Haredim likely to block new excavation at Talpiot tomb

Archeologists deny cover-up at burial cave linked by some to Jesus.

haredim 88 (photo credit: )
haredim 88
(photo credit: )
Ultra-Orthodox opposition to the excavation of tombs containing possible Jewish remains is likely to doom a new bid by archeologists and other experts to re-enter a First Century cave in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood and establish whether it was the burial place of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. A four-day academic conference in Jerusalem ended sensationally on Wednesday when Ruth Gat, the widow of the lead archeologist who excavated the tomb in 1980, told participants that her husband Yosef knew he had found the tomb of Jesus and feared the discovery would threaten Christian doctrine and set off an anti-Semitic backlash. The gathering of world scholars, which some had expected would conclude by dismissing claims linking the tomb to Jesus, wound up inconclusively, but with wide-ranging agreement that the matter required further investigation. Reopening the Talpiot tomb, and a second tomb a mere 20 meters away that has never been properly excavated, would require agreement from the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Jerusalem municipality and haredi-controlled religious affairs authorities. The Jerusalem municipality told The Jerusalem Post last year that if a request were made to open the site, it would be considered. The IAA said it would discuss any such permission once a formal request was made. However, Shimon Gibson, who was an archeologist on Yosef Gat's team in 1980 and has since excavated numerous sites here, said Thursday that haredi opposition would doom any such effort. Such opposition, he went on, has long since shut down excavation by academics at Jewish burial sites here. The last such dig he could recall in Jerusalem, Dr. Gibson said, took place in French Hill 30 years ago. The Talpiot tomb was turned into a geniza (repository for holy texts) before it was sealed, he noted, while the adjacent tomb still contains several inscribed ossuaries. "Haredi objections [to excavation there] would be impossible to overcome." Gibson, who told this week's symposium on "Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context" that he does not believe the cave is Jesus's burial place, stressed that the adjacent tomb was "definitely worthy of investigation." He noted that because of the distance from the heart of Jerusalem, it was likely the two Talpiot tombs were owned by the same landowner, and there could be information in the second tomb of relevance to the ossuaries in the first tomb. This could be helpful, he said, "if one is looking for familial relationships." The second tomb was uncovered shortly after the first during the construction of apartment blocs in East Talpiot, Gibson recalled, and hurriedly investigated, with a single ossuary removed, before ultra-Orthodox protests forced its closure. Gibson lamented that "the law of the land" now prevented vital excavation work. "Of course we should be allowed to excavate artifacts. And human bones need to be examined," he said. "For one thing, they can shed enormous light on medical history." In the wake of Wednesday's declaration by Mrs. Gat that her husband knew he'd found Jesus's tomb, an expert who insisted on anonymity charged to the Post Thursday that Israel had deliberately "covered up" the significance of the find for fear of the anti-Semitic backlash to which Mrs. Gat referred. "The Jews have suffered for 2,000 years, being blamed for the death of Jesus," the expert said. "The last thing Israel needed was to find proof of Jesus's earthly remains. Our relations with the Vatican would never have recovered." Therefore, he said, Gat and other senior archeologists and experts decided they would reject any suggestion that the coincidence of apparent Jesus-related names on the ossuaries in the tomb was significant. "When that combination of names came up, it was like winning the lottery," this expert said. "But it was agreed that the 'Jesus talk' would be denied, and that it would be argued that the names were extremely common and their presence in a single Jerusalem tomb thus statistically unimportant. Mrs. Gat told the truth," he said, "because she's not a politician." However, Amos Kloner, the former Jerusalem District archeologist to whom Gat reported, said Mrs. Gat was mistaken about her husband. And Gibson said any conspiracy talk was "nonsense." He said Gat, who died in the early 1990s (and not soon after the 1980 dig, as erroneously reported in Thursday's Post), "did not discuss anything relating to a possible interpretation of the tomb as that of Jesus." The Talpiot tomb, which lies beneath East Talpiot's Dov Gruner Street, was brought back into the headlines last year through The Lost Tomb of Jesus, a film by Israeli-born, Canadian-based filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici. The film claims that six of 10 ossuaries found in the tomb bear inscriptions that link them to Jesus: "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.