Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Jesus' Family Tomb?

Last Sunday the Discover Channel ran a documentary that claimed a tomb found near Jerusalem in 1980 is actually where Jesus and his family -- including Mary Magdalene, whom he supposedly married -- are buried.

First century middle eastern people had the rather macabre custom of letting the dead rot for a year, then gathering up their bones and putting them in a limestone box called an ossuary. Sometimes they scratched the dead person's name on the box, but in most cases they left it blank. If a particularly honorific person's bones were inside they might put some effort into the inscription (as was the case with the famous "James Ossuary"). Usually, it was just chicken scratchings.

The main reason the show gave for this being Jesus' tomb seemed to be that the names on the bone boxes found inside were, with a little stretching in some cases, similar to the names of some people in the Gospels -- names like Joseph, Mary, Jesus, among others. There was also some DNA evidence introduced from 2 of the boxes (the bones were long gone, buried when they were first discovered), which was only able to show that they weren't genetically related.

And quite a lot was made of the odd version of the name "Mary" on one ossuary because it appears in a book written at least 300+ years later possibly referring to Mary Magdalene. This was followed in the inscription by the word "Mara," taken by the producers to be the aramaic word for "Master" and to refer to Mary Magdalene as well. Linguistic scholars say this much more likely the name "Martha" and was either a second name or the name of another person whose bones were put in the same box -- a baby daughter, for instance.

As Dr. Ben Witherington points out in his blog, virtually all historians and biblical scholars -- including those interviewed during the program -- do not accept it's conclusions. The scholarship on the show was mediocre in my opinion -- on the level of the search for Atlantis or the Da Vinci Code. But most people do not have the time to deeply study ancient greek and aramaic scratchings on 2000 year old bone boxes. An exciting TV show backed with selective use of facts and cool reinactments can seem quite convincing.

Something that weighs more heavily with me is this simple fact: This was not a secret tomb. In the 1st century, as all admit, this was an easily seen tomb sitting in a field near the major city of Jerusalem. As you can see in the photograph, it was even nicely decorated.

But the Christians asserted that Jesus of Nazareth had come back to life and that this verified he was really the long-awaited Messiah. Rather than go through a lot of trouble, all the Powers That Were had to do to stop the Christian movement was produce his body. If it could be demonstrated that Jesus hadn't come back from the dead but was actually still lying among them, the whole thing would go to pieces.

This was not lost on the early Christians. As St. Paul said, writing 20-something years after the crucifixion, "If Christ hasn't come back to life, our message has no meaning and your faith also has no meaning, " (First Letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 15, verse 14).

I'm not going to make the more obvious point that nobody -- Jew or Roman -- ever claimed back then to have found the body of Jesus. Those who opposed Christianity always had to do so on other grounds. But I will point out that if the truth actually was that his followers spirited their crucified master's body away and reburied it so they could rather pathetically continue spreading his teaching and pretending he was alive, they certainly wouldn't have done so in this tomb.

If you're trying to say a dead man is alive, you do not put him in a visible tomb near the place his enemies killed him. You also do not have his relatives and supposed wife interred there in their own burial ceremonies over the years, acting as pointers to the location. And you don't write his name on his ossuary.

If the body of Jesus is in a grave somewhere (which, incidentally, I do not for a moment believe), it is in an inconspicuous hole far away from Jerusalem, and his bone box, if he got one, is anonymous.

To quote Paul again: "But, in reality, Christ has risen from among the dead, being the first to do so of those who are asleep. "

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