A Report concerning the Discovery Channel documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus

by Laurence Gardner March 2007 ______________________________________________________________________

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 sepulchre. (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.

Amos Kloner.509) was missing from the yard. The East Talpiyot sepulchre When discussing such finds in a recent Jerusalem Post interview (25th February 2007).2 The 1980 discovery at East Talpiyot was made when workmen were excavating the site in preparation to build a new apartment block. but when the time came to catalogue the East Talpiyot boxes. one of them (provisionally numbered 80. The surveyor Shimon Gibson drew internal diagrams of the sepulchre (see Appendix). This was the case at Romemma. a rundown suburb of Jerusalem. Six of the remaining nine were found to be inscribed and. 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. they were placed in the factory warehouse. 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. Meanwhile. the Jerusalem District archaeologist. . It was later recorded by the Israel Antiquities Authority that the ten ossuaries were of “no particular significance”. and the archaeologist Joseph Gat was called to validate the discovery. when catalogued and renumbered (701–706). and they were taken to an old factory site in a side street of Romemma.

Tal Ham’s answer was affirmative: “Mary (Miriam) was the most common of all names for women of the period”. and among these was a box in good shape – about 24 by 10 inches and 12 inches deep (roughly 65 x 25 x 30 centimetres). where they would find ossuaries to suit their requirement. between Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv. Allcott further enquired. The first example of a ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ inscription was on a broken ossuary. so Allcott asked the custodian. Barrie Allcott. and discussed the idea with Anne Reevell. He led them to the shelf with the East Talpiyot ossuaries. “What about an inscription for ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ – Might there perhaps be one of these?” Tal Ham replied. Pressing still further. “There are a number of ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ inscriptions. if there might be a better example. In fact.) Allcott decided that he would investigate burial traditions at the time of Jesus. Yehosef (Joseph) was the second most common name for men after Simon”. Subsequently. Since many of the grouped collections included Mary and Joseph inscriptions (as did the East Talpiyot group).3 1996: The Film Fifteen years later. It was suggested to the CTVC team that a good place to look would be the antiquities warehouse at Romemma. “How about an ossuary inscribed ‘Mary’ – Is that name on the list?” Once again. Allcott figured that this was a suitable collection. Keeper of the Ossuaries Directory at that time was Tal Ham.) . Allcott asked. (The ossuaries have now been moved to a warehouse at Beit Shemesh. Allcott asked her. editor of a BBC-1 series called ‘Heart of the Matter’. their documentary director. was looking for new subject matter for a documentary. director of the London-based television production company CTVC. “Is there by any chance an ossuary inscribed with the name Jesus (Yeshua)?” Tal Han replied “There are many. in 1995. (CTVC is an independent company founded by J Arthur Rank specifically to make religiously themed films. There were actually 71 immediately identifiable ‘Jesus’ inscriptions (the first was discovered in 1926). Barrie Allcott travelled to Jerusalem with filmmaker Ray Bruce and Chris Mann. who held a catalogued list of all inscriptions from the 1st and 2nd century eras. It is a very typical name of the period”. Baruk Brendel.

and item: A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in East Talpiyot. and spanned a few generations. Since the biblical Jesus had a brother called Joses and a sister called Miriam. meaning ‘Miriam or Martha’] 702 (80. there was a large apartment block at the East Talpiyot site. 1996. LY Rahmani). are: 701 (80. ‘Joses’] 706 (80. is the Greek form of the Jewish name Joshua. could not be linked within the same immediate time-frame as the producers might have preferred. By that time in 1995. Jerusalem (by Amos Kloner). ‘Judas son of Joshua’] 703 (80. vol 19. who had been involved 15 years earlier. however. Gat had died in the interim. ‘Matityahu’ or ‘Matthew’] 704 (80.503): Yehoshua bar Yehosef (inscribed in Aramaic) [equiv. is a Greco-Egyptian variation of the Jewish name Miriam. Atiqot. contraction of ‘Maryam’] The name Jesus. from a heart attack – so they found another with whom to discuss the ossuary collection. as given in the 1994 Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries (ed. But it was .501): Yehuda bar Yehoshua (inscribed in Hebrew) [equiv.4 The inscribed names for the East Talpiyot cache.502): Matya (inscribed in Hebrew) [equiv.504): Yose (inscribed in Hebrew) [equiv. although probably a descendent family. as given in the New Testament gospels. this particular batch was appropriate enough. but the team endeavoured to find the archaeologist Joseph Gat. and this was unsuitable for filming. variable linguistic styles. The main problem was that the characters. He was the above mentioned Amos Kloner of Bar-Ilan University.500): Mariamene e Mara (inscribed in Greek) [equiv. as in the gospels. and the ossuary inscribed Matya was discounted as unnecessary for the purpose.505): Marya (inscribed in Hebrew) [equiv. The ossuaries had distinctly different cultural designs. The name Mary. ‘Joshua son of Joseph’] 705 (80.

