Wednesday, February 28, 2007

If they had different moms they must be married (?)

The Discovery Channel documentary website deserves some kind of award for the way it lays out the issues, among them the role of DNA in the investigation of the Talpiot ossuaries.

Turns out a lab up in Ontario (my home province) tested residue from two (and only two) ossuaries: the one inscribed Yeshua bar Yosef and the one inscribed Mariamene Mara. Chris Heard, religion professor at Pepperdine, does a nice job sorting out what these tests can, and cannot, show. Chris points out that:

the only DNA-based claim made by the filmmakers is that the Talpiot tomb’s Mariamne Mara was neither Yeshua bar Yehosef’s sister nor mother.
I'll wait until I see the documentary to decide whether or not they imply more than they claim. I'm betting they do.

Even with this modest claim, however, there are problems, like the apparent assumption that the DNA residue the Canadian scientists retrieved belonged to the person whose name is on the box. As Chris puts it:
Unless the DNA in question can be shown to have come from the person named in the ossuary’s inscription, the DNA evidence is absolutely meaningless for reconstructing the relationship between the parties buried in the tomb.
Chris would be correct, of course, if we were trying to solve a murder case. The jury would have reasonable doubt. Whether the same standard of proof should apply to this case is, I suppose, an interesting question.

Moving on, Chris outlines the logic of their argument as he understands it:
(1) The Talpiot tomb is a family tomb. (2) The only women buried in a family tomb would be (a) women who married into the family or (b) women born into the family who, at the time of their death, had never been married. (3) Since Yeshua and Miriamne were not related, Miriamne must have married into the family.
Oddly enough, the filmmakers apparently assume that
if Miriamne married into the family, she married Yeshua. Four of the six ossuary inscriptions name men. Why should it be assumed that Miriamne was Yeshua’s wife? Why not Yehudah’s wife, or Yose’s wife, or Matia’s wife? And, of course, the possibility would still remain that she was Yeshua’s daughter, or Yehudah’s or Yose’s or Matia’s daughter, and so on down the line. The full range of possibilities has not been explored. Rather, the filmmakers have jumped to a "sexy" conclusion that is not contravened by the available evidence, but neither is it really supported by the evidence.
Interesting stuff. For more, read Chris' full post and check back; I'm guessing he'll have more to say before long.

Early Christianity's Dirty Little Secret?

My good friend and Biblical scholar, Brian Schultz (Ph.D. Bar Ilan University), poses the following question about the Jesus-family-tomb hypothesis:

How could Christianity spread as a religion about a resurrected messiah when the entire Jerusalem community, including James, brother of Jesus and leader of the church, knew where Jesus' tomb could be found?
Good question. Brian is assuming, with good reason, that the location of any given family tomb would not be a secret. He continues:
Even discussing the possibility that this tomb could be of Jesus is an insult to the intelligence of 1st century people, both Christians who believed the message, and Jews who felt they had to fight against it without ever appealing to his existing tomb that continued to be in use for at least another generation!
The point is that as Jesus' family tomb, it would have been used and reused over the next generation, presumably up until 70 C.E. Is there any evidence anywhere that this location, or any location, was rumored to be the final resting place of Jesus? The closest we have, I suspect, are texts that hint at the possibility that the body was moved from somewhere else (Mt 28:13; Jn 20:2, 13, 15). Which isn't very close.

As Schultz reminds us, the Jesus-family-tomb hypothesis requires that this tomb be used by Jesus' family over several generations precisely when his family and others are proclaiming that Jesus' body did not stay in the grave. Personally, I find the idea that Jesus' family had a dirty little secret about as plausible as the idea that Mary Magdalene snuck off to France so her daughter could marry into the French royal bloodline.

So now do we want the James ossuary to be forged?

The continuing saga of the James bone box, including the current trial of Oded Golan for antiquities fraud, is almost certain to become a major motion picture. (If I'm the first to think of this, I want in.) I've followed the debate with some interest, particularly after viewing the ossuary with my father in Toronto a few years ago.

This is not the place to weigh in on whether or not the inscription James son of Joseph brother of Jesus (or part of it) is forged. Here I want only to suggest that a number of Christians have been inclined to defend its authenticity because it offered them a rare tangible connection to the Lord of the Church.

Now, however, with Simcha Jacobovici and the Discovery Channel arguing that the James ossuary is likely the missing "10th" bone box from the Talpiot cave, some of the faithful may be less inclined to give old James' final resting place the benefit of the doubt. After all, if it is both authentic and from the Talpiot cave, it would bolster the statistical argument (wouldn't it?) that the combination of names (Joseph, Jesus, Jose, Mary, plus James) in the same tomb is more than coincidental. James Tabor presses the point:

with the James ossuary included there can be little doubt that in March of 1980 a bulldozer accidently uncovered the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth.
So lots is at stake here. Maybe we don't want the James ossuary to be authentic after all. Maybe we don't like it that The Lost Tomb of Jesus is whispering something that is for many Christians unthinkable: that Jesus' crucified body remained in the grave.

Of all people, Christians should be first to confess an openness to rigorous historical inquiry. If Jesus really did rise bodily from the dead, the very best historical investigation can only support the case. If he didn't, then St. Paul would counsel us to abandon the Cause and get on with our lives (1 Cor 15:19).

I'm not arguing here in support of the Jesus Family Tomb hypothesis. As of right now, I think it is bogus. But I am arguing that double standards, thin arguments and hasty dismissiveness are not likely to persuade many non-Christians that we are doing more than whistling in the dark.

