October 16th, 2009


Archaeological evidence of ...?

This was another dollar store find from a while back. I'd previously read James Tabor's The Jesus Dynasty, and initially thought that this was directly connected to that, but while Tabor's work is referred to here (and both books do appear to be based on the same archaeological discoveries), The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History is off in its own area. This is probably the third book that I've picked up at the dollar store that was the story of putting together a documentary ... must be some sort of trend ... and the authors of this, Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, have been involved in many documentaries and other film projects (including Titanic, which led to James Cameron doing the Foreword).

For those not familiar with the back-story, in 1980 a tomb was uncovered in the suburbs of Jerusalem in a construction project. This dated to the first century CE, a brief period in time when the "fashion" was using rock-cut tombs for temporary burial, followed by collecting the deceased's bones into an "ossuary" box. The "ossuary age" lasted not much more than a century, not coming into acceptable practice until just prior to New Testament times, and being wiped out (along with Jerusalem) in 70CE. In this "family tomb" there were several ossuaries, with names inscribed on them which matched names in "Jesus' family" including his own.

Now, long-time readers of this space will recall that I am a bit of an "antitheist" and have serious doubts of the veracity of anything Biblical, but this could possibly be the first actual real-live archaeological evidence that the Jesus of the Bible was a historical figure and not just some (ala Allegro) meta-myth. The crux, if you will, of the argument here is in a statistical analysis of the names found in this tomb, along with some DNA analysis. Now, I don't want to give away all the details, but the tomb had appeared to have been sealed for a very long time, and had filled up with a silt that had preserved bits of organic matter. Some very interesting tests were done on these. The main "identifying factor", though, was in the matrix of names.

The book goes into a lot of "guesstimating" here ... the population of Jerusalem at that time, the frequency of the various names in the population, and the juxtaposition of the names as found in the tomb ... put through various mathematical contortions to determine the probability that these particular names would be found in this grouping at that time and not be "the holy family". The final count is something like 600 to 1 that this is, indeed the "family tomb" of those people, including the famed Jesus. Interestingly, one of the ossuaries was inscribed with the name of a Mary who had an additional name, not "Magdalene", but an earlier version "Mariamne" used to note that Mary which shows up in the apocrypha's Acts of Philip. One ossuary, which was charted in situ when the archaeologists opened the tomb, managed to disappear between the site and the museum ... and it would appear that this was the "James Ossuary" which found its way into a somewhat shady collector's hands near the same time. They note that had this name been added to the others, the odds would have improved markedly.

One of the most interesting parts of this whole story is how much this stuff just "swept under the rug" ... needless to say, there are those for whom the bones of a historical Jesus would be a major spanner in the whole "God" thing on the Christian side ... and from the Israeli side of things the whole Judeo-Christian period (the pre-Pauline Christianity, "Church of James" or Ebionites) seems to be an inconvenience. There is even evidence that a Franciscan monk had found (at a site called Dominus Flevit) the ossuary of St. Peter, an embarrassment to the Catholics who have spent centuries digging under the Vatican to find his tomb! None of these groups are particularly enthused about connecting the dots presented by the archaeological evidence, and would just as well have it fade to obscurity.

Despite The Jesus Family Tomb being a "dollar store find" for me, it appears to be still available, at least via Amazon ... however, their new/used guys have "very good" copies for as little as a penny, with "like new" coming in at about 40¢ (plus the $3.99 shipping, of course). I would heartily recommend this book to most, with the one slight caveat that I have some questions about the math (more that I don't quite understand it, rather than I don't "buy it"), and much of the argument that this is what it appears to be hangs on those probability numbers. Again, this is the most convincing archaeology that I've seen pointing to the historical reality of that guy, so even "thumpers" should find this of interest!

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