Emory Report
April 9, 2007
Volume 59, Number 26

Emory Report homepage  

April 9, 2007
Bones of contention: Scholar rebuts 'Jesus tomb' documentary

by carol clark

Did a 2,000-year-old burial cave discovered in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem once hold the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family?

“There is no evidence to support identifying this as the tomb of Jesus. None at all, really,” said Jodi Magness, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, during a recent visit to Emory sponsored by the Society for Biblical Literature and the Carlos Museum.

An expert in classical and Near Eastern archaeology, Magness gave a rousing presentation on the lifestyles — and death styles — of the rich and famous in the ancient Holy Land to rebut some of the controversial claims made in the documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.”

James Cameron, director of the blockbuster film “Titanic,” produced the documentary, which aired last month on the Discovery Channel, sparking a flurry of media attention.

Construction workers developing an apartment complex in Talpiyot uncovered the tomb in 1980 and it was excavated by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Among its contents were limestone ossuaries, or burial boxes designed to hold the bones of bodies after they are decomposed. Two of the ossuaries were inscribed with the names “Jesus,” “Mary” and “Joseph.” Others were inscribed with “Mariamene,” which the filmmakers contend is Mary Magdalene’s real name, and “Judah Son of Jesus,” which the filmmakers suggest was the son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Many scholars have disputed these claims, first of all citing the fact that the names Jesus, Mary and Joseph were extremely common in Biblical times. In her presentation, Magness also provided evidence from archaeology and Gospel accounts that counter the documentary’s assertions about the tomb.

Ancient rock-cut tombs — underground caves cut into bedrock slopes — encircle the city of Jerusalem, she said. Only the wealthier members of the Jewish population could afford such tombs, since they had to be cut by hand. A body would be wrapped in a shroud and placed in an indentation carved into a stone bench. To make room for more family members over the course of several generations, the decomposed bodies would be removed from the stone benches and the bones would be piled in another area of the tomb.

Elsewhere in the Mediterranean, around 350 BC, a king called Maussollos of Caria built a family tomb at Helicarnassus in what is now the city of Bodrum, Turkey. Maussollos hired the most famous Greek sculptors to carve the monument, which featured a raised portico surrounded by Greek-style columns and topped by a pyramid. The spectacular tomb became one of the Seven Wonders of the World and gave us the word “mausoleum,” from Maussollos.

“From this point on, if you were rich and famous and wanted to build a family tomb, you’d want to model it after the Mausoleum at Helicarnassus,” Magness said. “This fashion spread throughout the Mediterranean and, eventually, was picked up by the Jews in Jerusalem.”

The tombs of wealthy families around Jerusalem were still caves cut into the side of bedrock, but they now often had porches for entranceways, supported by Greek-style columns and topped with pyramidal roofs.
Ossuaries first appeared in Jerusalem in the middle of the reign of Herod the Great, the Roman client-king of Judea, Magness said. “As soon as they appeared, they became quite common. I think the reason is foreign fashion.”

The burial rite in Rome at that time was cremation, she said. The ashes of the bones were gathered and placed in urns: stone containers with lids. Jewish law prohibited cremation. But that did not stop the wealthy Jews of the time from using ossuaries, which had to be just large enough to hold the largest bone of a decomposed human body, and mimicked the fashion of a cremation urn, Magness said.

Although rock-cut tombs are the most conspicuous archeological evidence of the burial customs of ancient Jews, the vast majority of people could not afford such monuments and were simply wrapped in a shroud and buried in the ground.

Jesus of Nazareth came from a poor family, which could not have afforded a rock-cut tomb, Magness said. And even if his family could have afforded such a tomb, they would have built it in their hometown of Nazareth, not Jerusalem, she added.

The Gospel of Mark (15:42-46) describes the death and burial of Jesus: “When the evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus . . . he [Pilate] granted the body to Joseph. Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb.”

Jewish law prescribed that a person had to be buried within 24 hours of death, but not on the Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea was likely a wealthy follower of Jesus who wanted to ensure that he was buried in accordance with this law, which required him to take the extraordinary measure of placing him in a chamber in his family tomb, Magness said. Nothing in Jewish law would prohibit taking the body and burying it elsewhere later.

A few days later, Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, according to scriptures. Faithful Christians believe he was resurrected. Non-believers could interpret it to mean that members of Jesus’ family came to remove the body for reburial, Magness said.

A member of the audience asked Magness why so many scholars were upset by the claims that the tomb could actually belong to the family of Jesus of Nazareth.

“I’m a scientist,” Magness said. “You can believe whatever you choose. But make no mistake — this reaction on the part of scholars has nothing to do with faith. It’s based on science.”