The Lost Tomb of Jesus:

A Christian Cross-Examination

By Dr. Ron Woodworth, Biblical scholar &

Adjunct Professor of World Religions, MCC

(Ossuaries found in what is believed to be Jesus’ family tomb)


“This is the most important archaeological find in human history.” (Discovery Channel’s Press Conference facilitator’s introductory comments1)

“All leading epigraphers agree about the inscriptions.  All archaeologists confirm the nature of the find.  It comes down to a matter of statistics.”  (Endorsement from the Discovery Channel’s website2)


“With the help of statisticians, archeologists, historians, [et al]…Jacobovici argued that the bones of Jesus, Mary [his mother], Mary Magdalene [his wife], along with some of their relatives [including Judah, Jesus and Mary’s son], were once entombed in this cave. This claim is widely disputed.” (Source: Talpoit Tomb, Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia3)

“Since, along with, most probably, the majority of archaeologists who deal with the ancient Levant, I have been asked about the question of the supposed tomb of Jesus and his family…I thought that I should join the very clear message of the responsible archaeological community and say—this is HOGWASH!! (Excuse my French!)” Dr. Aren Maeir, Director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath Archeological Project and a lecturer at the Martin (Szusz) Department of Land of Israel Studies at BarIlan University (Source: Asking the Experts4)


(The Talpiot tomb, Jerusalem March, 1980, that contained at least 10 ossuaries, or

limestone bone boxes, some of which are claimed to belong to Jesus Christ and his family.)


The Lost Tomb of Jesus5 was recently released (March 2007) to the public in a documentary whose Executive Producer is none other than James Cameron, Academy Award-winning director of Titanic and Terminator fame. The documentary claims to have “substantial scientific proof” that the family tomb of Jesus, including bone residue of Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene, and their son Judah, has been discovered and deciphered as authentic. Such a “claim to discovery” is stirring great controversy because, if true, it either disproves the Bible, or impugns the character of the early church leadership–or suggests that we need to re-interpret the Bible from a Gnostic perspective. More on this later, but suffice it to say that this frontal attack on historic Christianity requires a thoughtful, truthful, and public response as well.

The objective in this monograph is to simply state the “facts” of this claim of discovery as presented by Cameron and crew as well as the contradictory evidence by at least an equally august body of scientific experts—thus effecting a cross-examination on the subject. Or as the book of Proverbs illustrates:

“The first speech in a court case is always convincing—

until the cross-examination starts!”

(Proverbs 18:17, The Message Bible version)

The Scientific Interpretation of the Facts of the Case

According to Cameron and writer/director Simcha Jacobovici, the discovery of the ossuaries, or bone boxes, which held the residual remains of Jesus, his wife Mary and their son Judah, et al, were subjected to “intense scrutiny” by some of the most credible experts in the following fields of scientific inquiry including:

  1. Archaeology
  2. Epigraphy (deciphering ancient inscriptions)
  3. Statistical analysis
  4. Probability DNA
  5. Chemical history
  6. Historical precedents
  7. Theological Considerations

In reality only 5 such experts appear on the website of the Discovery Channel6 and at the 1 ½ hour long: The Lost Tomb of Jesus Discovery Channel Press Conference. And even two of them expressed an unconvinced skepticism during the conference presentation itself. But before I jump to any conclusions let’s cross-examine the evidence itself.

Regarding Archaeology…

The simple argument by the writer and producers is that this tomb was originally discovered in 1980 by salvage archaeologists who were primarily concerned with saving7and/or documenting as much of the original tomb and materials as possible. To this claim of “fact” there seems to be agreement on both sides of the debate. There was a tomb discovered in 1980 in the east Talpiot (or Talpiyot) neighborhood some five kilometers (just over 3 miles) south of the Old City of Jerusalem, Israel. There is further agreement that the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) commissioned a team of archaeologists led by Amos Kloner to excavate the tomb. It contained ten ossuaries, six of them with epigraphs or some sort of inscriptions. The tomb also yielded various human remains and several carvings.

Regarding Epigraphy…

The producers of the documentary assert that three of the ossuaries with inscriptions on them bear the names of figures from the New Testament—specifically Jesus son of Joseph, Mary, Joseph, Judah son of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Matthew. However, the actual meanings of the epigraphs are highly disputed—especially that of the key assumed names of Jesus son of Joseph and Mary Magdalene. For instance, Steve Caruso, an expert in translations and interpretations of Aramaic inscriptions, has thoroughly researched the inscriptions on the three ossuaries in question and reports:

I’ve looked over every inscription that has been published in this tomb, and I have been able to read and confirm every translation easily. However, there was one exception, and (of course) it is probably the most debated of the lot: The inscription attributed to “Jesus son of Joesph.”…I can readily see the first glyph that was ignored in the “Yeshua`” interpretation as an א (alef), which can open things up to other interpretations. As such, overall it is a very strong possibility that this inscription is not “Yeshua` bar Yehosef” [Jesus son of Joseph]. (Source: The Lost Tomb of Jesus8)

It is important to note that even the documentary discovery team acknowledges that if this name is not Jesus son of Joseph then the entire discovery is undermined.

