On February 26, 2007, Oscar-winning film director James Cameron (of Titanic fame) and Emmy-winning host of History Channel’s The Naked Archeologist, Simcha Jacobovici, held a press conference in New York City and claimed that they had found the the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. No, not the tomb where He spent three days before rising again from the dead. The tomb where His body was taken clandestinely by his disciples, which contained the ossuary where His earthly remains decomposed over the centuries. That tomb.
They had recently “discovered” an ancient tomb that was actually discovered in the 1980s in Jerusalem. The tomb contained ten ossuaries. The names of people found in the Gospels were inscribed on some of them. One name piqued the interest of Jacobovici and his friends: Jesus, son of Joseph. Of course, this could mean only one thing—the remains inside the box were the actual, physical remains of Jesus of Nazareth.
Scholars James Tabor and Charles Pellegrino joined the team to give academic weight to the pronouncement. Soon the Discovery Channel announced it would air a documentary entitled The Lost Tomb of Jesus produced by Cameron (who, apparently discontent with the sinking of a luxury liner, had set his sights on sending an entire belief system to the bottom).
In the making of this documentary and the book, The Jesus Family Tomb, Jacobovici, et. al. join the dubious fraternity of resurrection-deniers which was founded by the Sanhedrin and enabled by frightened soldiers. The “documentary” actually attempts to use the Sanhedrin conspiracy reported in the Gospel of John as evidence that the soldiers’ fiction is what actually happened.
In a perfect world this announcement would have been treated as absurd, and the Discovery Channel would have discovered other, more worthy projects on which to confer valuable air time—say, a documentary on the making of Spongebob Squarepants.
This world, however, is far from perfect, and its inhabitants notorious for their gullibility. So we must defend the Christian hope against those who would seek to take it away. Enter Dr. Charles L. Quarles, professor of religion at Louisiana College, who probably could have written Buried Hope or Risen Savior by himself and done an outstanding job. Instead, he assembled an academic “dream team,” and together they deliver a slam-dunk against the over-hyped documentary and its perpetrators.
I Can Dig It: The Archaeological Evidence
Steven Ortiz, an experienced archaeologist and professor of archeology, sets the tone in his chapter entitled The Use and Abuse of Archaeological Interpretation and the Lost Tomb of Jesus. Ortiz does not disappoint, heaping well-deserved scorn on the archaeological processes of the Jacobovici team. He begins by identifying ten characteristics of pop (read “pseudo”) archeology, which together sound like the plot of an Indiana Jones movie—a fact not lost on Dr. Ortiz. He spends the first part of his chapter showing how the Talpiot documentary has more to do with Raiders of the Lost Ark than with true archaeological research.
After his devastating critique of the archaeological methods used by the Jesus Tomb posse, Ortiz dedicates the second part of his chapter to providing a real, scholarly interpretation of the Talpiot site. His analysis covers salvage excavations (to save artifacts before sites are destroyed by new construction), cemeteries in first-century Judea and Jerusalem, rock-hewn burial chambers, ossuaries, and the East Talpiot site in particular. He then explains what can be discerned about the Talpiot tomb and its inhabitants.
In short: not much. “All that the archaeological data can tell us is that the Talpiot tomb contained a person whose name was Jesus” (p. 49). The chapter indicates clearly that no true archeology went into the making of The Jesus Tomb.
A Grave Debate: Evidence from the Tombs
Craig Evans focuses his chapter on the tomb itself. “The East Talpiot Tomb in Context” shines a spotlight on Jewish ossilegium and burial traditions—especially as they apply to the biblical narrative found in the Gospels, particularly Mark 14-16. He then addresses, head-on, three claims made in the Jesus Tomb “documentary.”
- The claim that the x-mark on the “Jesus” ossuary is an overtly Christian symbol. Dr. Evans notes that “the typical function of the X-mark was to align the lid with the ossuary” (p. 63).
- The idea that the gable (or chevron) above the entrance to the tomb is essentially a Jewish/Christian symbol. According to Evans, this is “perhaps the most demonstrably false claim in the East Talpiot tomb hypothesis” (p. 64). He documents occurrences of the same symbol in clearly pre-Christian tombs, ossuaries, epitaph art, and even a coin. Clearly, the producers of the documentary should have spent a little more time on their homework.
- The missing ossuary. Much of the Jesus Tomb hypothesis rests on an ossuary that was not even part of the original set found in the Talpiot tomb. This stone box, known as the “James Ossuary,” is supposed to bear inscriptions which tie it to the apostle James. The inscriptions themselves are the subject of much doubt in the academic world. To this, add pesky little facts such as differences in the dimensions of the Talpiot ossuaries compared to the James ossuary, and chronological evidence (supported by photographs) that the James ossuary was excavated long before the Talpiot tomb was opened. The evidence of the missing ossurary also proves to be rubbish.
