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The Tomb of Jesus and the Christ Who Saves

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 05, 2007

Some months ago a reader asked me to say something about the Discovery Channel’s claim that the tomb of Jesus had been found in Jerusalem. I didn’t regard the request as urgent because the tomb of Jesus has been “found” many times and in many places, despite the complete absence of evidence. The first time I was told it had been found was in 1966, when a Muslim college roommate gave me a pamphlet on the subject.

Bones and the Faith

But today I happened to look at the Discovery Channel’s web page for The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which first aired on March 4th. There I found a promotional film clip of a Catholic college professor stressing that his faith would not be disturbed even if the discovery of Jesus’ bones were certain. John Dominic Crossan is an ex-priest and a co-founder of the Jesus Seminar, so it isn’t surprising that he holds such a view (nor, sadly, that he is a professor emeritus at De Paul University). According to Crossan:

If the bones of Jesus were to be found in an ossuary in Jerusalem tomorrow, and without doubt let’s say they are definitely agreed to be the bones of Jesus, would that destroy Christian faith? It certainly would not destroy my Christian faith. I leave what happens to bodies up to God.

Surprising or not, Crossan’s statement presents a far greater challenge to the faith than the ridiculous assertion that Jesus’ tomb has been found.

But first, the tomb. When the Discovery Channel began promoting the claim of Simcha Jacobovici that he had found Jesus’ tomb, Time, Newsweek and many other reputable news outlets ran fairly comprehensive stories pointing out how little evidence there was to support it. Moreover, the vast majority of scholars thought the claim patently absurd, regarding it as an effort to capitalize on Da Vinci Code mania, including the alleged marriage of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Here is the background. In 1980, a construction crew working in the Talpiot suburb of Jerusalem uncovered a tomb containing ten ossuaries (bone boxes) bearing names such as Jesus, son of Joseph; Maria; Mariamene e Mara; Matthew; Judas, son of Jesus; and Jose. As required by law, the site was turned over to the Israel Antiquities Authority for excavation. The IAA removed, recorded, and preserved the ossuaries, but found nothing unusual in them. With the exception of Mariamene, all the names involved were extremely common in first century Jerusalem.

It wasn’t until 1996 that the BBC (which frequently airs programs apparently designed to embarrass Christians) made a film suggesting that the ossuaries in question might belong to the family of Jesus of Nazareth, a claim immediately dismissed by statisticians and New Testament scholars alike, including both the curator of the museum in charge of the ossuaries, Joe Zias, and New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

A Specious Claim

But along came Jacobovici, Cameron and the Discovery Channel anyway. They claimed “Mariamene” was a name that denoted “Mary Magdalene” and that DNA testing showed this “Jesus” and this “Mariamene” were not related matrilineally, so the two may have been husband and wife. They also claimed they could prove by "patina fingerprinting" (a sort of residual soil sampling technique invented for the purpose) that a separate ossuary in the hands of an Israeli collector, inscribed with “James, brother of Jesus” (reminiscent of Scripture), originally came from the same burial site. Hence this is the tomb of the same Jesus whom Christians worship as God.

Well, if I must, I must:

  1. The name Mariamene was not used to refer to Mary Magdalene until 185 AD, long after this burial.
  2. The Jesus and Mariamene of the tomb could easily have been related patrilineally (i.e., through their father).
  3. Even if Jesus were later interred by his disciples in a second tomb, he would never have been listed as “Jesus, son of Joseph” since the disciples believed Joseph was his foster-father.
  4. The inscription on the “James” ossuary is known to have been altered between the mid-1970’s and 1980 and its collector was being prosecuted for fraud even as the Discovery Channel aired its program.
  5. There is other physical evidence suggesting that the “James” ossuary did not originate in the same location.
  6. Eusebius of Caesarea reported in the fourth century that James was buried in a different tomb, near the temple mount, and that his tomb was a place of pilgrimage for Christians.
  7. The ancestral home and presumed burial ground for Jesus and his family would have been in Bethlehem or Nazareth, not Jerusalem.
  8. Not all the names on the ossuaries match up (nowhere do we hear of a brother named Matthew, for example, and it is sheer fantasy that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a son named Judas).
  9. All available ancient documentary evidence (which is preserved in Scripture) identifies Jesus’ tomb as that of Joseph of Arimathea, in a known location, stating that on the third day the body disappeared in defiance of Roman law, and making it both unlikely and dangerous to remove the body only to rebury it in a family plot elsewhere in Jerusalem.
  10. Finally, again, the statistical odds against these overwhelmingly common names being used successfully to identify a particular family are staggering.

The Empty Tomb

Thus is the Discovery Channel easily dismissed on the basis of facts so widely known that even most major secular news outlets scoffed from the first. We are left only with Professor Crossan’s eager protestations that, even if the bones were found, it wouldn’t upset his faith. As I said, this is a far more serious problem, a problem shared by all who believe that Christianity is essentially a mythic enhancement of the life and ideas of a wonderful teacher with a strong following, and that the Jesus of Faith is far different from the Jesus of History.

The early Christians, of course, did not agree. The Gospel writers make a great point of the empty tomb, and the reason they give for its emptiness is the very reason they believe Christ really is the Son of God. St. Paul not only preached the bodily resurrection of Jesus, which necessarily left the tomb empty, but wrote to the Corinthians that if Christ had not risen from the dead, then “our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain…, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins” (15:14-17). Nor of course are the early Christians alone. They were followed by a continuous line of believers who depended on the historical veracity of the Gospels. While it is true that modern Biblical scholarship has been plagued by this separation of faith and history, the magisterium of the Church has consistently condemned it. Benedict XVI also rejected it, from the scholarly viewpoint, in his recent book, Jesus of Nazareth.

In fact, it is only a pretext of Modernism that the faith can be whatever we want it to be and still command our allegiance. To even the casual observer, it is immediately obvious that Christianity is an intensely incarnational religion, a religion firmly rooted in flesh and bone, that must stand or fall on the emptiness of the tomb and the permanent absence of the remains of its founder. It may be convenient to have a religion that makes no demands on reality, but in the end it will not do. We must abandon our faith as a lie if the bones of Jesus are ever found. Only the Christ of history saves—and only if He is risen.

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