The Talpiot Tombs and New Testament Historical Criticism

James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair of New Testament Language and Literature, Butler University, Indianapolis

The discovery of ossuaries in tombs in the Talpiot neighborhood of modern Jerusalem would almost certainly never have made international news or led to book deals, were it not for the claims of a relationship between those ossuaries and texts from the New Testament. While most of the criticisms of the recent claims made by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici have focused on epigraphy and inscriptions, interpretation of iconography, and other matters related to the physical evidence, there are also problems with the claims in so far as they pertain to the New Testament texts. If there is any correlation at all to be made, it must treat all the evidence, including the texts, using the appropriate tools and methods of historical inquiry. Yet on this point, and from this perspective, the narrative being woven by Jacobovici and Tabor is problematic.

We may begin with the “sign of Jonah” which is in the background of debates about whether a particular shape on one of the ossuaries is a big fish, a vessel, or something else. The fish or whale is important to the Jacobovici-Tabor case because it allows them to attempt to connect the ossuary with the New Testament, or indeed with one of the earlier underlying sources of the Gospels, namely Q. That is their claim, but as Mark Goodacre has pointed out (, the interpretation of the “sign of Jonah” as a symbol of the resurrection is distinctive to Matthew’s Gospel, and thus not clearly earlier than whenever one is inclined to date that Gospel (compare Mt 12:39-40, a form unique to Matthew, with Mt 16:4, Lk 11:29, and also Mk 8:12). The fish connection is thus a tenuous connection with earliest Jewish Christianity not only on the archaeological end, but also on that of the New Testament.

The same can be said about other attempts to draw connections with the New Testament and the movement that produced the texts contained within it. In his recent Bible and Interpretation article, James Tabor has drawn freely on details in Gospels both early and late, in order to weave a portrait of what he claims transpired ( Tabor writes, “If, the burial of Jesus, as all our ancient sources report, was carried out by a wealthy and influential member of the Sanhedrin, namely Joseph of Arimathea, who had the backing of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, might we expect any “Jesus family tomb” to be on his property and thus adjacent to other tombs that belonged to his extended clan” (p.8). What Tabor says “we might expect” is not in fact something that a historical-critical examination of early Christian sources would lead us to expect. The status of Joseph as a disciple comes from Matthew and John. The tomb being Joseph’s own, from Matthew’s Gospel alone. That Joseph of Arimathea would have provided a tomb for Jesus and his family (whether understood to include his biological kin, his followers, or both) is historically unlikely. In Mark’s Gospel, our earliest account, Joseph is not a disciple, and Jesus is merely placed in “a tomb” with a linen sheet and no anointing. Scholars carefully examining where this textual evidence leads (such as Raymond Brown, Byron McKane, and Craig Evans) take this to mean that Jesus was placed in a nearby tomb used for the burial of criminals executed on the site. And this fits reasonably well with the archaeological evidence from the traditional site of Golgotha.

That Jesus’ body could have been moved from that tomb to another place in accordance with the Jewish burial custom of the time, a year after his death, is not a possibility to be dismissed lightly. From a historian’s perspective, it is indeed a possibility to be considered, that perhaps the tradition about an empty tomb arose from confusion about why local Christians told visitors from other parts of the world that Jesus bones were no longer in the tomb where he was first buried. Historians must consider all options, even ones that are at odds with traditional faith claims. The problem with what Tabor is suggesting is not that it disagrees with the New Testament. The problem is that Tabor draws freely on early and late details in the Gospel tradition, in the process suggesting that Jesus’ body was moved from its initial place of burial within days of it first being placed there, that the Gospel authors somehow reflect knowledge of that more permanent burial, and yet none of them actually mentions it in what they wrote..

The tombs in Talpiot are interesting archaeological finds, and they deserve to be carefully studied and documented, without unnecessary hype at an early stage when all conclusions ought to be preliminary. If it seems appropriate to make connections with any figures known from any texts, those connections should arise naturally from the evidence when examined in a careful, critical manner. At the moment, premature connections are being made, based on what are at best questionable interpretations of both artifacts and texts. This is all being done in a manner that is misleading to the public and detrimental to progress in scholarly study of the tombs—and texts—in question.

12 thoughts on “The Talpiot Tombs and New Testament Historical Criticism

  1. Pingback: Talpiot Tombs and New Testament Historical Criticism « Exploring Our Matrix

  2. I thought this was an apposite link, precisely for its irrelevance:

    On the one hand, the lifting/raising verbiage, the fish in a burial inscription context. Except it’s Etruscan, 7th c. BCE.

    On the other hand, it’s an inscription clear photos of which have not been made accessible to most scholars, at least showing that there is little unusual about the way Tabor and Jacobovici have released the evidence here (though that has been a point against them in other posts.)

