The Tomb of Yeshua son of Joseph in "East Talpiot"

by Nehemia Gordon

A few weeks ago while I was visiting in the United States a friend told me about a documentary that was going to be aired on the Discovery Channel. He told me that the makers of the documentary were claiming they found the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. I was intrigued and agreed to watch the documentary with him. As it happened the documentary aired the night before I was scheduled to return to Israel. After two intense weeks on the road I was very tired and I fell asleep about 20 minutes into the documentary. Thankfully, I got hold of a Tivo recording of the documentary and finally got to watch the whole thing last night.

The documentary focuses on a burial tomb in the "East Talpiot" neighborhood of Jerusalem discovered in 1980. The burial tomb contained 10 ossuaries or bone boxes, some of which had Hebrew and Greek inscriptions on them. One ossuary bore the name Yeshua bar Yehoseph, commonly translated into English as Jesus son of Joseph. Of course, the name Yeshua was very common in Second Temple times. In the Tanach there are about 10 people named Yeshua, mostly from early Second Temple times, and there are many ossuaries from late Second Temple times bearing the name Yeshua. The documentary admitted this but pointed out that the other ossuaries in the "Talpiot Tomb" contained names of people related to Yeshua of Nazareth. According to the film-makers this proved that the ossuary was that of the Yeshua from the New Testament.

There were some obvious errors in the documentary along with some odd claims. For example, one of the ossuaries contained the name Yose, in Hebrew characters YWSH יוסה. According to Mark, the Jews of Yeshua's home town said about Yeshua:

"Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and JOSES and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" (Mark 6:3 [NRSV])

The name Joses or Yose is correctly identified in the documentary as an abbreviated form of Joseph (Yoseph). However, then the documentary goes on to call it "a rare nickname". Simcha Jacobovici, one of the authors of the documentary, makes a big deal about the uniqueness of the nickname Yose, arguing that only Yeshua of Nazareth had a brother with this nickname. Contrary to this claim, Yose was an extremely common nickname for Joseph. In fact, the name appears in the earliest manuscripts of the Mishnah, written exactly as it appeared on the ossuary: YWSH יוסה. Indeed, there are no less than 20 Rabbis in the Mishnah and Talmud named Yose (YWSH). Rabbi Yose the Galilean may have been the most famous of these rabbis but there were many others such as Rabbi Yose ben Chalafta and Yose ben Yoezer. So the claim that there was something particularly rare about the nickname Yose is simply not factual.

An odd claim in the documentary is that the name "Maria" מריה, written on one of the ossuaries in Hebrew characters, is "a rare Latinized version of Mary". The documentary points out that Yeshua's mother was named Miryam (MRYM מרים) but claims she was called "Maria" by the Latin-speaking followers of Yeshua and therefore the Latin version of her name was written on her ossuary. It is not clear to me why someone would write a Latin form of the name Miryam in Hebrew characters on a 1st century ossuary. If this is the Latinized form of the name shouldn't it appear in Latin letters? And why would Yeshua's Latin-speaking followers thousands of miles away influence the way his mother's name appeared on her ossuary? If the name is in Hebrew characters, it is strange to assume it is a "Latinized form" when it makes perfect sense as a native Hebrew name. The Hebrew letters MRYH מריה would most naturally be read as Merayah, which appears as the name of a male priest in Nehemiah 12:12. So rather than being a Latinized form of Maria, the ossuary in the "Talpiot Tomb" was probably from that of a man named Merayah.

The documentary goes to great lengths to compare the DNA from the Yeshua bar Yehoseph ossuary with the DNA from another ossuary bearing the name "Mariamne Mara". The documentary claims that Mariamne was Mary Magdalene and the fact that the DNA did not match proves they were husband and wife. This is a strange conclusion because they could just as easily have been a man and his sister-in-law. In any event, it is too bad they did not also test the DNA from the Merayah ossuary and compare it with the Yeshua ossuary. According to the documentary Merayah (or as they read it Maria) was the mother of Yeshua. This would have been very easy to prove through DNA tests but the test was never done on the Merayah ossuary.

