Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ben Witherington III on the "Jesus family tomb"

There is now a more official / polished version of Ben Witherington III's Blog Post on the Jesus family tomb from Monday over on Beliefnet:

An Empty Theory and an Empty Tomb
Why should we be skeptical of 'The Lost Tomb of Jesus'? Let us count the ways.
Ben Witherington III

It's nice to see that Ben does something I do too and make earlier, rawer blog posts the basis for more polished, final versions elsewhere. I think it's a great use of blogging. This one is all the more interesting for referring readers of the polished version back to the blog version because the latter is much fuller. Nevertheless, there is one change for the better in the newer version, perhaps in the light of James Tabor's response on The Jesus Dynasty blog, viz from:
the ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth. The family was still in Nazareth after he was apparently dead and gone. Why in the world would be be buried (alone at this point) in Jerusalem? It’s unlikely.
The ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth. The family was still in Nazareth after he was dead and gone. Why in the world would any member of Jesus' family be buried in Jerusalem other than James and Jesus?
The problem with the original formulation was that there is no claim by the film-makers that Joseph was buried in this tomb. I must admit to being unconvinced also by the reformulation of the point, though. There is nothing intrinsically unlikely about members of Jesus' family being buried near Jerusalem since our sources all place them there the last time that we hear of them, Mary and the brothers in Acts 1, James in Acts 21. We have no evidence of a return to Nazareth. In fact, we don't have much evidence at all for the family's movements. This is not a major point, but as one who is critical of the claims of the film-makers, I think it important that the grounds for one's criticisms are solid.

One element that puzzles me about the single-minded nature of Ben Witherington's criticism of the new claims is that they contrast somewhat with his thorough endorsement of the authenticity of the James ossuary and its connection to the James of the New Testament. In that case, regardless of the authenticity issue, the identification of this James depends entirely on the cluster of three popular names in one place, James, Joseph, Jesus. Given that the film-makers' case for the identification of the Talpiot Tomb is also based on clusters of popular names, I am curious about how Ben discriminates between the two cases. Just to make clear, I do not hold myself to the authenticity of the James ossuary, and I do not think that the Talpiot tomb belonged to the family of Jesus we know from the New Testament, but I am interested in what I see as a possible contradiction between Ben's case for the one and against the other.

Update (9.47): Jim West links to a comment asking a similar question, though in rather stronger language.


Mike Grondin said...

It shouldn't be at all puzzling that Witherington accepts a James ossuary but not a Jesus ossuary. Above all, Witherington is a defender of the faith. His reasoning always bends to that end.
For him, a James ossuary confirms the faith, while a Jesus ossuary definitely doesn't.

While I myself am sceptical of the Talpiot tomb, Witherington gives two reasons which are unacceptable. One is that the earliest followers of Jesus never called him 'son of Joseph'. Has Ben forgotten Jn 1:45, where Philip calls him that to Nathaniel?

Second suspect reason is the commonness of the names. Sure, they're common names, but Ben (and Darrell Bock, who also cites Richard Bauckham's name-frequencies without further ado) doesn't meet the argument head-on. The argument is based on the probability of the combination of names, which is significantly less than each one considered separately, even if the math isn't quite right. (Weren't you going to say something about this, Mark?)

Anonymous said...

I don't think anyone is trying to refute Christianity. If you look at the site ( you will see that informatiom is just being presented and that the possibility of the tomb belonging to Jesus is founded. If in actuality the tomb was found, wouldn't we all want to know? Shouldn't we at least investigate?

Bilbo Bloggins said...


I keep hearing this "cluster" counterargument. It is very weak IMO. Firstly, clusters of names are to be expected in family burials. And that the cluster of names should individually be some of the most common names of the time period is, well....just not surprising.

The advocates of the very far-fetched Bible Code research argue the same thing about clustering: Look at all of these words that we can tie into some historical event. What are the odds that they would *all* be right here and be connected in such a way to this external historical event? Well, the odds are *very* small in many of the cases. But the target has been painted after the arrow has hit the wall. Assuming that the correlation is not a fabricated pattern is the question being begged. Similarly, any cluster of words or names found in those tombs or in the proximity of one another would be significantly improbable - but not surprising. Their improbability is to be expected. That we can match them up to *some* of the associates of a particular historical person is a consequence of the fact that they are very common names.

As far as John 1:45, are we just assuming that this is historical? It being singly attested, very late, and in (ahem) the Gospel of John would seem to count against that.

As far as Witherington and his reasoning bending because he is a "defender of the faith" as you say, this is just irrelevant and ad hominem. Mark was doing a fine job disagreeing with his reasoning. Since you think you can argue against him on logical grounds, you should stick to that as well. Otherwise we get into an infinite stream of ad hominems. For instance, one could say to you: "You are an atheist. Of course, you don't like defenders of the faith!."


