Together at Last?

Book cover
The Jesus Family Tombby Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino

HarperSanFrancisco. 218p $27.95


This book is the companion to the Discovery Channel’s program “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” A well-written, interesting, often titillating account of the 1980 discovery of inscribed ossuaries from a tomb in Talpiot, a suburb south of Jerusalem, it reveals the names of various first-century Jews, among them “Jesus son of Joseph.” Realizing that the names were commonly used by many persons, the Israeli archaeologists then made nothing of them and stored the bone-boxes in a warehouse. Now the documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and the paleobiologist Charles Pellegrino offer a new interpretation of the names on six ossuaries: Maria, Jesus son of Joseph, Matthew, Yose, Judah son of Jesus, and Mariamne or Mara (the last written in Greek and said to mean Mary Magdalene).

The book presents many important and little-known details about the discovery of the Talpiot tomb and recounts how Jacobovici’s interest in investigating it was aroused by the James ossuary that came to light in 2002, when André Lemaire published its inscription in the Biblical Archaeology Review: “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.”

It was not known then that this ossuary was related to those of Talpiot, but the authors now show convincingly that it is indeed, even though the Israel Antiquities Authority has declared it a modern forgery and is prosecuting the private collector, Oded Golan, who bought the ossuary from an antiquities dealer, as the forger. Many details are given also about the use of samples from the Jesus and Magdalene ossuaries for mitochondrial DNA analysis, which showed that the two bodies were not born of the same mother. This leads the authors to conclude that Jesus and Magdalene were married.

Shades of The Da Vinci Code, only worse! Dan Brown at least called his writing “a novel,” but this one purports to offer “hard physical evidence,” “science” and “triple-checked evidence.” Despite the fascinating story that is told, one notes time and again “if,” “perhaps,” “could be” and numerous assertions made in the form of rhetorical questions. The questions are formulated, but the reader is supposed to affirm them. Speculation is rife, and the account often presents the conclusion before the evidence for it is produced.

The biggest problem in The Jesus Family Tomb is the interpretation of the name MAPIAMHNOY H MAPA (mariamenou e mara). As interpreted, the first word becomes “of Mariamne,” that is, “Mary Magdalene.” No explanation is given of the masculine/neuter ending ou; furthermore, the Greek mara is said (gratuitously) to be the Aramaic word for “Master” or “Lord.” But why would a Greek name with a masculine or neuter ending, followed by Greek e (“or”), which uses an Aramaic title for Lord become the name of a woman, specifically of Mary Magdalene?

Worse still is the claim that the fourth-century Acta Phillipi, Chapter 8, establishes that “Mariamne” is the name for Mary Magdalene. Jacobovici maintains this on the authority of the Harvard professor François Bovon, who published a newly found Greek manuscript of the Acta in 1999. Yet at no place in those Acta is “Mariamne” used for Mary Magdalene. The name first occurs in a passage where the Lord is dividing up the world for evangelization: “When the Savior divided the apostles by city and country and each went forth according to his lot, it fell to Philip to go to the country of the Greeks...; he thought hard about it and wept. Mariamne, his sister (it was she who made ready the bread and salt at the breaking of bread, but Martha was she who ministered to the multitudes and labored much), seeing her brother so vexed, went to Jesus and said, ‘My you not see how my brother Philip is troubled?’ He said to her, ‘I know, you are the chosen one among women; now go with your brother...and encourage him.’” She does so, going along with Bartholomew too. Mariamne is further described as a woman who has the spiritual strength of a man and becomes herself an apostle accompanying Philip and Bartholomew. Bovon attributes to her characteristics drawn from other early apocryphal writings as well, and on the basis of these characteristics identifies Mariamne as Mary Magdalene. In the passage quoted above, however, the author of Acta is alluding to Mary and Martha of Luke 10:38-42. Although Mariamne is mentioned further a number of times, there is not one instance that suggests she is Mary of Magdala, and in each one she could just as easily be Mary of Bethany (John 11:1).

So the whole account about “the Jesus family tomb” loses its most crucial piece of “evidence.” Though not widely known, this is also not the first time that “Jesus son of Joseph” has been found on an ossuary. In 1931, Eliezer Lipa Sukenik (of Dead Sea Scrolls fame) published an ossuary inscription with the name, Yesu’ bar Yehoseph. Careful scholar that he was, he wrote, “I should like to emphasize expressly that I draw no conclusions about these names and am not minded to identify them with any personalities in the New Testament. Such names were at that time very frequently used, and proof for any identification is lacking.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

“No matter how long or short our lifespan,” Barbara Lee writes, “we live our spiritual life in the present.”
James T. KeaneSeptember 21, 2018
Mark Massa invites the reader to reconsider not only the church’s teaching on artificial birth control, but also the methodologies used to arrive at that teaching.
Daniel CosacchiSeptember 21, 2018
Vanessa Hua reminds the reader that no matter how hard you work, our immigration system can and will still fail you.
Zac DavisSeptember 21, 2018
Mary Beard's new book is about the viewer as well as the viewed. It prompts us to think about how we construct our sense of civilization and the troubling ways that artistic depictions of the human and the divine serve to cement bias and, sometimes, provoke violence.
Candida MossSeptember 13, 2018