Licensed to save

In August, I delivered a sermon at the United Church that my parents attend, in Peterborough, Ontario. This month, there’s a story in the news that has me thinking back to my sermon.

Here’s an audio excerpt from the introduction, with a portion of the excerpt transcribed below it:

The text we’re about to read [Mark 3:1-6] says that authority can be used in one of two ways. Authority can be used to do good, or to do harm. It can be used to save a life, or to take a life.

As I was writing this sermon, I gave it the working title, “007 and Jesus”. That’s rather odd; I assure you, there’s no mention of James Bond in the text I’m about to read.

The thing about 007 is that he was licensed to kill, just as every secret service agent with the double-“0” designation was licensed to kill. James Bond is viewed as a glamorous character:  evidently, if you have the authority to kill, that’s pretty cool.

Jesus, on the other hand, didn’t have a double-“0” designation. He wasn’t licensed to kill; he was licensed to save. In my books, that’s even cooler than being licensed to kill.

The text that I’m about to read stands as a warning to the Church, in this era and in every era. It warns that we are to do good, not harm, to the vulnerable people who are entrusted to our protective care. That, like Jesus, the Church is licensed to save.

Here in Canada, there’s a story in the news that has me reflecting on that sermon. Bishop Raymond Lahey, of the Diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, was arrested earlier this month:

Raymond Lahey was carrying on his laptop images of young boys engaged in sexual acts when he tried to re-enter Canada, according to a search warrant application released Thursday.

Some of the boys appeared to be as young as eight years of age, it states.

Father Lahey resigned as bishop of Antigonish the day after he was charged with possessing and importing child porn. The charges were not public at that point and he cited personal reasons for his decision.

A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Halifax said Thursday night that she could not say whether Father Lahey had been on church business during his trip.

The search warrant application reveals that multiple red flags went off after the 69-year-old cleric flew from London to Ottawa last month. He was singled out for secondary search at the airport for no fewer than five specific reasons, one of them repeated travel to countries known as sources of child pornography.



Deciding not to abort: one woman’s courageous decision and its sad consequences

American media are abuzz today with the murder of George Tiller. Tiller was a doctor who carried out abortions in Wichita, Kansas.

Tiller became the target of hostile comment — for example, he was discussed on 29 episodes of Bill O’Reilly’s show — because he was one of the few doctors who performed late-term abortions. O’Reilly routinely referred to him as “Tiller the baby killer”.

The murderer was a member of a particularly strident anti-abortion group, Operation Rescue — a Christian organization.

Andrew Sullivan has been all over this story. I’d like to refer you to one of Sullivan’s posts:  an account of one woman who decided not to abort even though she knew that her baby would not survive very long after birth. I would describe it as a courageous decision — but it had sad consequences for her:

My brother and his wife received a diagnosis at the beginning of the second trimester’s ultrasound that their child had anencephaly — a condition where the fetus’ skull does not completely close and the brain forms partially outside the skull. […] They were told the child would die before, or shortly after, birth. There was no doubt about the diagnosis. My brother and his wife were encouraged by their doctor to go to Kansas for an abortion, the closest place where they could obtain one in the second trimester.

It was an agonizing decision, but they chose not to have the abortion for religious reasons. The pregnancy went to term and the baby lived for several weeks. She was surrounded by love for the brief time she was here.

I wish I could say unequivocally that they made the right decision, but the long-term effects on my sister-in-law’s mental well-being have been serious. She is very much changed from the person that she was before.

Andrew Sullivan has the rest of the story. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to steal the entire post. But it illustrates a point that people too often lose sight of as they debate abortion:  it affects real, live people in a direct and personal way.

Often, in those real-life scenarios, there are no easy solutions.

I’m inclined to a pro-life position, and I genuinely admire the woman who made this difficult decision. (Let’s hope she made it freely, not as the result of undue social duress from her husband and/or her church.) Christianity calls people to make personal sacrifices:  it’s one of the core values of the faith. For example, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” — John 15:13, ESV.

In back of this decision is the idea that human beings should not “play God”. That is, God determines matters of life and death:  to take such decisions into our own hands is presumptuous and forbidden to us.

And yet … in this case, the child’s death was a foregone conclusion. (I wouldn’t attribute the birth defect to God, but it certainly wasn’t the result of any choice made by the parents. Call it an “act of God” in the sense that insurance companies use the expression.) It seems to me that the inevitability of this baby’s death changes the moral equation significantly — but pro-life crusaders don’t make allowances for such considerations.

As things have turned out, it seems that the mother has suffered emotional damage as a result of her experience. Of course, it might have turned out differently. And even in this instance, the woman ultimately may overcome her depression and conclude that she made the right choice.

