Have archaeologists uncovered Jesus’ tomb, bones and all? Miguel Valdivia and Marvin Moore examine the evidence.
The death and burial of Jesus have suddenly become hot news. Who would have thought a year ago that even the skeptics would be interested? Not that they’ve suddenly decided to believe. They’ve found a new reason not to believe.
On March 4, 2007, the Discovery Channel premiered a documentary titled The Lost Tomb of Jesus. Produced by Academy Award winner James Cameron and directed by Simcha Jacobovici, the hard-hitting program argues that several ossuaries (limestone “bone boxes”) found in a tomb that was excavated in 1980 in the Talpiot suburb of Jerusalem may have contained the bones of Jesus of Nazareth and His family. The film drew the largest viewing audience of the previous six months.
This is obviously interesting news for Christians, because according to the New Testament, Jesus rose from the dead three days after His crucifixion. But what if His bones were indeed among those found in the Talpiot ossuaries?
What’s the evidence?
Let’s review the evidence on both sides of this critical issue. Here are several facts about the recent discovery:
- In 1980, ten ossuaries were found that dated back to the first century A.D.
- The ossuaries appear to have been the tomb of a middle-class family.
- Six of these ossuaries had inscriptions with names similar to those of Jesus and His relatives: Yeshua (Jesus), son of Joseph, Mary, Mariamene e Mara, Matthew, Jofa, and Judah, son of Yeshua.
- DNA analysis of organic matter in ossuaries belonging to Jesus and Mariamene e Mara were found to be from different individuals, which allows for the possibility that its occupants might have been married and produced a son.
The Discovery Channel documentary suggested that the name “Mariamene e Mara” refers to Mary Magdalene, and that she and Jesus had a son named Judah. But this conclusion has absolutely no basis in either the Bible or history. And it certainly does not prove—or even suggest—that archaeologists have found the remains of Jesus of Nazareth.
A number of scholars have found weaknesses in the interpretation of the facts reported in the documentary:
- Tombs with ossuaries were very common in the Jewish world of the first century a.d. Dr. Craig Evans, who participated in the original excavation of the “Jesus bone boxes,” says that these ossuaries contained bone fragments of at least 35 persons.1
- Some of the inscriptions on the ossuaries were written in Aramaic, others in Hebrew, and one in Greek. This suggests that they belonged to different historical periods.
- It’s not even certain that the name “Jesus” appears on the ossuaries. Old Semitic writing is extremely hard to read. Dr. Evans believes the inscription actually reads “Hanun.”
- The documentary assumes that the name Mariamene e Mara is another name for Mary Magdalene. There is little evidence to suggest this. No writer in the Bible or in records of the first century refers to Mary Magdalene in this manner.
- Amon Kloner, a former archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority, who supervised the original excavation of the site, said that the idea that the Talpiot ossuaries contain the bones of Jesus “makes a great story for a TV film. But it’s impossible. It’s nonsense.”2
Responding to the question of whether Jesus’ tomb has been found, the Archaeological Institute of America said, “A reasoned look at the evidence, instead of a media circus, yields an answer of No! ” It called the Discovery Channel’s documentary “a travesty to professional archaeologists and . . . a disservice to the public.”3
Referring to the likelihood that the ossuaries in question contained the bones of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, Tal Ilan, the author of a Lexicon of Jewish Names in Antiquity, said, “My research proves exactly the opposite. These are the most common names that you could expect to find anywhere.”4 His lexicon lists 2,509 names from ossuaries, ancient records, and other sources, and it shows that the names “Mary” and “Jesus” were very common: 1 out of 3 women was named Mary, and 1 out of 20 men was named Jesus. Obviously, Jesus and Mary Magdalene are not the only candidates for the names on the Talbiot bone boxes.
Those who claim that the “Jesus bone boxes” contained the remains of Jesus of Nazareth have to assume that Jesus’ family purchased a tomb in Jerusalem, whereas people in the first century typically were buried in their native town.
There’s also a logical fallacy in the way the producers of the documentary on the Discovery Channel handled the biblical record. They assumed that the Bible was correct in giving us the names of Jesus, His family members, and Mary Magdalene, yet they rejected the Bible’s account of Jesus’ resurrection.
Finally, the producers took inconclusive evidence from an archeological find and used it to disprove the validity of a document that has stood the test of time.
So what does the Bible say?
