Editor's Notes: It should have elicited a 'Wow'!

The constellation of Jesus-linked names in the 'Talpiot Tomb' is extraordinary, says the eminent academic who just chaired a symposium on the controversial Jerusalem burial cave.

david horovitz 224.88 (photo credit: )
david horovitz 224.88
(photo credit: )
Since a four-day Jerusalem symposium devoted to assessing the controversial "Talpiot Tomb" concluded last week, and the distinguished array of participants went their separate global ways, there's been a fair amount of victory-claiming... from both sides. Supporters of the theory that the First Century burial cave, nestling beneath apartment buildings on East Talpiot's Rehov Dov Gruner, was the last resting place of the family of Jesus of Nazareth, and perhaps of Jesus himself, are asserting vindication, since the renowned scholars didn't consensually laugh the Jesus-clan theory out of town and, indeed, agreed that further investigation was required. The symposium "considered the evidence and is opening the door for further research," said Simcha Jacobovici, the filmmaker whose The Lost Tomb of Jesus last year brought the issue back into the headlines 27 years after the cave was uncovered. "It's time that the world seriously considered that the Jesus family tomb may very well have been located." Opponents are asserting the opposite, noting that many of the scholarly presentations were highly skeptical and that the symposium reached no definitive conclusions and recognized no unarguable, scientific proof of a Jesus link. "Most negative assessments of archeologists and other scientists and scholars who attended [the symposium] have been excluded from the final press reports," complained Duke University's Professor of Jewish Studies Eric Meyers and another dozen scholars in a statement that listed archeological, statistical, DNA and other objections. "We wish to... make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance - including all of the archeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb - either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus's family or find this claim highly unlikely." Caught charismatically and authoritatively in the middle of the disputatious sides is symposium chair James Charlesworth, a renowned expert on Jesus who is professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary and director of its Dead Sea Scrolls Project. His succinct symposium summary is that it "ended inconclusively... Both sides have been pushing to say that their side won. It didn't." Unlike many of the archeologists, epigraphers, statisticians et al who converged to join their Israeli colleagues last week, Charlesworth, an ordained Methodist minister, has not gone home. He has been coming to Israel since 1968 and is on sabbatical here - a visiting scholar in the History Department of the Hebrew University - until April. And Charlesworth fully intends to do as much as he can in the next three months to start getting to the bottom of the Talpiot tomb - figuratively and, he hopes, literally. He does not, he stresses in the course of a fascinating conversation at Mishkenot Sha'ananim this week, "believe we'll ever have definitive conclusions" about the cave and its tantalizing contents. "But we'll have better questions," he says. To that end, he is now to set about obtaining permits to reenter both the Talpiot Tomb and an adjacent tomb which has never been properly excavated, and wants to put together the most expert team he can so that, if such access is permitted, it is not wasted. Though he is unconvinced that the ossuary with the crudely scratched inscription "Jesus son of Joseph" is the burial box of the founder of Christianity, Charlesworth is open to the possibility that the tomb, which contained nine more ossuaries, five of them also inscribed, is related to the Jesus clan. And while he takes courteous pains not to criticize the Israeli archeologists who uncovered the find in 1980 for their ostensibly underwhelmed handling of their potentially shattering discovery, Charlesworth is immensely intrigued by the possibilities. "Every single name [on the ossuaries] in the tomb can be found in the New Testament either directly or indirectly related to Jesus's clan," he points out. An extraordinary constellation of names? "Yes, I'd use the word extraordinary," he agrees. "If I'd found a 'Jesus son of Joseph,' a 'Mary' and a 'Jose,'" he sparkles, "I certainly wouldn't have tried to suppress the possibility it related to a human figure. I also wouldn't have jumped to the conclusion that we have a match." But the discovery, he enthuses, "should have elicited a 'Wow! What have we found?' "And that's where we are now," he goes on. "I want to get an honest inquiry going, in which you are open to every possible conclusion." Charlesworth is a truth seeker, operating without fear that anything that could come out of the Talpiot Tomb could challenge core Christian or Jewish beliefs. And he wants to gather similarly open-minded colleagues from the relevant disciplines to explore further, people "without strong feelings," he stresses, "people who don't think they already know the answers." To speak with him is to scramble from Old Testament to New, from scientific rigor to deeply held personal belief, from obscure expertise to current affairs. At times, he seemed to bring history to life across the table. Answering my questions, his mind darted from the present to 2,000 years in the past. I took notes till my hand ached and then some. Excerpts: How would you sum up the results of the Jerusalem symposium? I deliberately chose people who violently oppose each other [to make presentations]. Experts from every field - archeologists, experts in DNA, ceramics, epigraphy, forensic