Simcha Jacobovici is not an archeologist, he is a film maker. He does call himself “The Naked Archeologist” however, and has a series of television shows on the History and Discovery channels by the same name. In them he is an “Indiana Jones” type of explorer, and often takes positions contrary to the established opinion of the archeology intelligentsia. I must admit to really enjoying his work, and his unorthodox approach to archeology.
His most recent film making effort entitled “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery” aired earlier this week on the Discovery Channel. In it he, along with scholar James Tabor, explore a sealed tomb in suburban Jerusalem they believe contains ossuaries (bone boxes) of first century Christians. They surmise that the tomb may in fact be that of Joseph of Arimathea, the man who according to the New Testament gave his tomb to Jesus Christ after the crucifixion.
Their exploration did uncover some remarkable things. On one ossuary was a carving depicting, in their opinion, the Old Testament story of Jonah being spat out by the whale. On another they find what they believe to be the earliest known depiction of a Christian cross, and on another an inscription in Greek and Hebrew (Aramaic, to be precise) saying some form of “Lord – Jehovah - Raise/Rise/Rose Up – Raise/Rise/Rose Up”.
The findings in this tomb do seem to indicate that the occupants were indeed some of the earliest known christians, and were likely wealthy, based on the ornate nature of the ossuaries.
The location of the tomb supports, to an extent, the identification with Joseph of Arimathea, who was said to be wealthy, a christian at the time of Christ, had a tomb very near Jerusalem, and whose name could mean “Joseph of the two hills” – however this translation is unlikely. (The site of the tombs is noteworthy for many things, one of which are the two prominent hills.)
200 feet from this tomb lies what Jacobovici has labeled “The Jesus Family Tomb”. In it are ossuaries with inscriptions said to read like a who’s who of the New Testament story of Jesus.
They include “Mara” (Mary), “Mariamne” (Mary Magdalene) “Jose” (Joseph, the brother of Jesus), Judas Son of Jesus (no biblical parallel), Matiah (Matthew, gospel namesake), and most importantly “Jesus Son of Joseph”.
Tabor and Jacobovici contend that this tomb contains the actual biblical people of the same name, including the one and only Jesus of Nazareth, himself.
Obviously, they believe that Jesus therefore was not physically resurrected on the first Easter, nor did he ascend into Heaven 40 days later. He, in their opinion, died and was buried, period. End of New Testament.
As a Christian, I have a difficult time accepting their conclusions.
As a student of history, and a man guided by facts, I feel I cannot simply dismiss the conclusion because of my faith alone.
There must therefore be an alternative explanation to the 2 tombs in the outskirts of Jerusalem that satisfies the facts, the history, and the theology all at the same time.
Let us first accept the premise that the site of the Jesus family tomb is the same one mentioned in the gospels as the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. There is little concrete evidence to support this supposition, but we will accept it for argument’s sake.
The position of Jacobovici and Tabor is that both tombs belonged to Joseph of Arimathea, and the one given over to bury Jesus became the “Jesus family tomb”. The other is that of Joseph of Arimathea himself, and his family.
Jacobovici and Tabor contend that the presence of the Jonah inscription in the Joseph tomb is an early christian representation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Jonah was swallowed by a great fish (or whale), and remained in the belly of the fish for 3 days and 3 nights. Then Jonah was vomited out by the fish, alive and well. He went on to preach in the city of Nineveh, very much alive in bodily form. The physical resurrection of Jonah is essential when considered as a parallel to Jesus Christ’s resurrection.
They also believe that the Jesus Family Tomb contains the remains of a dead Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the follower (or wife if you are Dan Brown) of Jesus, Joseph (presumably the brother of Jesus), and Jesus himself, based largely on the proximity to the Joseph tomb, and the inscriptions on the ossuaries in the Jesus Family Tomb.
There are some major flaws in their logic, however.
The use of the Jonah story to describe Jesus Christ implies, at the very least, that the early christian occupants of the Joseph tomb believe Christ to have risen bodily from the dead, just as Jonah had. Using Jonah as a parallel to Jesus Christ when Jesus Christ did not rise bodily from the dead makes almost no sense at all. It is more reasonable to conclude that the use of Jonah as a parallel is meant in the most literal sense, in that Jesus Christ, like Jonah, rose from the dead after 3 days and nights.
It is especially essential to understand the full parallel if you accept that the tomb with the Jonah inscription is that of Joseph of Arimathea himself, who would have been an eye-witness to the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the tomb he donated. Joseph of Arimathea would have seen the empty tomb with his own eyes, probably on that first Easter.
