The Lost Tomb of Jesus?

A student told me she saw this documentary originally shown in 2007 replay on TV over the Easter holiday.  I thought it might be pertinent to revisit the topic.  Here are my comments written both before and shortly after I saw the documentary air in March 2007.

©2007 Matthew A. C. Newsome
As I write this, the Discovery Channel is set to premiere, on March 4, the latest documentary from Simcha Jacobovici (in conjunction with James Cameron), entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus.  Controversy over this one is not only anticipated, but expected by the network.
Since I have not seen it, I cannot comment directly on the content of the program, but based on news reports prior to its airing, it promises to be a lot of hype without much substance.  Which is sad, really.  I have seen other programs that Jacobovici has been involved in and generally speaking, I like the man.  Or I should say, I like what I have seen of his work.
I first became aware of him when he (again, with director James Cameron) created a program for the Discovery Channel called Exodus Decoded.  In this exciting documentary, Jacobovici takes a new look at archaeological evidence to show how the Exodus could have happened exactly where and when the Biblical account says it did, despite the number of modern scholars who claim that archaeology supposedly “disproves” the Exodus story.  Jacobovici is even able to show, scientifically, how many of the miraculous events described in Exodus could have occurred.  Aha! I thought, this is where the other shoe is going to drop and the show is going to show its secular agenda.  But no, instead Jacobovici impressed me by pointing out that simply suggesting a natural, scientific explanation for how various miracles may have occurred does not negate the possibility of God using nature to suit His purposes and achieve His ends.
So Jacobovici impressed me, and I took the opportunity to see him in a regular show that he does for the History International channel, called The Naked Archaeologist (“naked” in terms of stripping the science down to its essentials – the host is clothed the entire time!).  In the few episodes I have had the chance to see, I gathered that Jacobovici was Jewish, and one who seems to take seriously his faith.  (Indeed, a recent Newsweek article calls him an “observant Jew.”)  I delighted in watching him converse with an archaeologist during a show he did on the Philistines.  While examining a Philistine temple, Jacobovici made a reference to Samson.  The archaeologist was quick to deny any suggestion that the Samson story may have actually happened historically, and Jacobovici called him to task on it, saying something like, “Hey, look.  Here we have in the Bible this great story about a Jew who is held prisoner in this Philistine temple, tied to two pillars.  And here we have this Philistine temple, from the same era, and it fits the description perfectly.”
I liked his style, I liked the way that he was unafraid to tackle the secular scientists in the field, and I liked that fact that he was interested in linking the Biblical accounts to historic events. I would not presume to assign him motives such as proving the the Bible through archaeology, but if this were the case, it would seem limited to the Old Testament. Which brings us to The Lost Tomb of Jesus.
Reportedly, the tomb in question is one of hundreds (if not thousands) that were discovered in Jerusalem in the 1980s.  Like many other tombs, it contained a number of ossuaries (bone boxes) some of which bore inscriptions such as “Jesus the son of Joseph,” and “Maria” and “Matthew” and “Judas son of Jesus.”  While the names on these boxes will strike a chord with anyone familiar with the Gospel accounts, in reality these were extremely common names in first century Palestine.  According to the same Newsweek article, 25% of women in Jerusalem were named some form of “Mary.”  A source from the Princeton Theological Seminary claims to have seen a first century letter written by someone named Jesus, to someone named Jesus, and witnessed by a third party named Jesus.  And there are at least two other well documented ossuaries from the same period that are inscribed “Jesus, son of Joseph.” It is as common a combination as “William” and “Robert” might be today.
In fact, the whole case for this being the burial tomb of Jesus and his family seems to be built upon statistics.  Yes, these are all common names, but what is the likelihood that all of these names would occur together and in the proper context?  According to a statistician cited on the program, 1 in 600.  Ergo, according to Jacobovici, this is the final burial place of Jesus and his family.  And that family, according to Jacobovici, included his wife, Mary Magdalene, and their son, named Judas.  Shades of DaVinci Code indeed.