All of these names appeared with great regularity. and the question was posed: “What if they were? How would this affect Christian faith?” In any event. Prior to its release. since there was no way to prove the historicity of the ossuaries and. where the documentary was made. badly scratched and difficult to interpret. then went to Jerusalem. The anthropologist Joe Zias was more useful to the documentary team’s endeavour and. But the word ‘almost’ intrigued the producers. Joan Bakewell. The names were just too common. A week later. Zias is on record as saying. word was passed to the UK national press and. the documentary was broadcast on television with the title The Body in Question. 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. and Joshua (Yehoshua/Jesus) was the 6th most common male name. given that there were no inner remnants or archival record. Joseph (Yehoshua) was the 2nd most common male name after Simon. Despite the somewhat sensational press headline. “The combination of names is really impressive”. It was however (along with the accompanying ossuaries) not in any way unique.500 word feature article entitled The Tomb that Dare Not Speak its Name. on 31st March 1996. which is why the Israel Antiquities Authority had determined back in 1980 that the collection was of “no particular significance”. although the inscription Yehoshua bar Yehosef was clumsily carved. Judas (Yehuda) was the 3rd most common male name.5 subsequently noted in the documentary report: “He poured cold water on our suggestion that the ossuaries could be those of the Christian holy family. In terms of ossuary inscriptions and other discoveries of the era. Miriam (Mariamene) was the most common of all female names. and the possibility of it being Jesus’ family are very close to zero”. the Sunday Times News Review published a 3. The BBC’s ‘Heart of the Matter’ presenter. on 7th April: Easter Sunday. Motti Neiger of the Israel Antiquities Authority had said. there was little else to tell and the story soon disappeared from the news. “The chances of these being the actual burials of the holy family are almost nil”. .

it is a plain and very common type of limestone bone box. an Israeli collector who reckoned it had come from a tomb in the Silwan suburb of south-eastern Jerusalem. inscribed in Aramaic with the name Ya’akov bar Yehosef akhui di Yeshua – that is: ‘James. The Hebrew Union College and Ben-Gurion University confirmed. the ossuary had been owned since 1986 by Oded Golan. professor of Semitic languages at the Sorbonne. son of Joseph. that the ossuary had no known archaeological provenance. and was convinced that the inscription was . measuring 20 x 11 x 12 inches (51 x 28 x 31 cms) and weighs about 45 lbs (20 kgs) – [see page 9].6 London Sunday Times article. Apart from its inscription. the Biblical Archaeological Review for November–December 2002 announced that another ossuary had been discovered. But it was not actually a new discovery. brother of Jesus’. Lemaire was immediately intrigued. however. In April 2002 Oded Golan had shown a photo of the ossuary to André Lemaire. He said he had bought it at auction for around $500. 31 March 1996 2003: The Deception Seven years later. who was on a visit to Jerusalem.

Shanks arranged a special display of the ossuary in late November 2002 at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. During the course of restoration. but the inscription came under close scrutiny. and arrangements were made for experts at the Geological Survey of Israel in Jerusalem to examine the box. 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). which made a full determination of that area difficult. By that time. following which the Israel Antiquities Authority initiated an investigation into the circumstances of Golan’s acquisition. questions arose concerning the conclusions of Lemaire and Shanks. The exhibit was announced at a press conference on 21 October. and was subject to confiscation by the State. where a Society of Biblical Literature event was taking place. the box had been cracked during transit and had to be repaired at the Royal Ontario Museum. the ossuary had already left the country and. Golan then admitted to having scrubbed the letters in ignorance of the ossuary’s relevance.7 authentic even though the Israel Antiquities Authority had never heard of it. Lemaire reported the find to Hershel Shanks. In a later interview Golan was asked why he had not recognized the potential importance of such an artefact when he first bought it. although someone had recently cleaned the inscription. notwithstanding the illegal circumstances. Golan’s purchase was deemed illegal under the Law of Antiquities introduced in that year. being a Jew. the Israel Antiquities Authority confiscated it and appointed a team of 15 epigraphers and physical scientists . The conservators did not question the authenticity of the ossuary. editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review. The scientists concluded that the patina appeared ancient. When the James Ossuary was returned to Israel in February 2003. however. the Toronto exhibition took place as planned. He explained that. Meanwhile. Given that the item was said to have been acquired after 1978. adhering firmly to the stone. it was clearly a genuine artefact. By arrangement with Oded Golan.

