By David A. Fiensy
Let’s face it. Jesus is big business. Writers and publishers have learned that producing a book on Jesus that in some way reduces his stature or revises traditional Christianity’s view of him can be a gold mine.
Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is only the most famous example of this genre. Others have also learned they can make millions of dollars off Jesus if the story is shocking enough. So we witness a continual discharge of sensationalist books, each new one trying to top the previous ones, each offering some scandalous secret about Jesus that the fun-spoiling church has allegedly tried to hush up.
Books like Holy Blood, Holy Grail (1982), The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception (1991), Jesus and the Riddle of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1992), The Jesus Mysteries (1999), Misquoting Jesus (2005), The Jesus Papers (2006), The Expected One (2006), and The Gospel of Judas (2006) have cashed-in in a big way.
Most of these are works by amateur historians writing with little knowledge and even less concern for the damage their book might do to an uninformed Christian. But some are by recognized scholars who evidently simply wanted to get in on the fun and the money.
We can now add to that list the Discovery Channel “documentary” called The Lost Tomb of Jesus and the accompanying book, The Jesus Family Tomb. For two hours March 4, viewers were led through a maze of unsupported conclusions, half-truths, and faulty logic. The producers of the film maintain a tomb discovered south of Jerusalem in 1980 contained the bones of Jesus Christ. They further allege the bones of Mary Magdalene were resting alongside those of her husband, Jesus, and that a child, “Judas son of Jesus,” was also buried in the tomb. The allegations go even beyond The Da Vinci Code. Jesus, according to this documentary, was married, had a son, and did not rise bodily from the dead.
Interpreting the Facts
What are the facts? A tomb certainly was discovered in 1980. In the tomb were 10 ossuaries (bone boxes). Four of the ossuaries were unmarked, but the rest of them had names inscribed on them. The ossuaries with names are as follows:
“Yeshua, son of Yoseph”
“Mara Mariamne” (the filmmakers assert this is Mary Magdalene)
“Yosah” (perhaps Yoseph the father of Yeshua)
“Yehudah, son of Yeshua”
How do we interpret the facts? The reader needs to know that the name Yoseph (Joseph) is the second most frequently attested man’s name in Palestine in the first centuries bc and ad. The name Yeshua (Jesus) is the sixth most frequently attested name. Further, there is not just one ossuary with the inscription, “Yeshua, son of Yoseph,” but two (from different tombs). An earlier ossuary with this inscription was discovered in 1926.1 So the names, even as father-son, were already known elsewhere.
Among women’s names, Maria or Miryam (Mary) is the most frequently attested.2 Thus, finding a tomb with these names is not spectacular in itself.
If, for example, we found a letter today mentioning two persons named George and Martha, we should not necessarily conclude that they must be the first president and his wife. Much more evidence would need to be assessed before reaching such a conclusion.
Not only was the name Mary a common one in ancient Palestine, but there is not even an indication the “Maria” in one of the ossuaries was the mother of the “Yeshua” in another. She could have been his wife, sister, daughter, grandmother, granddaughter, or no relation at all. The filmmakers simply assume this must be Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth. Not only is this unproven, there is no evidence to support the conclusion.
Further, the name “Mara Mariamne” has no reference at all to Mary Magdalene. Only by the most suspect evidence did the film’s producers make the case.3 The epithet Mara does not mean “master” as the film maintains (arguing that Mary Magdalene was the original head of the church), but is probably a shortened form of the name Martha.4
We have, then, a tomb with three names familiar to us from Jesus’ family (Jesus, Joseph, and Mary—Yosah is a shortened form of Joseph) that are among the most popular names in first-century Palestine, with two names that are nowhere in the New Testament associated with Jesus’ family (Matya and Martha), and with an ossuary containing the bones of a child to which again no reference in the New Testament is found.
I think the Discovery Channel has a real problem with this hypothesis.
Evaluating the Possibilities
At one point the filmmakers attempt to inject a bit of science into the investigation. They examine the bones of Yeshua and Mara Mariamne for mitochondrial DNA. They build suspense by filming talking heads who say that if the two are not related, they could have been married. When the DNA test indicates they were not related on their mother’s side, the film triumphantly pronounces it as proof this is Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene and that they were married.
