Since the 1970s, hundreds of tombs and thousands of ossuaries, or ancient bone boxes, have been uncovered in the holy land. But one tomb unearthed in Talpiot in 1980 is being looked at differently now because it once held a box with this inscription: Jesus, son of Joseph. While biblical text tells us about Jesus of Nazareth, this box could show “physical” evidence he existed — and that he had a “family” beyond the Virgin Mary. Those are the claims in a new book from Emmy-winning investigative journalist Simcha Jacobovici and a documentary, “The Lost Tomb of Jesus," from Academy-Award-winning director James Cameron. Jacobovici and Cameron were invited on TODAY to discuss this project. Read an excerpt of Jacobovic's book, “The Jesus Family Tomb”:
Vault of the agesThe most famous death in history was the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Two millennia ago, in Jerusalem, Jesus was scourged and executed by Roman soldiers. The Gospels tell us that his body was taken down from the cross, shrouded in cloth, and placed in a family tomb belonging to one of his followers, Joseph of Arimathea.On the third day, Mary Magdalene, Jesus’s trusted disciple, found the tomb empty — a moment that marks the origin of the Christian belief in the Resurrection. Out of all the millions of words and thoughts devoted to this event, how many people have ever asked why Jesus’s body was placed in a tomb carved out of stone in the first place, and not simply buried in the ground?
According to ancient Jewish laws still in effect today, bodies had to be interred in the ground before sundown on the day of death. Family tombs, cut into rock, qualified as “in the ground.” In most places, the bedrock of Jerusalem lay barely more than a few inches below the ground surface. For this reason, the dead were placed in preexisting tunnels, dug into local hillsides.During much of the first century c.e., most of Jerusalem’s tombs were man-made caves, hewn from solid rock and located just outside the city walls. Usually a tomb consisted of two chambers. In the outer chamber, the body was anointed with perfumes, spices, and oils, then shrouded in cloth. Archaeological evidence from hundreds of first-century tombs excavated in the Jerusalem hills is perfectly consistent with descriptions of Jesus’s burial as described in the four Gospels. According to both archaeology and the Gospels, the tomb would have been sealed by rolling a large stone in front of its entrance.
Behind the seal stone, lying in state in its white shroud, the body was ordinarily given a full year to decompose. After the flesh had vanished, the shrouded bones were collected from the outer, temporary burial chamber and placed in a small limestone box called an ossuary. Occasionally an occupant’s name would be inscribed on one side of the ossuary, which was then placed for permanent burial in a small niche deep within the tomb. Eventually ossuaries representing three or more generations from the same family might be sealed, one after another, in a tomb’s innermost niches.No one knows why the practice of using ossuaries began just prior to the birth of Jesus. Some archaeologists and theologians suspect that the Jewish belief in a bodily Resurrection led to the gathering of bones, to be preserved for the Day of Judgment.Regardless of the reason, the Gospels attest to great concern among Jesus’s followers about shrouding his body and placing it in a tomb. Because he died late on a Friday afternoon, they needed to bring him to a tomb quickly, before the arrival of sunset and the holy Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea’s newly hewn family tomb was nearby, and it would serve Jesus’s family until the body could be moved to a permanent resting place.
The Gospels also say that on Sunday, before he could be moved, Jesus conquered death, left the tomb empty, and later, on several separate occasions and in several forms, appeared before his disciples. But the Gospels also hint at an alternative explanation for Jesus’s empty tomb. Matthew says there was another story circulating in Jerusalem after the Crucifixion of Jesus. Although Matthew calls it a lie, according to the rumor, Jesus’s disciples secretly came by night and stole away with their Master’s body. As Matthew tells it, the story persisted among Jews for a very long time (Matthew 28:11–15).If the disciples took the body, there is only one thing they could have done with it. They would have reburied it. If Jesus was reburied, his family would have waited for his flesh to disappear and then stored his bones in an ossuary, sealed away forever deep in the recesses of his family tomb.Spring 1980
About eleven o’clock on the morning of March 28, 1980, with the Christian season of Lent already a month old and almost over, first light entered a tomb, beneath the treads of a bulldozer. On this exceptionally beautiful Friday, the entire south face of the tomb’s antechamber fell away to reveal what looked for all the world like a doorway; carved above it was a symbol that none of the construction crew had ever seen before.No one really understood what an array of dynamite detonations and a bulldozer mishap had revealed until the next day, after the Sabbath had arrived, the dust had settled …That is how it began.
During the many centuries since the tomb had first been decorated and sealed, the Temple high priests, the Romans, and the Temple itself had fallen. And now a new civilization was piling up around the Temple Mount and spreading outward to the tallest hill of East Talpiot. The area had been renamed Armon Hanatziv.
