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The tomb of Jesus and his family?

Reactions by theologians and others

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Theologians' reactions to the tomb:

Most Christian theologians responded negatively to the suggestion that Jesus' family tomb had been discovered. Many of them seemed to quite frightened by the possibility of a surviving family tomb. A common argument is that the matches between the names on the ossuaries and the names of Jesus and his family of origin is coincidental. That is certainly possible. However, the chances are remote according to a statistical calculation that has been made.

Some specific criticisms are listed below. We have included duplicate criticisms only once. We have not included personal criticisms. [Our comments are added in brackets]:

bulletAmos Kloner is a professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University. He researched the tomb for the Israeli periodical Atiqot in 1996. He told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur:

"It's a beautiful story but without any proof whatsoever." 1

[Few things from the first century CE and earlier can be proven.]

bulletAndreas Kösstenberger of Biblical Foundations, a fundamentalist Christian group, pointed out that:
bulletAccording to Ben Witherington III, Simcha Jacobovici is a practicing orthodox Jew. Kösstenberger wrote, in a statement that some might consider anti-semitic: "To me, at least, this one has the almighty dollar sign written all over it." [On the other hand, if a fundamentalist Christian had produced the program, and if the reviewer were religiously bigoted, the latter might suggest that the producer was hopelessly biased in the opposite direction. Only an Agnostic might appear to some to be relatively unbiased.]
bulletThere is no real proof that the bones in the ossuary marked "Mariamne" were from Mary Magdalene. [Again, there is merely a strong indication from the names on the ossuaries, not proof.]
bulletConfirmation that the bones were from Jesus' family would require an independent control DNA sample from a member of his family. Without that proof, the only indicator that this is Jesus' family tomb is the coincidence of names. [That type of evidence would provide a proof or disproof. But it is impossible to obtain]
bulletThere is no historical evidence that Jesus had a child. [Of course, there is no evidence whether Peter or the other apostles had children either. Peter, who the Roman Catholic church considers to be the first pope, was apparently married because there is mention in the Bible of Peter's mother in law. We might assume that he had children, because most couples did in those days; but there is no proof.]
bulletThere is no historical evidence that Jesus was married. [There is no evidence to indicate that any of his disciples were married either. We can assume that most of them were married because there was intense social pressure for people to marry in first century Palestine.] However, Mary Magdalene's actions at Jesus' tomb would only be done by a wife. And there is a passage in an non-canonical gospel of Jesus kissing Mary Magdelene -- an activity that would have been socially unacceptable unless they were engaged or married.
bullet"... all the earliest accounts of Jesus’ death and burial indicate that Jesus’ body could not be found and had not been moved." [There is no indication in the writings of Paul that he knew of the empty tomb or of the virgin birth; if he had he certainly would have written about them if he was aware of them. Both are first mentioned in Matthew, written circa 80 CE. Many liberal theologians suggest that both are inventions of the early Christian movement, and part of its growing folklore about Jesus.
bulletIf Jesus had been buried, then all the early Christian martyrs including the apostles knowingly died for a fraudulent religion. "... this is highly implausible."  [History is full of cases where religious believers died for a religion based on beliefs of events that never happened.

