Wednesday, February 28, 2007


By Frank K. Flinn

Frank K. Flinn*

On March 04, 2007, the Discovery Channel will air a program /The Lost Tomb of Jesus/, made by Simcha Jocobivici and James Cameron, the maker of the film /Titanic/. A companion volume of the same name by Jocobivici and Dr. Charles Pellegrino has just been released by HarperCollins.

In 1980 Israeli archeologists Shimon Gibson, Yosef Gat Amos Kloner examined a tomb in the Talpiyot district of Jerusalem where construction for new housing was underway. Archeologists have noted some 900 such tomb sites in this area of Jerusalem. Upon entering the tomb, the archeologists discovered ten ossuaries in six niches and three skulls on the floor of the main room. In 1st century Palestine it was customary to bury a person of some means wrapped in linen and spices, let the flesh decay, and then, a year or more later, place the bones in a stone ossuary, which literally means “bone-box.” After this hasty excavation the bones were buried by Orthodox rabbis following Jewish ritual law. Fragments of the bones, however, remained in the boxes that were not washed out. The ossuaries were then stored in a warehouse of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

Meanwhile in 2002 another inscribed ossuary appeared on the antiquities market in Jersusalem. Oded Golan, a Tel Aviv engineer, claimed he bought the box from Arab dealers and had not noted the Aramaic inscription on the side: /Yaakob bar Yosef ahiw de Yeshua/ (“James, son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus”). The reaction in the scholarly world was explosive. Inscriptionist AndrĂ© Lemaire of the Sorbonne said that the box could well have belonged to James the Apostle. After much argument back and forth, scholars at the Geological Survey of Israel, while not tying the inscription to Jesus’ family, concluded that the script fits the time period between 20-70 CE and that the patina throughout shows no later marks of forgery. New Testament scholar James Tabor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has argued that this ossuary came from what he calls the Talpiyot “Jesus Family Dynasty Tomb” in his controversial book /The Jesus Dynasty/ (2006).

As noted above, six of the Talpiyot boxes have side inscriptions. There is some argument about the preservation and interpretation of the scripts, but Tabor, Simcha Jocobivici and James Cameron, the makers of the film /The Lost Tomb of Jesus/ (to be shown on Discovery Channel March 04, 2007), say the box inscriptions should be read as follows:

1. /Yeshua bar Yehosef/ – ‘Jesus son of Joseph’ (speaks for itself)//

2. /Maria/ – the Latin for the normal ‘Miriam’ or Mary (mother or sister of Jesus?)/ /

3. /Yose/ – alternate form of ‘Joseph’ ( Matthew 13:54 lists 4 brothers of Jesus—James, Joses, Simon, Judas—and unnamed and unnumbered sisters)

4. /Yehuda bar Yeshua/—‘Judah son of Jesus’ (some claim this refers to Jesus of Nazareth’s son)

5. /Mariamne e mara—/‘Miriamne the master’ (this was written left-to-right in Greek lettering; some say Mary of Magdala’s real name was Miriamne; /mara/ is the same term as /Maranatha /“Come, oh Lord [/mara/]” in 1 Corinthians 16:22 )

6. /Matya/—‘Matthew’/ /or ‘Matthias’ (possibly a husband of one of the women in an unmarked ossuary)

Mitochondrial DNA tests on the bone fragments in the Yeshua and Miriamne ossuaries show that they were not related. Shortly after the initial discovery and the 1990’s one of the original ten ossuaries went missing. Tabor and others are claiming that this is the much disputed James ossuary.

One of the chief arguments posed by Kloner and others that this set of names cannot be identified with the family of Jesus is that all of the names were common as water in the 1st century. That is true, but Tabor and the filmmakers have elicited the support of statisticians to argue the likelihood that this set of names would match the names in the New Testament is extremely small. Tabor illustrates by saying that the approximate population of Jerusalem at the time of Jesus was 50,000. If you could get all into the local hippodrome, and started asking, would all those whose name is Jesus please stand, 2,796 would rise. Then if you asked, would all those who father is also named Joseph remain standing, 351 would be left. If you ask all those also who mother’s name is Mary, 173 would remain. Add the brother’s name Jose, and only 23 would be left. Add the name James, and you are down to one.

University of Toronto mathematician Andrey Feuerverger calculated that the odds that the tomb does not belong to the Jesus of the Gospels is1/600. Tabor’s mathematician gives the startling odds that out of 42,723,672 families, the Talpiyot combination of names would occur only once. The general public needs to be a little wary of statistical calculations. They never give you the absolute truth but only an approximation of the truth. And Tabor is quick to admit that many of the associations in his book are “speculative.” Still, it is important to point out that these numbers do not depend so much on the frequency of a particular name but on the occurrence of the /cluster/ of names, and here the numbers are telling.

