Jodi Magness responds to the “New Jesus Discovery”

Professor Jodi Magness
Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

As usual, the arrival of the Easter season this year is heralded by a sensational archaeological claim relating to Jesus. In March 2007, we learned from a TV documentary and accompanying book that the tomb of Jesus and his family had been discovered in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood. The producer was undeterred by the fact that not a single archaeologist – including the tomb’s excavator – supported this claim (for my comments see; also see Eric Meyers’ response to the current claim). Now the same producer has identified remains of early Christian followers of Jesus in a tomb nearby. What is the basis for this new claim? Photos taken by a robotic arm that was inserted into the tomb supposedly show a graffito depicting a whale incised on an ossuary, and an inscription containing the Tetragrammaton and the word “arise” or “resurrection.”

Eric Meyers and Chris Rollston have already noted the problems with identifying the second tomb as belonging to Jesus’ disciples. These include the highly questionable reading of the inscription, and the fact that the supposed whale appears to be a depiction of a nefesh (tomb marker). Apparently, the producer has set out to prove that the first tomb indeed belonged to Jesus and his family by identifying nearby tombs as those of his disciples and followers, despite the lack of any supporting archaeological or historical evidence.

As a professional archaeologist, it pains me to see archaeology hijacked in the service of non-scientific interests, whether they are religious, financial, or other. The comparison to Indiana Jones mentioned in the media reports is unfortunate, as those films misrepresented archaeology as much as they popularized it. Archaeologists are scientists; whatever we find is not our personal property but belongs to (and usually must remain in) the host country. Archaeologists seek to understand the past by studying human material remains (that is, whatever humans manufactured and left behind) through the process of excavation and publication. For this reason, professional archaeologists do not search for objects or treasures such as Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail. Usually these sorts of expeditions are led by amateurs (nonspecialists) or academics who are not archaeologists. Archaeology is a scientific process.

The archaeological endeavor involves piecing together all available information, not just one artifact taken out of context. Context is the reason that archaeologists go to so much trouble to document the provenance of every feature and artifact dug up on an excavation. The current claim is based on finds that have no context, as they have not been excavated. All we have are photos taken by a robotic arm of objects (or parts of objects), the dates and identification of which are unknown or unclear.

We can learn a great deal about the past from legitimate archaeological discoveries made by professional archaeologists. It is a shame that sensational claims such as this one get so much popular and media attention.

29 thoughts on “Jodi Magness responds to the “New Jesus Discovery”

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  2. Pingback: Jodi Magness on what a real archaeologist is (Talpiyot Tomb) | Unsettled Christianity

  3. prof.magness’wise comments on biblical archaeology could also be applied to the quality of much current biblical analytic theology-there is a lot of slapdash work around in the public sphere!

  4. Thanks for sharing your views here Jodi. I consider you a friend and I respect your scholarship. As you know I have responded to your initial take on the “Jesus” tomb on the SBL site-, so no point in rehashing that again. Also, Elliot and Kilty have offered a new response to your treatment of the Talpiot tomb in your latest book, Stone and Dung, Oil and Spit: Jewish Daily Life in the Time of Jesus that you may or may not have seen: I find their points persuasive for the most part. You main point about the names being “common” has been extensively refuted by quite a few scholars, see my article for references.

    I think you are wrong to equate our efforts at the Talpiot “patio” tomb to ark hunting and other sensationalist foolishness. This was a fully licensed excavation carried out with high standards and academic oversight. My conclusions are my own and I have presented them as judiciously as I could in my preliminary report-which you may not have read, as it was just posted today: Academics often differ on their interpretations of both texts and artifacts but what I think we all would like to see is responsible discussion and debate of the evidence. I have offered my take on things. I hope others will do the same as well and if this is a pillar or tomb marker/nephesh let’s see it argued in responsible fashion with evidence presented. It would be upside down? And with small fish swimming above it? And a diving fish on the side? I find the whole idea unconvincing and Eric and I discussed this last Fall when we met. If I were arguing any alternative, and I don’t think this works either, but we carefully considered it, I would suggest an amphora-but that seemed to me in the end not to hold up. At least half a dozen art historians have agreed with the Jonah interpretation. Whether they want to enter this seemingly barbed discussion or not I have no idea, but we did consult extensively with several dozen colleagues, including specialists in the history of early Jewish/Christian art. Maybe a full discussion at ASOR or SBL in November would be helpful.

  5. Pingback: Early Christian Tomb | HolyLandPhotos' Blog

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  7. Hello, James.
    If one takes as relevant the orientation of the drawing, in order to argue against the nephesh interpretation, then one, to be fair, would also apply the orientation to the fish interpretation. If the “fish” were disgorging (with a closed mouth?) Jonah upon dry land, how could the fish do that-unless a flying fish?
    What you call “little fish swimming” is, to me, not an obvious interpretation.
    Half a dozen art historians agree with the Jonah interpretation, you say. Unless I missed it, I haven’t seen one of them quoted. It’s hard to evaluate such claims without specifics. I wonder if signed non-disclosure agreements help scholarship.
    If even an unskilled artist were going to draw a monster fish, do you think it likely that the drawing would include a monster fish eye?