What is never mentioned are the other possibilities: If Mara Mariamne were married to someone in the tomb, perhaps it was to Matya or Yosa. Perhaps she is the half-sister to Yeshua (and Matya) and the daughter of Yosa. That is, perhaps she had the same father but a different mother. Perhaps Mara was adopted by the family. Perhaps Mara is the paternal grandmother of Yeshua (and Matya) and the mother or grandmother of Yosa.
There are so many possibilities not mentioned that one must conclude the filmmakers were cooking the evidence. Finally, one wonders why they examined DNA only from these two ossuaries. The appeal to DNA evidence was more question-begging than science.
It is extremely unlikely Jesus of Nazareth’s family owned an expensive tomb in Jerusalem. The tomb appears to have been owned by a fairly wealthy family. The tomb’s entrance is ornate and contained several rather expensive ossuaries decorated with rosettes.
Jesus’ family would have, of course, owned a modest family tomb up north in Nazareth, in Lower Galilee.5 Nothing in the Gospels indicates they had roots in Jerusalem. Nor would we expect a carpenter’s family to afford so expensive a tomb.
Considering the Age
When we watch such presentations on television, we should not forget they are entertainment, first and foremost. In the discussion that followed the two-hour documentary, the director of The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Simha Jacobovici, alternated between representing himself as a journalist and a filmmaker. From what I saw, I rather think the stress should be placed on the latter vocation.
He uses the techniques of building suspense in the “research” and dramatic reenactments to press his point of view. The film gives alternate points of view and criticisms only the most meager airtime (I counted two very brief statements). Blink and you miss them. The film further quotes experts on the minutiae of the research, giving the impression they endorse the film’s general hypothesis, but the interviewers never ask frankly if the experts agree.
Why do these books and television documentaries resonate with American and European viewers? We seem to have a cultural bent toward conspiracy theories with respect to Christianity. A beliefnet.com poll6 found that many people suspect Christianity as currently practiced is not what Jesus intended. Only 15 percent said Jesus would be satisfied with the church. This widespread belief finds further stimulus with the revelations of clergy abuse and hypocrisy. These factors create the perfect storm of conditions to set us up for the next revelation about the “real” Jesus. S. Neill and N.T. Wright describe another age that seems now to parallel ours:
In those gusty and combative days of the Victorian era there were many who were doubtful whether the Christian faith was true, and perhaps as many more who were very eagerly desirous that it should not be true.7
Several of the recent sensationalist authors seem also “eagerly desirous that (Christianity) should not be true,” while others may just want to make an easy buck.
Deciding the Significance
So what is the significance of this tomb? The names inscribed on the ossuaries are typical Jewish names from the first centuries bc and ad. That so many other Jews were named like people in early Christianity only confirms the verisimilitude of the New Testament. That is, the New Testament really came from this period and from this part of the world. It is not a later invention.
The tomb and its contents draw us back into the world in which Jesus lived and died. They introduce us to the kind of people with whom Jesus may have interacted on his trips to Jerusalem.
We do not know what the relationships of all of the deceased persons in the tomb were, but we can imagine the pain of the father, Yeshua, over the untimely death of his child, Yehuda. These are people who once loved, rejoiced, and mourned. Thus, the tomb is interesting as background to the New Testament but tells us nothing new about Jesus Christ.
1See J.D. Tabor, The Jesus Dynasty (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2006), 23.
2See the list of names given in R. Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 85-92. So far historians have identified 218 persons named Joseph, 99 persons named Jesus, and 70 persons named Mary.
3They say that a late 4th or 5th century ad text called the Acts of Philip calls Mary Magdalene, Mariamne.
4See Bauckhamn, Jesus, 89. The name appears on four other ossuaries in four other tombs. On one ossuary the woman is called both Mara and Martha.
5See J. Finegan, The Archaeology of the New Testament (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 28. Finegan indicates 23 tombs have been found in the vicinity of Nazareth.
6Reported in Newsweek, May 22, 2006.
7Neill and Wright, The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861–1986 (Oxford: Oxford University, 1988), 39.
David Fiensy is dean of the graduate school of Bible and ministry at Kentucky Christian University, Grayson.