The Talpiyot tomb findings are a serious challenge to traditional Christian denominations. Catholics have held as a matter of doctrine that Mary was a virgin when she conceived and that she remained a virgin. The phase “brothers and sisters,” they argue must be taken in a “wide” sense of “friends and followers.” Many traditional Protestants beg to differ with Catholics on this score. Most claim that Jesus was never married, but scholars of 1st century Judaism now argue that one had to be married to preach in the synagogue, and that is something Jesus did on many occasions (Luke 4:16). The single implication of the Talpiyot findings that strikes traditional Christianity at its root is that, if indeed this is Jesus of Nazareth’s ossuary and bone fragments, then Jesus was not raised from the dead. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15: 13-14: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.”

Is there no way out of the dilemma for the believing Christian? Do Christians, if they accept these harsh historical facts, have to give up all belief in resurrection. I believe they do not. In the Epistle to the Romans Chapter 4, where Paul talks about the physical condition of Abraham and Sarah, he does not say that they were infertile or barren, as many translations have it, but that they were “dead” in the womb and the loins. When Isaac was born, they experienced a resurrection of the flesh in the most literal sense of the term. Likewise, when the Prodigal Son returned to his grieving father, the father said to his resentful brother, “For this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.” I call this the resurrection of everydayness. The philosopher Hegel spoke of the “divine Man” whose particular death is transfigured into “the universality of the Spirit who dwells in His community, dies in it every day, and daily is resurrected.” This sense of living “resurrectionally” seems to have escaped many segments of Christianity. The recent discoveries about 1st century Palestinian Judaism have forced many Christians to rediscover the Teaching /of /Jesus rather than to place all emphasis on the later teaching /about/ Jesus.

Many devout Christians are speaking up loudly saying the Talpiyot Tomb story is another hoax, like /The Da Vinci Code/. To them I give a word of caution: Dan Brown wrote fiction that had everso fragile filaments to the truth, but ossuaries are ossuaries, names are names and bones are bones. I choose to remain interested but joyfully skeptical about all the new discoveries.

Frank K. Flinn, an adjunct professor of religious studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, is author of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Catholicism (Facts on File). He is a consultant in forensic theology and an expert on cults, religious splinter groups and paramilitary organizations. He has been an expert witness in numerous cases on the legal rights of various religious groups, including the Church of Scientology and the Unification Church. He has published extensively on such topics as religious freedom and on who has the right to define what constitutes a religious cult. He was a frequent news commentator on the Branch Davidians and the 1993 Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) raid on their heavily armed complex in Waco, Texas. He has appeared on radio and television around the globe on issues relating to the militia in the United States and Heavensgate. He teaches several courses on religion and the law at Washington University, including a course on "Cults in America" and the "North American Religious Experience." In the Fall, 1999, he is teaching a short course at Washington University's entitled "Marching to the Millennium: Varieties of Millennial Thinking in the Western Religious Tradition." He received his undergraduate degree from Quincy College, a Bachelor of Divinity, magna cum laude, from Harvard Divinity School, and a Ph.D. in Religion from St. Michael's College, University of Toronto. He is author of "Millennial Hermeneutics in The Coming Kingdom: Essays in American Millennialism & Eschatology (1983)," "Church, Sect, Denomination, Cult" in Liberty: A Magazine of Religious Liberty (July/August, 1994), "Question: Is apocalyptic religion bad for America?" Insight (June 19, 1995), "Government Shouldn't Fulfill Milita's Apocalyptic Prophecies" Insight (May 29, 1995), "Toward a self-inflicted Armageddon?" Houston Chronicle. (Sunday, April 30, 1995), and "Conversion: Up from Evangelicalism, or the Pentecostal and Charismatic Experience" in Religious Conversion: Content, Context and Controversy (London: Cassells, 1999).

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Archaeologists, scholars dispute Jesus documentary

Filmmakers and researchers on Monday unveiled two ancient stone boxes they said may have once contained the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but several scholars derided the claims made in a new documentary as unfounded and contradictory to basic Christian beliefs.

"The Lost Tomb of Jesus," produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron and scheduled to air March 4 on the Discovery Channel, argues that 10 small caskets discovered in 1980 in a Jerusalem suburb may have held the bones of Jesus and his family.

