New Evidence Places ‘Ossuary of James’ In ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus’
FINDINGS REIGNITE DEBATE ON CLAIM OF JESUS’ BONES
Breaking News: The Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb
• Ossuary of James: Shanks Believes ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription Is Authentic
New Evidence Places ‘Ossuary of James’ In ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus’Apr 05
Ossuary of James
FINDINGS REIGNITE DEBATE ON CLAIM OF JESUS’ BONES
By Isabel Kershner
New York Times
April 4, 2015
Hailed by some as the most significant of all Christian relics but dismissed by skeptics amid accusations of forgery, misinterpretation and reckless speculation, two ancient artifacts found here have set off a fierce archaeological and theological debate in recent decades.
At the heart of the quarrel is an assortment of inscriptions that led some to suggest Jesus of Nazareth was married and fathered a child, and that the Resurrection could never have happened.
Now, the earth may have yielded new secrets about these disputed antiquities. A Jerusalem-based geologist believes he has established a common bond between them that strengthens the case for their authenticity and importance.
The first artifact is an ossuary, or burial box for bones, bearing the Aramaic inscription “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus,” that the Israeli collector who owns it says he bought from an East Jerusalem antiquities dealer in the 1970s. More than a decade ago, the government Israel Antiquities Authority declared the “brother of Jesus” part of the inscription a forgery and pressed charges against the collector; a Jerusalem court ruled in 2012 that the state had failed to prove its case.
The second artifact is a tomb unearthed at a building site in the East Talpiot neighborhood of East Jerusalem in 1980 and thrust into the limelight by a 2007 documentary movie, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The film was produced by James Cameron (“Titanic”) and written by Simcha Jacobovici, an Israeli-born filmmaker based in Toronto. It was first broadcast on the Discovery Channel in 2007.
The burial chamber, which subsequently became known as the Talpiot Tomb, contained 10 ossuaries, some with inscriptions that have been interpreted as “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Mary” and other names associated with New Testament figures. The group of names led Mr. Jacobovici and his supporters to argue that this was probably the tomb of the family of Jesus of Nazareth, a sensational claim rejected by most archaeologists and experts, who said that such names were very common at that time.
Critics like Amos Kloner, the Jerusalem district archaeologist at the time, essentially accused Mr. Jacobovici of jumping to conclusions to promote his movie.
Mr. Jacobovici and his supporters say that if it could be proved that the so-called James ossuary, whose provenance is unclear, originated in the Talpiot Tomb, the names on it, added to the cluster of names found in the tomb, would bolster the chances that the tomb belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth.
Enter the geologist, Aryeh Shimron. He is convinced he has made that connection by identifying a well-defined geochemical match between specific elements found in samples collected from the interiors of the Talpiot Tomb ossuaries and of the James ossuary.
When the Talpiot ossuaries were discovered, they were covered by a thick layer of a type of soil, Rendzina, that is characteristic of the hills of East Jerusalem and was apt to impose a unique geochemical signature on the ossuaries buried beneath it.
“I think I’ve got really powerful, virtually unequivocal evidence that the James ossuary spent most of its lifetime, or death time, in the Talpiot Tomb,” Dr. Shimron said in an interview in the lobby of the King David Hotel here as he presented his as-yet unpublished findings to a reporter for the first time.
An unlikely Indiana Jones, Dr. Shimron, 79, was born in the former Czechoslovakia and is an expert in plaster. Now retired as a senior researcher of the Geological Survey of Israel, a government institute specializing in earth sciences, he has been involved in archaeological geology for the last 20 years.
Dr. Shimron based his research on the theory that an earthquake that convulsed Jerusalem in A.D. 363 flooded the Talpiot Tomb with tons of soil and mud, dislodging its entrance stone and, unusually, covering the chalk ossuaries entirely.
“The soil created a kind of vacuum,” he said. “The composition of the tomb was simply frozen in time.”
For the last seven years, Dr. Shimron has been studying the chemistry of samples from chalk crust scraped from the underside of the Talpiot ossuaries and, more recently, from the James ossuary. He has also studied samples of soil and rubble from inside the ossuaries. In addition, for comparative purposes he has examined samples from ossuaries from about 15 other tombs.
Mr. Jacobovici, who has been documenting the research for another movie, said “the production” financed the lab work.
The Israel Antiquities Authority provided access to most of the ossuaries and carried out the major part of the sampling under the direction of Dr. Shimron. A spokeswoman for the authority said that it had provided some technical assistance for Mr. Jacobovici’s movie but that it was “not part of the loop.”
Dr. Shimron was looking for unusual amounts of elements derived from Rendzina soil, like silicon, aluminum, magnesium, potassium and iron, as well as for specific trace elements, including phosphorus, chrome and nickel — signature components of the type of clayey East Jerusalem soil that he says filled the Talpiot Tomb during the earthquake. The findings, he says, clearly place the James ossuary in the same geochemical group as the Talpiot Tomb ossuaries.
