Has the tomb of Jesus been found?

by Matt Slick

James Cameron, the Oscar winning Hollywood director who brought us the Terminator and Titanic movies, along with Simcha Jacobovici, a producer-director, have made a documentary (to be aired March 4, 2007) that alleges they have found the tomb of Jesus and that the evidence therein shows Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, had at least one child named Judah, and, of course, that Jesus did not physically rise from the dead.

On March 28, 1980, just outside of Jerusalem in the neighborhood of Talpiyot, construction workers tombaccidentally uncovered a 2000-year old cave holding 10 ossuaries. An ossuary is a burial box used to store bones. Six of the 10 ossuaries had names on them: "Jesus, son of Joseph; Maria; Mariamene; Matthew; Judas, son of Jesus; and Jose, a diminutive of Joseph."1 The allegation is that Jesua is Jesus, one of the Maries is his mother, the second is his wife, Mariamene is Mary Magdalene, that Matthew is a disciple, and Judas is Jesus' son; hence, the claim that it is the tomb of Jesus.

When the ossuaries were first discovered, the bones were removed and buried. (I could not find out what happened to them, but it appears they are lost). Later, scientists examined the ossuaries and found "forensic evidence" inside the containers. They did DNA tests on the remnant biological material and found that Jesua and Mariamene are not genetically related. This implies that they were a couple--not siblings. In other words, it would be similar to having a mother, a father, and a son buried in the same tomb. The child would be related genetically to the mother and the father. But, the mother and the father would not be genetically related to each other; that is, they wouldn't have the same parents. The facts seem to be there, but what does it mean?

Note: At the end of this paper are important issues and questions regarding the tomb and the ossuaries that argue against this being the actual tomb of Jesus.

What should be our reaction to the find?

What I'm going to say here may surprise a lot of Christians, but we should be open-minded about the evidence and not dismiss it in a knee-jerk reaction ossuaryand say it is a hoax or a conspiracy. If the evidence is factual and stands up to cross-examination, then we need to deal with it as the set of facts they are. If Christianity is true, then it should fear no facts--and neither should its adherents.

However, please understand that if the archaeological evidence is verified, the tomb and ossuaries do not disprove Christianity. They only demonstrate that there is a family tomb from the time of Jesus with the same names of those found in the gospel accounts--which can have other explanations as you'll see below. Remember, the gospels are eyewitness' accounts and are substantially different in evidentiary value than empty ossuaries with biblical names inscribed on the outside. There is a huge difference between their regarding their interpretive and evidentiary significance.

Examine the evidence

The evidence needs to be examined!  If it stands, it stands.  If it falls, let it fall.  But, what would be substantial evidence against Christianity is if bones were discovered in an ossuary or tomb containing something like Jesus' name on it stating he was the son of Joseph from Nazareth, the worker of miracles, and the bones had nail marks in the wrists and feet.  That would be highly significant.  Nevertheless, for Christians to automatically dismiss the evidence without first examining it is to forfeit credibility in the eyes of unbelievers--many of whom already think that Christians are irrational and refuse to believe facts. Facts shouldn't worry us. 

We have an opportunity to present a rational, non-emotional position and demonstrate that our faith is not so weak that our first reaction to the claim that Jesus' tomb has been found is to dismiss before even looking at it. Let's think and examine.  Now, without a body, it is difficult to establish Jesus' death, burial, and lack of resurrection.  In fact, not having a body is exactly what the gospel accounts says, and that seems to be the case with the ossuaries.  Remember, though they once did have bones in them, those bones are lost and cannot be examined.  So, it cannot be stated whose bones they were or if the bones matched the genetic material found within.  That, combined with the fact that families often used ossuaries to hold up to six generations would make determining whose bones they were extremely difficult. 

We should be reminded that looking at evidence and using logic is what Jesus taught us to do. Jesus said to doubting Thomas in John 20:27, “Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing.” Jesus himself urged Thomas to examine the evidence and believe based on that evidence. In other words, Jesus taught to examine evidence and make a logical conclusion based up it. Of course, the Bible verse presupposes Jesus' resurrection is a fact, but still the principle to examine evidence is taught in Scripture. Shouldn't we do what Jesus taught?

Christians, don't make these mistakes

The initial response by a lot of Christians will be to react emotionally. But, I have some suggestions.

