The Jesus Tomb: Find of the Century or Publicity Stunt?

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Vision.org takes a deeper look into the claims that a tomb and ossuaries found in Jerusalem in 1980 are that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

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Jesus was put in a tomb that didn't belong to him and then he rose and there was nothing left.

Once again the subject of religion and the Bible has vaulted to top of current events as public and the media fascination with the origins of Christianity continues. With great fanfare and scores of representatives of the leading press from the around the world in the room, Discovery Channel announced on Monday that one of its upcoming programs will reveal what may be the archaeological find of the century. The claims are based on a new Harper San Francisco book and television documentary both entitled, "The Jesus Family Tomb." The documentary aired Sunday, March 4 on The Discovery Channel.

Produced by Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and Director James Cameron (Titantic), the film seeks agreement to conclusions that they have documented the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. Vision.org religion editor Peter Nathan delves into the facts of the claim with biblical scholars and archaeologists who are familiar with the tomb and the ossuaries and shows that the dramatic claims made by the producers of the film and the book are not so easily substantiated.

Just after the world got used to fictional speculation in the Da Vinci Code that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and that they may have had offspring, this new documentary records the finding of a first-century Jewish burial cave with ten ossuaries, or limestone boxes used to bury the bones of the deceased. The ossuaries are believed by the author of the book and the filmmakers to be that of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, their son Judah and other family members.

However, the claim has been attacked by archaeologists and theologians because they believe the filmmakers are jumping to conclusions with very little evidence in an attempt to publicize the film. Most scholars think the burial cave was probably that of a Jewish family that just happen to have similar names to those of Jesus. While Cameron said the combination of names found on the tombs convinced him of their heritage, Israeli archaeologist Amos Kloner, one of the first to examine the tomb in 1980 said the names on the coffins were very common in their day.

It all started when the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) excavated, surveyed and removed ten ossuaries that were discovered in Talpiot, Jerusalem during the initial phases of construction for an apartment building in 1980, a year marking a construction boom in Jerusalem when thousands of ossuaries in tombs were uncovered. During the time of Jesus (first century C.E.), Jewish families of means built tombs for the remains of their families in the hills of Judea. The ossuaries contained remains after family members would stack the bones inside and place the box into a niche in the tomb. After many generations the caves grew crowded with boxes, and families often put two or three or more skeletons in one box.

Archaeologists followed standard practice, removing bones from the ossuaries and then handed them over to the religious authorities for reburial. The archaeological report shows no record of the contents of the bone boxes or of how many skeletons were contained in each box. It also indicates that the tomb had been disturbed in the distant past and that parts of skeletons were scattered in the cave.

The film maker's account claims that six of the boxes had inscriptions carved on the ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb included Jesus, son of Joseph; Maria; Mariamene; Matthew; Judas, son of Jesus; and Jose, a diminutive of Joseph.

Newsweek magazine's March 7 issue features an article "Raiders of the Lost Tomb,"

focusing on discussions about logistics and the Bible, quoting Alan Segal, a religion professor at Barnard College who said, "Jesus was put in a tomb that didn't belong to him and then he rose and there was nothing left." He added, "Why would Jesus' family have a tomb outside of Jerusalem if they were from Nazareth? Why would they have a tomb if they were poor?"

Even more questions arise with discussions about the identification of an ossuary named for Mary Magdalene, which is based on an interpretation of the name on one of the ossuaries. Written in Greek, as opposed to the Hebrew/Aramiac of the other inscriptions, is the name Mariamene followed by the word Mara. The name Mariamene is a Greek diminutive form of the Hebrew Miriam, which we know in English as either Maria or Mary, while the name Mara is seen as a contraction of the name Martha (L Rahmani, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries). The two words are separated by a stroke which was used in place of a conjunction where double names were used.

The documentary team reads the second word as meaning 'Master' taken from the Aramaic language hence reading the term as Mary the Master i.e. Mary Magdalene based on the Gnostic Gospels. Why mix the languages?

The tomb is clearly a first century CE tomb as ossuaries were only used in the period from the reign of Augustus until just before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. This raises an important question relating to holy sites. Talpiot, the site of the tomb is some 5 kilometers south of the old city of Jerusalem and the temple mount. Another recognized first century burial site is at Sanhedra some 5 kilometers north of the temple mount. The garden tomb which was established by Protestants in the 19th century as a rival to the church of the Holy Sepulcher has been shown to be a much older tomb dating to the 7th century BCE and accordingly could not have been a new tomb at the time of the death of Jesus.

Again, as Vision.org's Peter Nathan reminds us, "Perhaps the real value of this tomb is that it can encourage us to reexamine some of the myths that have been imposed on Christianity."

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Edwin Stepp
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