Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The family tomb of Jesus

Twenty-seven years ago an excavation in the southern part of Jerusalem uncovered a tomb dating back to the first century AD. This tomb, known as the Talpiot Tomb, contained 10 empty ossuaries (stone “bone boxes” for burials). For a short period in Israel’s history, family members came back to the tomb of their loved ones after the bodies had decayed, collected the bones, and placed them in ossuaries. Some of the names inscribed on the ossuaries from the Talpiot Tomb are known to us from the New Testament: Jesus, Joseph, Joses, Matthew (?), and two Mary’s. There is also one inscribed, “Judah son of Jesus.” Sounds like pretty good evidence that archaeologists have discovered the Tomb of Jesus, right? Read on.

First, most of the names on these ossuaries were exceptionally common in Israel during Jesus’ time. Evidence from literary sources and ossuaries indicate that Joseph was the second most popular male name in Israel, followed by Judah (4th), Jesus (6th), and Matthew (9th. Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2006).

The same literary and ossuary evidence indicates that Mary was by far the most popular female name. In fact, if the evidence is representative of the actual reality, it would seem that about one out of every five women was named Mary! I don’t think anyone would assume that the Talpiot Tomb was the family tomb of Jesus simply based on the common names alone.

One thing that makes the evidence so compelling is that one of the ossuaries was inscribed with Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph) and another with Yaaqov bar Yosef (Jacob—aka James—son of Joseph). On the surface, this, along with other common names in Jesus’ family would seem to be very strong evidence that the tomb is Jesus’ tomb. In fact, the documentary is reportedly going to produce statistical evidence showing that is it virtually impossible, statistically speaking, for this tomb to have been any other than the tomb of Jesus.

So on the surface, the evidence sounds especially compelling. But there’s more to this story. When it comes to Jesus’ family, all anyone really has to go on is the Gospels. According to the Gospel of Mark (6:3), Jesus had brothers named James, Joses, Judas (or Judah) and Simon as well as some unnamed sisters. As far as anyone knows, the list of Jesus’ brothers is complete and since most scholars believe the Gospel of Mark was written about AD 70, there is little likelihood that Jesus had additional brothers after this list was written.

The names on the ossuaries found in the Talpiot Tomb were Maria (Mary), Yeshua bar Yehosef (Jesus son of Joseph), Yaaqov bar Yosef (Jacob son of Joseph), Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah son of Jesus), Yose (Joses), Matya (Matthew?), three unnamed ossuaries and Mariemene (or Mary e Mara—but, contrary to what some news reports have led people to believe, the ossuary does not read "Mary Magdalene").

So out of at least nine members of Jesus’ immediate family (the plural “sisters” in Mark must mean at least two) only four family names in the Talpiot Tomb are the same as known members of Jesus’ family. Not only that, but 1) Joseph is missing 2) Judah (Jude) is missing, 3) Simon is missing, and 4) Jesus’ sisters may be missing (DNA has apparently confirmed that Mariemene was not a blood relative), 5) In all of ancient literature, there is no known relation between Jesus and Matya, unless Matya is the disciple Matthew, but why the tax collector would be buried in Jesus’ tomb is anyone’s guess, 6) As seen below there is no credible evidence that Jesus was ever married, and 7) Also seen below, there is absolutely no evidence in all of ancient literature that Jesus had any children much less a son named Judah.

So although the coincidences look compelling, the pieces that don’t fit seem to disprove the hypothesis—unless of course you want to assume apart from any other evidence 1) That Jesus had a son, 2) That Matya was a member of Jesus’ family, 3) That the Mariemene in this tomb was Jesus’ wife and 4) that all the evidence is bunk that has convinced Christian and some non-Christian scholars alike that Jesus’ earliest disciples were genuinely convinced that they had seen the risen Jesus (see N.T. Wright’s massive 800 page tome on this topic). But then what you are really doing is trying to force the the evidence fit your theory.

Second, rather than acknowledging that the ossuary inscribed, “Judah son of Jesus” demonstrates that this is some other family than that of Jesus of Nazareth, the documentary assumes that Jesus must have been married and must have fathered a child named Judah.

But there is absolutely no credible evidence that Jesus was ever married. In fact, there is good circumstantial evidence that he was not. Those, like Dan Brown of Da Vinci Code fame, (it’s not usually the scholars) who argue that Jesus was married, point to two passages in the Gospel of Philip. The first passage reads, “There were three who always walked with the lord: Mary his mother and her sister and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion” (Gospel of Philip 59). The second passage reads, “And the companion of the [ ] Mary Magdalene. [loved] her more than [all] the disciples [and used to] kiss her [ ] on her [ ]” (Gospel of Philip 63, 64.The brackets indicate holes in the original text).