The “proof” for this lies in the fact that the bones in the ossuary labeled “Miriamene” (supposedly Mary Magdalene) and those in the ossuary labeled “Jesus son of Joseph” were not related, according to DNA tests, therefore they could have been married.  And the bones in the ossuary inscribed “Judas son of Jesus” would therefore be their son. 
I’m not a statistician, but I know enough about statistics to know how easily they can be manipulated.  Assuming for the moment that those used on the program are correct, we still need to weigh this “statistic” against the rest of the facts.  Things like the fact that the Holy Family was rather poor, and wouldn’t be able to afford a nice permanent family tomb like this one.  And if they had such a tomb, why would it be in Jerusalem and not Nazareth where they lived?  Or the fact that according to the New Testament and every other historic record, hundreds of people testified to witnessing the resurrected Christ and that no-one, not even the first century Jerusalem Jews, who were looking for any excuse to discredit the Christians (just read The Acts of the Apostles), claimed to know where Jesus’ body could be found.
It turns out that the only people who are taking Jacobivici’s claim seriously are Jacobivici himself and the Discovery Channel.  Other archaeologists view him as more of a talk-show host than a scientist.  A Washington Post piece published last Thursday said, “Leading archaeologists in Israel and the United States yesterday denounced the purported discovery of the tomb of Jesus as a publicity stunt.”  It went on to illustrate that scorn for the claims is coming “not just from Christian scholars but also from Jewish and secular experts who said their judgments were unaffected by any desire to uphold Christian orthodoxy.”
Indeed, the archaeologists who first discovered this tomb in the early 80’s thought absolutely nothing of it.  As I said before, all the names were very common and there was absolutely nothing to link the tomb directly to Jesus of Nazareth. And we are not even sure the names are what they seem to be. It is questionalbe whether “Miriamene” can actually be interpreted as “Mary Magdalene,” and one archaeologist from the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem believes the name “Jesus” is actually “Hanun.” But Jacobivici seems to specialize in making grand connections between pieces of evidence that mainstream scientists miss.  In this case, he came across these ossuaries in storage in Jerusalem while filming for a show he did on “Biblical hoaxes” which included a segment on the “James, brother of Jesus” ossuary which proved to be a forgery.  The question is, when Jacobivici saw them, did he truly believe he discovered the bones of Jesus Christ, or did he simply discover his next big Hollywood project?
And what a coincidence that this so-called “discovery” falls right on the heels of the DaVinci Code hype.  Of course the claims in that novel have been roundly ridiculed by all serious historians.  What are the odds, then, that the one thing Dan Brown got right is the fact that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married?  Less than 600 to 1, I bet.  If you want to talk statistics, figure that one out.
The Discovery Channel themselves are at least doing lip service to the millions of Christian viewers that they anticipate offending.  On their web site, they have a link to “theological considerations” that will be brought up by the program.  They make the startling claim that having Jesus’ bones does not contradict the Resurrection!  They make no claims that the Resurrection didn’t happen, they say – only that the Ascension was not a physical ascension, but a spiritual ascension.  This, they say, “is consistent with Christian theology.”  Really!  Now the Discovery Channel are touting themselves as theologians and telling us that this is all really, when you think about it, consistent with Christianity, and so why all the fuss?
The truth is that the physical Ascension of Jesus Christ is important, as is the bodily resurrection from the dead.  For we believe that Christ came to conquer death, and what is death but the separation of the body from the soul.  Christ’s body was resurrected, and He bodily ascended into heaven.  This, just as the Virgin Mary’s Assumption body and soul into heaven, gives us hope of our future destiny.  If the spirit of Christ only is in heaven, while His body decomposes here on earth… well then, you don’t have Christianity.  You have a twisted form of Gnosticism, believing that the soul is good and eternal, and the physical body is merely an evil prison for our souls, to be shed by those who are enlightened.