The Jonah inscription in the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea therefore far more likely supports the traditional theology of christianity and a bodily resurrected Christ than it does the Jacobovici/Tabor proposal of a dead and buried Jesus of Nazareth 200 feet away.
What then is to be made of the inscriptions in the “Jesus Family Tomb”?
The key inscription is “Jesus Son of Joseph”. The other names are those of New Testament contemporaries of Jesus Christ who are all accepted to have died, and were therefore buried. Finding their tombs is remarkable, but does not overturn existing theology.
Finding Jesus Christ’s bones in a box, however, overturns ALL of christian teaching.
Who else could “Jesus Son of Joseph” be, then?
The Bible only mentions 1 such person, and he is Jesus Christ. BUT, the Bible mentions several Josephs. One is the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus. However even in early christian teaching, Joseph is not said to be Jesus’ father, as Jesus was born of a virgin, and therefore could not be the son of any man, much less Joseph. He would not likely be refered to as the “Son of Joseph” by those who followed him as the virgin born messiah.
The other prominent Joseph that intersects our little puzzle nicely is the supposed owner of the 2 tombs in question – Joseph of Arimathea. We know nothing about him, aside from that he was a follower of Jesus Christ, wealthy, and donated a tomb to his messiah. We don’t know how old he was, if he was married, if he had children, and if he did, what they were named.
I contend that Joseph of Arimathea was young at the time of the crucifixion. An older man is less likely to be so willing to accept the new and radical teachings of Jesus Christ. His tomb was also described as “new” and “unused” in the New Testament, indicating he had no dead older relatives, but that he was starting a new family plot for himself. Further, if you accept that the second tomb is Joseph’s, he had to have sufficient time while alive to have a new one cut into the rock.
It was almost unheard of for a man to not marry in the 1st century Jewish world, so it is likely that this rather young man named Joseph of Arimathea was either married at the time of Christ, or soon after. He likely also then had children as well around the time of Christ, as was expected of every married man in the 1st century.
Jewish naming customs in that time were to use the names of “men of God” from the Jewish past, and one would expect Joseph of Arimathea to follow these conventions.
So we can then surmise that if the tomb was that of Joseph of Arimathea, and he had sons born just before or even after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he would have given at least one of them the name Jesus. In so doing he was paying tribute to a mighty prophet to whom he was so devoted that he gave him the use of his unused fresh tomb.
Furthermore, Joseph of Arimathea may have allowed the use of that same tomb, now called the Jesus Family Tomb, to bury the remains of some people close to his risen savior, including his mother Mary and disciples Matthew and Mary Magdalene.
Joseph, being such a pious man, would have had a new tomb constructed for his own burial, which is the second tomb nearby. He would want to be close to the tomb of the risen Jesus Christ and his followers, but would not likely place himself in his savior’s tomb. That would be sacrilege and no early christian witness to the resurrection would probably feel worthy of such an honor. The request of Peter to be crucified inverted witnesses this belief among early christians.
Later, Joseph of Arimathea’s son Jesus (namesake of the Jesus Christ of the Bible) would have married, had children of his own, and then died. Perhaps he would then have his remains placed in the original tomb to be near the disciples of Jesus Christ, in the tomb Christ rose from. It is reasonable to conclude that Joseph of Arimathea’s grandson, Judas, Son of Jesus, would be buried with his father in the “Jesus Family Tomb”.
So there you have it Mr. Jacobovici and Mr. Tabor. Using the same facts and evidence you have relied upon, we can just as easily conclude that the occupants of the “Jesus Family Tomb” are Jesus Son of Joseph of Arimathea, Judas Son of Jesus Son of Joseph of Arimathea, Mary (mother of Jesus of Nazareth), Mariamne (possibly Mary Magdalene or alternately the wife of Jesus Son of Joseph of Arimathea), Joseph (Brother of Jesus Christ or alternatively Jesus Son of Joseph of Arimathea) and Matthew (apostle and gospel namesake).
Given all the evidence available, most especially the Jonah parallel to Christ (living resurrected man after 3 days) and the long agreed upon theology of a bodily risen Jesus Christ, is it more reasonable to conclude that the Jesus of the Bible never rose from the dead, and is in a box with his name on it 200 feet from a false parallel illustration in the tomb of an lying eye-witness?
