Have you ever played Wack-a-Mole? For those that haven't, the game is an electronic game in which various moles are hidden in holes just below the surface of the game board. When the game is running, the moles pop up out of their holes. The person playing the game is given a hammer to wack them on the heads before they fall back below the surface of the game board. Of course, wacking a mole on the head doesn't stop the moles from popping up -- each time you wack a mole a new mole pops up to take it's place.
In the area of Christianity, there is a different type of Wack-a-Mole game going on. Stories that have been debunked over and over again keep popping back up as if they are new and somehow unanswerable. Such a story is apparently popping up again in the form of the Jesus, Mary and Josephy ossuaries. According to Mysterious bones of Jesus, Joseph and Mary :
In a scene worthy of a Dan Brown novel, archaeologists a quarter of a century ago unearthed a burial chamber near Jerusalem.
Inside they found ossuaries, or boxes of bones, marked with the names of Jesus, Joseph and Mary.
Then one of the ossuaries went missing. The human remains inside were destroyed before any DNA testing could be carried out.
While Middle East academics doubt that the relics belong to the Holy Family, the issue is about to be exposed to a blaze of publicity with the publication next week of a book.
Entitled The Jesus Tomb and co-written by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino, the book promises the inside story of "what may very well be the greatest archaeological find of all time".
Some of the ossuaries will be at the book launch in New York, released by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The story began in March 1980 when Yosef Gat, an archaeologist employed by the IAA, surveyed a burial chamber on the south-eastern approaches of Jerusalem.
The area was being developed into the latest suburb of the city, East Talpiot, and bulldozers had uncovered an archaeological site.
Mr Gat found a standard-looking Jewish tomb dating from the era of King Herod, the Jewish king known for his ambitious building works and for his murder of infants at the time of the birth of Jesus.
After crawling into the necropolis Mr Gat found the main chamber had been silted up with soil and debris, with six "kokhim", coffin shaped spaces leading off the main chamber where human remains were housed.
According to Jewish rites, bodies would be left for a year or so to decompose in the "kokhim" before relatives came back to gather the bones and store them in ossuaries.
Mr Gat found 10 ossuaries bearing inscriptions. Some were in ancient Greek and some were in Hebrew.
One inscription said "Jesus, son of Joseph", another said "Mara", a common form of Mary, and another said "Yose", a common form of Joseph.
The authors were unavailable for comment yesterday but it is understood they base their claim that the burial chamber contained the remains of the Holy Family on their own study carried out inside the structure.
The chamber has been closed for years because a building was constructed on top of it but the authors got permission to break through an apartment block floor.
They claim to have found human material on which they performed DNA testing in a New York laboratory.
"Tests prove the names are genetically of the same family and statistically, there is a one in 10 million chance this is a family other than the Holy Family," the pre-publication publicity for the book said.
The problem, of course, is that this is largely nothing new. I remember reading about the discovery of these boxes years ago. These same bone boxes came to light again in 1996 when they became the subject of a BBC documentary. Now, in 2007, they appear again as if this is somehow new news.
Could they be the burial boxes of Jesus Christ, Mary (either Magdalene or Mary, the mother of Jesus) and Joseph, Jesus' father? Well, yes, it's possible, but not particularly likely. You see, the names Jesus, Joseph and Mary were very common names in Jerusalem at that time. Finding bone boxes with that combination of names is like going to a cemetary, finding the undated grave stones of John, Mary and Steven, and concluding that they were some people you knew who had those names. Possible, but certainly not enough to be convincing.
Back when these items were the subject of a 1996 documentary on the BBC, The Herald published an article about the bone boxes that is obviously still informative today:
An eminent church scholar has dismissed the finding of tomb relics bearing the names of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph as no more than "an interesting coincidence".
Dr. Tom Wright, the Dean of Lichfield, spoke out after experts said they might have uncovered the tomb in which Christ and his family were laid to rest.
Nine caskets for bones, known as ossuaries, have been discovered, six of them marked with significant biblical names.
However, Dr. Wright said it was "laughable" that anyone could have tended the body of Jesus without it becoming public knowledge.
He said early Christians had been adamant that Christ's body was resurrected - and this was the reason the religion survived the centuries.
Dr Wright, a former Oxford don and a member of the Church of England Doctrine Committee, added: "I have read pretty well everything that has been written and can see no other explanation other than the body was resurrected."
* * *
Dr Wright said: "These were very common names at the time and it would be like someone in 2000 years time claiming to have found the tomb of the royal family because it contained the names Charles, son of Philip, Andrew and Diana.
"This is no more than an interesting coincidence."
What about DNA testing? Isn't that new? Of course, DNA testing requires some base for reaching a determination. Do we have a sample of DNA from Jesus or any of the members of his family that would allow them to determine whether these bone boxes belonged to the Jesus Christ described in the New Testament? Of course not. The best DNA testing will do is establish that these bodies may have come from people who lived in the area around the same time. But the bone boxes can establish that without the need for DNA testing at all. Notice what the article claims: "Tests prove the names are genetically of the same family and statistically, there is a one in 10 million chance this is a family other than the Holy Family." Okay, they are of the same family -- we could deduce that from the inscriptions (so much for DNA providing superior insight). But it isn't DNA that shows that "this is a family other than the Holy Family"; rather, it is statistics. And I think that a better statistical analysis would show that it is only a 1 in 1000 chance that this is "the Holy Family."
Personally, I will try to follow the story to see if there is anything new, but for now, I feel like this is simply another mole popping up to replace one that has previously been given a really hard wack.
Addendum: Plenty of updates for further information can be found in my follow up post, More on the Jesus Tomb.