In addition to confirming that indeed “some of the inscriptions on the Talpiot ossuaries are unclear” retired professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona, William G. Dever, who has been excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years, has observed what both sides agree about—that all of the names in question are common names of the time. Indeed, Dr. Paul Maier, Department of History, Western Michigan University, sums it up best:

All the names, Yeshua, Joseph, Maria, Mariamene, Matia, Judah, and Jose—are extremely frequent Jewish names for that time and place, and thus most scholars consider this merely coincidental, as they did from the start [back in 1980]. One-quarter of Jewish women at the time, for example, were named Maria. (Source: Asking the Experts9)

Dr. Stephen Pfann, President of the University of the Holy land/Center for the Study of Early Christianity, offers this analysis of the inscription on the Mary ossuary claimed to be Mary Magdalene in the alleged Jesus Tomb:

Rather than MARIAM(E)NEMARA (or MARIAMENOUMARA), “Mary, known as master,” the inscription reads, MARIAMEKAIMARA, or, “Mary and Mar[th]a.” As Pfann documents, the first person buried was MARIAME (Mary), and later a second scribe added “and Mar[th]a” when the bones of a person by the name were added to the ossuary. (Source: There’s More About Mary10)

Undeterred by these epigraphical difficulties, the producers seek to circumvent the “fact” of the commonality of these names by an appeal to statistical analysis, which is the next topic of cross-examination.

Regarding Statistical Analysis…

In response to the assertion that all the names in the lost tomb of Jesus were all very common names of the time and place, the producers of the documentary went about “proving” that these name, when clustered together, were unique to a ratio of 600 to 1 in favor of this being a unique family tomb—that of Jesus. This assertion is best contradicted by the very statistical scientist on the Discovery Channel conference,Dr. Andrey FeuervergerProfessor of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of Toronto, who has since backtracked from his original claim, explaining:

I now believe that I should not assert any conclusion connecting this tomb with any hypothetical one of the NT [New Testament] family.

(Source: Andrey Feuerverger’ personal website11)

Prof. Feuerverger further explained in an interview with Ted Koppel–immediately following the documentary’s disclosure:

I must work from the interpretations given to me, and the strength of the calculations are based on those assumptions…If for some reason one were to read it [the name “Mariamene”] as just a regular form of the name Maria, in that case, the calculation produced is not as impressive, and the statistical significance would wash out considerably.

(Source: Discovery Channel debate with Ted Koppel following the documentary)

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), who declined to comment about the recent documentary, said through their spokesman in 1996 that “the probability of the caskets belonging to the family of Jesus were ‘next to zero.’” (Bolded text mine for emphasis; Source: Ask the Experts about Jesus’ Lost Tomb)

Finally, Dr. Tal Ilan, the scholar who compiled the Lexicon of Jewish Names that wasessential to the statistical calculations put forward by the documentary angrily asserts:

“I think it [the Lexicon] was completely mishandled. I am angry.” (Ibid.)

So much for “all” the experts agreeing so far, but lets go further.

Regarding Probability DNA…

The idea here is that the “discovery crew12,” had DNA residue collected and tested from the alleged Jesus and the Mary Magdalene ossuaries and proved, by mitochondrial examination, that there was no maternal relationship between the two. Incredulously, the films director then leaps to the conclusion that since these two did not have the same mother they must therefore be married. And though marriage is a possibility it is definitely not the only prospect by any means. Indeed they could have been cousins, paternal half-sibling, uncle and niece, aunt and uncle, sister-in-law, or father and daughter.13

Telling indeed is the comment by Dr. Carney Matheson, Lakehead University Paleo-DNA Laboratory, the very one who did the DNA testing in the documentary:

The only conclusion we made was that these two sets [from Yeshua and Mariamne ossuaries] were not maternally related. To me it sounds like absolutely nothing. (Source: Ask the Experts)

Regarding Chemical History…

It is alleged by the documentary producers that the missing ossuary from Talpiot is the “James” Ossuary that says “James, the son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” And even though the producers admit that this ossuary is deemed a forgery and is currently in litigation in Jerusalem, still they maintain that only the last phrase, “brother of Jesus” should really be in question. In other words, this is still “proof” that the James Ossuary belongs with the other nine ossuaries in Talpiot—since James was actually a brother of Jesus. The rational is that this is simply mounting evidence that this really was a family tomb with people’s names that were all related to Jesus inside.

