Christians Split Over Claim of Christ’s Tomb

After James Cameron and fellow filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici announced this week that new evidence suggests the tomb of Jesus Christ was found and that they've now made a movie and written a book about it--the reaction from the Christian community was sure and swift. Needless to say, a bone box containing the remains of Jesus contradicts a tenet of the Christian faith, which is that there are no remains. After three days in a rocky tomb following his Crucifixion, say the Gospels, Jesus was resurrected and ascended into Heaven. All that remained was the faith of his followers that he was the son of God.

In the minds of many, then, Cameron's movie is an effort to refute Resurrection and, by extension, Christianity. On Tuesday, the Rev. Rob Schenk, president of the National Clergy Council, labeled Cameron and his project part of the "Anti-Christian Hollywood establishment." He is urging his 90,000 constituents to boycott not only the film and the book, but also to stop watching the Discovery Channel, which will air the film this Sunday evening. The conservative watchdog group Media Research Center is calling on Discovery to cancel the film outright, and in a statement issued Monday, the Catholic League called the film a "Titanic fraud," as its president Bill Donohue said, "It's time the Discovery Channel discovered ethics and stopped with the sensationalism."

Others merely see the film as a self-serving, poorly researched attempt to capitalize on what is becoming well-worn territory. "This is simply another effort to prostitute religion and archaeology in order to make money," says Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and also a Roman Catholic priest. "It's amazing," Reese says, "that every year, there comes another one of these, whether it's 'The Da Vinci Code' or the Judas Gospel. I just want to step aside and let the archaeologists devour these people."

The archaeological community is split on whether the names carved on the boxes actually refer to Jesus of Nazareth and his family. But the film's archaeological merits and Cameron's efforts at profitability aside, reactions to the project offer an interesting view into the theological complexities that exist across the spectrum of Christianity. Some conservative fundamentalists refuse to even consider the possibility of a Jesus tomb that contains his remains. Doing so would be to "travel down a dangerous road," says Stephen J. Hankins, seminary dean at Bob Jones University. Hankins argues that Christianity is strongly rooted in historical fact, both in context and in the events that unfold in the Bible, and it is that historicity, he says, which separates the faith from what he calls, "other world religions that are based in myth." Speaking about the existence of Jesus's physical remains amounts to heresy, Hankins suggests. "If you divorce the faith from the historical events, you have embraced something other than New Testament Christianity, which is not apostolic Christianity," says Hankins. "It's a modern form of the faith that is untrue."

Others, however, view Christianity as having an intrinsic value that transcends historical details. "The Christian faith says that Jesus is with God, which is beyond proof or disproof," says John Dominic Crossan, professor emeritus of religious studies at DePaul University and author of the 2001 book, "Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts." So, does the faith collapse under the weight of a supposed tomb of Jesus? "No," says Crossan. "Because the resurrection is a metaphor"--a metaphor which is the ultimate source of the staying power of Chrisitianity and the Bible. "It's the same pattern of transcendence that you get from the first pages of the Bible, all the way to the end. Historical questions do not shake the faith of us metaphorists," says Crossan. "If you wish to take the Bible literally, do," he says. "But do not tell other people who take it metaphorically that they are not true Christians."

As it is described in all four Gospels, Jesus' resurrection was purely a miraculous occurrence. By the morning of the Sabbath, his body had vanished from his tomb. Only the linen wrappings remained. He later appeared to his remaining 11 disciples as a sort of ethereal, ghostlike presence, seemingly halfway between Heaven and earth, and at one point urging Mary Magdalene, "Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father." (John 20:17) While strict interpretations would conclude that his physical body vanished, others see room in the story for a remaining body. "One might affirm resurrection in a more spiritual way in which the husk of the body is left behind," James Tabor, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and also a consultant on the film, told the Associated Press this week.

And so while the faith of some in the Christian community allows them to consider the possibility of physical remains of Jesus and actually embrace Cameron's project--Crossan believes the Israeli authorities should excavate the site for further investigation--others are left grappling with a question which, to them, does not compute. The idea that there was no resurrection, that Jesus did not actually rise from the dead and that his body may have remained on earth among us mortals is impossible to contemplate, says the Reverend Schenk. "The resurrection is at the core of the faith. It's the bedrock of my understanding of Christianity," he says. "Without it I'm left with an empty philosophy, which could be traded for any other philosophy." Barring the discovery of a first-century DNA lab, with samples labeled "Jesus of Nazareth," Schenk won't have to make that trade.

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