In the week following Easter and Passover, a new controversial book and corresponding film about religious archeology is gathering media attention. Filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici and James Tabor, chair of the religious studies department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, believe they have found an ossuary containing the bones of Jesus Christ and his wife and child in the East Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem. But, two Duke professors are calling their bluff. Mark Goodacre, associate professor in the New Testament, and Eric Meyers, Bernice and Morton Lerner professor of religion and director of the Center for Jewish Studies, have spoken out against the ossuary’s connection to Jesus through blogs, television clips and classes. With “The Resurrection Tomb Mystery” airing on the Discovery Channel Thursday, The Chronicle’s Lauren Carroll spoke with the professors about the validity of Jacobovici and Tabor’s claims.
The Chronicle: What is the Talpiot Tomb?
Mark Goodacre: It begins in 2007, when Simcha Jacobovici makes the claim that this tomb contains this cluster of names that we all know from the New Testament. Names like Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He thinks the coincidences of the names occurring there together and the New Testament are too great, and so he makes the huge logical leap that these people are actually Jesus’ family, and therefore we’ve got Jesus’ bones, and Jesus and Mary Magdalene are married, and they have a son…. When the documentary and book came out in 2007, it was almost universally condemned by the scholars....
They take a couple of the images and inscriptions that they found there and give them a kind of Christian spin to try and link them into early Christianity. On one of these ossuaries is a picture that they think is a fish spitting out a man, facing downward, who has seaweed wrapped around his head. And they say this is a picture of “Jonah and the Fish”…. Because this story is used in some early Christian texts as a way to symbolize Jesus’ resurrection, it may be on this tomb as a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection.… It’s pretty clear that it’s not a fish. It’s got handles on the left and the right. When is a fish not a fish? When it’s got handles. It’s a vase, and this is the kind of thing you get on Jewish ossuaries from this period…. There’s nothing explicit in these tombs that links them to Christianity. It’s a whole bunch of circumstantial evidence.
Eric Meyers: It’s Talpiot Tomb B. The first one is the one in which the James Ossuary was discovered. Those are approximately 100 feet apart and the story about each of them is interconnected in this way. I don’t know any serious scholars who have followed [Jacobovici and Tabor] in this, but they believe that the previous Talpiot Tomb A where the James Ossuary was found provided the earliest evidence of the family of Jesus.... Moreover, they say they have found the powders of the bones that have Jesus’ DNA.... The two tombs constitute the historic burial of Jesus—not the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which 95 percent of all Christians and all serious architects agree is the burial place of Jesus…. It is a preposterous, unfounded view taking advantage of the gullibility of the public and its insatiable appetite for sensational stories.... It undermines the modern study of the New Testament and is an inappropriate misunderstanding of ancient Judaism as well.
TC: Why are various media outlets jumping on this story when many scholars think the claims are unfounded?
MG: They always want to run a religious-based story this time of year, preferably something about Jesus. And this year there’s fairly slim pickings, so this one got picked. And Jacobovici is a very good filmmaker…. There’s a genuine interest among the general population about religion and the origins of Christianity…. To a certain extent, they’re relevant to our current culture, so people are on the lookout for these sorts of stories.
EM: Around Easter every year, [television channels] will often do a documentary on the historical Jesus and new evidence that has embellished, enhanced and facilitated a better understanding of his ministry. I’ve been in about a dozen of them in the past few years, some of those are responsible… but somehow Jacobovici got Discovery to buy into this. National Geographic rejected the book and the film.
TC: How have you been involved in this issue?
MG: It’s usually me just sitting in front of my computer, and occasionally I can’t help myself from blogging about things that are of interest…. What we need to do as scholars is speak up, so the public knows that there are other voices…. Because other people have linked to the blog, then picked up things and discussed it, the media goes to look for people to refute these claims. They’re looking for academics who already have a public profile.
EM: I was on the advisory panel of experts assessing the integrity of the claims, the appropriateness of the report and the panel decided that National Geographic should drop it like a hot potato, and they did…. I was the one who blew the whistle on the [James ossuary].... It was a looted artifact—we didn’t know where it came from.
TC: Hypothetically, if this really was Jesus’ tomb, what would the implications be?
MG: If we did find something from the first century with a picture of “Jonah and the Fish,” I’d say great. But I just don’t think we’ve got it. There’s always a bit of healthy skepticism you have to have when doing this kind of work.
EM: An ossuary is a bone box… This implies that Jesus’ body was buried somewhere else for about a year, and his family, just outside Jerusalem, came and picked up his bones and had a new burial [in Talpiot]. It defies or contradicts any belief in the resurrection because there are bones in these boxes. If there was a resurrection, it could only be a theological resurrection.... [Christians] will be offended, as I am offended.
TC: How do you mitigate issues such as this one that can cause people to question their faith?
MG: In this case, the filmmakers are being deliberately provocative. That’s exactly the kind of response they want. When Tabor says, “Look, we have the bones of Jesus and his wife and his son,” of course he’s being provocative…. You have to get the right balance of good, rigorous, critical study asking all the kinds of serious questions but balance that with a degree of sensitivity. Realize that when you’re talking about these issues, you’re often talking about them with people who do have faith and whose faith is in question.
EM: I’m Jewish, and I have become a defender of Christian beliefs in all of this, and I find these attacks to be inappropriate, unscientific and really off-the-wall. It defies my mind of all the hard work a lot of us do to present things in an objective way so that all people can appreciate and understand. This does not adhere to any of those standards. You do not make scientific announcements of this importance in sensational films and in a trade book that has unsubstantiated stuff in it.
TC: Tabor, one of the project’s primary researchers, is a professor at UNC-Charlotte. Do you feel any intercollegiate competition?
MG: As far as I’m concerned, the fact that he’s at UNC has nothing to do with how I view his scholarship. I entirely respect him and his scholarship—it’s just I think he’s wrong about this.
EM: I’ve known [Tabor] for years. When he heard I was not too keen on his interpretation, he drove up from Charlotte. We spent four hours together. He presented the data to me. I still rejected it, [and] I took him out to lunch. We have a cordial relationship, if you can believe it.