The Family Tomb of Jesus?

Famed movie director James Cameron is among those climbing on the bandwagon of publicity over a supposed tomb of Jesus. Ossuaries, repositories of bones, were discovered in a family tomb in Jerusalem in 1980. One ossuary mentions a certain "Jesus, son of Joseph" (or Jeshua or Yeshua, a common name, and so is Joseph). The ossuary can be dated to the first century. At first glance this is startling, until we read another ossuary in the family tomb, which says: "Judah, son of Jesus" (or Jeshua or Yeshua). So this particular Jesus had a son.

Is this Jesus the same one of the New Testament?

The recent film and book about the family tomb answer the question affirmatively. They claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene, allegedly in the same ossuary collection (but see below), were married and had a son named Judah. But Bible- and history-educated believers disagree.

Let's boil the dispute down to two propositions, using the law of noncontradiction.

P1: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a son named Judah.
P2: Jesus never married anyone at all and never had any child at all.

The second proposition means that he was never a husband or a father at any time and in any way. He never had a wife or wives or a child or children. So which proposition is true? The researchers in the Family Tomb project (see the link above on "film") use probability in the so-called "Jesus equation" and seem to conclude, depending on the variables, that it is medium or low in support of the first proposition. Yeshua (Jeshua or Jesus) is a common name, and so is Joseph, so the probability cannot be all that high.

On the other side, the Biblical text never mentions the two events in the life of Christ that would have been etched more deeply into the disciples' minds than the scratchings on the ossuaries: the marriage of Jesus and the existence of any child. So why did the earliest church overlook or not write down these two events? Did the authors of the New Testament and the earliest preachers of the gospel cover them up? Did they foist onto the world a conspiracy of the divinity of Jesus?

Simple Logic and History

The earliest reliable writings about Jesus are absolutely silent about his marriage and the birth of any child. Normally, it is best not to multiply words about silence, so I have a tough task ahead. But with the documentary and its startling claims making the rounds, I finally decided to explain the silence in earliest Christianity. There are at least seven reasons why the Jesus of the New Testament never married nor had any child at all.

(1) What was Jesus' view of himself? He is the only one in the Four Gospels who uses the term Son of Man about himself (but not about any other person), eighty-one times. No one else, not even the disciples, uses it about him (or about any other person). So it is important to understand his meaning of the title. Daniel, an Old Testament prophet, uses it of a divine person who is entrusted by God in the End Times with authority, glory, and sovereignty (Daniel 7:13-14). Jesus demonstrates that he is the fulfillment of Daniel's description. During his trial, the high priest asks the question that seals Jesus' execution. Matt 26:63-65 says:

63 . . . The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God." 64 "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven." 65 Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy...."
No rationalist or skeptic has to believe in Jesus' divinity in order to conclude that Jesus would have been ineligible for the heavenly status of the Son of Man, if he really were married and had any child at all. Jesus tells us that there is no marriage among humans who go to heaven, for they will be like angels, implying also that divine beings other than angels are not married in heaven or anywhere else (Matthew 22:29-32). He is greater than they are. So why would he get married on earth, since he was a divine person come from heaven and was about to return there, according to his own theology about himself (John 8:23; 58 and many other passages)? True, he was fully human and born of a woman, but his deity, of which he was aware, would not allow him the blessing of marriage and fatherhood. He would be violating his own beliefs and teaching and role down here on earth.

Hypothetically, even if Jesus were out of his mind (cf. Mark 3:21) about his divinity, his one (insane) belief would still prevent him from marrying and having any child. Divine beings sent from heaven and going back again (e.g. Gabriel or Michael or the "man" who led Ezekiel in a vision, chapters 40-48) don't do such things, and that's what he taught (the next reason will elaborate). Now back to reality. Simple logic, therefore,  requires me to conclude that he was never married and never had any child at all.

But what if the early church covered up his having a wife and children, so the disciples could exalt him? That conspiracy theory is answered in the third reason and first objection, below.

