A documentary was aired on American television yesterday entitled “The Jesus Family Tomb,” in which it is claimed that the tombs of Jesus, Mary and Mary Magdalene have been discovered. There is also supposed to be a tomb with a son of Jesus. The film, produced by Simcha Jacobovici, and “Titanic” director James Cameron, is already stirring up controversy.
The Discovery Channel, together with HarperSanFrancisco, released the television documentary and book this week. But authorities are already pouring cold water on the claims being made. For example, Joe Zias, who was the curator for anthropology and archeology at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem from 1972 to 1997 and personally numbered the Talpiot ossuaries, said “Simcha has no credibility whatsoever. He’s pimping off the Bible … He got this guy Cameron, who made ‘Titanic’ or something like that – what does this guy know about archeology? I am an archeologist, but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would say, ‘Who is this guy?’ People want signs and wonders. Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”
Or as another expert has put it, “It’s a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever,” Professor Amos Kloner, who had published the findings of his research in the Israeli periodical Atiqot in 1996, said on Friday. “The names that are found on the tombs are names that are similar to the names of the family of Jesus. But those were the most common names found among Jews in the first centuries BCE and CE,” he added.
Another expert is New Testament scholar Ben Witherington. His February 26, 2007 blogsite has a good piece on all the hoopla surrounding the supposed new discoveries. He begins by noting that just as the makers of the Titanic thought it was unsinkable, so the makers of this documentary think their theory is unsinkable. Both are wrong, however.
Witherington has worked with Simcha before. “He is a practicing Jew, indeed he is an orthodox Jew so far as I can tell. He was the producer of the Discovery Channel special on the James ossuary which I was involved with. He is a good film maker, and he knows a good sensational story when he sees one. This is such a story. Unfortunately it is a story full of holes, conjectures, and problems. It will make good TV and involves a bad critical reading of history. Basically this is old news with a new interpretation. We have known about this tomb since it was discovered in 1980. There are all sorts of reasons to see this as much ado about nothing much.”
Witherington then lists some of the major problems with this whole scenario. First, names like Jesus and Mary were very common back then. It is like finding a Jones or a Smith tomb today. There would be many possible contenders. Indeed, Jesus was among the top ten male names at the time. Mary was the most popular female name back then. And Martha would have been in the top four.
“You can see at once that all the names you’re interested were extremely popular. 21% of Jewish women were called Mariamne (Mary). The chances of the people in the ossuaries being the Jesus and Mary Magdalene of the New Testament must be very small indeed.”
Second, “there is no independent DNA control sample to compare to what was garnered from the bones in this tomb. By this I mean that the most the DNA evidence can show is that several of these folks are inter-related. Big deal. We would need an independent control sample from some member of Jesus’ family to confirm that these were members of Jesus’ family. We do not have that at all.”
Then there are a slew of historical problems: “A) the ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth. The family was still in Nazareth after he was apparently dead and gone. Why in the world would he be buried (alone at this point) in Jerusalem? It’s unlikely. 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.”
He continues: “Now it takes a year for the flesh to desiccate, and then you put the man’s bones in an ossuary. But Jesus’ body was long gone from Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb well before then. Are we really to believe it was moved to another tomb, decayed, and then was put in an ossuary? It’s not likely. 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. Are we really to believe that they knew Jesus didn’t rise bodily from the dead but perpetrated a fraudulent religion, for which they and others were prepared to die? Did they really hide the body of Jesus in another tomb? We need to remember that the James in question is Jesus’ brother, who certainly would have known about a family tomb. This frankly is impossible for me to believe.”
Concludes Witherington: “I feel sorry for Simcha, but I know how these things happen. One’s enthusiasm for a subject propels one into over-reaching when it comes to drawing conclusions. The problem with keeping these ideas secret for the sake of making a big splash of publicity, and lots of money, is that peer review by a panel of scholars could have saved these folks a lot of embarrassment down the road. ‘C’est la vie.’ So my response to this is clear – James Cameron, the producer of the movie Titanic, 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.”
Indeed, like Dan Brown and his The Da Vinci Code, this is yet another example of an anti-Christian agenda wedded to the desire to cash in on another get rich scheme, by making outrageous claims about the world’s most important religious figure. These exotic theories come and go, but the truthfulness of the Christian claims about Jesus will continue.