Dr. Stephen Notley Responds to the Tomb of Jesus' Family Claims
Friday March 9th, 2007
Dr. Notley During Wycliffe's Recent Israel Trip
Dr. Stephen Notley, along with Prof. Marion Taylor, recently led a group of Wycliffe students on a tour of Israel. Upon his return, we received his thoughts on the current newspaper headlines surrounding the Tomb of Jesus' Family:
I arrived back yesterday morning from Israel at 5:00 a.m. (in a NY snow storm) and was greeted with the hubbub over the purported Tomb of Jesus' Family. Over the last 24 hours in my jetlagged state I have had the opportunity to review the inscriptional material. It was already published by L.Y. Rahmani in A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuraries (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994) 222-224.
I have collated what I see as some of the fundamental problems with the claims. As usual, the problem is that these folks do not control the languages at the center of their claims.
Here are a few reflections, questions regarding the hubbub:
1. After looking at Rahmani's inscriptions, I think ossuary No. 704 does indeed read Yeshua bar Yosef (contra Stephen Pfann). However, the collocation of these names certainly does not necessitate that this is Jesus' ossuary. Indeed, even within Rahmani's own catalogue there is another example of a Yeshua bar Yosef (cf. No. 9.1). The limited pool of names means that the combination of Yeshua and Yosef would have surfaced countless times.
2. While it is true that Yoseh (ossuary No. 705) is a diminutive form of Yosef, I can not think of a single occasion where the NT Joseph is referred to by this form either in the NT or later Christian writings. Contrast the lack of the shortened form of Yosef's name (i.e. YOSEH) with the diminutive form of Mary's name (from MIRIAM) that does occur in the NT (i.e. MARIA). MARYA (the Hebrew equivalent to the Greek NT name) appears on ossuary No. 706. Rahmani even suggests that the similarity in the style of the inscription of Yoseh and Marya's names suggests that they may have been the parents of Yeshua and the grandparents of Yehuda son of Yeshua. While speculative, it may be true. But to attempt to identify this Yoseh as the NT Joseph (as done by Jacobovici et al) lacks the needed connecting evidence that the NT Joseph was ever called by the diminutive form YOSEH.
3. To my mind the most critical piece of the argument lies with ossuary No. 701 which belonged to a woman and inscribed "Of Mariamne [that is] Mara". [As Cameron notes, she is the "Ringo" of the names in the tomb. In his analogy if you found a tomb with John, Paul and George, you could speculate but not be certain it was the Beatles. If you found also (the more rare name) Ringo, then the probability would become almost certainty.]
There are two obstacles to identifying this woman as Mary Magdalene. First, the NT routinely calls her MARIA or MARIAM, and never the form MARIAMNE. The promoters attempt to sidestep this problem by citing a 4th century Gnostic text, the Acts of the Philip, in which we do have a travel companion of Philip named Mariamne. There has been some suggestion by Francois Bovon that she is to be identified with Mary Magdalene, but my cursory glance at the the Acts of Philip indicates she is to be identified with the Mary sister of Martha (from Bethany) and not Mary from Magdala. Here is a snippet from the Acts of Philip 94: "It was she [Mariamne] that made ready the bread and salt at the breaking of bread, but Martha was she that ministered to the multitudes and laboured much."
Moreover, the inscription states that this Mariamne was also called MARAH. In a real laugher which could only be conjured up in Zeit Geist of our day, they have read MARAH as "Master" (i.e. the feminine form of the Aramaic MAR). Thus, they are trying to reclaim (a la Dan Brown) Mary's rightful place as head of the early Christian movement which was taken from her by the chauvinist leadership of Christianity. The charges of chauvinism in early Christianity notwithstanding, the suggestion that Mary Magdalene was known as "the Master" (MARAH) can not be supported by the appearance of MARAH with her name on the ossuary. The feminine form of MAR (master) is MARTHAH not MARAH. Instead, as Rahmani indicates the appearance here of MARAH is the diminutive form of the proper name Martha (cf. also Nos. 468.2 and 868). So, this Mariamne was also called by the diminutive form of Martha (or MARAH). Once again, we lack a single reference in the NT or any later Christian writing I know that Mary Magdalene was ever called Martha (or MARAH).
So, it may be true that this Mariamne and Yeshua were married and that they had a son named Yehudah, but I can find no compelling link between these names and the NT figures.
It is worthwhile to restate that the challenge is to move beyond mere speculative possibility to at least probability (if certainty remains unattainable). I do not think the evidence that we have been provided moves us beyond mere (and questionable) possibility.
As a final added note, I would point out that a similar clustering of these names surfaces among the dynastic family of Hasmoneans. Of course, I am not suggesting that this tomb belonged to a family descended from the Maccabees. Only to draw attention to the limited and popular pool of names at the time and that the collocation of these names need not indicate that they are NT figures.
Shalom from snowy NY!
R. Steven Notley Professor of Biblical Studies Department of Biblical and Theological Studies Nyack College New York City