Jesus didn’t say it would be easy to lay down your life for your friend. On the contrary, he called his followers to choose the difficult way — the way of the cross.

Jesus promises, paradoxically, that the way of self-denial will lead to life. However much it may feel like death in the short term.

That’s the promise on which this woman took her stand. Was she duped? Was she tested beyond what she proved able to bear? Is it facile to apply those Gospel texts to her tragic circumstances, or is that exactly the way we’re supposed to make decisions as Christians?

There are no easy answers. Not when it comes to abortion:  and not when it comes to matters of faith, lived out in the real world.


p.s. There’s an account of a similar situation here. In that case, a Roman Catholic priest surprisingly supported a couple’s decision to abort.

Success redefined

The Globe and Mail has chosen Canada’s 2008 nation builder:  Jean Vanier.

Jean VanierM. Vanier was instrumental in changing the way that mentally handicapped people are cared for. In L’Arche communities, founded by M. Vanier, volunteers live round the clock with the mentally handicapped people they serve.

M. Vanier is a devout Roman Catholic. It seems to me that L’Arche (= “the ark”) follows a monastic model of ministry:  devoting one’s entire life to carrying out God’s work in a community set apart from the way people ordinarily live.

The L’Arche model is certainly rooted in the Gospels:  specifically, in Jesus’ admonition to serve “the least of these, my brethren“. Vanier tells the Globe and Mail that he wants to announce a message:

That people who are weak have something to bring us, that they are important people and it’s important to listen to them. In some mysterious way, they change us. Being in a world of the strong and powerful, you collect attitudes of power and hardness and invulnerability. [… But] it is vulnerability that brings us together.”

Vanier maintains that we need to redefine success:

Recently, a couple came to him with their one-and-a-half-year-old son, who had an undiagnosed disorder and screamed incessantly. Mr. Vanier asked the mother how she was, and she muttered, “Okay.” He asked the father, a military man, the same question. “Sometimes,” the father said, “I want to throw him out the window.”

Mr. Vanier leans forward in his chair. “And I said to him, ‘I understand. I’ve lived the same thing.'”

He is referring to Lucien, a severely handicapped man who used to live with him and whose endless shrieking began with his mother’s death and rarely stopped. Mr. Vanier often returns to Lucien in his writing: Suffering through that noise helped him understand not only his own limitations but what the families of disabled people must go through, isolated as they often are.

“It obviously penetrated through all my protective systems and awoke anguish, and I could see violence within me,” he says. “If I hadn’t been in a community, I don’t know what I would have done.”

Lucien died a few years ago; his screaming never ceased entirely. It is easy, when hearing this story, to understand why L’Arche is always facing a shortage of volunteers. Most people would find such a life too taxing to endure.

What Mr. Vanier finds surprising is that very often it’s the volunteers’ parents who don’t want them to work at L’Arche.

“Parents will say, ‘We gave you education, university, and now you want to live with these people?'” […]

This leads to one of the cornerstones of Mr. Vanier’s philosophy, which is essentially that we’ve lost track of the different ways to measure a successful life. [… Vanier muses,] “How to find a world where the essential thing is to work for peace, to work to build something together?” […]

One of those who came and stayed was Cariosa Kilcommons. Disillusioned with her pre-med studies, Ms. Kilcommons dropped out of St. Francis Xavier University more than 20 years ago to live at the L’Arche home in Cape Breton. Four years later, she came to stay in Trosly; now, she returns to her family home in Pincher Creek, Alta., only for the occasional holiday.

“It was pretty radical,” she says of her decision to make L’Arche her life. “But I was filled with inner certitude. It’s true that a lot is asked of us here, but we get a lot back. The hours are long, but the experience is so rich.”

Certain public figures maintain that the world would be a better place without religion. And it’s true that religion does a lot of harm in the world. Some of the most prominent religious leaders stand for intolerance, division, and violence (whether overt or covert).

Maybe those religious leaders have absorbed the wrong definition of success. They pursue publicity, glory, money, deference, and access to the corridors of power. Perhaps they also mobilize people for ministry. But it’s difficult to keep one’s motives pure when those things begin to blend together.

How many of those leaders would show the same dedication to ministry if God called them to toil anonymously in a L’Arche community?

Jean Vanier hasn’t sought the public spotlight. Nor has he developed a personal fiefdom, where he can reign as a little pope. Instead, he has poured out his life in service to people who might otherwise be forgotten by the world.

Did St. Paul corrupt the teaching of Jesus?