The Discovery News website, in support of this documentary fact, observes that:

Robert Genna, director of the Suffolk County Crime Laboratory in New York, analyzed both the patina taken from the Talpiot Tomb and chemical residue obtained from the “James” ossuary, which was also found around 1980, but subsequently disappeared and resurfaced in the antiquities market. Although controversy surrounds this burial box, Genna found that the two patinas matched…Upon examining the tomb, the filmmakers determined a space exists that would have fit the “James” ossuary. Given the patina match and this observation, Jacobovici theorizes the lost burial box could, in fact, be the “James” ossuary. (Source: Discovery News14)

To this assumption Dr. Ben Witherington III, Prof. of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary explains:

Much is made of the fact that the chemical analysis of the patina on the James ossuary and some of the ossuaries in the Talpiot match up. This is not actually surprising at all since you can find terra rosa in various locales in and around Jerusalem. This analysis cannot prove that these ossuaries all came from the same place or were interred in the same sport. Terra rosa is not a soil specific to the Talpiot region.

Additionally, Robert Genna, Suffolk Co. Crime Lab Directorywho actually tested the patina samples for the film said:

The elemental composition of some of the samples…are consistent with each other. But I would never say they’re a match…No scientist would ever say definitively that one ossuary came from the same tomb as another…We didn’t do enough sampling to see if in fact there were other tombs that had similar elemental compositions.” (Source: Discovery Channel debate with Ted Koppel)

Furthermore, Prof. Amos Kloner, Israeli archeologist who first catalogued the ossuaries:

When asked if the 10th ossuary that disappeared from his care may be none other than the “James” ossuary Kloner resounded: Nothing has disappeared. The 10thossuary was on my list. The measurements are not the same (as the James ossuary). It was plain (without an inscription). We had no room under our roofs for all the ossuaries, so unmarked ones were sometimes kept in the courtyard (of theRockefeller Museum).”

Prof. Joe Zias, Paleopathologist at Hebrew University, archeologist who also worked with Amos Kloner on the original find further elaborated:

Amos Kolner is right as I received and catalogued the objects, the 10th was plain and I put it out in the courtyard with all the rest of the plain ossuaries as was standard procedure…Nothing was stolen nor missing and they [the filmmakers] were fully away of this fact, [but it] just didn’t fit in with their agenda.

Finally, in contradiction to the claim that the dimensions of the “supposed” missing tenth ossuary are exactly the same (to the centimeter) to those of the “James” ossuary, Dr. Mark Goodacre, Duke University, quoting John Poirer says:

Another thing that doesn’t add up are the dimensions of the ossuaries in question. As I posted on this list on Oct. 8, 2006, Tabor’s claim that “the dimensions of the missing tenth ossuary [from the Talpiot tomb] are precisely the same, to the centimeter, to those of the James Ossuary” is bogus. *BAR* [Biblical Archaeological Review] lists the dimensions of the James ossuary as 50.5 cm x 25 cm x 30.5 cm, while the report on the Talpiot tomb published in *Atiquot* 29 (1996) 15-22, lists the tenth ossuary as measuring 60 cm x 26 cm x 30 cm. (Asking the Experts)

Regarding Historical Precedents…

The argument here is that since other purported discoveries of key biblical figures (Simon Peter, Simon the Cyrene, and Caiaphas) were found by archeologists to be in locations other than historically first thought, then this “fact” should also moderate any reaction to the notion of finding Jesus’ Tomb as well. In other words, since archaeology has proven us wrong before we should, ipso facto, be more open to the idea that archaeology has saved us from our ignorance once again by locating the Lost Tomb of Jesus–against our historical biases. But just because archaeology might get it right a time or two–or for that matter a thousands times before, this still does not imply that archaeologists will get it right all of the time—and certainly not a guarantee that they will be correct even the next time. And besides, the assertion that Jesus’ tomb can be just as easily archaeologically discovered as other biblical figures of his day does not even begin to deal with the contradictory historical evidence as recorded in one of the most reliable texts in the ancient world—the New Testament,15 where over 500 people witness to the fact of his bodily resurrection (1 Cor. 15: 3-8). Additionally, the theological implications of discovering Jesus’ tomb are staggeringly without comparison to the ossuaries of other biblical figures that have no theological claim nor historical evidence of bodily resurrection. This of course leads us to the final capstone on the Lost Tomb conspiracy—that of theological considerations.

