by Laurence Gardner
March 2007
from Graal Website


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 storage.

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 sepulcher (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 sepulchre


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 provenance.

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 films.)


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 was affirmative:

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 centimeters).


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 Joshua’]

  • 703 (80.502): Matya (inscribed in Hebrew) [equiv. ‘Matityahu’ or ‘Matthew’]

  • 704 (80.503): Yehoshua bar Yehosef (inscribed in Aramaic) [equiv. ‘Joshua son of Joseph’]

  • 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 New Testament gospels, is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua.

  • The 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 University.


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 impressive”.

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 particular significance”.

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


2003: The Deception

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 page 9].

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 Biblical 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 State.

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 forgery.


A month later Oded Golan was arrested on suspicion of faking antiquities.

The James Ossuary and inscription

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 & His Family.


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 Israelis:

  • Robert Deutsch (an antiques dealer)

  • Refael Brown (an ex-conservator at the Israel Museum)

  • Shlomo Cohen (another antiques dealer)

  • their Palestinian associate Faiz El Amlah

Temple Pomegranate, 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 Ossuary.


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 Talpiyot.


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.

Patina analysis: 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 Claims

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 (pp 33–34).

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 e 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 documentary”.

Simcha Jacobovici discusses the ossuaries inscribed

Mariamene (left) and Yehoshua (right)

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 same family.


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 Mariamene must have been Mary Magdalene. From this it was further announced that Yehuda (as named on one of the other boxes) must have been their son.

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.


In effect, 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.


He states:

“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 point:

“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 television”.

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, The 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 presented.


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 Mary 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 reckoning.




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 collection

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