The Tomb of Jesus?

The media has been abuzz lately over a Discovery Channel special about a tomb in Israel that, according to the show’s producers, may once have contained the bones of Jesus Christ.

The tomb was discovered in 1980 during an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem. Inside, researchers found ten ossuaries – carved stone boxes used in many ancient cultures to inter human bones. Six of the ten ossuaries bore inscriptions of the names of their occupants, including, allegedly, “Jesus, son of Joseph”, “Mary Magdalene”, and most explosive, “Judah, son of Jesus”. Although the ossuaries no longer contain any human remains, the documentary’s producers claim that there was enough remnant genetic material to perform a DNA test which showed that the inhabitants of the first two ossuaries were not related. From this they conclude that they must have been married, since otherwise they would not have been interred together.

Obviously, if these ossuaries are what the filmmakers say they are, this would be a deadly blow to Christianity. According to the Bible, Jesus was resurrected from the dead after three days and then ascended bodily to Heaven. If this is indeed the tomb that once held his remains, that story must be a pious fiction. An ossuary is not used to store an intact body, but a disarticulated skeleton. If Jesus’ remains were ever stored in such a container, then clearly he did not resurrect nor ascend to Heaven, but rather his body remained on earth long enough to decay to mere bones. (Interestingly, Islam also claims that Jesus ascended, rather than being crucified; so if this story is true, this would also be a conclusive disproof of Qur’anic infallibility.)

However, I have my doubts, and not just because I believe the evidence more strongly indicates that Jesus was an entirely mythical figure. This story reminds me of the notorious James Ossuary, another archaeological find that was claimed to be directly relevant to verifying the stories of the Bible, only to collapse when the artifact was revealed to be an almost certain hoax. (In fact, the filmmakers, apparently unaware that the James ossuary was debunked, claim that that very ossuary might originally have belonged to this same tomb and that an empty space they found within it might be where it was once placed.) I see no reason to believe that this new find might also be a hoax, but there are some parts of this story that do not add up.

First of all, only a relatively wealthy family would have been able to afford a rock-cut tomb within the city of Jerusalem, whereas the Bible states clearly that Jesus’ family was of modest means and Jesus himself lived as a penniless traveling preacher all his life. It is very unlikely that they could have afforded such a burial ground. Of course, if Jesus was a historical person who had gathered a substantial following during his lifetime, it’s conceivable that his followers would have paid for a more expensive burial. But in that case we would expect the tomb to contain other carvings or inscriptions indicating its revered status, and by all accounts, no such thing was found at the site.

Second, there is the crucial issue of dating. How do the filmmakers know that this tomb is from the right time period, rather than being, say, a hundred years too early or too late? So far I have not seen any convincing evidence presented that establishes the tomb’s chronology. The filmmakers cite Harvard professor Frank Moore Cross as saying that the inscription styles on the ossuaries date to the “Herodian Period”, “from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.”, but dating of such extreme precision based on nothing but a script style is clearly impossible. If the ossuaries contain enough genetic material to be sequenced, then they should be candidates for a sensitive radiometric dating technique such as accelerator mass spectrometry, which can be carried out with very small quantities of organic material. So far, if the filmmakers have performed any such test, they have not said anything about it. For that matter, they have come nowhere near explaining how they have ruled out the possibility of contamination by foreign DNA, considering how long these relics have existed in far from sterile conditions.

There are other unanswered questions regarding the DNA testing. For example, as Carl Zimmer points out, it is bizarre that the filmmakers conducted only one test, rather than going on to perform obvious follow-up tests such as whether the DNA in the “Judah, son of Jesus” ossuary shows a filial relationship to the other. Their seeming apathy when it comes to thoroughly checking out all the evidence casts some doubt on their scientific rigor.

Another point of contention is the filmmakers’ translation of the ossuary which they say belonged to Mary Magdalene. The inscription on the box, the only one of the six written in Greek rather than Hebrew, literally reads “Mariamene e Mara”, which they say can be translated as “Mary, known as the master”. They speculate that “Mariamene” was the real name of Mary Magdalene, based on an apocryphal gospel called the Acts of Philip, but this entire chain of inference seems contentious to me and has only thin evidentiary support. Why would Mary Magdalene be known as “the master”? And this, vague as it is, is the only ossuary in the tomb that has any specific identifying information at all. All the others bore only single names like Jesus and Joseph, which all sides agree were very common in biblical times.

All facts considered, I believe the most likely scenario is that this is a genuine tomb from biblical times, containing several ordinary people with names common from the time, which has been hyped beyond what the evidence supports by overzealous filmmakers trying to create a sensation. It is not a magic bullet to destroy Christianity, and does not need to be; we atheists already have far more persuasive arguments on our side.