What I particularly like about this controversy is how it focuses attention where it belongs, on the audacious claim at the heart of Christianity: that once, long ago, a dead body rose from the grave. That Jesus' body didn't rot. That his bones were never gathered, however lovingly, and stored in a family tomb. That his name was never scratched into the sandstone.

The charges leveled in Dan Brown's novel, The Da Vinci Code, are, by contrast, a painful diversion. Brown (o.k., Teabing) targeted the Roman Catholic church for its alleged chauvinism, violence and historical revisionism. At least with The Jesus Family Tomb the debate can get back on track. Good fun, this. A good time to be a New Testament scholar.

Have we finally found the Holy Grail?

As I follow the raucous debate on the web and exchange e-mails with colleagues, a list of questions is taking shape. Here's one.

Is Mary Magdalene's name on one of the ossuaries?

It is well known that Mary is a very common name in the period. I count 6 Marys out of 16 named women in the Gospels. And, of course, Magdalene refers to her home town, Magdala, not her last name.

The filmmakers contend that one of the ossuaries from the Talpiot tomb belongs to Mary Magdalene. If they're right, the argument runs, this not only increases the likelihood that the Talpiot tomb in southern Jerusalem has ties to Jesus of Nazareth, but it also supports the idea (popularly advanced in The Da Vinci Code) that the two of them were married. So Dan Brown was right after all. Or was he?.

How solid is this link between Mary Magdalene and the Greek name on the ossuary: Mariamenou e(?) Mara ? According to NT scholar Richard Bauckham, quoted in Jim Davila's blog , not very. Bauckham, relayed by Davila, makes several salient points (emphases added):

The form of the name on the ossuary in question is Mariamenou. This is a Greek genitive case, used to indicate that the ossuary belongs to Mary (it means 'Mary's' or 'belonging to Mary'). The nominative would be Mariamenon. Mariamenon is a diminutive form, used as a form of endearment. The neuter gender is normal in diminutives used for women.

This diminutive, Mariamenon, would seem to have been formed from the name Mariamene, a name which is attested twice elsewhere (in the Babatha archive and in the Jewish catacombs at Beth She’arim). It is an unusual variant of Mariame. In the Babatha document it is spelt with a long e in the penultimate syllable, but in the Bet She’arim inscription the penultimate syllable has a short e. This latter form could readily be contracted to the form Mariamne, which is found, uniquely, in the Acts of Philip.

So we have, on the one hand, a woman known by the diminutive Mariamenon, in the ossuary, and, on the other hand, Mary Magdalen, who is always called in the Greek of the New Testament Maria but seems to be called in a much later source Mariamne. Going by the names alone they could be the same woman, but the argument for this is tenuous.

A final point about the Mariamenou inscription. The inscription also has a second name Mara. When Rahmani published this inscription in his catalogue of ossuaries he conjectured that the Greek particle ‘e’ (meaning ‘or’) should be supplied between the two names, making them alternative names for the same woman. The ‘e’ is not actually in the inscription, nor is there space for it between the two names. It is better to suppose that the bones of two women (or perhaps a woman and her child, the diminutive Mariamenon being used for the latter) were placed in the same ossuary (this would not be not unusual). The name Mara is known to have been used as an abbreviation of the name Martha. The programme makers take it to be the Aramaic word for ‘master,’ but this is implausible in the context. Beside the name Mariamenou on an ossuary, one would expect Mara to be a name, and since it is attested as a name this is the obviously correct reading."
Mark Goodacre of Duke University is equally skeptical about the Mariamne-Mary Magdalene connection (emphasis added):
For Jacobovici, it was the turning point for him to discover that Mariamne was Mary Magdalene's 'real name'. The bad news for him is that it is only her real name if one goes with a fourth century text, the Acts of Philip, that has no chance of containing first century traditions, and which itself is not explicitly talking about the Mary Magdalene we have mentioned in the Gospels. Wherever she appears in first century Christian texts, she is always 'Maria', as are the other several Marys in the New Testament.
The Documentary is (by all accounts) counting big time on this identification of Mariamne Mara as Mary Magdalene. But this identification is mired in a bog of speculation and an uncritical appeals to a source that is both late in date and unclear in meaning.

UPDATE (3-1-07): The full version of Richard Bauckham's thorough discussion of the names on the ossuaries (Mariamenou-Mara, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Matia, Yeshua bar Yehosef, Yose, Maria) is now available on Chrisendom.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Jesus Family Tomb or Discovery Channel Bomb?

Here are a few links to help you follow the latest Jesus scandal: the claim made by a Discovery Channel documentary (airing March 4, at 9:00 p.m.) that Jesus' bone box and family tomb have been found.

The official (and very spiffy) website for the documentary is a model of how to inform and educate, and of how to blur the line between fact and fancy:

Keeping his book-related blog up to date, James Tabor offers a sympathetic summary of the argument.

A blog by Ben Witherington, NT scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary and prolific author, is (predictably but understandably) critical at every point.
A more polished version of his thoughts is now available at BeliefNet, here.

Darrell L. Bock, NT professor at Dallas Seminary, consulted on the project but is also highly critical.

As usual, some of the most thoughtful and cautious remarks are coming from Duke University NT professor Mark Goodacre who can always be counted on as a great source for the latest NT happ'nins. Keep checking back here.

BeliefNet has an evolving collection of links on the topic and on related archaeological debates about Jesus and early Christianity.

UPDATE 3-3-07: Jodi Magness, Biblical scholar and archaeologist, offers a succinct summary of all the reasons the tomb can't belong to Jesus.