“Faccidents”: Bad Assumptions and the Jesus Tomb Debacle

So much will have been written about the Discovery Channel presentation of the James Cameron extravaganza, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” that a further dissenting voice will neither be needed nor missed, In my initial preview of the program, published within hours of the CNN “announcement” and public unveiling of the alleged Jesus and Mary Magdalene matrimonial ossuaries, I wrote that the entire project was based on bad assumptions, and that since “following the science,” as the logorrhoeic Simcha Jacobovici says he was doing, can only take one where assumptions lead, let me spell out why the assumptions underlying this project are not only flawed but positively malicious to good scholarship and science. It seems to me uncontroversial and indisputable that the entire exercise hangs on an assumption that modern scholarship knows and accepts the names of Jesus’ family recorded in the gospels and passed down in Christian tradition; that the gospels coincide with other ancient testimony, for example, that provided by Paul in his letters or Luke in his two-part history. There is an assumption which more and more asserts itself in semi-scholarly work that while we can rely on the gospels for the names of the family of Jesus, we cannot rely on them for information about the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene; that in the latter case we have a cover-up abetted by early theological interests and a desire (by whom?) to suppress the “secret” life of jesus, this despite the fact that it is public celibate life, and not a married life, that would have been scandalous in first century Judaism. The same brand of scholarship is also characterized by a willingness to credit ancient sources that are contemptuous of history – the gnostic gospels especially – as the primary sources for information about the secret life of Jesus and his family. New Testament scholarship has struggled for two centuries to explain the complex literary relationshiop between the synoptic gospels, between the synoptics and John, and between the canonical four gospels and extra-biblical sources such as the gnostic gospels. A part of that struggle has been the recognition that each gospel has its own perspective and expresses a tradition unique to the community from which it emerged. If scholars cringe at the style, and the substance, of this most recent assault on good sense and critical method, it is because they will detect in the methods underlying the docu-drama a violent conflation of sources, not different in style from the sort of thing we normally associate with fundamentalist Christianity with its credulous approach to the Bible as an undifferentiated collection of religious truth.

As this controversy unfolds, there will perhaps be time to challenge and expose the sheer ignorance of these assumptiuons, but for the present, and because so much hinges on the names scrawled on the Talpiyot ossuaries, I propose only to deal with the “name game” being played by James Cameron, Simcha Jacobovici, and their historical “advisors.” History that is disrespectful of logic and facts, and the accumulated wisdom of two centuries of the historical critical method in biblical studies, deserves to be known by a new name. Assuming that at least some of what is being presented by the film-makers on the project corresponds to some of what has emerged from the Talpiyot tomb site, it is best to talk about the “faccidents” of the case – facts that do not fall into place without the benefit of a prior commitment to an established conclusion.

1. Faccident One: The Name Game

(a) The earliest Christian literature, that written by Paul, knows the names of none of Jesus’ family members. It is sometimes pointed out that Paul makes reference (Galatians 4.4) to Jesus having “been born of a woman, under the law,” but it is widely believed that these words are an insertion into the text of Galatians: Marcion, our earliest witness, does not know them, and as Hilgenfeld once noted, if his opponent, Tertullian, could have quoted them against Marcion, a docetist thinker, to prove the essential humanity of Jesus, he would have. We are left with the bare fact that Paul knows nothing of the human family of Jesus. He does know the names of some of Jesus’ followers, and in the same epistle uses the phrase “James the brother of Lord,” which makes it the more remarkable that he would not know of an extended family with a strong female influence operating in Jerusalem. As suggested below, Paul’s use of the term “brother” is not dispositive since he is not using it in reference to a biological relationship.

