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The Jesus Family Tomb -- and Peak Oil

Whatís the relationship between "peak oil" -- the imminent decline in oil and natural gas supplies -- and the suspected Jesus Family Tomb at Talpiot?  Most people are going to do a double-take and a "huh?" at this point.  

These two phenomena both demonstrate, in two completely different disciplines, our civilizationís inability to see what is directly in its path. We just don't see our earth-moving activities -- or the huge use of fossil fuels which makes them possible -- as highly unusual.

The failure to be objective about the Jesus family tomb doesn't have any directly earth-shaking consequences outside of Jesus scholarship; the failure to be objective about oil and natural gas supplies, however, is much more serious.  In the end, it may get western civilization to "return to Jesus" after all, though not in quite the way imagined by most Christian churches.

Digging Things Up

Humans have come across huge deposits of fossil fuel energy, and one of the consequences of the mammoth use of energy in the last 100 years has been that buildings were built and earth was moved around. If you spend a lot of energy on moving the earth around, things long buried will turn up. This is a key reason why the last 100 years have seen more manuscript discoveries and archeological finds than in the previous 1000 years. We just donít see anything unusual about the gigantic earth-moving activities in the region of Jerusalem (or anywhere else); nor do we see anything odd about the extraordinary use of fossil fuel supplies which made these activities possible.

One of the consequences of all this earth-moving activity was that, in 1980, the Talpiot tomb, said to be the "Jesus family tomb," was unearthed. Fortunately for posterity, the Israeli Antiquities Authority had the routine down: in the process of new construction, antiquities often turn up. The authorities showed up, and the finds were duly noted, catalogued, and stored away. And in a supreme irony, it is likely that the bones of Jesus, which had lain undisturbed and undiscovered for nearly two millennia, were found -- and then reburied and lost again, this time almost certainly for good.

The discovery of the Talpiot tomb near Jerusalem in 1980 is now the subject of a celebrated Discovery Channel show, recently released on DVD. "Peak oil," the theory of the imminent decline in oil and natural gas supplies, is the subject of numerous books and web sites, and there are several organizations involved in propagating knowledge on the subject.

The Psychology of the Unusual

Why doesn't anyone find either these archeological finds, or the tremendous use of fossil fuel energy which were the underlying cause of their discovery, especially unusual?  Our literature teaches us that great discoveries should be accompanied by great efforts. 

The medieval stories of searching for the Holy Grail involve trials and quests, and the fictional The Da Vinci Code incorporates this assumption as well, with secret societies, enemies, hidden clues, and so forth.  But here we have the "holy grail" turned up as an afterthought in a mundane construction project.  In our perception, there was nothing very unusual about the construction of the Talpiot apartments.

If someone had proposed, in 1850, 1900, or even as late as 1950, a mammoth scouring of the area around Jerusalem to search for (say) the tombs of Mary Magdalene and Jesus, this would have been dismissed as bizarre and unworkable. But then when we actually scour the area around Jerusalem, cataloging antiquities as we go along, no one finds it unusual.

In reality, as historian J. R. McNeill says, "the twentieth century was unusual for the intensity of change and the centrality of human effort in provoking it" (Something New Under the Sun, p. xxii). This was orders of magnitude greater than anything the world had seen before; it really was "something new under the sun."

Noticing the Unusual

Because the Jesus family tomb's discovery was so routine, the inscriptions on the tomb were noticed immediately, but no one thought it especially significant.  The name "Jesus son of Joseph" would probably have resulted in a momentary pause, but both Jesus and Joseph are common names. If you werenít familiar with the family of Jesus in the New Testament -- and especially if you werenít aware that one of the brothers of Jesus was "Jose," a rare nickname, or that Mary Magdalene was also known as "Mariamne" -- it might not raise an eyebrow. No one thought anything more about it and the report, published in 1994, was lost in a sea of data.

Joe Zias noticed the reference to "Jesus son of Joseph" and the interesting cluster of other names (Jose, Maria, Mariamne, and Matthew), in 1996. James Tabor writes: "[Zias] stated that the Ďclusterí of names was so unusually impressive that were they not from the verified provenance of a licensed excavation site he would wonder about the possibility of forgery. He also called for further investigation of the tomb and its ossuaries." So it was not until 16 years later that someone even noticed that there might be something significant here.

A Hoax?

We donít regard the 20th century as unusual. In fact, there is even a contemporary expression, "itís so twentieth century," which is a gentle put-down of something seen as out-of-date. The suspicion, a priori, would be that the Talpiot tomb wouldn't really be the tomb of Jesus, if it wasn't an outright hoax. 