Regarding Theological Considerations…

Remarkably, rather than acknowledge the accusation that the lost tomb of Jesus is a contradiction to the historic teaching and interpretation of the Bible and Christianity itself, the discovery team argues that on the contrary, they have actually furthered the Christian faith by giving scientific proof of the existence of the historical Jesus. The only trade off that we need to make in order to embrace this “break through of faith” is that we must reject the physical resurrection of Jesus in favor of a spiritual one. This is nothing more or less than a whole sale marketing of the ancient heresy of Gnosticism—in the same way The Da Vinci Code has done before it.16

For those not familiar, Gnosticism (from the Greek word gnosis literally meaning “to know”) was a derivative of Plato’s dualistic contrast between the invisible world of ideas and visible world of matter. Going beyond Plato however, the Gnostics took dualism one step further to argue that all matter was evil and only pure spirit was good.  To the Gnostics you needed the kind of superior-spiritual knowledge they alone had to offer in order to gain spiritual immortality. Like Buddhism before it, Gnosticism maintained that the problem of man was really ignorance not sin. Hence, when the Christian gospel began to be preached, the Gnostics, though impressed enough with the person and doctrine of Jesus Christ to become “Christians,” never-the-less maintained a decided preference away from the need for “forgiveness of sin” and from God becoming physically incarnated (lit. “in flesh”) in Jesus Christ. The Gnostics reasoned that since all matter, including the physical body was essentially evil; therefore the Spirit of Christ had to be radically separate from the man Jesus. The resurrection would therefore have been gnosticallyunderstood as the spirit of Christ, not Jesus the man, actually rising from the dead.17

Applying this Gnostic theology to the lost tomb of Jesus the two “expert biblical theologians” agreed that the Bible simply needs to be re-read, vis-à-vis the resurrection, in spiritual rather than physical terms. In other words, from the liberal Gnostic perspective, it would be perfectly permissible to maintain a dead and decaying Jesus while at the same time embrace a resurrected and ascended Christ. The only problem is that’s not what the Bible says.

Consider the following biblical quotes:

But Thomas…was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he [Thomas] said to them, “Unless I shall see in His hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the pace of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days again His disciples were inside, and Thomas with them, Jesus came, the doors having been shut, and stood in their midst, and said…to Thomas, “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing. (John 20:25-27)

With Christ’s missing body from the tomb, Thomas wanted to be sure that the real body of Jesus was resurrected—the body he had known to be literally pierced in the hands and side.

And God raised Him [Jesus] from the dead again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power. For David says of Him…Thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor allow thy Holy One to undergo decay…Brethren, I may confidently say to you regarding the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. And so, because he was a prophet…he looked ahead and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that He was neither abandoned to Hades, nor did His flesh suffer decay. This Jesus God raised up again to which we are all witnesses.” (Acts 2:24-33. Bold text mine for emphasis)

Here the Apostle Peter is testifying that the promised resurrection spoken through King David of old could not have been fulfilled in David’s life alone—especially since his flesh underwent decay and his tomb still contains his remains today. Rather this promise could only apply to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ whose physical body was not in any tomb, nor did his physical flesh suffer decay. These verses and many more that could be cited,18 are just too compelling a case for a physical resurrection of Jesus rather than the spiritual one that the liberal Gnostic theologians19 on the panel of experts suggest.


Suffice it to say that this cross-examination of the “facts” of the lost tomb of Jesus demonstrates a serious lack of scientific agreement as asserted by the proponents of the documentary. Indeed, the “fact” is that of the seven fields of scientific inquiry cited there is only one area of agreement—in the field of archaeology. And this agreement isonly that there is a certain tomb, among many others, that was found in Talpiot that has some ossuaries with inscriptions on them—period. As has been briefly, but clearly shown, there are major contradictions over the documentary’s other “scientific” assertions namely, from the fields of epigraphy (the inscriptions of “Jesus son of Joseph” and “Mary Magdalene” are highly questionable); statistical analysis (only as good as the assumptions given); probability DNA (two mitochondrial samples are far too few to claim marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene—and besides, DNA only tests for biological relationships never legal ones like marriage20);  chemical history (the “James” ossuary is surrounded by claims of forgery and denial from the original discoverers of the tomb);historical precedents (previous archaeological findings do not lend any proof for the veracity of the Jesus tomb); theological considerations (Gnostic liberalism does not represent the historic teachings of the Christian church).

