SBC Life Articles

The “Jesus Tomb” Claim Rejected

Contesting a key claim of the so-called "Jesus tomb," a leading Israeli scholar says one of the ossuaries contained not the bones of Mary Magdalene but instead the bones of two unknown women named "Mariame" and "Mara."

The Mary Magdalene claim is one the most controversial ones in The Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary that aired on the Discovery Channel March 4. The documentary translated one of the ossuaries (or bone boxes) found in Jerusalem to read "Mary, known as Master." The program then used a document written centuries after Christ to claim the Mary on the ossuary in fact was Mary Magdalene and was married to Jesus, whose ossuary the documentary says was found in the tomb.

The names, though, were among the most common in the era, and the overwhelming majority of scholars — both Christian and non-Christian — have dismissed the claims.

Stephen J. Pfann, a biblical scholar and archeologist at the University of the Holy Land, believes the Greek inscription on the controversial ossuary reads, "Mariame and Mara" and contains the handwriting of two different people. He wrote a paper comparing the ossuary's inscription to other inscriptions around New Testament times.

If Pfann is right, it would refute a critical argument from the documentary, which claimed that because DNA found in both the Jesus and Mary ossuaries showed the two weren't maternally related, they likely were married. The documentary's translation also formed the core of its statistical argument.

"There is no longer any reason to be tempted to link this ossuary (nor the ambiguous traces of DNA inside) to Mary Magdalene or any other person in Biblical, non-Biblical, or church tradition," Pfann wrote in the analysis posted on the school's Web site.

Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, also believes the ossuary likely contained the bones of two women. Other scholars have said the inscription may have read "Mary Martha" and been one person.

"Mariame" is another name for "Mary," which was the most popular female name during Christ's time and was shared by one-fourth to one-fifth of all women. "Mara" was short for the Aramaic name "Martha," Pfann said. It was the eighth most popular female name during that time. Other ossuaries containing those names have been found.

Pfann believes the ossuary contains the name "Mariame," followed by a space, the Greek word "kai," which means "and," and the name "Mara." The "and Mara" were inscribed later by a different person with a "different handwriting style," after the woman died and her bones were added to the box, Pfann says.

"This scribe's handwriting includes numerous cursive elements not exhibited by the first scribe who wrote 'Mariame,'" Pfann wrote.

The "and Mara" contained no space, which was the "normal scribal practice of the period," he said. But the scribe, or someone else, subsequently placed a stroke (a vertical line) to separate the "and" from the "Mara," Pfann said.

"Due to the fact that (1) an ossuary would often contain more than one individual's bones and (2) these two names are among the most common personal names of the first century, the combination of these two names together on an ossuary is not unique," Pfann wrote.

In addition to the aforementioned ossuary, the Jerusalem tomb, discovered in 1980, contained the bones of a "Jesus son of Joseph," a "Mary," a "Jose," a "Matthew," and a "Judah." At least one other "Jesus son of Joseph" ossuary has been found elsewhere. "Joseph" was the second most popular name for the time, "Jesus" the sixth.

    About the Author

  • Michael Foust