“The evidence is beyond what I expected,” he said.
Today the Talpiot Tomb is sealed underground beneath a concrete slab in a courtyard between nondescript apartment buildings on East Talpiot’s Dov Gruner Street, and its ossuaries are under the custodianship of the Israel Antiquities Authority. The James ossuary is back with its owner, Oded Golan, the collector, who lives in Tel Aviv and keeps the box in a secret location.
Yet Dr. Shimron’s findings seem likely to reawaken the controversies of the past.
There is the notion that burial remains, including bone matter, of Jesus of Nazareth would suggest that there could have been no bodily resurrection. Moreover, speculation that one of the bone boxes found in Talpiot may have belonged to Mary Magdalene, while another bore the inscription “Judah son of Jesus,” has only added to the general contentiousness of the finds.
Although 10 ossuaries were unearthed in Talpiot, only nine remain. Though archaeologists said the 10th was a plain, broken box that got thrown away, this, too, has spurred questions and conspiracy theories, including theories that the James ossuary was the 10th and was somehow spirited away.
Mr. Golan, the collector, recently gave Dr. Shimron access to his James ossuary for testing but said he was skeptical about the results.
For one thing, Mr. Golan said in a telephone interview, he bought the ossuary in 1976 at the latest, whereas the Talpiot Tomb was excavated in 1980.
(Had Mr. Golan purchased the ossuary after 1978, it could have been reclaimed by the state under Israel’s antiquities law.)
Even if the chemistry is correct, the James ossuary could have come from another tomb in East Talpiot, Mr. Golan posited, adding that such research required samples from a much broader test base.
“It is very interesting but not enough to determine anything conclusively,” Mr. Golan said of Dr. Shimron’s work. “You would need samples from at least 200 to 300 caves.”
Shimon Gibson was among the Antiquities Authority archaeologists who entered the newly exposed Talpiot Tomb in 1980. He said recently that it was clear that the underground entrance to the tomb had been open since antiquity and that the tomb had filled with soil abruptly as a result of a single quick event — possibly an earthquake.
Dr. Gibson and other archaeologists concluded that tomb raiders had probably been there during the Byzantine period. But he discounted any possibility that the James ossuary had been spirited away when the tomb was uncovered.
“I myself have excavated a handful of tombs that were open and filled with soil,” Dr. Gibson said. “Personally I don’t think the James ossuary has anything to do with Talpiot.”
Still, Dr. Gibson said, the scholarly community was eagerly awaiting the publication of Dr. Shimron’s results in a scientific journal for peer review.
Dr. Shimron, meanwhile, said he was bracing for an inevitable storm of criticism, including from people who find it anathema that a scientist, as he put it, should be “playing around with Jesus and Mary’s bones.”
Breaking News: The Controversial James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb
By James D. Tabor
April 4, 2015
Tomorrow’s Sunday New York Times will break a story based on new chemical tests done on the ossuaries from the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb comparing it with the controversial “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” ossuary. Dr. Aryeh Shimon is interviewed on the results of these tests that compare extensive scrapings from inside and outside ossuaries carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority of comparative ancient tombs of the same period in Jerusalem. Previously, tests had been done on patina, as noted below, but the new tests were of a far more telling nature, accessing the limestone beneath the patina. Limestone ossuaries over time absorb the soil and chemical environs of the tomb they are placed in. Each tomb has a characteristic chemical profile unique to its environment. Dr. Shimron’s conclusion is that there is an extremely high probability that the James ossuary was originally taken from the Talpiot tomb — either around 1980 when it was discovered, or perhaps earlier — since the tomb itself was unsealed. I might also point out that an ossuary from the nearby Talpiot tomb B was also sampled, just 60 meters away, and it did not match at all the Talpiot “Jesus” tomb ossuaries (Tomb A). This shows that Tomb A had a very specific and unique chemical environment — even with a tomb quite close by. Everyone seems to agree in terms of our statistics that adding the James ossuary to the names that are already in the Talpiot tomb changes everything in favor of its high probability of being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family, see the calculations by Kilty and Elliot, “The James Ossuary and the Talpiot Tomb.”
You can read an on-line version of the full New York Times story here:
“Dr. Shimron was looking for unusual amounts of elements derived from Rendzina soil, like silicon, aluminum, magnesium, potassium and iron, as well as for specific trace elements, including phosphorus, chrome and nickel — signature components of the type of clay East Jerusalem soil that he says filled the Talpiot Tomb during the earthquake. The findings, he says, clearly place the James ossuary in the same geochemical group as the Talpiot Tomb ossuaries. ‘The evidence is beyond what I expected,’ he said.”
