Just this morning I read in my newspaper that the Discovery Channel is going to air a documentary this coming Sunday entitled “The Lost Tomb of Christ,” produced by James Cameron (of Titanic fame). I’m posting this “response” as a sort of “head’s up,” and I ‘m going to stick my neck out and offer a critique before I’ve even seen it – based only on what I read in the paper and was able to find on internet over the last hour. This isn’t the normal or best way of going about things, but I’m doing so because a) these sorts of sensationalist documentaries catch some people off guard and shake them up pretty badly if they’re not prepared, and b) from the little I ‘ve been able to learn about this documentary, and from what I know about first century Jewish cultural practices, the thesis of this documentary doesn’t really deserve any more attention than what I’m here going to give it here.
The documentary will apparently argue that scholars have discovered the remains of Jesus and his family! It turns out that, not only did Jesus not rise from the dead, he was married to Mary Magdalene and had a son (named Judas).
Dan Brown’s gotta be loving this!
Actually, there is no new discovery to report. This is rather nothing more than a highly sensationalized, guaranteed-to-make money, astoundingly uncritical, new interpretation of an old discovery. The discovery this documentary is based on actually happened in 1980, when a tomb was discovered in a suburb of southern Jerusalem. It contained 10 ossuaries (small caskets used to store decomposed remains). One ossuary contains the inscription “Jesus, son of Joseph” and another “Judah, son of Jesus.” (There’s apparently some dispute over whether the inscription really says “Jesus,” but lets assume that it does). Other ossuaries contain references to Mary and Martha. On this basis, the documentary claims that buried in this tomb are the Jesus of the Gospels along with his wife, son, and other family members.
If this thesis is proved true, it could perhaps have some theological consequences. (Ya think?)
At the same time, I’m honestly not worried. Here’s five brief objections that immediately come to mind.
1) “Jesus” and “Joseph” are two of the most common names for males in first century Jewish culture, as are “Mary” and “Martha” for women. The fact that we discovered a tomb with a Jesus, Joseph, Martha, and Mary associated together is about as surprising as finding a Jim Johnson, Mary Anderson, and Sue Olsen in a Minnesota graveyard. It is statistically insignificant. Hence the claim that these names refer to biblical characters is arbitrary.
2) If Jesus’ family and friends buried him in this tomb, and knew he was the biological son of Joseph, they obviously would have known that the message they (and the other early followers of Jesus) were preaching was a lie. But this requires we accept that the earliest Christians were preaching - and laying down their lives for – a known fabrication. I can think of no historical hypothesis more implausible than this one. Consider also that among these early disciples was James, the brother of Jesus. What could possibly motivate a man to make up such stories about his own brother and then be willing to die for them (we know from Josephus, as well as the New Testament, that James was martyred in 62 AD).
3) The theory that this tomb contains the remains of Jesus and his family requires not only that we accept that the earliest Christians were liars; we also have to believe they were profoundly stupid. Why? Because they left their fabricated story (for which they were willing to die) open to refutation by inscripting this “truth” on these ossuaries: Jesus didn’t rise from the dead and he had an earthly father. I see no evidence that the earliest disciples were close to being this unethical or idiotic.
4) The documentary will apparently appeal to DNA evidence. This really surprised me. What could DNA possibly tell us as it concerns the identity of the people buried in this tomb? It could at the most show that the people in the tomb are related to one another, but this would hardly be surprising since they’re all buried in the same family tomb! DNA evidence certainly couldn’t show that any of these folks have anything to do with the Jesus (or any other figure) of the Bible. We would need to have Jesus’ DNA, independent of the tomb discovery, in order to compare it with the DNA of the folks in the tomb. But this, of course, we do not have. I honestly suspect the DNA stuff will be introduced just to give the documentary a more “scientific” feel (I’ve seen this ploy used on other documentaries on the Discovery Channel. It seems to legitimize the project, even if it’s irrelevant to it).
5) It was customary for first century Jewish males to be buried in their hometown or in the town of their forefathers. Jesus’ ancestral line comes through Bethlehem and he grew up in Nazareth. So why on earth would he and his family be buried in Jerusalem? Also, we learn from a fourth century historian (Eusebius) that many people would visit the shrine of James, Jesus brother – and it wasn’t at Talpiot, where this family tomb was unearthed. Yet, if this was the burial site of Jesus’ family, this is precisely where one would expect to find James buried.
I’m sure that after I watch this documentary I’ll have much more to say. I seriously doubt I’ll have anything to detract. This honestly strikes me as just one more example of the kind of shock-the -world and expose-the-“truth”-about-Christianity hype that comes along at least once a year. It almost always relies on people being utterly uninformed about history.
The documentary’s one redeeming quality is that it might get people thinking and talking about Jesus. And this provides we who are followers of Jesus an opportunity to share the very compelling historical reason we have for believing Jesus did not remain in the tomb and that he is, in fact, the revelation of God and Savior of the world.