Lost Tomb of Jesus

Last week, I promised I’d watch this documentary about the “lost tomb of Jesus” because it was being advertised here on Pharyngula. Promise fulfilled, but the ghastly program was two hours long—two hours of nothing but fluff. I’ve put a bit of a summary of the whole show below the fold, but I’m afraid there’s nothing very persuasive about any of it, and it was stretched out to a hopelessly tedious length.

8:00-8:30 We learn that there were some ossuaries pulled out of a tomb in 1980. The names scrawled on them: Jesus bar Joseph, Jose, Mary, Matthew. They really didn’t have to drag that out for a half hour.
8:30-8:45 They poke around the site of the tomb, which is under an apartment complex in Jerusalem. I do learn that rabbis there insist on pipes being poked down to tombs so the spirits can get out, which is kind of freaky, but convenient if you’ve got a camera and some fiber optics. We also see some handwaving statistics, given the frequency of various names, and an estimate that it’s very unlikely that this can be anything other than Jesus’ family. I don’t buy it.
8:45-9:00 Another ossuary has the name “Miriamne Mara”. They speculate that this might be Mary Magdalene’s, despite it not saying “Magdalene”, because MM might have been a master (“Mara”) and preacher. Extensive confabulations follow.
9:00-9:05 You know that tomb they were poking around in earlier? They finally get a camera in. Wrong tomb.
9:05-9:15 Hey, Simon bar Jonah’s ossuary was found somewhere near here—maybe this was an area where lots of early Christians were buried! So they show some more piles of ossuaries nearby. It seems to me, though, that if they’ve got an association with a specific community of early Christians, that the statistical analysis which assumes a random distribution of names has just gone kablooiee.
9:15-9:25 Finally, the much ballyhooed DNA evidence. They extracted mitochondrial DNA from bone fragments in the ossuaries. The mito DNA from the Jesus ossuary and the Miriamne Mara ossuary don’t match—which is what you’d expect if it were Jesus and Mary Magdalene (they are not maternally related!) It’s also what you’d expect if it were a family tomb, and they were husband and wife. Therefore, they speculate for a while that Mary Magdalene and Jesus must have actually been married to one another! It’s an awful lot to spin from a lack of a DNA match.
9:25-9:30 The guys at the apartment complex find a cement cover 20 meters away, and open it up. It’s the right tomb! I don’t quite understand why they’re rummaging about in the old tomb—the ossuaries had been removed 20 years before, and stored in a warehouse.
9:30-9:45 They count the ossuaries in the warehouse, and the tally in the archaeological records. They don’t match—one is missing. So they dredge up Oded Golan and the “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus” ossuary, which is known to have had a forged inscription. They speculate that even if the “brother of Jesus” part was forged, if it came from the same tomb, it would still indicate a familial tie.
9:45-9:50 Patina analysis shows that the James ossuary probably came from the same tomb as the Jesus/Mary/Miramne/Matthew/Jose group. Uh, they don’t seem to care that they’ve just linked their inscribed ossuaries to a known forged ossuary inscription.
9:50-10:00 Bombshell! Now, at the end of the program, they mention another ossuary that was inscribed “Judah son of Jesus”. Let’s speculate that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a child together so that this all makes sense. Unfortunately, their earlier arguments relied on the compatibility of the names with scriptural evidence; now when they’ve got a name that contradicts the scriptures, they just pull an unsupported story out of their asses to make it fit. If they found “Kilroy” scrawled on one of the ossuaries, I suspect they’d make up something about a distant cousin mentioned in an apocryphal scrap of parchment somewhere.

It wasn’t very impressive. They really milked a paucity of hard data for an over-long ‘documentary’ that was mostly handwaving. The DNA data was pretty much non-existent—one pair of bone fragments were compared and found not to match. Most of the story was an assurance that the conjunction of names found in the tomb couldn’t merely coincidentally match the names found in the gospels…but they really had to reach to make excuses to turn “Miriamne Mara” into “Mary Magdalene”, and they had one name, this “Judah” kid, that didn’t match the biblical collection at all, so they just flat-out invented an unsupported tale of Jesus having a son. Flogging a link between some ossuaries stored in a warehouse (which did not look at all secure) for twenty years and a known forgery also simply obliterates any credibility the whole shebang might have.

Don’t waste your time with it. It’s nonsense. I was rather enchanted with the idea that some apartments in Israel have ‘spirit pipes’ that lead down to 2000 year old tombs, though, and that if you pry up the right slab in your garden you might find a ladder down to an ancient tomb. Otherwise, it was pretty much a bust.

One good thing: the commercials for an 11-part documentary titled “planet earth” to be shown later this month looked very, very good. I may have to catch that one.


  1. #1 David Marjanovi?
    March 5, 2007

    When the hell was the last time anyone encountered an argument with only two sides?

    I have long suspected that in American journalism every argument has exactly two sides. Like duct tape and the Force.

  2. #2 David Marjanovi?
    March 5, 2007

    Thus, the name Maria (????) in Hebrew is extermely uncommon

    Was that really the name on the ossuary? If so, it’s a forgery. Period. Sure you’ve heard of “Miryam” or “Maryam”? Those end im M. ???? begins with one letter and ends in another. Specifically, it ends in H, which is just there to indicate that the word ends in a vowel (or, maybe, to make stupid spellings like “Mariah Carey” possible). (In front of that, there’s a Y, preceded by an R; I don’t know the first letter, but obviously it must be an M.) “Maria” is the version that’s squeezed into Greek and Latin grammar so that speakers of those languages were able to understand the name refers to a female. Again: if that’s what it says on the ossuary, it’s fake. In that case I have trouble believing that so many people overlooked that simple fact, however.

    Can you tell me what you know about the SCIENCE of Historiagraphy.

    How to spell it: historiography. I know that plenty of Americans pronounce that the same, but you should be aware that most of the rest of the world does not, and that included the ancient Greeks and Romans. Incidentally, your use of capital letters (for emphasis) looks quite 18th century.

    I minored in history during my undergraduate degree.

    Ah, really.


    That’s a contradiction in itself.

    As for “primary source material”, what about “Q”, the supposed list of Jesus quotes used by the synoptic gospels and possibly reproduced in the first half of the Gospel of Thomas?

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?
    March 5, 2007

    Oops, wanted to write “blockquote” instead of “b”.

  4. #4 David Marjanovi?
    March 5, 2007

    Sorry for the third comment in a row… The bones were buried right after discovery, as is apparently customary in Israel.