STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/14/2007

ARTICLE | The Easter Surprise

by Steven Hunt and Jordan Montgomery '09

Steven Hunt, associate professor of biblical studies, and his student Jordan Montgomery '09 wondered about the timing of well-publicized attempts to debunk the historicity of the Gospel accounts. Together they set out to investigate.

There are two topics you shouldn't talk about with friends and family during the holidays: politics and religion. Nothing can bring meaningful conversation about the weather to a halt quicker than these. Politics and religion have something else in common: both come with a "surprise" based entirely on the calendar. The "October Surprise," as it's called in politics, is the release of some damaging story about a candidate in late October just prior to a November election. The tactic has a long and illustrious history in American politics and has been used effectively by both Republicans and Democrats to wound their political opponents just days before an election. With another presidential election looming in 2008, we have only to wait for the details.

A similar pattern relates to Christianity's calendar. During the past few Lenten seasons we've seen a significant number of news stories which have, to say the least, disquieted the faithful. This trend began in the mid 1980s with the founding of the so-called Jesus Seminar. This group asserted with great fanfare that very little of what is traditionally attributed to Jesus in the Gospels is authentic--that the vast majority of the sayings of Jesus are really sayings of the Early Church retroactively attributed to Him. Since that time the group and its findings have been severely criticized in the academy, yet very few critiques of their work have been reported by the popular press.

Remember also TIME magazine's damning portrayal of the Catholic Church's handling of the sexual abuse scandal just prior to Easter 2002? Or, more recently, the release of the National Geographic special on the Gospel of Judas and the release of The Da Vinci Code movie just before Easter in 2006? While The Da Vinci Code was a work of pure fiction, it nevertheless became a cultural and religious phenomenon precisely by making historically inaccurate claims about the Christian faith. The National Geographic special on the Gospel of Judas, on the other hand, purported to be a historical, scientific investigation of a long lost gospel, a gospel which puts a different spin on the traditional Christian story. In keeping with one very prominent contemporary view, they argued that the Gospel of Judas represents an equally valid version of the gospel story, ultimately implying that the canonical Gospels represent nothing more than one version among many that existed in the first-century Church.

Orthodoxy, then, is simply what emerged from the first-century multiplicity of views. But is this the case? James Robinson, one of the most prominent scholars on Gnostic forms of Christianity in the second century, says, "Since the Gospel of Judas is a Gnostic tractate written in the middle of the second century, it does not add any new information about what happened in Jerusalem around 30 C.E. Though it is an important text for specialists in second-century Gnosticism . . . it has been misrepresented so as to sensationalize it in order to make as large a profit on its investment as possible" (The Secrets of Judas).

The release of this story at Easter time in 2006 was much ado about nothing; again the academic rebuttals to the story went mostly unnoticed by the press.

This year's Easter Surprise came when James Cameron (of Titanic fame) held a joint press conference with the Discovery Channel to announce the airing of his documentary on the supposed ossuary of Jesus--a stone bone box with Jesus' name on it. The box itself was found in a tomb in Talpiot, just south of Jerusalem, during the 1980s and has been sitting in the Israeli Antiquity Authority's Bet Shemesh warehouse ever since. Included in the tomb were nine other boxes, and during recent attempts to examine the boxes, one of them turned up missing--suggesting, according to the filmmaker, some sort of conspiracy. Cameron argues that because six of these boxes have some of the names of Jesus' family members and close associates, the box with Jesus' name is likely the Jesus from the New Testament. The next part of the argument links this story to the recently discovered box marked as that of "James, the son of Joseph, the brother of Jesus." Presently scholars are divided on whether this box is even authentic or if the final reference to "the brother of Jesus" is a clever forgery. Cameron assumes its authenticity and suggests that perhaps the missing box from the Talpiot tomb is actually the "James" box. In short, since they have a "Jesus" box, a "James, the brother of Jesus" box, a "Joseph" box, a "Mary" box, etc., and all these come from the same tomb, the inevitable conclusion is that they have discovered the bone box of Jesus of Nazareth.

While Cameron insists his find does not necessarily have significant implications for the Christian faith, most Christians feel otherwise. Indeed. To find the bones of Jesus would require Christians to abandon their belief in his bodily resurrection and would finally validate the allegations that Jesus' disciples stole his body and hid it--forcing us to question their reliability altogether. How can the Church respond to this?

Actually, there are some fundamental flaws in the basic argument. To begin with, there were a limited number of names available to first-century Jews. Note, for example, the use of the name "Mary" to refer to different women in the New Testament. According to some recent studies, roughly 20 percent of all Jewish women in antiquity were named "Mary." These same studies show that nearly 50 percent of all Jewish males had one of only 10 different names. Finding six boxes with these very common names in one tomb is therefore not that remarkable. Further, while the documentary claims that the "James" box is the missing box from the tomb, it turns out the missing box was simply discarded by the Israeli Antiquity Authority because there were no markings on it and was therefore not worth keeping--hardly evidence of a conspiracy. The "James" box, if authentic, comes from another tomb altogether.

We could also question whether Jesus' family would have been preserved in bone boxes at all, typically the resting place of wealthy individuals like Caiaphas the high priest, whose bone box was discovered in 1990. In the first century a high priest would be interred in a tomb in a bone box, but a family of day laborers would not. One might wonder also why Jesus' father, Joseph, would be buried near Jerusalem when he presumably died well before Jesus began his ministry and while they were still residing in Galilee. Finally, the most fundamental flaw in the argument is this: Why would the earliest Christians, who universally proclaimed his bodily resurrection from the dead, have placed Jesus' remains in a family tomb in a bone box with his name on it? The makers of this documentary can give no credible historical answer to that question.

This year we witnessed Cameron and the rest making their rounds on the news shows at the beginning of Lent. Unorthodoxy makes for great headlines; orthodoxy is old news. Having weathered this story fairly well, the only thing that remains now is to wait for the details of next year's Easter Surprise.

Steven Hunt, Ph.D., associate professor of biblical and theological studies, specializes in the New Testament. He appreciates narrative approaches to the Gospel of John and socio-rhetorical approaches to the letters of Paul. He enjoys camping in the White Mountains and boating on Lake Winnipesaukee with his wife, Bridget, and four children.

Jordan Montgomery is studying physics, Bible and piano. He will be spending his junior year abroad at Jerusalem University College in Israel. The study of ancient Judaism and its impact on the Christian faith have long been of interest to him, and he hopes to continue his biblical studies.


Steve Hunt and Jordan Montgomery