Revision for the Greatest Story Ever Told?
So will the greatest story ever told have to be retold? Even before it airs March 4 on the Discovery Channel, a controversial new documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, has people asking the question.
While scholars are already challenging the film's tentatively framed conclusionnamely, that archaeologists might have unearthed the tomb of Jesus and his familyChristians are beginning to debate what the documentary (and a companion book cowritten by its director) might mean for the core teachings of the faith. Was there a true resurrection if Jesus's bodily remains were interred along with those of his closest relatives? Could Jesus have had a wife and child and still been the Messiah-Christ of tradition?
Produced by Oscar-winning director James Cameron (of Titanic fame) and directed by Emmy-winning filmmaker Simcha Jacobovici (whose earlier work includes James, the Brother of Jesus), the film could be called a high-stakes detective procedural, a sort of biblical CSI. But the filmmakers insist that they were not out to "disprove" Christianity or even to create a sensation.
Instead, they say, they hoped to bring together the findings of various archaeologists, New Testament scholars, statisticians, and other researchers who have dealt with a particularly provocative collection of evidence.
"We connect the dots to see what picture emerges," said Jacobovici at Monday's news conference at the New York Public Library.
At the center of the mystery are 10 bone boxes, or ossuaries, taken from a crypt that was unearthed in the Talpiyot neighborhood of Jerusalem in 1980. Largely ignored for 16 years as they languished in an Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) storeroom, the objects sparked wider interest when a couple of scholarly articles brought attention to the inscriptions on six of the 10 limestone boxes. In addition to "Jesus son of Joseph," there were two Marys, a Matthew (a possible relative of Jesus's mother), a Yose (the name by which Jesus's brother Joseph goes in the Gospel of Mark), and "Judah son of Jesus."
So why didn't those names set off an immediate alarm? The answer, quite simply, is that to the Israeli archaeologists scrambling to salvage antiquities during a Jerusalem construction boom, the names were anything but unusual. Amos Kloner, author of one of the first articles about the tomb, has pointed out that the name Jesus was found 71 times on objects from the some 900 burial caves unearthed in the same general area. And there was even one other instance of "Jesus son of Joseph." Kloner and other archaeologists have also noted that the crypt in question bore signs of belonging to a comfortable Jerusalem middle-class familysomething Jesus's humble Nazarene family definitely was not.
Jacobovici's determined dot-connecting began when he was doing research for a film on another controversial ossuary, allegedly containing the bones of James, brother of Jesus. Shortly after that film came out in 2003, the IAA declared the inscription on the James ossuary a forgery, a finding that other well-known epigraphists have subsequently challenged. As the James controversy roiled around him, Jacobovici kept thinking about another bone box that he had seen in the IAA storeroom, the one inscribed "Jesus the Son of Joseph."
Joining up with Cameron and Charles Pellegrino (coauthor of the book The Jesus Family Tomb: The Discovery, the Investigation, and the Evidence that Could Change History), the trio set out to document the widening investigation of the Talpiyot tomb findings.
The case they have built on film and in print rests, not surprisingly, on how those inscriptions are reador even, in one crucial case, deciphered. Some researchers claim that the alleged Aramaic name of Jesus is too obscure to be confidently read as such. But while acknowledging such criticisms, the filmmakers come down squarely in support of the confidently positive reading of Frank Moore Cross, a noted Harvard University specialist on Semitic languages. You pick your scholars; you get your verdicts.
And then there is one of the Mary names, written phonetically in Hebrew as the Latin version "Maria"the way Jesus's mother was referred to in many literary sources. What about Yose? The nickname of Joseph, it could refer to Jesus's father or, more likely, his brother. The Gospel of Mark calls the brother of Jesus Yose, but brother might mean cousin or some other relation. As for Matthew, the filmmakers point out, there were many by that name in Mary's family.
Perhaps most controversial are the two remaining names, in part because they seem to corroborate every fantasy unleashed by The Da Vinci Code. The second Mary is written in Greek as "Mariamene e Mara," which can be translated as "Mary, called the Master." As it turns out, a number of Christian sources, including the second-century theologian Origen and the fourth-century noncanonical Acts of Philip, refer to Mary Magdalene as Mariamene. Additionally, various Gnostic texts suggest that this Mary was a close friend and disciple of Jesus, if not something more. And if something more, scandal of scandals, the issue of their marriage might have been the person whose name was on the sixth inscribed box: "Judah, son of Jesus."
Mitochondrial DNA collected from the Jesus and Mariamene boxes established that the two were not blood relatives, but Jacobovici takes a huge leap by proposing that Mariamene was therefore likely to have been Jesus's wife. Could she not have been married to any of the other named males in the tombor even the unnamed ones?
The most compelling part of their case, the filmmakers suggest, is the mere fact of the immediate clustering of so many names associated with the Jesus of the Gospels. To calculate the odds that the tomb could have belonged to another family at this time, the film turned to Andrey Feuerverger, a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto. He concluded that the chance of its having been another family was about 1 in 600. But even as Feuerverger admits, such estimates are based on assumptions that historians and others must provide, not on hard, irrefutable data.
Provocative speculation or wild conjecture? That, of course, is the question. Efforts to pin down the historical Jesus have been famously bootless, prompting suspicions that this one will be, too. But if there were clinching proof that this was indeed the tomb of Jesus and possibly of his family, would Christianity collapse?
That depends on what kind of Christian you happen to be, of course. For 2,000 years, there have been Christians who understand the Resurrection in different ways: as the resurrection of the physical body of Jesus (most orthodox Christians, whether Catholic, mainstream Protestant, or fundamentalist); as the resurrection of the spirit or soul of Jesus (many varieties of liberal Christians); or even as a symbolic event (Gnostics and various deists).
James Tabor, a consultant to the film and head of the religion department at the University of North CarolinaCharlotte, says that even New Testament writings open up the question to debate. The apostle Paul, for example, refers in one of his letters to two kinds of bodies, physical and spiritual. "One might affirm the Resurrection in a more spiritual way," Tabor says. At the same time, he acknowledges that "there will always be literalists who say that unless his physical body rose into the clouds, then I don't believe in Jesus."
But it is not just literalists who are likely to blast the film's findings.
Early Christianity scholar R. Joseph Hoffmann, chair of the skeptically minded Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion, gives the film credit for "alerting the viewing public to the fact that there are no secure conclusions" when it comes to the early history of the Christian tradition. But he charges that the film "is all about bad assumptions," beginning with the assumption that the boxes contain Jesus of Nazareth and his family.
"Amazing," Hoffmann writes, "how evidence falls into place when you begin with the conclusionand a hammer."