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London Times Tomb Story
I hope everyone is busy with Passover and Holy Week and does not mind being
bombarded with these news reports on the Jerusalem "tomb" with the first
century common names: I finally ran down the original story in the London
Sunday Times--it has a lot more information than all the clips I previously
sent out which I downloaded from Nexis--and which contain contradictions and
apparent errors. If I need a Qumran connection here for the Orion
list...let's see, what about raising the following question: Given the text
James Strange recently found at the settlement, with both name of author and
date, what other personal NAMES of community members can we document in the
Scrolls now that all have been released? Has anyone made or published such a
The London Sunday Times
March 31, 1996
THE TOMB THAT DARE NOT SPEAK ITíS NAME
Easter is a Christian mystery. The story of Jesus's crucifixion and
resurrection is the focus of Christian belief and hope of
life ≠ a spiritual mystery. This Easter, however, will be
While the glorious Easter hymns echo round the cathedrals
parish churches of the land, a remarkable group of clay
brought to light in Jerusalem by the BBC will electrify the
centuries-old debate: did Jesus's body really rise from the
on Easter morning?
The caskets ≠ ossuaries in which the bones of the dead were
deposited in 1st-century Israel ≠ have lain on a warehouse
a backwater of Jerusalem for 16 years. Israeli
no significance in them and the tomb they were found in was
obliterated. Yet when they were placed in front of us, we
How, we wondered, would Christians respond when we told
of the discovery? Would they dismiss it out of hand as not
something devout believers could bring themselves to
Might some even find the nature of their faith shaken by
news? Or would they dismiss it as a hoax?
We are no hoaxers; we did not create this remarkable
archeological evidence; we simply brought it out of
after going to Israel with two questions in mind. What
to the body of Jesus? ≠ a question you can only ask, of
you do not believe in His bodily resurrection ≠ and what
now discover about the events of the time that can help
the birth of a religion destined to transform the spiritual
life of the
IT WAS Barrie Allcott, director of CTVC, an independent
production company founded by J Arthur Rank to make
programmes, who first had the idea for the programme to be
broadcast on Easter Sunday. Suppose, he said to Anne
editor of Heart of the Matter, that the body of Jesus were
in Jerusalem. How would this affect Christian faith?
Ray Bruce, of CTVC, and Chris Mann, our director, flew to
Jerusalem for a "recce", intent on illustrating this
the latest archeological research on crucifixion and burial
the time of Jesus's death.
This was not as simple as it sounds. Archeology is a hot
Israel. It has often been alleged that Israeli
is to search out primarily Jewish history in this disputed
order to reinforce today's political claims. Yet orthodox
harass the archeologists, daubing graffiti curses on their
Any human bones found must be handed over for immediate
reburial. Were the body of Jesus to be discovered today,
would be its fate.
Israel is in a ferment of development, and wherever a
in there are likely to be interesting archeological finds.
The land is
eloquent with the traces of its history, but the Christian
but one of many strands. What may strike Christians as
with meaning may be dismissed in the fervour of the
That is why, perhaps, it needed outsiders to bring out from
archive shelves discoveries made a decade ago that compel
attention of all Christians.
WHEN I joined Ray and Chris to work as the reporter on
film, things were tense in Israel. The suicide bombers had
struck. Friends wondered why I was in pursuit of Jesus's
rather than the future of the peace process. I told them
the longer-running story.
But I found that I also had an entirely personal problem.
matter of Easter, you have either a Christian or a
viewpoint. There is no neutral ground outside the
debate. Whatever you believe puts you somewhere within it.
and Chris are both professing Christians. I am not.
I grew up within the mainstream Church of England belief
observation, baptised, con firmed and accepting readily the
Gospel story and Christianity's moral precepts.
It so happens I was born on Easter Sunday. Samuel Beckett
nothing to deny the widely held belief that he was born on
Friday, the 13th ≠ taking, I suspect, a wry pleasure in
doom-laden start for a writer whose work was so depressing.
similar but opposite vein, I have always regarded my Easter
as a personal blessing. The benison of a religion I was to
and to forsake.
