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Crowing about finding Jesus’ bones

Rev. Jack Van EnsVail CO, Colorado

Those naïve enough to believe the bones of Jesus and his family have been unearthed should exercise caution. Bruce Metzger, a recently deceased professor at Princeton Theological Seminary who taught me biblical studies, warned about equating hyped guesses with what’s factual about Jesus.Have Jesus’ bones been discovered, debunking that he arose from the dead and left behind an empty tomb as the Bible reports? On March 4, the Discovery Channel raised hullabaloo with the “Lost Tomb of Jesus” documentary. Producer Simcha Jacobovici claims he identified the bones of Jesus and his family, exhumed in 1980. Hyping this startling proposal, he enlisted Hollywood public-relations expert James Cameron, who directed the blockbuster movie “Titanic.” Like the sunken Titanic, Cameron should have submerged the claim of Jesus’ discovered bones.Jacobovici and Cameron report how they uncovered 10 boxes of bones, called ossuaries, with the Holy Family’s names carved on them from an ancient area in Jerusalem. Inscribed on the ossuaries are the Yeshua bar Yosef (Jesus, son of Joseph), Maria (Mary), Matia (Matthew), Yose (nickname for Joseph), Mariamene e Mara (a form of Mary) and Yehuda bar Yeshua (Judah, son of Jesus). Jacobovici and Cameron surmise “Mariamene e Mara” is a variation of Mary Magdalene’s name. The filmmakers then fantasize as factual how Jesus wedded Mary Magdalene. From this union came their son Judah, who was buried with them. Doesn’t it stand to reason that such a combination of names could only belong to Jesus’ family? The documentary uses statistics to seal the deal that Jesus never rose from the dead. Odds are 600 to 1 that these names lead us to the Holy Family’s tomb. DNA evidence is trotted out, also, to give even more 21st-century credibility to this explosive claim that Jesus’ remains lie in these boxes of bones.Metzger advised his students not to slide down a slippery slope toward unwarranted conclusions. Don’t surmise more than what evidence can support. Skip what’s scandalous for what’s judiciously reasoned. Accept the credibility of the scriptural accounts rather than assume they rose from pious imagination. The slippery slope Jacobovici and Cameron lead us down features these markers: “Possible,” “Probable,” “Plausible” and “Perhaps It’s Really True.” Is it possible that Jesus’ ossuary has been found? Yes, anything is possible. Might such a discovery be credible? Yes, what’s possible makes for increased probability. Consequently, finding Jesus’ bones in an ancient box is plausible, isn’t it?Then there’s the inevitable leap into the absurd, commonly called “cock-a-doodle-do theology.” The filmmakers who claim they found Jesus’ remains crow as if they clinched their argument. They tie together two discreet facts that don’t necessarily lead from one to the other. There’s no direct link between an event (the discovery of ancient bone) and an errant conclusion (the musty bones are those of Jesus). To cover this leap into the absurd, Jacobovici and Cameron crow like a rooster at daybreak of their indubitable proof. Case closed, they assert. Only dimwitted Christians with faith in Christ’s resurrection reject evidence that it never occurred. Crow loud enough and long enough, and crowds will join in the crowing, too.Cock-a-doodle-do theology gains many converts. Jesus predicted to Peter on the night of his betrayal, “Truly, I say to you, this very night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times,” Matthew 26:34. Peter loudly crows like a rooster that he will never leave Jesus. His vociferous defense of what proved false, when Peter thrice denied he knew Jesus, is another instance of cock-a-doodle-do theology at work.Its bark always sounds more impressive than the bite of its logic.Why does this claim of finding Jesus’ bones totter on flimsy conjecture?Statistics can be contorted to say whatever we want them to prove. What about the one-in-600 chance that this constellation of names proves the bones belong to Jesus and his family?Statistics expert Carl Bialik wrote in the March 9 Wall Street Journal a column titled “Odds of ‘lost tomb’ being Jesus’ family rests on assumptions.” He questions the conclusion the filmmakers reached. “But the one-in-600 calculation,” Bialik wrote, “is based on many assumptions about the prevalence of the names and their biblical significance.” Suppose the inscription of Maria names any female by that name living around Jerusalem where Jesus taught. Mary is a very common name. Then, admits the statistician who gave the filmmakers the numbers they needed to “prove” their case, the mathematical probability of these boxes holding Jesus’ bones is drastically reduced. They become “statistically not significant.”The filmmakers assume mother Mary’s bones are in the Holy Family’s ossuary. But it’s an assumption they must prove for their argument to hold. Assumptions are precisely that: guesses that often are wrong, unwarranted and possess as much credibility as saying the moon is made of green cheese. Cock-a-doodle-do theologians make big bucks and attract followers by crowing about what’s false. They appeal to people’s gullibility. What’s crowed about the loudest gains a wide hearing, especially when it’s gussied up with Hollywood glitz. The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.


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