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The Jesus Discovery? A Sceptic’s Perspective1

This paper is the third in a series of presentations adapted from the Southeastern Regional Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Schools of Oriental Research, March 16, 2013 on The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012).

See Also: The Tombs at Talpiot: Overview of "The Jesus Discovery"

The Talpiyot (Jerusalem) Tombs: Some Sober Methodological Reflections on the Epigraphic Materials

By Mark Goodacre
Duke University
April 2013

To read this article in its entirety, we have presented it here in PDF format.


1 This is a revised version of a paper given at SECSOR (Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion) on 16 March 2013. I am grateful to Ralph Hawkins for the invitation to speak at this session, and to my dialogue partners, James Tabor and Christopher Rollston. I am also grateful to Mark Elliott for the invitation to publish this paper on Bible and Interpretation.

Comments (21)

Thanks, Mark. I largely agree with your skepticism of this claim of a Jesus of Nazareth family tomb. I also do not, so far, find in these two sites evidence of a Jesus-follower tomb. Of course some Jesus-follower tombs are identifiable, but not, so far, these two. I am interested in related archaeological and other insights, and I have dug and read for that purpose (among others), and I welcome those that have illuminated some aspects of the history. It is disappointing that such claims continue to be asserted in the face of more plausible explanations. In my view, the reasons for skepticism are numerous, overdetermined.
#1 - Stephen Goranson - 04/27/2013 - 08:37

How would you interpret Lk 14:26, 14:20, Q source (different in Matthew without referring to family ties) where Jesus rejects totally a family ties, here, a wife,children? From the blue air or a personal experience? Why is it recorded?
The same Matthew 19:12- based not on a personal experience of Jesus who changes his marital life to celibate after his conversion (Baptism scenes in all gospels)? Why here only in Matthew?
These are Bible texts that would prefer but not prove of course J.Tabor's interpretation.
#2 - Krzysztof - 04/27/2013 - 16:08

Thanks, Stephen.

I don't understand how the texts you mention "prefer . . . J. Tabor's interpretation", Krzysztof.
#3 - Mark Goodacre - 04/27/2013 - 18:02


Your attitude seems to be that:

1) there has never been any evidence that Jesus was married, so

2) we know Jesus wasn't married, therefore,

3) any evidence that Jesus was married is wrong, because,

4) we know Jesus wasn't married.

I know you don't exactly put it that way, but that surely seems to be the gist of your point.

Also, I can't believe you argue the engraving on the ossuary is a vase. It depicts a pointy object balanced on a round shape. That would be the most unstable and unlikely vase in history. What's more, the "handles" as you call them stick in the air and don't attach on the "vase" like a handle, making them fairly useless as something to pick up the object.

I'm not entirely convinced it is a fish, and I think that more evidence is needed before anybody can claim any degree of likelihood that Jesus was married to Mary. However, your points seem to be reflexive opposition and not based on anything substantial.
#4 - Richard Nash - 04/28/2013 - 20:43

Richard Nash, This is not, nor was it even intended to be a vase, it is an amphora,as was described in 1981 by the archaeologist/journalist who published it.
It it not meant to stand like a vase but, in the words of anthropology, form follows function. It was meant to be stacked for purposes of transportation. Put four together and in the inner spaces, begin stacking. Remember a rose is a rose and here an amphora is an amphora. Don't be confused by the orientation as it was never meant to be horizontal as they attempted to publish for commercial reasons along with trying hide the fact that it was published in 1981.
#5 - Joe Zias - 04/29/2013 - 03:06

Thanks for your comments, Richard. With a little reflection, and perhaps a quick re-read of my article, I think you will see that your representation of my position is some way off the mark. The difficulty is that Jacobovici's and Tabor's claims are made on the basis of an alleged remarkable correlation between the names found in this tomb and the expected configuration of names in a Jesus family tomb. It is therefore important to ask the question whether we would expect to find Jesus' wife, Mary, and their son, Judah, in such a tomb. There is no such expectation, therefore the claims of remarkable correlation are suspect.