Jerry said...

I have done Mr. Anonymous one better...I bought the book Simcha wrote (it came out Monday) that came out detailing the stuff that will come out in the documentary.

Simcha claims that

a) the disciples of Jesus moved his body before the Romans could post a guard.........of course, this would have the disciples being eventually put to death for preaching something they knew to be a lie.

b) That James the Just and Paul considered each other heretics..........hmmmm, this is not only not corroborated by known testimony, but is contradicted by it. If James didn't believe in a bodily risen Christ, why didn't he just show Paul the remains to shut him up? If James did not believe that Jesus rose or that he was God, why was he even killed by the Jewish leaders?

c) That the James ossuary is from the same tomb..........though no mention of it is made by the original archaeologists who catalogued the tomb; one of the original 10 ossuaries - one that was catalogues as 'plain', having no markings or inscriptions - has gone missing. This to Simcha means it must be the James ossuary, though he does not explain how the original archaeologists could have missed the rosettes or inscription on the James box.

d) that the Joses buried in one the boxes is obviously the Joses mentioned as one of Jesus' brothers; he uses the uniqueness of the form Joses as his proof - it appears on no other known ossuary nor in the NT..........though he neglects to mention that both gospels that mention Joses in the list of "brothers" also list a Joses as the son, along with a James, of a different Mary than Jesus' mom. Faced with either admitting the two Joses are the same person (undermining his "Mary had other kids" stance) or holding that these are two distinct Joses (undermining his "unique name" stance), Simcha does neither. He never mentions the other reference to Joses.

e) relies on the (at earliest) 4th century Acts of Phillip to corroborate his finding that one of the boxes with a form of "Mary" on the side belongs to the remains of Mary Magdalene..........however, that the work is very late and features, among other things, talking animals, gets no mention.

f) after setting Paul and James on the opposite side of each other, claims that Paul only preaches a "spiritual" resurrection. The only proof cited is 1 Cor 15 35-50.........which would give my theology prof at Notre Dame a conniption at this interpretation of these verses. He, and footnotes of my bible, interpret the verse as Paul saying that our resurrected bodies would be perfect and not subject to mortal imperfections, but they would still be corpeal bodies. This interpretation fits in with other verses of Paul where he very clearly preaches the bodily resurrection of Jesus and our coming bodily resurrection.

That's just in the first 50 pages.

Simcha starts the work by making a common logical fallacy: he assumes the truth of what he is trying to prove. He uses this to re-write known history (especially in regard to James and Paul), focus on only one of a myriad of possibilities, make staggering logical leaps and treat unsupported suppositions as springboards for more of the same. It is a shoddy, somewhat dishonest, and, to anyone who values logic and careful thought, maddening book to read.

Mike Grondin said...


As to Jn 1:45, it's not what we think, but what Witherington thinks. I'm assuming that Ben would say that Jn 1:45 is historical. I could be wrong about that, but if he does, then he would be undercutting his own argument. (Unless he thinks that Philip was speaking to Nathaniel in "outsider mode". But in that case, he should be explain the apparent discrepancy.)

You misunderstand my "defender of the faith" point. It wasn't an ad hominem against Ben, but rather to the point that Mark's profession of puzzlement looks faux. He knows as well as I do why Ben would never accept a Jesus ossuary under any conditions. The question isn't Ben's inconsistency with respect to the two ossuaries per se, but why he felt the James ossuary was legitimate. I think that if we look at his writings about it, we'll see that there was more to it than his weighing of the evidence.

Bryan L said...

While I can see the irony that some find in the situation with Ben affirming one and denying the other, I don’t know that Ben is really being inconsistent or that his credibility should be called into question. The situations are similar but not quite the same and I believe Ben can still hold to his belief in the authenticity of the James Ossuary while believing that the Jesus Tomb has no connection to the Jesus of the New Testament.

Where as some of Ben’s arguments hinge on the frequency of a cluster of names (just like those arguing for the Jesus Tomb), I think more of his argument hinges on the relative infrequency of including a particular sibling on an ossuary. I don’t know how frequent it is that people put not only “Son of whoever” but also “brother of”. If it’s not too common then that would seem kind of significant. From what it appears none of the ossuaries in the Jesus Tomb seem to note a specific relation to Jesus except for the one that says “Son of” which was common. Now if they were all saying something like “brother of, sister of, mother of, wife of”, then that would be notable and Ben would be being inconsistent and his credibility would be called into question. But as it is, that is not the case and the Jesus box just appears to be one among many in the tomb with no special significance attached to it

Also in regards to Phillip’s calling Jesus the Son of Joseph, I don’t know if that really proves Ben wrong either. The comment, although made by one of his disciples, is made before he becomes a disciple. Compare the similar comment that his brother Nathanael makes when Phillip tells him about Jesus. It seems that the Gospel is just recording some common perception or views about Jesus and his hometown that were going around in that time. Similar to how his disciples although viewing him as the Messiah, don’t really understand what that really means (he’ll be crucified and rise again, and he wasn’t coming to bring a military defeat of Rome). Also, if we were to have some saying of Paul in Acts about Jesus before he became a follower of Jesus we would take them with a grain of salt as well, knowing that they may not correctly reflect his later views.