What follows is the backstory on this controversial issue. For an overview of the James ossuary controversy more broadly see my previous post “What is What Regarding the Controversial James Ossuary.”
Is the James Ossuary from the Talpiot Tomb?
There are four issues to be addressed related to the possibility that the James ossuary came from the Talpiot Jesus tomb.
First, if the James ossuary was in fact the tenth missing ossuary from the tomb, even though it has disappeared, it was definitely catalogued by the authorities at the IAA, apparently measured, and given a registration number. Golan Golan says that he purchased it from an antiquities dealer in Jerusalem. It is difficult to construct any kind of hypothetical scenario that would have it removed from the IAA collection and end up on the market.
Second, even though the dimensions of the missing ossuary and that of the James ossuary are close, it is also described as plain and broken by Rahmani in his catalogue. Although in 2002 the James ossuary was broken while in transport to the Royal Ontario Museum and subsequently repaired, it was not broken when Golan acquired it. While not elaborately ornamented, it does have faint traces of the beginnings of rosette designs on the side opposite the inscription, so technically it is not “plain.” Rahmani, known for his keen eye and detailed descriptions, would have not likely missed this feature.
Third, Golan has testified that he obtained the ossuary sometime before 1978, providing photographic evidence to support his story, whereas the Talpiot tomb was not excavated until April, 1980. Although it is possible that it had been looted from the tomb sometime previous to 1980, we don’t know if the entrance to the tomb was visible to passerbys before the construction blast that obliterated its outside front entrance or porch, making it stand out even from the road below.
Finally, since Hegesippus reports, in the second century CE, that the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City, how and when would James’s ossuary have been moved to the Talpiot tomb?
Sometimes it seems impossible to fit all the pieces of a complex puzzle together but it is nonetheless important to have those pieces in view. Recently new evidence has come to light that not only supports the case for the James ossuary originating in the Talpiot tomb, but addresses these major objections in an unanticipated way. We are now in a position to put all that evidence together with some compelling new results.
Recently a group of scientists headed by Amnon Rosenfeld of the Israel Geological Society published a summary of their own work on the authenticity of the patina inside the inscribed letters of the James ossuary. Rosenfeld was on the original team at the IGS that had authenticated the patina on the ossuary in 2002. They conclude:
The most important indication that the inscription “Ya’akov Son of Josef Brother of Jesus” is authentic is the beige patina that can be found inside the letters, accreting gradationally into the inscription. The patina can be observed on the surface of the ossuary continuing into the engraving. . .These minerals and the circular pitting within the thin layers of the beige to gray patina were found on the surface of the ossuary and, more importantly, within the letters of the inscription. They indicate biological activity and are the product of airborne and/or subaerial geo-bio activity that covers all surfaces of the ossuary . . .indicative of slow growth over many years.
The team then turned to an evaluative analysis of the scientific tests done in 2006 on the comparative chemical composition of the patina accretions on ossuaries taken from various ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area. The premise of the tests was that ossuaries accumulate distinctive and measurable biochemical “signatures” based on the cave environments in which they have spent the past two millennia. Patina samples were taken from the James ossuary, three ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb (Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene, and Matthew) and ossuaries from thirteen other burial caves in the area. By comparing these signatures one can determine if the James ossuary had developed its patina in that particular “tomb” environment:
“Among the examined 14 burial caves was also the Talpiot cave. Six Talpiot tomb wall and ceiling patinas were sampled December 14th, 2006 (op. cit.). The elemental spectra of the samples were examined by SEM-EDS in the Suffolk Crime Lab (NY). Each sample was analyzed (SEM-EDS) in at least 3 different locations. The differences between tombs were easily discerned by the elemental fingerprints. The quantitative variability of the elements (patina fingerprint) within an individual tomb (wall patina, ceiling patina, ossuary patina) were small, 5% or less.”
((See Rosenfeld, et. al., op. cit. and Rosenfeld, A. and S. Ilani. 2002. SEM-EDS analyses of patina samples from an ossuary of “Ya‟akov son of Yossef brother of Yeshua.” Biblical Archaeology Review 28:6 (2002):29.))
Even tombs that shared a similar rock formation in close proximity to one another nonetheless had their own distinctive chemical signatures. The results showed that the James ossuary shared the same chemical signature as the three tests ossuaries from the Talpiot Jesus tomb as well as the walls and ceiling of that tomb. In contrast, the James ossuary patina signature differed considerably from any of the other thirteen burial caves.
Rosenfeld and his colleagues suggest that based on these patina fingerprints the James ossuary was more likely a looted eleventh ossuary, rather than the missing tenth ossuary that had been catalogued by the IAA in 1980 and discarded or misplaced. They observed that the James ossuary was weathered intensively with massive pitting and striations.
