Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Jesus Bone Box

This coming Sunday the Discovery Channel is airing a documentary about a discovery certain to set the air on fire. Archaeologists say they have found the burial ossuary for Jesus of Nazareth. They have his bones, they say. Such a find does not jive with Christian doctrine all across the spectrum, from fundamentalists to Unitarians; though divided denominationally, these arms of christianity share common cause when it comes to the resurrection of Jesus. The gospels of Christ tell us that he rose from death the third day after he was executed. If his bones have been found, the wake of such an announcement is sure to raise the ire of Christ's followers everywhere.

From Discovery Channel's website:

On March 28, 1980, a construction crew developing an apartment complex in Talpiot, Jerusalem, uncovered a tomb, which archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority excavated shortly thereafter. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson surveyed the site and drew a layout plan. Scholar L.Y. Rahmani later published "A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries" that described 10 ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, found in the tomb.

Scholars know that from 30 B.C. to 70 A.D., many people in Jerusalem would first wrap bodies in shrouds after death. The bodies were then placed in carved rock tombs, where they decomposed for a year before the bones were placed in an ossuary.

Five of the 10 discovered boxes in the Talpiot tomb were inscribed with names believed to be associated with key figures in the New Testament: Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Joseph and Mary Magdalene. A sixth inscription, written in Aramaic, translates to "Judah Son of Jesus."

Frank Moore Cross, a professor emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "The inscriptions are from the Herodian Period (which occurred from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.). The use of limestone ossuaries and the varied script styles are characteristic of that time."

Intriguing, perhaps. The translation of the inscriptions has not yet been stood up for academic review, thus making its claims spurious at best, maybe even expedient -how convenient to find the bones of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their son so soon after the raging success of Dan Brown's book, The DaVinci Code, in which the author fantasises that the Catholic church has conspired for hundreds of years to hide the fact of Jesus's matrimony and progeny. Ron Howard perpetuated this fantasy with his film, and now James Cameron is jumping aboard with his provocative documentary.

To my untrained eye (I'm one ignorant cuss, believe me), the proof that the bones truly belong to Jesus and crew seems rooted in circumstance and proximity, two factors that here I believe are collaborating to enable fuzzy logic. Again from Discovery:

In addition to the "Judah son of Jesus" inscription, which is written in Aramaic on one of the ossuaries, another limestone burial box is labeled in Aramaic with "Jesus Son of Joseph." Another bears the Hebrew inscription "Maria," a Latin version of "Miriam," or, in English, "Mary." Yet another ossuary inscription, written in Hebrew, reads "Matia," the original Hebrew word for "Matthew." Only one of the inscriptions is written in Greek. It reads, "Mariamene e Mara," which can be translated as, "Mary known as the master."

Francois Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "Mariamene, or Mariamne, probably was the actual name given to Mary Magdalene."

Bovon explained that he and a colleague discovered a fourteenth century copy in Greek of a fourth century text that contains the most complete version of the "Acts of Philip" ever found. Although not included in the Bible, the "Acts of Philip" mentions the apostles and Mariamne, sister of the apostle Philip.

The claim by Bovon that Mariamne is the same person as Mary Magdalene flies in the face of careful process. A document written four hundred years after the life of Jesus is his sole support, and in it she is not connected to Jesus but to one of his disciples. However, the document comes from outside canon; the "Acts of Philip" is considered by scholars to be a fabrication. Some quick investigation reveals another poignant fact. The "Acts of Philip" document was discovered at a Greek monastery by none other than Francois Bovon himself!

What's more, his translation of Mariamne's name does not substantially connect her with Jesus. The woman from the "Acts of Philip" is the powerful leader of a sect of "Miriamnists", but nowhere in the text does it suggest that she is married to Jesus. Bovon takes the base assumption that Magdalene was the wife of Jesus, then builds on that to say she is the sister of Philip, and from there is able to "prove" that he has found her bones and therefore the bones of Jesus. Such whimsy as this is bound to get him into trouble somewhere along the line.

I'd imagine that when the documentary airs, the mediascape will become a conflagration of intolerable heat, as the public relations of each respective church denomination declares its own take on the discovery. These views will be splintered and combative, and will likely serve to be divisive rather than being a point of coming together in faith.

I know that sounds pessimistic. What I am pessimistic about is the public relations scandal that will arise from this. If past pokes at Christianity have given us any indication, we can expect religious leaders to once more jump up and rant and rave, in service to nothing other than the argument itself, a lot of sound and fury. To me this seems entirely beside the point. What is really at stake is not an increased share of the popular culture, though it will seem that way; the true stakes are in faith and representing true belief in a manner that does not belittle it or make faith seem like the "cool" thing to do.

By this same token, I also expect a lot of good discussion among friends and relations. There are so many folks that will be emboldened not to default to their base instincts but instead to rational discourse. There will be as much color and brilliance to these discussions, I'm sure, as anything you hear on NPR or Limbaugh.

1 comment:

D. Ian Dalrymple said...

Curiously, this story has already grown out of his boots. Check out Terry Mattingly's post on it here:


And here's a UK article on all the hubbub:


(Not sure if that will render, but I'm too lazy to do a proper HTML link here.)

It is James Cameron who is pushing this, not the archeological community. The archeologists who actuall unearthed the ossuaries in the 80s think Cameron's thesis is bunk. This is just a publicity stunt for Cameron.