(2) What was the earliest church's view of Jesus? It matches his view of himself. They professed that he came down from heaven and went back again and that he shared in the divine nature in a unique way. Many scholars believe that the following passage may be an early hymn, barely two decades after the death and burial (and resurrection) of Jesus. Philippians 2:6-11 says:

6 [Jesus] Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7 but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death - even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Old Testament, the sacred Scriptures of the early Christians, shaped their theology. They understood from the Old Testament that no being descending from heaven and ascending back ever settled down, married, had children, or founded a human dynasty on earth or anywhere else.

A rationalist or skeptic may not believe all the "hokum" about divine beings and heaven. He or she may conclude that the earliest disciples built a legend of deity around Jesus the strictly human Jewish apocalyptic preacher (though I do not exclude a heaven and miracles a priori). But surely the rationalist or skeptical scholar must concede that no legend of deity would have been built around Jesus in the first place if he had married, had any child, or founded a dynasty. Instead, he would have been considered only a prophet like John the Baptist (who had many followers), or a pious Rabbi.  He gladly accepted the titles of prophet and Rabbi, for they were part of his ministry, but he was more than this. Here is the unspoken logic derived from the beliefs of the earliest church taken from their Scriptures, the Old Testament:

1. No divine being descending from heaven and returning there ever marries, has children, and founds a dynasty.

2. Jesus is a divine being who came from heaven and returned there again.

3. Therefore, Jesus never married, had children, or founded a dynasty.

The logic is simple. If Jesus had married and had any child, then Philippians 2:6-11 and other like passages would have never been written. But they were written. Therefore, he was divine and unmarried and without children, according to the early church's full knowledge of him while he was on earth.

(3) It is unwise to remove Jesus from his Jewish context, but some scholars do this. John Dominic Crossan asserts that a Greco-Roman context is where the early Christians got the idea to deify Jesus in the first place. And the Family Tomb researchers speak of his dynasty, presumably as if he were a merely human political-religious ruler of sorts. Were the earliest disciples promoting Jesus as the Son of God or the divine Lord, in the same way that the Caesars proclaimed themselves Sons of God and divine Lords? Then the early disciples had to cover this up, for fear of persecution by the Roman authorities who would not be too keen on hearing about claimants to another royal dynasty, of sorts. 

In reply, however, the logic of history says that the Biblical writers, who seem honest enough to me, would not cover this up, if the New Testament Jesus had actually gotten married and had a child. The earliest Christians went everywhere proclaiming the gospel, in obedience to his example and command to do this (Matthew 28:18-20).

The Gospel writers would eagerly record this truth and challenge all human dynasties with his true dynasty, if his marriage and fatherhood really happened. The early Christians were suffering from persecution and martyrdom without preaching a dynasty. Why would they shrink back from persecution for a "dynasty gospel," if they believed it were true?
Specifically, suffering under persecution for not burning incense to Caesar and for not proclaiming him as Lord, Christians could retort that Jesus' dynasty is the true one; he is the true Lord, with a divine status, of sorts, that is, if the scholars of the Family Tomb project are to be believed. But this retort about the competing dynasties never happened. Instead, the early Christians proclaimed only Christ's Lordship. So, once again, the logic of history requires me to conclude that the New Testament Jesus never enjoyed any marriage or any child or any dynasty. That's why the early Christians never proclaimed that he did.

(4) The next reason why the evidence points towards Jesus never marrying or having children is that he knew early on in his ministry that his message and practice of the kingdom of God would shake the Jerusalem religious establishment. He predicted his death on several occasions, knowing that his mission was to die as a ransom for the world (Luke 9:22, 43-45; 12:50; 13:32-33; 18:31-34). Even at twelve years old he had a sense of his divine mission (Luke 2:49). So marriage and children for him would have been unwise. He would have caused them needless grief due to his early death. Therefore, the logic of history requires me to conclude that he never got married or had any child at all.