It wouldnít be the first time. There was a steady market in "relics" in ancient times; Nicholas Notovitch came back from Tibet in the late 19th century with a revolutionary new gospel "proving" that Jesus went to India; there is even another "tomb of Jesus" in Kashmir -- presuming that Jesus survived the crucifixion, as in The Passover Plot, and then went on India and later died there.

Nor are predictions of disaster or the end of civilization new.  For the first Earth Day, The Environmental Handbook proclaimed: "1970's -- the last chance for a future that makes environmental sense." Young people saw that there was something clearly wrong in our attitude towards the environment. To me, it was pretty obvious that the age of mass consumption was coming to a close.

But in the end, the impression of normality triumphed. Itís "morning in America," proclaimed Reagan, and oil prices dropped, the economy boomed, and everyone (it seemed) started to make lots of money.  Everyone with any vague sense of reality was in retreat.  You could argue that our lifestyle was unsustainable, but no one was paying attention.  

Normal arguments fail in the case of the Jesus family tomb as well.  It couldnít be the Jesus family tomb because . . . Jesus would have been buried in Nazareth; because it doesnít say "Messiah" or at least "Lord" on the tomb; and because Jesus was poor so his family couldnít afford a tomb.

These are all versions of one basic, child-like explanation, "because the Bible tells me so," however much they are cloaked in language about scholarship. The last time I checked, physical evidence trumps verbal claims every time. If the prosecution introduces a hundred witnesses saying that the defendant killed the victim, but the defense can produce the victim who is still alive and well, thatís still the end of the case. If this is Jesusí tomb, maybe "Messiah" wasnít inscribed on his tomb; maybe he was buried in the Jerusalem area; maybe they could afford the rather modest Talpiot tomb. Think about it. 

In fact, none of these alternatives is a priori less plausible. It is actually more plausible that Jesus would have been buried in Jerusalem than Galilee, since we have a biblical account of just such an action.  Jesus, according to the Bible, forbade his disciples from telling others he was the Messiah (Matthew 16:20 and parallels, the "messianic secret").  Jesus was known as "the Nazoraean," a soon-to-be heretical Jewish Christian group, not as "the Nazarene," in most of the original Greek of the New Testament (see Matthew 2:23, Acts 24:5) -- a fact glossed over in virtually all standard New Testament translations.  

At least with the next most common objection, "the names were common," we are actually dealing with evidence. The names were common, but the important thing is not the names themselves but the cluster of names. Especially telling is the occurrence of the quite rare nickname "Jose," one of the brothers of Jesus, and if the "James son of Joseph" ossuary discovered separately was also in the Talpiot tomb -- as the evidence indicates -- that pretty much clinches the case.

Itís the same thing with peak oil. We canít be at the peak of world oil production because . . . the data says we have plenty of oil, look at those Saudi and Kuwaiti oil reserve figures. Or itís because . . . the market will provide. As oil becomes more scarce, the price will rise, thus intensifying efforts to find oil and creating the need for new technology to extract more oil. Thus, we will never have shortages of oil.

Itís not "the Bible tells me so," instead itís "the economists tell us so," or "the Saudis tell us so." Excuse me? What happened to science? What happened to petroleum geology? Wouldnít a geologist know more about how much oil is in the ground than an economist?

Simcha Jacobovici, the director of "The Jesus Family Tomb," similarly expressed frustration with the fact that people are quoting Israeli archeologists on statistical matters -- when archeologists, per se, have no knowledge of statistics at all. Those who know the most about their respective subjects (the petroleum geologists or the statisticians) are perversely labeled as if they were some sort of odd-ball, unscientific cult.

In the peak oil discussion, these child-like arguments from economists reflect a deeper psychological failure. "They think that if they show up at the cashierís window with enough money, God is going to put more oil in the ground," Ken Deffeyes has said. And the economists are the people who are not only running the country, but educating our children and passing out platitudes to industry and stock-market specialists. The overwhelming perception of normality trumps any evidence that something quite unusual is going on -- that, in fact, our entire civilization is unsustainable.  

Overcoming the Force

There is a powerful force of resistance here. Where is the weak point? Are we going to be crushed forever beneath stupidity and arrogance? Perhaps in the case of the Jesus tomb, we might be, but not in the case of peak oil.  An actual event, namely the decline of oil supplies, will intervene at some point.  It will be an "apocalyptic" event in the original meaning of the term, as an unveiling of the power already present in the world.

The peak oil crisis is for all intents and purposes on us, now. It may not be the peak of oil production, but it is the point at which demand is increasing faster than supply. The most economical way to convince people may be to do nothing; the crash itself will be pretty convincing.  Eventually, no one will be able to deny what should be obvious, that the western lifestyle -- barring the arrival of the Galactic Federation with easy techniques to harvest the dark energy in the universe -- is completely and ludicrously unsustainable.

