See also Dr Gary Habermas' excellent article!
The Amazing Claim
An archaeological team finds a tomb in Jerusalem. There's nothing out of the ordinary about that. Hundreds of tombs have been found in Jerusalem.
But this particular tomb has some people making wild claims about it. Produced by James Cameron (world-famous director of the Titanic movie) and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, it proposes that the tomb contains ossuaries (bone boxes) of Jesus Christ, along with Mary Magdalene and other members of Jesus' family. The tomb contained ten such boxes, six of which bear inscriptions of people's names. If true, this could be the most significant archaeological find of the 21st century.
However, it wasn't found in the 21st century. It was found in 1980. And the archaeological team that found it over 25 years ago didn't think there was anything special about it. A documentary already was made about the find in 1996 by the BBC, but it failed to cause any scholarly interest at all. Why is that, and what are we to make of this new documentary and book?
Remember back when The Da Vinci Code was big, and people got swept up in the "reality" of it all? Some parts sounded plausible … until you checked up on Dan Brown's sloppy scholarship. Turns out that Brown based a lot of his book off an old, discredited book called Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Not only that, but Brown made literally dozens of major errors. See the many errors in the Da Vinci Code here. I can only groan in exasperation if someone mentions the amazing new "facts" in the Da Vinci Code.
Now, The Da Vinci Code was ultimately intended as fiction, even if its author and the press sometimes promoted it as being fact. However, watch out, because …
This time, it's "The Jesus Family Tomb", aka "The Lost Tomb of Jesus": Bad history is being passed off as fact. Only this time, there's no "fiction" label to hide behind! They're really claiming this is true!
Don't get suckered! Here are facts to learn about the reality of "The Jesus Family Tomb" (numbers in parenthesis correspond to the sources listed below):
The Ossuaries Themselves:
- There is no ossuary that has Mary Magdalene's name on it! This is perhaps the biggest lie in the film. The inscription reads "Mariamene e Mara". The filmmakers connect this to Mary Magdalene by quoting the "Acts of Philip" which was written sometime in the 4th century, that is, 300 years or more after Jesus' death! The "Acts of Philip" is not historically reliable in the slightest. Even then, the name in the "Acts of Philip" and on the ossuary don't match! Did Mary's own family forget how to spell her name? There is no reason to equate "Mary Magdalene" with "Mariamene". (2,7)
- It also appears that the inscription on the "Judah, son of Jesus" ossuary is by no means clear. "Judah, son of" seems clear enough, but whether the Hebrew equivalent of Jesus ("Yeshua") appears there is not at all clear. The original translator admits he is unsure of the correct translation. (See the first point under "Problems with names" below.) Click here to see an image of the Hebrew text alongside the actual etching on the ossuary. (8,1)
- There is no "Matthew" related to Jesus mentioned anywhere in the Bible or any other ancient text. Trying to connect a Matthew to Mary's family by suggesting that she had other Matthews in her family tree is weak at best. (2,4)
- The ossurary may read "Judah, son of Jesus" (that certainly fits The Da Vinci Code) but there is absolutely no historical evidence whatsoever that Jesus was married or had a child. None. In the past, this sort of find (if the translation is correct) would have demonstrated that this couldn't be Jesus Christ's tomb, since there is no historical mention in the best sources of Him ever being married or having a child; now, conspiracy theories are all the rage, and new, weak evidence displaces old, well established evidence. (4)
- The documentary and website claim that the 10th ossuary "went missing" and potentially is the "James ossuary" that was discovered many years ago. (The inscription on that ossuary read "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus"). However, the James ossuary has now likely proven to be a fraud. Additionally, the "missing" ossuary has now been proven to have been blank. (7)
Problems with the names:
- Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight. He also doubts that the name "Jesus" on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it's more likely the name "Hanun". (1)
- There is no record of anyone in the early Christian community calling Jesus the "son of Joseph"; some outsiders mistakenly called him that, but no one in his own family did. What are the chances, then, of such an error being made on Jesus' own ossuary and Jesus' own family happily including it in their family tomb? Not likely. (4)
