Sunday, April 08, 2007

The Empty Tomb

Women arriving at the Empty Tomb
photo grab: heqiarts.com

In the resurrection narratives of the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), the only passage common among them is the visit of some women to the tomb of Jesus, or the so-called "empty tomb". Since the supposedly discovery of another tomb of Jesus (lost tomb?) wants us to believe that a critical challenge has been posed on gospels' account of the empty tomb, I'm going to post once again an unedited version of the article I have written on the topic published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Click on this for the published article. Since the publication of this article, there have been numerous studies, accessible online, supporting what I have written. Click on this to ge a free e-book on the topic.

The Lost Tomb of Jesus
by Randolf C. Flores, SVD
Bible and Hebrew Language Professor
Divine Word Seminary
4120 Tagaytay City

"His disciples may go and steal him away" (Mt 27:64). This was what the chief priests and the Pharisees suspected to happen after Jesus’ death so they came to Pilate a day after with a request to station a security guard at the tomb of Jesus. In that culture, like ours, where deception, lying, hypocrisy, and secrecy are social strategies, the missing corpse would prove that Jesus was raised from the dead. Does this text allude that Jesus’ body was transferred, if not stolen, to another tomb?

The recent announcement of Discovery Channel that they have found the "lost tomb of Jesus" could be an intriguing attempt to shed light on this question. Discovery is coming out with documentary this Sunday with James Cameron of "Titanic" fame as executive producer and Emmy award winning documentarian Simcha Jacobovici as director. Its website gives ample information on the circumstances of the discovery, the process of interpreting the inscriptions involving respected New Testament Scholars and the use of DNA testing—thus the univocal assertion that the tomb “belonged to the family of Jesus of Nazareth.” The title of the just release book of Jacobovici which he co-authored with Charles Pellegrino sums it all: The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence That Could Change History (HarperCollins, 2007).

The Catholic hierarchy (CBCP ) issued an immediate reaction through the media, "it’s not true", arguing that "Jesus" was a common name in the first century A.D. and so coincidental. But that was precisely what Jacobovici disproved. For the documentary, he sought the help of a respected statistician who did a study of the probabilities leading to the conclusion that the odds is at least 600 to 1 in favor of the tomb being Jesus' family tomb. The ratio is reduced dramatically if one runs the name “Jesus, son of Joseph”, a combination name in one of the inscriptions.

The bone of contention is actually the bone-boxes or ossuaries found in 1980 in a tomb in Talpiot, a neighborhood southeast of Jerusalem. The ten ossuaries reveal inscriptions written in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin and interpreted by Jacobovici as the names of Jesus and his alleged "family" including Mary Magdalene as his wife and a certain Judah as his son. That Jesus had a wife and that he had a son is certainly an over-interpretation of the inscriptions disregarding critical reading of history. However, the Aramaic inscription "Jesus, son of Joseph" is something that New Testament scholars should reckon with. Discovery’s website informs that no less than the Harvard scholar Frank Moore Cross, a name in biblical studies and biblical archeology, did an epigraphic study of the said inscription and assessed that the lettering reads "Jesus, son of Joseph" and dates to the Herodian Period (from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.). If we accept statistics and epigraphic evidence, we have here a plausible Jesus’ ossuary.

What are the implications of this? Jesus underwent a secondary burial. His bones were placed in an ossuary to be buried possibly near to his family. And thus we are faced with a theological problem -- that there was no resurrection, or if there was, it was simply a spiritual resurrection "in which the husk of the body is left behind," as James Tabor, controversial New Testament scholar and consultant on the film said in an interview.

What theologians have to say on this would be interesting to know. But let me just pinpoint some loopholes in the claim of Discovery.

First, the title "Jesus, son of Joseph" was never a title used by the early followers of Jesus. It was used later and by outsiders (see Luke 3:23; John 1:45 & 6:42). It’s difficult to understand why such a rare title was inscribed on a Jesus’ ossuary.

Second, it was next to impossible to transfer the body of Jesus if we consider the biblical account of his burial: the tomb had a large stone rolled to it, was sealed, and was guarded (Matthew 27:60-66). The women discovered an empty tomb in the first hours of the Sabbath (Mark 16:2; Matthew 28:1). If there was an attempt to move the body out, it would have been during the Sabbath, a serious violation of the Sabbath prescription.

Third, sometime around 50 B.C. to 50 A.D., the Roman emperor issued an edict, Diategma Kaisaros (Caesar’s Edict) that sepulchers and graves should remain unmolested in perpetuity as a way of honoring the dead. The edict also warned of serious punishment for violators.

Fourth, Eusebius, a Church historian in 4th cent. A.D., wrote that the tomb of James, the "brother" of Jesus, became a pilgrimage spot in Jerusalem for many Christians. If this was part of the family tomb of Jesus in Talpiot, Christian pilgrims would not have gone there since that would contradict their belief in a Risen Jesus. Eusebius’ description of the tomb of James, who as martyred around 62 A.D., appeared to be a singular tomb. Why he was not buried in the family tomb of Jesus?

Lastly, what is the significance of Talpiot as the final resting place of Jesus and his family? Jesus came from Nazareth and most probably some members of his close family (like Mary) were still alive at the time of his death. Followers could bury him there or somewhere in Galilee like in Capernaum, his adopted town.

In short, the Discovery’s "Lost Tomb of Jesus" does not have a compelling evidence to "rewrite Christianity".

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