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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, January 19, 2007

fighting over ancient bones

Another rather underslept night for me. The rain has dissolved away the snow, and the rhododendron and the aucuba both obviously enjoy the above-freezing temperatures, having both hung shriveled and limp when the air was below freezing. It's a drab, wet, cold day.

I'm still on the case, keying research notes in the morning over coffee--something to look forward to, for me; something to get me out of bed. Right now I'm keying from a library copy of The Jesus Dynasty: The Hidden History of Jesus, His Royal Family, and the Birth of Christianity by James D. Tabor.

I'm still in chapter 1 of that, but his introduction was very good, describing his own personal connection with ancient history and how he became involved with it, and also an exciting real-life-mystery account of events surrounding the discovery and subsequent cloak-and-dagger intrigue of two ancient tombs in the Jerusalem area. One of these, the so-called Talpiot tomb, contained a number of ossuaries (stone boxes for housing the bones of a corpse, a practice prevalent around Jerusalem for about 100 years, including the lifetime of Jesus) inscribed with names that all bore connections with the family of Jesus: Mary, Joseph, and yes, even a "Jesus son of Joseph". In all there were 10 ossuaries in the tomb, and one of them has gone missing--no one knows where, or what was on it. The original excavator of the tomb is dead, and an apartment building was erected over the site (this in fact was why it was discovered in the first place).

Fascinating stuff. Tabor himself so far is proving to be a good narrator: he comes across as passionate and excited, but also open-minded and undogmatic. He seems refreshingly free of the edge of bitterness that seems to cling to so many in the field of biblical archaeology. People are suspicious to the point of paranoia that their colleagues are trying to prop up pet theories. Recall the recriminations around the discovery of the "James" ossuary in 2000--inscribed "James son of Joseph brother of Jesus". Experts aligned on either side of the debate as to its genuineness--that is, whether its inscription really was from the 1st century AD, as the ossuary itself undoubtedly was. The question is still not really resolved, and the reasons appear to be politics, religious beliefs, and personal relationships rather than science.

As Tabor observes, the last thing the Israeli authorities want is the discovery of the bones of Jesus anywhere in Israel. From their point of view, there's no real upside to such a discovery. Hmm...another possible motivating factor in the mysterious appearances and disappearances of these important artifacts.


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