A Crowded But Empty Tomb

Surely you heard the news earlier this year of the discovery (actually twenty-seven years ago) of what some claim is the tomb of Jesus and his family. According to the Discovery Channel documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which premiered on March 4, the chamber housing several ossuaries (bone boxes) was found in Talpiot, Jerusalem when engineers working on new construction blundered into the unsuspected site.

Upon close examination, the ossuaries bore scratched-in names interpreted and translated as “Jesus son of Joseph,” “Maria,” “Joses,” “Judas,” “Matthew,” and others from the New Testament period. James Tabor is the author of The Jesus Dynasty (2006) and a colleague of mine in The Jesus Project, an effort by scholars from various disciplines to determine the likelihood that Jesus of Nazareth existed. Tabor argues, with the backing of professional statisticians, that given the estimated population of Israel at the time, the chances of finding these names-though common in themselves-combined in a single family are six hundred to one. Tabor and others therefore contend the tomb is that of Jesus Christ, his parents, his brothers, and, quite possibly, his wife Mary Magdalene and their son, Judah.

Who should be upset about this and why? First, remember that many trumpeted the supposed James ossuary a couple of years ago as evidence of a historical James the Just and of his brother Jesus (since the inscription there was “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus”). The James ossuary and the Talpiot vault would seem to stand or fall together. Both identifications depend upon name and population statistics. Both sets of artifacts have the same physical characteristics, such as patina quality. Tabor points out that the James ossuary and others very likely come from the same recently documented site. Otherwise, the set lacks the requisite name of James, a famous sibling of Jesus (Mark 6:3; Gal. 1:18). And at Talpiot, there were empty spaces set aside for three more ossuaries.

Tabor proposes that some unscrupulous dealer absconded with the James box. His theory implies that the James box and the “new” ones are all genuine. Tabor is among the few still defending the authenticity of the James ossuary despite the fact that it was traced back to an artifact forgery workshop and the forgers were arrested. The case is still in litigation, though most scholars consider the James artifact-or at least its crucial “brother of Jesus” inscription-a blatant fraud.

One might guess that the disappointed fans of the James box would rejoice at the new find (again, not at all new, but given fresh attention thanks to James Cameron’s documentary). But then this set of ossuaries would seem to prove too much. It would mean that, à la Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code, Jesus got married and fathered children.

Suppose Tabor is right about the seeming connection, the James box looking like the missing piece of an incomplete puzzle set. Then, as R. Joseph Hoffmann (also of The Jesus Project) points out, the lifeboat must sink along with the ship. All of them would appear to be fakes. One thing’s for sure: you have no business appealing to the James box as proof of a historical Jesus if you don’t also accept a larger family unit including Mrs. Christ and their progeny.

In my opinion, though, the business about an ostensible wife and son for Jesus negates all the statistics about the tomb being the Jesus family mausoleum. We cannot first point to the precise set of relationships mentioned in the Gospels (father and mother: Joseph and Mary; brothers: Jesus, Joses, Simon, Judas, and James) as being reproduced in Talpiot and then point to other names that pointedly don’t fit the Gospel family unit (Jesus’s wife and son) and say, “Well, now that we’ve positively identified Jesus and his family, it looks like we can add some new members.” No, you have to count in “Mariamne also called Mara” and “Judah son of Jesus” from the start and compare that whole family lineup with the gospels. And then it doesn’t match. That ought to be obvious.

When The Lost Tomb of Jesus speculates that we had never before heard of any son of Jesus only because of conspiracy and intrigue, we are being asked to explain a lesser mystery by means of a greater one. There is no reason to suppose there was a conspiracy; it is only required to keep the theory moving. And that’s the essence of crackpot pseudo-scholarship.

Furthermore, as New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham points out, there is just no reason to link “Mariamne” with Mary Magdalene, since “Mariamne” seems to be a Greek corruption of the proper Hebrew “Mariamme.” Would Mary Magdalene (or her family) have misspelled her own name? And “Mara” has nothing to do with the Aramaic title of honor Mar, meaning “sir” or “lord.” As a woman’s name, it is simply short for “Martha.”

