Saturday, April 07, 2007

Stephen Goranson on the Jesus Family Tomb

Stephen Goranson sent an interesting review of The Jesus Family Tomb to ANE and Xtalk yesterday and I reproduce a cleaned up version, with permission, here. I have not yet read the book myself so am not able to comment myself on Stephen's comments:
I have read the book, The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino HarperSanFrancisco, 2007). I think it is a misleading book and a disservice to its readers. One can say that it's pretty lively and glib in passages, perhaps because it was so unconstrained by any careful review by historians or even by good fact-checking and proof-reading editors. The foreword by James Cameron oddly assures us that the Titanic history was a difficult task but that this tomb case is practically beyond reasonable doubt.

Simcha Jacobovici fancies himself a fine reporter, but he plainly misreported, for example, Prof. Bovon's views on later literary developments about Mary Magdalen as if Bovon were making claims about first-century history.

Many have commented on the book's misapplication of statistics. Statistics, I suggest, framed differently than the authors have done, could indicate the improbabilities of the book's set of assertions. What percentage of the pre-70 CE population were Christian (or Nazarene, or Jesus of Nazareth followers)? What percentage--if any--of them used ossuaries? "Let the dead bury their own dead" (Matthew 8:22) can be interpreted as a less than ringing endorsement of ossuary-use. What percentage of those were genuinely anciently inscribed (as opposed to later inscribed, either in fraud or in pious memorial)? What percentage of those survive? Here, the flaw of excluding the other, earlier-known Jesus son of Joseph ossuary also comes in, because, if it is genuine (as I think), who is to say that that one had to have been dug by archaeologists in order to be counted? In other words, if there were a Jesus family tomb in Jerusalem, which I doubt, why couldn't *the* Jesus ossuary, if there were such, which I doubt, possibly have been looted, which we don't know of this ossuary anyway (i.e., we don't know how it got to the museum where Sukenik read it). Jesus' brother James was reportedly buried elsewhere in Jerusalem, and reportedly he was poor. Ossuaries were used by a relative few, the more wealthy.

Not only does the book assert the so-called Jesus family tomb has six New Testament-related names; the book also claims several other NT-related ossuaries. There is a tension between the book's claim that the Jesus family tomb is surprising, yet that the Simon (Peter) ossuary was also found, and also that of the Simon who reportedly carried the cross, and also Mary and Martha of Bethany, and also Lazarus, and also the High Priest Caiaphas. The book tries to have it both ways: are these NT-related finds rare or are they not? The book fails to inform readers of substantial reasons to doubt various of these proposed identifictions. It neglects, for instance, to cite Emile Puech and William Horbury and others who argue against the Caiphas identification. The book falsely claims that Alexander was a rare name; Tal Ilan's Name Lexicon lists 31 Alexanders. That is part of the case for claiming Simon of Cyrene's ossuary was found. But, according to its excavators, Sukenik and Avigad, that inscription does *not* say Simon of Cyrene (e.g., Israel Exploration Journal 1962, 10-11). Some of these identifications could be valid, but the book may have muddied the waters more than clarified matters.

Bellarmino Bagatti and some of his Franciscan students in Jerusalem may have overestimated the remaining signs of those Nazarenes and Ebionites that we anachronistically call Jewish-Christians. (The scribble before Yeshua was less likely a Christian cross symbol than the equivalent of testing the writing implement.) Joan E. Taylor wrote a "corrective" to the Bagatti school and rather underestimated Jewish-Christians and their traditions (Christians and the Holy Places: the Myth of Jewish-Christian Origins, 1993). Later, to her own good scholarly surprise, she wrote (in Palestine Exploration Quarterly [2002] pages 173-176) a very good case for early tradition that the Jesus tomb is, after all, indeed within the area of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

There are other problems with the book; if there's interest, others could be listed and discused--for instance, the wild speculations that Templars found the tomb and derived their teaching from it.

Unfortunately, many readers will probably consider criticisms of the book some kind of cover-up. This book, in my opinion, was poorly composed. It seems that Jacobovici's main sense of achievement was in obtaining exclusive contracts and in obtaining signed promises of silence. But that insularity led to a mess, and disservice to readers.

Stephen Goranson

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