March 07, 2007

More on the "Jesus Family Tomb"

I finally saw the Discovery channel documentary about the so-called Jesus Family Tomb. I had questioned before why DNA samples were retrieved from only two individuals, "Jesus" and "Mary Magdalene". The thesis of the documentary is that there are specific familial relations between the individuals buried in the Talpiot Tomb. For example, an mtDNA study could reject the hypothesis that "Jesus" and "Jose" were brothers, that "Maria" was the mother of "Jesus", that "Judah" was the son of "Mary Magdalene" etc. Why were there just two DNA tests performed?

After watching the documentary, I realized that the DNA was not extracted from the bones found within the ossuaries themselves but rather from scrapings of bone fragments from the ossuaries, because the bones contained in the ossuaries were reburied for religious reasons.

It is sad that religion and science are at odds in this instance, just as they are when Native American "elders" demand the reburial of prehistoric Americans or British "pagans" do the same for prehistoric Britons. Of course I don't know whether the bones were buried in a way that makes their identification possible, but I suspect that it is not. Otherwise, why would they choose to extract DNA from bone scrapings rather than the original bones themselves?

It is scientifically criminal to rebury ancient human remains in a way that makes their future scientific use impossible. I am not against the reburial of persons whose religious faith can be reasonably ascertained, but the demands of individuals who have no direct family relationship with the deceased cannot be absolute. Their religious interest cannot take first place ahead of the scientific interests.

Of course, one could argue that no one knew back then that this controversy would arise in 2007, and that is a valid point. But, the real issue is not whether these remains belong to Jesus' family, but that all the genetic information that could be extracted from that well-preserved multi-person tomb now appears to have been almost completely lost.

If the remains in the different ossuaries were disposed in a way that did not destroy all hope of their scientific study, then it is curious why they were not studied by the documentary makers. If they were, then the Israeli authorities should rethink their policies about the treatment of ancient osteological material.

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