04/22/2014 04:22 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

The Tomb of Jesus and the Body of Christ

A presentation a few years back on the Discovery Channel about "The Lost Tomb of Jesus" was just one of the more recent exhibits in a series of sensational claims that would supposedly rock the foundations of Christian doctrine and beliefs. Maybe so, but to do so the evidence, presented by a Hollywood movie producer, James Cameron, and Israeli-born Canadian writer-director Shimcha Jacobovici, will have to be a lot more convincing than that presented so far.

For one, from the archeological standpoint, this discovery is not new. In 1980 ten ossuaries (bone boxes) were found in an underground chamber at a construction site in East Jerusalem. They were routinely emptied of their contents (which were reburied) and stored in a warehouse of the Israeli Antiquities Authority. In 1996 an archeologist got around to writing an article about the inscriptions found on six of the ossuaries, which consisted of the names Yeshuah (Jesus), Miriam (Mary), Judah, Joseph, Matthew, and another variant of the name Mary (Mirianene e Mara or Miriamne). These were all fairly common names thereabouts in first century. There are three or four different "Marys" mentioned in the New Testament, at least three different "Judahs", two "Josephs", and several persons named "Matthew" or "Matthias". And as for the name "Jesus" (or Yeshua in his own language), neither was that unique. It was simply the then-current Aramaic pronunciation of the Hebrew name Yehoshua, or as we now pronounce it, "Joshua". All that might be inferred from this collection, according to the Israeli government archeologists, is that the excavators had stumbled upon a typical cemetery vault of that period.

Historically speaking, even if this was the crypt belonging to the family of Jesus, why would his most famous brother, James, reputedly the leader of the Christian community in Jerusalem be missing from the family tomb or left there with his bones unmarked? (Back in 2002 Jacobovici promoted the claim that another ossuary once held the bones of James, the son of Joseph and the brother of Jesus, but chemical analysis indicated that the inscription had been recently faked. But even aside from this, if this were indeed the final resting place of Jesus, why did the Roman occupiers go to such great lengths to destroy the location where the first Christians believed Jesus had been buried (the present site of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) yet leave this cemetery alone?

Still, let us just suppose that contrary to all the above, that somehow these ancient relics could be proved to be the remains of Jesus of Nazareth and his associates. Then what? Would the foundation of Christian faith be thereby destroyed? Perhaps it would be for those whose beliefs are founded on a naive or literal reading of the Gospels. Although these documents appear to report physical re-appearances of Jesus after his death, even there these are described as a temporary state, prior to his being taken up "into the heavens".

But what does this mean? That Jesus is now floating around somewhere up in space? One might hope that by now, believers might have grown out of such childish concepts. Indeed, for St. Paul, who wrote even before the Gospels were written, the risen Christ is no longer a material body but a "life-giving spirit" whose "body" is now his Church made up of its members joined to him through Baptism and his living presence in Holy Communion. Viewed from this spiritual-sacramental perspective, I think, the discovery of the body or bones of Jesus would make no real difference to the essence of faith. While such relics would undoubtedly be the object of great devotion, still, in the end, they would be of no more lasting significance than an abandoned house or a cast-off suit of clothes. In fact, because of the media-hype involved, perhaps we might even end up thanking these promoters, regardless of what their motives may be. If nothing else, the stir they have caused might just end-up challenging Christians to think about their faith more deeply and maturely.