The Media and Three Surveys by the Tomb Symposium Participants

Assessment of the Facts: The Media and Three Surveys by the Tomb Symposium Participants


The Third Princeton Symposium on Judaism and Christian Origins

“Jewish Views of the After Life and Burial Practices in Second Temple Judaism

Evaluating the Talpiot Tomb in Context”

Jan 13-16, 2008 in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, Jerusalem

An initial assessment of the results of the recent Symposium which was published by the media was quickly rejected by most of the Symposium participants. Most of the media assessments gave a general statement about the conclusions drawn by the “50” participants as a whole. (See conference list of presentations for the participants.)

“Although most of those who spoke at yesterday’s seminar said it was possible the tomb was that of Jesus, Jacobovici’s film was taken with a grain of salt.” Haaretz

“The gathering of world scholars, which some had expected would conclude by dismissing claims linking the tomb to Jesus, wound up inconclusively, but with wide-ranging agreement that the matter required further investigation.” Jerusalem Post

“Until now, international perception of the academic consensus has been that the Talpiot tomb ‘could not be’ the Jesus family tomb. In contrast, 50 of the top scholars in the world now concluded that the Talpiot tomb ‘might very possibly be’ the tomb of the ‘Holy family.’” Marketwire

“Experts Split on Supposed Jesus Tomb: The conference ended with no firm conclusions and with experts divided on the likelihood of the tomb containing Jesus’s family. Charlesworth has not made up his own mind.” United Press International

“After three days of fierce debate, the experts remained deeply divided.” Time Magazine

At times the media became more specific and gave personal statements about the tomb’s historical significance made by individual participants, including the symposium’s chair James Charlesworth (Time), the Jerusalem district archaeologist at the time Amos Kloner (JPost), the tomb’s draftsperson Shimon Gibson (JPost, Haaretz), and historian Israel Knohl (Haaretz).

Simcha Jacobovici’s press representative J9 Communications (see Jim West’s posting on this) singled out a group of four who, they say, had ascertained the identification of the Tomb with Jesus as being “likely”:

“Although some academics continue to deny the possibility, leading New Testament scholars such as Professor Jane Schaberg (Mercy), Professor Claude Cohen-Matlofsky (University of Toronto), Israel Knohl (Hebrew University) and Professor James Tabor (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) all indicated that they thought it was ‘likely’ that the Talpiot tomb was indeed the lost tomb of Jesus.”

(However, the assertions of this report do not at all match the actual statements of Israel Knohl and Jane Schaberg(and not exactly James Tabor) found in the “Fair Representation” survey published in View from Jerusalem).

Three surveys launched by the symposium participants themselves

A large number of participants in the symposium felt disappointed in the media’s portrayal of their view concerning the connection of the Tomb on Dov Grunner St. in the East Talpiot district of Jerusalem to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. In response, they decided to speak out for themselves.

The Fair Representation letter solicited and received the personal statements from a number of participants. The value of this collection is that it allowed the participants to provide a more individualized response, free from the interpretation of the media and the limitations of the general statement.

Two general statements have been published by participants of the symposium:

One general statement was drafted by Professors Jodi Magness and Eric Meyers with the participation of a number of the other participants. The strength of this general statement is that it involved a range of issues treated by an overall group of participants and brought together the signatures of a number of participants who did not find the need to publish their own personal statements.

A general statement by the symposium steering commitee was published on the Princeton Seminary web site. This is valuable since it becomes the official statement by the administration of the Symposium, chaired by Prof. James Charlesworth with D. Mendels, M. Aviam, G. Mazor, S. Gibson and D. Bahat.

A number of participants also provided a more lengthy version of their own statements through their own blogs (or as guests on other blogs), including April DeConick, Stephen Pfann, Christopher Rollston, James Tabor and Joe Zias. If the 25 or so statements (both personal and signatories for general statements) of participants thus far, can be taken to be a fair sampling . . .

The experts are not “split” or “deeply divided” over the issue that the Talpiot Tomb is that of Jesus of Nazareth. Let us be clear on this and to which degree the participants would entertain the possibility of being so.

