‘Jesus Tomb’ objects coming to Philadelphia

Three bone boxes or ossuaries coming to Franklin Institute in May. The one on the right bears an inscription (center strip) that translates as "Jesus son of Joseph." Most experts dispute the idea it refers to the biblical Jesus, but new book "Jesus Discovery" argues it could.
Three bone boxes or ossuaries coming to Franklin Institute in May. The one on the right bears an inscription (center strip) that translates as "Jesus son of Joseph." Most experts dispute the idea it refers to the biblical Jesus, but new book "Jesus Discovery" argues it could. (Times Square Discovery, Near East Archaeology)
Posted: March 05, 2012

Objects from what has been called the "Jesus Family Tomb" are coming to the Franklin Institute in May.

Among them is a bone box, or ossuary, bearing an inscription that can be translated as "Jesus son of Joseph," part of a major exhibit of Israeli artifacts in which the Dead Sea Scrolls have the starring role.

Also attention-getting will be a re-creation of the sacred Western (or Wailing) Wall that includes a three-ton stone from the actual landmark.

The Franklin Institute and New York's Discovery Times Square - where the exhibit is running through late April - teamed up to stage the touring show, created by the Israel Antiquities Authority.

"It is a spectacular exhibit," with 10 of the Dead Sea Scrolls on display at a time, said Troy Collins, a senior vice president at the Franklin Institute. ". . . This tells a much larger story than has ever been told before."

But largely overshadowed have been the set of four ossuaries from what some have called "the Jesus Family Tomb."

No signage or promotion has singled out what appear to be unremarkable - and now empty - limestone containers about the size of bread boxes.

That reflects the prevailing view among scholars and even the religious faithful, who dispute any likely connection to Jesus of Nazareth or his family.

But the doubters might change their minds if they looked closer at the evidence, said James Tabor, religion department chair at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and co-author of The Jesus Discovery, published last week.

The book's new information concerns a tomb found under the patio of a condominium in the East Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. Using robotic cameras, the authors found a fish-like image on one ossuary and an inscription about divine resurrection on another, leading them to conclude the tomb belonged to first-century followers of Jesus.

Last week, replicas of the two newly examined ossuaries were added to the exhibit, and they will also be coming to Philadelphia.

What they may signify, however, was quickly - and vehemently - disputed, with some scholars saying the so-called fish could be a tower, a vase or a perfume flask.

If this tomb is early Christian, then it gives new credence to New Testament-related possibilities for a tomb just 200 yards away - the so-called Jesus Family Tomb, Tabor said.

Ten ossuaries were found inside, after the tomb's accidental discovery by constuction workers in 1980, and the six bores names, including "Jesus son of Joseph," "Mary, mother of Jesus," "Matia" (Matthew) and others consistent with New Testament accounts.

Documentaries in 1996 and 2007 - and the new book - have periodically restoked speculation in the mainstream media. The 2007 film, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, was created by Tabor's co-author, Simcha Jacobovici.

It was during a visit to New York last week that Tabor noticed that four of the controversial "bone boxes" were on exhibit - including one that contained bones he believes may have belonged to Jesus' wife, possibly the biblical Mary Magdelene.

"Few visitors pay them any mind or even recognize what is on display," he blogged at www.jamestabor.com.

Experts, though, have argued that the names were too common at the time to prove anything.

Christians denounce the whole idea. Jesus Christ, they believe, rose from the dead and ascended bodily into heaven. A box labeled "Judah son of Jesus" also flies in the face of the biblical portrayal of Jesus as unmarried and celibate.

The combination of names, though, defies coincidence, The Jesus Discovery argues, especially because of two supposedly unusual names.

One, one an ossuary in the exhibit, is "Maramene Mara," and "Maramene" is found in only two historical references, and both referred to the biblical Mary Magdalene, according to the book.

DNA tests on bone fragments from that ossuary and one from the "Jesus son of Joseph" box show the two people were not maternally related, which suggests the way to explain her presence in the tomb is to conclude she was Jesus' wife, Tabor argues.

Also, "Yose," although an unsual nickname for "Joseph," was used in some accounts to refer to Jesus' brother Joseph. The "Yose" ossuary is also coming to Philadelphia, along with the one marked "Matia."

The "Mary, mother of Jesus" ossuary is not in the exhibit.

Since the "family tomb" ossuaries are a bit tough to see through viewing windows in New York, Tabor said he hoped their positioning might improve in Philadelphia.

"There is that chance," said Collins.

The museum sets up the display spaces, but Israel officials place the objects, he explained.

For more on the Discovery Times Square exhibit, go to www.discoverytsx.com.

For more on the Philadelphia show, which runs May 12 to Oct. 14, at the Franklin Institute, go to www.fi.edu/scrolls.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.

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