Monday, March 18, 2013

About the Tabor Thing

I attended a panel at SECSOR/ASOR-SE at which James Tabor, Christopher Rollston, and Mark Goodacre discussed Dr. Tabor’s new book, The Jesus Discovery, the second one he has co-written on ancient Jewish tombs he claims are connected to the family of Jesus.

The root of his argument comes from the fact that one of the ossuaries discovered at Talpiot seems to be inscribed ישוע בר יהוסף (Yeshuaʿ bar Jehoseph​=​Jesus son of Joseph). There are several other ossuaries, one inscribed with the name מריה (Mariah​=​Mary), another with יוסה (Yoseh​=​Joses), one with מתיה (Mattiyah​=​Matthew), and one with יהודה בר ישוע (Yudah bar Yeshuaʿ​=​Judah, son of Jesus). Of these, only Mariah (Mary) and Yoseh (Joses) correspond to members of Jesus’ family in the gospel accounts (his mother and brother, respectively).

When I spoke with him, I asked him how many of the names he could lose before he would change his mind. Tabor banked his entire case on the last ossuary, which is inscribed with a Greek phrase that he transcribes as ΜΑΡΙΑΜΗΝΟΥΗΜΑΡΑ.¹ Tabor reads the first part as the name Mariamne, and claims this form of the name Mariam was only ever used in reference to Mary Magdalene, in Hippolytus and in the Acts of Phillip. Even if there are lots of Jesus Josephsons, he argues, there was only one who was associated with Mary Magdalene.²

What he specifically said is that if you search the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae for “Mariamne,” those are the only hits you get. This may be technically true (at least in pre-medieval texts), but only by splitting hairs. I pointed out to him that there were several Mariamnes among the Herodians, and he responded that in the original Greek of Josephus, these are Μαριαμμη, not Μαριαμνη. This is also technically true.³

So I emailed my Acts of Phillip girl, the lovely Dr. Armstrong. (If you live your life correctly, you too can accumulate a collection of beautiful experts in various fields…) And, it turns out, there is nothing in the Acts of Phillip to indicate that the Mariamne in that work is Mary Magdalene. More importantly, some manuscripts of Acts of Phillip use the form Μαριαμμη. So not only does this shoot holes in Dr. Tabor’s contention that Mariamne only refers to Magdalene, it also shows that the forms Mariamme and Mariamne were at least sometimes conflated by the fourth century, so one can’t assume the latter form is somehow unique.

But here’s the real kicker: the name on the “Magdalene” ossuary is not Mariamne. Transliterated, it reads Mariamenou, which would be the genitive of the unattested name Mariamenon. Even if you read this as a diminutive, it would be a diminutive of Mariamene, not Mariamne. So what, you say? It’s close enough. What’s one eta between friends? Well, remember that Tabor’s assertion that the Herodian name Mariamme wasn’t the same as Mariamne was based on a single nu. He can’t have it both ways. If he wants to assert that Mariamne is a unique form only used in reference to Magdalene, then there is no reason to assume the Mariamenon in that ossuary is she.

I will end by saying that James Tabor is a very nice guy. He called me over from across the bar just to talk, and he gave me some very useful advice about how the faculty hiring process goes. I think the way he leveraged popular interest in The Da Vinci Code as a way to get funding for archaeology is terribly shrewd, and I support any attempt to include more robots in scholarship. I even think he has a point that some in our field would be reluctant to accept evidence of Jesus’ natural death if it did exist. But I’m a scholar with absolutely no vested interest in the Empty Tomb, and I still find his arguments problematic. I’d hate to think he was being disingenuous; he seemed honestly convinced that he is right, and baffled by those who don’t see it. But based on his and other blogs I've looked at since, I know he was entirely aware of the issues I just raised when I was talking to him, and yet when presenting the issue to an uninitiated, he didn’t choose to address any of the criticisms. Maybe his conviction has blinded him to the faults.

Or maybe he knows something he can’t reveal…[cue ominous music]

1. This transcription is very contested, I have since found, and while I am no epigrapher, the first thing I read when I saw images was ΜΑΡΙΑΜΕ ΚΑΙ ΜΑΡΑ (Mariame and Mara). I just don’t see a nu. People who know better than I, notably Dr. Stephan Pfann (, have given the same reading. Without the nu, the already weak case utterly collapses.

2. I’m not going to re-hash the Jesus’ wife thing again. The simple fact is that there is no credible reason to think Jesus was married to Magdalene; even the late Gnostic sources never make that claim explicitly. As to whether Jesus was married to anyone, we just have no data. I could venture a guess, based on what he is quoted as saying about marriage and celibacy, but that would be only a guess.

3. Τhe Jewish Encyclopedia (s.v. Mariamne) claims that the form Μαριαμνη is attested in Medieval manuscripts of Josephus, but I can’t confirm this. Tabor was under the impression it was an error introduced by William Whiston’s classic edition.

4. He makes a similar error about the form of the name Yoseh (יוסה), which apparently is very uncommon in Aramaic inscriptions. He says that, since the name is so rare, it is unlikely that there would be another Jesus with a relative who used that name. The problem is, we don’t know what form the brother of Jesus used in Aramaic, because we only have references to him in Greek. Tabor fixates on the reference in Mark 6:3, where he is called Joses (Ιωσης, in the genitive form Ιωσητος) and not on the reference in Matthew 13:55 where he is called Joseph (Ιωσηφ). But either way, Ιωσης is not identical to יוסה, so you can’t predicate arguments about the former based upon the rarity of the latter.

5. Dr. Tabor: if the Knights Templar are holding you prisoner to prevent you from revealing the secrets of the Freemasons, blink 23 times.

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