Throughout this assignment I was to find my journalist's
objectivity ≠ and my historian's scepticism ≠ warring with
current of ancient faith and a love that once held a
central place in
I was working with tenacious individuals. Ray is a man of
energy, with contacts across the Middle East. He hails
every turn. He knows how to open doors. Chris, after 17
Songs of Praise and similar programmes, recently embarked
series ≠ Ancient Voices ≠ involving the search for historic
In Israel, he had the air of somebody living on the edge of
volcanic excitement, only restrained by an almost military
discipline and impeccable manners.
Chris had made the programme's crucial discovery before my
arrival. He and Ray first had examined the Catalogue of
Ossuaries, published in 1994, listing all the ossuaries
in Jewish tombs bearing any kind of mark or inscrip tion.
were looking for ossuaries listed as bearing the name
of Joseph. Their purpose was not to make any religious
They needed an ossuary simply as an example of what might
have happened to the body of the historic Jesus.
Chris had learnt that two "Jesus, son of Joseph" ossuaries
the 1st century AD ≠ what Israeli archeologists call the
Temple Period ≠ were stored in the warehouse of the Israel
Archeological Authority, an old factory on a side street in
Romemma, a rundown suburb of Jerusalem.
Baruk Brendel, one of the curators, had let him in, saying:
have the catalogue number, I'll get the yellow card out."
archeological institutes are obsessed with accuracy and
cataloguing, and only slowly could Chris fire Baruk with
enthusiasm for his search.
The first Jesus ossuary was little more than a broken
shard, with a
mark supposedly of a fish and an inscription. Chris knew a
diameter piece of pottery makes an uninspiring picture. He
persisted in seeking out the second ossuary.
More faded library numbers drawing-pinned to wooden
up and down; more stacked shelves. Finally, he had exactly
he needed for filming: a clay box, 65cm by 25cm by 30cm,
inscribed in ragged Hebrew lettering with the words "Jesus,
Chris might well have been satisfied to find the single box
leave. Something made him pause. "Do the ossuaries on
shelves," he inquired, "have any relationship to this one?"
yes, they were all found in the same tomb."
Slowly, matching catalogue numbers to library cards, the
each ossuary found alongside "Jesus, son of Joseph" in the
was revealed to Chris. First Joseph, written in Hebrew.
in lettering of the same period, Mary. Then there was a
Mary, this time in Greek. Another bore the name Matthew.
a different date, on an ossuary bearing a traditional
motif ≠ Juda, son of Jesus. Six ossuaries in all.
"It felt like the balls of the national lottery coming up
one by one
and approaching the jackpot," said Chris.
The second Mary was not a problem. There is, as Chris was
aware, a reference in the Gnostic gospel of Philip, a text
beginning of the Christian era found in Egypt in 1945. It
"The companion of the Saviour is Mary Magdalene. But Christ
loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her
The speculation that flooded Chris's mind remains just that
speculation. Yet the tug of famil iar names ≠ Mary, Joseph
their son, Jesus ≠ is hard to resist. Sunday school days
imprinted them on young minds. The canon of European art,
focus of worship in a million churches, have reinforced
impact. The names are icons of our culture. How could we
respond when Chris told us what he had found? We wanted to
film the ossuaries.
We remained well aware that the names may indeed be no more
than a chance alignment. Indeed, Tal Ham, one of Israel's
foremost experts on Jewish and early Christian history,
doubt. She has collected all the names that appear on
on inscriptions on papyri and other written sources, from
the 2nd century BC to about the 2nd century AD.
Her compilation has been nicknamed the telephone directory
the period. She told us: "Mary is the most common name for
women. Joseph is the second most common name for men, after
Simon. Jesus is also one of those very typical names. So I
say the chance that this is the cave tomb of Jesus of
and his family is not very likely."
We heard her. We believed her. But what if Jesus had died,
had been no resurrection and he had been buried with his
parents? Their ossuaries would certainly read: Mary and
and Jesus, son of Joseph. Wouldn't they?