autopsy, the architecture of tombs, philology, carbon-dating, patina... I want to stress that the symposium was focused on 'Jewish views of the after life and burial practices in Second Temple Judaism.' And we've been getting a lot of very important information regarding views of the after life and archeological evidence of tombs before [the year] 70 in Jerusalem. The scientists have not suggested that the Talpiot Tomb reflects anything to do with Jesus himself. The open question is that perhaps it is related to his clan. This is where statistics come in. We haven't been able to solve this. Is 'Jose,' the name of one of Jesus's brothers, as unique as people claim, for instance? [Six of the 10 ossuaries found in the tomb, which was uncovered amid the apartment-building frenzy in East Talpiot 28 years ago, bear inscriptions. Jacobovici's film, made for the Discovery Channel, linked all six to Jesus: "Jesus son of Joseph," "Mary," (his mother) "Jose" (a brother), "Matia" (another relative), "Mariamne" (said to be Mary Magdalene) and (a child) "Judah son of Jesus." The ossuaries are held by the Israel Antiquities Authority. The controversy sparked by the film led, in turn, to last week's scholarly conference.] The symposium ended with a motion that was enthusiastically and unanimously endorsed, empowering me to open both tombs and obtain the data necessary to help us formulate better questions and approximate a better reconstruction of burials near Jerusalem in the time of Jesus. I'm told I need to go to the Jerusalem Municipality [to begin the process of obtaining the necessary permits]. They're open to this, I'm told. And I need to see how we can do it with the support of the IAA. And that's what you're now going to set about doing? Yes. I'm here till April. If we get a permit, I'm going to set up a committee, including [archeologist/anthropologist] Mark Spigelman... I plan non-invasive exploration... Contamination [of sites and their contents] has been rife in every archeological excavation. Now we have the insight of hindsight. We need to recognize what questions we have and how can we obtain the best answers. How, for instance, can we obtain DNA without contaminating it? We need to get the best minds. No one should be involved who has strong feelings, who think they know the answers. And we need to ask: 1) Is the tomb related to Jews in the time of Hillel and Jesus? 2) Is the tomb related to people known in literature - in Josephus and the Mishna, in the New Testament and in rabbinic writings? I'm convinced we'll never have definitive conclusions, but we'll have better questions. We'll have a vastly improved historical reconstruction. What is exciting for me is that we have Jews, Roman Catholics and Protestants working on this together, and their faiths are not a factor... I'm on sabbatical at Hebrew University. I'm here. I'm open [to work seriously on this] if people are willing, and everyone seems to be willing. Can you elaborate a little on some of the wider context in which you're looking at the Talpiot Tomb. We have more and more people, Jews and Christians, admitting that the "Palestinian Jesus Movement" - something that was going on in Palestine, was relating to Jesus and was a movement - was much more significant before [the year] 70 than we thought. Almost everywhere you go - at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, at Ein Kerem, at Philip's Fountain - you have Hadrianic structure. Why would [Roman emperor] Hadrian have wanted to build something over celebration of the Jesus movement? The provisional answer: He wanted to suppress it. That's a fingerprint. If he wanted to suppress it, it may have been significant. The historical span is the period from 27 [in the three years before the crucifixion] to [the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans under Titus] 70. Why would there be such an interest in putting a stop to this movement? It was the politics... Jesus was clearly put to death by the Romans, not the Jews. They thought he was leading an insurrection. Jesus was surrounded by crowds - at the feeding of the 5,000, at the entry into Jerusalem. That's a dangerous sociological institution; people working together. If you're a Roman soldier, you see danger. There's something in the air that's very dangerous - the polemical ambience. It was like a fire on which gasoline was being poured. Jesus seems to know that open revolt against Rome would be disastrous - as indeed it proves in 70. He says, 'If they do this to the green wood, what shall they do with the dry?' He's the green wood, being taken to his death. He's warning: Please be careful or everything will be destroyed. In Luke, his followers talked of him predicting the destruction of Jerusalem, the greatest city ever built, with the greatest temple ever built. We've found stones up to 570 tons [the 'Western Stone']! The heaviest in the pyramids are 70 tons; at Stonehenge, 35 tons. A 100-ton stone can't be moved with wood, rollers, pulleys, brakes. It's an amazing temple. Archeology gives context to our text. And stirs up high emotion. I'm going to try and [handle the further investigation] in the most sensible way possible. To work with the authorities. The world is now focusing on us. The fact is that the symposium ended inconclusively and with a consensus on finding out more. Both sides have been pushing to say that their side won. It didn't. We've got wild emotions on both sides. Wonderful people are acting irrationally. What do you make of the declaration [made at an award ceremony at the symposium] by Ruth Gat - widow of Joseph Gat, the lead excavator in 1980 - that her husband knew he had found the tomb of Jesus and feared the discovery would spark an anti-Semitic