Monday, March 5, 2007

Lingering Questions and Loose Ends

Here's a list of lingering questions about the Jesus tomb controversy. Several of them were prompted by remarks from archaeologist Joe Zias whose "viewer's guide" I noted earlier:

1. What are the odds that a DNA sample taken from any given ossuary is from the name of the person inscribed on it? Joe Zias says he "published in 1992 a tomb with 15 ossuaries, 88 people and one name." That's almost six skeletons per ossuary, likely added over a period of decades.

2. Was secondary burial (i.e., the use of ossuaries) practiced only by the conservative religious fringe of Jewish society, as Eric Meyers (a renowned archaeologist and former professor of mine) seemed to suggest on NPR today? Here's a quote from his interview:

Secondary burial was practiced by Jews in the first century, first century BCE as well, by very, very pious--the most pious--individuals whom many identify with [an] extreme version of the Pharisees. This is an odd group for Jesus to be associated with.
3. Can we verify that a dated (and undisputed) picture of the James ossuary confirms it was in Oded Golan's collection in 1976, four years before the Talpiot tomb was opened? According to Joe Zias:
last week . . . Oded Golan the owner of the ossuary in question, who is on trial for forging objects, produced a photograph of the ossuary with a time stamp 1976, four years before the Talpiot tomb was accidentally discovered!
In one post Ben Witherington refers to a "1970s-era picture"; in another, dated Feb 26, 2007, he is more specific:
Former FBI agent Gerald Richard testified that a photo of the James ossuary, showing it in Golan's home, was taken in the 1970s, based on tests done by the FBI photo lab.
So one version of this story suggests a date-stamped picture, and another has the FBI doing tests to determine the date.

UPDATE (Mar. 8, 2007): This article in Haaretz, dated Feb. 9, 2007 (o.k. I'm slow), appears to have answers to my questions. The relevant part is this:
In the defense's photographs, dated 1976, the ossuary is shown on a shelf, apparently in Golan's home. In an enlargement, the whole inscription can be seen with great difficulty. The photo was examined by Gerald Richard, a former FBI agent and an expert for the defense. Richard testified that "Nothing was noted that would indicate or suggest that they were not produced in March 1976 as indicated on the stamps appearing on the reverse side of each print."
Golan's attorney, Lior Beringer, told Haaretz that the photos support the defense's position. "The prosecution claims that Golan forged the inscription after the beginning of 2000. But here is a detailed report from an FBI photo lab that states that the inscription existed at least since the 70s," Beringer said. "It is unreasonable that someone would forge an inscription like this in the 70s and suddenly decide to come out with it in 2002," he added.
The date of the photo is also significant legally because any antiquity discovered in Israel since the passage of the 1978 Antiquities Law belongs to the state.
If this withstands scrutiny it could conceivably accomplish two things simultaneously:
1. Exonerate Golan of charges that he forged the James ossuary.
2. Preclude the possibility that the James ossuary was originally found in the Talpiot tomb.

On a related note, Jonathan Reed was adamant on Ted Koppel's panel last night that the archaeologists who removed all ten ossuaries would not have missed an inscription on the 10th one, as Jacobovici and Tabor are suggesting. Of course, if it were blank, the James ossuary must be eliminated from the equation.

4. Can we confirm that the James ossuary is indeed 20% different in (at least) one dimension compared to the so-called 10th ossuary from the Talpiot cave? Here's Zias once more:
an enterprising skeptic here in Jerusalem checked the dimensions of the two 'identical' ossuaries and found that the Talpiot plain white "missing" ossuary is approximately 20% longer than the James brother of Jesus ossuary.
Who was this "enterprising skeptic"? Where is this information available? This is important because James Tabor, in The Jesus Dynasty, p.32, says otherwise:
Just recently I noticed that the dimensions of the missing tenth ossuary are precisely the same, to the centimeter, to those of the James ossuary.
UPDATE (March 12, 2007): J. D. Walters points us to the relevant measurements of the "James" bone box) on his site, Theory of Everything: God.
according to the Biblical Archeology Review reportof the James ossuary, these are the dimensions given: "This ossuary is . . . 20 inches long (50.5 cm) at the base and flairs out to almost 22 inches (56 cm) at the top. . . The ossuary is 10 inches (25 cm) wide and 12 inches (30.5 cm) high.
As for the missing "10th" ossuary, its measurements are given in Amos Kloner's 1996 report, conveniently available on the Discovery Channel site, as 60 x 26 x 30 cm. Given this discrepancy--roughly 10 cm difference in length at the base, 1 cm difference in width--Walters presses Tabor to back his claim that the two ossuaries are the same size in a lively exchange (sizzling by academic standards) in the comments of Mark Goodacre's March 8 post:
Kloner 1996, based on the original notes of Yosef Gat, states the dimensions of the 10th ossuary as 60-26-30 (cm). The official report on the James Ossuary at BAR lists the dimensions of the James Ossuary as 50.5-25-30.5(cm). Yet Dr Tabor claimed in his book that the dimensions of the 10th missing ossuary match those of the James Ossuary "to the centimeter". So the question is, does he have measurements of the 10th ossuary and the James Ossuary different from those cited in the literature, and if so where did he get them from? And if not, how does he justify this claim?
In response, Tabor indicates that he isn't free or ready to give a fuller account. This seems strange but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps there are conflicting accounts of who measured what (and how carefully) during the 1980 dig. And there's always politics. In Isael, archaeology is always political.

5. What is the evidence that this tomb, or any other, was a family tomb? I don't doubt that family tombs existed, but I'm wondering how we know. Were all tombs family tombs? And how common would it be to have non-family buried in a family tomb?

6. Is there any evidence from ancient Jewish sources of Friday (pre-Sabbath) burials in tombs that were only intended to store the body until after the Sabbath? Is there any evidence at all of any body being buried with the full intention of retrieving and re-burying it in another tomb?

7. According to the Gospels (Luke 23:50-54; John 19:38-42), Jesus was buried in a new tomb near the site of execution--a tomb that presumably belonged to someone other than Jesus' family since the burial was arranged by council member Joseph from the town of Arimathea. Doesn't this story imply that Jesus' family did not have a family tomb in the Jerusalem area?

8. What do we know about the relationship of social class to burial practice? In general the literature suggests that rich people had tombs and poor people used trenches (and thus no secondary burial). Jodi Magness' recent article on the SBL Forum makes precisely this claim. (Magness' article is also now available on the Biblical Archaeology Review site.) Do we know how rich one had to be to have a family tomb? What other factors (besides wealth) might cause one to be buried in a tomb rather than a trench?

9. What do we really know about the social standing or class of Jesus' Galilean family? Were Jesus and his disciples lower class as Jodi Magness and most scholars contend or is James Tabor right that they weren't as poor as Christian tradition tends to assume?

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