  1. Don't make the mistake of saying that the evidence can't be true because a Hollywood movie director made the documentary.
    1. Just because an unbeliever makes a film claiming he has found the tomb of Jesus, doesn't mean what is in it is false. Unbelievers can discover truth. So, don't dismiss it outright.
  2. Don't make the mistake of saying the evidence is false because it disagrees with your beliefs.
    1. Beliefs don't make something true--for example, Mormons believe God came from another planet. Believing it doesn't make it so. Nevertheless, Christian beliefs are based on evidence, i.e., the eyewitness' accounts in the gospels, the resurrection of Christ, etc. So, if we look at facts in one area, we should continue to do so in other areas.
  3. Don't make the mistake of concluding that if the evidence is verified under cross-examination, that it means Christianity isn't true.
    1. At best all it shows is that there is a family tomb with common biblical names inscribed on ossuaries. This isn't proof of anything contrary to the gospel accounts. There are no bones in the ossuaries. In other words, there is no body; and this cannot be demonstrated to be Jesus' tomb.
  4. Don't blow a good witnessing opportunity
    1. This topic will generate discussion. So, print up a few copies of this article, have them ready to give to people, and discuss the real issue of Christ's resurrection which demonstrates who he was and what he did. This way you can then have an opportunity to present the gospel.
    2. Again, don't just dismiss it outright. Use it.

Critics don't make these mistakes

Likewise, I suspect the initial response by critics of Christianity will be to jump on the bandwagon and say that Christianity is proven false without examining the evidence or considering counter arguments and questions. So, I have some suggestions for the critics as well.

  1. Don't assume that what is presented in a documentary is automatically fact.
    1. Wait until it is cross-examined before making assertions. In other words, get both sides of the argument before making judgments.
  2. Make sure your conclusions are logical--not merely inferential
    1. If the evidence is factual, what does it mean? Does it prove that it was Jesus in the ossuary? Not at all. Does it prove Christianity is false? Hardly. If you are eager to find contradictory evidence, don't let your eagerness blind your objectivity.
  3. Don't jump on the band-wagon and start condemning Christianity because the findings can be interpreted against it.
    1. There are important issues and questions to be raised as you will see in the next section. Those questions and others like them are relevant to the discussion on what the evidence means and need to be addressed before drawing "absolute" conclusions.
  4. Don't make the mistake of concluding that if the evidence is verified under cross-examination it means Christianity is false. It doesn't.
    1. It only means that a family tomb with ossuaries containing biblical names has been discovered. This is evidence, but it can be legitimately interpreted in different ways--see below. But, is it conclusive proof that Christianity is false? Not at all. It isn't proof they have found the tomb of Jesus.

Important issues and questions

Following is a list of issues and questions that I think are worth examining regarding this recent discovery.

