I’ll make a confession. I’ve lived long enough to see the emergence, the trend, and now the aging of the genre of Easter ambulance-chasing publishers. Every Lent, as Christians afflict themselves with minor fasting in order to participate more directly in the sufferings of Christ, and as Christians eagerly anticipate the good news called Easter, a publisher announces a new discovery, making the claim that the Christian gospel has neither a good Friday nor some good news. The genre is old, the trick has been seen before, and the American public knows the game.
Still, as a historian of Christian origins, I confess that I spend time each year pondering the new challenge to the Christian faith. Sometimes I slump into a chair, thinking merely that it’s my job to assess such challenges and to be ready when Christians write me or when students ask. Other times I find myself irritated with publishers and with authors because they can’t simply report what is knowable – they must sensationalize the discovery. Every time I give the challenge a fighting chance – it’s my responsibility as a Christian.
James Cameron (of Titanic fame), Simcha Jacobovici (with the flair of a Hollywood gossip and the rhetoric of a neutral observer), and Charles Pellegrino have teamed up on TV, radio, and in a book – The Jesus Family Tomb – to headline the news with an old-genre story. This is my perception of what they are saying: “We’ve discovered not only the tomb of Jesus’ family, but his DNA, his wife’s DNA and his son’s DNA (his name is Judah this time). The Israeli experts,” so they suggest, “saw our discovery back in the early ’80s but were afraid to tell the world what we have the courage to now reveal. Come, see. You can see for yourself. It’s the actual family tomb of Jesus.”
What can we see? No matter how many breaks I have tried to give them, they have failed to report the fullness of the facts. Poor people didn’t have ossuaries and tombs in Jerusalem, because they couldn’t afford such extravagances. Galileans, when their bones were stored in ossuaries in Jerusalem, almost always wrote on the bone box their “address”: e.g., Yeshua from Nazareth. The names found on these ossuaries are so common that they are non-identifiable markers; the authors of this news story can only claim some statistical odds by necessitating that the “Mariamene” of one of the ossuaries be the Mary Magdalene of a 4th century non-Jewish, semi-Christian, apocryphal gospel. These aren’t facts the authors of this new story are willing to explore, and it undermines my confidence in their objectivity. (And some of the scholars they use to support their case are now denying the claims attributed to them.)
Most importantly, I find the claim incredible: We are being asked to believe that a Christian movement – shaped from beginning to end by the claim of both resurrection and ascension (no bones, therefore no ossuary) – was started by a family dynasty of the same faith (Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Judah), and carried on the secret of actually having the bones of Jesus buried in an extravagant and public place while they encouraged early Christians to go to death because of their faith in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension.