The Grail Code 
Tomb of Jesus: still not found

In honor of the still-striking writers in Hollywood, here’s a rerun. One of the most-emailed items on the BBC’s web site this morning is this crusty old thing, a story that first appeared way back in February. “Jesus tomb found, says film-maker”—with a headline like that it’s got to be true! Actually, it’s not, but apparently some people are still talking about it as though it were. As you might expect, I thoroughly demolished the filmmaker’s argument when the story first ran, but as a public service to all those who might be taken in by the story on its second go-round, here we go again.

By now you’ve surely heard the wonderful news. But I’ll tell you anyway: the tomb of Jesus and his wife Mary Magdalene has been found—and found, just coincidentally, by a famous director with a movie to peddle.

Mr. James Cameron is no fool. He knows a pot of gold when he sees one, and that’s exactly what he has on his hands here. Alternative-Jesus theories are big money these days. Just ask Mr. Dan Billion-Dollar-Industry Brown.

If you take all this for the hokum it is, it’s really very entertaining. But apparently some people are taking this tomb-of-Jesus story perfectly seriously, and that’s where I really have to draw the line.

I’m not an archaeologist, so I can’t evaluate the supposed find the way an archaeologist would. I probably wouldn’t be allowed to examine it even if I were a reputable archaeologist—or perhaps especially if I were a reputable archaeologist. But I do know a little about history, and about the history of archaeology in general. My little knowledge doesn’t give me much confidence in this supposed discovery.

First of all, it’s very odd that the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene should go undiscovered until exactly the moment in history when a lot of people are prepared to believe that there was a tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Considering the number of hoaxes that blacken the history of Palestinian archaeology, I’m inclined to doubt the authenticity of this find altogether.

But let’s say that the discovery is authentic: that there really is a group of ossuaries marked Mary, Mary, Jesus son of Joseph, Matthew, and Judah son of Jesus, plus four irrelevant unknowns.

Now, Mr. Cameron says that statistics and DNA analysis prove his claim that this is the tomb of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

Let’s dismiss the sillier claim first. DNA can’t prove anything of the sort. The only thing DNA analysis could possibly prove in this case is that some of the people were related in certain ways to some of the other people. DNA doesn’t include a coded curriculum vitae. So it might (I don’t know enough about DNA analysis to say it would) be possible to prove that one of the Marys was the mother of Jesus son of Joseph, and that Judah son of Jesus was the son of the other Mary and Jesus son of Joseph.

Now let’s talk statistics. Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and Judah were some of the most common names in first-century Palestine. Jesus had at least two disciples named Judas (the Greek form of Judah): Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him, and Judas “not Iscariot,” who didn’t. (He’s more commonly known as St. Jude.) Almost universal ancient tradition says that the given name of Thomas was also Judas, which would bring the total to three.

As for Mary, think how much trouble average readers have sorting out Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary the wife (or mother) of Clopas, Mary the sister of Martha, and Mary Magdalene. Even scholars still debate how many of those were the same person. It’s quite clear that the ground was littered with Marys in first-century Palestine.

Suppose I found a tomb dated roughly the time of George Washington—between 1700 and 1900, let’s say. Suppose it contained the remains of one George whose wife was Martha and whose mother was Mary. Would that prove conclusively that I had found George Washington? No, because those are very common names. Yet I don’t think they’re anywhere near as common as Jesus, Joseph, Mary, and Judah were in first-century Palestine.

Now, let’s look at the assumptions we’re making. Mr. Cameron says that finding the tomb of Mary Magdalene was what convinced him that this must be the real tomb of Jesus. I quote from the BBC article:

Another grave said by producers to be of Mary Magdalene convinced researchers of the truth of their find, Mr Cameron said at a New York news conference.

Unveiling his documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, Mr Cameron said the chances of finding that combination of names together was like finding a grave marked Ringo next to others marked John, Paul and George.

“Mariamene is Mary Magdalene - that’s the Ringo, that’s what sets this whole film in motion,” he said.

In other words, what proves that this Jesus is in fact Jesus Christ is the fact that he was buried with his wife Mary, presumed to be Mary Magdalene, with whom he had a son. Without that fact, the find wasn’t convincing even to Mr. Cameron.

Now, let’s step away from the early 21st century for a moment and remember that, in almost all the rest of history, that fact would have proved conclusively that this was not the tomb of Jesus. Relying only on the known histories of Jesus’ life, every historian—Christian, agnostic, atheist, Satanist, or whatever—would have concluded that he died without marrying.

Now a number of popular books have, without a scrap of real historical evidence, convinced the illiterati that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene. Because of that unhistorical popular delusion, Mr. Cameron is convinced that he’s found the tomb of Jesus.

In other words, the premise is pure fantasy, which is why I can’t really accept the conclusion.

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