Ron Rosenbaum, Writer

March 13, 2007

There I Was Inside a Bat Infested Dead Sea Cave…

Filed under: Uncategorized — ronrosenbaumwriter @ 3:46 pm

This was about a dozen or so years ago, and I was doing a story about the Dead Sea Scroll controversy. At the time the Scrolls had been tightly and secretly held by a scholarly cabal who were using their exclusivity to advance their academic careers (surprise), and many Scrolls had only recently been liberated unto the purview of a wider circle of scholars by individuals such as Robert Eisenman and institutions such as California’s Huntington Library.

I got Vanity Fair to send me over to the Holy Land to talk with the various fiercely divisive Scroll factions (divisive because many of the Scrolls were in tiny jigsaw puzzle fragments, and the implications of how they were interpreted held enormous repercussions for how one viewed the origin of Christianity and its split from Judaism.) You can read the result of my investigations in my collection The Secret Parts of Fortune. (Did I neglect to mention that eminent Dead Sea Scroll scholar. Oxford’s Geza Vermes, said of my story that it was “a worthy successor to Edmund Wilson’s reportage.” Just thought you’d want to know).

In any case I managed to join up with an expedition to the Dead Sea cliff caves, located between the barren Judean desert, scene of innumerable prophetical Biblical visions and the lifeless Dead Sea, caves where the Scrolls had been found in the late ’40s near the abandoned monastic remains of a settlement called Qumran. It was an expedition led by University of North Carolina Professor James D. Tabor, and when when we got there it was 110 degrees in the shade, only there was no shade, so it was almost a welcome relief to push blindly into the cool of the caves despite the bats, which I later learned carried all sorts of vile diseases.

I found Tabor to be a totally fascinating character, extremely intelligent, a serious Biblical scholar with a touch of Indiana Jones, whose researches had taken him from fundamentalist Christianity back to the theology of the Ebionites, a sect that harked back to the very earliest Christianity, the Christianity of the time of Christ–before Paul’s Chrisitianity turned against Jesus’ Jewish roots. Tabor considered himself a “Jewish Christian”.

He’s recently written several books about early, early Christianity, including The Jesus Dynasty whjch, since I don’t speak ancient langauges, I haven’t felt qualifed to evaluate amidst the maelstrom of controversy over such matters, but which I suspect are important contributions to the debate.

Well, I just got the following e-mail commmunique from Tabor regarding the James Cameron “Jesus Tomb” documentary which I had thought must be bogus, but which Tabor believes has some value.

Here’s what he has to say:

“I am sending this to a select group of media folk with whom I have worked on various stories in the past (Waco, Dead Sea Scrolls, Jesus Dynasty). It would not surprise me if you might be feeling a bit “tombed out” by now with all the flash-of-pan coverage of the “Jesus Family Tomb” the past two weeks. There is a real story here, of that you can be sure, actually two stories–One has to do with the tomb itself and a serious and proper evaluation thereof; the other is a story on how this story broke, how it has been covered, and the reactions thereto. What is not the case, despite an all-too-triumphant voice of the evangelical Christian right and a few shrill voices in Israel (Joe Zias, Amos Kloner, etc.), is that this story is dead, debunked, or of no lasting substance. I have been working on it for two years and the Cameron/Jacobovici presentation was just the public face. There is much more.

As some of you know, I chronicled some of this in the Introduction to my book, The Jesus Dynasty, which ABC News has graciously put up HERE.Take a look and if you are not “hooked” then delete this e-mail. But if you want to know more, read on…

I have put a lot of material up on my blog, Jesus Dynasty, which has become a one-stop-shop for what I hope is a responsible academic look at the issues. A bit of browsing there will quickly convince you that not much of the substance of this story has gotten out yet. It is waiting really for someone who may well be “tombed out,” but none the less is imaginative and energetic enough to realize what is here to go with it.

What has been lost in all the hysteria is that we are only now beginning to get some solid academic responses to the Tomb proposal that Cameron & Jacobovici have put before an academy that had ignored this tomb for 27 years, and a public that had never head of it. Two of these, one by Prof. Jodi Magness and another by Prof. Christopher Rollston, have been put up on the Society of Biblical Literature Forum Website.

I recently wrote an academic response to both of them titled “Two Burials of Jesus of Nazareth and the Talpiot Tomb,” and it has just gone on-line at the same site. These are more technical discussions but if you are interested in the story they are worth working through.”

As I said I don’t have a position on the question but I think Tabor’s view is worth paying attention to. He’s been right before.



  1. You took an “expedition to the Dead Sea cliff caves”? Alas, you must have been in terrible shape if it was that big a deal. When I lived in Israel, I took a picture of the cave entrance from the Qumram community. It’s no more than a short walk away, a one-water-bottle sort of expedition.

    I didn’t want to disturb that cave, but all by myself, without sherpas or a camel team, I climbed into the Judea hills near Qumran but further off, looking at some of the more accessible caves. Silly me. I thought I might find something. I didn’t know that back in the fifties, Israelis explored every cave they could find for additional manuscripts.

