The Discovery Channel claims,
A 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah.
Discovery will explore the claim in a documentary to be aired on March 4.
The gullible are the millions of uneducated folk who believe that Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, reveals the truth: Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered children by her.
The sceptical are those who have eagerly anticipated the discovery of Jesus’ body one of these days. I’m sure they will regard the tomb as material evidence debunking Jesus’ resurrection.
(An aside: Liberal scholars long ago abandoned the notion of a bodily resurrection. They distinguish between Paul’s statements and the Gospel accounts, which were written later. Paul never mentions an empty tomb and never explicitly says that the resurrection appearances involved a revivified body.
The makers of the documentary maintain, “the discovery of the tomb does not undermine the key Christian belief that Jesus was resurrected three days after his death.”)
The tomb in question contained nine ossuaries — stone boxes containing human remains. Some of the ossuaries have names inscribed on them. The following table is adapted from James Tabor, a scholar associated with the discovery:
|actual inscription||familiar rendering|
|1.||Yeshua bar Yehosef||Jesus son of Joseph|
|2.||Maria||Mary (Jesus’ mother?)|
|4.||Yose||Joses (Jesus’ brother?)|
|5.||Matya||Matthew (the apostle?)|
|6.||Yehuda bar Yeshua||Judah son of Jesus|
|7, 8, 9.||no names||N/A|
Many scholars have scoffed at the discovery:
“Simcha [Jacobovici, who directed the documentary] has no credibility whatsoever,” says 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.
“He’s pimping off the Bible … He got this guy [James] Cameron, who made ‘Titanic’ or something like that—what does this guy know about archeology? … Projects like these make a mockery of the archeological profession.”
The key battleground is statistical: how likely is it that several names associated with Jesus would appear together in a shared tomb?
All of the names are extremely common. (Remember that Jews tended to name their children after outstanding figures in Jewish history, providing a limited pool of names — particularly for girls.) Richard Bauckham refers to a data base of 3,000 Jews (mostly men) living in Palestine during that era, and whose names are known to us.
- Joseph (or Yose, the abbreviated form) was borne by 218 or 8.3% of the men.
- Judah, by 164 or 6.2%.
- Jesus, by 99 or 3.4%.
- Matthew (in several forms), by 62 or 2.4 %.
- Of the 328 women, 70 (21.4%) were named Mary (Mariam, Maria, Mariame, Mariamme).
That the individual names are commonplace is agreed by all parties. The question is, how likely is it that this combination of names associated with Jesus would appear? James Tabor makes the case:
My statistical consultant gave me a very simple analogy: Imagine a football stadium filled with 50,000 people—men, women, and children. This is an average estimate of the population of ancient Jerusalem in the time of Jesus.
If we ask all the males named Jesus to stand, based on the frequency of that name, we would expect 2,796 to rise. If we then ask all those with a father named Joseph to remain standing there would only be 351 left. If we further reduce this group by asking only those with a mother named Mary to remain standing we would get down to only 173. If we then ask only those of this group with a brother named Joseph only 23 are left.
And finally, only of these the ones with a brother named James, there’s less than a 3/4 chance that even 1 person remains standing.
There’s a problem with the last sentence, which I have set apart as a separate paragraph: here Tabor brings in the evidence of a tenth ossuary, which I have not included in the above table. Tabor assumes that the ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus (a controversial relic in its own right) came from the same tomb.
We don’t know where the James ossuary was interred: it was purchased on the open market. But the evidence suggests it was not taken from the “Jesus family tomb”. The “Jesus family tomb” is located in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem. According to Ben Witherington, an evangelical scholar:
The James ossuary, according to the report of the antiquities dealer … came from Silwan, not Talpiot, and had dirt in it that matched up with the soil in that particular spot in Jerusalem. … The ossuaries that came out of Talpiot came out of a rock cave from a different place, and without such soil in it.
Now let’s return to James Tabor’s informal statistical analysis. If we eliminate the last sentence, we have 23 residents of Jerusalem who fit the criteria: Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, with a brother named Joseph. Hardly a slam-dunk case!
Briefly, some parting comments —
• Jesus’ family tomb should not be located in Jerusalem. The Gospels make it clear that the family lived in Nazareth in Galilee.
• How does the appearance of “Matthew” (Matya) strengthen the case? Matthew was a follower of Jesus: we shouldn’t expect to find him buried in the tomb of Jesus’ family, just because he is mentioned in the Gospels.
• There is no evidence that Jesus married Mary Magdalene, let alone that he had children by her. Unless we assume that the fantastic reconstruction of Dan Brown is true, there is no reason that we should find Mary Magdalene in the “Jesus family tomb”.
• Jesus of Nazareth was celibate. That one of the inscriptions refers to “Judah, son of Jesus” is evidence against the theory.
• Finally, I note that the documentary makers saw particular significance in the name Mariemene. James Cameron comments, “Mariamene is Mary Magdalene – that’s the [distinctive name], that’s what sets this whole film in motion.” But Richard Bauckham, who specializes in the study of biblical names, disagrees:
The name Mariamenon is unique, the diminutive of the very rare Mariamene. Neither is related to the form Maramne.
OK, that’s scholarly talk. The point is this. The documentary makers are trying to connect the name in the inscription to a specific variant of “Mary”. The variant, “Maramne”, is used of Mary Magdalene in the gnostic gospels. Richard Bauckham maintains there’s no connection between the two. There is no reason to leap to the conclusion that Mariemene is Mary Magdalene.