Poof! There goes one of the few pieces of evidence that Jesus actually existed, a two thousand year-old box inscribed with "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus." A few days ago Israel indicted four antiquities collectors for forging artifacts, among them this ossuary that supposedly contained the bones of Jesus’ brother.
What intrigues me most about this story is what it says about Christianity. The discovery of this box a few years ago was big news. Not so much for its archaeological significance, as a “60 Minutes” piece about the ossuary that we saw recently said that these burial boxes are commonplace. Rows of them were shown stacked in some museum storage area.
Rather, interest in the “James, brother of Jesus” ossuary was extreme because it would have been the earliest evidence outside of the Bible of Jesus’ existence. Christianity is nothing without Jesus, so if the ossuary were real, this would have offered indirect proof of the reality of the religion whose core is Christ. But the inscription on the box wasn’t real. So Christianity remains resting on a shaky foundation of gospel accounts whose veracity never can be proven.
Is this any way to run a religion? The Western religions—Christianity, Islam, Judaism—are dependent on revelations. If people—Jesus, Muhammad, Moses—hadn’t revealed the nature of God to the faithful there wouldn’t be any substance to those faiths. So the historical existence of these founders is central to the theology of each religion. Imagine Christianity without Jesus, Islam without Muhammad, Judaism without Moses. Would you still have a vital religion?
On the other hand, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism are pleasingly complete without the presence of any particular human revelation. Though bearing the name of the Buddha, even Buddhism can stand comfortably on its own without leaning on the person once known as Siddhartha Gautama. Buddhists say, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him?” Can Christians say the same about Jesus?
A religion should be able to provide universal answers to universal questions. What is the nature of God or ultimate reality? How can this highest truth be known? What is the relation of human beings, us, to existence as a whole, the cosmos? If answers to such queries can only come through the unique experience of particular people, then they aren’t real answers.
Science is much wiser in this regard. Physicists don’t worship Einstein because he revealed the theory of relativity. The laws of nature are independent of anyone’s knowledge about them. If Einstein hadn’t discovered the relativistic nature of space and time, someone else would have.
Similarly, a true spiritual science doesn’t focus on the “professor” who teaches about divine truth. This prophet, master, guru, saint, guide—whatever you want to call him or her—is separate from the truth being taught. Reality exists whether or not someone is speaking or writing about it.
Christianity, if it is true, should be independent of Jesus Christ. That statement will sound strange to most Christians, which indicates how shaky is the foundation of Christianity. If the rock-bottom truth of the cosmos is considered to depend on whether a particular person really lived and died two thousand years ago, then we haven’t gotten down to the heart of reality.
Here’s an article from the New York Times about the hoax: