Published March 15, 2007
For many years I’ve wondered about the following scenario: What if an archeologist turned up the bones of Jesus and had some decent proof? And what if it was hard to deny the claims?
What if a tomb was marked with something like “Jesus, son of Joseph” alongside inscriptions indicating the resting places of Mary, some of his brothers, and, for good measure, one of his disciples, like Mary Magdalene?
That would really shake things up in the Christian world. After all, Christian faith is based on the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. As St. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians, “If Christ is not risen ... then your faith is in vain.”
So, to be honest, the news of a new book, The Jesus Family Tomb, and a related Discovery Channel documentary produced by James Cameron, startled me. Tantalizing elements included an ossuary (bone box) marked “Jesus, son of Joseph” found beside others marked with familiar names from Jesus’ family.
But in the end, the Discovery Channel’s discovery may not be that much of a revelation.
By far the strongest scholarly objection is that those were the most common names in first-century Palestine, according to most experts – including the Israeli archeologist Amos Kloner, who supervised the first excavation of the site in 1980. To illustrate the point, Joseph Fitzmyer, a leading Aramaic scholar and professor emeritus at Catholic University, told me that an ossuary marked “Jesus, son of Joseph” had been unearthed as early as 1931.
Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land, even cast doubt that the name was “Jesus,” saying that ancient Aramaic is notoriously difficult to decipher. Indeed, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collection of the State of Israel, published in 1994, lists the ossuary in question, describing the first name, “Jesus,” as difficult to discern and “clumsily carved and badly slashed.”
Overall, it’s a surprising coincidence to have so many New Testament names appear together, but not impossible. It would be like strolling through an American cemetery and finding that more than one couple named John and Mary had children named John, Joseph, and Mary.
Less daunting, but just as curious, are questions that remain about the location. The “family plot” could have been located near Jerusalem, but Nazareth would make more sense since it was Jesus’ hometown. Kloner was adamant on that point. “There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem.”
Also, if Jesus’ followers or family were so concerned about burying everyone in such a carefully planned fashion, then why for all these centuries has the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site, been located nowhere near the newly discovered tomb? Admittedly, it is impossible to prove that the church’s current location is historically correct, but archeologists know that local traditions often turn out to be surprisingly reliable.
In the end, the archeological evidence may not be the spiritual slam-dunk for which James Cameron, the Discovery Channel, or fans of The Da Vinci Code have hoped. As one of my theology professors joked, these kinds of Lenten revelations are as much a rite of spring as the beginning of baseball.
The most compelling proof of the resurrection is not an empty tomb, which is nearly impossible to verify today with any historical precision. Rather, it is the disciples who went from being terrified members of a failed movement, cowering behind closed doors, into men and women emboldened to preach about Jesus at the cost of their lives – which many ended up sacrificing. Only an encounter with something life-changing could account for such a dramatic transformation.
There’s a reason that the disciples weren’t concerned about selecting a family plot a few days after the death of Jesus. They were too busy spending time with the Risen Christ.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest and lives in New York.
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