Throughout Jodi Magness’s The Archeology of the Holy Land, she has sidebars where she briefly deals with some specific topics that interest her. At the end of her chapter about tombs she has sidebars about the Talpiyot Tomb and the James Ossuary.
Both of these discoveries received attention because of coverage in Time magazine and on the Discovery and History channels. The claim about the Talpiyot Tomb is that it is Jesus’ family tomb. And the claim about the James Ossuary is that it is the bone box for the remains of James the brother of Jesus.
The Talpiyot Tomb came to light during a construction project in Jerusalem in 1980, but an account of the tomb’s contents did not come out until 1996. It contained 10 ossuaries. The names Jesus, Mary, and Joseph appeared.
I think it was about Easter time in 2006 that the theory that this was Jesus’ family tomb hit the news. At the time I wrote a column saying that to find the name Jesus (actually Yeshua in Aramaic) in a first century Judean tomb would be about as unusual as finding the name Jesus in a Mexican cemetery today. It was a common name. So were the names Mary and Joseph.
Magness agrees that the names do not mean much. Why would Jesus be wealthy enough to have a rock-cut family tomb? We have no information that makes this likely. Even if he had a family tomb, why would it be in Jerusalem, when the family home was Nazareth in the north? And even if somehow a wealthy Jesus had a family tomb in Jerusalem, custom would cause the inscription to read not just Jesus, but Jesus of Nazareth. So the whole theory is far-fetched.
The James Ossuary is a bone box with the inscription, “James son of Joseph brother of Jesus.” It’s authenticity is in doubt. It was not something recovered during an archeological dig. It just surfaced in the antiquities market. We do not know where it came from. But to Magness it doesn’t really matter if it is a fraud or not. We can be confident that it has nothing to do with the James who was the brother of Jesus and whose death by stoning is attested by Josephus.
The reason for this is that we can be pretty sure that James was not buried in a rock-cut tomb and that, therefore, his bones did not end up in an ossuary. We have not found the burial-place for James, but we know that in the second century the tomb of James was below the Mount of Olives and that its headstone could still be seen–a headstone as in a pit grave or trench grave. The strong tradition about James is that he eschewed wealth, so we would not expect to find his remains in a rock-cut tomb.
Magness gives us the considered opinion of an archeologist who sees the claims about these artifacts as bogus. Some people are very annoyed about the press giving credence to sensationalism. I share that to some extent. On the other hand, maybe these things call more attention to archeology and history. Some people may read more deeply and find that even though there is little to support these theories, careful archeology is exciting and does open up new vistas on the Bible.