Is it more logical, and likely, that the tomb is that of the otherwise unknown son of Joseph of Arimathea – the namesake of Jesus of the Bible, and his son Judas, and his father, Joseph of Arimathea, is buried 200 feet away in another tomb?
That the remaining occupants (Mary, Mariamne, Matthew and possibly Joseph) may still be the very same people in the New Testament account, buried in the tomb of their risen Lord as the guests of Joseph of Arimathea, and only later joined by the son of the “owner” of that tomb, also named Jesus?
That the reference “Son of Joseph” refers to Joseph of Arimathea, and does not refer to the Joseph husband of Mary, as the theology and tradition has always been that Jesus was the son of God, not a man, and therefore he would never be referred to as “Son of Joseph” by anyone close enough to him to inscribe his ossuary?
I believe that the second scenario is far more likely. Allow me to illustrate:
The first requires us to believe:
- That the people of the 1st century who would have been eye witnesses of Christ’s resurrection (including the alleged owner of the tombs in question) were aware that he did not rise in body, but failed to mention that to anyone, and perpetuated the myth that there was a physical resurrection
- That they then wrote his (Jesus Christ’s) name on a box of bones that could be used to prove them liars of the highest order, in an otherwise unsecured tomb that was known to be the site of Jesus Christ’s burial
- That they used the parallel of Jonah’s resurrection in the flesh to represent Jesus’ resurrection (that they know did not happen), when his bones were less than 200 feet away
- That some of them, including Jesus’ mother, then had themselves buried right beside that same box that proved them liars about the resurrection
- That every single apostle, save John, would rather die a brutal and painful martyr’s death than admit to the lie of a resurrected Jesus Christ
- That the very earliest known greetings between christians (i.e. “He is risen.” “He is risen, indeed”) was a purposeful lie known as such to more than a just a handful of the first christians
- That these first christians persisted in a faith in a resurrection they knew to be totally false in the face of incredible persecutions and tortures
The second theory requires us to believe:
- Joseph of Arimathea had a second tomb cut from the rock after Jesus Christ used his fresh one, and later rose from the dead
- Joseph of Arimathea named his son after Jesus Christ as is Jewish custom sometime after becoming a follower of Jesus Christ
- Joseph of Arimathea allowed Jesus Christ’s closest followers to use the Jesus tomb following their deaths
- Joseph of Arimathea used another new tomb, rather than the one of his Lord and Savior, in an act of humility and respect
- The christian inscriptions in the Joseph tomb are reflective of the physically risen Jesus Christ, not the Jesus buried 200 feet away
- Joseph of Arimathea’s son Jesus and his family (or at least his son Judas) opted for the Jesus Christ tomb to be near the closest followers and family of Jesus Christ and also to share the tomb of their own risen Lord and savior
- Existing christian theology regarding the virgin birth, bodily resurrection, and ascension to heaven of Jesus Christ are unaffected by the existence of these tombs
- The tombs themselves bear witness to the New Testament narrative, including possibly confirming the historical existence of several prominent figures, not the least of whom are Mary the mother of Jesus and Joseph of Arimathea
- The existence of other potential artifacts, most notably the Shroud of Turin, are still significant in that a physical resurrection cannot be ruled out
The resurrection of Jesus Christ following his crucifixion and death is a matter of faith. Science and archeology cannot be used to prove it occurred, and this critique is not aimed at doing so. For those like myself who believe, on faith alone, in the risen Christ do not seek scientific evidence to support our faith.
What I hope this does show is that archeological evidence that is used to prove a dead and buried Jesus Christ cannot be seen as conclusive either. In fact, it is just as likely a totally false hypothesis that ignores many surrounding contextual pieces of evidence, history and traditions.
I respect Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor for their willingness to seek alternative explanations for ancient events recorded in the scriptures. They have tremendous courage to swim against the academic current.
However in this case I believe they are guilty of jumping to a conclusion based on the contents of the tomb found first (The Jesus Family Tomb), and then only looking for ratification of their first beliefs in the discovery of the second tomb. both are smart enough men to understand that the scientific method demands that we evaluate our hypotheses based on all the evidence as a whole, not in a selective manner supporting our initial impressions.
If they were to step back and evaluate the finds in their entirety, taking into account the surrounding known historical record on the subject, I believe they would come to the same conclusions I have here.
In any event, nothing I have said, or they have said, can ever be considered “fact”. Our positions are only educated guesses at best.
Educated guesses that at some level must be taken on faith, just like the resurrection itself.