Has the Lost Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered? by Bruce Norquist Ph.D.

Years ago my family and I were touring the great sea lochs of Scotland. As passengers on board a charter vessel plying the waters of Loch Ness, my three school age children craned their necks and squinted through the swirling fog to catch some sight of the fabled Loch Ness monster. A woman standing in front of us gasped when she thought she spied a suspicious ripple off the port bow. Shortly after that, the Discovery Channel produced a fascinating program provocatively entitled, “Loch Ness Discovered”. We were all eager to watch and see what facts they had marshaled to support the possibility that Nessy lives.

A year after the Discovery Channel program aired, however, Christian Spurling, one of five co-conspirators behind the Loch Ness monster hoax, came forward after 60 years to confess that he had grafted the head and neck of a sea serpent onto the body of a toy submarine so that Robert Wilson could photograph the model monster. The people in the tourist industry around Loch Ness were stunned; this confession was going to cost them millions.

Similarly, after 36 years, the “single best piece of evidence” for the existence of Sasquatch was exposed as a fake. In 2004 Bob Hieronimous admitted that he had dressed up in a gorilla suit and served as a model for Bigfoot film maker, Roger Patterson. Ironically, just one year earlier the Discovery Channel had broadcast a show called Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. It was a documentary film which featured scientists from various disciplines analyzing the most compelling evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. Hieronimous’ confession threw a big fat monkey wrench in the producer’s plan to keep milking this hoax for more money.

Whether sinister in their intent or merely trying to make a buck or pull off a practical joke, there has never been a lack of hucksters trying to sell hoaxes to a gullible public. From the Piltdown man to the National Geographic Societies’ naive reselling of the “discovery” of the “stone age” Tasaday tribe in the Philippines to the Sports Illustrated April Fools Day coverage of a 168 mph hurler signed by the Mets, there is always a market for tall tales.

An early money making hoax is recorded in chapter 28 of Matthew’s gospel. The Roman guards at Jesus tomb are said to have accepted a large sum of money from the chief priests and elders in exchange for reciting the following script, “His disciples came during the night and stole Jesus body away while we were asleep.” So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. The result is that this story has been widely circulated even to this very day. (Mt 28:11-15) Something not unlike this has happened again.

The day after the 2007 Academy Awards and near the beginning of Lent, James Cameron (the acclaimed Oscar winning director of The Titanic) announced that he had produced a feature length documentary that would change the course of human history. Cameron’s docudrama aired in March just prior to Easter of ‘07 on the Discovery Channel. In the documentary, Cameron and his director, Simcha Jacobovici, made the claim that they had uncovered the mortal remains of Jesus of Nazareth. The show featured a reenactment of Jesus’ disciples stealing His body from the tomb and hiding it in a nearby burial plot in order to be able to assert that Jesus had risen from the dead. Sound familiar?

Cameron argued that his staging of events was valid based on two findings:

1.) The cluster of names from a tomb discovered in the Talpiot region near Jerusalem had some significant resemblance to the names in Jesus’ immediate family; a total of 10 ossuaries (stone bone boxes) emerged from the site. Six of the ten ossuaries had names inscribed upon them. They read: Matya, Mariamne and Mara, Judah son of Joshua, Jose, Maria and Joshua (or possibly – Hunan) son of Joseph. Dr. Feuerverger, a statistician from the University of Toronto, was brought in to assess the odds against finding just such a cluster of names. He concluded, based on his mathematical calculations, that the odds were six hundred to one that this tomb contained the earthly remains of Jesus of Nazareth.

2.) DNA evidence from the ossuary that the producers say had once contained the bones of Mary Magdalene are apparently not maternally related to the DNA substance from the box that they claim to have once contained the bones of one “Joshua the son of Joseph”. On the strength of this, the documentary concludes that this Joshua son of Joseph and Mary Magdalene could have been married – and that they therefore could have had a child named Judah together.