(b) Complications: The apostle named “James” in the earliest written gospel, Mark, is specifically catalogued as the son of Zebedee and brother of John (Mk 1.19) and thus not a member of the family of Jesus; a second James is named as a son of Alphaeus, along with Levi (Mk 2.1) and thus specified as being of a different family. This leaves James, the “brother” of the Lord mentioned in Mark 6.3, outside the community, and it is only by force of speculation (and conflation with Paul) that we can bring him into the fold. A skeptical eye might note, however, that Mark attributes the name “James” to three individuals in his narrative, a fact that suggests a compositor’s lack of historical information, an absence of historical memory, or both. There is good reason to think, considering the apparent overlap in names between the family of Jesus and the followers of Jesus given by Mark, that he was merely using garden variety names associated with the Jesus-tradition as he knew it. As noted below, textual force majeure will not solve this riddle.

(c) The author of the fourth gospel shows a thoroughly characteristic reserve. He, and his editors, provide no catalogue of followers of Jesus, although they give the names of most of the apostles, and once only, in the appendix, and then quite incidentally, speak of “the sons of Zebedee” (21. 2). There is nothing whatever to be said for the suggestion that the dialogue with Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross is a dialogue with Mary Magdalene, or that the agapetos or “beloved disciple” was a son of Jesus, a piece of speculation so wild in view of John’s theology that it scarcely deserves mention.

(d) Mark’s theological point of view centers on Jesus’ rejection of his family, in favor of a narrowing inner circle that includes a new kind of “brotherhood” with Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee), at its core. In Mark 6.3, James, Judas, Simon and Joseph (Joses) are listed as family members (cf. Matthew 13.54), while Luke omits any reference to this catalogue preferring to have the congregation cry, “Is not this Joseph’s son.” (Luke 4.22b). These differences might be explained redactionally, but this would not explain why Luke, or his editor, with his considerable admiration for the mother of Jesus, would omit her from the family list, as also seems to have been the case in an earlier version of Luke’s gospel used by Marcion. The tradition of names is so fluid that in Luke’s redaction of Mark’s resurrection account, he gives Mark’s list of “Mary, the mother of James and Joseph, Mary Magdalene, and Salome” as “Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the daughter of James” as companions at the end (Lk 24.10), and in John’s gospel, the list expands to three (!) Marys: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary, her sister, also named Mary, the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene (John 19.25-26). The proliferation of Marys can also be explained as parablesis – a scribe inserting names from names previously encountered in the text in order to flesh out detail – and a paucity of verifiable historical information.

(e) The confusion over the names provided in the gospels and letters of Paul relating to Jesus, his “family,” and his circle, is a persistent one in New Testament studies. “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” not only fails to acknowledge this controversy and the literary complexities of sorting through data that is at least as charged with theological interests as with a concern for factuality, it exploits it. As a matter of simple integrity, if the gospels are being used to provide the sole literary artifact evidence for the names we can associate with Jesus and his “family” – and this is the only possible standard of evidence – then in view of the above textual aporiai, it is significant that the only family grouping of factorial significance would be Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and Joseph only in two gospels, or three if we accept Mark’s listing of Joseph as a brother of Jesus.

The conflation of names – three (+) Jameses, three Marys – suggests redactional confusion between and among evangelists as well. This does not account for nominal confusion over “James the Just”, “James the Righteous”, “James of Jerusalem”, “James Protepiscopus” (first bishop of Jerusalem) and “James the Less,” all of whom turn up in diverse Christian testimonies.

2. Faccident Two. The Historicity of James. At odd junctures in the “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” we revert to a dramatized scene of the stoning of James, partly in keeping with the director’s intention to “drive home” the James-Jesus connection forcibly through images, partly as a way of redeeming the James ossuary which has fallen into disrepute since news of its “discovery” surfaced in January 2003.

