Newsflash: The Tomb of Jesus Christ is Still Empty
[Update 3/2/07: Now that I've had the chance to see the book The Jesus FamilyTomb- previously I was working from quotes in newspapers by James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici- I've re-formatted the information below and edited some phrases, hopefully making this article easier to follow, more specifically focused on the presentation in the book, and therefore more useful.]
I detest any shoddy historical research. One reason that my reaction is so strong in this area is because I graduated Georgia State University with a history degree. So when I read a book or see information presented on television that I know would have earned me a reprimand if I'd presented it in class, I'm usually motivated to yell at the book or the TV screen in outrage. This general response I have toward bad attempts to report on history is- of course- compounded when the research being presented concerns a facet of history that is personally important to me. So, understandably, my blood pressure is pretty high right now in light of the
recent news concerning what some are claiming to be the physical remains of Jesus Christ.
Of course, if someone did actually find the deceased body or the bones of Jesus, then Christianity would be done for. As the Apostle Paul wrote:
Personally, then, if the statements being made concerning "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" were credible, I'd have to leave the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary- where I'm currently a student- and I'd probably become a Buddhist.
if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins… If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (I Corinthians 15:14,17,19 NIV)
But I don't anticipate that happening any time soon, and certainly not due to the recent claims being promoted by James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici.
Here's a few reasons why, from a historian's perspective, the information being presented concerning "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" is entirely unpersuasive:
1. The archaeological evidence is not persuasive. If the engravings in the tomb are authentic, then they prove nothing except that a certain group of people with names like those found in the gospels were buried near one another. But the fact that people named Jesus son of Joseph, Judah son of Jesus, Maria, Mariamne, Joseph and Matthew were buried close together tells us nothing of who these people were historically. These were all extremely common names in first century Judea. At a time in Judea when Messianic hopes were high due to Roman oppression, Jesus (meaning "God saves") and forms of the name Mary or Miriam (as the name of the sister of Moses- Moses being the deliverer of Israel from the Egyptians) were some of the most popular names. Other people named Jesus mentioned in the New Testament include Jesus Barabbas, Jesus the father of Elymas and Jesus surnamed Justus. There are at least four Marys mentioned: Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the sister of Martha, Mary the mother of James, and Mary Magdalene. Looking at the historical evidence regarding the names found in the tomb, Bar-Ilan University Prof. Amos Kloner, the Jerusalem District archeologist who officially oversaw the work at the “Jesus” tomb in 1980 has said that the names found on the ossuaries were common, and the fact that such apparently resonant names had been found together was of no significance. He added that “Jesus son of Joseph” inscriptions have been found on several other ossuaries over the years.
2. The DNA evidence is not persuasive. The DNA evidence offered by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino concerning the bone fragments that were found has only proven that "Jesus son of Joseph" and "Mariamne" did not have the same mother– nothing more. Jacobovici and Pellegrino assert that this proves Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene and fathered a son named Judah. But even if "Jesus son of Joseph" and "Mariamne" can be proved to have been married and that Judah was their offspring, there is absolutely nothing either within the tomb or in the historical record that would connect this Judean family unit to any historical figure presented in the pages of the New Testament. No writing or Christian tradition dating from anywhere near the time of the first century gives any indication whatsoever that Jesus Christ married and had a family- in fact, this idea is directly contradicted by all the evidence. The leap in logic made concerning “The Tomb of Jesus” is indicative of nothing other than reading back Dan Brown style fiction upon what scientists have uncovered.
3. The statistical evidence is not persuasive. The argument being made in chapter 4 of The Jesus Family Tomb is that statistics have proven that the chance of these names found in the tomb– Jesus son of Joseph, Judah son of Jesus, Maria, Mariamne, Joseph and Matthew– occurring together in a sequence is so very small that they must be identified with the historical figures indicated in the only other place these names have been found to occur– that is, the Christian historical tradition. But however small the chance is that these names would be found in a sequence in a tomb from first century Judea, this chance is infinitely greater than the chance that Simcha Jacobovici, Charles Pellegrino or anyone else will find these names in a sequence within either the New Testament or any other document of the Christian historical tradition. In other words, though Jacobovici and Pellegrino are making the claim that they have found the family tomb of Jesus Christ, the list of names being presented does not correspond with any records of Christ's family. We know the names of Christ's earthly family (at least his brothers) from the New Testament. They are recorded in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 as James, Joseph (or Joses), Judas and Simon. You will notice that none of His brothers were named Matthew. Though Matthew was the name of one of Christ's 12 apostles, there is never any assertion within the New Testament that he and the Lord Jesus were family members. So there is no reason to think that a family tomb of Christ would contain a Matthew. Though Judas was the name of one of Christ's brothers, nowhere in Christian history has the assertion ever been made that Jesus Christ had a son named Judah. The name "Mariamne" is not in the New Testament at all, and problems with the Latin form of the name "Maria" as found in the tomb will be addressed in point 4 below. If there was a list of names within the Christian historical tradition that was identical to or nearly identical to the names found in the tomb, then statistics could perhaps demonstrate the probability of one set of names being linked to the other. As it is, similarities between the names in "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" and names actually associated with the historical family of Jesus Christ are merely superficial at best and therefore the statistical analysis is a farce.
