Who is entombed in the 'Jesus tomb'?
A film's conclusion may challenge the core of a faith
So will the greatest story ever told have to be retold? Even before it aired March 4 on the Discovery Channel, a controversial new documentary, The Lost Tomb of Jesus, had people asking the question.
While scholars are challenging the film's main conclusionnamely, that archaeologists might have unearthed the tomb of Jesus and his familyChristians are questioning what the documentary might mean for the core teachings of their faith. Was there a true Resurrection if Jesus's bodily remains were interred alongside those of his 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, 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 archaeologists and other researchers who have been analyzing a particularly provocative body of evidence. "We connect the dots to see what picture emerges," said Jacobovici at last week's press conference at the New York Public Library.
Mystery bones. 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 storeroom, the objects sparked wider interest when a couple of articles brought attention to the inscriptions on six of the 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 others have also noted that the crypt in question bore signs of belonging to a comfortable Jerusalem middle-class familysomething that 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, one that allegedly contained the bones of James, brother of Jesus. Seeing the "Jesus son of Joseph" box in the IAA storeroom, the Canadian filmmaker couldn't shake the hunch that this was an even bigger story. He soon joined up with Cameron and Charles Pellegrino (coauthor of the companion book, The Jesus Family Tomb), and the trio set out to document the widening investigation of the Talpiyot tomb findings.
Not surprisingly, the conclusions of the film and the book rest heavily on how the inscriptions are reador even, in one crucial case, deciphered. Some researchers claim that the alleged Aramaic name of Jesus is too unclear 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.