As many of you know, James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici have produced a Discovery Channel Special about finding the bones of Jesus Christ. Respected Biblical scholar Ben Witherington III has addressed this TV Special in a column I found on beliefnet.com. Below you can read this fine article.
Why should we be skeptical of ‘The Lost Tomb of Jesus’? Let us count the ways.
Well, human hubris knows no bounds. On April 15, 1912, the leak-proof Titanic rammed into an iceberg and sank like a giant stone. Now, in one of the most interesting ironies in recent memory, “Titanic”-director James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici have produced a Discovery Channel special (with a corresponding book, of course) based on a claim that is sure to sink. Their contention? That archeologists have discovered the tomb of Jesus, his mother, brothers, wife, and his child Judah as well! Who knew!Why should we be skeptical about this entire enterprise? Let me count the ways.First, I have worked with Jacobovici-he was the producer of another Discovery Channel special on the James ossuary (a box for bones of the dead) with which I was involved. He is a good filmmaker, and he knows a sensational story when he sees one. This is such a story. Unfortunately, it is also a story full of holes and conjectures. It will make good TV, but it is bad history.
Second, this is merely old news with a new interpretation. We have known about this tomb since it was discovered in 1980. On Sunday, the Toronto Star quoted an interview with Professor Amos Kloner from bar Ilan University, who said, “It’s a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever.” Professor Kloner knows that of which he speaks: he oversaw the discovery of the tomb in 1980, did extensive work on it in 1996, and came to negative conclusions regarding any links to the Jesus of the gospels. “There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
Third, the names on these ossuaries are very familiar early Jewish names. Jude and Joshua (Jesus) were two of the most common names in all of early Judaism. So was Mary. Indeed, both Jesus’ mother and her sister were named Mary. This is the ancient equivalent of walking through a cemetery today and seeing tombs with the names Smith and Jones. No big deal.
Fourth, as far as we can tell, the earliest followers of Jesus never called Jesus “son of Joseph.” It was outsiders who mistakenly called him that! Would family members such as James put that name on Jesus’ tomb when they knew otherwise? It’s highly improbable.
Fifth, the DNA angle is nonsense. No independent DNA control sample is available for comparison to what was garnered from the bones in this tomb. The most the DNA evidence can show is that several of these folks are inter-related. Big deal. We would need an independent control sample from some member of Jesus’ family to confirm that these were members of Jesus’ family. And anyway, mitacondrial DNA does not reveal genetic coding or XY chromosome makeup. The DNA angle has been thrown in to make this project carry the significance of real scientific fact. Not so much.
Sixth, the story is bad history in many ways. I’ll list just a few of them.
- The ancestral home of Joseph was Bethlehem, and his adult home was Nazareth. The family was still in Nazareth after he was dead and gone. Why in the world would any member of Jesus’ family be buried in Jerusalem other than James and Jesus?
- One of the ossuaries has the name “Judah, son of Jesus.” We have no historical evidence of such a son of Jesus. We have no historical evidence he was ever married.
- By all ancient accounts, the tomb of Jesus was empty-even the Jewish and Roman authorities acknowledged this. Now, it takes a year for the flesh to desiccate, and then you put the man’s bones in an ossuary. But according to historical record, Jesus’ body was long gone from Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb well before then. Are we really to believe it was moved to another tomb, decayed, and then put in an ossuary? It’s not likely.
- In order to argue that Jesus remained buried after his death, you must accuse James, Peter and John (mentioned in Galatians 1 and 2, our earliest New Testament document) of fraud and cover-up. Are we to believe that they knew Jesus didn’t rise bodily from the dead but perpetrated a fraudulent religion, for which they and others were prepared to die? Did they hide the body of Jesus in another tomb? The James in question here is Jesus’ brother, who certainly would have known about a family tomb.
There are many more problems with this documentary. You can find a fuller account of these problems at my blog, both in the main post and in the comment boxes that follow.
Having worked with Simcha Jacobovici, I feel sorry for him. But I can imagine how these things happen. You get enthusiastic about a project, and you overreach with your conclusions. You know there are holes in your argument, but you keep them to yourself for the sake of making a big splash of publicity, and lots of money. Too bad. A peer review by a panel of scholars could have saved these folks a lot of embarrassment.
James Cameron has jumped on board a ship full of holes, presumably in order to make a lot of money before the theory sinks into an early watery grave. Man the lifeboats and get out now.
Ben Witherington is a professor at Ashbury Seminary in Kentucky and a columnist on Bible FAQs for Beliefnet. He is also the author of the recently published ‘What Have They Done with Jesus?’ (HarperSanFrancisco 2006).