Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Five Reasons To Be Skeptical About the Lost Tomb of Jesus

If you haven't heard about the Discovery Channel's "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," or the accompanying book (The Jesus Family Tomb), you've probably been out of the country or otherwise disconnected from the Internet for the past week or so.

Just in case, here's a link to the Discovery Channel website.

And here's a link to my Lost Tomb Resources page with detailed analyses and responses.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the vigorous responses by Evangelical and other scholars of all related disciplines. Since there is such a wealth of material out there, from folks far more qualified to comment intelligently than I am, I will simply list here the five most compelling reasons to remain skeptical about the claims made in the Discovery Channel documentary and it's supporters.

The Talpiot tomb was originally discovered in 1980. It has been well-documented by archaeologists familiar with tombs dating from the Second Temple period in Jerusalem. Those experts have never suggested the tomb belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth. Why are James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici now claiming that it is? They say it is because they have discovered "new evidence" that makes it very likely that the experts have been wrong, and that this really is the "Lost Tomb of Jesus" afterall.

The two most significant pieces of "new evidence" is the use of DNA to establish that "Jesus son of Joseph" and "Mariamne the Master" were married; and that statistically, it is overwhelmingly probable (600-to-1) that this tomb was that of the Jesus Family, based on the collection of names on the ossuaries it contained.

So, let's take a look at these two pieces of new evidence (which I think actually disprove Jacobovici's claims) and three others:

1. Questionable DNA Claims
Jacobovici claims that DNA evidence proves that "Jesus" and "Mariamne" were not siblings. Therefore, it is likely they were husband and wife, since this tomb was a "family" tomb. But the DNA extracted from the tombs is highly suspect and cannot legitimately be used to prove the "Jesus" and "Mariamne" were married. The DNA extracted was mitochondrial. Mitochondrial DNA can only establish (or disprove) maternal relations. Thus, the best that Jacobovici can do is prove that "Jesus" and "Miriamne" were not siblings of the same mother (or that they did not share a common female ancestor). But they could be father and daughter. Or, "Miriamne" could be the wife of "Matia" or "Joshe." Further, since the bones were removed by modern archaeologists, it is possible that the DNA examined belonged to one of them through incidental contamination.

2. Cooking the Numbers
The 600-to-1 odds sound impressive. They sound impressive because they are being used in a most dishonest fashion. The statistical results make it sound as though they represent the entire population of Jerusalem at the time. But they don't - they only represent the 1,000 tombs that have been investigated in Jerusalem. Thus, of the 1,000 discovered tombs, if one of them to belonged to Jesus and his family, there would be a 600-to-1 chance that this tomb was it. As Joe D'Mello points out here, such a methodology is seriously flawed.
A more reasonable estimate is only a 10% chance that the tomb contains the Jesus Family, and that is assuming that such a tomb existed at all.

3. What's in a Name?
Jacobovici assumes the correctness of the Bible in getting the names of Jesus' family and closest followers right. Yet, the names in the tomb are only loosely related to those in the Bible. For example, "Matia" is not a family member, according to the Bible. "Mariamne" is not the form of "Mary" for any of the 3 or 4 Mary's associated with Jesus. The "e Mara" that follows the name "Mariamne" in all likelihood means "Martha," not "Master." Indeed, the Miriamne ossuary's inscription is Greek (the only ossuary in the Talpiot tomb so inscribed), but if "Mara" means "Master" or "Lord," as Jacobovici claims, it is Aramaic, not Greek. "Joshe" is most likely the father of the Jesus in Talpiot(that is simply following the lineage engraved on the ossuary itself). But Jacobovici says it is Jesus' brother, in an effort to explain the absence of Jesus' siblings, as recorded in the Gospels (if Joshe and James were buried in the tomb, then only two brothers are missing). And speaking of the James ossuary, since a photograph of it exists dating from some four years prior to the discovery of the Talpiot tomb, it is impossible for it have come from there, despite Jacobovici's arguments regarding the similar patina.

4. Mary the Master
There is precisely zero credible evidence that the Mariamne in the Talpiot tomb is Mary Magdalene. She was known as "Mary" or "Maria" in the Gospels. She was never certainly referred to as Miriamne by any early Church father or gnostic writer. The Miriamne in the Acts of Philip is the sister of Philip, and only a few scholars have speculated that she might be Mary Magdalene. But the Acts of Philip is a late writing (no earlier than the 4th Century), full of mythic inventions (talking animals who hear the Gospel), and did not originate anywhere near Jerusalem. It is the sheerest speculation and wishful thinking that would attempt to connect the Mariamne in Talpiot with Mary Magdalene.

5. Jesus Son of Joseph <> Jesus of Nazareth
As pointed out above, Jacobovici presupposes the historical truth of the Gospel accounts, insofar as they correctly name Jesus' family members, his closest associates (at least in terms of Matthew and Mary Magdalene), and the location of his death. But he ignores the Gospels when they claim that Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth (in strict Judean fashion), that his family was from Nazareth (the most likely place for a family tomb, if one existed), that he came from a poor family (the Talpiot tomb is that of a wealthy family), and that by all accounts, his grave was empty and remained empty. Not even his opponents ever claimed otherwise. One cannot claim to be an historian and cherry pick what one likes from the available sources.

There are other issues as well: Scholars are not at all in agreement that the names on the key Talpiot ossuaries are Jesus/Yeshua and Mary/Mariamne; ossuaries were known to contain up to six skeletons, thus complicating any attempts to extract DNA samples from one individual; Tombs like Talpiot were generational, thus Mariamne and Jesus may not have even been contemporaries; other ossuaries have been found with a 'Jesus son of Joseph.'

There is very little reason to suspect that Jacobovici and Cameron have actually found the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed, there is far more evidence that Jesus rose from the grave - just as the Gospels proclaim - than that he came to rest in Talpiot or anywhere else.