Talpiyot Burial Site

Is Virgin Mary, her son Jesus, and Mary Magdalene buried in a family tomb at Talpiyot?

[As a Discovery Channel television documentary claims]

– Virginia M. Kimball

In a single answer: no! But Discovery Channel producer James Cameron and Jewish director Simcha Jacobovici attempted to convince viewers that this was so, or maybe so. Their program viewed recently in March 2007 was a powerful presentation that seemed very convincing, because of dramatic enactments and a series of half-explained claims. The program, viewed by over four million people on the night it first aired, will not be repeated as planned. The program has been decried by church groups nationwide and also rebuffed by scholars – archaeologists, biblical experts, and theologians. Below is a photo of the Talpiyot tomb, uncovered for construction in modern-day East Jerusalem.

All this fury, however, can raise a nagging question in the back of one’s mind. “Is it possible that our faith was made up 2,000 years ago and people have just been gullible all these years?” It is comforting, therefore, to examine the issue a little more deeply and find that there is absolutely no good argument – of any kind – to regard the tomb at Tolpiyot, in particular, to be the place where Jesus at his death was placed in a family tomb. Nor, can it be even possible, as the Discovery Channel program proposed that Mary, Mary Magdalene, Matthew, and Christ’s son were there also. Some reviewers see through the supposed news by the channel that archaeology has just discovered these tombs and science has proved their validity, but claim instead that this is a “gigantic stretch of the imagination” (www.y-jesus.com) and attempt to get on the Da Vinci Code bandwagon, thereby cashing in on the recent craze created by author Dan Brown.

In the stark light of reality, this program represents many recent attempts by news media to represent the Christian faith by proposing scandalous and faith-shattering claims. It seems that the holy seasons of Christmas and Easter bring forth efforts on the part of journalists and the entertainment industry, in general, to launch coverage and programming keying in on people’s interests in learning more about Christianity. The result often leaves people with doubt, fear, and, at least, skepticism.

In the particular case of this program claiming burials of Jesus and his family at Talpyot, there are the following issues to consider, ones which uplift our faith, fortunately:
- What the archaeologists think of this.
- Biblical description of Christ’s burial.
- Ancient liturgical tradition on Christ’s burial.
- The ridiculous claim that Jesus and his family were buried at Talpiyot; and, an archaeological explanation on why the claim is absurd.
- The Holy Fire

Collectively, these are the elements that should form the core of our reflection in this holy season of Lent. When we think of the day Christ died, those who loved and believed him who gathered nearby at the crucifixion, we discover the strong tradition of the actual locus of this event. We enter more deeply into the realization of Christ’s tremendous gift of love for humanity as man and God.

What archaeologists know about the burial place of Christ and the Talpiyot site

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem is above the traditional site of Christ’s burial. The oldest part of this building is 1600 years old. In 326 AD, in the time of Emperor Constantine, building began at the site. Originally, the building had three elements: a basilica, an open air portico built around a large rock believed to be the rock of Calvary, and an open air rotunda commemorating the resurrection that surrounded a cave believed to be the burial site of Jesus. Later in the fourth century, the resurrection cave was covered with a dome. These structures were destroyed in 614, rebuilt in 628, and then destroyed again in 1009, and rebuilt in 1048. The last rebuilding of the site as a large, single structure occurred during the Crusader Period and was finally rededicated in 1149. Various walls, arches, floors and other parts were added or repaired over the ages.

To see a computerized construction of the contemporary structures shows an amazing layout of a quarry which was situated at the time of Jesus just outside the walls of Jerusalem, and located in a quarry that was used as a dump and as a place for execution by crucifixion. Those executed were often placed in the Potter’s Field (Matthew 27:7-8) or pushed aside to rot on the dump. From a door usually locked at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one can look down and see the deep chasm in the earth that was this quarry, the church’s location then being at the high place of Golgotha where the cross stood.

Another stairway leads to the cave area of the locale and the place of Christ’s burial. From the Franciscan website, we see that archaeologists have found the evidence of a quarry and the tomb believed to be the family stone-hewn tomb owned by Joseph of Arimathea where Jesus was placed when they took him down from the cross.

Archaeological explorations at the site of Calvary and the ancient cave tombs dug into a wall of limestone a short distance away give testimony to the strong Christian tradition surrounding the place of Christ’s burial.

Biblical description of Christ’s burial.

There are four passages that describe the burial of Christ. These passages, according to accomplished archaeologist Jodi Magness, whose scientific work centers on the first century in Israel, corroborate well with what archaeologists now know of the crucifixion. (Jodi Magness, “Ossuaries and the Burials of Jesus and James,” Journal of Biblical Literature 124/1 (2005), 121-154.) Let us look at these passages:

Mark 15: 42-46
When it was already evening, since it was the day of preparation, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a distinguished member of the council, who was himself awaiting the kingdom of God, came and courageously went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Pilate was amazed that he was already dead. He summoned the centurion and asked him if Jesus had already died. And when Pilate learned of it from the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph. Having bought a linen cloth, [Joseph of Arimathea] took him down, wrapped him in the linen cloth and laid him in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance to the tomb.
The thing to note here is that it was a “tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.” This is an important factor to know in order to discount the claim at Talpiyot.

