The Bones of Our Lord

Happily coinciding with our Lenten observances, CNN and the Discovery Channel have colluded to bring us startling news, just ahead of the feast of the resurrection: namely, that Jesus lay for two thousand years in a family tomb next to his beloved bride, Mary (or Murray) Magdalene, and their little son, Judah, also known as Timmy. “The Lost Tomb of Christ” will air on March 4th. The miracle of the millennia has become the love story that could not be told.

“The Lost Tomb of Christ” will air on that paragon of scientific rectitude The Discovery Channel, home of such mind benders as “The Miracles of Jesus,” “Da Vinci’s Code,” and “Mysteries of the Bible.” Essentially the hoopla is all about a “discovery” made 27 years ago as Israeli construction workers were gouging out foundations for a new office building in Talpyiot, outside Jerusalem. When the earth gave way, workers discovered a cave and summoned archaeologists, including a certain Dr Shimon Gibbon, who removed the stone caskets, called ossuaries (literally, bone boxes) for examination. Following twenty years of work, the names on the caskets, written in a crude graffiti, are reported as “Jesua bar Iusef,” “Mary,” “Mary?,” “Matthew,” “Jofa” and “Judah, son of Jesua.” The whereabouts of Peter, Paul, other disciples, Doc, and Grumpy are still unknown. But the Discovery team is on the case.

The procedure of “salvage archaeology” was common in 1980, since the burgeoning growth of the Israeli state put archaeologists under strict limits in terms of rescuing antiquities from the bulldozer. Now, through the magic of “investigative” journalism, at least that practiced by a rather sinister-looking dot-connector named Simcha Jacobovici, these garden variety Jewish names – the commonest in the lexicon – have been turned into the greatest story never told. The burial plot of the family of Jesus: his mother Mary; his wife Mary; his wee child; perhaps a couple of brothers. Salvage archeology was just that: the removal of the most significant bone boxes from tombs, leaving the site to the mercy of developers. Ossuaries were sometimes warehoused, as in this case; sometime pilfered; sometimes sold by antiquities dealers (remember the famous James bone box unveiled with similar fanfare three years ago?), and sometimes in the open market. The limestone trail for these is not pure, and the style in which the find was announced – timing, personnel, and venue – is enough to raise suspicion that this is all about showbiz and not about science, or even history.

Behind it all is the P T Barnum of the business, James Cameron (of Titanic fame), who makes no bones about it (sic), that these boxes are the real McCoy. And why not, since if the boxes do originate in a family burial site from the first third of the first century, almost everything is negotiable: for example – the resurrection, which nay-sayers will be quick to point out is contradicted by the discovery, or the belief that Jesus was the son of God and second person of a divine trinity. Theologians will remind us that while some of these beliefs emerged slowly – especially the business of the trinity – the resurrection-belief was foundational and (most scholars think) marks the driving force behind the Christian mission from the early 40’s of the first century when a phenomenon called Palestinian (or Judean) Christianity certainly existed.

But almost no one has wanted to point out that this slow-to-develop significance can not be read back into the period suggested for these boxes. If this is the burial plot of a well-to-do Jewish family, it is nothing special and was not regarded as worth disturbing. If it is the site of a man who was believed to have been raised from the dead by followers who were in the know about the site (and how could they not have been?), its contents would have been dislodged by the faithful wedded to that belief very early on – not left unviolated. Parsimony dictates that the likeliest explanation is that even if the names can be authenticated – hard to imagine considering the scrawl and the fact that ancient Semitic scripts are notoriously difficult to read with clarity – they would point to a middle class family with the standard names of their generation, and not to a collection of the Jesus-family so perfect in fictional particulars that it looks as though disaster hit at the same family meal – Passover? – at which Dan Brown was present. Jesus’ name along with names like Judah and Mary may be special to Christians because they’re the only Semitic names they know, but they were not at all special in the first century. The “addition” of a statistician to the Discovery swat team to calculate that names in this combination occurring would be 600 to 1 is relevant only if one presupposes that these names also occur as a family combination in the gospels. They don’t. They do occur in the imaginations of fiction writers who produce the pap for this kind of schlock archaeology, but not in the minds of most clear-headed New Testament scholars. Who are, alas, in lamentably short supply.

The saddest part of these shenanigans is that many liberal New Testament scholars will get behind it, the ones who want a historical-ethical Jesus but have tried for 50 years or more to wean the faithful from their superstitious attachment to the ghoulish doctrine of bodily resurrection. Scholars like James Tabor, James Charlesworth and Jesus Seminar co-founder Dom Crossan are already on board saying that this “discovery” doesn’t diminish Christian faith–as though the artifacts have been authenticated. And they are right. It diminishes their reputation as scholars. Odd, that the skepticism once applied by the Jesus Seminar to the sayings of the “historical” Jesus nevertheless does not extend to his purported physical remains.

