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A Not So Empty Tomb?

by The Rev. Dr. Canon Christopher Brown

A professor of mine used to tell a joke in which archeologists in the 1950’s discover the tomb of Jesus. Inside are the bones of a man in his early thirties. The press solicits a response from Vatican officials who are agitated but skeptical about the find. Then reporters contact the famous liberal German theologian, Paul Tillich, at the Harvard Divinity School. Hearing of the discovery, professor Tillich cries out, “Mein Gott! Can it be? You mean there really vas such a man?”

The joke plays on the fact that there can be a considerable gulf between the faith of ordinary believers and the theological reconstructions of some professional theologians. Hence, a discovery that would shock the faithful might force a “cutting edge” theologian to revise his thinking in a more traditional direction. But what was a joke appears now to have taken place—at least some would have us believe that this so.

“A Discovery that Could Change History”

On February 26 a news conference at the New York Public Library heralded the release by Harper Collins of a book by Simcha Jacobovici and Charles Pellegrino entitled, The Jesus Family: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History, with a Discovery Channel special to follow, produced by James Cameron (director of “Titanic” and “The Terminator”). Prominently in viewwere two limestone boxes purportedly containing the remains of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. These funeral boxes or “ossuaries” came from a cave tomb in the Talpiot region of Jerusalem. The tomb also contained ossuaries identified with members of Jesus’ family—Joseph and Mary, Jesus’ brother, James, another brother named Matthew, and Judah, a supposed son of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. These identifications are established on the basis of often indistinct markings inscribed on their ossuary covers, and buttressed by claims that the statistical likelihood of these names being linked in this manner points to the actual family of Jesus.

The Scholarly Verdict

If these claims were credible they would force Christians to rethink everything from the ground up. But are they? Scholars have been witheringly dismissive:

New Testament scholar, Ben Witherington, III, offers a litany of problems:

One might also wonder: if this is all true, why did it take so long to get out? How is it that in those first decades Jewish opponents of this heretical messianic sect did not get wind of the evidence of Jesus’ physical remains and let the cat out of the bag? Why, during over a thousand years of excavation and building in Moslem Jerusalem, was this not discovered and announced as proof of the corruption of the New Testament? Why did it wait conveniently until the success of The Da Vinci Code and a new season of fashionable—and lucrative—debunking of traditional Christianity?

Does it matter?

Yes. Christianity hangs or falls on the Resurrection. As St. Paul put it, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins… If only for this life we have hoped in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Corinthians 15:17,19).

One might say that it all depends on what we mean by “resurrection.” Fair enough. In this regard, the reaction of a leading member of the “Jesus Seminar,” John Dominic Crossan, is instructive:

“I myself am not convinced—but could be persuaded—that this is the family tomb of Jesus. Were I convinced, it would neither destroy my Christianity nor destroy my faith in the resurrection of Jesus. I have always believed that resurrection is a metaphor but a metaphor about the body of Jesus, a belief that he was crucified by Rome and raised by God so that, in other words, God is—as always—on a collision course with Empire.”

For Dr. Crossan, the discovery of Jesus’ body would not shake the foundation of his faith. But what is that faith? That biblical witness to the resurrection is merely a metaphor, and that its fundamental meaning is that God is against repressive political regimes. This is hardly the startling apostolic faith of the Resurrection!

Cutting Our Losses?

One Easter Morning one of my more skeptical parishioners said that the resurrection of Jesus was not believable. “Wouldn’t it be better just to cut our losses, and focus on loving our neighbor?” he asked.

We must certainly love our neighbors—but this retreat to a purely ethical message has long been the strategy of those who could not square the biblical witness with modern sensibilities. The Gospel cannot be reduced to “do-goodism” (Millenium Development Goals, etc.). Christianity is inescapably a religion of salvation—it is, in the first place, about what God has done to deliver us from sin, death, and despair. What He is has done—the essence of the Gospel—is this: He has raised Jesus from the dead, so that in Him we might be brought from death to life.

A Physical or Spiritual Body?

John Dominic Crossan and others profess belief in the Resurrection but only in a metaphorical or spiritualized sense. Some quote St. Paul, “it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44). N.T. Wright addresses this issue in his massive study, The Resurrection of the Son of God, and points out that “spiritual” in this case is not disembodied or ephemeral. Nor does Paul intend a contrast between material and spiritual realities, as we understand them. For Paul, the spiritual animates or transforms the physical.

True, resurrection is not resuscitation—it is not back to “business as usual” for Jesus after Easter Sunday. The resurrection body is a radical transformation; and the body lying in the tomb is caught up into that transformation. It is not merely some spiritual, soul-like essence that is raised to life; the whole person is raised from the dead—the tomb is empty.

Christians need boldly to face the fact that the discovery of Jesus’ remains would be very bad news. It would force us to “cut our losses,” and in the end there is not much we could salvage were the New Testament witness to the Resurrection to be “proven” false. On the other hand, a faith that is impervious to the “evidence,” that turns everything into a metaphor, is really no faith at all—devoid of risk, devoid of courage, devoid of hope.

Mark Twain once famously said, “rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated.” The same can be said for the Church’s witness to the bodily resurrection of her Lord. Sensational reports that the foundations of Christianity have been shaken by this twenty-seven year old discovery can be dismissed. We can look ahead to Easter with a robust confidence in the apostolic witness—the Lord is risen indeed!

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