Whatever Happened to the Dead Sea Scrolls? (Dr. Martin A. Larson, 1981)

NOTE: The following article is a lecture that was presented at the 1981 Revisionist Conference. Though this article is strictly on the Dead Sea scrolls and does not contain many of the typical elements of an IHR article–anti-Semitism, holocaust denial, etc.–it is interesting to note that many of Geronda Ephraim’s monastics share similar views contained on the IHR website; primarily Holocaust Revisionism. Though the monastics do not deny that Jews suffered and died during World War II, they claim that the numbers are highly exaggerated as well as what went on at concentration camps. Geronda Paisios once stated the number of Jews that died was only in the thousands. Similar statements are also found in the books of Geronda Haralambos Vasilopoulos and other Greek Orthodox writers which are sold in monastery bookstores.

Dr. Martin A. Larson
Dr. Martin A. Larson

I was brought up in a very religious family, but at an early age I had begun to question some of the teachings that were given to me in my boyhood. And I remember how I questioned the minister of our church when I was reading for confirmation at the age of fifteen concerning some of the atrocities committed by the Jews after they left Egypt, under the leadership of Moses, and according to the story of the Old Testament, invaded Palestine, attacked the inhabitants there, took their property, and drove them from their homes with the help of their God, Jehovah. My interest in religion continued unabated over the years. And thus it was that when I wrote my Ph.D. thesis at the University of Michigan, it dealt with Milton’s theology — particularly his Trinitarian concept — and I published a book on the subject in 1927. But then for many years I had no opportunity to study religion or, in fact, anything else. But soon after the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1947, I retired from active business and could then devote myself to study. I therefore plunged into research of the Scrolls, and in due course, published a book on the subject called the Essene Heritage. And so, the authors of the Scrolls, the Essenes, their writings and their impact on history has been a subject of consuming interest to me for many years.

The Origin and Development of the Cult

Let us first summarize some of the known facts concerning the Dead Sea Scrolls and their authors, the religious organization known as the Essenes (they were also called The Holy Ones, the Poor Men, the Sons of Light, etc.) and who existed in Judaea and the nearby desert from about 192 B.C. to the date of their extinction and destruction in 69 or 70 A.D., when the Roman armies marched through Palestine and finally destroyed Jerusalem. This cult is probably unique as an historical phenomenon; throughout its existence, it was opposed to the Jewish authorities; although it accepted the Scriptures which constitute the Old Testament, it revised, rewrote, or completely reinterpreted them. Also, what is even more significant than important, they gradually absorbed various elements from other sources, such as Zoroastrianism and Pythagoreanism. As a result, they prepared an entire corpus of original scripture which was not only a definite departure from official Judaism, but in basic contradiction to, and a repudiation of, this system of doctrine and ritual.

Reconstruction of the Qumran compound, thought to house the Essene community.
Reconstruction of the Qumran compound, thought to house the Essene community.

At the beginning, the cult was simply a reaction against the Hellenizing of Jewish life under Greek domination, but shortly thereafter, it split into two well-defined factions, one of which developed into later Essenism and the other into the Pharasaic movement which produced the Rabbinical priesthood, who, to this day, constitute the official spokesmen for Judaism. By 143 B.C., as we learn from Josephus, three distinct groups had been fully developed in the Jewish population: they were the Essenes, the Pharisees, and the Saducees, of whom the last represented the wealthy, upper-class Jews, who had embraced Epicureanism as their philosophy.

In 134 B.C., Hyrcanus, the only surviving son of Judas Maccabaeus, became king of an independent Israeli nation and ruled until the year 104. In the next year, Alexander Jannaeus assumed the throne and ruled until 78, after which his widow, Helene, or Salome Alexandra, served as Queen Regent until the year 76, when her two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, after taking over, fought each other in a bloody internecine conflict for the possession of power, until the year 64, when Pompey the Roman general invaded Palestine and reduced the Jewish nation into a Roman province under puppet rulers and procurators, who continued until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

The Titus Arch in Rome that celebrates the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD by Titus.
The Titus Arch in Rome that celebrates the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD by Titus.

Original Cultic Scriptures

During the period from 192 to 60 B.C., the Essenes produced a great corpus of literature under the inspiration of leaders known from generation to generation as The Teacher of Righteousness, he was also called the Holy Great One, and was given other titles signifying revelatory powers as direct conduits of messages from the Supreme God of the Universe, who, by the way was something quite different from Jehovah, the tribal god of the Jews. Extremely interesting is the fact that two very important documents — The Book of Enoch and The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs – were well known among the early Christians and accepted by them as sacred literature of their own. Scholars had no suspicion that these, although widely used in later periods, were produced by the Essenes until the scrolls were discovered near the Dead Sea in 1947. Since hundreds of fragments of these documents were found in the caves, it became obvious that they were among the very important scriptures composed and used by the Essenes themselves.

