Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Jesus' Family Tomb?

New documentary
If you haven't already heard, a new documentary is being released called The Lost Tomb of Jesus (see trailer here* and extensive support website here) in which it is claimed that an ancient family tomb discovered outside Jerusalem in 1980 contains the ossuaries** of Jesus, his mother Mary, his brothers Joseph and Matthew, his wife Mary Magdalene and his son Judah. The documentary is produced by James Cameron (yes, the guy who did Titanic) with a significant budget and a huge splash of publicity. Of course, if true, these claims significantly undermine historic biblical Christianity. Not so much the idea that Jesus might have had a wife and child, but that he stayed dead long enough for his body to have decayed and his bones be put in a box. Paul says: "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile." (1 Corinthians 15.17)
*For some reason they are using the defunct Google Video.
**An ossurary is a box used to store the bones of a corpse once it has decomposed. They were in common use in 1st century Palestine and thousands of them have been unearthed from this period. About 20% bear inscriptions of whose bones are inside.

Is this another Da Vinci Code? No, since there is no pretence of a fictional narrative in order to smuggle in dubious historical claims, with the resulting escape clause: 'it's only a novel!' The claims made are presented as straightforward attempts to tell the historical truth. Of course, I suspect that part of the reason this film has been made now is because of the huge success of DVC and the popularity of the idea that the historical Jesus (and the historical Mary Magdalene) might be very different from what has been traditionally thought.

The significance of the claims means that many people have a deep vested interest in wanting them to be true or false in order to support their pre-existing beliefs. For this reason alone, I'm sure the film will make Cameron and others a lot of money.

Speaking as one with such vested interests, the film nonetheless appears to have some significant problems. They are summarised very well in this post by well-known New Testament scholar Ben Witherington.
I resisted the temptation to title this post using a bad pun, such as "God in a box", "Empty Tomb Theory" or some reference to the Titanic sinking. Photo by HCS.


Benjamin Ady said...

talk about garbage from an academic perspective. Am I allowed to just totally totally write off the whole thing, along with anyone who buys into it? Or is that too fundamentalist academic?

byron smith said...

Might be a little harsh, but I think it's more or less the right outcome. I suspect that this will nonetheless be popular because (like DVC) it expresses things that people like to hear, and confirms suspicions about 'the church' as a powerful institution that is able to perform large-scale cover-ups (e.g. on child abuse).

Simon Elliott said...

I recognise with passion, the desire to just say this is all rubbish, but the reality of what it means for Christianity is to much to ignore. If we have no Christ, we are left to follow Ian, and frankly I would rather follow Frank than Ian.

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

I do think the secretiveness of the church fuels these kind of conspiracy theories. I also think publishers, TV channels, etc., get a positive glee out of releasing such products during Lent or Easter.

Unfortunately, just writing this off never works. Patient, gentle, debunking (never over-zealous, never seeming to fear real scholarship) is the only answer--year after year, "shocking discovery" after another. It's tiring. We'd rather do other things, but neither skepticism nor the penchant for "proof that it's all hooey," will go away.

Unfortunately, one side effect for conservative-minded laity is to lump all critical scholarship together and see every questioning of received orthodoxies as "unbelieving attacks on the faith." Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Well, at the very least, Jesus Family Tomb means that The Da Vinci Code was wrong. Mary didn't end up moving to France, and I guess Jesus daughter Sarah didn't get a spot in the tomb ;-)