For Darrell Bock, the notion that Jesus of Nazareth married and had children is like the game Whac-A-Mole.
The researcher and professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary only recently has caught his breath from tours for his books debunking the mega-best-selling Da Vinci Code—which claims that Jesus wed Mary Magdalene, moved to France and sired offspring—and along comes the Discovery Channel and James Cameron, director of the highest-grossing movie of all time.
The Titanic genius has produced a new documentary set to air this Sunday, which claims to have found the "bone boxes" of Jesus, Mary Magdalene and their son named Judah. At a news conference in New York on Monday, Cameron called it the "greatest archaeological find in history." And it's all proven by sophisticated forensic tests and backed by the reputation of the Discovery Channel.
"It doesn't get bigger than this," Cameron crowed.
By virtue of Bock's high profile in the media as an expert on the life of Christ, the professor got a first look at the documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, two weeks ago at the request of the Discovery Channel, which was vetting the reaction of evangelical Christians.
Though he signed a non-disclosure agreement until the public announcement, moments after Cameron trumpeted his "discovery," Bock's phone started ringing with requests for comment from media outlets as varied as Time magazine, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Baptist Press.
He grabbed his mallet and got to whacking.
But first Bock wants to acknowledge that the documentary is a well-done detective story with high production values that does a nice job showing what the archaeological process is like.
"James Cameron said he is interested in pursuing and discovering the truth and that, as a lay person, he got drawn in," Bock says. "The documentary will be able to draw in a lot of other people. But they are claiming as fact assumptions that they are making. And those assumptions all have to line up for it to be true."
Cameron and writer Simcha Jacobovici appeared at the news conference on Monday with two ossuaries, along with eight other so-called "bone boxes" and scattered bones, found in a limestone tomb in Jerusalem.
They are not new discoveries. The tomb was uncovered in 1980 during the excavation of a building site in a residential neighborhood. The inscriptions on the 2,000-year-old ossuaries, which did not contain bones, include "Jesus son of Joseph," Mariamne (a variation of Mary) and "Judah, son of Jesus." One box was marked with a version of Matthew.
A Jesus, son of Joseph, married to a Mary. The documentary quotes a statistician who uses the names to calculate that the odds are 600 to 1 in favor of the conclusion that this was indeed Jesus' family tomb.
Bock calls Cameron's doc the recycling of the story of the "James burial box story with a little of the Da Vinci Code mixed in." In 2002 an Israeli antiquities dealer named Oded Golan wowed the biblical archaeology world when he came forward with what he touted as the James Ossuary, labeled with the inscription "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." Valued at $1.2 million, the box set off a firestorm among scholars and archaeologists. Though validated as legitimate by some researchers, the ossuary's inscription was later exposed as a forgery and the dealer was arrested.
"The claim now is we've run all these new tests," Bock says.
One "proof" offered by Cameron and his team: DNA testing of the human residue in the boxes concluded that the Jesus and Mary were not related. They leap to the conclusion that since she wasn't his sister or mother, she was probably his wife.
Sophisticated tests of the patina on the boxes also proved that the boxes dated to around the time of Christ. Though Cameron and Jacobovici are careful to say on the Discovery Channel Web site that their discovery does not prove or disprove the resurrection of Jesus, ossuaries were used only for the bones that remained after decomposition. Adherents of the historic Christian faith believe in a bodily resurrection, in which case there would be no need for a bone box.
Bock agrees that the age of the boxes fits the time period of Christ. "Ossuaries were used for only about a century, from about 14 B.C. to 70 A.D.," he says. "You buried a body, it decomposed and you put the bones in the ossuary after a year or so."
But he points out that the Jesus box is crudely done with graffiti-like inscriptions. Wouldn't Jesus' followers have prepared something more reverential?
"The DNA testing is interesting," Bock says. "It sounds like the woman in the box is not biologically related to the person named Jesus in the other box. If it's a family tomb they have hit, that makes sense. But that doesn't tell you whose family it is. It proves absolutely nothing. But because we have invoked the magical forensics of DNA it sounds impressive."
Then there's the matter of the names, used to calculate "600 to 1" odds that the tomb is that of Jesus Christ and his family. Bock points out that the top 10 most common names among Palestinian Jewish males at the time were, in order: Simon/Simeon, Joseph, Eleazar, Judah, John, Hananiah, Jonathon, Matthew and Menahem. Variations of Mary/Mariamne were used by one-quarter of the women. A catalog published in 2002 of the most common names found on ossuaries lists Joseph as occurring 218 times and Jesus 99 times. What are the odds that those common names would be found on the ossuaries?
Bock points out that for Cameron's claims to be accurate, all the following have to be true: Jesus' crucifixion was a big surprise and his family had to buy a secret tomb. They had to steal his body from the Romans. Though they had a year to prepare the ossuary of the man they revered as divine, they wrote on his ossuary in graffiti-like script. They had to preach that the tomb was empty and die for their beliefs, all the while knowing his bones were in the ossuary.
"One of the objections from an Israeli curator," Bock says, "is that Jesus' family tomb would not have been in Jerusalem but Galilee. And to be able to use a secret family tomb, they would have had to have the money to do it. [The documentary] tried to go through all the objections, and they did answer some of them. But just because you answer the question doesn't mean the answer is persuasive."
The documentary has drawn fire from other Jewish scholars and archaeologists familiar with the 1980 discovery, who dismiss it as "fantasy."
"There are multiple people out of Israel who say there is no way this is true," Bock says. But he sees the discussion as healthy. Bock wrote a blog post about Cameron's documentary on Tuesday at www.bible.org, calling for frustrated Christians, who see the claims as an attack on their beliefs, to stop yelling and simply address the questions it raises.
The hoopla may help Bock's newest book, called Dethroning Jesus: A Look at Public Claims About the Christ, due in bookstores around Christmas 2007. He's heading to Israel for two weeks to lecture at Ben Gurion University on the so-called "Gospel of Judas," and Cameron's film is sure to get debated.
"Hopefully people in our society can tell the difference between hype coming out of Hollywood and what is coming out of Jerusalem," Bock says. "It just shows what money can do."
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