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Revisiting the tomb

"Who do the people say I am?" The question posed by Jesus in Luke's gospel always gets a thorough airing this time of year. And during this Easter season, there are a few new answers to the historical questions about Christianity's founder. The most ballyhooed controversy focuses on the so-called "Jesus Family Tomb" - the freshly publicized claim that a burial place in suburban Jerusalem could have contained the bones of Jesus' kin, perhaps including his wife. (Mary Magdalene, of course - don't you know your "Da Vinci Code"?)

A good many Christians are thoroughly sick of hearing far-out hypotheses about the historical roots of their religion. But even if you're a true believer, there's still some good that could come out of all the books, magazines and TV shows: You don't have to accept the pop-culture premise to learn a lot about the culture that shaped Christianity.

Take the continuing flap over the Jesus Family Tomb: One of the best-known academic backers of the two-tomb theory, James Tabor of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is still fighting the good fight on his "Jesus Dynasty" Web log - even during Holy Week!

In postings to the blog as well to the Society of Biblical Literature's online forum, Tabor ticks off the reasons why Jesus could have been laid to rest first within the tomb mentioned in the gospels, then later moved to another tomb that was perhaps set aside for the great teacher by his disciples.

I can't say I'm persuaded by the statistical analysis of how frequent various biblical-era names are. For a more orthodox perspective on what happened to Jesus' tomb, you're better served by my archived account about the claims made for the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Nevertheless, if you read Tabor's views as well as the counterarguments from Jodi Magness, his colleague at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, you get some fascinating insights into how the rich and poor of 1st-century Jerusalem lived and died - all the way down to the details of rock-cut tombs, bone boxes and trench graves.

There's still more to glean from a Weblog called "Fact or Fiction? The Tomb of Jesus." The principal mission of this blog is to trash "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" and sell another book, titled "The Jesus Tomb: Is It Fact or Fiction." But you also get a look at the inner workings of the biblical scholarship trade (sometimes it's not a pretty picture) as well as tutorials on arcane subjects such as the symbology of Jewish funerary markings. Did you know that 1st-century bone boxes were marked with scratched X's - not to signify Christian faith, but to indicate which way to slide the lid?

Another example is "The Jesus Mystery," a new volume of scripture-based speculation written by Swedish documentary filmmaker Lena Einhorn. The book compares biblical accounts of Jesus and the apostles with Josephus' contemporary histories - and concludes not only that the time lines of the two tales had been scrambled up, but also that Jesus and the Apostle Paul may well have been the same person.

Again, I'm not convinced by the evidence for Einhorn's conclusions, but I'm interested in the history gleaned along the way: the archaeological traces of the high priest Caiaphas, for instance, or how the church fathers viewed the historical Jesus. One passage, citing Irenaeus' "Against Heresies" from the 2nd century, asserts that Jesus actually lived to be more than 50 years old.

It turns out that there's quite a debate over what Irenaeus really meant - which illustrates another point about unorthodox views of biblical history: Don't take everything you read at face value. (By the way, true skeptics would probably say the same thing about the orthodox view.) Scriptural speculation should eventually lead you to the firmer ground of 1st-century history, and such works as "Daily Life in the Time of Jesus" or "The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era."

If your tastes run toward a more transcendental discussion of faith and skepticism, you might want to check out "Is God Real?" - a package from Newsweek that includes an overview on the existential question, a debate between believer Rick Warren and skeptic Sam Harris, a column by Rabbi Marc Gellman and an "On Faith" forum with additional expert opinion.

Pop philosopher Deepak Chopra has his own take on the search for the historical Jesus over at The Huffington Post. And if you're just plain bugged by the religious establishment this Easter weekend, you may find kindred spirits over at the "Blog Against Theocracy" Web portal.

With that, here's wishing you a blessed and peaceful weekend - no matter what your religious persuasion (or non-persuasion) may be.

Update for 9:20 p.m. ET April 6: The University of North Carolina's James Tabor called me back toward evening on Good Friday, to say he was heading over to Israel during Easter weekend for a video shoot with a crew from Australia's "60 Minutes" show. Meanwhile, "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" is still working its way around the world, with airings planned in France, Britain and other international markets. The show will likely be back on the Discovery Channel sometime after the Easter season.

Tabor said more revelations may well come from the "Lost Tomb" at Talpiot, as well as another apparently undisturbed tomb in the same area. In his view, the site is eminently worthy of a closer look - and he agreed that even if you don't buy into the religious angle, the discussion has led to a wider appreciation of the science behind scriptural scholarship.

"I am convinced that the Talpiot tomb deserves some attention and shouldn’t be debunked," he told me. "On the other hand, back off a little bit: People have learned what ossuaries are. ... People have learned what mitochondrial DNA is." 

Update for 9:35 p.m. ET April 7: Another work focusing on 1st-century history is "Everyday Life in New Testament Times," written by A.C. Bouquet and published back in 1954. Yes, it was written 50 years ago, when the writing style was different. And it's very respectful of the biblical story, so don't expect any "Da Vinci Code" jaw-droppers. The best part is that it's freely available over the Internet, and you can even print out your own copy if you're so inclined. So I'll anoint "Everyday Life in New Testament Times" as this month's selection for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that should be available at your local library or used-book shop. Feel free to add your own suggestions for future club selections.