The year 1980 was a high-tide mark for tourism, immigration, and construction in the Jerusalem hills. It was also a time when construction companies throughout Israel were accidentally discovering new archaeological sites at the rate of a dozen every month — and in a particularly bad season, a dozen every week. By law (albeit a law only rarely obeyed), all finds had to be reported immediately, and all construction had to be halted until the archaeologists were finished, which might be days or weeks later, depending on the size and importance of the find. By some calculations, the crossroads of civilizations dating back more than four thousand years contained thousands of archaeological sites not yet recorded on the maps of the Israel Antiquities Authority. By these same calculations, any attempt to create an irrigation line, a basement, or a foundation for an apartment complex was a gamble that could go wrong with every shovelful of earth.The site that was eventually to be cataloged “IAA 80/500–509” — according to the year of its discovery and the order in which its major artifacts were cataloged — had already brought some small notoriety and no small amount of grief to an engineer named Efraim Shochat who had been directing bulldozers in the clearing of freshly dynamited ground for the Solel Boneh Construction Company. Naturally, there was nothing unusual about exposing an old, forgotten crypt, especially if the company happened to be clearing acres of land in preparation for the building of a new suburb. Many of Shochat’s colleagues, striving to avoid expensive construction delays, were in the habit of averting their eyes from interesting new cavities in the ground and occasionally sacrificed a tomb, especially if it happened to be small and appeared to consist of, say, only one or two ossuaries. But Shochat, as an Orthodox Jew bound by biblical law not to desecrate the resting places of the dead, could not look away from even a small tomb. And what one of his bulldozers almost fell into was anything but small.There had been an outer courtyard in front of the tomb facade, carved into the local limestone and chalk and buried under ages of red mud and weed growth. The courtyard alone was nearly five meters (almost fifteen feet) wide. Just north of the courtyard’s remains, an entire wall had collapsed under a combination of dynamite and bulldozer assault. When the engineer climbed inside, he discovered that what at first glance had looked to him like a damaged but still reasonably intact underground chamber was really just an antechamber, with an entrance carved into the bottom of its north wall. Its stone seal looked like a partly opened door pointing the way down into a rather larger chamber.
Clearly, IAA 80/500–509 was not a small tomb. Although pieces of skull were mixed in with the rubble of the antechamber, there was not even a recognizable fragment of the stone ossuaries that were so common to this region. Unlike the people of the tomb, those whose skulls were found in the antechamber had not been buried according to first-century Jewish burial practices. When Shochat climbed out of the tomb antechamber, he said, with both regret and excitement in his voice, “We have to shut down. I’m afraid we have something interesting. Something important.”Shochat shut down all demolition and excavation in a two-acre radius around the antechamber and then began making phone calls, almost simultaneously with Rivka Maoz. Thus it came to pass that, about 1:00 p.m., Jerusalem time, on an otherwise unhistoric Friday, IAA 80/500–509 first came to the attention of the archaeologists.The IAA, housed at the Rockefeller Museum, assured Shochat and Maoz that archaeologists would begin to move at the end of the Sabbath and would be on-site before dawn on the first day of the new week.Those in charge of the IAA knew that they had to live up to their promise to have scientists on-site before dawn on Sunday, before the beginning of the workday. To halt construction and then to delay responding, with workers standing idle for a day or two, “with the money clock ticking,” would create a bad reputation that the IAA could not afford and that sooner or later would cause a major find to be plowed under or paved over, unreported.Eliot Braun was a professional archaeologist who happened to be living near the construction site, so he was the first to be dispatched, toward dawn on the third day after the tomb’s discovery. His task was to drive Yosef Gat to the site. Gat, an antiquities inspector assigned to the Talpiot tomb, did not drive. Gat’s boss, a Jerusalem District archaeologist and Ph.D. student named Amos Kloner, soon joined the team.
This should not still be here, Gat thought as he stood with Kloner on a new road bed, overlooking the damaged patio and antechamber. For a long time the three men said nothing. They just stood above the cave in a predawn breeze, trying to piece together this little acre of history. The day had not yet begun for the builders, but in the evidence of those last few hours of their work — in those last few minutes of activity — Gat could see even in the faint morning glow, and by flashlight, just how close a shave this had been. The entire landscape around the entrance was scarred deeply with bulldozer tracks and huge piles of rocky debris mixed with reddish soil.At construction-site discoveries such as this, the archaeologist’s role was like that of a firefighter during a rescue operation in a burning building. Everything has to be done quickly. This was not, by the greatest stretch of anyone’s imagination, going to be a careful, best-of-conditions archaeological excavation. They called it “salvage archaeology.” They would be allowed mere days instead of weeks.There was nothing to be done except remove every object and map every structural detail inside. Toward this purpose, a student named Shimon Gibson was assigned to sketch the tomb and map precisely the contents of its chambers. Although quite young, Gibson was a natural, and already known for his exceptional ability.
