Sensational discoveries and unconventional interpretations of religious art and archeology got a black eye in the last decade with the success and backlash surrounding Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and its prequels and sequels.
Much less glitzy, but much better researched and presented, The Jesus Discovery by James Tabor and Simcha Jacobovici is sensational, unconventional and thought-provoking.
Tabor chairs the department of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His books include The Jesus Dynasty, Jesus and Paul, and Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Jacobovici is a Canadian-Israeli documentarian, currently the host of The Naked Archaeologist on the History channel.
The authors insist that "good history is never the enemy of informed faith."
Arguing as they have in earlier books and films, the duo chronicles in minute detail the discovery and re-examination of two tombs that may be associated with the family of Jesus of Nazareth and his followers in the decades shortly after his death.
After combing Israeli Antiquities Authority records, and entering the tombs -- one by remote camera, as it has been sealed by Orthodox leaders to avoid its desecration -- the authors present a case that Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene, and may have had a son.
There, this plausibly argued book departs from the ludicrous conspiracy plots presented by Brown, and by Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln in 1983's Holy Blood, Holy Grail. Tabor and Jacobovici argue that the family's physical remains are buried in the closed tomb, which was discovered in 1980 during construction of a condo project outside Jerusalem.
The Jesus Discovery takes a while to get going, as the authors juggle information about their own discoveries with the importance of burial records and artifacts, biblical records, and the development of Christian doctrine from Jesus's earliest followers through the writings of Paul and the Gospels, and later church authorities.
Eventually, the reader can be fascinated by the details of archeology, artifacts, tomb-looting, church history and bureaucratic difficulties in researching the evidence of several ossuaries (stone cases for holding bones) and their decorations and inscriptions.
Tabor and Jacobovici connect the ossuaries in the "Jesus tomb" to the famous and controversial ossuary which surfaced a decade ago, and which many authorities have labelled a forgery, at least in part of its inscription: "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus."
Inscriptions and representations of the story of Jonah and the "great fish" show that the people buried in these two tombs believed in an early Christian version of resurrection.
Resurrection, the authors say, was not resuscitation of the physical body, but the translation of humanity to a different kind of embodiment. "That is why the presence of bones -- even if they are the bones of Jesus -- do not contradict the faith in resurrection of Jesus's followers."
Tabor and Jacobovici argue an elaborate trail of suppression of particulars of Jesus's life as presented by the New Testament, and other records, rejected by later church fathers in order to cement a particular interpretation of Jesus's life and death.
The contentions never sound polemic or combative, and their scholarly underpinnings are intriguing.
Occasionally, the authors' reasoning becomes convoluted, or suspect, in attributing a particular perspective too generally to "most experts," or seeming to accept both sides of the physical-spiritual debate at different points in their argument.
The Jesus Discovery probably won't convince traditional Christians of all its conclusions, especially where these conjectures differ radically from conventional beliefs.
Whether taken as theology or as history, this book may help to "dispel those ancient stumbling blocks so that responsible history and informed faith can dwell together in peace."
Bill Rambo teaches high school at the Laureate Academy in St. Norbert.