There is a larger issue here. And that is the issue of faith and history, of faith based on history. All the proud claims of theologians that Christianity, unlike, say, Hinduism, is inextricably based on historical facts, carry with them an inevitable compromise of intellectual honesty (on which yet another of our Jesus Project team, Van A. Harvey, has written the definitive book, The Historian and the Believer). From then on, believers have a vested interest in certain historical assertions being true. They will have reason to worry if the latest archaeological discoveries don’t go their way. They will cheer if they do, but will worry deep down that the next round may go against them.

The poor Mormons have repeatedly been exposed in this manner: first, by the utter absence of any relic of the supposedly widespread Nephite and Lamanite civilizations of pre-Columbian America, and now by DNA tests which show a lack of any genetic overlap between Semites and American Indians. Denials of the facts at this point become exceedingly shrill, with believers finding themselves in the company of Holocaust deniers and “scientific creationists.” Too bad for the Book of Mormon.

The archeological verdict on the Bible is equally damning. Once a new generation of archaeologists threw off the circular methodology of Presbyterian apologist William Foxwell Albright, it became clear that virtually all of what even a skeptic like me had supposed to be actual history in the Bible was instead legend and fiction. No splendid Davidic empire or Solomonic wonders of the world. No Exodus. No genocidal conquest, no first-century Galilean synagogues, or, to keep going, no commercial hub of Mecca.

Two great nineteenth-century theologians, Martin Kähler and Wilhelm Herrmann (who both happened to be Paul Tillich’s teachers), saw the danger of faith with historical strings attached. Given the necessary uncertainty and unpredictability of historical evidence, such a faith must be either eaten away by growing doubt or corrupted by intellectual dishonesty, an a priori decision to spin, twist, ignore, or discredit every bit of contrary evidence as soon as it appears. This is public relations, not scholarship, and it is the business of apologists for the Bible, the Gospels, the historical Jesus, and the resurrection. They sacrifice their own integrity on behalf of the faith that is melting away beneath them even as they continue to pettifog and prevaricate in its defense.

It is the same in what might at first appear to be a different issue altogether, namely a scripture-based theology or ethics. The attraction of biblicism is the appeal of an infallible sourcebook for answers. “We know there is life after death, and that it is like such-and-such because the Bible says so. We know that homosexuality is wrong because the Bible says so. We aren’t left to the endless debates on these issues that can never be resolved as long as we base them, as unbelievers do, on mere hypothesis.” But the immunity is illusory. Because Luther was wrong: scripture simply isn’t “perspicuous.” Various biblical passages yield radically different beliefs about life after death, including that there is no such thing (“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”).

And homosexuality? It all hinges on whether or not Levitical bans on a class of acts deemed ceremonial transgressions continue on into the Christian dispensation (the ban on eating shrimp is one of them; homosexuality is another) and on the meaning of three ambiguous verses in the epistles, two of these using rare Greek words so seldom appearing in extant literature that we can’t be sure what they mean. So what happens to the clarion-like proclamation of the word and will of God? One just can’t be dogmatic on the basis of an ambiguous text. How anticlimactic to hear from the pulpit: “There is about a fifteen percent chance that God hates homosexuality. So you might want to repent-or maybe not.” Clearly, one shouldn’t pretend to tell people how to live their lives, nor should one start punching tickets to heaven or hell based on what experts or non-experts think the text might mean.

In the end we are without a definitive sun of authority or infallible will around which to orbit, and we must rejoice to proclaim it. We have come of age by realizing not only that there is no court of appeal above ourselves, but that there never was. We no longer seek to evade responsibility for our ethical decisions by saying we are “just following orders.” We were childish when we unthinkingly idolized the speculations and ad hoc judgment calls of our ancestors, who did the best they could. We will be mature when we dare to wipe the Mosaic tablets clean and to write upon them anew with our own best wisdom. And if we in turn should become idols-our words the scriptures of a future generation-we can only hope that such a generation will raise up its own iconoclasts to send the idols toppling from their pedestals.

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