Archaeology Trumps Faith?

In preparing for development of new terraced condo units a few miles outside Jerusalem, construction workers exposed a nearly 2,000 year old tomb with a dynamite blast. The date was Thursday, March 27, 1980. A team from the Israeli Antiquities Authority was dispatched to begin excavation but ended work on Friday in anticipation of the Sabbath with the tomb left open and unguarded.

By Saturday sabbath, it was discovered that local children had entered the tomb, found skulls and bones and practiced their soccer skills. Bones were re-collected as best possible, and not much more was heard until BBC aired a 1996 Easter television special on this tomb with a distinguished list of occupants – a Jesus son of Joseph, Mariamene Mara, and Judah son of Jesus, among others.

As one reputed burial site of Jesus, the Garden Tomb (located just north of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate) today gathers pilgrims from all nations – seeking the Jesus of history as well as faith.
But what if the real tomb – and occupants – lie elsewhere?

As advocated by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici in their 2012 book, The Jesus Discovery, this was none other than the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth and his apparent wife Mary Magdalene. Those skulls and bones kicked around by those kids in 1980 may well be have included those of the founder of Christianity.

The intrigue is deepened with two related observations from this find related to the ossuary of Mariamene Mara. First, the “Mara” appendage appears to be an honorific, or “Lady” in English as the feminine form of “Mar” or “Lord”. Second, DNA testing  has confirmed that the Jesus in this tomb was neither the son nor the brother of the Mariamene – leaving open for future research the possibility that the woman was his spouse.

Needless to say, this find and the resulting claims have proven highly controversial. Rather than dwelling on the merits of the archeological findings, this blog post focuses on the potential implications. What if this Jesus was the Christ, the Mary his spouse, and the Judah his son?

Second, the concept of the resurrection is turned on its head. Rather than being aloft above the clouds, we are left with a body decayed and bones still bound to the earth (though scrambled). We are left with a spiritual rather than bodily resurrection.

The Garden Tomb was “discovered” in the late 1800s as an alternative to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the more traditional site for Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. This multi-phase structure dates to the 4th century when it was pronounced the site of the tomb by Helena, mother of Roman emperor Constantine. But what if the real tomb – and occupants – lie elsewhere?

There is a larger question: what happens when science (or archaeology) provides clear evidence that either flatly contradicts or sheds entirely new and unexpected light on our current understanding of Jesus, his life and mission? Christians – of all stripes and persuasions – had better get prepared. Because that day is coming.

The worst thing the church could do would be to hide behind scriptures that are stretched well beyond their original intent and meaning. As when the Church declared the earth was flat, based on such scriptures as Isaiah 11:12 which talks about gathering the “dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

New archaeological (including manuscript) discoveries are coming fast and furious. Consider the James ossuary (or burial box) with the inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Despite accusation and trial, defendent Oded Golan was acquitted on May 14, 2012 on the count of forgery, though he was convicted of illegal trading in antiquities.

The judge in the case was careful to  point out that, while acquitted of forgery, this acquittal “does not mean that the inscription on the ossuary is authentic or that it was written 2,000 years ago.”

If the ossuary is not a forgery, what is the likelihood that the Jesus, James and Joseph inscribed on the James ossuary are those of the family of Jesus of Nazareth? Statistical analysis conducted by Camil Fuchs, statistician from Tel Aviv University, concludes that there is a 38% probability that there is only one such individual named James with a brother named Jesus and a father name Joseph in the time frame that this ossurary was made (between 6 and 70 AD).

As cited by theBiblical Archaeology Reviewof June/Auguest 2012, there is an approximately 32 percent chance that two individuals had this combination, an 18% chance that three individuals had it, and an 8% chance that  four individuals had it – all at a 95% level of statistical confidence. In other words, the chance that this is the ossuary of James the brother of Jesus of the New Testament appears to be the single most likely possibility, though clearly not the only possibility.

From all of these recent archaeological finds, one thing is clear. While more discoveries have yet to be made, many if not most can expect to be dogged by controversy. In part, this is because persons of varied persuasions of Christian faith (or lack therof) are willing to accept only the evidence that accords with their own particular preconceptions. The logic is like this: consider only the facts that fit the existing bias.

And, in large part, the process of provenance – including finding, securing and interpreting complete rather than partial works – appears increasingly challenging. One has only to look at the recent tragic story of the so-called Gospel of Judas, which survived nearly 2,000 years largely intact only to be greatly damaged after its discovery, by mishandling and jurisdictional disputes leading to loss of much of the manuscript.

In some cases, there may be corroborating evidence within the the current canon. For example, the distinctive role that Mary Magdalene plays in holding the embryonic post-Jesus church together is hinted at by the gospel accounts of the resurrection, then given more substance with non-canonical works such as the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Phillip.

Like others, the authors of The Jesus Discovery have a ways to go to solidify their case for the authenticity and reliability of radically divergent interpretations – as with the hypothetical Jesus family. However, this or a similar find that challenges Christian orthodoxy will eventually happen – whether with something like the proof of Jesus and family or perhaps involving something even more seemingly far-fetched.

When it does, remember  that scripture never claims to be inerrant – only inspired. There is already substantial evidence of errors or perhaps even malevolent additions to the New Testament. A telling example is provided by the reference to the trinitarian concept of “three in one” as suggested by I John 5:7, first included in the canon, in part, as a Catholic overreaction to Martin Luther. Other examples of altered scriptural texts include the shortened and surprise ending to the earliest versions of Mark’s gospel, and the absence of the story about Jesus and the adulterous woman intended for stoning as described in early editions of John’s gospel. “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.”

The worst reaction for the Christian community – especially fundamentalists – would be to go into denial (as with the flat earth advocates of times past). Don’t deny; instead actively encourage new evidence and resulting truth-seeking.

After all, it was Jesus brother James who wrote that “faith without works is dead.” The Greek for “works” is ergon, meaning labor or work, both of which are demonstrated by evidence in material or physical terms. James could just as well have written that “faith without evidence is dead.”

Or the apostle Peter who wrote of the need to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope (logos) that is within you…”

Bottom line, Christianity only survives, only thrives if our faith is bigger than our preconceptions. Only as we allow scientific evidence (as it unfolds) to reshape our misconceptions.

As Jesus himself is reputed to have stated (at least as quoted by the as-yet non-canonical Gospel of Thomas):

“Those who seek should not stop seeking until they find. When they find, they will be disturbed. When they are disturbed, they will marvel, and will rule over all.”

Get Christianity off the ropes, out of the dark alleys and back into the mainstream – the marketplace of life in this frenetic 21st century. And that only happens as we continually “work out our salvation,” – a never ending process of faith interacting with works (and reason).