Persecution and Separation

Whatever else we may consider as firmly established, it is certain that under the reign of Hyrcanus, who was affiliated with the Pharisees previous to 104 B.C., there was persistent persecution of the Essenes, partly because of doctrinal deviations but perhaps even more because of their condemnations of the Jewish authorities, who frequently invaded neighboring territories and forced people there to accept Judaism and circumcision on pain of persecution and even of death. Thus it was that about 104 B.C., as we learn from Josephus, the Essenes became an esoteric mystery-cult with its own communes, its own code of laws, discipline, and organization, which included a total withdrawal and separation from all public activity. As a result, it became the depository of total religious commitment, living in expectation of the day, not very far in the future, when an all-powerful divine personage would appear, send all their Jewish persecutors into everlasting torture in hellish dungeons under the surface of the earth, and establish the kingdom of the saints, (the Sons of Light) with its capital in Jerusalem.

Under Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled from 103-78 B.C., this hostility and persecution intensified. The Essene documents written during this period are filled with the fiercest denunciations of the Jewish priests and authorities, who not only raided the communes of the Holy Ones and decimated their membership, but were also guilty of constant acts of aggression against their innocent and unoffending neighbors. I know of no other literature replete with comparable condemnations of acts of violence committed without provocation. The documents in our possession which contain this material are The Habakkuk Commentary, http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/habakkuk_bruce.pdf Parts IV and V of the Book of Enoch, and various statements found in The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, the original portions of which were composed while Hyracanus was king.

This situation seems to have continued under Queen-Regent Alexandra and her two sons between 78 and 64, when the independent Jewish state was suddenly terminated by the interposition of Roman authority. It is interesting to note that Herod the Great, the puppet Roman ruler of Israel from 39 to 4 B.C., was an Idumaean who had converted to Judaism and was therefore know as a half-Jew.

At all events, it is certain that the tension between the Essenes and the government was, if anything, more fierce under Jannaeus than it had ever been before. As we have noted, they became a secret brotherhood in 104 in order to avoid total extermination; in spite of this, however, their persecution continued; with their members under solemn vows of secrecy, their organization survived and, in time grew, especially under the comparatively mild regimen which followed the conquest of Judaea by Pompey in 64.

The Execution of the Rabbis

Josephus relates that Jannaeus, who had at first espoused the Pharisees, later went over to the Sadducees; and when the former were accused of conspiring with the Syrians to subvert the government, Jannaeus had 800 leading rabbis crucified at one time; and, as they hung on their “trees” or crosses, he had his soldiers cut the throats of their wives and children as he himself feasted at a great banquet with his concubines and his favorites. This had been doubted by many until the fact was confirmed by the publication of a Dead Sea Scroll fragment which related precisely the same facts.

150 years earlier, 800 Jews were crucified by Jannaeus.
150 years earlier, 800 Jews were crucified by Jannaeus.

The Execution and Deification of the Teacher

The climactic event in Essene history occurred in 70 or 69 B.C. Although all the details of this will probably be known only if more Scrolls are published, certain facts are known. At that time, the Teacher of Righteousness- that is, the Essene leader-went boldly into Jerusalem and there, in the very temple itself, he proclaimed and condemned the lawless corruption and aggressions of the priests and authorities who ruled in Israel. He was therefore seized and executed, by what means is not certain, but some scholars believe that he was crucified.

Shortly thereafter, the persuasion developed among his followers-until it became actual dogma-that he was the Most High God of the Universe Himself who had appeared for a time as a man among men; that he died a sacrificial death for the redemption of sinners; that he had risen from the grave on the third day; that he had returned to his throne in heaven; and that, before the end of the then-existing generation, he would send a representative to the earth. This representative would in due course be invested with unlimited power and would terminate the present dispensation, conduct the last judgment, and establish the communal kingdom of the saints on earth, who would then come into possession of all the property of the wicked, who would, thereafter, suffer infinite and eternal agonies in hell.

The Essene Revelations Completed

Except for a few original documents written after 69 B.C., and the final interpolations added to The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs at the same time, the cult seems at this point to have considered its corpus of literature and revelation complete. The members studied their scriptures in the various communes scattered about Palestine. Those destined for a special type of leadership were sent to the headquarters at Qumram near the Dead Sea, where they multiplied their holy writings in a scriptorium, where members underwent ritual baptisms daily, and where, dressed in white robes, they partook of sacramental meals in an upper chamber every day.

Qumran cave 4, where ninety percent of the scrolls were found.
Qumran cave 4, where ninety percent of the scrolls were found.

The Secret Esoteric Order

From Josephus, who was a neophyte in the Order for three years, the world has always known a good deal about the Essenes. When an individual joined, he sold everything he owned and turned the proceeds over to the curator of the Order, who kept this in a separate fund for three years, when it was returned to the applicant if he did not qualify for membership. If he did qualify, his property was intermingled irrevocably with that of the Order, and he was admitted to the commune, but still not permitted to partake of the sacramental bread and wine, nor was he yet taught all its mysteries until the end of five years, when, if he satisfied the leaders as to his truth and reliability, he was finally admitted to full membership. Josephus states that if a member was expelled for some serious infraction of discipline, he simply lay down in the desert and died of starvation, since he could not eat any other kind of food.

“Ichthys” was used by early Christians as a secret Christian symbol.