Let’s face it; there is a lot at stake here. If Jesus’ mortal remains have been discovered, the story of Christ’s resurrection is a hoax and the faith of countless millions of Christians is in vain. Now if Christianity were merely another religious philosophy, if Jesus’ message as it has come to us is nothing more than the collected musings of a wandering rabbi, nothing is at risk. But the resurrection of Christ is not just central to the message of the Church; the risen Christ is the message. Christians believe that a relationship with the actual person of the risen Christ is both the center and circumference of the gospel; the resurrection is the Christian’s only hope in life and death. What is the truth concerning Cameron’s claims? Did Christ’s disciples steal his body and make up a story about his resurrection? Have Christians down through the ages taken a leap of faith only to find that their belief cannot bridge the chasm of lies that now stands before them?

THE UNIQUE CLUSTER OF NAMES

It is doubtless an interesting coincidence that two of the ten ossuaries indisputably have names inscribed on them that correspond to members of Jesus immediate family: one box is clearly marked, Maria (which obviously could relate to Jesus’ mother); another box is clearly marked, Jose (which may possibly correspond to the name of one of Jesus earthly brothers, Joseph). But that’s it. Some people think that there may be a third name to add to this equation, but the ossuary that Cameron claims to have been inscribed, “Joshua son of Joseph” (Not that Jesus was ever called the son of Joseph by either his followers OR his detractors) is actually marked with a nearly undecipherable scrawl that, Stephan Pfan, President of Jerusalem’s University of the Holy Land and an expert in Semitic languages has interpreted as, “Hunan, son of Joseph”. Likewise, the bone box that Cameron claims to have the inscription “Mary the Master” (which he says is a unique reference to Mary Magdalene), cannot be deciphered in that way by any knowledgeable person; according to Richard Bauckham of The University of St. Andrews, it clearly reads: Mariamne AND Mara. Interpreting the inscription as Bauckham suggests has led other experts to conclude that the remains of two women – one named Mariamne and the other, Mara – were committed to this one box. It was a common practice in the day to put the remains of more than one person in a single ossuary.

We know that Jesus had at least six siblings: four brothers and two or more sisters. If the Discovery Channel has found the lost tomb of Jesus’ family what are the odds that Simon and Judas and James (Jesus’ other brothers) would all be missing? Why is Joseph (Jesus step-father) not among the names? And what about the other names not connected with Jesus immediate family? And who is Matya? While there was a Matthew among Joseph’s ancestors, why would he be buried here and not Joseph? What about Mara and Mariamne, who were they and why would they be included among Jesus family members? And where did “Judah, son of Jesus” come from? There is absolutely no authentic historical data that indicates that Jesus of Nazareth even had a son. Moreover, if this is the all important burial site for the family of Jesus of Nazareth, why are four of the stone boxes not even labeled?

William Dever, who has been excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years – and is considered the leading biblical archaeologist in the U.S. – says, “I’m not a Christian. I’m not a believer. I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’ve known about these ossuaries for many years and so have many other archaeologists and none of us thought it was much of a story, because these are rather common Jewish names from that period.”

Richard Bauckham gives us an idea of how very ordinary the names in this tomb really are. Most of the names in the tomb are commonplace. 1 in 5 women bore the name Mary. 1 in 20 women went by Mara or Martha. Approximately 1 out of every 10 men would have been named Joseph; 1 out of every 30 men was named Jesus. Judah also was a popular name with 1 in 20 males answering to this name. Matthew was less common – but still, 1 in 50 was so named.

I am not a statistician, so this may be a bit rough, but following the above figures – and given that the population of Jerusalem and its environs is estimated to have been about 100,000 people at the time of Christ – approximately one half of those people, would have been males who would eventually reach child bearing age. Of these 50,000 men, 5,000 would most likely bear the name Joseph. Of the men named Joseph who would eventually marry (virtually all), odds are that at least 1000 of them would wed a woman named Mary. If these couples bore an average of, say, four children each (Jesus’ Mother, Mary, bore 6 children) their offspring would number around 2000 males In the case of men named Joseph who were also united in matrimony to women named Mary, odds are that 67 of the boys born them would have been called: Joshua (or Jesus). Now, if we take Mary out of the equation, (the Talpiot tomb gives us no indication that the Mary buried there was married to Joseph) you might legitimately expect to find well over 300 boys named Joshua – who were also Sons of Joseph – running around Jerusalem at the time of Christ. So, even if, for the sake of argument, it were proven to be true that one of the ossuaries was inscribed “Joshua son of Joseph”, it would not be that big of a deal. It would seem to be more far more unlikely to find a box inscribed, Hunan son of Joseph than Joshua son of Joseph. Indeed, Bauckham mentions that the name “Joseph” has been found written on 45 burial ossuaries and that the name “Jesus” is found on 22 ossuaries. Even “Jesus son of Joseph” has turned up on ossuaries at least 3 times. Of course, the vast majority of families, like Jesus family of origin, would never have been able to afford tombs carved in stone and lined with engraved stone coffins.

