ossuary
Other ossuaries at the Israel Museum
Broken ossuaries at the Mount of Olives