(RNS) For many years I’ve wondered about the following scenario: What if an archeologist turned up the bones of Jesus and had some decent proof? And what if they were found in such a way that it was hard to deny the claims?
That would really shake things up in the Christian world. After all, Christian faith is based on the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. The empty tomb is an essential component. As St. Paul says in his First Letter to the Corinthians, If Christ is not risen … then your faith is in vain.
So, to be honest, the news of a new book, The Jesus Family Tomb, and a related Discovery Channel documentary produced by James Cameron, startled me. There are several such tantalizing elements, including an ossuary (bone box) marked Jesus, son of Joseph found besides others marked with familiar names from the family of Jesus.
But in the end, the Discovery Channel’s discovery may not be that much of a revelation.
By far the strongest scholarly objection is that those were not just common names in first-century Palestine, but the most common, according to most experts — including the Israeli archeologist Amos Kloner, who supervised the first excavation of the site in 1980.
Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land, even cast doubt that the name was Jesus, saying that ancient Aramaic is notoriously difficult to decipher. Indeed, A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries in the Collection of the State of Israel, published in 1994, lists the ossuary in question, describing the first name, Jesus, as difficult to discern and clumsily carved and badly slashed.
Less daunting, but just as curious, are questions that remain about the location. The family plot could have been located near Jerusalem, but Nazareth would make more sense since it was Jesus’ hometown. Kloner was adamant on that point. There is no likelihood that Jesus and his relatives had a family tomb, he told The Jerusalem Post. They were a Galilee family with no ties in Jerusalem.
Also, if Jesus’ followers or family were so concerned about burying everyone in such a carefully planned fashion, then why for all these centuries has the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional site, been located nowhere near the newly discovered tomb? Admittedly, it is impossible to prove that the church’s current location is historically correct, but archeologists know that local traditions often turn out to be surprisingly reliable.
Is it likely that the apostles didn’t know where Jesus was buried, or failed to pass along this important piece of their history to the early Christian community?
The most compelling proof of the resurrection is not an empty tomb, which is nearly impossible to verify today with any historical precision. Rather, it is the disciples who went from being terrified members of a failed movement, cowering behind closed doors, into men and women emboldened to preach about Jesus at the cost of their lives — which many ended up sacrificing. Only an encounter with something life-changing could account for such a dramatic transformation.
There’s a reason that the disciples weren’t concerned about selecting a family plot a few days after the death of Jesus. They were too busy spending time with the Risen Christ.
James Martin is a Jesuit priest and author of My Life with the Saints. He lives in New York.