What’s in a Name? Apparently a Whole Lot
One of the major arguments of the Jesus Tomb is that the names on the other ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb match the names of people in Jesus’ immediate family. Or his extended family. Or in his life. Or possible remote acquaintances. Or whatever. New Testament scholar Richard Bauckham uses his extensive knowledge in this field to show that this theory is patently absurd. Besides showing how common the names on ossuaries actually were, he spends some time smashing a major myth propagated by the documentary: that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. He concludes his chapter with interesting charts that reinforce his arguments (including one that shows Christ’s known family tree) based on Scripture and early ecclesiastical sources. (Did you know that Jesus had a grand nephew named Zoker? Me neither.)
Crunching the Numbers
The next chapter was the most daunting for me, as William A Dembski (mathematician) and Robert J. Marks II (rocket scientist—really!) tackle the mathematics behind the claim that “the probablility that the Talpiot tomb could be other than the tomb of Jesus [is 1 in 600]. Thus, conversely, it is supposed to be highly probable—with probability 599 in 600—that this is Jesus’ tomb” (p. 113). As they delve into the world of numbers, the non-mathematician’s head begins to hurt. The chapter is full of sentences like this one:
Since E denotes the naming of a male and F the naming of a female, P(E) = P(E & Person-Named-Is-Male) = P(E | Person-Named-Is-Male) x P(Person-Named-Is-Male) = 231/2,509 x ½ and P(F) = P(F & Person-Named-Is-Female) = P(F | Person-Named-Is-Female) x P(Person-Named-Is-Female) = 80/317 x ½.
Fortunately for the mathematically challenged, the book includes sections like the one found on pages 127-128, which put the mathematical concepts into regular language and provide helpful illustrations.
The Main Point
The chapter by Gary Habermas on the resurrection is simply outstanding. Habermas—who has written 27 books on the subject—plays by the rules set forth by skeptics and beats them at their own game:
In addressing this topic, it must be emphasized that there will be no effort to argue that the Talpiot hypothesis is mistaken simply because it disagrees with the New Testament, Christian tradition, or with orthodox Christian beliefs… . Conversely we will rely on the established information that the vast majority of scholars who study this topic take to be historical. (p. 152)
Habermas begins by reviewing the alternate history set up by James Tabor as to what “might have happened” after Christ’s crucifixion and initial burial. Summarizing Tabor, Habermas writes,
Beyond this, details of the initial, temporary tomb are “unfortunately a matter about which historians can say little.” Still, we “must assume that the corpse was taken and reburied, perhaps as soon as the Sabbath was over.” That Joseph of Arimathea perfomed this task would be likely, “given that the tomb near the crucifixion site was never intended as a permanent place of Jesus’ corpse.” (p. 154)
Habermas counters with a tour de force of true historical research, contradicting Tabor at every turn. First, he demonstrates (through numerous footnotes) the use of the Gospels and the Pauline epistles as historical documents. Next, he discusses the historical consensus that the tomb was found empty and argues that the genuineness of the resurrection is supported by the fact that it was women who initially discovered the empty tomb, a fact which casts doubt on the idea of a conspiracy by the disciples. (They would have, presumably, chosen men as their key witnesses.)
Habermas then makes the argument (thoroughly documented again) that, whether or not Christ actually rose from the dead, the disciples certainly believed that He did. Why else would they go to their deaths declaring the resurrection? Why else would Paul go from being persecutor to persecuted?
Appealing to Paul
Pauline scholar Michael Licona picks up where Habermas left off. After an interesting introduction, Licona delves into the Pauline concept of “resurrection.” When the disciples and the apostle Paul talked about the resurrection, were they talking about a real, physical resurrection, or some sort of spiritual, figurative one?
Licona looks first at ancient views of the afterlife, then examines Paul’s view of the same. He spends much more time on the latter, giving a detailed exposition of I Corinthians 15:42-54. His research is well documented and leaves no room for doubt—the disciples and the apostle Paul were convinced that Christ arose bodily from the grave, a conviction completely incompatible with the Jesus Tomb hypothesis.
Bringing It All Together
Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, writes the final chapter, summarizing—and even adding to—the arguments of the previous chapters. Bock is uniquely qualified to talk about the subject, having been invited by the Discovery Channel to review the documentary before it went on air. His immediate analysis—sent to the producers as he was watching: “This is a mess.”
While the analysis he provides in this book is more detailed, the conclusion is the same.
Spreading the Hope
The temptation is for pastors and Christian leaders to recommend this book to people who have been confused by the Jesus Tomb documentary. This may not be ideal. (“I know you have been influenced by a slickly-produced-albeit-shallowly-researched show on the Discovery Channel. Here, read this dry academic treatise that uses words like ossilegium and onomastic and has no pictures. That should clear things up for you.”)
Rather, I see the book as a valuable resource for people in Christian leadership to bring themselves “up to speed” on the issues so that they can pass them on to their people in a more understandable format. While Buried Hope or Risen Savior was written to address a specific attack on the historicity of the resurrection, the arguments and solid research presented by its contributors will doubtless serve to contradict other such attacks in the future.