When the boxes were first found, they were meticulously analyzed and cataloged by well known Israeli archeologist, Amos Kloner. Kloner had this to say in an interview with the Jerusalem Post about Cameron’s documentary: “It is utter nonsense”. Likewise, the President of Jerusalem’s University of the Holy Land, Stephen Pfann, who was interviewed in the documentary, agrees that the film’s hypothesis holds little weight.

Joe Zias, the curator for anthropology and archeology at the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem from 1972 to 1997 was personally responsible for numbering the ossuaries in question. In an e-mail to The Washington Post he stated that Cameron’s documentary was, “a hyped up film which is intellectually and scientifically dishonest.” Zias added, “Simcha [Jacobovici – the director] has no credibility whatsoever.” In an interview with Newsweek, Zias is quoted as saying, “this guy Cameron, who made ‘Titanic’ or something like that—what does this guy know about archeology? I am an archaeologist, but if I were to write a book about brain surgery, you would say, ‘Who is this guy?’ People want signs and wonders. Projects like these make a mockery of the archaeological profession.”

It has been observed by other mathematicians that the statistical analysis of the cluster of names at the site was based on the following four presuppositions:

1.) The name Maria found on one of the ossuaries must refer to the mother of the so-called “Joshua (or Hunan?) son of Joseph”,

2.) Mary Magdalene (whose name, appears on none of ossuaries) must be Jesus’ wife,

3.) Judah son of Joshua must be Jesus’ son by Mary Magdalene

4.) The box inscribed Jose must contain the remains of one of Jesus’ four brothers: Joseph.

Not ONE of these suppositions, however, can be unambiguously supported by statistical, historical, archeological, theological, Biblical or mitochondrial DNA evidence. What is more, there is no control sample of DNA from a known relative of Jesus of Nazareth to use as a comparison.

Notwithstanding, the press kit from James Cameron has compared the statistical significance of finding this cluster of names together to the probability of a future archeologist finding the names of George, John, Paul and Ringo together in a Liverpool cemetery. This has predictably led to some wags in the press corps asking if the Toronto statistician thought that this proves that Jesus is the fifth Beatle.

In the face of scathing scholarly reviews and general ridicule from the popular press, Dr. Feuerverger released this statement after the Lost Tomb was aired: “It is not in the purview of statistics to conclude whether or not this tomb site is that of the New Testament family. Any such conclusion much more rightfully belongs to the purview of biblical historical scholars who are in a much better position to assess the assumptions entering into the computations. The role of statistics here is primarily to attempt to assess the odds of an equally (or more) ‘compelling’ cluster of names arising purely by chance under certain random sampling assumptions and under certain historical assumptions. In this respect I now believe that I should not assert any conclusions connecting this tomb with any hypothetical one of the NT family.” Thank you Doctor.

THE DNA EVIDENCE

As far as the purported DNA “evidence” goes, it simply would never hold up in court. First of all, it is important to understand that by the time the burial boxes were “discovered” by Cameron et.al., they contained no human remains – whatsoever. The ancient ossuaries were first unearthed in an archeological dig that was undertaken over 27 years ago. As is the custom in such a case, the dry bones (stripped clean of any flesh or sinew BEFORE they were ever even placed in such a burial box) were ceremonially removed form the ossuaries and re-buried in unmarked graves – in 1980. The only thing that the film makers could do by way of gathering DNA evidence, therefore, was to take scrapings (derived from who knows what?) off the inside walls of ancient and (now) empty stone boxes. If the bits of encrustation scraped from off these stone boxes correspond in any way to the to the person whose name was on the box (and this, by the way, is a real forensic stretch) all that can be determined thereby is whether or not the DNA so gathered comes from the remains of people who came from the same mother.