Who believes that the Talpiot Tomb is actually both the Tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and also his family?

The most positive statement for the tomb being that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family comes from James Tabor who is “convinced that the Talpiot tomb is possibly, and even likely, the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth”.

Who believes that the Talpiot Tomb is not the Tomb of Jesus of Nazareth but is that of his family or members of the Jesus movement?

According to his public statement at the end of the conference, although James Charlesworth denies that this could be the Tomb of Jesus, he “can’t dismiss the possibility that this tomb was related to the Jesus clan.”

Jane Schaberg stated “In my judgement, the tomb is not the tomb of the family or dynasty of Jesus, but perhaps of important members of the movement.” (including Mary Magdalene)

Among those who remain unconvinced that this tomb is related in any way to Jesus of Nazareth, who would be at least encourage further study of the possibility?

Israel Knohl is not convinced of any of it, since the fact that more evidence is needed encourages further study. “I am not convinced that the Talpiot tomb is that of the family of Jesus. This is a possibility that should be explored with more evidence. ”

Others remain pessimistic:

Geza Vermes (Second Temple historian) stated “Apart from a handful of participants, the large majority of the assembled scholars consider the theory that the Talpiot ossuaries contained the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family as unlikely after the conference as it has been before. In my historical judgment, the matter is, and in the absence of substantial new evidence, should remain closed.

Shimon Gibson (archaeologist) stated “In my estimation what came out of the Symposium is that there is no evidence – historical, archaeological, epigraphic, scientific (in terms of DNA and patina studies), architectural/artistic or otherwise – to support the idea that the Talpiot tomb was the family tomb of Jesus. . . . I also repudiate the claim made by the film-makers of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” that the Symposium had in any way vindicated their argument. In fact, the opposite is true and scholars were hard-pressed to find any evidence supporting the notion of a Jesus family tomb at Talpiot.”

André Lemaire (epigrapher) stated “On the whole, it seems clear enough to me not only that the identification of the Talpiot tomb as the family tomb of Jesus is not probable or even likely but that it is very improbable.”

Christopher Rollston (prosopographer and epigrapher) stated “it is not methodologically tenable to posit that this Talpiyot tomb can be considered the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.”

Rachel Hachlili (archaeologist and expert on family tombs) stated “The East Talpiyot tomb could not be identified with a tomb of Jesus of Nazareth for a significant reason …”

Stephen Pfann (epigrapher and historian): “I don’t believe there is any case, even remotely, that can be convincingly made for this being the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.”

The Princeton general statement of the Symposium steering committee (made by J.H. Charlesworth (chair), D. Mendels, M. Aviam, G. Mazor, S. Gibson, D. Bahat) stated: “‘Most archaeologists, epigraphers, and other scientists argued persuasively that there is no reason to conclude that the Talpiot Tomb was Jesus’ tomb.’ Unfortunately, many of the initial reports in the press following the symposium gave almost the exact opposite impression, stating, instead, that the conference proceedings gave credence to the identification of the Talpiot tomb with a putative family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. As is abundantly clear from the statements to the contrary that have been issued since the symposium by many of the participants, such representations are patently false and blatantly misrepresent the spirit and scholarly content of the deliberations.”

The Duke general statement of participants (signed by M. Aviam, A. Graham Brock, F.W. Dobbs-Alsopp, C.D. Elledge, S. Gibson, R. Hachlili, A. Kloner, J. Magness, L. McDonald, E. Meyers, S. Pfann, J. Price, C. Rollston, A. Segal, C-L. Seow, J. Zias, and B. Zissu) “To conclude, we wish to protest the misrepresentation of the conference proceedings in the media, and make it clear that the majority of scholars in attendance – including all of the archaeologists and epigraphers who presented papers relating to the tomb – either reject the identification of the Talpiot tomb as belonging to Jesus’ family or find this claim highly speculative.”

About half of the participants responded. In the end, nearly all would agree that the identification of the Talpiot tomb with that of Jesus and/or his family is really little more than unfounded speculation.

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