Good try, Discover Channel, but I’ll turn to my Catechism when I want theology.  I’ll turn to you when I need real scientific knowledge, like whether or not Mentos really makes Diet Coke explode.
Follow up review… The first hour
While I did not have the opportunity to watch The Lost Tomb of Jesus as it aired, I did record it to watch at a later date. I’m now half way through the program and I wanted to share my impression so far. To be honest, I am not exactly overwhelmed by the evidence presented in the first hour. It seems to me that while an ossuary with the inscription “Jesus, son of Joseph” is interesting, though not that rare, and an ossuary with the name “Maria” is also interesting, but not that rare, the whole case about this being the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth is built upon the names on the other ossuaries in the same tomb. And here their case is weakest.
For instance, one ossuary bears the name Matthew. The problem is that there is no known Biblical figure named Matthew who was part of Jesus’ immediate family. This problem is gotten around by pointing out that there are several men named Matthew in Mary’s geneaology, therefore it was a “common family name” and it would not have been unlikely that someone in Jesus’ family would have been given this name.
Even more of a stretch is their explanation of why the inscription “Miriamne” should be read as “Mary Magdalene.” To get to this conclusion they rely exclusively on information from the fourth century Apocryphal Acts of Philip. What really made me laugh was the part where the film accused the second century Church of suppressing and destroying texts such as The Gospel of Mary and the Acts of Philip. They never did explain how the Church in the second century could burn copies (as they were shown doing) of a fourth century work. Speaking of the second century Church, it was apparantly around this time that they decided women could not be ordained. Prior to that, the film stated matter of factly, ordained women (such as Mary Magdalene) were not that uncommon. One “expert” interviewed even gave her enlightened opinion that Mary Magdalene was the “real founder of Christianity.”
And this is where the film leaves us in the first half. I suspect that the latter half will be mostly about Mary Magdalane and her supposed marriage to Jesus. With each new step, each new “what if” that they present, the case for their claims grows weaker and weaker. But so far they have not even attempted to answer the two most presseing questions I have.
The first has to do with the inscription on the “Jesus” ossuary itself. The experts quoted indicated that the inscription was extremely casual. It is not really a formal inscription but a hastily carved “note” put there to indicate whose bones were in which box. One expert spoke of how poor the handwriting was. This really makes me wonder. If we assume for a moment that the Resurrection is a hoax, and that the bones in this ossuary really are those of Jesus Christ, I would have expected to see one of two things. If those who buried Jesus were already planning on spreading the Resurrection story, they certainly would not have put Jesus’ name on an ossuary. They would have left it blank (as the majority of ossuaries are), or inscribed another name on it. If the Resurrection “myth” was a later development, then those who buried Jesus would still have regarded him as a great man, the founder of their religious movement, and worthy of certain honors. Therefore I would have expected his ossuary to be at least slightly decorative, and certainly for the inscription of his name to be carefully rendered in a place of honor. But neither of these scenarios is the case here. The film does not even address this problem.
The second question is simply this. If Jesus of Nazareth had a family tomb, why isn’t it in Nazareth? That is where they lived, after all. Neither Jesus nor his family lived in Jerusalem. Why would we expect to find his tomb there? Again, the film never goes into this question (at least not in the first half).
Thus far, it seems that most of the “experts” that Jacobovici interviews for this film have absolutely no interest in verifying his ridiculous claims. The one exception is a professor from UNC Charlotte named Tabor who tells us, matter of factly, that only silly superstitous Christians believe that Jesus could have “magically” rose from the dead, and that those who look at the Gospels “historically” assume that Jesus must be buried somewhere and so no one should really be surprised to find that his tomb was discovered during a construction project in 1980. This particular “expert” seems to automatically reject anything the Church says as patently false and unhistoric — including traditional Catholic teaching about “the brothers of Jesus.” It is very easy to dismiss something taught by the Church out of hand simply because some hold these teachings as a matter of faith. However, it is telling that he never offers any facts to back up his own claims. In the end we are left with the mere opinion of a college professor against 2000 years of Christian tradition.