According to the Bible, Jesus died on Friday, the eve of Passover (John 19:14). His body was removed from the cross and placed in a tomb that was guarded by 16 Roman soldiers, who would have forfeited their lives had any unauthorized person broken into the tomb. A heavy stone, estimated to have weighed as much as two tons, was rolled in front of the tomb, and a Roman seal was placed over the stone. Nevertheless, two days later the tomb was empty because, according to the Bible, Jesus rose from the dead.
Skeptics dispute the Resurrection story because of its miraculous nature. However, there is strong historical evidence for its accuracy. For one thing, according to the New Testament, several hundred people saw Jesus alive after His resurrection, some of whom at first doubted. Mary Magdalene saw Jesus in the garden just outside the tomb where Jesus was buried. Later the same day Jesus appeared to ten of His disciples, and a week later He appeared to all eleven (John 20:1–21:1; Judas was dead by this time). And, according to the apostle Paul, at one point following His resurrection Jesus appeared to more than five hundred believers (1 Corinthians 15:3–6).
The religious leaders who engineered Jesus’ crucifixion explained the empty tomb with the claim that His disciples stole His body away during the night (Matthew 28:11–13). However, to do this the disciples would have had to break the Roman seal; they would have had to roll away a stone weighing as much as two tons; and they would have had to do all of this silently so as not to awaken the Roman guard!
If the Jewish leaders truly believed that Jesus’ disciples stole His body from the grave, all they would have had to do was arrest them and demand to know where they hid the corpse. Then they could have paraded Jesus’ dead body around Jerusalem to disprove the disciples’ claim of a resurrection. And they would most certainly have handed the disciples over to the Roman authorities for breaking the seal on Jesus’ tomb—an act that was punishable by death! But there is no record of any of this happening.
Is the Bible historically accurate?
Historical events cannot be substantiated by scientists working with test tubes and Bunsen burners. We know that certain things happened in the past because the people to whom those events happened wrote them down, and we can read either their original documents or copies of the same. We know, for example, that Julius Caesar was indeed a Roman emperor because certain historical records verify that fact.
Several of the Bible writers claimed either that they saw Jesus alive following His crucifixion or that they interviewed those who saw Him alive. Among these were several who doubted the story of His resurrection when it was first told to them.
Back then, women were not considered to be reliable witnesses, which explains why all of Jesus’ disciples refused to believe Mary Magdalene when she reported having seen Jesus alive. Only when Jesus appeared to them that evening did they believe. Thomas, who was absent that first evening, refused to believe the testimony of his fellow disciples, but a week later, when he saw Jesus with his own eyes, he exclaimed, “ ‘My Lord and my God!’ ” (John 20:28).
The question is whether the biblical record is valid history. Skeptics claim that the story of Jesus’ resurrection is a myth produced by people who had visions and dreams. However, these same skeptics accept as valid the historical record of Julius Caesar. Is biblical history less reliable than the historical records about Julius Caesar?
The historical evidence in support of Christ’s resurrection is so strong that it has persuaded some skeptics to become believers. C. S. Lewis resisted Christianity for many years. However, the evidence for the historicity of the Gospels, including the story of the Resurrection, eventually persuaded him to believe, and he became one of Christianity’s most gifted philosophers of the twentieth century. Two Jewish authors, Joseph Klausner and Pinchas Lapide, after examining the evidence for the Resurrection, also accepted it as a historical event.5
So what can we conclude about the documentary on the Discovery Channel, which suggests that the bones of Jesus may have been found in an ancient Jewish ossuary? I recognize that the story of Jesus’ resurrection flies in the face of what science today can verify about the possibility of such an event happening. However, the historical evidence in support of the “Jesus bone box” theory is based on weak assumptions and inconclusive evidence. On the other hand, because I believe in God and the supernatural, and because I find the historical evidence in favor of Jesus’ resurrection to be very strong, I accept it as a valid historical event. Because of this, I also accept the Bible’s claims about the meaning of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection—that He has saved me from my sinful past and that He offers me everlasting life in His eternal kingdom.
I invite you to reach the same conclusion and accept the same eternal future!
1Larry Chapman, ed., “Jesus’ Family Tomb: Fact or
Fiction?” Y-Jesus magazine supplement, http://
www.y-zine.com/tomb_print.htm. 2Eric A. Powell, “Titanic Find or Sinking Feeling?” Archaeology. 3Jodi Magness, "Has the Tomb of Jesus Been Discovered?" Archaeological Institute of America. 4Tal Ilon, Lexicon of Jewish Names in Antiquity (Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 2002). 5Michael Green, The Empty Cross of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1984).