Therefore, in light of the preponderance of the evidence herein reviewed, it is the conclusion of this article, that the claims of The Lost Tomb of Jesus documentary are not scientifically nor theologically verified. As such, the premise of the documentary fails. Although Cameron and Jacobovici have indeed painted an intriguing picture fromscientific-like assumptions, they never-the-less have fallen short of the scrutiny of the larger scientific and theological academies.21 In other words, the lost tomb of Jesus may make a good movie, but bad science and theology. Hollywood yes, but scholarship no.


Asking the Experts about Jesus’ Lost Tomb, By Nathan Busenitz March 5th, 2007

Deconstructing the Second and Hopefully Last Coming of Simcha and the BAR Crowd, by Joe Zias, Jerusalem 03/07. @

Discovery Channel News:

For Such a Time as This, by Dr. Ron Woodworth. Available from @ See also Ron Woodworth.Org.

Jesus Family Tomb Believed Found, Jennifer Viegas, Discovery News @

‘Jesus’ Family Tomb – Scholars Weigh In February 27, 2007.

‘Jesus tomb’ documentary ignores biblical & scientific evidence, logic, experts say
Source: Posted on Feb 27, 2007 | by Michael Foust.

Simcha Jacobovici, producer, writer, and director of the documentary website @

The Lost Tomb of Jesus, by Melinda Penner

The Lost Tomb of Jesus? By Leadership U @

The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from

The Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Response to the Discovery-Channel Documentary Directed by James Cameron, by Dr. Gary R. Haberman and Colleagues @ _Lost_Tomb_of_Jesus/losttombofjesus_response.htm

There’s More about Mary, by Dr. Stephen Pfann. @

Wailing at the Wall. Article by Greg Koukl on townhall meeting @

Was Jesus’ Tomb Found? Part 1 & 2 @

Who’s Writing the Fiction Here? @

2) Ibid.

3) Note: Bold text is mine for emphasis. See

4) Asking the Experts about Jesus’ Lost Tomb with Yahoo Browser @

5) Along with a companion book entitled The Jesus Family Tomb by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino

7) From a construction site during the building boom of the 1980’s in Jerusalem.

8) Note: Bold text is mine for emphasis.


9) See (Bold mine for emphasis)

11) 2007-03-04. Dear Statistical Colleagues. Personal website. Retrieved on 2007-03-07

12) The discovery crew here is not to be confused with the NASA’s Discovery Flight Crew

13) See Was Jesus’ Tomb Found? Part 1 @

14) Bold mine for emphasis

15) There are more than 5,000 manuscripts (whole of in part) of the Greek New Testament from which scholars can corroborate, thereby verifying,  the authenticity of the original text of Scripture.

16) See my new book on For Such a Time as This, Article 33, The Da Vinic Code, page 201. What’s interesting here is that in contradiction to The Da Vinci Code, which argues that Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene had a daughter, named Sarah, the Lost Tomb of Jesus argues that Jesus and Mary had a son, named Judah. So which is it a son or a daughter? Apparently the Gnostics can’t agree and neither should we.

17) Source: A Survey of the New Testament 4th edition, by Robert H. Gundry, p. 50.

18) See my article on The Primacy of the Resurrection in Christian Theology, from my book For Such a Time as This, Article 42, page 273.

19) The Gnostic liberalism of these two theologians was further confirmed by their appeal to the Gnostic literature of the 3rd and 4th century to substantiate their claims–specifically the Gospel of Mary Magdalene and the Acts of Phillip, respectively. Revealing also was the repeated criticism of those “fundamentalists” who actually believe that you should literally take the Bible at its word. But what these liberal theologians fail to appreciate is that evangelicals, who number 75 million in the United States alone, not to mention the Roman Catholics (another 75 million) agree with the fundamentalists—that when the Bible speaks of a literal-physical resurrection of Jesus Christ that it should be taken literally.

Additionally, when queried about whether or not the Roman Catholic hierarchy had been asked to comment about their findings, one of the liberal theologians rather anemically responded that he did share this with a priest friend of his who saw no problem with their non-orthodox claims. Needless so say, that is hardly a sufficient representation of the Magisterium (or teaching authority) of the Holy See in Rome.

21) Jacobovici should have listened to the critique of CNN’s Anderson Cooper who questioned why he chose a public press conference to announce to the world his “amazing discovery” rather than first submit their findings to the larger academic community by way of a “peer review.” Simcha impatiently and patronizingly retorted, “I’m only a journalist like you Anderson.” Meaning, I asked the experts I selected and that’s enough, because after all I’m only a journalist not a scientist. What?! Even more reason that he should have consulted the academy at large rather than only a select few hand-picked experts.