(5) The early Christians worked hard to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies (see my article and lengthy table for a list of prophecies here. Yet some enemies who persecuted his followers after his death could have said to them, "Our expectation of the messianic Son of David does not include his having a son or any child at all. But here is Judah, son of your so-called Messiah!" The enemies said that the disciples stole the body (Matthew 28:11-15), so why not produce Judah, the son of Jesus, a stubborn fact that would deny Bible prophecy, as the persecutors saw it? That would have shut down the heresy from the very start, as they viewed Christian teaching. Conversely, following the (faulty) logic of the Family Tomb scholars, the disciples could have pointed out that no prophecy about the Son of David specifically precluded David's special heir from having a wife or child, and Judah is proof positive that Jesus carries on the Davidic dynasty. But the disputes and persecutions never evolved in either direction (Acts 4:1-31; 5:17-42; 6:8-8:3; 12:1-18). Therefore the logic of history requires me to conclude that the Jesus of the New Testament never married and never had any child at all.

(6) The early disciples preached that Jesus is the unique Son of God. Why would not their enemies mock them about the unique Grandson of God, Judah (or Grandchildren of God)? This is particularly true in a tense atmosphere of persecution. If the Biblical writers and preachers failed to mention the marriage and any child of Jesus when it actually happened and the child actually lived, then the writers and preachers could be easily proven wrong. The enemies could produce the counter-evidence and thereby falsify early Christian beliefs and (alleged) cover ups. Therefore, if the enemies of the early Jesus movement had the means and motive to discredit early Christian doctrine with the marriage and child (or children) of Jesus, but the enemies did not take those means or follow through on their motive, then I conclude that he never married nor had any child at all. That is the logic of history.

(7) The reason for the omission of Jesus' marriage and his child or children in the four Gospels (or anywhere else) is simpler than the first six reasons. The monumental event or person(s) never happened or lived. Strictly speaking, this is an argument from silence (what a text does not say, and see reasons three, four, five, and six). But this is not a problem with Biblical narratives. They are compressed. They do not go into intricate details, as do other biographies and histories written by such authors as Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, or Plutarch. Selectivity of events and words is the intention of the Biblical authors, so they cannot be faulted for fulfilling it.

Biblical narrative authors, who seem honest enough to me, typically include only the essentials, and it is inconceivable that the real-life marriage and the real-life child or children of Jesus would have been excluded from elliptical narratives. How can a marriage and offspring not be essential in a thoroughly Jewish society that celebrates both? On the other hand, do Biblical narratives have to say, "By the way, Jesus and Mary Magdalene never got married, and neither did they have a son named Judah"? Those words would have been too strange and disruptive of the clear flow of the four Gospels. Can we rightly demand of the authors that they reply to every potential false idea and false accusation? Can we rightly demand of them to prove a negative or to deny something that never happened and therefore never entered their mind at all? Can we demand this of anyone, even historians who write detailed accounts?

Further, such gapped narratives that do not tell us everything may show us. Biblical stories use both show and tell. For example, Jesus never goes around ancient Israel proclaiming with a loud voice that he is the Son of God. Instead, the authors of the four Gospels simply show us his divine status by his miracles and the response of the disciples (Matt. 14:22-33 and 16:16). And when a voice comes out heaven, everyone misinterprets it as thunder, or only a select few of the disciples hear it (Matt. 3:17; 17:5). But none of the Gospels show us (or tell us) the marriage of Jesus or the birth of his child even indirectly, not even to a special few, like Peter, James, and John.

To wrap up this long section, the nature of Biblical narratives, the unfolding historical events and evolving persecutions, Jesus' sense of divine mission and prediction of his death at a young age, and earliest Christian preaching and doctrine of the deity of Jesus who came from heaven and is there right now---all add up in favor of the second proposition, which trumps the "Jesus equation" and denies the first proposition. Jesus never married Mary Magdalene or anyone else nor did he have a son named Judah or any child at all. Therefore, these things are never brought up in the Gospels, in any other New Testament writings, or in early preaching and doctrine.