But subsequently in Jerusalem. Ignoring the questioned authenticity of the inscription. Oded Golan was indicted and charged with adding to the ossuary’s inscribed name of ‘James’ the spuriously etched phrase ‘brother of Jesus’. Jacobovici claimed in the film that the inscribed ossuary was absolutely genuine. Discounting all earlier unearthings of ossuaries bearing the name Yehoshua (Jesus). but the inscription was a partial forgery. Brother of Jesus. A month later Oded Golan was arrested on suspicion of faking antiquities. 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.8 to analyze and judge the authenticity of the inscription. Shanks also co-authored a book with biblical scholar Ben Witherington III of Asbury Theological Seminary. To coincide with the film. 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. James. In June 2003 the IAA declared the ossuary itself to be genuine. and even those inscribed Yehoshua bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph). The James Ossuary and inscription Meanwhile. entitled The Brother of Jesus: The Dramatic Story & Meaning of the First Archaeological Link to Jesus & His Family. the television documentary. was broadcast as scheduled. .

9 2004: The Indictment In the interim. Aiding the case for proving various forgeries were geologists from Tel-Aviv University and the Israel Geological Survey. had been very cleverly forged. Widow’s Plea Ostracon. 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). the Widow’s Plea Ostracon. Temple Pomegranate. various other ostraca (clay shards written on with iron-carbon ink). and the royal Manasseh Seal. Refael Brown (an ex-conservator at the Israel Museum). it was said. a quartz bowl. Shlomo Cohen (another antiques dealer). the inscribed Jehoash Tablet. Menasseh Seal. an inscribed wine-jug. over several decades. a stone oil-lamp. These items. along with epigraphists from Ben-Gurion University and The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. with “fake patina manufactured with great expertise”. and their Palestinian associate Faiz El Amlah. they had created and traded a series of biblically-related fakes. the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Israeli police had further investigated the activities of Oded Golan and his collaborators. 190 impressed bulla seals. Jehoash Tablet They were charged not only with faking the James Ossuary inscription. This resulted in a charge that. These included the ivory Temple Pomegranate. some of which had been bought for very high prices and placed in the prestigious Israel Museum in Jerusalem. 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 . but also some of Israel’s hitherto prized museum pieces.

although the time difference between 1976 and the early 1980s was hardly significant in this regard. the dimensions were identical. 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. 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. testified that analysis revealed that the photograph could perhaps have emanated from the 1970s. This was doubtless planned to take place once it had gained international recognition and acclaim by way of the Toronto exhibition. and the Simcha Jacobovici documentary for the Discovery Channel. his attorney produced a photograph of the ossuary in Golan’s home. the Biblical Archaeology Review article. Gerald Richard. . which was said to have been taken in 1976 before the East Talpiyot discovery. A former FBI agent. things took a slightly different course when Golan recently changed his story. which had disappeared from the open yard at Romemma. and forensic testing of the original patina identified that they came from the same tomb at East Talpiyot. Indeed. Crime lab scientists reported: “The signature of the James ossuary sample matched samples taken from the ossuaries in the Talpiyot tomb.10 trading negotiation had presumably been the pseudo James Ossuary. The James ossuary sample did not match any of an assortment of random samples from other archaeological finds”. Attempting to circumvent the 1978 ruling. 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.

whose DNA-cloning concept had inspired Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park. In this regard.11 At this current date of March 2007. and this time there was an established archaeological provenance.5m budget was raised and the result was a dramatically presented 90-minute film. This was written in collaboration with author Charles Pellegrino. the Investigation. the case continues in Jerusalem. 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. 2007: The New Claims To my knowledge. The Lost Tomb of Jesus. . University of North Carolina. Golan’s court statement had brought to his attention the 1980 Jesus Ossuary discovery at East Talpiyot. In this regard. but one fact became plain enough a while back: In the light of the court action. with rather more detail. he teamed up with the Oscar-winning Hollywood director James Cameron of 1997 Titanic fame. in The Jesus Dynasty by James Tabor of the Religious Studies Department. Given Simcha Jacobovici’s experience with regard to the pseudo James Ossuary. 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. 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). it is likely that Tabor’s book provided enough information to set Jacobovici on course for a further documentary concerning the East Talpiyot ossuaries. This was potentially a much bigger story. Published for release two days earlier was Jacobovici’s related book The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery. In April 2006 the matter received a further airing. and the Evidence that could Change History. A $3. apart from the Jerusalem court statements. broadcast by the Discovery Channel on 4th March 2007.

responded: “We agreed to send the ossuaries. Cameron and Pellegrino reckoned that the East Talpiyot sepulchre was the actual family tomb of the biblical Jesus. 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”. as mentioned above. Simcha Jacobovici discusses the ossuaries inscribed Mariamene (left) and Yehoshua (right) The filmmakers’ claim (as referred to by Osnat Goaz) was that Jacobovici. neither does it concur with any related anthropological evaluation. This was not something that the 1996 BBC documentary had maintained because. 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. Osnat Goaz. separately inscribed in Aramaic. Hebrew and Greek) were not necessarily all members of the same family. According to Jacobovici.12 Amos Kloner told the Jerusalem Post that. a spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority. he felt the loan was “very foolish”. it is based simply on a calculation of probability made by Andrey Feuerverger. the occupants (with their various culturally designed ossuaries. . professor of mathematical statistics at the University of Toronto. 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. “an ordinary. under the prevailing circumstances.

