Articles & Reviews

Lost Tomb of Jesus?

by René Schlaepfer

I always feel a little funny defending Jesus Christ against the latest supposed threat to him from something like a James Cameron TV show or Dan Brown thriller. After all, the Bible says people will be drawn to Christ by the love of His followers, and by God’s grace, not by some preacher’s clever response to the latest conspiracy theory.

But! People get worked up and then they ask us pastors what we think and then we get worked up too until we stop and realize that these pop culture moments really are great opportunities for discussion. As long as we don’t get distracted from the main thing. So here’s what I think.

Unless you’ve been in a… well, in a cave tomb somewhere, you probably know that filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and director James Cameron claim in a TV documentary that a burial cave uncovered 27 years ago in Jerusalem is the tomb of the biblical Jesus of Nazareth and his family.

The crypt, discovered in 1980, contained ten ossuaries, or bone boxes. Most were apparently empty. Of the ten, six bear inscriptions with names found in the Bible, including the names Jesus, Mary, and a second Mary.

Jacobovici’s claims do not precisely contradict Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus. Even if the family of the biblical Jesus had prepared the ossuaries, we will never be able to tell if Jesus was actually interred there.

But here’s why I think these are unlikely to be the ossuaries of the family of the biblical Jesus:

1. The opinion of the expert who knows these ossuaries best

According to The Jerusalem Post, professor Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who officially oversaw the excavations at the tomb starting in 1980 and published detailed findings on its contents, dismissed the claims: It makes a great story for a TV film, but it’s impossible… There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem. The Talpiot tomb belonged to a middle-class family from the 1st century CE.

2. The names are common

Kloner says the names on these ossuaries were the most popular names of the day and show up on bone boxes frequently. In fact, 71 other ossuaries have been found in Jerusalem with the name “Jesus” and two with “Jesus, son of Joseph”. Countless others have been found with the names “Joseph” and “Mary.” One scholar estimates that 48 percent of women living at the time were named some form of “Mary”. There are six different “Marys” in the New Testament alone.

In an article on the demographics of first-century Judea, Shmuel Katz conservatively estimates the Jewish population of the time at about five million. That means many thousands of first-century people bore these names. So imagine visiting a region of five million and finding a group of people who answered to popular names. This would not be a statistically amazing feat. Or go further and imagine someone finding tombs in England with the common names “George”, “William”, and “Mary” and claiming they were the tombs of British royalty.

3. The probable misidentification of the “Mariamne” ossuary

The filmmakers make another unwarranted assumption: That the “Mariamne” ossuary inscription must mean “Mary Magdalene”. They continually refer to the occupant as “Magdalene” when, in fact, the word “Magdalene” appears nowhere in the crypt. Mariamne is simply the Greek form for Mary. This Greek form was the name of several prominent women in Herod’s household, including his second and third wives and at least two other relatives. Why not claim this ossuary was one of theirs, or of some other “Mariamne”?

Because in this assumption and many others, the filmmakers show an agenda to perpetuate the popular Jesus-was-married-to-Magdalene storyline at the expense of other alternatives. After DNA samples of bits of matter taken from the “Jesus” ossuary and the “Mariamne” ossuary indicated these two people were not related by blood, the filmmakers assumed they were married. Why not suggest that this “Mariamne” was married to one of the other seven males in the crypt? It’s just as likely, but not in the sensationalist interest of the show. As with much else revealed about the special so far, trendiness trumps the tedious work and usually unglamorous results of real archaeology.

4. The misidentification of the James ossuary

In order to strengthen their case, the filmmakers contend that another ossuary reading “James, the brother of Jesus” was stolen from the group shortly after the tomb was found. The archaeologists examining the tomb 26 years ago found 10 ossuaries, but only nine remain. In “The Lost Tomb…”, it is alleged that the James ossuary is that missing box.

But the original documentation of the ossuaries plainly lists that tenth ossuary as having “No Inscription.” If it had no inscription in 1980 how can it be the inscribed “James” ossuary today?

Recently an Israeli police officer testified in court that he saw the James ossuary in the 1970s. His recollection is backed up by a photograph of the James ossuary from that time period. Clearly, then, an ossuary found in 1980 could not be this same James ossuary. This is merely one of the items in the documentary that do not add up. To add further doubt, many scholars have already called the ossuary inscription “brother of Jesus” a modern-day forgery.

5. The opinions of other experts

Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar who was interviewed in the documentary told the Associated Press that the film’s hypothesis is sketchy: How possible is it? On a scale of one through 10—10 being completely possible—it’s probably a one, maybe a one and a half. Pfann is even unsure that the name “Jesus” on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it’s more likely the name “Hanun.”

William Dever, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and an expert on near eastern archaeology who has worked in Israeli for decades said experts have known about these ossuaries for years: The fact that it’s been ignored tells you something. It would be amusing if it didn’t mislead so many people.

Anthropologist Joe Zias , who was the curator for anthropology and archeology at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem from 1972 to 1997 and personally stored and numbered the ossuaries, is even more outspoken. What they’ve done here,“ Zias said, ”is they’ve simply tried in a very, very dishonest way to con the public into believing that this is the tomb of Jesus or Jesus’ family. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Jesus.” For one thing, he says, Jesus’ family was poor. Those who paid for the tomb were middle-class, at least. “If Jesus’ family did have the cash, the family tomb would likely have been situated in Nazareth.

Like many scholars, Zias is contemptuous of Jacobovici’s credentials and motives: … what does this guy know about archaeology? I am an archaeologist, but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would say, ‘Who is this guy?’ Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.

6. The track record of these filmmakers on biblical documentaries

Jacobovici and Cameron earlier made Exodus Decoded, which claimed that the ten plagues of the Exodus were caused by a volcanic eruption on a Greek island. None of the relics—or arguments—cited in that show has been accepted by archaeologists or any prominent institution as proof for the theory, and their interpretation of Egyptian hieroglyphics was ripped apart by experts in Biblical Archaeology Review. Google this documentary and you’ll find critical articles from leading scholars like Dr. Bryant Wood and Dr. Chris Heard. They particularly criticize the filmmakers for sensationalizing their theories without any formal peer review or scholarly publication process.

The hype surrounding this latest show, and the lack once again of accepted publication and peer review protocols, only heightens the sense that the new documentary is more Erich Von Daniken than Ken Burns.

So there’s what I think about the ”Lost Tomb of Jesus“. The documentary will get headlines. It’s best to see past the hype, think clearly, and be patient. There’s more on this web site:

But for Christians, it’s now time to get back to the mission Jesus gave us, which was not to protest TV shows but to show His love in practical ways and teach His gospel in respectful ways.

Many more people have fallen in love with Christ by seeing Him in the words and actions of someone like Mother Teresa (or John Newton or William Wilberforce as seen in the new film ”Amazing Grace“) than tedious arguments, emotional boycotts, or picket sign protests.

Christianity has always been a target (sometimes we deserve it) so we are told—by a first century biblical writer who was crucified upside-down for refusing to deny his devotion to the resurrected Christ—Always be prepared to give an answer to those who ask you for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

René Schlaepfer, Teaching Pastor
Twin Lakes Church, Aptos, CA

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