(a) The death of James is not recorded in the New Testament. For that we rely on a late 1st century work by the historian Josephus in his Antiquities (20.9). It is known by scholars, however, that Christian references in Josephus’s work are pious additions. In the case of the Jamesian reference, the hand of the Christian editor is especially badly disguised by the addition of “who is called Christ” following the use of the name “Jesus” in discussing the trial of a certain James. It is an echo of the same device used in the Testimonium Flavianum (Antiquities 18.3), sometimes cited as a proof of the existence of Jesus but today normally regarded as a Christian forgery. If we purge the Christian interpolation, it is clear that the James mentioned by Josephus, who is delivered to stoning, is the brother of a significant Jewish leader and contender for the priesthood, Jesus bar Damneus, whose name appears in the same passage. In Antiquities 20.9.4, a Jesus bar Gamaliel succeeds Jesus the son of Damneus in the high priesthood. Josephus does not mention – at all – the James known from New Testament sources. The James sentenced to stoning is a completely different man. In his Jewish Wars, Josephus sees the death of Ananus – not James – as a precipitating event leading to the destruction of Jerusalem. The Christian interpolator has (bunglingly) inserted the relationship into a passage where he located the name of the wrong Jesus. It is therefore also impossible, outside Christian legend, to say anything of historical consequence about the later history of the James known to us from Paul’s letters.

(b) Complication: Paul’s language. The basis for the suggestion that James is the brother of Jesus depends on early references in Paul, especially Galatians 1.19. There is no doubt that James was regarded by Paul as a significant player in the Jerusalem community, together with Peter and John (Galatians 2.9, repeated in the legendary primacy-catalogue of Mark 9.2ff.). But his use of the word adelphos, as many scholars recognize, refers to James as a member of the brotherhood, as in Galatians 2.4; 3.15; 4.12, or as when he speaks of “false brothers” in Gal 2.4,5. James, according to Luke, uses the same language in calling Paul “brother,” (Acts 21.20) and the community the “brotherhood” (20.17).

The early Christians were renowned for their use of familial terms to describe their fellowship, a fact which led to their rituals being castigated as incestuous by pagan onlookers. In short, the use of the term “brother” to refer to James is honorific (religious) rather than genetic. Paul nowhere refers to other “Jameses” – no biological brother, no “James the Just” or “the righteous” or “the younger.” Those characters are created by necessity and fleshed out in the future, by gospel writers, and perhaps echo late first and early second century confusion over misremembered details of the historical period that Paul represents, more or less contemporaneously. In the light of Paul’s complete disregard for the “historical” Jesus, moreover, it is unimaginable that he would assert a biological relationship between James and “the Lord.”

(c) Finally, the James, Joseph, and Judas of the gospels, if not merely stock figures invented by Mark and dis-invented by Luke, play no role in the ministry of Jesus, while the unrelated son of Zebedee does. To turn Mark’s James into the head of the Jerusalem community after the death of Jesus, one would have to imagine that the James of the family who rejects Jesus (Mark 3.31) and is rejected in turn, repents of his action and joins the apostles, in Jerusalem, at some point following the death of Jesus, and rises to a position of prominence. While this scenario is not impossible, parsimony dictates that it is not likely. Mark’s theology implies that the scenario in chapter six is a fictional one designed to subordinate ephemeral family relations to the needs the wider community – the “true brotherhood” of believers.

The James who is head of the church in Jerusalem is not a biological brother of Jesus. Later but inconsistent gospel references to James are muddled reminiscences based on the more prominent James of the Pauline tradition.

(3) Faccident 3: The Identity of Mary Magdalene. Mary Magdalene is one of multiple Marys in the gospels, and never listed as a member of a family group.

It is unnecessary to go into detail about her role in the “family” of Jesus. That association is rooted in commercial interests, based on modern fiction and poorly understood ancient sources.

(a) The obvious points are that Mary is not listed as a relative of Jesus in the sole passage in Mark that gives the names of Jesus’ hypothetical family (Mark 6.1.). Mitochondrial DNA tests on ossuaries belonging to Jews of the Herodian period seem a far-fetched way to prove a fact attested in the gospels, that Jesus and Mary were not related. The suggestion that she is the “wife” of Jesus goes beyond anything given even in apocryphal and gnostic sources, where she enjoyed an expanded reputation for reasons grounded not in history but in gnostic theosophy.

