- Philadelphia Inquirer: “‘Jesus Discovery’ Has Web Abuzz”
The team that popularized claims associating the 1980 “Garden Tomb” discovery with Jesus Christ has book sales soaring with tales of a nearby “Patio Tomb.” The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity quickly became the top-selling religious book at Amazon.com. The public may be buying the story, but skepticism is running high among archaeologists and Christians alike.
Authors James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici have explored a tomb beneath a patio two miles from Jerusalem using a robotic camera. They claim inscriptions on bone boxes (ossuaries) provide
the earliest archaeological evidence of faith in Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the first witness to a saying of Jesus that predates even the writing of our New Testament gospels, and the earliest example of Christian art, all found in a sealed tomb dated to the 1st century CE.1
Just 200 yards away is the famous “Garden Tomb.” Due to the proximity, the authors write, “A compelling argument can be made that the Garden tomb is that of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. . . . Both tombs are most likely located on the rural estate of Joseph of Arimathea.” Claims about the Garden Tomb were based on the names on its ossuaries—“Mary, Yose, Juda son of Jesus, Matya, Maramene, and Jesus son of Joseph.”2 A statistician claimed those names were “solid evidence that the tomb is the tomb of Christ”3 on the basis of a probability analysis of common Jewish names. As archaeologist Kendall Down points out, however, “A close look at his claim reveals so much ‘hand waving’ that really his figures are nothing more than guesswork.”4
Nevertheless, Tabor sticks by his claims, including the idea that the ossuary labeled “Jesus son of Joseph” represents the mortal remains of Jesus Christ.
Obviously, Bible-believing Christians believe the body of Jesus was resurrected, “precluding the possibility of his earthly remains ever turning up,” admits Tabor. Nevertheless, Tabor sticks by his claims, including the idea that the ossuary labeled “Jesus son of Joseph” represents the mortal remains of Jesus Christ.
The authors describe a Greek inscription meaning, “’O Divine Jehovah raise up raise up,’”5 but Kendall Down questions their translation. The authors also report a fish containing a stick figure of Jonah. Numerous experts from the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) doubt the authors’ interpretation of these inscriptions.
“Nothing in the book 'revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus or early Christianity,' as the authors and publisher claim, and we may regard this book as yet another in a long list of presentations that misuse not only the Bible but also archaeology,”6 writes Duke biblical scholar Eric Meyers. ASOR director Andrew Vaughan sums up many opinions when he says, “In my assessment, there's zero percent chance that their theory is correct.”7
Trying to explain the obvious contradiction between their claim that Jesus Christ’s bones are in the nearby Garden Tomb and the fact the Bible documents Christ’s bodily Resurrection, the authors assert, “Certain theological traditions regarding the meaning of resurrection of the dead have clouded our understanding of what Jesus and his first followers truly believed.”8
If the Resurrection of Jesus Christ was not a genuine, bodily, permanent Resurrection, however, then proof of Christ’s deity collapses (Romans 1:4) and the hope of our salvation evaporates (1 Corinthians 15:17–18). The Bible’s accounts of His Resurrection are internally consistent and too uncomplimentary of His disciples to seriously consider the account fabricated. It was documented at a time when many people—friends and foes—were still alive to publicly prove the Resurrection false if it had been. The disciples, transformed from cowering to courageous, proved their confidence in the Resurrection was genuine with their lives. Christ’s death by crucifixion and knowledge of His empty tomb are corroborated by non-Christian contemporary historians, including Josephus, Tacitus, and Lucian.
Perhaps the greatest piece of evidence for Christ’s Resurrection, however, comes from the behavior of Jewish leaders at the time. They spread the story that disciples had stolen the body. No one could imagine frightened disciples taking on an armed contingent at the tomb, even if they had understood at the time the necessity of Jesus’s Resurrection to the foundation of the Christian church. And if the tomb was not really empty, why did a story have to be devised to explain the missing body? Why not just find it? Those who most sought to suppress the truth of Christ’s Resurrection supplied evidence that has comforted countless Christians for two millennia with confidence Christ rose from the dead.
The interpretations Tabor and Jacobovici are making have come to the world in a popular book, not a peer-reviewed forum. But even if their interpretations of the inscriptions were correct, the most that could be made of them is a suggestion that the occupants of the tomb believed in resurrection from the dead, a belief common among Jews (see Daniel 12:2 and John 11:24) as well as Christians. More importantly, nothing in the Garden Tomb or the Patio Tomb suggests the bones of Jesus Christ are there or anywhere else on this earth. “He is risen, as He said” (Matthew 28:6) and “He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3).
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