The tomb wasn't empty after all?

For nearly 2000 years, the church has celebrated the fact that the women found an empty tomb on Easter morning. Instead of a decaying body, they found an angel who proclaimed, "He is not here, for he has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where he was lying" (Matthew 28:6). God raised Jesus' physical body and his remains were never found. Until now.

According to the Discovery Channel special, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," that aired on March 4, a tomb has been discovered containing a bone box where Jesus' bones were interred and remained out of sight for nearly two millennia. They claim that empty tomb found on Easter morning was actually the wrong tomb. Jesus' body had been secretly taken from its original resting place sometime before Easter morning and placed in a different tomb a few miles to the south. A year or so after his interment, when his body had decomposed, the family placed his dry bones in a limestone box, called an ossuary, and sealed them in this family-owned tomb. There they would lay undisturbed and unresurrected until 1980 when construction workers would accidentally uncover this amazing find.

But there is more.

Based upon the assortment of names inscribed on additional burial boxes found in this tomb, the documentary also claims that this was the final resting place of Jesus' mother (Mary), one of his brothers (Joses), one of his disciples (Matthew), a woman he was romantically involved with (Mary Magdalene) and, perhaps most startling of all, his son (Judas).

Does this sound like a preposterous tale? It is.

People will need to look long and hard for any archaeologists or New Testament scholars who find merit in this elaborate and imaginative reconstruction.

It goes without saying that this directly contradicts New Testament teaching about one of the central tenets of the faith—the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus. When the Apostle Peter spoke to thousands of people in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, the proclamation of a bodily resurrection was at the heart of the good news he preached. Peter explained that this was in fulfillment of Jewish expectation as expressed in Psalm 16:8-11 (cited in Acts 2:25-28): "…my body also will live in hope, because you will not abandon me to the grave, nor will you let your Holy One see decay." Peter then applies this Psalm to Jesus, saying, "he was not abandoned to the grave, nor did his body see decay. God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of this fact" (Act 2:31-32). The Apostle Paul also included this Psalm citation in his proclamation of the gospel: "The fact that God raised him from the dead, never to decay, is stated in these words 'you will not let your Holy One see decay'"(Acts 13:34-35). The early Christians would have repudiated any notion of Jesus' body being placed on a shelf in a tomb where it would have decayed over the span of a year until nothing was left but his dry bones. Their proclamation of a resurrection meant that God has raised his physical body and gave it life.


Common names
Although on the surface it may seem rather stunning to find an ossuary inscribed with the name of "Jesus (or, Joshua), son of Joseph," these two names are among the most common male names found in various first century inscriptions in Palestine. In fact, archaeologist Amos Kloner reports that the name "Jesus, son of Joseph" has been found on three or four other ossuaries. If this were the ossuary of the Jesus known in the New Testament, it is appropriate to wonder why he wasn't identified by one of the more common ways he was referred to by the people of his day, such as "Jesus of Nazareth" or even by his title, "Son of God." And furthermore, if his family wanted to maintain the deception that he didn't really rise from the dead, why would they risk detection by having his name inscribed on his burial box?

The statistical argument used in the film to suggest that this cluster of names is more than coincidental falls apart if the name Mariamene e Mara, inscribed in Greek on a different ossuary from the same tomb, does not refer to Mary Magdalene. And indeed this identification cannot be maintained. Ironically, documentation on the film's own Web site proves otherwise. In his detailed discussion of this inscription in the definitive archaeological report, L. Y. Rahmani correctly notes that "Mara" is a contraction of the name "Martha" and that this person should be identified as "Mariamene, who is (also called) Mara."

There are numerous other problems with the reconstruction offered by this movie, such as, why would Jesus (and the rest of the family) not have been buried in the same tomb as the father, Joseph? How could this poor peasant family have afforded such an elaborate tomb in Jerusalem? If Jesus would have had a son named Judas, why is there not one reference to this anywhere else—especially among the writings of those who sought to discredit Christianity? Why aren't Jesus' other siblings buried in this tomb (see Mark 6:3)? And, how could Jesus' body have been stolen from the original tomb when it was under armed guard?

It comes as no surprise, then, to find the Jerusalem Post reporting that Amos Kloner, the principal archaeologist who oversaw work at the tomb, as saying, "it makes a great story for a TV film. But it's completely impossible. It's nonsense. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem." Nevertheless, the movie was a huge success for the Discovery Channel. The March 4 airing of this film drew the largest audience for the network in over a year.

This film, and all of the buzz that is following in its Titanic wake, present a great opportunity to Christians. How often does the opportunity so naturally present itself to discuss with friends, co-workers, and neighbors the events that stand at the heart of the gospel—the death and resurrection of Jesus? Why not invite a non-Christian friend to church this Easter so they can hear the true story?

Dr. Arnold is the chairman of the Department of New Testament at Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. He is the editor of the four-volume Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary.

Published, April 2007