However, there is some amusement to be found in the contrasting responses to this find and to the previous James ossuary. With the James ossuary, Christian apologists trumpeted the unlikelihood of finding someone other than the biblical James who could be described as “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus” – Andre Lemaire, for example, calculated that at most 20 people in Jerusalem in the two generations before 70 CE could fit that criterion (source). On the other hand, Christian theologians are now ridiculing the idea that this tomb contains the bodies of Jesus Christ and his family, since they say those names were “exceedingly common” in biblical times. This, despite the fact that a statistician featured in the documentary put the odds at 600 to 1 that so many names from the New Testament would be found in close proximity in the same tomb. It goes to show how, for most professional believers, preexisting faith is what drives their interpretation of the facts and not the other way around. Their primary criterion in selecting an argument is not its logical validity or evidentiary support, but whether it fits whatever position they are defending at the moment.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Will E.

    It all just sounds like an overly elaborate “In Search of…” episode, or a modern Shroud of Turin, or whatshisname, von Daniken, all that ’70s pulp nonsense which so many have seem to forgotten. Who cares, who cares, who cares.

  • Christopher

    While I have reason to doubt that the claims made about this tomb are true, I certainly wouldn’t be disappointed if they were: It would finally put those lame-brained theologians and preachers out of a job!

  • Dave

    Sadly, you’re being naive, Christopher. No amount of proof that the Bible is mythology will ever truly be enough to convince the faithful. To whit:

    “Every Christian knows that Jesus the son of God and man died and rose again on Easter Sunday,” a New York Archdiocese spokesman, Joseph Zwilling, told The New York Post on Sunday. “No alleged DNA test or Hollywood film is going to change that.”

  • Badger3k

    I forget the website, but one post had the original discoverer of the tomb saying he had dated it to the late 1st or early 2nd century ce, making the whole claim of this “Geraldo the Archaeologist” show a little misleading (to be polite). Considering what a crock-of-unscholarly-shit “The Exodus Decoded” was (I mean how many distortions and lies can you put into one show?), expect more of the same. I wrote the Discovery Channel and complained about this piece of sensationalist garbage and challenged them to have some real experts on after the show to discuss the flaws and errors in it – that would be real discovery.

  • Shawn Smith


    You seem to believe that The Discovery Channel cares one whit about science and/or accuracy. In my opinion, that is an incorrect assumption. The key thing to know about The Discovery Channel, The History Channel, and all their spin offs, is that they are entertainment businesses. Their customers are the advertisers who “support” the shows, and possibly the Cable and Satellite providers (Comcast, Adelphia, Cox, DirectTV, etc.) who pay a small subscription fee. Their product is your eyeballs, which, judging from your rant about “The Exodus Decoded,” they already have. Why would they change their content when it appears to work for them?

    Is this a troubling indicator of our society? I don’t know. When we see so much truth in movies like Office Space and Idiocracy, I do get a bit depressed, but heck, they are only movies.

  • Polly

    Shawn-Funny you should mention “Idiocracy.” I find it an effective antidote to my optimism about the future of our society. Every time I see some stupid reality TV show stunt or watch someone miss a basic question about history or science, the refrain of “OW, My balls!” rings in my ears.

    “It would finally put those lame-brained theologians and preachers out of a job! ”

    Although true believers would NOT rethink their views, such a discovery would serve to CONTAIN the problem. It would be all but guaranteed that the rate of future dupes…uh, er…converts would be at a bare minimum of lame-brains.
    Hmmm, but then again those might be the most dangerous. Left in concentrated form, without their more cerebral counterparts to dilute their strength, they may be an even more effective weapon against civilization, prone to violence and a theocratic bend per the OT scriptures. Take away reasonable doubt and you still have plenty of the unreasonable left to fill the void.

    I think the “discovery” is just sensationalism and nothing more. There’s no money in digging up anonymous ossuaries.

  • Terrence

    Whoa, it’s early, but EVERYBODY is missing the point– if you are a true believer, the truth or falsity of a production like this should not matter a damn. If you are a true believer and you get all gooey about stuff like this, may I ask: WHY???? It should not matter a whit. If your fable is true, it’s true. If no bones are ever found, so what. If bones are found, so what………………….

  • Erich Vieth

    Good article.

    Here’s another irony: When it comes to events that are ancient it is the doubts that fade away and it is the hazy (and sometimes self-contradictory) facts that become ever more certain, at least for those who want to believe. Numerous Christian apologists have (rightfully) attacked the claims of this documentary. When they are finished dealing with this threat, though, they take off their Skeptic Hats to willingly embrace the even more incredible claims of their own religions.

    For another angle on this irony, check out this article by mathematician John Paulos:

  • Blue Gal

    I just can’t believe this story has been going on all week without the involvement of Geraldo.

  • aswe

    The 600 to 1 odds they quoted actually don’t make it all that unlikely, if I heard another part of the story properly, that they’ve found nearly a thousand of these tombs in the general area over the years.

    Honestly, “the names match” is the strongest evidence they could possibly come up with on one of these speculative endevours.