Recently the news, er, publicity broke that James Cameron (of Titanic fame) has made a documentary for Discovery Channel called The Lost Tomb of Jesus, presenting conclusive proof that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead. No, it turns out he married Mary Magdalene, raised a family, and was buried in a large upper class family tomb in Jerusalem. When they opened it up in 1980, his bones were still in the box – right where he had left them.
The filmmakers express surprise that this might be a controversial claim. Why are Christians so up in arms? Well, let me quickly say that I think many Christians just need to calm down when stories like this hit the media. It’s no secret that the vast majority of the entertainment and media elites are not Christians – that many are in fact militantly anti-Christian. So should we be surprised or upset if they use their access to the mass media outlets for evangelizing their point of view? Mel Gibson did the same, and did it brilliantly, with his The Passion of the Christ. Whatever you think about the merits of his movie, per se, it generated a huge amount of publicity which he leveraged to promote his beliefs.
But, then, I am up in arms about The Lost Tomb of Jesus, at least a little bit. For one thing, it is hard not to be cynical about their intentions with this. Controversy means publicity, and publicity generates an audience, and large audiences mean big bucks for those involved. And nothing will stir up controversy like a story about the world’s biggest religion being a hoax. One suspects that they must have latched onto this project, at least in part, because of how lucrative they thought it would be. In contrast, Mel Gibson has a long established, passionate commitment to his Catholic faith, so I am prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt about his motives.
Another reason to be up in arms is the flimsy nature of the evidence given for such a spectacular claim. This is not just a partisan Christian criticism. There is good reason why the great majority of reputable archaeologists are repudiating the Jesus Tomb theory. It accords with basically nothing we know historically about Jesus of Nazareth. The tomb is in Jerusalem; his family was in Nazareth. Only the well-to-do could afford such a tomb; his family was poor. There is no contemporaneous or near-contemporaneous evidence that Jesus was married, or had children. All historical accounts agree that he was executed by the Romans. He did not live to a ripe old age to be buried surrounded by his extended family. The names on the ossuaries were all quite common in first century Israel. There is nothing remarkable about such a collection of names within one family. The connection with the alleged James ossuary is, to put it politely, tenuous at best. The “patina fingerprinting” test was invented for this project, strictly for the purpose of corroborating a conclusion reached without any other evidence.
Please notice that at no point do any of these arguments appeal to faith or any doctrinal argument. They are accepted by most mainstream archaeologists and historians. Those who dispute such statements generally have an ideological axe to grind. It’s typically theologians and philosophers, not historians, who dispute the basic outline of Jesus’ life as contained in the Gospels: a famous Nazarene whose brief public ministry as an itinerant rabbi was cut short by a brutal public execution. (The miracles, of course, are questioned by unbelievers. After all, people who become convinced of the historicity of the Gospel miracles almost always become Christians.)
On this last point, I must say a further word about the historicity of the New Testament. As I have examined all the arguments against accepting the New Testament as a reliable historical source, I have become convinced that they are all ultimately rooted in one core presupposition: the impossibility of miracles. The unspoken starting place of each analysis is this simple syllogism: “The New Testament contains miracle stories. Miracles stories cannot possibly be true. Therefore the New Testament cannot possibly be true.” Of course I oversimplify the argument by treating the New Testament as a single, monolithic entity. But you get the picture, I think. Now each of us is entitled to our presuppositions, but we shouldn’t try to misrepresent them. You are entitled to say the Gospels are a fairy tale. (You would be wrong, of course!) But if you claim to have proven they are a fairy tale and your argument depends on a presupposition against miracles, then you are guilty of circular reasoning.
Getting back to The Lost Tomb of Jesus, let me summarize by saying this show is simply another attempt to sensationalize a dubious attack on the legitimacy of Christianity. These attacks come with such frequency and regularity that I am disappointed they still gain so much attention for the perpetrators. Haven’t we just been through the Judas Gospel and the Da Vinci Code? The word for believers and unbelievers alike is: don’t put much stock in these latest claims. They’re just a way to sell air time on Discovery Channel.