Anyway that’s just my thoughts on the subject.
Bryan L

Anonymous said...

We should also include Lk 4:22 and John 6:42 as passages where Jesus is referred to as "son of Joseph."

In terms of Mark's question regarding Witherington's acceptance of the James ossuary with its combination of names and rejection of the "cluster fo names argument" for the Talpiot ossuaries, isn't there a (significant?) statistical difference for a combination of names on a single ossuary--as in the case of the James ossuary--than the cluster of names on five or six ossuaries in the same tomb? In other words, there is a qualitative difference for the issue of name combinations on single ossuary than the combination of names from several ossuaries.

Evy Nelson said...

In a recent Jerusalem post interview, Kloner categorically denies that the 10th ossuary "went missing." In the absence of Jacobivici not presenting any evidence of a loss, eg, a statement from the IAA, and in light of the original Kloner article indicating that all other ossuaries were uninscribed, one must consider that Jacobivici is simply fabricating the claim. It's an action that calls into question his whole methodology.

2ndly, Rahmani in his 1994 catalogue noted that the ossuary inscribed Yoseh was similar in construction and inscription to Marya's, enough so that he hypothesized that the Yoseh ossuary belonged to the FATHER of the individual in the Yeshua son of Yehosef ossuary.

3rdly, no one is asking the question, why, out of approximately 17 ossuary interments (Kloner 1996, p. 22), Marya is assumed by Jacobici to be the mother of the individual in the Yeshua ossuary. (Kloner estimated that there were about 35 interments in the tomb, with "17 in the [10] ossuaries ... and 18 outside the ossuaries."

And most importantly, Kloner in his 1996 article described the tomb as having been used "for three or four generations," with sherds allowing for a dating "from the end of the first century BCE or the beginning of the first century CE, until approximately 70 CE" (p. 21). Even though I agree with the view that Jesus' family stationed itself in Jerusalem from about 30 CE onward, the biblical record is that the family was residing in Nazareth at the time the tomb was put into operation in Jerusalem.

Bilbo Bloggins said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bilbo Bloggins said...


With regards to Jn 1:45 and historicity - so you're assuming what your opponent would argue, and then rebutting it? I can't say I haven't seen you do this on crosstalk. I guess it just feels weird to have to tell someone that this isn't a good argument strategy.

You then go on to say that you have "knowledge" of the motivations for Witherington's bad argument. Not only this, but you claim to know that this is actually Mark Goodacre's opinion on the reason for Witherington's advocation of such an argument. Are we starting to see a pattern here? I'm wondering which scholar's mental states you do *not* have access to.


Mike Grondin said...

Bilbo (whatever your name is),

The willful misunderstandings in your remarks seem to indicate that you have an issue with me personally. Best keep it to yourself, because I don't care and I don't think anybody else does either.

Bilbo Bloggins said...


So you accuse a scholar of being unscholarly based on a hunch (and even more, he is "always" this way). You assume that other scholars have the same opinion based on, well...nothing. And I am the one now accused of committing a personal attack?

The irony of all this is that, by your logic, the kind of well-poisoning you've done in this thread would make a more convincing case in regards to your atheism being a motivator in your issues with Witherington.

For the record, I have nothing against you personally, and your statement to this effect is yet another one of your assumptive ad hominems.

If you think it is a "personal" matter to call attention to errors of logic and reasoning, then this is yet another symptom of the problem I've diagnosed thus far.


yuckabuck said...

Re: James ossuary and bias

One can accept the James ossuary as connected to the biblical James, and yet still reject Tabor's identification of the talpiot tomb as spurious. I read Dr. Witherington's book on the James ossuary years ago, but I believe I still remember the argument:

As I recall, the thing that raised eyebrows about the James ossuary, causing some to think it belonged to the biblical James, was not specifically the cluster of names (James and Jesus), but the particular way it was stated. It was rare that a person's ossuary would have been identified by his brother, unless the brother was famous. The question was, "Why was this James identified as the brother of Jesus on his ossuary?"

