Professor Nettleford and the Jesus Ossuary

By Rev. Clinton Chisholm

If you watched or just heard about the recent Discovery Channel program on ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus’ I hope you have not lost any sleep over it. This is just another late but failed attempt at sowing seeds of doubt about the resurrection of our Lord. The Caribbean intellectual giant Professor Rex Nettleford in 1996 — relying somewhat uncritically on a Sunday Times News Review piece titled ‘The Tomb That Dare Not Speak Its Name’ (March 31, 1996) written by Joan Blackwell and dealing with the same basic material from the Talpiot tomb in Jerusalem— made snide remarks about the accuracy of the synoptic Gospels (i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke).

Prof. Nettleford in his essay ‘Discourse on Rastafarian Reality’ in Chanting Down Babylon:The Rastafari Reader (edited by Nathaniel S. Murrell et al, pages 311-325, said “In any case, goes the Rastafarian argument, the lineage and divinity of the Christian deity and his final abode in heaven are matters of faith to believers, not of historical verity or incontestable empirical evidence…Archaeological digs are suggesting the recent discovery of an ossuary containing the bones of one ‘Jesus, son of Joseph’, casting doubts on the Resurrection itself…” (pg. 318, my emphasis). When, as consulting editor of Chanting Down Babylon, I read the Professor’s essay in 1996, I immediately wrote to Dr. Murrell strongly suggesting that an editorial note be added to Prof. Nettleford’s essay concerning his uncritical or intellectually dishonest use of Blackwell’s article from the Times. Dr. Murrell did not agree with me. Let me now attempt to justify these strong charges against Prof. Nettleford.

The Talpiot tomb was discovered in 1980 and contained ten ossuaries (bone boxes). All of the ossuaries except one bore inscriptions. None of the ossuaries contained the bones of anyone when Blackwell and her colleagues visited the Israel Archaeological Authority in 1996 because as Blackwell pointed out in her article, “The ossuaries were empty when they were found…” (my emphasis). If Prof. Nettleford was drawing on a source other than Blackwell that stated that someone had found “an ossuary containing the bones of ‘Jesus, son of Joseph’” he forgot to cite it in his essay. If he was drawing on Blackwell then at best, his reading was poor and uncritical, at worst, his use of her was intellectually dishonest. But even if the ossuary with the inscription ‘Jesus, son of Joseph’ really contained bones and bearing in mind that another ossuary from the same Talpiot tomb had Mary on it, would this prove that the Jesus, son of Joseph mentioned on the one ossuary was Jesus of Nazareth mentioned in the Gospels? Hardly and Blackwell’s article, if read properly, says as much.

Blackwell writes, “Indeed, Tal Ham, one of Israel’s foremost experts on Jewish and early Christian history, left no doubt. She has collected all the names that appear on ossuaries, on inscriptions on papyri and other written sources, from the 2nd century BC to about the 2nd century AD…She told us: ‘Mary is the most common name for women. Joseph is the second most common name for men, after Simon. Jesus is also one of those very typical names. So I would say the chance that this is the cave tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family is not very likely’.” Blackwell sought the opinion of Amos Kloner, the distinguished Israeli archaeologist who oversaw the archaeological work at the Talpiot tomb in 1980 and published the findings in an academic journal. Kloner told Blackwell “…I think the possibility of it being Jesus’s family very close to nil.” Kloner has not changed his opinion over the years. In a recent interview with Jerusalem Post’s David Horowitz (February 27), Kloner said of the claims in the Discovery Channel’s documentary, “It makes a great story for a TV film. But it’s completely impossible. It’s nonsense.”
Ponder two additional points about the insignificance of the alleged inscription ‘Jesus son of Joseph’. First, in the words of New Testament scholar Ben Witherington III, in a recent blog (February 27)“…so far as we can tell, the earliest followers of Jesus never called Jesus ‘son of Joseph’. It was outsiders who mistakenly called him that! Would the family members such as James who remained in Jerusalem really put that name on Jesus’ tomb when they knew otherwise? This is highly improbable.”
Secondly, there is some doubt about what the inscription actually says owing to the documentary’s own admission that the inscription was ‘informal’, ‘messy, ‘cursory, ‘graffiti’ and overall difficult to read. Blackwell calls it “ragged Hebrew lettering”. Stephen Pfann, president of Jerusalem’s University of the Holy Land and an expert in Semitic languages, appeared in The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Pfann, after viewing high-resolution images of the ossuary inscription said, “I don’t think it says Yehoshua [Jesus]. It says Hanun or something,” Pfann told National Geographic News that he, like other scholars, has doubts about the movie’s claims.
The witness of the New Testament is unanimous and strong that Jesus was buried in a private unused tomb near the crucifixion site at Golgotha. This tomb belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. This tomb in which Jesus was buried was found to be empty three days later (John 19.38-42;20.1-8; Lk. 23.50-55; 24.1-12).

The empty tomb and the associated notion of the resurrection of Jesus were central elements in the gospel proclaimed by Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem, let it be noted, and concerning which several of them gave their lives. Dying for a lie which you believe to be true is understandable but it is highly unlikely and well nigh impossible that the early Christian preachers would die for their belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus when they knew that Jesus’ bones were gathered together in a bone box or ossuary somewhere in Jerusalem.
Professor Nettleford’s reading and use of Blackwell’s article may be a pardonable blunder on the part of an eminent scholar but it highlights the need for us to read everyone critically.
Rev. Clinton Chisholm can be reached at