Between 60 B.C. and 69 A.D., the communes, which increased to 4,000 male members, continued with little alteration, while awaiting the coming of the Redeemer. However, as the Romans subjugated Galilee on their southward march toward Jerusalem, they came across various Essene communes and, suspecting the cultists of being a secret and conspiratorial society planning the overthrow of Roman rule, members were tortured under interrogation to reveal their secret doctrines. However, as Josephus tells us, they died, smiling, rather than violate their sacred oaths to never, no never, reveal their beliefs to anyone, no matter what the provocation might be.

An early circular ichthys symbol, created by combining the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ, Ephesus.
An early circular ichthys symbol, created by combining the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ, Ephesus.

Secreting the Scrolls

Then an extraordinary event occurred. As the Romans approached the Dead Sea headquarters at Qumram, the Essenes placed their sacred writings in hundreds of earthen jars, sealed them carefully, and secreted them in various caves located in the rugged terrain. We believe that they expected to return in the not-too-distant future to resume their long-practiced way of life. But, of course, they never did.

Was Jesus an Essene?

The existence of the Essene cult had always been known from the extensive references to, and descriptions of, them in Josephus, Pliny, and Philo Judaeus. Interestingly enough, Thomas De Quincey, a famous English essayist, declared about 1825, that there never was a separate Essene organization; that the so-called Essenes were simply Christians gone underground; that otherwise we would have to accept the blasphemous conclusion that there were two independent, yet almost identical, revelations at the same time and in the same place.

There are scholars who believe that Jesus had been a full-fledged member of the Order; that he was persuaded that He was the personage foretold in their scriptures who would be empowered to establish the Kingdom of Righteousness, and that, therefore, he broke his vow of secrecy and preached the doctrines of the Order in the highways and the byways of Galilee. Some scholars are also convinced that not only John the Baptist but also the original core of men who established Christianity had been members of the Order. Some believe in addition that when their communes and headquarters were destroyed by the Romans, many of the Essenes became an integral and decisive element in the formation of the Christian movement. There was, in particular, one segment known as the Ebionites, or the Poor Men, who recreated in detail in their own literature, the doctrines, teachings, and discipline of the Essene communities. Actually, the three Synoptic Gospels, and especially Luke, are studded with statements in complete harmony with the cultic teachings, as is the so-called Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew. The more we study the Dead Sea Scrolls and the early canonical Christian

Scriptures, the more striking are the parallels which become evident. We have already noted that two important Essene documents were widely accepted by the early Christian converts as genuine scriptures of their own. Perhaps these converts had previously been Essenes.

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The Great Discovery

In 1947, an event of world-shaking significance occurred. An Arab shepherd-boy, following a stray goat, entered an aperture on the side of a cliff and stumbled into a cave where the Essenes had secreted a number of jars containing scrolls. However, few of these were intact; most had been broken, and their contents scattered about the floor, much of the material torn into shreds. Obviously, the caves had been invaded, perhaps several times, with damage which cannot easily be assessed. However, after the Arabs had recovered two virtually complete manuscripts of Isaiah, a copy of the Manual of Discipline, The Thanksgiving Pslams, The Habkkuk Commentary, the Damascus Document, and the War scroll, they sold these to a group in New York; and, in a short time, they were made available to the world in translations by Millar Burrows, Dupont-Sommer, Gaza Vermes, and Theodore Gaster.

The Psalms Scroll (11Q5), one of the 972 texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with a partial Hebrew transcription.
The Psalms Scroll (11Q5), one of the 972 texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, with a partial Hebrew transcription.

Many More Scrolls Discovered

Then began an archeological search without parallel in religious history. One expedition after another went to the Dead Sea area in search of more scrolls. One team was headed by Millar Burrows, who states in his Dead Sea Scrolls that material sufficient to fill three large volumes was found in a single cave, cave four in which two-thirds was original Essene scripture and the remainder consisted of Jewish canonical books. After these were placed in the Jordanian Museum in Jerusalem, an international team of eight scholars were selected to collect, piece together, and prepare for publication this incomparable treasure of source-material; of these, four were Roman Catholics; three had Protestant affiliations; and only one, John Marco Allegro, was without personal religious commitment. Without much delay, Allegro translated and published everything committed to him, including the delicate Copper Scroll, which listed precious metals and jewels worth millions of dollars secreted somewhere in the desert-where they still remain. However, he published also the material which tells the story of how Jannaeus crucified the rabbis; and after he declared in an interview that the Teacher of Righteousness may have been crucified in 70 or 69 B.C., by the Jewish authorities, he was thereafter denied all access to the Scrolls and was not even permitted to visit the Jordanian Museum in which they were kept. He complained bitterly that after years of delay not one line of the Scrolls, in addition to his, were translated and published; and this in spite of the fact that no less than 400 separate documents had been pieced together by 1965 and could just as easily have been given to the world, as were the four or five published shortly after the -original discovery.

A view of part of the Temple Scroll that was found in Qumran Cave 11.
A view of part of the Temple Scroll that was found in Qumran Cave 11.

