Them bones, them bones

As was only to be expected, the response to the outsized claim that the ossuaries of Jesus Christ and a fair number of his family have been found (27 years ago, no less), has been as interesting—maybe more so—than the claim itself. Reaction has been immediate, emotional, hostile and almost uniformly vituperative. Virtually none of it even tries to argue the case on its merits. Granted, the filmmakers don’t help the basic claim with some highly questionable, to put it mildly, DNA assertions, but even so, if they are so easily dismissed, why not do so?

The predictable religious response is among the milder variants of reaction: since Jesus Christ is wholly and entirely in heaven, he had no need for a bone box; whoever was in there was some other Jesus. Fair enough. I imagine reaction from Christians’ opposite numbers—those who think Christ never existed at all—will essentially be the same sort of QED argument: it simply can‘t be true.
But don’t those who think Jesus lived—and died—as an ordinary man have to at least consider the possibility? (After all, the 1990 discovery of an ossuary inscribed Caiaphas has been widely accepted as having belonged to the high priest who handed Christ over to Pontius Pilate.) Ah no, not so you’d notice.
Rather response has been dominated by the following themes:
They (Cameron, Jacobovici et al) are in it for the money. Okay, sure, whatever you say … and that means it can’t be true?
They’re recycling an old story. Okay, in part at least … and that means it can’t be true?
James Cameron is a jerk. Okay, widely believed anyway … and that means it can’t be true?
The ossuary doesn’t even read Yeshua (Jesus), it reads Hunan. At last, an argument. But not a good one, even though Amos Kloner now backs it. In 1996 when he (finally) got around to writing up what he and two other Israeli archaeologists excavated in 1980, he was not entirely sure about the Jesus reading, but he certainly agreed then that it was by far the most likely possibility—especially given the Jude, son of Jesus ossuary. Doesn’t mean it’s the Jesus, of course, but there’s a 99% probability it’s a Jesus.

Then there’s the idea, most prominently raised by Israeli archaeologist Joe Zias, that a family of poor Galileans could not be expected to own an expensive Jerusalem tomb. That’s actually a very good point, the best counter-Jacobovici suggestion raised yet. In response, James Tabor, the Biblical historian who appears in the film, says that there is no Scriptural reason to assume that Jesus’s family was as dirt poor as Christian tradition indicates; even if it were, he adds in an interview, “you don’t have to be rich for your followers to chip in to ensure you have a decent burial.” Another reasonable point—call this one a draw between the opposing camps.
So it all comes down to the odds. Those opposed use the same mantra they first chanted in 1996: common names, common names, it’s all meaningless. Jacobovici et al. respond: not in this combination, especially not if we can prove the James ossuary came from there—in that case it’s 30,000 to one for our side. Statistical analysis being a black hole for me—and, I suspect, for most Biblical scholars as well—I find both positions perfectly believable. I imagine an effective rejoinder to the Jacobovici claims would chip away at the special names, demolish the DNA claims and otherwise make the common ever more common. But that’s my imagination; until someone does it in actuality, all the vituperation in the world won’t do for an answer. So … could someone try to answer the tomb finders on the numbers, please, and get back to the rest of us?

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