(b) This in itself is not insignificant however, because Mary Magdalene is a vivid character in Christian imagination, lore, and in heresy. Her “extrapolated” importance points to the priority of the community over the family in the telling of the gospel story. In other words, “Mary Magdalene’s” significance emerges out of the gospels’ focus on the followers of Jesus and the unimportance attached to real-life family relationships, the very opposite of the significance asserted for her in the present controversy.

(c) She is especially important in two contexts: As a feminine prototype of discipleship, and as a “witness” of the resurrection of Jesus. It is wrongly supposed that she is named as the woman accused of adultery in the floating tradition associated with John 7.53-8.11, or following Luke 21.28, but is missing completely from some manuscripts. The woman is anonymous.

It is also wrongly assumed that she is the “immoral” woman who washes Jesus’ feet in Luke 7.37ff. That woman also is unnamed. In the prototype of this story in Mark 14.3-6, the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with oil is also unnamed by the synoptic writers, and is a resident of Bethany. It is unlikely that someone remembered as “Mary Magdalene” would be the same as Mary of Bethany, known from John’s gospel as the sister of Lazarus (Jn 12.1-8).

(d) This means that the sole reference to Mary Magdalene outside the resurrection tradition is a passage in Luke 8.1-3 where she is listed as “Mary called Magdalene,” a woman exorcised by Jesus, who is traveling with other women – including Joanna and Susanna. Luke finds a role for Joanna in his resurrection narrative as well (24.10), possibly to appeal to the wives of wealthy patrons who have commissioned his gospel.

(e) In John’s gospel, Mary Magdalene has become the primary female witness to the resurrection (John 20-1-8), and the intimate dialogue between the weeping Mary and the risen Christ at the site of the tomb in unique to the fourth gospel. Jesus’ resurrection appearance to her before the male apostles, while a piece of Christian fiction, was a powerful incentive to her further career in Christian literature. She appears therefore as a leading character in a variety of gnostic texts: In The Dialogue of the Savior (2nd century?), she assists Jesus in explaining the hidden meaning of the parable of the mustard seed in characteristically gnostic terms; in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (late 2nd century), she is called by Peter the one with the key of the Savior’s knowledge (gnosis) and the one loved by the savior more than males (a fundamental text in the eroticization of the relationship between Mary and Jesus); in the Gospel of Thomas (2nd century), which may be related to the traditions embedded in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Jesus offers to “make her male” since the female spirit cannot resemble that of the father.

(f) In the texts touted by the filmmakers responsible for the “Lost Tomb of Jesus,” the Gospel of Philip, dating from the 4 th or 5th century and trading on the confusion of Mary’s in the gospels, she is numbered among a “trinity” of Marys including the mother of Jesus and the sister of his mother, also known as Mary. In the text, she represents Sophia or wisdom, and Jesus, in symbolic but erotic language, is accused of “kissing her on the mouth” by disgruntled apostles, who equally symbolically represent their inadequate search for divine gnosis. In the Pistis Sophia (late 3rd, 4th century), in language skimmed from Luke 1.36-49, she is called “blessed beyond all women of the earth.because she shall be the pleroma of pleromas.” In this scene, she plays the part of a gnostic Virgin Mary of the Magnificat, prostrating herself submissively at Jesus’ feet. While this skims the surface, the following curriculum vitae is clear enough:

(e) From inconspicuous beginnings in Mark’s gospel (15.40, 16.1; 16.9), Mary Magdalene’s legend grows sufficiently by the 90’s of the first century that she becomes the beneficiary of a private dialogue with the risen Jesus in the Gospel of John. Based on the high gnostic evaluation of the risen Christ, the dialogue is formative for her exaggerated importance in gnostic circles from the late second century onward. In this role, she is of symbolic importance only.