No one watching on March 4th will be able to challenge the carefully constructed script, the camera angles, the air of (false) mystery for which the Discovery Channel is justifiably famous. Perhaps again the strongest reason to be skeptical of this discovery is the manner of its enunciation: après conference “leaks” on web pages and blogspots, just as last year’s big story on the “Judas Gospel” was media fodder, since gone sour mash. Casual followers of that now-defunct sensation were told, with the support of National Geographic titillation and not a few commentaries by saner outlets like NPR, that an ancient gospel from the year 180 had been translated, in which it was shown that Judas was really a pretty nice guy, or at least a badly misunderstood one. In fall 2006, however, Biblical scholar Louis Painchaud demonstrated that the text suggests Judas was actually possessed by a demon, a conclusion now embraced by several members of the National Geographic team, and that the text cannot be earlier than the third and more probably from the 4th century AD. In the present case, discussion of mitochondrial DNA samples taken from the ossuaries of “Jesua” and “Mariamne e Mara” serves for similar hard-science sounding proof. But no, despite what they tell you, the Mary-name on the casket is not the same as the name Mary Magdalene, who in Talmudic sources is know as Miriam m’gadela nashaia, Mary the dresser of women’s hair – a name for a courtesan; and it has long been thought by serious scholars that the fiction of a “second Mary” – Mary Magdalene – was invented by the gospel writers to cover over the Jewish polemical tradition that Jesus’ mother was known as a prostitute, as later the virgin birth would seal her reputation in stone. Not two gospel Marys then, but one, and her evil, necessary twin. Perhaps one ossuary too many.

The new find is likely to be a short-lived sensation as soon as calm returns to the discussion. Of course, when it comes to Jesus, nothing is calm. The reactions are perfectly predictable. Evangelical Yahoos and conservative Catholic Struldbrugs will make common cause against the “find.” In the process, it can be hoped, they will also make some serious comments about why the whole affair is risible, and not follow the well-worn path of making the Book the final arbiter of the debate. There are many good reasons for casting doubt on this discovery, none of which has anything to do with the resurrection of Jesus as being the clincher in an argument. I doubt we can count on bishops, seminary professors and bible-believing Christians to make those arguments.

The atheists and liberal theologians, for different reasons, will welcome this instance of habeas (or is it habemus?) corpus. Atheists, alas, almost always practice that quaint form of skepticism which targets religion and the supernatural but never the absurdity of bad assumptions that can be marshaled against religion. This is all about bad assumptions. Liberal religionists see in this episode a chance to rescue the Christ of the resurrection faith from the Jesus of history, who according to this scenario led a peaceful life and died in his sleep, having guaranteed the succession in young Judah. Who needs him? The celibate Christ of the gospels is badly out of fashion, anyway, and since at least the era of Nikos Kazantzakis and Lloyd Webber has been searching for a mate: now in death he has one. But why “married”? How last century. Can we not hope that the unknown “Matthew” in the adjacent ossuary is also the beloved disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and that on sultry Palestinian nights Jesua took his comfort with young Matt while Mary looked on approvingly. With God all things are possible.

There is another option, however, and that is that many who view the unfolding of the Jesus Tomb Debacle, as it will soon be known, will see it as yet another, and perhaps the most cynical example ever, of wishful thinking and self-aggrandizement passing itself off as science. The revisiting of a site itself laid to rest twenty years ago is not a case of real life Indiana Jones adventure, but a sad example of how scientific examination should not proceed.

In “The Bones of Jesus” it will not be emphasized, for example, that the “tomb” discovered in 1980 held ten ossuaries, nine of which are still within the domain of Israeli authorities. You will not receive an explanation of whether it is more probable, in view of the Christian symbol occurring on the tomb, that this is a 1st century Christian burial site – which would be a truly exciting discovery, as we know very little about 1st and very early 2nd century Christian Jerusalem. It will not be proposed that these ossuaries might be examples of anti-Christian graffiti, etched by Jews, even Jewish tomb raiders, to poke fun at the doctrine of the resurrection, as we have in the case of the wall drawing from the Domus Gelotiana dating from the 2nd century, where a Christian boy is shown praying to a crucified ass. You will not be told about the “disconnect” between the relative sophistication of the tomb itself and the crudeness of the lettering, suggesting that different hands were at work and for different motives. And you will not be told that the history of Jewish satire against the resurrection was early, constant and severe – beginning with the very story in the gospels Matthew tells, and which the Discovery team also mentions: that (Matthew 28.15) the disciples stole the body of Jesus and declared him risen.

All of which is to say, the boxes so ceremoniously unveiled before a camera on CNN could belong to just about anybody, but might have originated in a late 1st century attempt by Jews to disprove the resurrection. The matrix of possibilities created by these investigators does not end, it begins with the assumption that these boxes belong to Jesus of Nazareth and his “family.” Amazing how evidence falls into place when you begin with the conclusion – and a hammer.

R. Joseph Hoffmann
Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion
Center for Inquiry
Amherst, New York

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