- While the movie's site claims that "the names themselves range from the most common to the fairly rare", in reality the names on the caskets are the most common names found among Jews in the first century. Therefore it's not surprising that they match the names of some people in the Bible. "This is the ancient equivalent of finding adjacent tombs with the names Smith and Jones", except names like Joseph and Mary were even more common in the 1st century than Smith or Jones are today. (1,2,4)
- In fact, several other "Jesus son of Joseph" inscriptions had been found on other ossuaries over the years. (3)
- Although the documentary makers claim to have found the tomb of Jesus, the British Broadcasting Corporation beat them to the punch. The BBC made a documentary about this tomb eleven years ago, but the case was so poor that it has not to this day received any scholarly support. (1)
- Jesus' family was from Galilee, not Jerusalem, so they would not have had a family burial plot in Jerusalem. Joseph died when Jesus was young and the family was still living in Nazareth, meaning he would not have been buried in Jerusalem (where he was not born and never lived). This means that the tomb cannot be theirs. (2,3,4)
- Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television. "They just want to get money for it," he said. (1,3)
- The "DNA data" presented is useless; the best it can tell us is that certain people in the tomb weren't related. That does not prove that they are from Jesus' bloodline (we have no DNA sample to compare them to after all), and contrary to what is proposed in the documentary, there is no reason to assume that the Jesus and the Mary in the tomb were married; they may have been related through one of the other people in the tomb, for example. Only two of the ossuaries had any DNA material at all available that could be tested. (2,4)
- James Tabor, the documentary's "renowned biblical scholar", has indeed conducted several archaeological digs in Israel, but he apparently accepts naturalism (the dogmatic assumption that nothing supernatural is possible) as the guiding principle for his research. This means that the historical Jesus of the Bible is rejected out of hand. (5)
One final objection that comes to mind: If this really were Jesus' tomb, how could it have been kept a secret for over 2,000 years? If Jesus were buried here, clearly his family and disciples (at least) would have known about it. But there is no mention of any such tomb in the Bible, extra-biblical writings, or any ancient writings whatsoever.
Why all the hype?
If the conclusions raised by "The Jesus Family Tomb" are wrong, why is this documentary being released and all of this hype generated? Two main reasons come to mind. The first is that people in the late 20th and 21st centuries love conspiracy stories and are eager to accept whatever new, hip theories come out. The second is money. By wrapping this quarter-century old story in new clothes the producers are trying to sell it and make huge profits.
The moral of the story is: Fool me once, shame on you (The Da Vinci Code) … fool me twice, shame on me! Don't get sucked in by the hype; all that's there is empty posturing, bad histories and flawed conclusions!
- New film claims Jesus buried in Talpiot – Amos Kloner, the archaeologist who oversaw excavation of the tomb and who has published extensive findings about the tomb, says the story "makes a great story for a TV film… But it's impossible. It's nonsense."
- Scholars, clergy slam Jesus documentary – An Associated Press story. Provides quotes from scholars, archaeologists and Jewish experts.
- Who's writing fiction here? – Paul L. Maier wrote a fictional book with similar themes to this "news" story. Here he responds to "The Jesus Family Tomb" ideas, giving eight reasons why their conclusions are nonsense.
- The Jesus Tomb? ‘Titanic’ Talpiot Tomb Theory Sunk from the Start – Respected biblical scholar Dr Ben Witherington III provides his commentary on the findings.
- The Jesus Dynasty: How to Explain Away the New Testament – Criticism of James Tabor, the "renowned biblical scholar" featured in the documentary.
- Scholars, clergy criticize film about possible Jesus tomb (pg.2) – An expanded version of the Associated Press article above.
- The Smoking Gun – Tenth Talpiot Ossuary Proved to be Blank – Dr Ben Witherington III shows how we know the tenth ossuary was blank, as well as investigating further the "Mariamenou" ossuary.
- The Jesus Tomb: Some last thoughts – A New Testament student provides images and commentary on the text from the "Judas, son of Jesus" ossuary.
- Also recommended is Dr Gary Habermas' excellent article.
What about the 'real' Jesus?
Where does all of this leave the real, historical Jesus? Take a look at this site, which interviews many leading scholars: "Jesus: Fact or Fiction?" It includes streaming video clips and answers to many common questions.