    And a further parallel to this case - it’ll never get mainstream press attention because of what it lacks. Maybe if he could find an Etruscan dative form of the name Jesus …

  3. And from a Minoan source:

    Seal or fish? I’d say fish. Fish eye or gigantic lamprey bite mark? I’d say fish eye. But one thing about it - it’s head is definitely oriented more down than across. To read the critics of Tabor, that never happens.

    The body is still oriented horizontally, of course. I just think context is helpful here, and I think this provides more context.

  4. I should have looked up a translation before posting. The image above is from a Minoan “Larnax”, which I hadn’t immediately recognized as a “small closed coffin, box or ash-chest used as a container for human remains in ancient Greece.

    I’m not suggesting a link. Just suggesting in another way that a fish in a burial context isn’t unusual and could suggest a variety of meanings.

  5. In Matthew & Luke Jesus criticizes those who were seeking a sign and yet in the same scriptural reading gives them the sign of Jonah, which when interpreted was an obvious prophecy of his own death and resurrection. The fact that Mark also mentions Jesus criticism of a generation seeking a sign and not giving the sign of Jonah seems of little significance. Especially when in the very Gospel of Mark 3 times Jesus explains to his disciples that he will be killed and rise from the dead in 3 days. An obvious parallel to the sign of Jonah in Matthew & Luke.

    Matthew & Luke tell us that Jesus well explains the story of Jonah and the Whale to the masses while relating it to himself. This means that these early Christians new this teaching (before) Jesus death. And to these believers the Old Testament story of Jonah would be of obvious importance (after) Jesus death. Why would early 1st century Christian wait for Christians to come along 200 or 300 years later and make the Jonah story important when some of them knew it’s significance even prior to Jesus death?

    Gospel accounts of Joseph of Arimathea are intriguing. A prominent man he must have been just to get a personal audience with Pontius Pilate at such tumultuous time. His goals for the burial of Jesus, were clearly made. And I don’t know of one single New Testament writing that would contradict the expectation that he achieved those goals.

    Was Jesus buried and then reburied? Very possibly so. Would that be significant or unusual? No! There are obvious many and varied reasons why individuals of different political, religious and family persuasions would want to keep the burial of Jesus secretive upon his initial death and even years later.

    I agree that there have been premature opinions expressed and that strong analytical scholarship is desired. Unfortunately while the initial pioneers of these 2 tombs have appeared open minded, possibility thinkers, polite, professional, shunning reciprocal personal attacks and rudeness along with their patience with unfounded and or unproven accusation. Some of their “preliminary” critics seem to have chosen not to do the same.

  6. Thanks. You mention “Byron McKane” which is a typo for Byron McCane, in case any readers here look for his publications. His 1992 Duke dissertation, “Jews, Christians, and Burial in Roman Palestine,” and “Let the Dead Bury Their Own Dead: Secondary Burial and Mt. 8:21-22″ Harvard Theological Review 83 (1990) 31-43 are among the relevant ones. McCane gives one possible interpretation of Mt. 8:21-22: a potential follower told not to bother with secondary burial because of immanent eschatology, expectation that the world would end soon. Or-possibly-his followers were simply not among those who practiced secondary burial.
    A prior question is why the practice arose and what subset(s) of the population (among those who could afford it) used it. Dina Teitelbaum’s 2005 dissertation, “The Jewish Ossuary Phenomenon: Cultural Receptivity in Roman Palestine” gives a good overview of the various-not yet fully resolved-proposals. For example, ossuary use would not necessarily be linked with resurrection if practiced by some Sadducees.

  7. Thanks for your thoughts James. I will try to post something more fully on my blog in the future but for now, just a couple of observations.

    First, I think we all are committed to a critical reading of our sources, so no disagreement there. Although dating gospels is fraught with difficulties (we just did a grad seminar here on this last semester and surveyed all the dating proposals and their assumptions and methods-very complex) I generally put Q (apologies to Mark Goodacre, still find it persuasive in a modified way) pre-70, Mark, Matthew, and Luke-Acts, and of course John post-70. I remind myself and my students continually of how little we know of the pre-70 Jesus community. I think we all agree that strands of oral tradition must be floating around, but other than Q and some of our possible reconstructions (Crossan, et al.) it is difficult to know for sure what affirmations were being made pre-70. We do have Paul. And he knows the “third day” tradition. I think that is the key. We find it repeatedly in Mark, so that takes us close to 70 (based on Mark 13), and then of course it shows up in Luke 24 and even John. It seems to be based on a pesher of Hosea 6:2 and the Jonah story. That along with Psa. 110 and Dan 7:14 seems to me to be our early cluster of Jesus exaltation faith-as I prefer to call it. Jesus is raised on the third day, sits at the right hand, and comes in the clouds of heaven. All of these are in Paul, so they go back to the 50s. So when they show up, as in Matthew’s elaboration of Q 11:29-32, we should not assume that elaboration is “late” and therefore irrelevant to this tomb. I think, with Bauckham, Hurtado, and others, it is the earliest Christology and goes back to the first followers-40s and 50s CE. In a non-specialist book, for readers who don’t even know what Q is, much less Goodacre’s objections and qualifications, it is difficult to get into all this. What I intended to convey is that the “third day” “after three days” and “three days and three nights” tradition seems to be widespread and reach back to the 30-70 CE period. Matthew often elaborates Mark and Q (the leaven is the teaching of the Pharisees, the abomination is from Daniel, etc.) and his elaborations of Luke/Q’s double tradition is not necessarily late-who knows, sometimes it might even be early. I also wonder if Q11:30 is a reference to Jesus’ resurrection also-a greater than Jonah is here, and he will become a “sign” as Jonah was a sign. But more on that elsewhere.

