NASHVILLE, Tenn. The controversial claim by an upcoming television special that researchers have discovered Jesus' "tomb" falls apart under both scientific scrutiny and simple logic, scholars in New Testament and archaeological studies say.
The Discovery Channel will air "The Lost Tomb of Christ" produced by James Cameron of "Titanic" fame Sunday at 9 p.m. Eastern. Among other things, the documentary claims Jesus and his family's ossuaries (or bone boxes) were found in a tomb in the Jerusalem suburb of Talpiot. The documentary claims those ossuaries belonged to Mary, as well Jesus' "wife" Mary Magdalene and His "son," Judah, according to the documentary. There also is a Matthew in the mix, supposedly the apostle. The Discovery Channel already is saying on its website the find could "rewrite the history of early Christianity."
The ossuaries, though, were discovered in 1980, and archaeologists both Christian and non-Christian had long ago written off any possibility the ossuaries were tied to Christ.
"This is not new information. These tombs have been known and were published in the archaeological community," said Steven Ortiz, associate professor of archaeology and Biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
For centuries, Christians have pointed to two empty tombs in Jerusalem as the possible place where Jesus' body was initially placed. One of the tombs resides within the Church of Holy Sepulchre, which Ortiz believes is the most likely location.
But the documentary challenges the bedrock belief of Christianity the bodily resurrection of Christ. Among the problems with the documentary's claim, experts say, is the fact that the names on the ossuaries were common during biblical times.
"Joseph is the second most common male name in the period. Jesus is the sixth. Matthew's the ninth," Darrell Bock, professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, told Baptist Press. "Mary is the most popular female name 21 percent of the female names of the period. So, you're dealing with a lot of familiar names."
According to the documentary's website, the six ossuaries read, "Jesus Son of Joseph," "Mary," "Mary known as the master," "Judah son of Jesus," "Jose" and "Matthew." The ossuary for Mary's husband, Joseph, was not found, according to the website.
Yet the Bible has no mention of Jesus being married, much less having a son. Also, there is no known relationship of Jesus to Matthew. Mark 6:3 lists four half-brothers of Christ: James, Joses (or Joseph), Judas (not Judas the traitor) and Simon. He also had half-sisters, according to the passage. Although there were ossuaries for a James and a Jose, no other ossuaries with inscriptions for these additional brothers and sisters were found. Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem, told the Associated Press he believes the script on the Jesus' ossuary more likely says "Hanun," and not "Jesus."
Cameron and those behind the documentary say they asked a statistician to calculate the odds of finding the aforementioned biblical names of the New Testament period Jesus, Mary, Mary, Jose and Matthew together in one tomb. The statistician, Andrey Feuerverger of the University of Toronto, said the odds are only 1 in 600 it wasn't Jesus' family tomb.
Critics, though, aren't convinced.
"Statistical analysis is only as good as the numbers that you run," said Ben Witherington III, professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky. "There are more statistics under the ground than above ground at this point, by which I mean there are tons more names out there and items with names on them out there that have not yet been excavated. There are more unexcavated sites than excavated sites in Israel. We don't know that the sample that they ran the numbers on is representative of the whole set. We have no way of knowing that that's just an assumption on their part."
Said Ortiz, "Jerusalem is full of tombs. There literally are hundreds of tombs and groups of cemeteries."
The documentary also claims support from supposed DNA evidence scraped from the bone boxes of Jesus and "Mary, known as master." A laboratory in Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario, concluded the two were not maternally related, and a lab official said the two "most likely were husband and wife," because it was a familial tomb. Researchers were not able to extract DNA evidence from the other ossuaries, according to the documentary's website. (The bones in the boxes were buried at unmarked graves following the tomb's discovery, per Orthodox Jewish belief.)
"There are lots of weaknesses to their argument, but the DNA evidence and the way they're trying to use it is hilarious," Witherington said. "You need a control sample to compare it to. If we actually had the DNA of Jesus or Mary or James, then we'd have a control sample to compare what they've done. They have no control sample, so they are just comparing it internally to two examples that they're making assumptions about. This is not scientific analysis of DNA at all."
There are other problems with the Talpiot tomb claim. George Guthrie, a professor of Bible at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said in first-century Jerusalem, bodies typically were buried temporarily for a year, and the bones subsequently gathered and placed in an ossuary in the family tomb.
“The filmmakers are therefore suggesting that the body of Jesus lay decaying in a family tomb in Jerusalem at the same time the early Jerusalem church was expanding because of its belief in a resurrected Messiah,” Guthrie said. “Yet, we have no evidence from any ancient document, Christian or non-Christian, that points even to rumors that the body or bones of Jesus were there in Jerusalem.”
The claim that Jesus was buried at the Talpiot tomb, Witherington said, means Jesus' family and supporters would have had to "turn around and preach that the tomb was empty when they actually knew where Jesus was buried which is highly unlikely. The idea that they could get away with doing something like that, with as much attention as they had attracted in the city, is very unlikely."
Additionally, tombs like the one at Talpiot "are associated with the wealthy" and not with "a Galilean peasant family," Ortiz said.
Biblical evidence and Christian tradition holds that 11 of the 13 apostles (including Matthias) died martyrs’ deaths for their faith. Skeptics of the Discovery Channel documentary ask: Why would 11 men die for something (the bodily resurrection) they knew to be a lie?
"No opponent of Christianity point[ed] to the [Talpiot] tomb," Guthrie said. "No followers of Jesus revere[d] the tomb. There is no evidence beyond the circumstantial evidence of exceedingly common names that points to this as being the tomb of Jesus’ family."
Bock said he knows of only one biblical or archaeological scholar he considers to be serious who supports the documentary's claim James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Another scholar, archaeologist Shimon Gibson, "seems to be a reluctant supporter," he said.
"Too many things have to be right in order for it to even be conceivable or plausible," Bock said. "There are just too many problems."