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'Tomb' can't keep Christianity down

March 04, 2007|Charlotte Allen | CHARLOTTE ALLEN is an editor at Beliefnet and the author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus."

EASTER IS around the corner, so it must be time for a dramatic revelation that will blow the lid off Christianity.

Remember the Gospel of Judas? Right around now last year, the "newly discovered" (actually, knocking around for 30 years until a high-price buyer could be found) Gnostic papyrus was supposed to prove that Judas Iscariot was actually a good guy. This year, the breaking news, to be uncovered tonight on the Discovery Channel in a $4-million documentary film produced by James Cameron of "Titanic," is that archaeologists have found Jesus' tomb in Jerusalem and that the ossuary containing DNA from his bones proves that he didn't rise from the dead. Talk about the Titanic -- Cameron's findings aim to sink an entire religion.

As with the Gospel of Judas, the tomb is not a new discovery. Construction workers stumbled upon the 2,000-year-old structure in Jerusalem's Talpiot neighborhood in 1980. Inside the small tomb were 10 ossuaries, carved stone caskets containing bones that reflected the 1st century Jewish burial practice of wrapping corpses in linen and spices until the flesh decayed, then moving the bones into a small box. Four of the ossuaries were carved, in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, with familiar-sounding names: Jesus, son of Joseph (Yeshua bar Yehosef); Judah, son of Jesus (Yehuda bar Yeshua); and two Marys (Maria and Mariamene).

Rabbis had long since buried the bones inside the tomb, as is Israeli custom, but the Yeshua and Mariamene ossuaries contained mitochondrial DNA that, when tested in 2005 showed that the two occupants seemed to be biologically unrelated. That was enough for Cameron and his fellow documentarian, Simcha Jacobovici: They concluded that Mariamene was Mary Magdalene, wife of Yeshua or Jesus, and Yehuda was little Jude, their offspring. The other Mary ("Maria") had to be Jesus' mother, they decided, and the Talpiot discoveries were dubbed "Jesus' family tomb."

Most archaeologists and biblical scholars consider Cameron's and Jacobovici's theories to be pure speculation, pointing out that the names "Jesus," "Mary," "Joseph" and "Jude" were common Jewish names during the 1st century and have been found on numerous ossuaries (there is even another "Jesus, son of Joseph" ossuary).

That is beside the point, however, for there will undoubtedly be plenty of viewers of tonight's documentary who will happily believe that Jesus died and stayed dead like everyone else, and that the Gospel story of his resurrection was invented by his followers. Last year's much-hyped Gospel of Judas had such an effect. Even though that text was probably not written any earlier than 150 years after Jesus' death, some no doubt became convinced that, by contradicting the canonical four Gospels' version of the crucifixion, the Judas Gospel fatally undermined the truth of Christianity. Before that "The Da Vinci Code" probably convinced many that Jesus and Mary Magdalene left a line of descendants in France whose existence the Vatican had tried to cover up.

All these "revelations" are part of a continuing cottage industry of constructing alternative versions of Christianity to the one we already have: the Gospel of Thomas, the Q Gospel, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene (uncovered in Egypt about a century ago) and a host of other Gnostic and related texts and idiosyncratic archaeological interpretations that have floated around the Western world since the 18th century.

These documents respond to a variety of needs. Feminists resonate to the idea that Mary Magdalene was almost as important an early church leader as Jesus and that it was only because of the efforts of misogynistic theologians that her role was suppressed. Those who wish the Bible didn't forbid them from doing things they'd like to do can tell themselves that if the canonical Gospels got the resurrection story wrong, other parts of the Old and New Testaments must have got it wrong too. People who find notions of sin, salvation, atonement and an afterlife incredible or distasteful can banish them from their personal cosmologies by finding an ancient document where they are absent.

The one thing that these resolute neo-Gnostics and spiritual eclectics cannot do without, however, is Christianity itself. Untraditional as their ideas might be, they always somehow intersect the traditional Christian story: If not the four canonical Gospels, how about the Gospel of Judas? If not Jesus risen from the dead, how about Jesus interred in a bone-box with his wife? Post-Christian the West might be, but Christianity continues to exude power and fascination, even among those who seek to debunk its claims. That is why millions will switch on "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" tonight. And why as Easter approaches next year, there will probably be another "Tomb," another chapter in the demolition of Christianity that depends on Christianity for its existence.

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