Professor Jodi Magness
Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
As usual, the arrival of the Easter season this year is heralded by a sensational archaeological claim relating to Jesus. In March 2007, we learned from a TV documentary and accompanying book that the tomb of Jesus and his family had been discovered in Jerusalem’s Talpiyot neighborhood. The producer was undeterred by the fact that not a single archaeologist – including the tomb’s excavator – supported this claim (for my comments see http://www.archaeological.org/news/279; also see Eric Meyers’ response to the current claim). Now the same producer has identified remains of early Christian followers of Jesus in a tomb nearby. What is the basis for this new claim? Photos taken by a robotic arm that was inserted into the tomb supposedly show a graffito depicting a whale incised on an ossuary, and an inscription containing the Tetragrammaton and the word “arise” or “resurrection.”
Eric Meyers and Chris Rollston have already noted the problems with identifying the second tomb as belonging to Jesus’ disciples. These include the highly questionable reading of the inscription, and the fact that the supposed whale appears to be a depiction of a nefesh (tomb marker). Apparently, the producer has set out to prove that the first tomb indeed belonged to Jesus and his family by identifying nearby tombs as those of his disciples and followers, despite the lack of any supporting archaeological or historical evidence.
As a professional archaeologist, it pains me to see archaeology hijacked in the service of non-scientific interests, whether they are religious, financial, or other. The comparison to Indiana Jones mentioned in the media reports is unfortunate, as those films misrepresented archaeology as much as they popularized it. Archaeologists are scientists; whatever we find is not our personal property but belongs to (and usually must remain in) the host country. Archaeologists seek to understand the past by studying human material remains (that is, whatever humans manufactured and left behind) through the process of excavation and publication. For this reason, professional archaeologists do not search for objects or treasures such as Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, or the Holy Grail. Usually these sorts of expeditions are led by amateurs (nonspecialists) or academics who are not archaeologists. Archaeology is a scientific process.
The archaeological endeavor involves piecing together all available information, not just one artifact taken out of context. Context is the reason that archaeologists go to so much trouble to document the provenance of every feature and artifact dug up on an excavation. The current claim is based on finds that have no context, as they have not been excavated. All we have are photos taken by a robotic arm of objects (or parts of objects), the dates and identification of which are unknown or unclear.
We can learn a great deal about the past from legitimate archaeological discoveries made by professional archaeologists. It is a shame that sensational claims such as this one get so much popular and media attention.