March 9, 2007


The tomb of Jesus?

The annual attempt to discredit Christianity started a bit early this year. Usually, it happens just before Holy Week, but this year it started during the first week of Lent.

Early last week, NBC’s “Today” show publicized a documentary that was shown on the Discovery Channel on March 4 called “The Lost Tomb of Jesus.” The video was produced by James Cameron and directed by Simcha Jacobovici, both of whom were interviewed on the “Today” show before a news conference.

They, of course, had sensational news: The burial place of Jesus and members of his family had been found! They had ossuaries to prove it. (Ossuaries are small caskets that were used by the Jews in the Holy Land to keep the bones of the dead. They were usually collected a year after the bodies were put in tombs and allowed to decay.)

We, of course, have heard about ossuaries before. The last time was an ossuary that was reputed to contain the bones of “James the brother of Jesus” in an attempt to show that the Catholic belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity wasn’t true. Of course, it did nothing of the kind. Even if the bones were authentic, James might have been the son of Joseph by a previous marriage—the most ancient belief about the brothers of Jesus.

At their news conference, Jacobovici and Cameron displayed two of the 10 ossuaries discovered in 1980 in a suburb of Jerusalem. One of the two, they claimed, once held the bones of Jesus. The other held the bones of Mary Magdalene. They knew this, they said, because the name on the ossuary was “Mariameme” and that, they said, was the name of Mary Magdalene in early Christian texts.

Furthermore, they said, one of the other ossuaries discovered has written on it “Judah, son of Jesus.”

One can just imagine the glee that Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, must be feeling. “See, I told you so,” he must be thinking. “Jesus and Mary Magdalene had children.”

And, oh yes, there’s still another ossuary that supposedly contained the bones of Mary, Jesus’ mother. That would mean that she wasn’t assumed into heaven, as the Catholic Church teaches.

Naturally, most reputable archaeologists think the whole thing is preposterous. The “discovery” back in 1980 was well-known, but given little credence. A documentary on the same subject was shown in 1996 by the British Broadcasting Corp., and archaeologists disclaimed it at that time.

The first archaeologist to examine the site of the discovery, Amos Kloner, said that the idea that it was the burial site of Jesus and his family failed to hold up to archaeological standards but made for profitable television.

Jodi Magness, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who earned a Ph.D. in classical archaeology, addressed the documentary’s claims in an online editorial at the Web site of the Archaeological Institute of America.

She noted that Cameron and Jacobovici’s overall argument rests on “a string of problematic and unsubstantiated claims.”

Their claim to have found the ossuaries of Jesus and his family, Magness writes, is inconsistent with both the record of the Gospels and early Christian traditions as well as other historical and archaeological evidence about Jewish burial practices in the first century.

“It is a sensationalistic claim without any scientific basis or support,” Magness wrote.

Beyond its desire to see its field advanced in a scientific manner, the American Institute of America has no vested interest in this matter. It does not seek to defend traditional Christian beliefs.

Therefore, we believe the condemnation of the documentary’s claims by this organization should be given significant credence by the broader public in the argument over where Jesus was buried and if that place tells us anything about his family.

We, as Catholics, ultimately have nothing to fear from the findings of the scientific community.

But if Cameron, Jacobovici and those who support the claims of their documentary take seriously the claims of Kloner and the American Institute of Archaeology, then they have something to fear—namely, the loss of revenue from sales of their books and copies of their documentary.

— John F. Fink

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