The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs contained a great many passages which had always be considered of Christian origin because they depict a personage in many respects similar to, or almost identical with, the character and mission attributed to Jesus in the New Testament. However, with the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this theory became untenable as fragments of the Testaments written nearly a century before the emergence of Christianity were found scattered about the caves which contained the very statements which had always been believed to be Christian interpolations. When I learned about these, I wrote to the curator of the Jordanian Museum offering to fly there if I would be permitted to photograph a piece of parchment from the Testament of Levi. He replied that if I came, I would not even be permitted to look at it, much less take a picture of it.

The Six-Day War of 1967

And so, even though year after year had slipped by without any additional publication of Scroll material, I continued to hope that someday it would become available. But then, as you know, a catastrophic event occurred in 1967 — the Six-Day War, (as it is called) in which the Israelis seized all of Jerusalem, including the Jordanian Museum and its contents.

The Fate of the Scrolls

Over the years, until his death, I corresponded with Millar Burrows, who had written a sympathetic review of my book, The Essene Heritage, published in 1967. He refused to admit that there was any attempt to delay or prevent the publication of the Scrolls. Once he even declared that the Oxford Press was on the verge of releasing a large volume of this material; but the publishers stated to me in a letter that they had no such project under consideration.

Thus, year after year, I kept prodding Burrows on the subject, and his replies became more and more evasive until they ceased altogether.

The Damascus Document Scroll, 4Q271Df, found in Cave 4
The Damascus Document Scroll, 4Q271Df, found in Cave 4

One question continued to occupy my interest: what had become of the scrolls? Why were none of them published for so many years? Sometimes I wondered whether they woud survive or ever be made available to the public. However, we should note that even in the custody of the Jordanians, they were hold in the strictest secrecy-and why? I could only surmise that extreme pressure had been exerted by both Christian and Jewish sources: -from the former, because it would not be beneficial to them should it be established that this faith grew out of a Jewish cult and was, therefore, not an original revelation; nor would the Israelis wish the Scrolls released, since they were filled with fierce denunciations of Jewish religious leaders and civil authorities.

It is my considered opinion and my sad conclusion that the Dead Sea Scrolls will never be given to the world unless basic changes occur: first, they must be removed from the custody of the Israeli government and, second, we must establish an intellectual climate in the western world in which scholars and ministers can discuss religious subjects without fear of reprisals, in the form of lost prestige, removal from lucrative positions, loss, of salaries or other sanctions which can be enforced against anyone who dares to interfere with the emoluments or the powers of those who are most powerful and influential in society.

I think it is as simple as that. And at the back of my mind lingers a gnawing fear that instead of being translated and published, the leather or parchment on which the Scrolls are inscribed, may be physically destroyed or become undecipherable before anything is done to release them. And it is highly significant that for several years there has been little or no discussion anywhere concerning the Scrolls. It seems that by ignoring the whole subject, its significance will die in the public consciousness.

The War Scroll, found in Qumran Cave 1.
The War Scroll, found in Qumran Cave 1.

The Museum in Jerusalem

From various friends who have recently returned from tours of the Middle East, I have learned a number of significant details. There is now in Jerusalem an onion-top-shaped building, designed to resemble the earthen jars in which the Scrolls were placed in 69 A.D.; most of the structure is underground and resembles a tunnel. This building is called the Shrine of the Book, and tourists are told that it houses not only the Dead Sea Scrolls, but also other documents found at the fortress of Massada and still others related to the revolt of Bar Kokhba which occurred in 135 A.D. A 24-foot Scroll of Isaiah is on open display. I have been told that documents said to be original Scrolls are to be seen under extremely thick glass covers. I have been told also that in case of an emergency such as an attack, all the cases containing the manuscripts could be lowered into an impregnable underground vault.

An entrance into an excavated cave used by Bar Kokhba's rebels
An entrance into an excavated cave used by Bar Kokhba’s rebels

However, so far as I have been able to learn, no one is permitted to make an examination of these scrolls, touch them, or photograph them. No one, to whom I have talked, has the faintest idea of what is actually in the museum. And certainly, not one word of the Essene material has been published in the fourteen years that have elapsed since the Six-Day War.

Whether the Scrolls are there or in condition to be examined, I certainly do not know, nor have I been able to obtain any information on this score.

A cluster of papyrus containing Bar Kokhba's orders found in the Judean desert by modern Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin.
A cluster of papyrus containing Bar Kokhba’s orders found in the Judean desert by modern Israeli archaeologist Yigael Yadin.

The Future of the Scrolls

What, if anything, the future holds in store in this field beyond what is now occurring, remains of course to be seen. I can think of no possible valid reason why the Scrolls have been withheld now for nearly thirty years. If they could not be prepared for publication in that length of time, would a century or two centuries be enough? It seems to me that unless we can rescue them from their present custody and also achieve a new and different intellectual world climate, there is little hope that anyone now living will ever see any translation of these scrolls.

I consider what has happened and is continuing to occur in the matter of the Scrolls the greatest cover-up of important historical material that has occurred in modern history. The enemies are the special interests and a fierce bigotry that can only continue to persist by ignoring one of the most important questions that have ever faced world-scholarship. I do not expect to see any new developments during my lifetime, and it is one of the great disappointments of my career as a scholar and writer.

