books

Tales from the Jerusalem Crypt

A crew of Canadians claim to have found the tomb of Jesus Christ—and his wife and son

BRIAN BETHUNE March 12 2007
books

Tales from the Jerusalem Crypt

A crew of Canadians claim to have found the tomb of Jesus Christ—and his wife and son

BRIAN BETHUNE March 12 2007

Tales from the Jerusalem Crypt

A crew of Canadians claim to have found the tomb of Jesus Christ—and his wife and son

books

BY BRIAN BETHUNE • In the end it all comes down to the odds. If a motley crew of mostly Canadian filmmakers, DNA researchers, probability experts and historians ever manages to convince the world that the ossuaries bulldozed out of a Jerusalem hillside in 1980 once held the bones of Jesus Christ and his closest relatives, the credit will go partly to high-tech forensics but mainly to high-stakes statistical analysis.The extraordinary tale that Toronto filmmaker Simchajacobovici tells in his documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus (Vision TV, March 6) and its companion book The Jesus Family Tomb (HarperCollins) involves the much maligned James ossuary, Mary Magdalene’s wonder-working ministry and a fresh look at things hiding in plain sight.

The story starts, naturally enough, with the Gospel accounts of Easter morning and the empty tomb. Empty, according to Jacobovici, not because Christ had physically risen again, but because his followers had moved him to his own family tomb. That’s one large leap for Jacobovici, a challenge both to the faith of most Christians, and to secular skeptics, who think it unlikely a poor family of Galileans would have acquired an expensive Jerusalem tomb. But there’s no question about what happened next to the bones: virtually nothing for almost 2,000 years.

The hills around Jerusalem were in the midst of a sustained building boom 27 years ago, with construction companies turning up archaeological sites at the rate of a dozen a month. The temptation to just pave them over was strong, and firms often did. But the crew levelling land for a suburb in Talpiot on March 28,1980, was under the direction of an Orthodox Jew who would never consider desecrating a grave. When a bulldozer drove

its way into a burial chamber, the crew chief called the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Three experts came to carry out “salvage archaeology.” They found 10 ossuaries and trucked them away to the IAA’s vast warehouse. Although one quickly disappeared, the other nine were eye-popping enough. Six bore names in Aramaic or in Greek, and what names they were—Yeshua bar Yosef, Maria, Matia, Yose, Mariamene e Mara, and Yehuda bar Yeshua. In English: Jesus son of Joseph, Mary, Matthew joseph (in diminutive form, i.e. “Joey”), Mary also known as the master (jacobovici’s reading) or Mary also known as Martha (the LAA reading), and Jude son of Jesus. The last was by far the smallest box, perhaps indicating that it was a child’s.

Even for a trio of hard-headed archaeologists this cluster of Gospel names was enough to bring a brief pause. But as Amos Kloner, who in 1996 wrote up the IAA’s site report, told a BBC reporter, he was aware the Gospels did not mention a son of Jesus Christ, or anyone with the name Mariamene. More importantly, the names were the Tom, Dick and Harry of Jesus’ era: half of all Jewish women were called by some variant of Mary. Kloner’s conclusion? No story here.

And that might have been that if it hadn’t been for the James ossuary. The story of the bone box bearing the inscription James, son

of Joseph, brother of Jesus is intimately connected with the ossuaries now in question. The James ossuary was headline news in 2002, when owner Obed Golan announced its existence, and again the following year when the Israeli government arrested Golan and seized the ossuary as evidence in an antiquities fraud. Without a chain of evidence-proof that it read as it does now while still in the tomb—the second half of the inscription, “brother of Jesus,” raised suspicion. It shows a noticeable tailing off in engraving skill, leading many to suspect a modern forgery. That’s certainly the IAA’s opinion in the ongoing court case—and something that’s bound to colour reaction to the new-found ossuaries.

That’s frustrating for Jacobovici, who learned about the Jesus family boxes from Kloner while filming his documentary on the James ossuary. Jacobovici remains a strong defender of Golan but, bottom line, he points out that even the James ossuary’s fiercest critics don’t deny it is a first-century box or that the first half of the inscription is genuine. A vital distinction, because Jacobovici believes he has proven that the James ossuary is the missing 10th item from the Jesus tomb.

