The Bones of Jesus

An alert reader, Kristen, sent in the following email:

I just saw some interesting news about some archaeologists who claim to have discovered Jesus’ ossuary and another one of a relative. I actually saw these two ossuaries at the Discovery Times Square Exhibit and they were really amazing.  After seeing the news it aroused intense dialogue between me and my roommate (she is not Christian) about what this means for Christianity.  The exhibit is really awesome and you should check it out if you have the chance.  Anyway, I’m writing to see if you could blog a response to this “finding.”

Here’s a link to the article about it: Questions Raised About Possible Clues to Jesus and His Disciples

I think it’d be awesome if you address this topic! I’d love to hear your opinion on this and I’m sure your  viewers are probably also interested in learning how they can strengthen their faith even when faced with scientific challenges to our religion.

Thanks, Kristen! Not surprisingly, I do have something to say about this!

…And some of it will be controversial…
Jonah Inscription Jesus Family Tomb

This is an Old Story

First, this is an old story that gets resurrected every year around Easter. The media loves to bring up this story around this time every year, because it loves to challenge the Christian idea that Jesus rose from the dead.

The story is basically that in 1980, archaeologists in Israel discovered a set of Ossuaries, which are stone boxes containing the bones of various families. Usually what happened is that each family had a cave or tomb in which they would lay their dead family members to decompose. Each family tomb only had so much room, and so when a body had decomposed, the bones would be put into a stone box called an Ossuary, and the names of the people would often get inscribed on to the box so that descendants would know whose bones were inside the box.

Jesus Family TombWell, of these Ossuaries discovered in 1980, six of them contain some interesting names :

  • Jesus, son of Joseph
  • Mariamne, also known as Mara
  • Maria
  • Joses (cf Mark 6:3)
  • Judah, son of Jesus
  • Matthew

What really got the media going on this story was a book and documentary that came out in 2007 called The Jesus Family Tomb. The authors raise the possibility that this is the family tomb of Jesus, and in these stone boxes lie the bones of Jesus, Mary, one of Jesus’ brothers, a son of Jesus (!), and some of the closest companions of Jesus. If this is in fact true, then Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, and the Gospel accounts are not historically true.

Should this concern us? No, on two accounts.

The Jesus Family Tomb is Full of Holes

What the media usually fails to tell us is that there are numerous quality and convincing explanations for why these are not the bones of the Jesus and Mary of Scripture.

For example, here is a list of the ten most popular male names from that time period:

1. Simon/Simeon
2. Joseph
3. Eleazar
4. Judah
5. John/Yohanan
6. Jesus
7. Hananiah
8. Jonathan
9. Matthew
10. Manaen/Menahem

And here are the top four most popular names for women:

1. Mary/Mariamne
2. Salome
3. Shelamzion
4. Martha

By comparison, here are the top ten most popular names for boys and the top four most popular names for girls in the United States during the past 50 years:

1. James
2. John
3. Robert
4. Michael
5. William
6. David
7. Richard
8. Joseph
9. Charles
10. Thomas

1. Mary
2. Patricia
3. Linda
4. Barbara

How common do you think it is, in the past fifty years, to have a family which contains six of these fourteen names? If you allow for name variations (as in the supposed Jesus family tomb), the probability is quite high. My own family contains five of the names listed above! How about yours?

So just because there is a family tomb which contains the bones of people with names similar to people we read about in the Gospels, does not mean that they are the same people. The names were very common, as anyone who has read the Bible can testify. After all, who hasn’t been confused with all the various Josephs, Matthews, Judahs, Jonathans, Simons, and Marys in the Scriptures? It is not uncommon in a Bible Study for someone to ask, “Were there only ten names people could pick from back then?”

This is just one line of evidence which raises doubt about the bones in this tomb being the bones of Jesus and Mary in Scripture. There are numerous other issues with this theory that can also be raised. If you want to find more pieces of evidence that this is not the real tomb of Jesus, I recommend this article by Darrel Bock, and this book by Rene Lopez: The Jesus Family Tomb Examined.

But What if It’s True?

Here is the big issue. What if the Gospels are wrong, and the Biblical scholars are wrong?

The Coffin of JesusSure, there are huge, gaping holes in the theory that these are the bones of Jesus and Mary, but what if the theory is right? What if Jesus really did not rise from the dead? What if these really are His bones? I don’t believe this is the case for a second, but what if, as they continue to research this, they find a document which says, “These are the bones of Jesus who is written about in the Christian Gospels. He did not rise from the dead as Christians claim, but actually died and was buried, and here are his bones.”

Of course, people could say that such an inscription is lying, in which case we would end up with a “he said she said” scenario where we try to determine whether or not such an inscription was more historically reliable than the Gospels. After all, if the critics want to argue that the Gospels are a hoax, why could it not also be possible that some first century critic of Christianity would try to undermine this fledgling faith by producing a random set of bones and claiming they were the bones of Jesus? It could have happened, right?

But again, all of this is special pleading.

Let us assume, just for the sake of argument, that the theory is true. That these truly are the bones of Jesus. That He truly did not rise from the dead. (Again, I must reiterate that I do not believe for a second that these are the bones of Jesus. I am just allowing it for the sake of argument.)

What would I say then?

Here is what I would say (and I’ll probably get blasted as a heretic for saying it)….

…So what?

Christianity trueIf Jesus did not rise from the dead, and his bones are actually in a stone box in a museum, not much would change in my life or in my theology. Sure, I would start reading and teaching the Bible a little bit differently, but that’s about it.

Yes, yes. I know that Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17 that if Christ is not raised, our faith is worthless, and we are yet in our sins. I agree with Paul on this.

But look at it this way. If it is all a hoax, if it is all a lie, if Jesus did not rise from the dead, what other options do we have in life? None.

I am not only a follower of Jesus simply because I think Christianity is true. I am also a follower of Jesus because I think that His teaching and His example is by far the best way to live life. So even if it all false, I am convinced that there is no alternative out there. Yes, some Christians in history have done some horribly wicked things in the name of Jesus, but I reject and condemn those actions as having anything whatsoever to do with Jesus.

Is it true that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, we are still in our sins? Yes. But then it is also true that there is no other way available to get free of our sins. At least, no other way that makes any sense. Every religion in the world offers some sort of works-based theory on how to become better people. Only Christianity offers complete freedom and forgiveness to all people based solely on the grace of God through Jesus Christ. If Jesus did not rise, then we are left with Christianity being just another man-made world religion which tries to help people live life as best as possible, and I am convinced that despite all the troubles within Christianity, it provides the best solutions to all of life’s questions and problems.

I know this answer will make some people upset. They will call me a liberal or a heretic.

But look. I am not saying that Christianity is false. I am saying it is the truest way of living that has ever existed. I believe that Jesus lived, died, and rose again. I do not believe anyone will ever uncover the actual bones of Jesus.  Nevertheless, I never run away from hard questions, and I have still asked myself the question, “What if…?” My answer to this question is what I have presented above.

If you disagree, then I ask the question right back to you: I know you don’t believe that these bones belong to Jesus of the Gospels (I don’t believe it either), but what if they do? What would that do to your faith? What would that do to your life? How would you live, think, and act differently as a result?

For me, almost nothing would change. How about for you?

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