Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Tomb of Jesus and Family

This is obviously going to be a big story, especially with the press conference on Monday.

Check the links at the bottom, but in summary, film maker James Cameron has produced a documentary (and the research? I'm not as clear on that) on new analysis and interpretation of what the researchers believe to be the tomb of Jesus Christ and his family. A family tomb in Jerusalem, excavated in 1980, includes ossuaries for a Yeshua (Jesus) son of Yosef (Joseph), Maria (Latin for Mary, and Mary mother of Jesus was referred to in other texts by the Latin), Matia (Matthew). Most stunningly, one ossuary is inscribed Mariamene e Mara or "Mary, known as the Master," a name for Mary Magdalene in Gnostic texts, and Judah son of Jesus.

Furthermore, bits of bone in the Yeshua (yes, you read that right) ossuary and the Mariamene ossuary are not related by blood (DNA was extractable from the remains in those two ossuaries). This leads to the interpretation that Mariamene married into the family.

The linked articles note that while the names are common in that region in the first century AD, the chances of all these names, that are associated as family and associates in the New Testament, occurring together, is 1 in 600.

Now, there is a lot that could be wrong about this. There may be elements of the data that we don't know about, that falsifies the hypothesis proposed by these researchers. With such a spectacular claim, there is always the possibility of fraud (perhaps by someone prior to the discovery). The researchers are suggesting a possible tie to the James ossuary (possibly having been in the tomb), which some researchers have declared a fraud, while supporters have produced 1970s-era photos of the ossuary. Of course, if the latter is true, this presents problems for the 1980 excavation. And of course, even if everything here is above board, at most it points to a likely historical link to the tomb occupants, something not provable beyond an absolute shadow of a doubt. But that's how archaeology often is.

Anyway, it is far too preliminary to judge any of this. But unlike many other media blitz claims about archaeology (this is a book, a documentary being shown on the Discovery Channel, etc.), the evidence seems pretty straightfoward here. And a peer-reviewed article on the statistics is apparently coming out soon, something often not found in media blitzes. And let's be honest: did we really think a discovery of this nature would appear first in a scientific journal. Of course it was going to get the King Kong 8th Wonder of the World treatment.

Here is a Discovery "News" blurb about the discoveries, that detail the basic outline

This is a somewhat detailed presentation of the tomb, in particular pictures of the ossuaries with transcriptions and translations of the inscriptions, and more about each element of the research. I recommend checking it out.

One of the archaeologists involved in the initial discovery says this is all PR and nonsense. But I will wait to see what the new analysis actually suggests, as I've seen this kind of rivalry before, sometimes legit, sometimes not. He is right, that archaeologists are not involved in the new analysis. On the other hand, an epigrapher of texts of this era is involved.

It may all be garbage. It may actually have merit. But regardless, I imagine this is going to be something a lot of people outside archaeology will be talking about.

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