News in Science - Experts say 'Jesus tomb' is a fantasy - 28/02/2007
[This is the print version of story http://www.abc.net.au/science/news/stories/2007/1859195.htm]
Experts say 'Jesus tomb' is a fantasy
Wednesday, 28 February 2007
Media blitz surround claims of the 'Jesus tomb'. These two limestone boxes, found in a 2000 year old tomb in Israel, may contain remains of Jesus and his family, say film-makers. But archaeologists say the evidence is shaky (Image: Reuters/Mike Segar)
Claims that the burial site of Jesus, his wife and son have been found in an ancient family cemetery in Jerusalem have been criticised by researchers as fanciful.
Archaeological and DNA evidence to be aired in a documentary later this week and in a book suggests Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a son, Judah, who were buried with him.
The claim contradicts the Bible's account that Jesus was single, died when crucified, was resurrected three days later and ascended to heaven, central tenets of Christian belief.
But archaeologists, historians and theologians have criticised evidence in the documentary The Lost Tomb of Christ and book The Jesus Family Tomb as far from conclusive.
The film-makers cite evidence of names etched on ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, dug up at the site, as well as DNA evidence they hold, and other technical analysis.
Five of the 10 boxes in the tomb are inscribed with names that they say refer to key biblical figures: Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Joseph and Mary Magdalene.
A sixth inscription, written in Aramaic, translates to 'Judah son of Jesus'.
Another limestone burial box is labelled in Aramaic with 'Jesus son of Joseph'; another bears the Hebrew inscription 'Maria', a Latin version of 'Miriam', or in English 'Mary'.
Yet another ossuary inscription, written in Hebrew, reads 'Matia', the original Hebrew word for 'Matthew'.
Only one of the inscriptions is written in Greek. It reads, 'Mariamene e Mara', which can be translated as 'Mary known as the master', the documentary says.
The film-maker, Simcha Jacobovici, says a statistical analysis of the names being found together makes it extremely unlikely that it would be anyone else but the biblical family of Jesus.
Andrey Feuerverger, a Canadian statistics professor at the University of Toronto, says the odds are 600 to one.
This ossuary, or bone box, may have held the bones of Mary Magdalene, the film-makers say. But critics say Mary (Maria or Miriam) was a common name at the time (Image: Reuters/Mike Segar)
But not everyone is convinced.
Archaeologist Amos Kloner, a professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, documented the tomb as the Jewish burial cave of a well-off family more than 10 years ago.
He says there is no evidence that it was the burial site of Jesus, and that that the names are a coincidence.
"I'm a scholar. I do scholarly work which has nothing to do with documentary film-making. There's no way to take a religious story and to turn it into something scientific," he says.
"Who says that 'Maria' is Magdalena and 'Judah' is the son of Jesus? It cannot be proved. These are very popular and common names from the first century BC."
Kloner says that of 900 burial caves found within 4 kilometres of Jerusalem's Old City and from the same era, the name Jesus or Yeshu was found 71 times, and that 'Jesus son of Joseph' has also been found.
Professor L Michael White, director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins at the the University of Texas, says he also doubts the claims are true.
"This is trying to sell documentaries," he says, adding a series of strict tests needed to be conducted before a bone box or inscription could be confirmed as ancient.
"This is not archaeologically sound, this is fanfare."
The DNA evidence
The film-makers also obtained two sets of samples from the ossuaries for DNA and chemical analysis.
The first set consisted of bits of matter taken from the 'Jesus Son of Joseph' and 'Mariamene e Mara' ossuaries. The second set consisted of patina, a chemical film encrustation on one of the limestone boxes.
The human remains were analysed by Dr Carney Matheson, a Canadian scientist at the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Ontario.
Mitochondrial DNA examination determined the individual in the Jesus ossuary and the person in the ossuary linked to Mary Magdalene are not related.
Since tombs normally contain either blood relations or spouses, the film-makers say the DNA results suggest Jesus and Mary Magdalene could have been a couple.
But Dr R Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is far from convinced.
"The DNA testing is to me the most laughable aspect of this," he told CNN.
"You have to have the basis of a DNA sample that would make any sense," he says. "No one has the DNA of Mary."
The Israel Antiquities Authority declined to comment. But in 1996 a spokesman said that the probability of the caskets belonging to the family of Jesus were "next to zero".
Dr Shimon Gibson, one of the archaeologists who discovered the tomb, says he has a "healthy scepticism" the tomb may have belonged to the family of Jesus.
with Reuters and ABC Science Online