‘The Jesus family tomb’: Experts dismiss wild claims

Apr 2007    

THERE is yet another attempt, with media hype and all, to try to destabilise the foundations of Christianity. In a new Discovery TV documentary, Hollywood producer James Cameron who made the movie “The Titanic”, and Jewish director Simcha Jacobovici attempt to prove that Jesus’ burial cave and body were discovered near Jerusalem. They further cite evidence that Jesus sired a son with Mary Magdalene. But these sensational claims crumble easily in the light of serious scholarship.

On Feb 26, 2007 in New York, Cameron displayed artifacts at a news conference that he said “might have come from the tomb of Jesus, which once contained His remains, those of Mary Magdalene, and possibly their son, Judah”.

Cameron and a team of scholars showed two stone ossuaries, or bone boxes. The findings are the subject of a documentary he produced called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus” and a book entitled The Family Tomb of Jesus. The two small caskets were part of 10 found in 1980 during construction in south Jerusalem. Several had inscriptions translated as “Jesus”, “Mary Magdalene” and “Judah, son of Jesus”, Cameron told the news conference.

In Jerusalem, Amos Kloner, the Israeli archaeologist who carried out excavations at the tomb on behalf of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, disputed the documentary’s conclusions. He said the 2,000-year-old cave contained coffins belonging to a Jewish family whose names were similar to those of Jesus and His relatives.

So now the sensational claim is that the account of Jesus Christ’s bodily resurrection and ascension was a hoax.

The Scriptures, though, state clearly that Jesus physically rose from the dead, was seen alive by more than 500 followers at once, spent 40 days teaching His disciples, and then ascended into heaven.

An article posted on Y-ZINE.com said: ‘Before we get caught up in another Da Vinci type conspiracy, let’s look at the facts behind Cameron’s claims:

1. In 1980, 10 limestone bone boxes (ossuaries) dated to the 1st century were discovered in an excavated tomb in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot.

2. Six inscriptions were discovered with names similar to or the same as some of Jesus Christ’s family and disciples: Jesua, son of Joseph; Mary; Mariamene e Mara; Mathew; Jofa; Judah, son of Jesua.

3. Cameron attempts to prove that Mariamene e Mara is Mary of Magdalene.

4. DNA analysis identifies that tissues from the ossuaries of Jesua and Mariamene e Mara were not related, raising the possibility they may have been married and had a child.

So, what are the odds that this is Jesus’ tomb? According to Cameron and Jacobovici, the statistical improbability of these names belonging to another family than that of Jesus Christ is 600 to 1. However, scholars challenge many of the assumptions in their interpretation of the facts. Let’s look:

1. It is true that these ossuaries were discovered in an ancient tomb. But thousands of similar tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem. And ossuaries were often used for the bones of more than one individual. In fact, according to Dr Craig Evans, author of Jesus and the Ossuaries, the tomb carried the bones of almost 35 different individuals, and about half were from these ossuaries. There was considerable contamination of the site.

2. Are Cameron and Jacobovici correct about the names they assert are on the ossuaries? Not according to many experts. Some were written in Aramaic, others in Hebrew, and another in Greek. This indicates they were not buried in a similar time period. It is not even clear that “Jesus” is named on any of the ossuaries. Dr Evans’s personal examination of the ossuary was inconclusive. Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, is also unsure that the name “Jesus” on the caskets was read correctly. Ancient Semitic script is notoriously difficult to decipher.

Additionally, it should be noted that the names of Jesus, Mary and Joseph were extremely common in the 1st century.

About 25 per cent of the women in Jesus’ days were named Mary. Joseph was also a common name. And about one in 10 had the name, “Jesua”. Dr Evans indicates that about 100 tombs have been discovered in Jerusalem with the name “Jesus” and 200 with the name “Joseph”. The name “Mary” is on one out of every four ossuaries discovered.

Each name, with the exception of Mariamene, seemed common to their period, and it was only in 1996 that the BBC made a film suggesting that, given the combination, it might be that family. The idea was eventually discounted, however, because, as New Testament expert Richard. Bauckham asserted in a subsequent book, “the names with Biblical resonance are so common that even when you run the probabilities on the group, the odds of it being the famous Jesus’ family are ‘very low’.”

3. The statistical support for the entire “Jesus tomb” theory rises or falls on the question of Mary Magdalene. So did the name Mariamene e Mara mean Mary Magdalene, as Cameron and Jacobovici attempt to prove? Not according to most experts. Their interpretation is simply not supported by evidence.

4. But what about the DNA tests? Doesn’t that prove Jesus was in the tomb? Let’s look closer at what the DNA test measured. It took residue (there were no bones to examine) from the ossuaries Jacobovici identified as belonging to both Jesua and Mariamene, and used mitochondrial DNA testing to see if they were related. The results proved to be negative, indicating that the two individuals were not related maternally. He thus assumes the two were married. But Bauckham writes, “If ‘Jesus’ and ‘Mariamene’ weren’t related matrilineally, why jump to the conclusion that they were husband and wife, rather than being related through their fathers?’’

It is the fact that these particular names have been discovered in the same tomb that has fuelled speculation that it really could be Jesus’ tomb. But scholars believe Cameron and Jacobovici have skewed the evidence to build a case that just isn’t there.’

In short, this is just another spurious and sensationalised attempt to discredit Christianity. It seems to be the fashion these days to try this every Easter. All the more we can be certain that the Christian faith in the resurrection of Jesus stands on solid ground, and cannot be dismissed so easily, however much the hype is.


Who are you a neighbour to?

Who are you a neighbour to?

Sep 2020     Who are you a neighbour to? The COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect our lives, despite the easing of control measures. For those who have fewer resources and are more likely to lose their jobs, the impact is substantially heavier. From a Christian perspective, the current pandemic is providing followers with...
Education as a missions endeavour

Education as a missions endeavour

Sep 2020     “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” (Prov 22:6) Japanese gardens provide a stunning visual experience—trees are beautifully shaped in ways that are very pleasing to the eye. The clever gardener can envision the potential beauty of...