Canadian filmmaker and non-Christian Simcha Jacobovici (aka History Channel’s The Naked Archaeologist) is a magnet for Jesus relics.  In 2007 he claimed to locate Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem – with Jesus and other family members intact.  His latest find is a pair of nails he posits were the crucifixion nails, found in Caiaphas’s tomb (the high priest of ill-repute in the NT).  At first blush, some of these claims sound a lot like someone opened the New Testament and pulled random words out, using them to assemble a headline.  Let’s take a closer look at these two controversial claims independently.

The Jesus Tomb

What he found:  A burial chamber in suburban Jerusalem (Talpiot) was unearthed during a construction project in 1980.  Inside were 10 ossuaries (bone boxes), some bearing names:

  • Yeshua bar Yehosef’ — Aramaic for “Jesus son of Joseph”
  • Maria — written in Aramaic script, but a Latin form of the Hebrew name “Miriam” (“Mary”)
  • Yose — a diminutive of “Joseph” mentioned (in its Greek form ιωσης “Joses”) as the name of one of Jesus’s brothers in the New Testament (Mark 6:3)
  • Yehuda bar Yeshua — possibly Aramaic for “Judah son of Jesus”
  • Mariamene e Mara — according to the filmmakers this is Greek for “Mary known as the master.” The similar name “Mariamne” is found in the Acts of Philip.
  • Matya — Hebrew for ‘Matthew’—not claimed to be Matthew the Evangelist but “possibly a husband of one of the women in an unmarked ossuary.”

His claim:  The names are not common enough to the time period the ossuaries are dated to be anything but the Jesus family, with Jesus (Yeshua var Yejosef), his brother (Yose), his wife Mary Magdalene (Mariamene e Mara), and Judah (Yehuda bar Yeshua, son of Jesus & Mary Magdalene).  He considers the odds to be extremely low that this is some other family.  Bolstering his theory, Simcha adds that:

  • according to a UNC scholar Mariamene was a name given to Mary Magdalene
  • the name Yose (one of Jesus’ brothers) is rarer than originally thought
  • another ossuary of James, brother of Jesus, although stored elsewhere, has a similar “patina” to those found in the Talpiot tomb.
  • bones for the Jesus and Mariamene ossuaries are not related matrilineally, so since they were buried in the same tomb, they were probably married.

Supporters:  James Cameron did a documentary on the findings.  In his words:  “I’m not a biblical scholar, but it seemed pretty darned compelling.  I said, this is the biggest achaeology story of the century. And I still believe that to be true.”  Then he punched the air and shouted enthusiastically, “I’m the king of the world!”

Opposing views:  The math calculating the odds that this cluster of names would occur at this time period is guesswork at best, shoddy work according to most scholars.  To touch on the above additional data points:

  • References to Mary Magdalene as Mariamene date to a scholar born in 185 AD, much later than the tomb.
  • The James ossuary has strong physical evidence (dirt samples, original storage information, and historical records of where James was buried) linking it with the Silwan tomb site, where records show it was found, not Talpiot.
  • Jesus and Mariamene could be related otherwise (father-daughter, cousins, half-siblings); it doesn’t necessarily mean they were married.

From the critics:

  • R. Joseph Hoffman (early Christianity scholar):  “It is amazing how evidence falls into place when you begin with the conclusion–and a hammer.”
  • Amos Kloner (archaeologist from the original 1980 Talpiot dig):  “It makes a great story for a TV film, but it’s completely impossible.  It’s nonsense.”
  • Joe Zias (Jerusalem curator for 25 years who personally numbered the Talpiot ossuaries):  “Simcha has no credibility whatsoever.  He’s pimping off the Bible . . . Projects like these make a mockery of the archaeological profession.”
  • Stephen Pfann (president of Jerusalem’s University of the Holy Land and an expert in Semitic languages):  “How possible is it?  On a scale of one through 10–10 being completely possible–it’s probably a one, maybe a one and a half.”
  • William G. Dever (has excavated sites in Israel for over 50 years):  ” I’ve known about these ossuaries for many years and so have many other archaeologists, and none of us thought this was much of a story because these are rather common Jewish names from that period.  It’s a publicity stunt, and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction.”

Religious implications:

  • Catholics fare the worst if the Jesus Family Tomb is that Jesus since this debunks several of their religious claims:  physical resurrection, Assumption of Mary, Jesus being married and having offspring – the rationale for clerical celibacy, Mary having other children rather than being a perpetual virgin (although they overlook the debunking of this in the NT), the Church of the Holy Sepulchre would come down a peg in importance, the story of Jesus’ body being moved is contradicted, and this find would bolster links to non-canonical gospels rejected by the early Catholic church such as the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Acts of Philip.
  • Mormon doctrine fares a little better with the only big issue being no physical resurrection.  Eternal-family loving , celibacy-hating Mormons would be thrilled to find out Jesus was married and had a kid, if they could get past the whole resurrection implication.  So much for Easter.
  • Islam fares the best since they believe that a substitute was crucified in Jesus’ place.

Jesus’ Crucifixion Nails

What he found:  a pair of bent nails in the acknowledged tomb of Caiaphas.  (The tomb was originally found in 1990 and is now under a playground.  Apparently Poltergeist isn’t taken very seriously in Israel.)

His claim:  the nails could be the ones used to crucify Jesus.  Notably, his claim is much less dramatic now that Simcha is famous.  This time he states:  “I don’t think anybody’s going to say, ‘Crucifixion Nails’ exclamation point.  I think they’re going to write, ‘Crucifixion Nails’ question mark.”

Supporters:  Nails in a tomb are a rare find in this time period, so they must mean . . . somethingCrucifixion nails were reputed to have healing powers, kind of an ironic superstition given their primary use.  The nails in question were examined and compared to the only known crucifixion nail in existence (still attached through a crucified ankle), and while they are too small for feet or ankles, scientists found it possible that the nails in question could go through a hand (or perhaps even a wrist?).

Opposing Views:  They could have just been random nails deemed unclean because they were near  a dead body, so someone superstitiously threw them in with the ossuaries.  Also, original records are somewhat sketchy on where the nails were, indicating they were not together–one on the floor, one in one of the ossuaries.

Religious implications:  Not much, since the claim is pretty impossible to prove.  I, for one, hadn’t heard of Caiaphas’s eventual conversion to Christianity, which is kind of a nice twist (I love it when villains have shades of gray; heroes too for that matter).  In summary, as Simchi says, “Entire churches have been built around nails that have a lot less going for them than these do.”  Amen to that.  Anyone whose been in enough European Cathedrals can attest to the fact that there’s enough “wood of the cross” out there to build an ark, and enough “crown of thorns” to recreate Brer Rabbit’s briar patch. 

So, what do the rest of you think of these claims?  Any plausibility?  Sensationalism because there are lots of gullible Christians and movie directors?  Discuss.