However, this latest announcement concerns a cluster of names that do not stand out in the same way. Everyone is identified as "son of," including Jesus, and the son Jude. There is nothing remarkable here at all, except a coincidence of names which were actually quite common.

To accept one but not the other is a perfectly reasonable position, and not neccesarily proof of bias or being a "defender of the faith."

(Note- I am sympathetic to Dr. Witherington's position on the James ossuary, but do not pretend to have the expertise to know for sure or to defend it for him. Please hold your flames.)

yuckabuck said...

Oh, and I should add a point that Dr. Witherington has been making much of the last few days.

The James ossuary has soil samples that correlate with an area near the temple mount, which tradition (Eusebius?) notes that James was buried near. In other words, the archeological find fit with what knowledge we already had about James. The Talpiot tombs, on the other hand, fly in the face of most everything historians have been able to put together on the historical Jesus (on those rare occasions when such "questers" actually agree, that is!).

Just sayin'.

Anonymous said...

The Israeli Antiquities Authority decided that the unprovenanced "James" ossuary on which Witherington gambled and loss his credibility was a fake. He is left with supporting conspiracy theories about the IAA in support of the forger and seller of fake antiquities, Oded Golan, and little else.

But Witherington's words of suport aren't really about Oded Golan, or even about the so-called James Ossuary. They're all about Witherington. He used the so-called "James Ossuary" as a base to launch attacks on some very precious elements of the Faith of both Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers:

"It is possible the inscription on the ossuary -- 'James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus' -- provides us with a challenge in regard to some basic Christian assumptions about James. The Roman Catholic tradition is that Jesus' brothers and sisters actually were cousins; Orthodox Christians believe they were Joseph's children by a previous marriage. The inscription conflicts with both of those Christian traditions, in fact, for there certainly was an Aramaic word for 'cousin' that could have been used in this inscription but was not. If Jesus was the son of only Mary, and James was the son of only Joseph, then Jesus and James would not literally have been brothers, as this inscription states." (USA Today Weekend:

Ambitious to "one up" these confessions, he overreached and is still overreaching. I almost feel sorry for Witherington, he only wanted use the phony James Ossuary to bolster a stock evangelical Protestant teaching that goes against the RCs and Orthodox and now finds his bone box being used to attack the very resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ!

I too shared Mr. Goodacre's puzzlement over Witherington's singlemindedness until I read that he stated that he will stand by the "authenticity" of the James ossuary regardless of the outcome of Oded Golan trial. In other words, despite his many protestants, he's not really interested in proof.

Is it possible that the only dog that Witherington has in this Jesus Tomb fight is one that he hopes will separate his precious James Ossuary from the pack of 10 that it has been linked to thereby giving his credibility a chance of restoration?

Mr. Goodacre, the Lexington County Herald and others soon to follow are not being snowed under by the heroic amount of dispatches that Witherington has been throwing out against Cameron & Jacobovici because Witherington does indeed protests too too much. It comes down to this: Witherington doesn't want us to see that he is reaping what he has sown. One phony ossuary has produced a crop of ten.

That's why it's deja vu all over again for those of us who are sick of phony bone boxes being used against the Christian Faith.

Anonymous said...

Pardon me.

Instead of "In other words, despite his many protestants, he's not really interested in proof."

It should have read:

"In other words, despite his many protestations, he's not really interested in proof."

I guess my Freudian slip is showing.

Anonymous said...

The latest dispatch (3/7/07) from Witherington, from his meditation on "Bitterness":

"It would be easy for me to get bitter about the nonsense propagated in the Jesus tomb theory. To become bitter that the other side of the story has not adequately been told. That there is an unfairness in all of this, especially since I spent years of my life dealing with the James ossuary and the remarkable implications of that, which is still a genuine relic from the family of Jesus."

From his own words, it's even more obvious now that the ONLY dog that BW had in this Jesus Tomb fight was the one that he hoped would free his James ossuary from its association with the ossuaries from the "Family Tomb."

He succeeded in part. Most people agree that his J-o was not one of the ten, but he only dragged his credibility down further since he was forced to rely on the word of Oded Golan to establish a sort-of provenance for his ossuary and almost every mention of the J-o in the press was surrounded by variations on the words “fraud,” "forged" or "fake."

RE: "...the other side of the story has not been adequately told"

I have to agree with him here. Even though there were archaeologists, scientists and even Biblical scholars aplenty to refute the claims of the JFT-crowd, Witherington just had to jump in with the ridiculous baggage of his own ossuary claims. The case against the JFT would have been even more adequate without his input. He was an unneeded distraction.

Re: "I spent years of my life dealing with the James ossuary and the remarkable implications of that, which is still a genuine relic from the family of Jesus."