Knowing this, Cameron apparently only tested two boxes: 1.) He took scrapings from a box that had contained the bones of someone he identifies as “Jesus son of Joseph” and 2.) He gathered DNA samples from the box that he says had once contained the bones of Mary Magdalene. Remember, these are the same two boxes that Dr. Stephen Pfan asserts have inscriptions that should be interpreted as “Hunan the Son of Joseph” and “Mariamne and Mara” respectively. On account of the fact that the mitochondrial DNA Cameron gathered from these two boxes apparently came from individuals who did not have the same mother, the Cameron and company want their viewers to leap to the conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth and Mary Magdalene must have been husband and wife AND that they had given birth to a Son, Judah, who was buried with them. In light of the fact that there was no box even bearing the name of Mary Magdalene, and possibly no box containing the bones of anyone named Jesus, what would make one think: 1.) That the Judah buried here was Mary Magdalene’s son? And 2.) That the person named Joshua who is named as Judah’s father must have been Jesus of Nazareth. By the way, no test was done to see if rock dust from the Judah box may have had maternal ties to the remains of Mariamne or Mara or Maria or any of the former (possibly female) occupants of the four unmarked boxes.

Talk about a “leap of faith”. No mention is made of the fact that the box that they say once contained the bones of Jesus cannot be connected scientifically with anyone named Jesus, let alone Jesus of Nazareth. Moreover, they ignore the possibility that the DNA from the box that they identify as having once contained the bones of Mary Magdalene – only shows (with a significant margin a error) that Hunan (the more likely occupant of the “Jesus” box) and Mariamne OR Mara (the probable two female occupants of the so-called Mary Magdalene box) have no perceivable matrilineal ties. They fail to point out, moreover, that either Mariamne or Mara could have been married to one of the other males in the tomb – or that one of these two women could have been Hunan’s sisters by a different father – or a beloved aunt (on his father’s side) or – Ringo Star’s great-great…great-grandmother. When asked why he didn’t have the remains of Judah tested to see if he was maternally related to the remains of Mara or Mariamne (or Maria) and why no test was run to see if the supposed remains of Jesus were maternally related to the casket marked with Mary’s name, Cameron said that the cost of the tests became an issue. Really? Our advice to the Discovery Channel: “Stick to American Chopper. And while you are at it, ask Paulie whether or not he believes that Cameron has found the lost tomb of Jesus.”

The faith of Christians is not built upon an unsubstantiated myth; there were hundreds of eye witnesses to Christ’s resurrection. Many of them died rather than deny their faith. Now, while it is true that certain individuals have been known to die for sincerely held beliefs (that may or may not have been true), we do not know of anyone who has been willing to die for the sake of something they KNEW to be a hoax – of the sort Cameron purports to have been hatched by the early church. The first century martyrs could have easily been spared cruel and untimely deaths had they only been willing to recant their testimony that Jesus had literally and physically been raised from the dead. Would they not have done so if they knew that what they were asserting was false? Even thousands of years later, it takes more faith to believe in James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici than to stand upon the sworn testimony of the early saints signed – as it was – in blood. If this is not is our persuasion then, as far as our personal experience is concerned, Jesus Christ may as well be dead.

As we have examined the evidence, however, we have come to find that, in our opinion – and in the estimation of the vast majority of scholars, James Cameron and the Discovery Channel have launched a mockumentary so full of holes it makes the Titanic look unsinkable. The Washington Post reports that William G. Dever (mentioned above as excavating ancient sites in Israel for 50 years) offered the following: “It’s a publicity stunt and it will make these guys very rich, and it will upset millions of innocent people because they don’t know enough to separate fact from fiction.” In spite of this, a companion book, “The Jesus Family Tomb,” has rocketed to sixth place on The New York Times “nonfiction” best-seller list. The problem is, when the same story was told before, people believed it. Gullible people will believe it again.

And so it is written: “And it came to pass that pseudo-scholars and film makers accepted large sums of money to read from a script handed down to them by a rich producer. And the story they staged is being widely circulated among credulous people via print and television media – even to this very day.” (Hezekiah. 43:18-19)


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