Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Discovery Channel on the 'Jesus Family Tomb': I Fisk It Here

Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.
But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Cor 15:12-20)
Last week's reading couldn't have been a better reference to the implications of an documentary from Discovery Channel and producer James "Titanic" Cameron which purports that the bodies of Jesus and his whole family have been found in a first century tomb unearthed in a Jerusalem suburb.

Jay Anderson of Pro Ecclesia asks where the Catholic blogsphere response to this is. Well, as we all know, I love the sound of my voice as much as the average bear, so I dug up the press release sent out by the Discovery Channel via the Christian News Wire (word is that the fee was roughly thirty pieces of silver) regarding the documentary, entitled "The Lost Tomb of Jesus", which will premiere on March 4th.

Those who passed Freshman English will recall that it's important to get all your main ideas into the first paragraph, since many venues will only run that much of the press release. The Discovery Channel proffers the following:
New scientific evidence, including DNA analysis conducted at one of the world's foremost molecular genetics laboratories, as well as studies by leading scholars, suggests a 2,000-year-old Jerusalem tomb could have once held the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his family. The findings also suggest that Jesus and Mary Magdalene might have produced a son named Judah.
Okay, DNA evidence. DNA may only be a three letter word, but we all know it's pretty powerful stuff. (Just ask O. J. Simpson.) So it's pretty cool to have such a power-word only five words into your press release, especially when the first three words are "new scientific evidence". I mean, this is big league stuff, right?

Well, let's think a moment here. What does DNA evidence accomplish? It can be used to compare to tissue samples and see if they come from individuals who are related, and if so, how closely related they are. So to prove that the remains found in this tomb belong to "Jesus of Nazareth and his family" you'd need to... compare the sample from the tomb to all the other samples we have of Jesus' body. Right? Could someone bring one of those forward? Bueller? Anyone?

Right, so what we find out later in the article is that this exciting DNA evidence is used to establish how the remains found in different ossuaries are related to each other. Which is really cool and all. But it doesn't prove any of the stuff listed in the first paragraph. So the DNA thing... just sounds cool. Sorry. No factual content here.

On with the story:

On March 28, 1980, a construction crew developing an apartment complex in Talpiot, Jerusalem, uncovered a tomb, which archaeologists from the Israeli Antiquities Authority excavated shortly thereafter. Archaeologist Shimon Gibson surveyed the site and drew a layout plan. Scholar L.Y. Rahmani later published "A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries" that described 10 ossuaries, or limestone bone boxes, found in the tomb.

Scholars know that from 30 B.C. to 70 A.D., many people in Jerusalem would first wrap bodies in shrouds after death. The bodies were then placed in carved rock tombs, where they decomposed for a year before the bones were placed in an ossuary....

Five of the 10 discovered boxes in the Talpiot tomb were inscribed with names believed to be associated with key figures in the New Testament: Jesus, Mary, Matthew, Joseph and Mary Magdalene. A sixth inscription, written in Aramaic, translates to "Judah Son of Jesus."

Great stuff, eh? I love historical background, personally. I hope you do too, because I've just included three paragraphs of it. But don't worry, there's a joke coming:
Frank Moore Cross, a professor emeritus in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "The inscriptions are from the Herodian Period (which occurred from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.). The use of limestone ossuaries and the varied script styles are characteristic of that time."
Ummmm. Maybe this is just me being a marketing type, but you pay to send a press release out. You're supposed to put your best foot forward. Your marcom team should have some checks and balances to make sure nothing stupid goes out. So Discover Channel: how long is the "Herodian Period"? Do you mean first century BC to first century AD? Or did the period only last two years? (Hint, Jesus was probably born between 7BC and 3BC.) Call Prof. Cross back and ask him to repeat that one for you.
Jodi Magness, associate department chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told Discovery News that, based on the New Testament writings, "Jesus likely lived during the first century A.D."
Dr. Magness, whoever you are, you have my personal permission to get hold of whoever at Discovery News interviewed you and smack him upside the head for making you sound stupid. "Jesus likely lived during the first century A.D." Yeah. For a followup, can we try "Queen Elizabeth ruled for much of the Elizabethan Period" and "During the Ming Dynasty, the Mings ruled China"? Sigh...
In addition to the "Judah son of Jesus" inscription, which is written in Aramaic on one of the ossuaries, another limestone burial box is labeled in Aramaic with "Jesus Son of Joseph." Another bears the Hebrew inscription "Maria," a Latin version of "Miriam," or, in English, "Mary." Yet another ossuary inscription, written in Hebrew, reads "Matia," the original Hebrew word for "Matthew." Only one of the inscriptions is written in Greek. It reads, "Mariamene e Mara," which can be translated as, "Mary known as the master."