Two examples of the pottery that held some of the Dead Sea Scrolls documents found at Qumran.
Two examples of the pottery that held some of the Dead Sea Scrolls documents found at Qumran.

New Controversy Surrounds Alleged ‘Jesus Family Tomb’ (Tia Ghose, 2015)

NOTE: Archaeology is a science that is viewed cautiously and, in some cases, apprehensively, by more traditional Orthodox Christians. Because Scriptures are viewed as God-inspired and true, anything that contradicts them is usually dismissed as false or demonic. There are varying views in the monasteries under Geronda Ephraim. A common view is, “We don’t need western scholars to interpret our Scriptures, we have the God-bearing Fathers.” More generally, there is a circular reasoning argument that exists: When science backs or supports something mentioned in Scriptures or the Fathers, this is used as a proof or validation of orthodoxy. When something contradicts, it is wrong. When it comes to archaeology, if it is a matter of objects dated to the right time period, it is used as validation.  If the dating disagrees, then carbon dating methods are criticized as an inaccurate science, or, “The Bible isn’t meant to be read as a scientifically or historically accurate book.” There are also many other “arguments” used–which lack any basis or evidence–to “validate” the inaccuracies contained within Scriptures and the writings of the Orthodox Church Fathers. This article is taken from Live Science, April 09, 2015:

A new piece of evidence is reigniting controversy over the potential bones of Jesus of Nazareth.

A tomb in a suburb of Jerusalem excavated in 1980 contains bone boxes with names of some of Jesus' family members. Some historians believe this tomb may have contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, though others are skeptical. Here, an ossuary from the Talpiot tomb. Many believe the inscription reads "Yeshua son of Yehosef," or "Jesus son of Joseph."
A tomb in a suburb of Jerusalem excavated in 1980 contains bone boxes with names of some of Jesus’ family members. Some historians believe this tomb may have contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, though others are skeptical. Here, an ossuary from the Talpiot tomb. Many believe the inscription reads “Yeshua son of Yehosef,” or “Jesus son of Joseph.”

A bone box inscribed with the phrase “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” is potentially linked to a tomb in Talpiot, Israel, where the bones of people with the names of Jesus’ family members are buried, according to a new chemical analysis. Aryeh Shimron, the geologist who conducted the study, claims that because it is so unlikely that this group of biblical names would be found together by chance, the new results suggest the tomb once held the bones of Jesus. Historians place Jesus’ birth at some time before 4 B.C. in Nazareth, a small village in Galilee.

“If this is correct, that strengthens the case for the Talpiot or Jesus Family Tomb being indeed the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth,” said Shimron, a retired geologist who has studied several archaeological sites in Israel.

If true, the idea that Jesus was buried on Earth would undermine one of the central tenets of Christianity — that Jesus was physically resurrected and rose bodily to heaven after his crucifixion.

But many historians are skeptical. They say the names on the bone boxes (inside the Talpiot tomb) don’t all match with those of Jesus’ family. In addition, the current research has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, the experts say. [See Photos of the Controversial Bone Boxes]

Family of Jesus

In the time of Jesus, people buried the dead initially in a shroud, but once the flesh had rotted away, they often took the remaining bones and collected them in a small limestone box, called an ossuary, said Mark Goodacre, a New Testament and Christian origins scholar at Duke University in North Carolina who was not involved in the current study. [See Images of the Jonah Ossuary]

One of these bone boxes, the James Ossuary, made headlines in 2002, when it was first revealed. The first-century box is inscribed with Aramaic text that translates to “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” If it’s authentic, the ancient artifact could potentially be the only known relic from the family of Jesus of Nazareth.

The James Ossuary, which was held by a private collector since 1976, contains the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." New evidence suggests the bone box came from a tomb where other bone boxes with family names of Jesus of Nazareth are found.
The James Ossuary, which was held by a private collector since 1976, contains the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” New evidence suggests the bone box came from a tomb where other bone boxes with family names of Jesus of Nazareth are found.

But in 2003, the Israel Antiquities Authority argued that the “brother of Jesus” text was forged, and the collector, Oded Golan, was later tried for fraud. After seven years, an Israeli judge concluded that Golan was not guilty of forgery, in part because Golan produced a photograph of the box sitting on his shelf in 1976, and would therefore have not had an incentive to forge the inscription many years before he went public with the discovery.

Tomb raiders

In 1980, another group of researchers unearthed a first-century tomb in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem. The tomb was flooded with a reddish soil called rendzina, and buried in this soil were 10 boxes, six of which were inscribed with names such as Jesus, Mary, Judah, Joseph and Yose. [Photos: 1st-Century House from Jesus’ Hometown]

The house seen here is one of two houses in Nazareth that date to the first century AD. Research reveals that people in the Middle Ages believed that Jesus grew up in this home.
The house seen here is one of two houses in Nazareth that date to the first century AD. Research reveals that people in the Middle Ages believed that Jesus grew up in this home.

The tomb came into the public spotlight with the 2007 documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” written by Israeli journalist and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, and produced by “Titanic” producer James Cameron. In recent years, Jacobovici has put forward the theory that the James Ossuary came from the Talpiot tomb — and that the tomb was the final resting place of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. But most archaeologists were skeptical of that claim, Goodacre said.