We made further inquiries and found that a blast of TNT had
apparently led to the discovery of the Jesus family tomb.
the ground for the building of new apartments in East
suburb of south Jerusalem, workmen had broken through into
cave tomb of the 1st century AD. Whenever this happens,
archeologists are summoned instantly and the finds removed
recorded with speed. In this case, an archeologist called
Gath had been called in. He had identified the find as a
family tomb of the 2nd Temple Period and catalogued the six
There was a snag. The ossuaries were empty when they were
found. The bones of Joseph, Mary, Jesus son of Joseph, the
other Mary and the rest of the family had already been
vandalised, probably in antiquity. Dating the layers of
lying above them, Gath had placed the damage well in the
There was another snag. Gath had made his findings in 1980
had since died of a heart attack. An apartment block now
above the site of the tomb.
DESPITE the snags, the ossuaries seemed sensational to us.
What did others think? We sought the advice of Amos Kloner,
distinguished Israeli archeologist. One morning, he took us
bowling along in the fresh spring air outside Jerusalem and
suddenly called a halt. On either side of the road were
grass speckled with flowers, rising on our right to a low
trees. He explained: "I stop not for your filming, but
want you to know this is the Vale of Elah where, according
First Book of Samuel, chapter 17, David slew Goliath.
the Philistines came from the west over there."
He stood there smiling in the shimmering morning and I knew
felt for his scripture as I feel for mine. But the Old
battles and dynasties, of exile and captivity, leaves a
trace. The Christian story is harder to pin down or
Kloner is a leading expert on 1st-century burial sites and
taking us to a site called Kirbet Midras, one of the
grandest ≠ a
two-chamber tomb with a large round stone rolled away in
the way we imagine from the traditional Easter story.
He explained that Jewish burial in the time of Christ
in two stages. Immediately after death the body ≠ washed,
cleansed with oil, perfumed with ointment and wrapped ≠
be laid full-length on a stone slab within the inner family
It would be left there ≠ its primary burial ≠ sealed for a
which time it would be not much more than bones. For the
secondary burial, these bones would be collected together,
placed in a stone ossuary and stored in a niche, a kokh
kokhim) within the tomb.
However, according to Kloner ≠ who cited chapter 8 of The
Tractate Mahot, a Jewish commentary, as evidence ≠ families
regularly returned three days after the first burial to
whether the person might still be alive. He told of a case,
mentioned in 3rd-century Jewish writing, of a man restored
such a tomb to his family who went on to father more
First-century Jewish customs allowed for the possibility
apparent death might not always be the real thing and
for checks to be made on the third day. Thus, nothing in
Gospel account of Jesus's burial surprised Amos. "It is
we would expect for a Jew in the 1st century AD," he said.
He poured cold water, however, on our suggestion that the
ossuaries in the warehouse at Romemma could be those of the
Christian holy family. First, the names were just too
is just a chance . . . I think the possibility of it being
family very close to zero." Second, "The family of Jesus
from Nazareth is a family of limited generations. The cave
talking about was used by a family, even a wealthy family,
several generations." Third, our attention had been drawn
fact that after the name Jesus there appeared to be a cross
scratched in the stone. This he dismissed as nothing more
mason's mark. In any case, he insisted, the cross did not
into use as a Christian symbol until the early part of the
His fourth point was not so persuasive. Amos believes Jesus
not buried in a Jewish family tomb in what is now East
some three miles from Jerusalem itself.
He thinks ≠ as Christians do, and other Israeli
≠ that Jesus was buried in a new tomb given by Joseph of
Arimathea at a site where the Holy Sepulchre now is, near
Calvary hill. The area had been a soft limestone quarry and
used as a necropolis.
We pointed out, however, that if Jesus's bones had indeed
there in the first place, they would have been moved, as
the 1st century, to another location. For although the
was originally outside Jerusalem's walls ≠ to conform with
purity laws that burials were never allowed within the city
≠ in the
mid-1st century, at the time of Agrippa the Just, the city
extended and a third wall built. All tombs newly enclosed
the city walls were emptied and the bones moved elsewhere.
Jesus family tomb in East Talpiot dates from this period.
Amos did not raise the challenge that others might: were
inscriptions on the Jesus family ossuaries simply a hoax?
no way of authenticating them scientifically and we knew
discovery in 1945 of a cave tomb of ossuaries bearing
Hebrew-Greek inscriptions, which were initially believed to
lamentations by Jewish disciples for the death of Christ,
convincing once the translations were subjected to
The Jesus family ossuary inscriptions had all been formally
catalogued under numbers 701 to 706. Number 704 was
as "difficult to read, as the incisions are clumsily carved
badly scratched" but recorded as "Yeshua son of Yohosef" ≠
Jesus, son of Joseph.
