Sunday, March 04, 2007

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph...NOT!

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"The man who brought you 'Titanic' is back with another blockbuster," a recent article on the Web site trumpeted. "This time, the ship he's sinking is Christianity."

Say what?

What all the fuss is about is "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," a documentary airing this week on the Discovery Channel. The film was produced by James Cameron, best known for the movie "Titanic" and the science fiction epics "The Terminator" and "Aliens."

According to the documentary, directed by "investigative journalist" Simcha Jacobovici, construction workers in Jerusalem back in 1980 were excavating a foundation when lo! The hillside they were digging in collapsed, revealing a cave. In that cave were 10 small coffins, or ossuaries, containing human bones.

After 20-odd years of examination, archaeologists claim, they were able to decipher the names on the coffins: Yeshua, son of Joseph, Mary, Mary, Matthew, Jofa and Judah, son of Yeshua. Yeshua, as we know, is the first-century spelling of the name "Jesus."

Son of Joseph? Check. Closely associated with two Marys? Check. Starting to feel a little Da Vinci Code-ish, isn't it? This, Cameron claims, is the actual burial place of Jesus, complete with things that, according to Christian belief, aren't supposed to be there. Things like Jesus' decidedly non-resurrected bones, not to mention a wife and son.

So does this mean that archaeology has conclusively refuted the Resurrection, the central doctrine of Christianity? Has science finally done for religion, once and for all?

Well, no. When you take a look at the theory, it has holes in it you could drive an ox cart through. Even Amos Kloner, the Israeli archaeologist who first examined the site, describes the theory as "nonsense."

Now, I'm no archaeologist, nor am I particularly religious. But if there's one thing I'm an expert in, it's nonsense, and the Cameron/ Jacobovici theory is to nonsense what Mount Rushmore is to statuary.

For one thing, the biblical Jesus' family was from Nazareth in Galilee. Why the heck would they be buried in Jerusalem? I'm thinking the last place anyone close to Jesus would want to stay in after the Crucifixion would be Jerusalem. Bad memories aside, the town was run by the people responsible for his death.

For another thing, there are some siblings missing. The book of Matthew mentions brothers named "James, and Joses, and Simon and Judas." The book of Mark also makes reference to some unnamed sisters, none of whose names appear in the tomb in Jerusalem. But the Bible mentions no Matthews and no Jofas. Now, only six of the coffins had names that could be deciphered, but you're still a sibling or two off here. Sorry, but if your main evidence to tie the tomb to Jesus is via the biblical names involved, you've got to account for those.

Add to this the fact that Jesus (or Yeshua), Mary and Joseph were extremely common names in first century Israel. One archaeologist notes that 21 percent of names of women at the time were some variant of Maryam, Miriam or Mary; Joseph and Jesus are among the top four male names.

The above-mentioned Amos Kloner notes that there have been 900 first-century burial caves found in the same area, and over 71 of them contain the name Yeshua. The filmmakers claim that "statistical analysis" shows that it's unlikely that those biblical names would occur together if they weren't the people mentioned in the Bible. But that analysis requires you to throw out the names, like Matthew, that don't fit.

In fact, if you go to the Discovery Channel Web site on the documentary, you'll find that the mysterious "Matthew," never mentioned as a sibling of Jesus, is shoehorned into the theory as an alleged relative of Mary's family. When you have to explain away anomalies in your data this cavalierly, it's time you re-examined your theory.

The main thing wrong with using the names on the boxes as your main justification for claiming that this is the tomb of Jesus is this: To connect those names to Jesus, you have to assume the Bible is correct. But for this to be the tomb of a non-risen Jesus, his wife Mary Magdalene, and their son Judah, you have to assume the biblical accounts are wrong. You can't have it both ways.

Actually, though, you know what? It's true that Cameron's is a theory that doesn't fit the available evidence. But, when you think about it, so is creationism and its pseudo-intellectual sibling, intelligent design. And, I think we'll all agree, it's important that our children know all the available explanations so that they can make up their own minds.

We should, intelligent design advocates assert, always "teach the controversy." Therefore, I support a state law requiring that "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" be required viewing in Sunday schools. After all, fair's fair.

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