Paul was the … first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. (Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Short, 1820)

The above quote comes from a post on the blog deConversion. The blog is interesting, but sad from a Christian perspective:  it amounts to a kind of support group for people who are extricating themselves from fundamentalist Christianity. Many now reject Christianity altogether.

Unfortunately, many of the posts are badly misinformed, in my opinion. The current post is an example. Here is another in the series of quotes selected by the blogger, Thinking Ape:

Jesus taught that to escape judgment a person must keep the central teachings of the Jewish Law as he, Jesus himself, interpreted them.

Paul, interestingly enough, never mentions Jesus’ interpretation of the [Mosaic] Law, and Paul was quite insistent that keeping the Law would never bring Salvation.

The only way to be saved, for Paul, was to trust Jesus’ death and resurrection. … Paul transformed the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus.

(Bart D. Ehrman, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, 1993)

Ehrman is a good scholar. He supports his positions with relevant data, and he is a clear, engaging communicator. But he’s also a sceptic who leaps to unwarranted conclusions (for example, that copyist errors render the Bible completely unreliable).

Returning to — the current post offers nothing more than gross generalizations. Thinking Ape hasn’t done his homework, which involves wrestling with the minutiae of the New Testament.

This is a real problem for blogging as a medium. I made an attempt at biblioblogging with Toward Jerusalem. In my experience it’s difficult to sustain interest in detailed textual analysis on a blog.

But sometimes detailed textual analysis is required by the subject matter. There is both continuity and discontinuity between Jesus and Paul:  the data are complex. To do the issue justice, one must consider dozens of specific verses, carefully comparing what the Gospels say to what Paul says.

Here’s a gross simplification of the data from my perspective:

Gospels Paul’s letters
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God: e.g., “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt. 12:28.) Paul proclaimed Jesus, “delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25)
christology Jesus makes an implicit christological claim: “If I cast out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Mt. 12:28.) — suggesting that Jesus’ ministry is the fulcrum upon which salvation history turns explicit claim: “Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23)
does the
Law of
apply to
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. … Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt. 5:17-19) “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:4)
Does the
apply to
part 2
“‘There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him’ …. (Thus he declared all foods clean.)” (Mark 7:15-19) “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.” (1Co. 9:20-21)
the law
of love
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. [and] You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Mt. 22:37-40) “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law” (Rom. 13:10)

There are serious challenges of interpretation in the texts selected above. For example, what does Paul mean, “Christ is the end of the law”? In my view, the word “end” has a dual significance. Paul is claiming both that Jesus fulfilled the law and that he revoked the law as an instrument of salvation. But Christians disagree strenuously over the correct interpretation of the verse.

How well does Paul’s message cohere with that of Jesus? There is both continuity and discontinuity. The above table merely scratches the surface of the data. I could continue making such comparisons until everyone was bored spitless. (Assuming you aren’t already!)

Traditionally, the discontinuity has been explained by reference to (1) a policy of coyness on Jesus’ part during his ministry; and (2) the shocking event of the resurrection, which caused the first Christians to evaluate Jesus from a very different perspective. Whether the explanation is adequate or not, the reader may decide.

Bottom line:  the discontinuity is real and substantial — but so is the continuity.

The deConversion post doesn’t provide the sort of detailed, nuanced analysis of actual texts that the subject requires. Gross generalizations are worthless, whether they come from Thomas Jefferson, Bart Ehrman, or Thinking Ape.

Good news for the poor – and the rich

Jamie interviewed me a couple of weeks ago. Now it’s my turn to be the interviewer. I decided to interview Dan, and he answered my first question today.

I think his answer is utterly brilliant. Here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite for more.

(1) Your blog is called, “On journeying with those in exile”. Who are “those in exile”? What does it mean to “journey” with them?

Although God desires that all be liberated from exile, we also see God constantly demonstrating a “preferential option” for some — “the poor” (I put the term “the poor” in quotes because I am using it as an umbrella term for all sorts of marginal peoples: the poor, the sick, the possessed, the abandoned, the powerless, etc.). …

Hence, we see Jesus proclaiming the forgiveness of sins (i.e. the end of exile) by living in a liberating solidarity with the poor, the sick, the possessed, the outcasts, and the powerless. However, it needs to be explicitly stated that this solidarity with some is not to be an act that excludes others from the offer of liberation from exile.

Rather, our solidarity with the poor is simultaneously an invitation to “the rich” (another umbrella term for the wealthy, the healthy, the powerful, etc.). We just need to realise that the offer of liberation from exile looks very different to those who suffer the most under exilic conditions, than it does to those who maintain and benefit from exilic conditions.

Freire and Moltmann … have noted the ways in which “oppression” (i.e. exilic conditions) dehumanise both the oppressed (who are not given the opportunity to be fully human) and the oppressors (who have their humanity warped because of their oppressive actions).

