Last week I posted an article on the controversy surrounding the so-called “Jesus Family Tomb” in Talpiot. The fact is that Jesus’ tomb has been found. Compare for a moment Herod’s tomb which is being featured in a multi-million dollar exhibit at the Israel Museum. The so-called tomb of Herod the Great, excavated by the late legendary Ehud Netzer, is a very interesting find. But is it Herod’s tomb? The fact is that the tomb is not intact, the sarcophagi (the coffins) were found in pieces and incomplete, there were no bones, no symbols and no inscriptions. But everybody is convinced it is Herod’s tomb. Why? Because Herod is not Jesus.
In contrast, in Talpiot, a fully intact tomb was found in 1980 containing fully intact bone boxes, or ossuaries, with clear inscriptions including “Jesus, son of Joseph”, “Maria”, and “Yose”, the particular spelling provided by the Gospel of Mark for one of Jesus’ brothers. And yet, the prevailing wisdom is that this couldn’t be the tomb of Jesus of Nazareth. Why? Theology.
Next door to the Jesus tomb we found multiple images associated with the birth of Christianity including a cross, a fish, and a “Sign of Jonah” which is the most prevalent biblical image found in the Christian catacombs of Rome. So as to dismiss the tomb of Jesus, the naysayers have to dismiss the symbols next door. So they’ve argued that the image of Jonah is no image at all, the inscription of the name is just a bunch of scratches, the fish is an amphora (i.e., a vase) and the cross is some kind of doorway because the cross was not a Christian image before the 4th century.
It’s very important for the people who are afraid of the Jesus of history – because he may contradict the Jesus of Christian theology – to push the cross as a Christian symbol into the 4th century. That way, with one magical stroke, any Christian archaeology dating to 1st century Judea instantly disappears. Remove the archaeology and you’ve solved the theological problem. In last week’s post, I provided testimony from priest/Professor Emile Puech concerning the Christian symbology in Talpiot. Puech confirms that the fish is a fish, Jonah is Jonah and the cross is a “Judeo Christian” symbol i.e., belonging to the first followers of Jesus. I ended the post by stating: “What are the naysayers going to do now? Will they pressure Professor Puech to change his mind, as they have done with other scholars?” Well, they have. They told this nice priest that he’s been manipulated to give testimony that can hurt Christianity. So now he’s not so sure about the fish, although he still states that it does not look like an amphora to him, and that “the bottom triangle [is] like a closed mouth of a fish”. He stands by his reading of “Yonah”, but he no longer believes that the cross is a cross. Why? Well, as I said, there can be no Christian crosses before the 4th century. But is this true?
It’s time to face the facts. It’s time to admit that the cross was already a Christian symbol in the 1st century when some of Jesus’ earliest followers were still around. It’s time to reevaluate all the archaeology that had previously been dismissed. It’ll tell us a story of Christianity that has been overlooked and suppressed.
So here’s some of the evidence:
1. The cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed in a volcanic eruption in August of 79. At Herculaneum, a cross was found in front of some kind of prayer lectern. Clearly, it was found in a place of worship. Scholars dismiss this cross as the remains of a shelf.
2. In Pompeii, a clear, very large, Christian cross was found in a bakery. To the best of my knowledge, it has only been published by Italian scholars. As a result, Anglo scholars have ignored it. Here it is as reconstructed by Francesco Paolo Maulucci, Pompeii: Archaeological Guide to the Excavations of Pompeii with Itineraries, Plans and Reconstructions (Carcavallo, 1987) on p. 69.
3. The best 1st century Christian cross is from Pompeii where it was found in a graffito in a courtyard. It has “Viv” inscribed at the top, probably short for the Latin “Vivat” i.e., “live!” This is clearly Christian and clearly 1st century but, to the best of my knowledge, it’s been published only in Italian (See Maulucci, Francesco Paolo, Pompei: I graffiti figurati. Bastogi, 1993, p. 194).
4. At Bethsaida in the Galilee, where Professors Rami Arav and Richard Freund have been digging for decades, and where I’m now a co-director on behalf of Huntington University, a clear cross has been found on a 1st century vase. Bethsaida is the place of the “first supper”, if you will. It is mentioned in the Gospels as the home of at least three of Jesus’ twelve disciples. The cross was found next to a fishermen complex and in the only building in the town that could have served as an early “house church”.
And now my numismatist friend David Wray, has drawn my attention to a 1st century coin from his collection. It was minted in the year 72 CE in Ashkelon, 40 miles north of Jerusalem on the Mediterranean coast. It probably represents a “private minting” by a wealthy Roman convert to Christianity.
It depicts a galley with a cross. In ancient times, as on the coin, it was on the prow that sailors mounted religious objects. On this boat, the cross is clearly given a place of religious honor. The date is significant. It is 7 years earlier than the crosses in Pompeii and Herculaneum. When this coin was minted, the Temple in Jerusalem, which had been torched in the year 70, was still smoldering and the Sicarii, the dreaded Jewish revolutionary faction, was still holding out against Roman Imperial power at the rock fortress at Masada. When this coin was minted the Sicarii were still one year away from their collective suicide in the face of imminent defeat. I repeat, this coin was minted when Masada was still standing! It was minted only 40 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and only 10 years after the stoning of James, brother of Jesus. Christian crosses just don’t get earlier than this – unless they’re carved on an ossuary in a tomb 60 meters from the Jesus Family tomb.
To understand how explosive this issue can become, consider this – archaeologists have found crosses painted in red in the southern caves of Masada. On flimsy evidence, they date them to the Byzantine period. Because of the possible ramifications of this find, to the best of my knowledge, the crosses have never been published. I reveal them here in the general press for the first time.
If the cross was already a Christian symbol in 72, the crosses at Masada may have been painted by some of the rebels themselves. This would require a total rethinking of Christians in the 1st century. Both Jewish and Christian scholars would like to think of the early followers of Jesus as pacifists who sat out the great revolt against Rome. That way, both Jews and Christians don’t have to deal with the ramifications of thinking of early Christians as Jewish patriots. Put differently, Jews don’t want to “Christianize” the rebels and Christians don’t want to “Judaize” the early Christians. Revisiting the archaeology might even force us to think of some of Jesus’ followers as Sicarii e.g., Judah “Iscariot”. And this might put the events leading up to the crucifixion in a totally new light. The evidence is mounting and it’s time we rethink our prejudices. It’s time we put the theology aside and reevaluate the impact of Jesus and his earliest followers on the history of Judea.