I cannot make a final judgment about the Yeshua bar Yehoseph ossuary without researching the matter further. It is a fact that they found the tomb of a man named Yeshua son of Joseph. But was this the tomb of Yeshua of Nazareth? The name Yeshua son of Joseph is itself very intriguing and the main claim of the documentary is that this combination is very rare when found together with the names Maria, Yose, and Mariamne. Out of curiosity I did a search on the internet on my own name "Nehemia Gordon". The name Gordon is a very common Jewish name; there is even a Gordon Street in Tel Aviv named after one of Israel's national poets. On the other hand, the name Nehemia is quite rare today. While I am no statistician I would imagine that the combination "Nehemia Gordon" would be at least as rare as "Yeshua son of Joseph" in the 1st century if not more so. To my surprise I found two other Nehemia Gordons who are alive today (although they spell the first name differently in English). One of my professors once told me she had a great uncle who died many years ago named Nehemia Gordon. To my knowledge none of the other Nehemia Gordons are related to me in any way. If there can be four Nehemia Gordons I don't see why there couldn't be more than one Yeshua son of Joseph, especially considering that Yeshua was a very common name in the 1st century CE, far more common than "Nehemia" is today.

When I was done watching the documentary, despite all my criticisms I was intrigued by the possibility, however remote, that this was the tomb of Yeshua of Nazareth. I felt like I needed to go see the tomb. I did a quick search on the internet for the exact location of the tomb but all I could find is that it was in "East Talpiot". While I live only 15-minutes by foot from East Talpiot, I did not recognize the buildings shown in the documentary. I remembered that the documentary had a clip with a woman who claimed she had first discovered the tomb back in 1980 while looking out her window at a nearby construction site. I looked up the woman's name in the Jerusalem telephone directory and found her listed at 272 Dov Gruner Street. I was a little discouraged because this street is in the neighborhood of Armon HaNatziv, not in East Talpiot. On the other hand, the borderlines of Jerusalem neighborhoods are not always clearly defined, so maybe the film-makers got confused and thought this was part of East Talpiot. Or perhaps this was considered part of East Talpiot back in 1980 before Armon HaNatziv was built. In any event, I jumped in the rental car I still had leftover from the Aviv Search and drove to Armon HaNatziv.

It took me about 15 minutes to find 272 Dov Gruner Street. I got out of the car and began to look for the concrete slab that covers the tomb of Yeshua son of Joseph. This part of Armon HaNatziv has a series of government-type housing projects which are very large and spread out. This is also a hilly part of Jerusalem so there are many outdoor staircases to get from one part of the street to another. I came across a man walking his dog and asked him if he knew where the tomb of Yeshua was. He stopped for a minute and looked at me like I was crazy and then quickly moved on without saying word. I walked around for about 35 minutes looking for the tomb. I must have walked up and down hundreds of steps until I finally saw the concrete slab about 30 meters below. I had actually walked past it minutes before but only realized what it was from the street above. I quickly walked down the stairs and was standing in front of the place shown in the documentary where they uncovered the tomb of Yeshua son of Joseph. The tomb was covered again with the concrete slab but it was clearly the site. The tomb is located in a courtyard just in front of the entrance to 273 Dov Gruner Street. The best way to get to the tomb is to walk down the flight of stairs just adjacent to 278 Dov Gruner Street. The entrance to 278 Dov Gruner actually faces Olei HaGardom Street, just opposite the junction with Avshalom Haviv Street. When I got home I was able to easily locate the tomb on Google Earth.

The Tomb of Yeshua son of Joseph on Google Earth

Jesus TombThe concrete slab covering the tomb of Yeshua son of Joseph in the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Jesus Tomb from AboveThe tomb of Yeshua son of Yehoseph as seen from the street above.

273GrunerStreetThe tomb of Yeshua son of Joseph is a few feet from the entrance to 273 Dov Gruner Street in the Armon HaNatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem (not far from East Talpiot). The building also bears the number "22".

278DovGrunerStreetThe tomb can be accessed from the outdoor staircase near the entrance to 278 Dov Gruner Street. Building 278 is off of Olei HaGardom Street near the junction with Avshalom Haviv Street. The building also bears the number "12".

Nehemia Gordon is the author of the book The Hebrew Yeshua vs. the Greek Jesus and holds a Masters Degree in Biblical Studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Bachelors Degree in Biblical Studies and Archaeology from the same university.