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Monday, 23 April 2012

Mystery Monday: Is this the tomb of Jesus Christ?

Is this the tomb of Jesus Christ? Nope.

This mystery solving is a lot easier than it looks, huh? So what's the story here?

Once upon a time, there was a television station dedicated to showing documentaries and other factual programmes. It was quite a good channel, but the executives in charge decided they would like it to have mass market appeal and started adding populist crap like Shark Week and American Chopper. Soon the channel decided to forego education and accuracy in favour of controversy and ratings.

So when an ossuary with a tenuous link to Jesus turned up in 2002, the Discovery Channel jumped at the chance to host a press conference with the Biblical Archaeology Society. The ossuary (a box for storing skeletal remains) had an inscription on the outside saying "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus". That the Biblical Archaeology Society are amateurs and that the owner of the ossuary had been suspected of forging biblical antiquities many times before didn't seem to bother them at all. The Discovery Channel were only too happy churn out a series of documentaries even whilst the owner, Oded Golan, was investigated and then arrested for forging antiquities.

Back in 1980, a tomb (yeah, that one in the picture at the top) was found in East Talpiot, Jerusalem. It contained ten ossuaries, six of them with inscriptions. The tomb was investigated by archaeologists under the aegis of the Israel Department of Antiquities (now called the Israel Antiquities Authority). The tomb had been found whilst digging foundations for an apartment block and, after the archaeological investigation was completed, the block was finished and the tomb carefully covered.

The entrance to the tomb as it is today
After the ossuary gained publicity in 2002, there was a relatively thorough investigation by the IAA (Israel Antiquities Authority) which concluded that the box was genuine, but that the inscription was a modern addition. It all became a lot more confusing when the Israel Geological Survey tested the box and found that the box had a patina consistent having been in a cave for a long time, but they also concluded that the same patina covered the lettering. So was it fake or not?

At the end of 2004, Oded Golan and four others were arrested on suspicion of faking antiquities for the last 20 years. They were charged with 44 counts of forgery, fraud and deception including the ossuary inscription. So you'd think the Discovery Channel would be keen to distance itself from any claims as to the origin of the ossuary until there was some consensus. Nah.

There was some suggestion that the ossuary had come from the Talpiot tomb, so a film crew gained access and filmed inside the tomb. Originally there had been ten ossuaries in there, but this time there was one missing and it corresponded neatly with the James ossuary, leading to speculation that, if the ossuary was genuine, that the tomb contained the members of Jesus's family and possibly even some relics of Christ himself.

Oded Golan and the James Ossuary
As is typical with pretty much all religious antiquities cases in the Holy Land, it's now descended into a clusterfuck. The IAA aren't able to produce any experts that are willing to conclude with 100% certainty that the ossuary is a fake, but maintain a public stance that it is so. Oded Golan has been mixed up in countless dubious finds of antiquities, there's even a picture of his home from several years before the ossuary was officially discovered showing what very much looks like the James Ossuary sitting on a shelf. Annoyingly uncritical TV stations like the Discovery Channel and the History Channel keep shoving out lazy, ill-informed speculation disguised as documentaries. Golan was finally tried and acquitted of forging the box, but the judge was very careful to point out that just because no one had proven the inscription to be a forgery didn't mean that it wasn't one; after all, no one had proved it genuine either. The judge was also scathing of the Israeli police forensics labs saying that the way they'd handled the box had made it impossible to run further tests. Golan continues to shoot his mouth off and it's surely only a matter of time before he "finds" another important religious artefact.

And that's where the story grinds to a halt. There was some DNA testing carried out on the remains in the tomb and it concluded that the bones that were maybe Jesus and the bones that were maybe Mary Magdalene (yeah, really) weren't related maternally. In other words, they didn't have the same mother. The Discovery Channel documentary (the uncritically-named The Lost Tomb of Jesus) claimed this showed they were husband and wife, but no one really believed them, apart from credulous TV viewers. But the confusion is great for business and the deluge of books and TV shows about Jesus's tomb will continue for the foreseeable future. Sigh...

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