The Discovery Channel Jesus: A Practice in Liberal Scholarship


‘The Jesus Discovery’— Now That the Dust has Settled
April 15, 2012 By Ben Witherington

Now that the post Easter dust has begun to settle, and the Discovery Channel special has come and gone with its juxtaposition of important and interesting information about early ossuaries and unlikely speculations about their connections with Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus of Nazareth, it is perhaps time to point out a few flies in the ointment. First of all let’s start with the James ossuary itself (and yes I am printing up the T shirts as we speak that read ‘Free the James Ossuary’).
If we go back to the beginning of all this with the book ‘The Brother of Jesus’ which Hershel Shanks and I wrote, it is important to bear in mind that we do know something about the provenance of the James ossuary. Oded Golan said from the outset that the antiquities dealer from whom he bought the box had said it was found ‘in situ’ in Silwan. Not Talpiot, Silwan, a very different suburb of Jerusalem than Talpiot and furthermore, one near where the stele, erected in honor of James and mentioned by Eusebius, must have stood.
Secondly, inscriptions, and even ossuaries with the line ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ were known as far back as the time of Sukenik. As Sukenik said, there is no reason to connect such an inscription or ossuary with Jesus. Why not? Firstly because these are indeed exceedingly common names. But secondly because in fact all the historical evidence we have from the Gospels and elsewhere, including early Jewish evidence, indicates that Jesus of Nazareth was NOT the son of Joseph, though some outsiders mistook him for the son of Joseph.
This is precisely why Luke, who tells the story of the virginal conception states in Luke 3.23 that he was ‘supposed’ or ‘so-called’ the son of Joseph, but not by those in the know. The moniker would fit only in the sense that Joseph adopted him as his son. Texts like Mark 6 show that even the hometown folks knew he was really only just ‘the son of Mary’ and later Jewish tradition said he was the son of a Roman soldier named Panthera.
My point in regard to this is simple— no family member nor any close disciple or associate would make the mistake of identifying Jesus on his burial box as ‘Jesus son of Joseph’, because that would be false. He was not literally a son of Joseph. The idea that Jesus was buried at Talpiot Tomb B (with the Patio Tomb being Talpiot Tomb B) and then reburied 100 yards away at Talpiot tomb A by friends, family, close disciples requires the conclusion that these insiders would have known the truth about Jesus of Nazareth, namely that the tomb was not empty and he did not rise from the dead. He was not buried by strangers or outsiders according to the TV show. In other words, the earliest disciples perpetrated a hoax about an empty tomb.
Perhaps the most flimsy of all the many conjectures in that TV show was that the Patio/Talpiot B tomb is somehow connected to Joseph of Arimathea— on the basis of no hard evidence or inscriptional evidence at all. Arimathea was not a part or suburb of Jerusalem it was “a city of Judea” according to Luke 23:51. Arimathea is usually identified with either Ramleh or Ramathaim-Zophim, where David came to Samuel (1 Samuel chapter 19).
Furthermore, the meaning of Arimathea, despite the assertion of the TV show is not ‘two hills’! In fact it may mean ‘lion dead to the lord’. There are so many questionable statements in this show, one is tempted to throw up one’s hands and dismiss the whole thing.
And as for that supposed upside down fish on the ossuary in the Patio tomb– the scholarly vote is in on the ASOR blog— most think it is a representation of an amphora, and only James Tabor seems to be fully convinced its a fish.
Equally fishy is the assumption that someone could drag Jesus’ corpus from Golgotha all the way to Talpiot before sundown arrived on that Friday in April A.D. 30. Even on a conservative view, if Jesus died at 3 p.m. and then it had to be reported to Pilate, and then the body was finally taken off the cross and turned over to Joseph, there definitely would not have been time to get the body to Talpiot before sundown at about 5 or so. This whole conjecture, based on one flimsy assumption based on another, simply doesn’t satisfy the logistical test of distance. It is over two miles at the least from where Jesus was crucified to the Talpiot tombs. If there was not enough time for the women to buy spices and grave wrappings and get to the tomb before sundown Friday, there wasn’t time for Jesus’ body to be dragged to Talpiot either. The tomb has to be closer to Golgotha to meet the logistics.
But of course there is a further problem with this whole line of thinking, namely: 1) the originally excavators of the Talpiot tomb A were clear enough that it had no connection with Jesus of Nazareth, and 2) more importantly there is no historical evidence at all that Jesus was moved from the tomb where he was initially buried to another tomb. NONE. Why exactly would the family of Jesus have a tomb in Jerusalem anyway? Nazareth— yes. Bethlehem, less likely but possible. Talpiot—- no.
Thirdly, at the trial of Oded Golan, and as confirmed by the transcripts, and for that matter it could be confirmed by Matthew Kalman, the only reporter that sat through the whole trial, the evidence was presented, and was clear enough, that there is ancient patina in the word Jesus at the end of the inscription. In other words, there is no evidence that the ‘brother of Jesus’ part of the inscription on the James ossuary is a modern forgery. None. This claim by the IAA is refuted by the evidence itself. There is also no reason to conclude that the inscription bears witness to two hands, though I wouldn’t say that’s impossible. If so, it’s two ancient hands.