    Last fall, I worked with the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit when it came to Seattle. Seattle Center has not seen that level of attendance at any exhibit in years. If you get a chance to see the scrolls in some other city, get your tickets well in advance. And if Israeli Antiquities gives your city a chance to host the exhibit, take it.

    What a tough guy!. What a tin ear for langauge! “Expedition” doesn’t mean sherpas, camels etc., it’s a light hearted locution; but it was 110 degrees in July and we were searching for as-yet unexplored caves, and it’s not true “every cave” had been explored, because the shifting landscape of the sandy cliffs occasionally disclosed new ones, some of which had not been thoroughly explored and opened new areas of old ones. This raises the question why some commmenters are so eager to show what know-it-alls they are? Because nobody pays atttention to them in real life? Nonetheless I would agree that it’s really worth an “expedition” to see an exhibition on the scrolls if one is passing through.

    Comment by Mike Perry — March 16, 2007 @ 1:28 am | Reply

  2. I’ve been studying the Talpiot tomb find for years, long before it became public knowledge following the mass media exposure. I believe that it’s a serious find, which warrants further study.

    The critics of this find’s magnitude basically argue:

    1. That the Jesus family would be buried in Nazareth, not Talpiot;
    2. That the ‘Jesus’ ossuary would have been inscribed ‘of Nazareth’;
    3. That the Jesus family couldn’t have afforded a tomb like the Talpiot tomb;
    4. That the “Jesus son of Joseph” ossuary is not inscribed “Yeshua” (Jesus) at all;
    5. That the names inscribed on these ossuaries were supposedly common;
    6. That the “Mariamne” ossuary didn’t contain the remains of Mary Magdalene, but of two other women;

    I believe the first five of these allegations against the book’s premise don’t carry much water. The sixth argument actually supports the conclusion that this is the real thing. My comments:

    1. Talpiot is the right place for Jesus’ family tomb- Per Luke, 2:3-4, the family’s LEGAL residence was Bethlehem, not Nazareth. The fact that Joseph and the pregnant Mary could not take the census in Nazareth but had to take it in Bethlehem indicates that Bethlehem was their DOMICILIUM under Roman Law. That basically means that they had no intention to reside in Nazareth permanently. Therefore it would have made little sense for them to have a family tomb in Nazareth, that they wouldn’t be able to frequently visit at a later stage in their lives. They would have wanted a family tomb close to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, easily accessible also to future generations of the family. The fact is indeed that Mary and her children moved to Jerusalem around 30 AD.

    2. The traditional name of Jesus in Hebrew, as reflected also in the Talmud, is “Yeshu Hanotzri.” This appellation stems from “Netzer” (Shoot or Branch). It alludes clearly to Isaiah 11:1, indicating the Royal birth of Jesus, to substantiate his claim for Jewish messiahship. Not to indicate the place he comes from.

    There’s actually no evidence in Jewish sources, such as the Old Testament or the Mishna and Talmud, that a place called “Nazareth” even existed in or before the first century. I’m not disputing the evidence per the NT, that there was indeed a place called Nazareth. But to the best of my knowledge, there’s no mention of Nazareth at all in any ancient writings outside the New Testament. So the place existed, but nobody knew about it. And those in close proximity in Galilee who did know about it, obviously thought derogatorily of it , cf. “can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46.) Therefore there was no reason to call Jesus “of Nazareth.” Either in life or on an ossuary. He was called “Jesus the Branch” (of David) in Hebrew/Aramaic.

    The line of argumentation detracting this discovery around the supposed Nazareth origin of Jesus’ family may therefore be based on a very shaky foundation.

    3. Talpiot is located about 2.5 miles North of Bethlehem. Jesus’ family, of Davidic descent according to the New Testament, could have held the burial cave there even before it moved to Nazareth. Davidic birth was absolutely the most exalted in Judaism, always. The suggestion that any person of Davidic descent could be of the lowest social echelon, that couldn’t fund or get funding for a burial cave, doesn’t make much sense, if any. There’s substantial evidence to the contrary, e.g. 1. Jesus had some very wealthy active supporters like Joseph of Arimatea and Nicodemus (known as Nakdimon ben Gorion in post biblical Jewish sources-one of the richest Jews in Judea;) 2. Josephus, A.J. XX, 9:1. Note the prominence of James, brother of Jesus.

    4. The inscription on the Jesus ossuary does say “Yeshua bar Yehosef” (“Jesus son of Joseph”)to my eye. All letters but one are quite clearly there. The only letter which is somewhat more difficult to discern at first blush is the second letter- “Shin”. That’s because it’s written in a somewhat irregular form (in a regular Shin there are three teeth in the fork, pointing upwards. Here there are two teeth, pointing sideways to the right.) But that particular irregularity appears also on other ossuaries- notably numbers 9 (this one has two “Shin”- one with three teeth pointing to the right, and one with TWO teeth pointing to the right. Exactly like the subject inscription) and 121 in the Rahmani catalogue, which both feature also a “Yeshua.”