(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. Bauckham’s catalogue identifies that these names were among those most commonly used at the time in question. In effect. 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. Instead. He states: “We know that Joseph. 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. professor of New Testament Studies at St Andrews University in Scotland. also asserts that the names on the Talpiyot ossuaries were extremely popular and widely used in the 1st century. to put it politely”.) David Mavorah. the filmmakers decided that DNA testing of microscopic residue in the ossuaries could perhaps determine the occupants’ relationships with each other. . has catalogued ossuary names from the Jerusalem region since 1980. In practical reality. 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. and the analysis determined that these two characters were “in no way blood related”. 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. In accordance with all archival record in Jerusalem. Hence. they are closer to fantasy”. He contends that the film’s contentions “are more than remote. To start with these names being together in a single tomb.13 In an effort to make their speculation work. a curator of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. the producers concentrated on a particularly negative aspect of their investigation. but its findings were not reported in the film. Lakehead University. From this it was further announced that Yehuda (as named on one of the other boxes) must have been their son. Richard Bauckham. and then leap from there to say ‘This is the tomb of the biblical Jesus’ is farfetched. and Mariamene must have been Mary Magdalene. Ontario. Jesus and Mariamene were all among the most common names of the period. It is not clear whether this analysis was conducted.

Although the said Jesus son of Joseph ossuary had been selected as a well-preserved example for use in the 1996 BBC film. The Aramaic Yehoshua bar Yehosef inscription . even at that time. but if I were to write a book about brain surgery. Joe Zias. regarded as highly suspect by the Israel Antiquities Authority. not Joshua. I am an archaeologist. 'Who is this guy?' Projects like these make a mockery of the archaeological profession”. you would say. He had aided the earlier BBC team. had personally numbered and catalogued the East Talpiyot ossuaries in the 1980s. Amos Kloner maintains: “The inscription on the ossuary is not clear enough to ascertain. reckons that the Aramaic inscription actually relates to a man called Hanun. William Dever. but commented that “Simcha Jacobovici has no credibility whatever. for example. professor emeritus at the University of Arizona (who has worked with Israeli archeologists for five decades). curator for anthropology at the Rockerfeller Museum of Archaeology in Jerusalem 1972–97. and linguistic scholars are deeply divided as to precisely what name it conveys. But it makes for profitable television”. its translated inscription was. 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”. president of the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem.14 In discussing the lack of DNA evidence for any blood relationship between the ossuary occupants. Stephen Pfann. and the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards. The said ‘Jesus’ inscription is actually the most difficult of all the East Talpiyot inscriptions to read.

Jacobovici’s highly polished documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus and his book. In reality. his continued personal support for the indicted Golan. but there would be little point in trying to argue matters of belief and faith against archaeological evidence even if such evidence actually existed. Churchmen and other Christian stalwarts will doubtless continue to assault the latest documentary. There is nothing unique about this. It is an ill-conceived presumption for the sake of a sensational television show. that this lack of blood relationship must prove the two characters were married. and will therefore be dismissed at every stage of debate and reckoning. is more than a leap of faith. and maybe even some books in opposition.15 Conclusion In the light of all this. including other Jesus son of Joseph inscriptions. and his evident lack of balanced judgement in the previous James Ossuary film. 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. will continue as items of heated debate for some while – much as happened with Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code. and while the long-running Jerusalem court case against Oded Golan and his colleagues prevails. there will be follow-up documentaries to challenge the Discovery Channel film. this is meaningless non-evidence. The Jesus Family Tomb. that there is actually very little to discuss since the credibility of the Jacobovici documentary is already marred by his Oded Golan connection. it will gain no support from archaeological. in the same way. on the basis of nothing but an uneducated guess. and must therefore have been the biblical Jesus and Mary Magdalene. no evidence of any substance or consequence has been presented. As it transpires. . however. it has happened many times before. anthropological or linguistic academia. To then presume. 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”. It is abundantly clear. Possibly. As is already evident. however.

16 APPENDIX 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 .

and the Aramaic inscription reads: Yehosef bar Kayafa. It is now in the Israel Museum.17 The most famed of all ossuaries is that of ‘Joseph surnamed Caiaphas’. The ossuary was discovered in 1990 at the Peace Forest in southern Jerusalem. The Caiphas Ossuary Other ossuaries at the Israel Museum Broken ossuaries at the Mount of Olives © Laurence Gardner. high priest and head of the Sanhedrin Council of Temple elders in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus. March 2007 .

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