One of the caskets even bears the title, "Judah, son of Jesus," hinting that Jesus may have had a son, according to the film. (Watch why it could be any Mary, Jesus and Joseph in those boxes )

"There's a definite sense that you have to pinch yourself," Cameron said Monday at a news conference. He told NBC'S "Today" show earlier that statisticians found "in the range of a couple of million to one" in favor of the documentary's conclusions about the caskets, or ossuaries. (Watch Cameron talk about his involvement in the documentary )

Simcha Jacobovici, the Toronto filmmaker who directed the film, said that a name on one of the ossuaries -- "Mariamene" -- offers evidence that the tomb is that of Jesus and his family. In early Christian texts, "Mariamene" is the name of Mary Magdalene, he said.

The very fact that Jesus had an ossuary would contradict the Christian belief that he was resurrected and ascended to heaven.

Most Christians believe Jesus' body spent three days at the site of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem's Old City. The burial site identified in Cameron's documentary is in a southern Jerusalem neighborhood nowhere near the church.

In 1996, when the British Broadcasting Corp. aired a short documentary on the same subject, archaeologists challenged the claims. Amos Kloner, the first archaeologist to examine the site, said the idea fails to hold up by archaeological standards but makes for profitable television.

"They just want to get money for it," Kloner said.

Shimon Gibson, one of three archaeologists who first discovered the tomb in 1980, said Monday of the film's claims: "I'm skeptical, but that's the way I am. I'm willing to accept the possibility."

The film's claims, however, have raised the ire of Christian leaders in the Holy Land.

Stephen Pfann, a biblical scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem who was interviewed in the documentary, said the film's hypothesis holds little weight.

"I don't think that Christians are going to buy into this," Pfann said. "But skeptics, in general, would like to see something that pokes holes into the story that so many people hold dear."

"How possible is it?" Pfann said. "On a scale of one through 10 -- 10 being completely possible -- it's probably a one, maybe a one and a half."

Pfann is even unsure that the name "Jesus" on the caskets was read correctly. He thinks it's more likely the name "Hanun." Ancient Semitic script is notoriously difficult to decipher.

Kloner also said the filmmakers' assertions are false. "The names on the caskets are the most common names found among Jews at the time," he said.

William Dever, an expert on near eastern archaeology and anthropology, who has worked with Israeli archeologists for five decades, said specialists have known about the ossuaries for years.

"The fact that it's been ignored tells you something," said Dever, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona. "It would be amusing if it didn't mislead so many people."

Osnat Goaz, a spokeswoman for the Israeli government agency responsible for archaeology, said the Antiquities Authority agreed to send two ossuaries to New York, but they did not contain human remains. "We agreed to send the ossuaries, but it doesn't mean that we agree with" the filmmakers, she said.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Collector accused of forging 'James ossuary' says old photos prove authenticity

Collector accused of forging 'James ossuary' says old photos prove authenticity

Mysterious photographs from the 1970s are to be brought as evidence to prove that the so-called ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus, is authentic. They are to be presented by attorneys for Oded Golan, the antiquities dealer charged with forging the item, which when it was made public, was dubbed "the most important archaeological discovery from the beginnings of Christianity."

The photographs, copies of which have reached Haaretz, have already been examined by an American expert and are to be submitted as evidence in court. But they do not remove doubts about the item, which touched off a storm in the archaeological world.

In December 2004, after a lengthy police investigation, the State Prosecutor's Office indicted Golan and three other Israelis for what they called the most serious case of antiquities forgery ever uncovered in Israel.

Golan, 55, a Tel Aviv resident, was charged with allegedly masterminding a ring responsible for the fabrication of antiquities over a period of more than 15 years. According to the charge sheet, the group stands accused of attempting to sell items to museums and wealthy collectors for millions of dollars.

The indictment states that in 2001 or shortly before, Golan forged the inscription on the ossuary (bone receptacle) and that at approximately that same time, also forged the so-called "Joash inscription."

The ossuary was unveiled in a press conference in Washington, D.C., in October 2002. It was inscribed in Aramaic with words interpreted as "Yaakov the brother of Yeshua," alluding to the fact that the individual whose bones it held was Jesus' brother, James, mentioned in the New Testament. A geological test commissioned by the owners of the ossuary and confirming the authenticity of the find was presented at the briefing.

A panel appointed by the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), Shuka Dorfman, determined in June 2003 that the inscription on the ossuary was "added recently," while the ossuary itself was authentic.

In the defense's photographs, dated 1976, the ossuary is shown on a shelf, apparently in Golan's home. In an enlargement, the whole inscription can be seen with great difficulty. The photo was examined by Gerald Richard, a former FBI agent and an expert for the defense. Richard testified that "Nothing was noted that would indicate or suggest that they were not produced in March 1976 as indicated on the stamps appearing on the reverse side of each print."