  1. The names on the ossuaries were very common at that time.
    1. "Charlesworth of Princeton Theological Seminary says he has a first-century letter written by someone named Jesus, addressed to someone else named Jesus and witnessed by a third party named Jesus."2 This demonstrates the commonality of the name Jesus. Isn't it likely that other names would be common as well? Think about it. The name "Mary" occurs in the gospels several times in reference to different women. Also, if Christianity were on the rise in the culture, it makes sense that people would adopt Christian names as they eagerly moved away from the imposing Roman Empire's rule. This would increase the name frequency.
    2. "'Jesus' and 'Joseph' were common names of the time, and another ossuary bearing the same inscription [Jesus son of Joseph] was revealed by archaeologist Eleazar Levi Sukenik in a 1931 lecture in Berlin. However, this ossuary is set apart by its presence in a tomb alongside others bearing names associated with Jesus' family . . . "3 The fact is that "Jesus son of Joseph" exists elsewhere in archaeological findings.
    3. 25% of the Jewish women in the first-century Judea had the same name of Mary.4 Again, this is evidence of a very common name usage.
  2. The ossuaries are inscribed in different languages: Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek.
    1. Jesus, James, Judah are inscribed in Aramaic. Yose (Jose, Joseph), Maria, and Matthew are in Hebrew. "Marianmene e Mara" (Mary Magdelene) is the only one written in Greek. If the tomb is of Jesus' family, why are the inscriptions in different languages?
    2. Does this suggest that different individuals, perhaps in different times and of different backgrounds, were buried in the tomb? Remember, families used the same tomb and ossuaries for generations. Therefore, we can expect to find the same tomb to have ossuaries with different inscriptions, in different languages, along with similar DNA since the same families would be using them. See point 5 below.
  3. The Inscription dates are from 1 B.C to 1 A.D.
    1. "Frank Moore Cross, a professor emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "The inscriptions are from the Herodian Period (which occurred from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.). The use of limestone ossuaries and the varied script styles are characteristic of that time."5
    2. This is important because the gospel accounts record Jesus' life up to 33 years of age. If Jesus lived long enough to get married, have a child, etc., it would be after he was 33. If Jesus died around A.D. 50 (just picking a date), then how do we account for Jesus' bones being buried in an ossuary that has an inscription dated from about 1 B.C.? Shouldn't the inscription be dated to some time after, say A.D. 33? This is solid evidence against the ossuaries being of Jesus' family.
  4. Families were buried in their hometowns.
    1. In this case it would have been Nazaret--not Jerusalem. Jesus was known as Jesus of Nazareth. If this really is the tomb of the biblical Jesus, then why is he buried somewhere other than his hometown, Nazareth? This would have gone against Jewish culture and custom.
    2. Also, shouldn't the burial inscription have read "Jesus of Nazareth" or "Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph" if it were the Jesus of the New Testament?
    3. There was a two-day burial window under Jewish law. This meant that a person had to be buried within two days of death. Therefore, he might not be buried in his hometown. However, after the body decomposed and only the bones were left, it would be appropriate to move them. Since ossuaries contained only bones, why is it located in Jerusalem and not Nazareth?
  5. The same ossuaries were used for generations to store bones.
    1. Point two is supported by the fact the same ossuaries were used for several generations to house bones--sometimes containing as many as six sets. This would mean that the contents therein could be of family members long after the time of Christ. It could even be of non genetically related individuals, by marriage, who get added to the tomb later on--which might explain why the inscriptions are in different languages.
    2. Having similar genetics in the ossuaries doesn't prove it is Jesus' tomb. It only proves there are similar genetics. There is no known way to establish that the genetics in the ossuaries are those of Jesus. At best, it can only be inferred and inferences are not fact.
  6. The family of Jesus was poor. Joseph was a carpenter and couldn't afford such an elaborate burial.
    1. To have a tomb and various ossuaries made was an expensive undertaking. Since Joseph was a carpenter, Jesus would've learned his trade from his father. Carpenters were not rich. Therefore, how is the existence of an expensive tomb with ossuaries explained in light of this information if it is supposed to be at the family of Jesus? This does not support the idea that it was Jesus’ tomb. In fact, it speaks against it.
  7. What of the existing documents (gospels).
    1. The gospels in the New Testament are excellently preserved historical documents that are consistent with the time, place, and culture in which they claim to describe. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then what about the gospels accounts? Are they fakes, compilations, lies, forgeries, or legitimate and accurate historical documents?
    2. Are these eyewitness' accounts contained in the gospels less valuable than names on ossuaries found in a tomb? Surely, an explanation needs to be established to account for the claims of the gospel accounts if in fact they were lies or fabrications.
  8. If the gospels are used to verify the names on the ossuaries, why are they not also used to verify that Jesus rose from the dead?
    1. There seems to be an inconsistency in using the Gospels to verify the names on the ossuaries but then deny the claim of those same Gospels concerning Jesus' resurrection. Why accept the names but reject the resurrection when both are described in the same documents? Is it because the presuppositions of those who examine the evidence do not allow for the miraculous? If that is the case, then beliefs are forced upon evidence; and the evidence is interpreted in light of those beliefs.
