Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Are Those Jesus's Bones?

No, but they may be

Yehoshua ben Yosef's

There has been another spiritual tempest in the secular tea-cup brewing over the anouncment that a set of ossuaries dug up some years ago in the middle east may (or may not) contain the bones and ashes of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother Mary, his brother James, his wife Mary of Magdala, and their son.

For Protestants, the possibility that Jesus had a brother is no big deal. It is well known that the author of the Epistle of James was referred to as the brother of Jesus. For at least some Roman Catholics, and possibly for Greek and Coptic Orthodox Christians, it could be a problem. Official teaching of the Roman church is that Joseph lived a chaste life with Mary, so that her womb would never be devoted to a lesser purpose than it had already served. There are of course references in the gospels to "my mother and my brothers." One explanation, by no means a certain one, is that in many middle eastern cultures, to this day, various degrees of cousins are commonly referred to as brothers and sisters.

The possibility that Jesus married and had a son is not critical either, although most Christians would find it unsettling. In the most orthodox Christian doctrine, Jesus became "fully human." It is by no means closed that he might have had a wife or son. If he did, they were of no significance to the writers of the gospels. The early Christian community did not have questions of succession which plagued the early Muslim community, leading to splits between Shia and Sunni. There was never a claim that blood relatives, let alone descendants, of Jesus had a special right to lead. Also, Christianity did not spread by establishing a new empire, such as the Caliphate, but among the lower classes of a well-established empire.

But the suggestion that Jesus's bones remain on earth certainly pose a question about the Resurrection. And Christianity is nothing if not a ressurection faith. The Nativity pales by comparison.

It appears that nobody is asking what may be the most pertinent question:

Suppose there were detailed, exact, comprehensive, irrefutable scientific PROOF that these bones are indeed the bones of Jesus, Mary, Mary, Jesus's son by Mary, etc. etc. etc.

(At present, there is no such proof. There is only interesting speculation about the possible reading of some inscriptions, and what they may or may not mean. Remember the similar case of the ossuary alleged to contain the bones of Jesus's brother James? The inscription turned out to be a very clever and well-done forgery by a modern antiquities dealer, who hoped to increase the sale price of the item.)

But if there were proof:

  • Would you leave the church you currently belong to?

  • Would praise and worship cease to inspire you as they do now?

  • Would you feel cut off from God, lost and abandoned in an indifferent, morally neutral universe?

  • Would your prayer life wither and die, because after all, it had no point?

I would bet that for 99.99999999999% of current believers, the answer would be "No." After all, the current outcry comes, not from those who have detailed scientific evidence for a contrary position, but from people who are quite certain they know better regardless of the current state of the scientific evidence.

Few Christians of any variety, and fewer who have had a born-again experience, gave their lives to Jesus because they came to an intellectual understanding that "By golly, all the weight of scientific evidence shows that this man did indeed rise from the dead, approximately three diurnal cycles after his lifeless corpse was placed in a tomb with a big heavy rock rolled over the entrance. I guess that makes him worthy to be praised."

Christians become and remain Christians because "there's something about that name," because they have experienced that Jesus IS "the lover of my soul," because in their heart and soul, maybe even in their bones, they feel "holy is the Lord God Almighty," because the heart feels "strangely warm," because the weight of known sins falls away at the altar. Is anybody going to give that up because some bones in an urn have been conclusively identified as those of Jesus? Very unlikely.

C.S. Lewis wrote, in the introduction to The Screwtape Letters, that belief in the existence of devils, and of Satan as a fallen archangel, "is one of my opinions." If it were proven to be false, his Christian faith would not be shattered. It would be much more difficult, logically, to say that the Resurrection is "one of my opinions" and that if certain bones still on earth were proven to be those of Jesus Christ, my Christian faith would remain intact. But the truth is, most Christians would continue to believe, even if the proof that those are Jesus's bones were beyond any possible doubt. Those who do not believe might raise the level of mockery several notches, but believers would continue to believe.

At most, we might have to rethink what Jesus meant by the words he used, how well the words he really said have been conveyed to us through translations and interpretations and incomplete transcriptions and faded memories of the apostles. Most of all, we would have to ask ourselves, how much has our human reasoning, and human unreasoning, distorted the pure essence of the message and the salvation that Jesus brought into the world?

We all know that perverse and bloody crimes have been committed in the last 2000 years, in the name of Christianity, even in the name of Jesus. During World War I, the Wobblies sane a parody of "Onward Christian Soldiers" that included unfortunately accurate phrases like "let the gentle Jesus, bless your dynamite" and "slay your Christian neighbors, or by them be slain." Do we even understand, truly, what Jesus really meant to tell us? What we have is better than nothing, but how well do we really know Jesus? Are we so wrapped up in doctrines, and in our own certainty about physical events as we understand events in human experience, that we have missed the essential Truth?

Maybe not. This tempest in a teapot about some old bones may blow over like all those that came before it. But if we are unwilling to abandon our faith in the face of proven facts, or deny the possibility of physical evidence because we will not abandon our faith, only one truly honest course remains: we must examine how well we understand the foundations of our faith. Jesus said that his Kingdom is "not of this world." Why are we looking to events in the world, as the world knows them, to validate that Kingdom?

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