(f) There is nothing of historical value in these sources, just as there may be little of historical value in the canonical sources upon which they are based. But in the (seemingly) most explicit of the gnostic sources, the Gospel of Philip, reputable scholars have fallen into the trap of searching for historical references to a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. What makes such a connection preposterous is Gnosticism itself: Gnostic dualism, with its emphasis on a world-denying asceticism and chastity, makes any suggestion that a “physical” relationship is being posited for Jesus and Mary Magdalene theologically absurd within the system from which the texts emerge. It is only by literalizing late sources, such as the Gospel of Philip, at the expense of the propagandistic Gnosticism they represent, that one can begin to suggest a physical relationship between the two protagonists.

(g) An intimate relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene is based on the legendizing and the Gnosticizing of a single passage in the canonical gospel least sympathetic to this-worldly relationships, one which actually trivializes her human significance as a witness to the resurrection and emphasizes the non-physicality of the risen Christ (John 20.17) and the unimportance of human relationships. With Thomas, also a favorite of gnostic speculation, she becomes a witness to the divine gnosis, enfigured in Jesus as the logos of God – not a potential bride.


The jigsaw of names and their conflicting theological contexts is fatal to the filmmakers’ approach to the Talpiyot tomb inscriptions. Far from representing a univocal tradition concerning Jesus’ “family” the evidence suggests a positive disregard for family relationships, ignorance and confusion over names, and theological situations which make the family configuration suggested for these ossuaries impossible to accept:

1. In the earliest literature, that produced by Paul, the family of Jesus is unknown. References to James as the “brother” of Jesus in Paul’s writings must be explained in terms of the familial usage adopted by the early Christians themselves.

2. Outside the New Testament, there are no early references to the family of Jesus, the sole candidate for such references, the work of Josephus, being forged.

3. The gospel writers beginning with Mark convey confusion or ignorance about family names. In the sole passage where names are given in sequence (Mark 6.3) three are lifted from the catalogue of apostles and one is the name later assigned to the father of Jesus, about whom Mark is otherwise silent. In a passage not repeated by Matthew and Luke, Mark records another “family” tradition in which the brothers (and mother) are unnamed. (5.31-32). John knows nothing of an extended family of Jesus, replacing the mother of Jesus mentioned (nameless) in John (2.5) with a post-familial and quasi-gnostic tradition of Mary Magdalene at the tomb (John 20.1ff.). John is ultimately confused about the proliferation of “Mary-names” (19.25-6), making both the name of the mother of Jesus and her sister “Mary.”

4. The later tradition concerning Mary Magdalene is historically vacuous and the possibility that she was invented to counter Jewish aspersions against the chastity of Mary the mother of Jesus cannot be dismissed out of hand. In Jewish tradition, the mother of Jesus is known as a harlot, a “dresser of women’s hair,” and is thus indistinguishable from Mary Magdalene: “Did not Ben Stada (Yeshu = Jesus) bring spells from Egypt in a cut on his flesh?” They replied, ‘He was a fool and one does not prove anything from a fool.’ Ben Stada is Ben Pandira. Rabbi Hisda [a Babylonian teacher of the third century] said, “The husband was Stada, the paramour was Pandira.” The husband was Pappos ben Jehudah; the mother was Stada. The mother was Miriam [Mary], the dresser of women’s hair – as we say in Pumbeditha [a Babylonian town where there was a famous rabbinical college], “Such a one has been false to her husband” [Shaddath 104b]. The phrase “Miriam m’gadella nashaia” (an aspsersive for the mother of Jesus) may indicate the origins of a bitter debate between Jews and Christians over the chastity of Jesus’ mother and the apologetic origins of the “second Mary.” The spelling of the name “Miriamne” or Miriamne (‘e) Mara is a red herring in the recent documentary. Mary Magdalene is never referred to in any source as the latter, and the former is widely attested as a name in Hellenistic Judaism, especially in the writings of Josephus.

R. Joseph Hoffmann
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion
Center for Inquiry
Amherst, New York

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