(1) Someone may object that the early church covered up Jesus' marriage and child so the disciples could deify him. In reply, however, the early disciples and New Testament authors were honest. It would have been easiest for them to choose the path of least resistance in a hostile environment. In Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and Jewish and gentile communities around the Mediterranean, that easy path would have been to teach the truth, if they observed that Jesus was married and had a son named Judah or any child. Their preaching and doctrine would have fit those facts, as they taught merely Jesus' ethics and love and omitted talk of his divine status (and perhaps a divine dynasty, of sorts). And so they would have never suffered persecution. Instead, they chose the path of most resistance. They preached the difficult doctrines of his resurrection, Messiahship, his coming from heaven and returning there, and unique Sonship. And that message brought them much hardship, but they remained true. The logic of history requires me, therefore, to conclude that Jesus never married and never had any child at all, and that is why those two events are never found in earliest Christianity; there is no cover up or conspiracy. Ockham's razor, which cuts away convoluted explanations, eliminates conspiracy theories and cover ups.

(2) An objector could point out that the Gospels omit things all the time. For example, one Gospel mentions a miracle or a saying or a parable, while another leaves it out. Why wouldn't they leave out the marriage and the child? In reply, however, it is one thing to omit a miracle or a saying or a parable; they are common enough in the storyline. But to omit two grand events from all of the Gospels and the earliest and authentic writings is most unlikely, particularly in a Jewish setting that celebrates both.

(3) It may also be objected that the Bible has a strong point of view, so it cannot be trusted. But this ignores the fact that spurious and late writings, such as the Gnostic gospels that enamor some scholars as canonical, also have strong points of view, so how can they be trusted? Then how do we break this deadlock? Easy. The four Gospels emerge from the apostolic community; that is, they were written by persons who knew Jesus personally or who had access to those who knew him. Coming late, the other writings do not enjoy this privileged position, historically and epistemologically (which studies how we know things). Therefore, the late writings go far astray from apostolic teaching. It's that simple.

(4) It may be true, says an objector, that no divine being coming from heaven and going back again ever got married and had any child, according to the Old Testament. But these beings were never incarnated through a mother's womb. Yet Jesus was. Also, in the Old Testament does a divine being undergo crucifixion and burial? So how do we know that he would not experience full humanity by getting married and having a child? In reply, however, this is not exactly what the earliest Christians believed, as they looked at the life of Christ. Recall the passage in Philippians in the second reason, above. Jesus is exalted high above everything---angels and other divine beings who never got married and had children. He was sent to bring a new path of salvation and do the works of the kingdom of God that he was ushering in. That was his divine mission, everywhere affirmed in the Gospels and early church kerygma (message and preaching).

As for his death and burial, it is true that this part of his mission was unique, but by his death he conquers it, fulfilling the Old Testament sacrificial system. But this unique aspect of his divine mission only argues against his settling down, getting married, having children, and founding a dynasty (see the fourth reason, above). That's the main point of this article.

Also, Paul says explicitly that the Lord's brothers were married, as were all the apostles (except Paul) and Peter (1 Corinthians 9:5). It seems never to have crossed Paul's mind that Jesus was ever married. It seems never to have crossed Paul's mind that Jesus would have a widow and at least one child remaining behind. According to Paul's theology (Philippians 2:6-11), Jesus was in heaven, exalted. Therefore, his divine mission did not include marriage and fatherhood. As noted in the first and second reasons, a rationalist or skeptic does not have to believe the smallest part of early Christian theology to conclude that Jesus was always unmarried and childless. From an early Christian point of view, he would have been disqualified from having the special divine nature and mission. So belief in his deity would have never begun in the first place. The early disciples would have viewed him as just another prophet like John the Baptist (who had many disciples) or a Rabbi who challenged the religious establishment and suffered the ultimate price---his death---for his pious convictions. 

