Wednesday, February 28, 2007

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.

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