Tomb of Jesus theory challenged
Published 2/28/07 in The Times-Herald
By W. WINSTON SKINNER
Dr. Jim Fleming says the current theory that a tomb in Jerusalem is that of
Jesus and his family is highly unlikely.
Fleming, founder of Explorations in Antiquity in LaGrange, said there is little evidence to indicate the tomb — being touted by filmmaker James Cameron as the tomb of Jesus and his family — is Jesus' tomb and much evidence that it is not.
Filmmakers and researchers on Monday unveiled two ancient stone boxes they
said may have once contained the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, according
to The Associated Press. "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," produced by Cameron and
scheduled to air Sunday at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel, argues that 10 small
caskets, called ossuaries, discovered in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb may have
held the bones of Jesus and his family.
In the first century, bodies were placed in a tomb. After they had decomposed, bones were placed in ossuaries.
One of the caskets bears the title, "Judah, son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus may have had a son, according to the film. The claim that Jesus even had an ossuary contradicts the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.
"It's hard to imagine a more clear illustration of misuse of scientific
evidence," Fleming said Tuesday morning at Explorations in Antiquity.
Fleming is a professing Christian who has spent his adult life looking at the Bible — and the gospels in particular — in the light of science and history. He has served on the editorial board of Biblical Archaeology Review since 1980.
For some 25 years, he headed the World of the Bible Archaeological Museum and Pilgrim Center at Ein Karem, Jerusalem. The threat of terrorism turned the flood of visitors to the Jerusalem site to a trickle, and it closed in 2006.
Explorations in Antiquity follows a similar theme. The LaGrange facility features replicas of actual tombs from the Old and New Testament eras, a village well, a Bedouin tent, a watchtower and the town gate. The New Testament tomb is much like the one that is the subject of Cameron's film.
Cameron's film builds on the retelling of Jesus' story as popularized in Dan Brown's novel, "The DaVinci Code," and the movie it inspired. Brown's story suggested Jesus married Mary Magdalene and fathered a child. Though Brown claimed the story was grounded in truth, most scholars found the Jesus-Mary Magdalene story without merit.
There even have been stories that the image of John, the Apostle, from DaVinci's "The Last Supper" is Judas, the son of Jesus. During the media blitz surrounding Brown's novel, it was suggested the figure was a female, Mary Magdalene.
Fleming said DaVinci's own sketches and notes make it clear he intended the
figure to be John. "There's an agenda to prove something," Fleming stated.
Fleming said a true archaeologist goes to a site expecting nothing specific. He said the Jesus' tomb story is an example of looking at evidence and finding a preconceived "fact."
When the tomb was found in 1980, it was duly noted by Israeli authorities. There are ossuaries in the tomb marked Miriam/Mary, Joseph and Matthew, as well as the Judas ossuary. Another has an inscription that some have interpreted as "Jesus," though not all experts who have seen it agree.
"This kind of tomb was used for about 100 years," Fleming said, and dates from 30 BC-70 AD. During that time period, there would have been about 150,000 women in the Jerusalem area. An examination of names from known ossuaries from the period would indicate about 60,000 of those women would have been named Miriam, the Hebrew name translated as Mary in the Greek New Testament.
The other names found in the tomb were also extremely common, Fleming said. There would have been about 21,000 Josephs, 15,000 Judases, 13,000 Jesuses and 7,500 Matthews during that time period.
While there is "a very slight chance this could be the family of Jesus," Fleming said many facts point in the other direction. He noted:
* There is considerable information in the New Testament and church tradition about Jesus' family. There is no mention of a family member named Matthew, but there are no ossuaries for known family members such as James and Salome.
* The New Testament relates that Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent "elder" who was a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, allowed Jesus' body to be placed in his newly hewn family tomb. There are no ossuaries in the 1980 site that would appear to be those of Joseph or members of his family.
* There was "a continuity of followers of Jesus" in Jerusalem from the end of his earthly ministry until the first Christian church was built there around 300 AD, Fleming said. He said it is highly unlikely that the site where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is now located is not the site of Jesus' tomb. Fleming also noted that excavations show there is a first century tomb beneath the church.
* It was customary in first century Palestine to identify people from the local area by their lineage and people from other areas by their town of origin. The fact that the ossuaries for Jesus and Mary have no geographical identifier indicates they are not likely to be those of the biblical figures, but rather people from Judea. They would have likely been identified as "Jesus of Nazareth" and "Mary of Magdala" had they been buried in Jerusalem.
* Many scholars have been aware of the 1980 tombs, but until the success of "DaVinci" no one seriously suggested the tomb might be that of Jesus of Nazareth. Amos Kloner, the Jewish archaeologist who found the site, did not reach that conclusion. Comment on the tombs is not new. Fleming noted there was a BBC documentary on them in the 1990s.
Fleming worked to make Arabs, Jews and Christians welcome at the museum area in Jerusalem. He still works with the Israeli government training Jewish and Arab tour guides to lead tours of sites with Christian significance. "I just came back from Israel last week," he said.
In addition to the television special by Cameron, who is probably best known as producer of "Titanic," a book, "The Jesus Family Tomb," by Canadian writer Simcha Jacobovici and Dr. Charles Pellegrino was recently published.
Cameron and Jacobovici found scholars to support their theories. AP reported a panel of scholars joined them at the New York Public Library for an announcement of the project Monday.
***James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North
Carolina at Charlotte, said that while literal interpreters of the Bible say
Jesus' physical body rose from the dead, "one might affirm resurrection in a
more spiritual way in which the husk of the body is left behind."