Expert on Dead Sea Scrolls examines another ancient mystery at Campbell lecture

Buies Creek, N.C.-A news story about an ancient burial box that supposedly contained the remains of Jesus and James, the brother of Jesus, caught Dr. Jodi Magness’ eye. Magness, the Kenan Distinguished Professor for Teaching Excellence in Early Judaism at the University of North Carolina, is an expert on the Dead Sea Scrolls and Middle Eastern archaeology. She knew immediately that the news story was false and set about proving it. Magness was on the Campbell University campus on Monday, Feb. 9, to deliver the Department of Religion and Philosophy annual lecture.

A participant in over 20 excavations in Israel and Greece, Magness co-directed the 1995 excavations in Masada, the last Jewish outpost against the Roman siege. The rock cut tomb allegedly containing the ossuary or burial box of James was found in a 2,000 year-old cave during an excavation for a housing project south of Jerusalem. It bore the inscription, “James the brother of Jesus.”

A 90-minute documentary produced by Titanic director James Cameron, claims the burial boxes discovered in that tomb contain the bones of Jesus and his family and enough DNA evidence to establish that Jesus wasn’t resurrected and that he sired a son with Mary Magdalene.

“I know how the ancient Jews buried their dead,” said Magness, refuting the theory. “And only the upper class Jews were buried in rock cut tombs and ossuaries. Jesus and James would have been buried in trench graves like other Jews of their station.”

Similarly, researchers cannot prove the legitimacy of the tomb by the evidence that Jesus’ family names were present, Magness insisted. Jesus, James, Mary and Joseph were very common names in the first century AD. The name “Jesus” appears in at least 99 tombs and 22 ossuaries in Jerusalem and at least 75 percent of women were named “Mary.”

According to Jewish custom, the bones contained in the boxes have long since been reburied in unmarked graves in Jerusalem. If the conclusion drawn by Cameron is correct, the bone boxes and the microscopic remains of DNA still contained inside would constitute the first archaeological evidence of the existence of the Christian savior and his family, and the concept of ascension, that Jesus ascended into heaven in both body and spirit after the resurrection, could be challenged, Magness said.

“According to my research, the death and burial of Jesus and James is consistent with archaeologists’ discoveries of the ancient burial methods of the Jews,” she said. “Since Jews were also buried in the place of their birth, Jesus’ and James’ tomb would not have been in Jerusalem anyway, but in Nazareth.”

Magness has published extensively on archaeology in Palestine. Her book, “The Archaeology of Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” won the 2001-2002 Biblical Archaeology Society award for Best Popular Book in Archaeology. She also received the Irene Levi-Sala Book Prize for her work, “The Archaeology of the Early Islamic Settlement in Palestine,” considered required reading for scholars interested in the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods. One of the most significant aspects of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947, is that they pre-date the Bible, Magness said.

Magness received a bachelor’s degree in archaeology and history from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a Ph.D. in classical archaeology from the University of Pennsylvania. From 1992-2002, she served as an associate/assistant professor in the departments of Classics and Art History at Tufts University.

Photo Copy: Dr. Jodi Magness fields questions from senior Brandon Bauduin after her lecture on the burial of Jesus and his brother James.