Matthew 27: 57-59
When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea named Joseph, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus; then Pilate ordered it to be handed over. Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen and laid it in his new tomb that he had hewn in the rock. Then he rolled a huge stone across the entrance to the tomb and departed.

Again, the important thing to notice is that Joseph placed Jesus in “his new tomb” that was “hewn in the rock.” Also, it is important that Matthew notes he was a “rich” man.

Luke 23: 50:53
Now there was a virtuous and righteous man named Joseph who, though he was a member of the council, had not consented to their plan of action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea and was awaiting the kingdom of God. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. After he had taken the body down, he wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid him in a rock-hewn tomb in which no one had yet been buried.

Note here that again the tomb is described as a “rock-hewn tomb in which no one had yet been buried” which relates according to archaeologists that it was to be a family tomb.

John 19: 33-42
But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one soldier thrust his lance into his side, and immediately blood and water flowed out. … After this, Joseph of Arimathea, secretly a disciple of Jesus for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate if he could remove the body of Jesus. And Pilate permitted it. So he came and took his body. … Now in the place where he had been crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had yet been buried. So they laid Jesus there because of the Jewish preparation day; for the tomb was close by.

Here, it is important to note that the tomb is in a garden “close by.” Therefore, there are two important factors to see: 1) the tomb was rock-hewn (from the other gospels) and in a garden, and 2) it was close by and therefore offered burial in time before the Sabbath began.

Ancient liturgical tradition on Christ’s burial.
Beside the gospel accounts and the archaeological evidence, although impressive because it matches the gospel accounts so well, there is the tradition of the Christian church from the beginning. As example, we look at an ancient hymn from the early liturgy of the church, sung on Holy Friday:

When Joseph of Arimathea took You, the Life of all, now dead, down from the cross, he buried You in fine linen, after anointing You with myrrh. He yearned with desire, in heart and lips, to embrace Your pure Body; but, humbly contained by awe, rejoicing, he cried out to You: “Glory to Your condescension, O Merciful God!” (The Aposticha, Second Tone, Great Friday Vespers, the Apokathelosis)

Another example come from the ancient Morning Hours for the Feast of the Dormition of the Theotokos (The death and assumption into heaven of the Virgin Mary), probably written as a commentary on the feast around the 8th century, if not earlier.
When Christ our God wanted to take to Himself his own Mother (to be) with him, then three days before (this event), through an angel, God informed (her) of her departure from earth. “(It is) time,” he said, “to bring my Mother to me. So, do not be disturbed about this but accept the word with joy for you will receive eternal life.” And through (her) desire about departing to Sion, she went up to the Mountain of Olives to pray with sincerity in (her) usual way because (she) she always went up on this mountain to pray. … Peter began farewell hymns. The other apostles lifted up, the bed, and some proceeded with candles and singing and others were following, proceeding with the God-giver’s body to the grave. … When the apostles reached the place of Gethsemane, they buried her in a grave, the life-giving body, and three days they waited. Something happened in there, for they were constantly hearing the sound of angels. (Virginia Kimball, Liturgical Illuminations: Discovering Received Tradition in the Eastern Orthros of Feasts of the Theotokos, Doctoral Dissertation, International Marian Research Institute, University of Dayton, Dayton, Ohio, 2003)

Here, concerning the burial of the Virgin Mary, we learn that she was not placed in a family tomb in the cave by Golgotha, and there is no mention of a “family tomb.”

The ridiculous claim that Jesus and his family were buried at Talpiyot; and, an archaeological explanation on why the claim is absurd

According to the Discovery Channel claim, the tombs in East Tolpiyot were “discovered” in 1980. This, itself, is incorrect. However, when a bulldozer was clearing land for construction in 1980, the tomb was again found. In it ten ossuaries were found. In the conclusion of his report, Amos Kloner, investigating archaeologist, stated “the number of internments may be estimated at thirty-five: seventeen in ossuaries (based on an average of 1.7 individuals per ossuary), and 18 outside the ossuaries. (Amos Kloner, “A Tomb with Inscribed Ossuaries in east Talpiyot, Jerusalem,” ‘Atiquot, published in Jerusalem, vol. 29, 1996, 15.) These ossuaries included names scratched on each box including one for “Jesus, Son of Joseph” and one for “Mary.”

