Who is entombed in the 'Jesus tomb'?
A film's conclusion may challenge the core of a faith
Two other names are also highly controversial, in part because they seem to corroborate every fantasy unleashed by The Da Vinci Code. One of the two Marys 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 tomb?
For the filmmakers, though, the most compelling evidence is the mere fact that so many names associated with Jesus's family were found in one tomb. One of the film's experts, Andrey Feuerverger, a professor of statistics at the University of Toronto, calculated the odds that it could have been another family at about 1 in 600. But even Feuerverger admits that 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 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, as the resurrection of his spirit or soul, or even as a symbolic event.
Shades of belief. James Tabor, a consultant to the film and head of the religion department at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, 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 foundational history of a religious 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."