In the case of the Jesus tomb, we are dealing with a different sort of beast.  Much as the "Da Vinci Code" type thinking would like us to believe that hidden ancient manuscripts or discoveries might bring Christianity crashing down, this is unlikely to happen. Hidden ancient heretical manuscripts and startling revelations have appeared quite a bit in the 20th century. So far, Christianity hasnít budged. 

A collapse of Western consumerism due to a new energy crisis will affect Christianity more than any number of ancient manuscripts and shocking archeological discoveries.  Then, perhaps, poking through the wreckage of neo-classical economics and pious Christian traditionalism, someone may notice the teachings of Jesus about simple living and nonviolence, and say to themselves, "maybe thereís something in this."

What is the historical significance of the Jesus family tomb?

Itís not impossible that some future evidence might overturn my conviction that the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of the historical Jesus; forgery might have been involved after all, or some other sensational discovery may uncover some nefarious plot. Or perhaps thereís specific evidence that the people in this tomb are not related to Jesus. But prima facie, the Talpiot tomb is the real thing.  You have the archeological evidence, the rare cluster of names with New Testament references, the several languages used, which leads me to believe that this cannot be a coincidence.  

My belief that this is the Jesus family tomb is strengthened by historical reasons: it fits in perfectly with a belief that the Ebionites were the true followers of Jesus, that Jewish Christian Ebionism was the direct spiritual descendant of the primitive Christian church and of Jesus himself. It does not fit in as well, or at all, with the traditional conception of Jesus.

For the Ebionites, the family of Jesus was all-important. It was their trump card. Werenít the relatives of Jesus among their own number? So the tomb of Jesus, if it is valid, provides direct archeological support for the Ebionite point of view.  (Footnote: unfortunately, the Jesus Family Tomb web site gives a quite inaccurate description of the Ebionites.  It looks like they've just picked up information from Shemayah Phillips; they would do better to just reference James Tabor's own description of the Ebionites.)

A "tomb of Jesus" would not have been an embarrassment for the Ebionites; they did not believe in a physical resurrection of Jesus. Jesus lives, yes, but not as a physical body reconstituted from the grave. That is why Recognitions 3.30 says without embarrassment -- and in agreement with Paul (I Corinthians 15:50) -- that those who are resurrected have spiritual bodies, not physical bodies.

No one in ancient times questioned the Ebionite belief that the relatives of Jesus were themselves Ebionites. In fact there is indirect evidence of this in the gospels, which take care to impugn the relatives of Jesus (presumably because those relatives aligned themselves with the "heretics"). "A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house" (Mark 6:4), and "even his own brothers did not believe in him" (John 7:5). Obviously these are direct attacks on Jesusí family -- and why shouldnít they attack Jesusí family? Jesusí family were their sectarian opponents. 

This is why I have to smile at the argument made by some of the tombís detractors that "there was no historical tradition of veneration of the site by pilgrims." Well, of course there is no tradition of "traditional Christians" coming to worship there.  The family of Jesus were the people they had blasted in their gospels; they would not want to come to a shrine maintained by their "heretical" Jewish Christian opponents. Anyone who did would be told another anathema, that the bones of Jesus were there in the tomb -- this couldnít be right! After the Bar Kochba revolt which ended in 135 CE (and perhaps even after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE), it is not clear that the tomb would have been maintained by anyone, Ebionite or gentile.

The main historical significance of the Jesus tomb is that it underscores that he family of Jesus is a key to understanding the historical Jesus.  It is with early Jewish Christianity that the best account of the religion of Jesus is found. And this religion, with its vegetarianism and rejection of wealth, exploitation, and war, is the antithesis of contemporary American society.

The American society of materialism and power is seen by many as the current incarnation of real Christianity, seeking to spread its "light" throughout the world. Even most secular humanists accept this materialistic view of America -- as if they accept the same message of a "superior" materialistic America but just reject the superstition that goes along with it. They are all worshiping at the same altar.

The discovery of the Talpiot tomb is to a certain extent an accident. But it is not entirely accidental; it is in some ways a necessary product of the 20th century. The simplicity with which we accept as a matter of course the massive energy expenditures to accommodate human whims has shaped the way we respond to both the tomb of Jesus and the imminent decline of those energy supplies.

Keith Akers

August 2, 2007 (Revised September 5, 2007)

Update December 11, 2007: It now turns out that Professor James Charlesworth of Princeton has put together a large academic conference that will discuss both the Talpiot tomb and the James ossuary, in a proper scholarly context, this January 2008 in Jerusalem.  It appears, therefore, that the Jesus family tomb is being taken seriously by at least some in the academic community.  Not everyone has gotten the message, as James Tabor's blog shows, but it is now getting at least some attention.