Saturday, March 10, 2007

Charlesworth: Jesus' bones? No. Jesus' family tomb? Maybe.

Perhaps to qualify or clarify his earlier statements that seemed to validate Jacobovici's claims, James H. Charlesworth, George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary has posted a statement on the seminary webpage that includes seven observations about the "Jesus, son of Joseph" ossuary. I like them because they span the disciplines from epigraphy to archaeology to social science to history to biblical studies. Here they are, as they appear on Deinde:
  1. The scribbling is not an inscription, it is a sloppy graffiti.
  2. The name "Jesus" before "son of Joseph" is the most difficult name to read among all the names in the tomb.
  3. All archaeologists and historians know that the names "Jesus" and "Joseph" are two of the most common names in first-century Jerusalem.
  4. The ossuary is remarkably ordinary without any ornamentation; this may indicate that the remains placed inside belonged to someone rather common.
  5. After Jesus' crucifixion as a common criminal, some priests wanted to stop (even kill) those who were claiming that Jesus was the Son of God because God had raised him from the dead. They could have produced the bones of Jesus rather easily and thus thwarted those who claimed that God had raised Jesus from the dead.
  6. The so-called "Jesus tomb" is not far from the place where Caiaphas's ossuary was recovered. The "Jesus tomb" is decorated and elegant and would have been clearly visible before 70 CE when Roman soldiers destroyed the area. The priests who sought to stop the Palestinian Jesus Movement would have known about this tomb, regardless of who was placed inside.
  7. The authors of the Gospels report that Jesus was placed in a tomb prepared for the family of Joseph of Arimathea; there is no New Testament evidence that Jesus' family had a tomb.
Points 1, 2, 4 & 6 are more substantive together than separately. For the Jacobovici hypothesis to be true, we would have to imagine that although the family tomb was "decorated and elegant," Jesus' clan did almost nothing to honor the bones of their most honorable member. Indeed, his ossuary was more hastily and less carefully "inscribed" than any of the others, including the one belonging to little "brother" Jose.

Points 5, 6 & 7, in combination, amount to a historical argument that Jesus' enemies would likely have known where his family tomb was. This has not, to my knowledge, received an adequate response from the documentary's proponents. To be fair, though, the claim that the tomb's location and association with Jesus would have been public knowledge involves a measure of speculation.

Point number 3 (the commonness of two names) is not in disupte but carries little weight if the issue is the statistical probability of a cluster of names.

Two additional thoughts relate to other remarks by Charlesworth. First, about Jesus' "clan":
a good case has been made for the possibility that the tomb of Jesus' "clan" may have been discovered. By "clan" I mean "extended family group". This possibility needs to be researched and debated in a scholarly symposium.
This puzzles me. If Charlesworth doesn't think the "Jesus, son of Joseph" bone box held the bones of Jesus of Nazareth, how would the Talpiot ossuary evidence amount to a "good case" that this particular tomb belonged to Jesus' "clan"? Perhaps he doesn't view his seven observations as ultimately decisive.

Second, about his closing word:
There is nothing that archaeology can provide that can be damaging to Christian faith. Archaeology cannot form faith; it can only inform faith.
This notion that nothing unearthed by archaeology can be damaging to Christian faith is entirely unpersuasive to me. If Christianity is a fundamentally historical faith--a faith that rests on claims about events that really happened--and if archaeology sometimes overturns the way we understand history, shouldn't we be open in principle to archaeological discoveries that undermine faith? What if the Talpiot tomb had been found, intact and undisturbed, with ossuaries inscribed with the names of all known members of Jesus' family (but no one else), each one containing bones (one with nail holes in all the right places)? And what if the same tomb held jars containing previously unknown scrolls (whose authenticity and dates could not be denied) that offered a narrative that completely challenged the Gospels credibility? Would Charlesworth's faith still come through unscathed? It's a crazy hypothetical, of course, so maybe it doesn't help. But I still have to wonder.


Danny Zacharias said...

Thanks for your commentary on Charlesworth's post, I agree very much with what you say.


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