Shimon Gibson would not be arriving until well after sunrise, Kloner announced, and on this Sunday morning of March 30, 1980, there was no time to waste. So Gat led the way, over the tomb’s all-but-obliterated patio and into the half-obliterated antechamber. At the north wall, his flashlight illuminated what at first viewing resembled a decorative, V-shaped gable, carved above the door. On closer inspection, it became a decorative stone relief sculpture — a chevron or upside-down V or Y, deliberately carved. It measured more than a meter wide, with a prominent circle placed in its center. The men puzzled over it briefly.Beneath this symbol, just wide enough for a man to squeeze through on his belly and elbows, was the passage to a lower chamber. The air in the tunnel was stagnant and almost certainly unhealthy, with a slight scent of damp chalk laced with stale and moldy earth. After a mere two-meter backslide or belly crawl through the opening, they were able to stand up inside. They were standing ankle-deep upon drifts of red mud. It must have taken centuries to accumulate. This was a distinctive, ancient agricultural soil with its own scientific name: terra rossa. The terra rossa mud had seeped in from the antechamber, but the rubble in the antechamber appeared to have fallen onto a floor that had been relatively clean when the bulldozers arrived. Something had drained the soil — nearly all of it — down here past where the seal stone had once been. In places it had piled up more than knee-deep.Like Gat, Shochat and Kloner did not think it made sense that pieces of human skull should have been deposited outside the tomb, in the antechamber. In other tombs of this kind two thousand years before, people had left oil lamps, perfume bottles, and what might be regarded as ceremonial meals outside the central chamber. One occasionally found bowls and cups or spices and perfumes in fine Roman glass, but Jews of the first century c.e. did not leave the remains of their elders outside the tomb to rot on the wrong side of the seal stone.
IAA 80/500–509 was becoming rich with contradiction. Even the air was contradiction: at once oppressively damp and oppressively dry. The archaeologists’ slightest movements stirred up particles of dust that, driven by breaths of air, flashed like swarms of microscopic fireflies wherever their search lamps grazed them.
Amos Kloner would never be able to forget this place, though from time to time during the years following he would claim not to remember it. The curious symbol over the antechamber door would grace the cover of his book on Jerusalem tombs, and yet in 2005 he would three times deny, on camera, that the tomb meant anything special. Those who understood the rest of the story would never blame him.
The two scientists crawled around IAA 80/500–509 over meter-deep mounds of the “rose earth” and discovered the tops of six burial niches radiating outward into three of the chamber’s four walls. Inside the niches they could count ten ossuaries. Pawing the soil away with his hands and shining lights down each of the niches, Gat quickly determined that five of the chamber’s six niches, known in Hebrew as “kokhim” and in Latin as “loculi,” contained ossuaries. The terra rossa flood tides had not overflowed the tops of the ossuaries and sunk them completely in mud. In antiquity — clearly no one had entered this tomb recently — someone had removed the five seal stones that should normally have walled up the kokhim. Displacement of the seals and removal of the stones were sure signs that looters or vandals had entered the tomb at some point ahead of the entry of the red soil. And yet the ossuaries remained, in apt and self-contradictory fashion, with their lids undamaged and perfectly in place, as if the intruding looters or vandals had been interested in neither looting nor vandalism.Little about this tomb was measuring up to expectation — except perhaps the architecture. Above the ossuary niches, untouched by the terra rossa tides, two arched “arcosolia,” or primary burial shelves, were cut into the north and west walls. Like everything else in the chamber, the altar like shelves were carved from the solid rock of the Jerusalem hills.
Gat examined the workmanship on the two shelves and admired the attention to detail. “It’s a good-sized tomb, carved with great care under the direction of someone not lacking funds,” he observed. “Important people were buried here.” Yosef Gat was one of archaeology’s most unflappable personalities, so there was no excitement in his voice as he stepped forward into history with perhaps one of the greatest understatements ever uttered. As he crouched nearer the two shelves, withdrawing a small magnifier from his pocket and aiming his flashlight from a low angle, he noted matter-of-factly that the shelves had provided a poor environment for preservation of the tomb’s occupants. Only fragmented and powdered limbs remained, but in the still-buried ossuaries themselves, awaiting technology that had not yet been invented, lay biological wonders that Gat, Kloner, and Braun did not dream possible.“Let’s get started,” Gat said, and began handing out spades and shovels. Excerpted from “The Jesus Family Tomb” by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino. Copyright 2007 Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, HarperSanFrancisco, a division of