Golan's attorney, Lior Beringer, told Haaretz that the photos support the defense's position. "The prosecution claims that Golan forged the inscription after the beginning of 2000. But here is a detailed report from an FBI photo lab that states that the inscription existed at least since the 70s," Beringer said. "It is unreasonable that someone would forge an inscription like this in the 70s and suddenly decide to come out with it in 2002," he added.

The date of the photo is also significant legally because any antiquity discovered in Israel since the passage of the 1978 Antiquities Law belongs to the state.

The IAA refused yesterday to comment on the new finds and would say only that the matter was being dealt with by the state prosecutor.

The photos join experts in Israel and other countries who have tried to disparage the credibility of the IAA panel, in what the IAA at the time described as a well-orchestrated campaign backed by interested parties. The accusation was leveled against Hershel Shanks, the editor of the Biblical Archaeology Review, published in the U.S. Shanks' identification of the ossuary brought him credit worldwide. He funded the exhibition of the ossuary in a Toronto museum, from which money poured in from thousands of visitors to the organizers, including Shanks. Shanks has told Haaretz in the past that he is motivated by the desire to get to the truth in the matter.

But it is the way the ossuary was found that seems to raise the most doubts. Golan, whose friends say his knowledge is "phenomenal," said that for years he did not realize that he had of the most important archaeological finds in the world on his shelf. When asked by Haaretz about this in an interview, he

Freeze Killed Neanderthals

A sharp freeze could have dealt the killer blow that finished off our evolutionary cousins the Neanderthals, according to a new study.

The ancient humans are thought to have died out in most parts of Europe by about 35,000 years ago.

And now new data from their last known refuge in southern Iberia indicates the final population was probably beaten by a cold spell some 24,000 years ago.

The research is reported by experts from the Gibraltar Museum and Spain.

They say a climate downturn may have caused a drought, placing pressure on the last surviving Neanderthals by reducing their supplies of fresh water and killing off the animals they hunted.

Sediment cores drilled from the sea bed near the Balearic Islands show the average sea-surface temperature plunged to 8C (46F). Modern-day sea surface temperatures in the same region vary from 14C (57F) to 20C (68F).

In addition, increased amounts of sand were deposited in the sea and the amount of river water running into the sea also plummeted.

Southern refuge

Neanderthals appear in the fossil record about 350,000 years ago and, at their peak, these squat, physically powerful hunters dominated a wide range, spanning Britain and Iberia in the west to Israel in the south and Uzbekistan in the east.

Our own species, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa, and displaced the Neanderthals after entering Europe about 40,000 years ago.

During the last Ice Age, the Iberian Peninsula was a refuge where Neanderthals lived on for several thousand years after they had died out elsewhere in Europe.

These creatures (Homo neanderthalensis) had survived in local pockets during previous Ice Ages, bouncing back when conditions improved. But the last one appears to have been characterised by several rapid and severe changes in climate which hit a peak 30,000 years ago.

Southern Iberia appears to have been sheltered from the worst of these. But about 24,000 years ago, conditions did deteriorate there.

This event was the most severe the region had seen for 250,000 years, report Clive Finlayson, from the Gibraltar Museum; Francisco Jimenez-Espejo, from the University of Granada, Spain; and colleagues.

Their findings are published in the journal Quaternary Science Reviews.

Rare event

"It looks pretty severe and also quite short," Professor Finlayson told BBC News.

"Things like olive trees and oak trees that are still with us today managed to ride it out. But a very fragmented, stressed population of Neanderthals - and perhaps other elements of the fauna - did not."

The cause of this chill may have been cyclical changes in the Earth's position relative to the Sun - so-called Milankovitch cycles.

But a rare combination of freezing polar air blowing down the Rhone valley and Saharan air blowing north seems to have helped cool this part of the Mediterranean Sea, contributing to the severe conditions.

Gorham's Cave on Gibraltar shows evidence of occupation by groups of Neanderthals until 24,000 years ago. But thereafter, researchers have found no signs of their presence.

However, in an interesting new development, scientists are also now reporting another site, from south-east Spain, which has yielded evidence for the late survival of Neanderthals.

In a study published in the journal Geobios, Jose Carrion, Santiago Fernandez Jimenez, from the University of Murcia; and colleagues analysed pollen from soil layers at Carihuela cave to determine how vegetation had changed in the area during the past 15,000 years.

During the course of this work, they also obtained ages for sediment samples from the cave, using radiocarbon dating and uranium-thorium dating.

Sediment layers containing Neanderthal tools were found to date from 45,000 years ago until 21,000 years ago.