    On the JoA burial traditions you are right of course, the strands are complex and I surely did not intend to play fast and lose with them. I would begin again with Paul, who knows of a burial and a third day tradition. Unlike many of my colleagues I doubt the empty tomb was invented by Mark. And the core JofA story, of him taking charge, commissioned by Pilate, I accept as a frame. It could of course be doubted, but Mark has him a member of the Sanhedrin, etc. Although I think we should generally privilege the earlier sources it is increasingly acknowledged that John, though late, seems to preserve many older traditions. I am well aware of the criminal burial site near the cross possibility but that would discount the empty tomb story, which I am not willing to do. Here I find myself strangely bedfellow with my avowed evangelical Christian colleagues who also insist it is early. So in looking at all the sources I have tried to construct a skeletal narrative: Pesach is pending, JoA takes charge of burial, hastily puts him near the cross in an unused tomb, body found removed by Sunday AM (maybe Sat night)…thus my reburial conclusion by the only obvious candidate-JofA who had taken charge of things. James, I realize this is your speciality and as you know I read your thesis and your book and have learned greatly from your work. I appreciate your post. That said, I do not think the earliest followers had a problem with a tomb of Jesus and faith in his heavenly exaltation-Mark has no appearances as you know and Jesus will meet them in the “clouds of heaven” as per the transfiguration. Perrin was my teacher at Chicago. Like the Lubavitcher Rebbe they could honor the burial and believe in the heavenly exaltation. This, by the way, would be true of your tomb near the cross idea as well I suppose, unless you think he was moved from there, which sounds like you do not.

  8. Thanks for a helpful article, James M., and thanks too for linking to my post on the status of the evidence from Q. You summarize well what I too see as a difficulty with James T’s work on this topic, viz. “The problem with what Tabor is suggesting is not that it disagrees with the New Testament. The problem is that Tabor draws freely on early and late details in the Gospel tradition, in the process suggesting that Jesus’ body was moved from its initial place of burial within days of it first being placed there, that the Gospel authors somehow reflect knowledge of that more permanent burial, and yet none of them actually mentions it in what they wrote.”

    This is true in other areas too of the claims about the Talpiot tombs. Where the Gospels allegedly corroborate details found in the tombs, they are regarded as good history, regardless of where those details are found, Mark, John, Matthew’s redaction of Q, etc. Where the Gospels do not corroborate details found in the tombs, they are written off.

  9. I enjoyed reading your response, James T. Some quick comments:

    “In a non-specialist book, for readers who don’t even know what Q is, much less Goodacre’s objections and qualifications, it is difficult to get into all this.”

    - But in fact in the book you do draw attention to the IQP’s reconstruction of Q and to Kloppenborg’s work, but without noting that they do not put the key words in Q. This is not a question of “objections and qualifications” but about the very contents of Q. I am of course aware of the irony that it takes a Q sceptic to point out what is actually in Q, but where Q is so essential to the case for a pre-70 Jonah and the fish / resurrection tradition, it needs to be noticed.

    “What I intended to convey is that the “third day” “after three days” and “three days and three nights” tradition seems to be widespread and reach back to the 30-70 CE period.”

    - That’s the very point in question. The “third day” tradition is indeed very early — 1 Cor. 15.3, and Paul has received it as of first importance from those who were Christians before him. But the “three days and three nights” is the kind of loose scriptural fulfilment that Matthew is happy with (like riding two donkeys or “He shall be called a Nazarene”) but which others like Luke had trouble with.

    “Mark has no appearances as you know and Jesus will meet them in the “clouds of heaven” as per the transfiguration.”

    - Mark has appearances but he prophesies them rather than narrating them (Mark 16.7).

  10. Thanks Mark, as I mentioned to James I will post something more substantial on my blog on this whole topic, I hope later this week. On Mark’s appearances, I am with Perrin here-they are the Parousia-seeing the son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven, not the kind of Matt, Luke, John appearances, Mark 14:62, etc. Correlates with Mark 9:1 ff.

  11. Pingback: New Roundup on the ‘Jesus Discovery’ (AKA the ‘Jonah and the Whale’ ossuary) « The Musings of Thomas Verenna

  12. Pingback: Using Clueless Archeo Media Again « Theology Web Campus ( Website & Blog Links )

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