On Palm Sunday 1996 the London Sunday Times ran a feature about the tomb of Jesus, suggesting that a new discovery threatened the basis of Christianity. Two bbc producers went looking for fresh material for an Easter Sunday program. They wanted to stimulate discussion on the nature of the Resurrection. Supposing, they asked, someone actually found the bones of Jesus lying around in Palestine: What would that do to Christian faith?

So they looked for ossuaries—bone boxes. They found one inscribed "Jesus, son of Joseph" (actually, they found more than one, but they only followed up one). It had been found in a family tomb; and in the same family tomb were other boxes, labeled Joseph, Mary, another Mary, a Matthew, and someone called Judah, described as "the son of Jesus." The boxes were empty: vandals had apparently got there first, possibly in antiquity. Now, journalists are good at putting two and two together and making seventeen. Could this be Jesus' tomb? Would it cast doubt on the very foundations of Christianity?

The first thing to say is that, even if nobody had ever said Jesus of Nazareth had been raised to life, the probability is still enormously high that this would not have been the tomb of the Jesus, Mary, and Joseph we know from the Gospels. "Mary" is by far the most common female name in the period; "Joseph" and "Jesus" are two of the most common male names, with Judah—or Judas—not far behind.

Discovering a tomb with these names in one family is rather like an archaeologist two thousand years hence finding an English tomb with parents called Philip and Elizabeth and children called Charles and Anne, and claiming that this must be the British royal family. The Israeli archaeologists, none of them ...

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April 6, 1998

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