Hence the Gospel is good news for both the poor and the rich, in complementary ways. But you really need to read Dan’s brilliant account.

Pigeon-holing Jesus

We’ve been having a lively discussion about the historical Jesus (a pet topic of mine) on an earlier post, The “Jesus family tomb”. I would like to pick up on a couple of issues that were raised, and approach them from a different perspective.

The first issue came from Addofio, who commented, “People see what they want to see in the (extremely sketchy) evidence” about Jesus. I responded by arguing that I think the broad strokes of Jesus’ life are clear. But Addofio has a point, which will emerge in a moment.

The second question came toward the end of the discussion, from Whig. By that point, we had focussed on the narrow issue, Was Jesus married or celibate (or both)?

Whig argued that Jesus would not have been celibate because he was a Jewish Rabbi. And this is an interesting way of framing the issue. If we knew what title to apply to Jesus, we might be able to make an educated guess about whether or not he was married.

Possible titles for Jesus:

The New Testament depicts Jesus executing a variety of offices:

  • healer / exorcist
  • prophet / social reformer
  • THE prophet / end-time prophet
  • Priest
  • King like David
  • Messiah / Christ
  • Lawgiver like Moses
  • Sage like Solomon
  • Saviour / martyr

The New Testament is content to depict Jesus in all of these ways, indiscriminately, as if they’re all perfectly consistent with one another. But in fact some tension exists between the various offices. For example, end time prophet vs. social reformer: if you believe the world will end within a generation, why would you set out to improve the social safety net?

Scholars prefer to pigeon-hole Jesus. They dream of a single category that captures what Jesus was really about. Nor do they limit themselves to the New Testament alternatives. Scholars have argued that Jesus was a revolutionary, a Pharisee, a magician, a Cynic, etc.

This is where Addofio has a point: each scholar slots Jesus into a different pigeon hole, thus reaching different conclusions about him.

Messiah / Christ:

Allow me to comment on just a couple of these pigeon holes. First, the most contentious office of all: Messiah / Christ.1

Jesus’ followers were persuaded that he was the Messiah. They speculated about it during his ministry; they had second thoughts about it when he was crucified: but all their doubts evaporated when God raised Jesus from the dead. “God made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36).

What Christians thought is clear. The difficult question is, What did Jesus think? Did he believe he was the Messiah? Did he claim the title publicly? Did he evade the issue in public but whisper the truth to his disciples? In my view, the question is less important to history than it is to faith.

From a historical perspective, it is perfectly obvious that Jesus did not fulfill the standard Jewish expectations. He did not become King; he did not throw off the Roman overlord; he did not trample the Gentile (pagan) nations underfoot and establish a world-wide theocracy; he did not restore a legitimate priesthood.

Maybe Jesus was the Messiah despite everything I’ve just said. But, if so, someone radically redefined the word Messiah. Messiah now means, the one who rode into Jerusalem on a donkey (instead of a warhorse), as a harbinger of peace. The one who meekly submitted to crucifixion at the hand of the ruling authorities and trusted God to vindicate him. The one who died for the sins of the world and, in a stunning denouement, was subsequently raised from the dead.

We can’t get back far enough to explore Jesus’ psyche, as a modern biography would attempt to do. (Not so, the ancient bioi.) Perhaps Jesus did not think of himself as Messiah, and therefore he didn’t try to act like one; or perhaps Jesus thought of himself as Messiah, but he meant something radically different from the Messiah of popular expectation. A historian does not have adequate grounds to answer that question.

Nonetheless, the outline of events is clear. Jesus did not set out to lead an armed insurrection: to become a mighty Warrior-King akin to David. On the contrary, he was politically passive: he expected God to intervene to turn the existing social order upside down.

That’s the Jesus of history. Whether he merits the title, Messiah, is a question of faith.

Apocalyptic Prophet:

The other title I’d like to discuss is end time (apocalyptic) prophet. This is arguably the most significant rift between New Testament scholars: did Jesus expect the world to end, or did he set out to reform society — in particular, to get a better deal for the poor?

The dispute has a long history. The “liberal” scholars of the 19th century disposed of Jesus the apocalyptic prophet. Albert Schweitzer resurrected him in the famous work, The Quest of the Historical Jesus, first published in 1906. More recently, Domenic Crossan, Richard Horsley and others have set out to rehabilitate the non-apocalyptic Jesus.

