Tomb "Documentary" Buries the Truth

Pastel-colored decorations are on sale at the local mega store. Burger joints are promoting strange fish concoctions. What can this possibly mean? Well, yes, we’ll soon be enjoying cream-filled Easter eggs, but it also means some TV channel will run yet another “documentary” trashing the central tenet of Christian faith. Isn’t it funny how we never see a show criticizing the Qur’an during the “holy” month of Ramadan? Hmmm…

Anyway, the latest offering is the Lost Tomb of Jesus, shown on the Discovery Channel this last Sunday night (March 4, 2007). The story begins in 1980. Construction workers uncover an ancient tomb from the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. Inside are a number of bone boxes or ossuaries dating to the time of Jesus. During this period, Jews would allow the body to decompose for a while, and then pack the remains into small stone chests for long-term burial. Relatives would often carve the dearly departed’s name on the side of the box.{1}

Now here’s the tantalizing bit. Six of the ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb bear Biblical sounding names: Mary the mother of Jesus, Jesus’ half brothers James and Joseph (Matt. 13:55), Matthew, Mary Magdalene, and Judah son of Jesus. Those, at least, are the connections that the Discovery docudrama would have us believe. In reality, there’s absolutely no evidence linking the people of this tomb to the people of the New Testament.

Of all the names, the most controversial is “Mariamenon,” a curious variation of the name “Mary.”{2} The Lost Tomb program embarks on a perverse game of connect-the-dots to link this woman to Jesus of Nazareth. I’m not going to retrace those slippery steps here, but the producers follow the Da Vinci Code story line in making Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus. They draw their “proof” from non-Christian, heretical books written centuries after the time of Jesus and the apostles.{3} Setting aside divine inspiration, just for a minute, no historian worth his salt would allow later writings to overrule several older texts. The fact is, there’s no evidence that Mary Magdelene was called Mariamenon, and there’s certainly no evidence that Jesus was married.

While we’re still on names, the show’s producers asked a statistician to crunch the numbers. He came up with a probability of 600 to 1 that certain key names could be found in a single tomb of first-century Jerusalem. The show leaps from here to the conclusion that the Talpiot burial site must be “the Jesus family tomb.” But the numbers prove nothing of the sort. They do not show that the ossuaries belonged to Jesus of Nazareth or any of His relatives. The fact is, names such as Jesus, Joseph, Mary and their many variants were very popular in Jewish Palestine during this period.{4}

There are plenty of other problems. We could ask, for instance, why the Lost Tomb only talks about DNA tests on Yeshua (“Jesus”) and Mariamenon.{5} These tests reveal that the two individuals are not blood relatives. That’s hardly surprising, given that their names were written in entirely different languages. Still, as far as the documentary is concerned, this opens up the possibility that they could be husband and wife. But if these “experts” think they have the bones of Jesus’ mother and brothers, why not test these connections as well? Even if we can establish a family relationship for the individuals in the Talpiot tomb, we have no way of proving that their bones belonged to Jesus of Nazareth, His mother Mary, or any other member of His earthly family.

In the end, skeptics must contend with this un-get-overable problem: the tomb was found empty. If the Jews didn’t like what the Christians were saying, it would have been easy enough to find the tomb and put Jesus’ remains on display for all the world to see. But they didn’t. Instead, as we read in Matthew’s account, they tried unsuccessfully to implicate the disciples in a conspiracy to steal the body (Matt. 28:13). Sadly, pseudo-documentaries and a lack of Biblical knowledge in the American viewing public conspire to obscure one of the greatest testimonies ever given: “He is risen! He is not here” (Mark 16:6). Indeed, He is not here. He is not in any cold, dark tomb or ossuary. He is in heaven, preparing a place for you and me (John 14:1-4).


  1. For a record of Talpiot ossuary inscriptions, see L.Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries (Jerusalem: Israel Antiquities Authority, 1994). 222-224. Reproduced in “tomb evidence” document distributed by the Discovery Channel.
  2. The actual Greek inscription, transliterated into Roman letters, is MARIAMENOU MARA. The first part is a name in the genitive, and so would be translated “Of Mariamenon.” Richard Bauckham, “The Alleged ‘Jesus Family Tomb’.” Accessed on March 9, 2007, from MARA is unlikely to mean “master” or “lord,” as the program speculates. Bauckham notes that it is a shortened form of “Martha.” Also see Craig Blomberg, “Did They Really Find Jesus’ Bones?” Accessed on March 9, 2007, from [As of May 1, 2010, link has changed to]
  3. This would be the Acts of Philip, which equates Mariamne with Mary, the sister of Martha. Harvard professor, François Bovon, takes a quite unsubstantied leap from here to the conclusion that this Mary of Bethany is one and the same as Mary Magdelene. According to Bovon’s colleague, Frédéric Amsler, Mariamne “is no one else than Mary Magdalene of the gospels.”Acta Philippi (Turnhout: Brepols, 1999), vol 2:312.
  4. Given that Mariamenon is not a known member of Joseph and Mary’s family, this would make the probabilities go down. The same could be said for Matthew, and for the fact that this tomb is in Jerusalem, and not the family’s home of Nazareth.
  5. The tests used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is thought to be passed only through the maternal lineage. It can be used to determine whether individuals are related through a common mother, maternal grandmother, etc.

© 2007 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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