In 2002, the existence of a first century ossuary was made public. Inscribed with the words, “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus, the news generated great excitement, along with a fair bit of scepticism. The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) stepped in, subjected the ossuary to a number of tests and declared the inscription to be a forgery. The sceptics were proven right … or were they?

Normally, this would have been the end of the story. However, in 1980 a tomb had been discovered in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot, appropriately named the Talpiot Tomb. Ten ossuaries were found inside this tomb, one of which had disappeared. Twenty-five years later, the nine remaining ossuaries were re-examined. Could the James ossuary and the missing Talpiot ossuary be one and the same? There is evidence suggesting they are.

Historical Background

Ossuaries, or bone boxes, were used as a form of secondary burial. When a person died, the body was placed inside a tomb, with perhaps a few artifacts. After about a year, once the body had sufficient time to decompose, the family would re-enter the tomb, gather the bones and place them in an ossuary.

Secondary burial was practised by Jews in the holy land for about one hundred years – from approximately 30BCE until 70CE. Thus, simply finding Jewish ossuaries automatically places the time of burial during or near Christ’s lifetime. The owners of the Talpiot tomb were clearly an elite family: first, because likely only the elite and literate had tombs; also, because six of the nine documented ossuaries from the tomb were inscribed, compared to the average of only 20%.

The Inscriptions

Maria – latinized form of the Hebrew Miriam. Miriam was the most common female Hebrew name in the first century. As many as one in four Jewish women carried this name. However, out of thousands of ossuaries found, only eight bear the Latinized form. It is suggestive that in the apocryphal texts, the mother of Jesus was commonly known as Maria. Early Biblical tradition also says that Mary died in Jerusalem, not in the Galilee.

Mary, Mother of Jesus

Yose – a nickname for Joseph. While the name Joseph was very common, Yose is a rare nickname and this is, in fact, the only ossuary ever found inscribed with this name. This individual was possibly the husband of Mary; however, it is believed that he did not accompany his family to Jerusalem and died in Nazareth. According to the Gospels, Jesus had four brothers (or half-brothers or stepbrothers, depending on your belief system): James, Judah, Simon and Joseph. The Gospel of Mark refers to the fourth brother, not as Joseph, but as Yose.

Matia – Matthew. This one is somewhat problematic as there is no Biblical confirmation that Jesus had a brother named Matthew. However, according to a genealogy in Luke, Mary did have several Matthews in her family. So, it wouldn’t be inconsistent to find a Matthew in a tomb belonging to the family of Jesus.

Yeshua bar Yosef – Jesus, son of Joseph. Believe it or not, this is not the only authentic Jesus, son of Joseph ossuary in existence. The first was discovered in 1926 and is currently on display in the Israel Museum. It is in no way connected with Jesus of Nazareth; Yeshua and Yosef were both common Hebrew names in the first century. What is compelling about the one from the Talpiot tomb is not the inscription, but the context of appearing in conjunction with other names known to be associated with Jesus of Nazareth. In addition, the Talpiot Jesus, son of Joseph ossuary is inscribed with a rough cross. This has traditionally been interpreted as a mason’s mark because most evidence suggests that Christians did not use the cross as a symbol until the fourth century. However, there is some indication that early Christians used cross-like marks that did not reference the method of Jesus’s execution. Of course, the very existence of a Jesus ossuary is enough for many to dismiss the tomb altogether as it contradicts the Resurrection.

Jesus of Nazareth

Mariamene e Mara – Mariamne, also called Master. Mariamne is the Greek version of Miriam, indicating this was a Jewish woman who moved in Greek circles. Some non-canonical texts refer to Mary Magdalene as Mariamne. The Aramaic term Mara, meaning Master, was usually reserved for men. However, in the same non-canonical sources Jesus referred to Mary Magdalene as “chosen among women” and they further state that she healed people and baptized converts, thereby performing the work of a man. Further, this tradition holds that she died at the Jordan River near Jerusalem. There are indications, although no direct statement, that she may have been married to Jesus.

Mary Magdalene

Yehuda bar Yeshua – Judah, son of Jesus. Without a doubt, this is the most controversial of the ossuaries. Both this one and that of Mary Magdalene (if it indeed the previous one is hers) fly in the face of two thousand years of Christian tradition. However, while the New Testament does not say that Jesus married and had a family, it doesn’t say he didn’t.

Further Evidence

The James ossuary. In spite of having been declared a forgery by the IAA, Professor Wolfgang E. Krumbein, the world’s foremost expert on patina accumulation, declared the inscription to be authentic. He stated that the reading that led the IAA to declare it a forgery was due to the ossuary having been cleaned, not forged. In addition, the CSI Suffolk Crime Lab in New York declared that the patina on the James ossuary exactly matches that on the nine Talpiot tomb ossuaries, indicating this could very well be the lost tenth ossuary.

DNA. The Paleo-DNA lab at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, one of the leading facilities of its kind, conducted tests on the bones of Mariamne and Jesus, son of Joseph. The results indicate definitively that these two individuals were not related by blood. Since people buried together in tombs are related either by blood or by marriage, this raises the possibility that they were married. This is not conclusive, however. There were other adult males in the tomb. Mariamne could have been married to one of them. Had the bones of Judah, son of Jesus been tested and proven to be the child of Jesus and Mariamne, or not, that would have been a better indication. Although the presence of a son of Jesus would seem to imply he was married to somebody.

Statistical Probability. While most of the individual names found in the Talpiot tomb were very common (ranging from one in four for Maria to one in one hundred and ninety for Jesus, son of Joseph), the combination of all of these names together was not so common. The mathematical probability of a Jesus, son of Joseph occurring with both a Maria and a Mariamne also known as Master is one in 365,928. As there were, at most, only 80,000 males living in Jerusalem at the time, it’s unlikely there was another Jesus associated with this combination of names. If we also include Yose, which was a very rare name, the probability drops to one in over 2.5 million. The names Matthew and Judah, son of Jesus, were not included because, while they don’t invalidate anything, neither do they validate anything as there is no Biblical record of these names. The name James was also not included as that ossuary was not found in situ and cannot be definitively proven to be from the same tomb.

My Take on It

Let me first of all state I am not anti-Christian. To my way of thinking, historical fact and spiritual truth are two different things. This theory is by no means definitive proof that Jesus did not physically resurrect, nor is it proof that he married and fathered a child. However, even if it were, it would in no way negate the truth of Christian teachings. Having said that, in all fairness, I should let you know that I am not a Christian. Therefore, my interpretation probably differs from that of most believers.

I suspect this really is the tomb of the family of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s the mathematics that convince me more than anything else. When you have a probability of one in over 2.5 million, and there were only 80,000 males alive at that time and place, that’s pretty strong evidence. Not conclusive, of course. Statistics are relevant only to populations, not to individuals, so there is always a possibility this is an incredible coincidence.

What do you think? Tomb of the Jesus family or simple coincidence?