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from the trenches
Hype in the Holy Land Volume 60 Number 3, May/June 2007
by Eric A. Powell

Jesus's Family Tomb ignites biblical archaeology's latest media frenzy.

The big reveal: James Cameron (far right) looks on at a New York press conference as guards uncover two 1st-century A.D. ossuaries purported to have held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene. (Samir S. Patel) [LARGER IMAGE]

If you were anywhere near a computer, television, or newspaper in late February, you were probably at least momentarily in the grip of "The Jesus Family Tomb" publicity machine. Just in time for Lent, the Discovery Channel went into overdrive promoting a documentary film and accompanying book that contend a first-century A.D. tomb excavated in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiyot once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, as well as Mary Magdalene. The news was greeted with a collective groan from biblical scholars, who in recent years have become accustomed to fielding reporters' calls about the latest archaeological bombshell from the Holy Land.

Produced by Academy Award-winning director James Cameron, the documentary follows journalist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici as he tries to link the Talpiyot Tomb to Jesus. The burial site contained at least six inscribed ossuaries, limestone boxes that Jews of the period used to hold bones of the dead. One reads "Jesus, son of Joseph" in Aramaic. Others bear the names Mary, Matthew, and Judah (who the documentary posits may be Jesus's son). Jacobovici proposes still another Talpiyot ossuary inscription can be translated as "Mary the Master," perhaps a reference to Mary Magdalene. (For a critique of the evidence, see "The Jesus Family Tomb on T.V.")

Jacobovici's last high-profile project was a documentary on the so-called James Ossuary, which bears an inscription reading "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) subsequently declared that the latter part of the inscription was a modern addition; its owner, antiquities collector Oded Golan, is now on trial in Jerusalem, charged with leading a forgery ring that may have faked a number of artifacts and inscriptions related to the Bible.

Unlike the James Ossuary, which surfaced from the murky world of the antiquities market, the ossuaries from the Talpiyot Tomb were scientifically excavated by archaeologists in 1980, and have been held in IAA storage ever since. While the authenticity of their inscriptions is not in question, Jacobovici's interpretation is.

"These are common names," says archaeologist Eric Meyers of Duke University, who has a number of problems with Jacobovici's research. "The investigation was conducted in secret over the past three years and all the parties involved signed non-disclosure agreements. That's not how you do archaeology. That's how you do show business, and it's a disservice to biblical archaeology."

The theory has found some cautious support from a few academics. New Testament scholar James Charlesworth of Princeton University, who attended a Discovery Channel press conference in New York, urged scholars to keep an open mind about the interpretation.

One of the original excavators of the Talpiyot site, Shimon Gibson, has expressed skepticism about the tomb's identification as Jesus's final resting place, but has voiced support for Jacobovici's efforts. James Tabor, chair of the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has emerged as the theory's main proponent.

Though Tabor published a book last year that made the case for Jesus being buried in Galilee, he has vigorously backed Jacobovici's interpretation of the Talpiyot Tomb, sending out a blizzard of e-mails on the subject to fellow scholars. He also maintains a blog,, that details his position. Though respected scholars, both Gibson and Tabor are no strangers to controversy. They excavated the so-called Cave of St. John the Baptist, which made headlines in 2004 when the two announced they had found a shrine to the saint that might even have been used by John himself to baptize followers.

Thanks to media coverage of discoveries like the Cave of St. John the Baptist and the Jesus Family Tomb, biblical archaeology has rarely before enjoyed so high a public profile. However, the scholarly world is not so enthusiastic about efforts to unearth archaeological proof of the Bible. "There is a tendency amongst archaeologists to play down the biblical account," says Eliezer Oren, an archaeologist at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "The subject of biblical archaeology is no longer as popular [with academics] as it used to be."

A number of discoveries linked to the Bible that have made the news in recent years have been shown to be fakes, and, like the James Ossuary, many of them are included in the indictment of Oded Golan. The Talpiyot Tomb may play a role in the case, thanks to a geochemical analysis commissioned by Jacobovici. The study is said to link the James Ossuary to Talpiyot, raising the prospect that it was stolen from the tomb. A source close to Golan told Archaeology that the defense may use that thesis to help show the James Ossuary inscription is authentic, and that they could ask a representative from Jacobovici's team to testify on Golan's behalf.

The next sideshow of the Jesus Family Tomb media circus may yet play out in a Jerusalem courtroom.

Eric A. Powell is senior editor at ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America