backlash? That's not a factor. She has the right to say it, but scientists have the right to ignore opinions as they search for the truth - any opinions. [When Mrs. Gat was invited to the front of the symposium at its last session] I thought I was giving an honor to the excavator of the tomb. I didn't expect the widow would give a speech. I think that when she saw the [Jacobovici] film, she was of the opinion: my husband and I knew this too. It's natural. Wouldn't anybody want to say [of their late husband]: He did something big? In a way she hijacked the symposium, which was about people with very different skills coming together to ask questions very responsibly. Do you give any credence to the claim, inferred by Mrs. Gat in her remarks and explicitly put to me last week by one expert, that Gat and the Israeli archeological hierarchy covered up, or played down, the tomb discovery, for fear of some kind of Christian backlash? It is unconscionable the way the followers of Jesus have treated the nation from which he came. So I can understand a lack of professional conduct from some of those who have been unconscionably persecuted. But I know of no specific allegations. I have been to Auschwitz. It must never happen again. Jesus has been misrepresented. He was a wonderful Jew. He had come to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover. I have been concerned how little archeologists who are Jews know about the New Testament. They were told not to read it. Today it is different. It is being taught at the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University. Now it's recognized as Jewish history. That's recent. If you didn't know the New Testament, and didn't know the names of Jesus's family, how could you make an assessment [about the significance of the Talpiot Tomb]? Finding that constellation of names, if you have a peaceful world in which intellectual possibility is freely followed... [Charlesworth tailed off] But this was a time [in 1980] of furious construction. You didn't have a quiet atmosphere to explore issues. This is a volatile region. You had intifada 1 and intifada 2 and suicide bombers. It's been like this from Abraham to the present... You consider that constellation of names [inscribed on the ossuaries in the tomb] to be extraordinary? Yes, I'd use the word extraordinary. If I'd found a 'Jesus son of Joseph,' a 'Mary' and a 'Jose,' I certainly wouldn't have tried to suppress the possibility it related to a human figure. I also wouldn't have jumped to the conclusion that we have a match. It should have elicited a 'Wow! What have we found?' And that's where we are now. I want to get an honest inquiry going, in which you are open to every possible conclusion. In your concluding remarks at the symposium, you rejected the idea that Jesus's bones were buried at the tomb with objections that seemed more subjective than rigorously scientific. [Charlesworth described the 'Yeshua son of Yehosef' ossuary inscription as 'graffiti, just scratching,' and the ossuary as 'lousy,' adding that he found it unthinkable that the followers of Jesus would have put 'the remains of "the messiah" in such a horrible ossuary.'] I don't rule it out. It's my explanation for why it is difficult to accept it. If Jesus's bones were found, would that undermine Christian doctrine? There are some who say, 'if his bones are not in heaven... then I can't be a Christian.' My response is that Christian faith is emotional, but it's based upon reflection of some very brilliant Jews who were making extraordinary claims about a man who is human and who brought God's presence into their midst. I'm taking people back to the sources. What does it mean to accept that Jesus was fully human and fully divine? Too often the confession is reduced to one statement: Jesus is God. That is heresy. And the legitimate formulation? Jesus is fully human and fully divine. That's the anchor of the faith. That's what distinguishes Christianity from Greek myth... To claim that God raised Jesus from the dead does not mean it was the transmigration of the soul or a bodiless resurrection. The confession from the beginning was that somehow, incomprehensibly, the resurrected Jesus had a body, but it wasn't a body that would decay again. Speaking for myself, I can't imagine any archeological discovery that would hinder Jewish or Christian faith. If we found the bones of Jesus, I can still confess that I experience a resurrected Lord. All of us are on one side of the grave, and we don't know what's on the other side of that eternal divide. How did you get involved in the Talpiot Tomb controversy in the first place? The Discovery Channel wanted an expert's take on Simcha's movie. I was brutal. I said the film should not end with a dogmatic [assertion that this was the Tomb of Jesus] but with an interrogative. I said they should leave out [the claims relating to] Mary Magdalene, Jesus and the boy. The focus should have been a question: What does it tell us about Jews at the time, and does it have any connection with a man from Nazareth... To me, the longer the film [went on], the less it seemed believable. Then, Discovery wanted me to chair a symposium. Journalism should excite people with questions. That's my scholar's viewpoint. Every single name in the tomb can be found in the New Testament either directly or indirectly related to Jesus's clan... It's surprising you don't have Daniel, Eliezer and other people. I don't have an answer to that... Our symposium ended with no conclusions. We agreed to start the process to get more data and approximate a better reconstruction of what the tomb can tell us about that period. I think the tomb is a window to the past. Let's have the courage to look through it.