    2. Please see the articles related to this topic: Since the New Testament writers were biased, can we trust their testimony?; The Christians were mistaken about Jesus' resurrection; The Disciples stole Jesus' body and faked His resurrection.
  9. The Acts of Phillip.
    1. In the book, The Acts of Phillip, is the term "Mariamene" which some scholars think it refers to Mary Magdelene. Therefore, the inscription in the tomb which uses that term has been linked to the biblical Mary Magdelene via this old document. However, the oldest copy of the Acts of Phillip is from the fourteenth century and is a copy of a fourth century text.6 How reliable is the document known as the Acts of Phillip? "The text is generally considered to have been a late 4th or early 5th century fantasy, involving miracles and supposedly clever dialogue, which it claims caused Phillip to win many converts."7 So, is phrase in a fantasy-based document evidence that Jesus married Mary Magdelene?
  10. Why aren't there any accounts of Jesus having a family recorded in any reputable ancient writings?
    1. This is, essentially, an argument of silence and is not the best argument. Nevertheless, there is no credible historical evidence suggesting that Jesus had a family. If Jesus were that important of a figure and if he had a family, in contradiction to the gospel accounts, then why are there no reliable records of this recorded anywhere?
    2. If Jesus had a son and a wife and was walking around Israel, it would have been around the time that the gospels were being circulated which were initially written anywhere from the 40's to the 60's--with John possibly written later. See "When were the gospels written and by whom?" You'd think that the Jews and Romans would have countered the circulating gospels by simply saying, "Hey, Jesus lives with his wife and son over in Jerusalem."
    3. Also, after the gospels had been circulating and Jesus' son was alive and well (as the ossuary evidence has been interpreted to support), certainly someone (Jewish and/or Roman) would have documented that Jesus indeed had a son in contradiction to the widening distribution of the gospel records. After all, both the Jews and the Romans had reasons to not want Christianity to flourish. So, why are there no such accounts of Jesus' son in existence?
  11. Why didn't the critics of Christianity produce Jesus' body?
    1. This is similar to point ten. Since the Jewish culture as well as the Roman authorities did not want Jesus' resurrection to be believed since it contradicted both of their theological and social power structures and if Jesus did get married and have children, then why is there no record of those authorities producing the person and/or body of Jesus? You'd think this would have been settled long ago if Jesus really did live and breathe after the gospels' recorded resurrection and Acts account of his ascension.
  12. Statistical analysis of the names
    1. How do they know which names were and were not common in those days? Isn't this a relevant question to ask when making statistical analysis? Joseph, Jesus, and Mary were very common names at the time. As Christianity grew, it would make sense that people would take the names of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, etc., as a sign of respect for and identification with their Christian beliefs.
    2. Statistics can be manipulated. We're not suggesting that these statistics were; but there needs to be an explanation dealing with how common the names were in the culture at that time, and the criteria needs to be examined.
    3. Even if the statistical analysis shows the coincidence to be improbable, it still does not demonstrate that Jesus was in the ossuary. After all there are too many other questions and problems that counter that conclusion.
  13. Counter evidence
    1. Archaeologist says it isn't Jesus' tomb. "In 1996, when the BBC aired a short documentary on the same subject, archaeologists challenged the claims. Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea [of the tomb being that of Jesus] fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television . . . It was an ordinary middle-class Jerusalem burial cave . . . The names on the caskets are the most common names found among Jews at the time . . . The cave, it [Kloner's report] said, was probably in use by three or four generations of Jews from the beginning of the Common Era. It was disturbed in antiquity, and vandalized. The names on the boxes were common in the first century (25 percent of women in Jerusalem, for example, were called Miriam or a derivative)."8
    2. Incorrect reading of names? "Pfann [a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem] is even unsure that the name "Jesus" on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it's more likely the name 'Hanun.'"9
    3. Alternate burial site locations. "James Tabor, a Biblical scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the leading academic voice who lends enthusiastic, if qualified, support to Jacobovici's claims, wrote that he looked for, and found, a legendary tomb of Jesus near the city of Safed."10
  • 1. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17328478/site/newsweek/page/2/
  • 2. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17328478/site/newsweek/page/4/
  • 3. http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/tomb/explore/explore.html
  • 4. http://dsc.discovery.com/convergence/tomb/explore/explore.html under Maria
  • 5. http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/02-25-2007/0004533923&EDATE=
  • 6. http://www.prnewswire.com/cgi-bin/stories.pl?ACCT=104&STORY=/www/story/02-25-2007/0004533923&EDATE=
  • 7. http://www.answers.com/topic/acts-of-phillip
  • 8. http://www.cnn.com/2007/TECH/science/02/26/jesus.sburial.ap/index.html
  • 9. Ibid.
  • 10. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17328478/site/newsweek/page/4/

 

 

 

 
 
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