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3/7/12 at 11:05 AM 3 Comments

The Sensational Archaeologists

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By James K. Hoffmeier

"If it's too good (or too bad) to be true, it probably is" goes the saying, and one archaeologists commonly use when a colleague in the field makes what is trumpeted to be a sensational discovery.

James Hoffmeier
James Hoffmeier

This is probably the case of the ballyhooed announcement in New York on February 28th. To promote the sale of their new book, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find that Reveals the Birth of Christianity (Simon & Schuster), the authors, biblical scholar Professor James Tabor of University of North Carolina (Charlotte) and Canadian documentary filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici, unveiled their discovery of what they believe was the tomb of Jesus.

How the tomb was probed in Jerusalem is a amazing story. Discovered in 1981 after an explosion in connection with a construction project, the tomb was initially investigated by Amos Kloner of the Israel Antiquities Authority. It was cut short by Ultra Orthodox Jews who threatened the archaeologist. He had extracted a few artifacts and one ossuary (i.e. stone carved bone boxes). Ossuraries often have the name of the deceased etched on the end or side of the box. Time did not permit him to examine and photography the other ossuaries. The tomb was sealed and subsequently condominiums built over it.

The story does not end there. Enter Tabor and Jacobovici who, a few years ago stirred a controversy with wild claims that a nearby tomb also contained the remains of members of the family of Jesus and his disciples based on the similarity of some of the names on the ossuaries (see Tabor's 2006 book The Jesus Dynasty and Jacobovici's book and film, The Jesus Family Tomb). In 2010 they got access to this partially investigated and now inaccessible tomb by drilling into it from above and lowering a robotic arm with cameras. Good quality photographs were obtained that permitted some of the decorations and texts on the ossuaries to be studied. All of this is rather amazing and Tabor and Jacobovici are to be commended for their determination to resurrect the contents of their tomb!

My intention here is not to critique the significance and meaning of this discovery. Reputable scholars have already weighed in and dismissed Tabor's and Jacobovici's interpretation of the inscriptions from the tomb and the claims that it was connected to Jesus of Nazareth (see – not a surprise. My concern here is simply to address how these explorers have handled their discovery, as it speaks volumes about their motives.

As a field archaeologist I spent the past decade surveying and excavating in north Sinai (Egypt). I made some pretty significant discoveries, but never did I speak to a western reporter, nor did any attention-grabbing headline appear like "Egyptian Fort from Exodus Period Discovered!" It is normal practice for archaeologists who make significant discoveries to first present their finds at professional conferences where other experts can evaluate their discovery and their interpretation of it. Then a preliminary report is written which is submitted to a peer review journal in the relevant field where it is fully vetted by two or three authorities (I have been a referee for several academic journals).

At this stage, provisional interpretations are cautiously offered. Finally, after more time is given to complete the excavations, study and evaluate the finds by specialists, the final scientific report is published with all the data reproduced for all to see. This careful and deliberative process is how serious archaeological discoveries are handled before going public and popularizing the results. This time-honored process is even more critical when matters related to the Bible are involved because much is at stake.

When an archaeologist makes an end run around their professional colleagues and goes directly to the press, we naturally have to ask "why"? Tabor and Jacobovici evidently do not want to be scrutinized and their views challenged before publishing their popular book. By going to the press and the public with a splashy news conference, sales of their book will skyrocket. Academic books don't sell; popular one's that are slickly promoted with sensational titles do. This approach is not the one taken, however, by serious, objective scholars. One has to suspect that an agenda against orthodox Christianity and traditional beliefs (which would be happily received by the secular press) is in play here based on previous books and films Tabor and Jacobovici. Jacobovici is well known for his History Channel TV series, "The Naked Archaeologist." I can't help but thinking that when it comes to the theories being advanced about Jesus by these gentlemen, they have no clothes!

James K. Hoffmeier
Professor of Old Testament &
Near Eastern Archaeology
Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

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