The Jesus Family Tomb, by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, ISBN 978-0-06-119202-9) 218 pp. Cloth $27.95.
This book does not stray beyond its evidence, but the implications of its findings are what has brought down a heap of abuse on it—often from people who demonstrate, through a telltale factual mistake they make about nonexistent bones, that they have not read it. To them, it is a fearful implication that Jesus was a man who lived, had a family, and died—and did not rise from the dead—and also that this discredits the message of a man who need no longer be revered as the son of God.
The facts are not in dispute. In 1980, bulldozers on a construction site in the suburbs of Jerusalem uncovered a tomb containing ten first-century limestone bone boxes (ossuaries) with markings that included Jesus, son of Joseph; two Marys; and Judah, son of Jesus. The names were common from the period, so the exactness of the configuration was dismissed as coincidental. The bone ossuaries were catalogued and removed to the Israel Antiquities Authority warehouse, and the tomb was sealed and left in place as part of the housing complex.
Simcha Jacobovici, award-winning journalist and documentary director, rediscovered the intact tomb in 2005. The search for it among the well-tended suburban houses and gardens of Jerusalem where children played around the tomb was an exciting one—much more so in the documentary television version—especially when, having been given the right to search and enter, Jacobovici and his team were suddenly told by the Israeli authorities to reseal the tomb and leave.
But with the help of forensic archeologist Charles Pellegrino and others, the investigators faced up to the extreme statistical unlikelihood of the evidence being a mere coincidence. Either this is the tomb of the New Testament’s Jesus and his family or that of another family of exactly the same grouping of names. The individual names are not unusual, but the grouping suggests that “. . . 2.5 million males would have had to live in Jerusalem—some thirty times the city’s male population—before a family unrelated to Jesus of Nazareth could produce this cluster of names just once by sheer chance” (p. 111). A 1 in 10 chance would have made the find significant.
Another virtuoso piece of analysis involved the biological residues in the empty ossuaries of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, which revealed the DNA of two unrelated people. “People buried in the same tomb were related by either blood or marriage” (p. 168). Even worse for traditionalists, the Jesus and Mary of these ossuaries had a son, Judah.
The naturalistic evidence tells the story of a great ethical teacher, his life embellished by his followers after his death at the hands of the Romans, turning defeat into victory by raising his persona to unimpeachable godhood in the usual buck-stops-here dogmatic method of justifying moral laws, since merely human laws are not enough.
Corinthians 15:12–19 admits that if Christ had not risen from the dead then Christians’ faith is in vain. But he did rise, the Bible claims, even as it speaks of vain faith and vindicated faith, when faith should have no need of the kind of evidence one might get from a forensic scientist in court. The Bible in fact has it both ways, even as faith and evidence meet in “doubting Thomas,” who is convinced, it is claimed, when he touches the risen Christ’s wounds. Corinthians accepted matters of fact as relevant to matters of faith. Dispensing with facts against faith is a more modern evasion.
The Sermon on the Mount does not need the imprimatur of supernatural approval. Blind belief, which is what faith demands while denying its blindness, is a virus in our minds, a way of shushing up the agnostic or atheist to make him or her unwelcome at the human table. Unbelievers threaten our goodness, our laws, our ethics, because they do not come from the authority of a sky god.
The real persons of this book are the ones named on the ossuaries. They are not the storied exaggerations of the Bible. Secular readers of this book should in no way see a confirmation of Christian faith or of theism. These are the people who lived. The story that was spun around them reinforced conviction among their followers, not unlike wish-fulfilling Elvis sightings.
The Jesus Family Tomb is an eloquent pioneering effort in the larger task of reclaiming our natural origins, free of ad hoc imaginings, through which we can see that we are truly responsible to each other. Our knowledge of the past must face up to new techniques of analysis and physical scrutiny and the continued search for new evidence, all of which may yield disconcerting corrections of past views.