  8. What threatens you so Dr. Magness? With each new discovery, you refuse to accept any new thoughts or information on the historical Jesus and his family. Professors are suppose to teach the truth, not cover it up.

  9. The nails in Caiaphas tomb also make perfect sense if Joseph Caiaphas (the lion) was really Joseph of Arimathea (the lion).

  10. Professor Magness neither is threatened nor threatens. It is frustrating to see someone jump to such a conclusion. The main point is that the images are being interpreted with little information. How are they oriented in respect to to the whole object? Without much better examination, these images can not be specifically ascribed to being a fish.
    One should not assume the image is in the correct orientation to horizontal or to perpendicular etc of the artifact, without at the very least showing the surroundings and having a spirit level to give a better concept of the artifact’s situation.
    Please do not assume that because someone questions the assumptions that they are attacking a faith. The professor is trying to show why people need to examine all possibilities and make a proper determination. We should all prefer the reality rather than trying to fit objects to make the theory look good.

  11. I wish the emotional energy displayed by these very intelligent posters would gather in increased unity and insist on further, even exhaustive continued research for both of these tombs discussed here.

  12. The Jesus Discovery is one of the most honest books about one of the greatest stories ever told. The photos look like fish to me. Dr. Tabor did a great job. It is frustrating to see Dr. Magness continue with this train of denials. I couldn’t put the book down.

  13. Dr. Tabor’s next book should be if modern Chritianity is really the religion Jesus intended to create. A religion that stopped celebrating the Jewish holidays he did and celebrates his birthday on a pagan holiday with lavish materialistic gifts.

  14. They just didn’t have minivans back then to put their fish bumper stickers on. Of course the images are whales.

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  16. It amazes me that non-specialists are able to see with vivid awareness the known, though controversial, discoveries at Talpiot Tombs A&B and realize their almost unprecedented importance. While at the same time concerning the same subject matter, specialists have tended to ignore, announce criticisms not well thought out, error over matters such as statistics or commonality of names, do not press forward calling for further research, offer odd, distorted and easily disproved theories, attack the messenger along with the message: and all done to the detriment of their specialty.

    These tombs were originally discovered in 1980 & 1981. And those who’d gladly probe their findings to the fullest degree possible have consistently been blocked in one way or another by the forces of politics, economics, judicial review, institutional bureaucracy and elements of conservative religion. And now unfortunately, even some of the significant specialists seem to be among the suppressors.

  17. Pingback: The New Talpiot Tomb: An Observation on the Patio Tomb and Resurrection | Professor Obvious

  18. It is time to admit that Jesus died and was buried, and his mortal remains stayed in the ground. The greatest story ever told is just a story, but Jesus was one of the most influential men in history. There is faith and there is history. They are not always the same. Specialists who claim otherwise will be seen as less credible in the future.

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  20. Jodi Magness has sent human decency, “Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat”, and professionalism back to the Dark Ages. Her comments are nothing more than attack barbs that are no doubt meant to injure her human targets.

    Perhaps “The Jesus Discovery” got some things wrong, and perhaps it got some things correct. So why can’t the debate here start with politeness, respect, and true scholarship as opposed to Magness’ tripe? Her response is worthless to this reader.

    If no one else will say what’s obvious, then I will. In my view, her response here is a poor representative of her profession.

    “Archaeologists are scientists;” You have got to be kidding. Most of what I have read indicates that [many] archaeologists don’t know science from a hole in the ground, if you’ll pardon the pun. Their
    reports and books are replete with personal and institutional bias, and lots of speculation.

    What this issue boils down to is this: “If you mess with Jesus,” I’m coming after you, guns blazing.

    More than likely the “fish” image is a funerary amphora, but it should be seriously investigated by specialists without a “fish to fry.”

  21. Maybe Jodi wants to believe the earth is flat too. It is too bad that so called Christians are often the last to see the truth with science.

  22. Pingback: Forthcoming Volume Offers Expert Perspectives on Talpiot Controversies « EerdWord

  23. Dr. Magness,
    Since archaeology is science, as yoy state, accuracy is what we do expect on your side. You say: “As usual, the arrival of the Easter season this year is heralded by a sensational archaeological claim relating to Jesus. In March 2007, we learned from a TV documentary and accompanying book”. Well - not true. This docu film has been aired in February 2007; that is: long enough before Easter, but much closer to the Jewish holiday of Purim. Anyway, speaking of accuracy: you, Dr. Magness, quote the Mishna Sanhedrin 6:5 and ignore the Mishna Sanhedrin 6:6; you do so whenever you write or speak (the 2008 Jerusalem symposium) about the Talpiot Tomb (now the Talpiot Tombs). Why you do so? I leave the explanation to you, Dr. Magness. My point is: speaking of intentions, you are not in a good position to criticise others. Besides: highly professional archaeologists had all the time in the world to publish their excavations of the first Talpiot Tomb. The first article took 16 years! Is there any reasonable explanation, Dr. Magness, for this delay?

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