Jesus' disciples appear to have believed that they saw Jesus in his resurrected form. That would have been sufficiently convincing to inspire the apostles to have a firm commitment to Jesus and Christianity, even onto death.
bulletKösstenberger suggests that ...highly suspect use of statistics and DNA 'evidence' " is involved to support the case that the tomb belonged to Jesus and his family. [Unfortunately, he does not give any indication of what the weaknesses are.]
bulletThere is no evidence that Jesus' immediate relatives had a family tomb. [Of course, there is no evidence that any of the other Apostles had a family tomb either.] 2
bulletBen Witherington III wrote in his blog that this "...is a story full of holes, conjectures, and problems. It will make good TV and involves a bad critical reading of history." His criticisms include:
bulletJesus' family members such as James would not have referred to Jesus as "Jesus son of Joseph." [They might well have referred to Jesus as "Jesus of Nazareth." James was a Jewish Christian who headed the Jerusalem church. When the concept of the virgin birth came along late in the first century CE, Jewish Christians rejected it. Jewish Christians, like Muslims, also rejected Jesus' divinity. So, James might well have referred to Jesus as "Jesus son of Joseph." Besides, with an ossuary labelled "Jesus, son of Jose" in the tomb, it would be logical for a Jewish Christian to refer to Jesus as "Jesus, son of Joseph" in order to differentiate between the two]
bulletThe Bible lists James, Joses, Jude and Simon as brothers of Jesus. Matthew's name does not appear. [This is true. However, he might have existed but not taken an active role in the early Christian movement. Thus he might not have been mentioned in the Bible. Jesus had at least two sisters, but their names are not mentioned either.]
bulletIf Jesus family tomb existed with his ossuary in it, then one must accuse James, Peter and John of committing a fraud and cover-up by propagating the belief in Jesus' resurrection. [But Jesus' bones in a tomb are compatible with his resurrection. They merely indicate that sometime later in his life after his death and resurrection, he died for the second time and was buried according to Jewish custom.]
bulletThe James ossuary contained soil from Silwan, which is some distance from Talpiot. The nine ossuaries from Talpiot did not have soil of any type in them. [Someone could have dumped soil from Silwan into James ossuary in order to increase its credibility as the actual ossuary of James.]
bulletThe first Christian historian, Eusebius, reports that the tomb marker for James was close to the temple mount where he was martyred, not in Talpiot. [Many theologians do not regard Eusebius' history of the early Christian movement to be particularly reliable. He lived from circa 275 to 339 CE, centuries after James died circa 62 CE.] 3
bulletIn an article for the Wall Street Journal, Ben Witherington III  suggested that:
bullet"we have a Matthew in the tomb, but Jesus had no brothers named Matthew." 9 [This is a curious comment. In fact, we don't know how many brothers Jesus had. The Bible does mention four brothers by name as mentioned above. But it does not mention the names of his two or more sisters, and does not mention additional brothers who might have existed.
bulletHe asked:

"Why would most the holy family from Galilee be buried in a middle-class tomb several miles outside of Jerusalem in some sheep pasture? They were, in fact, poor and could not afford an ornamental tomb like this one. This family was from Nazareth, too, with connections in Bethlehem. Why wouldn't its members be buried in one of those places? 9

[There were many wealthy patrons who supported the early Christian movement. Perhaps they purchased a tomb for Jesus and his family because they felt that they deserved a high quality tomb near the Jerusalem temple rather in the fields of the Galilee. Most theologians regard the association of the holy family with Bethlehem to be a myth.]

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Reaction by non-theologians:

bulletJames Tabor, an experienced archeologist, author of the book "The Jesus Dynasty," and a professor at the University of North Carolina appears in the documentary. He told the Toronto Star:

"To have a material link to Jesus ... is wonderful. It's an archeological dream. ... There's a part of you that says, it's too amazing. How can it be right? ... This is archeology. We got the casket. We've got the bones. I think we can say, in all probability, Jesus had this son, Jude, presumably through Mary Magdalene." 4

[There is no proof that the tomb had anything to do with Jesus. There is a strong statistical indicator that it is the family tomb, but that is all]

bulletArchaeologist Shimon Gibson, a senior fellow at the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem said: "I would like more information. I remain skeptical." 7
bulletLawrence E. Stager, the Dorot professor of archaeology of Israel at Harvard said:

“This is exploiting the whole trend that caught on with ‘The Da Vinci Code.’ One of the problems is there are so many biblically illiterate people around the world that they don’t know what is real judicious assessment and what is what some of us in the field call ‘fantastic archaeology'.”

bulletProf. Amos Kloner oversaw the excavation of the site in the 1980s as the district archeologist of Jerusalem. Commenting on the movie, he said: "It is not scholarly and not scientific. It's very amateur [sic]." 8
bulletJulie Stahl of Cybercast News Service™ posted a comment titled "Jesus Tomb' Filmmakers Should Be Ashamed, Archeologist Says." She wrote:

"The assertions in the documentary fly in the face of Christianity and the Bible, which says that Jesus was crucified and buried but rose again from the dead after three days and later ascended into heaven. According to the Bible, Jesus never married or had children."