As Dan Brown wrote in his Da Vinci Code, “As any Aramaic scholar will tell you, the word companion, in those days, literally meant spouse” (246). This is really pretty funny since the Gospel of Philip was written in Coptic. Though most scholars think it was originally translated from Greek, the Gospel of Philip was never written in Aramaic! The word companion in Coptic is similar to the Greek word koinonos meaning "companion." Of course, one would hope that one’s wife is also a companion, but companion does not mean wife, not in Greek or Coptic.

Another argument for Jesus’ marriage is that virtually all Jewish teachers were married. While most Jewish teachers were married, it is simply not true that all were. Paul doesn’t seem to have been married nor does John the Baptist, and, according to Josephus, neither were many of the Essenes.

Reasons for thinking that Jesus was not married include the following: 1) There are no ancient sources that say Jesus was married—Not the New Testament, not early church fathers, not the New Testament Apocrypha and not even the heretical Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents. Marriage was viewed as very honorable in the Jewish and Christian world and we know, for example, that Peter and other apostles were married, so it seems rather strange that if Jesus had been married, not one single source mentions it.

2) The apostle Paul, in a letter everyone acknowledges as genuine, says, “Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas” (1 Corinthians 9:5). The interesting thing about this is that Paul was certainly much more interested in Jesus’ authority than he was in relying on the authority of others—even Peter. So if Jesus had been married it is very hard to understand why Paul would not appeal to Jesus himself as his authority.

3) When Jesus was dying on the cross he committed the care of his mother to his disciple John (John 19:27). If Jesus had been married, it is strange that he did not commit his wife to someone’s care as well.

4) According to Eusebius, Emperor Domition summoned the grandsons of Jesus' half-brother Jude to determine if they were a subversive threat. If Jesus himself had had descendants there can be little doubt that Domition would have summoned them also.

All in all, there is no credible reason for thinking Jesus was married and circumstantial evidence for thinking he was not. The discovery, therefore, of an ossuary with the inscription “Judah son of Jesus” does not prove Jesus was married—it is, rather, a piece of evidence that the Jesus bar Joseph in this tomb was not Jesus of Nazareth.

But even if Jesus had been married, there is absolutely no evidence that he had children, much less a son named Judah. There is nothing in the New Testament, nothing in the church fathers, nothing in the New Testament apocrypha, or Nag Hammadi Gnostic documents about Jesus having a son. In the absence of any other evidence, the inscription, Judah son of Jesus in the Talpiot Tomb is another piece of evidence that this is not the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.

Third, a lot of questions need to be asked before this is resolved. For example, is it possible that there was a man named Joseph in Jerusalem who named some of his kids after Jesus and Jesus family? And is it possible one or more of the inscriptions might be a hoax? After all, it was not long ago that the ossuary of "James brother of Jesus" was making its rounds (I actually saw it in Toronto). It turned out to be a very convincing hoax (even scholars were deceived at first) and I understand the perpetrator is now on trial for fraud.

Finally, regardless of the evidence produced in the documentary and the book, it is important note that would-be Jesus debunkers have often promised evidence that would bring about the demise of Christianity, only to have their evidence exposed as nonsense. A long time ago when I was in the Air Force, I remember my boss telling me that some new documents had been discovered that, when finally revealed, would completely destroy Christianity. Those documents turned out to be the Nag Hammadi documents. Needless to say, they did not destroy Christianity but demonstrated what truly bizarre nonsense ancient “heretics” believed (see my post on women and Christian bishops and On writings suppressed by bishops).

Then there was Burton Mack’s book on The Lost Gospel of Q which was supposed to change everything we thought we knew about Christianity. The fact is that for Mack to arrive at the nonsensical conclusions he did, he had to postulate hypothetical revisions of a hypothetical document by hypothetical communities! (See my articles on Mack, A Review of Who Wrote the New Testament?" Bibliotheca Sacra. (April-June, 1997) 205-221 and Kloppenborg. If Q actually existed, it tends to support, not undermine, Christianity.

Then last year there was the sensationalistic release of the Gospel of Judas documentary and book (also conveniently timed to come out about Easter) which was supposed to change the way we thought of Christianity. That turned out to be nonsense as well (see my posts on the Gospel of Judas).

It should be remembered that this is no new discovery. It has been around for 27 years. “In 1996, when the BBC aired a short documentary on the same subject, archaeologists challenged the claims. 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," Mr. Kloner said” (Washington Times). Considering the timing of the announcement, I find myself suspecting that Kloner is right.

I’ll update this post if the documentary comes up with anything new.