Francois Bovon, professor of the history of religion at Harvard University, told Discovery News, "Mariamene, or Mariamne, probably was the actual name given to Mary Magdalene."

Bovon explained that he and a colleague discovered a fourteenth century copy in Greek of a fourth century text that contains the most complete version of the "Acts of Philip" ever found. Although not included in the Bible, the "Acts of Philip" mentions the apostles and Mariamne, sister of the apostle Philip.

"When Philip is weak, she is strong," Bovon said. "She likely was a great teacher who even inspired her own sect of followers, called Mariamnists, who existed from around the 2nd to the 3rd century."
I suppose it's possible that "Mary the Master" just means she was really bossy... But now, we've got the "Acts of Philip" that clear it all up for us. Only problem is... the Acts of Philip were (from all evidence available) written in the 3rd century at the earliest, and likely in the 4th or 5th. They're a legendary semi-gnostic text, and assuming that they somehow contain information more reliable than the canonical gospels isn't just theologically unorthodox, it's simply poor textual scholarship. Why assume that if events are covered in a document written 150-300 years later than the other documents available, that it somehow contains better information?

Now we finally get back to the 'DNA evidence':
Jacobovici, director, producer and writer of "The Lost Tomb of Jesus," and his team obtained two sets of samples from the ossuaries for DNA and chemical analysis. The first set consisted of bits of matter taken from the "Jesus Son of Joseph" and "Mariamene e Mara" ossuaries. The second set consisted of patina -- a chemical film encrustation on one of the limestone boxes.

The human remains were analyzed by Carney Matheson, a scientist at the Paleo-DNA Laboratory at Lakehead University in Ontario, Canada. Mitochondrial DNA examination determined the individual in the Jesus ossuary and the person in the ossuary linked to Mary Magdalene were not related.

Since tombs normally contain either blood relations or spouses, Jacobovici and his team suggest it is possible Jesus and Mary Magdalene were a couple. "Judah," whom they indicate may have been their son, could have been the "lad" described in the Gospel of John as sleeping in Jesus' lap at the Last Supper.
So, did they actually do any testing to confirm this theory that the "Judah" remains are from the offspring of the "Jesus" and "Mariamene" remains?

I assume that this refers to John 13:21-30. Now, I'm not running into any translation that uses the word "lad", nor am I seeing it said that the person in question fell asleep. But it is the case that as Jesus talks about how he will be betrayed "the disciple whom he loved" laid his head down in his lap, and asks him who it is who will betray him. But has this personage been a mystery until the Discover Channel and James Cameron came along? No. This person is: John, who never refers to himself by name, but always refers to himself as "another apostle" or "the apostle whom Jesus loved" or some such.

And the DNA evidence proves... That two of the sets or remains aren't related. That's it. Okay. So they're not related. I won't argue with that one. But in what field other than speculative biblical scholarship would these other wild leaps be tolerated? None that I know of.

But wait. There's more. We haven't dealt with the "statistical evidence":
A possible argument against the Talpiot Tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb is that the collection of names on the ossuary inscriptions could be coincidental.

But Andrey Feuerverger, professor of statistics and mathematics at the University of Toronto, recently conducted a study addressing the probabilities that will soon be published in a leading statistical journal.

Feuerverger multiplied the instances that each name appeared during the tomb's time period with the instances of every other name. He initially found "Jesus Son of Joseph" appeared once out of 190 times, Mariamne appeared once out of 160 times and so on.

To be conservative, he next divided the resulting numbers by 25 percent, a statistical standard, and further divided the results by 1,000 to attempt to account for all tombs -- even those that have not been uncovered -- that could have existed in first century Jerusalem.

The study concludes that the odds are at least 600 to 1 in favor of the Talpiot Tomb being the Jesus Family Tomb. In other words, the conclusion works 599 times out of 600.
Well, internet searches can't turn up anything about this paper, and it's not listed on his website here. However, from the description given above, I have a question: Does his analysis of the likelihood of these names all ending up in a tomb assume that this "Mariamne" person is in fact a member of Jesus' family unit, that he had a son named Judah and a brother named Joseph, etc?