The method of proof is what’s known as patina fingerprinting, based on the idea that objects that had been buried together for centuries acquire the same chemical coating. Tests conducted for Jacobovici by the CSI Suffolk crime lab in New York indicate that the

James and Jesus patinas do match each other, and that they don’t match a random sample of 30 other ossuaries. The potential irony of this, should the second half of the James inscription be ruled a forgery, is rich. It would mean that a forger, failing to recognize the box for what it was, decided to increase its financial value by adding “brother of Jesus,” with the result of discrediting the entire ossuary: perhaps the most self-defeating case of gilding the lily ever recorded.

The James box was the catalyst that not only brought Jacobovici into the tomb story but most of his associates, including his producer, Canadian Oscar-winning director James Cameron. And James Tabor, head of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina, approached Jacobovici to see what he thought of DNA testing on the James box and stayed to join this project. Tabor brought expertise in the history of Jesus’ family and a key piece of news: the tomb had not been destroyed in 1980.

The search for the tomb in an altered urban landscape and Jacobovici’s entry into it—a brief exploration before the LAA showed up to kick him out—provides the most compelling footage in the film, but it doesn’t aid his

case. There was never any doubt of the tomb’s general whereabouts, just as there’s no doubting that the ossuraries, which have never been outside the hands of the IAA since they were unearthed, and their inscriptions, are genuine. What really matters are the names.

THE SMALLEST OF THE 10 LIMESTONE BOXES PROBABLY HELD A CHILD’S BONES. ITS INSCRIPTION READS ‘JUDE, SON OF JESUS.’

In that regard, Jacobovici and Tabor have been busy making them less common. The filmmaker found that, in some Apocryphal literature, Mariamene was the name given Mary Magdalene to distinguish her from the Virgin Mary; in those texts she produced miracles worthy of bringing her the name “Master.” Tabor pointed out that Yose, the nick-

name version of Joseph, was rare, seen on no other ossuary ever unearthed, and found in only one Scriptural reference—the Gospel of Mark’s list of Jesus’ four brothers.

More spectacularly, when trace material from human residue in the Mariamene and Jesus boxes was sent to the Paleo-DNA lab at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., mitochondrial DNA tests revealed the two individuals were not related, at least not maternally. Jacobovici’s conclusion—shades of Dan Brown—is that they were married, and that the child Jude was theirs. That’s a predictable, headline-grabbing, and preposterously premature leap, given DNA testing hasn’t been done on the other ossuaries. All the Da Vinci Code-style supposition is, right now, just smoke and mirrors. Even if true, it only speaks to the relationships between the people in the tomb. It’s meaningless to the main issue—who are these people? It comes down to the odds, and that is where Andrey Feuerverger, University of Toronto math professor and probability expert, emerges as the most important presence on the team.

Feuerverger worked with widely accepted collections of named Jewish individuals from the era, adding up to about 2,000 people.

Few are female: only 162 “biblically” named women are recorded; half (80) are called Mary, making the presence of two Marys predictable. In the

far larger masculine catalogue, Joseph is the second-most common name, Jude the third, and Jesus the sixth. (Naturally, the incidence of Jesuses who were also sons of Josephs was much smaller.) Ignoring Matthew as a neutral factor, Feuerverger multiplied the incidence of each name by the incidence of the other names in the tomb.

The initial results gave him these odds: there was only one chance in 2,400,000 the tomb was not the grave of Jesus and his family. He then divided his results by four to account for biases, further dividing by 1,000 to account for possible undiscovered Jerusa-

lem tombs. That brought him to a one in 600 chance this was not the Holy Family. But add in James, should patina fingerprinting prove he belongs, and tihe odds rise to one in 30,000, a “statistical slam dunk” in Tabor’s words.

And that’s the mathematical level at which the debate will play out. It doesn’t tackle the odds on matters beyond a statistician’s purview—whether Jesus’ family would have had a large, costlyjerusalem tomb; whether over the years the ossuaries held the remains of more than one individual, hopelessly skewing the DNA results. Given the manifold responses to Jesus that have grown up over 2,000 years, from the belief of millions that he rose bodily to heaven to the smaller group of skeptics who maintain he never lived at all, the safest odds say acceptance of the grave as his tomb will never be a “slam dunk.” Nl