According to James H. Charlesworth who edited the recent book, Jesus and Archaeology, the tombs at Talpiyot were first discovered in 1945 (note this date), when a new road was being built from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, about five miles south of the center of ancient Jerusalem. These tombs were dated to 40 to 50 CE. (Charlesworth, 664) In these tombs were found ossuaries, small rectangular stone boxes that held bone remains. These boxes were studied, recorded, and the task of transferring the stone boxes to the Israel Antiquities museum storage for study began. The bone remains were buried according to Jewish custom. The first scholarly report was published by E.L. Suskenik in 1946. (E.L. Suskenik, “The Earliest Records of Christianity,” American Journal of Archaeology, 51 (1947): 351-365) In many cases, these ossuaries had designs etched on the exterior and sometimes names scratched hastily. The names “Jesus, son of Joseph,” “Maria,” “Matthew” appeared as below, as catalogued by L.Y. Rahmani in 1994. (L.Y. Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries, Jerusalem – which were indicated in the fictitious study by Discovery Channel producers as “the original report on Talpiyot.)

Another excellent study by Stephen J. Pfann shows how interpretation of names found on the ossuaries in Talpiyot tomb was incorrect. It is understood by scholars that the name “Mary” was extremely common in these ancient times of Jesus. The etymological debate surrounds the name on an ossuary at Talpiyot that Discovery Channel claims to be that of Mary Magdalene. They went so far as to support a DNA study of the bones in the ossuary attributed to Jesus and that of the ossuary they claim to have held the remains of Mary Magdalene. Those DNA test results show that this Jesus and this Mary were unrelated.

A solid article by Jodi Magness, indeed, seems to carefully collect the most convincing arguments against such ossuaries being those of Jesus and his family and the Talpiyot tomb having anything to do with the family of Jesus. Some of the significant points she makes are as follows:

- Ossuaries were used by Romans and foreigners as depositories for cremated remains. Since the Jews did not cremate the remains of the deceased they adopted the use of ossuaries to hold only bones once the corpse was devoid of flesh in the corruption process. The use of ossuaries became popular during the Second Temple period by wealthy, high class Jews (like Joseph of Arimathea). Only the wealthy could afford a rut cut, hewn-stone family tomb of some size with hallways and niches for the ossuaries. Such a tomb took time and money to construct. Bodies were first wrapped in linen, or laid in a wooden box and placed on a rock ledge in the tomb until the bones could be placed in the ossuary.

- Biblical accounts fit precisely with Jewish custom of burial, immediately after death and not on the Sabbath. For most Jews, those who did not have money and wished for high-priced items used by Romans and foreigners, the bodies were placed in dug pit graves with a modest stone to cover it. Since Jesus was not known for being wealthy, and, in fact, the letter of James is critical of wealth, it would have been likely that Jesus would have been buried in a pit grave. It was only because time was short for burial that Joseph of Arimathea offered to put the body in his newly hewn tomb.

- An ossuarium was that which held ossuaries. Ossuaries were often ornamented, copying foreign styles. Herod’s tomb shows these details with all the hallmarks of such an ossuarium: a pyramidal roof, columns, and an exterior porch or portico.

- Ossuaries disappeared from Jewish use in 70 CE.

- Inscriptions for the dead in Judea (where Talpiyot is located) would use the first name of the individual and the father’s name. Inscriptions for the dead in Galilee would use only the first name and the village of origin.

- At the fortification at Qumran, on the desert near the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, there is a cemetery. In this cemetery are graves of men, women and children associated with the community there, perhaps the Essenes. Their graves are pit graves (sometimes called ditch graves) with a stone placed at either end, along with a pile of stones atop them to avoid desecration. These Jews at the time of Jesus abhorred the wealthy and powerful Jews who wanted to align with the secular society and adopt their practices, and were buried in simple means.

For these reasons and others, aside from studies of the lettering on the ossuaries, Magness totally rejects any possibility that Jesus is connected with such a rock-hewn grave at Talpiyot. (Magness, JBL, 2005, cited above)

The Holy Fire

We learn from the ancient liturgical tradition that Mary, Christ’s mother, was evidently buried in the area of Gethsemane, on the opposite side of Jerusalem than the location of Jewish tombs next to Golgotha. There is also a strong tradition in western Christianity that Mary died in Ephesus, having gone there to live with the Beloved Disciple John. In any event, there was no “family tomb” and the location of the sepulcher of Jesus has individual, significant meaning.

From a mystical perspective, one must consider the ancient tradition of the Holy Fire that happens every year in Jerusalem. There is a miraculous fire that self-lights in the shrine of the sepulcher of Jesus, and then a holy light, bluish and appearing in streaks throughout the throngs that gather, lighting candles in their hands instantly. Truly, this miracle cannot be analyzed scientifically, however, National Geographic included the event in its video of “Jerusalem: Within These Walls, Visit the historic Old City and meet its diverse people,” produced in 1995. On the holyfire.org website, one can read testimonies and see short video segments. There is a continuous history of this phenomenon going back to the 4th century, with tradition suggesting that the event preceded the first recorded statements. It is inspiring. The world should also see a television special on this aspect of the tomb of Christ. From a spiritual point of view, one can ask: “Is there a holy light emanating from the tombs at Talpiyot every year?”

Wishing everyone the gifts of a holy, and life-giving Easter!

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