Monday, February 26, 2007

Jesus' Lost Tomb? A New Pre-Easter Gift?

Every Christmas and Easter we get treated to the secular gift of a new attack on Jesus and the historical basis for our faith. Now in the age of electronic media the normal round of cover stories in Time and Newsweek are augmented by simultaneous releases of "documentaries" and companion books.

Remember the Gospel of Judas last spring? Now, as we ramp up to another celebration of the central miracle of the Christian faith, we have a major media declaration that Jesus' lost tomb has been found. Dan Brown revealed that Jesus had a daughter named Sarah. This year James Cameron, director of the obscenely successful film Titanic, has teamed up with Simcha Jacobovici and the Discovery Channel for a special on the discovery of Jesus’ tomb, ossuary, bones, and that of his mother, brothers, wife, and his son Jude as well! Wow!

The show, slated to air on March 4th, follows in the proud tradition of the Gospel of Judas. In addition to the documentary today they released a companion book by Simcha and Charles Pellegrino entitled The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History (Harper-Collins).

Having just returned yesterday from two weeks in Israel with 49 folks, I may be a little touchy. But how many times will people fall for these cynically timed attacks on the Christian faith? Ben Witherington, a genuine WORLD CLASS Jesus scholar (and an evangelical) took apart the Cameron film and the Simcha and Charles Pellegrino book today in his blog. His arguments include the following points (redacted below from his much longer blog) giving “all sorts of reasons to see this as much ado about nothing much”:

1) The statistical analysis is of course only as good as the numbers that were provided to the statistician . . . There are so many flaws in the analysis of the statistics themselves, that one must assume the statistician did not have the right or sufficient data to work with.

2) There is no independent DNA control sample to compare to what was garnered from the bones in this tomb.

3) Several of these ossuaries have very popular and familiar early Jewish names. As the statistics above show, the names Joseph and Joshua (Jesus) were two of the most common names in all of early Judaism. So was Mary. Indeed both Jesus’ mother and her sister were named Mary. This is the ancient equivalent of finding adjacent tombs with the names Smith and Jones. No big deal.

4) The historical problems with all this are too numerous to list here: A) the ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth; B) One of the ossuaries has the name Jude son of Jesus. We have no historical evidence of such a son of Jesus, indeed we have no historical evidence he was ever married; C) the Mary ossuaries (there are two) do not mention anyone from Migdal. It simply has the name Mary-- and that's about the most common of all ancient Jewish female names; D) we have names like Matthew on another ossuary, which don't match up with the list of brothers' names; E) By all ancient accounts, the tomb of Jesus was empty-- even the Jewish and Roman authorities acknowledged this; F) Implicitly you must accuse James, Peter and John (mentioned in Gal. 1-2-- in our earliest NT document from 49 A.D.) of fraud and coverup.

5) One more thing of importance. The James ossuary, according to the report of the antiquities dealer that Oded Golan got the ossuary from, said that the ossuary came from Silwan, not Talpiot, and had dirt in it that matched up with the soil in that particular spot in Jerusalem . . . Why is this important? Well because the ossuaries that came out of Talpiot came out of a rock cave from a different place, and without such soil in it. To theorize that there was a Jesus family tomb, and yet the one member of Jesus' family who we know was buried in Jerusalem for a long time did not come out of the ground from that locale contradicts this theory. Furthermore, Eusebius reports that the tomb marker for James' burial was close to where James was martyred near the temple mount, indeed near the famous tombs in the Kidron valley such as the so-called tomb of Absalom. Talpiot is nowhere near this locale.

6) What should we make of James Tabor’s being co-opted into this project? You will remember his book which came out last year "The Jesus Dynasty." In that book he had quite a good deal to say about the Talpiot Tomb, and about Panthera being the father of Jesus, and about Jesus being buried in Galilee, and of course nothing about a ossuary which claims that Joseph is the father of Jesus. Why such a quick reversal of his earlier opinions?

Witherington disdainfully captures the right tone: “So my response to this is clear--- James Cameron, the producer of the movie Titantic, has now jumped on board another sinking ship full of holes, presumably in order to make a lot of money before the theory sinks into an early watery grave. Man the lifeboats and get out now.” Read Witherington’s entire blog and get his excellent, "What Have They Done with Jesus?" (Harper-Collins, 2006), for more evangelical commentary on this kind of “scholarship” by the revisionist critics.

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