(5) An objector may demand from a student of the Bible:  "Show me exactly where it says in all of the Bible and earliest Christian preaching and doctrine that Jesus never married Mary Magdalene or anyone else, or had a son named Judah or any child!" The student can only reply, "I can't." "Why not?" "Because that passage doesn't exist. How can I point to a negative or an absence of an explicit denial?" "Aha! I knew it! So now I believe in the Family Tomb project!" "But such a passage doesn't exist. Nowhere does it say that Jesus married anyone, not to mention Mary Magdalene; and nowhere does it say that he had a son named Judah or any child. Apparently, this issue never came up, so how can we expect the early church to write about it? Instead, they write affirmatively and positively about his divine nature and Incarnation. None of that high theology would have been even considered if he were a husband or a father, preoccupied with raising children and keeping his wife happy. Doesn't that speak volumes?" "Not to me!" The student can only shake his or her head in disbelief. No reasonable person can rightly make a demand like that.

No Mary Magdalene in the family tomb?

My essay is about early Christian belief and history. It does not directly challenge the data from the family tomb. But what if Mary Magdalene is not buried there? As it turns out, Stephen F. Pfann, a paleographer of the University of the Holy Land, Jerusalem, says  that one inscription on an ossuary in the same family tomb has been misread. It says nothing about Mary Magdalene, but Mariame and Mara. This inscription is written in Greek, which I can read (I can also read the Hebrew once some of the letters are put in modern script). 

Pfann concludes:
The so-called "Mariamene" ossuary contained the names and remains of two distinct individuals. The first name on the ossuary, "MARIAME." was written in the common Greek documentary script of the period on the occasion of the interment of the bones of this woman. The second and third words "KAI MARA" were added sometime later by a second scribe, when the bones of the second woman Mara were added to the ossuary. This scribe's handwriting includes numerous cursive elements not exhibited by the first scribe who wrote "Mariame." In view of the above, there is no longer any reason to be tempted to link this ossuary (nor the ambiguous traces of DNA inside) to Mary Magdalene or any other person in Biblical, non-Biblical or church tradition.
I predict that other specialists in epigraphy and archeology and DNA will find flaws in the findings of the Family Tomb researchers.

Pfann's paper is convincing, and it negates the first proposition (or the clause about marriage to Mary Magdalene).

Without Mary, then, that still leaves the ossuary of Judah, Jesus' alleged son. But this proves nothing, for then another wife must be produced by scholars---or perhaps Jesus had an illegitimate child? Neither alternative is appealing or even remotely likely. If skeptical scholars doubt his divinity, surely they do not doubt his holiness, do they? For now we seem safe from such folly---for now.


Which proposition is true?

P1: Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a son named Judah.
P2: Jesus never married anyone at all and never had any child at all.

I conclude that the second proposition is true. He was never a husband or a father. Or to take out the marriage, neither did Jesus have a son named Judah or any child, illegitimately or by another wife. The seven reasons and the misreading of an ossuary confirm the second proposition and negate the first one. Though the seven reasons and misreading cannot be quantified, they trump the "Jesus equation" that the Family Tomb researchers advocate.

The Gospel authors were honest and had good character, even in persecution, remaining true. The four Gospels are reliable about the life of Jesus, particularly when the miraculous elements are removed, as skeptics would advocate, though I believe the Bible is accurate with the miraculous elements.

But there is nothing directly miraculous about the fact of Christ's crucifixion. Roman authorities often executed people by this method. They were experts at it. At a place called Golgotha, as the cross was lifted skyward, shifting Jesus' weight so that the spikes injured his hands (or wrists) and feet even more, he died a virgin, unmarried and childless.

And there is nothing directly miraculous about Jesus' burial in a new tomb, where no one else had lain (John 19:41). And that tomb was sealed with a large stone (Matthew 27:60).

But there is something miraculous about his bodily resurrection from that one and only tomb, not a second one, as the Gospels affirm. And now the Jesus movement is still going strong around the world by preaching and teaching alone, just as he predicted (Matt. 28:18-20).

The Jesus whose name is inscribed on an ossuary in a family tomb is not the Jesus of the New Testament. Simple logic and early Christian history say as much. The documentarians and authors fail to provide a direct link to the Jesus who came down to earth from heaven two thousand years ago and returned there about thirty-three years later.

James Arlandson can be reached at
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