I have no doubt that Schweitzer and those who follow him are right. Here are three quick arguments:

  1. The apocalyptic interpretation aligns Jesus with those who came before him and those who came after him. Before Jesus came John the Baptist, who preached an imminent, fiery judgement. After Jesus came the first century church, which again was thoroughly apocalyptic in its expectations. Apocalyptic bookends to the ministry of Jesus, we might call it.
  2. Schweitzer argued that scholars rejected the apocalyptic Jesus out of personal bias. The apocalyptic Jesus seems alien and irrelevant to modern Westerners. This is what misled the 19th century liberal scholars, and I think it misleads Domenic Crossan et al today.
  3. The apocalyptic Jesus corresponds to the Jewish Jesus. Scholars who seek to avoid the apocalyptic interpretation tend to align Jesus with Greek culture. (Crossan tries to blend the two by referring to Jesus as a Jewish Cynic — on the face of it, an oxymoron.)

On the third point, I simply note that the Jewishness of Jesus is abundantly clear. The Jesus of the New Testament believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he ministered almost exclusively to Jews; he cited the Hebrew scriptures from memory; he debated theology with the Pharisees and Sadduccees; and he celebrated the Jewish passover with his disciples.

As mentioned, Jesus the Jew fits with the apocalyptic Jesus. In the centuries immediately prior to Jesus’ birth, Jewish writers composed a body of apocalyptic literature. Some of the major apocalyptic works were included in the Dead Sea scrolls, plus other apocalyptic texts specific to the Qumran community.

Celibacy fits the paradigm:

I have taken a long, circuitous route, but now I’m ready to return to Whig’s question. The problem, as Whig sees it, is this: Why was Jesus celibate if he was a Jewish Rabbi? This is the very issue that has roiled scholarship: what pigeon hole shall we slot Jesus into?

Jesus was, first and foremost, a Millenarian Prophet. This is yet another way of saying end-time or apocalyptic prophet.

I have lifted the term, Millenarian Prophet, from the title of a book by Dale Allison. It leaves me a little cold, since it has a whiff of “crackpot” about it. But Allison’s argument is a strong one.

The point I want to make is this: Jesus the celibate Rabbi does not make sense, as Whig correctly points out; but Jesus the celibate millenarian prophet makes a great deal of sense.

First, let’s identify some of the characteristic traits of millenarian groups:

Like many Pacific cargo cults, Jewish messianic groups, Amerindian prophetic movements, and Christian sects looking for the end of the world, Jesus’ program

  • addressed less fortunate people in a period of social turmoil;
  • promised redemption through a reversal of current circumstances;
  • divided the world into two camps, the saved and the unsaved;
  • broke hallowed taboos associated with religious custom [Jesus brushed aside food laws and Sabbath laws, and enjoyed table fellowship with “sinners”];
  • replaced traditional familial bonds with fictive kin;
  • took a passive political stance in expectation of a divinely wrought deliverance; and
  • may have promoted egalitarianism of the sexes.

(adapted from Allison, pp. 61-64)

I agree with Allison: this paradigm has great explanatory power. It makes sense of Jesus’ public ministry, but also of his personal characteristics. For example, his celibacy:

Religious celibacy frequently reflects estrangement from the normal structures of society. This is why it so often appears, as it does in the Jesus tradition and in later Christian monasticism, beside renunciations of family and work in the world.

We have no difficulty understanding why Jesus and his followers — like so many millenarian enthusiasts after them — let go of their possessions [Mark 10:28-31], their businesses [Mark 1:16-20; Mark 2:14], their families [Mark 3:33-35]. They did not need this world when they were soon to enter another, and they certainly did not have to worry about extending their community into the future through raising children. Their eschatological dualism — the present order will be eclipsed by another order — encouraged detachment from this world. (Allison, p. 204)

What emerges here is a consistent pattern of renunciation. (“Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me”.) Work doesn’t matter; material security doesn’t matter — God provides for the lilies of the field, doesn’t he? — and family doesn’t matter.

Jesus as celibate apocalyptic prophet — it makes perfect sense.

As is so often the case, the Dead Sea Scrolls provide helpful historical context. The Qumran community had similar traits to those we have sketched for Jesus: Jewish, apocalyptic, and celibate.


1The terms are interchangeable. Messiah is a Hebrew word, Christ is a Greek word: both mean, “Anointed One”. Both refer to a specific individual who was expected to fulfil various prophecies from the Hebrew scriptures. But people’s expectations of the Messiah were not uniform. Of particular interest, the Dead Sea Scrolls refer to two Messiahs, one a priest and the other a king.

The “Jesus family tomb”

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.

Talpiot tombThis news is bound to thrill the gullible and the sceptical alike.

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.

ossuaryThe 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?) 
 3.   Mariemene   Mary (Magdalene?)
 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.

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