The notion that the patina on the James ossuary has a fingerprint so specific that it matches the patina of items from the Talpiot tomb is just bad science. Patina is not a fingerprint, and the atmospheric conditions in limestone rock cut tombs is basically the same in the whole region of Jerusalem. The fact that the chemical composition of the patina on the James ossuary is closely similar to that from ossuaries in the Talpiot tomb proves nothing other than that they all likely come from the environs of Jerusalem. A more specific connection is impossible on the basis of this chemical evidence.
Fourthly, while the new drawings and pictures from the Patio tomb are very interesting, their interpretation is up in the air. Is that really a cross? Different scholars are weighing in with different view points. Probably not. Is that really fish? Different scholars are weighing in with different view points. In other words, it’s not clear what we’ve got yet, and the discussion needs to go on.
What is clear is that there is no compelling reason to connect any of Patio tomb stuff to: 1) the Talpiot tomb A which is about 100 yards away; 2) and no compelling reason to think that the Patio tomb has anything to do with Jesus of Nazareth any more than the Talpiot tomb does. The TV show presents no evidence whatsoever that these two Talpiot tombs should be connected to each other, or were originally part of one connected tomb complex.
Fifthly, and in some ways most importantly James Tabor and I have had an exchange about early Jewish views about the resurrection, and we certainly disagree. He wants to argue that Paul in 1 Cor. 15 suggests that there is a resurrection body that could be called ‘a spiritual body’ (i.e. a body that doesn’t involve material flesh and bones). So, according to Tabor we might well find the body of Jesus somewhere, but that would not refute the claim that he arose from the dead because what resurrection meant was ‘spiritually being lifted up into heaven’. There are lots of problems with this whole line of thinking.
First of all, there is the problem that Paul was, before becoming a follower of Jesus, a Pharisee. And the Pharisees most certainly believed that resurrection always and everywhere referred to something that happened to a physical body— it was raised from the dead. The evidence for early Jewish views on resurrection is laid out in great detail in N.T. Wright’s Resurrection and the Son of God, and should be consulted.
Secondly, there is the further problem, as Dale Martin showed in his book The Corinthian Body, that the ancients even thought of ‘spirit’ as a sort of gossamer type of material. Even spirit was not thought to be ‘non-material’ if we are talking about the spirit or ‘spiritual’ body of a human being whether alive or deceased.
Thirdly, there is the grammatical problem with taking the phrase ‘pneumatikon soma’ in 1 Cor. 15 to mean ‘a body made out of spirit’. There are parallel phrases in Paul for example ‘a spiritual teaching’ and the like, which does not mean a teaching made out of spirit! What Paul is contrasting in 1 Corinthians 15 is a body animated by normal life breath as was Adam’s and a body animated entirely by the Holy Spirit. In neither case is the assumption that the body has no physicality. In short, James Tabor’s interpretation of Paul does not stand up to close scrutiny.
Fourthly, amalgamating ascension into heaven with resurrection will not work on so many grounds. Firstly there is the OT traditions about bodily assumption into heaven of a figure like Elijah. The story is clear enough— he did not leave his bones behind. Secondly, the ascension stories in Luke 24 and Acts 1 insist on bodily assumption of Jesus into heaven. Not merely in the spirit, in the flesh. Thirdly the language about ‘being lifted up’ is nowhere equated in the Gospels with resurrection. In the Fourth Gospel in fact that language is applied to Jesus being lifted up onto the cross— bodily and this is distinguished entirely from what happened to him on Easter when the tomb was empty.
Lastly, the Greek phrase Paul uses to describe Jesus’ resurrection (which btw is chronologically our earliest account of it– from the early 50s) is ‘resurrection from out of the dead ones’. The idea is clear enough. There is a realm of the dead from which the deceased Jesus was raised. They are still there in Sheol or Hades, but Jesus is not, nor are his bones. The tomb is empty, the grave has been evacuated. And Jesus first appeared to his disciples on earth and then ascended to heaven in the flesh.
By all means we should continue to study closely what has been found in the Patio tomb, and we may look forward to better and more evidence and clearer pictures perhaps. Any more evidence about Jewish ossuaries, or even Jewish Christian ossuaries would be welcome. This new robotic technology is wonderful, and shows promises of helping us explore many more tombs with minimum of intrusion.
But I’m afraid that the very fact that this ‘astounding discovery’ was revealed to us not after a careful vetting of the information in the academy but in a way so as to make headlines and money and create yet another sensation at Easter in a made for television docu-drama format should be seen for what it is. And what it is, is frankly a sad attempt to grab headlines, raise money, and draw attention to oneself.

2 thoughts on “The Discovery Channel Jesus: A Practice in Liberal Scholarship

  1. Roman Catholic relic worship embraced by all churches through ecumenism. The idolatrous church will always seek after a relic to worship – evidencing their puny faith, and their sinful need for something more than Jesus Christ, and His Perfect Word.

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