Frank K. Flinn, Ph.D., adjunct professor of religious studies, provides insight on the controversy surrounding a new Discovery Channel documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which airs March 4. Flinn, a consultant in forensic theology, is an expert on religion and the law, including issues related to the separation of church and state, government funding of faith-based social program and the display of religious symbols in schools, courtrooms and other public places.
Jesus Family Tomb
By Frank K. Flinn
On March 04, 2007, the Discovery Channel will air a program “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” made by Simcha Jocobivici and James Cameron, the maker of the film “Titanic.” A companion volume of the same name by Jocobivici and Dr. Charles Pellegrino has just been released by HarperCollins
In 1980 Israeli archeologists Shimon Gibson, Yosef Gat Amos Kloner examined a tomb in the Talpiyot district of Jerusalem where construction for new housing was underway. Archeologists have noted some 900 such tomb sites in this area of Jerusalem. Upon entering the tomb, the archeologists discovered ten ossuaries in six niches and three skulls on the floor of the main room. In 1st century Palestine it was customary to bury a person of some means wrapped in linen and spices, let the flesh decay, and then, a year or more later, place the bones in a stone ossuary, which literally means “bone-box.” After this hasty excavation the bones were buried by Orthodox rabbis following Jewish ritual law. Fragments of the bones, however, remained in the boxes that were not washed out. The ossuaries were then stored in a warehouse of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.
Meanwhile in 2002 another inscribed ossuary appeared on the antiquities market in Jersusalem. Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv engineer, claimed he bought the box from Arab dealers and had not noted the Aramaic inscription on the side: “Yaakob bar Yosef ahiw de Yeshua” (“James, son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus”). The reaction in the scholarly world was explosive. Inscriptionist André Lemaire of the Sorbonne said that the box could well have belonged to James the Apostle. After much argument back and forth, scholars at the Geological Survey of Israel, while not tying the inscription to Jesus’ family, concluded that the script fits the time period between 20-70 CE and that the patina throughout shows no later marks of forgery. New Testament scholar James Tabor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has argued that this ossuary came from what he calls the Talpiyot “Jesus Family Dynasty Tomb” in his controversial book “The Jesus Dynasty” (2006).
As noted above, six of the Talpiyot boxes have side inscriptions. There is some argument about the preservation and interpretation of the scripts, but Tabor, Simcha Jocobivici and James Cameron, the makers of the film “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” (to be shown on Discovery Channel March 04, 2007), say the box inscriptions should be read as follows:
1. Yeshua bar Yehosef – ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ (speaks for itself)
2. Maria – the Latin for the normal ‘Miriam’ or Mary (mother or sister of Jesus?)
3. Yose – alternate form of ‘Joseph’ ( Matthew 13:54 lists 4 brothers of Jesus—James, Joses, Simon, Judas—and unnamed and unnumbered sisters)
4. Yehuda bar Yeshua—’Judah son of Jesus’ (some claim this refers to Jesus of Nazareth’s son)
5. Mariamne e mara—’Miriamne the master’ (some say Mary of Magdala’s real name was Miriamne; mara is the same term as Maranatha “Come, oh Lord [mara]” in 1 Corinthians 16:22 )
6. Matya—’Matthew’ or ‘Matthias’ (possibly a husband of one of the women in an unmarked ossuary)
Mitochondrial DNA tests on the bone fragments in the Yeshua and Miriamne ossuaries show that they were not related. Shortly after the initial discovery and the 1990’s one of the original ten ossuaries went missing. Tabor and others are claiming that this is the much disputed James ossuary.
One of the chief arguments posed by Kloner and others that this set of names cannot be identified with the family of Jesus is that all of the names were common as water in the 1^st century. That is true, but Tabor and the filmmakers have elicited the support of statisticians to argue the likelihood that this set of names would match the names in the New Testament is extremely small. Tabor illustrates by saying that the approximate population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was 50,000. If you could get all into the local hippodrome, and started asking, would all those whose name is Jesus please stand, 2,796 would rise. Then if you asked, would all those who father is also named Joseph remain standing, 351 would be left. If you ask all those also who mother’s name is Mary, 173 would remain. Add the brother’s name Jose, and only 23 would be left. Add the name James, and you are down to one.
University of Toronto mathematician Andrey Feuerverger calculated that the odds that the tomb does not belong to the Jesus of the Gospels is1/600. Tabor’s mathematician gives the startling odds that out of 42,723,672 families, the Talpiyot combination of names would occur only once. The general public needs to be a little wary of statistical calculations. They never give you the absolute truth but only an approximation of the truth. And Tabor is quick to admit that many of the associations in his book are “speculative.” Still, it is important to point out that these numbers do not depend so much on the frequency of a particular name but on the occurrence of the /cluster/ of names, and here the numbers are telling.
The Talpiyot tomb findings are a serious challenge to traditional Christian denominations. Catholics have held as a matter of doctrine that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and that she remained a virgin. The phase “brothers and sisters,” they argue must be taken in a “wide” sense of “friends and followers.” Many traditional Protestants beg to differ with Catholics on this score. Most claim that Jesus was never married, but scholars of 1st century Judaism now argue that one had to be married to preach in the synagogue, and that is something Jesus did on many occasions (Luke 4:16). The single implication of the Talpiyot findings that strikes traditional Christianity at its root is that, if indeed this is Jesus of Nazareth’s ossuary and bone fragments, then Jesus was not raised from the dead. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: 13-14: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.”
Is there no way out of the dilemma for the believing Christian? Do Christians, if they accept these harsh historical facts, have to give up all belief in resurrection. I believe they do not. In the Epistle to the Romans Chapter 4, where Paul talks about the physical condition of Abraham and Sarah, he does not say that they were infertile or barren, as many translations have it, but that they were “dead” in the womb and the loins. When Isaac was born, they experienced a resurrection of the flesh in the most literal sense of the term. Likewise, when the Prodigal Son returned to his grieving father, the father said to his resentful brother, “For this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” I call this the resurrection of everydayness. The philosopher Hegel spoke of the “divine Man” whose particular death is transfigured into “the universality of the Spirit who dwells in His community, dies in it every day, and daily is resurrected.” This sense of living “resurrectionally” seems to have escaped many segments of Christianity.
The recent discoveries about 1st century Palestinian Judaism have forced many Christians to rediscover the Teaching of Jesus rather than to place all emphasis on the later teaching about Jesus.
Many devout Christians are speaking up loudly saying the Talpiyot Tomb story is another hoax, like “The Da Vinci Code.” To them I give a word of caution: Dan Brown wrote fiction that had everso fragile filaments to the truth, but ossuaries are ossuaries, names are names and bones are bones. I choose to remain interested but joyfully skeptical about all the new discoveries.