Review of “The New Jesus Discovery”
(Simon and Schuster 2012, ISBN 978-1-4516-5040-2)
Eric M.Meyers, Duke University
For nearly two millennia Christians have venerated the site believed to be where Jesus was buried. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher was built at a place where liturgical celebrations were held in honor of Christ’s death and resurrection, even before the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. Emperor Hadrian in 135 CE built his Capitoline temple there, and a shrine to Aphrodite was built adjacent to it. Constantine, the first emperor to embrace Christianity (in the 4th c. CE), decided to build a church there to commemorate the Resurrection. The temple was thus torn down; construction of Constantine’s church began in 326, and the church was dedicated in 335 CE according to Eusebius of Caesarea (Life of Constantine, 3:28). No other site in all Christendom has been more venerated and more often authenticated than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Nonetheless, on the basis of very little evidence James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici would have us throw all of this tradition away and identify a Jewish family tomb in East Talpiot, several kilometers south of the Old City on the road to Bethlehem, as the “new” family tomb of Jesus.
We know these authors from the James Ossuary controversy of some years back, when they identified a tomb as the James Ossuary Tomb or East Talpiot A. Now called the new “Garden Tomb,” it is less than 200 feet from Talpiot B, or what they call the “Patio Tomb,” and which they explored with a robotic camera just two years ago. The major discovery in the new tomb is an inscription and image on an ossuary. They describe the image and depiction of Jonah being spit out of the mouth of a big fish, which they take to be proof of the family of Jesus’ belief in his resurrection. The only image of the ossuary drawing published in the book (on page 91, fig.30) is very washed out, and any fish imagery is hardly identifiable let alone that of a fish spewing out a human. In fact, the image in the book is so poorly reproduced in my copy that one suspects it has been intentionally altered so that no one could see what the the image really is. Indeed, the image actually seems to resemble a nephesh, or tomb monument, like those found in many places in Jerusalem in the first century CE and depicted on ossuaries of this very period (so for example in fig. 13 or 30 of Rahmani’s A Catalogue of Jewish Ossuaries ,1994). A nephesh is the above-ground monument of a tomb that marks the tomb below and the one(s) buried there. Also it would not be surprising that a Jewish burial of the first century CE, even in an ossuary that was a secondary burial, might be related to a belief in resurrection. This belief was central to Judaism at the time according to first-century literary sources, and it was equally held by early Christians. But a belief in resurrection is not so much the question here as is the issue of the names on the ossuaries in the two-named tombs, which the authors identify with the family of Jesus. Remarkably they claim that the names included the child and spouse of Jesus, a claim that can hardly be supported by the material data from the tombs. Much of their argument involves defending the assumption of the placement of the James ossuary in the adjacent tomb, the so-called “Garden Tomb,” and defending their readings of the inscriptions in that tomb even those readings have been rejected by the overwhelming majority of the scholarly community.
The book is truly much ado about nothing and is a sensationalist presentation of data that are familiar to anyone with knowledge of first-century Jerusalem. Nothing in the book “revolutionizes our understanding of Jesus or early Christianity” as the authors and publisher claim, and we may regard this book as yet another in a long list of presentations that misuse not only the Bible but also archaeology.
This review originally appeared on the American Society of Oriental Schools (ASOR) Blog at the following: http://asorblog.org/?p=1612