The recent announcement of a discovery that proposes to have found the earliest record of the Christian faith by relying on claims Jesus was married and had a child has been almost universally lambasted by the archaeological community.
Emmanuel Christian Seminary professor Christopher Rollston, an expert in ancient Semitic epigraphy, was brought to Washington by National Geographic in May to act as a consultant on the findings of professor James Tabor and filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, which have been released in the book “The Jesus Discovery,” written by both men, and in a documentary set to air on the Discovery Channel in the spring.
After studying inscriptions and photos taken from a tomb Tabor and Jacobovici say belonged to Jesus and his family, Rollston was quick to point out that there was no archaeological or epigraphical evidence to support such a claim.
“Basically, I stated that they were misunderstanding the inscription. Then, of course, historians brought in by National Geographic said they thought they were misunderstanding the imagery,” he said.
Rollston said the outpouring of talk against the claims of Tabor and Jacobovici have nothing to with theology.
From an archaeological standpoint, it just comes down to bad science.
“People from all sorts of frameworks are saying ‘no’ to Tabor and Jacobovici. It’s not just Christians. It’s not just Jewish people. It’s purely an academic issue for us and basically Tabor and Jacobovici are misconstruing the evidence and everybody agrees on that,” he said.
However, this isn’t the first time the duo of Tabor and Jacobovici have courted controversy.
In 2007, Jacobovici released his documentary “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” in which he claimed to have found the family tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Both Tabor and Jacobovici used the discovery to make the claim Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and the two had a child named Jehudah.
There are two tombs involved with the “Jesus Discovery,” both of which sit about 200 feet apart from one another located in a part of Jerusalem known as Talpiyot.
The first tomb, which has been dubbed by archaeologists as “Talpiyot Tomb A,” was originally discovered in 1980. It contained 10 ossuaries, or containers used to house the bones of the dead, six of which were inscribed with people’s names: Yehuda son of Yeshua, Jose, Mary, Mariame, Mara, Matthew and Yeshua son of Joseph.
The second tomb, “Talpiyot Tomb B,” was discovered a year later in 1981. It contained eight ossuaries.
In 2010, Tabor and Jacobovici used a remote-controlled camera to take photographs and video of the tomb and its contents.
One ossuary had a four-line Greek inscription Tabor believed to refer to Yahweh and resurrection. A different ossuary had an image that Tabor and Jacobovici thought was a depiction of the biblical story of Jonah and the whale. They believe this refers to the resurrection as evidenced in biblical scripture from Matthew 12:40 in which Jesus says, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”
Tabor and Jacobovici’s claims went further to state their new findings legitimized the 2007 claim about the “Jesus Family Tomb” and their claim Jesus had been married to Mary and that he fathered a son with her.
Much of the archaeological community didn’t put much stock in the findings of Tabor and Jacobovici in 2007, and many archaeologists and religious scholars don’t support the new claims now.
“Tabor and Jacobovici have no real followers in this at all, hardly. Virtually, the entire archaeological community considers their interpretation to be extraordinarily weak,” Rollston said.
Rollston believes the fish-like design is a nephesh tower, or tomb facade. He also believes the inscription Tabor believes refers to Yahweh and the resurrection actually refers to ancient burial practices.
Rather than reading it as “Divine Yahweh, Life up, lift up,” Rollston’s translation reads, “Here are the bones. But I, Agagus, touched not (the bones).”
Rollston also argues there isn’t any shred of evidence connecting the tombs to Jesus of Nazareth or that he and Mary Magdalene were married and had a child.
The American Schools of Oriental Research, or ASOR, an international network of archaeologists, anthropologists and epigraphers, has been one of the major entities contesting the claims.
Following last week’s news conference in which Tabor and Jacobovici unveiled their findings, Rollston was one of the experts commissioned by ASOR to write some articles explaining the unlikelihood of the discovery.
“Basically, everybody disputes the readings of these things. It’s not going to go anywhere. Tabor and Jacobovici are still trying to do a great deal with this thing,” he said.
Like many in opposition, Rollston said the way archaeology has been used by Tabor and Jacobovici goes against the very essence of what archaeology is supposed to be about.
“The way archaeology works is that you’re supposed to present it to colleagues in your field and it’s discussed. Rather than doing that, Tabor and Jacobovici decided to hold a press conference in Times Square to announce this. The problem of that is that it usually creates a great deal of confusion on the part of ordinary people,” he said.
But not everything about the archaeological find is negative.
The technology utilized in the discovery, namely the robotic-camera system, has opened up new doors for archaeologists that could very well assist with future explorations.
“I think it will allow archaeologists to go into some of these tombs to do preliminary research without difficulty and without disturbing the religious sensitivities of those Jewish people that find this to be problematic, so the technology is very impressive,” Rollston said.
Another positive is the fact this kind of find can highlight the fact there is still a number of useful excavations in the Middle East.
“Those are a couple of the positive things, but it’s necessary for those who do the research to be careful of their research and that’s the problem with Tabor and Jacobovici. They’ve not been careful and made sensational claims that ultimately the entire academic community is rejecting — not because it’s bad theology. It’s just bad archaeology and bad epigraphy.”