Religious Affairs Correspondent
Reports that the tomb of Jesus Christ might have been found by a television crew looking for an Easter special were yesterday dismissed by scholars.
"I thought it was an April fool one day too early," said Professor Geza Vermes, probably England's leading authority on first century Judaism, about a report in the Sunday Times that a casket which had once contained bones identified as those of "Jesus son of Joseph" had been found in an museum warehouse in Jerusalem, where it has rested since 1980.
The team from BBC 2's Heart of the Matter programme believed that the significance of this discovery might have been overlooked by a Jewish archaeologist: the bone casket was found in a 1st century tomb alongside those of two women called Mary, a Matthew, and someone identified as "Juda, son of Jesus". All were empty, having been looted long ago.
"It is easy to miss their significance simply because they have none," said Professor Vermes yesterday. "These are among the most common names in the Palestine of that period. A Jewish archaeologist, seeing those names, would simply think `Oh, more of them'.
His incredulity was echoed by the Dean of Lichfield, Dr Tom Wright. "This is no more than an interesting coincidence. Any suggestion that the other names refer to Jesus's mistress and illegitimate son are utterly laughable." He said the body would have had to have been left in its original tomb for a year to decompose. The bones which remained would then have been removed and placed in a special casket or ossuary.
These were collected in the tombs of an extended family. Ten ossuaries marked with the name of Jesus have been found in and around Jerusalem.
Amos Kloner, of the Israel Antiquities Authority, was also dismissive. "I would not say that it deserves a special interest other than the chance of the appearance of the names . . . I can't say a possibility that it is the tomb of the Holy Family does not exist at all, but I think such a possibility is close to zero."
A belief that the bones of Jesus could not be found, even by the most reliable archaeological methods, is entailed by Christian orthodoxy. He was, the Bible says, raised from the dead and his first tomb found empty, so that there would have been no bones to transfer to a later ossuary.
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