If so, what sort of cart before the horse exercise are we performing here? To my knowledge, the is no source out there that lists precisely this family configuration. And so, one would think that finding a "Jesus son of Joseph" in company with a "Judah son of Jesus" and a "Mariamne" would suggest that the person found is not the person described in the extant sources, not that he is. How does the likelihood of finding these names in combination "prove" this is Jesus' tomb, when there's no reason (other than the tomb) to believe that a combination of names such as this would indicate the Jesus of the Gospels anyway?

All of which leaves aside the question of: If Jesus and his family were so obviously buried all together in a well marked tomb outside of town (and unless somehow they all died at once it would have had to be a known family tomb that people were added to over time) how the heck do you have 1st century sources such as Paul (with whose first letter to the Corinthians I began) getting off claiming that Jesus clearly rose from the dead? One can't assume that those living in the 1st century were stupid or incurious -- and yet if they weren't absolute maroons, how could they become convinced (to the death in the case of nearly all the apostles) that Jesus had risen from the dead, when he was in fact buried with his whole family right outside of town?

All of which leaves us with the question: What kind of crack are they smoking at the Discover Channel these days? And why aren't they sharing?


Literacy-chic said...

Bravo! Thanks for the most amusing reading I've done all weekend! ;)

Potamiaena said...

Thanks for a great post. Now, can you rip the DVC apart in one column or less? I think you can.

I am glad you posted this, b/c if it comes up in my Catholic groups, I can steer everyone up Darwin Street.

Anonymous said...

Cameron and the filmmakers are NOT trying to disprove that Christ was physically resurrected--

In fact, Cameron is BACKING UP the existence of Jesus and his burial in a tomb. There are no bodily remains in the tomb; just DNA "residue." The resurrection remains an article of faith, but this could help us to be even more certain that Jesus was NOT a myth.

Cameron should be praised for this.

Anonymous said...

If this is true, then I'll become Jewish. I kid you not.

mrsdarwin said...

If you want confirmation that Jesus (as a historical figure) isn't a myth, you'd do better to consult Josephus, who makes reference to Jesus in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD).

The only conclusive way, it seems to me, to use DNA analysis to prove that the remains in the tomb are those of Jesus of Nazareth is to compare those samples to other samples of DNA known to be from Jesus. Which the filmmakers would find -- where? The Shroud of Turin? Bleeding Hosts?

Anonymous said...

Great Column!

Being relatively weak in the faith, I was fairly shaken by these articles, but upon meditation most of their logic seems spirious. If it was true, this would prove christianity completely false.

As corinthians says "We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins."

But that is why we believe, because it is all or nothing.

But its wild speculation touting weak statistics, spirious logic, and falacious use of "DNA evidence".

Even the non-christian experts they cite seem to disagree with the conclusion that this is the tomb of the holy family.

Thanks for writing this.

Kiwi Nomad said...

They obviously have their publicity machine well-oiled: the programme is reported in our papers here as a news item. (groan)
Most people don't understand enough about DNA to realise what nonsense his claims about the DNA evidence are.

CMinor said...

We found out inadvertently that labeling one's post a "fisk" attracts the attention of a site named Fisking Central. Wonder if they'll pick you up?;-)

Kergillian said...

mrsdarwin said...
"If you want confirmation that Jesus (as a historical figure) isn't a myth, you'd do better to consult Josephus, who makes reference to Jesus in his Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94 AD)"

Not so. There is some evidence that the Jesus references were fabricated by Eusebius of Caesarea, who was the first author to quote it in his Demonstratio Evangelica.

From wikipedia:

"In 93, the Jewish historian Josephus published his work Antiquities of the Jews. The extant copies of this work, which all derive from Christian sources, even the recently recovered Arabic version, contain two passages about Jesus. The one directly concerning Jesus has come to be known as the Testimonium Flavianum, and its authenticity has been disputed since the 17th century. The other passage mentions Jesus as the brother of James, also known as James the Just. The authenticity of this latter passage has been disputed by Emil Schürer as well by several recent popular writers."

"One of the earliest ecclesiastical authorities to condemn the Testimonium Flavianum as a forgery was Bishop Warburton of Gloucester (circa 1770). He described it as a rank forgery, and a very stupid one, too."