When a bulldozer
razes acres in Israel, it’s not just another day of construction. A typical
story means stumbling upon treasure – be it artifacts, bones or documents long
buried in an area rich in history.
On rare occasion,
a find comes along that reshapes what we know about history.
That’s where a certain
filmmaker and his crew come in, bringing to the public’s eye 2-millenia old
tombs, unearthed by modern – sometimes haphazard - accidents. The crux of the
new book, The Jesus Discovery: The Resurrection Tomb
that Reveals the Birth of Christianity [Simon & Schuster] takes place in Talpiot, a suburb of Jerusalem where
it is said to be the estate of
Joseph of Arimathea, a wealthy member of the Sanhedrin, who took charge of
Jesus’ burial, according to the New Testament.
The Jesus Discovery outlines the thesis that for the
first time archaeological evidence has been publicly exposed – tombs and bone
fragments specifically – of Jesus, his family and His earliest followers. These finds are two centuries older than the
earliest Christian archaeological find, say the authors.
– acclaimed filmmaker and an observant Jew – and James D. Tabor, chair of the
Department of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, authored
the book. It is a detailed account of their finds, and a primer for the
documentary film made of the excavations.
about these tombs aired on the Discovery Channel April 8.
book is for
those who are interested in the back story that couldn’t make the film
cut and the longer explanatory texts of the authors' assertions.
What’s mainly discussed
are two tombs and how they were found: what are called the Patio tomb and the
Garden tomb. The Patio tomb, located beneath an apartment complex, was first
discovered in 1981 in East Talpiot, but never excavated.
The Garden tomb
was found a year earlier, a few hundred metres away. The tomb contained ten
ossuaries with the following names on them: Jesus son of Joseph; Mariam; Joses;
Judah son of Jesus; Matthew and Maria.
note carefully how statistically near-impossible it is to have these names
together in one family, hypothesizing they had to be Jesus’ relations.
It was a lucky
strike. About a thousand tombs have been opened in the Jerusalem area in the
past 150 years, with more than 2,000 documented ossuaries. Thousands of others
have been scattered, lost, sold.
Most startling to
the filmmakers were images not seen in any artifact from the 1st
century -- a pictoral of Jonah and the whale, and a four-line Greek inscription
– virtually nonexistent until now of any Jewish ossuary of that era. The
inscription speaks of “rising up” from the dead – alluding to, perhaps, Jesus.
the book spends considerable time expanding on the symbolism of Jonah and the
whale, how pertinent it was – or is – to Christianity.
It is very likely,
claim the authors, the person buried in this particular ossuary may have known
Jesus or had actually seen him.
The only access to
the Patio tomb was through a series of eight inch drill holes in the basement
floor of the condominium. Using a robotic arm built by who the authors tout as
“one of the best engineers” for mechanical devices used for movies, they also
engineered another great feat.
They explain in
great detail the bureaucracy, competing interests, and hoops jumped just to
obtain a permit to drill - between the Israeli Antiquities Authority, religious
authorities, police, and landlords. One imagines this narrative not possible to
adequately visually portray on film in all its cumbersome particulars.
Still, with great
spy-thriller tension, the book leaves the reader at chapter ends wondering what
challenge or hurdle or find will come up next. There’s humor in the unexpected
twists, such as a blind woman leading the film crew to the correct location of
the tombs, after the research team spent hours door-knocking in the
neighbourhood – seeking anyone who knew if their apartment had a tomb beneath
One bone of
contention – pun intended – for many Christians will naturally be the assertion
that Jesus’ remains could still exist. How can He have bones if he was raised
from the dead and ascended to heaven?
For this, the
authors cite a litany of Jewish and early Christian holy texts – some
non-Canonical - explaining the possibility that rising from the dead could mean
strictly in the spiritual sense.
“The discovery,” the
authors say “adds significantly to our understanding of Jesus, His earliest
followers, the birth of Christianity.”
studies, archaeology, soil analysis, and DNA tests - including what the authors
believe is the DNA chart of Mary Magdalene and Jesus’ bones – they move from
objection to objection backing up their claims. To their credit, in chapter 4,
the authors sum up the possible objections – such as the commonality of these
name clusters, that Jesus had no wife or children.
small detail matters to an archaeologist”, as the authors say, one must be
patient with the dizzying minutia of times, dates, places, and back stories. The
layperson can skip a few lines here and there; the narrative in places is slow,
methodical, thorough. Fortunately, the authors recap sufficiently for the
reader to get the gist.