In the new study, Shimron took scrapings from several places on the James Ossuary and the Talpiot tomb ossuaries. He then compared the traces of chemicals — such as aluminum, magnesium, iron and potassium — from those boxes with about 30 to 40 randomly chosen ossuaries collected by the Israel Antiquities Authority. (Some bones were analyzed for DNA but could not be studied thoroughly because they were quickly reburied after excavation, as Jewish law forbids disturbing Jewish burials, Shimron said.)

Shimron found that the chemical signatures from the James Ossuary matched those from the Talpiot bone boxes.

“The flooding of [the] tomb was caused by this earthquake which hit Jerusalem in [A.D.] 363,” Shimron told Live Science. “That soil and mud that flooded the tomb also buried the ossuaries.”

Because both of the boxes contain chemical signatures associated with this soil, the findings suggest the James Ossuary originally came from the Talpiot tomb, Shimron said.

What’s in a name?

If true, the new findings could strengthen the case for the Talpiot tomb containing the bones of Jesus of Nazareth. In this interpretation,  after Joseph of Arimathea initially buried Jesus in an empty tomb, his body may have later been laid to rest in this family plot, said James Tabor, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, who has worked in the past with Jacobovici, who financed the current research. [8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

Altogether, ten bone boxes were unearthed during the 1980 excavations of the Talpiot tomb, though one mysteriously disappeared. Six of those boxes have inscriptions, many with names that match those of Jesus' family members. However, critics say that not all the names are a match. Here, some of the boxes from the Jesus family tomb.
Altogether, ten bone boxes were unearthed during the 1980 excavations of the Talpiot tomb, though one mysteriously disappeared. Six of those boxes have inscriptions, many with names that match those of Jesus’ family members. However, critics say that not all the names are a match. Here, some of the boxes from the Jesus family tomb.

The trouble is proving that the tomb belongs to Jesus of Nazareth and his family, rather than a completely different Jesus. The argument for the former theory rests on statistics — namely, that it would be incredibly unlikely that names associated with Jesus of Nazareth’s family would occur by chance for another unrelated Jesus, according to Jacobovici. Adding in another ossuary with names associated with Jesus — namely, the James Ossuary — would potentially buttress that statistical case.

But many experts say that statistical case doesn’t hold up. For one, almost all the names in the tomb were common at the time. In addition, some of the inscriptions, such as the name for Jesus, are hard to read, said Robert Cargill, a classics and religious studies professor at the University of Iowa in Ames, who was not involved in the study.

What’s more, some of the names found on ossuaries from the tomb have no historical precedent — such as “Judah, son of Jesus.”

“There’s no evidence at all that Jesus had a son at all, let alone a son called Judah,” Goodacre said.

One of the boxes is inscribed with what may be “Mariamne” or, alternatively, “Mary and Mara,” Goodacre added. While Jacobovici argues that the name corresponds to one of Jesus’ followers, Mary Magdalene, early Christians didn’t call Mary Magdalene “Mariamne” — rather, she was just called Mariam or Marya, Goodacre said.

When those inconsistencies are also considered, the statistical case for the names matching those of Jesus’ family falls apart, Cargill said.

Jacobovici disagrees with their interpretation of the statistics.

“The fact is that this tomb has more evidence going for it now than probably any other archaeological artifact on the planet. The names are not common and some of the versions of the names are unique e.g., ‘Yose’ (which corresponds to one of the brothers of Jesus),” Jacobovici said in an email to Live Science.

Debate heats up

Another inconsistency comes in the timing of the discoveries. The James Ossuary was in a collector’s hands by 1976, but the tomb wasn’t discovered until 1980, Cargill said.

The A.D. 363 earthquake opened up the tomb centuries ago, so it’s possible that the box was closer to the entrance of the tomb and was partly visible from the surface, whereas the other boxes were still submerged and hidden. Someone could have seen it and quickly absconded with it, without having discovered the other tombs, Tabor said.

In addition, Tabor argues that, as a Jewish man of his day, Jesus of Nazareth was more likely to be married with kids, rather than celibate. So the mention of Jesus’ son Judah is not problematic for their theory, even if Judah were never mentioned in historical documents, Tabor added.

The James ossuary was first revealed to the public in 2002, but the Israel Antiquities Authority later said that the latter part of the inscription - "brother of Jesus," was a forgery. After a seven-year trial, a judge cleared the Oded Golan, who owned the box, of forgery. Now, a new geological analysis says it has the same chemical signature as ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb.
The James ossuary was first revealed to the public in 2002, but the Israel Antiquities Authority later said that the latter part of the inscription – “brother of Jesus,” was a forgery. After a seven-year trial, a judge cleared the Oded Golan, who owned the box, of forgery. Now, a new geological analysis says it has the same chemical signature as ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb.

Theological questions

The new findings are incredibly controversial because they deal with one of the most polarizing figures in history — Jesus of Nazareth. Traditional Christians believe that Jesus rose bodily from the dead and ascended to heaven after he was crucified and returned to walk on Earth, Tabor said.

