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 (http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2012/03/talpiot-tomb-jonah-and-q.html), 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 (http://www.bibleinterp.com/PDFs/Tabor2.pdf). 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.