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
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
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
there are several organizations involved in propagating knowledge on the
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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;
itself will be pretty convincing. Eventually, no one will be able to
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
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
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
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
The American society of materialism and power is seen by many as the
current incarnation of real Christianity, seeking to spread its "light"
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.
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.