lobal media reports that the “real” tombs of “Jesus son of Joseph,” his presumed wife and son, and even a follower “Matthew” have been found may be little more than an attempted tweaking of Christian faith, scholars say.
Fueled by the celebrity of Academy Award-winning director James Cameron, who served as executive producer of a documentary about The Lost Tomb of Jesus, global headlines flashed the news at the end of February that ossuaries, or “bone boxes,” labeled with the names of Jesus, Mary of Magdala, Judah, and Matthew, had been found in an ancient tomb north of Jerusalem.
According to a statement released by U.S.-based cable television firm Discovery Communications, “The Talpiot tomb originally held 10 ossuaries, nine of which are still within the Israel Antiquity Authority’s domain. Six of the limestone bone boxes that served as first-century Jerusalem-area coffins include inscriptions of names found in the New Testament—‘Jesus son of Joseph,’ ‘Maria,’ ‘Mariamene e Mara,’ ‘Matthew,’ ‘Yose,’ and ‘Judah son of Jesus.’”
The announcement quoted Simcha Jacobovici, a Canadian filmmaker who coproduced the documentary, as saying, “This has been a three-year journey that seems more incredible than fiction. The idea of possibly finding the tomb of Jesus and several members of his family, with compelling scientific evidence, is beyond anything I could have imagined.”
“It doesn’t get bigger than this,” Cameron said in the press release. “We’ve done our homework; we’ve made the case; and now it’s time for the debate to begin.”
That debate, however, is not running heavily in favor of the claims. While some academics, such as James Tabor, professor at the University of North Carolina, embrace the possibility of this being a major discovery related to the actual Jesus of Nazareth, an Israeli archaeologist who worked on the Talpiot site totally dismisses the claims.
“The remains in the cave show that it was used for several generations, maybe three generations, and we don’t know about the stay of the family from Nazareth for more than a generation,” Professor Amos Kloner of Bar-Ilan University, who is also the Jerusalem District archaeologist, told the Australian Broadcasting Company.
He was even more emphatic in a Jerusalem Post news-paper interview: “There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE,” Kloner said. (“CE” is an abbreviation for “common era,” another term for what Christians generally refer to as the period “A.D.,” or Anno Domini, the “year of our Lord” in Latin.)
In addition, Kloner noted that the names “Joseph” and “Mary” are the most common male and female names of that period, and that Jesus, “Yeshua” in Hebrew, is the seventh-most-common name. Thus, even despite claims that DNA evidence found in the ossuaries shows no relation between the people whose names are inscribed—hence the possibility that the “Jesus” and “Mary” listed were married—no proof was offered that these individuals are the Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and Matthew of the Gospels.
Greg King, dean of the School of Religion at Southern Adventist University, commented, “I believe this publicity stunt is more about garnering attention for their book and . . . documentary than it is about a serious archaeological discovery.” He continued, “The Resurrection stands on firm ground, based on the test of multiple eyewitnesses, and in the ongoing witness in the lives of His followers. Indeed, we serve a risen Savior!”
Kwabena Donkor, associate director of the Biblical Research Institute of the General Conference, said, “Here is a case of less than honest use of evidence that raises the following questions, among others: where is the independent control sample DNA to tell us that these people were members of Jesus’ family? Why would Jesus’ alleged marriage to Mary Magdalene be based on lack of DNA match between them when Judah (the alleged son) could furnish positive DNA evidence?” He further stated, “That biblical evidence about Jesus’ death and resurrection would be bypassed to pursue DNA evidence reveals the naturalist bias of the moviemakers.”
Less than a week after the original telecast, the Discovery Channel seemed to be backing away from the initial hype, according to Television Week, a trade publication. The network “hastily” added another documentary challenging the “Jesus Tomb” show’s claims, didn’t advertise the high ratings the “Jesus Tomb” program received, and canceled some repeat showings.
“This is not one where you necessarily beat the drum, from a business perspective,” David Leavy, executive vice president of corporate communications at Discovery Networks, told Television Week’s James Hibbard. “It’s not necessarily about making money, or making ratings, or shouting from the highest office building. Sometimes having some maturity and perspective is more important than getting picked up in all the ratings highlights.”
It is the widespread belief of Christians, including Seventh-day Adventists, that Jesus’ resurrection was a bodily one, and that He ascended bodily into heaven. There is no suggestion in Scripture that Jesus married or had a family, items widely discussed when the 2006 motion picture The Da Vinci Code was released.
* See editorial "Targeting Christianity's Soul" in this issue.
Mark A. Kellner is a freelance writer who lives in Rockville, Maryland.