Wednesday, January 23, 2008

More on the Lost Tomb of Jesus

A couple of days ago I posted a link to the article in Time about the recent conference in Jerusalem on the Talpiot Tomb. Inscriptions on the Tomb include Jesus son of Joseph and Mariamne (the spelling is very important), among others. Could this be the family tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene? The tomb and this provocative possibility were explored in the Discover Channel documentary, also linked to in that post.

It appears that some of the scholars who attended the Jerusalem conference were not happy with the media coverage it generated. They have posted a letter on the Duke University Religion Department blog. Here is part of it:
A statistical analysis of the relatively common names engraved on the ossuaries leaves no doubt that the probability of the Talpiot tomb belonging to Jesus’ family is virtually nil if the Mariamene named on one of the ossuaries is not Mary Magdalene. In fact, epigraphers at the conference contested the reading of the inscription as “Mariamene.” Furthermore, Mary Magdalene is not referred to by the Greek name Mariamene in any literary sources before the late second-third century AD. An expert panel of scholars on the subject of Mary in the early church dismissed out of hand the suggestion that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus, and no traditions suggest that Jesus had a son named Judah (another person named on an ossuary from this tomb). Moreover, the DNA evidence used to suggest that Jesus had a wife was dismissed by the Hebrew University team that devised such procedures and who have conducted such research all over the world. Even the ossuary inscribed with the name “Jesus son of Joseph” is paralleled by a find from another Jerusalem tomb, and at least one speaker said the reading of the name “Jesus” on the Talpiot tomb ossuary was not certain. Testimony from archaeologists who were involved in the excavation of the Talpiot tomb left no doubt that the “missing” tenth ossuary was plain and uninscribed, eliminating any possibility that it is the so-called “James ossuary.”

The identification of the Talpiot tomb as the tomb of Jesus’ family flies in the face the canonical Gospel accounts, which are the earliest traditions describing Jesus’ death and burial. According to these accounts Jesus was placed in the tomb of a prominent follower named Joseph of Arimathea. Since at least the early fourth century Christians have venerated the site of Jesus’ burial at the spot marked by the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. In contrast, not a single tradition, Christian or otherwise, preserves any reference to or recollection of a family tomb of Jesus anywhere in Jerusalem.
As you can see, a key piece of contentious evidence revolves around the translation and meaning of the inscription Mariamne. Could this be translated in any conceivable way as Mary Magdalene? These scholars say not. Rice University Professor April DeConick, who was also at the conference, has more to say about this on her blog. She too is skeptical, although she also lays out her reasons for not signing the letter.

But what is most interesting in this letter, as DeConick also notes, is the way it uncritically assumes the historicity of the gospel accounts of Jesus tomb. DeConick says:
I found the Duke letter arresting because it takes at historical face value the canonical stories, with little appreciation for critical textual methods. The proof that the Talpiot Tomb can't be Jesus' tomb is because the canonical stories relate that Joseph buried him in a new cut tomb of his own?
It's a surprisingly definitive statement coming from biblical scholars. It almost sounds as if theology is getting in the way of scholarship.

I am just beginning to get caught up to speed on what has been written about this tomb. I don't know enough about it to comment in any intelligent way. I have always assumed that Jesus was buried somewhere and his remains were lost. Although if you read Crossan's books he suggests it is quite possible Jesus was never buried in any formal way because it was standard practice, according to Crossan, for the Romans to keep the bodies on the cross until they were devoured by carrion. How unsettling is that thought? It is.

Many Christians, of course, reading the gospel accounts, believe that Jesus was raised in bodily form from the dead. I don't believe in any kind of bodily resurrection from the dead, past or present. There are just places my skeptical mind won't go. So I assume something happened to the remains of Jesus; I'd like to believe he got a respectful burial. But if so, then it does raise the interesting question of what happened to his remains.

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