The possibility of a misreading, the frequency of all the
mean the statistical probability of its being the holy
family is low.
But Joe Zias, an anthropological archeologist with the
Antiquities Authority, was intrigued. "The combination of
is really impressive," he said. "Had it not been found in a
would have said 100% of what we're looking at were simply
forgeries. But this came from a very good, undisturbed
archeological context. It was found by archeologists, read
them, interpreted by them . . . a very, very good text.
something which was invented."
Zias also confirmed that being subjected to public
and the disgrace of crucifixion was no bar to the dignity
respect of individual burial. Excavations carried out by
Antiquities Authority at Giv'at Ha-mivtar in north
the 1967 six-day war revealed the bones of a crucified man
deposited in his own individual ossuary. His name was
on its surface. The evidence was conclusive because the
bone was pierced by a 10cm nail and traces of wood are
pinned between the nail head and the bone itself.
Zias made other helpful points. "We know now it's
crucify anybody through the palm of the hand. There are no
bones there, simply flesh. The best place to put the nail
between the ulna and the radius ≠ high up on the wrist.
you're looking at crucifixion scenes post-14th century, the
suffering Jesus, blood and tears, you're looking at
history," he said. It was what he said about the process of
however, that was most intriguing: "It was very difficult
antiquity telling when a person was dead."
I mentioned that the Gospels speak of Christ being on the
for three hours. "If he was up there for three hours at
Christ died of hypovolemic shock, not because he was
asphyxiated. What happens is that as the whole meta bolic
system gets weaker and weaker, the signs of life become
more difficult to detect. It's very risky in terms of
So it is medically possible that Jesus could have been
from the cross, believed to be dead and actually still been
"Oh, sure, sure. There's textural evidence of people being
to be dead and being found to be in a coma."
There is a quandary in using the Gospel accounts as the
point for an argument that Jesus lapsed into a coma
death, because it returns full circle to the reliability of
themselves. On the other hand, archeologists are turning up
artefacts that clearly reinforce the stories told in the
A few years ago Zvi Greenhut, of the Israel Museum, found
ossuaries in a cave tomb of the 2nd Temple Period breached
bulldozer in south Jerusalem. The most elaborate, now on
in the museum, is an ossuary of elegant beauty, its formal
decoration of spirals and circles as sharp as if newly cut.
An inscription reads "Joseph, son of Caiaphas", which could
mean Joseph of the family of Caiaphas. It is the first time
Caiaphas has appeared in archeological excavation, and
believes it could refer to Caiaphas, the Jewish high
handed Jesus over for trial to the Romans.
Another name involved in Christ's passion has also turned
recent tomb excavations, that of Alexander, son of Simon of
Cyrene. The Gospels tell how Simon carried Jesus's cross
of the way along Calvary. Tal Ham refers again to her
directory of Jewish names and comes up with a positive
"There are 250 Simons. So if it just said Simon of Cyrene,
probably say there was a surge of immigrants called Simon
Cyrene, in north Africa, to Jerusalem. But because we have
name Alexander and that is not such a popular name with
only 20 in the directory ≠ and the biblical Simon of Cyrene
to have sons Alexander and Rufus, then the chance that this
the ossuary of the son of Simon of Cyrene who carried
cross is very likely."
Another small piece in place in the biblical story and
the historical record. Clearly, archeology is making
that show the New Testament to be accurate in matters of
background, burial rites and mourning, and about certain
individuals. The central figure, however, and the
moment of Easter continue to elude those who come seeking
proof and verification.
When I flew out of Tel Aviv, President Bill Clinton was
leaving after a visit and security was fierce. Closely
about my visit, I explained about the search for Jesus and
finding of the ossuaries. "Do you have any proof of this?"
asked. After producing programme notes, I was allowed
But the question lingered: do you have any proof of this?
have proof of nothing more than the existence of ossuaries
names central to the Christian story. What Christian
experts and, indeed, non-believers, make of the find will
abundant discussion for the debate.
* Heart of the Matter: The Body in Question. Easter Sunday,
Profile: Douglas Hogg