    Still, the name “Yeshua” on this ossuary is among the most, if not the most, difficult to read names of all ossuaries listed in Rahmani’s catalogue of Jewish ossuaries. It is almost written as a person’s complex signature on a check. Contrast that with the patronymic following the first name. This is written in a simple straightforward fashion, which is very easy to read. There’s no other example in Rahmani’s catalogue of a first name that has to be deciphered, and a patronymic that’s so plain and clear. Is this merely a coincidence?

    5. Some critics make the following comment to my post:

    “The inscription, Pfann said, is made up of two names inscribed by two different hands: the first, “Mariame,” was inscribed in a formal Greek script, and later, when the bones of another woman were added to the box, another scribe using a different cursive script added the words “kai Mara,” meaning “and Mara.” Mara is a different form of the name Martha.

    According to Pfann’s reading, the ossuary did not house the bones of “Mary the teacher,” but rather of two women, “Mary and Martha.'”

    Here’s my thought about that:
    If the Mariamne ossuary indeed housed the bones of Mary and Martha, these are two sisters of NT fame. One of them could have been married to “Jesus son of Joseph.” -Whether or not she was Mary Magdalene (Maybe the Mary who anointed Jesus’ feet and then dried them with her hair- very intimate scene.) The other sister would than also automatically belong in the family. It still fits. Actually it increases the statistical odds that this is the real thing quite substantially.
    This is a very intriguing possibility indeed, fitting perfectly with John 12:3. Intimate contact with a man, as described in this NT passage, was allowed only to a woman who was an immediate blood relative of that man, his wife (…or a working woman.) That’s all. Therefore Mary of Bethany was quite possibly by elimination Jesus’ wife or in the process of becoming his wife. In that context, Margaret Starbird already theorized that similar anointing with spikenard oil was part of pre marriage ritual of a Davidic king, per certain passages in the Song of Songs. Note also that intercourse by itself was sufficient under Jewish Law in certain circumstances to constitute valid marriage. That practice, termed Bi’ah marriage, was abolished in the 6th century, but it was lawful in Jesus’ time.

    Mary of Bethany could have become pregnant by Jesus while he stayed at her house, shortly before his crucifixion. In that case it’s quite possible that she bore Jesus’ son posthumously and named him “Judah.” And in that case both she and her sister Martha would have become part of Jesus’ family, which earned them a place in the Talpiot family tomb..

    Reminds me of the reaction to this find of a BBC reporter in 1996- It seems like all balls in the national lottery coming one by one.

    I have no knowledge of Greek, so I can only discuss the two propositions. Assuming that the ossuary does say “Mary and Martha”, here’s what I think the names are:
    * 1.”Jesus son of Joseph”(“Yeshua bar Yehosef” in Hebrew/Aramaic script;)
    * 2. “Mary” (“Marya” in Hebrew/Aramaic script);
    * 3. “Joseph” (“Yose” in Hebrew/Aramaic script. Precise nickname of Jesus’ second brother- cf. Mark 6:3);
    * 4. “Mary and Martha” (“Mariame kai Mara” in Greek)-they must have been sisters because Jewish law didn’t allow burial together of two unrelated women;
    * 5. “Matthew” (“Matya” in Hebrew/Aramaic script)- Name of Jesus’ first cousin, son of his father’s brother Alphaeus/Clophas. As James Tabor suggests in a different context, Matya could also well have been Jesus’ half brother, considering a certain specific rule of the Torah (Deuteronomy 25:5-10.) This rule was applied in Jesus time- see Matthew 22:24-28;
    * 6. “Judah son of Jesus”(“Yehuda bar Yeshua” in Hebrew/Aramaic script.)
    * Therefore out of eight names actually inscribed on these ossuaries (including the “Joseph” father of Jesus on the first ossuary) four names undoubtedly relate to Jesus’ immediate family, and three other names relate to the same with a somewhat lower probability. In any event, they all relate to Jesus’ extended family. Note that first century Jewish family tombs were usually a clan thing.
    * The eighth name is “Yehuda bar Yeshua”- must have been the son of Jesus and one of the sisters Mary or Martha. More likely Mary, as explained above.

    6. While the full versions of all these names were indeed common in Jesus’ time, the derivatives, nicknames and contractions were not. Thus “Yeshua” for Jesus was less common than “YeHOshua;” ditto “YeHOsef” instead of “Yosef” for Joseph; “Marya” for Mary was extremely rare in Hebrew/Aramaic script; “Yose” for Joseph is unique. Therefore out of these eight names, two are irregularities, one is a particularity, and one a singularity.

    BOTTOM LINE- Ask yourself inversely a hypothetical question- If the Talpiot tomb hadn’t yet been found, how would Jesus’ family tomb have looked , which ossuaries would it have contained, to when would it have been dated and where would it have been located.

    I would have thought of a tomb just like the tomb we’re discussing. It fits perfectly with what I’d have expected Jesus’ family tomb to be. Right place, right period, right names. I therefore believe that this matter, delicate as it obviously is, warrants further investigation. This could include opening and examination of the adjacent tomb, and forensic examination of the skeletal remains found in the Talpiot ossuaries, and apparently reburied back in 1980. These could hopefully be relocated by comparison to the mithochondrial DNA samples already taken from two of these ossuaries.

    Comment by Itamar Bernstein — January 24, 2009 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

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