"Vase", like "vessel", is of course a generic term used so that we don't get stuck debating what kind of vessel it is. Jacobovici and Tabor do the same thing with "fish". There are many varieties of fish just as there are many varieties of vessel. But of all the fish I have ever seen, I don't think I have yet spotted one that has those patterns of geometric shapes that correspond so nicely with the borders of the ossuary.
#6 - Mark Goodacre - 04/29/2013 - 20:52

Thanks for your comments, Joe. To be fair, Jacobovici and Tabor do discuss the 1981 discovery at some length, and publish the photographs from back then. It is true that they do not mention the DAVAR article from '81 and I am guessing that that is what you are referring to here. I would have thought that they did not know about the article but I could be wrong. I agree that it is interesting that the image is there interpreted as an amphora (if it is that image rather than the one on the end of the ossuary, which is possible too).
#7 - Mark Goodacre - 04/29/2013 - 20:57

Extraordinary evidence was satisfied by the name clusters. It should have triggered further investigation decades ago. Someone put the brakes on then as now with the compartmentalization of evidence so that its entirety is seldom considered. Definitive certitude was satisfied by the trial of Golan and the soil/patina tests on the questionable letters of the James Ossuary. The trial's invaluable contribution was establishing a timeline for the appearance of the ossuary and ordering the patina test. Why was this test not done before the accusation was made?
#8 - Susan Burns - 04/30/2013 - 12:39

I agree with Susan. How can the cluster of names not be seen as "extraordinary evidence?" It is remarkable, and anybody who refuses to admit that is not being credible.

Again, that's not to say it is definitive proof. But the confluence of several names, even if they are common, and that's a big if, is remarkable. Seems to me scholars should be interested in exploring such a remarkable discovery, and not be reflexively dismissive.

It seems to me that critics of this discovery are too quick to dismiss facts in favor of what they suppose. They suppose Jesus wouldn't be buried, or he wouldn't be buried in this location, or with these people.

Joe, I have the same observation about the alleged amphora. Whatever that shape is, it doesn't look remotely like anything that could be stacked. How would you go about stacking such an irregular shape?
#9 - Richard Nash - 04/30/2013 - 16:11

Richard and Susan: the cluster of names is only remarkable if they are names that we might have expected to find in such a tomb. Where the alleged correlation is weakened by the presence of non-matches and contradictory evidence, there is a problem for the thesis. It may be a little unfair of you to speak of my being "reflexively dismissive" given the detailed attention I have paid to the claims from day one.
#10 - Mark Goodacre - 04/30/2013 - 21:57

Susan Burns wrote, in part: "The trial's invaluable contribution was establishing a timeline for the appearance of the ossuary...." Oh? Can you give us the timeline? Or are there still unresolved claims about that timeline?
#11 - Stephen Goranson - 05/01/2013 - 03:49

Mark expects to find, in such a tomb, names that correlate to the Gospel stories. What was found instead is extraordinary evidence that contradicts what Mark expected. That is why scholars give more merit to one stroke of "kai" than to the totality of the amazing name cluster. They give more credence to an unprovenanced untested ossuary found in a basement than to the James ossuary that has been tested extensively. This discovery will cause our world view to change and that is disconcerting. Jim West believes a simple solution would be to destroy the James ossuary. But it is too late for that.

Richard and I perceive the amazing lack of curiosity by the scholarly community as "reflexively dismissive". But perhaps it is more as a result of cognitive dissonance.
#12 - Susan Burns - 05/01/2013 - 08:37


Your observations in this piece are all over the map. In one spot, you denitively state: "So these are not fish scales. They ARE decorations on a vase." Then the next sentence starts with "IF this is a vase..."

One minute you are making a definitive statement, then the next minute introducing probability.

Continuing: "...then the protrusions on either side MUST BE handles rather than fins, something that is straightforward to see..."

Well, no, it doesn't have to be it's not straightforward to see. In a normal handle, both ends would be connected to the vase or vessel or whatever it is. Clearly, whatever this drawing depicts, it is not a handle.

As far as what is expected, one can argue expectations as a way to mitigate evidence, but not to dismiss it entirely.

Put another way, you expect that a tomb with Jesus the Messiah in it would different than what was discovered in Talpiot. As a result, you completely dismiss the actual compelling tangible evidence (the unusual grouping of names in a tomb from the time Jesus lived/died in the city where he was killed) in favor of what you imagine.

I hardly have to point out that that is not exactly normal scholarly reasoning, which should exhibit bias in favor of hard evidence.

Sure, the evidence is far from conclusive and it is proper to use suppositions to mitigate the evidence, but that doesn't seem to be what is happening here. Instead the suppositions are drowning out the factual evidence.