“If you find the bones of Jesus, the resurrection is off,” Tabor told Live Science. Conservative Christians “see it as an attack on Christianity and also a refutation of the faith of Christianity.”

But Goodacre and Cargill said theological questions don’t factor into their skepticism. Rather, the real issue is that the scientific standards have not been met, Cargill said.

Ossuaries, or bone boxes, were fairly common during the time of Jesus. Families would typically bury people in a linen shroud, and once the flesh had rotted away, the bones would be collected and placed in a limestone or chalk box. Here, the ossuary thought to hold the bones of Caiaphas family. According to the New Testament, Caiaphas was a Jewish high priest who masterminded the plot to kill Jesus.
Ossuaries, or bone boxes, were fairly common during the time of Jesus. Families would typically bury people in a linen shroud, and once the flesh had rotted away, the bones would be collected and placed in a limestone or chalk box. Here, the ossuary thought to hold the bones of Caiaphas family. According to the New Testament, Caiaphas was a Jewish high priest who masterminded the plot to kill Jesus.

Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal the History of Crucifixion (Biblical Archaeological Society, 2011)

NOTE: This article is taken from The Bible History Daily, 07/17/2011:

The practice of crucifixion in antiquity was brought to life as never before when the heel bones of a young man named Yehohanan were found in a Jerusalem tomb, pierced by an iron nail. The discovery shed new light on Roman crucifixion methods and began to rewrite the history of crucifixion in antiquity. Photo: ©Erich Lessing
The practice of crucifixion in antiquity was brought to life as never before when the heel bones of a young man named Yehohanan were found in a Jerusalem tomb, pierced by an iron nail. The discovery shed new light on Roman crucifixion methods and began to rewrite the history of crucifixion in antiquity. Photo: ©Erich Lessing

Crucifixion in Antiquity

What do we know about the history of crucifixion? In the following article, “New Analysis of the Crucified Man,” Hershel Shanks looks at evidence of Roman crucifixion methods as analyzed from the remains found in Jerusalem of a young man crucified in the first century A.D. The remains included a heel bone pierced by a large nail, giving archaeologists, osteologists and anthropologists evidence of crucifixion in antiquity.

Crucifixion in antiquity was a gruesome execution, not really understood until a skeletal discovery in the 1980s that gave new insight into the history of crucifixion. Photo: Courtesy Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1985)
Crucifixion in antiquity was a gruesome execution, not really understood until a skeletal discovery in the 1980s that gave new insight into the history of crucifixion. Photo: Courtesy Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1985)

What do these bones tell us about the history of crucifixion? The excavator of the crucified man, Vassilios Tzaferis, followed the analysis of Nico Haas of Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem suggesting Roman crucifixion methods: a contorted position: arms nailed to the crossbeam; legs bent, twisted to one side, and held in place by a single nail that passed through a wooden plaque, through both left and right heel bones, and then into the upright of the cross.

However, when Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles reexamined the remains, looking for evidence of Roman crucifixion methods, they found no evidence that nails had penetrated the victim’s arms; moreover, the nail in the foot was not long enough to have penetrated the plaque, both feet, and the cross. And, indeed, what were previously thought to be fragments of two heel bones through which the nail passed were shown to be fragments of only one heel bone and a long bone. On the basis of this evidence, Zias and Sekeles suggest that the man’s legs straddled the cross and that his arms were tied to the crossbeam with ropes, signifying the method of crucifixion in antiquity.

Literary sources giving insight into the history of crucifixion indicate that Roman crucifixion methods had the condemned person carry to the execution site only the crossbar. Wood was scarce and the vertical pole was kept stationary and used repeatedly. Below, in “New Analysis of the Crucified Man,” Hershel Shanks concludes that crucifixion in antiquity involved death by asphyxiation, not death by nail piercing.

Scholars’ Corner: New Analysis of the Crucified Man

By Hershel Shanks

Drawing of the contorted crucifixion position proposed by Vassilios Tzaferis, based on the analysis of Nico Haas, which has since been challenged by Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles. For full caption, see drawing from Israel Exploration Journal 35:1. Photo: Courtesy Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1–2 (1970)
Drawing of the contorted crucifixion position proposed by Vassilios Tzaferis, based on the analysis of Nico Haas, which has since been challenged by Joseph Zias and Eliezer Sekeles. For full caption, see drawing from Israel Exploration Journal 35:1. Photo: Courtesy Israel Exploration Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1–2 (1970)

In our January/February 1985 issue, we published an article about the only remains of a crucified man to be recovered from antiquity (“Crucifixion—The Archaeological Evidence,BAR, January/February 1985). Vassilios Tzaferis, the author of the article and the excavator of the crucified man, based much of his analysis of the victim’s position on the cross and other aspects of the method of crucifixion on the work of a medical team from Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School headed by Nico Haas, who had analyzed the crucified man’s bones. In a recent article in the Israel Exploration Journal, however, Joseph Zias, an anthropologist with the Israel Department of Antiquities, and Eliezer Sekeles of Hebrew University-Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem question many of Haas’s conclusions concerning the bones of the crucified man.a The questions Zias and Sekeles raise affect many of the conclusions about the man’s position during crucifixion.

