Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Lent Day 7: Can These Bones Live?

Claims by filmmaker James Cameron that archaeologists have found the resting place of Jesus Christ, including an ossuary that contained Jesus' bones (now reburied, as is standard with archaeological finds), are being challenged from all quarters. Attacks coming from Christian individuals and right-leaning organizations, naturally, are strongest, though everyone quoted seems pretty uncomfortable. This article, from a fairly conservative viewpoint, offers 10 reasons "Bible scholars" would refute the claims, and a number of them (though not all) are pretty sound.

I have been slogging my way through James Tabor's book, The Jesus Dynasty, in which he makes a case in favor of the now widely debunked ossuary purported to be that of James, Jesus' brother. He also makes a much more interesting and compelling claim (to me) that Jesus and his cousin John were, in fact, engaged in an attempt to restore both the monarchy and the priesthood of Israel. (Have I missed it? I wonder why no one is talking about this theory. Is it self- evident to everyone?) Unfortunately, reading it is like watching a Geraldo Rivera special. The book has cringeworthy pictures of Tabor standing in front of the relevant tombs and breathless prose accounts that sound like they belong in a tabloid.

I understand that scholars tend to agree that the names supposedly found in the tomb of Cameron's documentary-- two Marys, a Judah ("son of Jesus"), a Matthew, a Joses, and a "Jesus son of Joseph"-- are common enough first century names, though finding them all in one place is noteworthy (calculated at a 1 in 100 to 1 in 1000 probability).

The theological conundrum is this: if there is an ossuary for Jesus, that means that bones of Jesus were buried: ossuaries are boxes into which the bones are placed after the first year of mourniing, and, of course, the physical decay of the corpse.

I don't think those who hold to a bodily resurrection need to be so defensive or frightened of this story.

"Three days." John Spong's book, Resurrection: Myth or Reality?, while not everyone's cup of tea, made at least one point that has stayed with me nearly ten years after reading it. He says that "the third day," rather than referring to a literal 72 hours, may have the meaning of an eschatological symbol. Three days may refer to the fullness of time, God's time. He claims that the "third day" may have taken place as long as a year or more after the crucifixion. (My first reaction to this at the time was to be intrigued; now, I confess, I immediately move to how it messes up my preaching.) What would Christianity lose if the resurrection took place, not within 72 hours, but a year later? Would our theology suffer in the translation?

This theory allows for the possiblity of bones in an ossuary. It does not, however, allow for those bones to still be in the ossuary, which is where Christian orthodoxy parts ways with Tabor/ Cameron's discovery.

But I ask again: if this tomb is credible (and I think, personally, there are so many obstacles to it being found to be so, that a consensus is unlikely), does the existence of bones of Jesus do damage to our faith? Our pal MoreCows preached recently at great length on the resurrection, working her way through the latter chapters of 1 Corinthians (click the link for her wonderful sermon). She got me thinking about this passage:

What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?’
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

~ 1 Corinthians 15:50-56

I know that the Greek is complex, and that there are issues with the translation of "spiritual body" (which occurs earlier in the passage). But I wonder: is the glorious, imperishable body Paul describes one that necessarily has to be built on the frame our our bones-- the seed of perishability? For some the answer to this question is an immediate and unqualified "yes." For me, the resurrection is a challenge, yes, and a scandal, as it was for the early church. But I have never anguished over it the way I have never anguished over the Virgin Birth: once you have gotten as far as positing God, in my humble opinion, the rest is easy. If there is a God, it is all easy. But I wonder at our need to control our imagination of how God works.

I believe in resurrection. I believe that God takes what is dead and miraculously makes it alive, and I base this, neither on cocoons and butterflies, nor on bulbs under the snow, but on the witness of scripture. I believe that Jesus walked among his disciples after they had witnessed his death and buried him. I believe that he breathed the Spirit into them and urged them to proclaim the reign of God now at hand. I believe that they saw him, ate with him, touched him and rejoiced at his presence and wept at his departure. But I don't believe that the presence of bones, even his bones in a tomb, undermines that. With God all things are possible. Why do we need (as with creation vs. evolution) to control everyone's understanding of how God works? Where's the humility?


Cynthia said...

I simply love this.

Gannet Girl said...

"Why do we need to control everyone's understanding of how God works?"

I often think that that question is at the heart of the divisions between Christians, or between groups in any faith. For some, their understanding of how God works simply MUST BE IT, and they need for everyone else to get that and fall in line. For others, the idea that we could claim such an understanding is simply not possible, leaving them plenty of room to honor a diversity of approaches and possibilities.

Magdalene6127 said...

Thank you both, Cynthia and GG, for reading and commenting.

Sometimes I just get so tired of my brothers and sisters in Christ Needing Everyone to See it Their Way-- from issues of sexuality to theology to scriptural interpretation. Years ago a friend was petitioning to join a church by having a frank conversation with the session in which she admitted that she really wouldn't be telling the truth in response to half the questions in the service of baptismal recommitment (or whatever it's called). She finally looked at the session and said, "I don't know all the answers. My question to you is, is there room for a seeker here? Or does everyone have to know already what they believe?" Happily, on that day, that session took about 2 minutes to vote "Yes," there is room for seekers here. There are many, many places where that wouldn't have happened.