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The James Ossuary in Talpiot

In more familiar language we can say that our results are as follows. Assuming there truly is a Jesus family tomb in the Jerusalem area, the Talpiot Tomb, with its combination of Jesus, son of Joseph, Yoseh as a rare name, James, and Mary, is a near certainty of being the tomb.

By Kevin Kilty
College of Engineering and Applied Science
Adjunct, University of Wyoming

Mark Elliott
Bible and Interpretation
May 2011

In a recent article by A. Rosenfeld, C.Pellegrino, H. R. Feldman, and W.E. Krumbein titled "The Connection of the James Ossuary to the Talpiot (Jesus Family Tomb) Ossuaries," the authors maintain that "The patina of the unprovenanced James Ossuary exhibits geochemical fingerprints consistent with the patinas of the Talpiot ossuaries. This strengthens the contention that James Ossuary belong to the assemblage of the Talpiot ossuaries."

We do not have the expertise to comment on the accuracy of this assertion. However, we are interested in how the James Ossuary impacts our calculations if the ossuary actually originated from the Talpiot Tomb.

In our paper ("Talpiot") we showed how to use Bayes' Theorem to update one's a priori belief (probability) about the Talpiot Tomb being the tomb of the Jesus family, based only on the inscriptions on the ossuaries. We made adjustments to that probability in a paper to be published ("Talpiot" 3), but the results were very similar to our original ones.

We began by assuming an a priori probability of the Talpiot Tomb being the tomb of the Jesus family that is the reciprocal of the number of likely tombs in the area—one in a thousand. By using the probability of finding six inscriptions on ossuaries like those in Talpiot, we can calculate using a multinomial distribution, specified as four ossuaries containing male names, two of whom are from the Jesus family, plus two female names, one of whom is the mother, Mary. The combination of family names, Jesus, son of Joseph, Yoseh, and Mary, are simply one combination of thirty-one we might expect of such a tomb. These probabilities, when used according to Bayes' Theorem, produce an a posteriori probability of the tomb being that of the Jesus family that is either 47%, if we assume Yoseh to be a rare name and that of one of the brothers of Jesus; or, it is only 3% if we treat Yoseh as just a variant of the more common Joseph.

Supposing now that the James Ossuary has come from the tomb, we may use all of the same formality as in the previous paragraph but change the multinomial distribution to one involving seven inscriptions, five male and two female, with three of the five male inscriptions being members of the Jesus family—Jesus, son of Joseph, James, and Yoseh. The result is that the a posteriori probability of this tomb being that of the Jesus family is increased to 92% if we assign Yoseh to be a rare name and 32% if we assume Yoseh to be a variant of Joseph.

In more familiar language we can say that our results are as follows. Assuming there truly is a Jesus family tomb in the Jerusalem area, the Talpiot Tomb, with its combination of Jesus, son of Joseph, Yoseh as a rare name, James, and Mary, is a near certainty of being the tomb. A second tomb with such an association of names is not likely.

In our previous articles, we have demonstrated that many scholars have made erroneous statements and faulty conclusions concerning the statistical analysis of the Talpiot Tomb. The most frequent argument against the Talpiot Tomb we encountered was that the names in the Jesus family tomb are common, "even extremely common" ("Talpiot"; "Inside" 3). We have pointed out a number of times that it is inaccurate to insist that these "names would be found in almost any Jewish tomb of the time" ("Talpiot"). Furthermore, among New Testament scholars "there is little realization...that equating likelihood of names in a set (names of Jews in first-century Judea) with likelihood of groups of names (combinations in a tomb) is a fallacy--a misunderstanding for which there is no antidote other than to take a course in probability or to have a statistician explain the fallacy involved" ("Talpiot").

Other mistaken arguments we encountered were:

  1. Talpiot could not be the tomb of Jesus because he is only identified in the New Testament as Jesus of Nazareth. The likely "inscription should be 'Yeshua from Nazareth' or 'Yeshua son of Mariame'" ("Talpiot").

  2. Jesus, son of Joseph, is not unique ("Talpiot").

  3. Ossuary inscriptions must reflect their Galilean origins ("Talpiot").

  4. Jesus was not likely to be buried in a rock-cut tomb ("Inside" 4).

  5. Jesus' family tomb should be located in Nazareth ("Inside" 4).

  6. Yoseh is a variant of Joseph to be used to differentiate between father and son ("Talpiot").

  7. It is more likely that Jesus was resurrected than buried in the Talpiot Tomb ("Talpiot").

All the above arguments are bantered in order to invalidate the Talpiot Tomb as the Jesus family tomb. We maintained that these arguments are, themselves, invalid. In our opinion, these erroneous arguments and statistics have marginalized arguments concerning the tomb and at times have unleashed a barrage of unjustified accusations against those who believe the tomb is worthy of further scholarly inquiry. One scholar has written to us that he believes that Talpiot has generated arguments that have been "ugly, bitter, and a shame to our profession." In some cases, it is hard to refute this allegation.

One consequence of the possibility that the James Ossuary is genuine and came from Talpiot is that scholars will have to face the question of who is Judah, son of Jesus, located on one of the ossuaries in the Talpiot Tomb. Many scholars vigorously deny Jesus was ever married. "It has long been believed that Jesus was single. Every detail of Scripture indicates this" (Bock); "...we have overwhelming literary evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was not married but chose to remain celibate. We have multiple, early, independent sources which are unanimous in portraying Jesus as celibate" (Lane).

