Lost Tomb of Jesus Discovered? Dig a Little Deeper

A child-sized ossuary, or bone box, from the time of Jesus, on display at the Siegfried H. Horn Museum, part of the Institute of Archaeology on the campus of Andrews University.Source: Adventist News Network

[March 28, 2007]Sensational allegations about Jesus and so-called discoveries of religious artifacts never fail to raise a ruckus. Critics still squabble over the Da Vinci Code's claims, and there are more devotees who believe they've got a chunk of Noah's Ark on their coffee table than there are books in the Bible.

It came as no surprise, then, when the Discovery Channel's March 4 broadcast of the Lost Tomb of Jesus resurrected a centuries-old dispute between Christians and secularists: Did Jesus rise from the dead? Ask any Seventh-day Adventist archeologist, and you'll get an unequivocal "yes." Dr. Randy Younker, a professor and researcher at the Institute of Archaeology located on the campus of Adventist-owned Andrews University, is no exception.

In the Lost Tomb of Jesus, producer James Cameron and director Simcha Jacobovici claim they've nailed down the earthly remains of Jesus of Nazareth--along with those of his purported family--based on what they interpret to be a rare combination of name inscriptions, among them 'Jesus Son of Joseph' and 'Mary Magdalene.'

Outrageous though the documentary's claims may be, Younker says Christians cannot afford to ignore them. "A lot of people today haven't yet made up their minds about [Jesus' divinity] and will grab on to and be enthusiastic about these claims. [In the Bible], Paul says to 'always be ready to give a reason for your faith,' so it is the Christian's responsibility to show that these sorts of claims are not valid and don't undermine our faith--in a respectful way, of course."

When it comes to the tug-of-war between faith and science, Younker says he's more likely to pull for the former. "Sometimes science very wonderfully and dramatically confirms the Bible, and other times evidence contradicts what we believe." Younker says, "When I encounter such a contradiction, I find that my personal relationship [with Christ] is far more important and compelling, and that the occasional contradiction does not sway my faith."

But, Younker maintains, the Lost Tomb of Jesus is not one of those instances where faith must shelve science. Rather, he and a host of other scholars--Christian and secular--think the documentary relies on sensationalism, sloppy translations and incorrect statistics to boost "at best, a bogus claim made by quasi-archaeologists with an agenda."

The Lost Tomb of Jesus researchers say the inscriptions on the ossuaries, or bone boxes they discovered in the tomb, are not just coincidental. Along with the Da Vinci Code crowd, the documentary also claims--based on DNA testing--that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married and had a family, including a son named Judah.

"The vast majority of credible textual and Biblical scholars refute that," says Younker. "There are estimates that anywhere from 90 to 1,100 'Jesuses' were running around Jerusalem at the time, so the so-called evidence is just not that big of a deal for most professionals." Citing research by Dr. Richard Bauckham, a professor of New Testament Studies at Scotland's University of St. Andrews, Younker says, a "staggering" 21.4 percent of women at the time of Jesus bore some version of the name 'Mary.'"

Lost Tomb producers claim their statistician inspected the DNA evidence and set the odds at 600 to 1 in favor of the tomb belonging to Jesus of Nazareth. Younker and other scholars say the validity of the DNA and how it was collected make that conclusion exceedingly suspect.

In a report Younker compiled for the Biblical Research Institute located at the Adventist world church headquarters, Younker writes that one of the DNA experts, Dr. Carney Matheson, an associate professor at Lakehead University, later said he had no idea Lost Tomb researchers were looking for a relationship between 'Jesus' and 'Mary Magdalene' when they snagged him for the job. Other than proving the two were not directly related, Matheson maintains, the data indicates nothing.

That all combinations of people were typically buried in Jerusalem-area tombs further chisels away at the evidence, Younker says, "This 'Mary' and 'Jesus' could be cousins, half siblings, or simply not related at all. To assume they were married is a major leap of faith."

Other scholars, Younker indicates, suspect the DNA may itself be tainted. Dr. Susanne Sheridan, a professional colleague of Younker's and an archaeologist at Indiana's University of Notre Dame, says the researchers used shoddy sampling techniques, and that the DNA was likely contaminated by the collectors' own hands.

"On top of that," Younker adds, "the tomb contained many parts of bones and bone boxes. When you're collecting residue for DNA testing, it could come from anybody buried there, or anyone who had tampered with the tomb from ancient times until today."

Beyond the wobbly circumstantial evidence Lost Tomb researchers are riding on, Younker says the documentary does little more than harness new 'evidence' to buck up old ideas. When the tomb itself was discovered and excavated in early 1980, it hardly caused a stir. "Scholars at the time saw no connections whatsoever with the New Testament people of the same names," he says. In fact, the tomb was not cited among critics of Jesus' resurrection until a BBC program suggested the notion in 1996.

The bottom line? "We live in an information age," Younker says, "and a lot of it is flying around. Things are being said and claims are being made all over the place. In one sense, it's great to have such ready access to information, but that means we also have to view it with greater skepticism than ever before. Some people are not honest, not careful, are sloppy, and even have ulterior motives and agendas. It's everyone's individual responsibility to dig a little deeper into claims such as these, recognizing that as Christians, our faith and trust [in God] supercedes any humanly derived information."