[However, the ascension story in Luke has been interpreted as a spiritual not a bodily ascension by some Christians. That would leave open the probability that Jesus could have died many years later and been buried with his immediate family. Also, the Bible does not say that Jesus never married or had children; the Bible doesn't comment on his marital and parental statuses or on most of the disciples'.] 8

bullet"The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property," a pro-Roman Catholic organization, organized a protest against the Discovery Channel for scheduling the Jesus Family Tomb documentary. They describe the movie with such terms as "One more Gnostic onslaught," "Archeological fiction," "pseudo-scientific," "Gnostic propaganda," "Gnostic partisanship," Their article concludes:

"Facing this new onslaught, we must hold fast to our Faith and deepen our knowledge of it.  We must also manifest our indignation against these public attacks on the adorable Person of Our Lord Jesus Christ."

"Let us not forget we are members of the Church Militant.  By Baptism and Confirmation, we are made milites Christi, soldiers of Christ.  One only really loves that which he is willing to defend. If we truly love Christ and his Church, we must oppose these pernicious ideas." 10

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Our own reactions:

It seems so unlikely that a finding so momentous could be found in the 21st century after two millennia.

It seems very unlikely that Jesus' family remains would be in a tomb located in Jerusalem, when their place of residence was at Nazareth in the Galilee. However, the early Christian movement might conceivably have transferred their bodies or ossuaries to the holy city.

The Roman method of execution was a carefully designed process intended to terrorize the local population: The victim was hung naked on the cross. The cross was located in a well-traveled location so that many people would view the execution. The victim's body was not given a proper ritual burial. It was left hanging on the cross to be eaten by scavengers. Afterwards, the remains were thrown in a garbage pit.

In his book "Who killed Jesus?" John Dominic Crossan wrote:

"First, the crucified one is especially a disobedient slave or anyone considered an equivalent nobody, hence its designation as the slave penalty. Second, the crucified one is left unburied on the cross as carrion." 5,6

All of this was designed to maximize the fear felt by the Jewish people. If this was actually the fate of Jesus' body, as it was for many thousands of Jews in the first century CE, then one would not expect his bones to have been transferred to the family tomb.

It is vital that additional DNA testing be performed so that the inter-relationships among the human remains is established. In the event that the tomb is determined to be the family crypt of Joseph and Mary, DNA testing would indicate whether Joseph was the father of Jesus. Both historical Christianity and Islam teach that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus' birth. The virgin birth -- actually virgin conception -- is considered one of the cardinal beliefs of Christianity.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Stuart Laidlaw, "Jesus tomb claim sparks furor," The Toronto Start, 2007-FEB-26, at: http://www.thestar.com/
  2. Andreas Kösstenberger Biblical Foundations, 2007-FEB-27, at: http://www.biblicalfoundations.org/
  3. Ben Witherington, "The Jesus tomb? 'Titanic' Talipot tomb theory sunk from the start," Blogspot, 2007-FEB-26, at http://benwitherington.blogspot.com/
  4. Jennifer Viegas, "Jesus Family Tomb Believed Found," Discovery News, at: http://dsc.discovery.com/
  5. John Dominic Crossan, "Who Killed Jesus? Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus," HarperSanFrancisco, (1996). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store.
  6. John Dominic Crossan, "Was Jesus Buried?," Beliefnet, at: http://www.beliefnet.com/
  7. Laurie Goodstein, "Crypt Held Bodies of Jesus and Family, Film Says,"  New York Times, 2007-FEB-27
  8. Julie Stahl "'Jesus Tomb' Filmmakers Should Be Ashamed, Archeologist Says," CNS News Service, 2007-MAR-01, at: http://www.cnsnews.com/
  9. Ben Witherington III, "Tomb of the (still) unknown ancients: More Jesus hype of the 'Da Vinci Code' type," Wall Street Journal Opinion Journal, 2007-MAR-02, at: http://www.opinionjournal.com/
  10. Luis Sergio Solimeo, "The 'Jesus Family Tomb:' One more Gnostic onslaught," TPF, 2007-MAR-02, at: http://www.tfp.org/

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Copyright © 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2007-FEB-26
Latest update: 2007-AUG-08
Author: B.A. Robinson

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