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.