Originally Published in the Calgary Herald: Sunday, March 04, 2007
So they have found the ossuary that held the bones of Jesus. And another for Mary Magdalene. There is, of course, a third one for their son. And others for Joseph and Mary. All buried together in the tomb of a reasonably well-off first-century Jewish family in Jerusalem.
Shocking news! Not because Jesus was supposed to have risen from the dead and ascended to heaven. Not because it has long been thought Joseph died in Nazareth long before the Crucifixion in Jerusalem. But because, as everyone knows, Dan Brown cracked the code and told us that Mary Magdalene had run off to France.
The novelist’s version was challenged in New York this past week by the Hollywood filmmaker James Cameron, best known for his love story set upon the doomed cruise ship Titanic. Cameron is floating his credibility on his new television documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, and presented the ossuaries at a news conference full of credulous latter-day scribes who have hours of time for writers and filmers of fiction when it comes to the things of religion, but rather less time for actual theologians and biblical scholars.
Cameron spun some tales about what all this means, suggesting that Jesus was married and had a son with Mary Magdalene. How’s that? Well, the bones in the “Jesus” ossuary were found by DNA tests not to be related to the ossuary assigned to Mary Magdalene. Ergo, they must be married, and the parents of the child in the “son of Jesus” ossuary. But, of course, we don’t know whom the names refer to, some of which were common in Palestine at the time, and so beginning with these very loose threads, Cameron spins a tale out of whole cloth. It is more reasonable, in fact, just to hold to the biblical account.
Will this challenge the very basis of Christianity and set off a worldwide debate? That’s what The Times of London asked 11 years ago when it ran this story about the tomb, itself discovered in 1980. The debate is not quite getting off the ground, but perhaps this time Cameron will lay on a Celine Dion soundtrack and the foundations of the faith will start shaking.
Yet the Cameron project is touchingly familiar â€“ we see it every year, usually around Easter time. An obscure bit of archeology somewhere in the Holy Land is trumpeted to prove that some major event of biblical history never happened, cooked up by fraudulent religious hucksters years later.
There is a certain, ahem, selectivity when it comes to biblical-era archeology. Findings that support the biblical texts don’t quite get the same prominence as findings that question them. All of the scientific rigour which is insisted upon otherwise is abandoned in favour of conjecture and speculation â€“ often the best that can be done at a remove of some two millennia.
One of the stories being told is that the famous “James” ossuary displayed at the Royal Ontario Museum with great fanfare a few years back actually is the lost ossuary from the Jesus-Mary-Magdalene set. The James ossuary was supposed to belong to the brother of Jesus, and was supposed to set off another great debate, which rather fizzled when the ossuary was declared to be a forgery.
Yet the search for the bones of Jesus or the descendants of Mary Magdalene continues apace, whether under the guise of fiction novels or documentaries. The search goes on because Christianity itself is a relentlessly historical religion, as is the Judaism from which it emerged.
The faith depends upon real historical events â€“ the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus primary among them. Christianity is not a religion of the abstract, of fanciful tales told to illustrate some larger truth. It is instead a religion of the particular, of stories told about real events which testify to the apparently fantastic news that God become man in Jesus Christ. The Christian claim is that the stories are better than fantastic tales â€“ they are true events.
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain â€“ so wrote Saint Paul to the Corinthians at the beginning, making a claim of history and faith at the same time. So it is true that if the bones of Jesus were found, the Christian faith would be in vain. Perhaps that is why such energy is spent on the search for them, and why in the absence of evidence, fantastic tales are indeed told. The shame of it is that the original truth is more marvellous than any latter-day fiction.
Â© The Calgary Herald 2007