4. The linguistic evidence is not persuasive. An important link that those promoting “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” try to establish in order to assert that the tomb they've explored has anything to do with Jesus Christ is the claim that the ossuary with the name "Maria" is that of Mary the mother of our Lord. At James Cameron's press conference concerning “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” it was asserted that, "Maria is the Latin form of Mary, and is how Jesus's mother was known after his death as more Romans became followers." While this assertion is certainly true, the problem is that it was long after Jesus' death that His mother became known by the Latin name Maria- probably long after her death as well. The greatest spread of Christianity in New Testament times was in the Hellenistic Jewish community in Palestine and in Jewish and Gentile communities of Asia Minor (as seen in Paul's letters and the book of Revelation), where the principle language spoken was Greek. That Jesus Christ's mother, living during a time of political strife involving the Romans in Jerusalem, whose Son was crucified by the Romans, would suddenly be called by a Latin form of her name when the language of Christianity was Greek (as seen in the New Testament) is historically unimaginable without a great deal more evidence.
5. The textual evidence is not persuasive. As mentioned above, "Marianme" is not a name-form found in the New Testament. So how do Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino come up with the identification of Mariamne with Mary Magdalene? By their own admission, Jacobovici and Pellegrino base this connection upon the Acts of Philip. But what the authors of The Jesus Family Tomb fail to mention is that the earliest manuscript for this account is from the 14th century, the earliest possible date for the origin of this account being the 4th century. One problem with using the Acts of Philip to prove that Mariamne is Mary Magdalene (besides the dating of the text) is that while there is a Mariamne discussed in the Acts of Philip (she is referred to as Philip's sister), Mariamne is never identified with Mary Magdalene in this text in any way whatsoever, nor is there Mariamne any indication that this Mariamne is married or otherwise intimately involved with Jesus. In the book Jacobovici and Pellegrino claim they come to the conclusion that they reach through a connection between the Acts of Philip and the Gospel of Thomas. The Gospel of Thomas, however, only mentions the name “Mary” twice in passing (in verses 21 and 114) and never mentions the names Magdalene or Mariamne at all. In reality, the only way that Jacobovici and Pellegrino can come to the conclusion they reach is to confuse the Acts of Philip with the Gospel of Philip (a text mentioned on the official website for “The Jesus Tomb”). The Gospel of Philip is an entirely different work, a Gnostic gospel written around the 3rd century, containing arcane theories concerning aeons and etymologies. The Gospel of Philip also refers to Mary Magdalene as the "companion" of Jesus Christ and claims that He "used to kiss her often on her mouth." These statements concerning Mary Magdalene have led to some modern speculation (notably in Dan Brown's DaVinci Code) that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene were married– a claim also at the heart of the promotion of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." Notice, however that the Acts of Philip never identifies the character Mariamne with Mary Magdalene and the Gospel of Philip never mentions the name Mariamne at all. Again, the similaries between these works are only of the most superficial nature. Actually, they are only similar in that they both use the name "Philip" and feature a female character whose name begins with the same three letters, "M-A-R..."
6. The methodology is not persuasive. Since when does scientific data that can be interpreted in several ways immediately lead to the conclusion that eyewitness testimony is false? We do indeed have eyewitness testimony to the resurrected Christ. As the Apostle Paul recorded:
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. (I Corinthians 15:3-9 NIV)
Among other things, the passage above indicates that Christianity has always been open to honest and accurate historical inquiry. Paul wrote that most of the five hundred brothers who saw the resurrected Jesus were still alive, implying that his readers could easily find additional witnesses to give the same testimony he gave that Jesus was raised from the dead. And when Paul gave his testimony of Christ's resurrection before King Agrippa, as recorded in Acts 26, he said that "this thing was not done in secret"- Agrippa could find plenty of witnesses concerning the things Paul was saying. Likewise Luke, in writing his gospel account, testified that he received his information from eyewitnesses and that he researched everything carefully (see Luke 1:1-4).
In order to reach the conclusions they offer concerning the scientific data they are presenting, Cameron, Jacobovici, and Pellegrino must reject all the testimony of the New Testament concerning the risen Lord Jesus Christ. What has led them to reject this testimony? Jesus answered this question saying, "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil" (John 3:19 NIV).
If you are reading this post and you are not a Christian, I challenge you to look more carefully into these matters. Receive the eye-witness accounts of the sinless life of Jesus and of His death on the Cross as an atonement for sin, then look to the risen Lord Jesus in faith to receive forgiveness and eternal life.
If you are reading this post and you are a Christian, I challenge you to look more carefully into these matters as well, preparing yourself to answer the questions that you are sure to hear in coming days about your faith in Christ's resurrection.
But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (I Peter 3:15-16 NIV)Michael Spencer and James White.
Update: Some Christian leaders have done an excellent job addressing the claims concerning "The Lost Tomb of Jesus." Notably, SBTS president Albert Mohler has engaged this issue on both Larry King Live and his own radio program; also, Christian apologist and theologian James White has spoken about this on his webcast and on the Way of the Master radio program.
-I plan to update on this issue one more time after "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" airs on the Discovery Channel this Lord's Day.