None of the other nine ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb show this kind of weathering. They concluded, on the basis of this weathering, that the James ossuary had been exposed to the elements for at least 200 years. Since we know that the blocking stone was missing from the tomb when it was examined in 1980, and the tomb itself was filled with the local terra rosa soil to a depth of two feet, covering the tops of the ossuaries in the niches, the James ossuary had likely been nearer the exposed doorway of the tomb, where the fill was more shallow. When or how James ossuary would have been taken from the Talpiot tomb we cannot determine. It might have been a number of years before the 1980 excavation of the tomb, or it could have been looted the first night when front porch of the tomb was blown open and exposed, before the IAA officials arrived to begin their work. If it were close to the entrance it would have been the only ossuary seen inside by looters since the others were covered with soil.
During the trial Oded Golan presented photos taken in 1976 in his parents’ apartment showing that he possessed the James ossuary, with its full inscription at that time—before the excavation of the Talpiot tomb in 1980. A photographic expert, former head of the Department of Photography and Documentation at the FBI, found no possibility that the photos were made at a later time.
Even though we had initially suggested the possibility of the missing tenth ossuary being that of James, based on the similar dimensions and the patina fingerprints that seemed to place it in the Talpiot tomb, we must always adapt our views to new evidence. Shimon Gibson had suggested this theory of a missing eleventh ossuary to us back in 2006, when he recalled that the ten ossuaries inside the niches that were removed to the Rockefeller and catalogued had been covered with soil. When the IAA archaeologists arrived on a Friday morning, March 28, 1980, the first day of the excavation, they took photos and there is no evidence of any ossuaries having been dug out of the niches. But it is entirely possible, since patina tests show the James ossuary spent much of its history over the past two millennia in the Talpiot tomb environment, that it was near the door, less covered with soil, and thus easy to carry off.
If the James ossuary inscription is authentic and it comes from the Talpiot Jesus tomb, what about the late second century CE report by the Christian chronicler Hegesippus who says the tomb of James was visible in the Kidron Valley, not far from the southwest corner of the Old City wall, where James was murdered? It hardly seems likely that the tomb of James was once in that location and then subsequently moved to the Talpiot tomb. We suggest that there well might have been some kind of monument to James in that area but we know little of Hegesippus, who spent his career in Rome. We can’t assume that he is reporting any kind of eyewitness account. In Rome there are reports of tombs and monuments to both Peter and Paul in several locations. Monuments were assumed, over the ages, to be tombs, and tombs might not have monuments. The fourth century church historian Eusebius, for example, quotes an unknown writer named Gaius who says: “But I can show the trophies of the apostles. For if you will go to the Vatican or to the Ostian way, you will find the trophies of those who laid the foundations of this church.” We are not certain if he means some kind of monument, pillar, or relic, or is he speaking of a tomb. Clement of Rome, who lived just a few decades after the deaths of Peter and Paul, mentions their martyrdom but seems to know little of any circumstances and mentions no tomb locations (1 Clement 5:3-7).
Today there are several monumental tombs in the Kidron Valley, dating to the late Hellenistic period (200-100 BCE) that are variously identified as the “Tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” the “Tomb of Zechariah,” the “Pillar of Absolom,” and a tomb inscribed as that of a priestly family,that is sometimes identified as the “Tomb of James.” On Mount Zion today, the southwest hill of Jerusalem, millions of pilgrims visit what is called “the tomb of David,” though most scholars locate it further to the south, outside the city of David. No one takes any of these sites and locations seriously as historically connected to these figures. They are part of hagiographic traditions that Christians developed in the late Byzantine period down through the Crusades.
Even though we had initially suggested the possibility of the missing tenth ossuary being that of James, based on the similar dimensions and the patina fingerprints that seemed to place it in the Talpiot tomb, we must always adapt our views to new evidence. Shimon Gibson had suggested this theory of a missing eleventh ossuary to us back in 2006, when he recalled that the ten ossuaries inside the niches, and removed to the Rockefeller, had been covered with soil. When the IAA archaeologists arrived on a Friday morning, March 28, 1980, the first day of the excavation, they took photos and there is no evidence of any ossuaries having been dug out of the niches. But it is entirely possible, since patina tests show the James ossuary spent much of its history over the past two millennia in the Talpiot tomb environment, that it was near the door, less covered with soil, and thus easy to carry off. By whom or when we will likely never know.
• Ossuary of James: Shanks Believes ‘Brother of Jesus’ Inscription Is Authentic
• ‘Jesus Tomb’ Controversy Rages As Archaeologists Explore Another 2,000-Year-Old Tomb
• Jerusalem District Court Issues Verdict On ‘Ossuary Of James’
• “Ossuary Of James” Trial Comes To End
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