Many of the above comments are simply not accurate or cannot support perceptions of Jesus' celibacy. We have argued that there is no evidence that Jesus was not married. No Gospel indicates that Jesus was celibate for his entire life. Paul's letters never mention celibacy regarding Jesus. The Gospels are silent concerning Jesus' marital status. They have nothing to say about whether or not Jesus had been married previously or had a son. We have written "the Gospels rarely reveal any information on the marital status of Jesus' apostles. There is a brief mention of Peter's (Simon's) mother-in-law but nothing on his wife or possible children" (see Mk 1:30). Can we suppose that all the original disciples excluding Peter were not married simply because their marital status remains unmentioned in the Gospels? If it weren't for Paul's brief comment concerning the wives of the other apostles and the brothers of the lord and Cephas (I Cor 9:5), we would have no credible information concerning the wives of the apostles" ("Inside" 6). In a widely quoted paragraph from Paul's letter to the Corinthians (I Cor 7:8) to support Jesus' alleged celibacy, Paul maintains that the unmarried and the widows should "remain unmarried as I am." We don't find this quotation credible proof of Jesus' celibate nature. In no instance does Paul contend his "unmarried circumstance is an emulation of Jesus" ("Inside" ) or that it represents Jesus at any stage of his life. We also reject arguments that Jesus was somehow modeling the Essenes who practiced celibacy. This is pure speculation. Nowhere in any New Testament text are the Essenes even mentioned or acknowledged that Jesus found their lifestyle appealing or worthy of imitation.

The gospel writers scarcely show any interest in the marital status of Jesus or his disciples. Suppose that Jesus were married as a young man and his wife died early. This would not be unusual in first-century Judah and would the gospel writers care or even know about it? What does this have to do with Jesus' message years later? The Gospels have large gaps in depicting Jesus' life. They are nearly silent when it comes to Jesus' early life. There is no information on Jesus after the age of twelve (Lk 2:42-52) until he begins his ministry. Scholars should stop making inferences and assumptions about Jesus' personal life when there is no evidence. The issue of a son of Jesus named Judah is surprising, perhaps, but not unlikely. We strongly suggest that scholars reevaluate their notions of the dogma of celibacy. Unfortunately, some scholars wish to make it an issue of faith and not scholarship.

Further research is needed to completely understand the significance of this patina fingerprint on the James Ossuary and Talpiot. More ossuaries and tombs should be investigated to better understand the reliability of the results. Moreover the connections between the James Ossuary and Talpiot implied by the patina suggest that a larger data base is worth constructing. Obviously the debate on Talpiot is not over, and we recommend that scholars who hold other views not engage in personal animosities, which are inappropriate and contrary to any honest discussion concerning this topic.


Bock, Darrell. "Was Jesus Married?" Beliefnet.

See Kilty and Elliott. "Inside the Numbers." 20 March 2008

---. "Probability, Statistics and the Talpiot Tomb." 10 June 2007

---. "Talpiot Dethroned." January 2010

Lane, William Craig. '"My faith has really been shaken by...."' Reasonable Faith.

Comments (2)

Does the proposition that 'there existed a family such that one of its members, called Jesus, was the principal model for the Jesus of the New Testament, and moreover that family owned a tomb in the Jerusalem area' strictly play the role of an assumption here? The argument would then be that, given the close similarity between names recorded in the literature and names found in the tomb under discussion, that tomb is overwhelmingly likely to the relevant family tomb.
If that's the logic here, it would perhaps be interesting to see a bit more - or a bit more than I for one can see from the present text - of how you partition the probabilities of people's having a certain name, of the New Testament writers' not real tomb being lost to us etc..
If the probability is indeed overwhelming then we also have a strong probability that the real Jesus was married or had a child out of wedlock whatever the literary record says: that is, provided the underlying assumption is unquestioned.
The whole nature of assumptions (which are utterly legitimate things) is that they are neither questioned during the course of the argument nor considered to be vindicated at the argument's conclusion.
But on the whole, the objections that you consider seem to be about the assumption, not about the argument - which for me confuses the logic somewhat. For instance, the assumption is false (though the argument still valid) if the family tomb must, per objection 5, have been outside Jerusalem.
If the tomb-Jesus was married or had a child out of wedlock then the idea that the tomb-Jesus was the model for the literary Jesus (which is part of the assumption) is weakened if marriage and paternity are at least underplayed (as I think they are) as parts of the the literary Jesus' life.
I agree that it's important not to confuse the role of one who assesses evidence calmly with the role of one who pursues a religious agenda in fiery fashion. However, we must remember that anti-Christian as well as strongly Christian sentiment can play its part when the Christian text is interrogated.
Finally and perhaps eccentrically it's always seemed to me that the natural way to read the episode where Paul strikes Bar-Jesus blind is to think that Paul was discrediting an impostor who claimed to be Jesus' son: I have the impression that the idea even of an imposture in this matter so disturbs commentators that they just can't face it.
However, it also seems to me, for what such impressions are worth, that the idea of Jesus' remains finding their way to a family tomb in Jerusalem is completely ruled out by the NT text unless very unnaturally read or considered to be near fictional. Not that I refuse to face any of these alarming possibilities.
#1 - Martin Hughes - 04/12/2015 - 14:39

What is the earliest known mention of a putative \"Jesus family tomb\" in Jerusalem?
#2 - Stephen Goranson - 04/13/2015 - 15:26

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