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.
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."
This story appears in the March 12, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.