According to Haas, the nail in the crucified man penetrated both his right and left heel bones, piercing the right heel bone (calcaneum) first, then the left. Haas found a fragment of bone attached to the right heel that he thought was part of the left heel bone (sustentaculum tali). If Haas’s analysis is correct, the two heel bones must have been penetrated by the same nail, and the victim’s legs must have been in a closed position on the cross.

But according to the new analysis of the bones just published in the Israel Exploration Journal, the bone fragment Haas identified as part of the left heel bone was incorrectly identified. “The shape and structure of this bony fragment is of a long bone; it cannot therefore be the left [heel bone],” say the most recent investigators. Their conclusions are confirmed by x-rays, which reveal the varying density, structure and direction of the bones.

Haas also incorrectly assumed that the nail is seven inches (17–18 cm) long. In fact, the total length of the nail from head to tip is only 4.5 inches (11.5 cm). A wooden plaque less than an inch thick (2 cm) had been punctured by the nail before it passed through the right heel bone. After exiting from the bone, the nail penetrated the cross itself and then bent, probably because it hit a knot. As the new investigators observe, given the length of the nail, “There simply was not enough room for both heel bones and a two centimeter wooden plaque to have been pierced by the nail and affixed to the vertical shaft of the cross. … The nail was sufficient for affixing only one heel bone to the cross.”

In short, only the right heel bone was penetrated—laterally, or sidewise—by the nail. Accordingly, the victim’s position on the cross must have been different from that portrayed by Haas.

The new investigators also dispute Haas’s conclusion that a scratch on the bone of the right forearm (radius) of the victim, just above the wrist, represents the penetration of a nail between the two bones of the forearm. According to Zias and Sekeles, such scratches and indentations are commonly found on ancient skeletal material, including on the right leg bone (fibula) of this man. Such scratches and indentations have nothing to do with crucifixion.

How then was the crucified man attached to the cross?

As the new investigators observe:

“The literary sources for the Roman period contain numerous descriptions of crucifixion but few exact details as to how the condemned were affixed to the cross. Unfortunately, the direct physical evidence here is also limited to one right calcaneum (heel bone) pierced by an 11.5 cm iron nail with traces of wood at both ends.”

According to the literary sources, those condemned to crucifixion never carried the complete cross, despite the common belief to the contrary and despite the many modern reenactments of Jesus’ walk to Golgotha. Instead, only the crossbar was carried, while the upright was set in a permanent place where it was used for subsequent executions. As the first-century Jewish historian Josephus noted, wood was so scarce in Jerusalem during the first century A.D. that the Romans were forced to travel ten miles from Jerusalem to secure timber for their siege machinery.

According to Zias and Sekeles:

“One can reasonably assume that the scarcity of wood may have been expressed in the economics of crucifixion in that the crossbar as well as the upright would be used repeatedly. Thus, the lack of traumatic injury to the forearm and metacarpals of the hand seems to suggest that the arms of the condemned were tied rather than nailed to the cross. There is ample literary and artistic evidence for the use of ropes rather than nails to secure the condemned to the cross.”

According to Zias and Sekeles, the victim’s legs straddled the vertical shaft of the cross, one leg on either side, with the nails penetrating the heel bones. The plaque or plate under the head of the nail, they say, was intended to secure the nail and prevent the condemned man from pulling his feet free.

As Haas correctly suggested, the nail probably hit a knot which bent the nail. However, as Zias and Sekeles reconstruct the removal of the dead man from the cross:

“Once the body was removed from the cross, albeit with some difficulty in removing the right leg, the condemned man’s family would now find it impossible to remove the bent nail without completely destroying the heel bone. This reluctance to inflict further damage to the heel led [to his burial with the nail still in his bone, and this in turn led] to the eventual discovery of the crucifixion.”

Whether the victim’s arms were tied, rather than nailed to the cross is irrelevant to the manner of his dying. As Zias and Sekeles point out:

“Death by crucifixion was the result of the manner in which the condemned man hung from the cross and not the traumatic injury caused by nailing. Hanging from the cross resulted in a painful process of asphyxiation, in which the two sets of muscles used for breathing, the intercostal [chest] muscles and the diaphragm, became progressively weakened. In time, the condemned man expired, due to the inability to continue breathing properly.”
New Analysis of the Crucified Man” by Hershel Shanks first appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 1985.
Notes

  1. “The Crucified Man from Giv‘at ha-Mivtar: A Reappraisal,” Israel Exploration Journal Vol. 35, No. 1 (1985), pp. 22–27.

Zias and Sekeles also note a number of other errors in Haas’s report:

  1. The victim’s legs were not broken as a final coup de grâce. The break so identified by Haas was postmortem.
  2. The victim did not have a cleft palate. The upper right canine was not missing, despite Haas’s report to the contrary.
  3. The wood from which the plaque under the nail head was made was olive wood, not acacia or pistacia, as Hans suggested.
  4. The wood fragments attached to the end of the nail were too minute to be analyzed. Haas suggested the vertical shaft of the cross was olive wood. This is possible, but unlikely.