And I commend your tone in this piece and willingness to subject your position to scrutiny, but most of the discussion on this topic over the past year has been not so high-minded.

To me, the biggest hurdle is the question of Mary Magdalene. The gospels say that she was a wealthy widow who traveled with Jesus and financed his ministry, and that he cast demons out of her. Does that sound like the likely profile of someone who would marry Jesus, if indeed they were married? I don't have an opinion, but it would be a more relevant discussion than vase handles.
#13 - Richard Nash - 05/01/2013 - 13:37

Hi Susan. It's not about what I expect to find but about what Jacobovici and Tabor expect to find. For example, they are impressed by a name correlation (Mariamne) with third and fourth century texts (Hippolytus; Acts of Philip). I am not impressed by such a correlation, which throws the net so wide that we could be impressed by anything. And that is before one even begins on their expectation to find Mary Magdalene in a tomb with Jesus.
#14 - Mark Goodacre - 05/02/2013 - 09:33

Richard: the difficulty is that detail and nuance are important in scholarly work; one can't simply attack something like this with broad brush strokes. An example from your comment: where do "the gospels say that she was a wealthy widow"?
#15 - Mark Goodacre - 05/02/2013 - 09:35

Mark, Luke 8 says she was part of a group of women who were traveling with and supporting Jesus and the disciples. Looks like I was wrong about the widow part, but I would guess she was wealthy if she backed the group financially.

Your above comment to Susan (#14) demonstrates that you still are looking at this thing backwards. Tabor and Jacobovicci didn't come to their position because they expected to find Jesus and Mary in a tomb. They maybe right and they may be wrong, but they developed their opinion based on the findings in the tomb.

The intriguing combination of names in the Talpiot tomb is a physical fact, not something that they or anybody else imagines.

Why is this so hard to comprehend?

The issue I have is that the main focus of the critics has been on anything but the facts. Simcha is a journalist, the proponents are in it for the money, the composite drawings are flawed and so on.

Critics say they don't expect to find Jesus in a tomb, or this tomb, or with these people, etc. But their expectations are of limited importance relative to the facts.

The central issue is that we have an intriguing set of physical facts about the world's most important historical figure. It would be nice to have an honest and open debate among experts about the facts of this, and someday that might happen, but to date the academic reaction has been largely to snigger. That perplexes people such as Susan (I assume based on her comments) and myself.
#16 - Richard Nash - 05/02/2013 - 13:54

Richard: what you call "the facts" are actually the data under discussion. "The intriguing combination of names" is not a "physical fact" at all; it is the data that requires discussion. And to repeat: a cluster of names is only impressive if it is not contaminated by non-matches and contradictory evidence.
#17 - Mark Goodacre - 05/02/2013 - 23:22

Richard, I do agree and you're right; Mark seems to think Simcha conjured the Mariamne ossuary out of spite. He is the one with the expectation of what names would occur in such a tomb. That is the basis of his argument. He would not expect to see names of a wife and child in such a tomb and, yet, here they are. Here is a real physical tomb with this cluster of names. Mark does not expect to see this cluster of names and so he simply ignores it.
#18 - Susan Burns - 05/03/2013 - 00:00

My concern about your response, Susan, is that it does not appear to understand the basis for Jacobovici's and Tabor's case. Their case is made on the basis of a claim about a remarkable correlation between two sets of names, the names in the tomb and the names in early Christian texts. What I am pointing out is that the correlation is not remarkable; there are non-matches and contradictions. You might wish to counter-argue that the correlation is in fact remarkable and this is what James Tabor does in his essay in this series. But it is no response to assert that the given cluster is there, or that I ignore it.
#19 - Mark Goodacre - 05/03/2013 - 14:54

Mark is willing to proclaim for all time that the historic Jesus was unmarried and any evidence contrary to this conclusion is either faked or misinterpreted. Is this because he has such faith in the historicity of the Gospels? He does not seem to mind a bone box with Jesus son of Joseph. He could accept a mortal Jesus but not a married one. According to Mark, a family unit with a married Jesus would be "contaminated".
#20 - Susan Burns - 05/03/2013 - 16:15

Does anything in you comment, Susan, correspond to anything I actually say?
#21 - Mark Goodacre - 05/03/2013 - 22:47

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