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The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History, By Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino (HarperSanFrancisco)

215 pages, $34.95

A coincidence is always surprising. If you get a random group of 23 people together, there is a 50 per cent chance that you will have two people sharing the same birthday. Statistics is the realm of the endlessly surprising. Surprising statistics lie at the heart of this book.

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Simcha Jacobovici is a Toronto documentary filmmaker. Charles Pellegrino did a PhD in paleo-biology and enjoys trying to solve mysteries. The sinking of the Titanic was Pellegrino's last project.

In this book, they team up to solve the puzzle of the 10 ossuaries, which were reported by Rivka Maoz to the Israeli authorities on March 28, 1980. Of the 10 ossuaries, six have inscriptions. These inscriptions read: Maria (Mary), Joseph, Matthew, Yeshua bar Yosef (Jesus, son of Joseph), Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah, son of Jesus) and Mariamne (Mary).

The book reads like a detective story. Jacobovici mainly writes the earlier chapters, while the later ones are by Pellegrino. It is the story of an investigation, with characters vividly described and recruited to the cause. It was while construction workers were digging that the doorway to a first-century tomb was found. Thanks to Rivka Maoz, the tomb was properly reported and investigated.

So the adventure begins. Shimon Gibson and Amos Kloner were sent by the Israel Antiquities Authority to investigate. They were surprised by the number of New Testament names found together, but did not investigate further.

The authors of this drama are heroes. Jacobovici takes the lead. He explains the significance of the ossuary (a device for the collection of bones after the body has decomposed) and that this was a Jewish practice that stopped with the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. The mystery starts to obsess him.

Jacobovici brings in his co-author in October, 2004. As characters are introduced, all have to sign a "confidentiality agreement." This helps feed the conspiratorial feel in the book. After all, the subtitle reminds us, this discovery will change history. Pellegrino is the one who provides the analysis of the statistics and brought filmmaker James Cameron into the project. Cameron provides a foreword to the book and gets involved in creating the documentary, which appeared on Vision TV in Canada.

The challenge of keeping the discovery secret and yet organizing and producing the documentary is the central theme of the rest of the book. Jacobovici and Pellegrino climb down into the tomb where the ossuaries were found, and in the process provide some great pictures, which are included.

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Jacobovici interviews expert witnesses who confirm that Mariamne was probably Mary Magdalene. Much is made of the DNA data, which shows that Mary was not a blood relative of Jesus. (Unfortunately, the sample from the "son" could not be analyzed.)

Slowly the picture takes shape: Jesus got married and had a child called Judah. This is the family tomb. The book starts out by suggesting this as a hypothesis, but by the end it is assumed as fact. So the piece of straw found around the bones of "Jesus" becomes a symbol of the commitment that Jesus had to a simple life. This reduces Pellegrino to tears.

The heart of the argument is that it is statistically unlikely (one in 2.4 million, according to Professor Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto) that this group of names would be found together and not be linked to the New Testament. This, and the mysterious marking that looks like a cross, found on the ossuary of Jesus, is it. As an adventure romp, this is a good book. As archeology and history, it is not persuasive. From statistical improbability, the book moves to a married Jesus who has a son and a family tomb. This is a stretch.

As the book admits, these are commonplace names. Pellegrino arrives at his statistical probability on the basis of projected population numbers for the first century, which are highly contestable. There are no footnotes; there is no discussion of scholarly debates around these questions.

The book has an odd attitude toward the New Testament. On the one hand, it trusts the Gospels in many ways. As the Gospels report, Matthew really was a disciple. It makes much of the speculation in Matthew's Gospel that the authorities feared that the body of Jesus would be stolen. On the other hand, it follows The Da Vinci Code in affirming the reliability of the Gnostic gospels as evidence that Jesus probably did marry Mary Magdalene.

The book tries very hard to provide a plausible narrative that joins the dots. So the Gnostics preserved the tradition of the marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene; the Judeo-Christians, who later became the Ebionites, were Christians who observed the Jewish law, and would have buried Jesus in this way. And the Knights Templar (yes, they just had to come in) knew about this burial site and that explains the accusations of skull worship.

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Dull regular historians are not allowed such speculation. They are required to admit there are many questions about the past that will never be answered. This mysterious tomb in Israel is a good example. We do know that lives were lived and people died. On the 10 ossuaries, there are six inscriptions, which include some New Testament names. And that is where historians are forced to stop. It might be a subsequent generation of Christians; it might be another Jewish family; it might just be a coincidence; or it might be linked with Jesus of Nazareth. We just do not know.

Ian Markham is the dean of Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and an expert on conspiracy theories.

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