Caution needed

These radiocarbon dates are "raw", and do not exactly correspond to calendar dates. They cannot therefore be compared directly with those from Gibraltar, which have been calibrated with calendar dates.

Neanderthal bones have also been excavated from these sediment units, including a male skull fragment which could potentially be very recent. But Professor Carrion is extremely reluctant to draw conclusions about these human remains.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Practice of farming reaches back farther than thought

Archaeological findings from Panama show agriculture's roots run deep

Ancient people living in Panama were processing and eating domesticated species of plants like maize, manioc, and arrowroot at least as far back as 7,800 years ago – much earlier than previously thought – according to new research by a University of Calgary archaeologist.

One of the most hotly debated issues in the discipline of archaeology is how and why certain human societies switched from hunting and gathering to producing their own food through agriculture. Dr. Ruth Dickau, a post-doctoral researcher in the U of C's department of archaeology, has used a new technique called starch grain analysis to recover microscopic residues of plants directly off the stone tools that people were using in Panama 3,000 to 7,800 years ago.

"These results add to the growing evidence that the earliest beginnings of farming were not centred in arid highland regions like central Mexico and the Peruvian Andes as once believed, but in the lowland areas and humid forests of the American tropics," Dickau says.

"What is particularly interesting is that these crops were originally domesticated outside of Panama; maize was domesticated in Mexico, and manioc and arrowroot in South America. Panama, as a relatively narrow land-bridge between the two American continents, was an important route for the human spread of food crops, and clearly a region where agriculture was practiced very early in history."

Dickau is the lead author of a paper appearing next week in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, an internationally respected academic publication. The paper is titled "Starch Grain Evidence for the Preceramic Dispersals of Maize and Root Crops into Tropical Dry and Humid Forests of Panama."

Dry, arid areas favour archaeological preservation, whereas tropical regions typically don't – especially when it comes to foodstuffs. But with starch grain analysis, researchers are able to isolate residue from microcrevices in both ground stone and flaked stone tools and identify preserved starch grains under a microscope.

"The ability of starch grain analysis to identify plant taxa in the unfavourable preservation environments of western and central Panama confirms the importance of this method for establishing the presence of particular plant species, both domesticated and wild, in the subsistence practices of early inhabitants of tropical forests," the authors write.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Exact location of Second Temple?

While scholars have put forth various assessments for the location of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, a Hebrew University of Jerusalem professor says that archaeological remains that have so far been ignored by scholars point to the exact location, which is in a spot that differs from prevailing opinion.

The location identified by Prof. Joseph Patrich of the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology places the Temple and its corresponding courtyards, chambers and gates in a more southeasterly and diagonal frame of reference than have earlier scholars.

In spotting the Temple in this way, Patrich concludes that the rock, over which the Dome of the Rock mosque was built in the 7th century C.E. is outside the confines of the Temple. The rock is considered by Moslems to be the spot from which Muhammad ascended to heaven and for Jews the place at which the binding of Isaac took place.

Patrich basis his proposal on a study of a large underground cistern on the Temple Mount that was mapped by British engineer Sir Charles Wilson in 1866 on behalf of the Palestine Exploration Fund.

The giant cistern, 4.5 meters wide and 54 meters long, lay near the southeastern corner of the upper platform of theTemple Mount. It had a southeasterly orientation with branches extending north and south

Examining the location and configuration of the cistern together with descriptions of the daily rite in the Temple and its surroundings found in the Mishna (the Rabbinic Oral Tradition compiled in the 3rd century C.E.), Patrich has demonstrated that this cistern is the only one found on the Temple Mount that can tie in with the Mishna text describing elements involved in the daily purification and sacrifical duties carried out by the priests on the altar in the Temple courtyard.

On this basis, he says, one can "reconstruct" the placement of the laver (a large basin) that was used by the priests for their ritual washing, with the water being drawn by a waterwheel mechanism from the cistern. After this purification, the priests ascended the nearby ramp to the sacrificial altar. By thus locating the laver, the water wheel, the ramp and the altar, one can then finally map, again in coordination with the Mishna, the alignment of the Temple itself and its gates and chambers.

All of these considerations have led Patrich to come up with a diagram of the Temple and its surroundings that place the Temple further to the east and south than earlier thought and at a southeasterly angle relative to the eastern wall of the Temple Mount, and not perpendicular to it as earlier assumed. It is this placement which also leaves the Dome of the Rock outside of the Temple confines (see attached drawings).

Prof. Patrich stressed that his research concerning the location of the Temple is strictly academic in nature, and that political connotations should not be attributed to it.