I’ll post more of my thoughts after watching the second hour of the program. I also recorded a follow-up that Discover Channel has aired titled Lost Tomb of Jesus: A Critical Look, which may prove interesting…. more to come!
The second hour…
As predicted, hour two of The Lost Tomb of Jesus did indeed continue with the speculation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married. This was determined by DNA testing. One hears “DNA testing” and the impression is one of scientific certainty. In reality all these DNA tests can show is that the people buried in these ossuaries were maternally unrelated. The assumption is that if two unrelated people are found in the same family tomb, they must be husband and wife. And an assumption is all that this is. It could be that they are paternally related, as the DNA tests did not rule that out. Or it could be that one of the people in question was married to one of the other eight people included in the same tomb. In any case, it proves nothing about whether any of these people can be identified with New Testament figures.
Further to the claim that Jesus and this “Miriamne” were married is the suggestion that they had a child, named Judah. One of the other ossuaries in the tomb bore the inscription “Judah, son of Jesus.” Why have we never heard of this son before now? Well, because Jesus and Mary wanted to keep the fact that they had a son secret, so that the authorities would not come after the child and kill him, as the sucessor of Jesus’ dynasty. Of course, one wonders, if the name “Judah, son of Jesus” appears on an ossuary in the Jesus family tomb, how secret could it have really been?
It is in the second hour of the program that Jacobovici reveals that he beleives that the controversial “James, brother of Jesus” ossuary found in 2002, actually came from this same tomb. This ossuary belonged to a collector named Oded Golan, who claims to have purchased it from an antiquities dealer sometime prior to 1976. The fact that the “Jesus Family Tomb” in question was not unearthed until 1980 was simply glossed over in the film. (Our UNCC professor Tabor shrugged and just said, “it was found around 1980…”). And, of course, the inscription on the James ossuary has also been declared a forgery by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
The only value in suggesting that the James ossuary is authentic, and comes from the same tomb as the others, would be to increase the statistical liklihood that the family in this tomb is that of Jesus of Nazareth. And even though the numbers look impressive, I have to question the basis for the statistics. Early on in this “documentary” it is stated that the hundreds of ossuaries found during construction in Jerusalem in the 1980s give us the most complete catalog of first century names from the region. But it is also stated that the bulk of these ossuaries bear no inscription at all. So one has to wonder if we know enough about first century Jewish names to even be able to calculate meaningful percentages and statistics.
My question about why a family from Nazareth would have a family tomb in Jerusalem was never brought up on the program. And my question about why Jesus’ ossuary would bear only a casual, poorly rendered inscription was also ignored. Jacobovici did attempt to draw meaning from the unusual symbol found over the entry of the tomb itself. It is a chevron (an upside down V) with a circle beneath it. What this means is anyone’s guess — it’s not a symbol associated at all with Christianity. But they attempt to relate it to the early Christian community by showing us another ossuary, found in a tomb discovered on the site of a Franciscan monastery outside Jerusalem, with the inscription “Simon bar Jonah.” This ossuary has the same chevron symbol on it, and they make the wild claim that this is the Simon Peter of the New Testament.
But wait, didn’t Peter travel to Rome and wasn’t he cricified there? And isn’t his tomb under St. Peter’s Bascillia in the Vatican? The answer is yes to all these questions, of course. But these claims are simply dismissed in the film as “uncredible.” Pot, meet kettle.
This psuedo-documentary ends by admitting that this may not be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. But if it is not, we are must then believe that there was another Jesus with a father named Joseph who lived at the same time, with close relatives named Matthew and Jose (Joseph), and women in his life named Mary and Miriamne, and a son named Judah. I, for one, find this latter scenario much more probable, as it fits better with the bulk of the historical data that we have.