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(photo credit: Courtesy)
The widow of the Israeli archeologist who led the excavation of a hugely controversial First-Century burial tomb in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood 28 years ago said on Wednesday that her late husband knew he had found the burial place of Jesus and was afraid the discovery would trigger a wave of anti-Semitism because of the apparent challenge to Christian beliefs.
Ruth Gat unleashed her archeological earthquake when accepting a lifetime achievement award on behalf of her late husband, Yosef Gat of the Department of Antiquities, at the conclusion of a four-day academic conference in Jerusalem, at which leading archaeologists, epigraphers, biblical experts, statisticians and other scholars gathered to evaluate "the Talpiot Tomb in context."
A small-framed, frail-looking lady, Mrs. Gat told the scholars calmly that her husband knew he had found "the burial tomb of Jesus Christ," and that he had "serious concerns and fears" over the consequences of his discovery. She noted that Yosef had been a child in Nazi-occupied Poland, and that with his bitter childhood memories still in mind, he had feared "a wave of anti-Semitism" might erupt as a result of the Talpiot find. She said she was relieved that the world had "changed for the better," and that this feared reaction had not come to pass.
Speaking briefly to The Jerusalem Post after her address, Mrs. Gat said her husband had been "staggered" by the discovery, and that he had discussed it with her "at the kitchen table."
Gat died soon after excavating the Talpiot tomb in 1980, and left only minimal notes of what had been found there. The findings were only written up 16 years later by the former Jerusalem District archeologist Amos Kloner, who has consistently ridiculed the notion that the First-Century tomb was related to Jesus in any way. Kloner restated that position to the Post after Mrs. Gat spoke, and said the idea that Gat had believed he had found Jesus's tomb was "absolutely not the case."
Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-born, Canadian-based filmmaker whose The Lost Tomb of Jesus brought the issue into world headlines a year ago, called Mrs. Gat's comments "a showstopper." Jacobovici, who attended the symposium, said he "fell off the chair" when he heard her.
At the concluding session of the symposium, following Mrs. Gat's comments, two of the five panelists - Dr. Shimon Gibson, who was a young archeologist on the 1980 dig, and Eric Meyers, a professor of Judaic Studies at Duke University - indicated that they did not believe the tomb on East Talpiot's Dov Gruner Street was linked to Jesus. Gibson also said Gat had never told him he believed the tomb was Jesus's.
Two others panelists - Israel Knohl, a professor of Bible at the Hebrew University, and James Tabor, chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina - said it was very possible that this was the tomb of Jesus.
The highly respected chairman of the symposium, James Charlesworth, professor of New Testament language and literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, rejected the idea that Jesus had been buried at the tomb, but said, "We have to be open to the possibility that [the tomb] is related to the Jesus clan."
Among his objections to the notion that an ossuary from the Talpiot tomb bearing the apparent inscription "Yeshua son of Yehosef" was that of the founder of Christianity, Charlesworth said, was that the inscription was "graffiti, just scratching," and that the ossuary was "lousy." He found it unthinkable that the followers of Jesus would have put "the remains of 'the messiah' in such a horrible ossuary."
Jacobovici said he felt vindicated by the conference and by the call by several speakers for further study at the tomb, as well as for more research at a neighboring tomb that might hold further information. When the content of Jacobovici's film was first reported in the Post last February, the Jerusalem Municipality, which is responsible for the site, said that if a request were made to open the site, it would be considered.
Jacobovici's film claims that six of 10 ossuaries found in the tomb bear inscriptions that link them to "Jesus son of Joseph," "Mary," "Jose" (a brother of Jesus), "Matia" (another relative), "Mariamne" (said to be Mary Magdalene) and a child named "Judah son of Jesus." The ossuaries are held by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
Jacobovici has said he hopes the tomb will be more properly excavated. He and a colleague were able to enter the tomb, which lies sealed beneath a rectangular slab between rows of buildings, only briefly during their filming, with the permission of neighbors. An Israel Antiquities Authority official who was called to the site asked them to leave and reseal it.
Kloner, who called Jacobovici "a liar" at an earlier session of the symposium, last year branded the documentary "brain confusion" that mixed fact with fiction and "dressed up facts" in a Hollywood-like manner that could easily lead laymen astray.
Kloner also told the Post last year that when the ossuaries were found nearly three decades ago, most of the bones inside had been badly decomposed. Due to haredi pressures put on the Israeli government, no anthropological tests were ever carried out on the remains, he said, and the bones were transferred to the Religious Affairs Ministry for immediate reburial along with assorted other remains found in various construction projects and digs. The location of the bones, which were then interred by the Jewish burial society, is not known.